Across Another River

The Lamb of God at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Walsingham, Norfolk. Photo taken by the author.

Then, at last, when he had crossed the Old Road, and had gone by the Lightning-struck Land and the Fisherman’s Well, he found, between the forest and the mountain, a very ancient and little chapel; and now he heard the bell of the saint ringing clearly and so sweetly that it was as it were the singing of the angels. Within it was very dark and there was silence. He knelt and saw scarcely that the chapel was divided into two parts by a screen that rose up to the round roof. There was a glinting of shapes as if golden figures were painted on this screen, and through the joinings of its beams there streamed out thin needles of white splendour as if within there was a light greater than that of the sun at noonday. And the flesh began to tremble, for all the place was filled with the odours of Paradise, and he heard the ringing of the Holy Bell and the voices of the choir that out-sang the Fairy Birds of Rhiannon, crying and proclaiming:

Glory and praise to the Conqueror of Death: to the Fountain of Life Unending.

Nine times they sang this anthem, and then the whole place was filled with blinding light. For a door in the screen had been opened, and there came forth an old man, all in shining white, on whose head was a gold crown. Before him went one who rang the bell; on each side there were young men with torches; and in his hands he bore the Mystery of Mysteries wrapped about in veils of gold and of all colours, so that it might not be discerned; and so he passed before the screen, and the light of heaven burst forth from that which he held. Then he entered in again by a door that was on the other side, and the Holy Things were hidden.

Arthur Machen, The Secret Glory, Chapter II

Yesterday was a liturgical confluence of some personal importance for me: St. Philip Neri, St. Augustine of Canterbury, and the Ascension. The liturgical Providence of God thus epitomized my full life of faith on one day. St. Philip Neri, whom I love particularly among all the saints, stands as a good figure for my past. The Ascension points to my own future hope of salvation, when I might join the Ascended Christ, my King and High Priest, in Heaven. To quote a favorite hymn:

The great I AM hath sworn; I on His oath depend.
I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend.
I shall behold His face; I shall His power adore,
and sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.

That leaves St. Augustine of Canterbury, father of the English Church. He is the sign of my present.

On that triple feast, I made my confession in the Episcopal Church and was conditionally baptized under the patronage of the Blessed Patriarch Enoch, “who walked with God” (Gen. 5:24). I then took communion for the first time since Leap Day 2020. As Pascal put it, “Joie, joie, joie, pleurs de joie.”

A post-baptismal selfie.

I have long held some doubts about the validity of my Methodist baptism as an infant in 1995—for which I have no records beyond family photos, but which was for some reason acceptable to my parish and Archdiocese when I completed RCIA. I thus felt it was necessary to rectify that situation. I am now, without any doubt, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

The reason I did this in the Episcopal Church and not a Roman Catholic one is that, for nearly a year, I have been attending my local Anglo-Catholic parish. St. John’s, Bellefonte, has been a tremendously edifying community. Indeed, it is the only parish where I have felt genuinely wanted, and not simply tolerated. I started attending last summer in the midst of a very deep spiritual crisis. This crisis, which had been percolating off and on since August of 2018, was one that, had I stayed a churchgoing Roman, would certainly have caused me to leave Christianity altogether. It was only by the grace of God that I found spiritual sustenance and safe harbor at St. John’s. It felt like escaping into fresh air from a very large building which is slowly filling with smoke, because an unchecked fire is raging in its wings. It felt like jumping into a lifeboat from a rather majestic cruise-ship that is sinking, even as people keep dancing and the band plays on. It felt like escaping to a beloved aunt from a bad mother who beats you mercilessly (even when you do what she says!) and denigrates you at every opportunity, taking every chance to remind you how much better your siblings are—all while claiming to love you. A mother who asks for tremendous sacrifices and gives no help to accomplish them. A mother who requires all until she forbids all, and forbids all until she requires all, and then demands you forget everything that came before. The Church is a bad mother, not just because of her many spiritual abuses, but precisely because she is inconsistent, all while claiming that such inconsistency is impossible! And who do we believe: the Church, or our lying eyes? 

I did not advertise my transition to regular worship in a TEC church because I wanted to see if I might find any reason to stay in Rome, both through my online interactions and when I went to Catholic Masses upon my visits home. But the hook that I was half-hoping would convince me to stay on the far side of the Tiber never appeared. If anything, I became even more convinced that I should leave. And then, as the day drew near and the details were finalized, I did not tell anyone because I did not want to risk losing my nerve in the face of the old psychological traps. But now that the deed is done, I can, like Ozymandias, explain my “master-stroke” a bit.

I have never written the story of my conversion to Roman Catholicism; somehow, describing my loss of faith is even harder. I am not going to do that here. This is not my Apologia Pro Vita Sua. And I am not here to write a Chick Tract; I remain grateful for much of what I received in the Church of Rome in happier days. I know that no matter what I say, it will not be adequate to describe my own sense of disillusionment, of loss, of bitterness. And I know that, even were I to express at great length, with reason and evidence, all of my historical and theological misgivings about the post-Vatican I Papal Church, or my serious doubts engendered by the still-unresolved Silverstream scandal and similar cases, it would still not matter; many of you will attribute everything to my personal life. So be it.

The chapel of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, on the very first morning I set foot there nearly five years ago. I will, happily, be able to receive communion there upon my next visit.

I don’t feel that I need to justify myself. But I will state my position, briefly.

I have done what I needed to do for the very survival of my faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I repudiate nothing of Catholic Tradition that is true, and good and beautiful; I reject everything that causes scandal, disedification, and injury to the Kingdom of God. I embrace the traditional, episcopal, conciliar constitution of the Church which still exists, however imperfectly, in the Anglican Communion (itself in communion with the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht). And, with all my heart, I abjure the Pope.

I emphatically don’t wish to burn any bridges with my many Roman acquaintances by this disagreement with their theology and separation from their communion. Mostly, I am leaving behind friends. That is my only sadness. I have countless fond memories—Easter Vigils in Charlottesville celebrated with friends, stirring moments of devotion and worship next to friends at the various British Oratories of St. Philip Neri, giving the eulogy at my own grandmother’s Catholic funeral in Aiken, and everywhere engaging in edifying conversations with friends who genuinely believe in Christ and will reach Heaven before me. I wish them well. As long as I could focus on orthopraxy beside such wonderful people, I could ignore the tremendous unpleasantness and the doublethink that being a Roman Catholic actually entailed for me personally.

