By Rebecca Pawloski
The first time I heard the word Beguine was in undergrad theology at the Lateran University in Rome. I was assisting our venerable professor of Church history with his microphone at the break between lessons. He asked me, “Chi siete?” in Italian “Who are you (both)” while motioning to my place in the classroom, and to my friend Sara who was sitting there chatting with the Roman seminarians—as one does during the break. I understood he was asking what community Sara and I belonged to, which was a normal enough question. In our class of 70-some students there were over 30 ecclesial entities represented. Another professor had once asked me the same question on the very first day of class, and I had answered that my community was the Holy Catholic Church. When he looked confused, I responded that I hoped it was his community as well. He was embarrassed as my classmates laughed. I amended my ways and learned to simply say, begrudgingly, “lay woman”, when it came time to announce allegiances at the start of each new course.
So I told the good Prof. Mario Sensi, “I am a laywoman with monastic tendencies”.
He gestured to Sara, “Both of you?”
I said, “Yes”. I explained, in brief, that we would have done something else, each been part of some group, but that discerning a community is complicated to do after undertaking studies. So, well, at least we try to pray the liturgy of the hours and live celibacy for the Kingdom. Prof. Sensi became very excited and gestured with his hands in the air “You’re Beguines! BEGUINES!” I assured him he was mistaken, and that I had never heard of that community. He smiled and said, “You will learn”. And, indeed, three years later when he taught his new course Mulieres in Ecclesia on Beguines, I was signed up for the adventure. Sara planned the field trip for our STL class to visit the houses of Beguines dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries in central Italy. But I would not yet identify with the Beguines.
Sara and I had met because a priest who was close to each of us had put us in contact and encouraged us to go to Rome to study theology. This priest had spoken to each of us about his plans to found a community; however, I had just recently departed from a new community that had canonical problems and I was wary of new things. At the same time, I had a conviction I should continue my path in the Church and had a deep desire to study theology. Sara had survived cancer and had decided she wanted to live life radically. She had already spent some time discerning whether or not to set out on the path towards consecrated life. We met up in Rome. The priest who connected us did not continue in his idea to found a community. This was well for us, because as we studied, a new community lost its appeal and the older forms of consecrated life seemed to grant deeper rootedness.
So, at the time Prof. Sensi was teaching his course on Beguines, Sara and I were networking with the Ordo Virginum (OCV) in Rome, an ancient ordo, or order, of women each consecrated by a bishop to live virginity for the Kingdom in relationship to the local Church. We were both attending the monthly meetings at the Roman Seminary, together with other women who had invited us, an event where both Consecrated Virgins and those who were interested in their ways of life met for formation sessions. For me, OCV was not entirely a good fit, first of all because I do not have a stable sense of calling to a particular diocese and also have a desire to continue in academia with all its uncertainties. However, there are many things I like about OCV: for example, its focus on living continence for the Kingdom as a charism in itself. I like the diversity of women in the ordo, the strong local identity and the lack of a complex relationship with a founder-figure—things I had also admired about the spirituality of the diocesan priests with whom I had studied.
Ordo Virginum, though it may resolve the question of one’s identity and way of belonging in the Church, does not resolve the physiological questions fundamental to human life, namely the need for food and shelter. Women generally do not receive a stipend for participation in sacraments to guarantee sustenance by prayer. And so, as the fundamental needs became more pressing, the idea of OCV became less immediate.
But, back to the Beguines. “Beguine” is the name given to a vast array of women who organized their lives and livelihood around the Church without (at first) any formal approval. It turns out the Beguines had first of all mastered a secular economic model for women to participate in ecclesial life while maintaining their independence, and this as early as the 12th century. If they shared a common life (and some did not), there was mutual support to live in continence for the Kingdom, but also freedom to leave the lifestyle at any time. Celibacy was an important requirement for being a Beguine, but permanent vows were not pronounced. This was not always celebrated and was even sometimes condemned by members of the hierarchy. In fact, if anything, the nominative “Beguine” was pejorative and even today is used by Italians to denote a professional Church Lady who doesn’t do much else, even though the Beguine movement has many saints associated with it.
For me the Beguines became closer as I took time to do a long retreat after I finished my STL. It was a good moment in life to stop and take stock of direction. I wrote down all the possibilities on a paper in a sort of flow chart of life options (this is not a specific Ignatian Retreat “task”, but my own way of working). I colored in yellow the way where I found some light. I found myself right where I was in academia, living celibacy for the Kingdom as I could, and happy to do so in free association with others on a similar path. In short, I found I was a Beguine and not really looking for another way to be.
I’ve written this little reflection “On becoming a Beguine” in dialog with Penny and Leonie’s Longing because of a shared vision we have that studying the Beguines can give consolation and a sense of identity to unmarried women who are living out their baptized and confirmed vocation while longing to feel more at home in the Church community. I hope Penny will not mind if I quote her as saying, “I think it will help a lot of women come to a new understanding of their place in the Church as laywomen living celibate lives for the Kingdom. Certainly, in my own life, I’ve drawn a lot of consolation from the ideals of the Beguines. It’s comforting to have a sense of belonging, of having a spiritual lineage, outside the formal monastic life.”
