Thursday, May 25, 2006

Commissioned by An Angel

by Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR 4/16/06

Father began to read the Gospel and I knew something was off. “Matthew, Matthew! That’s not the one for this year of the Readings Cycle. Oh dear, the people must be confused. Oh, OK. No way to avoid it so go with the flow. Open the ‘ears of your heart’. What may it to say to you? What do you need to hear?” This stream of conscious thought brought me to attention, cleared away momentary distraction, and tuned the inner ear to listen for a particular meaning the Gospel of Easter Vigil Mass could have in store for me.

By this time in the dramatic Vigil liturgy the mind is filled with the stories of momentous events in salvation history. In addition, accounts of the Resurrection are so familiar to us that the effort to take in the Gospel can seem as futile as trying to add liquid to an already brimming cup. The impulse to put aside dismay and judgment in favor of opening the “ears of the heart” was the Spirit's gift, a grace prodding me into attention.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew, a teacher of discipleship, did not miss this chance to present another formula of commission, another directive to those who would follow the Master. Here, in the middle of this simple, no frills, account of the astonishing sight which greeted grieving women upon their arrival at Jesus’ tomb, the author assigns to an angel words that can be considered an outline of the way of being for those who would be disciple:

Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples,‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.

“Do not be afraid.”

Fear must have been as natural to those who knew Jesus in the flesh as it is to us. How often Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.” Not to scold but to console. We are implored to trust so that we can move ahead without fear constricting and handicapping movement of body and heart. Elsewhere Jesus said, “I am with you always.’ By the words uttered in this pericope another promise is made, a promise of sure connection between Jesus and the disciple. The disciple is to proceed surefooted, supported by faith in the constant companionship of Jesus.

“I know that you are seeking Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raise, as he said.”

Their desire to see Jesus in his bodily humanity is affirmed. The body they sought was just like them, subject to all that human beings experience except sin; a body ravaged by cruelty and the agony of asphyxiation on a Roman cross. However, the angel corrects their expectation, redirecting them to a higher vision. What they knew only in part had come to its fullness. The ruined body was now glorified; its very wounds bearing even greater witness to the nature and glory of the Father. And this is so, “as he said.”

How addicted I am to remaining mired in the darkness of things which seem dead in their hopelessness? How often do I automatically see things as being ‘half empty’ instead of ‘half full’? The disciple is to believe what Jesus said and look beyond the negatives, beyond all evidence to the contrary and live in hope, a Resurrection hope.

Because the promise has been fulfilled we need not remain absorbed in the weakness and suffering of our human nature. Nor can we become depressed and trapped by the parade of tragedies passing before our eyes during the evening news. And we cannot sink into complete sorrow as we observe great struggling within our circle of family and friends; battles with disease, joblessness, misguided youth, deteriorating marriages, spirals of addiction, or grief in loss. “…He has been raised” and we are called to hope and renewal; a frame of reference that leaves room for grace, for the power of the Spirit, and for the compassion of God, “as he said.”

“Come and see the place where he lay.”

We are not asked to build our life of discipleship merely on the words of others, even if those words are uttered by an angel. “Come and see” is the invitation to go beyond the words; to enter the process yourself and become available, open and ready to see with clear eyes; to listen attentively so as to hear in the depths, permitting words to penetrate the heart. The invitation is to transform the life of faith from exercise of passive observation into one that is fully experiential, fully participating, awake and aware, seeing and feeling as never before. Jesus begs us to allow ourselves to be touched by Him, by grace, by what goes on around us in our families, workplaces, communities, nation and even the world.

“Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead…”

“Go...and tell...” No doubt about the commission here; go, move; do something proactive that brings you to those who need to hear the Word, with whom you can share the joy of the Good News. Tell them that Jesus is risen; the suffering Messiah has been raised to the glory of the Father. How are we to “tell” it all, those of us without pulpit or soapbox? Each of the baptized is commissioned to “go and tell”; to witness to Christ as our baptismal right because we have “put him on” and assumed his identity. We speak the Gospel, the Good News, by our very being, walking, talking, doing, in the name of Jesus, the glorious risen Jesus. No leeway here to abdicate our oratorical vocation. We are to work, love, comfort, teach, vote, in such a way that no one will say as Ghandi once did, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Chirst. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

“…He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see him.”

While the entire world is the rightful concern of Christians each of us occupies a very specific and limited space, seemingly a sphere of minimal influence. Because the place we occupy in the world is so well known to us we perceive it as boring in its ordinariness and lacking in romance so we lose our imagination. We respond to God’s invitation saying, “Oh, what can I do? I am only one person and, after all, you can’t fight City Hall.”

In the grandiosity of youth and religious fervor, St. Therese of Lisieux prayed to be a missionary in Vietnam. Gradually she came to recognize God’s plan, that in the tedium of a small town monastery, in the company of women prone to every human weakness and foible, yet capable of great goodness, she found her “little way of love”, a path to extraordinary holiness. The angel told the disciples to go to Galilee, to go home to the place where they came from, where their families and friends were. They have sought Jesus. They need to see Jesus. But He is not to be found in tomb. He will be found in the most familiar environment, in a very ordinary place, among ordinary people. “There you will see him.” With the disciples we receive the promise that we will see Jesus in the everyday and the commonplace. No need to despair because we cannot go on pilgrimage or retreat or pray as much as we would like. The commission is to put on Christ and be fully present to your circumstance and the people in it. In return, we will surely be rewarded by apparitions of our Savior in the daily, the ordinary, the routine and the flawed.

“This is my message for you.”

How much more direct can the angel be? Today such a vision might deliver the question, “You got it? This is my message for you.” Just as the word “Amen” is used in the original Hebrew to punctuate, to underline, the importance of what is being said, this phrase is meant to emphasize the crucial message, its truth and heavenly origin. Jesus was so often disappointed by the lack of comprehension of his message among the disciples. He would ask, “Do you not understand what I have said to you?” The words of this angel are God's plea for our understanding, our trust and our faith. They underline the life and death nature of the directives issued. Do not be afraid. Raise your eyes to hope. Enter into the process. Live the words of Jesus Christ in your own time and place. And be assured that Jesus will be there.

Message for the Ascension: Shift Your Gaze

A couple of days ago, after a minor tiff with a sister, I asked forgiveness saying, "Jesus is asking me for something new and I am fighting Him and you all the way." Fortunately our monastic way of life provides for a personal retreat day each month and my chosen day followed those words and preceded the Solemnity of the Ascension. It was a 'cooling off period', a time of silence and solitude in which to ponder that new thing being asked of me and what graced insight the eve of the feast might offer if I just listened. No difficulty at all in identifying in excruciating detail that new, very hard, "thing" Jesus was asking of me. I easily analyze and see the situation that causes my despair. But then come the questions. "Why? What could God possibly have in mind? Can any good come from this?

The answers came within the context of the Ascension. Jesus ascends to a higher realm, another world, to be in total communion with the Father and the Spirit. He returns to full expression of His divine life. Is this very trying time a call to join Him there in my contemplation? Is there an invitation here for me to readjust the focus of my eyes to somewhere above the solidity of the horizon line?

For a long time my contemplative focus has been the earthbound Jesus. I easily image sitting next to Jesus on a rocky ledge contemplating the plight of humankind and with Him calling down the blessing of God for this benighted people. I easily image the disappointed, rejected, frustrated, abandoned and suffering Jesus. I am easily present to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane or at the foot of the cross experiencing His fear, despair and final surrender.

Can my current circumstances and this great feast be directing me to raise my head, open my eyes, and refocus my vision in order to take in the divine nature of Jesus the Christ and participate with Him in the companionate, intimate, inter-active and productive life of the Holy Trinity in endless glory and majesty? Is this yet another call to peace, love and joy? Is this yet another invitation to glorious hope? The directions I recognize demand that I put aside any judgment of unworthiness or false humility and dare to go higher in my contemplative journey. Perhaps this is the new frontier which allows for no fear of flying.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Tomorrow our community will celebrate the 275th anniversary of the founding of our Order in Scala, Italy (hilltown outside of Naples) in 1731 by Maria Celeste Crostarosa. A remark was made at the dinner table tonight that in twenty-five more years we will hit 300. Then we began to muse about who might be still be around in 2031. That is supposing that global warming would not have sent us scurrying away from the banks of the Hudson River. I entered monastic life at the great age of 55. In twenty-five years I will be 86! Could that really happen? Well, next week our sister in another monastery of the Order will celebrate her 50th jubilee of profession at the ripe old age of 98! Maybe we do have something to look forward to.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hand of Grace: The Influence of Maria Celeste Crostarosa on the Life of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori

by Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR, Esopus’05
for the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the death of Maria Celeste

