Spring 1989, Vol.41 No. 1, pp. 54-61.

Kathleen McDonagh: Colloquy
      "Catholicism's Spiritual Limbo":
           A Response to Daniel A. Helminiak

Sr. Kathleen McDonagh, I.W.B.S., has been researching the charism of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament and the spirituality of Jeanne de Matel since 1967. She has also worked in Rome since 1981 preparing the position paper for the beatification of Jeanne de Matel.

IN his article, "Catholicism's Spiritual Limbo: A Shift in `Incarnational' Spirituality," Fr. Daniel Helminiak chose to use the seventeenth-century Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament as an example of a community which must change its spirituality to meet twentieth-century needs. Since I am a twentieth-century member of that order, I am intensely interested in his article. I do not agree, however, with several points that Fr. Helminiak makes.

With the major thesis, that incarnational spirituality in the twentieth century is different from incarnational spirituality in the seventeenth century, I am in complete agreement. Growth brings change, and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament would have died out long ago if they had resisted change. My disagreements with the article center on Helminiak's treatment of the foundress, Jeanne de Matel, and with several of his statements regarding incarnational spirituality.


Jeanne de Matel was a prolific writer. Today, 318 years after her death, we have in our archives more than 5,500 typescript pages of her original writings. (The manuscripts of most of these are in Incarnate Word Convent in Lyons, France.) Yet Helminiak's notes list only two sources for his comments on Jeanne de Matel, and both of these are from secondary sources. Mother Pierre's Life of the Reverend Mother Jeanne Chezard de Matel (Fribourg, 1910) is recognized as the biography which makes the best use of the original manuscripts. John M. Lozano's Jeanne Chezard de Matel and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word (Chicago, 1983) is a most important study for the latter part of the twentieth century. Helminiak cites (notes 18, 21, and 25) only four pages of Lozano's book, however, and only two pages of Mother Pierre's book (notes 19 and 24). In my opinion, this is insufficient documentation on which to judge the spirituality of a woman of seventeenth-century France, especially when a wealth of primary documentation is available. Thus, I question the accuracy of some of Helminiak's statements.


On p. 338, Helminiak states, "For Jeanne, 'Incarnate Word'... did not imply a fellow human being like ourselves but rather God, and God precisely as present to us." Certainly, Jeanne de Matel does see the Incarnate Word "as God and precisely as God present to us." In this, she agrees with such twentieth-century theologians as Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler who, in their Theological Dictionary, state, "Christology 'from below' would have to demonstrate that this Jesus is the absolute real presence of God in the world."(1) This accords with the long-standing tradition of the Church. But Jeanne de Matel also sees the Incarnate Word as human. Certainly, her vocabulary and mode of expression center on the divinity, but careful reading of her works uncovers an appreciation of the humanity as well. She sees the main purpose of her order as making the Incarnate Word present again in this world. She states, "His aim was, by this means to be born again into the world, and to appear there a second time."(2) "This means" is the Order of the Incarnate Word, which emphasizes the presence of Christ in the world now. She felt it was entirely fitting, therefore, on her first right in Paris in August, 1643, to find herself sharing in the poor circumstances of the Holy Family in Bethlehem. She writes,

On the night when we reached Paris, ..."there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7) .... By happy necessity, we slept in a little room, lower than the street pavement, and if it had not been on the street, it would have been more appropriately called a stable, since it was a cave for several domestic animals. (3)
The order's extension of the Incarnate Word need not mean such a literal reliving of the exterior situation of the life of the Incarnate Word. When a situation lends itself to this, however, Jeanne de Matel recognizes it and tries to live out the parallel.

