Mectilde de Bar: August 2012 Archives

In a Life That Is All Hidden

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Saint Teresa: La Madre

Saint Teresa of Jesus, mystic, teacher of prayer, reformer, and Doctor of the Church, has, without any doubt, set the benchmark for measuring the influence of holy women in the life of the Church. People do not, for example, find it at all odd that La Madre, as she is widely known, should be the primary reference for men who embrace life in any of the reformed expressions of Carmel that claim her as their inspiration and teacher. I have often heard Carmelite friars speak enthusiastically of Saint Teresa as their "holy mother." So well known was Saint Teresa in the 17th century that Bossuet, "the eagle of Meaux", found no better way of describing Blessed Marie of the Incarnation, the intrepid mystic of Tours and of Québec, than to call her "the Teresa of the New World".

Dyed-in-the-Wool Benedictine

Is Saint Teresa the only woman at whose feet men are permitted to sit as disciples at the feet of a master? Is she so unique in the annals of holiness that, as far as men are concerned, a vast chasm separates her from all other mystics and doctors of her sex? My own veneration for Saint Teresa is immense. I would consider it a wondrous blessing to sit at her feet and be numbered among her spiritual progeny . . . but God had another idea for me. He called me to the Benedictine way of life. Ever since Blessed Abbot Marmion introduced me to the Benedictine ideal of holiness, in the middle of the madness of the 60s, I have experienced, over and over again, that it suits me better than any other school of Christian life.

The Benedictine Way

There is no doubt that grace builds on nature. A natural predisposition to the full liturgical life made me take to Benedictine life with a certain ease and, sometimes, with positive delight. The same natural predisposition has caused me terrible sufferings over the years, especially in the endemic liturgical chaos that I experienced as a violence done to my soul. For all of that, I never ceased experiencing the enchantment produced by an antiphon, by a psalm, a responsory, or a collect. The givenness of the liturgy is a masterpiece of divine craftsmanship. The Holy Ghost infuses every detail with a freshness and grace that is hidden from the learned and the clever, but disclosed to little souls, to the man who trudges into choir day after day, knowing, in faith, that there Christ waits for him, and that there, the prayer of Christ will fill his soul.

Enter Henri Brémond

Only when I was nineteen years old did I meet the great lady who would, in these later years of my life, become my own Teresa of Avila. Like Saint Teresa, Mectilde de Bar is a mystic, a teacher of prayer, and a reformer. She is not a Doctor of the Church, but she certainly has the makings of one. It was Henri Brémond (31 July 1865 - 17 August 1933) -- say what you will about him, I know that he had a dodgy side -- who, in his monumental 11 volume Histoire litteraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu'a nos jours introduced me to Mother Mectilde du Saint-Sacrement. I was blessed to have a Benedictine spiritual mentor, Dom R.C., who supplied me with one volume after another of Brémond's master work. Being nineteen, and having a youthful appetite for reading, I made my way through all 11 volumes, poring over them well past my bedtime. Something about Mectilde de Bar struck a chord deep inside my own soul. Little did I suspect then that the chord would continue resounding even into the sixth decade of my life.

Who is Mectilde de Bar?

So who is Catherine (Mectilde) de Bar (1614-1698), and why would I want to sit at her feet? Why do I call her the Benedictine Teresa of Avila? Her God-seeking journey, though consistent, was torturous, and marked by danger, exile, illness, poverty, and uncertainties on all sides. At the tender age of nineteen she entered the monastery chosen for her by her father; a house of the Annonciades, religious of The Ten Pleasures (or Virtues) of the Blessed Virgin Mary, situated at Bruyères, in the diocese of Toul.

Taught by Our Lady

As a novice, Catherine, who, as an Annonciade had received the name, soeur Saint-Jean-l'Évangéliste, suffered a devastating season of dryness in prayer and interior desolation. She turned to the Blessed Virgin Mary, saying, "I don't know how to pray, nor do I know where to turn to learn how. If thou thyself wilt not deign to become my teacher, just as, up until now, thou hast been my mother, I am lost." Our Blessed Lady heard her request, so much so that years later, Mectilde was able to write: "I can assure you that all that I know I learned from the Most Holy Virgin; she has always been my teacher, and, in all the situations in which I have found myself during my life, she has never failed to instruct me in my duties."