But I can’t do it anymore. I have no regrets about my decision. God will draw us all together in the last day. I have no doubt that I have not left the one eternal Church of Christ. I have simply moved to a different (healthier?) part of it, one where God in His mercy has deigned to meet me in my terrible distress. To quote a man holier than me, “A mark of the Christian Church is that it is catholic, embracing all the angels of heaven, all the elect and the just on earth, and of all times.” And again: “There is nothing more spacious than the Church of God; because all the elect and the just of all ages comprise it.”

I have come to realize that all I can do to persevere in that Church is trust in the grace of God, focus on the local, and work out my salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). I am under no illusions that my new home will be perfect, that it is free of divisive error, or that I will always be happy here. But neither is Rome: it was full of rather shocking evil, various divisive errors, and keen, mounting unhappiness for me personally.

Our Lady of Walsingham, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bellefonte, PA. Photo by author.

Anglicanism is not perfect. Even as someone convinced of the historical validity of Anglican orders, I recognize this. It is wracked with schism. There are rather atrocious liturgical abuses from time to time. People like John Shelby Spong, James Pike, and John A.T. Robinson exist in their episcopate. Most seriously, there are sexual abuse scandals here, too.  

But Anglicans’ focus on Christ and the Scriptures, their minimalist approach to doctrine, their “inclusive orthodoxy,” their localism, their seemly forms of vernacular worship, their quiet and decorous approach to personal holiness, their epistemic humility, their irenic stance towards Christians beyond their communion, their welcome to LGBT people, their poetic and moderate devotions, their customary aversion to dogmatism and legalism and enthusiasm, their respect for conscience, their aestheticism, even their sense of humor—all of it is vastly superior to what I have found to be the modus operandi in the Roman Church, whether in the typical Novus Ordo parish or in one of the Traditionalist ghettos. But above all, I am attracted to Anglicanism because I find the faith, hope, and charity of Christ there.

And so, “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1 BCP). Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote,

For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its souls. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity,” but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. Hence its story can never differ from the story of the Corinth to which the Apostle wrote. Like Corinth, it has those of Paul, of Peter, or Apollos; like Corinth, it has nothing that it has not received; like Corinth, it learns of unity through its nothingness before the Cross of Christ; and, like Corinth, it sees in the Apostolate its dependence upon the one people of God, and the death by which every member and every Church bears witness to the Body which is one.

Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, pg, 188; emphasis my own

This ecclesiological vision rather perfectly captures my own view of the Church, a view I have tried to express elsewhere.

Illustration from All Glory: Brush Drawing Meditations on the Prayer of Consecration, by Allan Rohan Crite (Cambridge, Mass: Society of Saint John the Evangelist, 1947). My priest was kind enough to give me his copy of this absolutely extraordinary work as a baptismal gift, from which this photo is taken.

And to be quite honest, becoming an Anglican feels a bit like coming home. And not just because, during the Evensong which immediately preceded my baptism, we happened to recite Psalm 24, my old school Psalm. During my first conversion, family friends in the Anglican Continuum were very kind to me and nurtured my fledgling faith. My first copy of the Book of Common Prayer was given to me by another dear family friend, who has since departed this mortal life. Her funeral in Virginia was, I think, one of the first proper Episcopalian liturgies I ever attended (and sang at). I spent two years as a graduate student at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, one of the most Anglo-Catholic seminaries in the Church of England. It is a community of men and women to whom I will be forever grateful. There are many others to thank, among whom I will mention only those who directly and personally encouraged my conversion since last summer: Father B., Mother R., Father J., Father S., CD, KH, RB, JC, and my interlocutors in the EC. You know who you are. I confess, I am grateful as well to those few Roman Catholic friends who, whether out of affection for me or sincere piety, did try to persuade me to stay.

Most of all, I have to thank the people of St. John’s, including my priest, Fr. Carlos de la Torre, a truly tremendous pastor, and Deacon Alex Dyakiw, who has shown me nothing but kindness and who stood as godfather for me. If I ever reach heaven, it will be in no small part due to the example, charity, and prayers of these two good and faithful servants.

There was a moment at the last Easter Vigil that furnished a perfect picture of what I have received at St. John’s. I got to the church early and was so absorbed in my pre-Mass readings that I forgot to pick up a candle. Once the Vigil started at the back of the nave, I realized that I was the only one without a light. Yet my priest, seeing my lack, brought me one. He graciously let me light it—while he was processing with the paschal candle up the aisle. He even paused the procession to give me the flame. This little moment, which no one but me would remember, was a powerful image of grace itself, and how it works in our hearts. That grace, which binds us to the very life of Christ, brings us into the New Jerusalem, builds us into the Eternal Temple, and makes us members incorporate of the Kingdom of God—that almighty grace is “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). It is because of that grace that I can say, with a confidence born of faith,

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.

Psalm 27:4 KJV

It by that grace that I have been baptized into the Jordan, by that grace that I have swum the Thames, and by that grace that II hope to drink one day from another, supernal river, flowing from the Throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:1). I beg your prayers that I may always be faithful to the grace that I have received.

On Faith and the Priesthood of Christ

And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. – Luke 24: 50-53

Many years ago, shortly after the start of my faith journey, I received some very good advice from an Anglican friend of mine. Or rather, I received a very good prayer. She told me that whenever she was anxious or worried or stressed about anything, she resorted to a prayer that ran like this:

“Jesus Christ is my High Priest, and He will always see me through.”

There is much consolation in these simple words, as I have had frequent occasion to learn in the years since then. And, to be honest, I am most drawn to Christ in the mystery of His High Priesthood. I often find myself asking Him to pray for me, not in the sense that one asks a friend or a saint to pray, but as one can only ask a sovereign and perfect intercessor. This sense of Christ as High Priest has become part of the basic structure of my own faith. Yet today’s feast, the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven, invites us all to dwell upon this mystery in a more explicit way.

The Ascension from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (Source)

It is a curious fact of the Church’s kalendar that in those solemnities when she most fervently celebrates the Incarnation, she also insists most firmly upon the hiddenness of God. In Christmas, we observe Christ born in a lowly shed at night, disclosing His presence only to those shepherds who resemble Him in their poverty, humility, and obscurity. Today’s feast of the Ascension is composed of a similar doubling. It brings before our eyes the Incarnation in its most radical implications—while reminding us that we live in and with Christ’s apparent absence.

It is, therefore, a salutary lesson in the virtue of Faith. I think that we too often lose sight of what Faith really is. Scripture tells us: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 KJV). But what does this really mean?

