Back in January, I published an article on Where Peter Is about St. Maravillas of Jesus, a Spanish Discalced Carmelite Nun and Foundress who died in 1974 and who has had a noticeable impact on a number of Carmelite monasteries but who is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. As a result of this article, one of our Carmelite Friars, Fr. Kelvin Ekhoegbe, O.C.D. from the Oxford Priory in Oxford, England, asked me to give a conference on St. Maravillas as part of their conference series The Daughters of Teresa. With the permission of my Prioress and the encouragement of one of our Carmelite Friars, I accepted, and the Zoom conference took place Sunday, June 19th, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.
As I said, St. Maravillas is virtually unknown in the United States and Great Britain, though she is deeply venerated in Spain. In the Carmelite Order, she is best known for her zeal in maintaining the exact way of life established by St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century. There was an article about her earlier this year by Mary Cuff in Crisis Magazine website entitled “The Beauty of Austerity.” In it, Ms. Cuff presents St. Maravillas as a model for those contemplative religious who stand up “to the modernizers” in the Church, and who are “facing the same restrictive requirements that have now been repackaged under Archbishop Carballo’s 2018 Cor Orans document, and which are currently being forced upon female monastics against their will.” Ms. Cuff writes that “Maravillas believed that attending to Teresian austerity was the key ingredient not only to the success of a monastery but to the salvation of each nun’s soul and the sanctification of both her beloved Spain and the Church.”
Austerity and penitential practices have been associated with the monasteries founded by St. Maravillas, yet Maravillas did not see austerity in quite the way Ms. Cuff describes. Austerity, penance, and mortification are certainly a necessary part of the spiritual life and therefore of Carmelite life, for St. Teresa of Avila wrote encouraging her nuns, “Be determined, Sisters, that you came to die for Christ, not to live comfortably for Christ.”[i] Dying for Christ is not so much a matter of physical death or even of physical hardship, though these may well be necessary. For Teresa, dying for Christ means sharing in His humility, being “obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”[ii] St. Maravillas shared this understanding of her Carmelite vocation: “When people in the world think of Carmel, they look more at the material side. It is an austere life, of course, but very bearable. On the other hand, what he does ask of us is total dedication, the practice of the virtues of surrender, submission, obedience, imitating the life of the Divine Child in Nazareth, work, etc., virtues that are always necessary, but even more so in these times”.[iii]
St. Maravillas fought during the 1950s and 1960s to preserve the way of life handed down from St. Teresa. As I wrote, Ms. Cuff presents her as a model for those who are struggling in the present time to preserve a way of life and of prayer that they hold dear. Dr. Peter Kwasniewski presents her in the same light in his article “Guarding the Teresian Reform”: “So many today talk about ‘freedom,’ but how few are willing to live lives free of ideology or to let others live freely according to their charism, conscience, and calling! At the very least, Christian charity together with respect for one’s own heritage demands that all those who wish to live according to an order’s original rule should be allowed to live it unmolested. Against the objections of those who accused her of defiance against ecclesiastical authority, disobedience to reforms mandated by the Holy See, and inflexible adherence to Carmelite tradition, Mother Maravillas was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and canonized by the same pope on his apostolic visit to Spain in 2003…Madre Maravillas is a model for her own religious family and for all who adhere to the traditional beliefs and practices of Catholicism. Ours is the resistance of love, the defiance of devotion, the tenacity of tradition.”
During the Question-and-Answer session at the end of my talk, one of the questions was, “You said that Maravillas resisted any changes after Vatican II. What do you think she would do about the changes with Cor orans?”
That is an important question. As has been discussed on this website before, Cor Orans is the 2018 Vatican instruction conveying reforms for contemplative communities of women religious (cloistered nuns). In my series on “Combat for Contemplative Life,” I discuss the mixed reception of the document in the Carmelite order. Of course, it is impossible to say what someone would do in a situation in which they never found themselves. Only God knows what graces He would give them and how they would respond to those graces. However, it is possible in this situation to give a reasonable answer to this question based on both St. Maravillas’s own writing, as well as the opinion of Fr. José María Iraburu, the biographer of the saint quoted in Ms. Cuff’s article.[iv]
Before we consider those quotes, however, we need to ask if the two situations, the period before during and after the Second Vatican Council, and the present situation concerning Cor orans and contemplative nuns, are similar. As I said in answer to the question after my talk, with Vatican II, the religious institutes were told to update or re-write their constitutions, returning to the spirit and the charism of the order and the Gospel. But that’s about the only directive that they were given. Both in the 50s and the 60s there were a lot of ideas floating around and once the floodgates were open there was a lot of pressure in every direction and very little guidance on how to do the update.
So what Mother Maravillas was dealing with was pressure on the horizontal level: pressure from other religious, pressure from theologians, pressure from various people. She was given barely any directives from Rome, so the question of obedience didn’t really arise. Mother Maravillas had virtually a free hand to establish what she wanted. She worked very closely with the Carmelite Friars and she certainly went about it in the right way.
