Monday, January 28, 2008

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is sometimes referred to as "the most saintly of the learned and the most learned of the saints". He is the official patron saint of college students, and is often cited as the patron saint of philosophers.

Thus, he is a fairly significant saint for me in my life as an undergraduate Philosophy major. There are few saints who inspire me academically as well as spiritually, but St. Thomas is one of them!

St. Thomas was a remarkably prolific writer, and was one of the major architects of the philosophical movement known as Scholasticism. Scholasticism is somewhat out of favor in mainstream secular philosophical circles, but there remains a lively interest in this school of thought among Catholic scholars.
(This is a totally unqualified statement, but it's my thought that non-religious intellectuals who have a serious encounter with Scholasticism tend to become Catholic.) I personally have a great appreciation for the clarity and comprehensiveness of Thomistic thought.

Even though you might expect the studious St. Thomas Aquinas to have lead a rather dull life, I actually have a lot of fun swapping "St. Thomas" stories with my Catholic friends who are fellow Philosophy majors.

For example, St. Thomas' parents placed him in a Benedictine abbey as a child so that he could gain an education. The well-to-do Aquinas family expected him to remain in the monastery and become an abbot eventually, an appointment which would have brought great honor to the Aquinases. When St. Thomas decided to join the new mendicant order of St. Dominic, his family was furious. To change his mind, his brothers kidnapped him and locked him in a tower, where they exposed him to all sorts of sensual delights.

At one point, they sent a woman of questionable morality to visit him. St. Thomas--who was serious about chastity--grabbed a torch from the fireplace and chased her out of the room. Then he used the torch to trace a cross on the wall, and knelt down to pray. Of course, St. Thomas later found a way to escape from his prison.

I'll paraphrase my favorite story here. It's said that at the end of his life, St. Thomas had a vision. In it, Christ said to him, "You have written well of me Thomas. What do you want as your reward?" To which St. Thomas responded, "Only You!"

Sunday, January 27, 2008

How I Live

One challenge unique to my vocation as an aspiring consecrated virgin is the general lack of concrete directives for living one's daily life. Unlike new religious, I do not have a tried and tested way of life handed down to me.

As consecrated people, consecrated virgins are called to live the Gospel as fully as possible. However, this still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Seeking to "live the full Gospel" could inspire me to move to the nearest desert, stop bathing, and embrace a set of extraordinary ascetical practices OR it could inspire me to live an upper middle-class lifestyle with a commitment to celibacy and twenty minutes set aside for daily prayer.

In my mind, these scenarios represent two "extremes" on the spectrum of the forms my future consecrated life could take. Naturally my hope is to adopt the best of both worlds; namely, the zeal and witness-value of the former situation with the sense of balance and stability of the latter.

At least as far as I'm aware, I do have a lot of freedom in determining the details of my present and future daily life. As I see it, this is both a tremendous responsibility as well as a great gift (which I pray I will use prudently!). My goal is that in being free, I use this freedom to do God's will without reservation.

That being said, I thought I would share some of the things I do presently which I consider part of my consecrated life:

First, I made every effort to attend Mass daily, because the Eucharist is truly the center of my world. I would only miss Mass if I was too sick to get out of bed, if I would have to drive there and the roads were completely impassable, or for some other truly extenuating circumstance. Even if I'm travelling, I usually try to call ahead or look on-line to find a Mass in the area where I will be staying.

I also pray the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the Divine Office) five times a day. I say Morning Prayer, one of the daytime hours (usually Mid-day Prayer, though this varies), the Office of Readings, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. Since I live at a Catholic university, I am sometimes able to recite the Office within a group. But out of necessity, I usually say it on my own.

The Liturgy of the Hours is an important part of my life because it is the official prayer of the whole Church. As such, I feel honored--and very happy!--to be able to participate in it. Consecrated virgins are "strongly encouraged" to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and in my diocese consecrated virgins are required to say at least Morning and Evening Prayer.

I make a point to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation on a weekly basis. This may sound like a lot to some people, but (trust me) it doesn't seem like that much once you actually start. Since my primary relationship is my relationship with God, I do my best to stay on good terms with Him at all times! And regular confession is the best way to accomplish this.

It's also important to me to spend time in silent prayer. I think of this my chance to have a "heart to heart" talk with Jesus.

Right now, I really don't keep track of how much time I spend praying this way, because it's something I'm naturally inclined to do and I take advantage of the appropriate opportunities for prayer as they present themselves. But before I transferred to my present university, my schedule was such that I did need to budget time for silent prayer. Generally, I tried to spend about forty-five minutes to an hour every day.

