I am for the most part uninterested in the internal politics of ACNA. I have friends in that communion, and after all, it is neither my circus nor my monkeys. I am, however, keenly interested in the issue at stake: what kinds of language sexual-minority Christians use, why, and what this says about their broader place within Christianity. Especially as some of these same issues have come up repeatedly in the Catholic context as well. That relevance to my own situation moves me to write, when I might otherwise keep silence.
When the original statement came out last month (no pun intended), a gay Christian friend of mine wrote, “I am starting to think that this tired conversation about sexual identity language is actually *designed* to keep the Church from caring for sexual minorities by addressing its pervasive homophobia.” Much of what follows therefore comes from what I wrote in reply, with a few edits and additions here and there.
It seems to me that this debate about language – the alleged moral valences of words like “homosexual” or “gay,” and whether or not it is appropriate for Christians to self-identify with these words – serves a multipronged function:
(3) It puts the entire onus of subjectivity-formation on the gay Christian individual and thus places them in a defensive posture which prevents them from making further demands. It does this in three ways:
(4) It deprives them of a language in which to articulate their own subjectivity and needs.
(5) It isolates them by preventing them from using the language by which they can form bonds of solidarity with other sexual minorities.
(6) It further isolates them by cutting them off from the history of other sexual minorities, whatever terms they may have used (sodomites, inverts, homosexuals, fairies, queers, gays, LGBT, etc.).
(7) All of which is to say, the debate mainly functions to control sexual minority Christians by making their own experience more and more illegible to them.
(8) It works very well because it exhausts a lot of emotional energy from LGBTQ+ Christians. This is intrinsic to the debate’s function as a mechanism of control.
(9) It is doubly effective when, as in the ACNA document, it reverts to the most clinical and pathologized language imaginable. “Christians afflicted with” or “who struggle with same-sex attraction” is not only unwieldy, it’s obviously stigmatizing. SSA might as well be leprosy.
(10 This is not to say that gay Christians who feel that the language of “same-sex attraction” or SSA best expresses their experience shouldn’t use it. We should all use the language that best fits our own embodied story. But when straight Christians use it this way, they are robbing them of the freedom to make that decision for themselves.
(13) The most insidious thing about the ACNA statement, though, isn’t even the matter of terminology. It’s the deeper point from which the terminological discussion grew: a claim that homosexuals can become straight again.
(14) If this were coming from an old-school queer theorist or even second-wave feminist who insisted on the radical flexibility of gender and sexuality, I wouldn’t have too much of an issue. But the obvious problem here is the latent moral imperative that moves from is to ought (also the erasure of bisexuals, but that’s a bit of a tangent).
(15) Going from “some people can move between kinds of attraction” to “you must become attracted to the opposite sex,” as this document does implicitly, is an awful lapse into conversion-therapy thinking. And we know how harmful this is, especially to queer youth.
(16) But this pathologization is itself, once again, a mechanism of control. Religions are social bodies that require adherents in order to survive. And like it or not, gays have historically been a major part of the Christian fold – including in Anglicanism!
(17) The reasoning advanced by ACNA is thus, quite precisely, an ideology. It is a logic that helps the oppressed buy into their own oppression. They are hardly unique in this; many in our own Church of Rome offer the same false narrative for the same ends.
(18) I would like to end this thread on a hopeful note, though I have very little hope to speak of. The best I can say is that LGBT Christians need to make their own communities. We need to use the terms that best express our own subjectivity. This is quite apart from the issue of sexual ethics, which does not hinge on what we call ourselves.
(19) Straight Christians, including Catholics, should accept that we are going to use the terms that we choose. It is not up to them. Their time would be better spent helping on the very urgent issues I outlined earlier. And maybe trying to understand what it’s like for (Christian) sexual minorities in the Church and in society at large.
(20) Finally – the best thing to help on the issues of terminology is for sexual-minority Christians, where it is safe to do so, to come out. Even clergy. Articulating your own experience is truly liberating, even as it opens up a new vulnerability. But freedom is worth it. Honesty is worth it. Visibility is worth it. Life is worth it.
It is customary to regard Christmas as a feast of divine manifestation. God has become man. He has entered the human story in a definitive and absolutely singular way. Grace, like a geyser, erupts from the cave at Bethlehem to inundate the whole world.
Our festivities have made this season merry. Our sermons and celebrations, our songs and specials, our gifts and feasting – everything seems to collude in a joyous conspiracy to rob us of our gloom at what is, by nature, a terribly depressing time of year. And there is much to rejoice in when we regard the Holy Infant surrounded by his Virgin Mother and foster-father. But I think we have missed something.
God is everywhere hidden – a Deus Absconditus. His Face, as it were, abides behind more veils than that which cloaked His glory in the Temple. In the depths of human sin, the heart fashions idols and chases phantasms. This is not merely true of those outside the Church; how often do we Christians find ourselves falling into the same wicked habits, preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven! I am not excused from this very charge. I, too, am in need of mercy.
