Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Blessed Mother in My Life

Quite appropriately for the month of May, here is a question I recently received:

What role has the Blessed Mother (the model for all motherhood, and especially spiritual motherhood) played in your faith journey?

Great question! Our Lady, besides being the model for all motherhood, is also the first and most excellent consecrated virgin in the Church. Besides all the good that I have gained from her example and intercession, I’m sure that Mary’s maternal love and concern has helped my vocation even in ways of which I’m not aware.

Growing up in a Catholic household, I was taught very early on to think of Mary as my mother, and this really stuck! (I even have memories of expressing my love to my earthly mom by telling her that she was second-best mother in the world, because of course it was Mary who was the “first-best!”) So when I was a child, I always had the sense that I had a special friend and protectress in Heaven. I’m sure that this helped foster my vocation, even though I can’t quite describe the exact cause-and-effect dynamic.

While for the most part I have retained this warm personal affection for Our Lady, as I grow older I tend to see her in a somewhat more objective manner. That is, I relate to her more and more as the exemplar of what I am supposed to become spiritually.

At the Annunciation, I see her “fiat” as an example of the courage and trust in God—as well as the humility and greatness of heart—which I am also called to have as a spouse of Christ. In the Wedding at Cana, I am reminded of the loving confidence with which I can approach Our Lord. (And in this I also recall how important it is to “do whatever He tells you!”) At the crucifixion, I come to a greater awareness of how painful, but also how very important, it is to stay with Jesus in His darkest hours. And at Pentecost, I gain clarity about my place in the Church as a consecrated woman; because even though Mary was not called to be an apostle, her being at present at Pentecost indicates that she nevertheless played a vital part in the life and founding of the fledgling Church.

At this particular point in my life, I find that I am particularly drawn to Mary’s role as the “Theotokos” (Θεοτοκος), or “God-bearer” (i.e., the Mother of God). This is one of Our Lady’s oldest titles, and I think also one of the most meaningful. While Mary physically carried and give birth to the incarnate Son of God, I find that this image of Mary is the one that most easily relates to the concept of spiritual motherhood.

Biological miracles notwithstanding, Mary was able to become the Mother of God because her soul was open to receiving the Word, and she allowed it to become fruitful in her person. Similarly, although my efforts to welcome the Holy Spirit will never lead to my giving birth to an infant, God’s action in my soul can still become fruitful. Thus, I can still “bear God” to the people around me. And while this is a mysterious concept, I do believe that through grace, my prayer can still bring life to souls.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Feast of Corpus Christi and Eucharistic Spirituality

"How holy this feast in which Christ is our food; His passion is recalled; grace fills our hearts; and we receive a pledge of the glory to come, alleluia."

This was today's Magnificat antiphon, for Evening Prayer II on the solemnity of Corpus Christi. Because Holy Thursday is more focused on the Pascal mystery and the establishment of the priesthood, Corpus Christi was added to the calendar as the feast day in commemoration of the gift of the Eucharist.

While there is no official body of literature describing the spirituality of consecrated virgins, I think I would be justified in saying that our prayer life is profoundly Eucharistic.

If you frequent the right Catholic circles (I'm thinking specifically, but not exclusively, of circles of younger devout Catholics--particularly those who are discerning religious or priestly vocations), you hear the expression "Eucharistic spirituality" a lot. Naturally this phrase sounds beautiful, but I think sometimes it can be hard to understand what it means concretely.

In light of my vocations as an aspiring consecrated virgin, I think for me "Eucharistic spirituality" essentially means that the Mass is absolutely the center of my life.

On a practical level, this entails making every effort to attend daily Mass. When I was choosing colleges, and later graduate programs, I automatically ruled out any place where I couldn't find a Mass every day. I also make sure to arrange my days in such a way where my other plans and obligations don't interfere with Mass (even if this means missing out on time with friends, having to skip interesting extra-curricular academic events and lectures at school, or having to study later into the night). And if the only Mass I can attend is before dawn, then I gladly get up and out the door before the sun rises!