Since a call to consecrated virginity is also a call to a life of penance, I do try to fast in some way. I really can't fast in the normal sense of the word--i.e., by not eating--because I am very petite and can't risk losing any weight. So instead, I ordinarily give up chocolate three days a week. (This may sound silly, but I'm quite fond of chocolate so I find this adequately penitential.) I do try to be discreet about this, out of modesty as well as from a desire not to be laughed at for liking chocolate that much.

Also, I never drank as a teenager, and when I turned twenty-one I chose to continue to abstain. I am perfectly aware that Jesus drank (I do love the story of the wedding at Cana), and I have no problem with other people drinking responsibly. But aside from its penitential aspect, I find that my avoidance of alcohol is an excellent way to bear a Christian witness, especially on a college campus. And perpetual sobriety carries the added benefit of protecting me from some potentially compromising situations.

Evangelical poverty is important for me, though as a student I find that this tends to take care of itself! Still, I look for ways to live simply. For example, I don't wear designer clothes, make-up, or any jewelry besides a simple silver cross. I go out to movies or restaurants only rarely, and I don't shop recreationally.

My desire to become a theologian stems from my call to consecrated virginity, and as such it is something of a secondary vocation for me. Because becoming a theologian means a life of scholarship, I treat my school work as one of my duties towards God. I see my hours of study as another facet of my consecrated life.

So this is what my life looks like! As I understand it, being a spouse of Christ means you try to live every moment with Him. And I strive to do just that, even while I'm still only "engaged".

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Feast of Sts. Titus and Timothy

Today is the feast of Sts. Titus and Timothy. In my opinion, they are two rather under-appreciated saints. They were young bishops during apostolic times, and they are both original recipients of Pauline epistles.

St. Paul's letters to these two saints are filled with encouragement as well as practical advice for guiding their respective local Churches. One of my favorite verses of the New Testament can be found in the first letter of St. Paul to St. Timothy:

"Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity."*

Because the Church was so new, (and probably also due to the anti-Christian sentiment of the times), Sts. Timothy and Titus must have faced some extraordinary difficulties in their episcopate. I use this feast day as a special opportunity to pray for younger members of the diocesan clergy, who would seem to face some analogous challenges in their ministry today.

* 1 Timothy 4:12, the New American Bible

Friday, January 25, 2008

Conversion of St. Paul

Now here is someone who had an interesting vocation story!

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. This well-known (or at least hopefully well-known) story is recorded in the book of Acts, and is also referenced in the Pauline epistles.

Saul of Tarsus was a zealous Pharisee intent on destroying the infant Church. While he was on his way to the city of Damascus to persecute the Christians there, he had a vision of Christ.

After Christ told him "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting", the very next thing our Lord said to Saul was "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."*

And that was it! There was no discussion--Jesus simply gave Saul directions. From what I could read from this passage, Saul/St. Paul's "yes" was so immediate that it was basically implied.

Saul was baptized shortly afterwards, and took the name "Paul". He is called an apostle, despite not being one of the original twelve, both because of his intense personal experience of Christ as well as his extraordinary dedication to the spread of the Gospel.

Among the many riches contained in the letters of St. Paul is a beautiful theme of reliance on God's grace. St. Paul's experience of grace was a very tangible reality to him, which is highlighted by some of today's antiphons:

"I know the one whom I have trusted and I am certain that he, the just judge, has the power to keep safe what he has entrusted to me until the Day."

"Paul, my grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness."

"Willingly I glory in my infirmities, that the healing power of God may dwell in me."

I think anyone serious about their Christianity could stop and marvel at the small "miracle" that is their faith. On a personal level, today's feast gave me an opportunity to express my gratitude to God for the most precious gift I have ever received--a chance to live life with Him.

*(cf. Acts 9:6; the New American Bible)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Feast of St. Agnes

Today is the feast of St. Agnes, one of the most famous virgin-martyr saints of the early Church. She is mentioned in the Roman Canon (i.e., Eucharistic Prayer I), and I consider to be one of my patron saints.

She is certainly emblematic of the vocation of consecrated virginity lived outside of a religious institute. The memorable antiphon from the Rite of Consecration, "I am espoused to Him whom angels serve..." was taken directly from today's Morning Prayer.

As far as I'm aware, most of what we know about her is legend--which I don't really mind, as we venerate her more for who she was rather than for the things she did. According to the Breviary, she died somewhere between the years 250-350 A.D.

St. Ambrose mentions in today's Office of Readings, she was said to be only twelve years old when she was martyred. It's hard for us to hear about someone so young suffering so terribly.
Yet St. Ambrose's homily does not focus on the cruelty of the situation, but rather on the marvel of grace that made this child so strong and pure-intentioned.

St. Agnes is an especially meaningful saint for me because my greatest obstacle in become a consecrated virgin in overcoming the numerous objections to my youth. Many well-meaning people have been of the opinion that I am both too young to make this choice and too young to live this life successfully.

I would be the first to argue that aspiring consecrated virgins should have maintained a certain degree of personal maturity. However, I also think it is important to remember that God can (and does!) call young people, even to heroic virtue and dedication. St. Agnes is a case in point!

Here is St. Agnes' prayer from the Liturgy:

Almighty, eternal God,
you choose what the world considers weak
to put worldly power to shame.
May we who celebrate the birth of St. Agnes into eternal joy
be loyal to the faith she professed.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Question "Why This?"

Oddly enough, I find it much more difficult to explain why I am becoming a consecrated virgin specifically than I do trying to explain why I wish to embrace the consecrated life in general.

In many ways it would seem to make much more sense for me to join a religious order. Many, if not most, religious orders need more young women to join if their community is to continue its service to the Church. In all likelihood, if I entered the convent I would be helping to fulfill an established need. Further, if I became a religious I would undoubtedly find much more support and guidance as I strive to live as a spouse of Christ. So on the surface at least, opting for membership in a religious institute would seem to be a more prudent decision.

The only real response I have to these valid concerns is that I am trying to do what I sincerely think God wants me to do. At the end of the day, I'm of the opinion that the "why" of a person's vocation is something only God understands. However, there are some aspects of consecrated virginity in the world which particularly resonated with my sense of a call.

One of the qualities of this vocation which I found most attractive was its universality. One difficulty I encountered in discerning religious life was my disinclination to adopt any particular spirituality or mode of prayer.

While I wholeheartedly agree that the spiritualities of the various religious families are a great gift to the Church, I never really felt that I was meant to be a Benedictine, a Franciscan, an Augustinian, a Dominican, or a sister of anything else. I wanted to be consecrated, but just as a Catholic! As I see it, the spiritual heritage of a consecrated virgin is the spiritual heritage of the universal Church.

Similarly, in my own personal situation I felt that my identity as a consecrated woman should be based essentially on my spousal relationship with Christ, independent of any sort of specific work or apostolate. Religious institutes by their very nature reflect a particular mission; that is, they arise in order to fulfill a certain need. Yet I felt that my "mission" was simply to participate in the general mission of the Catholic Church.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Feast of St. Anthony

Today is the feast of the "original" St. Anthony. Born in Egypt around the year 250 A.D., he is called "the father of monks" because he was one of the earliest hermits in the Christian tradition.

Most of what we know about St. Anthony is from a biography written by St. Athanasius. According to St. Athanasius, when St. Anthony was about twenty he walked into church and heard the Gospel parable of the rich man who was told by Christ: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor....Then, come follow me.

In order to devote his entire life to Christ, St. Anthony went out to desert with the intention of spending the rest of his life in solitude and prayer. His reputation for holiness soon attracted followers (so he didn't exactly live in complete solitude). This was the beginning of monasticism, and thus it was also the primitive foundation of religious life as we know it today.

It is still possible to be a hermit this day and age. There are contemplative religious orders (such as the Carmelites) who have an eremitic spirituality, and other orders (like the Carthusians) whose members actually spend the majority of their waking hours alone with God. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, in addition to restoring the ancient order of virgins, also makes provisions for non-religious hermit in can. 603.

In other words, if you felt called to be a hermit like St. Anthony, you could figure out where and how you would live this life, and then ask for your local bishop's permission and blessing. If the bishop supported you in this endeavor, you would be and "official" hermit in the eyes of the Church. Not many people chose this path, for practical reasons as much as spiritual ones, but it does remain an option!

While I personally have never felt called to be a hermit (although for some reason a couple of priests have suggested that I seriously consider it), I do appreciate the eremitic vocation. I find the concept of constant prayer and total dedication to God very attractive from my own subjective point of view. And objectively, I think it is important that we have people like this in our world today.

