Editor’s note: This is the eighth and final article in “Combat For Contemplative Life,” a series about the responses — inside and outside the cloister — to Pope Francis’s reforms for women religious in contemplative communities. Part one, by Mike Lewis, “A Praying Heart: How Pope Francis intends to save the cloistered life,” provides an overview of the reforms, with responses and reactions from sisters around the world. In Part 2,  “The Parting of the Ways – Reactions and Responses to Cor Orans,” Discalced Carmelite Sr. Gabriela Hicks, describes how resistance to the reforms led to the sudden departure of twelve nuns from the Philadelphia Carmel. In Part 3, “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things?” Sr. Gabriela describes the ensuing internet from radical traditionalists—including an open letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. In Part 4, “The Mice that Roar,” Sr. Gabriela responds to Archbishop Viganò with a letter of her own. In Part 5, “Welcome to the Light!” Sr. Gabriela discusses the danger of spiritual abuse in religious and contemplative communities. In Part 6, “Which Path to Follow?” Sr. Gabriela explains the unusual situation where each community of Carmelite nuns subscribes to one of two different sets of constitutions, approved in 1990 and 1991, and how each has its own approach to Teresian spirituality. Part 7, Return to the Sources, Sr. Gabriela discusses how returning to the original sources at the foundation of Carmelite life leads to an ever-deeper interiorization of obedience to the will of God.

This article is dedicated to Fr. Daniel of the Good Shepherd, O.C.D., who introduced me to The Vision of Vatican II.

This is the final article in this Where Peter Is series on the “Combat for the Contemplative Life.” In it, I hope to show why I approached Mike with the suggestion of articles on this subject. After all, why would ordinary “in the pew” Catholics, who make up the foundation of the People of God, be interested in the internal dissensions of one religious order, albeit a rather well-known one?

After dealing for several years with the tensions in my own religious family, I have come to understand some of the undercurrents causing these tensions, and I recognize the same undercurrents in the present tensions and dissensions in the Church in general, especially here in the United States. Hopefully, what I have come to understand may also be of use to others.

Since beginning 2,000 years ago, the Church has always grown in her understanding of herself and of her mission through the various controversies which arose, starting with the Council of Jerusalem in about A.D. 50. Actual situations demanded practical solutions, and, in order to find these practical solutions, the Church had to grow deeper in her understanding. These growing pains were never comfortable – growing pains never are! – but they were richly rewarding, and because of the need of them, God graced His Church with the wonderful array of saints and theologians and writers who have shared their insights with their brothers and sisters in the faith, from St. Paul down to St. John Paul II and our recent Popes, theologians and saintly men and women.

The questions raised by the Protestant Reformation brought forth an impressive response on the part of the Church. Aided by the recent development in the technology of printing, the Church’s pondering and insights were available to all her children and never ceased to be increased through the subsequent centuries. Here in the United States, the efforts of catechesis were especially impressive through the establishment of the system of Catholic parochial schools and the Baltimore catechism. There is a story that during the Second World War, when a large number of Catholic soldiers were quartered in England prior to the Normandy Invasion, Msgr. Ronald Knox commented that he had never met such well-catechized lay Catholics as those American soldiers.[1]

One area in which this impressive catechesis was most noticeable was moral theology. During the 400 years following the Council of Trent, manuals of moral theology were developed and refined in a way that made available to both clergy and laity a solid teaching that was both comprehensive and clear. As Servais Pinckaers, O.P. wrote:

“The manuals of moral theology formed a tradition that one was justified in calling ‘Catholic’ morality. Since the Council of Trent, the manuals have truly played an important role in the life of the Church. Their doctrine, which was taught in the seminaries, was written into the catechisms and poured into the Church’s preaching and pastoral practice of the sacraments. It was also embedded in the examinations of conscience that were offered to the faithful to follow…It is also necessary to add that in the heart of the Church, the work of these moralists was normally enriched by its contact with the works of spiritual authors and of the saints. Moralists in this way secured for the Christian people a first-rate moral education that was precise, clear, comprehensible to all, and that guaranteed the essentials.”[2]

Yet there is a saying “The Good is the enemy of the Best.” In our effort to transmit what we believe, we often lost sight of the fact that what we believe transcends human words. We believe in a God Who is Three and One, in a Redeemer Who is human and divine. We are called to live a life moved by nature and by grace. Our beliefs are like the strings of a violin: each belief must be tuned to a balanced tension between two apparently opposite poles. If this perfect tension is not achieved, the harmony of our life will be distorted and our witness to the faith will fall short of our identity as Catholics.

Fr. Pinckaers also explained that one of the effects of the proliferation of the manuals of moral theology was that “the treatise on grace has been removed from the domain of morals and placed in dogmatic theology,”[3] a subject rarely studied by the laity, including most women religious.

