Tuesday, January 15, 2013

CELESTE AND BAPTISM Our Participation in the Life of the Faithful Escort

Happy Feast Day
of the
Baptism of the Lord.
When I first began to do research I couldn’t find anything in particular that Celeste said about the Baptism of the Lord.  I widened the search to the word ‘baptism’ and came up with precious few hits in the Florilegium, a collection of her writings.

In her Autobiography Celeste tells us she was baptized the day after her birth, October 31, 1696, on All Saints Day, and was given the name Julia Marcella Santa.   I then looked at  something Celeste wrote after 1751 called Giardinetto Spirituale, the Little Spiritual Garden.  Little is not the right word; this tome is made up of some 600 large pages written in Celeste’s own hand in an Old Italian Neapolitan dialect.  The Giardinetto Spirituale is part Autobiography and part Maria Celeste’s meditations throughout the liturgical year and all the insights she received from pondering the mysteries of the Incarnation.  She wrote this book as a manual of devotions and spiritual exercises for her Sisters which she called ‘Exercise of Love.’

Celeste was want to call Jesus endearments such as her Beloved, the Wayfarer, the God/Man, her Spouse, etc.  But tucked away in her Autobiography was a little nugget of a gem I never noticed before: Faithful Escort. 

Before I begin to speak of Celeste and Baptism and our participation in the life of the Faithful Escort I’ll talk about the meaning and symbols of Baptism.  The word Baptism itself comes from the Greek meaning to ‘dunk’: as in full body immersion.  The kind John the Baptist would have performed on all those who came to the Jordan River to repent and be wash of their sins.   The Filipinos have the right idea when they celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord – they don’t get a little sprinkling at Mass, no, it looks more like they just came from some huge water fight – everyone is soaking! 

We highlight the sacrament of Baptism during the Easter Vigil after the blessing of the water.  During the blessing we have a mini history lesson of the work of salvation through the gift of water. 
In part the blessing reads:

‘At the dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the well spring of all holiness. 

The waters of the great flood are a sign of an end to sin and a new beginning of goodness.  

Through the waters of the Red Sea the Chosen People were set free from slavery. 

In the Jordan Jesus was baptized by John and anointed by the Spirit.

Water and blood flowed from Jesus’ side as he hung on a cross. 

And after the resurrection Jesus told his disciples to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit that all may be cleansed from sin in a new birth of innocence by water and the Spirit.’ 

The Rite ends by proclaiming
          ‘…all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life with him.’

That last sentence reminds me of the Prioress’ blessing of the community every night after Compline.  She sprinkles the community with Holy Water and sings, ‘May the all powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.’   It is a symbol of our following Christ in his death and rising. 

That echoes what St. Paul wrote to the Romans "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." Rom. 6:4

All the prayers at the end of Compline sum up perfectly what this means: I paraphrase:  ‘May we now rest in your peace and rise again refreshed and joyful … so we may rise to new life … to render more faithful service to you (and)  …bear fruit in eternal life.’  For me it is a grace-filled way to end the day.

Do you remember you baptism?  I have no recollection of my baptism, other than some home movies.  Our parents chose for us a relationship with God and the Catholic community when they dedicated us to God at our baptism.   In adulthood, we make a conscious choice to be in relationship with God and dedicate ourselves to follow the path of the Redeemer.   Everyday, when I make the sign of the cross using water from the holy water font, it is an affirmation of my baptism.

In your Associate Constitution #12 it states: “Baptism is the beginning of our trans-formation in Jesus Christ.  It marks, in effect, our first and fundamental consecration as children of God.  We are called to continue this transformation in order to become both personally and together, a Living Memory of the Paschal Mystery of the Redeemer.” 

Our bodies are made up of 55 -78% of water depending on body size. Doctors are always warning us to stay hydrated.  We are attracted to water for good biological reasons.   

You may have heard the quote of Teilhard de Chardin that says, ‘We are made of star dust.’  That may be true, but life on earth emerged from the primordial waters. We are essentially water beings.  We feel a pull towards water. Just ask anyone who has been to the ocean.  There is something primal, holy, about being in the presence of the immensity of so much water. The waves rolling in and out stir in us an inner longing. In that experience we discover a spiritual thirst.    We are, after all, body and spirit.

Celeste was no stranger to water.  She grew up by the Gulf of Naples, and in religious life, could look down from Scala to the Amalfi Coast.  Therefore it is not hard to understand why the Lord used what she was familiar with when revealing his intent to her in visions.
She writes in the  Florilegium #111: “…you show me how you are that most vast sea of perfect and infinite Good and how I am like a drop of water which falls unto you and is changed in that vast sea, where, losing my own being, I see myself become an ocean of every kind of good.’  Hear the baptismal imagery of losing and becoming, a dying and rising, a transformation of her being into a new being in Christ through water?

Let us look at the experience of Baptism in the writings of Celeste.  Note: Even though Celeste is writing about herself she often writes in the third person.

Once, when Julia/Celeste was 11 years old, she received the Sacred Host and the Lord showed her His open side and made her enter into His Divine Heart saying, "Enter into this wound and I will purify you from all your sins."  In awe she began to shed abundant tears when the Lord continued, "I wish to be your Guide, (your Faithful Escort).  I will lead you; look for none other than Me alone.  I will be your Master; love no creature except Me alone." Autobiography     It was there in the Divine Heart of Jesus Celeste received a spiritual baptism and from that time on she was led by her Faithful Escort alone.

