Tag Archives: Faith

The Word: A Meditation on the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel

Prologue

Ignatius Press reissued Adrienne Von Speyr’s The Word: A Meditation on the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel earlier this year (it is available in paperback or Kindle).  It was first published in English in the 1950s.  The entirety of Adrienne’s commentary on the Gospel of John was later published by Ignatius as a four volume set in the 1990s. If you own Volume I of this series, The Word Becomes Flesh, this meditation on the Prologue is already included there. The set is in print.

The Word is a good introduction to Adrienne’s commentary on scripture, in terms of both style and substance. And if you had to pick just one work to read, it would be entire four volume commentary on the Gospel of John.  Its been a while since I read it, but the John commentary seemed to capture all the main points of her theology that is repeated elsewhere in her various books.

She apparently used her standard approach to meditations with The Word. She would read and briefly meditate on lines of scripture during the afternoon at her residence, and then dictate to Hans Urs Von Balthasar. He said he made limited edits to what she gave him. One line of scripture would yield several pages of commentary on average. They would do this for half an hour a day for many years. She and Von Balthasar did tend to organize these commentaries in very long paragraphs, usually only two per page. I found I needed to focus more than I normally did when reading her works.

I will include an extended quote from the first chapter that I liked, which is all derived from meditating on John 1:1:

“In this sense the revelation of the Word of God always makes too great a demand upon the creature. At first the Word that God addresses to us looks harmless, like a human word. But instantly the fire within it begins to stir, insatiably embracing everything, demanding everything, consuming everything. At first the Word of God appears to be a word one can answer; it seems as though the balance between speech and reply could be maintained, But as one begins to understand that the Divine Word is eternally in the beginning, it becomes more and more clear that man’s starting point never reaches the point of beginning and falls farther and farther behind. Skill and art of a human kind can always be learned, even though the purpose of the first lessons may not be clear. But gradually we acquire confidence, survey the subject as a whole, and with practice learn to master it. In learning the language and the art of God, in contrast, our view of the whole progressively diminishes. All our supports are wrested from us, and what remains are an ever-deeper insight into our failure and an increasing longing. We lapse farther and farther into the beginning.

All human accomplishments develop in an orderly manner according to some method or following some plan. Anyone wishing to learn a foreign language adopts a definite method. We imagine we can approach the Word of God in the same way and grow perfect in relation to him. But as often our plan in relation to God seems to us to be bordering on the maximum, it turns out to be the minimum from God’s point of view, a method that has not even grasped the first word of God’s language. Our own program will call for the performance of maximum of devotions but a minimum of real devotion. We confuse devotions and devotion, offering God the former in order to withhold the latter. Our whole performance before God is a pharisaical program, the center of which is our own perfection, with the result that it is blind to the Word spoken to us, the ever-new and ever-unexpected Word. The whole of man’s progress consists in perpetual destruction of the human center thus making way for the ever-new beginning in which is heard the Word. For the Word alone leads to God and to the beginning. Man can be led to the beginning only if he himself is in the beginning. The only way to love is to overcome one’s own point of view.

Man lives in three stages: beginning, center and fire. But since man has no center in himself and may not have one, he is led by the Word into the fire, so that he may come to the beginning, which is God. Beginning and fire are one.”

(emphasis added)

A common point in Adrienne’s writing is that God is always the “ever greater.” This would seem self-evident to a Christian, but it leads her and Von Balthasar to express discomfort with the description of our life as a spiritual ascent, or with the notion of measurable progress. They tend to see our life as more like a descent or kenosis. There are no proofed systems of spiritual development.

The commentary on the “fire” and loss of one’s “own point of view” also points to Adrienne’s meditation on the particular judgment and Purgatory in this and different books, which I will include to demonstrate the consistency and unity of her writing:

“Stepping into the realm of his manifest reality, a man steps into his ultimate destiny and is so drawn into the eschatological fire … Fire is an essential trait of the triune God, who cannot endure anything impure and must devour it.”

“Our average view of sin on earth is anthropocentric, I am accustomed to fashioning and arranging my actions according to my own views. Now this has to stop. Self knowledge becomes unreliable, since all assessment has passed to God.”

“In the face of God’s radiant evidence, man says Yes, but this is not the yes of insight; it is the surrender of my sight to the way God sees things.” “Purgatory has, as it were, a great stratagem … the ‘I’ is so disintegrated that the ‘Thou’ gradually acquires contours; what comes into being is a ‘a hope’ (which resides totally in the Lord) which is the end of my knowing better and the beginning of my surrender. I have to be extracted from being with myself so that my ‘I’ can be ‘situated’ in God.”

