“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal
“We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus
Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.
So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.
St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone. If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such. It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.
And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.” But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke. And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.
Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity. Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.
This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.” Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.
That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.
Following on the heels of my first co-publication on this blog, I am pleased and proud to present my first guest post. The essay you will find here makes a compelling case both for justice in the cause of oppressed African sisters, and for following early modern models in that struggle. I was very pleased to read and edit Sister Edelquine’s formidable work here, especially given my own specialty in the history of French Jansenism. In re-approaching the nuns of Port-Royal as a potential model for contemporary Catholic women, Sister Edelquine follows a similar strategy put forward recently by, inter alia, Dr. Elissa Cutter.
Sr. Edelquine Shivachi is a Kenyan sister from the order of the Little Sisters of St. Francis. She is a PhD student in Theology at the University of Notre Dame—USA, specializing in World Religions and World Church. Sr. Shivachi is passionate about the developments and trends of Christianity in Africa and in the world. She is also interested in deeply understanding the growth of the life of women religious across the globe over the past centuries and linking that history to the contemporary life of sisters.
Without further ado, I present her piece below:
Sisters Against Abusive Power: St. Teresa, Port-Royal, and Modern African Religious
Early Modernity was not only a time of Catholic renewal after the Reformation but also a new spring time for religious orders. St. Teresa of Avila’s reform of the Carmelites is well known, but perhaps less recognized are the achievements of the Cistercian abbesses of the Arnauld family in Port-Royal, Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), Mère Agnès Arnauld (1593-1671), and Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly (1624-1684). While St. Teresa fought for reforms of her order, the nuns of Port-Royal defended their way of life on the basis of a philosophy of education. Both, I argue in this paper, can be an inspiration and resource for contemporary African sisters to develop a vision of courageous religious life based on education and prayer, which will help them regain control over their institutions and resources and combat the power abuse of secular or ecclesiastical authorities.
The Historical Background
St. Teresa of Avila and the Arnauld Abbesses [hereafter Abbesses] both non-violently defended themselves against patriarchal oppression. St. Teresa encountered trials because she was a mystic. Her visions, levitations, and transverberations—ways she communed with God—threatened both religious and civil authorities who, at that time, thought that a woman could not speak to God. Her fervent zeal to protect the values of the convents ushered in her Catholic reforms against the elite of the time and her own order. She stopped the elite’s influence on convents in such issues as dowries and encouraged sisters to pray unceasingly. Her reform of Carmelite prayer shaped the convents’ prayer and religious life, as many communities emulate today. In a similar manner, the Abbesses wholly defended their Jansenist theology. Most of them were highly educated in that theology and philosophy to their advantage. Soeur Jacqueline Pascal, for instance, was seen as “one of the leading philosophers of the Port-Royal convent.” Her “mystical theology has an acute apophatic sense of God’s alterity.” Angélique clearly understood the theology concerning God’s providence. Their social background also enabled them to resist abuse of power and persist in their theology because they were backed up by their families and relatives who got involved in the affairs of the convent. Their reforms embodied the Benedictine and Cistercian ideals of monasticism.
Both St. Teresa and the Abbesses maintained focus in their quest for justice by fully vesting themselves with “revolutionary modes” that ranged from education, courage, humility, and honesty. These modes made them speak and dialogue with God and with their abusers. They also displayed competency in their theologies and understood their call to religious life as originating from God and not from human authorities, whether religious or civil. Can African sisters learn anything from them? Indeed! I suggest that a reconsideration of St. Teresa of Avila and the Abbesses’ persistence to defend themselves, their theologies, and philosophies against the abuse of patriarchal power can provide a helpful prism for African sisters to defend their existence in dioceses as they face patriarchal power abusers.
Review on Abuse of Power
To flesh out this proposal concretely, I am asking how St. Teresa of Avila and the Abbesses’ battle with early modern gendered abuses can inform the contemporary African sisters in their challenges with, first, abuse of power, and, secondly, the ongoing subjugation of women throughout history. Looking back shows that we are not just constructing something based solely on wishful thinking, “but out of the need for a perspective in order to interpret the past to the present.” It is necessary to be informed about what has been done before to avoid stagnation. Kwesi Dickson, an African woman theologian, affirms this by stating that
The present stagnation may be accounted for by reference to the fact that recent discussions often seem to be unaware of past discussions on the subject. Again and again, contributions made at conferences have not been such as to build upon the insights which have already been gained into the subject.
Musa Dube, an African woman theologian, also confirms the importance of the past by asserting that the static nature of oppression among African women that involves the struggle over social, religious, and imperial independence is far from won. To win that struggle demands a revolutionary action that is rather subtle, intelligible, and prudent.
More specifically, and using concrete examples, I propose an “institutional dynamism” among African sisters through holistic education and a return to prayer, just as the lives of Teresa and the Abbesses illustrate. By “institutional dynamism,” I mean that African sisters’ individual institutes should follow the footsteps of St. Teresa and the Abbesses and employ zealous and innovative pedagogies to end the ongoing oppression of sisters by clergy and advance a history of sisters that fosters freedom and autonomy.
Let me first offer the current state of life of most African sisters. The context within which East African sisters reside are oppressive, treacherous, and vicious in themselves and to the sisters. From my own experience as a member of an African sisters’ community, there are significant vestiges of oppression in most of our African convents, as there were during the time of St. Teresa and the Abbesses. Most communities of sisters lack permission from local ordinaries to begin their own income-generating projects. They are only allowed to manage diocesan projects with no equivalent remuneration—making the sisters perpetually dependent on international aid. Involvement in any income-generating projects leads to threats from these very authorities. Secular and religious authorities also take over sisters’ schools, convents, and hospitals founded by their foundresses. Sadly, the convents are in dilapidated situations for lack of renovation and can collapse on the sisters at any time. Sisters risk their lives in the name of serving the diocese. Such mistreatment is accompanied by verbal statements from local ordinaries such as “your convent is under my jurisdiction and you must do what I say,” or even, “you are under me.” These phrases mirror those that Péréfixe, Archbishop of Paris, said of Mère Agnès and her religious: “These sisters are as pure as angels, but as proud as devils.” These statements of pride are—as it were—unchristian. They also indicate how the authorities override their mandate and obedience to the canon law.
But the most grievous thing is that most Church authorities do not comprehend the institutes’ constitutions. The constitution of an anonymous institute, for instance, permits sisters to use four colors of habits—beige, white, cream, and coffee brown. Unfortunately, some authorities ordered that those sisters stop wearing the coffee brown habit because those authorities disliked that specific color. This defeats the logic of the constitution, the governing principles of an organization. It is also against the call of the canon law that “religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper Law.” The constitution safeguards the autonomy of religious institutes as well as the patrimony of religious founders, without which sisters lose direction for lack of a road map. Failure to hearken to the constitution is also illicit because it literally indicates a breach of the law, which ought to safeguard the subjects. This should not be the case. Since it is the case, we can only categorize it as abuse of power. It is consistently and consciously stepping on sisters’ rights present in their own constitution—which the sisters know, while, apparently, they cower in fear. They are perhaps ignorant of their own rights in their constitution. This also shows how authorities take for granted the laws that govern religious institutes. They opt for “cold oppression” because, most likely, sisters are heedless of being oppressed—or even of their own constitution. Pope Francis recognized this abuse of power by the clergy towards sisters and advised sisters worldwide that their call is for service and not for servitude. The Pope went on to warn sisters that, “you didn’t become nuns to be cleaners for a clergyman, no!” To become aware and fearless, education to eradicate ignorance and naiveté is crucial for sisters.
The oppression of African sisters is reminiscent of that of St. Teresa and the Abbesses. St. Teresa’ mysticism, for instance, was often suspected to stem from deception or demonic influence. The medical and scientific authorities of the time perceived Teresa’s ecstasies as signs of experiencing sexual orgasm, a product of hysteria, mental illness, and psychological disorder as some artists had depicted her. In 1651, a Jesuit theologian, Jean de Brisacier, denounced the Abbesses, calling them “impenitent women, desperadoes, opponents of the sacraments, fanatics, and foolish virgins.” Thus, the history of sisters’ exploitation by abusive power is ongoing and, at the same time, must end.
Abuse of power is also internally orchestrated by institute leaders who fail to rule diligently as the canon law demands. Unlike the Abbesses who defended their sisters, some superior generals collude with the clergy to abuse their power by intimidating their subjects in convents, who, in return, cower in fear of dismissal from the institutes. Some superiors adamantly refuse to support sisters to study because of tribalism, dislike, and jealousy. Others deliberately appoint sisters to poor communities not as the Holy Spirit directs, but rather as a way to punish sisters who seem to be a threat, perhaps because they are educated or are vocally challenging unsororal structures and aspects in the institutes. Although this essay deals with the male authority abusers in particular, it suffices to state that superior generals of institutes of consecrated life must desist from misuse of their power, act in solidarity with their sisters, and together forge a way forward to eradicate oppression that incapacitates sisters.
African sisters should emulate the solidarity that St. Teresa and the Abbesses of Port-Royal created in convents to move in unison from such abuses into institutionally dynamic pedagogy. St. Teresa received support from her sisters in the community, who always watched her during her levitations and trances and positively witnessed her mysticism against dissenters such as the Inquisition. Her trances caused physical changes in her body, which was “perilous” in mid-sixteenth-century Spain. The sisters offered information on her levitations and trances to ecclesiastical authorities who needed authentic information to judge Teresa’s orthodoxy. The Abbesses too supported each other in their defense of Jansenism. Mère Agnès “stoutly defended her sister [Mere Angélique] in her subsequent reform initiatives; morally and physically she stood at the side of her sister during the decisive Journée du guichet ,” in which Mere Angélique denied her parents entry into the strict cloister she had imposed on the convent. Their own solidarity was the keystone to getting rid of oppression from the external forces that threatened them. African sisters must defend and support each other against external abuse and influence as the Abbesses did. Supporting each other through strong bonds of solidarity in our communities instead of hating each other is crucial to completely mitigate abuse of power.
