Thursday, June 27, 2013

St. Clare and the spiritual meaning of virginity

My spirituality class ended last Friday, but there's more to say!  I'll keep posting some of the "lessons" I learned in teaching this class for a while.  At least, until I'm finished with them.  

image from

We had a fascinating conversation one day about the image of virginity in the Catholic tradition.  It came up because we read one of St. Clare of Assisi's letters to Agnes of Prague.  Clare writes a number of letters to this noblewoman ("daughter of the most excellent and illustrious king of Bohemia"), and this one was written in 1234.  She uses quotations and ideas from the Office of the Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr.

"For, though You (Agnes), more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence, honor, and dignity of the world and could have been married to the illustrious Emperor with splendor befitting You and His Excellency, You have rejected all these things and chosen with Your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and bodily want.  Thus You took a spouse of a more noble stock, Who will keep Your virginity ever unspotted and unsullied, the Lord Jesus Christ...."

Now, what's all this "virginity" talk about?

One of my students started a conversation about how it's sometimes easy to disregard images that have little meaning to us, and that we lose some of the richness of the spiritual writings of our tradition when we do so.  

I think he's right.  However, I have some concerns about this.

One concern comes from our contemporary church.  In Vatican II, the bishops were cautious to articulate the relative equality of all ways of living, of all vocations, whether married, single, priesthood, or religious.  The "priesthood of all the faithful" and the "universal call to holiness" underline the concept that ALL walks of life are called to follow God, and that no single vocation is holier than any other.

The problem with the use of the image of virginity in this light is that for so long it was taught that the vocations to celibacy -- especially that to priesthood -- were higher than the call to marriage and family.  (If you don't believe me, take a look at this image from the Baltimore Catechism!)

A second problem is that "virginity" tends to be applied unequally to women more than to men.

So, what is the benefit of the image of virginity?  Clare above refers to being "unspotted and unsullied."  She goes on to say of the Lord Jesus Christ, "Whom in loving, You are chaste; in touching, You become more pure; in embracing, You are a virgin."  Additionally, virginity is paired in this writing with the choice of poverty and the rejection of worldly honors.  It seems it is part of an all-around rejection of worldly goods in favor of unwavering commitment to Jesus.

In that sense, yes, virginity offers an image that might be helpful for some people.  It represents a sacrifice of physical desire in favor of an undistracted, pure desire for union with God.  In this, if we remember the high esteem placed on having a family, then the sacrifice of virginity takes on a meaning that doesn't diminish the physicality of our human nature or the holiness of parenthood and married life.  When we revere our human physical selves, we also then begin to understand more clearly this sacrifice this points to.  

Really, to me, this means both vocations are important, both are meaningful, and both lead to holiness.

Friday, June 21, 2013

St. Catherine's Bridge

My spirituality class read a selection from St. Catherine of Siena's major writing, the Dialogue, in which she describes the spiritual journey as crossing a bridge.

This bridge is a metaphor for Christ, and there are three stairs, which become the three steps toward deeper union with God.  The first stair, she says, is the affections, which are symbolized by the feet (she says "the affections carry the soul," much like our feet carry our bodies).

The second step is the "stair by which you can climb into his side, where you will see revealed his inmost heart."  (Do you hear the echos of early Sacred Heart spirituality here?)

The third step is where the soul reaches Christ's mouth, "where she [the soul] finds peace from the terrible war she has had to wage because of her sins."

So, Catherine continues, "At the first stair, lifting the feet of her affections from the earth, she stripped herself of sin.  At the second she dressed herself in love for virtue. And at the third she tasted peace."  The bridge itself, with these three steps, was raised up by the cross of Christ, a link (bridge!) between humanity and God's divinity.

And, as as side note, those three steps correspond to the classical spiritual path of purgation -- illumination -- union that is found in so many other writings!

LOVE is the central element to this cross, and (Catherine tells us) we human beings are drawn by love:  "You can hardly resist being drawn by love, then, unless you foolishly refuse to be drawn."

Ah!  What lovely imagery!  We are drawn to God by the love God offers us, and the only way we are not drawn is if we hold back (and who would do that?).