For me, acceptance of living in the identity of a Beguine has influenced my spiritual life by allowing me the freedom to do a few “experiments” in prayer. When a woman belongs to a well-defined spiritual tradition, her task is often to learn and grow in that community’s way of prayer without the freedom to try out different prayer styles. For many years the liturgy of the hours carried my prayer life, but now–although I love the liturgy as a way to pray with others–I’ve found my need for a more personal and meditative way of praying. I still look forward to praying the liturgy with others, but liturgy is certainly a different practice when one is alone for prayer.
I see this way of life as being a concrete living out of prophetic intuition. We understand the vocation of men to the priesthood as belonging to an “ordo”– the order of priests– which expands to include many different styles of sacerdotal lifestyle. By making an analogy, we could understand the women of every age who find themselves called to live intentional celibacy for the sake of the kingdom as part of a sort of “order of prophets” seeking with their lives to point to that love in Christ which surpasses death. The world, and sometimes even the Church, will not understand the witness of such women, but they understand each other. Psychologists tell us the sense of belonging to a group is one of our higher needs. Since grace builds on nature, we can talk about fulfilling a spiritual need to connect and identify with a group.
In my reflection on Beguines, I think it is important to recognize I am not alone. Sara is also studying what it means to be a Beguine. It is also important for us to recognize we are not the only ones seeking to root ourselves in this tradition. There are others out there already doing so. In the future, it could be good to think of a way to support each other. However, for the immediate present, I have to live out my calling to finish my doctoral dissertation in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University. Then we will see where all this goes.
(Prof. Mario Sensi passed away May 25, 2015. His exhaustive study illuminating the role of mystic women in Church history continues to bring insight to many.)
Image from https://pul.academia.edu/MarioSensi.
I AM THE WAY
After leaving I wanted to know where to go, what to pursue… And instead of answers there was stillness – an odd stillness that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Inside I sort of felt a “where to next?” that was only met with silence. It felt as though I were a sailboat left in the middle of a sea on an overcast day with no wind and no sense of direction. At least the sun was still there. Somewhere.
What finally broke into the restlessness were Jesus’ words “I am the Way.”
He always was the way. He was The Way as I discerned which monastery He was calling me to. He was The Way during the day to day activities at the monastery. He is The Way now, in this stillness. And He will continue to be The Way as I journey ahead on this pilgrimage.
Sometimes discernment can feel as though it is some sort of enigma that I must solve lest I be eternally doomed to a life that is less than what had God intended. But that isn’t love. Part of discernment, especially during the silence and stillness, is trusting that whatever I choose Jesus can and will make it work for good. Then discernment becomes something truly beautiful. Then discernment isn’t about what I do, but about Whom I love. It is trusting that as long as I love Jesus, everything will fall into place.
In Story of a Soul St. Therese speaks of “having savored the delights of walking without seeing” (Manuscript A 23v). May we too delight in placing one foot in front of the other as we remain close to Jesus, The Way.
One of the challenges outside of the monastery was the seeming contradiction between what I know and want to be true, and what was actually happening. There were many difficult emotions after leaving the monastery, and initially I was rather dismissive of them. I shouldn’t be angry; I wasn’t told to leave out of malice. I shouldn’t be sad; I am still the spouse of Jesus and a beloved daughter of the Father. I shouldn’t feel abandoned; the sisters are praying for me.
But the reality was that I felt angry, and hurt, and sad.
When I finally allowed myself to enter into those emotions – as illogical as they may have seemed at times – I found Jesus there. Almost to my surprise. Yet those emotions are a part of the reality of my experience. And of course He who is the Truth would meet me in the truth of what I was experiencing.
It took a lot of courage for me to stand in the truth of what I was experiencing. Nice, neatly-packaged theological explanations such as “I am still espoused to Jesus through Baptism” were so much easier to engage than the interior struggle going on within. Yet when I stood in the truth of the heartache, the anger, the frustration… I found Jesus there. He who is the Truth continues to meet me in the truth of my experience and work His redeeming love from there.
AND THE LIFE
Leaving the monastery left me feeling stripped of the way of life through which Jesus would help me grow in holiness. But there was something greater than a particular charism, horarium, or apostolate that I did not lose. Something that was present the whole time – or rather Someone. The Catechism highlights how each Christian is called to live the mysteries of Christ’s life within each of their own lives. It reads:
“Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us. ‘By his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man.’ We are called only to become one with him, for he enables us as the members of his Body to share in what he lived for us in his flesh as our model: ‘We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries and often to beg him to perfect and realize them in us and in his whole Church. . . For it is the plan of the Son of God to make us and the whole Church partake in his mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in his whole Church. This is his plan for fulfilling his mysteries in us.’”(CCC 521)
Jesus’ life is the life I am to live. It was the life I was called to at my Baptism. It was the life I was called to as I discerned religious life. It was the life I was called to through living monastic life. And it is the life I will continue to be called to live. It is beautiful to find reflected in my own life the flight into Egypt, the miracle at Cana, the Saturday after His burial, His joy, His sadness, His desires, His charity…
May Jesus give us the grace to recognize His life reflected in our own life.
Originally published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, May 28th 2016. Reproduced here with permission from the author.
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world.
I offer them for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart: the salvation of souls, reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians.