Besides ending this ongoing oppression, holistic education and enracinement in prayer will also promote peaceful non-violent dialogues and wholesome existence between sisters and diocesan authorities, thus reducing the long-standing animosity between the two parties. This institutionally dynamic pedagogy of holistic education and rootedness in prayer is opposed to the mere “submissive acceptance” that African sisters have been socialized into.
Holistic Education of African Sisters as a Way Forward
One thing that makes African sisters susceptible to oppression is their choice of studies. Many of them work as either teachers or nurses because circumstances discourage women from undertaking more serious studies. For instance, theology in Africa is currently not a lucrative discipline for women as law or medicine. Women don’t value theological and philosophical studies because they no longer want to work in seminaries or novitiates—or even teach at universities without salaries. Moreover, they feel that theology and philosophy are male disciplines. This gendering of disciplines means that sisters lack holistic knowledge because they avoid male subjects. The gendering of education makes women vulnerable because they cannot defend themselves in disciplines where they lack competence. This deficiency in some disciplines is a source of progressive oppression. That is why returning to a holistic education like that of St. Teresa and the Abbesses could remedy the consistent oppression of women historically because sisters will defend themselves in the disciplines where men claim authority. Conley observes that we do not hear about the Abbesses because their literary and monastic genres of writing had heavy theological content that only few contemporary readers can penetrate. He also observes that the philosophical contribution of these nuns is eclipsed by “the extraordinary philosophical stature of the male clerics and laity” who were close collaborators with them, including Blaise Pascal and Antoine Arnauld. The Abbesses were educated and had competence in their subject such that men like Conley recognized it, even though some contemporary authorities did not.
While it is true that education in the time of St. Teresa and the Abbesses differs from that of present-day African sisters, their zeal and the power to take on an interdisciplinary type of education should solve sisters’ quest to mitigate oppression from abuse of power. African sisters are compelled, as Swart argues, “to work towards a theology that continues to renew and empower, to stand up with dignity and worth like the healed crippled woman.” The only way out of oppression into dignity and integrity as a people who share in the communion of the creation of God is through holistic education, because then, sisters will eliminate ignorance and naiveté. They will demonstrate that the world of the convent should not be foreign to the normative venues of modern philosophy, but rather that modern convents are great libraries of deep interdisciplinary discourses on enormous ancient and contemporary matters. Sisters will demonstrate that convents are research centers where authorities—whether secular or spiritual, from within and without—yearn to draw knowledge.
An example of the lack of holistic education and its effects will be helpful here. A sister shared with me how the diocese had taken over their school property. The diocese alleged that the school failed to adhere to the charism of the foundress. The sisters in administration raised tuition and employed even non-Catholics. On inquiring whether the administration had the necessary education even to lead the school, I was told that “the headteacher has only a high school diploma.” This satisfaction and pride in a single diploma were to the detriment of the order. A high school diploma is not sufficient to argue for and defend the sisters on the issues raised about tuition and employing non-Catholics. The deficiency of holistic education in such areas as theology, law, and philosophy made the sisters incompetent in defending and protecting their school. They widely and imprudently opened avenues for the authorities to take over their school—loopholes that could have been sealed with appropriate education. This lack of holistic education has exacerbated susceptibility to patriarchal oppression since the time of St. Teresa and the Abbesses. Conley observes about the Abbesses that the exclusion of early modern convents from philosophical arguments was because the voices of the “most highly educated group of women in this period” and the suppression of their canon was shaped by “a profound theological culture.” Although the Abbesses were theologically stable, authorities ingeniously hid their literature as a way to suppress the Abbesses’ genius nature.
Considering that challenges occur in all institutional settings such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages, it is imperative for superior generals to ensure that their sisters study in various fields. Superior generals relish authority over other sisters, as the Constitution of the Little Sisters of St. Francis [LSOSF] affirms. It states that the superior general “exercises authority over her sisters” and has the supremacy to either send nuns to school or not. So, superior generals ought to direct their sisters to venture into other fields such as theological studies, where they will study the Bible, the lives of the saints, doctrinal theories, the liturgy, and spiritual authors. The Abbesses advocated the education of women in theology and philosophy by their own example so that these women could make conscious “judgement in the ecclesiastical and political disputes of the age.” Soeur Jacqueline, for instance, was seen as “one of the leading philosophers of Port-Royal convent.” Angélique for her part, “had a sophisticated understanding of theology” especially concerning God’s providence. They offered a different perspective on the “doctrine of grace and the legal arguments against the sanctions imposed on them.” They defended their theology with their conscience by failing to append their signatures, which, Conley holds, is “an apology for the right of women to engage in critical discussions of religious issues and of questions of the limits of authority.” African sisters must also venture into civil and canon law and the social sciences to keep abreast of issues in the political arena.
One of the model sisters who come to mind when I think of educating sisters interdisciplinarily is the Kenyan sister and Professor Anne Nasimiyu, the former superior general of the LSOSF [2012-2016]. She was very pro-education and she strongly supported sisters to study courses such as law, medicine, theology, and philosophy that would be beneficial to the institute. In her own words to the donors, “…as I told you before, we do not have any LSOSF who has studies in Philosophy to MA level.” In stating how the institute delayed to take sisters to school, she once remarked that “it is now thirty years since I graduated and embarked on teaching and there is no LSOSF who followed into my footsteps.” Nasimiyu—whom other superiors should emulate—gave pride to the LSOSF who now support their own sisters in numerous disciplines. Yet, a lot is to be done if taking numerous sisters to school is the sure pace that sisters should walk to end subjugation. As a matter of fact, this modern era of science and technology, of secularism, and of modernity does not exclude sisters from such a holistic education. Inarguably, sisters face challenges from all walks of life during their ministry. Holistic education is their only credible, realistic, and achievable approach to end sisters’ intellectual challenges and render the sisters competent and dependent in their ministry as well as combat the long-lasting, stunted history of sisters’ oppression.
Reconsidering holistic education by African sisters is advantageous in numerous ways. First, they will recognize any challenges “by an ecclesiastical judgement that appears to contradict the truth.” St. Teresa faced opposition from theologians such as Father Gaspar Daza, who told her that she could not commune with God in her imperfect nature. Alonso de la Fuente, a Dominican friar, also held that the Vida had “the venom of heresy within it, so secretly expressed, so well disguised, so smoothly varnished…” He added that the subject of the Vida “exceeded the capacity of any woman.” Furthermore, the skepticism by people like René Descartes and secularism in Western culture in the eighteenth century reduced the Vida’s popularity. In response, St. Teresa drew theological lessons such as God’s love for all His people from her encounters with the divine, and these lessons help us understand mystical theology as a way that God intimately encounters his people. Moreover, she credits the power of God’s love within her. She says, “a great love of God grew within and I did not know who had put it there, because it was very supernatural, and I had not sought it out.” The Abbesses focused on controversies concerning the dogma of grace and the dogmatic authority of the Church during the decades of persecution by Louis XIV and his ecclesiastical allies.
Holistic education will help African sisters to find and dare to find their “self-identification in the life and teachings of Jesus, who accepted women as full human beings,” and not as the Aristotelian definition of woman as a “misbegotten male.” The Abbesses found their place in society by making claims to defend the right of nuns to exercise authority and the convent to enjoy autonomy. Angélique held that women should exercise authority in an evangelical manner, which is being vigilant to help the poor in wars, pestilence, and famine. She was convinced that if power could be used to persecute the elect [Port-Royal nuns], it could be well used in the governance of religious and civic communities by women. She held that women religious should be in authority and that the community should elect the superior, adopt laws, and approve ways of resolving convent problems. Moreover, she claimed that a female superior should be spiritual director, theological instructor, and disciplinarian for her nuns. She proposed that nuns should appoint and dismiss convent chaplains and preachers. On the part of St. Teresa, modern “seekers” like Evelyn Underhill, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Edith Stein, and Dorothy Day consider St. Teresa’s Vida as an accessible model of female devotional life and, more recently, a valuable source for scholars of women’s writing. They appreciate it as a sign of love, ecstasy, mirroring Mary the Virgin who was impregnated by God, as well as martyrdom and the superiority of Catholicism. It is exigent for African sisters to end oppression by trailing the path that the Abbesses and St. Teresa blazed and perceive their womanhood with a more optimistic perspective than that shaped by manipulation.
At the same time, they will embrace what they know is relevant for the Church in terms of faith and morals and fill in the gaps of misjudgment in religion and politics, just as the Abbesses were convinced about Jansen’s theology amidst pressure to “choose between unqualified submission to condemnation of Jansen or the gradual destruction of the convent.” They refused to submit to the “Church’s condemnation of the five controversial theological propositions on grace.” Moreover, they “refused any assent to judgments of fait” that claimed that Jansen had advocated such positions. African sisters must imitate these brave examples and authentically embrace what is relevant in their lives.