From the Theo-Drama, Volume 5: The Last Act, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Von Balthasar quotes from Objektive Mystik, by Adrienne Von Speyr (yet to be published in English)

We will live in God’s truth, and not our own narrow viewpoint. We will have no need to ask any more questions as Truth is self-evident. We see with new eyes. The part about keeping God at a distance with a program of “devotions”, as opposed to true Devotion deriving from obedience to the Word …. I find reflective of my own experience.

As you read her works its like seeing a great structure slowly coming into view on the horizon. There is unity, harmony, connection. I do not recall contradictions. This doesn’t happen by accident across so many books if you are making it up as you go along.

I would recommend this for anyone interested in Adrienne looking for a representative work that is not too long.

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Marie-Antoinette De Geuser: Her Life and Letters (English language pdf)

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At age 12 or 13

I have to return Consummata to the library soon, and I will not have time to write the posts I want to about her for a little while yet. So I had the book scanned and am making it available here as a downloadable pdf. It works in iBooks and Kindle.

The English translation from 1931 is out of print and I can’t find news of anyone planning to reissue it. I am no expert on copyright law, but the book contains no U.S. copyright markings that I can recognize. MA has been dead over 100 years, and my understanding is that for created written works it’s typically life of the author plus 70 years.   It’s also a translation of a foreign work, which makes things even murkier. But if someone does have a copyright claim, leave a comment explaining your rights and I will take it down.

Why am I doing this? Marie-Antoinette was a mystic. De Lubac said in his book Paradoxes: “Potential mystics, or mystics in a primitive state, are scattered in the world. These, above all, are the ones who must be reached.” Saints and mystics are the Old Testament prophets for the times of the Church. Because they listen to and obey the Lord they prompt reforms, elucidate elements of the Truth that have not yet come into focus, and provide new models of holiness. Consummata is particularly relevant in these times when the Laity need to pursue even greater holiness and draw closer to the Lord.

Marie-Antoinette de Geuser pdf

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Marie-Antoinette De Geuser: Consummata

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This post and any that follow about this subject is for anyone who might be interested in Consummata, and are looking for more information than is available in Wikipedia. Perhaps you came across references to her in one of Von Balthasar or Adrienne’s books, like I did. Its hard to find much about her in English.

Marie-Antoinette De Geuser (1889-1918) was a French Catholic woman who wanted to become a Discalced Carmelite but could not due to family obligations and health problems. Yet, so moved by her were the nuns at a Carmel that she was apparently allowed to become first a Postulant, and then a Novice, though she lived out her vocation in her family home. She left a number of letters or diary entries that were collected and published in several volumes in France in the 1920s and 1930s. The only volume ever translated into English was a 1931 edition translated by George Baker: Consummata: Marie-Antoinette De Geuser, her Life and Letters, by Raoul Plus, SJ.

The book is in two parts. The first is a partial biography, more spiritual in focus than on the events of her life. The second part is a selection of diary entries and letters to relatives and other correspondents. The book is out of print but I was able to obtain it through an inter-library loan, and thus this blog post or posts is possible.  Religious and scholars at the time were very impressed with what she shared, and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was among those who read and studied her letters.

Marie-Antoinette had two religious names. “Marie of the Trinity” was the religious name she chose as a Carmelite, and what she often signed her letters with. “Consummata” was a nickname she chose for herself.  This is Latin and can be translated as “complete”, “lacking nothing” or “perfect.”  This was not a commentary on her own perception of her value. She was fond of describing herself as “God’s little nobody” in her letters. Rather it was probably a reference to how she perceived the effect or result of God’s grace on her.

Consummata was born to a respected, devout and financially secure family in Le Havre, in the Normandy region of France. She was the eldest of twelve children. She had three uncles in religious vocation, and one, a Jesuit, was her spiritual director later in life and the recipient of many of the letters collected and published. She had another cousin who was a Carmelite nun. At least two of her brothers became priests or religious. World War I was very hard on the family, and two brothers died and one was crippled.

She seemed to be troubled with poor health her entire life. But I could not find a specific reference to what her trouble was in the book. There is a mention of attack of rheumatism of the joints as a child. She had a bad case of appendicitis as a teenager. It seems she spent the last 3-4 years of her life confined to home in great fatigue and often in bed.  Her health problems caused her to be denied entrance to the Carmel at Le Havre in 1909.  There is no mention of any course of treatment. Perhaps they could not diagnose it. Was it an autoimmune disorder?