I offer them for the intentions of our bishops and of all Apostles of Prayer, and in particular for those recommended by
our Holy Father this month. Amen
As each dawn graces a new day, so should the first prayer of the day be the Morning Offering. Through it we give to Jesus the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings that will come our way until the next dawn. We strive to live day by day, yet our mind wanders. A smile may come as we dwell on these four areas. It can be easy to offer our prayers, works, and joys but the last area can be difficult.
No matter if an individual is a priest, religious or layperson, the prospect of physical suffering is an unpleasant fact, and never a welcome thought. Responses to sickness can range from creative growth to self pity. It can sanctify or darken a soul, and can bring out the best or the worst in a person. In other words, illness can be redemptive or destructive. It can be an opportunity for, or threat to, human and spiritual development. Indeed, suffering is a mystery.
What do the words—“strong,” “healthy,” “weak” and “sick”—suggest? If we place these labels on a descending scale, labeling becomes a risky business because it leads to inaccuracies, and negative mind sets, and supports attitudinal barriers. A person who has a physical handicap can be less limited by the handicap than by the attitudes of people regarding the handicap. Aren’t we all links in a chain, interdependent on each other? Doesn’t Paul, the apostle, tell us to bear one another’s burdens? How do we support and sustain each other? Each of us has gifts and limitations. A mark of spiritual maturity is to recognize and use talents, and to work through, around, or with, flaws. We need each other, and can help each other, look past limitations to focus on gifts. Illness can be a tutor of humility, as well as a channel for creativity, mirth, freedom, and happiness that was never known before. An easy sense of humor, and good common sense can be more valuable than perfect physical health
It has been customary for Church professionals to see people who are physically disabled as a ministry. This is similar to health care professionals, who identify their patients by a disease, or to vocation directors who focus on a walker used by a well-qualified candidate. In the long view, no one is immune to physical suffering, and whatever causes the suffering is only part of a person’s existence. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States, was a central figure in world events, who brought this country out of the depression, and led it through World War II. He used a wheelchair. Itzhak Perlman is a virtuoso violinist, a teacher of master classes, and a conductor. He uses crutches.
Disability can be a blessing in disguise by deepening contact with spiritual realities on which the soul depends. A disease, accident, or injury that has residual limitations can change a person’s priorities. Searching the soul, listening at prayer, and a renewal of faith infuses beautiful graces into one’s life. Therese of Lisieux said, “Life is not a destination, it is a journey.” There is no lasting city. All things are passing on the road to heaven. In the light of eternity, doing things that seem so big and important dim in the holiness that radiates from doing simple, daily occupations.
Daily physical suffering, united with the sufferings of Christ, can achieve enormous good. There is a fulfillment that only Christ can give. Spiritually inclined women who live with fragile health, or physical disabilities, can, in fact, enrich religious life through their internal strength, discipline and spiritual ardor.
Almighty God, thrice holy,
I would be wholly thine,
A branch by grace engrafted
Onto the living vine.
Throb through my veins, O Love,
Enable me to bear
The baptism of suffering
I am constrained to share.
Lord Jesus, suffering Servant,
Suffuse me with compassion;
The cup of suff’ring overflows
The Garden of thy Passion;
Consume me with thy peace, thy love
And joy of knowing thee,
As I pray thy Passion payer
As in Gethsemane.
I tread the winepress, daunted:
Must it be daily trod?
The Cross repels yet draws me close
To union with God.
I quest the Lord in Eucharist
And from the chalice drink
The wine of sacrificial love,
While from the Cross I shrink.
Yet, to the Crucified I cry,
“Nail me to the Cross.
Permit thy light to shine through me
To be theotokos;
Transform me by thy saving power,
My darkness purify;
Impart the glory of the Cross
My life to deify.”
O, Spirit of the Living God,
With love my soul attire,
To manifest the choicest fruit
Thy presence can acquire
To incarnate the Spirit,
The will of self efface,
Absorbing love to render love
By God’s perfecting grace.
When the cup of suffering is full,
Spilling o’er the brim,
May th’ world discern God’s glory
In a life poured out for him.
Thy Passion toil will then seem light,
Such is glory’s weight:
That burden, too, is heavy,
But the privilege so great.
January – March 2013
Does our Lord call only the strong and healthy to live contemplative religious lives consecrated to him? Father Maurice Gaucheron did not believe this to be true. During the late 1920’s he was serving at the renowned Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris, France. While there, he came to know several women who wanted to become contemplative nuns, but their less than robust health, or physical handicaps, made them undesirable candidates for religious life. No monastery would accept them. Father Gaucheron believed that illness and physical fragility were a viable means of following Jesus deeper into the paschal mystery, and could be an asset rather than an impediment to living the contemplative life, provided the vocation was authentic. He shared this proposal with Suzanne Wrotnowska. She could bring out the best in people, and had a great trust in the providence of God. Moved by grace, Suzanne envisioned a religious community that would welcome women in both strong and fragile physical health, as well as women with physical handicaps. Father Maurice and Suzanne began to seek out people who would support this unique way of monastic life, and women who were interested in living it. On April 11, 1930, Suzanne and four other women dedicated their lives to the future congregation through an Act of Consecration during Mass in the crypt of the Sacred Heart Basilica. At that time, Suzanne Wrotnowska became Mother Marie des Douleurs.
