Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Contemptus Mundi and the Love of Life

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Contemptus Mundi and the Love of Life

Article excerpt

Just down the road from the lively Piazza Barberini is a Capuchin church, Santa Maria della Concezione. Practically every Roman street corner boasts some little church, supported-or sometimes squashed-between the hotels and high-rises that have sprouted up over the centuries. And, more often than not, these unassuming churches shelter some almost-forgotten treasure: the prison cell of St. Paul, the grill of St. Laurence, a darkened Caravaggio canvas, Michelangelo's unfinished tomb. Ancient treasures, whose saints and artists have long since passed to their reward, but that linger in remembrance: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But the rose-colored Capuchin church, once more popular than even the catacombs, has a unique appeal. The crypt below is lavishly decorated with the bones of more than four thousand friars, from three centuries of Franciscan mendicancy. It's not so morbidly spectacular as one would expect. There is a certain monastic peace that settles on the pilgrim as he makes his way through the Crypt of the Skulls and the Crypt of the Pelvises, past the Crypt of the Leg and Thigh Bones, and finally into the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, with shoulder-bone flowers and stars adorning the corridor vaults between.

It is an extraordinary memento mori, provoking somber thoughts about somber matters. Yet, somewhat incongruously, the Capuchin bone crypt came to mind as I attended a wedding on this year's Feast of the Presentation. I've been to plenty of weddings, all quite joyful and lovely, but this one was different-it was the final profession of two Sisters of Life, members of a vibrant order founded in 1991 by New York's John Cardinal O'Connor. Each sister knelt before the mother superior, placed her young hands in those wise and experienced ones, and vowed to live perpetually in poverty, chastity, and obedience, committed to protecting human life in all its stages. "If you are faithful to these vows," said Mother Agnes, "I promise you, in the name of God, eternal life."

A bold promise, to be sure, but a bold offering too: These women were giving nothing less than their whole lives to Christ. And yet they weren't claiming to do Great Things or offer Great Sacrifices or be famous and heroic. Instead, the liturgy echoed the deep-rooted Dominican rite of profession: What do you seek?-God's mercy andyours. "seek and you shall find," the Scriptures promise; God never withholds his mercy. The secret of the spiritual life is not such a secret after all.

A final profession is a wedding. The veil is that of a bride, and the long, white habit of the sisters-modeled after the Dominican robe-has always reminded me of a wedding gown. As the sisters processed in, carrying lit candles for the feast, they chanted the words of David: The Bridegroom is here; go out and welcome him. Later, after they had made their vows before the altar, the presiding archbishop blessed their rings and placed them on their fingers, a sign of perpetual covenant with the Lord. And throughout, the packed congregation-family and friends, religious sisters and mothers with children, those who have given and those who have received-took part in the prayers and hymns.

A final profession is a wedding, but at times it also seems like a funeral. Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, intoned the choir before Mass. secundum verbum tuum in pace. Simeon's canticle was appropriate for the day's feast, but it resonated, too, with the occasion. In a sense, the professed sisters were dying to the world; they were offering up the normal cares and pursuits that we take for granted-home, family, ambitions-not because these are bad or dangerous but because they are not enough. And though the veiled women have chosen to be set apart for Christ, they are hardly alone. The Capuchin crypt reminds me of that, and so does the Litany of Saints. Su. Francis and Clare ... Sts. Dominic and Catherine ...St. Elizabeth Ann Seton . …

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