Advice from a French Nun

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A portrait of Mother Mectilde de Bar adoring the Blessed Sacrament. (Source)

Sometimes readers ask me about more information on Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), the saintly foundress of the Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. I would of course direct those who read French or Italian to any of the several biographical studies about Mother Mectilde that have come out in those languages. However, I would perhaps more eagerly urge my readers to a series of recent posts at Vultus Christi presenting what is, I believe, the first English translations of some of Mother Mectilde’s spiritual letters. Here they are with the titles the translator has given them at VC.

I. “So that I might begin to live in simplicity, like a child.”

II. “On the Meaning of Desolation and Sufferings.”

III. “The state in which you find yourself is of God.”

IV. “The divine labourer who works in you.”

V. “Yet ever thou art at my side.”

VI. “Nothingness doesn’t even attach itself to nothingness.”

VII. “Some sayings of Mother Mectilde.”

VIII. “He sets fire everywhere.”

IX. “All our discontent comes from self-will.”

And on top of all that, there’s a letter from the lay mystic Jean de Bernières to Mother Mectilde. Bernières is a good example of someone who, though posthumously condemned as a “Quietist,” is now being recovered as a source of valuable mystical insight. We have seen the same happen to Benet Canfield before, and it may yet occur to someone like Pietro Matteo Petrucci. More work needs to be done in this area. At any rate, translation of these early modern mystical works is badly needed.

Both as a practicing Catholic and as an historian of early modern Catholicism, I am encouraged that these works are being put into English for the first time. The English-speaking world is now getting a much better sense of the importance of this unique tradition within the Benedictine family. More translations, we are told, are coming. I eagerly await their publication.

 

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Elsewhere: Benedictine Mementos from England

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A procession on Caldey Island. (Source)

I’m not sure how I missed this astounding collection of photos of old Caldey, Prinknash, Pershore, Nashdom, and Farnborough when it came out last year, but I’m very glad to have discovered the trove yesterday. Some highlights include:

1. The barge fitted with heraldic devices that Peter Anson describes in Abbot Extraordinary, which was used specifically for the translation of St. Samson’s relics.

2. The silver sanctuary lamp in the shape of a galleon at full sail – once in Aelred Carlyle’s abbatial house (read: palace), now in the main oratory at Prinknash.

3. The various stones of dissolved abbeys brought to Caldey and placed into a single altar. If I’m not mistaken, Fr. Hope Patten must have gotten the idea for the Shrine at Walsingham from Caldey, as he knew Aelred Carlyle quite well.

4. Some lovely images of St. Samson and the Holy Face of Jesus used on printed material from the monasteries.

5. One or two excellent frontals, especially the one embroidered with seraphim at Prinknash.

6. An abbess of Kylemore Abbey in Ireland.

7. Peter Anson’s several drawings of Prinknash.

8. A procession for the 1964 Nashdom jubilee.

9. F.C. Eden’s terrifically English reredos at Caldey.

10. Scenes of the community’s collective reception into Rome in 1914 – including a shot of the Bl. Columba Marmion, who was an enthusiastic supporter of old Caldey.

Those who like Anglo-Catholic or monastic history will no doubt be as excited about this collection as I am.

UPDATE: A reader has kindly reminded me that, of course, Caldey Island is off the coast of Wales. So my title is perhaps a little misleading.

Saint-Denis, Liturgy, and a Royal Nun

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St. Denys, pray for us! (Source)

Canticum Salomonis has a great little piece on the Sequence of St. Denys. Liturgical nerds will find it of particular interest. It mainly attracts my own attention due to a fascinating tidbit:

Beginning with the new Parisian missal promulgated by the Lord Archbishop François de Harlay in 1684, the neo-Gallican liturgical books that festered in France during the Enlightenment Age altered this sequence to expunge any connection between St Dionysius the Areopagite and St Dionysius of Paris. The Abbey of St-Denys, however, remained firm in defending the Greek origins of its patron, and sung the original text until the Revolution.

