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Exclusive: A Former Monastic Sister Of Bethlehem Looks Back

Gloria.tv talked to a former nun of the Monastic Sisters of Bethlehem, who spent more than a decade in the cloister and prefers to remain anonymous. She talks about liturgical abuses, psychological dependencies and New Age influence.

According to you, what was the worst abuse you encountered among the Sisters of Bethlehem?

I would say that the greatest abuse concerns the Eucharist. The sisters are in the monastery to love, adore and serve Jesus Christ above all else, and yet his Body and Blood are repeatedly profaned.

In what way does this happen?

The foundress, Sister Marie, asked the sisters to make bread hosts for Mass. She said that Bethlehem means “the house of bread,” and so she decided that the hosts should be made of bread. I was the sacristan in two different monasteries, and so I saw firsthand that it is impossible to prevent crumbs from falling off those hosts. I always very carefully brushed off as many crumbs as possible from every single host when I prepared them for Mass, but the sacred vessels always came back with an abundance of crumbs after Mass.

On Sundays and feast days, all the sisters receive the Eucharist in their hand instead of on the tongue, so you can imagine how many crumbs and particles fall to the floor. What’s worse, is that those bread hosts don’t stick to the tongue the way the wafer hosts do, and so, on the days when the sisters receive on the tongue, it is not uncommon for a consecrated Host to fall to the floor, even though they use a paten. Since the sisters follow the Eastern practice of intinction, meaning the sacred Host is dipped into the Precious Blood, that means that not only the Host falls to the floor, but the Precious Blood as well.

What did you do in such cases?

I would go to the sacristy and moisten a purificator with water and try to mop up the Precious Blood and collect the crumbs, but I could never be certain that I had gotten everything, especially since the church floors are made of porous stone.

On one website run by the sisters there was the picture of very big bread host used at Mass.

Yes. At one point, Sister Isabelle, the second general prioress, introduced the custom of a large bread host on Sundays and special feast days. That was an even worse nightmare.

Why?

The large host is about ten inches (25cm) in diameter and about half or three-quarters of an inch (2cm) thick. After the Consecration, the priest must tear this large bread Host into small pieces so that everyone can receive Communion. The bread is usually fairly hard, and so a lot of effort is needed to tear it apart. After Mass, I would find crumbs not only all over the altar cloth, but even on the floor around the altar.

What did you do about that?

I informed my prioress many, many times of this, but she never agreed to stop the practice of using a large bread host. I spent a lot of time searching for crumbs on the floor, and whenever I had to sweep and mop, I always feared that I would sweep and mop up crumbs or particles of the Body of Christ. This is a very serious abuse, and I cannot see how anything else can be properly ordered in a monastery if the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ are so carelessly—and, dare I say, deliberately—profaned.

And yet the sisters have a lot of love for the Blessed Sacrament and spend long hours in adoration?

Yes. The sisters have the unique privilege of having the Blessed Sacrament in a tabernacle in the oratories of their cells, and they rise very early in the morning to adore Jesus. Most sisters rise at 4 am, others even as early as 3 am, and there are a few who rise even earlier. So, clearly, many sisters have a deep love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, but then, because of decisions made at the top, Our Lord is nonetheless profaned frequently by the use of the bread hosts during Mass. This creates a kind of schizophrenia where Our Lord is, on the one hand, offered tremendous love, and, on the other hand, treated with contempt. I would say that this is the pattern for so many of the other abuses in that monastic family. The majority of sister strive to truly love God, and yet there are practices implemented by the superiors that are in direct contradiction to the general piety of the sisters.

Can you give another example?

Another example of this pattern is the practice in Bethlehem of the transparency of thoughts. The desert fathers teach that the monks must give their thoughts to their elder in order to be able to eventually gain mastery over them. It is not easy for a young sister to write down her most intimate thoughts and then submit them to her prioress. However, the prioress encourages her to do so saying that it is for her own good, and most of the young sisters, in their zeal for holiness and in their eagerness to obey, do it unhesitatingly.

What is the problem with this practice?