However, these small "sacrifices" are only the surface of deeper reality, which is my conviction that my participation in the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the most important thing I do all day. Every day at Mass, I do my best to join my offering of my life to Christ's offering of Himself for the redemption of the world. This continues throughout the day as I pray the Liturgy of the Hours--which, being the official prayer of the Church, I see as an extension of the Mass.

Being present at Mass also gives me the opportunity to be close to my soon-to-be Spouse. Of course, this means receiving the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. But it also gives me the chance, in a sense, to be with Jesus in His passion and to stand at the foot of the cross. We believe that the sacrifice of the Mass is truly a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice at Calvary, but in an "unbloody manner." As my spiritual director is fond of saying, in response to the old Lenten song "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?", we can respond that yes, we were there!

Mass is also the place where I find nourishment for my soul. Just as ordinary food is necessary for the body to survive, I need Jesus as "the Bread of Life" for the survival of my spirit.

I do want to point out that while consecrated virgins are called to a particularly focused and intense participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, ALL Catholics are called to have a Eucharistic spirituality. Because part of my vocation is to be "extreme" in this way, I think it can help illustrate the beauty and value of the Eucharist to all of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Paul II's 1995 Address to Consecrated Virgins

With Pope Benedict XVI's recent address to an international gathering of consecrated virgins in Rome, I thought now would be a good time to point out that consecrated virgins from around the world also convened in Rome in 1995 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the revised Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World.

John Paul II also spoke to the consecrated virgins in very cordial terms. You can find the full text of his address on the USACV website, or read it by clicking here. Below, I have reprinted some of the highlights. The emphases, in bold, are mine:

"On my part, I would like to speak to you with the same affectionate warmth with which bishops of old used to speak to the virgins of their churches: for example, the warmth of Methodius of Olympia, the first cantor of Christian virginity; that of Athanasius of Alexandria and of Cyprian of Carthage, who considered consecrated virgins an elect portion of Christ’s flock; that of John Chrysostom, whose writings are rich in ideas to nourish the spiritual life of virgins. Ambrose of Milan, whose works bear witness to an extraordinary pastoral care for consecrated virgins; Augustine of Hippo, that keen, profound theologian of virginity embraced for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 19:12); the great, holy Pontiff Leo I, with all probability the author of the admirable prayer of consecration Deus castorum corporum; and Leander of Seville who wrote a beautiful letter to his sister Fiorentina on the occasion of her virginal consecration. This is an episcopal tradition to which I willingly join myself."

"The mystery of the Incarnation was seen by the Holy Fathers in a spousal light, following
the interpretation given by the Apostle Paul on the Lord’s death: “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her”...The entire life of Christ was therefore placed under the sign of the mystery of His nuptials with the Church (cf. Eph 5:32). You, too, dear Sisters, belong to that mystery through the gift of the Holy Spirit and in virtue of a 'new spiritual anointing' (cf. Pontificale Romanum, Ordo consecrationis virginum, n. 16)."

"Love Him as He desires to be love in your concrete life: “If you love Me, you will keep
My commandments” (Jn 14:15; cf. 14:21). Love Him as is fitting to your spousal condition: assuming His same sentiments (cf. Phil 2:5); sharing His way of life consisting in humility and meekness, love and mercy, service and joyful availability, untiring zeal for the glory of the Father and the salvation of the human race."

"The following of the Lamb in Heaven (cf. Rev 14:6) begins on earth, walking down the
narrow path (cf. Mt7:14)."

"According to the teaching of the Fathers, in receiving from the Lord the “Consecration of
virginity,” virgins become a visible sign of the virginity of the Church, the instrument of its fruitfulness and witness of its fidelity to Christ. Virgins are also a reminder of the orientation of the Church towards the future goods and a warning to keep this eschatological tension alive."

"Your total and exclusive love for Christ does not exempt you from love towards all men
and women, your brothers and sisters, for the horizons of your charity—precisely because
you belong to the Lord—are the same as the horizons of Christ."

"As St. Leander of Seville observes, Mary is also 'the culminating point and prototype of virginity.' In body and soul she was fully what you desire to be with all your strength:
virgins in body and soul, spouses through total and exclusive adherence to the love of Christ, mothers through the gift of the Spirit. "

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

"Why the Confusion?"