I’m unaware of any serious scholarship so far that has plunged into the liturgical dynamics of the Revolution – though certainly, the Gallicans, Jansenists, and Cisalpines all had ideas about liturgical reform. What an intriguing project a deeper study might be. Perhaps John McManners has looked at it all already, and I simply haven’t gotten to that part of his famous and positively rococo two-volume study, Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France.

Madame Louise, Prioress of Saint-Denis. (Source)

Saint-Denis was an important place in the 1780’s. Madame Louise, daughter of Louis XV and aunt of Louis XVI, entered the Carmel of Saint-Denis while her father was still alive. As Sister Thérèse de Saint-Augustin, she eventually rose to the rank of Prioress. Saint-Denis thus became a center of the Parti Dévot, the most conservative (some would say reactionary) part of the French court and church. It’s hardly surprising that the great Abbey there would likewise remain a bastion of liturgy that might otherwise be regarded as “superstitious” or “backwards” by the more radical portions of the French church.

The Horses of St. Bruno

Today is the Feast of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusians. While many know of the Carthusians for their famous silence, their holy way of life preserved from corruption down the centuries, and that wonderful green liqueur they make, few are aware of another gift they have given the world: a breed of Andalusian horse known as the Cartujano.

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Monks with their horse. (Source)

The breed emerged as early as the 1400’s, and had become an important strain of the Spanish equine population by the early modern period. They originated at the Charterhouse of Jerez. The story of their arrival at the monastery is a little uncertain, but one plausible theory holds that:

“Don Pedro Picado, was unable to pay his ground rent to the monks…decided to pay them…in kind by offering them his mares and colts. These animals had been bought…from the brothers Andrés and Diego Zamora…who formed this small stud farm from a stallion bought from a soldier, and one of its sons, a colt of extraordinary beauty and grace, called ‘Esclavo.'”

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A Cartujano today. (Source)

At any rate, the monks commenced a breeding program that lasted for hundreds of years – they only lost their monopoly on the line at the French invasion. The end result was what one source has called “the purest of Spanish horses.” Take a look at the numbers:

The Carthusian horse, or Cartujano is not a distinct breed of horse but rather an offshoot of the pure Spanish horse and is considered the purest strain remaining with one of the oldest stud books in the world. Roughly 82% of the Pura Raza Espanola (PRE) population in Spain contains Cartujano blood. But there are less than 3% pure Cartujano horses within the PRE population and only 500 pure Cartujanos in existence in Spain today.

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“The Cartujanos,” Jose Manuel Gomez. (Source)

Virtually all Cartujanos today are descended from that first horse at Jerez, that Jacob of horses – “Esclavo.” You can see one in action here.

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Monks and their horse. (Source)

We need not justify the monastic life on terms other than its own final good – that is, union with God. Or even its secondary good – prayer for the world. But if one is seeking “useful” or “worldly” benefits of monasticism, look no further than the Cartujano horse. The continuity provided by the monastic state over centuries allowed proper record keeping and a meticulous attention to the intricacies of a sustained lineage. These beautiful creatures are one testament to the salutary work of monks in history.

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I’m sure there’s a spiritual metaphor here. (Source)

 

Pearls from the Blessed Abbot Marmion

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A French icon of the Blessed Abbot. (Source)

Today is the feast of the Bl. Abbot Columba Marmion OSB, Abbot of Maredsous. The Irishman who served most of his priestly life (and all of his monastic profession) in Belgium is not yet canonized, but I and many others pray he will one day become a Doctor of the Church. Here are some of his words for my readers’ consideration, along with my own occasional commentary. No doubt, my readers will observe what has often been noted about the Blessed Abbot – that he combines a firm dogmatic foundation with penetrating mystical insight and the soundest of practical advice.

“We must be careful to supernaturalize our work. Never begin your studies without having prayed. Try to watch over your intention: see that it is for God and for truth…Never become the dupes of your own learning: in this life our knowledge will always be imperfect.” (Christ – The Ideal of the Priest, 79). Admirable advice for any students, though perhaps especially for those who have made the divine mysteries their object of study.

