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​A change of paradigm

· Vultum Dei Quaerere ·

It is absolutely indisputable that one of the goals of Pope Francis’ pontificate is oriented to the recognition and appreciation of the special vocation and mission of women in the Church. Among his many actions and words which clearly and unequivocally confirm this approach is without a doubt his Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, signed on 29 June 2016, on the contemplative life of women. It is for many reasons a unique document which represents a change of paradigm in the understanding of the contemplative life of women in the Church.

Our intention is to underline some of the most significant aspects that can shed some light on this life for everyone – since the contemplative vocation is an anticipation and proclamation of the ultimate destiny of every Christian and of the entire creation, namely the call to nuptial communion with Christ, and at the same time an invitation to the integral interpretation of the text.

It is the culminating point of a dialogue with women which the Holy See began openly years ago, by means of various questionnaires sent to all the monasteries in the world by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. This Constitution thus came into being as a response to the words of the contemplative women invited to reflect on their identity, mission and forma vitae in the face of the new challenges of the 21st century. Therefore at the origin of the document lies a prior attitude of listening, interest and attention as regards us contemplative women, which is expressed and re-established by the text in the form of discernment and advice, maternal care and ecclesial guidance.

As is already indicated by its evocative title, Seeking the Face of God, the contemplative life is characterized by the attitude of seeking that never ends, of yearning, of the restlessness of the heart, of insatiable thirst, of the attraction to and desire for God – an expression frequently used in the document to describe the contemplative experience. Thus it is a life wounded by apophatism, that is, spread open on the vital awareness of the unfathomable abyss which is God, in the constant overcoming of every idolatrous temptation of a cognitive or willed conquest, over and above every vulgarization or profanation of the Mystery, in the position of an expectation full of love, or of a vigil, a vespers, a preparation with a view to the arrival of the Bridegroom, announced in the midst of the realities of this world and open to that definitive fulfilment for which the heart hungers, “until it rests in you”.

This attitude of expectation gushes paradoxically from greater closeness and intimacy with the Mystery of God. By using a language and a theological method proper to the monastic spiritual tradition of the Middle Ages, the Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere makes the “unending search for God” the sign and criterion of authenticity of the contemplative life. It is a negative way of approaching God, that is to say not through absence or distance but, rightly, through an excess and superabundance of his presence, for the Christian God has “broken” his transcendence out of love, making himself close to us and his glory is manifest in the fullness of his closeness in Jesus, “the fairest of the sons of men”.

From this vital position women contemplatives live in solidarity with all men and women who express a yearning for happiness, a quest for the absolute, an existential dissatisfaction, which, albeit unconsciously, even in the drama and resistance to faith, moves towards God. Thus they transform themselves into mothers of these tortured souls, into reference points and prophetic signs of God’s love, guiding and directing the steps of all to the encounter with him. This is the spiritual motherhood so proper to monasteries which, separated from the world, are – in the paradox of the distance which permits the encounter, a category that passes through the Pope’s document as a cantus firmus – through the spirituality of hospitality and persevering intercession, true beacons, torches, sentinels heralding the dawn, cities set on a hill or lamps on a stand, a stairway by which God descends to encounter humanity and humanity ascends to encounter God. All these images are present in Vultum Dei Quaerere with reference to monastic life.

With great depth and daring Pope Francis is ultimately asking the contemplative life to assume, in communion with the whole Church, an “outgoing” existence as a typical action, inherent in and essential to each person’s own vocation.In putting an accent on the search for God, contemplation is extended to the search for the human being in whose face is hidden, sometimes disfigured – as in a damaged icon – the face of Christ. And thus compassion, motherhood, acceptance and guidance, intercession and prophecy are an intrinsic part of the cloistered experience.

Carolina Blásquez Casado

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