By Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP.
When I read Simcha Fisher’s article in America Magazine When a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life, I began to weep. I cried for all the young women who had entered my community and left, their choice or the community’s, over my 53 years as a Daughter of St. Paul.
I remembered when I was a postulant (1967) and a novice coming to the refectory (dining room) for breakfast and noticing that someone was missing. Gone without a good-bye, at that time never to be heard of again. It was so confusing that someone who was so much part of my group, or the upcoming groups, or even professed in temporary vows, could be gone. Just like that. If we said anything, the formator would shush us or glare at the person asking. One co-postulant told me later that it was thought if we talked about our missing companion that it might make the rest of us go, too. I was still in our high school aspirancy myself, but that lack of logic just further confused me (we discontinued our high school in 1991.)
Yet as I read through the article, tears flowing at the corner of my eyes, I recalled three times that I was asked to either drive someone to the airport, take another young sister home, or accompany someone in their discernment and then drop them off at her new residence after she decided to leave the community. I was part of the forgotten ones in this process of separation from a community that was no “gentle or conscious uncoupling” so to speak. I was one of the last members of the community a sister leaving might ever see. To me, this was the most heartbreaking thing I was ever asked to do in my years of religious life. It was traumatic for me. No one ever asked how it made me feel to be part of a person’s departure from this very intense and passionate way of life that we call religious life.
I recalled another sister who was often asked to take aspirants, postulants and novices to the airport, spirited out at dawn’s early light before anyone would miss them. It was during grand silence, too, so we were not to speak until after grace at breakfast if we did see suitcases by the elevator. I will call her Sister Mary. Sister Mary was chosen, I think, because of her gentle nature that would have a calming effect on the young woman leaving. I went with Sister Mary once to drive a sister in temporary vows to the airport as she was returning home. I waited in the car (the days when we could do so), but I was able to say good-bye and promise prayers before Sister Mary accompanied her inside the terminal. The hard thing was that I was told by the superior not to talk about the young woman’s departure to anyone.
The next time I was told, not asked, to drive a young sister home from one of our branch houses. Her family lived within driving distance. Sister Anna, an older sister, came along, too. The superior, who was very old school and stern, told Sister Anna and I that we were not even to get out of the car. Just let the sister off in front of her house, let her unload her suitcases, and drive off. I was told not to even talk to her. I was only in temporary vows, too, and had known this young woman since she entered though she was not in my group (or band, as some communities call our formation groups.) As soon as we pulled up in front of her house at about 7am, her family came out. Then Sr Anna surprised me. She hit my arm and said, “Say good-bye.” So, I did. I turned and gave the young woman a hug over the seat. Then Sr. Anna got out of the car, against orders, and accompanied the young woman to the front door, to her family. She stayed and spoke with the family for a bit, then came back to the car. We were both crying. Sr. Anna, one of my favorite nuns ever, told me through her tears, “You don’t need to say anything. Charity comes first.” And I never did until now.
I will not say too much about the third sister because we remain very good friends today. But I know she suffered greatly as she discerned her way from religious life into a serene life “in the world” as we call it. I was the local superior when she was sent to the community for the purpose of discernment, at her request. As she met with a spiritual director, I was the community member she related to the most. It was a difficult separation for many reasons, and we both cried many times, not least of which was the day we went to buy her a new meager wardrobe at the mall and the final day I drove her to her new residential job after she was dispensed from her vows. This was like dying to her and to me, two different ways of dying. I had known her from before she entered and now, these many years later, I was there when she was leaving, following what she believed was God’s will for her. I did not disagree with her discernment, but her leaving was as if she was pulling off her skin to reveal a new identity that was still taking shape. It was so painful. She is one of the bravest people I know, and I love her for her courage, perseverance, and love for ministry that has never wavered.
I shared this blog post with Sister Mary and she commented:
I do regret in hindsight not having more of Sr. Anna’s wisdom of heart. Most of the time I drove very young ones to the airport or bus station. I was sent to be a kind presence and to assure that they made it to their gate safely. Some left singing and some left sorrowing, so as their last contact I had to keep things light and loving. As you say, we are in a better place now. The young ones are already women and the formation program is so much more mature, so we don’t have half the drama anymore. I always pray for those who are wavering even if I don’t know who they might be, and I send them on their way with love and blessings.
In one way I was a willing participant in the departures of these young women from religious life but in another way, I was unwilling because I knew that if I were suffering from a profound sadness, the young woman was probably suffering so much more. I have always tried to do everything asked of me, but some things were too hard and had to change, and thank God, they have.
