In March of 2010, a new religious community of nuns appeared in Poland. Upon the invitation of the Marian Fathers, the Sisters of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Annunciades, came to the Licheń shrine. Four Sisters from the convent in Thiais near Paris, who had previously learned some basic Polish, settled in the Grąblin Forest (near Licheń), the place where Mary appeared in 1850. What do the Annunciade Sisters bring that is new to the Church in Poland, which is already seen by many Westerners as a „Marian” country? Does their appearance among us enrich us in some way?
Birth of the Order
At the beginning of the 16th century1 the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the Annunciades, was founded in France. The founder of the Order was Joan de Valois (later known as St. Joan of France), the daughter of French King Louis XI. When she was five years old, she had a certain mystical experience during prayer. She heard in her heart that, before dying, she would found an Order in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This idea and desire were realized in 1502, two years before her death, when Joan was 38. Having overcome many difficult, turbulent circumstances and the trials of life – with help of her spiritual director Fr. Gabriel Maria (Nicolas Gilbert) OFM – she founded a contemplative community of nuns.
It is not possible to improvise a way of life in imitation of Mary, which is why St. Joan composed – with help of her spiritual director – a Rule, thus indicating the path for her Sisters. She was very precise in her instructions. Her manner of imitating left no room for individual interpretations or private devotion, however fervent. It was a lifestyle based on the ten evangelical virtues of Mary. Why exactly ten virtues? Father Gabriel Maria, the spiritual director of the Saint, found ten passages in the Gospels where Mary appeared. To each “appearance” of the Mother of Jesus was assigned one virtue, a characteristic that can be observed in Mary’s way of being, her manner of living out her relationship with God. It should be noted that it is not a matter of external imitation, but of something that may be called the union of hearts. In order to reach that union, St. Joanna proposes the imitation of the ten virtues of the Blessed Virgin: chastity, prudence, humility, faith, piety, obedience, poverty, patience, love, and sorrow, or – in some translations – compassion. Contrary to appearances, however, the focus is not on Mary. The focus is on God: the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. It is for Him and because of Him that Mary was endowed with these extraordinary gifts. She wanted to please Him alone. For that reason, following in Mary’s footsteps was for St. Joan the best way to please God – and that should be the goal of every Christian.
For this reason, in the Rule St. Joan proposes deep meditation on the Passion of Christ, rapt attention to the Word of God, and a life of fervent Eucharistic devotion. Weren’t these three “pious practices” first dear to the Virgin Mary? They are like three solid pillars, which help one – together with the practice of the virtues – to conform ever more one’s human will to the will of God. According to St. Joan, fidelity to these principles, to the entire Rule, was to ensure the Order’s continuance until the end of time…
The Marian Way — the Evangelical Way
This is a simple and concrete path to holiness. In fact, Marian spirituality is not based on emotional outbursts and poetic descriptions of Mary’s qualities. Nor is it based on Marian apparitions, which refer anyway to the evangelical attitudes. It is a spirituality that translates into a concrete manner of being. It is above all about helping each other in fraternal life even with the smallest things and humbly forgiving everyone, while bearing the inevitable difficulties in prayer and silence, in the spirit of deep faith.
This is then a thoroughly evangelical spirituality. In a sense, it is the Gospel lived out just as the Blessed Virgin did. Saint Joan told her Sisters: “You shall imitate the life of the Virgin Mary on the basis of what is written in the Gospel.” The Saint’s intuition carries with it a great light: it does not emphasize any specific dimension of the life of Jesus Christ or Mary, any specific mystery, but refers to the whole Gospel, to the whole life of Christ and His Mother. Saint Joan never separated Mary from Jesus. Her Marian devotion placed Mary in the perspective of faith, exactly where she had her rightful place. For the Annunciade Sisters, Mary is not the end in herself. The purpose of the nuns and the center of their life is Jesus Christ, just as He was the center of Mary’s life.
