Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Missionaries - take the Gospel to the Nations

St. Francis
It is impossible to say when anything begins. Especially in the Church. The seeds buried in the Gospel send up shoots in one age and then produce bushes in another. So you cannot say that the missionaries orders began in the 1200's, but they surely did take off.

Another branch for the ancient tree.

Of course there were aberations at the time. There were heresies. (Has there ever been a time without heresy in the Church? It makes sense, since heresy is just missing the mark.) But there were those who preached the Gospel and taught those who went astray.

In the early 1200's we find Francis and Dominic. The mendicants. They did not withdraw from the world; they went out and fought it. Hand to hand. Face to face. And the world was changed.

St. Dominic
Francis of Assisi, free as the birds he loved, mortified as Anthony in the desert, happy as the martyrs at the stake, totally committed to the love of the Incarnate God. He drew thousands - of men, of women and of every walk of life. Not everyone could be a friar and not everyone could live like Clare, but men and women, lay and not, gave everything to follow Christ where they were.

Meeting of St. Francis and St. Dominic
Dominic, hound of the Lord, teacher, preacher, corrector, prayer. His love for the Blessed Mother is legendary. And he went forth to teach those who had missed the mark.

Their ways proved infinitely flexible. Their teachers still teach, their poverty still draws, their absolute love of neighbor still teaches us how to serve. And God as continued to raise up those who followed in their footprints.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reform and Renewal

It always happens. In the life of each of us; in the life of the Church; in the life of religious orders and communities. There are the saints, the ones who take the Gospel to the max...and then it falls off. The ideal is there and lived for and given...and then people get tired.

And so God begins the process again.

In most cases with religious families, the charism given is still needed for the Church. It's just that those who are living it are...lax or less than the ideal. Sometimes there is scandal. More often, they just lose their edge. So, he gives another person the grace of the vocation, and the order or the community grows again as sanctity is caught and the light given originally flames forth.

This happened to the Benedictine order a number of times. One of the most enduring renewals was that of Citeaux, the original home of the Cistercians. The order was founded in 1098 with the desire of following the Benedictine Rule more carefully. The first three abbots: Robert of Molesme, Alberic of Citeaux and Stephen Harding began the reform, which emphasized self-sufficiency and manual labor. Bernard of Clairvaux joined this monastery early in the 1100's and brought with him thirty companions. The order grew explosively at that time.

There are Cistercian nuns also, women drawn to the austere life of the Rule. And continue to do so even today. To live wholly for God according to the Rule of Benedict in a stricter form. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

St. Brigid of Ireland

Together with St. Patrick, she watches over the Irish Church.

The daughter of a slave woman and a prince, she took the virign's veil from the hand of St. Macaille and made profession under St. Melof. She moved about a bit, eventually building a convent at Kildaire (to give it it's modern name). It became a center of the faith and of learning, for both men and women, eventually developing into a cathedral city.

Brigid loved the Lord radically. She did everything in her power to serve him and to bring others to him. In her love, she drew people to love. She brought men and women to the faith; she taught practical skiils; she schooled them in the arts. Everything Brigid did bore the character of excellence. She never settled for half-measures - or allowed less than their best from those around her. She radiated grace and goodness. Rightly, she bears the title "Mary of the Gael." Cannot modern women live as she lived and with such effect?

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Irish monasticism developed independently of the Benedictine tradition, although it seems that the two merged later in their history. The Celtic peoples sprang from a different stock and their way of living the radical Christian life was...radical.

Apparently derived from contact with the monastery of St. Martin of Tours in Gaul and the tradition of wandering holy men, proper to the Irish people, the monastic life of Ireland served for the conversion of the people and their growth in secular knowledge.

St. Ninian founded the first monastery in the isles. Tradition has it that he was trained in Rome and served in St. Martin's monastery before returning to his home in modern day Scotland. There he built the first Christian Church north of Hadrian's Wall and founded a monastery destined to influence Irish and Scotch religious life forever.

The Celtic people's spiritual heritage included pilgrimage, learning, severe asceticism and the direction of spiritual mentor. The monasteries grew up as centers of learning and holiness as monks and nuns strove to hand themselves entirely over to Christ and to serve his people.

Friday, September 16, 2011

St. Gertrude the Great

St. Gertrude is one of the better-known Benedictine abbesses in our day. Many women embraced the Benedictine life over the centuries; many became teachers and mystics, healers and saints. They sought knowledge and holiness of life - these two, for so many of them, were inseparable. Gertrude was no different.

St. Gertrude of Hackleborn governed the monastery at the time St. Gertrude arrived for her education. The child was only five years old, but began a life destined to illumine the Church. She began as a student and loved her studies so much that she later accused herself of sin in this regard. (She thought that she put more emphasis on the study of God than on God himself.) But she loved him dearly. She received visions and illuminations throughout her life and, in her turn, governed the monastery wisely and well. Her strongest devotion was to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (she pre-dated St. Margaret Mary by about 400 years.) You can read more of her and by her in many sources.