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is an admonition calling for wariness on the part of one who would dare to enter the holy of holies. Since most Redemptoristines and Redemptorists hold the images of the Venerable Maria Celeste and St. Alphonsus de Liguori close to their hearts and many have acquired a great deal of knowledge about them, it is with great trepidation that one dares to bring their own mortal feet to tread on sacred ground. This essay is offered as only another point of view coming from someone who has tried to get to know these people better both as historical figures and spiritual teachers. The effort has been to present a different style and method both of writing history and assessing personalities.
Much of what we do know about these figures, particularly Maria Celeste, remains to be synthesized in the manner of historical and biographical method of women’s studies. In addition, contextual historical information is yet to be integrated into a full treatment of her life. And finally, more female voices are called for in the discourse, especially the voices of women whose very lives and contemplative vocations bring first hand experiential understanding and rapport to the subject.
While my research spanned a number of months, writing did not begin until August 1st of this year, the feast of St. Alphonsus, an auspicious occasion. It was proper to invoke his blessing on the project. By virtue of his superior intellect combined with his deeply held faith, his spiritual depth and natural sensitivity of his nature as well as the intimacy of his relationship with Maria Celeste, he would fully endorse focusing a spotlight on the influence she brought into his life. He would also affirm the legacy she entrusted to him and the Redemptorist Congregation.
Alphonsus would therefore also be undoubtedly pleased by the tremendous work done by his sons to bring this mystic’s story into the light. The effort of any Redemptoristine to bring additional insight and reflection to the subject is built upon the work of Redemptorists who have demonstrated by their dedication and their achievements a great love for Maria Celeste.
It does not seem necessary here to provide the details of stories which members of our double institute know so well; the story of Alphonsus’ transformation from civil and canon lawyer to priest, nor the story of Maria Celeste’s Carmelite and Visitandine lives and her extraordinary mystical experiences. Nor do we have to revisit the revelation of a new institute in which the living memory of the Man-God and the Paschal Mystery would be made manifest in the life of each member, in relationships within communities and, eventually, in the bonds between monasteries and mission of an international order and congregation.
Rather than offering a recapitulation of those facts my goals are first, to add some additional historical background; second, by means of reading between the lines of the facts in the record to discover connections and form a hypothesis concerning the relationship of these two figures; and third, to engage, if you will, in some psychological interpretation which is the field we must enter when we discuss the influence of one person upon another. The big life – long in years and accomplishments – of Alphonsus de Liguori would easily translate into technicolor and cinemascope on the wide screen. For this epic, his brief relationship with Maria Celeste Crostarosa might, at the hands of a Hollywood film editor, end up as ribbons of celluloid out takes tossed onto the cutting room floor. But we would know better. However brief; however constrained by unfortunate circumstance and misunderstanding; however overshadowed by those seeking to impose authority; their lives were forever changed by their meeting, perhaps his life even more than hers.
Celeste and Alphonsus met in early September of 1730. Each was approaching a 34th birthday which places them well into mature mid-life given the average life expectancy of the time, around 50 to 55 years. Each had grown up in Naples amid the tumultuous political upheaval of the period. Their meeting preceded by three years the transfer of rule by Austrian regency for over 200 years to autonomous statehood as a kingdom ruled by Bourbon monarchy (1734-1759). Neapolitan life and society was permeated by things religious and nominally Catholic. One commentator wrote in 1719, “Every quarter, every square, every corner, either is a church or belongs to the Church.” (Hills, 22) Exact figures are hard to come by but it can be estimated that the population of Naples was about 250,000. Fr. Giuseppe Orlandi reports in the first chapter of The History of the Congregation that diocesan priests were about 1% of the population. (Orlandi, 80) This figure does not include members of numerous orders and confraternities. As for nuns, in comparing figures from the 17th century and the late 18th century it can be concluded that there were easily over 10,000 religious living in Naples. Many of the female religious houses were very large; hundreds in one monastery was not unusual. Some of them were very rich. Female monastic institutions were influential in political matters because of the family ties of their members who were daughters of nobility and also movers and shakers in the arts by virtue of their patronage, free interaction with affluent lay men and women, and by invitations to their elaborate salons and musicales. They even brought pressure to bear on the real estate situation. The Italian historian Gianone wrote:
What has happened is that the religious houses, even when
their origins were quite modest, may then come to occupy an entire
district from one end to the other, until it reaches the edge of the built-up area; and as it is difficult to find in Naples a street without a monastery
in it, if nothing is done about such a grave and ruinous abuse, in this way the regulars will be in the long run able to buy up the entire city.
(Hills, 19)

Yet, steeped as they were in this religious milieu, both Alphonsus and Celeste were drawn physically and spiritually into the hill country or to a smaller town, a place apart, a more simple life.
Their experiences of culture and society were largely defined by gender; his background was that of the urbane, professionally astute, aesthetically aware, cosmopolitan Neapolitan man; hers more localized to home and its immediate vicinity, limited to family and close friends and lacking in broad education. However, it is entirely possible that this Crostarosa daughter, like many women of her period and earlier, benefited in a second hand way from the educational program provided to her brothers at home before they were enrolled in formal education. Therefore learning to read and acquiring knowledge on a variety of subjects was not unusual for women of Maria Celeste’s social class. The later addition of writing skills was also commonplace.
Although both came from what we loosely call the middle class, his level being a lower echelon of nobility, each may have carried in their own lives the physical effects of a locale and period in which disease and malnutrition were rampant. Bubonic plague had last come to Naples in 1656 and took as victim almost 50% of the population. Periods of agricultural famine were frequent. The record of a famine in 1764 gives testimony to the reality of starvation in the region of the Mezzogiorno, southern Italy, through the 18th and into the 19th century. Indeed, agricultural failures motivated, at least in part, the huge emigration from the Mezzogiorno – 4 to 5 million – in the 19th century. The area was prone to epidemics of various diseases and one such epidemic devastated Naples in 1729. It was in treating the victims of this epidemic that Alphonsus so wore himself out that in 1730 he required a period of rest in the hill country. Even the well-off could not be fully insulated from their environment. When Celeste and Alphonsus met in 1730 each could recount episodes of illness, periods of being bed ridden, and physical depletion that may have contributed to their understanding of a providential God and need for the virtue of surrender to the will of God.
Their stories reveal that in spite of exposure to popular culture common within their families and assumed for their station in life, each rejected the usual societal expectation: for Alphonsus it was the fast track of the legal system for prominence as the oldest son; for Celeste it was the financially advantageous marriage which would expand the familial network and provide a secure place for her within the cult of domesticity for women of the middle class.
Both of them had been tested by repercussions which came on the heels of following the inspiration of the Spirit as they understood it. Alphonsus withstood being abandoned by his stern and demanding father as he followed the call to priesthood and was plagued by such scrupulosity that he questioned his motives in almost every action. Although a person of education, experience, and priestly call he seems to have been inwardly exceedingly insecure.
On the other hand, where Maria Celeste may have lacked the formal education and urbanity of an upper class Neapolitan male, the story she tells about herself indicates a degree of self-possession and decisiveness which may have been nurtured in a more relaxed household; one certainly headed by a father who was amenable to entertaining the personal desires of his daughters. She had made important decisions; the decision to enter the convent (initially without the express permission of her father); to move to a second religious community of her own choosing (although in accord with the urging of Tomaso Falcoia); allowed herself to trust the inspiration of mystical experiences and follow their lead; but also to put that inspiration aside when it proved prudent to do so.
Finally, each of them had been captured by God in a very profound way. For them, a relationship with God was as natural and as frequently expressed as sipping water from a handcrafted wooden dipper. However, Alphonsus bore the burden of the oldest son. Raised to be a credit to his family name and to be responsible and obedient in all things, he, therefore, had a mind full of ‘shoulds’: “What should I be doing for my demanding God?” In comparison, Celeste was a daughter who may have been treasured for the sparkle in her eyes and the spirit in her soul. Concerning her move from Marigliano to the monastery of Scala she tell us that her father, “after much discussion…consented so as not to displease me.” (2Crostarosa, 40). Celeste seems to be more sure of God’s love and God’s will and asking only to be shown how to accomplish that will within the structures to which she was bound.
Having set these two figures within the context of their historical period and personal experience we can begin to consider the fine points of their brief period of intense encounter and the quality of their lifelong relationship. Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb influence as “to modify or affect in some way; to act upon; to bias; to sway; as the moon influences the tides.” It is especially pertinent here to consider the original meaning of the noun form which is “the supposed flowing of an ethereal fluid or power from the stars, thought to affect the character and actions of people.” Celeste had indeed been influenced by the ethereal, the Star of stars, and in turn, out of her own transformation she brought influence to bear on Alphonsus de Liguori.
Father Tomaso Falcoia was a founder and guide of the monastery in Scala. Maria Celeste and her sisters entered this monastery after leaving the Carmelite tradition of Marigliano. Falcoia, who caused Maria Celeste’s greatest difficulties, was also the instrument by which significant associations were introduced into her life. The first, Alphonsus, was to be, at least for a while, an affirming soul friend. The other, the ‘pious gentleman’ Silvestro Tosquez, would prove to be attractive and helpful but nonetheless an unfortunate complication for both Maria Celeste and Alphonsus.
St. Alphonsus’ most recent biographer, Father Frederick Jones, informs us that by 1726, a year after Celeste’s revelation concerning the Rule for a new institute, “Naples was buzzing with stories about the convent at Scala where Falcoia in particular was becoming the object of ridicule for allowing himself to be deceived by the so-called revelations of a neurotic visionary.” (Jones, 82) We might wonder how the inspirations of an ordinary nun in a remote town would become the subject of big city gossip. It is difficult for us living in a governmental system supported by the principle of separation between Church and State, to imagine the constant and penetrating interplay between things religious, social and political in 18th century Italy. Celeste’s monastery was only 100 yards, if you take Rey-Mermet’s word, or 200 yards if you take Jones’ word, from the Cathedral of Scala. Neapolitan clerics, of which there were many, provided services to both the Cathedral and the monastery. Alphonsus was to do just that in the fateful September of 1730. All conversations, not to mention gossip concerning goings and comings of personages, became grist for the Neapolitan rumor mill. Maria Celeste herself blamed Maurizio Filangeri, Falcoia’s superior as Father General of the Pious Workers, co-founder with him of the Scala monastery and, technically its superior, for spreading news of her “delusion” all over Naples. (2Crostarosa, 78) While Falcoia had no desire to seem a gullible fool, it was possible that implementation of Maria Celeste’s Rule would be an ideal fit for his plans concerning the monastery. By 1729 Alphonsus had added Falcoia to his long string of advisers and in turn Falcoia confided to Alphonsus his plans for the monastery and his inner conflict regarding Celeste. Undoubtedly aware of the gossip which was circulating concerning a deluded nun in Scala, Alphonsus was not well disposed to Celeste’s case. Jones reports:
Alphonsus’ immediate reaction was one of skepticism; at no time
in his life was he easily impressed by so-called revelations and visions, particularly those which carried with them instructions for future action. Writings and acceptance of a new Rule fell into this category. When he
wrote about visions and revelations some years later in his treatise on the direction of souls, he expressed severe reservations about such divine communications. At most he was prepared to concede that nothing should
be done just on the word of the visionary, ”The safest course for the director,”
he wrote, “is not to attach any great importance to them since there are more
false visions than true ones.” (Jones, 84)