“For everything in the life of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is full of signification. Christ, if I may thus express myself, is the great sacrament of the New Law…each of Our Lord’s mysteries ought to be for us an object of contemplation; His mysteries ought also to be, as it were, sacraments producing within us, according to the measure of our faith and love, their own special grace. And this is true of each of the states of Jesus, of each of his actions. For if Christ is always the Son of God, if in all that He says and does He first of all glorifies His Father, neither does He ever separate us from the thought of Him. To each of His mysteries, He attaches a grace which is to help us to reproduce within ourselves His divine features in order to make us like unto Him.” (Christ in His Mysteries, 232-33). Here we see Dom Marmion presenting two important points, one explicit and one implicit. The explicit note is that every act of Christ, the God-Man, is a substantive work of our salvation even as it lifts up all glory unto the Father. This two-fold movement embedded within all of Christ’s actions thus constitutes the continuing and hidden mediation of Christ as Priest and Victim. Dom Marmion’s implicit point concerns how we come to know of this mediation. As a monk whose soul was well-calibrated to the rhythms of liturgy and lectio divina, Dom Marmion stood in a far more totalizing relationship to the Sacraments and the Scriptures than most of us will ever know. But it is precisely in these, Christ’s “mysteries,” that we encounter His mediation. And the posture of the soul required of the believer is not based primarily on her intellectual capacities, but on that deeper, more personal, super-linguistic sensitivity we call “contemplation.” One could write much more about “contemplation” as an epistemology of the Transcendent, but I digress.

“Whence came this human love of Jesus, this created love? From the uncreated and divine love, from the love of the Eternal Word to which the human nature is indissolubly united. In Christ, although there are two perfect and distinct natures, keeping their specific energies and their proper operations, there is only one Divine Person. As I have said, the created love of Jesus is only a revelation of His uncreated love. Everything that the created love accomplishes is only in union with the uncreated love, and on account of it; Christ’s Heart draws its human kindness from the divine one…The Heart of Jesus pierced upon the Cross reveals to us Christ’s human love; but beneath the veil of the humanity of Jesus is shown the ineffable and incomprehensible love of the Word.” (Christ in His Mysteries, 370-71). Reading these words, I am reminded of the phrase of St. Augustine that Scripture is a tree with its roots in heaven and its fruits on earth. The same could be said of Christ Himself.

“Faith is a seed, and every seed contains in germ the future harvest. Provided that we put away from faith all that can diminish and tarnish it; that we develop it by prayer and practice, that we constantly give it the occasion of manifesting itself in love, faith places in our hands the substance of the joys to come and gives birth to unshaken confidence.” (Christ, the Life of the Soul, 141). The point, here, is that faith is not simply a propositional assent. Its effect is not automatic, as in some of the simpler Protestant ideas of it. It must be lived – it must be cultivated if it is to bear fruit.

“Soon, however, in the same measure as the soul draws near to the Supreme Good, it shares the more in the Divine simplicity.” (Christ, the Life of the Soul, 317). In context, the Blessed Abbot is discussing the practice of prayer. The closer we grow to God, the closer we move to that knowledge of Him in which words fail. For in God, all words are utterly extinguished – all words, that is, except His own divine Name.

“Let us often beseech God to give us that light of faith and strength of love which will render our obedience perfect. Thus supernaturally sustained, this obedience will become easy, generous, simple, prompt, and joyous.” (Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, 279). Although the Blessed Abbot wrote these words for the special edification of monastics, there can be little doubt that they find a wider application in the lives of every devout Christian. For all of us must render obedience to the law of God. As Dom Marmion notes, the “luminous arms” of obedience are made up of faith and charity as a sword is made of hilt and blade. And neither faith nor charity are the exclusive purview of vowed religious.

“The devil tries to trouble you by his [subtleties], so that you may cease to act well for fear of acting from vanity. We must never cease doing well for that reason, but quietly purify our intention. The best way is to unite it with Jesus Christ, and with His intentions, and if there is anything imperfect in your intentions this union with Jesus Christ will heal it.” (Letter quoted in Union with God According to the Letters of Direction of Dom Marmion, 70). Here we see the theological basis behind a point made independently by Julian of Norwich and, later, T.S. Eliot. In the words of the latter: “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” That ground, of course, is Christ dwelling in us.

 

Faber’s Oxford Poems: Part I

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A view of the Bodleian Library from Radcliffe Square. Photo taken by author.

Fr. Frederick William Faber, that great son of St. Philip, was one of the many Oxford converts. He was a Balliol man who later became a fellow of University College, where he embarked on an ecclesiastical career as an Anglican. Later, of course, he came to the Church of Rome and founded the London Oratory. But as I am now settling back into Oxford, I thought it might my readers might enjoy a few of his poems about life at the University. I’ll probably break the collection up into a few different posts. Although Faber was later famous as a hymn-writer, in his youth he was a Romantic poet who won the admiration of none other than Wordsworth, whom he met in the Lake District. Faber’s style may be rather too Victorian for our tastes today. They also represent his spirituality at a very immature stage, when he was still an Anglican. The contrast between “College Chapel’s” rather pathetic final line and Faber’s “Muscular” pose in “College Hall” amuses, to say the least. But occasionally, as in “College Garden,” his sensuality and yearning anticipate the best of the Decadents who came at the end of the century. Finally, I’ll add that Faber’s romantic attachment to the legends and traditions of the English medieval monastics once again confirms my point that there remains an abiding affinity between the Oratorian and Benedictine charisms. 

College Chapel

A shady seat by some cool mossy spring,
Where solemn trees close round, and make a gloom,
And faint and earthy smells, as from a tomb,
Unworldly thoughts and quiet wishes bring:
Such hast thou been to me each morn and eve;
Best loved when most thy call did interfere
With schemes of toil or pleasure, that deceive
And cheat young hearts; for then thou mad’st me feel
The holy Church more night, a thing to fear.
Sometimes, all day with books, thoughts proud and wild
Have risen, till I saw the sunbeams steal
Through painted glass at evensong, and weave
Their threefold tints upon the marble near,
Faith, prayer, and love, the spirit of a child!

College Hall

Still may the spirit of the ancient days
Rest on our feasts, nor self-indulgence strive
Nor languid softness to invade the rule,
Manly, severe, and chastethe hardy school
Wherein our might fathers learnt to raise
Their souls to Heaven, and virtue best could thrive.
They, who have felt how oft the hour is past
In idle, worldly talk, would fain recall
The brazen Eagle that in times of yore
Was wont to stand in each monastic hall;
From whence the Word, or some old Father’s lore,
Or Latin hymns that spoke of sin and death
Were gravely read; and lowly-listening faith
In silence grew, at feast as well as fast.

College Garden

Sacred to early morn and evening hours,
Another chapel reared for other prayers,
And full of gifts,smells after noon-day showers,
When bright-eyed birds look out from leafy bowers,
And natural perfumes shed on midnight airs,
And bells and old church-clocks and holy towers,
All heavenly images that cluster round.
The rose, and pink acacia, and green vine
Over the fretted wall together twine,
With creepers fair and many, woven up
Into religious allegories, made
All out of strange Church meanings, and inlaid
With golden thoughts, drunk from the dewy cup
Of morns and evenings spent in that dear ground!

College Library

A churchyard with a cloister running round
And quaint old effigies in act of prayer,
And painted banners mouldering strangely there
Where mitered prelates and grave doctors sleep,
Memorials of a consecrated ground!
Such is this antique room, a haunted place
Where dead men’s spirits come, and angels keep
Long hours of watch with wings in silence furled.
Early and late have I kept vigil here:
And I have seen the moonlight shadows trace
Dim glories on the missal’s blue and gold,
The work of my monastic sires that told
Of quiet ages men call dark and drear,
For Faith’s soft light is darkness to the world.

The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

Elsewhere: Mother Mectilde de Bar and the Prayer of Devekut

One of the great works of Vultus Christi has been the exposure of many English-speaking Catholics to the spiritual treasures of the continental Benedictine tradition, especially the life and work of Mother Mectilde de Bar. The good nun was a profound mystic of the Eucharist and a spiritual heir to the French School. Anyone with any interest in Benedictine life, Catholicism in early modern France, or spirituality generally should take note.