Saint Joan gave special attention to praising God, to the joy that the Sisters should find in praising God. “Praising God is the wisdom of wisdoms,” she used to say. Showing love and giving praise are inseparable from charity, from spiritual love (Latin: dilectio), which St. Joan so strongly emphasized. She personally lived out such mercy and continually recommended the same to the Sisters. Mutual forgiveness, fraternal love, tender care for the suffering, dedication to the poor and the sick were among the most important foundations of the Sisters’ life. “I’ve always had the spiritual insight,” said St. Joan, “that this Order was to be based more on spiritual love than on mortification of the body.”
The Founder of the Annunciades shows the way, which is not abstract in any way and does not focus one on oneself, but which directs everything towards God, towards the fulfillment of His will, Just like Mary fulfilled His will. This requires constantly averting one’s eyes from oneself and lifting them to God. It is not the matter of being humble for the sake of humility or being obedient for the sake of being upright. All must be done out of love for God and in order to please Him, since that is how Mary found favor with the Lord, and her only desire was to please Him. It is about becoming His joy! This is the center of biblical spirituality, the best way to enter the house of the Father.
Timelessness of the Rule of 10 Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Saint John Paul II said: “Marian spirituality is a spirituality of total union with Christ.” The spirituality of the Order of the Annunciades is – in its essence – the same. The charism left by St. Joan of France is a gift for the entire Church.
The Magisterium recently confirmed the Marian spirituality of the Annunciades. Chapter eight of the conciliar Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, describes Mary’s life as depicted on the pages of the Gospel, which appears as a synthesis of the Marian path set forth in the Rule of the Annunciade Order. This spirituality, so firmly rooted in the Gospel, goes beyond the scope of any specific “school of spirituality” that frequently reflects some specific need of the times or theological trends of the era. Being thoroughly evangelical, it has become universal in terms of time and content. Perhaps, this is why the Church accepted in a unique way this unique Rule, thus defying the restrictions of the day concerning the approval of any new rules. Its particular importance is confirmed by the fact of the Annunciade Order’s continuance despite numerous attempts to destroy it, because its only “weapon” was the Gospel.
In the above-mentioned Chapter Eight of the Lumen gentium, Mary was depicted as a model for the Church, as a mirror that reflects the mystery of Church’s life and holiness, as a Guide leading the faithful to a proper understanding of the mystery of Christ. Echoing the Prologue of the Rule: “It is expedient first and foremost to keep the Blessed Virgin herself constantly before your eyes. […] Let the Blessed Virgin be your model. […] May you have no other greater eagerness than to render yourselves perfectly pleasing to the Spouse of your souls by imitating the Virgin.” The Council – inviting the faithful to raise their eyes to Mary, who is an exemplar of virtue – states: “Piously meditating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church with reverence enters more intimately into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her Spouse (LG, 65).
Being firmly and deeply rooted in Sacred Scriptures is the best way to understand Mary. It is also the only one that St. Joan advocated: “Since the complete way of imitating the Virgin and of pleasing God according to her example – as laid down in your Rule – is derived from the Gospel, you must know what the Gospel says of the Virgin’s thoughts, words and actions.” In his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultusof 1974, Pope Paul VI emphasized the need to build Marian devotion on the foundation of Scripture: “Today it is recognized as a general need of Christian piety that every form of worship should have a biblical imprint” (MC, 30).
For the Annunciade Sisters, Mary is – first and foremost – the one that most perfectly embodies the evangelical life. Just there is nothing impossible for God, so there is nothing impossible for her either. Mary has no knowledge as to how God’s plans would be fulfilled. It is enough for her that God can and will work through her: just as He wills it. Through her faith, she has become a perfect instrument in God’s hands. Hence, true Marian devotion is based on a total trust in God’s presence and action in the life of a faithful. The spirituality of the Order of Annunciades presents Mary as a model teacher. She teaches us about confidence, the attitude of faith, simplicity, prayer … She does not focus on herself but – like at Cana – draws attention with her entire being to Christ. Some people may think it paradoxical, but – according to the Annunciade Sisters – true Marian devotion primarily consists in glorifying God, in making their entire life an offering pleasing to God. Saint Joan would define it as “making yourself a joy for God.” Through her prayer and devotion to God, Mary still plays a part – in co-operation with the Holy Spirit – in each person’s rebirth in faith. This truth is present in the formation and life of the Sisters, who offer their daily prayers and work for the conversion of those who need it. It is their share in the spiritual motherhood of Mary, who says: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). It is an incentive for carrying out the will of God, but also for directing each person to the Word of God. For this reason, the Annunciade Sisters study the biblical texts daily. They are also familiarize themselves with lectio divina, doing everything so as to shape their lives according to the word of God, after the example of Mary.