When she was around seventeen, Julia’s wise confessor ordered her to keep a spiritual journal on the graciousness of her Faithful Escort.  She wrote, ‘You, my Love, have never wearied of loving her, of doing good to her and of keeping close to her so that she should not withdraw herself from You, the Source of Living Water.’  Autobiography    Julia re-cognized that from the moment of her baptism, Jesus, the Source of Living Water had carried her; escorted her thus far in life.  Would that we were all aware of such a union and a Faithful Escort!   And what would that mean in our lives, and for the Church, and for the world?

Julia was 27 years old when she entered a Visitation monastery in Scala.  It was there, while she was yet a novice, the Faithful Escort revealed the Intent of the Father to make that community “a living memorial of all that it pleased the Only Begotten Son to do for their salvation.”  Like on their baptismal day, the community was to ‘stamp on their spirit the features of His life’ and ‘on earth be living and inspired portraits of the Beloved Son.’ Intent of the Father

Initially, this brought joy to the community but trials and sufferings followed, so much so that Julia, now Celeste, was dismissed from the monastery because she could not accept the community’s Spiritual Father, Bishop Tomas Falcoia’s order for him to be her sole spiritual guide.  In liberty of conscience, Celeste would not accept another guide other than her Faithful Escort.  During those times of tribulation the heavenly Father spoke to Celeste saying, ‘Daughter, here then is where you are led by the faith which I gave you in my Baptism; walk always with this Faithful Escort, my Beloved Son, and have no fear of any sort of deception.  In that way you will become possessed of the hidden treasure of a pure faith.   The Faithful Escort will conduct you to the truth and to the peace that is the kiss of the Holy Spirit. And you will arrive safely at my Kingdom. Florilegium 22

And so follow she did.  Celeste and her sibling, Illuminata, went to other monasteries between 1733 and 1738 where she regained her equilibrium, renewed her peace of mind, helped re-establish a Dominican monastery and school, accepted an offer to found her community with the New Rule only to moved again after falling under suspicion after testifying at an Inquisition.

Celeste finally settled in Foggia at the age of 42 where she and her companions could practice the full, regular observance of the complete and original Rule and spent the rest of her life in peace.

Celeste believed that by following her Faithful Escort she was able to participate in the building of the Kingdom of God.  Your Constitution #21 tells us how this is done: “The more we allow this Spirit to invade us with His transforming presence, the better will we exercise the priesthood of our baptism, by offering ourselves to the Father as a living eucharist for the world.  We find light and strength in the Word of God and in the sacraments so that we can, following the example of Christ, make of our whole life a sacrifice of praise to the glory of the Father.”

So too, we build on this foundation in our response to the Father as Redemptoristines and Associates.  I quote again your Constitution #14:  “Our association desires to follow Christ very closely.  Our ideal is to make His purity, His simplicity, His obedience to the will of His Father, all His attitudes and all His choices truly our own.  The more we progress in this transformation of ourselves in Him, the more we will be able to be a living witness of His charity.  It is through the revelation of this charity that our brothers and sisters will discover in Jesus Christ the one Truth and the one Hope.” 

How do we do this? We humbly walk beside our Faithful Escort.  In your Constitution #27 on Humility and Gentleness of Heart it says, “Far from seeking His own glory, Jesus took the condition of a slave, becoming as human beings are.  He, whose condition was divine, emptied Himself even to dying on the cross for our redemption.  To be united to Christ and to be transformed by Him into a new creation, we contemplate Him in His wondrous humility.  We learn from Him the true way of humility and self-denial.”

By our commitment as Redemptoristines and Associates, we continue our life long process of transformation begun in baptism as we assumed the work of Jesus in our lives.  “Daily conversion is the normal attitude of all the baptized.  It is continual purification of the soul, a firm will to follow humbly the teaching of the Gospel and the invitations of the Spirit through the circumstances of life.”  Constitution #25     “The more we strive to live the love of Christ, the more the thoughts and feelings of Christ will fill our spirit and heart, the more we will become His faithful images and the more also we will be able to be true witnesses to the love of Him who is our beginning and our End, our Way and our Life, our Shepherd and our Master” -our Faithful Escort.  Constitution #6 

Celeste calls this participation.  “…participation in and union with the Life of Jesus, our Faithful Escort…traveling in the footsteps he travelled in his most holy Life.”  Florilegium

Even though we are called to share in the humiliations and sufferings of Christ’s life it is not a life without joy.   ‘The contemplation of the mysteries of Christ will develop in us a mark of happy and radiant joy, of simplicity and true charity.”   Constitution #9  

Jesus once told Celeste, “You will share my joy through participation in my love.”  Florilegium 51     When I made my Profession on January 12, 1991, I put that quote on my profession card.  It sums up my motto is ‘Jesus, Others, You = JOY

Given today’s feast, the Baptism of the Lord, I could never forgive myself if I didn’t mention John the Baptist somewhere in this talk as John is a special patron of mine.    I think what Celeste was trying to say in all her writings John said in a nutshell,
“He must increase and I must decrease.’   

My prayer for you today is
may your participation in the life of the Faithful Escort increase.