Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The gentle, generous spiritual perspective of Sister Vilma

Walking by the sea, I am on pilgrimage in close companionship with saints.

“Solvitur ambulando,” confesses St. Augustine. It is solved by walking.

St. Benedict instructs: “Be mindful of the little things.”

“May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be,” assures St. Therese of Lisieux, the foundress of the Discalced Carmelite nuns.

Today my journey is filled with visions of one of her own, Sister Vilma Mathilde Seelaus of the Infant Jesus.

A kindred spirit, she took frequent walks along the shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

“Vilma gradually began to see the power and glory of God even in each little grain of sand on the beach – the power of God holding it in existence, the glory of God who made it uniquely different from every other grain of sand on the face of the earth,” said Carmelite Father Kevin Culligan, a close friend of Sister Vilma’s for over 40 years. “And if God’s power and glory are in each grain of sand of the beach, how much more, she concluded, must the divine power and glory be present in each human being? In fact, she realized, God is everywhere. And the fruit of this realization was Vilma’s great reverence for life, for all of creation, for each human being.”

Born in Philadelphia, Sister Vilma entered the Carmelite community in Newport in 1946.

As the years went by and they discovered her many talents, she was called upon to serve her sisters as a director of formation of new members and then as prioress or local superior.

Eventually, when Vatican II called for the renewal of religious life, Sister Vilma was asked to serve in leadership on a national level with the Association of Contemplative Sisters and the Carmelite Communities Associated.

As a young nun, she had discovered a translation of the 19th-century theological masterpiece “The Mysteries of Christianity,” by Matthias Joseph Scheeban. Likewise, she found God speaking to her in books of contemporary psychology.

“She reasoned, rightly, the more she could understand persons from a human, psychological perspective, the better prepared she was to understand this mystery of the divine-human interrelationship which was the consuming interest of her life,” Culligan said.

Her understanding of Scripture, theology, psychology and other sciences manifested itself in both the depth and balance of the books and articles she wrote, her taped lectures, and other conferences and talks.

“Her reading especially bore fruit in the wise personal guidance she provided, both for her Carmelite sisters and brothers, and for so many other men and women beyond Carmel,” said Culligan.

Twenty-two years ago, a group of psychotherapists and caregivers formed at Sister Vilma’s monastery to explore the connection between psychology and spirituality.

“The therapists brought their applied knowledge of the theory and practice of psychotherapy while Vilma supplied the spiritual perspective,” said Dan Musholt, a clinical social worker. “The group’s monthly discussions might involve taking on some difficult psycho-spiritual issue, such as the persistence of evil or the process of addiction.”

He added that the members always valued Sister Vilma’s gentle, generous perspective that the divine presence permeates all of human life – the dark parts and the light.

“Group members invariably left each meeting feeling renewed by the power and presence of Spirit,” he said.

According to Ethel Fraga, a member of Contemplative Outreach and a Centering Prayer facilitator, Sister Vilma also worked on the Carmelite Forum with other nuns and friars, committed to interpreting the texts of Carmelite mystics, including John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity.

“She lectured and wrote for 15 years as a member of the Forum, which drew people to hear the works of the Carmelite mystics reinterpreted for a new age,” Fraga said. “Her book on Elizabeth of the Trinity will be published during Lent.”

Sister Vilma died on Jan. 26.

“I could feel her presence next to me as I prepared this homily, and she kept nudging me to allow her to speak to you today,” said Culligan to those gathered at her Mass of Christian Burial. "She told me, 'Tell them how important the divine-human relationship is. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, we are always in relationship with God, whose power and providence sustain us in every moment of our lives. This is also our most important interpersonal relationship, potentially more intimate than the relationship of spouses, more faithful than parents for their children, more lasting than the best of friends. Encourage them to make this relationship the center of their lives, and they will discover the secret of human happiness and fulfillment.'”

Vintage Vilma.

Sister Vilma Seelaus, O.C.D.

1 comment:

  1. Linda, thank you very much for sharing this thoughtful story about Sister Vilma Seelaus. May Our Lord embrace her soul with eternal life.