30 January 2011

Archive Treasures Continue!

The last sister professed by Archbishop Leonard Neale before his death was Sister Mary of Jesus Mattingly, who was born in 1784 in St. Mary's county, Maryland. She was somewhat worldly in her youth, but after attending a retreat when she was 22 or 23, she concluded that earthly pursuits were empty, and began working toward the sanctification of her soul by various exercises of devotion. She could do this only as far as her health would permit, however, because she had been of "a weak constitution" since childhood. After several years of perseverance practicing the devout life, she wanted to enter a religious order, but her relatives were opposed. Her father objected particularly, as there was another young daughter at home. She loved her father very much, and over time her prayers and constant entreaties prevailed and he consented at last, but he wept about it. She was sympathetic, but at the same time she also worried that he might revoke his consent, so she came eagerly to our monastery to ask admittance. This was readily granted, for the Sisters knew her merits, and several of them had known her even before they had entered religious life.

She edified everyone during her time in the novitiate by demonstrating submission to her director and the other superiors by her exact observance of the rule. She made her vows on May 8, 1817, becoming the last religious personally professed by Archbishop Leonard Neale, who died just over a month later.

She was known for her amiability, and although she restrained her natural vivacity in an appropriate manner, it was part of her character. She loved the sisters so much that she frequently said that she could perceive no fault in them. Although she was quite intelligent and could have handled any office of the house except that of Assistant Superior, her delicate health kept her in her status of associate sister. (Note: Associate Sisters were not obliged to recite the Divine Office sung in Latin in the choir, which occupied at least two hours in a sister's day. That prayer was replaced with more simple devotions such as the Rosary which could be prayed anywhere.)

She developed tuberculosis (then known as "consumption," and the same ailment that took Sister Mary Charity McAtee and many other sisters.) She was so ill that she never enjoyed a day's health. She took to her bed, an although she was failing, when the last sacraments were administered she received them with "lively devotion." She was indifferent to her own state and confident in God throughout her last moments. She retained her faculties until the last, making "acts and ejaculations" to God and calling on Our Lady and her other patron saints to assist her. When someone asked if she were resigned to die, she answered, "I desire nothing more, since such is the will of God." A few minutes later, "she yielded her happy soul to the hands of Him who created it. It was the evening of the 17th of April, 1818." She was 33 years old.

26 January 2011

Media Mania

Just when some of us may feel as though there is an information overload and privation of privacy in the digital age in which we are living, an encouraging word from His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI comes our way. On Monday, as we celebrated the Solemnity of St. Francis de Sales and participated in the events of the March for Life, some of us were delighted to stumble upon this message for the 45th World Communications Day.

Many of us are only too familiar with the ways in which the boundless possibilities of the information age have served as a conduit for less-than-virtuous pursuits. From cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking to pornography and libel: we are well-acquainted with the "moving violations" along the information superhighway.

It is not without caution that Pope Benedict encourages the use of media for networking but it is a caution which we would do well to heed: one can never replace the tenderness of human contact, face to face encounters and live conversations with a computer screen and gradually slip into a state of isolation. That being said, we are encouraged to use the ever-evolving media to spread the Gospel message in new ways and to spread the hope of Christianity beyond our own -- often limited -- spheres of influence.

It is no accident that this message, prepared to be delivered on 5 June 2011 was issued on the day when we honor St. Francis de Sales. It is amusing to consider just what media tools St. Francis de Sales would use, were he alive today. We might be able listen to his homilies through podcast or perhaps we might subscribe to his blog. He would probably entertain spiritual questions and give advice over email. He might even carry a blackberry or iPhone when he travels so as to keep in touch with the many people who sought his advice. Perhaps he would have his own cafe press site with t-shirts and bumper stickers that say, "Be who you are and be that well" ... and mugs that read "There is nothing so strong as true gentleness and nothing so gentle as true strength." It is hard to imagine how exactly how this sharp mind and tender spirit would navigate today's digital age but one can safely bet that he would be making good use of the tools available to him, as suggested to us by Pope Benedict.

