“A Matter of Mercy”, Reflection by Rev. Brian Mullady, O.P.

.
    There is a dramatization put out a few years ago by the BBC of an actual correspondence between George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Cockerell and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, the abbess of Stanbook Abbey in England. In this correspondence, George Bernard Shaw, an avowed atheist, writes that he relies on the prayers of the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. The reason is that his friend, Gene Tunney, the former heavyweight champion of the world was on a vacation with his wife at a remote island in the Mediterranean. She contracted a dreaded disease for which there was no known cure and would have died within 24 hours. Shaw remarks that Tunney dropped to his knees and returning to his childhood faith, prayed for her delivery. Unexpectedly, a doctor who was the world’s only expert in this particular disease arrived on the island the next day and cured her. Shaw, the avowed atheist, was so impressed by this that he recognized the value of the mercy of God, which was, to his mind, God’s response to prayer. For him, the cloistered Benedictine nuns were the perfect intercessors.
 .
    If an avowed atheist could be so moved in this secular age, the prayers of cloistered and monastic religious must be powerful. This is because they participate in the spousal union of the world with God in a direct way under the special title of their consecration. In the Gospel passage today, Christ explains the origin of this relationship. Asked to resolve a theological dilemma about marriage proposed by the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead Christ replies: “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage […] for they are like angels” (Lk 20:35-36).
.
    The emphasis of Christ’s answer to the Sadducees places in special relief the complete transformation of the soul in God offered to the human race in the resurrection. He does not say they will become angels for grace does not destroy nature. However, Our Lord says they will be like angels because they will experience a new relationship of their bodies to their souls. On earth, the soul comes to exist after the manner of the body. This is why, for instance, intellectual knowledge begins in and depends on the senses for its origin and authenticity. But in Heaven, the body comes to exist after the manner of the soul. Since the soul is a spirit and has its origin in a direct creation on the part of God for each person, this means that the final perfection of each man and woman can only be found in the direct knowledge of God that occurs in the Beatific Vision. In the general resurrection the body comes to life and experiences either happiness or pain according to the experience of the soul of this vision.
 .
    This knowledge is complete and the degree to which the subject experiences it is determined by how much the subject has loved God on earth. The transformation in love involves a sharing of life between God and the soul through grace. Although all men must experience it to go to Heaven, this transformation is especially the lot of the cloistered religious who are a sign of the mystical “alone with the Alone” which will characterize Heaven.
 .
    This experience demands through love that the religious adopt the same attitude towards the world as the Trinity that is witnessed in Christ and His mercy. The prayers and sacrifices of cloistered religious offered for everyone see not what is ideal but what others are and what they could be if they would accept transformation in Christ. Though no man can merit the salvation of another, by the proportion of love and because friends love what their friends love, God can use the prayers of someone to bring about the salvation of another. “For if we do God’s will in a state of grace, it is a fittingly friendly thing that God should do man’s will in return and save the other person; though sometimes of course that other person impedes his own reconciliation.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 114, 6)
 .
   Pope Francis has proclaimed a Year of Mercy. This is a most important virtue for him. The Holy Father says: “We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.” (Misericordiae Vultus, 2)
 .
    Antiochus Epiphanes died because too late though he did not show mercy, he wanted and needed the mercy of God. Gene Tunney prayed and his prayer was used by God to affect the cure of his wife. The power of mercy shown by contemplative religious is needed for both because of the friendship with God which spousal, virginal love inspires. As the Church celebrates Pro Orantibus Day, a day of spiritual and material solidarity with cloistered and monastic religious, let us always remember that “prayers rely on mercy” (Aquinas, ST, I-II, 114, 6).
 .
 .
Rev. Brian Mullady, O.P., is the theological consultant for the Institute on Religious Life. Father has a doctorate in moral theology from the Angelicum in Rome and currently teaches at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, CT, and as adjunct professor for the Vita Consecrata Institute at the Graduate School of Christendom College. Father Mullady also conducts retreats and parish missions, as well as working on Catholic radio and television. His latest book is Christian Social Order (New Hope Publications).

Reflection on the Contemplative Life

“A Matter of Abandonment to Divine Providence”

FR. BRIAN MULLADY, O.P.