Here is one of the first comments I received in my recent call for questions ("Mary's role in my life" is coming soon!):

“I do have a question I'd like you to cover. I have been discerning canon 604 in my own life, but have been a little baffled by the different opinions regarding wearing a veil and being called ‘Sister.’

A priest from EWTN encouraged it (not to mention that two consecrated virgins have or had a show and they wear habits and are called ‘Sister’), whereas the US Association of Consecrated Virgins says it's wrong to wear a veil or be called ‘Sister.’ Finally I wrote to the Vatican to find out what Rome says. They say it is legitimate to wear a veil and be called ‘Sister,’ it is just up to the Bishop.

Why is there such a strong push to say no veil or being called ‘sister’ here in America? It seems to me that each person should discern, along with the local Bishop of course, how they feel God calling them to live out their way of life as a ‘bride of Christ.’” --Anonymous

First of all, anonymous writer, I wish you all the best as you continue your discernment! I truly hope that you find peace as you seek to follow God’s will for you.

While I can certainly empathize with the frustration you feel regarding general lack of consensus on certain aspects of this vocation, I have to say that at this point I don’t really find the ambiguity all that surprising. The revival of consecrated virginity in the world as a recognized form of consecrated life is a fairly new phenomenon in the life of the Church. Consequently, there simply has not been enough time, interest, or precedents for the development of universally accepted practical norms.

Incidentally, this was one of the major human factors in my own discernment. I had to consider whether I was truly willing and able to live with all the questions and difficulties inherent in being a “pioneer.” (There were many, many times when I would catch myself praying: “Oh God, why can’t you just call me to be a nun?!”)

By setting up their own policies, the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV) is working establish some concrete guidelines amidst the confusion. I imagine that the USACV’s standards are the results of its members’ theological and historical research, as well as their years of lived experience. Because of this, the USACV guidelines should be given serious consideration.

However, the USACV is not (and doesn’t claim to be) an authoritative body of ecclesiastical lawmakers. Although the local diocesan bishop can choose to adopt the USACV’s recommendations, the exact conditions under which a consecrated virgin lives out her vocation are ultimately at his discretion.

So, I think you are correct in suggesting that a consecrated virgin should meet with her bishop (or likewise, her bishop’s delegate) to decide exactly how she will live her consecrated life. Actually, I would assume that this would be the standard practice—although I admit that I haven’t met enough consecrated virgins really to “compare notes.” I know that since I first started asking to receive consecration, I have been meeting with the Vicar for Religious in my archdiocese to discuss, among other things, my plans for my life. If an aspiring consecrated virgin felt that wearing a veil was a very important component of the expression of her vocation, I would think that she would have ample opportunity to ask permission for this.

My guess as to why there seems to be a reluctance to allow consecrated virgins in the United States to wear veils (or to be called “Sister”) is that perhaps people are concerned that consecrated virgins would be too easily confused with religious. While religious and consecrated virgins are in the same general category, the vocations are distinct. It may be necessary to forgo some of the exterior expressions of consecration in order to preserve this distinction, especially since consecrated virgins do not yet have a well-established cultural or social role in American Catholicism the way nuns and sisters do.

I think this reluctance may also be due in part to what I see as our lack of an adequate theology of consecrated virginity in the world as a state in life, particularly as it relates to the wider Church. Some people believe that canon 604 is a more “hidden” form of consecration, and that consecrated virgins are called to be subtle Christian witnesses from within secular society. Other people (and I would probably fall closer to this end of the spectrum) put more stress on the public and ecclesial nature of this vocation. Perhaps if more people fell into this latter category, we might see more consecrated wearing veils.