The consequences are often disastrous. The problem is that the prioresses are not like the holy elders of the desert. When a sister becomes a prioress, she automatically receives the title of staretz, which is an Eastern term for an elder who has received extraordinary gifts from the Holy Spirit to guide others in the spiritual life. This is an absurdity, because no one can become a staretz through administrative fiat. It is the Holy Spirit who chooses whomever He desires to become a staretz. Every true staretz has undergone profound purifications and, as a man of very deep prayer and humility, he receives abundant graces. Ignatius Brianchaninov explains, however, that, in our days, a true staretz is extremely rare. There are many false, self-proclaimed staretzy, but they are to be avoided at all cost. Unfortunately, the so-called staretzy of Bethlehem fall into that category.

What follows from this?

You have false staretzy demanding sisters to give them all of their most intimate thoughts. And what do these so-called staretzy do with these thoughts? They report them to the general prioress so she can keep a record of them and make decisions based on what she knows about the interior lives of these sisters. Almost none of the sisters know this, however.

How is this information used?

The staretz can make decisions in her local community based on what she knows about the interior life of her sisters. That is the most benign case. Far worse scenarios are, unfortunately, more common. The so-called staretz can control and manipulate her sisters based on the information she has about their thoughts. She can persecute, humiliate and really destroy her sisters based on the information that they hand over to her. It is a horrific form of spiritual and psychological abuse.

How does the concept of staretz influence the dynamics in the community?

The staretz encourages a complete emotional, moral and intellectual dependency of all the sisters with regards to her authority, so that sisters can no longer even discern or judge for themselves what is right and what is wrong. It is the staretz who is all-knowing and all-wise, and who becomes the reference point for everything and the judge of everything. I cannot emphasize enough how extremely dangerous this is, and it is, of course, an outright abuse of her authority. Furthermore, the sisters who give their thoughts often experience a kind of violation of their interior life and of their conscience. Many of them lose their sense of identity and begin to behave in ways that they have never behaved before. They are reacting to the violation of their interior life, though many don’t even realize that is what is provoking such odd behavior in them.

Canon law forbids superiors to induce the members to make a manifestation of conscience to them (Can 630,5).

Canon law is there to safeguard against such violations of one’s conscience and interior life. However, Bethlehem has sadly ignored that law among others. So, the sisters exhibit a lot of good will and trust in giving their thoughts to their so-called staretz, but the so-called staretz abuses that power in most cases and very often winds up harming those she has been charged to help. More often than not, the so-called staretzy rob the true freedom of the sisters for whom they are responsible. That is clearly not the work of the Holy Spirit, for St. Paul says: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

Former sisters have said that psychotropic drugs are frequently taken in the monastery.

There is, in fact, an alarmingly large percentage of sisters who take anti-depressants or even stronger psychotropics, and I think that is directly linked to the violation and loss of their interior freedom. I have also learned since I left that many, many ex-sisters wanted to leave long before they ever managed to do so. The superiors do everything possible to keep sisters from leaving, and so the result is that there are a lot of profoundly unhappy sisters there. I think that there are also many who never had a vocation in the first place, because there is really no discernment in Bethlehem. They want to have as many sisters as possible, and so they encourage and even try to convince almost everyone who visits to stay.

Have the problems concerning the disregard for the personal conscience been brought up?

Yes, that is one of the first things which the canonical visitors from Rome addressed, and I have heard that no prioress is permitted now to demand that any sister give her an account of her thoughts. However, the damage has already been done to hundreds of sisters, and the omnipotence of the prioresses has really not been diminished, so most of the sisters are still entirely dependent on them for everything.

The former prior of the monks of Bethlehem in the Holy Land, Father Fabio (*1965) left the community in 2009 after 24 years presenting a dossier to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. He uses the word cult to describe the order. Where you surprised by this?

Many experts have affirmed that most if not all the elements of a cult are present in Bethlehem. In fact, when I first arrived in the monastery, my prioress asked me if I had ever heard that Bethlehem is a cult. I had not, but she still seemed eager to convince me that it is not. I found that unsettling. It was one of many red flags. There is so much to say about that, but perhaps the most important thing that I could say is that everything is for the expansion, reputation, and preservation of the cult. It is always the good of the cult, or the “family” as they say, that is sought rather than the good of each individual.

Is there a cult of personality for the foundress, Sr Marie?