To illustrate how East African sisters will embrace what is relevant, let us return for a moment to the story of the “diploma sister” and illustrate how she would have responded to the accusations had she embraced a holistic education. She would have argued that the context of their foundress and her current working context differed. In her present context, everything was expensive. This caused her to ask for tuition from students because she needed money to run the school. Had she studied better, this sister would have cited Perfectae Caritatis [October, 1965], which argues “adaptation to the changed conditions of our time… is to the Church’s advantage.” The decree further states that each institute has “its own proper character and function.”
The sister would have argued further that she was renewing the institute’s life to adapt to modern situations, as the above papal document admonished. On the issue of employing non-Catholics, she would have argued for ecumenism as a tool for brotherhood, where we encourage and strengthen one another in Christian discipleship. By employing non-Catholics, the sister wanted to learn and deeply know her tradition in relation with Islamic traditions. She would have readily come by these responses if she had studied different fields, such as administration, theology, and even accounting. Since she did not partake of such important studies, an abusive authority took advantage of her—she had nobody to whom to air her miseries.
Moreover, holistic education will keep African sisters abreast of current issues and help them to engage in debates, write books, and have huge convent archives of literature as in the time of St. Teresa and the Port-Royal Abbesses. St. Teresa wrote the Vida to explain her ineffable experiences to the Inquisition. Eire notes that the Vida is “an attempt to come to grips with her mystical experiences and place them in some intelligible theological context.” She had a grasp of theology and “intertwined description and analysis in an effort to make sense of something that was beyond rational thought.” The Abbesses documented the experiences of their lives. Angélique wrote an autobiography, which was mostly the story of her community’s heroic resistance in the face of its religious tribulations, such as struggles against Jesuits and their defense of their schools. Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean and Antoine Le Maître documented the life of Mère Angélique and her convent reform. They also encouraged the sisters in the convent to document their own lives and those of others. They studied and understood the need to write about their lives, namely maintaining the legacy of their rule and Jansenist theology.
When sisters study, they will write and research, and like St. Teresa and the Abbesses, they will intellectually dialogue with the authorities rather than accepting defeat without mounting an informed defense of their position. Maurice Muhatia, Bishop of Nakuru diocese, observes that for a long time, Africans were accused of lacking a philosophy because they lacked written literature, but that did not mean that Africans lacked a philosophy. According to Muhatia, “time has come to aggressively back up such affirmations with written literature.” Sisters ought to be on the forefront in writing these literatures. Additionally, they will together express themselves fiercely about issues that oppress them and amicably address those issues. Additionally, they will cultivate their religious “culture and authority” through their own writings because education advances one’s ability to write. In sum, holistic education will ensure that the history of sisters is a dynamic source of hope for lay women who—I have seen—are oppressed in society today. The lay women look to educated sisters as models, who are no longer confined to “wageless work of paradise,” but rather, prudently engage their counterparts in healthy discourses. The educated sisters will avoid petty competition that is based on uninformed matters.
The Power of Prayer and Contemplation
The second insight that will ensure institutional dynamism for African sisters and what St. Teresa and the Abbesses suggest for African sisters is the power of prayer. St. Teresa spent most of her time in prayer. She observes how a feeling of God’s presence engulfed her until she could not doubt that God was within her, which she claims was “mystical theology.” On their part, prayer motivated the Abbesses even as they wrote their texts. Mère Angélique, for instance, “made a retreat in order to write.” But even during that time of retreat, “she gave more time to prayer than to writing.” She observed a balance between prayer and writing. Her texts focus on the direction of God of her reform and provides a model that others can follow. Angélique’s goal in writing was not so much to “record history by naming all relevant facts,” but to record “God’s view of history.”
Therefore, prayer is a tool to disempower abusers and usher in freedom to African sisters. From my own experience as a student who rarely gets or creates time to pray, there is too much involvement in the outside world. Sisters forget the essentials of consecrated life—prayer and penance. They need to be re-rooted in prayer because praying is part and parcel of what it means to be a sister. The canon law confirms this by upholding contemplation of divine things as the first duty of religious. Lack of prayer is the source of both vertical and horizontal spiritual emptiness. When we are spiritually empty, we break the essential communication with God and begin to revere ourselves because we lose focus of the one we should worship. St. Augustine refers to this self-reference as a reversal of the hierarchy of being, where humanity places itself at the top and replaces God. In this state of emptiness, we get lost in the non-essentials of life such as travelling, absence of community life, and noise. Doing this guarantees a continued legacy of failing to convert the minds of obstinate authorities because we lack spiritual powers. Holding on to prayer is crucial in consecrated life, and, unless religious engage in more prayer, they shall continue failing to understand the core call to serve God and not God’s creatures. They will keep serving both subjugating male and female authorities, and, sorrowfully, “a chasing after the wind.”
But how should African sisters pray? I propose having a prayer that names all that oppresses sisters, but also includes and blesses the oppressors. For instance, a prayer like:
Dear God, help Bishop Y to understand that we are here because you called us and not because we called ourselves. If closing this school is your will, show us a sign by softening our hearts to let it go. If it is not your will, do direct our beloved Bishop not to oppress us for what you have given us. Amen.
Such a prayer that names what oppresses the sisters could be a helpful way out of subjugation because when you name what oppresses you, you are self-released from the pain of abuse and hand over that pain to Christ. Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, which is an association of ideas with memory, posits that what people reveal on the outside was already in their unconscious. Here, the sisters apply this theory to themselves and bring out what oppresses and has been pushed to the unconscious for healing to take place. In other words, they discover that their vulnerability can only be replaced by the love of God.
Other practices include increasing the number of days for retreats, inclusion of daily adoration in their prayer program, unceasingly seeking personal prayer, and prudently desiring reconciliation with their opponents as individuals and as communities. St. Teresa loved personal prayer because she met Christ through it. One thing that changed her life was seeing the image of the suffering Christ, which prompted her to love silent prayer. The Abbesses constructed their prayers. When Soeur Angélique de Saint Jean was put under house arrest for failing to append her signature on the formulary, she constructed “her own daily office of prayer” in order to “maintain her integrity.” She also commented on biblical “passages and graces in meditation.” This “bolstered her resistance as her imprisonment lengthened.” Prayer was, thus, at the center of the convent of Port-Royal. For personal prayer, for instance, African sisters should create extra time outside the customary community time to pray. They can do this by going to the chapel thirty minutes earlier than the scheduled time. They can also create a different time to pray, perhaps in nature as they walk in the compound or silently offer their prayers in the chapel or Church, not forgetting the lectio divina.
The first call of sisters is to pray consistently because prayer is efficacious in many ways. First, prayer is God’s word in humanity that is spoken to us. It is communing with God, asking His advice, and profoundly befriending Him—the one who responds to our needs. This gift of divine providence propels us to courageously face challenges, believing that God’s response is remedial to those challenges. Prayer also helps to relate our experiences with those of Christ as St. Teresa and the Abbesses did. Mère Angélique developed the ethics of resistance to abuses of power when their convents were attacked. This ethics discerns the role of persecution in the mystery of divine providence. She held that God abandons the elect to the violent opposition to the world. She argued that when evil surrounds the convent, it is a sign that God’s elect share in the suffering of Christ. Angélique further held that suffering for the truth was in line with the philosophy of the convent. Nothing pays off better than realizing how human history is engraved in the story of Jesus. Yet it is even better when we discover that we have no right, no strength, no room to fight for ourselves, but rather, must let Jesus fight for us because of His graciousness. When sisters understand that their suffering is a single story within the huge story of Christ’s suffering, they accept suffering in faith—as the Abbesses advised—rather than to retaliate without credibly-informed pedagogies.
Moreover, the call to prayer is a call to “conversation between the creature and God.” It is a mission to understand how our humanity is vulnerable and in need of God alone. Prayer is a radical way to keep the history of women religious dynamic and free from oppression through abuse of power. Through prayer, people obtain scholarships for study, they get employed, and they come to know better how to handle challenges and become models of the love of God in society. Moreover, sisters will attract authorities to themselves, who will defend them instead of persecuting, as Teresa’s mysticism attracted the entire Church. Eire says of Teresa that she “reified Catholicism, embodied it, and made evident its many truth.”
Let us conclude by reiterating that St. Teresa of Avila and the Arnauld Abbesses of Port-Royal rejected the abusive power of male authorities. Instead of blind submission, they developed their convent philosophies orally and in writing—specifically, in manuscripts, displaying their competency in matters that authoritative powers failed to comprehend, thus, failing to subjugate the sisters and end their theology and philosophy. They invite African sisters to embrace holistic education through which they can debate at the same table with both male and female figures as well as with the educated majority of people that they minister to and with. In this way, sisters will defend themselves competently as well as command the respect, dignity, and autonomy that their constitutions demand. Our models also summon African sisters to become rooted in prayer—praying for their friends as well as their enemies to let God fight for them. Holistic education and prayer are the sure ways for African sisters to become institutionally dynamic and combat the history of sisters’ oppression in Africa.
Conley, John. Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosophy of Port Royal. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.
__________. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Perier, and Marguerite Perier. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.
Little Sisters of St. Francis, Third Order Regular. Constitution of the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Meru: Kolbe Press, 1994.
Cummings, Sprows Kathleen. New Women of Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era. USA: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Cutter, Elissa. “Apology in the Form of Autohagiography: Angelique Arnauld’s defense of Her Reform of Port-Royal” The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 105. 2(2019).
Dube, Musa. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000.
Eire, Carlos. The Life of Teresa of Avila: A Biography. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Fournet, Pierre Auguste. “Arnauld.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1907. 19 May 2018.