Refugees

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was raging at the time, pitting France against the House of Austria. When Swedish soldiers, many of them fanatical Lutherans fighting for the French, invaded Lorraine, they had no scruples about sacking churches and desecrating the Most Blessed Sacrament. After the Swedes, notoriously undisciplined French mercenary soldiers tore through Lorraine, completing the utter devastation of the country. One of these was a former suitor of Catherine de Bar. Donning masculine attire, Catherine and a companion, also disguised as a man, fled. A farmer hid them under bales of hay loaded on his cart. When Catherine's pursuer, alerted to her escape, pierced the bales with his sword, not one thrust touched Catherine and her companion. They had prayed continuously to the Blessed Virgin to protect them.

Benedictine Hospitality

By this time, the whole community of Annonciades was obliged to abandon the monastery of Bruyères. They elected 20 year old Mother Saint-Jean-l'Evangéliste superior of the group and, in search of safety and quiet, moved from one place to another until, in the end, they accepted the invitation of the Benedictines of Rambervillers to take refuge with them. These Benedictines had embraced the observance of Dom Didier de la Cour (1550-1623), founder of the reformed Congregation of Saints Vanne and Hydulphe. The Annonciades lived alongside the Benedictines for a year (1638-1639) during which Catherine de Bar discovered the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Profession as a Benedictine

After placing her five Annonciades in houses of their Order, Mother Saint-Jean was clothed in the Benedictine habit on 2 July 1639, receiving the name Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde. On the feast of the Translation of Saint Benedict, 11 July 1640, 25 year old Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde made her monastic profession. The Franciscan Friars Minor, charged with the oversight of the Annonciades, bitterly contested the validity of this Benedictine profession. Not until 1660 did a rescript of Pope Alexander VII settle the question by recognizing Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde as a proper Benedictine, owing no allegiance to the Friars Minor.

Montmartre

The Duchy of Lorraine, already ravaged by war, now fell to famine and plague. Saint Vincent de Paul, moved by so much suffering, sent a group of ten Lazarists to Lorraine to help the poorest of the poor. Learning of the plight of the itinerant Benedictines, Saint Vincent had them brought safely to Paris, where, on the evening of 29 August 1641, Mademoiselle Legras (Saint Louise de Marillac (August 12, 1591--March 15, 1660) received the exhausted travelers into her own home. The next day, Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde and her companion climbed to the summit of Montmartre where Lady Abbess de Beauvilliers was waiting to welcome them into the great Benedictine abbey that, at the time, covered la butte, close to the site of the present Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Normandy and Holy Gentlemen Friends

An opportunity to reconstitute her community in Normandy became the occasion for Catherine to meet some of the greatest spiritual figures of 17th century France's mystical invasion: Saint John Eudes, Monsieur de Renty, and Monsieur de Bernières were among them. Normandy was, however, but another halt in the journey. In June 1643, Mother Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde, together with her companion, Bernardine de la Conception, returned to Paris, hoping to find there, a place that the whole community from Lorraine might finally call home.

Chrysostom of Saint Lô Makes HIs Prophecy

In Paris, Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde met the famous Father Chrysostom of Saint-Lô, provincial of the Franciscans of the Third Order Regular in France. Catherine wrote an account of her soul for Father Chrysostom. He was to be her spiritual guide until his death three years later in 1646. Father Chrysostom taught a contemplative prayer that was the pure abandonment of the soul to the action of the Divine Bridegroom. There was, however, nothing of the quietist about him; he enjoined Catherine to practise silence, withdrawal from the world, hiddenness, annihilation of self, abjection, obedience, and love of the cross. He imposed frightening practices of penance on Catherine: no more than three hours of sleep, the discipline, hair shirt, and a girdle of iron set about with points. Concerning Catherine de Sainte-Mectilde, Father Chrysostom made this astonishing prophecy: "God, by a most special providence, obliges you to honour the Blessed Sacrament with a particular devotion. It is in this sacrament that Our Lord Jesus Christ lives and shall live until the consummation of the ages in a life that is all hidden." Father Chrysostom authorized Catherine to receive Holy Communion daily, something extremely rare at the time.

To be continued.


