Spiritual biographies can be a little intimidating sometimes. When they’re written by an overly enthusiastic admirer, they can show all of the sainthood and none of the struggle. “For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself,” a biography of Sister Maria Bernadette of the Cross written by Jadwiga Stabińska, OSBap, could have been such a biography—but wasn’t.
A Courageous Offering
Sister Bernadette was a Benedictine Nun of Perpetual Adoration who lived in Poland from 1927 to 1963. Some quick mental math, or a smartphone, will tell you that means she died when she was only in her 30s. It was a very painful death due to neglect after a surgery in a Communist hospital—but Sister Bernadette may have told you it was due to her offering her health and life in reparation for unfaithful priests.
Born Maria Róża Wolska, Sister Bernadette, as her full religious name would suggest, had a devotion to Christ on the Cross. When she heard a story of priests who had “abandoned or betrayed their priesthood,” she “felt incredible pain, both spiritual and physical, as if Christ himself were suffering in her. In an act of voluntary sacrifice, she said to Him, ‘Cut me in strips, but let them return to You and give You glory.’” She felt that Jesus accepted her sacrifice and felt at peace.
Yes, that is an intimidating example of holiness! But by the time I read it, I’d gotten to know Sister Bernadette as a very human woman with her own struggles and sins. As with the best hagiographies, I was left feeling that holiness was achievable by anyone willing to cooperate with God’s grace and inspired to take on the challenge.
Wisdom for Mothers
The late Sister Stabińska’s writing is great, but my favorite part of the book was actually the excerpts from Sister Bernadette’s letters, which include both some lovely insights into her relationships and some profound gems of wisdom. Just as a biography can make a saint’s holiness appear out of reach, it is also easy to assume that a biography of a celibate nun does not offer practical advice for mothers. That assumption would be wrong.
Perhaps my favorite is this excerpt from a letter to her mother (who notably was advised to abort Sister Bernadette while she was pregnant due to her bad health):
After all that you have done for me here, I thought to myself that if an earthly mother can work “miracles” for her children, then what about the Heavenly Mother? Your recent visit, Mama, has greatly increased my love for her.
“I want to be such a mother!” I wrote in the margins.
Another piece of parenting advice came from a letter to her cousin Danuta Szczepańska:
It seems to me that the ideal would be if through the reading of the Gospels, children could befriend the Lord Jesus and through that make both a lifelong and practical connection. You know, so that there’s no gap between the church and prayer in general and “ordinary life.” Because if they are completely disconnected, then you are just cultivating superficial piety for show.
In addition to this insight into how mothers can pass down the faith, Sister Bernadette was obviously a spiritual mother herself. In addition to the self-sacrifice she made out of love for priests, Sister Bernadette “tended to sit next to the sisters who were lonely … who were going through some difficulty, or who had recently gone from the novitiate to the community of professed sisters. Her listening attentively to others, sometimes a seemingly insignificant word, giving up a better seat to someone—all that brought her closer to God and strengthened the unity of the community.”
What a beautiful example of the spiritual motherhood described by Pope St. John Paul II in “Mulieris Dignitatem”:
Spiritual motherhood takes on many different forms. In the life of consecrated women, for example, who live according to the charism and the rules of the various apostolic Institutes, it can express itself as concern for people).
(By the way, Pope John Paul II is mentioned multiple times in the biography and in Sister Bernadette’s letters; they knew him when he was a priest and bishop in Poland. It was delightful, knowing that “Totus Tuus” became his motto as pope, to see Sister Bernadette mention that the phrase “All yours,” quoting St. Louis de Montfort, was on “Father Wojtyła’s” episcopal consecration commemoration card.).
“For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself” was originally published in Polish in 2008 and was translated into English recently by Justyna Krukowska. The English translation was just published this year by Cenacle Press, an apostolate of the Benedictine monastery of Silverstream Priory in Ireland. I’d never heard of Cenacle Press before, but I’m excited to see what they publish next!
2 thoughts on “Book Review: “For Their Sake I Consecrate Myself””
Thanks for linking to An Open Book! I’d never heard of Sister Bernadette, but she sounds like such an inspiration. Her connections to St. JPII makes me love her all the more. Is there a cause for her canonization?
Not that I know of!
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