In 1933, the sisters were recognized as a religious community by the local bishop, Frédéric Lamy. They opened their first priory, St Joseph’s, which is near Paris, and is the congregation’s motherhouse. Over time, and with grace, canonical steps confirmed them as a monastic congregation of pontifical right. Their lifestyle is based on the Rule of St. Benedict, and they are known as the Benedictine Sisters of Jesus Crucified. Their charism within the Benedictine family is to embody a joyful reverence for, and deep participation in, the paschal mystery of Christ. “Amen, Alleluia!” is their motto. Their “amens” to Good Friday’s dark and difficult times carry the sisters to the “alleluias” of Easter Sunday’s light and new life. The “amen” to Jesus’ passion blossoms in the “alleluia” of his resurrection.
Today, the sisters have two monasteries in France, one in Japan, and one in the United States. Whatever the level of a sister’s physical health, with the aid of grace, all sisters strive to create an environment where each sister is valued, supported, and respected. The sisters are like a family that values a grateful love for their vocation, and for each other. Love is their ideal, and is made manifest by selfless acts of kindness toward each sister, and humor regarding the strange quirks of each sister. (Does God smile at the strange bird in each one of us?) Notre Mere, as Mother Marie des Douleurs was affectionately called, said in a conference:
As are all human beings, we are called upon to be dispensers of divine bounty. And the more we give, the more we ourselves shall have, and in superabundance. Let us give; let us give! Let us remember that we are obliged to give! Let us understand that every day we have a duty to smile, and be amiable, to give good example and advice; perhaps, to help those around us in some major way; or perhaps, only to please them in some small way! To bring back a little clarity into a soul, a little serenity into a face—isn’t that a fine and beautiful thing?” (Joy out of Sorrow, Mother Marie des Douleurs, p 11)
One of her sisters wrote: “The joy and peace to be in God’s house, and consecrated to him, is something that can never be explained.” This was Notre Mere’s gift to her spiritual daughters. She entered eternal life on December 10. 1983. On her memorial card are her words:
Because of the faithful mercy of the Lord, and only because of it, we can leave the night and the tomb behind, having left there all our evil that has now been conquered by the love of our God.—Mother Marie des Douleurs
The Benedictine Sisters of Jesus Crucified make a sincere effort to live in the light of redemptive suffering. So should all of us live redemptive suffering. It is a grace, and requires choices that draw out good from the confusion, difficulties, and trials of each day. On-going suffering is an obscure mystery that pulls an individual deeper into the mystery of Christ. In the light of redemptive suffering, we see that we are not alone. Jesus sustains an unwavering faith that gives our lives meaning and hope that keeps us moving forward. Suffering brings a person to the foot of the cross where she gets to know Jesus, which is distinctly different from knowing about Jesus. When an individual lives the cross, she grows in self-discipline and self-giving. Because of Jesus, suffering can be used well. When Jesus was dying on the cross, suffering became the gateway to resurrection.
Francis of Assisi helps all members of the Church militant. He explains that perfect joy does not come from talents and abilities, since these are not ultimately ours, but are gifts from God. He said the only true gifts we can give God, which are not from God, are our sufferings.
On the natural level, we do not want suffering but, if we strive toward living the Beatitudes, we can accept suffering with joy. Instead of trying to avoid or deny pain and trials, we try to accept them in a spirit that would allow us to offer this rarely appreciated gift to God. Francis found that suffering was the only thing that he had which he could give back to the Lord. Therefore, he lived the Beatitudes on a supernatural level. If we strive to imitate Francis, we are able to say: “I will not glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then we find true joy in fidelity to God, consistency in prayer, and patient endurance of the gifts we give to God. Joy is an interior state independent from that which affects us externally. Beneath the hardships is the fundamental reality of joy. The background to all suffering is complete faith in the ultimate triumph of the cross of Christ. Edith Stein said: “For now, the world consists of opposites. . . But in the end, none of those contrasts will remain. There will only be the fullness of love. How could it be otherwise?”
Mother Angelica, who was a Poor Clare nun, (and who died early his year) was well-known for her accomplishments, which include the founding of EWTN, a global Catholic network. Because of complications from a stroke, and other medical problems, she withdrew from EWTN at the end of 2001. In 2004, a program, EWTN Live, was aired, that featured Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J. and Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R. During the program, Father Pacwa said that during the last two years, EWTN had grown more than at any other time in their history. The growth was attributed to Mother Angelica’s offering of her suffering to God during those years.
Human beings thrive by giving and receiving gifts from each other. We depend upon each other. God says to St. Catherine of Siena: “I could well have supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from me.
-Tr Suzanne Noffke, O.P, Catherine of Siena, (New York, Mahwah, 1980, p. 38)
(The following story is taken from: “A Spirituality of Suffering and Healing,” Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., Religious Life Review, September – October 2012.)
Many suffering people need help. This may be a painful humiliation. And yet it may be an invitation to us all to be freed from the monstrous illusion that anyone of us is self sufficient. It is part of the beauty of being human, that I need others, in order that I may become myself. People with disabilities, who need help to get up in the morning or wash or shop, remind me that I, too, need others if I am to be truly human. Let me give you the example of my brother Vincent, who died a year ago. Vincent was blind from birth. He never saw another human face. He entered the Order when he was young, and soon became one of the most beloved members of the province. This is partly because he was a deeply lovable person, who was strong and humorous, and has utterly no self-pity.
