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.

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__________. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Perier, and Marguerite Perier. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.

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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.

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

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

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

The Life of a Mystic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Daughter of St. Philip Neri

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

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Ven. Serafina writing (Source).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Liturgical Mysticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Road to Sainthood

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

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

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

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