Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Chapters 11 and 12

Audio recording of this post:

These two Chapters tell a tale of two religious communities: the Monastery of St. Margaret in Chapter 11, and the Order of Penance of St. Dominic in Chapter 12. Our Dominican author Father Bonniwell is entirely positive in describing Margaret’s experience with the latter, and mostly negative in describing her experience with the former. As a fellow Dominican priest, I am glad to read about Margaret’s happy profession as a Dominican and the auspicious beginnings of her new life. It reminds me of my own happy profession of vows as a Dominican friar, especially when she responds to question “What do you seek?” with the words “God’s mercy and yours.” It is also my experience as a Dominican friar, however, that makes me bristle at some of Father Bonniwell’s criticisms of the nuns in the Monastery of St. Margaret.

Father Bonniwell describes the decline of religious observance in the Monastery of St. Margaret as an inevitable occurrence in any religious Order. He writes,

The Rule had been drawn up by a saint of the loftiest ideals and of the courage necessary to be true to those ideals. During the lifetime of the saint, when zeal and enthusiasm ran high among his followers, the observance of the Rule was maintained at a correspondingly hight level. But after his death, it was inevitable–human nature bing was it was–that there should have set in a slow, almost imperceptible lessening of the severe requirements and the stern austerities of the primitive Rule.

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Apparently, however, Father Bonniwell does not think this “lessoning” of observance is really “inevitable.” The nuns’ explanation of that “lessoning,” as Father Bonniwell describes it, is that “the Rule was written ages ago! Today, one could not live up to it in all its details. Times have changed too much!”

This would reassure the average novice, Father Bonniwell says, but not someone of Margaret’s intelligence and moral sensibility. Margaret had a problem because “she could not reconcile the explanation with the facts” or “understand why it was not possible to be charitable and at the same time observe the Rule.”

Father Bonniwell goes on to describe how the facts of the nuns’ lax observance and Margaret’s refusal to compromise led to conflict. He writes,

The heroic and successful attempt she was making to live according to the Rule that she had sworn to observe was upsetting the consciences of the Sisters.

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Finally, the Prioress ordered Margaret to “conform to the other Sisters in your everyday life” and, when she did not, she was expelled.

There are a few things in Father Bonniwell’s narration of this Chapter that do not sit well with me. One is the emphasis on observing the Rule above all else. When I professed solemn vows as a Dominican friar, I promised obedience firstly to persons and not to rules. On November 10, 2007, kneeling before our Prior Provincial I said,

I, brother Jonah Francis Pollock, make profession and promise obedience to God, to blessed Mary, and to blessed Dominic, and to you brother David Dominic Izzo, prior provincial of the province of Saint Joseph in place of Carlos Azpiroz Costa, Master of the Order of Friars Preachers and his successors, according to the rule of blessed Augustine and the institutions of the Friars Preachers, that I will be obedient to you and your successors until death.

The “rule of blessed Augustine and the institutions of the Friars Preachers” were part of that vow, but my obedience is firstly and directly “to God, to blessed Mary, to blessed Dominic” and to my superiors in the Order. My vow was to persons according to rules. Thus, when Father Bonniwell describes Margaret’s heroic observance of the rule in conflict with her sisters and in spite of her superior’s insistence, it does not sit well with me.

Another thing with which I’m not comfortable is Father Bonniwell’s account of decline in religious observance. It is surely true that the “lessening of the severe requirements and the stern austerities of the primitive Rule” is a frequent if not inevitable phenomenon in religious orders. Much of that is indeed caused by lack of zeal and human weakness, as Father Bonniwell suggests. And the explanation “times have changed” can be poor excuse of lax observance.

But there is also truth in that explanation and changes in religious communities over time are not only the results of lax observance. As Dominican Friars, both I and Father Bonniwell professed obedience to our superiors “according the the rule of blessed Augustine.” That rule contains much that has always and will always form and guide the Order of Friars Preachers. Still, there are at least a couple directives in the rule that seem not to accord with the life and ministry of Dominican friars at the present time. For example, “Whenever you leave the house, go together; wherever you are going, stay together,” and “Keep your clothes in one place under the care of one or two.” Doubtless, these rules applied well to the Fifth Century community for which Saint Augustine first wrote his rule. But Dominican friars do not follow these rules today and I don’t think that is due to lax observance. I this cases, I think “times have changed” is actually a pretty good explanation.