Alphonsus preached in Scala in June of 1730 and probably visited the monastery at that time. The sisters had heard good things about him and invited him to give them a retreat during the Novena in preparation for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. Falcoia prevailed upon him to use this retreat as an opportunity to investigate the case of Maria Celeste and her Rule. Immediately upon his arrival in Scala on September 5th, he went to the monastery and began in very lawyerly fashion to question the sisters. Jones writes:
Despite his initial prejudice he gradually became convinced of
the authenticity of Maria Celeste’s experiences and that her insights were
from the Lord…In the course of his retreat which he based appropriately
enough on the master idea of the new Rule, the imitation of Jesus Christ,
his attitude to the revelations began to change. His skepticism gave way
to acceptance…To complete his task he addressed a special conference to
those sisters who up to that time had opposed the introduction of the new
Rule, burdening their conscience with the responsibility of impeding the
Glory of God. (Jones,85)

The testimonies of the sisters in the confessional and the frank openness of Maria Celeste were evidently impressive. By the end of those nine days he was a staunch supporter of the new Rule. Celeste reported in her Autobiography perhaps a bit over enthusiastically, “Don Alfonso was so carried away by holy joy and an ardent zeal for the glory of God that he could not conceal it.” (2Crostarosa, 79) Nonetheless, the quick about-face of the worldly wise and ill-disposed Alphonsus de Liguori can be puzzling.
Here, for the sake of argument, a move into the realm of interpretation and conjecture is called for. Fr. Jones took pains early in his biography to explain Alphonsus’ vacillating behavior and the plague of excessive scrupulosity that followed him throughout his life. Alphonsus was a trial to his spiritual director, Fr. Pagano, questioning at every turn his worthiness to say mass or hear confessions. He even hesitated about normal every day activities. Therapy prescribed by Pagano was absolute obedience to his spiritual director and a limit on the time devoted to prayer. Falcoia became Alphonsus’ director in August of 1732. For the eleven years of that relationship he endeavored to convert Alphonsus’ image of a threatening God who engendered excessive fear of sin and punishment to an image that developed love and hope. (Jones, 73) Eventually the love of God which casts out all fear was to become a dominant theme in Alphonsus’ preaching and in his writings (directed to no one more than to himself), and was best expressed in his devotional masterpiece, The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. (Jones, 73)
In addition, Alphonsus already had a well-established pattern of seeking, often to excess, advice from men of judgment and spiritual depth. While he did not seek out Maria Celeste in this way, he, nonetheless, recognized the genuine article when he saw it. In contrast to his perennial insecurity, vacillation and self-questioning, Maria Celeste presented her experience in a posture of certainty. This is evident in the written description of her mystical experiences which she produced for Alphonsus at his request. She demonstrated trust in what had been revealed to her by Jesus Christ who related to her so intimately as to transform her very being into His. In her Autobiography she described her experiences of divine affirmation as early as the period of 1718-19 in Marigliano:
About this time the Lord took my great exterior incapacity
away from me, and He enlightened my mind in giving me very
efficacious knowledge concerning the truths of Faith, and in drawing
me altogether to Himself. He showed me how He lived and how He
was the life of the soul.
During a most intimate union of Love, my Jesus created in
my soul by His Divine Grace a sweet resemblance to Eternal life, and
then made me understand those words written in the Holy Gospel
where he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes
to the Father except through me.”(2Crostarosa, 37-38)

Experiences of this type created the firm foundation or platform from which she processed both the revelations of 1725 regarding the new institute and the turmoil that followed. She was pragmatic about the reality of opposition but never abandoned what she firmly believed was inspired of God. This type of certitude rooted in spiritual intimacy and interior freedom may very well have been irresistible to Alphonsus by its very juxtaposition to his way of being; a prince of vacillation and self-recrimination.
Maria Celeste was forced to seek human advice and approbation by virtue of societal standards governing her as a woman and Church law governing her as a religious. In spite of the greater exterior freedom he enjoyed in society as a man and as a cleric, Alphonsus’ lack of interior freedom and deep insecurity pushed him into consultation after consultation.
As for the depth of spirituality Alphonsus found in Maria Celeste, John of the Cross offers some insight. In his commentary on The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza17, numbers 6 and 7, we find a suggestion of what Alphonsus may well have experienced in her.
God sometimes grants these favors to the soul, his bride. With
his Spirit he breathes through her flowering garden, opens all these buds
of virtues, and uncovers these aromatic spices of gifts, perfections, and
riches; and, disclosing this interior treasure and wealth, he reveals all
her beauty…
Sometimes the fragrance is so abundant that it seems to the
soul she is clothed with delight and bathed in inestimable glory to
such an extent that the experience is not only within her but overflows
and becomes manifest outside her, and those capable of recognizing
it are aware of her experience. It seems to them that she is a pleasant
garden…And not only when these flowers are open can you see this
in these holy souls, but they ordinarily bear in themselves an “I-don’t-
know-what” of greatness and dignity. This causes awe and respect in
others because of the supernatural effect diffused in such persons from
their close and familiar conversation with God. (John of the Cross, 544)

What other factors may we assume were at play here? Alphonsus was drawn away from the practice of law because of the politics and hypocrisy of the system. His standards were high and at this time in his life he clung to a particularly rigid attitude in matters of personal morality. He was also a priest serving the ultimate judge. Furthermore, rather than being lured to the high social life of a good number of Neapolitan clergy and religious, a way of life he later publicly disparaged, he sought the company of the poor and the work of ministering to them. His response to Maria Celeste may have been yet another counter cultural response. She too had rejected the lure of city in preference for a smaller town, a simpler life; a movement to greater truth and freedom.
In short, Maria Celeste’s spiritual posture of faith and simplicity; her evident depth of relationship with the one she called Beloved Spouse; her certitude and dogged perseverance in the face of opposition and cruel trials while being careful to remain obedient to superiors; and, even then, an evident sense of freedom – all of this must have been irresistible to the man who was Alphonsus de Liguori in 1730.
Many have carefully read the extant letters which these two exchanged. He saved most of her letters and it is plain that the degree of intimacy expressed in them (addressing her only by the name of Celeste, for example) is unparalleled in other correspondence. He also kept her written account of what had been communicated to her by God in his notebook, his Cose Coscienza or Matters of Conscience, which we would call a spiritual journal. Goethe said, “As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live.” Alphonsus may have been drawn as by a magnet to a person who had long since made that discovery by the light of the Holy Spirit and in the love of her Spouse. For her part, Celeste would refer to Alphonsus as “a true father” who interceded at a crucial time and with crucial people to end opposition to her proposed Rule.
History offers precedent for the character of the relationship between Maria Celeste and Alphonsus. Historian Jodie Bilinkoff in her work, Confessors, Penitents, and the Construction of Identities in Early Modern Avila, explains:
Male confessors were strongly attracted to the idea of directing
spiritually advanced women, and, in turn, became deeply influenced by
them, identified with them, and even became dependent upon them.

Building on Bilinkoff’s assertion, Patricia Ranft, author of a history of women spiritual directors, adds:
Their relationship was an occasion for their own growth,
spiritually, socially, and psychologically. Many underwent radical
personal transformation as a result of their association with holy women,
learning much from their intense spiritual experiences… (Ranft, 124)

The stretch of time from their life-changing meeting in September of 1730 to Celeste’s expulsion from the Scala monastery in May of 1733 was from start to finish an emotional and spiritual roller coaster for both of them. Once again I will avoid a detailed account of well-known facts. In spite of the wrangling back and forth between Celeste and Falcoia occurring simultaneous to a solicitous exchange of letters between Celeste and Alphonsus (one wonders at the frequency and speed of delivery which may also account in part for the informed Neapolitan rumor mill) events came to a culmination on May 13, 1731. The Feast of Pentecost was the foundation day of the new Institute, followed by the sisters clothing in the first Redemptoristine habits on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1731. Celeste confided to Alphonsus in July of that year about her conflicts with Falcoia over the Rule even to providing him with a letter from now Bishop Falcoia which she found distasteful saying, “I have great need to speak with you in order to free myself from great difficulties.”(3Crostarosa, July 1731). What a triangle!
During this period Alphonsus also confided in the sisters about his concern for the abandoned in the hills above Naples.The meeting of Alphonsus and Celeste in September of 1730 took place only a few months after a landmark experience in his life. Worn down by his service to victims of the epidemic in 1729, Alphonsus, with a few companions, ended up spending time away from the crush of Naples in the hill town of Santa Maria dei Monti during June of 1730. While enjoying the pure air and shelter of a hermitage, his heart and spirit were moved with pity for the simple and sorely neglected people he found there.
For Alphonsus the whole experience was a frightening revelation
of the ignorance and spiritual abandonment in which souls within a few
days journey of Naples were living; no group of missionaries came here
to preach or instruct these people while within a few hours distance there
were over fifty priests in Scala and twice that number in Amalfi. (Jones, 76)