When I was provincial, every community asked me if I would assign Vincent to their community. Not only was it because he was loveable; Vincent gathered community around him. You cannot have someone in the community who is totally blind unless you really are a community. You have to ensure that nothing is in his way when he feels his way down the corridors, and that the milk in the fridge is always in exactly the same place, so that he can find it. All our decisions about our common life have to bear Vincent in mind. And this is not a burden but a joy, since around him we discover each other. He summons us beyond the silly Western illusion that anyone is self-sufficient. In his needs, we discover our own need for each other. He frees us to be brothers, mutually dependent. Because he was blind, he depended upon his hearing. He heard sound bounce off the walls. He navigated around the rooms with his ears. And this meant that he was wonderfully sensitive to what the brethren say. He was appointed to the Formation Team, because he could spot what was happening in the lives of the young, their strengths and weaknesses, more than most of us. His disability was a gift. He picked up the nuances that others miss. He heard our secret fears and hopes in our voices. We are all blind and deaf in some way, and sometimes the blind teach us to hear, and the deaf teach us to see, and the lame give us the courage to take another step.” (Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.)
A journey through life with fragile health can be a uniquely maturing experience. A person can only strive toward wholeness. Nobody is there yet. When illness comes along, an individual accepts it, and accepts ways that reduce its effects, or eliminates it. A person tries to be as well as he or she can be. A sickness or a handicap should not negatively effect, but can refine, one’s personality. A world view is broadened as well. To offer suffering to God the Father is an act of love for the entire world. Patient and uncomplaining suffering is a strong faith witness. Pain can be a motivator of change toward the good, and can lead to a deeper emersion in God. Unencumbered by being busy with many things, people who suffer can become channels of the love of Jesus crucified. When an individual feels broken, she can unite herself to Jesus on the cross, and send her love to the broken people, and broken places in the human family.
God sends his heaviest crosses
To those he calls his own,
And the bitterest drops of the chalice
Are reserved for his friends alone.
But the blood-red drops are precious,
And the crosses are all gain,
For joy is bought with sacrifice,
And the price of love is pain.
As a garden is beautiful through the variety of flowers within it, so is a Carmelite monastery beautiful through the charism of the nuns who live there. Each monastery of Carmelite nuns has its own particular charism. One may have a strong devotion to Mary, another an emphases on silence, or living in the present moment, or the practice of simplicity. The Sisters of Jesus Crucified live a tried and true charism within the Rule of St Benedict. Even though Therese of Lisieux said, “Suffering is the very best gift he has to give us. He gives it only to his chosen friends…” the charism of the Sisters of Jesus Crucified is not available within the Carmelite Rule of St Albert. It should be. It would be a great blessing if the Carmelite family had a nun’s Carmel with a charism similar to the Sisters of Jesus Crucified in the Benedictine family. Physically healthy, and not so healthy women, would be welcome here if they had gifts that support a Carmelite contemplative life style.
Such a monastic foundation would be unique and quite valid. Teresa Margaret Redi said: “By entering Carmel, you undertook to reproduce in yourself the life of the Crucified.” Isn’t a peaceful, loving acceptance of suffering inscribed in the heart of a Carmelite vocation? A wise Carmelite once said: “If you want to be a Carmelite, you can expect the cross.” Teresa of Avila was a master of the interior life, but she did not have good health. When a sister in poor health was up for profession, Teresa said to profess her even if she were bedridden. That sister became an outstanding prioress.
At the center of the garden in a Carmelite monastery of nuns, there stands a great crucifix. Edith Stein said: “May Jesus always lead me by the way of the cross.” A portion of the Angelus says: “. . .that we. . .may, by his passion and cross, be brought to the glory of the resurrection. . .” Gazing at a crucifix helps a vibrant soul thrive in a fragile body. The sisters in this proposed monastery would strive to live a joyful and deep participation in the paschal mystery of Christ which presents daily challenges and new discoveries. Being a Carmelite is less about how many holy activities one participates in, and more about how well one adapts to difficult circumstances that come one’s way. Living in the light of redemptive suffering fosters an ever deeper relationship with the Triune God through the passion of Jesus. No matter what their state of health, each sister would be important, and would contribute to the community. Less emphasis is on voluntary penitential acts, and more on offering to God, with a tranquil heart, that which is not chosen. A sister desires to kneel, but cannot do so through no fault of her own. She would have never chosen this limitation; however, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, she offers it as a gift to God. A sister is not disturbed by the way another sister walks or looks because true beauty is deeper than physical beauty. Accepting what comes without making a fuss about things, cheerfully willing to accept or give help, not giving in to negative thinking, and acting as if evil is winning, tests a sister’s mettle. When self-pity, or negative thoughts, knock on a sister’s door, she remembers: “Let nothing disturb me, let nothing frighten me, all things are passing, patience, patience, patience.” Although it is sometimes very hard to see, victory is already won by Christ.
