Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An Invitation

Pen and ink drawing by Matthew Pleva '06
A while back I made mention of our profession ring, a rather unusual one for contemplative nuns and rather romantic too given its resemblance to the Irish Claddagh rings which have become so popular today. If you scroll down you will find the paper I wrote about the origin of our Redemptoristine profession ring. It offers a great deal of insight into our charism and the spirituality of the spousal metaphor. The article first appeared in the journal REVIEW FOR RELIGIOUS - Winter 2006.

I also take this occasion to invite you to explore the archives of this blog for other lengthy papers particularly one entitled "A Charism Illumined", also previously published by REVIEW FOR RELIGIOUS. Anyone curious about our foundress Maria Celeste Crostarosa (1696-1755) and St. Alphonsus de Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists, will also find in "The Hand of Grace" an informative study of their friendship and her influence with regard to the founding of his Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.

A Bit of History

“I Will Espouse You

The Origin, History and Meaning

of a Religious Profession Ring
Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR

“Receive this ring, for you are betrothed to the Eternal King; keep faith with your bridegroom so that you may come to the wedding feast of eternal joy.” (Foley, 183)
In the Rite of Solemn Religious Profession every Redemptoristine nun receives with these words a visible and lasting sign of her resolve “to live for God alone, in solitude and silence; in persevering prayer and willing penance, in humble work and holiness of life.” (OSsR Profession Formula) The nun responds in song, “My Lord Jesus Christ has betrothed me with this ring; and adorned me as his spouse.”

The presentation of profession rings to be worn as noticeable signs of commitment to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience is not at all unusual among orders and congregations of women religious. The profession ring of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, however, bears a design that is unusual and strikingly meaningful in its symbolism. The top of the ring, what jewelers refer to as the bezel, is molded in the shape of clasped hands. The origin and history of this design was all but lost to most Redemptoristines by the 2006, two hundred and seventy-five years since the beginning of the Order. Those years saw the gradual spread of the Order to six continents and the adaptation of its small monasteries to a variety of times and cultures. Today’s monasteries are a far remove from the Neapolitan beginnings in the hillside town of Scala, Italy in 1731. The nuns in my own monastery could tell me nothing about their ring except that, to the best of their knowledge, it had been used from the earliest days of their founding. The design of the ring was not mentioned in the Rule approved for use in 1935 nor in the Constitutions and Statutes guiding the order since 1985.

A few years ago we were quite amazed to see a ring very similar to our own on the hand of a visitor to the monastery. Upon inquiry, we learned that the ring was a silver museum reproduction of a Roman betrothal ring. This was quite a revelation to us and provided initial direction for research begun months later at the approach of my own solemn profession. While anticipating reception of this powerful symbol of vows, I was motivated to begin a quest to determine the origin of our profession ring by surfing the Internet looking for documentation of the museum reproduction worn by our friend. Google, the powerful Internet search engine, led to most of the information contained here.

Jewelers and historians of artifacts refer to rings which bear the design of clasped hands as ‘fede rings’. The word fede comes from the Italian words mani in fede, meaning hands in trust. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry offers a very complete description of the fede ring and its origin:

A type of finger ring, often worn as a betrothal or
engagement ring, but sometimes merely as a token
of affection, having as decoration an engraved pair
of clasped right hands or two such hands molded to
form the bezel. They were usually made of silver
(some of gold). On some examples from the 15th
century the hands were at the back of the ring, and
the bezel ornamented sometimes with a gemstone
or a woman’s head or heart. Occasionally the fede
ring was made in the form of a gimmel ring, with the
hands on separate hoops and made to link together;
these were sometimes separated so that each of an
engaged couple could wear half until the marriage.
Fede rings were used in Roman days, and were
popular throughout Europe from the 12th until the
18th century. Some have an inscription (usually
amatory, but sometimes religious or magical)
around the hoops. The term ‘fede’ is said to have
been introduced by 19th century ring collectors
from the Italian mani in fede…
(Newman, 122)