God’s absence is felt in two ways. First, we feel it through the insistent reality of evil. The agony of the world we live in is too great, too universal, and too obvious to need any underlining. The Church is no different. How many malicious and mediocre priests seem to cloud the pure light of the Gospel! Their sin weighs more heavily, for they have been given a greater charge. Yet there is some comfort in the High Priesthood of Christ. If our earthly priests falter and fail, Christ never will. He remains forever a spotless offering in the sight of the Father, and His blood is all-cleansing. The invisible pontiff of an invisible, all-embracing, and everlasting temple, Christ never abandons His children, who linger below with expectant eyes.

Let us pass on to the second sense in which God hides Himself, leaving us with, in the words of R.S. Thomas,

this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

R.S. Thomas, “The Absence”

The past is forever dead to us, an enormous absence, a distantly glimmering mirage that fades even as we approach it. Sacred History, even supported by texts and archaeology, is not a special case. There is a sense in which the facts of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ are no different here. We may participate in them, but we cannot directly experience them as historical events, in historical time.

The great High Priest in Heaven. (Source)

So, what are we to do? How do we deal with the fact that God’s acts of revelation lie hidden behind the curtain of time? Quite simply, we must have faith. We must declare that faith is not certainty and not knowledge, but an engraced movement to trust those little lights given unto us. Those lights are, mainly, Scripture and Tradition, particularly the Liturgy, in which the Church as a body transcends the limits of earthly time through her collective remembrance. There is a tendency in Catholicism to downplay the “memorial” function of liturgy. This is a mistake. In fact, there is a sense in which the essence of the Liturgy (or rather, the Liturgies of the various Catholic Churches) is memory. But it is the memory of the Church as the very Body of Christ, a memory which realizes and re-presents the object of remembrance, not mere empty symbolism. Orthodox theologians have been better on this point than Western ones, perhaps because they have not been so fearful of the specter of Zwingli. But I digress.

All of this is to say that we cannot state with the certainty of historical science whether Sacred History is true. There is no real evidence for most of revelation, and we should not let the apologists delude us on this point. They’re far more addled by modernity than they realize. But by grace we can and should leap boldly across the chasm of our natural uncertainty, avoiding the Scylla of Apologetic Positivism and the Charybdis of Naturalistic Doubt. The result is not knowledge, which has no meaning here, but faith.

We would all be better off in a position of greater epistemological humility. For instance—let’s be honest—we have absolutely no knowledge of what happens after death. The data is inconclusive: annihilation, a flash of light, reincarnation, hauntings, purgatory, heaven and hell. We know nothing. It may seem like a commonplace, but it bears repeating, that our fate after death is a mystery. All we can do is have faith that what we have been promised is true. But none of this is certainty, not even for our own salvation. Do you know you will be saved? No. For no one can know what comes after death. Eternal hellfire or an infinity of mute blackness or a strange new human life could come instead. The only thing to do is to pray for mercy “in fear and trembling,” placing our faith in the Hidden God (Philip. 2:12).

Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen, The Risen Christ (The Ascension), National Trust, Baddesley Clinton (Source)

Do not say to me that you “know” these things because you “know” your Bible or because you “know” Church teaching or even because you “know” Jesus. To be frank, I don’t believe it. In fact, I’m not confident we can know God at all, in the sense of positive knowledge. God’s existence is not like a mathematical theorem or the date of the Battle of Waterloo. Nor do I think you can know God or any of His saving mysteries like you can know another person. You cannot see God; you cannot touch Him; you cannot hear Him like you can hear a friend or lover or even a stranger passing in the street. Simply put, I don’t believe that our “knowledge” of God, the Infinite and loving ground of Being, should be called “knowledge” at all. In fact, I rather suspect that this fixation with “knowledge” has been a very substantial problem for the Church throughout her history.

To interject a personal note; I look back at my life and I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew Christ. There are others I doubt as well. False mystics and visionaries abound, as the Church chokes on her own prelest. But when I look at my own case, I remain unsure. I certainly know a lot about the Church, and have ever since I eagerly began RCIA nearly ten years ago. But did I know Christ? Was I just enamored with my own exaltation, with the fool’s-gold assurances of spiritual certainty, with the glittering baubles that float like empty bottles down the Tiber? Is it even possible to know Him? Or must we just choose, by grace, to have faith—to place our confidence in Him, trusting that He will guide us through the overwhelming darkness of uncertainty which is the very tissue of our lives?

I have come around to the latter position. The virtue of Faith has nothing to do with knowledge per se, and is as far from certainty as East from West. It is granted to us precisely because we lack certain knowledge of the immense realities it comprehends, and probably must by our very nature. Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton” that “Human kind/cannot bear very much reality.” We forget our weakness too easily.

Jan Matejko, The Ascension of Christ, 1884 (Source)

Happily, the substance of our faith does not reside in the natural faculties of understanding. As Pascal says, “It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” In a sense, the Ascension is the true beginning of the Christian faith in history, for it inaugurates our sensible separation from Christ. Our eyes grow dim, but not our hearts. The blindness of nature is transformed into sight by grace.

In Exodus, God tells Moses that “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” (Ex. 33:20 KJV). The Ascension is the triumphant reversal of these words. For today, a man greater than Moses, a man greater than Enoch and greater than Elijah, but a man all the same, sees the Face of the Father. He has “ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.” Godhead wraps Himself in human nature, and humanity is plunged into the abyss of everlasting Light. A human being stands at the threshold of eternity. The Ascension brings humanity into the very Holy of Holies of the cosmos. We truly participate in this Ascension if we unite ourselves to Christ through the grace given us, especially the grace of the sacraments. If we one day enjoy the Blessed Vision of the Divine Essence, it will be through the eyes of our High Priest, our Head, the Lamb who is the Lamp of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:23). John Donne puts it thus:

Behold the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth he by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.

John Donne, “Ascension”

By grace, we shall follow these luminous steps, someday. So many saints have – including today’s great saint, Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome. Their stories remind us that now is the time of faith, and hope, and the charity that breathes life into both.   

If the Ascension is a lesson in Faith, it is just as much a lesson in Hope. It shows us which way we must go. It tells us that we must look to the hills, from whence cometh our help (Ps. 121:1). We need go neither backwards nor forwards, neither to the East nor to the West—but rather, up. Up, into the hidden mystery of the Divine Life. Our help is not from man but from the God-Man, the one who brought our very nature beyond the veil of the celestial temple. And what do the Apostles do? They imitate their Head and repair to the visible and earthly temple, there to sing and praise and preach the Gospel of the Lord. So have all the saints throughout the long, dark centuries since the Ascension. And so should we.  

But even as we tabernacle in the visible Church, we are truly cloistered in the heart of the Most High. As St. Paul writes to the Colossians,

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-3

Let us pray with the Apostles that we might one day ascend with Christ. And let us ever hold in remembrance that Jesus Christ is our High Priest, and He will always see us through.