22 January 2011

Archival Addition

Our next installment from the monastery archives takes us to the early part of the 19th century:

Sister Sophia Simplicia King was born in 1803 in Georgetown. Just as was noted in the lives of some of the other sisters, she was inclined to piety even from an early age. She was known for great "charity and liberality" that manifested itself in giving alms to the poor even when she was young; she seems to have come from a well-to-do family that made possible such generosity.

At age 15 she came to our academy and immediately impressed everyone, especially her teachers, with her amiable disposition. Until 1910 children were not allowed to make their first communion until they were a good bit older than they are now, usually their younger teens. She was prepared with "much fervour" for her first communion. She was an excellent student, and when she wasn't doing her schoolwork she was engaged in spiritual reading, "holy conversations," or prayer.

She soon expressed interest in becoming a religious, but her parents objected strenuously. She was the youngest child, they doted on her, and they knew she had many talents. However, she continued with her entreaties until they finally relented, and she entered our monastery in late July 1818. She received the habit on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine.

Her most distinguishing characteristics were docility and exactness, although the latter quality could vex her to the point of scrupulosity. She only troubled herself, however, not others. She became ill during the subsequent year, causing her profession of vows to be delayed. By September 1819 she was worse, and the sisters knew she might not recover. Her parents asked that she be allowed to return to them, and she agreed to this. She continued to decline; the last sacraments were administered, and she died just a few days later on October 7, 1819. She was at her parents' home, but at our request and theirs as well, she was buried here. She was 17 years old.

18 January 2011

The Mistake of the Pharisees

Today's Gospel recounts an exchange between the Pharisees and Our Lord which has a lot more to do with the heart of the men involved than with the heads of grain they were picking. A closer -- and more compassionate -- look at the Pharisees may help us to mine a spiritual lesson from the account. It is easy to dismiss the Pharisees we encounter in the Gospel as being obsessed with the details of Jewish law.

Consider, for a moment, the track record of the chosen people. A cursory check of the Old Testament reveals a pattern of broken promises. Each generation had its own struggle being faithful to the covenant with Yahweh. In the second century BC a group of men known to us as the Maccabees rebelled against what had a become a "watered down" expression of the Jewish religion. Part of their zeal manifested itself in a return to a faithful observance of the customs of their religion. They felt keenly the many infidelities of their ancestors (and their contemporaries) and they sought to reclaim the practices of their faith. If one were to consider the Pharisees to be the spiritual descendants of these courageous men we meet in the Old Testament, their fixation with a painstaking observance of the letter of the law becomes more understandable. Understandable: yes. Appropriate: no.

How often can we slip into the mindset of the Pharisees? Perhaps we do so inadvertently because we are of a temperament which has a proclivity for being rule-oriented or perhaps we do so because we are seeking to avoid a more appropriate -- but sometimes difficult or inconvenient -- response in a given situation. Most of us understand that it is disrespectful to talk in Church. By our body language and posture, we may communicate that we are preparing ourselves while we wait for Mass to begin. A neighbor whose company we find tiresome approaches us and makes light conversation. On the one hand, we may know that it is disrespectful to talk in Church; on the other hand, however, if we really examine our hearts, the respect that we may strive to show to the presence of Christ reserved in the Blessed Sacrament is the same respect that we owe to his little one who has approached us for a word of comfort or welcome. It may be "right" to refrain from talking in Church but, in this case, it is "wrong" to ignore the child of God who is at our side.

The Pharisees were so focused on the letter of the law that they overlooked the spirit in which it was written. Let us not make the same mistake. Rather than seeing this as an invitation not to follow civil or religious laws, we can see this as an invitation to follow the Lord and to understand spirit behind the law. A loving response toward that irksome neighbor who approaches us in Church would fulfill the law ... to overflowing; it would fulfill the law with a response worthy of the One who poured Himself out for us. A cold response -- as we seek a perfect posture of solemnity in Church -- would find us a seat among the Pharisees: perfect in observance but lacking in love. Let it never be that our following of the law allows us to stray from the path of following the Lord.