Because the paschal mystery is ever new, each sister tries to maintain a positive attitude, and tries not to complain. Edith Stein said: “The road of suffering is the surest road to union with Our Lord. The redeeming power of suffering, joyfully borne, is greatly needed in our world today.” Hardships, joyfully borne, lead to the cross, and the cross leads to prayer for all who suffer in the human family. Because evil is real, tangible and frightening beyond words, prayer is what is most important, and most needed in today’s society. Carmelites should be specialists in prayer. Prayer at the foot of the cross helps a Carmelite to become more thoughtful, more sensitive, and more kind to those around her. It also can uncover courage that was previously unknown. Teresa of Avila notes: “One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time, he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.”
When Father Gaucheron shared his idea with Suzanne Wrotnowska, she replied: “It’s very beautiful, Father, it is probably not impossible, but the realization will be difficult.” Their idea blossomed into a simple but profound, singularly beautiful and sound, expression of Benedictine contemplative monastic life. Women in good health and women with certain physical limitations, who seem to have the call to live a contemplative Carmelite life, should have the opportunity to live in a monastic setting.
With trust in God, and benevolence from grace, all things are possible. There is so much beauty in Carmel’s garden yet to discover.
Readers who desire to help with a Carmelite expression of this life are welcome to contact the author at: email@example.com.
A few months ago in prayer, I kept hearing the words “wait for it.” I sensed that it was part of a longer passage I had heard at some point in life. I figured that it might be somewhere in scripture but I had no idea where. Thanks to modern technology and searchable Bible apps, I was quickly able to locate the source. It came from the book of Habakkuk (certainly wouldn’t have guessed that one). I was struck by the beauty of the entire verse:
For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end — it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. -Habakkuk 2:3
At this point I don’t even recall what I was reflecting upon, but the verse brought me hope. I began sharing it with others whom I thought would be encouraged by it. One of my friends asked me if I might handletter it as a gift (a talent I have been trying to develop), which gave me more opportunity to reflect upon and memorize the inspired words.
When I was asked to give a talk (in Spanish) on hope at a healing retreat recently, I knew that this verse had to be part of my sharing. In the Spanish language the verb for to wait and to hope are the same—esperar. As I worked on my talk, which focused on having hope even when we wait for healing, I saw the intimate connection between these two words.
Waiting often feels like a burden. Maybe you can relate to my hate for waiting, whether it be something as trivial as standing in a long line at the grocery store or as important as awaiting the fulfillment of a deep desire of the heart.
But if we see waiting in light of its cousin hope, our perspective shifts. What seemed to be a fruitless and tiresome waiting can become a hopeful waiting. We wait in hope, in expectation, of something good to come.
Our ultimate hope is that of Heaven. We know that even if we lack fulfillment in this life (and we will, since we are not made for this world), we can hope for true fulfillment in the world that is to come. Jesus tells us that in this world we will have trouble. There will be sickness, loss, unemployment, depression, poverty, sadness, etc. But St. Paul reminds us that this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17). The book of Revelation promises that every tear will be wiped away from our eyes (cf. Revelation 21:4).
But even in this life, we can hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises. He desires to answer our prayers, to fill us with good and holy things, to make straight our paths, to heal us, to lead back those who have wandered, to bring to completion desires that He has placed on our hearts…all in His timing. That’s the hard part. I recently prayed a novena to the Sacred Heart in which I wanted to receive a clear answer to a question on my heart. At the end of the novena I heard the word “wait.” Not the answer I was hoping for, but one which I will embrace in hope.
Returning to the words of the prophet Habakkuk, I have no reason to be discouraged. Even if the vision—the answer, the healing, the clarity, whatever it may be—awaits its time, we can trust that it will indeed come. God will not deceive or disappoint. He invites us to wait upon Him, to hope in His word, and to wait with joyful expectation, as He is faithful.
It was one year since I left the monastery. I knelt on the stone floor of the retreat center chapel, my Bible opened to the Gospel of John, chapter 11. The story of the raising of Lazarus.
It seemed fitting to spend some time with this moment in Jesus life for so many reasons. The friends of Lazarus begged Him to come when her friend was sick – to save Lazarus from death. Like them, I begged Jesus to come and make up for my frailty with His love and His peace – to give me the grace of perseverance in the vocation He called me to. And instead He waited. He waited as Lazarus died. He waited as I left the convent doors and no longer walked the cloisters of the monastery.
How similar to Mary and Martha I was when I told Jesus that “If You would have been there, I would not have had to leave.” How much I didn’t understand His ways, as He was in the midst of revealing to me that He is the resurrection and the life. And that in order for there to be the beauty of resurrection, there must come first the sorrow of death.
Death is hard – in whatever forms it comes in. The death of loved ones. The death of dreams. The death of fervor. The death of opportunities. The death of relationships. The death of meanings… When faced with death, the friends of Lazarus placed him in the tomb. And then, days later, Jesus arrives. And asks where Lazarus is laid.
Then Jesus wept.
And it struck me. Perhaps it was not the death of Lazarus that caused tears to flow from the eyes of our Lord, but rather the reaction of Lazarus’ friends. When faced with sickness they begged Jesus to come. They begged Him to heal their friend who was ill. They had faith. But when sickness turned to death, they gave up. They placed Lazarus in the tomb. They believed the situation was beyond hope. They had Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life, in their midst, and they continued their mourning. They thought the story was over. And Jesus wept.
