Personal Musings: September 2012 Archives

In the Crucible of Love

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Stability Amidst Life's Chances and Changes

One of the most encouraging things about the lifelong journey of Mectilde de Bar is that she was often obliged to leave one place for another, to begin afresh, and to adapt to new circumstances. Again and again she experienced change, keeping always her heart fixed where true joys are found: in the adorable Sacrament of the Altar, as in the heavenly sanctuary not made by hands. For me, Mother Mectilde is the model of what the Church asks in the Collect of the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:

Deus, qui fidelium mentes unius efficis voluntatis, da populis tuis id amare quod praecipis, id desiderare quod promittis: ut inter mundanas varietates ibi nostra fixa sint corda, ubi vera sunt gaudia.
O God, who makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will, grant to Thy people to love that which Thou commandest and desire that which Thou dost promise; that so, among the changing things of this world, our hearts may be set where true joys are to be found.

Trust and Perseverance

In times of social upheaval and unrest, as in times of upheaval and unrest in the Church, such as I lived through in the 1960s and 70s, the ideal of monastic stability is often shattered against the jagged rocks of reality. Happily, God calls a man, not to an ideal, but to utter trust in Him and to humble perseverance in the face of things as they are -- imperfect, gritty, and disappointing -- even if this means beginning afresh over and over again. For me, Catherine Mectilde de Bar is a model of just this. God can and does, in fact, use such paradoxical and disconcerting circumstances as a crucible in which he hammers out something something new, something purified, something conceived in the infinite love and wisdom of His Heart.

The Humble and Costly Yes

There are those, who judging the twists and turns of another's life, through the lens of their own experience and prejudices, see only discontinuity where God sees, rather, the continuity of a humble and costly "yes," repeated again and again, to the unfolding of His plan. For the one engaged in such a circuitous and unconventional journey, there will be the subtle but cruel humiliations of the raised eyebrow, the sceptical glance, the condescending smirk, and the whispered (or not so whispered) inference. Religious types can be pitiless when it comes to such things.

Naysayers and Friends

By God's providence, Mother Mectilde was surrounded, not only by critics and naysayers, but also by supportive and faithful friends who believed in her vocation and made sacrifices in order for her work, Our Lord's work, to prosper. Thus, when it became clear that, because of the lack of space at the house in the rue du Bac, the little community had to relocate once again, this time to a rented house belonging to Madame de Rochefort in the rue Férou, close to the church of Saint-Sulpice. There, on 12 March 1654, the Father Prior of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Dom Roussel, who, by this time had nuanced his opinion of Mother Mectilde's community, established the monastic enclosure.

Memorable Day

On the same day, the mother of Louis XIV, Anne of Austria herself, arrived at the new monastery with an imposing retinue of courtiers. She directed Dom Roussel to afix the cross to the wall above the door of the house, and established it officially as a royal foundation. Dom Roussel blessed the bell, the oratory, and the regular places. During a Solemn Mass, a Carmelite of Les Billettes, one Père Léon, preacher to the Queen, delivered the sermon. At the end of Holy Mass, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in the monstrance.

The Amende Honorable

That afternoon, la musique du Roi, Louis XIV"s own musicians, presented their homage to Jesus Christ, the Eucharistic King enthroned upon the altar. Then, before Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Anne of Austria advanced to the middle of the choir, knelt in adoration, and with a cord about her neck and a burning taper in her hand, read the Amende Honorable, or act of reparation, composed by Mother Mectilde. As the Queen gave utterance to Mother Mectilde's prayer, it was the voice of France that reached the ears of God, making reparation for the countless offenses, sacrileges, and outrages perpetrated against the Sacred Host.

The Painting

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Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674) immortalized the solemn scene in the painting reproduced above. Looking at it from left to right, we see two gentleman courtiers, finely dressed. The one whose face is in shadow is whispering a comment to the other, while he points to the altar. His companion is listening to him, but appears more recollected and moved. His head is bowed; his face bears an expression of sweetness and compunction. I wonder how this moment affected his life thereafter. Kneeling in front of the gentlemen are two ladies in waiting; they too appear awed by what is taking place. They have to take their cue from the Queen. There are six Benedictines, each one with the cord that symbolizes identification with the Suffering Servant about her neck, and a burning candle, the symbol of readiness and love, in her hand.

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Anne of Austria

Anne of Austria has removed her crown and placed it on the cushion at her feet, leaving her bareheaded. She too wears the cord about her neck, and carries the burning candle, a sign of her self-offering in adoration and in reparation. For all her royal finery, her face reveals an inward simplicity of soul. One senses that she is a good woman.

