How to feel God in an English convent? Religious emotions, rituals and performative methods.

Today I would like to take a closer look at the subject of religious emotions through the prism of performativity and religious rituals. One of the striking aspects of early modern conventual archives is the large proportion of prescriptive documents that have survived and testify to the extent to which every aspect of conventual was, in theory, regulated, including emotions. What were nuns supposed to feel in early modern convents? And more especially, how were they supposed to feel God?

Emotions and public rituals: a delicate subject

The rites of the Catholic Church were one of the major elements which distinguished it from the Church of England. Historians have commented on the importance of its ritual practices, ranging from a gastronomic calendar to public rites of penance such as the creeping to the cross, or purification rituals such as the “churching” of women.[1] Protestant pamphleteers denounced those practices: they them, Roman customs ignored the very essence of the Holy Word and emphasized actions and objects. 

To Samuel Harsnett, for instance, sacramentals were nothing more than ‘trinkets and toys’ and Catholicism was ‘the only religion to catch fools, children and women, by reason it is naught else, save a conceit pageant of puppets’.[2] Others debunked demonstrations of piety which merely hid a lack of true spirituality. For example, Thomas Becon wrote about the absurdity Roman liturgy, whose collective and public rites, he claimed, were pure superstitions; rosaries, Agnus Dei, candles, bells or incense were all described as so many customs which served to camouflage an interior life devoid of any sincere emotion. They were the rags donned by hypocrisy to hide its ugly face. [3] For Becon, acts of godliness were of no value unless accompanied by genuine movement of the soul.

However, the relationship between rite and sincerity is problematic, since the ritual exists in and for itself.[4]  It is not a mere means of expressing what might otherwise be accomplished in other ways. Its acts are precise, they follow a predetermined sequence. When performed correctly, those codes add an additional dimension to what is being done and become effective in themselves. Epistemologically, ritual does not impose ‘special interior arrangements’ and need not be accompanied by spiritual emotions.[5]

Nuns were familiar with the problem of the sincerity of performative acts in the daily practice of their devotion. Documents of spiritual instructions guided nuns in their spiritual exercises; they displayed some of the exactness and sequencing (to use a computer term) typical of ritual. Indeed, like rituals, these devotions existed for themselves; the act of following them created a bridge between the individual and the divine. Yet, on the model proposed by Piroska Nagy in her study on gift of tears, I would argue that these are ‘interior’ and intimate rites,[6] and that they (unlike those on public rites) are filled with emotion.

Intimate ritual, or how to feel the divine

As a rule, human emotions were perceived as disorders in early modern religious literature. Nothing very original in this negative representation of humours since, as emanations of the body, they were the gateway to disordered passions, which of course were detrimental to contemplative life. In 1683, Mother Victoria Ayray advised her community of Sepulchrines how to undertake their ten-day spiritual exercises; she recommended setting one full day aside to examine the sincerity of their actions.[7] She also exhorted her Sisters to castigate their natural tendencies by asking ‘what viollent and strange aflictions do I experience for the present? What are those thoughts that most frequently hinder me in my duty and inward recollection? […]’[8] Steven Robinson, confessor of the Carmelites, expressed the same idea:

[…] because one cannot possibly apply himself to a true solid Christian perfection, unless before he extirpats from the bottom of his heart all the Roots, I mean, the causes, and matches of Sin, as ordinarily are the bad habits, the old inclinations to Evil, and the Violence of the passions, hence you must use all your diligence, and care, to deliver yourself of them all.[9]

This Augustinian perspective, in which spiritual individuals struggled to control their senses, was a common trope in the writings of the English communities in exile. Earthly love was clearly differentiated from the love of God; one was sensual and gratified only human appetites, while the other was spiritual and nourished the soul. The spiritual quest was a crusade against mundane feelings and the soul that sought to unite with God through its own will alone was condemned to remain dissatisfied:

O my divine Jesus, I find not what I seek […]. I seek pure love, & find myself ensnar’d with the love of my self . […] my hart burns with desire to see & possess you & the mortall flesh with which I am envision’d is as a thick veile which steales your divine face from my sight, & as violent weight which hinders my flight toward heaven […][10]

In this context, the performativity of the intimate ritual brought precious help to the penitent since it erased her will in favour of the correct execution of the exercise. She was required to fulfill, almost mechanically, her duties. From the introduction of his ‘advice’, Steven Robinson insisted on method, foregrounding the performative aspect of the ritual before turning to its spiritual content.