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Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. (Source)

I am very happy to refer my readers to an excellent translation of one of Mother Mectilde’s letters of spiritual direction. The translator, an Oblate of Silverstream, has rendered the 17th century French into elegant and very readable English. A job well done!

Here’s a particularly potent excerpt:

The whole of Christian perfection consists in continual attention to Jesus Christ, and a constant adherence or submission to His good pleasure. These two points contain everything, and their faithful practice will lead you to the highest degree of perfection. Blessed is the soul who observes them.

The first point consists in seeing Jesus Christ in everything; in all events and in all our dealings; in such way that this divine sight removes from us the sight of creatures, ourselves, and our interests, in order to see nothing except Jesus Christ. In a word, it is to have the presence of God continually.

The second point consists in being constantly submissive to His holy will; in being so much subject to His good pleasure that we no longer have any return, at least voluntarily, by which we can withdraw from this respectful obedience.

I am reminded, in reading this passage, of a concept in Jewish mysticism called devekut. To practice devekut is to cleave to God constantly, even in the midst of everyday, profane activities. The Rabbis who founded and nurtured Hasidism in the 18th century made it a central feature of their mystical praxis, though the idea has roots in the Temple traditions of the Old Testament (vide Barker 2004, 37). Dr. Margaret Barker notes that, according to the older, priestly understanding of the word “cleaving” in Hebrew, “to cleave” meant quite literally to join. However, this sense was displaced when the Moses-focused Deuteronomist tradition came to ascendance. The new meaning of “cleaving” was, instead, obedience (Ibid. 37). Mother Mectilde has here joined both meanings in a salutary way.

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An icon of the Holy Eucharist, showing Christ the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. (Source)

However, I think she places a bit more emphasis on the first, as the primary and indispensable basis of the second. She goes on to write,

Have Jesus Christ imprinted and carved on the center of your soul. Have him in all the faculties of your mind. May your heart be able to think of and long for nothing except Jesus Christ.  May your whole inclination be to please Him. Attach all your fortunes and your happiness to knowing and loving Jesus Christ.[1] May nothing on earth, however great it seems, prevail in you against the constant union you should have with Jesus Christ. May neither heaven, nor earth, nor hell, nor any power, ever separate you from Him.[2]

She continues on and apostraphizes Divine Love, writing

O Jesus all powerful and all love, work in us these two effects of mercy: attract us by your omnipotence and transform us by your love into Yourself.

O love, O love divine, may you burn in us, and that you may consume in us everything that is contrary to you and opposed to your workings.

O life that is not animated by love, how can you be called life? You are a hideous death, and most terrible.

O pure and holy love of Jesus Christ, do not allow a single moment of my life to be spent without love; make me die and throw me into hell a thousand times rather than not to love Jesus Christ.

The first line here is the key; this is the loving and even conjugal language of devekut, not simple obedience. But obedience is implied as the sustaining force and natural result of such attentive love.

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A hesychast at prayer. (Source)

It seems appropriate to me that Mother Mectilde, a Benedictine, should advocate for this kind of “cleaving” prayer, vigilant love in every moment. It has always been the task of the monastic throughout history to preserve this kind of remembrance of God that is itself a form of His presence in the heart. Precisely this “cleaving” constitutes the positive good underlying hesychasm in the East, but it can also be found in many monastic writers of both East and West. Mother Mectilde is not speaking alone. Indeed, she expresses the perennial Wisdom that has always infused the monastic life and made it fruitful.

Read the whole thing over at Vultus Christi.

A Carmelite Daughter of St. Philip: The Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

One of my favorite essays to write on this blog so far has been my study of the way that St. Philip Neri embodied certain Benedictine qualities. In that piece, I argue that sometimes we can gain a deeper understanding of a saint by looking at their likenesses with saints of a different religious family or by the influence of other saints in their lives. As an extension of that essay, I’d like to introduce my readers to a Venerable whom they have probably never heard of, one who followed St. Philip in a very Benedictine spirit: the Venerable Serafina di Dio, O.C.D.

