Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
Mystics and reformers challenge our understanding of spiritual life. Last month, we considered the mystical experience of Blessed Angela of Foligno. This month, we look at the reform of Saint Colette of Corbie (1381-1447)
Unlike Blessed Angela, Saint Colette was born of working class parents. This environment fostered in her great humility and prayerfulness. In fact, prayer would become so engrossing for her that at the age of twenty-two, she received permission to spend the rest of her life as an “anchoress” to pray within the confines of a room from which her only view would be the altar of a church.
Devotional literature refers to her rigorous mortification, including asking God to deprive her of physical beauty, which she regarded as a temptation. Such a request would be regarded today as lacking in appreciation for the beauty that God had created in her but we must not be quick to judge. What matters is her deep desire to avoid distractions and to focus her attention and energy on authenticity, which is the true beauty of a person. One of the benefits of sound spirituality is that it allows God to lovingly reveal to us the truth of who we are without pretence or false modesty.
By the time she withdrew from the world, Saint Colette had embraced the rule of the Third Order of Saint Francis and was already living in conformity with the evangelical counsel of poverty. Wishing to become more and more like him, she initially chose the path of solitude. But perhaps under the inspiration of Saint Francis who also spent some of his time interacting with the world, she elected to leave her self-imposed exile after four years.
Thereafter, she was inspired to restore the rule followed at the convents of Poor Clares to the observance of strict guidelines regarding poverty. Though she initially resisted what she came to experience as her true vocation, Saint Colette received the authority and blessing of the pope (in fact the antipope, Benedict XIII, then recognized by France as the rightful successor of Saint Peter) to establish a series of 17 convents in line with this primitive rule. Since her death in 1447, others have been founded in outside of France in Belgium, Germany, Spain, England and the United States.
The convents established by Saint Colette were marked by extreme poverty and the observance of perpetual fast and abstinence in order to reflect the characteristically Franciscan values of simplicity and prayer. As though they were to give reason to her earlier dismissal of outer beauty, these convents became sanctuaries of interior beauty that relies on Providence and radiates its light to the world.
Boast not of your stature or beauty of body, which, with a little sickness,
is spoiled and disfigured; but glory in God, who gives all things and desires
to give himself above all things.
Thomas A Kempis, Imitation of Jesus Christ
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We do saints such as Saint Colette an enormous disservice when we minimize their struggle. Her ultimate accomplishments came as a result of her desire to find God amid clouds of ambiguity. Although she had made a commitment for life to become an anchoress, Saint Colette left to follow another vision. And, even before that, she had joined successively the Beguines, the Benedictines, and the so-called “Urbanist” Poor Clares. Surely God had not directed her to follow all these paths. This may have been a case of passion running ahead of judgement.
She would have been neither the first nor the last to pursue, almost blindly, the well of living water for which her thirst was most acute. (I think spontaneously of Thomas Merton whose pilgrimage took many turns before he entered the Trappist monastery in Genesse, New York. Gethesemani, KY). Does it really matter that ours is a winding road when every step nourishes the soul and clarifies the mind? Given our limitations and brokenness, would we be truly authentic if our progress was as straight as a laser beam?
When God calls, he does so from within. His voice is inevitably muffled by scar tissue of childhood wounds, dulled by the deafness of a hardened heart, and distorted by the vagaries of human understanding. Our hearing is imperfect, our understanding flawed, our judgement impaired and our decisions tentative. Yet, God impels us to persevere, to walk valiantly in the direction of what seems like an external call. But it comes from within. We find that hard to accept because within is such an imperfect place.
The grace of God is chiefly his fidelity. God’s love is patient before all other qualities, including kindness (cf. 1 Cor. 13: 4-7). That’s a good thing because most of us find it difficult to discern his still small voice. We are aided, however, by signs. God guides with consolations and reproves with feelings, more or less intense, of disquiet.
You have made us and directed us toward yourself
and our heart is restless until we rest in you.
Saint Augustine, Confessions
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Saint Colette was canonized May 24, 1807. The Catholic Encyclopaedia notes that “she was not only a woman of sincere piety, but also intelligent and energetic, and exercised a remarkable moral power over all her associates. She was very austere and mortified in her life, for which God rewarded her by supernatural favours and the gift of miracles.”
What are we to learn from the austerity of reformers? In Church history, the people that we label as “reformers” are typically people who we regard today as austere. That word conjures negative images. Such reformers repel rather than attract our attention. Our mind and heart tends to close before we hear what they may have to say about the desires of our own heart.
Our revulsion is partially understandable. Modern people have come to believe that the spiritual life is one that is marked by easy love and spontaneous joy. New age practitioners deliberately obscure the boundaries between prayer and pleasure, monasteries and spas. Many are inclined to see psychology and spirituality as synonymous rather than complementary: Feeling good means being holy, they might suggest. Prayer is seen as beneficial, though frequently misunderstood. Charity is celebrated, as long as the sacrifice is not too great.
But is there any place left for fasting, mortification and renunciation? Or are these mere vestiges of a “darker” time in religious history? According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, mortification is “a means of curing bad habits and implanting good ones.” Mortification, such as fasting, should never be an end in itself but as a means to an end. It has a lengthy history in spiritual development. The Encyclopaedia adds, “The term originated with St. Paul, who traces an instructive analogy between Christ dying to a mortal and rising to an immortal life, and his followers who renounce their past life of sin and rise through grace to a new life of holiness” (Cf. Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5; Galatians 5:24).
Ultimately, spiritual exercises are for a purpose. They are not an end in themselves. Fasting reminds us that we hunger for something more vital than what we ordinarily consume. Mortification recalls our baptismal rebirth in Christ. Renunciation is little more than its logical consequence. Life is a series of choices, each entailing renunciation. Whenever two options are confronted, presumably we chose the better of the two. To make the decision effective, we must renounce the other. This action may be difficult, even entailing a grieving process, but it is essential for the chosen option to bear fruit. We can think, for instance, of marriage: to say “yes” to one person necessarily implies renouncing others. So it is with all choices, including those made in the process of spiritual development.
The impetus for reform that Saint Colette embodies in the 15th Century was part of a broadly based response to some excesses then witnessed in the church. The reform that was enacted by those like her who remained faithful to the church was one answer. The Reformation was another. Though usually well intentioned, reforms can have a salvific or destructive effect, depending on whether they promoted unity or division. It is the same with reforms of the heart that are symbolized by renunciation. They are potentially dangerous if they lead to spiritual vanity; they are wholesome and healing if they foster fidelity to our true identity and mission.
We must faithfully keep what we have promised. If through human weakness we fail, we most always without delay arise again by means of holy penance, and give our attention to leading a good life and to dying a holy death. May the Father of all mercy, the Son by his holy passion, and the Holy Spirit, source of peace, sweetness and love, fill us with consolation. Amen
Saint Colette, Spiritual Testament to her Sisters
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May the holy season of Lent be a time of housecleaning to rid your life of distracting clutter. May God’s grace and infinite mercy fill you with joy. May the example of Saint Colette lead you to springtime of new life through greater fidelity to the deepest desires of your heart.
Fraternally in joy and hope
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries