Thursday, March 15, 2007

Our Charism

for Transformation
Rooted in a Life of Prayer Maria Celeste Crostarosa 1696-1755

At the very heart of things, the charisms or spiritual philosophies of every contemplative order share a great deal in common. I am going to try to give you an over view of what may be thought of as the particular dialect in which we express our charism as Redemptoristine Nuns. Then I will try to focus in on what may be unique regarding our take on prayer, that is, what may be particular to how we emphasize the place of prayer in our vowed lives as contemplative religious.

The Charism

“This is my Will and this is my good pleasure that you be a memorial of me and of the works of salvation performed by me, for love of you, during my life.” (Primitive Rule).

This one sentence uttered by Jesus in mystical conversation with the Venerable Mother Maria Celeste Crostarosa sums up in the simplest of terms the charism of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer. That charism is to be a viva memoria, a living memory of the Redeeming Christ. Maria Celeste, our foundress, was an 18th century mystic, very much a daughter of her time and culture and also a daughter of the Neapolitan sensibility and spirituality. She was born in 1696 in Naples and shares that place of birth and the year with St. Alphonsus de Liguori. To state her history briefly: she entered a Carmelite monastery at the age of 21. Upon the dissolution of that monastery she entered a community in Scala, a Neapolitan hill town. This community was living under the Visitation Rule but not formally affiliated with that Order. It was there that a new order foundation was revealed by Jesus to Maria Celeste. These revelations most often occurred during her post-Communion meditations and she described her recollections of them in terms of colloquies or conversations with God the Father and Jesus. The new order or institute was first revealed to her in 1725 and came to fruition in 1731. But, as it so often happened, the way of founders and foundresses rarely traveled a smooth road. Maria Celeste was expelled from this first foundation largely because of her insistence on what we now call the primitive rule, the rule revealed to her by Jesus. This rule is notable for its lack of austerity in favor of the primacy of God’s love for humanity and how that love is to be made visible in the Order. The conversion, the transformation to which we are all called by our baptism is to be sought not in harsh penances but in fully living the ordinary events and relationships of life. Celeste held out for this Rule in opposition to the version interpreted and edited by her spiritual director who was also the founder of the Scala monastery. The ultimate deciding issue was her refusal to bind herself to him as her spiritual director for her entire life. The Scala monastery survives to this day. But Maria Celeste eventually went on to establish a foundation in Foggia, another hill town closer to the Adriatic Sea. Needless to say, this was a period of great hardship, humiliation and, sometimes, spiritual desolation for Celeste. But her story reveals a personal strength and faith, which allowed her to trust her mystical experience, which she never doubted as coming from God. She remained there from 1738 to 1755, the year of her death. The community at Foggia was not united with the larger Redemptoristine Order until the 1933.

The first and foremost feature of the charism is the call to become the living memory of Christ. The second feature of our charism is the invitation to transformation via the life of the Institute. It is by transformation that we can become a living memory of Christ’s love for the world. In our current Constitution and Statutes we find, “The more we strive to live the love of Christ, the more the thoughts and feelings of Christ will fill our spirit and our heart, the more we will become His faithful images.” (C&S#6) At last count, the concept of being witness is either stated or implied at least seventeen times in our Rule. To be a living witness, to be a living memory, the viva memoria, is for us not merely a simple modeling or imitation of the virtues and attitudes of Jesus. Our very lives become “a recollection of the past”, in this case the person of Jesus, and that recollection “enlivens and empowers the present.” I have come to call this the ‘anamnetic character’ of our charism. This expression comes from the anamnesis of the Mass in which the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are made present in our time. [See " A Charism Illumined: Eucharistic Anamnesis etc. April, 2006]

You may have noted that Maria Celeste’s Rule indicates that it is not only the individuals of the Order that are to be living memories of Christ. The Institute as a whole, and each community is to be a corporate expression of the viva memoria. The section concerning the vows in our C&S is preceded by an important introductory section entitled “Union of Hearts and Mutual Charity”: “Mutual charity, lived according to the spirit of our community, has as its fruit, that gift of the Holy Spirit, paschal joy. It is in radiating this joy among ourselves and around us that we give witness to the Risen Christ.” (C&S#21) The Constitutions further state, “Community life is essentially a life in relationship. It must contribute to the development of the human person, foster relationships and establish a true unity of heart and spirit.” (C&S#61) Our Statutes begin with a paragraph of only one sentence: “Mutual charity is the supreme rule of our life in Community.” (#1) So there is an extraordinary emphasis on the nature and goal of our corporate life as community to be in its function and manifestation a living memory of the love of Jesus Christ. It is from this degree of emphasis on unity and charity in community that many conclude that the Redemptorstine Rule is most associated with the Rule of St. Augustine. His rule begins with Love of God which is immediately followed by an appeal for “oneness of mind and heart”: "First, that you dwell together in unity in the house and be of one mind and one heart in God, remembering that this is the end for which you are collected here." Accordingly, our Rule follows his directives toward unity and attainment of tranquility.