Karl, Rahner. Karl Rahner Spiritual Writings, Endean Philip (Ed.). New York: Orbis Books, 2004.
Kwesi, Dickson. Theology in Africa. Maryknoll: London, Orbis Books, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984.
Makumba, Muhatia Maurice. AnIntroduction to African Philosophy: Past and Present. Nairobi: Pauline Publications, 2007.
Oberman, Augustinus Heiko. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Thought. Edinburgh: T&T. Cark LTD, 1986.
Pals, Daniel. Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford university Press, 2006.
Pope John, Paul II. 1983 Code of Canon Law. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, September.
Pope Paul VI. Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, promulgated on October 28, 1965.
Pope Paul VI. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (15 August, 1967).
Ruether, Radford Rosemary. Sexism and Godtalk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983.
Sedgwick, Alexander. The Travails of Conscience: The Arnauld Family and the Ancien Régime. Harvard University Press, 1998.
St. Augustine. Concerning theCity of God Against Pagans. Henry Bettenson (Trans). England: Penguin Books, 1972.
Swart, Angelene. “Dignity and Worth in the Common Wealth of God” in Groaning in Faith, African Women in the Household of God. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1996.
 Carlos, Eire. The Life of Teresa of Avila: A Biography. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.
 This theology stressed simultaneous affirmation of the radical Augustinian philosophy/theory of grace, which offers less to do with free will, and a social philosophy of limited civil power, which defended the right of dissent as a guarantor of human freedom . Cf. John, Conley. Adoration and Annihilation: The Convent Philosophy of Port Royal. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Here, I am not claiming that Jansenist theology was good or bad. I am specifically dealing with how successful were the strategies they employed to defend that theology.
 Better Cooperation of religious orders regarding education could also be helpful here. An example is Chemchemi institute in Kenya. It is owned by religious orders in Eastern Africa to educate sister catechists and formators. Tangaza college is also a university owned by religious communities and it offers higher education. The only problem is that sisters are only focused on education and nursing and avoid other disciplines.
The rather romantic image of St. Philip Neri as always laughing, joking, and cheerful is a far cry from reality, as anyone who has immersed himself in the saint’s biographies and hagiographies will know. St. Philip, well-versed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, displayed a profound and salutary disillusionment with the charms of the world. Well did he know the verse that reads, “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
St. Philip expressed this mépris du monde in a little-known song based on famous verses in Ecclesiastes. It is one of the few writings allegedly from his hand to have been preserved. While the attribution remains uncertain, the opinions expressed below conform to the Maxims of the Saint, especially his frequent attempts to provoke thoughts of death. He was known to approach worldly young men and ask what they desired. At each answer, he would like Socrates say, “And then? And then?” leading eventually on to death. At which point, many souls realized the vanity of their desires and subsequently converted. St. Philip also used to say, “The things of this world do not remain constantly with us, for if we do not leave them before we actually die, in death at least we all infallibly depart as empty-handed as we came.” And he exhorts all Christian souls, “We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time.”
The song can be found in an appendix to Fr. Faber’s English translation of The School of Saint Philip Neri by Giuseppe Crispino, whence I have transcribed it. The original Italian text may be seen there as well. I offer it here to my readers who many not have access to this rather obscure book for their edification and private devotions to the Saint.
In this year of pestilence, I am reminded that St. Philip Neri began his good works in Rome by, among things, tending to the sick. The hospitals of sixteenth-century Italy were houses of profound mortification and little hope, not much more than palaces of death. They were chronically understaffed and overwhelmed with the indigent and the ill, who rarely recovered. The conditions were extremely unsanitary: the beds were filthy, the air putrid, the din of agony unremitting. Into these seething crowds of the desperate came St. Philip. He assisted the sick as best he could. His first biographer reports that, once he began to gather a following of disciples,
It was Philip’s custom on weekdays to divide his children in Christ into three or four groups and send them to the city hospitals. To begin with, he would himself go after dinner [lunch – RTY] to visit the sick in hospitals, to enkindle by his example in his followers a great desire to do this work; he would speak to the patients, tend them and do all sorts of things for them, which encouraged in his disciples an ardent desire to do the same. One example will serve to show you how devoted they were to the sick. Giovan Battista Salviati, being very dedicated, was in the hospital called the Consolazione, and headed straight for a patient intending to make his bed, asking him politely to get up so that he could do so. The patient thought he was being mocked. “No, my Lord,” he said, “don’t make fun of me, I’m a poor man.” He knew all about Giovan Battista’s licentious way of life, but was unaware of his marvellous change of character, by which he had wholeheartedly turned away from material concerns to the love of heaven. But what next? Giovan Battista urged him most earnestly, and the sick man was struck not only by his air of authority but even more so by his humility, and got out of bed, lost in admiration. Giovan Battista retained that style of life with an unwavering intent until the day of his death, and having once put his hand to the plough, he never looked behind him.
Antonio Gallonio, The Life of St. Philip Neri Trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram Cong.Orat.
St. Philip inspired others to help the sick in whatever way the could manage. These works of mercy were the fruit of the genuine conversion he wrought in their hearts by that peculiar influence he possessed. The palpable indwelling of the Holy Ghost in his heart turned him into a living fountain of graces whose streams brought miracles to many souls. Some of these miracles healed the sick and even raised the dead. Yet we must never forget that it was not these extraordinary moments but, rather, the graces of repentance, of conversion, and of final perseverance that were truly the greatest fruits of St. Philip’s particular sanctity. St. Philip’s true fame rests in those whom he carried with him to Heaven, not in the strange and marvelous works that he effected while on earth. The story of Giovan Battista Salviati is one example among many of those who tasted of such sweet fruits. He actualized the grace of his conversion through works of charity towards the sick.
Subsequent writers have retained this act as a sine qua non of the Oratorian life, and then only because St. Philip so clearly demonstrates how essential it is to the Christian life per se.
And it seems to me that on this, St. Philip’s feast day, we would be well-advised to do the same. We find ourselves in the midst of a new and terrifying pandemic. Death is everywhere. In the United States alone we have lost 100,000 souls with almost no public mourning. Many of these people have died alone, afraid, in pain, and deprived of the comfort of God’s Church. The nature of the disease means that most of us cannot actively assist in the hospitals for fear of transmission. All we can do is show kindness to our neighbors, help each other obtain the necessary supplies to stop the spread of the disease, and give blood if we have survived the sickness ourselves. That’s as far as practical action goes for most of us. So much for the corporal works of mercy.
But a Christian is never without a way to directly help his brethren. The first and last resort of the faithful must be prayer. Here, too, we can take St. Philip as our model. Lest we place too much emphasis on St. Philip’s merely material acts in visiting the sick, let us turn to the testimony of Giuseppe Crispino,
When we enter a sick-chamber, let us imitate the holy Father Philip, who was accustomed, immediately upon his arrival, to pray for the patients in their own room and to make the bystanders do the same, especially in the case of the dying. The Saint was also accustomed to retire into another room, and there to pray for the sufferer.
Giuseppe Crispino, The School of Saint Philip Neri, pg. 174 Trans. Frederick William Faber
As I have written elsewhere, we must offer intercession for our suffering fellows now more than ever. And we must do so in union with the whole communion of saints. Indeed, one small blessing of this crisis is that it can, if we let it, draw us closer to the “great cloud of witnesses” ever ready to help us. One of St. Philip’s spiritual sons, Fr. Agostino Manni, made special prayers to the Blessed Virgin whenever he went to the hospitals; the Blessed Juvenal Ancina likewise sought the prayers of the living when he ministered to the sick (Crispino 174-76). And that most perfectly Philippine of English Oratorians, Fr. Faber, conceives of intercession for the dying as an intrinsically Marian act. He tells us that
We learn [a lesson] from Mary about the deaths of others. It is, that devotion for those in their last agony is a Mary-like devotion, and most acceptable to her Immaculate Heart. There is not a moment of day or night in which that dread pomp of dying is not going on. There are persons like ourselves, or better than ourselves, and whose friends have with reason loved them more than ever ours have loved us, who are now straitened in their agony, and whose eternal sight of God is trembling anxiously in the balance. Can any appeal to our charity be more piteously eloquent than this?…Are not the dying our brothers and our sisters in the sweet motherhood of Mary? The family is concerned. We must not coldly absent ourselves. We must assist in spirit at every death that is died in the whole world over, deaths of heretics and heathens as well as Christians. For they, too, are our brothers and sisters; they have souls; they have eternities at stake; Mary has an interest in them…How much more must they need prayers, who have no sacraments!…How much more earnest must be the prayers, when not ordinary grace, but a miracle of grace, must be impetrated for them!
Fr. Frederick William Faber, The Foot of the Cross
I cannot help but hear a ringing call to intercession for our own times in these words of Fr. Faber. A greater and more fearsome calamity of general death demands a greater and more dedicated oblation of prayer. Especially when even our brethren in the Faith are so often deprived of the Sacraments that should be their final stay and consolation. Yet the power of God to furnish extraordinary grace is far mightier than any earthly sickness. Healing, protection, mercy, conversion, and consolation: let us boldly ask for these gifts on behalf of the ill, the dying, the dead, their caregivers, and their families…while we still can. The hour is late. Tomorrow we may be struck ill with the dread and deadly pestilence. And then, our every thought diverted, our breath failing, our bodies plunged into the depths of a fatigue from which we shall never rise again, we will be grateful for those pious souls who lift us up to the face of the Father in prayer.
So let us pray while we still can. If we do this in a spirit of charity, we will become true Sons and Daughters of St. Philip and more perfectly emulate the Divine Physician who desires to heal us in soul as well as in body.