Elsewhere: A Meditation on Faith

The Theological Virtues, Raphael (Source)

I would like to refer my readers to a very good, short post by an oblate friend of mine who goes by Br. Gregory. He writes about the various figures whom he calls “Online Catholic Paladins,” men who used to be prominent in the world of the Catholic blogosphere but who have since largely fallen away from the faith. Although he does not name him, I was put in mind of Steve Skojec, whose very public move away from the Church has been documented, often in quite moving terms, on Substack and Twitter.

I found Br. Gregory’s thoughts helpful and apt. In particular, I was impressed with his description of the arrival of grace in his own life. He writes,

Personal circumstances not withstanding, I have to ask – did these paladins only have an intellectual faith? How did they fall victim to their own doubts if they seemed to always have an answer? Did their faith ever descend from their mind into their heart? Was their living out their faith only “I do this because it is what is expected” or was it because they had actually experienced the inbreaking of grace, because they had felt His presence in some ineffable way?
And who am I that I should have been given such a grace, I who still squander the gift that was given that night? How do I pass on this gift to my children, when nothing I can do can give them my experience, which was given to me freely, generously and undeservingly? Will the faith that I am trying to pass on to them ever touch their innermost being? Will it penetrate their heart, or will it remain in the realm of the “theoretical”, a faith that is accepted simply because it was passed on, without ever giving them a glimpse of the divine?

Br. Gregory, Inclina Aureum Cordis Tui

Read the whole thing.

The grace of the Lord comes and goes where it will. May Providence vouchsafe such grace to all of us.

An Ecclesiological Note

Perhaps the fundamental flaw of our ecclesiology is that we think the Church was founded. By that I mean, that Christ came, set up the Church, sent the Holy Spirit, and it’s all been moving onward, outward, and upward ever since. One points to the words of Our Savior – “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” – and leaves the question at that. (Matt. 16:18). A somewhat more sophisticated version of this argument extends the Church’s life – her gestation, if you will – into the covenants of the Old Testament.

This kind of ecclesiology weds the Church to the vicissitudes of history, and the necessary fruit of this unhappy union is a Tradition that oscillates between mythopoetic antiquarianism and charismatic presentism. Tradition is either an ark to carry us across the sea of changes, or the constantly renewed speech-act of the Pope, or people, or Council, or some ill-defined combination of the three. And whether one reads this historical narrative in a traditionalist or a progressive key, one always ends up interpreting the story of the Church in the light of the past’s dying embers.

Icon of the Synaxis of All Saints. (Source)

But that is not the model of the Church we find in Scripture. The Church which is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Redeemed Heaven and Earth, all this is the self-same Church that sojourns in history (Rev. 21:1-2). But in the Apocalypse we observe her at her true birth beyond time. It is in the culminating moment of all creaturely existence, in her final and lasting Union with God in His essence eternal, that the Church takes her true being. It is the bright light of that ageless day which illuminates history, and not the ever-dimming torches of chronological time. Indeed, history furnishes no light of its own, only dim reflections of God’s glory that we misunderstand in uncountable ways. In the words of the Apostle, “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).

In the same letter, he writes, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). Here we have an image of the eschaton – that redeemed dimension in which everything that is, is Christ, by the grace of participation in Him. The eschaton is thus non-different from both Christ and the Church. All souls participating in the eschaton likewise share in Christ’s singular mediation before the Father, albeit in ways proper to their scope. Humans are His Body, the Angels are His High Priestly garments, and the new heavens and the new earth are the temple. For the eschaton – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb – mediates God’s salvific action with creaturely, chronological reality (Rev. 19:9). It is like the upmost layer or outer shell of time, giving all creation its true shape. It is the blissful union by which God weds the cosmos.

A genuinely eschatological ecclesiology, an ecclesiology that takes apocalypse seriously, must demote any definition of Catholicity that relies too heavily upon the unstable facts of history. If the Church is, as the Apostle writes, “the pillar and ground of the truth,” then it must be rooted in a life that exists beyond the vicissitudes and fallibility of the creaturely world. (1 Tim. 3:15). However, this raises a question of knowledge with soteriological ramifications.

Too often we hear from Catholics (or Orthodox) in an apologetic mood that “We know we are in the True Church because we have Apostolic Succession.” No, you are in the Church because you are saved by the grace of Christ; your Judgment has already taken place beyond time, your eternal place in glory allotted, your soul blissfully united to the Lord – but you haven’t consciously arrived there yet. This is the mystery of Predestination, but not, as commonly misconceived, in a linear, chronologically anterior direction. Election does not happen before time, but above it – or rather, both before and after history. When St. Paul writes, “And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified,” he is fundamentally describing a single divine work in the eschaton. (Rom. 8:30). To be in the Church is to be a child of God. However, the grace of divine adoption is eschatological in both its root and in its orientation. Scripture says, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.” (Rev. 21:7). And elsewhere, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3). This image, which comes from one of the final visions of St. John, depicts the Church’s eschatological life, and not her earthly existence. Thus, only the Saints in Heaven are the Church, properly speaking; the damned have no part in Christ’s Body. Ultimately, there is no third category.

The True Church is thus, like God Himself, hidden. She abides in and beneath the purple trappings of worldly glory, but takes no part in it. The tendrils of grace that reach down from the supernal world move invisibly and invincibly to the hearts that are hers; they are as so many crooked and narrow paths up to the temple, lit by the lamp of Revelation. As the Psalmist sings, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 118/119: 105).

This is not to say that apostolic succession is unimportant. It has its uses, insofar as it preserves and passes on the saving truth of the Scriptures and Creeds, the threefold order of ministry, and the seven sacraments by which we receive certain graces. In this sense, it is a gift of God’s condescension to us mortals. But apostolic succession is not constitutive of the Church’s essence. Only final participation in the eternal life of Christ can do that.

Christ the Judge, mural in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN. Mural by John DeRosen. (Source)

Which brings me to a question I have been wrestling with lately: what is Catholicity? When we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Church is “Catholic,” what does that really mean? The common answers one usually hears on this point are either “communion with the Pope” or “possesses apostolic succession.” The first of these is an irrelevant, Ultramontane fable. The second simply confounds the question of Catholicity with the question of Apostolicity.

My own attempt at an answer would divide the question thus: we may speak of what Catholicity looks like, and we may speak of what Catholicity is. Catholicity looks like those things I have already mentioned: teaching the faith of the Scriptures and Creeds, prayerfully distributing the seven sacraments, and preserving the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in apostolic succession. In what it seems to be, Catholicity means wholeness. But Catholicity is participation in the eschatological Church which is already united to Christ, that is, the whole body of the saved, whosoever and wheresoever they might be. In this sense of its utmost reality, Catholicity means universality. Thus, Catholicity means different things when applied to the Church visible and the Church invisible, with the latter taking priority.