The resultant slight distortion in catechesis due to an over-emphasis on morality came to a head in the Catholic Church in two quite unexpected events: The first of these was the calling of the Second Vatican Council by St. John XXIII. The second event was less noticeable. In preparation for the Council, a number of texts called “schemas” had been prepared on various topics which were presented to the bishops for discussion and approval.

One of these schemas was titled De Fontibus Revelationis, “On the Sources of Revelation.” This schema would be discussed and revised and totally re-written throughout the years of the Council until it was approved on November 18, 1965 as The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum. This shift in perspective from De Fontibus to Dei Verbum is noticeable from the beginning. Chapter One of De Fontibus is titled “THE TWOFOLD SOURCE OF REVELATION.” Chapter One of Dei Verbum is titled “REVELATION ITSELF.” This shift from one expression of Revelation to the essence of Revelation is described in Fr. Ormand Rush’s superb book, “The Vision of Vatican II”: “At the heart of the pastoral vision of Vatican II is its teaching on the active, participatory role of faith in the divine-human encounter. Here the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, is the key document … The Council’s teaching marks a shift from that of Vatican I’s Dei Filius and the preparatory schema for Vatican II, De Fontibus Revelationis. The shift is from a predominantly propositionalist notion of divine truth and revelation to a personalist notion of divine truth and revelation. Christoph Theobald calls the shift ‘a change of paradigm.’…This paradigm shift conditions all the other principles of the vision of Vatican II … functioning as a kind of mega-principle.”[4]

How the Council’s teaching on faith constitutes a “mega-principle” is easy to grasp when we compare the definition of faith in the Baltimore Catechism with the definition given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Baltimore Catechism

107. Q. What is Faith?

A. Faith is a Divine virtue by which we firmly believe the truths which God has revealed.[5]

Catechism of the Catholic Church

150 Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.[6]

The definition found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes the definition in the Baltimore Catechism, but it places it as a result flowing from a deeper understanding of faith, from the realization of a living relationship uniting God and each baptized Christian. The Church has always taught this, of course, but in recent centuries, under the influence of the manualists and a need to reply first to the Protestants and then to the Enlightenment, the emphasis in preaching and catechesis moved from the relationship to expressions of the relationship, from who we are as children of God and members of Christ’s Mystical Body, to what we are to do as believers.[7] With this “change of paradigm,” the Church returned from a so-called “traditional” understanding of faith that predominated from the 17th through the 20th century, to a truly traditional understanding going back to biblical and patristic teaching.

This question, “What should we do?” is as old as Christianity. It was asked on the day of Pentecost[8] and even before that, in the synagogue of Capernaum: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”[9] We are familiar with this call to believe in Jesus, but it takes on an additional dimension when we discover that the primary meaning of the Greek verb translated as “believe in” is “to trust.”[10] “This is the work of God: to trust Him whom He has sent.”

This puts faith on a basis that is strange, almost foreign to those of us formed in pre-Vatican II catechesis. Writing in 1961, (before the Council), and describing his years of experience as a teacher, our Carmelite Friar, Fr. William McNamara, O.C.D. said:

To date, the biggest hole in our educational system is the failure to convey to young students a meaningful, vital awareness of Christ. This conclusion is the result of years of experience, during which Catholic high school and college students and adults in all part of the country were examined as to their impressions and knowledge of Christ and as to the part He played in their lives. The general response was not good.

Their ideas were vague, general, unreal, sentimental, impersonal, academic. To many Christ was a myth, to others merely a historical figure; to others divine all right, but quite remote and not an influence in their everyday life. But a religion without Christ is a corpse; an education that does not convey ideas of Christ that are vital, real, precise, and compelling is a farce. If people are ready to worship a hero and follow a leader, then it is a mistake to obscure the person of Christ behind a welter of abstractions. If they are going to be raised to a higher stature, it will not be by moral coercion or intellectual persuasion, not even by the high ideal of becoming perfect, a saint.

Such an ideal is too abstract; and most people need something concrete, dynamic, highly personal to shape their thinking and influence their behavior. They need the infinitely attractive personality of Christ…

It is impossible to look into the face of Christ without being drawn into the action of Christ. That is what Francois Mauriac meant when he said: “Once you get to know Christ, you cannot be cured of Him.’…

All must be taught, therefore, to believe not only in a creed but through a creed in a person. Faith must come to mean to them what it meant to St. Bonaventure: “a habit of the mind whereby we are drawn and captivated into the following of Christ.’ Religion will thus cease to be a moral code, a list of forbidding commandments, a dull, drab affair. It will take on the thrill and excitement of a love affair between God and man. It will mean, above all, a friendship with Christ.[11]

According to a popular definition of a friend, “a friend is another self.” St. Paul could say this: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” [12] Lovers know this mutual interpenetration of each other. They understand that in such a relationship all outside parameters, all frameworks disappear. The only parameters that exist are the reality of each other. As the French say, « Parce que c’est lui, parce que c’est moi » (“Because it’s him, because it’s me”).

