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Neither Arson nor being Poisoned has Stopped this Intrepid Foundress

Mother Marija Benedykta of the Cross

Mother Benedykta

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 10/20/14

Mother Marija Benedykta of the Cross, OPC is leading a monastic order through some tough times.

Poisoning, arson, an intrepid religious sister making her way into the former Soviet Union — it sounds like the plot of a box office thriller, rather than the makings of a reformed religious order. But the story of the fledgling Paulicrucian community — like the beginning of so many religious orders — has been fraught with challenges and blessings, roadblocks and new opportunities.

Standing in the doorway of Br. Bosilkov Priory, Mother Marija Benedykta of the Cross, OPC, explains the “sign” that is attached to her habit. The sign in its final shield-like form, she says, will contain yellow for courage and red for the blood of the martyrs. And, indeed, the story that brings Mother Benedykta and her Paulicrucian order from its roots in Spain through Eastern Europe to its current home in Farmville, Virginia, is filled with acts of courage and of sacrifice.

Mother Benedykta is the foundress of the monastic Order of St. Paul of the Cross, also known as the Paulicrucians. They are a reformed branch of the Passionists, tracing their roots back to St. Paul of the Cross, an 18th century Italian mystic who felt called to proclaim God’s love for the world as manifested in the Passion of Jesus Christ. (His feast day is October 20 in the United States, elsewhere October 19).

The Passionists have a long history of forming new communities in response to God’s call. Mother Benedykta particularly looks to the Venerable Mother Magdalena Marcucci, CP, who was the foundress of two, and the mother of four, Passionist monasteries in Spain during the early 20th century. She states that Mother Magdalena’s writings on the mystical life and her spiritual journey are comparable to that of St. Teresa of Ávila.

When then-Sister Benedykta joined the Passionists in the early 1980s — first in a congregation in the United States and later in Madrid — she found that much of what attracted to her to monastic life was missing. She longed for a community that more closely lived out the spirituality of St. Paul of the Cross and that joyously followed monastic tradition.

At the root of what would eventually become her desire for a reformed order, she explains,

was the often spoken but never acted upon desire among many of the aging Passionist religious in their isolated autonomous monasteries to return in spirit and practice to the goals of their holy founder, St. Paul of the Cross, who desired from the beginning to found a religious Order on par with the Dominicans, Benedictine and Carmelites.

Not even a decade after Sister Benedykta joined the Passionists, the Berlin wall fell, and her desire for reform became linked with a heart for Catholics in the former U.S.S.R. Like St. Paul of the Cross, who so clearly heard Christ say “Follow Me,” Sister Benedykta left the community in Madrid to follow what she knew as Christ’s call to start a community in Eastern Europe.

Beginning in Paris, moving briefly to Prague, and officially separating from the Passionists to begin her reform, Sister Benedykta landed in Riga, Latvia. Having made her solemn vows under a Dominican (Cardinal Dominik Duka, OP), the sister who was now known as Mother Benedykta sought to nurture the fledgling Paulicrucians, considered a public association of the faithful.

Here’s where the story gets a bit harrowing.

Mother Benedykta was trying to establish a traditional monastic order — cloistered, focused on study and learning and centered in a deep spiritual life. Invitations went out across Latvia; dozens of young women expressed interested in beginning formation.

The Communists, however, had different plans.

Like many Church buildings in the former Soviet Union confiscated during Communist rule, the building that the local seminary gave Mother Benedykta to house her order was inhabited by a Communist family. When the family was asked to vacate the building (which was never rightly theirs) the family’s son set fire to the house.

And that was only one challenge the community faced. A young lady who was discerning entering the order was physically attacked. People constantly stole the community’s food, and Mother Benedykta herself was poisoned. She was hospitalized for weeks and still suffers the ill effects decades later.

When asked about this persecution and the survival of her community, Mother Benedytka replied:

It is a story of how a contemplative religious vocation in our 21st century can meet and surmount all challenges with the help of our Merciful Lord, and follow Him with what He called our spiritual life — which the worldly call "radical convictions" — (practicing the theological virtues through our hidden life grounded by the three Evangelical Counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience) in a cloistered life of prayer, joy, peace and enthusiastic camaraderie, i.e. community.

When it became clear that the Paulicrucians could not thrive in the current Latvian climate of oppression, Mother Benedykta moved back to the United States. She had hoped to return to Eastern Europe, but acknowledges that — for the foreseeable future — the community would not be free from hostility.

And so, after some time searching for the ideal location, the Paulicrucians have taken up residence in a small town in central Virginia. While they currently reside a brick house near the town of Farmville, plans are being made for a priory.

Mother Benedykta is praying for new vocations to this reformed community and believes that it has an important place in the Church today:

Our charism is strategic for our day and life. The monastic life is living in simplicity. It’s the intellectual life. The goal is union with God through mystical and theological study.

She explains that monastic communities are made up of women of all different characters and personalities. Like the Body of Christ as a whole, religious communities need those who are introverted and those who are extroverted, women who are scholarly and women who are artistic.

We accept women of our century who are called deeply in their hearts to leave the distractions of the world, live a spiritual life which daily learns through reading, guidance, prayer, community and work to participate in the mystical charism of St. Paul of the Cross. They are pioneering and strong women inside, though their exterior or personality may seem out of step with what the world holds as "conforming." They are individuals with goals in life, thoughts they want to share and a fervor to live in community sharing their unique talents and personalities in fraternal charity. Their hope and faith is contagious: it adds a shine, a glow, a vitality to the gold patina of our shared monastic endeavors.

What her community is not looking for are women who are hiding from life. "No," Mother Benedykta asserts, "a monastic community is not a hiding place, it’s a place to see the beauty of life.”

Visit the Paulicrucians for more information.

Caitlin Bootsmais the editor of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum (truthandcharityforum.com) as well as the Communications Director for Fuzati, Inc., a Catholic marketing company. Mrs. Bootsma received a Licentiate in Catholic Social Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome as well as a Master’s of Systematic Theology from Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and two sons.

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