The temporary Church visible and the everlasting Church invisible are never completely commensurate. But one can nevertheless “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” more confidently in a church with these elements, and where one can be reasonably sure that the priest is offering a true oblation to the Father. (Phil. 2:12). One can never truly be sure that one is a member of the Universal Church simply by virtue of the necessary historical features I have outlined. A Christian can still be damned, even if he is a churchgoer; surely, no Catholic who is paying attention could say otherwise. As we move through time, who can know whether any of us will prove to be Saints in that last and most surprising Day? “Watch and pray.” (Matt. 26:41). As M. Quesnel said of the two thieves at the Crucifixion, “Un se convertit à la mort, espérez; un seul, craignez.”

I said earlier that this issue is a question of knowledge with implications for our salvation. But that’s not quite true. One’s adherence to the True Church is not a question of knowledge, even with all the best historical or empirical evidence we can gather. It is, rather, a question of faith. Too many Catholics are uncomfortable with real faith. The over-exalted epistemic claims of our church means that far too often we treat our doctrines and even our own salvation as matters of knowable fact, and end up forgetting that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Let us pray to receive the grace of rediscovering epistemic humility, for with it, faith will follow.

A Prayer from Port-Royal on Saint Augustine’s Day

Saint Augustine, Philippe de Champaigne, c.1645-50 (Detail) – (Source)

On Saint Augustine – A Prayer of M. Hamon

O God, who, after having shown to us in Saint Augustine the very excess into which corrupt nature causes us to fall, hast also caused us to see in him the strength and the empire of Thy Grace over our hearts, grant us, we beseech thee, so perfect a knowledge of our extreme misery and of Thy infinite mercy, that, expecting everything from Thee, and nothing from ourselves, we might hope fully in Thee by defying ourselves completely.

O God, who in embracing Saint Augustine with Thy Love, and in elevating him above all men by the knowledge of Thy Truth, hast placed him in Thy Church as a fiery and shining lamp, so that he might illuminate and defend her by his doctrine, and console and edify her by his sanctity; grant, by the help of his charitable intercession, that we might imitate his virtues; and, at his example, rejoicing only in the truth, and having taste only for the fruits of charity, we might despise this mortal life by the hope and feeling of the all-divine life which Thou hast promised us; so that, loving Thee alone, we might also place all our happiness in Thee alone.

Thus we beseech thee by Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(From Jean Hamon, Entretiens d’une âme avec Dieu, New Edition (Avignons, 1740), pp. 405-06; original translation by The Amish Catholic)