Christmas is not so much a feast of divine manifestation as a testament of God’s enduring hiddenness. The Infant King has no caparisoned herald to announce him in the highways and byways, so as to bring the mighty to pay their homage. Instead, He sends His angels to summon the lowly and humble from afar off in the fields. Why were the shepherds summoned first, and not the townspeople of Bethlehem? Only a few souls received this extraordinary grace. We do not know their names. We have no idea what happened to them in the end. We have no sense of whether the peculiar privilege granted to them bore fruit in their own salvation. But I would like to believe that they did achieve the Beatific Vision. I hope they are in a high choir of Heaven. As deep calls to deep, so does the Hidden God love those elect souls who remain hidden in pious obscurity. In a beautiful passage, Fr. Faber calls these souls, which exist even today,
a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then, to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us, when the world’s wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His own uunder our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it.
Fr. Frederick William Faber, Bethlehem, 228.
How then is this a divine manifestation? If anything, God draws the shepherds into the very obscurity in which He always abides. It is a manifestation that negates itself. They share His hiddenness, so similar to the dim glory of the Holy of Holies. The shepherds become human extensions of His sacred obscurity. Each one is a living shroud of the Divine Presence. Their lives, already hidden from the proud eyes of the world, are now forever hidden in God’s and written into His story.
God led the shepherds to that bed by the grace of an angelic call. He led the Magi instead by a less glorious, if no less effective, grace. They saw a marvel in the sky and followed it. Strange phenomena are another of God’s many veils, though not so beautiful and not so clear as revelation. We do not even know if the star they followed was supernatural or just a prodigy of nature. Directly or indirectly, Providence used it as a beacon to light their way to the dark and holy cave.
But the shepherds were first. And surely in this we discover a truth confirmed throughout the long history of the Church’s experience in the world. God does not reveal Himself to the learned and those wise in the judgment of the World. The Incarnation, like all the works of grace, is “unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 DRA). Our Lady sings as well that “He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-52, BCP 1662).
Worldly learning is totally bereft of access to God. It is little better than blindness. Thinking otherwise is mere pride and vanity, and only deepens the darkness. St. Paul tells us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). Natural reason can help us see that there is a God, as well as to illuminate a few of His basic features. But no sage, however wise, and no scholar, however learned, grasped the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos. Still less could they have foreseen that this holy child was, as it were, born as a sacrifice. Even the Prophets were entrusted with signs alone, and not the true substance of the mystery they preached. That was reserved first for the Virgin Immaculate in holy poverty, then for St. Joseph her Most Chaste Spouse, then the family of the Holy Forerunner, and then to the humble shepherds. Only after all of them did the Magi arrive to gaze upon the faze of God Incarnate. In delaying the Magi, Providence teaches us that the mysteries of grace are a crucifixion of natural reason. But in condescending to let them enter and adore the Divine King, He shows us that He will crown our earnest efforts to reach Him, as only He can, with His mercy.
But still, so very few are the witnesses of this God who remains, as it were, quite hidden! A handful of Jewish shepherds, and three pagan scholars with their retinue. He is brought to the Temple and circumcised – a prophetess and a priest, both soon to depart for eternal life, are entrusted with the secret. Anna and Simeon are a reminder that “salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4:22 KJV) and comes from no other people on earth. The gratuitous particularity of this chosen people, this priestly nation among all others, comes from the newborn babe that Simeon held in his hands. Perhaps, looking upon that smiling face, he suddenly saw all the covenants telescope into one, all collapse into themselves and center upon and magnify this child. Perhaps he knew he was holding the heavenly High Priest, of which his own office was merely a shadow.
Quite soon, the Lord departs from Bethlehem when a wicked and impudent king seeks His life. Then those martyrs, the Holy Innocents, water the ground of Bethlehem with their sainted blood. That grisly dewfall covered the steps of the escaped God who, in His Mercy, made them a very different kind of witness to His Incarnation. But their names are also covered in obscurity. They, too, remain in a kind of holy hiddenness.
There is a common thread between these four groups – or at least, explicitly in the first three, and only implicitly in the last. Contact with the Divine Presence, hidden for so long, brings forth adoration in the soul. The shepherds adore, the Magi adore, the dwellers in the Temple adore, and the Holy Innocents join Him in an oblation of their very blood. This grace of adoration is not given to all souls, but is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the Christian life. It is the sine qua non of Heaven. It is the essence of Christian life. Wherever one adores Our Lord in truth and earnestness, even a soul very imperfectly purified, we can be sure that grace is working there.
This Christmas, let us pray that the Incarnate Lord will grant us the graces of humility, of adoration, and of an earnest search for the God who remains always hidden from our mortal eyes.