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Ven. Serafina di Dio (1621-1699), Neapolitan Carmelite mystic. (Source)

The Life of a Mystic

Prudenza Pisa was born in the Kingdom of Naples in 1621. She clashed with her father at a young age when she refused to marry the young man he had chosen as her husband. She also cut her hair and donned pentiental garb. These actions did not go over well, and she soon found herself expelled from the household. Prudenza resided during this rather fraught period in what was essentially the family chicken coop. Yet she grew closer to her mother, who brought her meals secretly. Prudenza saw these sufferings as an opportunity for growth in trust of God. She also set herself to the good works of visiting the sick. In the Neapolitan Plagues of 1656, she continued her ministry even as the illness claimed her beloved mother. Her behavior at this terrible juncture was edifying:

Seraphina prepared her mother for death and actually closed her eyes when she died on August 5th 1656. Christian burial was not allowed during the plague. With her own hands, she dug a shallow grave in the backyard and personally buried her mother.

Yet her active life was soon to draw to a close. One of her uncles, a prominent priest, died of the same plague. He had been planning to found a convent of enclosed nuns on Capri. She carried on this noble work after his departure. She gathered together various companions from Naples and, on 29th of May, 1661, took the habit of the Discalced Carmelites at Naples Cathedral. It was then that she took the name of Serafina of God. Later that year, the community moved to Capri. Their residence soon proved inadequate, and they constructed a much larger monastery dedicated to the Most Holy Savior. Mother Serafina’s leadership bore fruit in another six Carmelite convents in the Kingdom of Naples, a remarkable flourishing clearly drawing its power from the Holy Ghost.

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The (very Dominican) arms of Pope Benedict XIII, friend of Ven. Serafina di Dio (Source)

Ven. Serafina was not without trials. Although she wrote an attack on Quietism, she was herself accused of this noxious heresy. For six years, the Inquisition conducted an investigation into her writings and activities. For two, she was confined to her cell without the benefit of Holy Communion. But at last, her name was cleared, in no small part because of the intervention of her friend, Archbishop Vincenzo Maria Orsini, the future Pope Benedict XIII.

There can be little doubt that these troubles arose from within her own religious family. Although Mother Serafina was entirely blameless in conduct, her manner of spiritual leadership won her many enemies among her more lax daughters. Perhaps some of the trouble could have been anticipated from the fact that her recruits were customarily drawn from the ranks of the Neapolitan aristocracy, not a class generally known for its ascetic rigor. The Carmelites treated their foundress poorly. For example, while Serafina was ill in her confinement, she begged to see some of the sisters. They did not come. Yet the patience with which she bore these final trials remains exemplary. As one biographer notes, “Two days before she died she asked the Prioress to look after the sisters who had been so contrary to her, making excuses for their behavior.” This mercy converted the hard of heart, for, as the same writer says, “After her death on March 17, 1699, some of the sisters who were most against her became some of the most enthustiastic promoters of her Cause.”

Spiritual Daughter of St. Philip Neri

An heir of the Tridentine reform, the Ven. Serafina was a great admirer of St. Teresa of Avila, whom she endeavored to emulate in all things. She was a prolific writer, composing at least 2,173 letters and enough theological writing to fill 22 books. Some of her topics included:

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Ven. Serafina writing (Source).

-the prayer of faith
-mental prayer
-the love of God and the practice of the divine presence
-the common life
-conformity to the will of God.

Alas, I don’t believe any of these have been translated into English. Perhaps some intrepid early modernist will someday render these works into the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. She went about life with a constant ability to fall into meditation. In Serafina’s own words:

“…Anything I looked at I was able to turn into a meditation… When I saw it raining, I thought of the refreshment which the rain brought to the earth and that without it the earth would be arid. I would say: ‘If the water of divine grace did not fall on the soul, it would dry up without providing the fruits of good works.’ … The sight of fish swimming in the sea made me remember how the saints are immersed in God… And in such wise everything, even the slightest things, served me for my spiritual nourishment.”

The greatest misfortunes could not turn her from the praise of God. For in all things, she perceived the benevolent Providence of God. Her unfailing rule was that “All that God did and allowed was beautiful, good, ordered for our good.” Even the terrible things in life thus became for Serafina an occasion of magnification and blessing.