Another problem I have is one I’ve raised before, which is the discrepancy between the way Margaret speaks about people and the way her biographers speak about the same people. I don’t really blame Father Bonniwell who, to a large extent, is probably repeating the language of his medieval sources. And maybe no one should be blamed because criticizing the people who oppose Margaret might be a necessary part of telling her story. But it still bothers me.

We saw this with Margaret’s parents. Father Bonniwell criticized them frequently and sternly. That was probably just. But it contrasted with Margaret’s refusal to criticize them. In describing the sisters at the Monastery of St. Margaret, Father Bonniwell again uses critical language. He speaks of their “carelessness” and their “abuses” and perhaps that is also just. But when, after Margaret is expelled from the monastery, Father Bonniwell says, “For a second time she had been rejected by those she loved,” I think he goes too far. I don’t think it’s fair to compare what the sisters did to what Margaret’s parent’s did. But whether or not what Father Bonniwell says about the sisters is fair, it sharply contrasts with what Margaret says. In Chapter 12, Margaret rebukes her friend Antonina for speaking ill of the sisters, saying, “Hush, Antonina, you must mot speak that way.” Would she say the same thing to her biographers?


Father Bonniwell titles Chapter 12 “Margaret Becomes a Mantellata.” He tells us,

Mantellate were lay women who were members of the Order of Penance of St. Dominic–an organization that eventually developed into the present Third Order of St. Dominic. Women who wished to live a more religious life, but who for any reason were unable to enter a convent, could affiliate themselves with the Dominican Order by joining the Order of Penance. In so doing they continued to live at home, but they bound themselves to a more religious schedule of life, and at all times, both at home and abroad, they wore the Dominican religious habit.

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Father Bonniwell goes on to tell how, for Margaret, “the day of her reception was one that always remained seared in [her] memory.” It is delightful to read how Margaret finally found a kind of lasting home among the Mantellate. After reading about her experience in the Monastery of St. Margaret, it is tempting to attribute Margaret’s happier experience with the Mantellate to their being an objectively better religious community. And maybe they were. But I think it better to conclude that the Mantellate were a better fit for Margaret. It seems in keeping with the vocation that God had already revealed to Margaret that she live out her uniquely penitential religious life in a more private manner of the Order of Penance. Also, as we will read in future chapters, Margaret’s religious vocation was to include a more active ministry for which, as a Mantellata, she would be well suited.


Questions:

  1. I like this book very much but my comments this week were largely critical. (Though, in criticizing criticism I’d like to think I’m imitating Saint Margaret.) In your comments, please feel free to criticize my criticism. Am I being unfair to Father Bonniwell?
  2. I fondly mentioned the quotation of the phrase “God’s mercy and yours” in Father Bonniwell’s description of Margaret’s profession as a Mantellata. Is there anything else about Margaret becoming a Mantellata that you want to comment on?
  3. I wrote in last week’s post about how Margaret always seems to think about what God is doing in responding to the events of her life. What do you think God was doing in these chapters of Margaret’s life? What do you think God is doing in your life as we read this book together?

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.

5 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LIFE OF BLESSED MARGARET OF CASTELLO, Chapters 11 and 12”

  1. Seems like one door was closed and another opened for Margaret! I was glad to see the Order of Penance of St. Dominic was able to reconsider the requirements for entrance into the Order. Through the persistence of her friends, Father Prior of the Order considered Margaret’s faith, character, and reputation not the fact that she was not a widow or too young. As Margaret was Received into the Order, put me in mind of when I too became a Tertiary of St. Dominic, being an elderly widow I thought I was too old! As she was professing her Promises, I was amazed that the words of Profession were very similar to my Profession! Sometimes the road to do God’s will in life takes many twists and turns before you get to where you should be in life!