The use of rings, worn on various parts of the body or pierced through them, was common practice in most ancient cultures. In ancient Egypt, Mycenae, and Cyprus, and among the Celts, golden rings were used as a medium of exchange or money. Later, particularly in Egypt, the facing or design of a ring was used as a seal for the authentication of documents. This became common in Israel and Greece and was later adopted by the Romans from whom Christians appropriated the practice. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, XII, 504) A Roman ring of gold, dating from the 1st or 2nd century A.D., is decorated with a pair of clasped hands, known as “Dextarum Iunctio”. The hands represented the legal sanctioning of a contract. The design, which might be described as a signet ring today, was also used as decoration for betrothal or wedding rings symbolizing the marriage contract. It was popular throughout the Roman period and spread into provinces of the empire. By the 3rd century A.D., inscriptions were usually added either below or above the hands. Eventually the Roman design evolved from the signet form to a molded pair of clasped hand constituting the entire bezel of the ring. It is also thought that the Romans began the tradition of wearing these rings on the third finger of the left hand, believed to be the location of the ‘vena amoris’, the ‘vein of love’ first named by the Egyptians as leading directly to the heart.

In the late Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance there was an explosion of interest in everything associated with ancient Greece and Rome. The attraction to antiquity was not limited to the fields of philosophy, mathematics and literature but also extended to architecture and the decorative arts including jewelry and costume. The Roman clasped hands ring was reappropriated and achieved great popularity during the Renaissance as a betrothal ring. Its use continued into the 18th century. From the middle of sixteenth to the close of the seventeenth century, it was customary to inscribe inside the ring a motto or ‘posy’, frequently a very simple sentiment in commonplace rhyme such as ‘Our contract was heaven’s act’, or ‘God above increase our love’. These rings are still described as ‘posy rings’.

The findings of modern archaeology and the presence of rings bearing this design in museum collections confirm that their use was widespread geographically and popular for hundreds of years. Fede rings dating to the 12th and 13th centuries have been found in Britain. One example bears the inscription “I H S NAZARENVS” which is read as “Jesus of Nazareth”. The description of this ring in a publication of the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, the oldest museum in England, includes the comment that “the name of Jesus was often invoked as a magical charm against certain ailments, such as muscular spasms.” (Ashmolean, 84) Given the focus here, it is tempting to consider an alternative possibility that the ring may have been worn by a nun. The Danish National Museum of Copenhagen has in its collection a fede ring dug from the ground in Alborg, Jutland which has been dated to the 16th century. The most charming find of the Internet search was record of the fede ring held by the British Maritime Museum in London. It is one of a pair exchanged by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) and Emma, Lady Hamilton (circa 1765-1815). It was worn by Nelson at the time of his death. Lady Hamilton’s ring is in the collection of the Royal Navel Museum, Portsmouth.

Perhaps the most curious reference to fede rings is found in the Canadian Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. Carol Mason’s article describes rings found at archaeological sites of Jesuit missionary activity in North American in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Apparently the Jesuits used rings as part of their strategy to spread Christianity by using them in trade and in giving them as ritual symbols of conversion. A letter written by a missionary to his superior in Paris contains a list of necessary supplies. The list includes “six gross of finger rings.” (Mason, 4) Rings found at known Jesuit sites vary widely in design, including rings bearing royal portraits, crowns, fleur-de-lys or “the clasped hands”. (Mason, 1)

To bring this history well into our present time one must note the connection of the fede design to the traditional Claddagh ring so popular in Ireland and North America today. While a great deal of folklore and interpretation of symbols surround the origin of this design, many Irish historians and scholars of the decorative arts believe that the mani in fede design may be the direct ancestor of the Claddagh ring. The bezel of this ring bears a central heart shape supported by a hand on each side and is surmounted by a crown. It is said to have originated with Robert Joyce who learned the trade of goldsmith in Algiers and upon returning to his native town of Claddagh, Ireland in the late 17th century presented the first ring of this design to his childhood sweetheart.

Having traced the historical use of the fede design and cited evidence of its popularity through the centuries, it is necessary to consider the use of rings in religious profession rites and specifics of their use in the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer. Formalized rituals for the dedication of virgins originated in the early centuries of the Church. “The first of these which survives is a description of the dedication of Marcellina, the sister of Ambrose (d.397)…” (Foley, 14) This rite included the presentation of a ring and since the fourteenth century, most professed nuns and sisters are given rings as a sign of their complete dedication to Christ. (Murphy, 506)

In response to my query, Sr. Anna Maria Ceneri of the Redemptoristine community in Scala, Italy, first monastery of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, provided informative documentation concerning the presentation of a ring at profession and the first use of the fede ring design by the Order.

The first clothing in the Order took place on the
6th of August in 1731. After the departure of the
Crostarosa sisters [expulsion of foundress
Maria Celeste from Scala in 1733], the sisters
professed the new Rule on the 18th of June, 1733.
At that time they began to wear the ring. From the
account book for June 1733, we know that the sisters
bought 19 fedi (rings) of gold (two ounces in weight)
and 5 of silver for the “cost of 42 ducats, three tari
and fifty grana ”. The sisters paid 20 ducats and a
benefactor covered the remainder. [Note: tari and
grana refer to coins in use at the time within the
Kingdom of Two Sicilies.]

The ring has constantly been used since the time
of Mother Celeste, in fact, the blessing of the ring
is found in the Ceremonial of Profession in Scala.
This blessing is also found in the Cava Codex and in
the Foggia Codex I. [Note: These are the earliest
written Rules of the Order.]

Mother Maria Celeste did wear a ring, because
that is indicated in the ceremonials of Cava and
Foggia and is also seen in the first painted portrait
in Foggia.

Regarding the significance of the engraving,
I cannot tell you anything. I have always thought
that it is to signify charity. (Ceneri)

This information anchors the traditional use of a mani in fede ring for presentation at profession in the very earliest days of the Order. The wide use of the fede ring in secular society as a symbol of the bonds of love and trust in marriage seems to have made this design a natural choice. Certainly the Dialogues of Maria Celeste Crostarosa, foundress of the Redemptoristines, are replete with spousal love imagery, imagery echoed in the Profession Rite itself. The traditional inscription in Redemptoristine rings, “Ego te sponsabo” (I will espouse you.), also follows a popular custom of the period, that of the posy ring. Betrothal and promise rings were frequently inscribed with a simple poetic line declaring love, fidelity, or friendship.

When asked about the use of this ring design in the Order, one Italian sister replied, “I always understood that it was the marriage ring of the time of Maria Celeste.” In Italy, even now, the simple word ‘fede’ is commonly used to refer to a wedding ring. This matrimonial symbol, this emblem of mutual trust, promise, commitment and donation of self would have been a most natural choice for Maria Celeste. However, it is clear in her Dialogues, the record of her mystical conversations with Jesus, that the spousal relationship meant in the symbol refers not only to that between the nun and Jesus, her beloved spouse. By the union of Jesus Christ with all of humanity in the Incarnation, the human enfleshment of the third person of the Trinity, anyone committed to and united with him is therefore to also be united to all of humanity. One cannot exist without the other. The consequence of true espousal to Jesus Christ, according to Celeste’s mystical insight, is to become another Christ. Excerpts from the first of her Dialogues written in 1724, seven years before the founding of the Order, clearly explain that to be espoused to the Son of God is to be espoused to all whom he loves.

If anyone should ask you who I am, answer that I am
pure love… I…will bring about in you authentic
reflections of my very self and you will become my own
likeness…For this reason I want you to be espoused
to all souls…And since I am your spouse, you have been
espoused to goodness and love itself…I want you to be
espoused also to the love of all the delights centered in
my goodness, and through these delights, to be
espoused to all those souls who are mine.
(Crostarosa, 2, #3)

Since I have been long awaiting you in my heart…
so that I might espouse you and in you espouse all
the souls of my Church… I want you also to have
the same love for all these people that I have
deep in my heart for you…I extend my right hand
over you and hug you to my heart, so that in
embracing you, I, at the same time, enfold
in my heart all of my creatures. And with a
unitive kiss, you, too, must give these souls, who
are my heart, a kiss of love…The souls of this
community in which you live must be your
dear spouses and you will love them and be
forever dedicated to their special good. I turn
them over to your care, my beloved, for they
are your spouses. From now on, you shall
love them in me and me in them.
(Crostarosa, 9, #14)

By union with Jesus Christ Redemptoristine nuns are to participate so fully in his nature that they become ‘living memories’; become transformed into his likeness in the way long-married couples begin to resemble each other and are able to complete their partner’s sentences in speaking.