Serafina was also a visionary mystic. At one point, “She was so overwhelmed with her vision of the Godhead that she wondered what else could be reserved for her in heaven.” The experiences she was granted were extraordinary, though she took pains to keep them discreet. Yet we do have letters attesting to some of her ecstasies.

One figure who emerges as particularly important in her religious life is St. Philip Neri. The Oratorian Fr. Francesco Antonio Agnelli tells us that she honored St. Philip by, for instance, devoutly kissing the feet of the crucifix thirty-three times in his honor; she was repaid for this act of love with a vision of the glorified St. Philip prostrate and kissing the feet of Jesus thirty-three times in her name (Agnelli 194).

Serafina’s spiritual father was Fr. Vincenzo Avinatri of the Naples Oratory. She wrote him letters describing the visions she had of St. Philip. In one such letter, she reports that

“I saw the Saint, with the great Mother of God, in a flame of fire, and surrounded with light…with a sweet countenance, he told me many beautiful things…He showed me what his sons ought to be, and the dignity of the Congregation, made, so to speak, in the likeness of God and of the three Divine Persons, and especially of the Person of the Holy Spirit…Without speaking, he had explained to me the perfection we must have in order to be sons of light. It would be a monstrous thing if fire generated snow, if light brought forth darkness, if crystal produced mud…How much greater wonder would it be, if in any of the sons of St. Philip, who are called sons of the Holy Spirit, there should be any defect!” (qtd. in Agnelli 195-96)

In another vision that came to her on the vigil of St. Philip’s day, she was carried way into a heavenly rapture and saw the Saint aflame with a supernal light. And in view of St. Philip, she saw her own heart on fire, as well. But it did not glow as brightly as his; therefore, she prayed to the Saint that she might receive a more perfect and ample share of Divine Love. As Agnelli describes it,

Then the Saint united his heart with hers, and thus united they sent forth a great flame; she felt so much love that she could not express it, and the Saint invited her to rejoice in the presence of the Lord, and to sing His praises, desiring her to repeat with him these words, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Magnus Dominus et laudabilis nimis [Holy, holy, holy, great is the Lord and worthy of all praise], adding that it is impossible to find in the most devout Canticles words more pleasing to God. (Agnelli 194-95).

She was thus adopted by the saint as a kind of daughter in the Spirit. She also looked upon Oratorians as her own sons. This spiritual affinity was later attested by a physical resemblance with St. Philip. When an autopsy was conducted on Mother Serafina’s body, the examiners found signs of transverberation in her heart.

It may seem odd for a visionary to become so friendly with St. Philip and his sons. After all, St. Philip himself was notorious for his skepticism when it came to visions. He had treated the Ven. Ursula Benincasa with unrelenting verbal abuse to test her inspiration – a test she passed, even if the holy man never quite came around to endorsing her. St. Philip taught that, “As for those who run after visions, dreams, and the like, we must lay hold of them by the feet and pull them to the ground by force, lest they should fall into the devil’s net.” Though a man of tremendous supernatural gifts himself, he knew that the spiritual world was a minefield of dangers. False visionaries abounded in his day, and his prudent words have retained their perennial wisdom down into our own era.

To properly understand the nature of Ven. Serafina’s visionary mysticism, and why we can properly say it breathes of a Philippine spirit, we must look at it in the context of her leadership of a Carmelite monastery.

A Liturgical Mysticism

The troubles in Serafina’s life began because of her governance. As one biographer has it,

As often happens, Sr. Seraphina’s strongest talents and graces became her heaviest crosses. In her foundations she shared her convictions about religious life with her sisters. She firmly believed that the best guarantee of authenticity of one’s religious experience was a dogged faithfulness to the traditional forms. She was immersed in the church’s liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Divine Office, the liturgical year, and the feasts of the Saints. She was often led to intimate communion with Christ Jesus at the liturgy beginning with the midnight office. She also stressed the need for silence and solitude as requisites for prayer. [emphasis mine – RTY]

Her tenacious devotion to the traditional forms of worship and to the great prayer of the Church, the Liturgy and Divine Office, shows that the Ven. Serafina was in every way a monastic. Indeed, these salutary measures evince a Benedictine sensibility.