I would like to begin by apologizing to my readers for the long hiatus in my writing. I have been unusually busy of late due to academic commitments that began even over the summer. I hope I might be able to find the time to write occasional pieces more regularly over the coming months. For now, I wanted to refer you all to two blogs that, I think, are worth your while. Both are by writers who have since left the Catholic Faith, and while I don’t really agree with their points, I find much of what they say to be thoughtful, provocative, and worth your consideration.
The first is Reditus, the latest blog of Arturo Vasquez. He has some very interesting thoughts about God and the world from a Hindu – specifically Gaudiya Vaishnava – perspective. As someone who has taken a real interest in Hinduism over the last several months, I have found Vasquez’s meditations to be highly illuminating.
The second is The Paraphasic, whose anonymous author some of you may know. While I find some of his objections to Christianity ultimately unconvincing, I can still appreciate that he’s offering important questions that do not have easy answers. I could also relate to much in his autobiographical “Narrative” post.
Finally, I would ask prayers for my work as the academic year unfolds. Be assured of mine for all of you!
“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.
Popular Catholic memory of Port-Royal, especially outside the Francophone world, is of a knot of disgruntled nuns who, in a spirit of disobedience to their lawful superior, refused to condemn the heresies of Cornelius Jansen. There are many problems with this unfair caricature, an inheritance of the final Ultramontane and Jesuit victory over Jansenism in the wake of the French Revolution. The truth is much more complicated, as truth tends to be. We too often forget that these nuns and the community of hermits, servants, and local peasants around them led a life of penance and prayer that was widely admired in their own time (even by saints, as Ellen Weaver notes, building on Louis Cognet and Augustin Gazier). The liturgical and devotional aspects of Port-Royal’s community life have too often been neglected by scholars and, especially, popular Catholic writers who turn their eyes to the Jansenists. We have fixated too much on the controversies of the 1640s-60s, and too little on what daily life was like for those who worked out their salvation in “fear and trembling” at Port-Royal.
It is thus with great pleasure that I here co-publish an edifying and informative excerpt from the Voyages liturgiques of Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, Sieur de Moléon, translated by the authors at Canticum Salomonis. They have already given an excellent overview of this text, in which they note that Marettes, educated at the Petites écoles de Port-Royal, retained something of a Jansenist liturgical sensibility. They sum up his work thus:
On the whole, the picture he paints is of a French people who are deeply engaged in their liturgical life and cathedral chapters that observe the whole office. His “taste” is for antiquity and ceremonial splendor, and this leads him to admire the pontifical liturgies of the middle ages. Admittedly, perhaps he does so because he believes them to be much more ancient than the extant source-books: expressions of the most ancient Gallic liturgies.
Aelredus Rievallensis, “The Voyages Liturgiques: A Roundup,” Canticum Salomonis
Their introduction to the translated chapter on Port-Royal, pages 234-43, follows with the text below. However, let me add a brief preface of my own.
The Voyages liturgiques offers several fascinating glimpses into the communal piety of Port-Royal des Champs. Marettes pays attention to the physical space of Port-Royal. He reports that the paintings in the church are by Philippe de Champaigne. The great French classicist had a daughter at the convent, Soeur Catherine de Saint-Suzanne, and seems to have provided the monastery with several portraits of both nuns and solitaires as well as several edifying works of art. The large altarpiece depicting the Last Supper is today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, with a copy in the Louvre. Marettes devotes particular attention to the epitaphs in and around the church. The epitaphs for the solitaires Emmanuel le Cerf, an Oratorian, and Jean Hamon, a medical doctor and mystic, are especially moving.
Yet it is the liturgical and communal details he provides here that are most exciting for the historian of Jansenism and which, in fact, force us to take the nuns more seriously as daughters of St. Benedict and St. Bernard. Following the egalitarian reform of Mère Angélique, the Abbey did not require dowries of its postulants. Singing the office according to the use of Paris, they prayed the whole Psalter every week. The first chapter of the Constitutions of Port-Royal is dedicated to veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, a significant organizational choice. There were in fact both communal and individual devotions to the Blessed Sacrament at Port-Royal; for, “in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration…they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive holy communion.” Following an ancient usage, they only exposed the Blessed Sacrament during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and even then, only after the daily High Mass. Usually, the Sacrament was reserved in a hanging pyx, “attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier.” The French Jansenists seem to have had a fixation with hanging pyxes; both M. Saint-Cyran and M. Singlin wrote about “suspension” of the Blessed Sacrament in this form.
The community would meet for chapter daily. The nuns engaged in an exacting and penitential adherence to the Rule, including silence, vegetarianism, abstinence from strong drink, and only a single meal per day in Lent. In their persons as in their ecclesiastical furniture, they followed the Cistercian spirit of holy simplicity; Marettes reports that “The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.” Yet they were not without the consolation of quiet reading in the garden during summertime.