Of course, whether or not consecrated virgins should be called “Sister” or wear veils is a rather complicated question, which would probably require its own post

I don’t know if this helps or not, but my attitude to the whole situation has been to remind myself that the restoration of consecrated virginity in the world as a form of consecrated life is primarily God’s project (and not mine). I’m sure that if the Holy Spirit intends for consecrated virgins to have a more visible role in the Church, then this will certainly be accomplished in His time.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Benedict XVI Speaks to Consecrated Virgins

Right now, consecrated virgins from all over the world are gathered in Rome on pilgramage. (Although this aspiring consecrated virgin, as a soon-to-be graduate student, could only manage to be there in spirit!) They were able to have a special audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who gave them a very encouraging adress.

Here is the story, taken from

VATICAN CITY, MAY 15, 2008.- The call to consecrated virginity has roots in the beginnings of evangelical life, and the Virgin Mary was its first fulfillment, affirmed Benedict XVI.

The Pope stated this today when he greeted 500 consecrated virgins today who have gathered in Rome for an international congress.

In his remarks to the members of "Ordo Virginum," or the Order of Virgins, the Holy Father, quoting the theme chosen for the congress, pointed out that consecrated virginity is "a gift in the Church and for the Church." He invited the women "to develop, from day to day, their understanding of a charism which is as luminous and fruitful in the eyes of the faith as it is obscure and futile in the eyes of the world."

"The Order of Virgins represents a particular form of consecrated life which flowered anew in the Church after Vatican Council II," the Pontiff explained. "However, it has ancient roots that go back to the beginnings of evangelical life when, in an unprecedented novelty, the hearts of certain women began to open to a desire for consecrated virginity: in other words, the desire to give one's entire being to God, which had had its first extraordinary fulfillment in the Virgin of Nazareth and her 'yes.'"

"Your charism must reflect the intensity, but also the freshness, of its origins," said the Pope, noting how, "when it came into being, the charism did not involve a particular way of life. Little by little, however, it was institutionalized, finally becoming a full public and solemn consecration conferred by the bishop through an inspirational liturgical rite that made the consecrated woman 'sponsa Christi,' an image of the Church as bride."

"Your vocation is profoundly rooted in the particular Church to which you belong," he told the women. "From the diocese, with its traditions, its saints, its values, limits and difficulties, you open up to the scope of the universal Church, sharing particularly in her liturgical prayer."

"In this way your prayerful 'I' progressively broadens out," the Holy Father continued, "until in the prayer there is nothing more than a great 'we.' In your dialogue with God, open yourselves to dialogue with all creatures."

"The choice of virginal life," the Pope concluded, "is an allusion to the transitory nature of earthly things and an anticipation of future good. Be witnesses of vigilant and industrious hope, of joy, of the peace that belongs to those who abandon themselves to the love of God. Be present in the world, yet pilgrims on the journey to the kingdom."

You can also read the complete text on Whispers in the Loggia, by clicking here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Any Questions?

Over the past few months, my posts have been more along the lines of personal reflections corresponding to the major feasts and seasons (albeit vis-à-vis my particular vocation). However, now that we are in Ordinary Time, I would like to write on consecrated virginity in the world more directly.

So if anyone has any (respectful) questions, please feel free to ask them! It would be a big help for me in deciding what topics to cover.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Come, Holy Spirit!

Pentecost has always been one of my favorite days on the Church's calendar.

Yet, admittedly, I'm always a little sad when this Solemnity comes, as it signals the end of Easter and thus the start of our long trudge through Ordinary Time. But I know I shouldn't feel this way, because Pentecost gives us a clue as to how we should understand this upcoming liturgical season--as a time to perservere in joyful hope.

The descent of the Holy Spirit is the "birthday" of the Church, and likewise, the start of our present reality. In a sense, it is still Pentecost. Even though literal tongues of flame aren't resting on anyone's head right now (at least not around here), once the Holy Spirit came to us He never left.

Pentecost this year happened to coincide with my college graduation. In fact, my university's Pentecost Mass was also our Mass of Academic Investiture. It seems so perfect to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at a time when we are in such special need of Him--i.e., when we are preparing (hopefully) to go out into the world as "apostles" and witnesses to Christ.

On a personal note, I will be going to graduate school in the Fall. I was accepted into an M.A. Theology program (with a full scholarship!!!) at another Catholic university. And what's better, my request to become a consecrated virgin just received definite approval from the local ordinary. Needless to say, the past month has been VERY exciting.