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An 18th century portrait of the Ven. Serafina di Dio. Note the prominent place of the Blessed Sacrament in this composition. (Source)

Her ecstasies were not a superfluous and shallow add-on to this liturgical life. She built the house of her prayer upon the rock of tradition, and it was illumined with the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost.

Serafina’s mystical life was tied to her experience of the liturgical calendar. For instance, any of her most profound encounters with St. Philip took place on the vigil and day of his feast (Agnelli 194-95). A cynic would see in this timebound quality a mark of the merely human dimension of religion, a fine example of confirmation bias. But those who have learned of divine things will discover a deeper reality. In Serafina they will see a soul that has grown attuned to the Wisdom of God, made manifest in time through the Incarnation of Christ and the Liturgy of the Church.

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High Altar of the Chiesa Santissimo Salvatore, Capri. Although it has not been a Carmelite monastery since Napoleonic times, this is the altar where the Ven. Serafina would have received communion. (Source)

These are quintessentially sound foundations for the spiritual life. Her strictly liturgical and monastic way engendered serious opposition among her daughters, but it also gave her the strength to bear that opposition with true Christian patience. One can only imagine the terrible suffering that two years without the Blessed Sacrament must have inflicted on such a soul. Yet, by grounding herself in the Liturgy, she was able to nourish that innate trust in Providence already evident in her earliest days. Surely, that sustained her in the darkest days of her old age.

The Long Road to Sainthood

It seems somehow appropriate that, as an adopted daughter of St. Philip, the Ven. Serafina should not yet have been canonized. Many of his spiritual children have had a similar fate. Witness the stalled cases of Ven. Cardinal Cesare Baronius, Bl. Juvenal Ancina, Bl. Anthony Grassi, and Bl. Sebastian Valfre, just to name a few of the many early modern Oratorians who have not yet reached the highest altars of the Church.

Still, we can pray that this Carmelite mystic will one day be recognized as the saint she was. Let us beg her intercession and emulate her profound devotion to the Liturgy of the Church.

UPDATE: A Carmelite friend pointed out to me that Ven. Serafina was in fact not subject to the jurisdiction of either Carmelite order, essentially running independent Carmelite conservatories of oblates in the Discalced habit, following an adaptation of St. Teresa’s constitutions. She was a sort of Carmelite version of St. Francesca Romana. More info can be found in the works of Smet. As such, any use of the Carmelite letters after her name may be inappropriate, but given a) the unusual nature of the case, and b) the difficulty of changing my title and thus invalidating links, I have decided to keep my text as is and merely add this disclaimer.

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May the Ven. Serafina di Dio pray for us! (Source)

Novena to St. Benedict

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A print from The Holy Twins by Tomie dePaola, depicting SS Benedict and Scholastica. (Source)

I hope my readers will join me on a novena to the Patriarch of Western Monks, starting today (July 3rd) and ending on the Feast of St. Benedict, the 11th of July. Here is the prayer I will use, taken from EWTN’s website:

Glorious Saint Benedict, sublime model of virtue, pure vessel of God’s grace! Behold me humbly kneeling at your feet. I implore you in your loving kindness to pray for me before the throne of God. To you I have recourse in the dangers that daily surround me.
Shield me against my selfishness and my indifference to God and to my neighbor.
Inspire me to imitate you in all things. May your blessing be with me always, so that I may see and serve Christ in others and work for His kingdom. Graciously obtain for me from God those favors and graces which I need so much in the trials, miseries and afflictions of life. Your heart was always full of love, compassion and mercy toward those who were afflicted or troubled in any way. You never dismissed without consolation and assistance anyone who had recourse to you. I therefore invoke your powerful intercession, confident in the hope that you will hear my prayers and obtain for me the special grace and favor I earnestly implore.

{mention your petition}

Help me, great Saint Benedict, to live and die as a faithful child of God, to run in the sweetness of His loving will, and to attain the eternal happiness of heaven.

Amen.