"The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls."
Canon 1752

14 January 2011

More from the Treasure Trove!

As we dig through our archives, we uncover many interesting tidbits about our early sisters. Here, thanks to our trusty assistant in the archives, we share a biographical sketch from an 1817 letter written by Archbishop Leonard Neale, to the Superior of Annecy, the first Visitation community, founded in 1610.

When she was ten years old, around the year 1813, Sister Charlotte Isidore McNantz arrived at the Monastery as a boarding student. She was amiable, and understood fully God's grace in placing her here. In addition to her general love of God she was singularly devoted to Mary. She was a precise child who heeded all the rules of the house, but she also had a sweet temper combined with two particular virtues that stood out above others: prudence, and discretion in her conversation. The sisters loved to hear her speak, and they respected her for demonstrating wisdom far beyond her years. She had a tendency towards unspecified physical mortification that she might have pursued to the point of great pain but she was also submissive to her director, who restrained her. Instead, she practices interior mortification so constantly that she could almost not be prevailed upon to interrupt it.

She petitioned to be admitted to the community, but her request was initially denied as they considered her "fruitfully ripe for heaven," perhaps a euphemism for spiritual growth combined with physical frailty. Ultimately she did prevail, however, for a final note mentions that she received the white veil on March 25, 1817, with the name of Sister Isidora, and she was permitted to make her vows on March 29.

Within days she suffered an undefined "pulmonary complaint" but rather than being frightened, she rejoiced that she would soon be united with Mary. She asked for and received the last sacraments during Holy Week with fervor and spiritual joy. She prayed to die on Good Friday, hoping to expire in the same hour that Christ died on Mount Calvary. Her strength rallied, however, so she then prayed that she would pass on the day of the Resurrection. This prayer was granted, and she died on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1817 at approximately 14 years of age. Her confessor asserted that she "preserved her baptismal innocence," meaning she never committed a mortal sin.

Sister is remembered for a postmortem miracle, for death did not disfigure her. Instead, it left her even more beautiful. She seemed in repose, with lovely, vermilion lips, and a body that retained its flexibility. This appearance was so remarkable that the next day her attendants called in two non-Catholic physicians who testified to her condition and asserted that medical principles could not explain it.

Sister appeared to Archbishop Leonard Neale while he was on his deathbed, to guide him to eternity.

10 January 2011

Return to the Ordinary

With the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, we conclude the Christmas season and return to the green hues of ordinary time. If we listen carefully to the Gospel, however, we can be sure that there is nothing ordinary about the days between the Christmas season and Lent.

Today's familiar account of Jesus calling the fisherman is a call to all of us. Jesus may not appear in person at our workplace -- as he showed up on the shores of the sea of Galilee -- but he may come to us in other ways and ask us to leave behind something and, with him, to seek other shores. Perhaps we have a bad habit that we have been meaning to break or maybe we have slipped into a pattern of behaving which is comfortable but unhealthy. From time to time we may come to realize that our response to that cranky neighbor or our avoidance of that annoying aunt is not exactly how we are called to follow Christ. Like the disciples who were called to leave their nets -- their familiar livelihood -- we are called to leave behind those things in our life which keep us from following Christ closely.

When we, like the disciples, are "mending our nets" and we find that we are suddenly beckoned by the voice of a friend, a family member, our conscience, a sentence in the Gospel, a passage in our spiritual reading, etc., let us stop and listen. Perhaps we are being called to leave behind something that has, over time, become an easy pattern of behavior. Listening to and participating in office gossip might have seemed a bit uncomfortable at first, but when left unexamined for long enough, it can become surprisingly comfortable. Standing on the shores of this "comfort zone" we may hear the Lord inviting us to leave behind the nets that can trap us in ways we might never expect. During these "ordinary days" let us listen extraordinarily carefully to the voice of the Lord, inviting us to follow Him ever more closely, each day.