May St. Philip Neri pray for us all in this troubled time.
Recently I got in a small argument on Twitter about the exact nature of Jansenist rigorism. It was pointed out by a friend, citing the estimable work of John J. Conley SJ, that Mère Angélique strictly forbade instruction in singing and dancing at the Port-Royal schools. Her comments on this point, taken from a letter to Madame de Bellisi, are as follows:
Singing, however innocent people like to find it, is very corrupt in its charming words, which are full of poison beneath their decent appearance. The same problem exists in simple airs where a false joy and foolishness are found. As for dancing, beyond its evil there is madness. Finally, my dear sister, according to the laws of the gospel, the morals of Christians must be as pure as they were at the beginning of the church.
Mère Angélique Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal Quoted in John Conley, Adoration and Annihilation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) pg. 87
Conley goes on to point out that this attitude represents the rigorist discipline of the Jansenists, especially in contrast to the Jesuit schools where theatre, song, and dance were important elements of the curriculum.
He’s not wrong. Certainly, the Abbess’s words on singing are a bit severe, to put it mildly. Yet while Conley does a good job setting this opinion in the context of the seventeenth-century French church, he fails to consider the broader and deeper context of Catholic moral teaching. This point matters insofar as it helps us assess the extent to which we can actually classify Jansenists – and the Port-Royal community in particular – as “rigorists.” What was the traditional teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, Saints, and Councils on dancing? Can we discern a general stream of teaching here? If so, what does it say, and how does it compare with the teaching of Mère Angélique?
To make a tentative answer to this question, I have compiled a brief florilegium of quotes on dancing. Where I have specific textual citations, I have included them. I will also preface this florilegium by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with these authorities in all cases. I am not a Puritan at heart – though I did once play Reverend Shaw More in a High School production of Footloose. Quite apart from that, there is a problematic gender dynamic here; the authorities quoted below are much more attentive to women dancing than men (though once again, this is perhaps one reason that Mère Angélique, a learned nun responsible for the moral instruction of an early modern Catholic girls’ school, took the position she did). The point here is to ascertain whether or not the position of Mère Angélique was a reasonable interpretration of longstanding Catholic teachings, or whether it was a truly “rigorist” aberration and an innovation with heretical tendencies.
With those caveats, let us begin.
The Fathers of the Church
“For there are excessive banquetings, and subtle flutes which provoke to lustful movements, and useless and luxurious anointings, and crowning with garlands. With such a mass of evils do you banish shame; and ye fill your minds with them, and are carried away by intemperance, and indulge as a common practice in wicked and insane fornication.” – St. Justin Martyr, Discourse to the Greeks, Ch. IV
“Since, then, all passionate excitement is forbidden us, we are debarred from every kind of spectacle.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVI
“Are we not, in like manner, enjoined to put away from us all immodesty? On this ground, again, we are excluded from the theatre, which is immodesty’s own peculiar abode, where nothing is in repute but what elsewhere is disreputable.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVII. While this florilegium will not go deeply into the (extensive) Patristic condemnation of the theater, I will note that the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal also adhered to this neglected teaching. Their position caused some tensions with one of their most famous students, the celebrated playwright Jean Racine.
“Now the pomp of the devil is the madness of theaters and horse-races, and hunting, and all such vanity: from which that holy man praying to be delivered says unto God, Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity. Be not interested in the madness of the theatre, where thou wilt behold the wanton gestures of the players, carried on with mockeries and all unseemliness, and the frantic dancing of effeminate men.” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 19.6
“Whence comes the dance? Who has taught it to Christians? Truly, neither Peter, nor Paul, nor John, nor any man filled with the Spirit of God; but the hellish dragon!” – St. Ephrem the Syrian
“With unkempt hair, clothed in bodices and hopping about, they dance with lustful eyes and loud laughter; as if seized by a kind of frenzy they excite the lust of the youths…With harlots’ songs they pollute the air and sully the degraded earth with their feet in shameful postures.” – St. Basil of Caesarea
“There ought then to be the joy of the mind, conscious of right, not excited by unrestrained feasts, or nuptial concerts, for in such modesty is not safe, and temptation may be suspected where excessive dancing accompanies festivities. I desire that the virgins of God should be far from this. For as a certain teacher of this world has said: “No one dances when sober unless he is mad.” Now if, according to the wisdom of this world, either drunkenness or madness is the cause of dancing, what a warning is given to us amongst the instances mentioned in the Divine Scriptures, where John, the forerunner of Christ, being beheaded at the wish of a dancer, is an instance that the allurements of dancing did more harm than the madness of sacrilegious anger.” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 5.25
“What say you, holy women? Do you see what you ought to teach, and what also to unteach your daughters? She dances, but she is the daughter of an adulteress. But she who is modest, she who is chaste, let her teach her daughter religion, not dancing. And do you, grave and prudent men, learn to avoid the banquets of hateful men. If such are the banquets, what will be the judgment of the impious?” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 6.31.
“Our rest is from evil works, theirs from good; for it is better to plough than to dance.” – St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 92, Paragraph 2.
“Avoid also indecent spectacles: I mean the theatres and the pomps of the heathens; their enchantments, observations of omens, soothsayings, purgations, divinations, observations of birds; their necromancies and invocations….. You are also to avoid their public meetings, and those sports which are celebrated in them….. Abstain, therefore, from all idolatrous pomp and state, all their public meetings, banquets, duels, and all shows belonging to demons.” – Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, Paragraph 62.
“For where dancing is, there is the evil one. For neither did God give us feet for this end, but that we may walk orderly: not that we may behave ourselves unseemly, not that we may jump like camels.” – St. John Chyrsostom, Homily 48 on St. Matthew’s Gospel, Ch. IV.
“Christians, when they attend weddings, must not join in wanton dances, but modestly dine or breakfast, as is becoming to Christians.” – Council of Laodicea, Canon LIII
“Since therefore the more these things contribute to usefulness and honor in the Church of God, so the more zealously must they be observed, the holy council ordains that those things which have in the past been frequently and wholesomely enacted by the supreme pontiffs and holy councils concerning adherence to the life, conduct, dress, and learning of clerics, as also the avoidance of luxury, feastings, dances, gambling, sports, and all sorts of crime and secular pursuits, shall in the future be observed under the same or greater penalties to be imposed at the discretion of the ordinary.” – Council of Trent, Session XXII, Decree Concerning Reform, Ch. I
While I have not been able to find the specific quotes from medieval councils, I appeal to historian Ralph G. Giordano, who has helpfully summarized high medieval ecclesiastical discipline on this matter. He writes, “Actually, during the thirteenth century, all social dancing as part of religious ritual was eliminated from the Catholic Church. In 1215, the Lateran Council declared ‘lascivious’ dancing a sin requiring confession to a parish priest. In 1227, the Council of Trier specifically excluded ‘three-step and ring dances.’ Similar edicts were issued by the Synod of Cahors (1206), the bishop of Paris (1209), a Hungarian church council (1279), and the Council of Wurzburg (1298). All the edicts upheld the common decision to prohibit dancing in any churchyards, the churches, or as part of religious processions” (See Giordano, pp. 49-50).
Early Modern Saints
“Dancing, so dangerous to Christian morals, should be banished entirely by the faithful, as it originates many sins against purity, and causes extravagances, evil deeds, and assassinations.” – St. Charles Borromeo
Another saint who will appear later in this list also notes that St. Charles Borromeo once gave someone (probably a cleric) a penance for dancing that lasted three years, and said he would excommunicate the sinner if he ever danced again.
“Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements [balls and dances] are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.” – St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Ch. XXXIII. I have discussed St. Francis’s notable aversion towards dancing before.
I could certainly end my florilegium here and prove the point. However, for good measure, let’s continue to see if Port-Royal represents a particularly rigorous vision of dancing even in light of subsequent Catholic development.
St. Louis de Montfort, who clashed with the Jansenists in his own day, managed to agree with the Abbess of Port-Royal on this point. He writes, “Soldiers join together in an army to overcome their enemies; wicked people often get together for parties of debauchery and dancing, and evil spirits join forces in order to make us lose our souls.” – St. Louis de Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary, Forty-Sixth Rose.
In the very same chapter, the Saint continues, “Before the Holy Rosary took root in these small towns and villages, dances and parties of debauchery went on all the time; dissoluteness, wantonness, blasphemy, quarrels, and feuds flourished.” He takes it as self-evident that dancing is an occasion of sin.
But lest we fall into the trap of attributing this attitude merely to Gallic severity, let us turn our eyes south to Naples. When we consider that famously anti-Jansenist (even allegedly laxist!) moral theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori, what do we find?
“Parents should prohibit their children from all games, which bring destruction on their families and on their own souls, and also dances, suggestive entertainment, and certain dangerous conversations and parties of pleasures. A father should remove from his house books of romances, which pervert young persons, and all bad books which contain pernicious maxims, tales of obscenity, or of profane love.” – St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Letter to Parents”
St. Anthony Mary Claret, by no means a Jansenist, claimed that “The Devil invented balls for girls to be lost, and extended them throughout the world like an immense net in order to catch the young people and submit them to his tyrannical domination.”
And returning to France, we come to the Curé d’Ars. What has this patron of parish priests, this great and ever-to-be-esteemed shepherd of souls, this jewel of the ultramontane church to say on our chosen subject?