Difficulties

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899 (Source)
  1. Why does God create so many souls that He has no intention of saving?
    1.a. Take the massa damnata of St. Augustine. What is the point of creating a human soul – ostensibly out of infinite, perfect love – and not saving it?
    1.a.i. The argument that God allows us to be damned to preserve our free will is meaningless in the face of the basic anthropology of the Christian tradition, which holds salvation itself to be an unmerited and supernatural grace. Man cannot save himself, and in the state of sin, rightly deserves damnation. But why bother creating so much life – so many unique and irreplaceable souls – if you intend to preserve the vast majority of these souls in everlasting torment without any reciprocal knowledge or love?
    1.a.i.1. There can be no softening of this point. The very clear implication of the New Testament, and even of the Old Testament, is that the vast majority of mankind is hellbound, or at least cut off from God. This was a fairly normal view until quite recently in Christian history, and is not unique to Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox.
    1.a.i.2. God could conceivably create souls simply to damn them. After all, as St. Paul says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (Romans 9:21). But is this the act of a God who is Love, to fashion a sentient entity for the express purpose of eternal torture – just to manifest His own quality of justice in perpetuity?
    1.a.ii. In the Christian East, there is still not a satisfactory answer here. Even should we accept the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor (and later, Bl. John Duns Scotus) that mankind’s purpose is to become deified, and thus that the Incarnation would have happened for our glorification even without original sin, this position does nothing to explain why the vast majority of the human race should be committed to hellfire. It does nothing to explain why almost everyone who has ever lived (including most so-called Christians) should face an eternity of unimaginable and unmitigated torment at the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
    1.a.ii.1. It is a dogma of the faith that at the Last Judgment, all the dead will be raised bodily – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting punishment. Hell’s torments are therefore not merely spiritual, but physical. St. Thomas Aquinas declares that the fires of hell will be corporeal. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 97, Art. 5).
    1.b. Let’s move beyond the human. Why does God bother to create so much life that’s wasted? There are sentient, ensouled beings that serve no human purpose.
    1.b.i. It is not enough to suggest that animals exist to serve man, per Genesis 1-3.
    1.b.i.1. Does a leopard eating a gazelle, hundreds of miles from human settlement, serve mankind? Does a whale locked in the deadly embrace of a squid contribute at all towards man’s dominion or salvation or even his punishment? Multiply this factor by billions – for we must include the insects, as well as most wild animals that have ever lived. Why create this life if it is all a waste?
    1.b.i.1.a. Doesn’t this massive wastage imply that there is no spiritual or even metaphysical point to animal life on its own terms?
    1.b.ii. If we mere humans love our domestic animals in an imperfect way, and yet we still are saddened at the thought that they are lost forever at their death, what would God’s perfect love for His creatures look like? Why should we follow the Thomists and declare their souls extinct upon death?
    1.b.iii. Does this position of extinction not reduce God to an imperfect creator, one who makes far, far more sentient beings than He has any intention of preserving – thus trivializing His love of so many creatures to virtual non-existence?
    1.b.iii.a. It would be possible to object here that animals and humans do not have the same kind of souls – more on this at 4.b.i.-4.b.ii.2.b.
    1.b.iii.b. Put another way – doesn’t this picture of God’s relationship with non-human, sentient creatures make Him appear wasteful to the point of active cruelty? Doesn’t this picture give us an image of a fundamentally frivolous creator cruelly indifferent to, not just the temporal suffering, but the very existence of His living creations?
    1.b.iii.c. Isn’t this implication drawn yet more forcefully in the case of damned humans?
    1.c. Can God – who is infinite, perfect, loving, and Being-in-Itself – have any true and lasting foes?
  2. In 1 Corinthians, we read that “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:1). If God is Love, then it follows that God is patient. Does Christian soteriology suggest as much?
    2.a. In what sense is God patient? In His terms, or ours?
    2.a.i. Can an eternal, infinite Being be described as “patient” if He condemns a soul to equally eternal torment on the basis of choices made – or even graces which He Himself withholds – in the course of some seven or so decades?
    2.a.i.1. Surely there are some crimes that deserve far greater punishment than we mortals can imagine. But wouldn’t eternal damnation, which afflicts both body and soul, be necessarily disproportionate to any crime committed by any human subject?
    2.a.i.2. Quite apart from such serious crimes – sexual assault, child abuse, genocide, serial killing, war rape, etc. – that could reasonably merit eternal damnation, let’s consider lesser offenses that Western Christianity has historically considered damnable.
    2.a.i.2.a. Should a soul who dies suddenly and impenitently after masturbating be damned?
    2.a.i.2.b. Should a soul who dies without reconciling to the Church, after sincerely losing his faith as the victim of spiritual abuse, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.c. Should a soul who, having heard about Christianity but having rejected it due to the poor example of its ministers, and who dies in another religion, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d. Should a soul who, beset by serious mental illness or unthinkable distress, commits suicide, be damned?
    2.a.i.2.d.i Traditional Catholic teaching, and even much traditional Protestantism, would answer in the affirmative to all these abstract questions, while refraining from any declaration prejudicial to God’s actual judgment in the case of particular souls.
    2.a.i.2.d.i.1. Is this religion reasonable where it should be reasonable?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.2. Is it humane?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3. What conclusions must we draw about a religion that needs to ignore, change, or trim its own moral teachings in order to provide human consolation to the grieving?
    2.a.i.2.d.i.3.a. Do our conclusions become more grievous when the religion that does so claims to be a unique revelation safeguarded by the preservative quality of the Divine dwelling in its teaching authority, or in the unchanging deposit of its doctrine, or in the infallibility of its Scriptures?
    2.a.i.2.e. Is a soul in hell glorifying to God in itself? If not, then what is the point of its existence in the first place?
    2.a.i.2.e.i. St. Thomas alleges that the Saints in Heaven will be able to peer down into Hell, without pity, so as to rejoice in the just punishment they witness. (ST Suppl. III. Q. 94. Art. 1-3).
    2.a.i.2.e.i.1. Does this image of the saints preserve into beatitude the cardinal virtue of the Christian life, namely, charity?
    2.a.i.2.e.i.2. What kind of glory does God need or want or gain from the eternal, penal torture of a finite being? Or, indeed, of the eternal torture of many such beings?
  3. Are eternal damnation, eternal salvation, and temporary purgation the only options for the human soul after death?
    3.a. If the philosophical basis for this claim is an anthropology that defines man as the union of a single discreet body and a single discreet soul, as in ST I. Q.75. Art. 4, then what happens to our soteriology if we redefine the human subject?
    3.a.i. For instance, why shouldn’t we accept that, instead of our particular material embodiment – which is manifestly mutable, corruptible, and gross – our true self is an indestructible, immaterial, subtle spirit?
    3.b. Why shouldn’t a soul return to another mortal body after death?
    3.b.i. Wouldn’t reincarnation, which thus extends a soul’s spiritual journey through multiple lifetimes, be more consistent with the patience of an infinite and perfectly loving Being?
  4. How are we to understand the basic relationship of God and creation?
    4.a. Is there a complete distinction between creator and creature? If so, what does this say about God?
    4.a.i. Wouldn’t the fact that God is Being Itself rule out the possibility of a complete distinction between creator and creature?
    4.b. If God is Being Itself, then of necessity, all discreet entities that exist must subsist in Him. He must also subsist in Them, albeit in a radically different fashion.
    4.b.i. What kinds of entities exist, according to the classical Christian system?
    4.b.i.1. God is not an entity among entities, but rather the very Being (ens) in which they “live and move and have [their] being.” (Acts 17:28).
    4.b.i.2. Angels and Demons are intellectual and rational spirits without matter.
    4.b.i.3. Humans are intellectual and rational spirits who are embodied.
    4.b.i.3.a. Is this definition capable of distinction between the genus (Human) and the species (Individual subject)? That is, can we preserve this definition while accounting for the objection raised at 3.a.i?
    4.b.i.3.a.i. If man, being “made in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27) shares his rational intellect with the Angels, in what sense – if any – is this image and likeness shared with the Angels? Put another way, is it really distinctive of the human race?
    4.b.i.2. Animals have sensitive and embodied souls, but these souls lack intellect and rationality.
    4.b.i.3. Plants have vegetative souls but lack reason or sensitive animation.
    4.b.i.4. The rest of existence consists of inanimate matter without spirit or sentience.
    4.b.ii. Is this system compelling?
    4.b.ii.1. Doesn’t this system take distinctions among creatures as its organizing principle, rather than distinctions within the manifold relationship of creator and creature?
    4.b.ii.2. Wouldn’t a better metaphysical system divide categories of entities by virtue of the way that they relate to the very ground of Being as such?
    4.b.ii.2.a. Isn’t the chief ontological distinction between independent (divine) and dependent (creaturely) being?
    4.b.ii.2.a.i. Doesn’t this division preserve both difference and the essential unity of Being?
    4.b.ii.2.b. Isn’t the second ontological distinction between pure soul (God), ensouled dependent beings, and non-ensouled dependent beings?
    4.b.iii. Sophiology has opened up again in our time the question of a “world soul,” but no Christian denomination has authoritatively taught this as doctrine. The question must be laid aside for now.
    4.b.iv. Following Sinistrari and mindful of the times, we must acknowledge the possibility of other intelligent beings, whether on other planets or in other, subtler dimensions. But barring proof, we must lay aside this question as well.
    4.c. If God, the ground of Being, is in all entities, is He in the souls of the damned?
    4.c.i. If the souls of the damned continue to exist for eternity, is God not there, at least in their preservation?
    4.c.ii. Is it reasonable to think that God would subject Himself to everlasting torture?
    4.c.ii.1. Wouldn’t this portion of damned eternal existence, already seen to be much larger than saved eternal existence in its human aspect, be of necessity less perfect than an eternal existence which is wholly saved, wholly glorified, wholly assumed to the Divine Nature?
  5. Why must there only be one Incarnation?
    5.a. Assuming God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, why should He only come personally once into material existence?
    5.a.i. It may be said that any God who had to come in numerous incarnations would thereby demonstrate His insufficiency in accomplishing His mission the first time. For an omnipotent Being can accomplish His ends without failure.
    5.a.i.1. But this objection assumes that God would only come if compelled in some way by creatures; however, we cannot compel God in any way.
    5.a.i.2. Any divine incarnation would thus, of necessity, be completely gratuitous. So couldn’t God conceivably incarnate as many times as He wishes, for His own purposes?
    5.a.ii. It may be said that God incarnates to affirm the essential goodness of matter, as in the refrain of Genesis 1.
    5.a.ii.1. However, this objection only suggests one good reason that God incarnates; it does not prove that there can only be one incarnation.
    5.a.ii.2. Moreover, although this reason occasionally appears in popular discourse, no one really believes that the point of any incarnation was to show the essential goodness of matter, which would, at best, be an auxiliary effect and not the telos thereof.
    5.a.iii. It may be said that God incarnates only once so as to manifest Himself as He is, once and for all.
    5.a.iii.1. This objection fails, however, insofar as it does not consider that God can present Himself in any way He wishes; there is nothing but (ostensibly) our own fallen nature that caused God to become human and not angelic. Why shouldn’t He appear in other material guises, if He wishes?
    5.a.iii.2. Furthermore, the Scriptures are full of theophanies that do not require incarnation. Thus, self-manifestation cannot be an argument for the singularity of the incarnation, as it is not a sufficient reason for it in the first place.
    5.a.iii.3. God, as an infinite Being, may have capacities and attributes not best expressed in human form. So if God really wanted to manifest Himself in incarnation, would it not follow that He may choose to incarnate in forms other than the strictly human? Perhaps, for instance, as an angel, a being subtler and thus nobler than mankind?
    5.a.iv. It may be argued that God can only incarnate once because He has chosen a singular people and one line of covenants by which to save the world and glorify His Name; consequently, the whole body of the elect are one in His single body, which He first had to assume, and that once for all.
    5.a.iv.1. This is the best argument for the singularity of the Incarnation, as is another like it – that it is more fitting to the Divine Majesty to have one mother, and not many.
    5.a.iv.1.a. Though this objection does not account for a possible incarnation that does not emerge from biological processes.
    5.a.iv.2. Moreover, this argument raises again some of the metaphysical and soteriological issues at 4.c-4.c.ii. above. For at the deepest level of reality, both the elect and the damned are one in their ontological position vis-à-vis absolute being.
  6. What is the point of grace if it does not sanctify?
    6.a. If grace is not efficacious enough to actually turn the heart towards God and away from evil, then what good is it?
    6.a.i. Put another way, why is it that a soul who receives the sacraments regularly, believes the creeds and doctrines of the Church, attempts to live in charity, and has a regular prayer life makes no progress in any of his cardinal temptations or sins?
    6.a.i.1. What are we to make of a religion whose priests, receiving the grace of the sacraments (and even God Himself) every day, nevertheless show no signs of growth in holiness?
    6.a.i.2. What are we to make of a religion where even the local proximity of God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament is not enough to banish the most horrific of vices?
    6.a.i.3. What are we to make of a religion whose visible head, allegedly supported by special graces, acquiesces to the cover-up of the most wicked of crimes?
    6.a.i.4. What are we to make of a religion that, taking all of the above, nevertheless claims that God Himself sustains it with supernatural graces, including (especially) the graces of sanctification and of an abiding Real Presence in the Church?
    6.b. Would any of this tension exist in a religion that made no such claims, or at least tempered them?
    6.c. It could be said that Providence removes, restrains, or hides grace as God sees fit. But what is the point of a visible church if not to dispense grace in dependable ways?
  7. In considering God, shouldn’t our rule be to favor what is most fitting to the Divine Majesty?
    7.a. Is Christianity?