There is without question an exaggerated adulation of the foundress, Sister Marie. I never met her because she died before I entered, but the sisters talked about her endlessly, so I certainly learned quite a lot about her. Her authority was absolute. Almost everything that happens in Bethlehem is because Sr. Marie said so.

Was the relationship of the community with its foundress problematic?

Many, many sisters freely admit that they entered Bethlehem because of Sr. Marie—I have heard that she had a very strong power of attraction over people. I have also heard from many people that she had a very penetrating gaze. She stared deeply into peoples’ eyes as if searching their souls. It was a way of gaining mastery over people and of seducing them. Many people were spellbound by her gaze and surrendered everything to follow her.

You’ve developed a critical attitude towards Sr. Marie...

From what I have learned since I left the monastery, Sister Marie was not particularly holy or orthodox, even though the sisters speak of her as a saint and are pushing for her beatification. She used a pendulum, which is a New Age practice, and she even gave a pendulum to all the prioresses. She practiced yoga, and encouraged other sisters to do so. She consulted false visionaries in order to make decisions. And I have also heard that a number of sisters were brought to New Age healers for their medical or psychological conditions. If I had known any of that, I never would have entered. I was told by everyone I consulted that the sisters are very holy and orthodox. Appearances are very deceptive.

How did Sister Marie live her monastic life?

She never followed a regular monastic schedule (often working all night and sleeping during the day), she had an altogether different diet than the other sisters (excellent meals), and she was famous for her frequent outbursts of anger, which the sisters always justified and characterized as holy. She demanded absolutely unconditional and blind obedience from all of her sisters, but she herself did not obey the Church on various matters. Many have also said that she was also very ambitious in forming her order, and was even in competition with Mother Teresa, who had more vocations than Bethlehem.

Has this spirit affected the order?

Absolutely. There is an undeniable sense of superiority in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is above all other religious orders, and above the Church herself. Many have said that pride is the chief sin in Bethlehem, despite the fact that the sisters are very concerned about appearing humble.

Former sisters say that secrecy was very important in the community.

Yes, that’s right. No one can talk to outsiders about what happens in Bethlehem, and everyone has to preserve Bethlehem’s reputation at all costs. Sisters are also not permitted to have recourse to an outside priest for spiritual direction, because it is the prioresses who are the so-called staretzy for the sisters. That, of course, also means that sisters cannot talk to anyone about the abuses and the dysfunctionality that they are experiencing and witnessing. I have also heard that the local and general prioresses have scolded sisters in the past for having revealed certain things about Bethlehem during the course of their confessions. The control is so absolute that the order even forbids priests from entering into any kind of discussion with the sisters during the course of their confession. Priests aren’t even permitted to offer advice based on the sins they have heard confessed. They simply give the penance and absolution, and that is all.

A former Sister of Bethlehem told Gloria.tv that during her time in the monastery and in keeping with the rules she exclusively talked to other sisters about Christ and religious topics.

Sisters are forbidden from talking to one another about anything personal or anything regarding the order. When they go on their long Sunday walk, two sisters are never permitted to walk and talk together. There must always be at least three sisters, and the topic of conversation must always center on the Bible or the Church.

How are the prioresses chosen?

Most of the prioresses are prioress for life, and it is the general prioress who chooses them, even though the Constitutions state that prioresses are to be elected. The result is that the “system” remains intact; that is to say, no new prioresses can challenge the dysfunctionality.

Have you seen privileges?

There is an unspoken caste system. There are the privileged sisters who are useful to the cult because they have connections to highly-placed prelates in the Church, or because they come from wealthy or aristocratic families. They enjoy special food, special attention from the superiors and special responsibilities. The others sisters are largely ignored, and, for the most part, the menial tasks fall to them.

The former prior Father Fabio said that there are many lies. Do you agree?

Yes, there are many lies. One of the most horrific ones concerns the suicide of a young Polish sister who was living in the monastery in Italy. She doused herself with gasoline and set herself ablaze. Imagine the anguish and distress that pushed her to such an act of desperation. Sr Marie lied and told everyone that she probably had a heart attack. She also said that, like Enoch, God had just taken her. All the prioresses were instructed to circulate that story.

You have been in contact with ex-brothers and ex-sisters. What is the common experience of those who left?