What did I learn from these experiences? That charity comes first, always.
We do things differently now. If a young woman at any stage of religious life discerns to leave (or is invited to do so by the community), she may share this information with whomever she wishes – and we can stay in touch. She can say good-bye to the community in the dining room or make a more discreet departure – her choice. But the sister or young woman is encouraged to be more transparent about her discernment because the entire community is transitioning with her as she leaves.
Sister Rose Pacatte in August 1967, at the San Diego convent of the Daughters of Saint Paul, the night before flying to Boston to enter the convent.
As we slowly moved from a pre-Vatican Council II way of doing things in our congregation in the U.S. to being, well, normal, we had a provincial who did something wonderful. This was in the later 1980s. I was on our provincial council then. She thought it would be a good idea to send a Christmas card and note to each sister (novice or postulant) for whom we had contact information, and let them know we remembered them, ask how they were doing, and that we continued to pray for them. This resulted in more open communication, visits to the novitiate, reconnecting with old friends, and oftentimes, healing.
I wish there had been Leonie’s Longing all those years ago so young women could receive counseling and referrals and moral support, and I am glad this organization exists now. God willing, I will celebrate my golden jubilee of profession in 2022 (and my 55th of entrance). If you are reading this, know that I remember everyone, and I wish you love, happiness and the peace of Christ. I hope you will forgive any suffering I may have caused or contributed to at a very difficult time of your life. I ask for your prayers.
The thing is, those who become part of our inner world, as we do in religious life, are never gone. We remain sisters in the heart of God – always.
By Stephanie Q.
July 16th, 2016.
That’s the date my friend, E, gave me for her entrance to the novitiate. The wind let out of my sails a little. I was so excited for her discernment to continue with the sisters, but that date, well that was already my wedding day.
And so we adjusted the plans. No longer would she be at our nuptial Mass, but we would certainly include her in our Prayers of the Faithful. No longer would I be able to attend her entrance ceremony, but friendship is so much stronger than that. On July 16th, we would both be taking steps to fulfill our vocations, steps towards the life God had in store for us.
Preparations continued for both of us. E packed up and donated all of her clothes and belongings during a brief visit home between pre-postulancy and postulancy. I bought a wedding dress and picked out flowers and planned centerpieces.
Our lives were almost perfectly paralleled in prayerful preparation. There was little doubt in our friends or family that we were living our best lives, pursuing the vocation God created us for. And I had little doubt that E was supposed to be a sister. Watching her talk about her life in the convent, her eyes lit up in the same way I saw my fiance’s eyes light up when he talked about me.
When I finally said goodbye to E before postulancy started, it was hard, so hard. We had no idea when we would see each other again because novitiate + wedding day made the next logical time impossible. But we promised to write cards and letters and went on our way.
About three months into her postulancy, I received a surprise notification that E had sent me a Facebook message!
The elation soon turned to concern as I read the message. She had discerned out of the convent and didn’t know what her next steps would be.
In the moment, I said all the right things. “I’m proud of you for making the hard decision” (because I knew this broke her heart), “Jesus loves you no matter what” (because I know Satan loves self-doubt), and offered a trip for ice cream whenever she was ready to be social.
On the other side of the screen though, I was flabbergasted. Everything seemed perfectly ordered for her to become a sister. And if she could discern out, what did that mean for my discernment of marriage? All of sudden, certainty didn’t seem so certain and that really put me in a bit of a spiritual and mental pickle for a while. I would support E, but I was also very confused by the situation.
The whole thing was made more difficult because I saw how upset the decision made her. And she wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. So I was in this weird place where I had to be supportive without knowing the details. Responsive and prayerful without understanding the magnitude. There were many moments where I just asked the Holy Spirit to guide my words because I was at a loss for what to say or do. Walking with a friend who had their whole future changed in a moment is a true test of friendship and fortitude. I didn’t want to make things worse, and I couldn’t make anything better. I could just sit there in the uncertainty and the ick with her.
As she opened up over the next two months about the decision process, I understood better. Leaving a religious order is like breaking off an engagement. And sometimes a broken engagement takes you by surprise because on the outside, everything about the couple seemed perfect. But, it takes living in that reality every single day to really understand the nooks and crannies of the relationship. And as postulancy progressed, it was her observation that the relationship had to end.
Having broken off a serious relationship of my own once before, I think in some ways I understood better than some how it feels to be adrift without a plan. A period in life where the things you had taken as fact, a future marriage or religious life, was all of a sudden ripped from its role in the future chapters of your life.
