Friday, August 29, 2008

What the Church Has Written on Consecrated Virginity Lived In the World

One theme that constantly repeats itself whenever the vocation of consecrated virginity in the world is discussed is the paucity of pertinent information. Unlike religious life or the priesthood, which have been the subjects of vast amounts of commentary by the magisterium, presently the Church has not provided very much in the way of authoritative guidelines as to how this state in life should be lived out concretely. (I would even venture to say that this general lack of universal norms could contribute to some ambiguities in the theological understanding of this vocation.)

But this situation is really understandable, as the revival of this ancient form of consecrated life is a fairly new phenomenon. Also, a lack of legislation could indicate a lack of abuses—which would be a very good thing!

Yet the Church has written authoritatively on consecrated virginity in several places, which I share with you here. Even if the amount of information does not seem to allow for extensive knowledge of this vocation, it at least gives us an opportunity for a comprehensive view.

Everything which I reprinted here was copied verbatim (with internet links as I was able to find them). If anyone can think of another official Church document where consecrated virginity is mentioned, please let me know so I can include it in this list.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

922. From apostolic times Christian virgins, called by the Lord to cling only to him with greater freedom of heart, body, and spirit, have decided with the Church’s approval to live in a state of virginity “for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.”

923. “Virgins who, committed to the holy plan of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to approved liturgical rite, are betrothed mystically to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.” By this solemn rite (Consecratio Virginum), the virgin is “constituted…a sacred person, a transcendent sign of the Church’s love for Christ, and an eschatological image of this heavenly Bride of Christ and of the life to come.”

924. “As with other forms of consecrated life,” the order of virgins established the woman living in the world (or the nun) in prayer, penance, service of her brethren, and apostolic activity, according to the state in life and spiritual gifts given to her.” Consecrated virgins can form themselves into associations to observe their commitment more faithfully.

From the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

Can. 604 §1. Similar to these forms of consecrated life is the order of virgins who, expressing the holy resolution of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.

§2. In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, virgins can be associated together.

From Vita Consecrata, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II:

7. It is a source of joy and hope to witness in our time a new flowering of the ancient Order of Virgins, known in Christian communities ever since apostolic times. Consecrated by the diocesan Bishop, these women acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve while remaining in the world. Either alone or in association with others, they constitute a special eschatological image of the Heavenly Bride and of the life to come, when the Church will at last fully live her love for Christ the Bridegroom.

From the Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilium:

80. The rite for the consecration of virgins at present found in the Roman Pontifical is to be revised.

Update 9/27/2009: From Apostolorum Successores, the 2004 Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops:

104. Consecrated Women - An inestimable service is given to the Church in countless ways by consecrated women in religious institutes, in societies of apostolic life, in secular institutes, and in the order of virgins, and it is hoped that in the future this service will expand even further. For this reason, the Bishop takes special care to provide suitable and, if possible, abundant resources for their spiritual growth, their Christian instruction, and their cultural enrichment.

The Bishop should show particular concern for the order of virgins, who are dedicated to the service of the Church, entrusted to the Bishop’s pastoral care and consecrated to God at his hands. Bearing in mind the formation needs of consecrated women today, not dissimilar to those of consecrated men, the Bishop should assign chaplains and confessors to them from among the best at his disposal, distinguished by a good understanding of consecrated life and by their piety, sound doctrine, ecumenical and missionary spirit.

The Bishop should also be vigilant that consecrated women are given sufficient opportunities for participation in different diocesan structures, such as diocesan and parish pastoral councils, where these exist, in the various diocesan commissions and delegations, and in the direction of apostolic and educational initiatives in the diocese. They should also be involved in decision making processes, especially in matters directly affecting them. In this way they can bring to the service of God’s people their particular sensitivities and their missionary fervour, their unique gifts and the fruits of their experience.

But the primary resource for understanding the Church’s teaching on this state in life is the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World, which is too long to be reprinted here. I encourage everyone who reads this blog to familiarize themselves with the rite as well. One unique (and in my opinion, wonderful) aspect of this vocation is that virtually everything you need to understand it is contained in its rite.