  2. I am not offering criticism, because you are entitled to your feelings and opinions. A wise friar we all love once told me that his initial vocational experiences were not exactly as he expected religious life to be. Some aspects of living in community seemed to be more decadent than in secular life, such as the opportunity to eat nightly desserts. Rather than harboring resentment for those who indulged, time revealed it was more fitting to just occasionally eat some cake. I am not qualified to comment on religious life. As the wife of a retired NYPD officer, I know that developing fraternal relationships is the keystone to creating an environment of mutual trust. Officers need to trust each other in life or death situations. When considering eternal salvation, it would seem that friars need to trust each other in both this earthly life and beyond.

    As for Saint Margaret, it is refreshing to see how God works in mysterious ways. The woman who would not waiver from the rules joined the Third Order on an exception to the rules. We are so blessed that the Holy Spirit guides our God-given human freedoms.

    Over the past several weeks, I have been exploring Church documents from Vatican II through today with special emphasis on the role of the laity. I have also been studying the most recent Church statistics from CARA. According to their pre-COVID data, less than one-quarter of Catholics in the US attend Mass at least once per week and less than half of all Catholics attend Mass at least once per month. That creates a lost opportunity for communion and communication. After reflecting upon these things and how Saint Margaret reached people, I feel I need to improve my efforts toward evangelization. To that end, my next project will be a web-based tool designed to help people modify their habits to properly order their lives toward God.

    Stay tuned, and happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

  3. vera o – The young lady who never had security, love or a home…finally had one…among those who did not follow the rules as she understood them.. This resulted in her being told, if you don’t lighten up. you are” out”…and Out she was. I think the author was a bit extreme…and perhaps you, too might be on the other extreme…which leads to overemphasis of certain aspects vis a vis reality, on both sides, meaning middle, common ground. Even in our own land, laws continue to evolve..as society changes…
    2. I rather like the idea of third orders, Dominic, Carmelites, legion o f Mary….an extra effort when one’s state in life permits, trying to work at spiritually, raising our hearts and minds and life to our higher power.
    I think the Higher Power ,God ,was trying to expose her to different aspects of the same type of life…so she could experience different things, and find which, if either, or any, would be most suitable for her.
    3. Ironically, the way she became a Dominican lay person was by their looking over again at their rules…prior only older widows…now a first…a young, unmarried woman…I think that might be God showing h er various facets of life, chapters, changes. For me, the reading of the book reminds me that while m current caretaking duties (among others) does not permit me a lot of “outside” ecumenical activities.. I am forced to review my own spiritualty as it stands in my life and to try harder, whether by religious readings, writings, praying or whatever to improve my own relationship with God…in some way….however limited my own “freedom” might be at this time in my life.

  4. 1. Criticism according to Google can be an analysis and judgement of merits and faults. It can also be meant as disapproval.
    That covers all bases it seems to be. It also covers the portrayal of St. Margarets and Mantellata. Depends on where we are standing but does not give any definitive statement for one or the other, although the biography leans toward Mantellata being the noble way of life. Fr.Jonah as you say the latter was a better fit.
    Being a Dominican woman Religious, vowed for many years, the times have brought many changes. Depends again on how one reads something as lax or changes in the times. Is there is more Love and Spirit within the life that we live is the goal and the measuring rod and not the Rule alone Both can exist together in my opinion with the Rule and the ongoing Guiding Discernments over the years, working together. Margaret undoubtedly saw the good in St. Margaret’s and the Mantellata-. She knew her fit and judged from that stance.

    2. I am most grateful for the reminder of “What do you ask” responding “God’s Mercy and yours” I also as a Dominican responded the same. The motto of the Dominican order is “To contemplate and to give to others the fruit of our Contemplation”. She was one with God and lived her life from that center. Veritas, another Dominican motto -Truth is also a center for Margaret. God was her Truth. Community and Ministry , two of the pillars of Dominican life were very much woven within the life of Margaret. Seems like a good fit to me also.

    3. Margaret seemed always to trust God, maybe not knowing what was happening at the moment or for the future. She needed time to let it play itself out. But she always seemed to be anchored in God’s Presence and Love.
    What is God doing in my life in reading of the life of St. Margaret? I am most interested in knowing what are the reasons at this time for her canonization. Yes, the disabled, Yes pro-life; care for the unborn. Yes to the call to dignity for all.
    But in reading of the life of St. Margaret I believe the Spirit is also saying more. Her contemplative life is the answer for Love over hatred or revenge or unforgiveness. Love at the center of our life. Not our doing but our agreement with allowing God to be there and we bear the fruit.