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Near the end

She had another opportunity a few years later to enter Carmel, at Pontoise, but her mother became very sick (and remained sort of an invalid at least through the time of Consummata’s death in 1918). She felt that she needed to stay home to care for her siblings and help manage the house. She perceived her vocation would be to suffer in a quiet and anonymous way in a domestic setting for the salvation of souls and increase in vocations.

She was very intelligent and learned Latin. She corresponded frequently with her relatives who had vocations, and with nuns at different convents. She seemed particularly interested in the writings and spirituality of Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity.

I will include an episode from the 1909 visit to the Le Havre Carmel that shows how they passed in the night, like two ships:

Within two or three days of that time I went to the Carmel here that I might know definitely what their decision was. Chatting, the Prioress told me among other things that she had just received photographs of a young sister who had died in the odour of sanctity at Dijon a couple of years previously. She offered me one of these. Though I took it, I scarcely glanced at it: only one thing interested me then – was I, or was I not accepted?

The photo was of Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity. Presumably Marie-Antoinette later realized who this photo was of. She started using the religious name of Marie of the Trinity in her correspondence in 1911.

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Last photo of Elizabeth of the Trinity

A common point of discussion in her letters was the unity of the Trinity, and of the soul joining with that unity, and being transformed into it. She described the difference between her and Elizabeth’s focus of contemplation of the Holy Trinity as follows:

The difference between the way of Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity and my own is, as I perceive from her book, roughly this: for, as she herself says, the fascination of that greatest of mysteries lies in converse with “her Three Persons.” For me, it is their Unity that has the great appeal. Her master is S. Paul, while I am a pupil of S. John.

I think it is generally accepted that St. Paul’s letters were of great influence on St. Elizabeth, and I do perceive, in my own layperson’s way, a Johannine feel to Marie-Antoinette’s writings.

I think the way she lived her vocation may have a particular message to or appeal for Catholics in Third Orders, particularly Secular Carmelites or Lay Carmelites. She lived in the world, in a demanding domestic setting.

I will try to do a few more posts with excerpts from her letter and diary entries, and try to expand on some of the themes she discussed.

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Carmelites on Film

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If you are interested in the Carmelite charism there are two short films currently available for free viewing for subscribers to Amazon Prime.

The first is a documentary about the Carmelites of the Divine Heart of Jesus, and follows a short period in the lives of several of them at a convent in the Midwestern U.S.  It was made in 2001 by director Diane Frank, and is titled “Convent.”

The documentary focuses on a postulant and a novice as they decide whether the life is for them, and features segments of multiple interviews with about a half a dozen of the nuns. The two main subjects are very natural, open and likable. You never hear Ms. Frank ask any questions, as she is unobtrusive and lets the Carmelites speak for themselves.

These Carmelites are affiliated with the Discalced Carmelites, but have a slightly different charism/observance. They are not purely contemplative, and while cloistered, run some schools, elder care facilities and other centers in the U.S. and Europe.

It is a very fair and transparent portrait of their life in my opinion. I think it would be particularly valuable viewing for any young woman considering a vocation to religious life, whether it be with a Carmelite community or another cloistered order.

“Convent” Trailer

“Convent” at Amazon Prime

The other film is a theatrical adaptation of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “A Story of a Soul,” and goes by that name. It is performed by a single actress playing multiple roles and apparently was filmed in a room at the Lisieux Carmel where St. Therese lived and died.  The actress addresses the audience directly and acts out various scenes from St. Therese’s life, or things recorded in her own words or conversations others took down. It is in French with English subtitles, and directed by Michel Pascal. Strangely, Amazon lists the rating as “R”, but there is nothing R rated about it. An unfortunate typo I guess.

I am not a student of the theatre, and I have to admit my mind wandered at times. But I liked the performance and the actress bears a passing resemblance to the saint. I think it captured the spirit of Carmelite life and was a good representation of St. Therese’s writings.

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Story of a Soul at Amazon Prime

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Jeannette: A Review

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Jeannette (2018) is a musical from the French director and screenwriter Bruno Dumont. I previously posted about the release of the film, and the prose poem it is based on.  It had a short run in theaters, and is now available on Amazon Prime for free. It is an adaptation of Charles Peguy’s  prose poem The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc and a much earlier play Peguy wrote about Joan before his conversion. It is in French with English subtitles.