What then of morality? Does this mean that it disappears, and anything goes? Far from it! In this realization of the union with God in Christ to which we are called, “all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”[13] It is this purity of heart, as we have seen,[14] which gives us that discernment which is the “certain understanding of the Divine will on all occasions, in every place and in all matters.”[15] It is here that we learn to walk on the water with Him.

That is, we learn it if we accept to be taught. I have said that my experience with the tensions in my own religious order has given me some insights into tensions in the larger Church. One of those insights is reflected in these words of our foundress, St. Teresa of Avila: “If His Majesty should desire to raise us to the position of one who is an intimate and shares His secrets, we ought to accept gladly.”[16] But accepting this kind of intimate walking with God means that I am no longer in control of my life. It is this loss of control which can cause many people to draw back from intimacy with God. As one of our recently beatified friars, Bl. Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus, wrote: after an initial period of devotion, “it is very much to be feared that the religious soul falls from its first fervor and returns to spiritual Mansions that are more comfortable because more ‘reasonable.’”[17]

Walking on the water, even with Jesus, is frightening. I have to let go of my familiar framework, relinquish my control, step out of my own world onto a shifting surface, and I am suddenly aware of a strange new universe that I cannot grasp. Like Peter, I am only aware of the strong wind blowing about me.[18] There is an overwhelming temptation to take refuge again in the boat of clear moral imperatives. With a faith founded on distinct commandments and orders, I know what God is asking of me. I do not need to struggle with a discernment that depends primarily on God and secondarily on my openness to Him.

This fear is understandable. We all struggle with it as Peter did. Most of us are coaxed by Him to learn to trust His unheard voice and unfelt guidance. He lures us into intimacy little by little, if only we accept.

But we can refuse to accept, and we can cling to our familiar rules and regulations and practices. However understandable this fear, it can be serious and even deadly. It was not the Sadducees or the Romans, the materialists of the 1st century, who clamored for the death of Jesus. It was the devout, religious Pharisees—those who were sure that they knew the will of God—who had it written down and committed to heart. They were determined in their devotion, but they were bound to their own understanding. They failed to observe one of the laws of love: the law of growth. “Let this, in sum, be the conclusion: that we strive always to advance. And if we don’t advance, let us walk with great fear. Without doubt the devil wants to cause some lapse, for it is not possible that after having come so far, one will fail to grow. Love is never idle, and a failure to grow would be a very bad sign.”[19] If I do not grow in love, spiraling ever outwards to the vastness of God’s love, then I will spiral inwardly, clinging with intense tenaciousness to ever more minute demands and details.[20]

But of those who trust Him and keep their eyes on Him, it will be said, as it is written of the Bride in the Song of Songs, “Who is that coming up from the wilderness,” walking upon the water of God’s will, “leaning upon her beloved?”[21]


[1] Donna Steichen, “Can Reform Come?” The Catholic World Report, Ignatius Press, May 1998 https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=551

[2] Servais Pinckaers, O.P., “Morality, The Catholic View”, St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana 2001, pp. 37 & 40

[3] Ibid. p. 33

[4] Ormand Rush, “The Vision of Vatican II – Its Fundamental Principles”, Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota, 2019, pp.39-40

[5] https://archive.org/stream/baltimorecatechi14551gut/14551.txt

[6] Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Kindle Edition.

[7] For an excellent understanding of the importance of and controversy about the shift in understanding, see https://www.hprweb.com/2014/06/the-understanding-of-revelation-in-dei-verbum-and-the-response-of-faith/

[8] Acts 2: 37

[9] Jn 6: 28-29

[10] Cf. “A Greek-English Lexicon,” Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1968, p. 1407. In Hebrew, the root of the verb translated as “believe” is אמן. Aman, which means confirm, support, and in its Hiphil form, “stand firm, trust, believe. This is, of course, the root also of our word “amen.” (“A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament”. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978, pp. 52-3)

[11] “The Art of Being Human,” by Fr. William McNamara, O.C.D., The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1962, 27-28

[12] Gal 2: 20

[13] 1 Jn 3: 3

[14] https://wherepeteris.com/return-to-the-sources/

[15] St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” Step 26, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, MA, 1978, p. 161

[16] “Life” 22, 12

[17] Bl. Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus, O.C.D., « I Want to See God, » Fides Publishers Association, Chicago, Ill., 1953, p.324

[18] Cf. Mt 14: 29

[19] St. Teresa “Int. Cast.” V, 4, 10

[20]  See for example the Postulant’s Booklet mentioned in Which Path to Follow.

[21] Song 8: 5

Image: Fire pond at Flemington Carmel. Provided by the author.

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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.

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