"After you have made this self-examination, confer with some holy director as to your shortcomings and their remedies . . . and above all, place yourself in the Presence of God, and earnestly ask His Grace to confirm you and keep you steadfast in His Holy Love and Service."
St. Francis de Sales

06 January 2011

More Treasures from the Archives

Our good friend -- and proprietor of "Down the Streetza Pizza" -- has provided us with another peek into the monastery archives for the second posting in our historical series.

Sister Ann Stanislaus Fenwick was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland, in 1756. More studious and prayerful than other children, she was an early reader who recited her prayers from memory. Around age 18 she began to teach poor children, instructing them in reading, writing, arithmetic, sewing, and catechism. Although she was typically meek, she had such a strong devotion to and respect for priests that "no one would have dared speak against a priest in her presence."

Sister was what we now call plus-sized (in their words "uncommon large"), and this distressed her to the point of abjection. She sometimes endured comments from strangers, and when she rode to Church on Sundays the cart had to be pulled by oxen because her weight strained the standard carriage. This made it difficult to enter religious life as early as she wished, because she required special assistance.

She finally appealed to her spiritual director, Archbishop Leonard Neale, founder of our Monastery. Although it was years before she was allowed to enter, she had made herself useful by assisting Neale in every office. "Nothing," the sister-biographer wrote, "could disturb her or put her out of her temper: her motto was the will of God." She finally entered this monastery sometime around 1800 at age 43 or 44.

Her biographer was a young nun who had grown up at the school and remembered her as a motherly figure to all the students, especially those who became sisters. The nuns believed there was something supernatural about her, and they often asked her to pray for them, during which prayers she would be "as immovable as a statue." Once on retreat "she was favoured with the sight of the state of her soul," which the sisters later interpreted as insight into the time and manner of her death.

Sometime during or after 1814 she developed what was then known as dropsy, a condition causing retention of fluid. She could not lie down or move without assistance and she suffered greatly, though reportedly without complaint. The sisters believed intimate union with God gave her the ability to predict her 1816 death the day before it occurred. Although they tried to care continuously for her, she was accurate that she would die alone, for she slipped away when a sister left just for a few minutes to receive Holy Communion. She was 60 years old.

02 January 2011

Return of the Christmas Ass

No, this isn't a joke. It's true. The nearest live donkey is, most likely, at the "kids farm" at the National Zoo up on Connecticut Avenue -- just three short miles away. The nearest "spiritual donkey" is, however, right here on 35th Street. We honor a Christmas custom in our monastery -- of which no sister seems to know the origin -- whereby we draw billets on Christmas Eve before supper. Each little card has on it a person or an item which (in the mind's eye of the author) would have been present at the birth of Our Lord. Some of the cards include The Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Angels, the Shepherd, the straw in the manger, the owner of the stable, the lamp in the stable, the manger itself, the ox and ... that famous card number 19, the ass. Each card has a spiritual message and a virtue to be cultivated. For those who may have missed this post a few years ago, we reprint here the spiritual message for the sister lucky enough to be the "Christmas Ass" this year.

No. 19
The Ass.
(Is., 1,8)
At the court of the king JESUS you will have the office of the Ass, which a GOD permitted to be near His crib.

Offer yourself very humbly to this divine King, to be engaged in the most abject services, since you are incapable of sublime and elevated employments. Resign yourself to suffer and to be despised in imitation of Our Lord; say to Him with the prophet King that you are as a beast of burden before Him; as Him to give you the understanding of Christian truths with humility of mind and heart.
Practice: Love to be unknown and reputed as nothing.
Aspiration: My Saviour, give me the treasure of Thy humility.