I am not familiar with Dumont’s work, but I gather he is well-known for creating experimental or avant-garde cinema. His films apparently provoke strong reaction, both negative and positive, but he seems to be generally acknowledged for having technical skill and ingenuity.

He continues his approach in this film. He relies on relatively unknown or untrained actors, including several children, to deliver Peguy’s poetry. The most significant choice was to adapt Peguy’s work into a musical format. The characters sing many of the lines, and engage in free-form dance. The singing is accompanied by contemporary music, often electronica or metal.

Mr. Dumont appears to take the material seriously, not ironically, and Peguy’s poetry is spoken  with conviction.  This is not Mr. Dumont’s first film about religious themes, as he has previously adapted the life of a medieval Christian mystic into the film Hadewijch.

The film is organized into two acts. In the first, we are introduced to a very young Jeannette, about age 10. She is experiencing a spiritual crisis as a result of the 100 Years War, offers her life and suffering to God in atonement for the souls of the damned, and receives a mystical vision.  In the second act, we see Jeanette at about age 16. She has delayed carrying out her mission out of uncertainty, and fear of leaving her family, and must make a decision about obeying the will of God in her life.

The shots of the French countryside and the characters are very pleasing to the eye. But I have to admit, reluctantly, that I was sometimes bored and relatively unmoved by the singing and dancing. It just did not work for me. Mysticism and contemplation, as best I have read and experienced, is usually an event of quiet, calm and stillness. I found the combination of Peguy’s poetry with song and dance too distracting. This may simply reflect my personal limitations in processing too many different forms of stimulation. By way of contrast, Roger Ebert gave the film high marks.  I might have more enjoyed a Terrence Malick style adaptation of the material, with voiceover narration by Joan, long shots of nature, etc.

Mr. Dumont and his studio were happy enough with Jeannette that a sequel has been approved, and begun filming.  It will focus on her period as a soldier and perhaps include her martyrdom. It looks like he will use the child actress from the first act to play Joan again. I will be interested to learn what he bases it on. Peguy did write a sequel play/poem to The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, but it was unpublished at the time of his death, and has never been translated into English.

If you have Amazon Prime, and are a believer, it’s probably worth watching the opening few minutes to see if the film captures your imagination. Peguy’s work is important theologically, as he was a big influence on Von Balthasar, Adrienne von Speyr and other Catholics I write about at this blog. Pope Francis apparently reads him as well.

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Adrienne Von Speyr: Servant of God

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This post is primarily for other lay people who read the religious writings of the Catholic Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967). Adrienne was a Swiss citizen, a medical doctor by profession, and an adult convert to the Roman Catholic Church. I have read just about everything she wrote that is available in English.

I recently learned that the Church had opened an investigation into Adrienne’s cause for canonization in March of this year.  Specifically, it was opened at the local level in Switzerland, on account of a life of heroic virtue.

There was almost nothing in the media about this, which is why I stumbled across it only by noticing the update to her Wikipedia page. And there was no commentary from religious scholars or theologians in the English-speaking world that I could find.

The title “Servant of God” is applied to someone at the earliest stage of the canonization process. My understanding is that the matter now goes to Rome for a review by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.  If the Church makes a finding of “nihil obstat“, which is Latin for meaning that there is nothing objectionable about the candidate, the process will proceed through formal review by the whole Church.   If the Church finds that the candidate is worthy of recognition for their virtue and worthy of further review, they will be declared “Venerable.”  After that they need to have at least two miracles attributed to their intercession for the cause to advance:the first results in a declaration of “Blessed,” and the second, “Saint.”

The silence is probably quite deliberate. Because I am a layperson with no position in the Church or academia, I am free to write about this (which may be foolish).  Adrienne wrote and had published a large volume of scriptural commentaries and spiritual reflections. Perhaps more than any other non-academic Catholic layperson in the 20th century (I don’t include self-help or advice books in this, no slight intended).  So the Church will have quite a lot to review and consider before providing a Nihil Obstat.  Much of her work remains unpublished, and much remains unavailable in English. I think the delay in publication is because those who could publish have been waiting for this process to commence.

It is no coincidence that an initial review was also opened in March into the Cause of Canonization of her spiritual director and friend, Catholic theologian and Cardinal-Elect Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Von Balthasar personally edited and arranged for the publishing of many of her books, and said on multiple occasions that he drew heavily on her in developing his theological insights, and that his work should not be separated from hers.