The timeliness St. Joan’s intuition as to what concerns the Liturgy and the Divine Office is truly amazing. It introduces us into the very heart and wisdom of this sacred mission. Saint Joan described the liturgical prayer as the main apostolic task of the Annunciade Sisters. Their apostolate is worshiping God first and foremost. The Sisters’ daily life runs along the rhythm of the liturgy: the liturgy is what determines the order of the day. The Eucharist, which is at the same time the source and goal of their entire lives, stands at its center. No other activity, however noble, can take precedence. Liturgical prayer is also for the Annunciade Sisters the most important form of apostolate. Hence, they strive to beautifully prepare the liturgy so that people who come to participate in it can thus experience an encounter with God. This also applies to the Liturgy of the Hours. As the Sisters emphasize, through the prayer of praise, a person can experience God’s grace, which effectively transforms and sanctifies that person. In praying with the Sisters, one comes to actually experience some sort of relaxation, an internal peace in God’s presence. In this aspect yet another of St. Joan’s intuitions, expressed in the Rule, is proven, according to which – by praying with Mary – the Church, with all of her children, follow the best road to find “favor with God.”
Finding favor with God
Every morning, the Annunciade Sisters sing at the end of Lauds: “Mary, let me think, speak, and do whatever is most pleasing to God and to you.” Once, one of the monastery superiors was asked about the essence of vocation to the Order of the Annunciades. Her answer was brief: “To lead a life pleasing to God.” That was a disarmingly simple response that touched the core of the mystery of Christian life. This is exactly how Mary lived – and in the most perfect way. Sometimes we become so engrossed in our tasks, plans, and seemingly “logical” choices that we forget to ask ourselves this little question: is it what we are doing pleasing to God? We are so often convinced of the significance and magnitude of our actions that this “little detail” eludes us somehow. Thus, it may so happen that the example of Mary – a quiet and humble Handmaid – may become less “attractive.” Mary demonstrates that it is not the quantity – or even the quality – of the works that has importance in the eyes of God, but primarily whether they fit into the God’s plan. It all begins with listening to the Holy Spirit. The example St. Joan is a confirmation of this attitude. Perhaps, this is why so many people come to the Annunicade Sisters’ monasteries in order to learn the peace – along with the others – how to hear what God is trying to tell them. The experience of many people proves its fruitfulness for spiritual life. The question that is often on the Sisters’ lips: “What would Mary have done?” can become a true inspiration in a given situation. For it clearly demonstrates just how much our personal ambitions are underlying our decision-making and way of life, and how much there is a desire to seek the will of God.
The coming of the Annunciade Sisters to Poland is a great gift to our Church. Their spirituality and way of life bring a new quality into the daily experience of Marian devotion and its practice. It can help us find a treasure hidden in a field. It is an opportunity to re-discover what it means to “live like Mary,” “to please God” … The Sisters often say that coming to our country – which they always greatly respected and loved – was a gift for them. Perhaps, they see in us some riches, potential, which we ourselves fail to fully recognize or appreciate. It is not about any special abilities or qualities that make us better than others. This can be described as that “something,” the charism granted to particular individuals, conditioned by history or endowment from God. These gifts can be re-discovered and lived out anew in the quiet of the monastery. For many people, this discovery became a specific, strengthening and renewed experience of the person of Mary and with her – of the Lord God Himself. In this way, the convent in the Grąblin Forest near Licheń became one of the many valuable and important “spiritual” places in our country.
Eugeniusz Zarzeczny MIC
This text originally appeared in Pastores No. 50 (2011),
a quarterly dedicated to priestly formation
1 See History and spirituality of the Order at: www.anuncjatki.pl