I have learned that all of them had a very, very difficult time reconstructing themselves in the truth after they left. Many of them had a breakdown. An expert in cults said of the ex-members of Bethlehem that most of them experience a profound loss of identity and a severely diminished capacity to think for themselves. Many of them also struggle in regaining confidence in their own judgment. Sr Marie loved to say to the sisters: “You are wrong to be right.”

However, the sisters have a very strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Yes, they consider the Virgin Mary to be their Foundress, Prioress and Staretz, and they make a promise of obedience to her. Since Sr Marie received the inspiration to found the order when attending the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption at St. Peter’s, they think that they are called to lead the life of the glorified Virgin here on earth. They try to live the life of heaven on earth. However, just as history has shown us over and over again with political ideologies that promise utopias, I would say that their heaven is, sadly, imprisoned in a cage of control and domination. There is a book by an ex-member of the Opus Dei entitled El Opus Dei: el Cielo en una Jaula (Opus Dei: Heaven in a Cage). I think that title also describes Bethlehem very well. So, while they have an almost obsessive devotion to the Virgin Mary, it clearly isn’t a solid or sound devotion, or, as St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort would say, a true devotion, given all the abuses that abound in the order.

You read “Risks and excesses of Religious Life” (March 2020) by Dom Dysmas, the prior general of the Carthusians. Did this book ring a bell?

Yes, I read the book. Nowhere does he mention Bethlehem by name, but most of the book is about Bethlehem nonetheless. It is a very helpful book for anyone who has lived in a cult-like community, especially Bethlehem. He has some very astute observations.

Do you identify as a “victim”?

While I and so many others were the victims of pretty extreme spiritual and psychological abuse, I don’t like to think of myself as a victim. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, especially in the spiritual life. It can be useful for a short time while we are trying to distance ourselves from the abusive behaviors of the community, but we cannot remain victims all our lives. There is a very interesting text by St. John Chrysostom entitled “No one can harm the man who does not harm himself.” He presents some very challenging arguments on this subject, and I would encourage everyone to read it. I don’t want to blame Bethlehem, but I do want to speak the truth. I don’t want to blame the sisters, and I certainly have no desire to harm them or to take revenge.

The order has recently admitted some mistakes you have also mentioned and attempts to make some changes.

Yes, they have admitted some of their errors, but I’m not sure, however, that there is much hope for that monastic family. I hope I am wrong about that, but I know that there are others who share my opinion. As another ex-sister said to me: “They would basically need to remove all the sisters in charge from their positions of power, but then who would replace them? They’ve all been indoctrinated, so who can initiate the reform that is necessary?” The whole “system” needs to be dismantled. I don’t think it’s a matter of just changing a few rules or practices. I think a far more radical reform is necessary, but, from what I have heard, the sisters in charge are not willing to make very significant changes. It seems to me that they don’t yet see the depth of the errors and abuses.

It is a fact that among the Bethlehem Sisters there are also a lot of happy and smiling faces.

Sister Marie always insisted that all the sisters smile, no matter how terrible they feel inside. The problem with that is that so many of the sisters are miserable either because they don’t have an authentic vocation or because they are trapped in an abusive and oppressive system. If they had authentic vocations and if they could live their consecrated life with interior freedom, then it would make sense for the foundress to ask her sisters to smile whenever they accept suffering for love of God. That would be very beautiful. But, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of sisters are on anti-depressants because Bethlehem has ruined them. Is it right to give them medications so they will smile? Surely, some of the sisters must be genuinely happy, but I suspect that there are not many.

Parting thoughts?