Her usual sources for prayer are the liturgical readings for the next day. Thus, her Vie Autographe and her Ecrits refer consistently and repeatedly to the major events in the human life of Christ. Her Incarnate Word is a loving friend who, in accord with the French custom, gives her an annual new Year's gift.(4) On the Epiphany, she contrasts the glory of the Magi with the smallness of the King in the crib and says, "I could have no thought of being rejected from your crib where your Goodness draws the most timid of souls by its gentleness."(5) Jesus, in his baptism in the desert, in his passion -- all are part of her prayer. On Good Friday she says, "I was disposed to die with You... my soul was overwhelmed with sorrow and in an abyss of bitterness;(6) but on Easter Sunday, she shares in his glory.(7)

Jeanne de Matel certainly saw the Incarnate Word as divine; she did not have all the insights into his humanity that we have today. It is inaccurate, however, to say that "for her, Incarnate Word' did not imply Jesus, a fellow human being like ourselves." She was acutely aware of the humanity of the Incarnate Word and lived and prayed in union with it.


On p. 341, Helminiak states "For Jeanne, the Blessed Sacrament offers the way of encountering the Incarnate Word." I reply that the Blessed Sacrament offers Jeanne a way of encountering the Incarnate Word, not the way. Clearly, she also encounters him in Scripture, in prayer, and in other people.

Seventeenth-century French women were not highly educated. There is reference to Jeanne de Matel's learning to read when she was seven years old (8) but she comments herself that she had never studied.(9) She records, however, that when she dedicated her life definitively to the Lord at the age of nineteen, the Incarnate Word made known to her that

My daughter, I wish to speak to you through Scripture, and through Holy Writ you will know my will. I want it to be the code that will teach you what I want you to learn, for your own salvation and that of your neighbor. To others I have spoken in parables and without parables I have seldom spoken to them. To you, my well-beloved, I wish to make my plans known through Scripture.(10)
In her prolific writings, scriptural quotations (always in Latin) and scriptural allusions abound. So numerous are both that sometimes they make it difficult to follow her train of thought as text is piled upon text and her thoughts are expressed in biblical terms. This gift of finding the Incarnate Word in his written word is ongoing. In her first experience of aridity following her conversion, he consoles her by saying, "I will give you a knowledge of Holy Scripture and of the sacred mysteries. I myself will be your teacher."(11) And much later, on Jan. 1, 1653, her New Year's gift is "all of Holy Scripture."(12)

In addition to finding the Incarnate Word in the Blessed Sacrament and in Scripture, Jeanne de Matel encounters him profoundly in her prayer. In her article "Augustine of Hippo: Psychologist Saint," Dorothy Donnelly describes Augustine's Confessions as "the only autobiography in the world [written] in the form of a prayer.(13) But Jeanne de Matel's Vie Autographe and her Ecrits, written in the form of direct address to the Incarnate Word, are a prolonged prayer. For her, prayer is an intense encounter with her beloved Incarnate Word. To her, he is "Dear Love," "My Love," "My Lord," "My Dear Savior." In her recorded prayer, she praises, thanks, questions, expresses both her pain and her joy. The Incarnate Word is an intimate friend to whom she comes in prayer to pour out her deepest feelings.(14)

Because Paul's doctrine of the Body of Christ is very real to her, she also encounters Christ in other people. In giving her sisters instructions on the Beatitudes, she tells them,

The second object of our compassion is our neighbor .... It is Jesus Christ Himself who presents him to us, and in a manner most apt to arouse our pity, for He assures is that he Himself suffers in all those whom we see in misery .... It is I, He says, whose hunger and thirst you appease when you give food and drink to the poor ....(15)
Again she says,
We constitute with Him but one Body .... He solicits for each of us as for Himself, aid and assistance in every need, not only because he loves us but because He Himself experiences them with us. He is and infirm with us. He suffers the hunger and thirst that we suffer.(16)
Clearly, she sees the Incarnate Word in other people, experiencing in then, suffering in them, seeking help in them.


Also on p. 341, Helminiak states,

Unlike clearly apostolic institutes, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word were not founded to meet a specific practical need. They were to be an enclosed order, cloistered. Yet from the very beginning, an apostolic mission was part of Jeanne's vision for her order: the education of youth.
This seems to say that enclosed cloistered orders in the Church do not meet "a specific practical need." Experience shows, however, that when all those needs ordinarily considered "practical" are met, the human spirit still needs prayer and the worship of God to give meaning to life. On p. 340, Helminiak contrasts Jeanne's purpose of worship with the purpose of apostolic orders, which is "to transform the world in expectation of the Reign of God." But is not the purpose of bringing about the Reign of God to lead all to worship and adoration of the living God for all eternity? Contemplatives begin here on earth that prayer of love and adoration towards which the whole Church is moving. Jeanne de Matel understood this clearly and did not minimize its importance in setting up her order.