Marettes reminds us that Port-Royal was not just a community of nuns, but also included male hermits and domestics. He writes, “After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics.” These servants and workers seem to have had a special participation in the liturgy through this rite, so reminiscent of the blessing of bread found even today in the Eastern Churches. The Necrology of Port-Royal includes these men as well in its roll-call of the Abbey’s luminaries, confirming the sometimes-overlooked egalitarianism of Port-Royaliste spirituality.
One of the more striking moments in the text comes when Marettes writes that “On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.” The practice of lay communion at every Mass contradicts the usual picture of the Jansenists receiving infrequently or as discouraging lay communion. The nuns themselves, at least, seem to have received the Sacrament daily.
And I cannot help but see in one custom a potent metaphor for the troubled history of the monastery. Marettes writes, “On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.” The extraordinary and unjust persecution that the nuns endured under the authorities of the French Church and State – to the point of being deprived of communion during Easter, of being denied the last rites, of condemnation to a slow decline even after reconciliation with the Archbishop, and, at the very end, of having their bodies desecrated and even fed to the dogs – must have seemed like a very long Holy Saturday. Yet the blessed fire of the Holy Ghost does not abandon those who faithfully serve God in humble prayer and penitence. Where we find the Cross, Resurrection follows.
It is not for us to resurrect the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal; historians can only do so much. But by taking the dead on their own terms, we can at least pay them the homage we owe any historical figure, and perhaps especially the defeated, the maligned, the powerless, and the forgotten. Only by doing so can we reckon with our implication in the longstanding myths that efface those voices. It is my hope that the publication of this important translation will help us in that process of revision.
In his monumental Institutions liturgiques, Dom Prosper Guéranger famously castigated the Neo-Gallican liturgies that proliferated in 17th and 18th century France for, inter alia, being products of Jansenist inspiration. Setting aside the question of whether these liturgies betray a heretical notion of predestination, it is true that many figures associated with the Jansenist movement did have a keen interest in the liturgy. Contrary to what one might expect given Dom Guéranger’s accusations, these “Jansenists” prized respect for ancient custom and repudiated needless novelty.
The intellectual centre of Jansenism was the Abbey of Port-Royal, a community of Cistercian nuns who were reformed in the early 17th century by the formidable Abbess Angélique Arnauld and became noted for their exemplary religious observance and cultivation of liturgical piety. This attracted a number of intellectuals who chose to settle as solitaires on the abbey grounds, leading a retired life of study and simple manual labour, including Angélique’s brother Antoine, one of the most prominent Jansenist theologians. Both the nuns and solitaries set up schools to teach neighbouring children.
One of those children was Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, whom our readers will remember as the author of the Voyages liturgiques. His father had been sent to the galleys for publishing Jansenist works, and Jean-Baptiste himself once did a stint at the Bastille for his involvement in the controversy. His main interest, however, was not moral theology but liturgy. His Voyages evince his veneration for liturgical antiquity and opposition to modern developments in matters of ritual, furnishing, and vestments. Yet he found a way to reconcile such views with his enthusiasm for the Neo-Gallican reforms of the Mass and Office, ultimately sharing the hubristic certainty of most men of his age that their own putative enlightenment was able to improve upon “Gothic barbarism”. Our Aelredus has described and critiqued the seemingly contradictory tastes that Jean-Baptiste Le Brun shared with other Jansenist figures.
With these remarks in mind, let us see how the liturgy was celebrated in the Jansenist stronghold of Port-Royal, in a chapter of the Voyages that Jean-Baptiste Le Brun wrote before the abbey’s suppression in 1708 and the destruction of most of its buildings. (Although the Voyages was published in 1718, Le Brun employs the present tense in this chapter.)
We are obliged to the Amish Catholic for his help in translating this chapter.
Port-Royal-des-Champs is an abbey of nuns of the Order of Cîteaux lying between Versailles and the former monastery of Chevreuse.
The church is quite large, and its simplicity and cleanliness inspires respect and devotion.
The main altar is not attached to the wall, since the ample and well-kept sacristy is located behind it. Above the altar hangs the holy pyx, attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier. It is set under a large crucifix above a well-regarded painting of the Last Supper by Philippe de Champaigne.
There is nothing on the altar but a crucifix. The four wooden candlesticks are set on the ground at its sides.
The woodwork of the sanctuary and parquet floor is very well maintained, as is that of the nuns’ choir. Indeed, the stalls are kept in such good condition that one would think they were carved not twenty years ago, when in fact they are over 150 years old.1
The church contains some paintings in the style of Champaigne, and a very well-kept holy water basin to the right of its entry.
Inside the cloister, there are several tombs of abbesses and other nuns. From these tombs one can garner
1. that the first abbesses of the Order of Cîteaux, following the spirit of St Bernard, did not have croziers. Even today, the Abbess of Port-Royal does not use one.