The Charism and Prayer

Now, we have to get to how this charismatic emphasis plays itself out in regard to our prayer life. In preparation for this I consulted the three versions of our Rule that have applied during the last one hundred years as well as the Primitive Rule of Maria Celeste. I also used as background the other written works of our foundress, especially her Dialogues. In every case, the umbrella term “prayer” is always understood to include first and foremost the Eucharistic Liturgy for which the Liturgy of the Hours and private prayer provide a daily setting. The following features of Redemptoristine prayer life emerged from this study:

· Stress on unceasing prayer

· Necessity of a climate of intimacy that is created by silence, solitude and mutual charity. These liberate the soul. The Primitive Rule states, “These conditions promote personal continuous prayer and purity of heart.

· It is in prayer that the seeds of our conversion must be planted – the place where the transformation into living memories of Jesus will begin. The Primitive Rule describes the fruits of prayer as: conversion (purification of impulses and bad habits; introduction in to angelic exercise which is the continuous prayer of the angelic choirs; and unity within the community which “transforms us into Godly love, thus contributing to the welfare of my neighbors.”

· The necessity of meditation particularly on the life and death of Jesus, the last things and on favors already received – gratitude.

· The Primitive Rule admonishes against striving for supernatural experiences and continues “but the Lord will introduce this to souls who really work at their profession.

· The Primitive Rule and all its successors stress daily intercessory prayer for souls, the Church and its leaders and those in civil authority.

These Rules of our Order and particularly the writings of Maria Celeste are pervaded by particular tone of intimacy, first with God and second with neighbor. Celeste’s mystical revelations most often occurred during her post-Communion prayer. She speaks of the sense of oneness with Jesus which transformed her into himself. She is very much in the line of St. Athanasius who said,“God became man in order that man might become divine." The message of Celeste is that our work as Redemptoristines is to cooperate in God’s will for that transformation. Our transitional 1978 Rule said, “By contemplating His whole life we allow Christ to re-live His mystery in us.” Our current rule begins the section on prayer this way: "God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of His Son crying: Abba, Father.’ The more we allow this Spirit to invade us with His transforming presence, the better will we exercise the Priesthood of our baptisms, by offering ourselves as living eucharist for the world. (C&S 5:35)

For me personally, I have always been drawn by the words spoken by Jesus in one of Celeste’s Dialogues: "Your life shall consist in performing the office of Magdalen in holy contemplation." They speak to me of the intimate character of the relationship in which we are invited to participate: to hold that necessary office of loving attentiveness to Jesus, a particular quality of our availability to Him. Another powerful image for me, another aspect of this very human Redemptorsitine way of being with God and with neighbor is the design of our solemn profession ring. It was the common wedding ring of Celeste’s time , a mani in fede ring, hands in faith, clasping each other in trust, promise and personal humility. These indicate the frame of mind and the disposition of soul we are to bring to prayer.

A collection of scripturally based talks written by Celeste has the title "Il Giardinetto", the “little garden”. It is significantly subtitled, “The Enclosed Garden of the Man-god Which is the Christian Soul”. This is an example of her frequent use of spousal love imagery influenced by the Song of Songs. In reading her works I am struck over and over again by the intimacy and vivid reality of her experience of God’s presence and love. Her imagery is intensely human and feminine. She suggests that we are nestled in the womb of Jesus who is at once our mother, lover and spouse urging us to be love wrapped in humility. Jesus said to her, “…My divine heart should be your cell. There pray to my heavenly Father continually with pure faith and love. Since I am in your heart and you are in mine…”

Our charism presents a trajectory leading from the mystery of the Incarnation to our participation in divine life, to our conversion and transformation by and through prayer via vowed life in this Order. In that transformation we can come to be, with the grace of God, the realization of Jesus Christ in this present moment by our person and our life in community. We bring to each other, to those around us, and to the larger Church the viva memoria, the living memory of Jesus our Redeemer. Our life, our attempt to be living memories of Jesus’ love, is to be an encouragement in the world and to all the baptized that lives of faithfulness and love in relation to God and each other are possible here and now.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I am very grateful to you for this sharing of your charism and how it colours your spiritual life. It helped me find a soul-sister in Maria Celeste.