While I am no Sherlock Holmes, when I encounter one of those deliciously serendipitous synchronicities that are far too fraught with meaning to be the stuff of mere coincidence, that phrase shouts into my brain, and I sit up and pay attention. The game is afoot; if the Holy Spirit is throwing a lead, I hope I can see it and give a proper chase!
My latest spiritual sport began online, in a religion forum where a modern-day consecrated virgin (yes, those exist, and, in fact, their worldwide numbers are growing) was debating a group of religious sisters, nuns and nun wannabes about what defined a “Bride of Christ” and whether the term was being used too loosely by some.
If that sounds like a dull and pedantic sort of debate, you would be surprised; it seems everyone participating wanted to be a Bride of Christ and could find reasons why they ought to be called one — especially in consideration of their baptisms within the Church, the first and primary Bride. The conversation thread became a free-for-all (I stopped reading some 20 pages into it) of Jesus-loving women trying to grab a piece of veiling, or a chunk of corona, for themselves. The consecrated virgin was standing her ground and taking no prisoners.
So, when I closed that thread only to open Sister Lou Ella Hickman’s piece on the Desert Mothers (see Pages 26-29), my antenna went up. What was the Holy Spirit trying to say? Consecrated virgins, like Desert Mothers, were some of the earliest and often misunderstood heroines of the Church. Hagiographies of these women have many times reduced them to models of such mewling purity that even some religious have looked at them askance. In her book “The Cloister Walk,” Kathleen Norris writes of Benedictine nuns shuddering at the mention of them.
Not so, argued Norris, and I agree. Whether taking themselves into the desert or living their vows within their villages — both dangerous, daring moves — their decisions to consecrate themselves to the Lord meant taking a stand against the idea of being little more than chattel which could be married off to increase a holding, assure an alliance or even pay off a debt. Their actions were evidence of their strength and courage, and also — dare I say it — of the Church’s unswerving support of a women’s self-actualization: the Holy Grail of modern feminism. These Desert Mothers and early consecrated women were the first to declare themselves free-for-Christ-alone, and by their own choice. “Be as though you were dead,” said Amma Sarah. “Retreat into your cell; continually remember only God . . . and you will be saved.”
Sister Hickman notes that these earliest Christian women were not running away from a difficult, violent and harsh world; they were running toward something equally difficult, but ultimately world-serving and world-saving. In this, they most certainly speak a language in common with modern women who today seek a radical life of prayer, solitude and stillness.
As I write this I am contemplating an email from a friend that quotes a young Dominican nun. Upon her first profession, Sister Mary Magdalene, O.P., was declared to be “a house of prayer and a temple of intercession.” In reference to her cloister, she writes: “The observance of enclosure is one of the gifts of the Church to contemplative nuns . . . free from worldly affairs, we may have a holy leisure to devote ourselves entirely to focusing on . . . the breadth and height and depth of the love of God who sent His Son so that the whole world might be saved. . . . In the silence of enclosure we touch the heart of the world.” Presented in fast order with words written by forthright Desert Mothers, a determined consecrated woman and a young nun with a clearly articulated mission, I marvel at the continuum and wonder if a new resurgence in prayerful subversion is upon us; if, indeed, a new game is afoot.