  5. In reading these chapters, I thought of St. Teresa of Avila, who found the same conditions within her cloister that St. Margaret found at the Monastery. Teresa’s personality seems to me to be a much more assertive one in dealing with people’s deviation from the rule, while Margaret, who always did whatever her parents and priests told her, is less likely to take charge. She did speak with the head of the cloister about the deviations from the rule. Whereas St. Teresa of Avila was forceful in her exhortations for reform, Margaret’s humility comes into play, I think. Is there a Psalm that says, “Do not resist the evil man?” In the long run Margaret may have taken this trouble as a sign of God’s Will for her, and so she doesn’t resent the difficulties she faced there. Doesn’t her rejection at the Monastery lead her to her true vocation? Her life-long devotion to Jesus in His sufferings fits far better with the Mantelata than with the nuns at the cloister. Perhaps Margaret feels no desire to judge, but leaves that to God. In the end, the Monastery’s rejection bears good fruit.

    I think that at the time there was great need for reform in most religious communities. Fr. Bonniwell is, perhaps, drawing on history as well as the Medieval Biographer to provide a picture of the religious community practices of the day, and how ill they accorded with true commitment to living out of the world according to the holy ways of the founders of those orders. It certainly helps explain why Margaret was better suited to a Dominican vocation, especially as she tried to comply with the Monastery’s rule to show the others that it could be done, without pointing fingers and causing injury. That the others were offended by Margaret’s virtues does not speak well of their commitment to God or of their efforts to examine their own consciences. Granted, in all likelihood the same lax conditions were in effect when those particular nuns entered that Monastery, and the nuns were probably disturbed that the conditions under which they entered were being threatened, but they rejected Margaret’s quiet efforts to enlighten them.

    Do vows to persons in authority mean that you must obey even when the authority is in the wrong, or is not strong enough to correct others who are in the wrong? Or do the vows imply that the person in authority has a devotion to maintaining the integrity of the rule or moral code by which society was formed? Is there provision in the rule for change? That would imply that the founder believed that what applied in his day might change with time. If there is no provision for change, does that mean that the founder believed that no change should occur to something integral to the work and function of the society? This has implications not just for religious communities, but for political and social entities.

    Regarding the changes made to St. Dominic’s rules about clothing and working in pairs, have you asked your superiors about the changes and why they occurred?

    Regarding this week’s questions:
    1. I don’t think it is unfair to Fr. Bonniwell to point out the differences in his descriptions of life with the Monastery nuns and with the Mantellata. It brings out what most readers discern: that he has a definite bias toward Dominican life, and so did Margaret.

    2. As you point out, the vocation to bring the Good News to others, especially the poor, imprisoned, sick and dying, as well as those living in error, is definitely closer to Margaret’s way of life than a cloistered existence. That seems odd, because she spent nineteen years in the “ loister” of the “safe places” her parents provided for her, while her work for the people around her at her parents’ residence only occurred in the first four or five years of her childhood. By habit, then, she should have been well suited to the cloister, and ill suited to going abroad in the world helping others. Perhaps having spent that much time shut away gave Margaret extra enthusiasm for her inclination to work for the good of each individual in the civil community. I think for most people, being shown in every way that she was unfit to move around in the world and live as others do, would have discouraged anyone from trying, yet Margaret did. Offering her private sufferings up with Jesus must have given Margaret a sense of the infinity to which she was joined as she joined her sufferings to Jesus’.

    3. Perhaps the uneasy feeling that Margaret experienced when she first entered the cloister was a sign from God that this was not to be a permanent way to live out her love for God.

    God probably is telling me that I am way too timid and fearful about loving and serving Him in this world. In terms of the book, I received my copy, and am very grateful. Having heard Navine at the zoom on Saturday, I have already shared the hard-copy with my husband, and intend to share it with several other friends when he has read it. Thank yo again for choosing this book, for including us in the group, for having zoom discussions so we can meet each other and contribute to a visible and (virtually) present community, and for persuading Navine to speak with us about her devotion to St. Margaret of Castello,

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