Strange Gods Before Me
Excerpts from the book by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
To pretend there is anything at all more important to do than to love and serve God in the way He wishes us to love and serve Him is to live the hollowest of delusions. When young Lady Clare Offreduccio became the first contemplative Franciscan nun, most of her relatives and more of her friends also cried: Waste! living death! burial! But after seven centuries, the name of St. Clare is only a little less famous on earth than in heaven, and young girls are still fired by her ideals to live a life of penance and prayer for the world. One is inclined to wonder how many people would remember Clare eight centuries later, had she “used her talents” as the neighbors urged.
A thing is perfect when it achieves the end for which it was made. A life is perfect when it fully accomplishes its purpose. The great purpose of the contemplative life is to wait upon God directly and to give testimony. The office of the beloved is to be at the beck and call of the Lover. The call may be to do or to suffer, to sing or to listen, to labor or to rest in His arms. She never knows what the call of each new day will be. She only waits.
“Tuus sum” is the single cry of the contemplative to God. “I am Yours,—and do please feel quite free to do whatever You wish with me.” Not doing something for God, but being someone for God is the most powerful testimony one can give to the pre-eminence and supereminence of God. In a sense it is a greater testimony than physical martyrdom, since this kind of witness is a matter not of an act but of a state. And this kind of dedication, this kind of testimony, is a very great work in the Church.
Blessed Columba Marmion, O.S.B., has gone on record (in the good company of St. John of the Cross and an imposing number of the saints) as holding that the soul immolated to God in the nudity of pure faith and perfect union does more for the whole Church in an hour than others do in their entire lives. Such immolation is, of course, by no means the restrictive goal of enclosed nuns. Doubtless we shall have some glorious surprises in eternity when the heroic sanctity of the salesclerk, the actress, and the housewife are revealed. However, such immolation is very proper, if not peculiar, to the cloistered nun. It is, in fact, required of her by the nature of her vocation. And so the contemplative nun does not sit back and preen herself on such statements. She bows her head very humbly before them, knowing that she has been called to this intimacy with God in the cloister so that she may do a great work for the Church just by being His, but knowing also that “just to be His” is the most demanding of elections toward which she must bend all her energies and in which nothing of hers may be reserved for herself.
Many spiritual authors write with profundity of self-abandonment that gives glory to God and figures so prominently in His plan of salvation as the particular office of the contemplative. It is at once the suffering of the contemplative life, demanding as it does a real fierceness of faith in God and His word, and also the glorious adventure of that life. Each day in the cloister is a new and rare adventure. We wait. What will He ask today? We do not know. So all the resources of one’s being must be flung down before God to be used or not used as He wishes.
All the nuns in a cloister are giving testimony to the greatness of God simply by being nuns in a cloister. Where there is only surface vision, all the strict prohibitions and austerities of the cloister and all its minutely searching demands are as obsolete in this busy modern world as certain modern crusaders insist they are. With every breath they draw, contemplatives are silently swearing that there is nothing greater or grander, nothing more significant, modern and valid than simply being at God’s disposal. This is why cloistered nuns take one another’s external achievements so much for granted and are so casual in their joy over one another’s accomplishments.
Has the day at last arrived when enclosed nuns should be liberated to “do something useful”? Is it time to stop living in silence when there is so much to be said? Are grilles, fasts and bare feet, night vigils and solemn choral offices definitely out of style?
To write off the purely contemplative religious life as superfluous to our times must surely be the dearest desire in the heart of the surface god. For to maintain that a state of being is no longer necessary in the charged atmosphere of doing is to score the triumph of superficiality.
We cannot update the idea of self-immolation. Certain needs arise in the Church in one century and are no longer pressing in the next century. On the other hand, the need for prayer and penance is independent of century or social milieu. That many dedicated souls should labor in the vineyards and a few keep watch on the mountain has been the need and program of the Church through all the centuries. This is not subject to change, since it is God’s immutable design that some religious should have Him for their entire occupation. Christ said of Mary sitting at His feet: “It shall not be taken away from her.”
The enclosed contemplative life will be outmoded only when love is outmoded. A community pledged to praise God day and night in the choral recitation of the Divine Office, to adore Him unceasingly, to channel His mercies to the world, to help repair by its penances chinks made in the walls of the Church, needs no sideline activity to justify its existence in 1265, 1965, or 4265.
That was a terrible thing, that quiet declaration of the Mother of God to the children at Fatima: “Many souls go to hell because there no is one to pray and do penance for them.” Cloisters are built, stand, and endure simply because some people do want to pray and do penance for a multitude of people they have never seen but dearly love. And cloisters will go out of style only as God goes out of style.