2. that in this monastery the nuns used to be consecrated by the bishop. Two of them are represented on the same tomb wearing a sort of maniple.2See figure XIV. The inscription around the tomb reads:
“Here lie two blood-sisters, consecrated nuns of this abbey, Adeline and Nicole aux Pieds d’Estampes. May their souls rest in everlasting peace. Amen. Adeline died in the year of our Lord 1288.”3
There is an ancient necrology or obituary in this abbey that includes the ritual for the consecration or blessing of a nun. It describes how on these occasions the bishop celebrated Mass and gave communion to the nun he blessed. To this effect he consecrated a large host which he broke into eight particles, giving one as communion to the nun. He then placed the seven other particles of his host in her right hand, covered by a Dominical or small white cloth. During the eight days after her consecration or blessing, she gave herself these particles as communion. Priests also used to give themselves communion during the forty days after their ordination or consecration.4
Under the lamp by the baluster lies a tomb dated 1327, if I remember correctly, which is worthy of description, especially given that its most interesting aspect is misreported in the Gallia Christiana of the brothers de Sainte-Marthe.
It used to be the custom for devout noble ladies to take up the nun’s habit during their last illness, or at least to be clothed in it after their death. See, for example, the tomb of Queen Blanche, mother of King St Louis, at Maubuisson Abbey near Pontoise. Here in Port-Royal we find the tomb of one Dame Marguerite de Levi—wife of Matthew V de Marly of the illustrious House of Montmorency, Grand-Chamberlain of France—buried in a nun’s habit, with this inscription:
“Here rested, whose name thou shalt have there hereafter. Marguerite was the wife of Matthew de Marly, and daughter of the noble Guy de Levi. She bore six boys. After her husband died, she went to the nuns. Amongst the claustral sisters she chose to make her home. In her long rest, may she be buried in nun’s clothing. May eternal light shine upon her in peace everlasting. Year 1327.”5
By the door of the church, in the vestibule, is the tomb of a priest vested in his vestments. His chasuble is rounded in all corners, not cut or clipped, gathered up over his arms, and hanging down below and behind him in points. His maniple is not wider below than it is on top, and he does not wear his stole crossed over his breast, but straight down like bishops, Carthusians, and the ancient monks of Cluny, who have rejected innovation on this point. His alb has apparels on the bottom matching the vestments: this is what the manuscripts call the alba parata. They are still used in cathedral churches and ancient abbeys.
Next to the church door and the clock tower lies the small cemetery of domestics, where two epitaphs are worthy of note.
“To God the Best and Greatest.
“Here lies Emmanuel le Cerf, who, after dedicating most of his life to the education of the people, deemed the evangelical life superior to evangelical preaching and, in order that he who had lived only for others should die to himself, embraced a penitential life in his old age as eagerly as he did seriously. He embraced the weight of old age, more conducive to suffering than aught else, and various diseases of the body as remedy for his soul and advantageous provision for the journey to eternity. Humbly he awaited death in this port of rest, living no longer as a priest but as a layman, and attained it nearly ninety years old. He died on 8 December 1674, and wished to be buried in this cemetery near the Cross. May he rest in peace.”6
And the other:
“Here rests Jean Hamon, doctor, who, having spent his youth in the study of letters, was eminently learned in the Greek and Latin tongues. Seeing that he flourished in the University of Paris by the renown of his eloquence, and that his fame grew daily for his skill of medicine, he feared the lure of flattery and fame and the haughtiness of life. Suddenly stirred by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he quickly poured out the value of his inheritance into the bosom of the poor and, in the thirty-third year of his age, he dragged himself into this solitude, as he had long pondered doing. First he applied himself to the labour of the fields, then to serving the ministers of Christ, and soon returned to his original profession, healing the wounded members of the Redeemer in the person of the poor, among whom he honoured the handmaidens of Christ as the spouses of the Lord. He wore the coarsest garments, fasting nearly every day, slept on a board, spent day and night in nearly perpetual vigils, prayer, and meditation, nocturnal works everywhere breathing the love of God. For thirty-seven years he accumulated the toils of medicine, walking some twelve leagues every day, very often while fasting, to visit the sick in the villages, providing them what they might need, helping them by counsel, by hand, with medicines, with food whereof he deprived himself, living for twenty-two years on eating bran bread and water, which he ate secretly and alone, while standing up. As wisely as he had lived, considering every day his last, thus he departed this life in the Lord, amidst the prayers and tears of his brethren, in deep silence and sweet meditation of the Lord’s mercies, with his eyes, mind, and heart fixed on Jesus Christ, mediator between God and man, rejoicing that he obtained the tranquil death for which he had prayed, that he might gain eternal life, at the age of 69, on 22 February 1687.”7
Heeding the spirit of St Bernard, the nuns are subject to the Lord Archbishop of Paris, who is their superior. They also sing the office according to the use of Paris, except that they sing the ferial psalms every day in order to fulfill the Rule of St Benedict which they follow, and which binds them to saying the entire psalter every week. This they do with the approbation of the late M. de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris.
