“I prostrated myself in front of he who is present everywhere and who had led me to this solitude in order to live no longer for anything other than for him and with him. I thanked him for the grace he had given me and commended to him the outcome of my combat.” – Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly

I have been working on this blog post for a while and was planning to continue to procrastinate finishing it given my other responsibilities during quarantine, but I was inspired by the homily my parish priest gave at online Mass today for the Ascension. He talked about the model of the apostles, who waited in the upper room and prayed—waiting and praying is all much of us can do at this time while we do not have access to public Masses.

There is a lot of discussion going on about how to reopen public Masses so that Catholics can have access to the Eucharist again. This is especially true as churches begin to open up, though there are definitely some risks to this, as the news headlines tell us. All the guidelines that have been proposed for opening churches limit the number of people who can attend, so I’m not sure how much this actually changes the life of the everyday Catholic. Not that long ago we were still discussing how Catholics can survive without regular Mass attendance and I still think that is an important discussion to have, given that it will be a while before Mass attendance happens in a “normal” way again.

One of the recurring themes that has been raised in this context is that we should learn from our own history. For example, about a month ago, Phyllis Zagano published “The end of clericalism” with the National Catholic Reporter. Zagano critiques the practice of having online Masses because it “reduce[s] prayer to priestly performance.” In fact, Tina Beattie opened up a similar conversation about this on the Catholic Women Speak Facebook page earlier this month, asking specifically about the way in which online Masses make the female body superfluous for the Catholic tradition. But Zagano’s article goes through the sacraments of confession, the anointing of the sick, and marriage to demonstrate the way in which they have become wholly dependent on the role of the priest. Although, she argues, there has been opportunity to make them less dependent on the priestly role, these proposals have been ultimately rejected. Zagano’s use of history in this article is more a critique of the developments that have occurred that led to this point, than an engagement with history to find solutions. However, my friend Michael Bayer, around the same time as Zagano’s article came out, published “What the first Christians can teach us about missing the sacraments and still growing in faith” with America Magazine. In his article, he critiques a form of American exceptionalism that demands access to the sacraments, not recognizing that this is not the norm in the Church everywhere, nor is it the norm throughout history. He argues that we can draw inspiration from the Hebrew Scriptures—the Jewish people during the Babylonian exile without access to the temple—and the early church which had regular Eucharistic meetings in homes before the development of “a formalized caste of ordained clergy.” He also mentions the practice of monastic forms of daily prayer as a source of nourishment when we don’t have access to the sacraments.

One of the historical examples that we can look to during this time is the community around the nuns at Port-Royal in seventeenth-century France. If you know French, this video by the Société des Amis de Port-Royal examines the thought of Blaise Pascal on seclusion in conversation with the example of his sister Jacqueline. Jacqueline became a nun at Port-Royal, but her vocation was initially opposed by her father. So, she took to living as a nun within her family house, keeping herself in seclusion in her room. As Blaise Pascal later writes in relation to the theme of divertissement (diversion) in his Pensées, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room” (fr. 136; Kreeft, 172). We resist seclusion, according to Blaise Pascal, because it leads us to inspect ourselves and our condition; this is the whole reason we try to divert our minds with worldly matters. But perhaps we can look to the Port-Royal nuns, like this example of Jacqueline Pascal, to see how it might be done.

We have a whole series of “accounts of captivity” (récits de captivité) written by the Port-Royal nuns, which are autobiographical accounts of their experiences of being deprived of the sacraments and imprisoned in other convents as part of French efforts to eliminate Jansenism. In thinking about this example, I recently reread Fr. John Conley’s translation of Angélique de Saint-Jean Arnauld d’Andilly’s account. During her imprisonment, as Conley explains in his introduction to her text, Angélique de Saint-Jean “constructs her own daily office of prayer and physical exercise to maintain her integrity. She comments on the biblical passages and graces in meditation, which bolstered her resistance as her imprisonment lengthened” (Conley, 21). I quote his description her in part because it is exactly why I thought of the Port-Royal nuns as an example for us during this time that we are unable to attend Mass—when the nuns were in a similar situation, they constructed their own spiritual routines to bolster their spirits during that time.

