When Mother Angeline founded the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm almost 100 years ago, she did so because she felt a divinely inspired call to care for the elderly in a new way. Starting a new religious community is in no way a straightforward or trivial undertaking. One has to find a suitable place to live, benefactors who are willing to provide economic support, and young women who want to share in the mission—all this in addition to obtaining the necessary approval of the local bishop. Breaking away from her previous religious community, along with her six companions, was a risky venture with no guarantee of success. Much of what Mother Angeline had to do to begin this new community she had to learn on her own. There were no workshops she could attend or consultants to tell her all the steps she needed to follow to give life to this new community.
I have had the opportunity recently to read Mother Angeline’s circular letters—letters she wrote regularly to the Sisters in the Congregation as a way of instruction and inspiration. Over the course of 46 years, Mother sent out scores of these letters to the Superiors of the Congregation, and these letters were really Mother Angeline’s way of being a mother to her spiritual daughters. As just as any mother, sometimes she would have to correct and admonish, and other times she would gush with praise over the accomplishments of her “children”. What I found striking in reading these letters was the amount of attention Mother gave to the spiritual formation of the sisters. Mother was not only concerned with how well the Congregation cared for elderly men and women; she was also deeply invested in how her sisters were continually and seriously attending to their spiritual lives. She felt personally responsible for the young women who believed that by joining this Congregation they would be following an authentic path to holiness. To Mother, a religious vocation is an invitation that God bestows on those who feel called to serve Him in a more intimate way: “I want to instill in your minds and hearts a deep and lasting gratitude for the vocation which God has given you, a gift so precious that only in Eternity will you fully realize its true worth.” To this end, Mother regularly reminded her sisters that they needed to safeguard their vocations, to be wary of “worldliness” and things that distract them from the spiritual life. Even their work with the aged was not to be a detriment to their lives of prayer: “It makes us [Religious] realize more and more that without God’s grace we can do nothing. It reminds us that we must first be women of prayer. Many people can care for the aged and infirm. But not everyone can bring Christ to them in lives of dedication and inspiration.”
Mother maintained this “prayer first” perspective throughout her many decades of leadership. And as times changed, so did Mother’s understanding of the various particulars of religious life. But one thing that Mother always held fast to was that prayer and one’s relationship with God was the one essential thing for perseverance in one’s vocation. While this is true for the religious vocation, by extension, it is true for all of us who call ourselves Christian. Whether we are single or married, employed or retired, our success in living out God’s plan for our lives depends on a regular and intimate relationship with our Lord. Mother knew that so many things in the world can distract us from this, can seem more interesting, but when we reflect on how much God is interested in us, it doesn’t seem too much to return the favor.