[…] in order you may the better comply with all these duties, and with more advantage, before you begin this lecture, you must 1st kneel down, and recite devoutly a short prayer to obtain the Grace of doing it well: such as the Veni Sancte Spiritus; or any other. 2dly If you meet with some difficulty in the lecture, you must mark it down in a paper, which must serve to no other use, than this; and after words, you must beg of your Confessor the explication of it. 3dly You must firmly purpose to exactly practise all the good advices, this lecture will furnish you with. 4thly As soon as you have finish’d your lecture, kneel down again, and instantly beg of God the Grace of executing faithfully all your good resolutions. 5thly As soon as you see the directour, lay open to him all your doubts, and difficulties.[11]

This ‘true method of doing it well’ was systematized and itemized, it was rife with impertives and modals such as ‘must’ and ‘shall’ (the text continues in the same vein, item 9: ‘you must begin those excercises…’ item 10 ‘you shall practice’, item 11 ‘you must endeavor’, item 12 ‘your time must be employed’). Empty of any thought other than the correct performance of the rite, the nun purged her mind and body; she achieved a serenity that left her empty of emotion. Only then could she, like a holy receptacle, be penetrated by the divine.

Divine love and spiritual emotions

In his treatises on the love of God, Father Rigolene explained that mystical union involved three stages of love: affective, effective and passive: ‘Affective are the inward affections which the soul produces towards the adorable person of Jesus Christ. Effectual are the proofs or effects which evidence the sincerity and solidity of our affections. Passive are the operations of Jesus Christ in a soul well disposed.’[12] The nun would experience emotional love through an evocation of the Passion of Christ which would move her to suffer with her Savior, out of empathy. She would methodically evoke the Stations of the Cross to experience His suffering in sequence.[13] Here, asceticism appeared less as an exercise of punishment of a potentially impure body, than as a desire for order. The discipline followed systematic models which allowed the nun to manipulate her own body in a positive way to make herself available to God.[14] To detach themselves from their carnal prison and turn their souls towards God, penitents found a precious help in ritualized exercises.[15]

After this ‘affective’ experience of the love of God, the nun could hope for its ‘effective’ experience, in which the love that she now felt would produce manifest effects in her, transforming her into an entirely spiritual being uniting with God to finally share His divine nature:

The practise of this [effective] love is to assimilate the soul to the word incarnate as far as this life is capable of assimilation. […] we make ourselves like unto the first source of our being in grace, which is the adorable Person of our Lord, so that as he is the living image of God his Fat., so we become his living images, expressing in our selves all the tracks of his states, Mysteries, Vertues.[16]

The consequence of this state was that the nun was now a stranger to herself. The assimilation of the Incarnate Word molded her soul in the image of God, free from human emotions. The nun could now reject the world and its shortcomings, not by choice or by will, but simply through the transformative power of this ‘effective’ love.[17] Her ‘interior’ became the image of ‘the interior’ of her Savior, and her carnal envelope was thus transcended.

Then, when divine love invested the entire soul, when it annihilated all other emotions, it could finally attain its purest expression, in the so-called ‘passive’ form of mystical union. It was then as if the nun were dying to herself, entering a trance hermetic to all earthly sensations: ‘Liberty of spirit conformes our interiour to the interiour of Jesus Christ.’[18]

Of course, each person involved in a predefined rite may experience different emotions during its performance. However, the purpose of the written instructions for performing the spiritual exercises was to enable the soul to take flight into the sacred. Thanks to the exercises prescribed by her confessor, the assiduous nun would be able to leave behind her sins, her will, her emotions, and finally her carnal body. Through the meticulous performance of the exercises, she became an actor in a transformative ritual, the goal of which is to substitute spiritual love for any other emotion.