This is the event around which a swirl of disagreement regarding interpretation seems to endlessly revolve. One orbit of argument lead by Fr. Theodule Rey-Mermet declares “…by June, 1730 [his time in Santa Maria dei Monti], Alphonsus already had the idea of a new institute as an urgent necessity of the Church and even possibly as a personal duty.” (2Rey-Mermet, 216) This belief continues to be held by a considerable number of Redemptorists. On the other hand, there is the orbit of argument promoted by Fathers Frederick Jones and Emilio Lage among others. Fr. Jones wrote in 1992:
Alphonsus de Liguori was far from casting himself in the heroic
role of a religious founder; the initiative in what he undertook came
mainly from others. He was in the depths of spiritual darkness, tortured
by scruples, unsure of his future, hesitant and indecisive when he found
himself playing a key role in the establishment of a new missionary
society…Every reputable spiritual counselor in Naples must have known
about his search since he discussed it with the Dominicans, Jesuits,
Franciscans, Vincentians, as well as bishops, and his own priest friends.
(Jones, 90-91)

Fr. Jones writes here of the general reluctance with which the founders of religious institutes approach the enterprise. Yet, to this he adds a telling comment in the footnotes:
Perhaps in this we do less than justice to the Foundresses
of Orders of Sisters. Women have shown less reluctance to assume
the burden of establishing religious families; they are possessed of
a finer sense of purpose than their male counterparts. (Jones, 501)

To this line of persuasion we can also add Fr. Louis Vereecke, CSsR who offers a quote from Fr. Antonio Maria Tannoia, CSsR (1727-1802) who published his three volume biography of Alphonsus in the years 1798-1802. Tannoia, who entered the Congregation in 1746, was at Alphonsus’ side when he died in Pagani in 1787. The record of his extensive research and primary source interviews remain in the Redemptorist archives. We can safely assume that he had every motivation to fully credit Alphonsus for the inspiration to found a new institute. Yet he concludes a report of the Santa Maria dei Monti experience with these less than decisive words:
He [Alphonsus] begged the Lord to raise up among the sons of
Abraham someone who would take in hand the lot of these unfortunates.
(3Vereecke, 69)

We know that Alphonsus freely confided in the sisters regarding his concern for the poor and spiritually abandoned in the countryside. Judging from the tenor of the letters exchanged we may be certain that this matter was also the subject of deep conversation between Alphonsus and Celeste. She repeatedly encouraged him with accounts of her own mystical intuitions. He carefully noted on the outside of each letter that Celeste, by that name alone, was the sender. In a letter of late September or early October of 1731 she reported to Alphonsus these words of Jesus:
You will receive many graces from me through this soul and
he will receive many signs of my mercy through you. The special
sign by which my servant will know that I love him is that I will bless
all the souls under his care with great increase in grace and salvation;
those who listen to his words will receive abundant eternal blessings.
This will be the clearest sign of my love…I have given him the
greatest gifts of my pure love…which will lead to the supreme end
of union with me. (2Rey-Mermet, 237)

Touched and supported by these words and others from Celeste, Alphonsus recorded the following in his Cose Coscienza:
Jesus loves me, and he tells me this so I may be more prayerful…
The Virgin loves me among her most beloved son. God has entrusted
me to her so that she may accompany me in the conversion of souls…
The demon curses both the hour in which I gave myself to God and all
that I have done for this convent… Jesus, on the contrary, has blessed
it all… She saw my name written in the heart of Jesus…She recognized
me among the sons of Mary…Celeste, may we always be united in the
grace of God… (2Rey-Mermet, 237)

Now we come to the exact inspiration which has attained mythical proportions. On October 3, 1731, the eve of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Maria Celeste was gifted with a mystical experience in which both Jesus and the St. Francis appeared along with Alphonsus. Referring to Alponsus, Jesus said: “This soul has been chosen as head of this institute of men. He will be the first superior of the new congregation of men.” In her Autobiography Celeste goes on to report that on the next day she was graced to receive further details of the Rule for the men beyond her Rule which was to be the basis of the enterprise and was informed that their motto should be, “Go and preach to all creatures that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (2Crostarosa, 83)
What was Alphonsus’ reaction to this revelation? He heard a very partial version of the news from Falcoia who had been informed by Celeste. In spite of his disparaging remarks to Maria Celeste about her proclivity for private revelation, it was not beneath Falcoia to use the influence she seemed to have with Alphonsus to further his own long-standing desire to be the guiding force in yet another new institute. He had begun to look upon Alphonsus, as the likely head of such an endeavor. While being some what circumspect, Falcoia now encouraged Alphonsus to see Celeste. Upon the close of a mission in Naples he and Fathers Mazzini and Mannarini went to Scala. Alphonsus met with Celeste in the confessional of the sisters’ public chapel. Jones writes:
…His objections were innumerable but were all waved aside;
the discussion became animated and the sound of voices raised in
argument carried out to the body of the church where Mazzini was
praying and waiting for his companion…Over sixty years later Mazzini
recalled the conversation at the process of beatification…Alphonsus’
reactions to the revelations of Celeste and to the proposals of Falcoia
which apparently suggest immediate action were totally predictable;
he would have to submit the whole matter to the decision of his spiritual
director, Father Pagano. (Jones, 93)

For her part Maria Celeste wrote in her Autobiogrpahy: “While listening he was immediately filled with joy that inflamed his heart.” (2Crostarosa, 84) We need not be shocked at the seeming contradiction here. The historical context and social conventions of the time, regarding what was proper for women, must be kept in mind. Just as Celeste’s references to herself in the third person and her disparagement of herself in the Autobiography were required contrivances within the culture, it would likewise not have been acceptable for her to avert to emotional equivocation on the part of any man especially her spiritual superior and someone she considered a friend. Her Autobiography was written years later as a public document but her letters of the period were private and reveal in very obvious contrast, frankness and intimacy in communication.
Once again we arrive at a juncture where time does not allow us to get bogged down in a repetition of familiar facts. As was typical of Alphonsus, in his anguish and his inability, unlike Celeste, to trust intuitions and spiritual inspirations he sought the advice of many. But once decided and often in strict obedience to his director he proceeded in a pragmatic manner. In this case he sought among others the counsel of a holy Dominican, Ludovico Fiorillo who confirmed the inspiration for a new congregation dedicated to serving the poor and most abandoned. Yet it was not to reach fruition until November 9, 1732 when Alphonsus assembled in the guest house of the Scala monastery a small band of confreres committed to the effort.
At the very least, Celeste’s revelation and influence pushed Alphonsus over the edge. It was not an instant discernment. Many obstacles, of which he was only too well aware, had to be overcome. An added push may have been provided by Jesus’ directive that Celeste’s Rule was be used by the men in the double institute. It provided a spirituality, direction and framework which grounded their endeavor to serve the poor and the most abandoned.
Only three weeks later Alphonsus recorded in Cose Coscienza, his spiritual journal, his well known vow of the founder expressing his total commitment to the Institute above all.
Today, November 28, 1732, I made a vow not to leave the
Institute unless Falcoia or his successor as my director commands me
to… Not in regard to the Rule: it is up to me to establish or to change
the Rule. It is up to me to interpret it or to set other conditions according
to my judgement. And moreover I vow never to doubt my vocation as
I stated above. (2Rey-Mermet, 151)

These events coincided with an ongoing dispute between Celeste and Falcoia in regard to the composition of the Rule for the Order of women. The original revelation was Celeste’s. What she wrote was inspired of God and she believed that what was communicated to her by Jesus was not to be altered or expanded. Falcoia believed that as founder of the monastery, as Celeste’s spiritual director, and as a bishop he had the right to edit what was merely the inspiration of a nun unskilled in framing binding documents for religious. The cauldron became even more heated with the addition of Celeste’s revelation regarding the Congregation and the directive to apply her Rule also to the men. Fr. Joseph Oppitz offers an excellent summary of these events.
The next two years [from foundation in 1731 to her expulsion in
1733] were an absolute hell for Maria Celeste…Falcoia insisted on changing
her original Rule, leaving out what she considered several essential sections,
such as…The Intent of the Father, as well as, The Idea of the Institute. He
added to her nine monthly virtues…the three theological virtues, making twelve
monthly virtues…His understanding of the virtues of the Rule was much more
externalistic and formalistic than her own. Finally, he had the male nerve to
tamper with the religious habit. It is clear that his over all purpose was to
harmonize the new Rule of Crostarosa with his own beloved version of the
Visitation Rule, given to the nuns back in 1720…Naturally she reacted quite
strongly when she felt that Falcoia was emasculating her spiritual project. (Oppitz, 38)