At the blessing and aspersion of holy water on Sundays, the abbess and her nuns come forward to receive it at the grill from the priest’s hand.
After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics. He then announces any feasts or fasting days during the coming week, and gives a short exhortation or explanation of the day’s Gospel.
At every High Mass of the year, the sacristan or thurifer goes to the nuns’ grill at the end of the Credo to receive, through a hatch in the screen, a box from the sister sacristan containing the exact number of hosts needed for the sisters who are to receive communion. He brings them to the altar and gives them the celebrant.
At High Masses for the Dead, the sacristan goes to the grill to receive the bread, a large host, and the wine in a cruet, and brings them to the altar. He gives the host to the priest on the paten, kissing it on the inside edge, and the cruet of wine to the deacon, who pours the wine into the chalice.
At the Agnus Dei, the nuns embrace and give each other the kiss of peace.
On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.
Devotion for the most blessed Sacrament is so great in this monastery that in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration as part of the Institute of the Blessed Sacrament (it is for this reason that they have exchanged their black scapular for a white one charged with a scarlet cross over the breast, about two fingers in width and a half-foot tall), they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive holy communion.
Nevertheless, the Blessed Sacrament is only exposed during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and this every day after High Mass. For here Mass is never said at an altar where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. We will come back to this point.
The nuns of this monastery observe an exact and rigorous silence. Except in cases of illness, they never eat meat, and fish only rarely, about twelve or fifteen times a year. They solely drink water, and observe the great fast of Lent in its full rigour, as in the age of St Bernard, eating only at five in the evening after Vespers, which they usually say at 4 p.m., even though they wake up at night to sing Matins and perform manual labour during the day.
A spiritual conference is held after lunch, during which they continue to work, and during which it is not permitted to speak aloud.
During the summer, the nuns are sometimes allowed to go into the garden after dinner, but many refrain from doing so, and those that go do so separately, taking a book to read or some work to do.
Matins are said here at 2 a.m. together with Lauds, but in winter Lauds are said separately at 6 a.m, and then a Low Mass is celebrated between Lauds and Prime. During the rest of the year, Prime is said at 6 a.m., followed by a Conventual Low Mass. Chapter follows with a reading from the Martyrology, the Necrology, and the Rule, some chapter of which the Abbess explicates once or twice a week. Then they hold the proclamation of faults, and appropriate penances are imposed.
Terce is said at 8:30 a.m., followed by High Mass. Sext is at 11 a.m., and on ecclesiastical fast days at 11:45, after which they go to lunch, except in Lent when they do not dine, for in the Rule of St Benedict to lunch means not to fast. None is at 2 p.m. in winter and at 2:30 in summer.
The first bell for Vespers rings at 4 p.m., and the office begins some fifteen minutes later. It finishes at 5 or 5:15, for they sing very unhurriedly and distinctly. After Vespers in Lent, they sound the refectory bell, and the nuns go there to lunch and dine together. One sees nuns following this regime until they are 72 or 75 or even older. Not too long ago there was a priest who, in Lent, only ate in the evening, even though he was 87 years old, and lived till he was 92.
On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.
The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.