The contemplative life is a life of faith. It demands a constant exercise of faith. Happily, this is a thing for which a woman is particularly equipped by the nature God gave her. She has a natural gift for piercing the surface of things and detecting their reality, for evaluating and comprehending symbols. If a postulant exercises and develops her natural womanly powers, she will come to understand more and more fully the meaning of objects, events, circumstances, situations, and individuals in the cloister. This is precisely, of course, what will make the surface god rend his robes in despair. His fond vision of life in the cloister is that tragic situation where minutiae become ends in themselves, customs wear steel braces against suppleness, and perfection defines itself as punctiliousness. When a religious woman falls into this trap, she is striking at the roots of her own womanhood.
The month of December in a cloister is especially the season for a nun’s exercising this womanly power and for plunging by faith beneath the surface of her own life. The bulletin board flutters with many more letters than usual these days, for the birthday of the Christ-Child arouses new confidence that prayers will be quickly heard. Each letter is a separate credo! to be reverenced and appreciated as such. The worried mother whose daughter is engaged to the wrong kind of boy; the young doctor trying to build up his practice; the lonely old lady whose tenants won’t pay and whose rheumatism is getting worse; the business man with the quarreling family; and the desperate woman whose letter is given central placing on the board: “Sisters, I am an alcoholic. I just can’t overcome it. Pray for me, you are my only hope;”—all these people are saying the same thing in various ways: I believe in God. I believe in prayer. I believe in the worth of a life dedicated to prayer. And I believe such a life has meaning and value for me.
A nun must respond to their credo with her own, believing that her vocation obliges her to gather each of these people into her heart and her life. She is not committed to love either humanity in general or the community’s benefactors in particular as a list, but as individuals. It is the perfectly normal development of her enclosed life that her heart expands to hold more and more of others’ sufferings, more and more of their needs. It is not a question of reciting lists of names to God in prayer. Quite naturally, needs fit themselves into the program of her day; and while all needs and intentions must be carried always in her heart, the normal nun will experience repeatedly how this or that need will confront her at some small turning of her work or her prayer or her recreation.
The desire to lean restfully back in her choir stall at the night Office, let her breviary droop, and chant sleepily after a hard day’s work loses all its urgency when the letter from the alcoholic again unfolds itself before her mind’s eye: “Sisters, I get drunk every night over again. I can’t control myself.” No elaborate proofs need be brought forward to attest the fact that there is a mysterious connection between the tired nun who straightens up her sagging back, blinks back her sleepiness, and chants with every energetic ounce of her love, and the poor, sodden woman for whom she prays. If a nun does not understand this, she has not got beneath the surface of her vow of virginal chastity which commits her to the spiritual maternity of souls.
All these pre-Christmas days are super-busy days. Far from shutting out the world, they bring the world’s problems closer. When Sister Gabriel’s irritation from a morning of constant interruptions of her work wants to blaze up into impatience, somehow the sorrowing father of that quarreling family intrudes himself on her gaze, and God may hear an aspiration of love instead of a sigh of annoyance. Sister Celine has her arms loaded with evergreens, and what if the needles are dropping on the floor Sister Stanislaus just swept? She is tired, and it is late, and how can she pick up the needles, anyway, with her arms loaded? Someone else will come along and pick them up. But there is that rheumatic old lady who would be happy just to be able to stoop. So Sister Celine delivers her evergreens and comes wearily back with the dustpan to retrieve the needles, knowing by faith that this is somehow availing for the old lady. All this comes just from getting under the surface of the letters on the bulletin board and thinking about what they mean and what they symbolize.
Those outside cloisters who fall under the spell of the surface god need to think. They need to think about God, about eternal values, about what passes and what endures, about what is relatively important and what is intrinsically important. If they do this, prayerfully and with good will, the surface god will lose many a client.
Those inside cloisters who unconsciously float on the surface of their own lives need to think. They need to ponder the tremendous responsibility they take on by making solemn vows and living in the strict enclosure. It is, after all, the responsibility for the whole world and every soul in it they have elected to shoulder. Rather a job for any woman! They need to search beneath the appearances and symbols and increasingly discover the meaning of their lives. They need ever more consciously to assume their responsibility and to investigate what is required of them by God and society. They need to think deeply so as to equip themselves to be constant in routine and courageous in crisis, and especially thus to fit themselves for probing the mystery of their vocation with God’s grace—which is promised not to the sleepers but to the vigilant.
The surface god would then throw up his hands in despair and sink beneath the waves.