St. Jean-Marie Vianney was absolutely resolute in his opposition to dancing of any kind. He even set up a statue of St. John the Baptist under an arch in his church, whereat he painted the words, “My head was the price of a dance.” He preached against it vehemently on more than one occasion. I shall here select only one of many, many warnings he gave against dancing (which he seems to have taken as almost intrinsically sinful, given the number of sins to which it gave occasion) in his sermons.
“St. Augustine tells us that those who go to dances truly renounce Jesus Christ in order to give themselves to the Devil. What a horrible thing that is! To drive out Jesus Christ after having received Him in your hearts! “Today,” says St. Ephraim, “they unite themselves to Jesus Christ and tomorrow to the Devil.” Alas! What a Judas is that person who, after receiving our Lord, goes then to sell Him to Satan in these gatherings, where he will be reuniting himself with everything that is most vicious! And when it comes to the Sacrament of Penance, what a contradiction in such a life! A Christian, who after one single sin should spend the rest of his life in repentance, thinks only of giving himself up to all these worldly pleasures! A great many profane the Sacrament of Extreme Unction by making indecent movements with the feet, the hands and the whole body, which one day must be sanctified by the holy oils. Is not the Sacrament of Holy Order insulted by the contempt with which the instructions of the pastor are considered? But when we come to the Sacrament of Matrimony, alas! What infidelities are not contemplated in these assemblies? It seems then that everything is admissible. How blind must anyone be who thinks there is no harm in it…The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle forbids dancing, even at weddings. And St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, says that three years of penance were given to someone who had danced and that if he went back to it, he was threatened with excommunication. If there were no harm in it, then were the Holy Fathers and the Church mistaken? But who tells you that there is no harm in it? It can only be a libertine, or a flighty and worldly girl, who are trying to smother their remorse of conscience as best they can. Well, there are priests, you say, who do not speak about it in confession or who, without permitting it, do not refuse absolution for it. Ah! I do not know whether there are priests who are so blind, but I am sure that those who go looking for easygoing priests are going looking for a passport which will lead them to Hell. For my own part, if I went dancing, I should not want to receive absolution not having a real determination not to go back to dancing…Alas! How many young people are there who since they have been going to dances do not frequent the Sacraments, or do so only to profane them! How many poor souls there are who have lost therein their religion and their faith! How many will never open their eyes to their unhappy state except when they are falling into Hell!” – St. Jean-Marie Vianney, a sermon against dancing.
Lest I be accused of failing to adequately account for the context of these disparate condemnations, I would note that the Catholic solution is almost always to say “both-and,” not “either-or.” We have seen the saints attack a wide variety of dances, including but not limited to a) pagan rituals, b) secular spectacles, c) dances in Church precincts, d) dancing in general, e) dancing at weddings, and f) dancing between young men and women. These are not mutually exclusive.
Once again, I don’t pretend to agree with all of these warnings. I have often enjoyed myself at dances. Morris Dancing was one of the most charming English customs I discovered when I moved to Oxford. I have very fond memories of going to the ballet, both as a child and as an adult. And I have written very highly of the artistic use of dance in, for example, The New Pope.
But the point at stake is not my opinion, but rather how we evaluate the Jansenists. Are Mère Angélique’s words in any way divergent from the spirit of these diverse condemnations? I should think that the only reasonable answer is no. The reforming Abbess of Port-Royal, ever the daughter of austere St. Bernard, may have seemed a rigorist in a century when this teaching was largely unfashionable. Keep in mind, too, that the abbey she reformed – Port-Royal des Champs – had for several decades before been known for its laxity, including an annual carnival ball. That past state of affairs shaped Angélique’s pastoral concern here, and if she over-reacted a bit (especially in her comments on singing), it was with the memory of her personal experience of those abuses.
But even keeping all that in mind, I can find nothing in her words about dancing that sets her apart from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. If we condemn her, how much more must we condemn the Curé d’Ars, so much closer to our own more tolerant age!
Conley’s book is very good. I don’t mean to dispute his broader argument. I am not even making a point principally addressed to academic historians of Jansenism, who will not be surprised by what they have read here. What I mean to suggest, however, is that in general we (Catholics at large) are too hasty to judge the Jansenists by anachronistic standards that do not actually conform to our own moral tradition, a tradition with elements that are genuinely more rigorous than the practice of Catholicism we know today. And a reconsideration of those elements – whether we end up adopting them or, in prudence, choose not to – is a helpful exercise in becoming more self-reflective and more historically-grounded as Catholics.
I would like to draw my readers’ attention to a new book that will, I am sure, prove to be one of the more important and provocative publications this year. Dr. James Mumford’s Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes has just been released today in this country after having been out in the UK for a few months. So far it’s been getting compelling reviews. To quote one reviewer,
Vexed is that kind of book: less interested in hard-and-fast answers than undermining supposedly concrete certainties. That may suggest that Mumford indulges in ethics as a kind of academic sport, but at the heart of what he writes is something much more serious than that. The key argument of his book is that failures of what Mumford calls “moral imagination” do not just sully our political discourse.
You can hear Dr. Mumford discuss the book himself here.
For me, this publication means something more. I worked as Dr. Mumford’s research assistant in the early stages of the project, as did my old friend Tatiana Lozano (who has written her own blurb about the book on her website). It was, in fact, my first research job. Coming at the end of my undergraduate career, I look back on that experience as a formative stepping-stone in my own scholarly journey.
I don’t know if I’ll agree with everything in the book, as I haven’t yet read it. But it’s wonderful to see a project to which I contributed – however small that contribution may have been – come to completion. I wish Dr. Mumford all the best, and commend the book to my readers.
What follows is an original translation of L’Horloge de la Passion, a brief meditative text written by the Solitaire of Port-Royal, Jean Hamon (1618-1687), a doctor of medicine, mystic, and exegete. Hamon wrote L’Horloge for the sisters of Port-Royal to use during perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, perhaps during the Triduum. Perpetual adoration was a central feature of life at Port-Royal from 1647, when Mère Angélique returned from the unsuccessful venture of the Institut du Saint-Sacrement.
Each hour represents a different mystery of the Passion and is calibrated to follow the Passion narrative in real time. Hamon concludes with several prayers, probably composed first in Latin and then put into the vernacular. I have take the liberty of reproducing the Latin below while translating from the accompanying French.
This document, though originating from the heyday of Port-Royal, was only published in 1739 in the post-Unigenitus ferment of Jansenist print culture. It remains a very edifying text and a testament of the vitality of the spiritual life that characterized those wayward ascetics clustered around Port-Royal. I offer it here both out of historical interest for those who, like me, look at Port-Royal for academic reasons, and because I felt that such a text may be of some use and consolation to the faithful in this very unusual Holy Week, when death hedges us all around.
L’Horloge de la Passion
At six o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ washes the feet of His Apostles. Humility. Help to our neighbor.
At seven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ institutes the Most Blessed Sacrament. Recognition and perpetual memory of this benefit.
At eight o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father for the salvation and union of His Elect. To renounce everything that can stops us from being one with Jesus Christ and our brethren.
At nine o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is sad even unto death. Confidence in the weakness of Jesus Christ, who is our strength in our dejection and our miseries.
At ten o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father to take away the chalice of His sufferings. Submission to the will of God.
At eleven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ enters into agony. To resist sin with courage.
At midnight: Jesus Christ, after having turned back the Jews by a single word, allows himself to be caught. To see God in all that man cause us to suffer.
At one o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ allows himself to be carried off by the Jews. Sweetness and humility in ill-treatment.
At two o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented to the High Priest. To revere God in secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
At three o’clock in the morning: Renunciation and penance of St. Peter. Fidelity in confessing the name of Jesus Christ. Humble return to Him after our falls.
At four o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented before the Council of the Jews. To listen to the word of God as being truly His word. To adorer the Truth, never to raise ourselves against it.
At five o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ mocked and outraged by the servants of the Priests. To suffer humbly both scorn and injuries.
At six o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is brought before Pilate. Adoration and imitation of the silence of Jesus Christ, when we are accused.
At seven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is sent to Herod. To pass as foolish before men even though we be truly wise.
At eight o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is scourged. To take part in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and His members.
At nine o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is crowned with thorns. To adore Jesus Christ as our King. To suffer with him, is to reign.
At ten o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is condemned to death. To die to one’s self is to live in Jesus.
At eleven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ carries His Cross. Let us carry ours after him; he carries it with us.
At noon: Jesus Christ is crucified. To attach ourselves to Jesus Chris, and to desire to be attached by Him to the Cross.
At one o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ is lifted up upon the Cross. To raise our eyes and heart towards the mysterious and divine Serpent.
At two o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ speaks to His Father, to the Blessed Virgin Mary His Mother, and to St. Jean. Attention to these divine words that comprehend our duties.
At three o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ gives up the ghost. To adore His death; to unite ours to him.
At four o’clock in the afternoon: The open side of Jesus Christ sheds blood and water. Rest in the Side and in the Wounds of Jesus Christ. To honor the Sacraments established in the Church.
At five o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is buried, and placed in the tomb. To be buried with Him. To hope for the Resurrection.
Prayers – That one can say in adoring the Death of Jesus Christ
Ut beatam horam Mortis tuae adoramus, Domine, da nobis ut horam mortis nostrae, quam solus nosti, perfecto corde & vivendo & moriendo adoremus.
Vouchsafe unto us grace, O Lord, that in adoring the hour of Thy Death, we might adore, in living and dying with a heart perfectly submitted to Thine commands, the hour of our death, that is known to none but thee.
Domine Jesu, qui mori voluisti ne moreremur, sed de morte ad vitam transiremus, recordare Mortis tuae in tempore mortis meae, cum nec tui nec mei recordari potuero.
