Thursday, March 11, 2010

Old Time Magazine article with Mother Catherine Thomas

"Granted a valid vocation and a healthy body and mind, what does the postulant find in a cloistered convent? The group she has joined gives a family's sense of solidarity and protection. Silence does not exclude communication, and a world that talks from morning to night may not appreciate the gaiety of the recreation hour after a day-long silence. Barring homesickness, the postulant is likely to be happy during her first few convent months. But, as New York-born Carmelite Mother Catherine Thomas puts it, in her autobiography, My Beloved, The Story of a Carmelite Nun, "Postulants are new brides; and like other new brides, for the most part they are blissfully ignorant of the trials that lie ahead."

The contemplative convent is far more than a quiet place to provide the opportunity for prayer. It is also a kind of operating room where prolonged and drastic surgery takes place to free the individual from those things that stand between her and the love of God.

Sacrifice of Self. There are three main areas to be operated upon, represented by the vows. The vow of poverty, designed to cut through the hampering entanglement of material things, operates on many levels; Carmelites and some other religious are forbidden to use the word "my" except for their faults (they refer to "our" cell, "our" Breviary). Poverty applies equally to any kind of attachment. Sisters are systematically frustrated by their superiors in the tendency to become identified with a particular job or hobby. Still more strictly applied, the vow of poverty applies also to impressions. Contemplatives are actually enjoined to see and hear as little as possible of what goes on around them.

The vow of chastity is the easiest to fulfill for most religious. Hardest is the vow of obedience, designed to eliminate the most formidable barrier between the human and divine: the self.

Obedience to the superior is looked upon by the monastic as obedience to the will of God—much as the soldier is trained to salute not the officer but the uniform of his country. The superior deliberately imposes humiliations to break the natural self-love most lay Christians take as a matter of course. Obedience even to a relatively relaxed rule can be a stringent whip if performed, as it should be, on the split instant. St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), the "Little Flower," once advised a novice: "When someone knocks at your door, or when you are called, you must practice mortification and refrain from doing even one additional stitch before answering. I have practiced this myself, and I assure you that it is a source of much peace."

Dark Night of the Soul. The life of contemplation has its occupational diseases. Sisters sometimes suffer shattering doubts about the genuineness of their vocation, or an onslaught of "scrupulosity"—obsession with insignificant imperfections that begin to loom like mortal sins. Most agonizing of all is spiritual dryness, analyzed by St. John of the Cross in his book, The Dark Night of the Soul. Without any apparent cause, all the warm joy and pleasure that the religious normally finds in prayer and the monastic routine suddenly disappears. As one contemporary has described it: "The entire spiritual world seems meaningless and unreal; even one's own most vivid spiritual experiences fade out like half-forgotten dreams. One becomes keenly, sometimes agonizingly aware of everything prosaic: heat, cold, stuffy rooms . . . excessive weariness, the irritation of the heavy, uncomfortable garments . . . other people's maddening 'little ways'; the 'sinking feeling' and depression that are inseparable from fasting: the appalling monotony of the rule-imposed routine . . ."

Infractions of the rule, in letter or spirit, are inevitable, and different orders have different ways of dealing with them. Carmelites have a weekly "Chapter of Faults," at which the monitress is honor-bound to report all lapses observed during the past week: "In charity I accuse Sister—of the fault of doing . . ." This is considered a valued opportunity to practice humility. Sisters may also publicly accuse themselves of their own faults (as they do at Maryknoll) and accept appropriate penances from the Mother Prioress.

Corporeal penances, such as hair shirts or scourging, are practiced today only in the strictest orders, though Carmelites sometimes make and sell both hair shirts and scourges to priests. They themselves still subdue their bodies with whips. Writes Mother Catherine Thomas: "In Carmel, when we are inflicting this penance upon ourselves, we have more than our own bodies and our own souls in mind. It is true that we accompany the flagellation with the chanting of the psalm Miserere for our own sins; but we also recite prayers at this time for the exaltation of the church, for peace and concord on earth, for our benefactors, for the souls in Purgatory, for those in the state of sin, and for those in captivity."
The convent or monastery, said St. Teresa, is a strong point in a dangerous situation. This, she told her followers 400 years ago, when the world was no less dangerous than it is today, is "the chief reason why Our Lord gathered us together in this house. "

"In time of war, when the enemy has overrun the whole country and the situation is desperate, the lord of the region withdraws into a town which he orders strongly fortified, and from it he sometimes attacks the enemy. As those in his stronghold are chosen men, they can do more by themselves than they could with whole armies . . . Even if they are not victorious, they are never vanquished.''

*The Church distinguishes between nuns, who generally take "solemn vows" and are strictly cloistered; and sisters, who take "simple vows" and are usually active in the outside world. *One of the foremost U.S. missionary societies, active in the U.S., South America, Africa and Asia. The Maryknoll Sisters are a completely separate organization. *When Martha asked her sister Mary to help her get dinner ready for Jesus and the disciples, instead of sitting adoringly at the Lord's feet. Jesus admonished the busy woman. "Martha, Martha," He said. "Thou art careful, and thou art troubled about many things: but . . . Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her" (Luke 10: 41-42)."

-- Laborare est Orare, Time Magazine, 11 April 1955

I tried to do a Google search on Mother Catherine Thomas, authoress of My Beloved: The Story of a Carmelite Nun and I found this 1955 article interviewing Mother. The article is more extensive, with information on Maryknoll Sisters. I don't read Times Magazine, but I don't believe this type of article is common for what I presume is a "popular" magazine.

Many things have changed since 1955, but I thought this would be interested for those readers who would like to read Mother's book and cannot afford a copy. I actually saw online a hard-cover copy with dust jacket for $350?! Outrageous. The original paperback cost 78 cents back in 1955. Fear not, dear readers, I have a paperback copy and look forward to putting some excerpts in the future.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I look forward to reading more excerpts from Mother Catherine Thomas.

I've derived great benefit from following your blog this Lent. Thank you for posting!