Other personalities intruded themselves. Dissident sisters in the monastery championed their own causes and jealousies. The most unfortunate human tangle added to the knotty situation was Silvestro Tosques, Celeste’s “pious gentleman.” Jones tells us of Tosquez’ dramatic spiritual vitae which he played to the hilt while inserting himself into the Redemptorist project. He so ingratiated himself that Falcoia sent him to meet the sisters in Scala. Thus Falcoia himself was the agent by which through which Celeste met bothAlphonsus and Tosquez met Celeste. Tosquez became an unfortunate instigator in Celeste’s wrangle with the Bishop and a bone of contention in her friendship with Alphonsus. Tosquez may have rescued and returned Celeste’s first copy of the Rule, but in almost every other regard his was an unfortunate influence.
In his famous letters to Celeste of March 1733, Alphonsus criticized her lack of humilty; her refusal to accede to Falcoia in complete obedience to him as her spiritual director; for allowing Tosquez such great influence over her; and for laboring under “terrible hallucinations”. At the end he questioned the nature of her affection for Tosquez suggesting that it might be a sinful attachment. Rather than reply to Alphonsus directly, Celeste wrote in April to her confessor Pietro Romano explaining her position. Then on the advice of Falcoia, her superior issued an ultimatum with three conditions: 1. to end all correspondence with Tosquez; 2. to sign with her own hand Falcoia’s version of the Rule; and 3. to bind herself by vow for life to the spiritual direction of Tomaso Falcoia. According to her own judgement and the advice of her brother, a Jesuit priest who had been sent by her concerned father, Maria Celeste declared that she would agree to the first two conditions but rejected the third because she was “restrained by serious motives and scruples of conscience” which would “never oblige her to such a vow.” (1Crostarosa, 261 #17). On May 25, 1733 Maria Celeste was expelled from the Scala community.
Eight months later, when Giovanni Mazzini, a new candidate for his congregation was encountering objections to changing his spiritual director, Alphonsus defended Mazzini’s right to make such a change by citing St. Teresa of Avila’s frequent movement from one director to another among additional arguments which he presented in a long dissertation. Rey-Mermet himself asks why this line of logic had not applied to Maria Celeste. (2Rey-Mermet, 302)
Alphonsus made the choice to vow obedience to his director, maintaining a human relationship, something highly valued in Italian society. Spiritually and psychologically he needed this connection. He also felt that this was the position from which he could assure the survival of the Congregation in the midst of myriad challenges. Once pushed over the edge by Celeste, once infected by her vision and certitude, once reassured through her of God’s love and intention for him, his commitment was irrevocable.
Celeste, as she had been in the past when necessary, was willing to put even the directives of Jesus aside; to live her contemplative life according to a Rule that did not conform to the original inspiration; to accept everything with the very humility she was accused of lacking and to obey her superiors in all things. But she would not surrender her interior freedom which is what remaining under Falcoia’s direction would require.
We know of how she left the monastery that day with hardly any clothes on her back and of how she spent the next five years applying her religious intuition and her ability to inspire others in needy and more grateful circumstances. In 1738 she was finally able to establish a permanent community in Foggia according to the inspired Rule.
Some would say that with the founding of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, any influence Celeste may have had on Alphonsus and the Redemptorists ended. Evidence proves otherwise. With regard to the Redemptorist Rule, Celeste’s original inspiration remained very evident in the Regole Grande (1732-1743) and in the Conza Text, the first text of the Rule approved by the General Congregation in 1747. From this last document comes what is referred to today as the Primitive Rule of the Redemptorists. The texts changed over time but few would argue the absolute grounding provided by Celeste’s revealed Rule in the early days nor the valued inheritance it continues to be for modern Redemptorists.
It is the opinion of some that the personal relationship between Alphonsus and Celeste ended irrevocably and permanently in the spring of 1733. Here evidence has also proved otherwise. Fr. Emilio Lage presents considerable evidence of continuing friendship and mutual respect.
April, 1735 – Alphonsus asked Falcoia’s permission to see Celeste
but was refused.
December, 1736 – Alphonsus saw Celeste in Roccapiemonte.

January, 1747 – Alphonsus showed his confidence in Celeste by
recommending her as a go-between to assure the passage of a document from another monastery in Foggia communicating with the Holy See.

December, 1747 – Alphonsus spoke with Maria Celeste in Foggia
during a mission in the city.

Fr. Lage concludes, “Still more indicative of the esteem in which he held Mother Maria Celeste is his permission given to [Redemptorist Brother] Gerard Majella to visit her frequently at Foggia, to have spiritual talks with her and to exchange letters.” (1Lage, 30) Fr. Ignaz Dekkers adds that according to Celeste’s Autobiography, Alphonsus sent one of his priests to Foggia to seek out charitable support for Celeste’s monastery and that many Redemptorist missionaries visited the holy prioress whenever their pastoral work brought them into the province of Puglia. Alphonsus himself may have visited in 1745 when he preached missions in four parishes of Foggia with fifteen confreres. Celeste also records receiving copies of the songs Alphonsus composed. (Dekkers, 22) Indeed, Maria Celeste’s very arrival in Foggia may have been guided, at least in part, by the influence of Alphonsus. In 1991, an archivist of Foggia, Maria Nardella, postulated that since since Celeste came to Foggia at the invitation of Guiseppi Tortora in whom Alphonsus’ uncle, Monsignor Cavalieri, had placed confidence and trust, Alphonsus himself might have had a hand in the matter.
Maria Celeste Crostarosa has not gone unnoticed outside of the circle of the double institute of Redemptoristines and Redemptorists. To the book Women and Faith – Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late Antiquity to the Present, Marilena Modica Vasta has contributed an essay on mystical writing which presents Maria Celeste’s work as the prototype for this genre. Vasta wrote:
As intuitively understood by Alphonsus Liguori, Crostarosa’s
autonomy was not born merely of the intensity of her spiritual life, nor
from mystic and penitential fervor, but from a capacity for reflection
with which writing under the direction of her confessor had a good
deal to do, and which, escaping from the routines of “spiritual reports,”
rose to the superior form of knowledge by the broadening and illumine-
tion of the mind. This was a certainty that Sister Celeste felt in her
heart; it gave her the courage – the same displayed in her time by Teresa
of Ahumada – to renounce her spiritual director, Father Falcoia. (Vasta, 212)

This modern literary historian has recognized what may very well have grasped Alphonsus and held him for a lifetime; her autonomy, her capacity for reflection, the illumination of her mind and spirit, and a courageous heart.
A public figure but hidden mystic of the twentieth century, Dag Hammarskjold, an early Secretary General of the United Nations, penned in his journal Markings an admirable description which merely by changing the gender of the pronouns expresses the nature of Celeste’s influential character.
She broke fresh ground – because she had the courage to go ahead
without asking whether others were following or even understood. She
had no need for the divided responsibility in which others seek to be safe
from ridicule because she had been granted a faith which required no
confirmation – a contact with reality, light and intense like the touch of
a gloved hand: a union in self-surrender without self destruction, where
her heart was lucid and her mind loving. In the sun and wind, how near
how remote. (Hammarskjold, 205)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Dance of Fire

Oh, dancing, lover God,
how wonderful that you
should call my name,
invite me into the dance
of your Spirit
in which we lean and sway
as one body, with one intention,
never apart, never beyond
our sensuous communication.
How incredible a development!
How incredible a love
played out in the dance of fire.

To gaze…to love…
”to be turned into fire”.
Mother Maria Celeste Crostarosa

A Charism Illumined: Eucharistic Anamnesis Informing 'Viva Memoria'

“You have called me to relive in myself
the Mystery of Jesus…and to be a living memorial of it…”
Constitutions and Statutes Order of the Most Holy Redeemer #87 Formula of Profession

by Sister Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR


The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) energized a life-giving impulse which coursed through the Church. One of the most generative of its instructions directed congregations and orders of religious to reach back into their history, to be guided by scholarly investigation of early texts and archival material and by this effort to reappropriate the original inspirations of their founders. There was great reason to hope that by retrieving its natal charism a community would renew itself. There was even greater hope that the still burning embers of the Spirit’s work could be fanned into flame and the light of its fire would illumine the path ahead in new times and new circumstances.

The Order of the Most Holy Redeemer pursued this directive in company with Redemptorist brothers whose invaluable efforts brought its founder, the Venerable Maria Celeste Crostarosa (1696-1755), into the light. With all of the revealed vivacity of her spirit and mystical experience came rediscovery of the institute’s charism, the life force to be reappropriated by her sisters, the call to be a living memory of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus.

During ten years of association with the Order and two years within the community, conversations with friends, lay associates, religious of other congregations, and visitors to our monastery I have often attempted to explain the subtle nuances of our charism, namely that the heart of the Redemptoristine charism is the call to be a “living memory” of Christ. (Crostarosa, Dialogues, Oppitz Trans. #104, p. 54) Invariably a disclaimer would follow; “But that does not mean mere imitation. It goes beyond that.” And the effort to expand on the “beyond” has always fallen woefully short of communicating the meaning of “living memory.” From this sense of inadequacy was born a search for a way of defining “living memory” that would be appropriately substantial yet comprehensible.

The Eucharistic Connection

With time and within the misty atmosphere of mental conjecture, “living memory” began to merge with the words of Jesus repeated in the Eucharistic Rite, “Do this in memory of me.” Suddenly the overlap was not merely a coincidence of vocabulary. The search drew me toward a concept of Eucharistic theology explored in graduate school. That first appreciation of the principle of Eucharistic anamnesis seemed like a bright star exploding before my eyes, initially blinding in its brightness but then illuminating the entire field of vision. It was explained that at the consecration of the Mass not only is the Body and Blood of Jesus made present under the appearance of bread and wine but that Jesus Christ and all of the Paschal Mystery is also made present and active among us in this present time. We are not merely remembering Jesus’ life and sacrifice on the cross. Those events are rendered as living and actively working in their redemptive power for the world at this moment. That pattern of explanation and disclaimer emerged from the past and coupled with the “living memory” question of the present. Futhermore, it suggested that the concept of anamnesis itself could provide clarification for that of “living memory”.

By connecting “living Memory” with the anamnesis of the Mass, a Eucharistic context for the search began to take shape. The form and features of this context emerged from careful reading of the Dialogues and Autobiography of Maria Celeste in which her post-communion meditation experiences provide a rich vein of evidence.

One morning after Holy Communion I heard in the very center of my
Soul these words of the Credo pronounced: “Consubstantialem Patri perquem
omnia facta sunt,” [One in being with the Father, through whom all things were
made.]so that filled to over flowing with Divine Gifts, it seemed to me that the
Divine Essence was in me…My Lord Jesus Christ…gave me His Divine Heart
which he enclosed in my breast in place of my own…I seemed to enter into a
new life of Love, a life in God.
Autobiography, Capitolo 18 Critical Ed.; p. 43, 1940 English.