In a reflection on the contemplative life, Fr. Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P., has beautifully written: “A monastery of cloistered nuns is like a lighthouse set on a hill. It reminds the whole diocese of the presence of God in its midst and reminds us that our true destiny is to be with Him forever in Heaven. What the tabernacle is to the parish church, the monastery is to the diocese. Christ is there: waiting, calling, helping, healing and forgiving.”1 Today many people would like to have a fast-food spirituality in which they find some method or technique so that they can exercise a certain control over God. This is perhaps the result of our noisy, overactive, materialistic culture. The silence needed to treasure all things in our hearts about Christ as the Blessed Virgin Mary did is certainly not a much sought after value. The cloistered life and the life of Mary stand in direct opposition to this. Instead of the closed fist of carpe diem (seize the day), Our Lady and cloistered religious say: “Let it be done to me according to Your word” with hands open to receiving all from God. This attitude of going with the movements of our life charted by God as He sees them has traditionally been called “abandonment to Divine Providence.” The Jesuit Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) is the master at explaining what this means. He explained to the people of his time that the secret to developing a life of the spirit was what he called embracing the “sacrament of the present moment.” “God still speaks as He spoke to our Fathers, when there were neither spiritual directors nor set methods. Then they saw that each moment brings with it a duty to be faithfully fulfilled. That was enough for spiritual perfection. On that duty their whole attention was fixed at each successive moment like the hand of a clock that marks the hours.”2 The cloistered life is the perfect fulfillment of this practice. Some people have read these words of Father de Caussade and taken them in an almost quietistic sense that no action on their part is needed, that they are merely putty in the hands of God and they contribute nothing. This is contrary to the Catholic doctrine of cooperating grace. Any true spirituality is based on the fact that our faithfulness to God’s plan is both active and passive. Active fidelity requires carrying out the duties of our state to the best of our ability and is the metal from which virtue is forged. When Mary conceived Christ, her first act was one of practical charity, visiting her cousin who was elderly and with child and perhaps even acting as midwife to John the Baptist. At the wedding feast of Cana, she is actively involved in saving a young married couple from embarrassment. The pressure cooker of daily cloistered life, lived in such close quarters, demanding work, recreation and just normal household tasks is where the active virtues are put to the test. The cloistered religious who is faithful to these simple expressions of generosity with others fulfills both the words of Christ and goes with the flow of Divine Providence. Passive fidelity to Divine Providence also entails accepting God’s will, especially when we suffer things God sends us from a grace-filled and loving generosity. Though the enclosure or monastic grounds is certainly meant to keep out distractions and not to keep those embracing it within, the very humdrum nature of the almost invariable schedule and the lack of outside influence can be a great cross. But if one remains focused on Christ, even standing at the foot of the Cross like Mary, one can discover the plan of God. There are times in every life when one cannot quite make sense of what the plan of God might be. Suffering, either physical or mental, may be very acute. There may be people in the enclosed community who have very special temperaments and cause no end of difficulties for one or another member of the community. These are the times when all the love of active fidelity in the present moment is realized also in passive fidelity. Then one must truly allow God to work in the soul. This is an expression of the traditional Catholic theology of operating grace, a result of grace where God alone moves the person. The person merely allows God to move him. For such a person, “Everything is equally useful and useless.”3 The cloistered, contemplative life is a powerful sign and support to the rest of the Church of the embracing of the “sacrament of the present moment.” On Pro Orantibus Day, the Church encourages all the faithful to show both spiritual and financial support for this life. It is the life of Mary; it is the life of obedient love to which we are all called according to the duty of our state in life.
Notes: 1. “A Day to Support the Cloistered Life,” The Compass (Diocese of Green Bay), November 11, 2009. 2. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, I. I, 1. 3. Abandonment, I, 1, 6.
Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., a nationally-known Dominican priest, retreat master and spiritual director, is the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life.

Reflection on the Contemplative Life

“A Matter of Love”

FR. BRIAN MULLADY, O.P.