I think the charism of St. Anthony's life is very well encapsulated in his prayer from the Breviary:

Father, you called Saint Anthony to renounce the world and serve you in the solitude of the desert. By his prayers and example, may we learn to deny ourselves and to love you above all things. We ask this through our lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My vocation story, part III

Shortly after I began having unsettling thoughts about my potential lack of a vocation, by sheer providence I happened to meet a young priest from a neighboring parish. He took it upon himself to offer me some guidance, and he was willing to go out of his way to help me.

Besides talking with me about vocation (and listening to what I had to say!), this priest also gave me some really helpful reading material. Among other things, he also xeroxed for me the entire section of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which pertains to the consecrated life. In reading this I came across can. 604, which was when I realized that consecrated virginity in the world was still a form of consecrated life recognized by the Church. (I wonder at times if I am the first woman in Church history who found her vocation by reading Canon Law!)

Something about this grabbed my attention, so the same priest later gave me a copy of the Rite of Consecration to a life of virginity. (You can read it here.) Upon reading the rite, I felt as though I had found what it was that God wanted me to do with my life. I wish I could explain this in more detail--and I can identify reasons for my attraction to consecrated virginity, but it would take another post to try to discuss them--but I suppose I really can't. I think that being "called" is ultimately a mysterious thing.

A few months later, the priest called the appropriate people in our archdiocese on my behalf. He was told that I was too young to be considered for the Rite of Consecration. I was nineteen years old at the time.

In addition to this another priest, the one who was hearing my confessions at the time, thought my discerning any vocation was a bad idea in general (he wanted me to wait until I finished college), and that my discerning consecrated virginity in the world was particularly unwise.

So, I decided that I must not have been discerning properly after all. I spent about two more years visiting different religious orders in the hope that I would find where God wanted me. I encountered some very excellent communities and met many admirable religious during this time, but I could never completely forget the idea of consecrated virginity in the world.

When I was twenty-one I transferred to my present university, and met a handful of priests who were supportive of my interest in consecrated virginity. I think this made all the difference, because I somehow found the nerve to be honest with myself about what it was to which I was actually being called.

I had kept in touch with the young priest who had first encouraged me, so I mentioned to him that I was still serious about becoming a consecrated virgin. I asked him to do what he could to help me in this--and he did. He arranged for me to speak with the priest in charge of the consecrated virgins in our archdiocese, and the three of us met shortly after my twenty-second birthday. After meeting me, the priest in charge told me he would be willing to consider me as a candidate for consecrated virginity, despite the fact that I was extraordinarily young. Deo gratias!

So this is where I am now. I am still at the point where I could be told tomorrow that I don't have a vocation or that I'm too young (though I'm not anticipating this). And as a hopeful aspiring theologian I still have a lot to do academically to get my future in order. I'm happy and excited about my life, and I trust God. But I still feel that I need all the prayers I can get!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My vocation story, part II

Deciding to give myself completely to God at the age of twelve presented some unique challenges--not the least of which was simply growing up!

I assumed that my "call" to a life of virginity meant that I would become a nun or a religious sister. But as this was the late 1990's, I really didn't know any religious very well, so there was no one to whom I could bring my questions. My parents, who were and are devout Catholics, did not want me so much as to think about religious life until I was in college. And even so, they made it clear that I was to earn at least a bachelor's degree before I entered the convent.

When I was fourteen I started ninth grade at our local public high school. I found this environment difficult, as my religious devotion stuck most of my teachers and classmates as odd (or even crazy!). I was never the least bit tempted to ignore my faith, although I did occasionally question my vocation to consecrated life. Still, my sense of being called was so strong that I chose not to date or have any romantic relationships while I was a teenager.

I went away to college when I was eighteen, and within two weeks of being there I called the local diocesan vocation office. Diocesan vocation offices really exist to help potential diocesan priests, but the vocation director was still able to put me in touch with some local women's religious communities.

This is when I first began to visit convents. At first, I felt as though a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders; it seemed to me that I had kept my vocation bottled up inside of me for so long, and it was such a relief to be talking about it finally.

However, it was not very long before I started to have this vague sense that God did not want me to enter a religious community. I found this quite upsetting, because I still felt very strongly called to a spousal relationship with Christ.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Just in Time for National Vocation Awareness Week: My vocation story

My intention in writing this blog is really to share my thoughts on "objective" and exterior issues related to consecrated virginity in the world, in the hope that my reflections may be helpful to some people. Generally, I find it immodest to speak about my personal spiritual experiences in public.

