Catholics should always have some good spiritual book that they are reading. “Spiritual reading,” and its more ancient cousin, Lectio Divina, are staples of the Catholic spiritual diet.1 The need for devout reading has always been a reality for the faithful; but, the more surrounded we are by lies, filth, and ugliness, so much the more do we need to arrange scheduled encounters with the true, the good, and the beautiful so that we can “touch base,” so to speak, with our heavenly homeland.
Happily, I am reading a book now that I can highly recommend to my readers, be they lay, religious, or clerical. The book is To Heaven with Diana, by Father Gerald Vann, O.P. It was published in 1960, but has been reprinted by the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary in Summit, New Jersey. The book’s subtitle adequately summarizes its subject matter, even if it cannot possibly do justice to the treasures one will find between its covers: “A Study of [Blessed] Jordan of Saxony and [Blessed] Diana d’Andalò with a Translation of the Letters of Jordan.”
There is a tendency in many modern spiritual writers to be highly introspective and “psychological.” Saint Augustine was both of those, to be sure, and he wrote insightfully and movingly in this vein; it is an undeniable part of the charm of his writing. But he also balanced these aspects with something absolutely essential if our introspection is not to become cramped, narcissistic, childish, or self-serving: He combined it with what we might call looking at Our Lord.
Some of the more modern writers who venture into the interior landscape of the soul, even the good ones, are deficient in this area. Self-knowledge is important, indispensable even, but this pursuit can become harmful if it is not joined to something else that is absolutely indispensable to the spiritual life, the knowledge of God.
The second Master General of the Order of Preachers and consequently Saint Dominic’s immediate successor, Blessed Jordan of Saxony (c. 1190-1237) oversaw an immense expansion of the Dominican Order. While he was attentive to the recruiting and formation of numerous men as friars, he did not neglect the cloistered nuns who were — in Saint Dominic’s vision of this great spiritual family — the contemplative “prayer engine” of the Order of Preachers. If the friars could not give themselves as much to prayer as they would like, owing to their pressing duties of preaching and lecturing, the good nuns could participate in the Dominican “Holy Preaching” by their beautiful life of contemplation and penance in the cloister. Because Master Jordan was as convinced as his Holy Father Dominic of the sagacity of this arrangement, he fought for the nuns and saw to their spiritual formation.
Modern readers who have been infected to one degree or another of a spirit of Jansenism or of modern sensualism may be scandalized to discover how tenderly and lovingly this holy friar addresses his “beloved” Sister Diana (1200-1236), a noble woman of keen intelligence and strong will, ten years his junior, and described by her contemporaries as beautiful in appearance. If it is true that modern man, in his weakness, has so sensualized the very notion of love that even the masculine love of friendship cannot be imagined by many of our contemporaries in terms other than the homoerotic, so, too, have we made it that all love between men and women must be sexual.
That is a pity, a grotesque falsehood, and a standing condemnation of our age. Granted that Saints Benedict and Scholastica were biological brother and sister (twins, in fact), and therefore less likely to raise pharisaical or prurient eyebrows, there remain a large number of saintly pairings of men and women who enjoyed a friendship that was not only close and mutually beneficial to the two friends, but also “charismatic” in the proper theological sense of that word, i.e., their friendship was not only for the good of the two individuals in question but also for the common good. A partial list would include Saints Francis and Clare, Saint Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal, Saints Margaret Mary Alacoque and Claude Colombiere, Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Saints Patrick and Brigid of Kildare, Saint Catherine of Siena and Blessed Raymond of Capua. These friendships sanctified the friends named here, but they also sanctified others, in some cases, many others. The evangelism of Ireland and its highly developed male and female monasticism, the Carmelite reform, the founding of the Poor Clares and the Daughters of the Visitation, and other such works were more or less directly the products of these chaste and holy friendships. The many thousands of canonized saints produced by some of their common undertakings bear witness to the spiritual fecundity of these friendships.
What is impressive about the way Blessed Jordan writes is the fact that Holy Scripture drips off his pen because his mind has been so completely soaked in it. He does not merely quote from the Bible; he has so interiorized it that Biblical language and images become his own. It was the task of Father Vann — for which we are grateful — to annotate these letters so that modern readers can know the passages being cited. Specially deserving of mention here is the frequency with which Old-Testament allusions are made, mostly in their allegorical or tropological senses. Speaking of which, Blessed Jordan’s letters are wonderfully suffused with the fourfold way of reading Holy Scripture so common in the Middle Ages, the quadriga. Along with Scripture, the fonts of Jordan’s thoughts and expressions are the Church’s liturgy and the Rule of Saint Augustine (common to both the friars and nuns of the Order of Preachers).