In describing her experience of captivity, Angélique de Saint-Jean writes that “everything consisted in complete solitude and in a total privation of all consolation and spiritual assistance” (Conley, 23), so in this way her experience of imprisonment has some echoes of our experiences now. While she was imprisoned in the Annonciade convent, Angélique de Saint-Jean was allowed to go to Mass with the nuns there (which she identifies as the only time that she left her room) but forbidden from receiving the Eucharist. She periodically wrote to the archbishop to ask if she might be permitted to receive communion, but was always denied (Conley, 36). This, of course, has a direct parallel to us today where we are watching Mass online or on television and unable to receive the Eucharist because of the pandemic. In Angélique de Saint-Jean’s case, she talks about how she set up a schedule of prayer for herself during this time, rising “during the night” to make her “small devotions” (Conley, 34). She sustained herself with reading and prayers and writing down the inspirations that she had from her reading or the scripture she heard preached at Mass (Conley, 76–78). She walked around her room, doing a “litany procession,” praying for her friends and praying the psalms. She prayed the divine office. As she said about her daily practices, “I strongly felt that the time had come when we will adore God in every place in spirit and in truth. He has not limited his grace to the temple walls, because I Find myself usually more recollected in chanting in the walking space around my bed, which served as my oratory, than I was sometimes in the choir” (Conley, 78). In all this, Angélique de Saint-Jean maintained her spiritual practices and—importantly—her hope. She wrote, “I promised myself that in whatever state they might place me, I would be able to find in prayer and in the world of God the consolations and the patience that would sustain my hope” (Conley, 45). Thus, in spite of being deprived of the Eucharist and imprisoned in another convent, she created a structure to her day in which her prayer and reading sustained her through this difficult time.

I found, rereading this account during our time of solitude, that her experience had a lot to recommend to us today. For example, Angélique de Saint-Jean wrote, “In all situations, it is good to act in the same manner. In seeking only the kingdom of God, everything else we need above and beyond this is given to us. There is another great advantage to this state: one feels the true condition and the true disposition of the poor, who are obliged for the least services and the least things one gives them, because they do not expect anyone to owe them anything, not even the most necessary things of life” (Conley, 34). In a similar way, we could use this time to “seek only the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33) and offer our suffering while separated from the Eucharist for those who do not have regular access to the Eucharist as we do. We should remind ourselves that our experience is not the norm for many people around the world and give thanks for the fortune and privilege that we have in our normal regular access to the sacraments.

However, a more prudent example for lay Catholics might not come from the nuns, but from the aristocratic laywomen who supported the convent, known as the belles amies de Port-Royal. I recently finished reading Jennifer Hillman’s Female Piety and the Catholic Reformation in France, which examines the practices of such female rigorist penitents in the latter part of the seventeenth-century in France. Now, of course these women were most definitely not cut off from their parishes and sacraments in the way that lay Catholics currently are, but they also developed a rich spiritual life in addition to their regular Mass attendance and some of this was developed amongst themselves, not just through the direction of their male confessors. Three aspects of their spiritual lives seem particularly relevant for adoption by Catholics today: (1) the idea of the retreat, (2) individual practices of prayer and study, and (3) spiritual friendships.

One of the spiritual practices that the belles amies engaged in was to practice a retreat from the world, and especially from the life at Louis XIV’s court, by leaving Paris to spend time at their country châteaux. While there, they were not just taking a vacation (as many of the Parisian elite did each year) but engaged in spiritual practices while they were there (Tillman, 106, 120–1). Given our forced “retreat” during this time of social distancing, it might be good to reconceive what is going on. Rather than thinking of the time spent in our homes as something that we are required to do, we can reconceptualize our situations and consider this an opportunity for spiritual growth. Consider this a time of spiritual retreat, in which we can use our time profitably to progress in our spiritual path.

One of the things the belles amies did while on their retreat was to contribute charitably to the community around them. Part of this was about creating a sufficiently rigorist spiritual environment in which for them to live, but part of it was caring for the community around them as a whole (Hillman, 111–3). This is something that we should definitely keep in mind during this time of social distancing. Many have lost their jobs in our communities or are for one reason or another struggling. If you are blessed to still be able to work and generate income, consider what charitable acts you might be able to do for your struggling neighbors while still maintaining social distancing.