Lord Jesus, who hast desired to die to deliver us from death, and to cause us to pass from death to life, remember Thou Thy Death at the hour of mine, when I will be no longer in a state to think of either myself or Thee.
Mortem meam quae poena peccati est, tutetur & protegat Mors tua, quae tollit peccata mundi, ut jam pie cogitando quia mortuus es, tunc moriendo non moriar.
May Thy Death that nullifies the sins of the world be my protection in death, which shall be the penalty of sin; and in thinking with piety that Thou art dead, in dying even may I not die.
Versetur semper ante oculos meos tempus Mortis tuae, quae mihi sit fons vitae, cum vita mea defecerit, ut in Morte tua vitam invenire possim qui in vita mea mortem singulis diebus invenio.
May Thy Death always be present to me, so that it may be unto me a source of immortal life when I will lose this corruptible life; and instead of often finding death in my life, may I find life in Thy Death.
Fac, Domine, semper conjungam cogitationem Mortis tuae cogitationi mortis meae, ut quod in morte mea amarum esse potest, benedictione Mortis tuae dulcescat; sicque vitae permanentis amore, mortis transeuntis levem ictum non reformidem.
Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of ever uniting myself to the thought of Thy Death in the remembrance of mine, so that what there might be of bitterness in my death might be sweetened by the blessing of Thine; and thus that the love of an eternal life might cause me not to dread anything of the blow, so light, of a voyaging death.
Bene vivam, Domine, ut bene moriar. Ut bene vivam, vivam de te. Ut bene moriar, moriar in te,. Vitam meam informet Vita tua, ut sancta sit; & mortem meam defendat Mors tua, salus nostra, ut sit salutaris,
Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of living well, that I may die well. May I live in Thee, that I might live well: and to die well, may I die in Thee. May Thy life be the rule of my life, so that it may be holy; and may Thy Death, which is the cause of our salvation, safeguard my death so that it may procure unto me salvation.
This week’s contribution to the Lenten Spirituality Series comes from Jean de Bernières-Louvigny (1602-1659), a pious lay mystic who lived and died in Caen. From his hermitage in this rainy Norman town, Jean de Bernières gave himself over to profound experiences of contemplative prayer. His spirituality, as expressed in the two volumes of his Le chrestien intérieur (Paris: 1661), was deeply indebted to the apophatic tradition of mystical theology. Although a solitaire, Jean de Bernières was engaged in ecclesiastical and charitable networks that included some of the greatest spiritual figures of his day. He was a member of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement in Caen and corresponded with such notable individuals as St. François de Montmorency-Laval, Bishop of Québec, and Mother Mectilde de Bar, Foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. He met the latter at Caen; she became, as it were, a dear friend. Translated into German in the eighteenth century, Jean de Bernières had an important influence on the trajectory of Pietism in that country. He has, as far as I can tell, never been fully translated into English. What I produce below is my own translation, in the hope it may offer some aid to pious souls in this time of temptation. The excerpt comes from the Second Volume, Book V, Chapter II of Le chrestien intérieur, pp. 6-11. I would add, for those who take an interest in such matters, that one of the extra difficulties in translating Jean de Bernières is that he uses Norman French vocabulary that no longer appears in standard French. I hope I have managed to capture his sense here.
To commune worthily, one must place oneself in a state conformed to that of Jesus, in the Blessed Sacrament.
Jesus Christ wishes to give Himself to us in this august mystery, in a state of death with respect to the life of the senses, but as a source of life with respect to the interior life, the divine life, the life of grace, the life of contemplation and continuous application to the grandeurs of God His Father; a life poor and annihilated [aneantie] in exteriors, but entirely brilliant with majesty, and infinitely rich under the veil of the species that hide it from the eyes of the world. It is with these dispositions that that He comes to present Himself to us, wishing as well that we too should present ourselves to Him with dispositions conformed to His.
The Humanity that He gives to you in Communion has been elevated to the divine life by the hypostatic union; we too must be such by grace, that our understanding would be elevated to a high knowledge, and our will to a sublime sentiment of love of God, and that our soul would live the life of grace. O sublimity of the life of grace, you are so admirable, you are so high, you are so ineffable! You raise man from earth to heaven, and you make him live in God, and even of God, because you dispose him to live on the earth from the same substance by which the Blessed live in heaven. O great life of grace, you are poor to the exterior, but very rich in the interior: you seem low, but you are most high: you have ravished me with you beauty, I can no longer live a moment without thee, who make [me] live from a divine life, who places the soul in the heart of God, and who disposes her to see God placed in her heart.
Since the beauty of this life manifests itself to the soul, she leaves everything to embrace it, and everything else seems to her naught but death and corruption; we abandon the world, honors, and riches; we condemn ourselves to penances, to mortifications, to poverty, so as to live this divine life; and we feel a holy hunger for this adorable food that nurtures the soul. O that I might know it, my God, and that I might follow it, this divine life, so little known to the world, practiced by so few in the world, that also does not find itself altered by the waters of Thy eternal fountains! O Jesus, draw me after Thee in the actions of the life of grace, which is in its full exercise in misery and scorn. Draw me, Lord, I run after Thee in the odor of Thy perfumes. What pleasure, my soul, to behold you walking as a giant in the ways of grace, nourished and fortified in your course with the bread of grace: Ambulavit in fortitudine cibi illius usque ad montem Dei.
To live in one’s own death, as Jesus seems to us in the Blessed Sacrament, to lose one’s glory in contempt, to be ravished when one is annihilated [aneanti] and sacrificed; this is proper to the life of grace. Making everything dead to the exterior, it brings life to the interior, and gives principally the spirit of prayer, putting it almost continuously in exercise in the soul, applying itself to this infinite and incomprehensible Being that it adores, unable to comprehend It, and annihilating itself [s’aneantit] before Him, unable even to admire His divine grandeurs, as annihilated [aneanties] in the Eucharist. O my soul, how great is your vileness, how extreme your poverty! What is man, that You should have remembrance of him, Lord, and that You should visit him, and that You should take Thy delight from coming to dwell personally with him? His soul is drawn from nothing, and his body is nothing but a little mud, and Thou deignest to set Thine eyes upon him! How is it that this creature, so dirty, so minuscule, so coarse, could receive the infinite majesty of God? Humble thyself to the bottom of thy nothingness, and confess thy baseness, my soul. Lower thine eyes, and swear that thou art unworthy to turn them only towards that formidable grandeur; but be still more moved with admiration, of recognition and love of such excessive goodness, which deigns well to annihilate itself [s’aneantir] in that incomprehensible mystery, to bring itself to you even unto your nothingness.
We must truly love the state of interior captivity, where the soul, bound and tied up, stays in the obscurity of its prison. This state will honor the captivity of Jesus enclosed under the little host. This divine Lord place himself in a little prison for our love. The King of Glory is restricted under these small species, and thereby a captive and prisoner of man, He renders Himself, it seems, his slave, giving Himself entirely to him; He suffers, so to speak, and dies for him, and communicates to him all the merits of His Precious Blood. O divine Captive, captivate my heart so strongly, that it may never more return to natural liberty; but that all destroyed and annihilated [aneanti], it may not live another life than the superhuman, nor may it enjoy any other liberty than that of Thy children.
Each time that one takes Communion, Jesus Christ giving Himself entirely to all, there are all new obligations that we contract to live entirely for Him, and to render all our actions divine. It is necessary therefore for a good soul not to say: I have not such time to prepare myself for Communion; because she must not aim at another thing by all the actions of her life, but to receive the Bread of Life, in order to live the life of Jesus, and to persevere perpetually in similar dispositions to those that appear to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
One of the more shocking ecclesiastical news stories of 2019 was a survey from the Pew Research Center showing that only 28% of American Catholics know and believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. The numbers look a little less grim when one breaks down the data by Mass attendance. 63% of weekly Mass-goers know and believe in the Real Presence. Yet that leaves a whopping 37% of weekly Mass attendees who do not believe in the Real Presence; the numbers are much higher for Catholics who don’t go to Mass as frequently. 75% of those who go to Mass monthly or yearly believe the bread and wine are only “symbols” of Jesus’s Body and Blood, while the number rises to 87% of Catholics who go to Mass even more rarely.
In view of this alarming data, I think we can safely say that one benefit of the present shut-down of public masses is that there will be far fewer sacrilegious communions. Possibly none, if the priests who offer private masses are doing so in a state of grace. I can only think that, in a time of international tumult, this fact, at least, is a good thing. Worthy communion is more important than frequent communion. Yet our ecclesiastical culture has, over the decades, become so fixated on frequent communion and liturgical participation as to neglect the all-important question of preparation for communion. The whole mystagogical apparatus of the early Church is against this attitude, as was the lived practice of most Christians throughout a great portion of Church history. Even St. Philip Neri, who devoutly encouraged frequent communion when this practice was rare, nevertheless made his spiritual sons at the Oratory confess to him every single day.
We have sadly now come to a point where many believe they are entitled to receive the Blessed Sacrament, simply by virtue of showing up to Mass. But this mentality vitiates our recognition of its quality as a work of supernatural grace – of something gratuitous, freely given to us by God without respect to our own merits. For what is the grace of the Blessed Sacrament, but the very life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ? It is the epitome of grace, for in the Blessed Sacrament we encounter the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Priestly Intercession of the Lord. This is why we must make a good preparation for reception of Holy Communion: in a worthy communion, that infinite Life merges with our own, and gradually assimilates us to Itself. Thus we discover the profoundly Eucharistic sense of the Apostle’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
We should all take this time when we are unable to avail ourselves of the Blessed Sacrament to consider how frequently and in how many ways we outrage the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus through sacrilegious communions, doubt in the Real Presence, and other manifold sins. This is a time for Acts of Contrition and Reparation. We must turn to God in a spirit of penance. To do so would be to transform this unhappy situation into an occasion of grace for ourselves, our neighbors, our Church, and the whole world.