Maria, Abbatissa Nostra

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Apart from the photos of the statue at Tre Fontane in Rome (Trappist Monks), of the icon of the Mother of God, Abbess of Mount Athos, and of our own icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Succour, the statues of Our Lady shown here are found in monasteries of the Benedettine dell'Adorazione Perpetua del Santissimo Sacramento in Italy.

Our Lady, Our Abbess, Our Queen

Writing in an essay in the book Priez sans cesse - 300 ans de prière, (Desclée de Brouwer, Editeur, Paris, 1953, p. 177), Dom Jean Leclercq, O.S.B. demonstrates that a Benedictine devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of Abbess, was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. Originating in monasteries of the Cluniac obedience, devotion to the Blessed Virgin as Abbess was also not unknown among the 17th century Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur.

At Tre Fontane

Not surprisingly, the same devotion made its way into the hearts and cloisters of of the Cistercians. When, in 1975, I visited the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome, I was struck by a statue of the Mother of God enthroned in the reading cloister.

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The Blessed Virgin is depicted seated, dressed in the white cuculla of the Cistercians and wearing the abbatial insignia of the ring and pectoral cross. In her right hand she holds the keys of the monastery, and in her left the crosier or pastoral staff used by abbots and abbesses. The inscription below the statue reads: In me omnis spes, "In me is all hope." How many generations of monks and laybrothers in need of hope paused before this statue to entrust themselves to the Mother of Jesus, their heavenly Abbess and Queen?

Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration

Mother Mectilde de Bar, familiar to the readers of Vultus Christi, as the foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration, and the "Teresa of Avila" of the Benedictine Order, renounced the abbatial title for herself and all her successors in perpetuity, and attributed that title and its duties to the Mother of God alone.

The 28 May 1654, M. Mectilde de Bar wrote to M. Dorothée Heurelle:

In myself I find nothing whatsoever that is capable of giving me joy, except for one thing that has given me great satisfaction. It is that I have had a statue of Our made. She is much taller than I, holding her Child on her right arm, and holding a crosier in her left hand, to signify she is the generalissima of the Order of Saint Benedict, and the most worthy Abbess, Mother, and Superior of this little house of the Holy Sacrament. It was brought to us on Saturday, the vigil of Pentecost. I must admit that her arrival sent a thrill of joy and consolation through me, and seeing my holy Mistress take possession of her domain and of this very little convent. She is not yet altogether finished, because she must still be gilded and made perfectly beautiful, and after she is perfectly complete, we shall have her blessed, and then placed on a throne prepared to this effect in the middle of our choir between the stall of our Mother Subprioress and mine. She is admired, and certainly she is beautiful, and consoles me extremely.

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The Image of Our Lady Abbess

On 22 August 1654, Mother Mectilde proclaimed the Blessed Virgin Mary the only abbess and perpetual superior of the Institute. Delegated by the prior of Saint-Germain, the Abbé Picoté blessed the statue of Our Lady. The next day, Mother Mectilde placed Our Lady's image in all the regular places -- choir, chapter, refectory, dormitory -- so that she might, in some way, preside at all the community exercises. She want Our Lady's feasts to be celebrated brilliantly, and prescribed special prayers to the glory of her Most Pure Heart and Immaculate Conception.

Thus, was Our Lady forever chosen, named, and recognized as the most worthy and most eminent mother, abbess, and superior in chief of the first fledgling monastery of the Most Holy Sacrament. The Benedictines of the Most Holy Sacrament renew the abbatial election of the Mother of God, and entrust themselves to her every year on August 15th or 22nd.

Abbess and Queen of the Holy Mountain

Is this devotion more of a feminine thing? Hardly. The monks of Mount Athos, where no woman ever sets foot, practice the same devotion as their Western brethren, but to an even higher degree. The all-holy Mother of God is acknowledged, venerated, and praised as the Abbess of the Holy Mountain. She is the only woman allowed on Mount Athos because it is her garden, and her domain.

Prophecy of the Mother of God

Saint Gregory Palamas, in his Life of Saint Peter the Athonite (+681) relates that, while living virtually alone on the Holy Mountain as a hermit, he had a vision of the Mother of God telling Saint Nicholas of her love for the place:

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"The time will come," said the Mother of God," when, from every direction, it will be filled with a multitude of monks.... If those monks shall labor for God with all their hearts and faithfully keep His commandments, I will vouchsafe them great gifts on the great day of my Son. And, while even here on earth, they will receive great aid from me. I shall lighten their afflictions and labors. I will be for the monks an invincible ally, invisibly guiding and guarding them, a healer, a source nourishing them, and make it possible for them, with but scant means, to have sufficiency for life."