The intimate rituals of devotion and the desire for the love of God therefore had a direct impact on the emotional lives of contemplative nuns. They allowed the regularity and order which defined monastic life to govern not only the modus vivendi of the community or its public ceremonies but also the spiritual life of each individual. Thus, while community daily life was punctuated by the duties of the canonical hours, and the liturgy and public ceremonies were strictly regulated in their smallest details, the intimate spirituality of the nuns also was ordered by the spiritual exercises which attempted to distance her from the disorder of human passions. Serenity was far from easy in the monastic communities of the 17th and 18th centuries. If manuscripts documenting periods of tension within certain institutions are relatively rare, their reading reveals that conflicts generally arose when the ambitions of some collided with the pride of others, and when emotions flared and individuals felt envy, anger, hatred towards others; moreover, carnal love, be it inappropriate affection for a confessor or the so-called ‘particular’ friendships between nuns, excess of joviality or despair in one or two nuns were enough to endanger the harmony of an entire convent, even its survival even if the scandal reached the ears of the bishop or his ordinary. In this very particular context, it seems to me that we could go so far as to say that the quest for divine love therefore had a crucial function in the governance (spiritual and pragmatic) of the convent, since it made it possible to control passions and ensure the sustainability of communities.

[1] See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992).

[2] Samuel Harsnett, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures to With-draw the Harts of her Maiesties Subjects from their Allegeance and from the Truth of Christian Religion Professed in England, under the Pretence of Casting out Devils (London, 1603), pp. 125 and 20.

[3] Thomas Becon, The Displaying of the Popish Masse (London, 1637).

[4] Ramie Targoff, ‘The Performance of Prayer: Sincerity and Theatricality in Early Modern England’, Repesentations 60 (1997): 49-69, p. 57.

[5] Alois Hahn, « Rite et liturgie », Hermès 43 (2005) : 49-58, p. 50.

[6] Piroska Nagy, « Religious Weeping as Ritual in the Medieval West », dans Don Handelman (ed.), Ritual in its Own Right (New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005), pp. 119-37.

[7] Sepulchrines, livre manuscript de soeur Victoria Ayray (1683), section intitulée : Considerations on the 10 dayes exercise, f. 104 : « What esteeme doe I make of […] the meanes of my salvation, of holy Mass, confession, comuion[sic], prayer, meditation […] With what diligence and industry doe I make my 400 examins of confession? doe I performe my duty heerein out of custome onely, or with life and spirit ».

[8] Sepulchrines, Victoria Ayray, Considerations, ff. 102-103.

[9] Carmelites of Hoogstraten, Baltimore, box 5, Steven Robinson, SJ, A most profitable, and necessary advertisement for all such, who shall make the spiritual exercise (1747), item 13.

[10] Poor Clares, The sighs of a soul who desires to leave the world to go & unite herself to God in heaven, item 5.

[11] Carmelites, Steven Robinson, SJ, A most profitable, and necessary advertisement, items 5-9.

[12] Carmelites of Hoogstraten, Baltimore, Box 5, Father John Rigolene, smal treatises of devotion set forth by Father Peter Champion of the same Society, ‘First Treatise, The Amiable Jesus or The Practise of love towards our Lord Jesus Christ’», f. 3.

[13] Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption. Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1991), pp. 72-73.

[14] Carmelites, Father John Rigolene, smal treatises of devotion, ‘First Treatise’, on affective love, f. 4: ‘Herein the true lover exerts his utmost efforts and emplois all his faculties to promote and desire his bliss and glories with such ardencies, transports, and extatical affections what can’t well be comprehended. […]’

[15] Ramie Targoff, ‘The Performance of Prayer. Sincerity and Theatricality in Early Modern England’, Representations 60 (1997): 49-69, p. 60.

[16] Carmelites, Father John Rigolene, smal treatises of devotion, ‘First Treatise’ », f. 11, on effectual love.

[17] Ibid., f. 12.

[18] Ibid, f. 16.

Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2020, December 22). How to feel God in an English convent? Religious emotions, rituals and performative methods. Early Modern Exiled Nuns. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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