Face to Face

Mother Mectilde is the figure next to the Queen. In Mother Mectilde's features, there is gentle majesty. Her whole being appears drawn to the altar, to the monstrance, to the Eucharistic Face of the Son of God. Of all the faces depicted in the painting, that of Mother Mectilde is, I think, the most expressive. The little nun crouching next to the altar represents l'anéantissement, en-nothingment, profound humility in the presence of the Divine Majesty.

Our principal application in prayer must be to hold ourselves before the greatness and supreme majesty of God in the Most Holy Sacrament, with the most profound respect, with total confidence and abandonment, with submission, accepting simply all the dispositions of Divine Providence, each one according to her degree of grace, either by making acts [of prayer] or in some other way. (M. Mectilde du Saint-Sacrement)

To be continued.

Accedite ad eum et illuminamini

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Morning Musings on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians 5,16-24
I say then: Walk in the spirit: and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh: For these are contrary one to another: so that you do not the things that you would.But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law.

Abide in Christ

What does Saint Paul mean when he enjoins us to "walk in the spirit"? He means, I think, that we are to abide in Our Lord Jesus Christ. Does not the same Apostle say elsewhere, "But he who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit with Him"? (1 Corinthians 6:17) And does not Our Lord Himself say, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine: you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. " (John 15:4-5)

Now the works of the flesh are manifest: which are fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, emulations, wraths, quarrels, dissensions, sects, envies, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. Of the which I foretell you, as I have foretold to you, that they who do such things shall not obtain the kingdom of God.

There are some souls whose fear of falling into the "works of the flesh" is greater than their desire to live in union with Christ. Desire Christ, putting nothing before His love, preferring Him to all else, and the works of the flesh will dry up and fall away by themselves.

Gaze Upon Christ

I have known souls whose concentration on sin is more intense than their concentration on the Face of Christ and on the merciful love of His Heart. These souls are never at peace. They are forever examining themselves, and searching for evidence of sin and imperfection where they should be searching for evidence of the grace of Christ and His readiness to raise up the fallen, heal the broken-hearted, and bind up their wounds.

It is more effective, and more fruitful, to love virtue than to live, at every moment, in the fear of vice. By this I do not mean that one should not fear vice and hate sin; I mean, rather, that to focus on such things is unhealthy for the soul and breeds a spirituality of pessimism and gloom.

Castitatem Amare

Take, for example, Saint Benedict's approach to the virtue of chastity. In the entire Rule of Saint Benedict there are but two words relative to this virtue: castitatem amare. Whereas other monastic rules treat of chastity at great length, Saint Benedict says simply and succinctly: castitatem amare, to love chastity. These two words say all that needs to be said on the subject. There is nothing negative here; no stifling prohibitions and no minute regulations. Saint Benedict's approach is entirely positive. He presents chastity as beautiful; it is this that makes it worthy of love. All virtue is a participation in the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of God. Saint Benedict understands that one who loves the beauty of chastity will rise to a higher love: the love of the beauty that shines on the Face of Christ.

But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity. Against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences.

The Fruits of the Holy Ghost

Saint Paul gives us here the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost. The tree upon which these fruits grow has seven branches, these being the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. And the root and trunk of the tree are none other than the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

When I was a young monk, the same Dom R.C. whom I have mentioned elsewhere, and who had such a beneficial influence on me, told me that he liked to ruminate the list of the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost. He was practising a spiritual hygiene of thought. He was, in effect, fulfilling what Saint Paul enjoins us to do:

For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things. The things which you have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, these do ye, and the God of peace shall be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

Spiritual Hygiene

This spiritual hygiene of thought has another side to it: there are things that are not fitting, or helpful, or worthy of the thought and conversation of Christians: "fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness." It is a pity when talented writers and speakers waste their gifts on calling attention to the sins and weaknesses -- generally sins and weaknesses of the flesh -- of fellow Christians and, notably, of the clergy, instead of employing their gifts to call attention to the beauty of God in his saints.

Walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not so much as be named among you, as becometh saints: Or obscenity, or foolish talking, or scurrility, which is to no purpose; but rather giving of thanks. (Ephesians 5:2-4)

The Lord is Wonderful in His Saints

Attention to virtue fosters virtue. Attention to vice foments bitterness, sadness, discouragement, unrest, and rash judgment. One needs, I think, to take a lesson from the liturgical calendar and rejoice, day after day, in the beauty of Christ who is, as the Invitatory Antiphon puts it, "wonderful in His saints."

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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