So in light of everything which has just come together for me, I would very much appreciate the prayers of anyone who reads this.

Friday, May 2, 2008

St. Athanasius

As any liturgically-minded Catholic is well aware, the Church doesn't have room on her calender for all of her canonized saints. (It's hard to squeeze several thousand saints into 365 days!) Those who do make it onto the universal calender--that is, those saints whose feast is "mandatory" for everybody everywhere--are there for at least one of two reasons. Either their life and writings are of some theological significance, or they are the object of great popular devotion.

While there is a degree of overlap, in practice it's usually fairly easy to tell in which category a particular saint falls. For example, St. Padre Pio is not a Doctor of the Church, and I have yet to see a St. Cyril of Alexandria medal.

St. Athanasius is obviously one of the "theological" saints, but at the same time he is one of the saints who is very near and dear to my own heart! Not only did he help save the Church from the rampant heresy of Arianism while helping to define our Christology, but he did so with a level of virtue that I find personally very inspiring.

St. Athanasius was born in A.D. 295 and died in 373. As a child, he would have seen the last of the major persecutions against Christians. A a young cleric he accompanied the bishop of Alexandria to the first Nicene Council. This is the ecumenical council which gave us the Creed ("...I believe in Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made, one in being with the Father...") which refutes the Arian tenet that Christ was a created being and therefor less than God. St. Athanasius himself later became the bishop of Alexandria, despite the protests that he was to young (he is believed to have been twenty-eight at the time, while the canonical age was thirty).

Although the first Nicene Council formally condemned Arianism, there was a major Arian revival during St. Athanasius' episcopacy. He fought against this heresy with remarkable courage, risking his life and suffering exile several times. He stood his ground, even though it often seemed that he was fighting a losing battle. I'm not sure how accurate this statistic is, but I have heard that at the time seventy-five percent of the Church's bishops were Arian. (And we think we have it bad!) This is what gave rise to the expression: Athanasius contra mundum, or "Athanasius against the world."

I'm sure a lot of my friends place my devotion to St. Athanasius under the same heading as my Canon law hobby--that is, as one of my weird, hyper-intellectual idiosyncrasies. Still, I think that it would be good for us in this day in age if personal devotion to St. Athansius became more widespread.

Today, we often hear people talk about how they believe that Jesus was a good man or a great moral teacher, but not God. This point of view, common as it is, really isn't too far off from Arianism! Certainly, St. Athanasius' prayers could help us here. And at a time in history when we are so beset by relativism, I think it would do us well to meditate upon that life of a saint who was willing to sacrifice everything (and offend a lot of people!) to defend what he knew to be the objective truth. Certainly, St. Athanasius' prayers could help us here, especially when we as Christians find ourselves called to be contra mundum.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Feast of the Acsension

Happy feast of the Ascension! As glorious as the Ascension is, it's also somewhat bittersweet; it's hard to "let go" of Jesus after His post-Resurrection time with us.

Certainly the Apostles must have felt this way. I imagine this is why they needed the angels to tell them, in effect, to "get moving."*

This feast is especially poignant to me, as I'm someone who tends to "miss" Jesus. As much as I whole-heartedly identify with "Bride of Christ" imagery, ultimately the reference to marriage in the conventional sense is sort of an analogy. Even though I can love Him with a very deep and real love, I still won't be able to look at the face of my future Spouse in this life.

However, I find tremendous comfort in the formula for the Solemn Blessing at the end of the Mass for today:

May almighty God bless you on this day
when his only Son ascended into heaven
to prepare a place for you.
R. Amen.
After his resurrection, Christ was seen by his disciples.
When he appears as judge
May you be pleasing for ever in his sight.
R. Amen.
You believe that Jesus has taken his seat in majesty
at the right hand of the Father.
May you have the joy of experiencing
that he is also with you to the end of time,
according to his promise.
R. Amen.

Really, who could ask for anything more?

* see Acts 1:10-11, "While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why are you standing there, looking at the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen Him going into heaven.'" (from the New American Bible)