From First Things
Just down the road from the lively Piazza Barberini is a Capuchin church, Santa Maria della Concezione. Practically every Roman street corner boasts some little church, supported – or sometimes squashed – between the hotels and high-rises that have sprouted up over the centuries. And, more often than not, these unassuming churches shelter some almost-forgotten treasure: the prison cell of Saint Paul, the grill of Saint Laurence, a darkened Caravaggio canvas, Michelangelo’s unfinished tomb. Ancient treasures, whose saints and artists have long since passed to their reward, but that linger in remembrance: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
But the rose-colored Capuchin church, once more popular than even the catacombs, has a unique appeal. The crypt below is lavishly decorated with the bones of more than four thousand friars from three centuries of Franciscan mendicancy. It’s not so morbidly spectacular as one would expect. There is a certain monastic peace that settles on the pilgrim as he makes his way through the Crypt of the Skulls and the Crypt of the Pelvises, past the Crypt of the Leg and Thigh Bones, and finally into the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, with shoulder-bone flowers and stars adorning the corridor vaults between.
It is an extraordinary memento mori, provoking somber thoughts about somber matters. Yet, somewhat incongruously, the Capuchin bone crypt came to mind as I attended a wedding on this year’s Feast of the Presentation. I’ve been to plenty of weddings, all quite joyful and lovely, but this one was different – it was the final profession of two Sisters of Life, members of a vibrant order founded in 1991 by New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor. Each sister knelt before the mother superior, placed her young hands in those wise and experienced ones, and vowed to live perpetually in poverty, chastity, and obedience, committed to protecting human life in all its stages. “If you are faithful to these vows,” said Mother Agnes, “I promise you, in the name of God, eternal life.”
A bold promise, to be sure, but a bold offering too: These women were giving nothing less than their whole lives to Christ. And yet they weren’t claiming to do Great Things or offer Great Sacrifices or be famous and heroic. Instead, the liturgy echoed the deep-rooted Dominican rite of profession: What do you seek? – God’s mercy and yours. “Seek and you shall find,” the Scriptures promise; God never withholds his mercy. The secret of the spiritual life is not such a secret after all.
A final profession is a wedding. The veil is that of a bride, and the long, white habit of the sisters – modeled after the Dominican robe – has always reminded me of a wedding gown. As the sisters processed in, carrying lit candles for the feast, they chanted the words of David: The Bridegroom is here; go out and welcome him. Later, after they had made their vows before the altar, the presiding archbishop blessed their rings and placed them on their fingers, a sign of perpetual covenant with the Lord. And throughout, the packed congregation – family and friends, religious sisters and mothers with children, those who have given and those who have received – took part in the prayers and hymns.
A final profession is a wedding, but at times it also seems like a funeral. Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, intoned the choir before Mass. Secundum verbum tuum in pace. Simeon’s canticle was appropriate for the day’s feast, but it resonated, too, with the occasion. In a sense, the professed sisters were dying to the world; they were offering up the normal cares and pursuits that we take for granted – home, family, ambitions – not because these are bad or dangerous but because they are not enough. And though the veiled women have chosen to be set apart for Christ, they are hardly alone. The Capuchin crypt reminds me of that, and so does the Litany of Saints. SS. Francis and Clare, SS. Dominic and Catherine, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us. All the while, the newly professed lie prostrate before the altar, a posture of total vulnerability and submission. The next time they will be outstretched like this will be at their funeral Mass, when they go forth to meet their Bridegroom: Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled.
A wedding and a funeral, life and death, the here and hereafter: What should the innocent bystander, who stumbled in by chance and barely knows the sisters, make of all this? Regnum mundi et omnem ornatum saeculi contempsi, chants the choir; I have had contempt for the kingdom of this world, and all temporal adornments. These lines, taken from the breviary’s Common for Holy Women, are hard – almost inhuman. How can such worldly contempt be a human goal, especially for one who calls herself a Sister of Life? Can contempt for the world encompass love for the world? Or can I simply blame overzealous Augustinians, who pit the flesh and the world harshly, even speciously, against the spirit and the City of God?
One thing is certain: Contemptus mundi is no new trend in Christianity. In his commentary on the Psalms, St. Augustine testified, “My soul, which in the contempt of this world seems to men as it were to die, shall live not to itself, but to him.” Third-century bishop Eucharius wrote an elegy entitled, De Contemptu Mundi, as did St. Bruno, the eleventh-century founder of the Carthusians. St. Bernard of Cluny composed a three-thousand-line contemptus mundi poem in the following century, and Pope Innocent III issued a similar lament with the dour subtitle, “On the Misery of the Human Condition.” Contemptus mundi, in the Middle Ages, was a flourishing genre. As Thomas à Kempis, spokesman for so much of medieval spirituality, declared, “This is the highest wisdom: through contempt of the world, to strive for the kingdom of Heaven.