This morning…my whole soul was transformed into your very substance.
Dialogues, Oppitz trans. #30, p. 23

Since your soul is the figure of My substance, what really are you within your
spirit, in your very being, if not a living image, a living copy of me… #47, p. 31

After I received Holy Communion…I saw You within me and myself changed
into you…I felt that just one word was being spoken to me, namely, “Substance
of the Father”…This transformation, O Lord of my heart, of my being into Yours, You deigned to make so many times! #125, p. 61

This morning I went to Holy Communion and You transformed me into yourself
so that I entered into the humanity of Your Divine Word and began to sacrifice
myself to the Father for all men. #147, p. 67

You do this precisely by the spirit of observance in terms of your Rule, which
was given by Me so that you might be a viva memoria (a dynamic memory)
of My Life… #104, p. 54

These passages speak of a transformation that is not merely an imitative overlay but a participation in the substance, the very essence of Jesus in which He, in turn, is consubstantial with the Father. Nor is it a static participation but a highly animated one that propels Maria Celeste “into a new life of Love, a life in God”. By such human participation and animation Jesus, His Paschal Mystery, his work of redemption is made present and active in our time. For Maria Celeste the Incarnation of Jesus was the opening of new territory in the relationship between God and humanity, a territory into which she entered with abandon. By partaking of the Eucharist, the essential act of remembering Jesus, she became substantially one with him, not merely an imitation of him. Gradually these mystical experiences revealed to her the necessity of remembering always, of living a life of remembering, a life of ‘oneness’ with Jesus Christ.

Eucharistic Anamnesis

The phenomena of Eucharistic anamnesis and “living memory” each reflect the other. Yet their depth, their power to inform sacramental and spiritual appreciation was lost over time. While the anamnetic character of the Eucharistic meal was buried under weighty, mountainous layers of theological argumentation, “living memory” suffered from the loss to obscurity of Maria Celeste’s mystical experience for over two hundred years. In the 20th century each became the object of a kind of archaeological dig, a treasure to be unearthed in tectonic shifts powered by the Second Vatican Council.

The crucial feature of both anamnesis and “living memory” is the ability to render past events and the person of Jesus present and active in our time. However, offering this explanation and pointing to the connection is not enough. One must ask, “Where does this astounding concept of anamnesis come from?” The answers will more fully illuminate the Redemptoristine charism, and the Cathechism of the Roman Catholic Church gives inquirers a start.

The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present
and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice… In all of the Eucharist
Prayers we find after the words of institution a prayer called the anamnesis or memorial. [“Do this in memory of me.”]

In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely a recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men…they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them…When the Church celebrates the Eucharist she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present…As often as the sacrifice of the celebrated on the altar, the work of redemption is
carried out. (#1362-1364)

Rooted in Jewish Liturgical Practice

The memorial or anamnetic character of the Eucharistic banquet is not a conceptualization newly minted by post-Vatican II sacramental theology. Rather, it is a theological concept found in the oldest Eucharistic prayers which reflect how the practices of the early Church were deeply rooted in ancient Hebrew liturgical tradition. “The primitive eucharist was a commemoration. Not a commemoration of the last supper, but a commemoration of Christ, and of his saving mysteries. The idea…of a ‘mere’ commemoration (muda commemoratio) would have been meaningless to the Jewish mind.” (Lash, p.44) In 1969, Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, then director of national inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and observer at the Second Vatican Council, wrote: “To commemorate and to remember is in the Jewish tradition never a mere memory but always implies a look toward the future and a making present again.” (Breaking Bread, p. 148) The Jewish Passover Seder is the penultimate expression of the Hebrew commemorative meal making present in the real time the mystery of the Passover of the Lord God.

Based upon the work of scholars in Eucharistic theology, among them Louis Bouyer, Louis Ligier, Joachim Jeremias, Jean-Paul Audet and Dom Gregory Dix, an even greater understanding of the origins of the earliest Eucharistic prayers or anaphoras is emerging. The most ancient anaphoras conform in structure to the Jewish prayers said at a fellowship meal, most especially the birkat-ha-mazon, which it was typically anamnetic in character and featured three movements: blessing, thanksgiving and supplication. (Audet in Kline, p. 410) Beyond appreciating the stylistic resemblance of early Eucharistic prayers, it was Dom Gregory Dix who had the insight to consider the sitz-im-Leben, that is, the institutional setting in actual Hebraic practice, which gave specific meaning to these liturgical meal prayers. (Kline, p. 413) Dom Gregory’s insights answered a most basic question: what did Jesus, as a Jew of his time, have in mind; what did he mean when he said, “Do this in memory of me”? “The command of Jesus did not refer to the repetition of a sacral fellowship meal. This could be presumed as fundamental to Jewish religious practice. In other words, Jesus did not have to institute a meal, because the meal was already there. What Jesus did was to invest this meal with a new anamnetic character.” (Kline, p. 414) For the Hebrew of Jesus’ time the Passover meal was not merely “a subjective, human psychological act of returning to the past, but an objective reality” undertaken to make the Passover of the Lord perpetually present before God. (Bouyer, p. 103) “By the power of the Lord of history, those events are in a sense made present in the liturgy, so that the worshippers are living them again in their own lives. A Jewish ritual memorial, therefore, is no mere thinking of the past; it is a memorial filled with the reality of that which it commemorates.” (Moloney, p. 265) This was the anamnetic character of the meal. When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” he invested the meal with a new anamnetic object, that is, the Paschal mystery, which is the saving acts of his own life, death and resurrection.

The Implications of Anamnesis for Our Practice

Celebrations of the Eucharist in which we share today are the occasions in which we call to mind the person and events of our salvation – Jesus Christ and his Paschal Mystery – in such a way that “we” render them living and active in our own time. The “we”, plural pronoun, is operative here. The priest, although in persona Christi, is not acting alone. The gathered community is not merely present or participating by observation. The community gathered for the memorial meal is integral to anamnesis, to recalling and thereby making actively present the person and saving action of the Redeemer. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) of the Second Vatican Council declared that God’s people gathered for Eucharist “offer the immaculate victim through the hands of the priest but also together with him”. (48) The Eucharistic prayer emphasizes this integral function by repeated use of the pronoun “we”. We thank you for counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you (EPII). We offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice (EPIII). We, your people and your ministers, recall his passion, his resurrection from the dead and his ascension into glory (EPI). Indeed, the level of participation penetrates more deeply if the community offers itself along with the gifts of bread and wine and unites itself with the words of Eucharistic Prayer III, “Father we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and the blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. By this collective effort and offering and in light of the concept of Eucharistc anamnesis Jesus becomes uniquely present in the consecrated bread and wine but also actively present in our time and within and among those gathered. And this answers the question; in what way is Jesus Christ made actively present at each Eucharistic celebration? At least in part, Jesus the Redeeming Christ, is made present within those who are united with Him in this memorial. In remembering, we become what is remembered. Just as the anamnetic character of our Eucharist is rooted in an ancient religious ritual, appreciation of the effect of anamnesis is imbedded in our history. Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop (467-533CE), speaking of the obligation of the faithful to fulfill the words of the Savior at the Last Supper wrote, “Thus they drink the Lord’s cup by preserving the holy bond of love; without it, even if a man should deliver his body to be burned, he gains nothing. But the gift of love enables us to become in reality what we celebrate as mystery in the sacrifice.” (Liturgy of the Hours, p. 379)

Alexander Schmemann, the late Russian Orthodox scholar of liturgy, wrote about the power of anamnetic memory in his work The Eucharist – Sacrament of the Kingdom. His words are so eloquently reminiscent of the Constitutions of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer that they must be quoted at length.

…in Christ…memory comes to reign and is restored as a lifecreating power, and, in remembering, man partakes not of the experience of the fall… but of the overcoming of this fall through “life everlasting.” For Christ himself is the incarnation and the gift to mankind of God’s memory in all its fullness…

The essence of our faith and the new life granted in it consists in Christ’s memory, realized in us through our memory of Christ. From the very first day of Christianity, to believe in Christ meant to remember him and keep him always in mind. … From the very beginning the faith of Christians was memory and remembrance, but memory restored to its life creating essence – for… this new memory is a joyous recognition of the one who was resurrected, who lives and therefore is present and abides… Faith eternally knows that the one who is remembered lives… The remembrance of Christ is the entry into his love, making us brothers and neighbors, “brethren” in his ministry. His life and presence in us and “among” us is certified only by our love for each other and for all who God has sent into, has included in our life, and this means above all in the remembrance of each other and in the commemoration of each other in Christ. Therefore, in bringing his sacrifice to the altar, we create the memory of each other, we identify each other as living in Christ and being united with each other in him. (Schmemann, p.128-30)

The Constitution and Statutes of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer in its section on the Liturgy asserts again and again this understanding of Eucharistic meal as the agent of “living memory”.
The Church continues to make present this Memorial of the Passover of the Lord, a living bond of love between Christians and a pledge of future glory. (#37) …Our liturgical celebrations must give witness at one and same time to the holiness of the Lord and to His loving presence among us. (#40) …This silent contemplation, maintained in faith and love in the depth of the soul, allows us a personal experience of God and also permits us to enter fully into the plan of Redemption. (#42) …We allow Christ to relive His Mystery in us by contemplating Him in the whole of His life.