Abbess of the Holy Mountain

For over a thousand years, the monks of Mount Athos have experienced the truth of these words. Not merely in name only, but in reality and in the life of each monk, the all-holy Mother of God is honoured as Abbess and Sovereign Lady of the Holy Mountain. The monks of Mount Athos invoke the Holy Mother of God by a whole litany of titles. Our Lady is the archetype of monasticism. She is the paradigm of Christian holiness; the Abbess of the Holy Mountain; and the monk's sure guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Mother of God is everywhere present on Mount Athos by means of the holy icons through which she reveals herself as a most solicitous Abbess and communicates with her monks.

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And at Silverstream Priory

Lest we, the least of Our Lady's sons, be found lacking in the same kind of filial devotion to her, our own little monastery, like so many others in past times and places, elected the Blessed Virgin Mary Abbess of Silverstream on August 15th.

Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, after Vespers on the feast of the Assumption, I pronounced the solemn act of election by which our monastery entered into a new and deeper relationship with Our Blessed Lady. Here, for your meditation, is the text of the prayer. It is modeled after the act that Mother Mectilde de Bar pronounced in Paris on 22 August 1654.

Act of Election and Consecration to Our Lady, Abbess

I, an unworthy son of Saint Benedict,
holding the first place in this monastery
established for the adoration and glory
of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar,
humbly prostrate before the Throne of the Divine Majesty,
in the radiance of the Eucharistic Face of Jesus,
and in the warmth of the fire that burns in His Most Sacred Heart,
do confess and declare,
in the name of the community such as it is at this time,
and such as it shall be in time to come,
that the Most Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God,
is forever elected, named, and recognized
as the ever-worthy, glorious,
and sovereign Lady and Abbess of this monastery,
that is, of all the monasteries dedicated to her,
the most fragile and the most in need of the care and attention
of her maternal Heart.

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With profound humility and confidence,
I beg her, in her most tender pity
to take this struggling and vulnerable infant monastery
under her singular care and special protection,
and to obtain for me
and for the souls in my care
the incomparable grace of the Divine Friendship
of the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus,
in fidelity to the Rule of Saint Benedict
and the charism of adoration, reparation, and charity for priests,
which has been bestowed upon us
by the Father of lights from whom descends every good gift,
and has been recognized by the Holy Catholic Church
in the persons of our Lords, the Most Reverend Bishops of Tulsa and of Meath,
and in whose heart we desire to live and to die.

I further offer to the maternal Heart
of the same sovereign Lady and Abbess
all who have assisted this little monastery
by their presence, their labour, their prayers,
and their material support,
asking her to extend the veil of her holy protection
and perpetual help over them and over their families,
their loved ones, their homes, and their places of work and business.

Receive us, then, all-holy and merciful Mother of Jesus Christ,
as thy servants and as sons of thine own household.
Make thou full use of thy rights and of thy power over us,
and over the temporal and spiritual affairs of this house,
lest thine own honour be mocked,
and thy house looked upon with scorn,
and thy sons derided.

We accept and avow that Thou art our sovereign Lady,
our Abbess, and our Queen,
and by this act pronounced today in view of thy Divine Son,
of the choirs of angels,
of Saint Joseph, Saint John, our father Saint Benedict,
and of all the saints,
we bind ourselves to depend upon thee,
and look to thee for all things.

We renew into thy hands the sacred vows of our baptism,
and those of monastic profession,
asking thee to fashion us into true adorers of the Eucharistic Face of Jesus,
and consolers of His Eucharistic Heart.

O Holy Mother of God,
we beseech thee with all the humility possible
to take upon thyself the office to which we elect thee today,
and to rule over, protect, and provide for this house
and those who dwell herein now
and in the days to come.

This is the irrevocable, binding, and unanimous desire of thy sons,
in testimony of which, we sign this present act
on the 15th day of August 2012
enjoinIng that it be kept in this monastery in perpetuity
and renewed every year
on the festival of thy glorious Assumption into heaven,
or during the octave thereof. Amen.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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