Vocation stories are sort of borderline in this regard. On the one hand, the sense of being called by God is always immensely personal. But on the other hand, this interior event by its very nature has some wide-reaching consequences for other people. And I think it is necessary to be prepares to explain (at least somewhat) why it was that you choose a particular state in life.

Also, I think my thoughts would probably make a lot more sense if they were given some context. So, this is the first part of my story:

I was always fairly pious as a young child--I have memories of reading the Bible on my own when I was about eight, and I used to tell my grade school classmates that I considered Jesus to be my best friend. But I never considered any form of consecrated life because I wanted to be married and have children. I even used to make a point to take extra good care of my dolls, because I anticipated passing them down to my own little girl one day!

This changed in the middle of the sixth grade, when I was twelve. At this time, I started to sense very strongly in my prayer that God wanted me to give myself entirely to Him by means of my living a life of virginity. Even at this young age, I was blessed with an understanding--albeit not a very developed one--of the beauty of consecrated celibacy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

About my sidebar image...

On my sidebar, I have included an photograph of the catacomb of St. Callixtus. My intention in this was to provide a visual reminder of the relationship between consecrated virginity and martyrdom.

Of course, many of the earliest consecrated virgin-saints were martyrs as well. Sometimes--such as in the case of St. Agnes, whose feast we will celebrate later this month--these women were martyred specifically because they had chosen to dedicate themselves completely to God as a spouse of Christ. But beyond the historical connection, my own belief is that consecrated virginity is a gift for the Church in a manner similar to the gift of the martyrs.

"Martyr" comes from the Greek word for "witness". The martyrs were people who had come to see the light of Christ, and who understood that it was worth more than anything the world could offer. They were willing to acknowledge this publicly, to the point where they would relinquish their earthly life due to the strength of their life in God.

The martyrs' testified to their faith by their death, and this was more convincing then any speech or writing. Their love for Christ was visible not only in their joy, but also especially in their suffering and death. That such a love could exist on this earth, from people like us, is something that could brighten the whole human experience.

It is to be hoped that modern consecrated virgins do not meet similarly violent deaths. Yet, a call to consecrated virginity is in a very real way a call to renounce many of life's most precious treasures. Although it is quite painful for me to consider the fact that I will never have my own family or my own home, I have always felt that I was gaining so much more than I was renouncing. I am willing (and eager!) to live this way because God is truly everything to me, and I won't be satisfied until everything I have belongs to Him.

My goal is that I live my consecrated life well enough that my witness is at least somewhat as convincing as the martyrs'.

When I see pictures of the catacombs where the early martyrs were buried, I am reminded of all of this. I think it is also a good occasion to remember that these saints are our brothers and sisters in Christ; they pray for us, and they want to encourage us so that our love for Christ can also become "as strong as death".*

*(cf. Song of Songs 8:6)

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Happy feast of the Epiphany and welcome to my blog!

I am a college student in my early twenties, and I am an aspiring consecrated virgin in the Roman Catholic Church.

Consecrated virginity in the world (as described in canon 604 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law) is the oldest form of consecrated life in the Church. It dates back to apostolic times, when Christian woman would freely renounce marriage in order to belong more completely to Christ, and to serve as a witness to the reality of a future life with God in heaven, where "no one is married or given in marriage".

A liturgical rite was developed early in the Church's history to bestow solemn consecration upon women who had this vocation. However, with the development of religious orders, this rite came to be restricted to women in cloistered monasteries.

This changed when the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a revision of the rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. After about 1,500 years, it was once again possible for a woman who lived "in the world" (i.e., apart from a religious community) to be consecrated. The renewed rite was promulgated in 1970, and the new Code of Canon Law, written in 1983, made a legal provision for the existence of this state in life.

So in my life today, I am trying to respond to a vocation which is an ancient Christian tradition, and at the same time also something of a modern development!

Due to the "newness" and relative rarity of this form of consecrated life, I have often felt frustrated in trying to find information and resources which could have provided support for me in my discernment.

I decided to start this blog in order to share both my personal reflections and experiences, as well as to publish some of the fruits of my research. My intention is to assist other people who could benefit from an honest, thoughtful discussion of consecrated virginity. I also hope encourage a more widespread appreciation for the beauty and value of this vocation.

My title, "Sponsa Christi" is Latin for "Spouse of Christ"--an expression which encapsulates the nature of a call to consecrated life for women.

I hope that my efforts help (in at least some small way) to make God better known and loved.