Participation in the Memorial by the Power of the Holy Spirit

The scope of this paper does not permit lengthy discussion concerning the history of
debate regarding consecratory elements of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. While the Church in the
west has long held to the words of institution, “this is my body…this is my blood” of the narrative of Jesus’ last supper narrative, as the consecratory formula, the Church of the east has always pronounced the epiclesis, the prayer of the invocation of the Holy Spirit, as the essential moment of consecration. Again it is Alexander Schmemann who calls the debate back to order. “Despite hundreds of treatises written in response to this question, neither academic theological nor liturgical studies has given, alas, a satisfactory answer…We cannot ‘break through’ to the genuine meaning, embedded in the very experience of the Church, of the eucharist as the sacrament of remembrance.” (Schmemann, p.192-3)

Although today Roman Catholic teaching declares the entire Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory, the very existence of the old debate serves as a reminder to renew our attentiveness to the work of the Spirit. This attentiveness is particularly essential to appreciating the implications of belief in the anamnetic character of the Eucharistic memorial. Each of the four principal Eucharistic prayers includes an epiclesis invoking the power of the Holy Spirit as the agent of consecration; “let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy”. (EP II) By these words we acknowledge that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the gifts are transformed. In these words we ask that we too may become holy and transformed into the mystery that we celebrate, the mystery of the sacrament of remembrance.

For Redemptoristines the vocabulary of anamnesis: memory, remember, remembrance, recall, memorial, should be like music to the ears. The charism to be a “living memory” of Jesus was revealed to our foundress during post-communion meditations in which she experienced the transformative power of the Eucharist accomplished through the work of the Spirit. Her daughters are to be transformed into the “living memory” by participation in the Eucharistic banquet, which was from the beginning an exercise of memory. By our act of remembering we participate in the transformation of the Eucharistic elements into the Body and Blood of Jesus and, in turn, we are transformed into the very life which we remember. In addition, the Jesus of Maria Celeste’s mystical experiences also asked, “You shall take on a memory of My life in each hour [of the day] …I shall be the lamp of all your activities and you shall eat the living food of eternal life which was contained in the works of My life while I was a pilgrim on earth. This is the spirit of the Institute: the viva memoria and My imitation just as I lived among you.” (Dialogues,#104-105, p. 54-55). Elsewhere this level of attentive remembering is referred to as the fixed gaze. To the degree that the daughters of Celeste are recollected to this fixed gaze, their very lives take on an anamnetic character; their lives become capable of rendering the Paschal Mystery present and active in real time.

In this way our very lives become the “living Memory” of Jesus. Our acts of memory, in so far as they are facilitated by the Holy Spirit, render us not only spiritual people (pneumatikos) but also bearers of the Spirit (pneumatophoros), living epiclesis. (Bianchi, p.162) By our lives we call down the power of the Holy Spirit into every corner of the world and the troubled psyche of humanity.

The original question concerned the deeper meaning of a charism, which is an invitation to be a “living memory” of Jesus Christ, to make the person of Jesus present in our world in a manner that goes beyond any imitation. Our Eucharistic liturgies are “pregnant with reality”, a reality called for in the anamnesis, the appeal of Jesus in his last supper to “Do this in memory of me.” (The Study of Liturgy, p.14) Jesus, the incarnation of the memory of God, is asking us to become, in turn, the incarnation of his memory in our world. The words of Maria Celeste express self-affirmation and encourage her community today:

Now that your sacred Humanity, united to the Word of God,
has been glorified…It gives me such a risen life in God that it transforms
me into the eternal life of God, as I await the dawning of that new day,
which will make me blessed for all eternity.
Florilegium, p. 95, Crostarosa, Exercise of Love for Every Day

If we have it in our power to make present and active the saving work of Jesus by our remembering, the quality of that remembering, our awareness of and presence to it, becomes so much more vital. Appropriation of the anamnesis as metaphor for “living memory” raises the volume and imperative of the call to be contemplatives. For Redemptoristines, for all contemplatives, or those who would live their active lives in a more contemplative fashion, the concept of Eucharistic anamnesis suggests an ordering of ones’ life in a way conducive to remembering, to being recollected to the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Almost fifty years ago Thomas Merton declared, “In the night of our technological barbarism, monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark and by their vital presence purify the air.” (Merton, p .124) Just as the trees of the forest breathe transforming life into the world, our conscious and active “living memory” is co-creator with the divine breath of the Spirit of the saving presence of Jesus in our time. Appreciation of the anamnetic power of our “living memory” is impetus for the life and work of contemplation.


New Vision - A Fruit of Contemplation

Christian Unity Week – 2005

Often when Violeta Chu, our Peruvian sister was here, it became necessary to try to explain what was meant by some difficult technical term. As we waited in the airport for her return flight the word paradox came up. How would I explain that? In the face of deficiency in language one often resorts to example in an effort to communicate a difficult concept. So I said, “You know how it is said that when women enter a monastery they leave the world. But in reality we in the monastery know that in this life we draw closer to the world. This is an example of a paradox.” Thinking about Christian unity and the unity of all people brought me back to that example and the paradox of moving away from the world only to become more united with it.

During this week we have been called to maturity and action recognizing that God the Creator is the source and the Son, Jesus Christ, the foundation on which we build. Sister Peg’s reflection yesterday elaborated on the act of “building” as one of conversion of heart which Lonergan described as a conversion to love – unrestricted, unconditional love.

Today’s theme and the suggested readings indicate that we will be judged by the effort we make to move toward that conversion, the conversion to love. I waited until yesterday to write this little piece because my impulse was to make it intimately relevant to our lives as contemplatives and I was searching for a way to do that. Here is my focus. We may not be called to create ecumenical services with our Protestant neighbors or to sponsor an ecumenical prayer group, although those are nice ideas. However, we do know that we are definitely called to contemplative prayer – it is our life. This is the realm in which we build. And what do I mean by that?

We know from the great writers and practitioners of contemplative prayer that one of its fruits is that paradoxical yet sure sense of connectedness to the world, to the people in it everywhere and to all of creation. Last night, I ‘googled’ the words “Fruits of Contemplation”. Post haste I found a very apt and concise list.

1. You learn to discern what really matters – and let go of what doesn’t.
2. You are less likely to judge other people.
3. You accept your own basic goodness.
4. You cultivate an open mind.
5. Your private and communal prayer grows deeper.
6. You transform your motivations and purify your intentions
7. You achieve inner freedom to serve truthfully in the outer world.

In short, we can say that the prayer to which we are particularly called transforms vision. Douglas Steere said, “Prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it all, all people, and all the history of humankind, in the light of God.” (Intro. To Merton’s Contemplative Prayer)

We are all familiar with the story of Thomas Merton’s experience on the street in Louisville where he was suddenly transfixed by the graced realization that each and every person in the crowds before him was loved by God and that he love them too. It was truly a conversion experience. It was built upon, made possible by, a lifetime of contemplative prayer – a going inward to the place of transformation which we call union - and then a going outward to that unconditional, unrestricted love of which Lonergan spoke.

What is it that is happening? Maria Celeste might describe it as an exchange of hearts.
Through surrender in contemplation our ever discriminating heart is exchanged for the heart of Jesus - the heart of the Jesus who knew no distinctions; seemed oblivious to divisions of culture, gender, class or condition; who did not see separation, barrier, or difference. We see with new eyes and feel with a new heart and know the primacy of love and the essential unity of all humanity and all creation. We emerge with a new psyche. It is this condition that makes lists of rules printed inside missalettes about who can and who cannot receive Communion and the statements of bishops about refusing the Sacrament to public officials, repugnant to us. Especially so because we know that the sacrament of Holy Eucharist is the ultimate expression of Jesus’ desire to be one with us. And we know the rest of the equation. If Jesus is united to all then all are united with each other. In every Eucharistic Prayer we hear Jesus’ words, “Take this, all of you.”

I experience Holy Eucharist as the Sacrament of contemplation, both the food for and the fruit of contemplative experience.

Our unique lives as contemplative religious are God’s gifts to us. We are asked today to build on the central platform of that life – contemplation in Jesus – that we may increasingly bear as witnesses the mark of our essential oneness with all that is. May we share that unique vision of Jesus, allow all dualisms and distinctions to fall away and rightfully and worthily assume that prophetic voice which cries out to the world, “God is Love!”

Living Life Contemplatively

It would seem that contemplative living is in vogue. Do a search on for “contemplation” or “contemplative living” and you come up with over 15,000 citations! It would seem that the idea of living more contemplatively has become as cozy a notion as “Martha Stewart living.” Here are some of the titles you would find:

A Listening Heart: The Art of Contemplative Living by David Steindahl-Rast
Organic Spirituality: A Six-fold Path for Contemplative Living by Vandergriff
The Better Part: Stages of Contemplative Living by Thomas Keating
The Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life by Teasdale & Wilber
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s
Religions by Teasdale
Mirror of the Heart: Consciousness at the Root of Identity also by Teasdale