Throughout teaching about the history of Christian spirituality, what is most striking is the emphasis on love, the idea that we know God only by loving.  We can never comprehend God with our minds, but with our desire and ability to love, we can know God deeply.

Hear, O Israel!  The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with your whole heart, and with your whole being, 
and with your whole strength.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5

Thursday, June 20, 2013

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Continuing on with yesterday's exploration of spirituality...the second thing my students read was a selection from St. Bernard of Clairvaux's work "On Loving God" (also called "On the Love of God," depending on the translation).

This is a little work that's not terribly easy to read.  In it Bernard outlines four degrees of love, which mark our progress along our spiritual path toward God.  They are:
1. To love myself for my own sake.
2. To love God for my own sake.
3. To love God for God's sake.
4. To love myself for God's sake.
It's that fourth one that seems tricky, right?

And yet, we are called to live the best life that we are capable of, to use the gifts God has given us to the benefit of our neighbor, of our world, of God.  Is it not love to be able to recognize the good in me?

So, Bernard of Clairvaux makes me happy, and makes me think about what life means, what my desires point to, how I want to live my life.  How I need to value myself and explore my gifts, not in a selfish way, but in order to give them back to God.  In order to be the best Religious of the Sacred Heart that I can be.  In order to be the best Juliet that I can be.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Adventures on the Spiritual Path

Benedict of Nursia and the Cup of Poison, image from

This week, I am teaching a course called "Pathways of the Spirit," in which we are exploring five (plus a few extra) spiritual writers from the middle ages.  We began Monday with Benedict of Nursia and Benedictine spirituality  I hope to do a little series of blog posts, chronicling the insights of our journey through the history of spirituality.  So, we begin with Benedict!

Benedict lived around the year 500.  What is so amazing is that he wrote a document that remains to this day the guide of life for monks around the world.  It is a simple document, with an ideal vision of Christian life but a realistic view of the challenges of being human.  It offers flexibility to account for the different needs of people and groups.  This quotation comes from the prologue:
Therefore, we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service.  In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.  The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.  Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation.  It is bound to be narrow at the outset.  But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.

This "school for the Lord's service," not really a school at all, but yet a context in which we learn to live a new way, is founded on that love, strict only in order to draw us into loving service of God and others.  The imagery is so helpful here--that we need a place where we are safe to learn, to grow, to become more human and more godly.  A "school" that recognizes that if it is too difficult, we will want to turn away, and yet if it is too easy we will never move along the pathway at all.

This can be said of any form of religious life!  And probably of any way of life, as long as those in it are aware of their orientation toward God.

I was also reminded of something one of my RSCJ sisters said to me not too long ago.  I've been having a hard time, with some health issues and the transition into temporary vows after the noviceship.  This sister gave me a big hug and said to me (on the Feast of the Sacred Heart!), "It keeps getting better.  It gets worse first, and then it gets better and better."  How I needed to hear that!  Both that life gets easier, and yet also that it's okay that things get hard sometimes.  The path is narrow at first, but eventually we can run along it, "hearts overflowing."

Those are my scattered reflections for today! 

One last thing.  The image above comes from Benedict's life story, which was written by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century.  The story portrayed has to do with with a potential poisoning.  Benedict was asked to become the abbot of a group of monks, and they didn't get along so well.  In fact they got on so poorly that the monks tried to poison their abbot!  Twice, the poison was revealed to Benedict and he was spared.  But, of course, he moved on from that monastery.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Knowing and Loving

My mind today is on the Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century writing by an anonymous English author.  This is a quote from that author, from another of his works, which is called Discretion in the Stirrings:

God cannot be known by reason, he cannot be thought, caught, or sought by understanding.  But he can be loved and chosen by the true, loving will of your heart…. If God is your love and your purpose, the chief aim of your heart, it is all you need in this life, although you never see more of him with the eye of reason your whole life long. Such a blind shot with the sharp dart of longing love will never miss its mark, which is God.

That's all for today. I'm am trying to hold on to that claim of my heart--to love God completely, wholly giving myself into that love.

Life has been challenging lately, and most of it is too internal for a blog post.  But I'm still here, and will try to catch up a little bit soon.

May God bless each one who comes to this page.