Similarly, there are several liturgical books which include prayers pertaining to consecrated virginity. The rite itself is contained in the Roman Pontifical and is mentioned in the Ceremonial of Bishops. The Sacramentary also contains a preface to be used with the Eucharistic Prayer during a consecration Mass.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Writing God a Blank Check: My Thoughts on Discernment

I haven’t really written much about discernment here because by the time I started this blog I was already “discerned”—i.e., I was subjectively convinced that God had called me to be a consecrated virgin in the world. And once the question of my state in life was settled, all the energy I had spent discerning was quickly re-directed to concern about living my vocation well.

Theoretically, it would seem that the process of discerning a priestly or consecrated vocation should be pleasant, since you’re really just striving to set your life more in conformity with the good and merciful God who already loves you. I do hope that discernment is accordingly bright and joyful for all my readers who are listening for their own vocations. But speaking for myself, on an experiential level discernment was agony! At times I would even find myself feeling somewhat annoyed with God for not communicating His will more plainly.

Yet all of the confusion and anxiety I experienced while discerning my vocation evaporated almost to the point of being erased from my memory once I made my decision and thus crossed over to the “other side” of the question. At one point I even found myself tempted to say to a young man considering the seminary: “So what’s your problem? Just become a priest.” (Fortunately, having at least some sense of tact, I was able to catch myself!)

But recently having had the chance to meet some people my age who in the midst of discernment reminded me of everything I experienced when I was in a similar place. So with the hope of expressing some empathy, I thought I would share something which I found helpful.

When I was on my long retreat, I came across an older book titled, We Live With Our Eyes Open, by Dom Hubert van Zeller, OSB. I had never heard of Fr. Van Zeller before, but apparently he was a Benedictine monk who was also a spiritual director to a wide variety of individuals, including a number of laypeople. He wrote a whole serious of books in which he wittily presents the basic elements of substantial Catholic spirituality.

I found this book both helpful and enjoyable on many levels, but I saw one passage in particular which struck me as a excellent cipher for the central puzzle of vocational discernment:

“Perhaps one reason for the confusion which exists in the minds of some, and
which prevents them from following their true vocation, is that if God showed
them exactly what He wanted of them they would refuse Him. God seems to prefer
that His creatures should muddle through in more or less good faith than that
they should live for any length of time in thoroughly bad faith.”

In other words, if God’s will is genuinely unclear to us (and I don’t intend to address here those cases where a person has an inkling of what God wants for them, but either do their best to ignore it or else hesitate in carrying it out), it may be because we are not predisposed in the first place to doing what He would like to ask of us in. So in a way, the sense of frustration which plagues some serious discerners could be a direct consequence of God’s paternal mercy.

So it would seem that the best way to discern is to say “yes” to God before you know what you are saying “yes” to. I call this “writing God a blank check.”

If you write out a literal blank check to someone, then you are giving that person full permission to take however much money they want out of your back account, to be used however they see fit. When you write God the metaphorical blank check of your life, you put every fiber of your being at His disposal, before you know how much it will cost you. (And obviously, you wouldn’t want to have this sort of relationship with anyone else except God!)

I suppose an example of this would be person sincerely prays along the lines of: “God, if you want to be a Carthusian, I will do it. If you want me to be like John the Baptist and wear only camel hair and subsist on insects, I will do it. And if you want me to become a wife and mother in suburban New Jersey, then I would do that too, as long as it pleases You.”

In a lot of the glossy, user-friendly literature being printed today on discernment, the focus is on choosing a path in which your gifts and talents would be best used, and which corresponds to your deepest desires. There is truth in this, as God can speak to us through attraction and He always seeks our best interest. He would not call us to something for which we were truly and manifestly unsuited (although as Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah found out, our idea of being suitable may be very different from God’s).

However, I would think that approaching discernment from this perspective would predispose a person to winding up in a spiritual quagmire. Trying to discern the Divine will by such human considerations is almost a contradiction. Without undermining the virtue of prudence, we have to remember that God has said, “My ways are not your ways.”

This idea is hardly new in the Catholic ascetical/mystical tradition. St. Ignatius Loyola’s ideal of indifference, St. John of the Cross’s teaching of radical detachment (the “nada”), and even Our Lady’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord…” are all different expressions of the same concept of total trust of and submission to God.