The Abbey receives girls without a dowry, and makes neither pacts or conventions for the reception of nuns, following the primitive spirit of their monastery, as is clear from the following acts:
“Be it known to all men that I, Eudes de Thiverval, esquire, and Thècle my wife gave in pure and perpetual alms, for the salvation of our souls and those of our ancestors, two bushels of corn, that is, one of winter-crop and the other of oats from our tithe-district of Jouy, to the Church of Our Lady of Port-Royal and the nuns serving God therein, to be collected every day on the feast of St Remigius. Be it known that the Abbess and Convent of the said place freely received one of our daughters into their society of nuns. Not wishing to incur the vice of ingratitude, we have given the said two bushels of corn in alms to the said House of our will without any pact. Which, that it may remain ratified and fixed, we have made to be confirmed by the support of our seal. Done in the year of grace 1216.”8
“Renaud, by the grace of God bishop of Chartres, to all who would earlier or later inspect the present page, in the Lord greeting. We make it known to all future and present that by these presents that the Abbess and Convent of Nuns of Porrois [i.e. Port-Royal] freely received in charity Asceline, daughter of Hugues de Marchais, esquire, as a sister and nun of God. Thereafter the said esquire, lest he should give away his said daughter to be betrothed to Christ without a dowry from part of his patrimony, standing in our presence did give and grant to the Church of Porrois and the nuns serving God therein in perpetual alms for the portion of his said daughter the return of one annual bushel of corn in his grange of Marchais or Lonville to be collected every year in the Paris measure of Dourdan, and three firkins of wine in his vineyard of Marchais to be collected yearly, and ten shillings in his census-district of Marchais. That his gift may remain ratified and fixed, at the petition of the same Hugues we have made the present letters to be confirmed by our seal in testimony. Done at Chartres in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord 1217, in the month of April.”9
“Be it known to all them that I, Odeline de Sèvre, gave in pure and perpetual alms to the house of Port-Royal for the soul of my late husband Enguerrand of happy memory, and for the salvation of my soul, and of all my children and ancestors, and especially for the salvation and love of my daughter Marguerite who received the religious habit in the same house, four arpents of vine in my clos of Sèvre to be possessed in perpetuity. My sons Gervais the eldest, Roger, and Simon praised, willed, and granted this donation, to whom it belonged by hereditary right. And further we offered the same donation with the book upon the altar of Port-Royal. In testimony and perpetual confirmation whereof, since by said sons Gervais, Roger, and Simon were not yet esquires and did not yet have seals, I the said Odeline confirmed the present charter by the support of my seal with their will and convent. Done on the year of our Lord 1228.”10
Author’s note: [After the Abbey’s suppression] the altar and choir stalls were purchased by the Cistercian nuns of Paris and placed in their church, where one can see them.
Hic jacent duae sorores germanae, hujus praesentis Abbatiae Moniales Deo sacratae, Adelina et Nicholaa dictae ad Pedem, de Stampis quondam progenitae: quarum animae in pace perpetua requiescant. Amen. Obiit dicta Adelina anno Domini M. C. C. octog. octavo.
Author’s note: See Fulbert. Epist. 2 ad Finard. Rituale Rotomag. ann. 1651.
Hic requievit, ibi post cujus nomen habebis. Margareta fuit Matthæi Malliancensis Uxor; & hanc genuit generosus Guido Levensis. Sex parit ista mares. Vir obit. Petit hæc Moniales. Intra claustrales elegit esse lares. In requie multa sit Nonnæ veste sepulta; Luceat æterna sibi lux in pace suprema. Anno M. C. bis, LX. bis, V. semel, I. bis.
D. O. M. Hic jacet Emmanuel le Cerf, qui cum majorem vitæ partem erudiendis populis consumpsisset, vitam evangelicam evanglicæ prædicationi anteponendam ratus, ut sibi moreretur, qui aliis tantum vixerat, ad pœnitentiam accurrit senex eo festinantius, quo serius; pondusque ipsum senectutis, quo nihil ad patiendum aptius, et varios corporis morbos in remedium animæ conversos, tanquam opportunum æternitatis viaticum amplexus; mortem humilis, nec se jam sacerdotem, sed laicum gerens, in hoc quietis portu expectavit, quæ obtigit fere nonagenario. Obiit 8 Decembris 1674 et in Cœmeterio prope Crucem sepeliri voluit. Requiescat in pace.
Hic quiescit Joannes Hamon Medicus, qui adolescentia in studiis litterarum transacta, latine græceque egregie doctus, cum in Academia Parisiensi eloquentiæ laude floreret, et medendi peritia in dies inclaresceret, famae blandientis insidias et superbiam vitæ metuens, Spiritus impetu subito percitus, patrimonii pretio in sinum pauperum festinanter effuso, anno ætatis xxxiij in solitudinem hanc, quam diu jam meditabatur, se proripuit. Ubi primum opere rustico exercitus, tum Christi ministris famulatus, mox professioni pristinæ redditus, membra Redemptoris infirma curans in pauperibus, inter quos ancillas Christi quasi sponsas Domini sui suspexit; veste vilissima, jejuniis prope quotidianis, cubatione in asseribus, pervigiliis, precatione, et meditatione diu noctuque fere perpetua, lucubrationibus amorem Dei undique spirantibus, cumulavit ærumnas medendi quas toleravit per annos xxxvj quotidiano pedestri xij plus minus milliarum itinere, quod sæpissime jejunus conficiebat, villarum obiens ægros, eorumque commodis serviens consilio, manu, medicamentis, alimentis, quibus se defraudabat, pane furfureo et aqua, idque clam et solus, et stando per annos xxij. sustentans vitam, quam ut sapienter duxerat, quasi quotidie moriturus, ita inter fratrum preces et lacrymas in alto silentio, misericordias Domini suavissime recolens; atque in Mediatorem Dei et hominum Jesum Christum, oculis, mente, t corde defixus, exitu ad votum suum tranquillo lætus, ut æternum victurus clausit in Domino, annos natus 69 dies 20 viij Kalend. Mart. anni 1687.