This ascetic tradition did abate somewhat in modern thought, but it didn’t disappear. The Renaissance humanists Petrarch and Eramus both titled works, De Contemptu Mundi, and Sir Philip Sidney – hardly a monk or mendicant – began one of his sonnets with the now familiar plea: Leave me, O love which reachest but to dust, / And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things. Even at the brink of the twentieth century, Pope Leo XIII taught, “No man can be high-souled, kind, merciful, or restrained who has not learned self-conquest and a contempt for this world when opposed to virtue.”
What is the modern, life-affirming Christian supposed to conclude? Perhaps it is just poetic overstatement, or a bit too much fervor for the ascetic ideal. Or, seeing that most of the authors were writing to protest corruption in church and society, perhaps mundi needs qualification: It is not the world as God’s physical creation that is contemptible; rather, it is the evil that has crept in and fashioned the City of Man, in hostility to God’s loving Providence. As Leo crucially noted, we should condemn this world “when it is opposed to virtue.”
Still, this interpretation of contemptus mundi doesn’t quite harmonize with the Sisters of Life, who, to put it simply, aim to affirm life’s value, from conception until natural death. Hardly a purely transcendent vision of reality, and hardly a celestial mission. They love life in its physicality, and, imitating Christ, they love it in its frailty. I have had contempt for the kingdom of this world, the choir chanted at the profession, yet that is not the final word: Because of the love of my Lord Jesus Christ, whom I saw, whom I loved, in whom I believed, and whom I worshiped.
Etymologists may quibble, but I cannot help hearing tempus – time – veiled in our word “contempt.” The incarnate Lord calls man to see this world for its temporality, to glimpse its anticipation of eternity, and to grasp its crucial role in redemption. In the fullness of time, God sent forth his son: Eternity broke through time, that we might become sons and share in eternity.
Time is exile, but time is also hope. “Detachment” might be an apt synonym for such contempt: The detachment that allows man to embrace the simplicity of the stable and the solitude of the cross; to say not my will, but thine, be done. The detachment that frees the Christian to hope for Heaven. The sisters live this detachment visibly and radically. Their white cotton habit and heavy blue scapular, however attractive as religious attire, can scarcely be called temporal adornment; and, if the liturgy of profession is a wedding, it is an obviously spiritual one. “Almost otherworldly,” someone remarked afterward, as we shared in a donated feast, lovely enough for the finest bride. Almost ethereal – “yet,” one of the young sisters interjected, “so very real.” And isn’t that exactly how the banquet of the Lamb, which this celebration anticipates, ought to be? The Bridegroom is here; go out and welcome him.
They are on the way. We are on the way. And sometimes – dazzled by a speck of eternity – we wonder why we cannot be there now. As Pope Benedict muses in Spe Salvi, “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed by joy.” When we taste the raindrop, here and now, it is tempting to want the sea. Then the words of George Herbert, begging to be swept off to paradise, come back to chide:
Thus far Time heard me patiently,
Then chafing said. This man deludes:
What do I here before his door?
He doth not crave less time, but more.
It is, perhaps, an eschatological uncertainty principle: You cannot demand Heaven and be ready for it at the same time; the over-eager stargazer needs more time on Earth. But there is more to it, a deeper theology. The troparian for the Presentation, sung at the profession of the sisters, proclaims: Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, Full of Grace! / From you shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, / Enlightening those who sat in darkness! I have sometimes wondered how Mary, in whom time met eternity, must have felt after her son’s ascent into Heaven. She, of all women, was prepared to enter her reward, and yet God entrusted her to John and willed that she remain behind. “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked,” said a woman in the crowd, but Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Mary did both. The church calls her the Gate of Heaven not only because she gave birth to the Messiah but also because she lived her entire life in reverence to his will. She presented the divine Word to Simeon and Anna at the Temple; and she presented him to the disciples, in living witness, after his death and resurrection. I imagine Christ would have taken Mary with him into Heaven, had she asked. But it is unthinkable that she, who marked her life by pure fiat, would have foregone the chance to continue channeling his love to Earth. “The theme of spiritual sacrifice is fused with that of light,” said John Paul II, speaking on Candlemas to a gathering of consecrated men and women: “This child, Simeon prophesies, will be a ‘light for the Gentiles, the glory of Israel,’ but also a sign of contradiction. The Virgin appears as a candlestick bearing Christ, the ‘Light of the world.'”
A candlestick on Earth and a candlestick in Heaven: This is the role of all the blessed. When the pilgrim walks through the Capuchin bone crypt and is reminded of those who have gone before – those many Christians who, we hope, lived in fidelity to God’s will – there is an unmistakable peace: If you are faithful to these vows, I promise you eternal life. For some, like the Capuchin friars or Sisters of Life, God’s will is the life of radical adherence to the gospel, of selling all that one has and following him. But, as the Litany of Saints reminds, God’s path for each of his children is personal and unique: SS. Joachim and Anne, SS. Augustine and Monica, St. Gianna Beretta Molla. What unites all these holy men and women is their commitment to living in the world, in the Lord, and for the world, for the Lord.
This is the real life of love – and, therefore, the real love of life.