The uncanny thing about this is that once you are willing to take this leap in the dark—and I admit that it took me a long time, and I am certainly not there completely—it’s only then that you KNOW.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Poem

Special thanks to the Passionist nuns of St. Joseph Monastery, who let me reprint this poem from their blog, “In Shadow of His Wings":

A nun is a woman
Who believes in the Absolute
And arises in search of it,
Laughing at all who
Speak of the impossibility of it,
For a woman, who is a nun,
Knows that the impossible
Becomes the possible in a matter of seconds,
At the bidding of her Beloved
A nun is a woman who has become mad,
Totally, irrevocably mad!
For she has accepted
The standard of God’s wisdom
Which is in truth folly to man.
A nun is a woman
Hanging on the other
Side of His cross
Knowing that it becomes
His marriage bed with her
The moment she asks
“To be lifted up” with Him.
A nun is a woman
Of the water and the towel
Constantly kneeling before
Mankind to wash its
Tired feet.
A nun is a woman
In love with God - hence with all humanity
A nun is a prayer -
Everlastingly lifting her arms to God
For those who don’t.
A nun is a woman
Who fasts
Knowing well how fast fast reaches
The heart of God!
A nun is a woman
Wrapped in the Poverty of God,
The mantle of
His surrender, His emptying!
A nun is a woman
Who exists
To show that God exists too.
(by Catherine de Hueck Doherty)
I like this poem because it seems to me that if you replaced “nun” with “consecrated virgin,” it would describe my own vocation perfectly. I suppose that when people ask me what role consecrated virgins have in the Church, I could use as a response: “A consecrated virgin is a woman who exists to show that God exists, too!”

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Back To the World

Today was my first day back home after my long retreat, which was followed by the two and a half day USACV information conference in Chicago.

I am very grateful to everyone who prayed for me while I was on retreat, as all the time spent “alone with the Alone” made me very aware of both the need for and the reality of grace.

The details of the gifts received during a retreat are by nature extremely private, so I really can’t share too much of the experience. But I do have a few observations which may be helpful, even while being just the very tip of the iceberg:

First, I am so glad that I decided to take the time and the trouble to make a retreat like this. It was incredibly helpful. When I first started talking about making a long silent retreat to prepare for my consecration, several people questioned whether something as dramatic as this (although I don’t consider a long retreat to be really dramatic when compared with a novitiate) was truly necessary in my situation. Now after having done it, I feel that it was indeed necessary and important for me to have the opportunity for an extended conversation with God before this January, when I make a permanent commitment and assume a new identity in the Church.

I also think it’s good to note that long retreats like this are very Biblical. Many of the prophets (and also some people like St. Paul) spent time in the wilderness either in conjunction with receiving their vocation, or in preparation for their public mission. Jesus Himself took forty days to fast and pray before manifesting Himself as the Christ.

It would seem that God tends to like deserts, or at least He likes using them for His purposes in forming His people. When you are in the middle of nowhere, there is a very real sense of having nothing but God—but this makes it easier then for God to be everything. I think that there is a beautiful allusion to this concept in the famous passage from the book of Hosea: “So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.”*

Of course, I was near Peoria, which is hardly a literal wilderness. But having not been in Illinois since I was an infant, this is the first time I really had an opportunity to see the Midwestern scenery. But unlike many people who find the miles of cornfields boring, I was delighted by the vastness and simplicity of the landscape. In some ways, its starkness was reminiscent of a real desert, even though much of our nation’s food was growing in those fields. As oxymoronic as this must sound, it was like sort of a fruitful desert—so the cornfields were actually a very good visual metaphor for my entire retreat!

I was further humbled and inspired by the example of the Congregation of St. John, with whom I stayed. Though our concrete daily circumstances are quite different, the sincerity and love with which the Brothers and Sisters of St. John live their religious life taught me a lot about how I can live my own consecrated life as a “convincing sign of the kingdom of heaven.”** I was very moved by their generosity and kindness towards me, as well as by their love of silence, their spirit of poverty, and their deep fraternal charity.

Yet I haven’t found my coming back to the world to be particularly difficult or distracting. On a human level, it is kind of a relief to be able to talk to people (and to blog!) again, and it’s great to see my family. But more importantly, the whole point of making a retreat like this is to learn how to love God faithfully within the context of your own vocation. And you have to come back home—perhaps you could even say to “the daily grind”—before you can start to do this.
*Hosea 2:16
** from the Rite of Consecration. See the examination immediately following the homily.