The present situation is quite different. Although there’s still a lot of horizontal pressure from all sides, Vultum Dei Quaerere is an apostolic constitution, which is a legally-binding document. Cor orans is the official Instruction of Vultum Dei Quaerere and is therefore a clear directive from legitimate superiors. The question of obedience is definitely present. Mother Maravillas, on the other hand, did not have clear instructions from above—a very different situation. In Mother Maravillas’s struggles, there was no evidence of her ever failing in obedience. For example, in his 2003 biography, Fr. Iraburu, referring to her concerns in 1953 about joining a Federation, writes: “The really faithful subjects who are truly interested in the good of the Order, help the superiors to make the most convenient decision, and ultimately obey what they decide. This is what Mother Maravillas does.”[v] This is confirmed by the passage quoted above: “what he does ask of us is total dedication, the practice of the virtues of surrender, submission, obedience.”
One of the main concerns in any matter of obedience is to keep the chain of command clear in one’s mind. St. Maravillas, as a Carmelite nun, obeyed the Supreme Pontiff as her highest superior. Beyond this summit of authority, she was not bound by any vow of obedience, though she followed closely the advice of the Carmelite Friars and her spiritual director. Her nuns obeyed her as their Prioress. This line of obedience has not changed in the past 50 years. Whoever legitimately sits on Peter’s throne has the right to our obedience of faith, not because of his own merits but because of the promise of Jesus to Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[vi]
Why am I writing all this, which may seem to concern only some 30,000 contemplative nuns among the 1.3 billion Catholics around the world? I am writing this because the microcosm of contemplative nuns mirrors the macrocosm of the whole Church. This struggle about living the obedience of faith in the present situation of Cor orans mirrors the larger struggle of living the obedience of faith in the context of the everyday life of all Catholics.
In recent months, there have appeared various declarations that attempt to cancel the promise of Jesus to Peter. These statements insinuate that He is no longer in control of His Church and that the line of authority that He established through Peter and his Successors cannot be trusted. There are the sedevacantist believers who hold that there has been no valid pope for a number of years, the number of years varying with the individual group’s belief. There are those who hold that Pope Francis is not the valid pope because they think Pope Benedict’s resignation is invalid. Others hold that Pope Francis teaches heresy and should therefore no longer be pope.
Yet these are all personal opinions. They are interesting on the historical and sociological level, but none of the people professing them have any authority to receive our obedience of faith. All that they can accomplish is to seek to trouble our trust in God. This has been going on since the first temptation in Eden: God didn’t really make you in His image. He doesn’t really love you. He can’t be trusted.
The Greek word that is usually translated in the Bible as “faith” actually has the primary meaning of “trust in others.”[vii] Trust and belief go together to make up faith, belief in the intellect and trust in the will. It is possible to have belief in the intellect, but not trust in the will. We find this in in chapter 42 of the Book of Jeremiah, where all the remnant of the people who were left in Jerusalem after the deportation to Babylon came to Jeremiah and begged him to ask God what they should do. They promised, “’May the LORD be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the LORD your God sends us through you. Whether it is good or bad, we will obey the voice of the LORD our God to whom we are sending you, in order that it may go well with us when we obey the voice of the LORD our God.”’ Jeremiah prays to the Lord, who sends him this word: ‘“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your plea before him: If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up.’”
Jeremiah warns the people what will happen to them if they do not obey the Lord. Nonetheless, “Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the other insolent men said to Jeremiah, ‘You are telling a lie. The LORD our God did not send you to say, ‘Do not go to Egypt to settle there’; but Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us, to hand us over to the Chaldeans, in order that they may kill us or take us into exile in Babylon.” So Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces and all the people did not obey the voice of the LORD, to stay in the land of Judah. But Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces took all the remnant of Judah who had returned to settle in the land of Judah … And they came into the land of Egypt, for they did not obey the voice of the LORD.”[viii]
They had belief in Jeremiah as a prophet of the Lord, but they doubted when he did not tell them what they wanted to hear. They had belief but not the trust that God has control of His messenger. We see a similar lack of trust in the God’s messenger when Gabriel announced the birth of a son to Zechariah, who asked, “How will I know that this is so?’”[ix] Mary, on the other hand, with faultless trust, recognized the one who spoke in God’s name, and she simply asked what actions she should take to cooperate with God’s will. “’How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’.”[x]
St. Maravillas expressed it in this way: “one can only abandon oneself in His most loving arms, happy and content, and let Him do what He wills and blow where He wills”.[xi]
The challenge of whether or not to obey God is important, but the much deeper challenge is whether or not to trust Him. Like Mary of Nazareth and Mary Maravillas, we choose to trust Him and the Church He established and we rejoice to obey.
[i] “Way of Perfection, “ 10, 5
[ii] Phil. 2, 8
[iii] Letter 6794, 1961, quoted in José María Iraburu, :Maravillas de Jesus – Carmelita descalza santa » . 21 (translation p. 41)
[iv] Ms. Cuff quotes Fr. Iraburu as St. Maravillas’s biographer but does not give any references so I do not know what writing of his she has consulted.
[v] Iraburu, p. 32 (trans. p. 62)
[vi] Matt. 16, 18-19
[vii] “Greek-English Lexicon”, Oxford Press, 1964, p.1408
[viii] Jer. 42, 5 to 43, 7
[ix] Lk 1, 18
[x] Lk., 1, 34-38
[xi] Iraburu, p. 31, Letter 3747, 1955 (trans. p. 59)
Image: By aitormmfoto
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.