The Feast of the Deus Absconditus

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1645 (Source)

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.

Nativity, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

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.

The Presentation in the Temple, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

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.

Elsewhere: Two Thoughtful Blogs by Former Catholics

Radha and Krishna in Vrindavan (Source).

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!

On Joy

Le Christ aux outrages, Philippe de Champaigne, 17th c. (Source)

“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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5] And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.[6]

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.[7] Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.”[8] 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.”[9] 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.[10]


[1] James 4:4.

[2] Galatians 5:22-23.

[3] The root is faith, and the fruits are redemptive suffering and acts of charity.

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] John 21:18.

[7] Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[8] Psalm 22 (23): 4.

[9] John 3:30.

[10] Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:11; Philippians 1:21

Sisters Against Abusive Power: St. Teresa, Port-Royal, and Modern African Religious

Seal of the Little Sisters of Saint Francis (LSOSF). Credit: LSOSF (Source)

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3] Her “mystical theology has an acute apophatic sense of God’s alterity.”[4] Angélique clearly understood the theology concerning God’s providence.[5] 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.[6] Their reforms embodied the Benedictine and Cistercian ideals of monasticism.[7]

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.”[8] 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.[9]

Kwesi Dickson

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.[10] 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.[11]

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.”[12] These statements of pride are—as it were—unchristian.[13] They also indicate how the authorities override their mandate and obedience to the canon law.[14]

Some sisters of the LSOSF. Credit: LSOSF (Source)

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.”[15] 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.[16] 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!”[17] 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.[18]  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.[19] In 1651, a Jesuit theologian, Jean de Brisacier, denounced the Abbesses, calling them “impenitent women, desperadoes, opponents of the sacraments, fanatics, and foolish virgins.”[20] 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.[21] 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.

Mère Agnès Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal, in a 1662 portrait by Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

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.[22] 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.[23] 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 [1609],” in which Mere Angélique denied her parents entry into the strict cloister she had imposed on the convent.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.”[27] 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.[28] 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.”[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.”[32] Soeur Jacqueline, for instance, was seen as “one of the leading philosophers of Port-Royal convent.”[33] Angélique for her part, “had a sophisticated understanding of theology” especially concerning God’s providence.[34] They offered a different perspective on the “doctrine of grace and the legal arguments against the sanctions imposed on them.”[35] 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.”[36] 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.[37] 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.”[38] 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.”[39] 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.[40]

Saint Teresa of Avila, in what is probably the only portrait of her painted from life. (Source)

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.”[41] 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…”[42] He added that the subject of the Vida “exceeded the capacity of any woman.”[43] Furthermore, the skepticism by people like René Descartes and secularism in Western culture in the eighteenth century reduced the Vida’s popularity.[44] 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.”[45] 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.[46]

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.”[47] 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.[48] Angélique held that women should exercise authority in an evangelical manner, which is being vigilant to help the poor in wars, pestilence, and famine.[49] 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.[50] Moreover, she claimed that a female superior should be spiritual director, theological instructor, and disciplinarian for her nuns.[51] 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.[52] 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.”[53] They refused to submit to the “Church’s condemnation of the five controversial theological propositions on grace.”[54] Moreover, they “refused any assent to judgments of fait” that claimed that Jansen had advocated such positions.[55] 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.”[56] The decree further states that each institute has “its own proper character and function.”[57]

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.[58] 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.”[59] She had a grasp of theology and “intertwined description and analysis in an effort to make sense of something that was beyond rational thought.”[60] 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.[61] Mère Angélique de Saint-Jean and Antoine Le Maître documented the life of Mère Angélique and her convent reform.[62] They also encouraged the sisters in the convent to document their own lives and those of others.[63] 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.”[64] 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.[65] 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,”[66] 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.”[67] On their part, prayer motivated the Abbesses even as they wrote their texts. Mère Angélique, for instance, “made a retreat in order to write.”[68] But even during that time of retreat, “she gave more time to prayer than to writing.”[69] She observed a balance between prayer and writing.[70] 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.”[71]

A stained glass window illustrating a mystical experience of St. Teresa, Avila, Spain. (Source)

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.[72] 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.[73] 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.[74] 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.”[75]

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.[76] 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.