This left me to be determined to believe that, as difficult as things sometimes are during this time outside of the monastery, Jesus can create something beautiful out of it. It challenged me to have the faith that will trust in Him even in the face of death – the death of my identity as a sister. It challenged me to have the vulnerability to place this death before Jesus, and not seal it in a tomb. And it challenged me to believe in the Resurrection – not just two thousand years ago or at the parousia, but also here and now in the moments of my life. I do not know how the Resurrection will manifest itself in my particular story, but placed in the hands of Jesus I know it will be beautiful.
“And all through Lent we had this beautiful statue
to help us meditate on Mary and her faith.
And that faith in the face of failure.
In the face of death.
In the face of shattered dreams.
In the face of enthusiasm that had been spent
and hopes that had been dashed in a worldly messiah
that was going to come and liberate them from the Romans.
But Mary had a quiet faith
and she waited in expectation of the Resurrection.
It didn’t take away the pain of the moment.
But it gave her direction.”
– Fr. Joseph Johnson (November 3, 2018)
As I know the power obedience has of making things easy which seem impossible, my will submits with good grace, although nature seems greatly distressed, for God has not given me such strength as to bear, without repugnance, the constant struggle against illness while performing many different duties. May He, Who has helped me in other more difficult matters, aid me with His grace in this, for I trust in His mercy.
– Saint Teresa of Avila, from the Preface to The Interior Castle.
A reflection by Penny.
If you type the words ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’ into a stock images website, chances are it will bring up pictures that look like this:
When in fact, it looks more like this:
(note compression sleeves on my arms to help keep my blood circulating – reduces risk of fainting)
(light intolerance is one of the symptoms of CFS, so I spend most of my time in the dark)
(photo taken by my mother last month, after I lost 13 pounds in a week because I was too sick to feed myself and made an emergency trip home to stay with her.)
This is ‘moderate’ CFS – meaning that I’m still able, sometimes, to leave my bed for work, grocery shopping, or Mass. (Severe CFS involves paralysis, tube-feeding, and sometimes death. This is the disease still derisively labelled ‘yuppie flu’ by the media, and which many doctors, including two that I’ve encountered personally, diagnose as a form of hysteria solely because most sufferers are women. I could rant for days about sexism in medicine, but I’ll limit myself to one observation: in basically every case I’ve heard of, including my own, this condition starts with a viral infection that gets worse instead of better over time. It’s an illness. It exists.)
On good days I can get up and do a couple of things, provided I pace myself. Mostly, though, I’m in bed, listening to podcasts at minimum volume in the dark and occasionally trying to sit up for a few minutes at a time. If you’re wondering why the blog’s been low on activity this year, that’s why! Theresa has done yeoman’s work keeping our social media active and answering emails without the usual level of support from me, and I want to express my admiration for the extra effort that she’s been putting in to do so. If you’d like to submit content for the blog, PLEASE DO – we still need your generous contributions to keep the website interactive and would love to hear from you! Please just be aware that it may take me a while to respond, and that the delay doesn’t mean lack of appreciation!
So, why am I writing all of this?
At Easter this year, too unwell to go out to the Vigil, I stayed home and watched an old black-and-white film called The Miracle of Saint Thérèse. In one scene that particularly struck me, Thérèse is struggling to climb up a flight of stairs in her Carmel, gasping with the effort and pulling herself slowly hand-over-hand up the bannister. I felt that viscerally, because it’s exactly what I have to do when confronted with a staircase these days. (Before I got sick two years ago, by contrast, I was a martial arts student who did high-intensity training several times a week.)
It got me thinking again about illness, and its role in spiritual life. So many saints, especially women, became seriously ill in their teens or twenties and lived through years of disability and suffering: of those whose lives I’ve been listening to on audiobook recently, Saint Bernadette died at thirty-five, Saint Faustina at thirty-three, Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity at twenty-six, and Saint Thérèse herself at twenty-four. Little Nellie of Holy God, to whose biography I’m currently listening, made it – spoiler alert! – to the grand old age of four.
I’m not a saint who can bear illness the way they could – if they’d had blogs in the nineteenth century, I can’t imagine Saint Thérèse getting on one to vent about sexist doctors, for example – but I can still take them as my examples and learn important lessons from the way they carried themselves in suffering.
1) Don’t assume you’re being punished by God. Same as when you have to leave religious life, or any other dream falls apart: it’s not a personal failure on your part, or a sign that He has rejected you. As a consequence of the Fall, we live in a world where we’re surrounded by viruses, toxins, dangerous people and animals, sheer drops and large, fast-moving objects, and eventually something’s going to smack into the just and the unjust alike. Illness is impersonal; don’t take it personally. As I know from experience, blaming yourself for drawing down God’s punishment by your actions is the very best way to learn to fear and resent Him. He’s with you while you’re struggling, helping you to live through it.