Thus there seems to be a contradiction. Having commented on the fact that the Sisters of the Incarnate Word were "not founded to meet a specific practical need," Helminiak notes that part of the vision of the order was "the education of youth." Surely this is a "specific practical need." It is also very definitely an end of the Order of the Incarnate Word. Fr. Helminiak errs in assuming that there is only one end in the order, that of adoration. If that were true, the order would be a surely contemplative one. However, from the beginning, even in Jeanne de Matel's first effort at writing a constitution before she left her home in 1625, she was planning in terms of a contemplative/apostolic order. In that first projected constitution, which was never approved, she calls for the sisters to go to a high place, like Moses, to speak face to face with God. But they will also descend to teach their neighbor.(17) In the constitutions approved by Pope Urban VIII and confirmed by Pope Innocent X, five ends of the order are listed: the increase of divine worship, then instruction of youth, special homage to the person of the Incarnate Word, special homage to the Most Blessed Sacrament, and devotion out Our Lady.(18) Education is not an "extra" added later; it is part of the raison d'etre of the order.


In addition to points concerning the spirituality of Jeanne Chezard de Matel, I question some of Fr. Helminiak's statements concerning incarnational spirituality. The first of these is on p. 333: "In the seventeenth century, the concern was the Incarnate Word; today the concern is the Incarnation." If this statement is an accurate appraisal of the concerns of our time, I think it is a step backwards. The Incarnate Word is a person; the Incarnation is an event. Surely the person takes precedence over the event. The great conversion accounts of the Church are stories of encounter with a person. From the personal encounter, a relationship develops, and then action flows. In Acts 9:4 5, Paul experiences the Lord Jesus and thereafter for him "life' means Christ" (cf. Phil. 1:21). his experience is one of having been "grasped by Christ" (Phil. 3:12b), and it is this which sets him on fire to being others to the person of the Lord, opening him up to his great missionary work. This is also true of others: Peter, Nathanael, the woman at the well, Zacchaeus. Augustine's fourth-century "You have made is for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you"(19) is a totally person-oriented statement. Augustine becomes the busiest of pastors and bishops, but his activity is based on a love-relationship with the person of the Incarnate Word. He tell us, "Your Word... nourishes their love."(20) Teresa of Avila, that joyous sixteenth-century woman, experienced her moment of conversion through surrender to the Lord whose presence was symbolized for her through a statue of the "Ecce Homo."(21) For her, prayer "is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends."(22) But in the light of her "intimate sharing," she embarks on the work of reforming the Carmelite Order.

Helminiak is certainly right when he says on p. 338, "Properly speaking, the core of the charisma of the Institute [of the Incarnate Word] is not the Incarnation as such, but the very Word made Flesh." Yes, indeed, the core of our charism (surely a better word than "charisma?") is the person, the Incarnate Word, and in that we rejoice. If spirituality in our day is replacing a person with an event, it is my conviction that it can hardly be applauded.


On p. 337, Helminiak speaks of the "theological inadequacy" of centering one's spirituality on the Incarnate Word. Certainly the liturgical formula is "in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father." But this is not the only trinitarian teaching. Perichoresis is "the necessary being-in-one-another or circumincession of the three divine persons of the Trinity because of the single divine essence."(23) In the Trinity, the Father eternally communicates the divine essence to the Son, who eternally receives it. In all else except in this relative opposition, everything is held in common by Father and Son. Each is so wholly in the other that with respect to the created world, they are a single operative principle.(24) Similarly, the mission of the Spirit in the economy of salvation is to be the power of God in the world through which the Church, the Kingdom of God now present in mystery, grows visibly.(25) Because he can only return to the Father in the Spirit, Jesus simultaneously reveals Father and Spirit (26) Therefore, to center one's spirituality in any one of the persons of the Trinity is to be brought to the other two.


We Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament are pleased that a theologian of stature should take note of our foundress. Because his research was done so inadequately, however, his article becomes a problem rather than a help. Helminiak joins Henri Bremond who, earlier in this century undertook in volume VI of his Histoire litteraire du sentiment religieux en France to evaluate the mysticism of Jeanne de Matel. Like Helminiak, he used only secondary sources and was highly critical of our foundress. His study was a major obstacle to her Cause of Beatification. In order to offset the problems caused by Bremond, it became necessary to call upon Canon Leon Cristiani of the Institut Catholique in Lyons to undertake a major study of the life and spirituality of Jeanne de Matel. This is his Etude historico-critique de sources de la vie de Jeanne de Matel. Ultimately, Bremond's criticism became a "happy fault," since it occasioned Cristiani's thorough and scholarly Etude.

But the Cause of Beatification, now in process in Rome, is not the only problem. Some of Helminiak's criticisms strike at the very heart of the spirituality of the Congregation of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. In the last twenty years, we have made (and are still making) serious efforts to have as our supreme rule "the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel," and also to serve "in the spirit and aim" of our foundress.(27) Difficulties in doing the latter arise from the fact that her writings are in Old French, with many archaic words and phrases. But the difficulties are not insurmountable. We are willing to work slowly and patiently to seek the meaning behind the flowery language and sometimes unusual images. More and more, it becomes clear that in this case the medium is not the message. Our work is similar to that of archeology, and through persistent effort, we are gradually uncovering a spirituality that has very much to offer our day. Jeanne de Matel's spirituality is person-centered and based on a relationship of love with the incarnate Word. Properly understood, it leads to a mission of service in the Church which, cyclically, will lead back in love to the Incarnate Word.

  1. Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), p. 79.
  2. Jeanne Chezard de Matel, Treatise Composed on the Beatitudes (publishing information not available), pp. 21-22.
  3. Jeanne Chezard de Matel, Vie Autographe, II (unpublished), pp. 486-87. All references to the Vie Autographe are to the French typescript.
  4. Ibid., pp. 497, 559. Cf Letter to Charles Miron, Archbishop of Lyons, May, 1628.
  5. Ibid., p. 592.
  6. Ibid., p. 624; III, p. 866. Cf. Letter to Father Jacquinot, S.J., Provincial, Nov, 3, 1620.
  7. Ibid., II, p. 626.
  8. Ibid., I, p. 10.
  9. Ibid., III, p. 907.
  10. Ibid., I, p. 31. Cf. Letter to Fr. Jacquinot.
  11. Ibid., I, p. 52.
  12. Ibid., III, p. 683.
  13. Doris Donnelly, C. S. J., "Augustine of Hippo: Psychologist Saint," Spiritual Life 25, 1 (Spring, 1979): 13.
  14. Vie Autographe I, passim; Ecrits passim.
  15. Treatise Composed on the Beatitudes, p. 10.
  16. Ibid., p. 124.
  17. Jeanne Chezard de Matel, "First Projected Constitutions," Appendix to the Collected Works of Jeanne Chezard de Matel (typescript), p. 25.
  18. Regle de S. Augustin pour lei religieuses de son .ordre; et Constitutions de la Congregation des Religieuses du Verbe-Incarne et du Saint-Sacrament (Lyon: Chez Pierre Guillimin, 1662), pp. 28-29. Cf. later edition published at Lyon (Chez Briday, Libraire,1962), pp. 22-24. English edition, The Rule of Saint Augustine and the Constitutions of the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament (New York: Schwartz, Kirwin, and Fauss, 1893), pp. 33-35.
  19. Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. by John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1961), p. 65.
  20. Ibid., p. 176.
  21. Teresa of Avila, Life, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otillio Rodriquez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1976), pp. 70-71.
  22. Ibid., p. 67.
  23. Rahner and Vorgrimler, op. cit., p. 350.
  24. Ibid., p. 470.
25. "Lumen Gentium" in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1975), p. 351. 26. Xavier Leon- Dufour, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Theology, trans. under the direction of P. Joseph Cahill (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1969), p. 185. 27. "Perfectae Caritatis" in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. cit., p. 612.