And so, time progressed. Our friendship back to normal, I realized that my wedding day was still going to happen, and I began to worry about celebrating the permanency of my own vocation on the day that was also supposed to have been E’s celebration as well.
So I did the only thing I could. I painstakingly crafted a new set of prayers for our wedding day. One to pray for our religious friends, since many priests and religious men and women came from our group of friends. One to pray for all the married couples in the room. And, finally, one to pray for those who were still discerning their way in life that God would give them the courage to say “yes” when He called.
Being there for a friend who has left the convent can be tricky, but it is similar to being there for a friend in any other difficult life situation. The trickiest part of it all is that what worked for my friendship, might not work for yours. And that’s true, but all friendships need those moments where it is enough to say, “I am here”. Encourage her. Validate her feelings. Believe in her. Be there for her. Give her space. And most importantly, pray for her.
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.
Reader Michaela reviews the dissertation ‘The impact of leaving the convent on a woman’s perceived relationship with God as viewed through the lenses of attachment and divorce,’ by Jennifer Cabaniss Munoz, 2018.
In this approachable and novel dissertation, Jennifer Munoz approaches the effect that leaving the convent has on a woman’s perceived relationship with God. Writing in 2015, Munoz not only shines a fresh light on the effect leaving religious life has on a woman, but pierces right to the most important effect leaving can have: an effect on a woman’s perceived relationship with God. “It defies belief,” she writes, “that a woman who entered a community and a way of life with such an understanding of what she was undertaking, and committing herself to it whole-heartedly, would find it irrelevant to her relationship with such a spouse when she makes the decision (or is forced) to leave that life.” (58)
Attachment theory and divorce are the primary frames of reference Munoz draws upon to explore the affect that leaving has on relationship with God. Although divorce is not a theologically accurate lens through which to view leaving the convent, it proves to be an apt lens psychologically. Firstly, consecrated life is understood as being the bride of Christ, as having a special way of relating to Him. When a woman leaves religious life, she makes a shift from consecrated to unconsecrated and leaves behind a special way of relating to Jesus. Secondly, the grieving process following the shift in relationship exhibits a similar pattern of protest, despair, and reorganization. The paradigm of divorce provides insight as to why leaving the convent is so difficult, but it doesn’t quite explain the diversity of difficulty with which women handle the situation. To explain this Munoz turns to attachment theory.
Attachment theory describes the relationship between a person and their attachment figure, the person who serves as a safe haven or caregiver in a time of distress. Expectations around such a relationship are formed during childhood and these expectations are known as an attachment style, which is secure or insecure (preoccupied, dismissing, or fearful). This attachment style influences how a person interacts with other attachment figures later in life including God or a spouse. Much like the example of divorce, acknowledging an insecure attachment style toward God requires standing in the truth of the human emotional experience instead of turning toward idealizations. “[I]ndividuals can simultaneously have an intellectual belief, keeping with the tenets of their faith, that God is in essence the perfect caregiver – omnipresent, all loving, forgiving, and faithful – and yet struggle with a deeper emotional sense that he is perhaps none of those things, but is rather much more like the human caregivers whom they have experienced.”(151)
Whether a woman has a secure or insecure attachment style can affect her capacity to handle the transition of leaving. For example, a woman with a secure attachment style would be expected to recover more quickly from the transition because the struggle will primarily be establishing a new identity and way of relating to God. For a woman with an insecure attachment style, in addition to establishing a new identity and way of relating to God, she might struggle with feelings of having been abandoned or rejected by God. At the end of the dissertation Munoz suggests a few potential therapeutic interventions that can assist in the transition including narrative therapy, emotion-focused therapy, and collaboration with spiritual direction.
Even if the particular theme of this dissertation doesn’t quite fit the reader’s situation (it didn’t quite fit my own), the series of topics covered throughout are thought provoking and can help identify areas of growth to be had and healing to take place. These topics include passage lag (“determining which habits, customs, and elements of one’s training as a
religious to retain in one’s new role as a laywoman, and which to reject as no longer relevant” (34)) internal working models, grief, and examples of various emotional struggles and identity struggles associated with leaving. Lastly, I would like to mention that this dissertation is written by someone who gets it. She herself had to leave a religious community due to medical difficulties. She dedicates the dissertation “To ‘Marie’ and all those who struggle.”
Note: I was able to access a copy of this dissertation through ProQuest Dissertations and Theses on a guest computer at a local university.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.