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Chapter 13 paints a beautiful picture of Margaret’s religious life as a Dominican Tertiary, in which she would persevere until her death. Father Bonniwell tells us that Margaret heart sang as she heard Fra Luigi articulate the ideal of the Order:
Day and night, the emphatic words of the Dominican Prior seemed to echo and re-echo in her ears:
“Your Dominican habit will be a solemn pledge and a constant reminder that you have dedicated yourself, without reserve or conditions, to the love and service of God.” Serve God without reserve, without any conditions! This was the language she had been longing to hear.Page 69
Father Bonniwell contrasts this “without reserve or conditions” ideal with the advice Margaret received in the monastery that he characterizes as “you must serve God in moderation.” Like Margaret, I am inspired by the “all in” ideal. For me, like Margaret, that ideal takes a particularly Dominican form. But I think loving and serving God unreservedly is the vocation of all Christians. And in our time, as in Margaret’s, there is a tendency, both inside and outside of the Church, to water that down.
I think there are very understandable reasons for this tendency. Christian perfection is beyond our grasp, and the attempt to grasp perfection is objectionable for lots of reasons. It would be prideful to think you can be perfect: the kind of “works-righteousness” grasping that Protestant reformers rejected. And (to an extent) they were right. Jesus “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6) and we should imitate Jesus and reject the grasping of Adam and Eve. Trying to be perfect is also a project doomed to failure. As weak human beings we are bound to fail. If we think we should be perfect, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and perhaps disillusionment and guilt fixation as well. Finally, seeking perfection can be presumptuous. The saints have been perfected by God’s grace. But to suppose that God will give me the great grace that God has given the great saints would seem the height of presumption.
I’m sure it is partly for these reasons that so many people today give the same kind of advice that Margaret received in the monastery: “serve God in moderation.” One version of that message comes from our modern Western society when we hear that religion is a private matter to be separated from other parts of our lives. Other versions come from Christian and sometimes Catholic teachers and preachers proposing one or another version of watered-down Christianity.
Jesus tells us to “be perfect, just as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) and Vatican II recently emphasized what the Church has always taught: that the call to holiness is for everyone. The heights of holiness are indeed beyond our grasp. Perfection is impossible for us but not for God. God’s will is to sanctify us, even to deify us (see 2 Peter 1:4), to use a term common among the Fathers of the Church. To seek this perfection is indeed frustrating, as Christian saints and sinners through the centuries testify. But it needn’t be disillusioning or leave us guilt-ridden. Instead it can be humbling, calling us to awareness of our weaknesses and repentance for our failures, while strengthening our appreciation for God’s mercy and the great dignity of being called “to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:9). Finally, seeking perfection is not presumptuous when we depend on God’s grace without making it an excuse for sin (see Romans 6:2) or supposing that “the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus” is greater that the grace God desires to bestow on everyone else.
Father Bonniwell tells us that the life to which Margaret was specifically called — that of the Order of Penance of St. Dominic — emphasized prayer and penance. We have already read much about Margaret’s prayer, so we are not surprised to read that “The Dominican emphasis on prayer had a special appeal for Margaret” (Pages 69-70). And it is edifying to read that “from the time she became a Mantellata . . . Margaret began to pass more and more from mental prayer to the highest form of prayer, that of contemplation” (Page 70). We have also read about Margaret’s penance. We might recall the hair-shirt she started wearing as a child. But the way Margaret lived the Dominican emphasis on penance is probably less familiar to us — both from our reading about Margaret’s life and in our own experience. Father Bonniwell also devotes more of his text in Chapter 13 to Margaret’s penance that he does to her prayer. So let’s look at that more closely. Father Bonniwell writes:
It was explained to [Margaret] that St. Dominic had been, throughout his life, an assiduous reader of the Epistles of St. Paul . . . “This is why,” declared the Prior, Fra Luigi, “the saint adopted for himself and for his Order certain fixed penances . . . but there was one penance,” continued the friar, “which St. Dominic did not share with his order; he reserved it for himself. It was the hardest of all mortifications–lack of sufficient sleep. . . .
Accordingly, every night, when Margaret heard the bell of the Dominican monastery announcing the hour for Matins, she would arise to join in spirit with her brothers in their prayers. But the thought of the prolonged vigils of St. Dominic spurred her to do far more. She gave up going back to sleep after her midnight prayers; instead, she would pass the rest of the night in meditation.Pages 70 and 71
Dominicans don’t emphasize penance the way we used to. I think that is also true of the Church in general. There are probably good reasons why some penitential practices have gone by the wayside. But I think we have lost something. For myself, I can say that penance has not been a particular emphasis of my Dominican life. I think that should change and I’ll take Saint Margaret of Castello as my new patroness of penance. Fortunately for me (and I pray it is also fortunate for you), Advent is beginning. Advent is called a penitential season in our Church but it has never been very penitential for me. I have experienced Lent as a penitential season but not so much Advent. Advent is my favorite season of the year and I have often been able to enter into the hopeful expectation of the prophet Isaiah and the self-examining preparation of John the Baptist. But I have not really lived the penance of John the Baptist. May this Advent be a penitential blessing to all of us. St. Margaret of Castello, pray for us!
Saint Margaret imitated Saint Dominic by denying herself sleep. Father Bonniwell calls this “the hardest of mortifications.” Harder, he implies, than other mortifications Margaret practiced that are more offensive to modern sensibilities, like wearing a hair-shirt or whipping herself. I don’t think I could deny myself sleep in anything like the way Margaret did. But I could probably do that in smaller ways. And, on the occasions when I do forego wanted sleep for some good purpose, I can embrace that as a penance, something I do in my body as a member of Christ’s body and for the sake of Christ’s body. From now on, when I hear my alarm clock, or the alarm that alerts me of a hospital emergency, I hope I can hear those as the voices of Saint Margaret and Saint Dominic calling me the share their penance.
The blind girl continued her austerities and her unending missions of mercy. No sick person was too far away for her to limp to, no hour of the day or night was ever too inconvenient for her to hasten to those in agony.Page 73
In addition to prayer and penance, Margaret’s Dominican life included ministry to the sick. I love Father Bonniwell’s use of the verbs “limp” and “hasten” in describing Margaret going “to those in agony.” He reminds us that Margaret was herself in agony. But in her haste (which reminds me of Mary’s haste in her Visitation), Margaret’s agony and disability are overcome by her attention to her suffering neighbor.
Devotion to St. Joseph was not then common in the Western Church. . . . Margaret was one of the pioneers of this particular devotion.Pages 73 and 74
I had forgotten about Margaret’s devotion to Saint Joseph or perhaps I glossed over it in my initial reading of this book. I quote the passage above not because I have anything interesting to say about it but just because I think it’s delightful.
- What else did you find interesting of helpful about Margaret religious life as Father Bonniwell describes it in this chapter?
- As you read about Margaret’s religious life, does it prompt you to examine your own religious life? If so, how?
Please share your thoughts in the “Comment” section below. Feel free to respond to the questions I posed above or to reflect upon anything else in this week’s reading, my reflections on this weeks reading, and/or comments that other people have posted.