March 02, 2016

Love among the Saints

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
Image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.
Image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.

In mid-February, the BBC broke a story concerning the friendship between Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II and Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a prominent Polish philosopher.  “The friendship defies definition,” the reporter Ed Stourton wrote, “they were more than friends and less than lovers.”  

Dr. Tymieniecka was married to the Harvard professor of economics, Hendrick S. Hauthakker when she began corresponding with the Cardinal-Archbishop in 1973 about phenomenology, their mutual scholarly interest. In 2008 after her husband’s death, she sold some 350 letters, to the National Library of Poland.  John Paul II died in 2005; she, in 2014.

This friendship showed “a startling degree of affection,” wrote the New York Times. The Daily Beast titled its article, “Did Pope John Paul II Have a Secret Lover” but stated in its topic sentence, “This is exactly how rumors get started?”  

“It comes as no great revelation that Pope John Paul II had deep friendships with a number of people, men and women alike,” notes Greg Burke, a Vatican spokesman.  “No one will be shocked by that.”  

While the correspondence of a pope is newsworthy, in this instance, it was reported on the day the story broke.  This so-called news, which was no news because it was old news, fed speculation about the ‘true’ nature of this relationship between the two philosophers, one of whom had been recently canonized. In 1997, Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi published His Holiness, a biography of John Paul II with several pages referring to the Pontiff’s friendship with Dr. Tymieniecka.

When it comes to news items concerning the Catholic Church, there are fewer misunderstood realities than chaste friendship.  Rare are the journalists who write about it with accuracy and subtlety.  

Friendship between Two Supreme Court Justices

Consider the friendship between Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. When the late Justice’s life was recently summarized, journalists highlighted the decades-long friendship between them long before they were named to the Supreme Court.  Their judicial philosophies were at polar opposites.  Yet, the two Justices shared their love of the law and their love of opera.  To persuade her on the matter of the Second Amendment, Justice Scalia even took Justice Ginsberg hunting.  

Their love of opera was so strong that they played Extras in a few operas. In 2015, as an affectionate tribute to the friendship of the two, Eric Wang, a young lawyer, ‘composed’ the opera Scalia/Ginsberg.  He used the Justices’ own words and set them to the music of famous opera such as Bizet’s “Carmen,” Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the lament from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” Mozart, and finally, our national anthem. 

Justice Ginsberg noted:  “He was my BB, my Best Buddy; I loved him, but I could have strangled him on many occasions.” He quipped, “Call us the odd couple. What’s not to like? Except her views on the law.”  

Martin Ginsberg, who was a gourmet Italian cook, showed off his culinary flair when he and his wife went to dinner at the Scalias. 

The Scalia-Ginsberg friendship pointed outside of themselves and not on themselves, as is the case in married love. It was easy for journalists to accept the well-known friendship as the deep affection of Best Buddies.  No one questioned or implied anything shady or untoward.

If the eight Justices on the Court are currently in shock over Justice Scalia’s sudden death—and they are, surely Justice Ginsberg is in deep mourning for the loss of her Best Buddy.

Friendship between Jesus and Women

The New Testament gives us examples of friendship beginning with Jesus. St. Luke’s Gospel reveals the strong friendship Jesus enjoyed with women, and especially with Mary and Martha.  He probably visited them to relax on a regular basis.  We know that Mary Magdalene was the first apostle to whom the angel announced the Lord’s resurrection, and the youngest apostle John was known to be the Lord’s “Beloved.”

Friendships that Helped Build Christian Culture

The period of Nicene Fathers (4th-5th c), is particularly noteworthy for the friendships that blossomed among women-deacons as well as those who collaborated with men of distinction to build up the Church.  They shared the same struggles, the same ups and downs, the same aspirations and goals.  

St. Jerome translated the texts of the Bible from the Greek into Latin.  Given St. Paula’s knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, this wealthy widow provided for his needs and helped him with the translation of the Vulgate Bible.  They founded two monasteries in Rome, one for men and the other for women. Considering St. Jerome’s cranky temperament, her collaboration with him was all the more remarkable. 

St. John Chrysostom served as the fiery bishop of Constantinople, and his widowed friend was St. Olympias, deaconess. When Chrysostom was illegally deposed, she rallied to his defense, a brave act that eventually led to her exile.  During this time, Chrysostom consoled her in several letters written between 404 and 407.  In the Christian East, St. Olympias is venerated as the imposing one, seat of strength, grandeur and human perfection itself.

Examples of Spiritual Friendship through Later Centuries

In the thirteenth century, the second Dominican General, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, O.P. wrote several letters to the Dominican Tertiary, Sr. Diana D’Andolo, O.P. between 1226 and 1236. They integrate Jordan’s spiritual direction with a mutual friendship that ended with his death in 1237. The Dominican Gerald Vann, O.P has written about this friendship in To Heaven with Diana. 

In the thirteenth century as well, St Francis of Assisi (d 1226) and St. Clare of Assisi (d 1253) became spiritual friends when he helped her found the first Franciscan religious order for women, the Poor Clares.  

The graced beginnings of the Society of Jesus remain an incomplete record without noting those women who helped Ignatius financially and otherwise.  Some of those who collaborated with him are: Isabel Roser, Leonor Mascarenhas, Lucrezia de Bradine, Juana de Aragón, Leonor Osorio, and Princess Juana of Spain. Many more women played important roles in the growth of the sixteenth-century Society.  

Prompted by the same graced experience, the Carmelite mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross reformed the Carmelite Order of both men and women in the sixteenth century. 

In the seventeenth, the Bishop-Saint Francis de Sales encouraged and helped the widow Jane de Chantal found the semi-cloistered Visitation Order of sisters.

The Nun, the Infidel, and the Superman

One of the most accomplished women in consecrated life was the Benedictine nun, Dame Laurentia McLachlan, O.S.B., abbess of Stanbrook Abbey between 1931 and 1953.  Through her rich, expansive but unassuming letters, this cultivated cloistered nun maintained remarkable friendships with men and women of every walk of life.  The agnostic Sydney Cockerell (“the Infidel”) and the playwright George Bernard Shaw (“the Superman”) corresponded with her for many years and visited her at Stanbrook. The belles lettres of Lady Abbess elicited from Shaw this comment to her: “Though you are an enclosed nun, you do not have an enclosed mind.”  Dame Felicitas Corrigan, O.S.B, also of Stanbrook Abbey, has recorded the remarkable friendships of Dame Laurentia McLachlan, O.S.B. with Sydney Cockerell and George Bernard Shaw in The Nun, the Infidel, and the Superman.

Conclusion

Despite some exceptions, love among the saints has continued as a vibrant and fruitful legacy throughout the history of the Church.  Such love would be unique if it weren’t so prevalent—from Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene to John Paul II and Dr. Tymieniecka.  

In many cases, a passionate friendship kept its difficult balance through a sublimated sexuality, that is, a mature transformation of sexual energy into creative energy for the sake of a higher purpose.  In the case of most bonified mystics, they finally sacrificed the love of one particular person in favor of embracing the world for a wedding ring.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.