Friday, February 27, 2009

St. Ambrose on Consecrated Virginity

(This is a mosaic of St. Ambrose from the crypt in St. Peter’s basilica. Even though our saint looks sort of cranky in this depiction, his letters to the consecrated virgins of his era show him to be a warm and caring pastor.)

One common misconception about consecrated virgins is that we don't have our own spiritual heritage. It’s even been suggested that therefore we should all individually “borrow” the spirituality of whatever major religious Order most appeals to us.

However, so much as a cursory knowledge of the Patristic writers would reveal that we actually have one of the richest spiritual patrimonies in the entire Church! The Church Fathers (such as Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and so on) wrote beautiful and profound treatises on the nature of consecrated virginity. And while these of course can apply to women in a variety of forms of consecrated life today and throughout history, they were written specifically for and about consecrated virgins—women who had exactly the same vocation as my own.

Because extensive reading of the Church Fathers can sometimes seem daunting, I have decided to start regularly sharing and discussing various selections pertaining to consecrated virginity here on my blog, hopefully in a “user-friendly” format. But for more Patristic writings, check out the section labeled “Fathers” on the “New Advent” website.

This first section is from book I, chapter 3 of St. Ambrose’s treatise “On Virginity.” It was written to his sister Marcellina, who herself was a consecrated virgin. As a side note, this chapter is immediately preceded by an essay in praise of St. Agnes, which is now used in the Office of Readings on her feast.

(emphases, in bold, and comments in red, are mine)
Virginity is praised on many grounds, but chiefly because it brought down the Word from heaven, and hence its pursuit, which existed in but few under the old covenant, has spread to countless numbers.

“And now the love of purity draws me on, and you, my holy sister, even though not speaking in your silent habit, to say something about virginity, lest that which is a principal virtue should seem to be passed by with only a slight reference. For virginity is not praiseworthy because it is found in martyrs, but because itself makes martyrs.” (This thought-provoking quote is one of my favorite Patristic references to consecrated virginity. I find it significant that St. Ambrose could say this not too long after the initial widespread persecutions of the early Church by the Roman Empire.)

“But who can comprehend that by human understanding which not even nature has included in her laws? Or who can explain in ordinary language that which is above the course of nature? Virginity has brought from heaven that which it may imitate on earth. And not unfittingly has she sought her manner of life from heaven, who has found for herself a Spouse in heaven. She, passing beyond the clouds, air, angels, and stars, has found the Word of God in the very bosom of the Father, and has drawn Him into herself with her whole heart. For who having found so great a Good would forsake it? For Your Name is as ointment poured out, therefore have the maidens loved You, and drawn You. And indeed what I have said is not my own, since they who marry not nor are given in marriage are as the angels in heaven. Let us not, then, be surprised if they are compared to the angels who are joined to the Lord of angels. Who, then, can deny that this mode of life has its source in heaven, which we don’t easily find on earth, except since God came down into the members of an earthly body? Then a Virgin conceived, and the Word became flesh that flesh might become God.” (I like the way St. Ambrose is able to articulate the connection between consecrated virginity and the mystery of the Incarnation. While I had initially seen consecrated virginity primarily as a reflection of and participation in the Paschal mystery—which it of course is as well—I am happy to have grow in my understanding of the consecrated virginity’s deep relationship to the two “poles” of our Christian faith.)

“But some one will say: But Elijah is seen to have had nothing to do with the embraces of bodily love. And therefore was he carried by a chariot into heaven, therefore he appeared glorified with the Lord, (Matthew 17:3) and therefore he is to come as the forerunner of the Lord’s advent. (Malachi 4:5) And Miriam taking the timbrel led the dances with maidenly modesty. (Exodus 15:20) But consider whom she was then representing. Was she not a type of the Church, who as a virgin with unstained spirit joins together the religious gatherings of the people to sing divine songs? For we read that there were virgins appointed also in the temple at Jerusalem. But what says the Apostle? These things happened to them in a figure, that they might be signs of what was to come. (1 Corinthians 10:11) For the figure is shown in few, the life exists in many.” (In this discussion of how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, St. Ambrose also alludes to the theology which would describe a consecrated virgin as an icon of the Church.)

But in truth after that the Lord, coming in our flesh, joined together the Godhead and flesh without any confusion or mixture, then the practice of the life of heaven spreading throughout the whole world was implanted in human bodies. This is that which angels ministering on earth signified should come to pass, (Matthew 4:11) which ministry should be offered to the Lord with the service of an unstained body. This is that heavenly service which the host of rejoicing angels spoke of for the earth. (Luke 2:13-14) We have, then, the authority of antiquity from of old, the fullness of the setting forth from Christ Himself.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Habemus Episcopum!

Yesterday it was announced that Archbishop Dolan is to succeed Cardinal Egan as the Archbishop of my home diocese, the Archdiocese of New York. It’s been very exciting to read about this online and to talk to people back home, even while it is tough to be away studying in another region of the country when all this is going on.

It’s very convenient that the announcement was made just before Lent. Now I definitely know for whom I’ll be offering up a majority of my prayers and sacrifices for the next forty days! (Though I will of course still be praying for Cardinal Egan daily; I’m sure I will be—quite literally—eternally grateful to him for approving my consecration.)


“His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, has appointed His Excellency, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of Milwaukee, to the Archdiocese of New York. Archbishop Dolan has served as the Archbishop of Milwaukee since 2002. He will be the 13th Bishop and 10th Archbishop of the See of New York. He succeeds His Eminence, Edward Cardinal Egan, who submitted his letter of retirement upon reaching the age of 75 on April 2, 2007.”