I would like to mention St. Bruno, who is included in the name of the order. St. Bruno was the norma veri dogmatis, according to his contemporaries. He maintained true dogma. Bethlehem, it is sad to say, has yielded to modernism, or perhaps modernism was already present right from the beginning. If the sisters who claim to be the modern-day monks of the desert don’t keep the true faith, then who will? St. Athanasius fled to the desert of Egypt during the Arian crisis, because he knew that the desert monks guarded the true faith. But now, who keeps the true faith? To whom can the embattled laity and the few holy and persecuted priests go if even the “desert” is poisoned with heresy?
Tesa
From the outside, it lookds very calm and peaceful
(pictures from New York)
Marie Broussard
And here are the damning revelations of a former brother who was a superior at Bethlehem. He brought this dossier to the Vatican.
lenversdudecor.org/…-de-Bethleem-les-revelations-accablantes-d-un.html
DefendTruth
Mature phrase, "I don’t like to think of myself as a victim. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, especially in the spiritual life."
Marie Broussard
Here are more testimonies by ex sisters. For so many years they suffered in silence unable to speak the truth. avref.fr/fichiers/TEMOIGNAGE-collectif-Béthléem.pdf
HerzMariae
They say the same as here. Most incredible is the use of a "pendulum",

One testimony reads, "Unlike many of my sisters, who were treated for a disease that was never clearly identified but that the oscillations of the pendulum indicated (!), I was never ill, except for a definite amenorrhea at the age of 33."

Four years later this ex-nun was told by a doctor that she shouldn't have developped …More
They say the same as here. Most incredible is the use of a "pendulum",

One testimony reads, "Unlike many of my sisters, who were treated for a disease that was never clearly identified but that the oscillations of the pendulum indicated (!), I was never ill, except for a definite amenorrhea at the age of 33."

Four years later this ex-nun was told by a doctor that she shouldn't have developped this in developed countries. "Given the diet we were all losing weight, and Sister Marie - concerned about her figure - preferred longish sisters: an external sign of monastic austerity..."
HerzMariae
"All the sisters smile" - sounds like facades being highly important.
Marie Broussard
Indeed! It was all about the image and the numbers.
Tesa
There is a former Carthusian monk now married I now (playing the organ in a Tridentine Mass). When he left the monastery he was the same as when entering. One would have expected a deep development (in about a decade as hermit) - but there was nearly nothing. When he became father, he changed (positively).
Advocata
May God will heal this former nun after such a difficult lifetime. Thanks for sharing it. Grateful.
Marie Broussard
One of the main cultish elements of this order is its great vow of silence...meaning it is forbidden to tell anyone on the outside about all the 'precious secrets' of Bethelehem. This is a major sign of a cult. Their aim is and has been to preserve their precious image before the Church and the world at all and any costs.
De Profundis
I wonder how one can live with this silence. It is human to tell at least one person (not a superior) about what's on the heart.
Marie Broussard
That's the point...you could only speak to the so-called starretz who had total control over you and manipulated you.
Copertino
Über diese Informationen bin ich sehr froh und dankbar. Ich kenne die Gemeinschaft nur von Videos. Rein von aussen gesehen hatte mich Vieles in diesem Orden angesprochen. Es ging mir ähnlich wie zur Zeit, als ich zum ersten Mal eine byzantinische Liturgie miterleben durfte, oder auch, als ich mal eine Woche bei den Zisterziensern verbringen durfte. Es ist aber letztlich nicht die Ästhetik von …More
Über diese Informationen bin ich sehr froh und dankbar. Ich kenne die Gemeinschaft nur von Videos. Rein von aussen gesehen hatte mich Vieles in diesem Orden angesprochen. Es ging mir ähnlich wie zur Zeit, als ich zum ersten Mal eine byzantinische Liturgie miterleben durfte, oder auch, als ich mal eine Woche bei den Zisterziensern verbringen durfte. Es ist aber letztlich nicht die Ästhetik von Kirchenraum, Liturgie und Musik, welche lebendig macht, sondern der Geist der Wahrheit und der Liebe. Da ist die Weisheit der Väter zu loben, welche viele solche Gefahren aus eigener Erfahrung kannten. Wer glaubt, er stehe darüber, wird tief fallen. Es wäre dem Orden zu wünschen, dass er sich an Haupt und Gliedern im Licht einer gesunden Tradition erneuern kann, denn abgesehen von den eucharistischen Praktiken, welche einer grundlegenden Überprüfung bedürfen, lebt die Gemeinschaft auch einige sehr schöne Elemente, welche der Gesamtkirche zum Schmuck gereichen könnten. Aber alles was nach New Age stinkt müsste ausgemistet werden.
Tree
Some days ago I met a former nun of Benedictine sisters. She spoke after five sentences of "spiritual abuse", "I was not allowed to ask any questions."