Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in “Combat For Contemplative Life,” a series about the responses — inside and outside the cloister — to Pope Francis’s reforms of the contemplative life for women in various 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.
I posted the Open Letter to Archbishop Vigano on our website on October 4, and on the same day LifeSiteNews posted an article about the chaplain at the Fairfield Carmel, Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean. The article presented an interview with Fr. Dean which had been made over a month before. As I read the article and watched the interview, I was shocked to read Fr. Dean’s report of the meeting we Carmelite Nuns had with our former Father General and members of the Definitory (the governing body) in St. Louis in April 2017. In the interview, Fr. Dean claimed that the Father General said “that the times have changed and that they, contemplative, cloistered nuns, need to adapt to the times… that they can’t live the way they were living before.”
This was totally incorrect. Immediately, some of us who were present went online to say so. Although Fr. Dean said, “I heard some reports from what took place at the meeting, he didn’t say where he got his information. Since both Mother Stella-Marie, the Prioress of Fairfield Carmel, and Mother Therese, the Sub-Prioress, were present at the meeting[i], as well as Mother Agnes, the Sub-Prioress of Valparaiso, they could have told him directly what was said. The full address of Father General is available online (you can read it here). In his address he did not say anything about needing to “adapt to the times,” but that we need to respond to “the challenges that the times we live in present to contemplative life.” Furthermore, he affirmed and upheld “the truth of our vocation, the truth of Carmel, of its message, of its extraordinary pertinence for modern times.” Moreover, all the conferences and question-and-answer periods were recorded on video, so it is easy to establish the truth.
Since Fr. Dean’s statements concerning the Carmelites were so far from reality, I had questions about the veracity of his other statements. Fr. Dean was previously a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, and he was obviously negatively affected by the Apostolic Visitation of that Institute. He seemed to imply that any apostolic visitation led directly to the suppression of an institute. He mentioned the Hanceville Poor Clares, and I looked into the matter and found that they were doing well and had recently elected a new Abbess.
For the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, I looked into reports of the Visitation, and even such conservative websites as Catholic Culture and Catholic World Report agreed that the apostolic visitation was justified. There was also a long and detailed report in La Stampa. These gave a very different view of an apostolic visitation from what one gets in watching Fr. Dean’s interview. In the end, far from being suppressed, the Hanceville Poor Clares and the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate seem to have come through their apostolic visitations diminished in numbers but invigorated and strengthened in spirit.
The Apostolic Visitation of a different institute may correspond better to Fr. Dean’s fears. The Contemplative Sisters of St. John, whose motherhouse is in St. Jodard in the Loire region of France, were submitted to an apostolic visitation in 2014 which resulted in a total renewal of government and the suppression of an associated institute. La Vie gives a detailed account, of the situation (you can read an English translation of the report here). CNN also did an extensive report in 2019. Marie-Laure Janssens, a member of this community for 11 years, published a memoir in 2017, Le silence de la Vierge (The silence of the Virgin), about her experiences in the community. In her book, Janssens gives a name to what was done to her: “spiritual abuse.”
We have unfortunately become aware of physical and sexual abuse in religious houses. Spiritual abuse is far less known, but it can be just as devastating because it is a form of psychological abuse that uses the victim’s own conscience to ensnare her. Dom Dysmas de Lassus, the Prior General of the Carthusians, has written a masterly study of spiritual abuse in religious institutes, which he describes as “communities with sectarian deviations.”[ii] Marie-Laure Janssens describes it as “an intrusion into the life of the person, but with a spiritual lever.”[iii] Another victim describes it as, “Wanting to get directly into my conscious or subconscious mind.” And a witness adds a sentence that says how it is lived: “it was the annihilation of my person which was aimed.” Comparisons to rape are regularly used: “Violated in my intimacy,” or violation of the “chastity of the heart.”[iv] A more scientific definition is also given: “spiritual and psychological mistreatment of a person, which results in weakening or even destroying him or her and making him or her psychologically and spiritually dependent.”[v]
In a religious institute, spiritual abuse usually uses that most revered of the three vows of religion, the vow of obedience, and it uses it in a way that totally distorts it, and at the same time distorts and destroys the person.
Originally, there was only one vow of religion, the vow of obedience, because it was understood to encompass the whole life of the religious. God is Love, and His will is perfect, infinite love. To do God’s will is to join the Son in doing infinite, perfect love and that is the goal of the spiritual life. In his book Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development, Fr. Benedict Groeschel describes someone who he believed had attained that goal. Fr. Isidore Kennedy, a Capuchin Friar, had nearly died of tuberculosis as a young friar, and “he had accepted the certainty of death at the age of eighteen and that, when he had not died, he had decided to live the rest of his life as a gift from God in conformity to the divine will as it was shown to him…His minister provincial, Father Enda, revealed to me the odd fact that ‘he had always been perfectly obedient, but that he had also always done his own thing’, which was praying and caring for the poor.”[vi] This is the perfect freedom to which the vow of obedience tends, the freedom that comes from being moved predominantly by the Holy Spirit.
Since the vow of obedience is the way to reach the highest perfection, a distortion of that vow is a terrible attack on the person. How does one distort the vow of obedience so that it becomes a tool of spiritual abuse? How can a superior obtain control of a religious to the point where that control becomes “an intrusion into the life of the person”?
According to Xavier Léger, who is quoted in Dom Dymas’s book, to change and manipulate a person’s identity, “it is enough to control four parameters: the behavior of the follower, his ability to think, his emotions, the information he receives.”[vii]
The quoted text that follows suggests a real-life example of how these four parameters can be manipulated. It is an excerpt from an actual letter sent by a nun to an archbishop regarding what she witnessed in a contemplative community:
“The young, home-schooled nuns are indeed very sweet and innocent, but they are inexperienced. Their formation is not quite as authentic as they are led to believe. For instance, each is made to kneel and ask ‘permission to breathe’, four times a day (for Novices) and once a month (fully professed). And it is no joking matter.