“In a statement, Archbishop Dolan addressed New Yorkers, saying, ‘My brother bishops, priests, religious women and men, seminarians, committed Catholics of this wonderful Church, I pledge to you my love, my life, my heart, and I can tell you already that I love you, I need so much your prayers and support, I am so honored, humbled, and happy to serve as your pastor.’”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

St. Scholastica, The Rite of Consecration, and Religious Life

On February 10, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Scholastica. She was the blood sister of St. Benedict, and is most famous for founding the female branch of the Benedictine Order. St. Scholastica was born in Nursia, Italy around the year 480 A.D., and died in a monastery near her brother in Monte Cassino c. 547.

In the time of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica, there were already some forms of consecrated life in existence which could be seen as precursors to religious life, such as the various loosely organized communities of early desert hermits (the sort of which St. John Cassian discusses in his writings). However, “religious life” properly speaking describes a form of life based on adherence to a specific Rule of Life—the word “religious” is even derived from the Latin for “to bind.”

While St. Benedict’s Rule is not the earliest in the history of the Church, it was the arguably the most successful and widely-adopted Rule of its era. In this sense, Sts. Benedict and Scholastica could be considered the father and mother of western religious life as we know it today. We may also be able to call St. Scholastica the original nun.

But unlike many other great female foundresses, in addition to being a nun St. Scholastica was almost certainly a consecrated virgin as well (that is, a woman having received the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity). In the Office of Readings for her feast St. Gregory the Great describes St. Scholastica as having been “consecrated to God from her earliest years,” so from this we may also assume that she was a consecrated virgin prior to her beginning monastic life.

And just as St. Benedict was originally a hermit who sought monasticism as a particular way of ordering his ascetical life, it may not be unreasonable to conjure that St. Scholastica embraced Benedict's Rule primarily as an aid to living out fully her original consecration as a virgin, as opposed to seeing the Rule and the Vows as the constitutive element in her consecrated life. This would be a contrast to later attitudes concerning consecrated virginity vis-à-vis religious life, which saw the Rite of Consecration is something more like the “crowning” of a monastic life well-lived.

Although the Rite of Consecration fell out of use for non-monastic women in approximately the year 1000, it continued to be used for solemnly professed nuns in certain Orders. The Benedictines in particular retained this practice (although perhaps not consistently, judging from the surge of renewed interest in the Rite of Consecration for Benedictine nuns which began in the nineteenth century). Incidentally, one Benedictine monastery in the United States which continues the tradition of celebrating the Rite of Consecration in conjunction with solemn profession of religious vows is the Abbey of Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut. And while the new contemplative community of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles does not use the actual Rite, their description of solemn profession shows a marked influence by the Rite of Consecration.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Feast of the Presentation and World Day of Consecrated Life

February 2, forty days after Christmas, is the feast of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. This is when the Church remembers the events described in Luke 2:22-38, where the prophets Simeon and Anna recognize the infant Jesus as the long-awaited savior.

Yesterday had also been designated by Pope John Paul II as “World Day of Consecrated Life”—my first as an official consecrated person! I believe this is in commemoration of Anna, who “...never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.”

Roman Catholic Vocations” reprinted this article about the Pope Benedict XVI's address to consecrated people around the world, in this “Year of St. Paul”:

(emphases, in bold, are mine)

VATICAN CITY, 3 FEB 2009 (Vatican Information Service)

-- Yesterday afternoon in the Vatican Basilica Benedict XVI met with members of religious congregations, institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, at the end of a Mass marking the thirteenth Day of Consecrated Life, an annual celebration established by John Paul II.

At the end of the Eucharistic celebration for the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, presided by Cardinal Franc Rode C.M., prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Holy Father greeted those present.

In this year dedicated to St. Paul the Pope focused his remarks on the Apostle “who,” he said, “has always been recognized as father and master of those who, called by the Lord, have chosen to dedicate themselves unconditionally to Him and His Gospel. ... Imitating him by following Jesus is the best way to respond fully to your vocation of special consecration in the Church,” he said.

St. Paul's lifestyle “expresses the substance of a consecrated life inspired by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. In the life of poverty he saw a guarantee that the Gospel would be announced gratuitously. At the same time, such a life is an expression of real solidarity towards brothers and sisters in need.”

Accepting God's call to chastity,” noted the Holy Father, the Apostle of the Gentiles “gave his heart entirely to the Lord in order to be able to serve his brethren with greater freedom and dedication. Moreover, in a world in which the values of Christian chastity enjoyed little popularity, he offered secure guidelines of behavior.”

On the subject of obedience, Benedict XVI recalled how St. Paul was “under daily pressure because of his anxiety for all the churches” and how this “inspired, shaped and consumed his life, making it a sacrifice agreeable to God.”

“Another fundamental aspect of Paul's consecrated life was that of mission. He was entirely for Jesus in order to be, like Jesus, for everyone. ... In him, so closely bound to the person of Christ, we recognize a profound capacity to unite spiritual life and missionary activity. In him, these two dimensions support one another.”

The Pope told the consecrated people of his hope that the Pauline Year may “give you further encouragement to welcome the witness of St. Paul, meditating daily upon the Word of God through the faithful practice of ‘lectio divina,’ and singing ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts.’ May the Apostle help you to accomplish your apostolic service in and with the Church, with an unreserved spirit of communion, making a gift of your charisms to others and bearing witness to the greatest charism of all, which is charity.”