For a Redemptoristine, the mani in fede ring she receives at solemn profession, is a sign of God’s promise uttered in Hosea 2:21-22:
I will espouse you to me forever:
I will espouse you in right and in justice;
in love and in mercy.
I will espouse you in fidelity,
and you shall know the Lord.

The clasped hands signify the mutuality of the promise. But the connection of two beings suggested by the design speaks also of the power of that primary relationship to affect all other relationships; that espousal to this ONE naturally means espousal to ALL in “mutual charity and union of hearts.” (Constitution, 7)


Ashmolean Museum, Department of Antiquities. Treasure Annual Report 2002.
Oxford, England, 2002.

Ceneri, Sister Anna Maria. Response About the Ring. E-mail letter. Scala, Italy: Redemptoristine Monastery of Scala, 3/18/06.

Crostarosa, Maria Celeste. Dialogues. Trans. Rev. Joseph Oppitz. Esopus, NY: Redemptoristine Nuns, 1982.

Foley, Edward. Rites of Religious Profess: Pastoral Introduction and Complete Text.
Chicago, Illinois: Liturgy Training Publications, Inc., 1989.

McNamara, Jo Ann Kay. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millenia.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Mason, Carol. “Jesuit Rings, Jesuits, and Chronology” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. Fall, 2003.

Murphy, F.X. “Rings” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. XII, p. 504. New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.

Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry. London: Thames and Hudson,

Order of the Most Holy Redeemer (OssR). Constitution and Statutes. Rome, Italy, 1985.

Shermak, R.M. “Religious Habit” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. XII, p. 286. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Celebrating "Little Christmas" - Renewing Vows

In the monthly round we come once again to the feast customary in our Order on the 25th of each month, "Little Christmas." It is the occasion on which we celebrate the great comfort and the unbelievable love of God who came into our midst and became one of us; who was like us in all things except sin. We will renew our solemn vows today at Mass where we will be joined by a large Filipino family commemorating the death of a loved one and also a group of Marist Brothers from their house of prayer and retreat center nearby. We hope that by our renewal of vows we will be witnessing to the focus of our lives and by that gesture affirm those sharing the Eucharist Feast with us in their own promises and commitments.

The words of Pope John Paul II resonate with me in the midst of the daily with its challenges and failures. His invitation to remember the immediacy of the call and the initial fervor of the response encourages me to "pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again."

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday - another liturgical season begins. I am remembering the faith rituals of my girlhood and how interwoven they were into everyday life; bevies of girl friends, doing what the sisters told us should be done; lines of the devoted crowding into our Brooklyn parish church; wondering how long the ashes on our foreheads would last.

But most outstanding in my memory is how I used to rouse my three sons early in the morning so we could begin the Lenten season with 6:45am mass on Ash Wednesday before they were off to public school. "Mom, do we always have to be the only kids in school with ashes first thing in the morning?" And best of all, I remember the picture of my youngest son Andrew taken by a local newspaper photographer covering the parish liturgy. Andrew, about 5 or 6 years of age, is leaning on his hands while resting them on the back of the pew in front of him, his big blues eyes looking up and taking it all in. The picture appeared on the front page of the paper that afternoon!

Here at Mother of Perpetual Help Monastery we had a Mardi Gras supper last night to which we invited the Redemptorist priests from Mt. St. Alphonsus Retreat Center. It was a feast of pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit salad and King's cake (a New Orleans tradition). After the meal we watched through the dining room windows as last year's palms were burned into ashes in a small fires outdoors in preparation for today's rite. On this note and with the lights already dimmed our revelry came to an end in prayful singing of Ave Regina Caelorum.

This is a subdued time in the monastery. An already quiet and peaceful atmosphere becomes even more so as we make the commitment to sink even more deeply into silence and solitude, as if wishing to dissolve into the Paschal Mystery. My wish is to slide effortlessly into the depths, to become one with the Beloved, to know Him ever more intimately so as to experience His glory as we emerge together.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Where Does Chastity Fit In?

“Receive this ring, for you are
betrothed to the Eternal King;
keep faith with your bridegroom
so that you may come to the
wedding feast of eternal joy.”