She is yet another of the lights of the Church given by St. Benedict.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pray the Lord of the harvest

Today is my day of pilgrimage. 

I read a story about John Paul II recently. It seems that when he became Archbishop of Warsaw there were very few seminarians. So, he and the Blessed Mother had a "chat." He promised that, for every seminarian she sent, he would make a pilgrimage on foot to a Marian shrine. 

She filled his seminary.

We, in our day, in the places where we are, face a similar challenge. The harvest is indeed great, and laborers seem fewer and fewer. 

Well, the Lord said, "Pray." And he always listens to his Mother.

So today is my day of pilgrimage. The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is about three-and-a-half miles from here. Far enough to be a sacrifice and close enough that I don't have to find refuge for the night. The Church needs religious and that is our "job" - praying the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. Pray with me that women will hear the call to give their lives to him - and renew the face of the Church in our day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

If you would be perfect

The point of the monasteries, and of religious life in general at this time, was personal perfection. That sounds a bit selfish by modern standards, but really, it is the primary point of life. If you would be perfect... said the Lord, and people have been caught by the challenge since the beginning.

We all admire those who give it everything: the Olympic athletes, the founders of amazing businesses, the actors and actresses who perfect their art. The monks and the nuns took the challenge of holiness and ran with it. They said, "To be the best of the best is to be wholly given to God; we'll do it." 
And they did.

Deny yourself? They did penance. Leave everything? They lived in deserts or walled houses away from everything. No personal property. No earthly loves. Give it all you've God. 

Now the fallout from really living for God is loving your neighbor. It's the fruit of a genuinely holy life - and so these monasteries became schools and refuges for the poor and hospices for the sick...

Funny, you give everything to God and become the most perfect you can - and all the world benefits. Not so selfish after all.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An empress...dedicated to God

St. Cunegundis - the name brings back memories. We have had a number of Sisters who took her name and, when I was a postulant, still discerning my religious name, we used to laugh about being "Sister Cunegunda." If only I'd known her, it might not have been a joke.

Cunegundis joined the Benedictine order several centuries after the women featured in the last few posts. She lived about a thousand years ago. Born in Luxemburg, she married Henry, Duke of Bavaria, as a young girl. Her husband, a man (as St. Francis used to say) "of noble birth but even more noble a nature" gave her permission to keep the vow of virginity which she had made before their marriage.

When Otho III died, Henry was chosen Emperor and the young couple moved to Rome.

She had a tough time there. I suppose they weren't used to women of such purity, so people accused her of all kinds of awful behavior. (She can't be that good!) God decided to work a miracle in order to prove them wrong - although I could not find the full story on why she chose to "walk over pieces of flaming irons" to prove her purity of life. It made her husband happy though.

Her husband died in 1024. As a widow, she built a monastery for Benedictine nuns and, after its dedication, took the veil and lived the remainder of her life according to the rule of St. Benedict. She pursued prayer, manual labor, humility and grace.

Cunegundis typifies a life wholly dedicated to God in every circumstance. As a girl of her times, she exercised no control over her state in life, but saw in every situation the providential hand of our Lord. For those of us who live in mixed-up times, that's a good lesson to learn. Each situation can give us a place and a way to praise God. It may not be easy or simple or pleasant, but we have full opportunity to become saints.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Saxon girl with a will of steel

A drawing of her reliquary - it was discovered in 1885,
buried in the wall of her church
St. Eanswida. They have such strange names for people of our time. It makes them sound so remote. If she were "Meghan," for instance, we could probably relate to her more easily. The name carries a whole culture in its wake.

So does hers.

St. Eanswida was born early in the 600's in what is now Kent in the United Kingdom, "the land of the Angles." Her grandfather converted to the faith at the preaching of St. Augustine of Canterbury, but her father steadfastly resisted. She patiently endured his pagan practices - and his insistence that she marry, but, as daughters will do, managed to get around him. Eventually, he allowed her to become a Benedictine nun and founded a monastery where she lived her life in prayer and work, serving God according to the way of St. Benedict. 

There are twists and turns to her story, which is written much better by others. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates her feast today. She gives a shining example of one who desired to live a religious vocation in a pagan society - and persistently hung on to that call in the face of all opposition. 

Helpful exmple, that one.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It runs in the family

St. Adeltrudis or Waltrudis or Waltrud, depending upon the country, is a remarkable woman in many ways. She is a model of women in every state of life - and one we might emulate to the great good of those around us.

She is, in keeping with our recent theme, a Benedictine.

Born into the nobility in what is now Belgium, she married Madelgaire, the Count of Hernaut. This good marriage produced four children. Like so many of us, her life appears unremarkable - there are no anecdotes related of her life, no extensive biographies detailing her inner struggles and triumphs. Nothing.

Except the legacy of a family.