The Eucharist is essential to the supernatural life, as are the sacraments more generally. Nevertheless, one worthy communion is so infinitely full of grace that we could (in theory) go a lifetime without receiving again and still gain heaven. This may seem unlikely; most souls do indeed need to receive more often than that.
But let us consider the case of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who is venerated in a special way during the penitential season of Lent among the Eastern churches. Having lived a sinful life as a prostitute, Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a kind of tourist. Yet when she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to behold the True Cross, she was repeatedly held back by an invisible force. Distraught, she beheld an icon of the Mother of God. In a moment of grace, she repented of her sins with tears and trembling. The invisible barrier lifted. She was able to enter the church. The graces of that pilgrimage inspired her to go into the desert around Jordan, where she spent forty-seven years alone as a hermit. In that time, she overcame the Passions and received marvelous gifts, including an infused knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Her ascetic labor has enshrined her as one of the most powerful and beloved of the Desert Saints. Eventually, the hieromonk St. Zosima met her and heard her story, which is how it has come down to us through the ages.
Here’s the thing: in her long life, St. Mary is known to have received the Blessed Sacrament only twice. Once, when she stopped at the Church of St. John the Baptist on the Jordan River as she was just beginning her ascesis. Then again shortly before her death. As she tells Zosima in her Vita,
“Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”
The Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt, St. Sophronius of Jerusalem Source.
I am quite certain that St. Mary was sustained throughout her forty-seven years in the desert by the grace of that one worthy communion. Happy are we, who are not so deprived! We can make spiritual communions, we can adore the Blessed Sacrament mentally, we can stream Mass, we can pray the Divine Office, and so much more. I genuinely believe that this time away from the Sacrament, if we dispose of it well, can remind us of the proper disposition we must bring to the altar – and which we so often lack! A keener appreciation and deeper faith in the great mystery of Holy Communion would be a salutary fruit of this crisis, and a great grace for the people of God. So, too, would a more robust and multifarious approach to Eucharistic devotion.
Let us remember that God does not abandon us. We may not be able to receive Him, but He still abides in the tabernacles of His Church. He has given us this crisis as an opportunity to purify our hearts and to restore our faith in Him. He is ever near us. He is ever willing to help us. He will not forget us or turn away from us. Let us follow that great archetype of the Christian life, St. Mary of Egypt, and return to Our Eucharist Lord only after doing proper penance for our sins during our stay in the desert. And in the meantime, let us cleave to Him as to the only rock of safety in a violent storm.
O Eucharistic Jesus, grant us the grace of loving Thee more perfectly while we must be far from Thee. Help us to cultivate a spirit of true contrition for our many sins against Thee, and grant us the grace of making worthy reparation. By the invincible, infinite, and everlasting merits of Thy Precious Blood, do Thou conquer everything base, everything impure, and everything sinful within us. And do Thou cleanse us, body, soul, and spirit, that we may enter into Thy sanctuary at the end of our days. Amen.
The COVID-19 crisis is impacting all of us at some level. Yet we are not alone in the midst of our fear and pain. In His grace, the Good Lord provides so many ways for us to grow in holiness in the midst of this affair. I offer a few ideas here for the general edification of the faithful.
Offer up your suffering for the salvation and sanctification of sinners
The life of a Christian is the death of Christ. We can therefore unite all our sufferings – physical, emotional, mental – to the Cross. When we do so, we can impetrate tremendous graces for ourselves and others. If you are afflicted by the disease – offer it up. If you are worried for those you know who are ill – offer it up. If you are mourning – offer it up. If you are struggling with troubles related to work (or the lack thereof) – offer it up. If you are bored in quarantine – offer it up. Even minor inconveniences can become springs of grace when we offer them to the Great High Priest on high. A terrible crisis like the one we are now facing is also a marvelous opportunity to grow in holiness, to help others spiritually, and to nurture our abandonment to Divine Providence. Especially as we move through Lent.
Devote time to pious reading, especially of the Holy Scripture
It is the duty of every Christian to be conversant with the Holy Scriptures, especially the Gospels. The stories and teachings of the Divine Physician may be especially comforting in this difficult time. On the other hand, I can hardly think of circumstance more apt to induce us to read the Prophecies and Apocalyptic books of the Bible. Beyond the Scriptures, one might turn to such edifying texts as In Sinu Jesu, All For Jesus, or Revelations of Divine Love.
Develop a friendship with one or more of the plague saints
There are many saints whom Catholics have called upon to help them in times of plague and pestilence. I listed a few here. You might find yourself drawn to St. Rosalia, or St. Sebastian, or St. Charles Borromeo. I have set up a candle in my own prayer corner dedicated to St. Roch. He has been a good intercessor for me in times past, and as the patron of bachelors (I am unmarried) and of animals (my family has many pets), I think he is a very appropriate saint to honor while I am stuck at home during this crisis.
Keep an extra day of special fasting, beyond Lenten Fridays
Wednesday was historically a day of penance in addition to Fridays. You might set aside Wednesday (or Thursday, in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, or Saturday, in honor of Our Lord’s entombment) as a sort of “second Friday.” You don’t have to give up meat; you could add an extra penance you only keep on this second day, such as giving up alcohol, or sweets, or praying an extra set of prayers.
Pray the Seven Penitential Psalms
The Divine Office is superior option to sanctify the hours, but for those who may lack the resources or time to do so, praying the Seven Penitential Psalms is a great alternative. Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 for those of you using Protestant translations) are a moving, profound way to express sorrow for one’s own sins and for those of the whole world.
Pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet
These popular devotions are widely-known, so I won’t go on at length here about their peculiar merits. They are to be commended for their brevity, depth, and penitential character. Both are particularly well-suited to a time when we must implore God to spare us in His mercy. The Rosary also has the added benefit of beseeching the aid of the Queen of Heaven, whose title “Health of the Sick” comes to mind as particularly apropos in view of present circumstances.
Give to the poor and to religious houses
The lack of employment and an inability to leave the house is hitting working class families especially hard in this period, not to mention the homeless, prisoners, and others among society’s most vulnerable. I don’t yet know how to directly help them in a time of social distancing, but would be happy to take and/or post suggestions in the comments to this article. That said, I do know that religious houses will be struggling as well. Please consider giving to these holy souls, many of whom rely on charitable donations to get by month to month. I would direct my readers especially to the good Fathers and Brothers of Silverstream Priory. And don’t just give – pick up one of their excellent handmade decals, books, or prayers to Mother Mectilde de Bar from their online store! I’m sure the monks could use all the help they can get in this time of economic crisis.
Dedicate one hour daily to reparatory Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament through mental recollection
You don’t need to go to a chapel or church to adore the Blessed Sacrament. Set aside an hour in your day as a time of adoration. It need not distract from your work or recreation (though an extra hour of prayer may be a good idea, if it does not become too laborious). We can simply say to God, “I give you the next hour,” then come back to adore Him mentally through the hour as we can recall. And why not take the opportunity to make reparation for offenses against Our Eucharistic Lord, or His neglect in the tabernacles and altars of the world? This is a sweet and easy means to preserve the presence of God. Done regularly, it will help us grow in the sense of God’s proximity and in the trust of His merciful Providence.
Make a plague cross
Those who are feeling crafty might wish to draw or paint a version of one of the old plague crosses used in Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods. Examples abound online, as a quick Google search will reveal. This prayerful activity is not only a way to invoke the aid of great saints, but also a great way to connect with the history of Catholic devotion.
Intercede for the dead and dying
Fr. Faber recommends frequent, dedicated intercession for those in their last agony and for the holy souls of Purgatory. In a time of great mortality, it is an act of charity to pray in a special way for those who are succumbing to death. Indeed, praying for the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. You might begin by offering prayers for the dead and dying of your parish, then your diocese, then your state, then your nation, then the whole church, then the world. Let your prayer cast a wide net.
Make spiritual communions and acts of reparation each Sunday
This will, sadly, be necessary until public Masses are restored. But spiritual communions are not to be understood as somehow second-rate communions. When you are away from Mass in obedience to your bishop and through no fault of your own, you can still make a good communion with Our Lord. It may not possess the full sacramental character of a good Eucharistic communion, but it still binds us to the Eucharistic sacrifice. And any grace we receive as a result is indeed infused into us by the merits of Christ’s sacrifice. So let us come to love Acts of Spiritual Communion, an underappreciated and undervalued weapon in the Catholic arsenal in good times as well as in bad. You can find a variety all over the internet. I would add to these an Act of Reparation in time of plague.
Pray for the grace of final perseverance
St. Benedict teaches us that the Christian must “Keep death daily before one’s eyes” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter IV). In a time like this, it is hard not to follow this advice. And yet, we can put off the reality of our mortality by the unconscious assumption that it will never be us. Surely, death will pass us by. Surely, we have blood on our door. But the fact is, we don’t know when our time will come. The more seriously we take the prospect of our own mortality, the more shall we find ourselves drawn to ponder our own judgment. Let this salutary meditation induce us to pray for the graces of final repentance and perseverance and abandonment to the will of God.
And may the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore. Amen.