There is a scene in the film, A Man for All Seasons about the life and martyrdom of Thomas More in which his daughter Margaret comes to the prison to convince him to avoid death by taking the oath of the Act of Succession making the king the head of the Church in England. Her argument is that, “God more regards the thoughts of the heart than the words of the mouth, so take the oath with your lips but do not mean it in your heart.” Thomas More answers by saying, “What else is an oath but words we say to God […] When a man takes an oath he is holding his very self in his hands like water and if he opens his fingers then he may never hope to find himself again.” Religious profession of vows, like oaths, entails words we say to God. They are words that represent a complete response to the Divine call to love Him because He first loved us. We did not choose Him, He chose us. Let us look at two examples of the Divine call. In the Book of Revelation, after a very harsh rebuke spoken to infant churches in Asia Minor concerning their temptation to compromise with prosperous paganism because their Christianity has made them poor, the Lord invites them to intimacy with Him with the very tender words:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne, as I myself first won the victory and sit with my Father on his throne. (Rev. 20-21)
Christ asks us to respond to this love by opening our wills to receive Him. Grace is always freely given by God, but God also wants us to freely accept it. The invitation to Divine intimacy is also given by Christ to Zacchaeus despite his being a tax collector. Zacchaeus shows his preparation for receiving grace from Christ by climbing the tree since he is short. He also shows his good dispositions towards Christ because he wills to go beyond the letter of the law in reconciling himself in justice with others. The Lord responds with an action of Divine intimacy and love.
Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke: 19:9)
God’s love always requires a continuous preparation of freedom on the part of the human being who receives it and Scripture points to those who emphatically show this preparation. The Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the one who makes the greatest response to the greatest invitation of grace in the history of the world is brought to the Temple by her parents at the age of three. They promised God if they could conceive that they would dedicate their child to the Lord, but they waited to this age before presenting her lest she miss her family. An early Christian source describes the scene vividly:
And the child was three years old […] and they went up to the Temple of the Lord, and the priest received her and kissed her and blessed her saying, ‘The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations. In thee, on the last of days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.’ And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her. And her parents went down marveling, and praising the Lord God because the child had not turned back. And Mary was in the Temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there […] (Protoevangelium of James)
The Presentation of Mary in the Temple, designated as a special day in honor of the cloistered life, is a most fitting feast to show our thanksgiving, solidarity and support for this vocation because all these important themes are united together in her presentation. She goes apart into the enclosure as it were to prepare herself in spousal love to be the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the Redeemer. She spends her time in contemplation nurturing the life of grace with which God will invite her to the singular response of being his mother. She prepares herself for a life long encounter with her Son and begins the long process of keeping everything and pondering them in her heart. The contemplative life is a formal way of life recognized by the Church to invite men and women, but especially women to find in the suffering of the cloister a place where they can experience the loving exchange of hearts with Christ. The enclosure therefore, even in its physical form, is a special way of being with the Lord, of sharing in ‘Christ’s emptying of himself by means of a radical poverty, expressed in … renunciation not only of things but also of ‘space’, of contacts, of so many benefits of creation’, at one with the fruitful silence of the Word on the Cross. It is clear then that ‘withdrawal from the world in order to dedicate oneself in solitude to a more intense life of prayer is nothing other than a special way of living and expressing the Paschal Mystery of Christ’. It is a true encounter with the Risen Lord, a journey in ceaseless ascent to the Father’s house. (Verbi Sponsa, 5) The whole purpose of the cloister is not to flee from something evil but to concentrate one’s intention on the love of God. Often people who do not live the contemplative life think it is a good place to put social misfits. How many times does one hear people say, “The woman cannot get along with anyone, she belongs in a cloister.” Such comments completely misunderstand the purpose of the enclosure. It is not to keep people from contact with the world because they cannot get along with anyone. This is what a prison is for. It is rather a sign that the next world and the encounter of the soul with God in which each person surrenders the gift of themselves responding to God’s gift of Himself to us are the reason we exist to begin with. Cloisters should be founded and peopled by souls who are already perfect in the active virtues of loving others. They, like Mary, are so in love with God that they hasten, as she did in the Visitation to implement the conception of Christ in an evangelical act of practical charity—to be love in and for the Church. In the wonderment of her splendid intuition, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus declares: ‘I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was ablaze with love. I understood that Love alone enabled the Church’s members to act . . . Yes, I found my place in the Church . . . at the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love’. (Verbi Sponsa, 7) Cloistered religious are the heart of the Church because they truly show us the complete surrender and concentration of love. They are enclosed not because they have lost something, but because they have found Him. Each member of the Church should look to the contemplatives to see an example of this spousal love for Christ after the example of Our Lady. Like her, we should open the door for Christ knocking there, invite Him to our house and rightly spend each day rejoicing in His presence. In A Man for all Seasons, Margaret, frustrated, responds to More’s answer about oaths by saying, “But in reason, haven’t you already done all that God can reasonably expect of you.” More answers with Mary and all religious, but especially with the contemplatives, “Well, finally, it isn’t a matter of reason. Finally it is a matter of love.”
Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P. Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., a nationally-known Dominican priest, retreat master and spiritual director, is the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life.

Reflection on the Contemplative Life

“A Matter of Hope”

FR. BRIAN MULLADY, O.P.

Among St. Thomas Aquinas’ questions in the Summa Theologiae on the happy life is one in which he asks: “Is the fellowship of friends required for a happy life?” Saint Thomas has already identified the ultimate happiness and fulfillment of man with the vision of God in heaven. As is customary with the Angelic Doctor, he rarely answers a question yes or no. The context of the question allows him to treat the issue in its entirety. Regarding the fellowship of friends, Saint Thomas explains that: “The happy man in this life needs friends, not for their external usefulness, since his happiness is from within, nor for pleasure, since his perfect pleasure comes from the activity of virtue, but as contributing to that activity itself. He does good to them, he delights in seeing them do good, and in turn they help him and do good to him.” In other words, though the hope of the happy man is ultimately in Heaven, in this world his friends help him to realize that hope. They concur with him in that hope and aid him in attaining it by encouraging him both to avoid vice and to embrace virtue. Hope is the theme of the most recent encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi. The Holy Father laments the fact that, following the Enlightenment, many people began to develop a boundless hope not in the vision of God, which would demand surrender in faith to God’s reason, but in what he calls faith in progress. According to this mistaken philosophy, science and human reason will produce utopia, a sort of Heaven on earth, if they are just freed from the shackles of things like faith in God. He quotes Immanuel Kant as a prime representative of this school of thought who wrote that: “The gradual transition of ecclesiastical faith to the exclusive sovereignty of pure religious faith is the coming of the Kingdom of God.” The pure faith of which Kant spoke is the confidence in the ability of human reason to resolve every difficulty so there would no longer be any need for a Savior. Man’s hope would then be in something of his own creation and his nature would be fulfilled by just discovering the best social structure to implement this new vision. Though his hope would be in a human future, it would not be a future beyond this world, but a future of man’s own creation. Since free and autonomous human reason would be the way to arrive at this hope, this hope would also be a solitary hope realized by the brave new individual, without any spiritual connection to any other. Placing one’s hope in autonomous human reason deals the deathblow, according to contemporary thought, to the fact that human reason cannot answer all questions. Cloistered and monastic life stands at the very antithesis of this modern attitude. From the standpoint of human reason and pure freedom, it is a scandal. If man’s reason is sufficient and salvation for the human race can only be achieved through progress in science or politics, then those who choose to cut themselves off from both must be inhuman. The materialism of the present culture makes it impossible for people to conceive of a reason beyond this world or a spiritual awakening which includes a personal union with a transcendent being and the implementation of that union with the whole human race through a spiritual connection. For modern man, the cloister grille or monastery wall truly represents a prison to keep people in and a flight from reality. Instead, authentic human reason has always pointed to its own limitation. For example, many scholars (including Saint Thomas) believed that Aristotle knew the soul was immortal from reason alone. The Fifth Lateran Council defined that one could know the soul was immortal from reason alone. Unlike Plato, who also discovered the immortality of the soul, Aristotle also knew that the human soul and body were in a substantial union with each other. Yet, it is evident to the senses that the body dies while the soul lives forever. This is an unnatural condition. Aristotle also has a principle that an unnatural condition cannot exist perpetually. Yet, there is no power in the human body or spirit to allow the body to live forever. There is no solution to this conundrum by reason alone. Only when Christ rises from the dead is the solution this problem posed by reason solved. The physical cloister is a sign of the resurrected life, the final completion of man, the only source of our hope. The supernatural life of Heaven, the blessed life is the only true final happiness for man. This includes both the soul and the body. God’s divinity will permeate all in this blessed life. Though human beings can have a modicum of happiness here on earth and must be concerned for things which happen here, the final hope of man can be in nothing but Heaven. The cloister or monastery stands in testimony to this fact. Not only is it a place where those already perfected in the life of virtues and gifts can give themselves wholly and utterly to God, but the very enclosure itself is a sign of that spiritual eternity which underlies, supports and moves the world of time. Far from entailing a rugged individualism which denies interest in the neighbor, the cloistered religious experiences precisely through his or her union with the “alone with the Alone” a union with the whole human race based on the union with God they cultivate. This is true in the vagaries of the personalities of the physical community with which the religious must live, but it is also true of all those people, in this world and the next, for whom Christ bled. This union demands a spiritual friendship and interest with all. For as Pope Benedict XVI states in Spe Salvi: “It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this. In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish…'(no. 15).” Contemplatives, then, are the hope of the world in the sense that one sees in their lives what the final perfection of the human race should be. This is true because of their moral union with Christ. It is also true of their moral union with each other. It is also true of their physical separation in the cloister which emphasizes the next world and the resurrection of the body as the source of our hope. They are truly spiritual friends to the whole human race and though they rarely leave the enclosure, they do the greatest good to others, they delight in seeing others do good, and in turn others help them and do good to them, all through union with the Trinity.
Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., a nationally-known Dominican priest, retreat master and spiritual director, is the theological consultant to the Institute on Religious Life.