2) Don’t overthink things and start denying your own experience. I’m not really that sick – I don’t need to rest. (Yes, you probably do.) Maybe I’m subconsciously making myself sick because I’m afraid of life. (You’ve read too much pop psychology.) I need to restrict myself to healthy foods, and if I eat that slice of pizza I deserve to stay sick. I need to try all the medicines/supplements/treatment programs/etc I read about on the Internet, or I’m not really trying to get well again. Maybe I’m just milking my illness to get out of things. Maybe I’m being lazy. Maybe I’m just being dramatic about the effect this is having on me.
The saints didn’t do that. They were honest about the fact that they were suffering terribly – think of Saint Thérèse warning her sisters never to leave a full medicine bottle within the reach of someone in pain, or Saint Bernadette wondering aloud how she hadn’t died yet – and they did what they could each day. Some days Thérèse could write, and on those days, she wrote. Other days, she couldn’t, and she offered up to God the frustrations that came with that. Some days you’ll be able to do things. Other days, you won’t. That’s okay, and you’re okay.
3) DO figure out ways to make your life easier. My go-to meal is a double handful of mung beans and ripped-up bean shoots dumped straight from their containers into a bowl, with low-FODMAP chicken or beef stock in hot water poured over the top to make a healthy soup. Preparation time: about thirty seconds. If you have days where your arms aren’t strong enough to use a spoon, try pre-puréed fruits and soups in sachets; cut off the corners and suck them. Keep a bag of nuts beside your bed so that you have something to ease your hunger if you can’t get up. Cook lots of chopped potatoes and mincemeat on a good day, and store individual portions in the freezer to heat when you need them (they go well in the mung-bean soup to bulk it up).
4) DO figure out how to adapt your prayer life to your energy level as well. If you say the Rosary, there are plenty of versions on YouTube that you can listen to and follow along with while you’re lying still in bed. This one’s my favourite: a basic, no-frills version without music (I love music, but now it often hurts my ears), and it doesn’t name the Mysteries so you can use the same recording every day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjDZeB7DfCo
If you pray the Office, you can download the Laudate app, open up whichever Hour you want to say, and have a screen-reader read it aloud while you listen. (I use the free @Voice Aloud Reader from Google Play, which has a bunch of different voices from which to choose. I like the sophisticated English lady. You can also adjust pitch and reading speed to suit your own preference.) Also, when you get tired of computer voices, there’s an app with a recording of Dominican friars singing Night Prayer in English for each night of the year: just type ‘Dominican Compline’ into Google Play and it will come up.
Basically any prayer you can think of, from the Holy Cloak Novena to Saint Joseph to the Divine Mercy Chaplet to the Golden Arrow Prayer, is available in spoken form on YouTube. Or, on a good day, you can record it yourself and then save it to play back in the future on not-so-good days. On days when the exhaustion and brain fog are so severe that you can’t even remember the words of the Hail Mary (trust me, I’ve been there), this is a gentle, no-pressure way to pray.
Audiobooks on YouTube are a great resource for filling the long, long hours alone in bed – my spiritual life has deepened immensely from the things I’ve learnt on days when I was too sick to read or watch a movie, and they’re basically now my primary way of staying close to God. Even if you’re not unwell but just want something to listen to on the commute to work, these are good resources. Here are some of my favourite channels:
The Priory Librarian: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxMQn7rjBwqRGkf2gV1jP5A
(A friar, almost certainly a Dominican based on the number of OP books in his library, who reads edifying books aloud in his soft, slightly gravelly voice. You’ve got books by Louis de Montfort, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and some of the mediaeval mystics, among others.)
Sensus Fidelium: https://www.youtube.com/user/onearmsteve4192
(Orthodox Catholic talks on numerous topics, from lives of Saints to end-times prophecies and the state of the Church. You’re asked to say three Hail Marys for the priest who delivers each talk you listen to.)
Classic Catholic Audiobooks: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfXTzdNin8U8aEQVMIXiRog/videos
(From Julian of Norwich to Saint Francis de Sales, there are numerous books available, read aloud by volunteers from around the world. Some volunteers are much better readers than others, but it’s a great resource overall.)
Sacred Heart Publications: excellent Catholic talks on holiness, as well as audiobooks: https://www.youtube.com/user/MultiBurtons
There are also lots of Catholic books on Google Play quite cheaply (I got a book by Saint Alphonsus Liguori for a couple of dollars) that you can then use the Google Books inbuilt screen-reader to read aloud for you. It’s more annoying than a human voice, but not impossibly so.
Finally, there are television Masses uploaded online every day (you can type ‘Catholic Mass today’ into YouTube if you’re too sick to go out to church), and also live-streamed Perpetual Adoration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4A6RIOwC2E
Basically, it can be done: there are numerous cheap or free resources out there to help your soul to grow in faith, hope and love in times of illness. I no longer feel as though I’m rotting away in the dark, because I know my heart is hearing and responding to God, and prayer connects me to the world outside my room. In effect, this solitude has become the cloister I once sought in the convent, and the stillness has become a source of contemplation. I would love to be well: to go back to work properly, to resume my studies, to get my brown belt in karate, and to carry on with the life I was living before my illness took all of that away. And yet, being torn out of my ordinary life and compelled to live with God in solitude has given me more graces than I could ever have imagined, and I can share the fruits of those graces with others by my prayers even if I don’t live among them much anymore.
It isn’t easy, but He is here. And for as long as He wills it, so am I.