The young nuns dare not move without an express permission, even if contrary to charity. [Name redacted] and I experienced this for ourselves many times. We were left unaided or maybe not provided with necessary books, etc. (or even when in an urgent situation) and no one would even budge to help.
The nuns are taught that they ought never to make even a slight suggestion or give an opinion. A slip in conversation would immediately send a sister prostrate begging forgiveness, ‘I made a suggestion.’
For 5 ½ – 6 years, each nun in formation is forbidden to speak to anyone other than the Mistress of Novices – (recreation excepted, only with repeated permissions). Any note or hand sign must be reported. I asked M. Agnes if the intention was to teach silence. She answered, ‘Not really. It’s to teach them not to complain.’
Mail, both incoming and outgoing is opened, and read in detail (and censored too) by the Prioress. M. Agnes told me it was so that the Superior comes to know anything that the nun is not telling her.[viii]
This letter was written to Archbishop Charles Chaput, the then-Archbishop of Philadelphia, in June of 2018 by one of the nuns who lived in the Philadelphia Carmel prior to the arrival of the Valparaiso and Elysburg nuns, and who remained there after the new sisters arrived in 2017. The M. Agnes mentioned is Mother Agnes, the Sub-Prioress of the Valparaiso Carmel. The letter mentions “a few things regarding the new nuns who came to the Carmel of Philadelphia.”[ix] The passage quoted above, if true, describes very clearly types of behavior that often correspond with spiritual abuse. The letter is on file at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was shared with the Council of the St. Joseph’s Association, along with other documents, as part of the preparation for the canonical visitation of the Philadelphia Carmel which the Archbishop ordered to take place as soon as he heard that the Valparaiso/Elysburg nuns planned to leave.
When the nuns did leave on April 9, the president of the Association and two of her councilors, including myself, went immediately to Philadelphia. During a conversation with another nun of the original Philadelphia community, we asked about the details contained in the June 2018 letter. The other nun confirmed all of them and even added additional details.
So is this description true? Does it really portray the way of life of the Valparaiso and Elysburg nuns when they were in Philadelphia? Does it correspond to the formation given in Valparaiso and Elysburg? Or are the two nuns from the original Philadelphia community lying? Are they slandering the nuns from Valparaiso and Elysburg? These are serious questions because the description in the letter corresponds to credible allegations of spiritual abuse. With a statement like that, corroborated by another witness, it is not surprising that Rome ordered an Apostolic Visitation.
Mother Stella Marie of Fairfield had made her own accusations in the update that she sent to the friends and supporters of Fairfield on June 19, 2021. Her accusations were vague, and she seemed to accuse the president of the St. Joseph’s Association of overstepping her authority, but when I as an Association Councilor offered to have the president investigated by Rome she did not reply. This is regrettable, for the Church has suffered tremendously in recent years from superiors who covered up abuses. The St. Joseph’s Association would have preferred to be investigated, so that the truth would be made known.
A similar reluctance to have an investigation was shown by the Valparaiso Carmel. When the Apostolic Visitators met with the Bishop of Lincoln and the Vicar for Religious, who is also the chaplain of the Valparaiso Carmel, they were told that they cannot go to the Carmel, the gate of the Monastery is locked, and a security guard is in place. If the Visitators tried to pass, they would be arrested. (The photograph at the beginning of this article shows the gate that was locked against them.)
However, several hours later they relented to the point where they agreed to meet with one of the Visitators. In the end, the three Visitators met only with the prioress and sub-prioress of Valparaiso and the former prioress and sub-prioress of the Philadelphia Carmel, so that they were prevented from fully carrying out the mandate of Rome as stated in the decree.
Spiritual abuse is especially rampant in communities with sectarian aberrations. As Dom Dysmas de Lassus wrote, “in the Culture of Lies, we are touching on an element that is omnipresent in communities with sectarian aberrations.”[x] With this in mind, one is left to wonder who is telling the truth when we read in a note mailed out from the Valparaiso Carmel in October: “The Holy See wanted to clarify some details of this situation, so visitators came to our Carmel in the first days of October. The meetings went smoothly in an atmosphere of fraternal charity.” How do we reconcile “an atmosphere of fraternal charity” with a threat of arrest? Who is telling the truth in all this?
“For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen their deeds have been done in God.” (Jn 3:20-21)
Image: The gateway at the Carmel of Valparaiso seen through the windshield of the Apostolic Visitators’ car — September 30, 2021
[i] Statements from two members of the Planning Committee of the Meeting in St. Louis – Nov. 20th, 2021
[ii] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) Editions du Cerf.
[iii] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 290). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition. – Translation by DeepL Pro
[iv] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 249). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition. Translation by DeepL (Dom Dysmas de Lassus in the Priore General of the Carthusians. His book is in the process of being translated into English.)
[v] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 260). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition, quoting J. POUJOL, Abus spirituel, S’affranchir de l’emprise, Paris, Empreinte temps présent, 2015, p. 9-12.
[vi] Groeschel, Fr. Benedict, Spiritual Passages, Crossroad, New York, 1995, p.188
[vii] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 290). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition. Quoting X. LÉGER, Le statut épistémologique des concepts d’emprise, de manipulation mentale et de secte, II, II, 1, p. 38.
[viii] Letter to Archbishop Chaput June 25, 2018, p.2
[ix] Ibid. p.1
[x] Lassus, Dysmas de. Risques et dérives de la vie religieuse (French Edition) (p. 57). Editions du Cerf. Kindle Edition.
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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.