Noverint universi quod ego Odo de Tiverval miles et Thecla uxor mea dedimus in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam, pro remedio animarum nostrarum et antecessorum nostrorum, Ecclesiae beatae Mariae de Portu-Regio et Monialibus ibidem Deo servientibus duos modios bladi, unum scilicet hibernagii, et alterum avenae in decima nostra de Joüy, singulis annis in festo S. Remigii percipiendos. Sciendum vero est quod Abbatissa et ejusdem loci Conventus unam de filiabus nostris in societatem Monialium benignereceperunt. Nos vero ingratudinis vitium incurrere nolentes, praedictos duos modios dictae jam domui de voluntate nostra sine aliquo pactoeleemosynavimus. Quod ut ratum et immobile perseveret, sigilli nostri munimine fecimus roborari. Actum anno gratiae M. CC. xvj.
Reginaldus Dei gratia Cartonensis Episcopus, universis primis et posteris praesentem paginam inspecturis salutem in Domino. Notum facimus omnibus tam futuris quam praesentibus quod, quoniam Abbatissa et Conventus Sanctimonialium de Porregio Acelinam filiam Hugonis de Marchesio militis in sororem et sanctimonialiem Dei et caritatis intuitu gratis receperant, postmodum dictus miles in nostra constitutus praesentia, ne dictam filiam suam nuptam Christi parte sui patrominii relinqueret indotatam, Ecclesiae de Porregio et Monialibus ibi Deo servientibus dedit et concessit in perpetuam eleemosynam, pro portione dictae filiae suae unum modium bladi annui redditus in granchia sua de Marchesio vel de Lonvilla singulis annis percipiendum ad mensuram Parisiensem de Dordano, et tres modios vini in vinea sua de Marchesio annuatim percipiendos, et decem solidos in censu suo de Marchesio. Ut autem donum ejus ratum et stabile permaneret, ad petitionem ipsius Hugonis praesentes Litteras in testimonium sigillo nostro fecimus roborari. Actum Carnoti anno Dominicae Incarnationis M. CC. septimo decimo, mense Aprili.
Noverint universi quod ego Odelina de Sèvre donavi in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam domui Portus-Regis pro anima bonae memoriae Ingeranni quondam mariti mei, et pro salute animae meae, et omnium liberorum et progenitorum meorum; et maxime pro salute et amore Margaretae filiae meae quae in eadem domo religionis habitum assumpserat, quatuor arpentos vineae in clauso meo de Sèvre jure perpetuo possidendos. Hanc autem donationem laudaverunt, voluerunt et concesserunt filii mei Gervasius primogenitus, Rogerus et Simon, ad quos eadem donatio jure hereditario pertinebat. Immo et ipsi eandem donationem obtulimus cum libro super altare Portus Regis. In cujus rei testimonium et conformationem perpetuam ego praedicta Odelina, quia praedicti filii mei G. R. et Simon necdum milites erant, et necdum sigilla habebant, de voluntate eorum et assensu praesentem Chartam sigilli mei munimine roboravi. Actum anno Domini M. CC. vigesimo octavo.
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.
Ascensiontide is perhaps my favorite season of the Church Kalendar for personal as well as theological reasons. And so I am delighted to share with my readers an extremely good post over at Canticum Salomonis, featuring a translated sermon by Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1080-1154), a lesser-known contemporary of St. Bernard. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of this richly-illustrated translation:
The sun was raised aloft, and the moon stood still in her course. Christ is the eternal sun who sheds his radiance upon all the choirs of angels; he is the true light who enlightens every soul, who long lay concealed behind the cloud of his flesh, wreathed in the shadows of our frailty. Emerging at last from the shadows of Hell, today he rises gloriously above the stars and, raised above all the decorated ranks of angels, he sits, Lord of majesty, at the right hand of the Father. The moon, that is the Church, stands still in her course, gleaming in his light, when in the person of the apostles she saw him ascend into heaven. For the apostles showed themselves to be the Church’s course when they taught her the course of good living, and taught her how to order her course after the Sun of justice. O! what brilliant horns the new-born moon has beamed forth today, when the Sun reaching the heights of heaven has infused her with a ray of eternal light! O! how serene her face as she stood in her course, when she saw her flesh penetrate the heavens in her Head, her Redeemer, her Spouse, her God! She saw them, I say, through the eyes of the apostolic chorus, who were her course, and of the Virgin Mother of God, her type! O what joy burst forth today among the angels in heaven when the Son of God, who had gone from his palace into the Prison for the sake of his servant, yea from his fatherland into banishment, an exile for an exile, now returns in triumph to his Father’s kingdom! And so today is clept the day of God’s triumph, when the victor over death triumphant was welcomed by the senate of the celestial court with hymnic praises, glorifying the author of life!
Honoratus Augustodunensis, On Our Lord’s Ascension
Read the whole thing, and have a blessed Ascension Day.
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.