Mère Angélique de Saint Jean Arnauld d’Andilly, the extremely formidable Abbess of Port-Royal in its “glorious autumn.” (Source)

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.[77] 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.”[78] She also commented on biblical “passages and graces in meditation.” This “bolstered her resistance as her imprisonment lengthened.”[79] 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.[80] 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.[81] 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.[82] 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.[83] 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.[84] 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.”[85] 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.”[86]

Conclusion

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.[87] Holistic education and prayer are the sure ways for African sisters to become institutionally dynamic and combat the history of sisters’ oppression in Africa.

Bibliography

Burns, Patout (Ed.). Theological Anthropology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.

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. An Introduction 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 the City 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.


[1] Carlos, Eire. The Life of Teresa of Avila: A Biography. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2019.

[2] 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 [38]. 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.

[3] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 25.

[4] Conley. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Perier, and Marguerite Perier. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019. Introduction.

[5] Elissa, Cutter. “Apology in the Form of Autohagiography: Angelique Arnauld’s defense of Her Reform of Port-Royal” The Catholic Historical Review. Volume 105, 2(2019). 290.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 4.

[8] Heiko, Augustinus Oberman. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Thought. Edinburgh: T&T. Cark LTD, 1986. 19.

[9] Kwesi, A. Dickson. Theology in Africa. Maryknoll: London, Orbis Books, Darton, Longman and Todd. 1984. 8.

[10] Musa, Dube. Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Missouri: Chalice Press, 2000. 99.

[11] Pope Paul VI. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. (15 August, 1967).

[12] Auguste, Pierre, Fournet. “Arnauld.” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 19 May 2018.

[13] St. Augustine. Concerning the City of God Against Pagans. Henry Bettenson, Trans. England: Penguin Books, 1972. Bks 1-5.

[14] Pope John Paul II. 1983 Code of Canon Law. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, September 19. 609, section 1.

[15] Canon 669, section 1.

[16] Canon 662; 578.

[17] Pope Francis’s message to major superiors in Rome, May 10, 2019.

[18] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 38.

[19] Ibid. 178-9; 184.

[20] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 52.

[21] Canon 617-19.

[22] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 89-91.

[23] Ibid. 43.

[24] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 115.

[25] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 2.

[26] Ibid. 2.

[27] Angelene, Swart. “Dignity and Worth in the Common Wealth of God.” in Groaning in Faith, African Women in the Household of God. Nairobi: Acton Publishers, 1996. 60; Lk 13:12.

[28] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 3.

[29] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 3.

[30] Little Sisters of St. Francis, Third Order Regular. Constitution of the Little Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. Meru: Kolbe Press, 1994. 102, 45.

[31] John, Conley. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Paschal Perier, and Marguerite Perier. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019. 13.

[32] Ibid, 2.

[33] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 25.

[34] Cutter. “Apology in the Form of Autohagiography: Angelique Arnauld’s defense of Her Reform of Port-Royal” 303

[35] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 31.

[36] Ibid. 41.

[37] Anne Nasimiyu. “Scholarship application” Donnerstag, March 10, 2016

[38] Nasimiyu, “Scholarship application” Donnerstag, March 10, 2016

[39] Ibid.

[40] 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.

[41] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 108.

[42] Ibid. xi. Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 21.

[43] Ibid. xii.

[44] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 131.

[45] Ibid. 22.

[46] John Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 2.

[47]  Rosemary, Radford, Ruether. Sexism and Godtalk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983. 96. Swart. “Dignity and Worth in the Common Wealth of God.” 60.

[48] Ibid. 41-2.

[49] Ibid. 109.

[50] Ibid. 109.

[51] Ibid. 109.

[52] Erie, 171-77

[53] Ibid. 54.

[54] Ibid. 53.

[55] Ibid. 54.

[56] Pope Paul VI. Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, promulgated on October 28, 1965. 612-613.

[57] Pope Paul VI. Perfectae Caritatis. 1965. 612-613.

[58] Vatican News. Pope to Finish Ecumenical Delegation: Standing Together as Baptized Christians. 17 January 2020, 11.25.

[59] Ibid. 20.

[60] Eire. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 20.

[61] Alexander, Sedgwick. The Travails of Conscience: The Arnauld Family and the Ancien Régime. Harvard University Press, 1998. 8.

[62] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 179.

[63] Ibid. 179.

[64] Maurice, Muhatia Makumba. An Introduction to African Philosophy: Past and Present. Nairobi: Pauline Publications, 2007. 25.

[65] Conley. The Other Pascals. 13.

[66] Kathleen, Cummings. New Women of Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era. The University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 101.

[67] Eire. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 20.

[68] Cutter. “Apology in Form of Autohagiography.” 282.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Cutter. “Apology in Form of Autohagiography.” 283.

[72] Canon 673.

[73] Canon 663. # 1.

[74] St. Augustine. Concerning the City of God Against Pagans. Henry Bettenson (Trans). England: Penguin Books, 1972. 1.1.

[75] Ecclesiastes 1:14

[76] Daniel, Pals. Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 64-65.

[77] Erie. The Life of Teresa of Avila. 18.

[78] John, Conley. (Ed.). Angelique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly: Writings of Resistance. Arizona: Iter Academic Press, 2015. 21.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Karl, Rahner. Karl Rahner Spiritual Writings. Philip Endean (Ed.). New York: Orbis Books, 2004. 89.

[81] Ibid. 88.

[82] Conley. Adoration and Annihilation. 109.

[83] Ibid. 109.

[84] Patout Burns (Ed.). Theological Anthropology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981. 65.

[85] Ibid. 84.

[86] Erie. 95.

[87] Matt 5:43-47.