The inventories of the households of the belles amies that have survived show that they created simple spaces within their own households to which they could retreat for prayer and penitence (Hillman, 77). This seems like a simple practice that we can create in our own homes. Since we can no longer go to churches to pray, it might be useful to create a spiritual space in our own homes—one we can retreat to when we watch our online Masses as well as a space for reflection and prayer. The belles amies spent time reading devotional literature of the time, and this is another practice that we can easily imitate. The belles amies read the classics of their time, with St. Augustine and St. Bernard being among their favorites (Hillman, 82). In this, they tended to take a more “scholarly” than “experiential” approach to religious practice, such that in the memoirs of René Rapin, SJ, he commented that these women convinced others that “to become Jansenist is to become learned” (Hillman, 84-85). For us, we do not have access to the “experiential” approach as long as public Masses are not occurring, but we continue to have access to this “scholarly” approach. With online ebooks available from libraries as well as the convenience of ordering from our favorite bookstores or Amazon even during social distancing, we have a lot of access to books. A lectio divina of religious classics, including some of those of the seventeenth-century, might be something to do to remain spiritually connected during this time.

The spiritual friendships between the belles amies tended to move toward more exclusivity as they shunned the “world” in favor of their spiritual relationships (Hillman, 47). These relationships included sharing their examinations of conscience in letters to each other. Given that part of their friendship relationships were thus founded on communication at a distance, perhaps this is something that we can seek out in this time as well. Social distancing has provided us with a unique opportunity to reach out to friends and family members to develop deeper spiritual friendships, that is, relationships “founded upon a common dedication to the pursuit of salvation characterized by a mutual interest in spiritual progress” (Hillman, 52). The technology that we have today has made it possible to do even more than just write letters to each other as the belles amies did. Email, text, phone, and online conferencing tools have made it possible to make connections with each other, and we can be more intentional about doing so in relation to our spirituality, to keep the communal nature of our spirituality when communal liturgical celebrations are not possible. Just as we have online Masses, there is no reason why we couldn’t meet together on Zoom to hold communal prayer, or to commit with a group to all recite certain prayers at the same time. Creating an online book club for reading works of theology and spirituality and reflecting on them with others is another possibility. Sharing with others about the “state of our souls” in this trying time, expressing the fears, difficulties, hopes that we have is still possible, even when we cannot go to confession. Now, of course for the belles amies, the relationship they had with their male confessor or spiritual director was important, but they were also confessing sins to them via letter (Hillman, 55), which illustrates that there was some practice of confession by distance in the church’s past that we might consider using today, especially given the advances in technology that we have. But we should also remember, as Hillman has demonstrated, that the belles amies prioritized their female friendships over the relationships with their confessors (Hillman, 56–58, 105–6), so in some ways, we could take their example to heart and prioritized other spiritual relationships when we don’t have access to the confessional. Those are just the initial possibilities that I think of off the top of my head, and I’m sure that others could come up with more. One of the best lessons that I think we need to take from the belles amies is that we can take the spiritual advice we are given from within the hierarchy and adapt it to our own situation. For the belles amies, this mostly came in the advice they received from rigorist spiritual directors who asked for more separation from the “world” than was possible for them given their aristocratic status. The belles amies ultimately held their mépris du monde (contempt for the world) in balance with the social mandates they had as part of their social position (Hillman, 59–60, 94, 96). As guidelines for reopening public Masses appear in our dioceses, we have to weigh them against our own social positions. Given the potential health risk, are we ready to return to public Masses? Just as the belles amies had to consider “the interests of their [aristocratic] spouses and kin” in how they lived out their spiritual devotions (Hillman, 65), we too must consider what would be best both for us as individuals and for our families and broader communities given the risk posed by the coronavirus. This is a case where we must inform ourselves as much as possible, then follow the dictates of our conscience.

Sources:

  • Arnauld d’Andilly, Angélique de Saint-Jean. Writings of Resistance. Edited & translated by John J. Conley. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series 41. Iter Academic Press, 2015.
  • Hillman, Jennifer. Female Piety and the Catholic Reformation in France. Religious Cultures in the Early Modern World 17. Routledge, 2018.
  • Kreeft, Peter. Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained. Ignatius Press, 1993.

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