Rite of Solemn Religious Profession

All Redemptoristine Nuns receive a ring at Solemn (final) profession. The Rite of Solemn Profession is replete with spousal imagery. Thus the ring and its unusual design. I will save its complete history for another time. In keeping with the pledge of life-long fidelity, the ring symbolizes the committed relationship. Originally a Roman betrothal ring, the design was re-appropriated during the Renaissance and remained popular for that purpose through the 18th century. The design is called "mani in fedi", hands in faith; for us, the clasped hands of the Spouse and the Beloved.

Receiving the ring is the seal on our promise for life, a promise to cling to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The first and the last vows in this customary sequence make sense for older women. One can begin to live a simple life spare in material goods and pledge obedience to a superior at any time. But that vow of chastity has a funny sound to it when we are talking about women who have known married love and given birth to children. Surely these women cannot be numbered with the spotless virgins whose monastic prayer was seen in the past as more efficacious than any others! Today it is possible to find vestiges of this thinking in the Church's governance of male versus female monastic orders. We need to put this permanently aside in the 21st century.

Chastity has everything to do with relationship. Primarily it is a commitment to the centrality and exclusivity of the nun's relationship with Jesus Christ. To opt for this relationship above and beyond all others is possible at any time. And it is around consequences of this choice that discussion of the particular meaning of the vow of chastity for older women must revolve. For any woman who has had considerable life experience, the choice for committed chastity as a contemplative nun takes on a particularly deep dimension of detachment from human intimacy. It is played out not only in deliberately walking away from any future intimate sexual relationship but also in some other and possibly more problematic or challenging movements of the heart. Far more demanding in her case may be to absent herself from the intimacy of living within a related family, from engaging in deep personal friendship, and from the irreplaceable and unrepeatable reciprocal intimacy of parent and child. It is an asceticism that few grasp.

It is necessary for me to remember that the older sisters with whom I live entered religious life in their early twenties. Over fifty years ago and at that tender age they fore swore the possibility of ever experiencing married love or the birth of a child. Some did not fully realize what would be demanded of them as time moved on and they matured as women or as they watched their sisters raise large families. How much more we must admire and reverence their perseverence flowing out of pure love. Now these same women have to live with women like me who talk of past lives as wives and mothers, some with careers along with it, and are even asked to join in celebrating the arrival of a new grandchild! Their long and faithful lives, their continuing effort to nurture new vocations regardless of personal cost is to be admired and imitated.

Whoever we are, young or old, worldly-wise or not, vowed religious or lay person , we can never fool ourselves into thinking that we know the place of the deepest asceticism in any person. God seems to know the perfect one for each of us; potent territory and fertile land with greatest potential for God's revelation and our conversion.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord - Candlemas Day

Today we arrive at what some consider the official closing of the Christmas season, forty days since the Solemnity of the Nativity. Even though the Church liturgy entered 'ordinary time' immediately following Epiphany, the aura of Christmas and the infancy narratives lingered on.

Before the liturgical reforms of the 1960's, this was the Feast of the Purification of Mary. Since a much earlier time, it has been called Candlemas Day, a feast harkening back to an ancient festival marking the mid-point between the shortest day of winter and the Spring Equinox. It expressed a sure hope that the sun's full light would surely return to them again. At some point, the day became a natural choice for the blessing of all candles, relief for the long darkness. In time the custom evolved into a blessing for all candles to be used in the church during the coming year. The ancient feast pointed to the returning light; the newer one blessed candles, metaphors for the light which came into the world in Jesus Christ.

Today in our monastery, an array of candles used in our chapel will be blessed by a Redemptorist priest before the Liturgy of the Eucharist this evening. These sacramentals are visible reminders of the that great Light come into the world. But the metaphor is extended to us. In this morning's Office of Readings we were reminded in a sermon by St. Sophronius (Patriarch of Jerusalem c. 560-638):

The true light has come...
Let all of us...be enlightened and made radiant by this light.
Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it
that no one remains in the darkness.
Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet
and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal.

To bear the light; to be the light is not a dedication held exclusively by contemplative nuns. It is a universal commission for all who would live in peace, pursue justice, honor all people, and reverence creation.

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Adlai Stevenson in praise of Eleanor Roosevelt,
United Nations General Assembly, 1962