St. Adelgundis carries the distinction of being the daughter of a saint, St. Bertille, and the sister of St. Aldegondes. She herself (as I have already revealed) is a saint. Her husband, a devout and responsible man, became a monk after their children were raised. The Church honors him as a saint. Adeltrudis founded a Benedictine monastery not long after he left the world and entered there as a nun. All four of their children became saints.

Wives and mothers have a powerful influence in the lives of their husbands and children. When we say "heart of the home," it expresses something intangible yet real. The woman gives life on so many levels that it defies categorization.

But mothering saints; leading the man in your life to holiness - and then, having fulfilled the responsibility given, turn your heart entirely over to God in the cloister. Truly a model for every feminine vocation.

Monday, September 5, 2011

St. Scholastica

St. Scholastica was the sister of St. Benedict and the inspiration of the monastic communities of women who follow his rule. There is very little known about her life. Tradition holds that she was his twin; Pope St. Gregory records that she dedicated her life to God at a very early age.

The story that St. Gregory tells of her inspires all of us with hope and trust in God. 

It appears that Benedict and his sister would meet yearly and speak together of godly things. On one occasion, near the end of Scholatica's life, such a meeting was drawing near to its end and Benedict rose to leave. She asked him to stay, that they could spend the entire night conversing about God. He refused, rather strongly it seems. She then folded her hands, laid her head upon them and prayed. Such a storm rose that Benedict and his companions could not stir outside the hermitage. 

He was not amused. 

She answered that she had asked him and he refused to listen, so she asked her Lord and he did. 

How was Benedict supposed to reply to that?

They finished their conversation that night. 

Ask and you shall receive...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Check out Musings...

Our second blog, Musings, dedicated to prayer helps, is up and running. It will be published weekly, with additional helps as the weeks go on.

The Benedictine Revolution

St. Benedict's Rule started like a seed. He wrote it at Monte Cassino and gave it to those who desired to live his life. After his death, like the seed that sprouted, those formed by the Rule began to move on to other places. Pope St. Gregory commissioned Benedictine monks to evangelize the Angles in England and from the local monastery of St. Andrew, forty monks, under the leadership of St. Augustine, set out to fulfill this mission. Interestingly, they wanted (very much) to turn back, terrified of the barbarians to whom they were sent, but the Pope insisted. They went on to found the monastery at Canterbury. 

The Rule spread rapidly, adapted as necessary to the time and place. It brought the Gospel to those living in darkness with gentleness and persistence. The people learned from the monks how to follow Christ in well ordered lives. 

The times then were much like ours - disordered, unfaithful, set on this world. The light of Benedict may well be an answer to the question: How do we find God? It is the way of Christ.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Stability, Hospitality, Prayer

The Rule of St. Benedict, the backbone of Christian religious life in the West for centuries, prescribed a life in which one could safely and surely live for God. Monasteries of men and women sprang up as those who sought to live in holiness flocked to this "new way." It laid down the steps one could take to come to Him.

Benedictine Sisters at  Mount St. Mary Abbey
And it worked. Those who lived the life generously are some of the great saints of the Church. Women and men evangelized the world, taught secular knowledge, and civilized the new peoples coming into Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. But their eyes were set on heaven as they did good on earth.

It is still a strong current in the Church today. The way of Benedict draws young men and women to serve Christ in a life of prayer and work, stability and silence. Even in the turmoil of the Church in our day, this ancient way puts forth new shoots for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The early times

St. Benedict
St. Pachomius, St Basil, St. Anthony of Egypt: each of these in his own way shaped the early years of religious life. They were the earliest founders of monastic communities - places where those who wished to follow the Gospel of Christ could live out their desires more securely. They looked at the teaching of Christ and wanted to live it out with heroism. And they did. Austerity, sacrifice, poverty, obedience, these men wanted to give everything and they did.

It was an extreme form of life. As in so many things, over time it needed a balancing hand. The drive to perfection, without guidance, often did not turn out as well as the beginner hoped. In seeking to be holy, there are many false roads. And so, after many years, God raised up St. Benedict of Nursia, the man now known as the founder of western monasticism. His rule guided the development of religious life for centuries and remains strong today. 

"Pray and work" was the cry that brought men a stable form of life. Those seeking to be holy could come to the monastery and learn a way to come to God through prayer, silence, hard work and appropriate penance. So wise was his way that men and women flocked to it over the centuries. It held on to past knowledge and lived a practical Christianity that saved Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. 

St. Gertrude the Great and St. Mechtild of Hackeborn

Benedict's sister, St. Scholastica, adapted his rule for women. She began the tradition that led through the great European monasteries for women. These became places of learning, healing and hospitality where women who sought to follow the way of Christ could give themselves wholly to following him.

The names are odd to us: Gertrude, Hildegard, Elfeda, Mechtild, but these taught women how to come to union with Christ. Because their eyes were fixed on heaven, they exercised enormous influence on earth.