Blessed Jordan of Saxony would have Blessed Diana d’Andalò look at Our Lord frequently. Speaking of Jesus Christ in the spousal terms that have long been standard in the lexicon of consecrated women, he constantly reminds her of the presence of her divine Bridegroom. When he thought that she was too given to bodily austerities, Brother Jordan urged Sister Diana to moderation and reminded her that what matters is loving God, desiring Him, contemplating Him, and loving her sisters in the monastery with “one mind and one heart in God” (Augustinian Rule).
For the edification of my readers, I will include one complete but short letter of Blessed Jordan’s here. It was sent to Blessed Diana in her monastery at Bologna from Magdeburg, Germany, where he found himself in September of 1225 (pg. 70-71):
Brother Jordan, useless servant of the Order of Preachers, to his beloved daughter Diana: may she be brought by Jesus Christ her Bridegroom into his cellar of wine [Cant. 2:4].
Since I know that your love makes you anxious about me, I wanted to let you know that after leaving Verona, the God of our salvation making my journey prosperous for me [Ps. 67:20], and giving new strength to my weak body, on the third day after the feast of St. Matthew I arrived here at Magdeburg safe and in good health and was given a very joyful welcome by our brethren, who had long been anxious about me, and by a great number of other people. I was much consoled to find everything in our convent here [a house of friars] in good order, and the recent reception of several novices rejoiced me greatly. Give thanks then to God, whose mercy looks so kindly upon us in all things [Ps. 68:17], and gives us so much more than we deserve.
For the rest, beloved, preserve a due measure in your labours and apply the curb of discretion to all that you do; so that as you run after your Bridegroom, drawn by the fragrance of his ointments [Cant. 1:3], and longing to offer him myrrh, which is the chastening of the flesh, you may yet leave place for an offering of gold, following the example of the three holy Wise Men who, opening their treasure-chests, offered to Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh [Mt. 2:11]. Thus your treasure chest must not be so filled with myrrh as to leave no room for the gold of wisdom and discretion. You must be able to say with the bride in the Song of Songs, A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me [Cant. 1:12]; she does not liken her beloved to a great weight or load of myrrh, but to a little bundle, as showing that a due measure is to be observed in all things. Often I have told you this when I was with you, and now that I am far away I say it again: you must go forward on your way with such prudence as to be able to climb up, without stumbling, to your goal which is the land of heaven, led thither by the Son of God, Christ Jesus, who is blessed for ever and ever [2 Cor. 11:31], Amen.
Commend me to the prayers of your sisters and greet them for me; and may the Spirit of truth be with you in all things [Jn. 15:26].
The next letter he sends her is a tour de force of both mourning and consolation. Brother Henry, a priest of the Order and the Prior of Cologne, has just died and Blessed Jordan is weeping for his beloved brother, son, and friend, whose death he has felt very tenderly. At the same time, Blessed Diana is morning the death of a biological brother and sister of her own. Jordan gives full vent to his sorrow while rejoicing for the joy of the elect in heaven — without falling into presumption on behalf of their beloved deceased: “Yet, let us pray for them, so that if in death they were still burdened with some small failings, they may be the more swiftly loosed therefrom and receive their crowns” (pg. 73).
The image we get here is of two very holy people who were a man and a woman of flesh and blood, of profound intellect and subtle feeling. Their religion did not make them insouciant to human suffering, but all the more sympathetic to it. It did not make them love each other or their friends and family less, but more. In short, their religion did not dehumanize them; it made them all the more human because it made them what humanity was meant to be: supernaturally united to God in grace, in faith, in hope, and in charity. Together, Blessed Jordan and Blessed Diana formed a powerful nexus of charity in the Mystical Body of Christ.
Reading the letters of holy people has a certain advantage over reading their systematic treatises. In the systematic treatise, one encounters the author’s spiritual doctrine more or less well illuminated and fully developed, but in reading their letters, the doctrine is presented alongside its practical application amid the joys, sorrows, and glories of daily life. We encounter tears and smiles, longing and aching, triumph and tragedy — and all that turned to the glory of God and the sanctifying of their souls. In the letters of Blessed Jordan to Blessed Diana, we see a union of holy hearts both panting for God “as the hart panteth after the fountains of water” (Ps. 41:2).
While the inmates running the asylum keep gaslighting us, we need to purify and nourish our minds with wholesome draughts of supernatural truth such as we can imbibe here. I cannot recommend this book more highly.
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If readers are interested in procuring this fine volume, let me encourage you not to purchase it from the Big Tech madman that runs Amazon. Please! Get it directly from the good nuns. And tell them, if you like, that Brother André Marie sent you. It won’t get you a discount, but it may get me some much needed prayers from the spiritual daughters of Saint Dominic, of Blessed Jordan, and of Blessed Diana — and that would be very good.