There have been some events that, in retrospect, may have pointed to the opening of her cause. There were several conferences about Adrienne’s life and work in the last few years, and Ignatius Press published second editions of a number of her better known works.

This blog would not exist without Adrienne, as I like to think she personally interceded for me three years ago so I could go back to confession after a long hiatus. I have attended mass and receive the sacraments quite regularly since then, and am active in parish ministry.  My poor efforts to take advantage of the gift I have given may not reflect well on my belief of her help, but I usually ask her to help me make a good confession when I go. I am still going regularly, even though I continue to fail quite frequently.

There are certain things in her and Von Balthasar’s writings that some scholars and theologians find to be seriously objectionable, so this may be a very long review process. I will write more about that in a future post.  If she is canonized, I think it will be very consequential for the Church.

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The Temptation to Despair

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The shadows beckon,

Pledging no expectation

And oblivion.

 

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The Furrow

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He drags the wood along the ground,

Carving a furrow in the soil,

A valley. Dark at the bottom.

We must follow the path

He has made for us.

 

If you do not follow the path,

You will not see the furrow.

Unless a grain falls in, nothing will grow.

We lose bit by bit if we follow ….

If we choose to follow.

The earth is wet with his blood and water.

Ready for us, waiting to give birth.

 

We do not climb a mountain in life.

We descend into a valley,

Which is really nothing,

(Not the chasm he leapt into)

To join the dust.

Give away every crumb

to this hungry earth.

For the bread is a gift.

We did not make it.

Take it in,

and let it go.

 

The furrow climbs up at the end, to him.

He will reach down and raise us up,

Grasping our empty hands.

 

 

 

 

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Seeds of Renewal: The Fairfield Carmelites

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From the Fairfield Carmelite website

In follow up to last week’s post, this post highlights the other new Carmelite community in the Diocese of Harrisburg.

In 2007, a group of Discalced Carmelites moved into a vacated monastery in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. Its formal name is the Carmel Of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Due to a significant increase in vocations, the Carmel requested permission to branch out, which was granted by Bishop Gainer. Land was purchased in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, which is located in Adams County near Gettysburg.

The community is constructing a new monastery using traditional methods that relies on heavy stones and wood timbers.  It is intended to be self-sustaining community  that will last many years.

They broke ground earlier this summer, and Bishop Gainer presided over a special mass and ceremony of enclosure in July.  Nine nuns are on site now, living in trailers. It has been a very hot and rainy summer in these parts, so I am sure it has not been very comfortable.  The Hermits referenced in my prior post are located nearby and offer Mass for the nuns and hear their confessions, I believe.

Like the Hermits in the prior post, this community embraces the traditional rule and charism of the Carmelites. The nuns are enclosed, wear the habit, pray and fast regularly, and perform manual labor. They do not run any profit-making business, and are dependent on donations.

They have a very nice website here, and there are opportunities to donate time, money or skilled or (unskilled) labor.

Here is a link to another website where you can donate your time or supplies to help the nuns or the hermits.

 

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First walls going up. From the Fairfield Carmelite website.

 

 

 

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Cluny Media: Recovering the Catholic Tradition

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If you have read or follow this blog, you have noted that I tend to post a lot about Catholic poets, novelists or theologians, many of whose work has been out of print of late. And I have complained about this more than once.

Well, thankfully, I learned in the last year of a publisher that is bringing many of these titles back into the light.

Cluny Media is a publishing house that, in their words, is “dedicated to promoting the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition and enhancing Catholic education by publishing quality editions of scholarly and popular works of theology, philosophy, literature, history, and science.”

They have reissued many (formerly?) well-known works from the 19th and through mid-20th century in the areas of fiction, poetry, philosophy, and theology.  I have saved myself a fair amount of money already by buying their very affordable and solidly printed editions, as opposed to paying $100 for a used and battered copy.

You will find names such as Bernanos, Bloy, Mauriac, Benson, Maritain, Peguy, etc. among their catalog. I am looking forward to reading several Sigrid Undset novels that are long out of print in America, but apparently will be reissued soon.

You will also find other, respected non-Catholic authors like P.G. Wodehouse or George MacDonald in their catalog.  Apparently the adoption of “print on demand” technology now allows small publishing houses to make long out of print books available for a reasonable price. They are adding new titles at a fairly rapid rate and I am not aware of any similar effort right now in the publishing community.

Their books are available at Amazon too, but it probably helps them if you order directly from their website. I will try to remember to do that too.

http://www.clunymedia.com

 

 

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