There must be something to this. Since such a list (and the shelves of Borders and Barnes and Noble too) reflects that a lot of other people must be coming to that conclusion.
In my first talk I tried to convey the meaning of Redemptoristine lives, indeed all contemplative life. But I tried also to communicate how this orientation in life is not just for us as official contemplatives, official nuns and monastics. All of us are called to great union with God. That is why we are here. Remember the Baltimore Catechism teaching? Why did God make me? Answer – “To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him.” To know, to become more intimate with any one we must engage in loving companionship and mutual sharing.
Earlier I spoke of our call to be “living memories” of Jesus. If we profess the faith, if we listen to our baptismal call, isn’t that what we are all meant to do within our own particular life circumstances?
The fruits of such contemplative living are a strengthening of faith, an increase in charity and clarity of vision. How could this look in your every day life? Another way of talking about this is to ask, “How can we, indeed all of us, whether we are monastics or lay people, how can we live in a way that is consistent with trying to be a living memory of Jesus. How does trying to keep your “eyes on the prize” look in the day to day of relationships, family life, career, the line at the supermarket, the crowded waiting room of the doctor’s office, participation in local and national politics and, on the grand scale, being a citizen of the world?
But giving witness to an interior disposition, an interior dedication IS what we are talking about here. We have an old mimeographed copy of a translation of a scaled down version of Alphonsus’ The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ done by Father Bernard Haring, the great Redemptorist theologian. In his note on the translation he wrote, “Over and over he [Alphonsus] reminds us that ‘surface’ Christianity is not enough. We must surrender to the overwhelming force of the love of Christ, and allow ourselves to become transformed into the redeeming Christ.” Therefore to live contemplatively is to give witness, to become Celeste’s “viva memoria”, a living memory of the Redeemer for ourselves, those with whom we live in family or community and those with whom we share the planet.
In his book, Contemplation in a World of Action, Thomas Merton wrote:
…I am talking about a special dimension of inner discipline and experience, a certain integrity and fullness of personal development,
which are not compatible with a purely external, alienated busy-busy
existence. This does not mean that they are incompatible with action,
with creative work and dedicated love. On the contrary, these go together.
A certain depth of disciplined experience is a necessary ground for fruitful
action. Without a more profound human understanding derived from
exploration of the inner ground of human existence, love will tend to be
superficial and deceptive. Traditionally, ideas of prayer, meditation and
contemplation have been associated with this deepening of one’s personal
life and this expansion of the capacity to serve and understand others. (Chap. 9)

A contemplative life is lived: prayerfully, simply, consciously, and faithfully.
To live simply – here I have to tell you a bit of my story. Over the years, to defend myself from the incursions of three growing sons I made my bedroom at home into my little kingdom complete with TV, VCR, radio, tape and CD player, computer, sewing machine and, of course, a telephone. My feet would hit the floor in the morning and at least one, if not two, of these devices would be turned on. I cooked while talking on the phone; never worked without media accompaniment of some kind. About two years before I entered I began my shift into the contemplative way by not turning on the car radio for the drive to work. Big sacrifice! A year before I entered I began to do my morning routine in silence. That was a big change and you may not want to go there but I share it because I was as addicted to it as anyone else. But the truth is to live simply we have to say “no” more often so that we are not constantly bombarded and shaken from our efforts toward interior contemplation. And we may also consider that it is necessary to live simply in order that others may simply live. It seems to me that this is where “the rubber hits the road” when we speak of ministry to the most needy and abandoned. Can we in some ways, even though they be small, put our money where our mouth is, where the charism has meaning?
To live consciously – is to be fully present, fully aware. We may not need to change anything we do but it is valuable to ask ourselves occasionally, “Why am I doing this?” “Why do I come here; why do I buy these things; why do I spend time with these people or doing these things; why do I vote the way I do?”
To live consciously also implies being AWAKE. Did you ever find yourself talking to someone and suddenly realize that they had zoned out, left you and gone off to some other world,that they were no longer listening. We may ask ourselves, “Who is it that I may not be paying attention to, listening to, being present too?” Could it be your spouse, your child (small or grown up), your friend of many years, your newly widowed elderly neighbor, the person sitting nearby at Mass, the hungry or homeless who flock to Catholic Charities and Family of Woodstock, the starving people of Sudan? I don’t know. But I do know that I tune people out all the time. A contemplative stance requires that I be present and accounted for.
Another aspect of living consciously is to be awake to our surroundings. God can speak to us in the beauty, wonders, and awesomeness of nature. Fr. Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk who became famous as one of the first Christians in history to look with deep respect and genuine spiritual curiosity at the great religions of the East, eventually came for form a Benedictine ashram community in India. He recorded this little description of his earliest “religious” experience. As a young teen he was walking near his school playing fields on a summer evening.
A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where
I was standing and pour out its song above my head, and then sank still
singing to rest. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the
veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of
awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as
though I had been standing in the presence of an angel.
(The Golden String:An Autobiography 9)

Can we allow ourselves the kind of time to experience such things? Can we stop and smell the roses?
The last of the over-riding principles on the contemplative way is to live faithfully. Each of you, I am sure, has lived out of your faith for a long time. And each of you, I am just as sure, has lived faithfully committed to a vow, an ideal , a work. So this is nothing new to you. This is the grace to persevere in the daily; to keep on keeping on.
I am going to give you a bookmark with some additional thoughts that may inspire in the future. Just a few comments about them:
Nothing you do is really wasted time. Prayer is time “wasted” on relationship with God. The “silent witness of brotherly presence” is time “wasted” for the sake of charity in community.
Finding a balance we can live with … including Sabbath time. There is so much that calls to us to minister, to serve, to help, to organize, and even to listen. Without balance these are invitations to discouragement and burnout. Thoughtful, conscious consideration on how you balance your commitments and your needs is an expression of a contemplative value, the value of what we call monastic leisure.
Allow your particular community to “work” on you. In your rule and ours the section on the vows is preceded by a call to life in community characterized by charity, a life that by is very nature is to be an instrument of our conversion. The call to love is a challenge and formation by community can sometimes be painful. But to be attentive and receptive to it and God’s voice within it is to be contemplatively surrendered to cooperation with grace.
Attending to issues of peace and justice for all people, the earth and our cosmos. Sister Paula spoke to this value in her words about living consciously. The only thing I might add is that we may experience the call to this in very small ways and therefore ignore them. It speaks to our ability to live with difference in our most intimate communities and all the way out to the family of nations. We can hope that the prayer of contemplation that “fixed gaze” will heighten our awareness.
And finally, aspire to an attitude of gratitude. A few years back Oprah Winfrey steadily advised her listeners to keep “gratitude journals”. It became quite the rage. Her viewers wrote in about how taking a few minutes a day to write five things that they were grateful for had produced massive changes in attitude, relationship and morale. And for us, who are so very blessed by our communities, our families, and the wealth of this country surely this is an exercise we cannot ignore.
This is the new saintliness to which you too are called – to keep our eyes on Christ so that we might see Christ Jesus in all things.

Now we would like to give you some time to consider how this contemplative attitude might fit into your lives as you live them today.

Is any of this appealing at the outset?
What might the challenges be for you?
What might your life, daily routine, choices look like?
Do you find this realistic or off-putting?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva before the Final Blessing
at the Mass of her Solemn Profession in the
Order of the Most Holy Redeemer
March 25, 2006

Loved ones, dear sisters, Redemptorist brothers, faithful friends; let us rejoice. The age of miracles has not passed!

What a story! In Sicilian we would say, “che romanzu” – what a soap opera – seems I’ve had almost as many lives as Erica on All My Children! Some might use the Yiddish word “mishigas”, a craziness of the improbable proving that “truth is indeed stranger than fiction.” What else can it be other than pure miracle? And each of you, in one way or another, in large part or small, has been an instrument of God’s beneficent grace, a sustaining gift; a sign of love in some part of the story.

The ritual you witnessed today was suffused with spousal imagery. It is a ritual concerning a promise rooted in the baptismal promises shared by all Christians. In the limited vocabulary of human experience there is no better metaphor for the quality of these promises than that of a long, loving, joyful, mutually generous, faithful, and sometimes painful marriage. Perhaps no one here can better attest to the requirements of life-long promises of commitment than my own mother and father poised as they are to celebrate the 63rd anniversary of their spousal love.

The faithfulness and devotion to commitment that we prayed for today are meant for each and everyone here. It has been my hope that this celebration would be inspiration and encouragement for your own myriad promises and commitments; whether it’s fidelity in marriage, dedication to nurturing children, perseverance in religious vows, faithfulness to honoring your true self, obligations in earning a living or the duties of citizenship and service. We need all the help we can get because as we know from first hand experience none of it is easy. But remember, the age of miracles has not yet passed. So be stout-hearted in sure knowledge of God’s covenantal promise, “I am with you always.”

Gratitude can never be adequately expressed but one must try. First of all, to my sons, Jonathan, Matthew and Andrew, thank you for being who you are, for forgiving me and loving me, and for allowing me to be what I am.

To the elders of our community of women – those already in God’s embrace and those with whom I live who continue to be wise mentors, models of perseverance, wisdom, and charity - your lived promises have made this life available to me.

I look out now not on a sea of faces but at a panorama – the panorama of a lifetime of relationships. Beginning with my parents who gave me everything, each of you knows the part you played, the gifts you gave to me and those you continue to give.

Many are united with us in spirit whether by virtue of friendship, family ties or sisterhood in the Order; from British Columbia to Chulucanas, Peru; from Liguori, Missouri to Fort Erie, Canada, to Mason, New Hampshire; from Dublin, Ireland to Modena, Italy; from Merrivale, South Africa to Bielsko-Biala, Poland; from Kezmarok, Slovakia to Legazpi, in the Philippines. Isn’t that a wonder!

I feel very much also the presence of many who are now enjoying the embrace of God: the grandmothers I never knew, my grandfather and aunt who influenced my childhood, sisters from the community and friends, some of whom have only recently left us. They are together with us in the Communion of Saints.

I am, at least in part, the sum total of what they and you have been to me.

In a life centered on contemplative prayer one is joined to all people and to the world in ways that surpass the boundaries of time and space. Our foundress, Maria Celeste, heard Jesus say,

“I want you to be espoused to all souls and to experience
the same delight which I experience in them.”

Be assured of the faithfulness of my prayers for you and know that our loving creator God has truly delighted in you and in all the promises you’ve kept. May we continue on our way in covenant with God, as gift to each other, as witnesses to love, hope, fidelity and peace, in a challenging world.

Just as Robert Frost’s traveler in darkness stopped in the snowy wood to revel in beauty and be renewed by awe, we have stopped to connect with the wonder of God. Now we too have “promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.”