Sunday, November 27, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 48 ~ St. Lidwina of Schiedam

J. K. Huysmans is a name that figures in literary history as one of the founding figures of Aestheticism – which is almost the opposite of asceticism. Early in his literary career, the dominant fashion in French writing was for panoramic sociological observation combined with gritty realism, and authors were expected to wander the streets and sit out at cafés cataloguing the world that went by — rather like Dickens but with cynical wit rather than warm good humour. In 1884, Huysmans coloured the literary standards of a generation by producing a stunning novel that turned away from public engagement to embrace private pleasures. The protagonist is a highly strung individual of great personal wealth who withdraws to his mansion and immerses himself in solitary delights and private vices, shutting out society and focusing on rare books, furnishings and collectibles, expensive things luxuriantly described in a prose dense with obscure allusion. It was a work so scandalous that simply owning a copy was produced as evidence in Oscar Wilde’s trial.

This novel, Against the Grain, together with his next, The Damned, shaped the atmosphere not just of decadence but of debauchery and diabolism that G. K. Chesterton reacted so strongly against at the very end of the 19th century. By then it was something that the author himself had also reacted against. Having left the Church in his childhood, he was reconciled in the early 1890s. He wrote a conversion novel, En route (which Oscar Wilde read in prison), and two more distinctly Catholic novels about the operations of grace, La Cathédrale (1898) and L’Oblat (1903). There were strong elements of autobiography in these. He had become a Benedictine oblate in 1899 or 1900, and moved to live near a monastery just before it was closed down by the anticlerical legislation of 1901. Midway between La Cathédrale and L’Oblat, Huysmans published not a novel, but a life of the late-medieval Dutch saint Lidwina of Schiedam. I have been meaning to find out more about her for some time, so on a long train journey last weekend took this book along.

There is a fairly well known bit in G. K. Chesterton’s Short History of England where he writes:

If we entered a foreign town and found a pillar like the Nelson Column, we should be surprised to learn the hero on the top of it had been famous for his politeness and hilarity during a chronic toothache. If a procession came down the street with a brass band and a hero on a white horse, we should think it odd to be told that he had been very patient with a half-witted maiden aunt. Yet some such pantomime impossibility is the only measure of the innovation of the Christian idea of a popular and recognized saint.

It is a passage that applies with particular force to Lidwina, who was bedridden from the age of 15, after a fall while ice-skating. Her fall broke a rib, which in itself might have healed quickly, but ramifying medical complications left her semi-paralysed. In iconography she can be recognised from the green pallor of her complexion. In worldly terms she never achieved anything, and yet her sufferings are commemorated in churches, processions, art and literature. She was never formally canonized, but in 1890 Pope Leo XIII officially recognized her cult as one of enduring popular devotion long predating the more stringent rules on canonization. She was prominent enough a century ago to have an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Lidwina lived from 1380 to 1433, born the same year as Bernardino of Siena,
who popularised devotion to the Holy Name, and dying two years after Joan of Arc. The one led preaching campaigns, the other rode in armour to the battlefield. Lidwina had trouble turning from one side to the other, but did not live in total obscurity. Although her family was poor, her injuries were so unusual that doctors came from far and wide to inspect them. And her life was so unusual that within a few decades of her death three priests had written accounts of it: Jan Gerlac, who had lived for a while in the same house as Lidwina; Jan Brugman, a Franciscan preacher renowned for his oratorical skills; and Thomas à Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ.

In the early years of her incapacitation, the curate who brought Lidwina communion six times a year taught her to see her sufferings as a share in Christ’s, and to spend her time in contemplation. At first she found this very hard, telling him “When I struggle to consider the tortures of Christ I can think of nothing but my own.” He encouraged her to accept this in itself as a suffering, not to try too hard, just to give up and sleep if she became tired, but not to stop renewing the attempt. As she spent increasing time in contemplation and mental pilgrimage, she began to receive visions and angelic visitations. A reputation for sanctity spread, but so did malicious gossip. Though Schiedam was a small town it lies at the mouth of the river Maas, right next to Rotterdam, and had a considerable transitory population. All sorts of visitors would come to see the reputed holy woman, to gawp, or to test her, or to pester her with frivolous questions or requests for predictions. She laid bare the souls of some of these visitors, removing scruples or urging them to confess secret sins; she banished despair from some, and reconciled families that had quarrelled; those seeking assurances about loved ones who had passed on she urged not to waste time and to get on with praying for the departed. Huysmans gives this something of the atmosphere of people consulting a medium, but not getting the flattering or self-serving answers a medium would give them. “Her sick room,” Huysmans says, “became a spiritual hospital.” Far from profiting from this celebrity, Lidwina died in extreme poverty.

Two connections to earlier posts on this blog emerged. Like those of the Martyrs of Gorcum, the relics of Lidwina were smuggled to Brussels in 1615; and they were entrusted to the Carmelite monastery that was home to Sister Margaret. In 1871 the bulk of them were returned to Schiedam, only fragments being retained in Brussels, and in 1881 a church (pictured) was built to house them. John Paul II made the church a basilica in 1990. I didn’t have a clear idea of where Schiedam was, beyond somewhere in Holland, but it turns out it’s about six miles from where my oldest is at university.

Huysmans does write in a highly wrought style, and there are things going on in the book that have a lot to do with his personal issues and the issues of his time (the curtailing of freedom of religion in France; the modernist crisis; the anti-Semitism surrounding the Dreyfus Affair), so I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend his life of Lidwina in general terms, although I certainly found it interesting. What is very clear is the comfort he derives from a saying that he attributes to St Hildegard: “God dwells not in bodies that are whole.”

The feast of St Lidwina is celebrated on 14 June (formerly 14 April). She is the patron saint of Schiedam, of ice skaters, and of the chronically ill.

Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.). He has also written about St. AnthonySt. CuthbertMargaretSt. KizitoSt. Margaret Clitherow, St. Michael, and St. Peter Ascanus  for this series.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 47 ~ St. Scholastica

It is surprising how many cases of saintly twins there are: Medard and Gildard, Mark and Marcellian, Crispin and Crispinian, Gervase and Protase, and Cosmas and Damian. There may be others. But surely the most famous pair are St Benedict and St Scholastica.

Scholastica lives very much in the shadow of her brother, but she was close to him and shared in his mission. Benedict, though certainly not the first Christian monastic, is nonetheless the father of Christian monasticism on account of his great influence and example, and Scholastica, by a convenient parity, occupies something like the same position for female contemplatives.

What little we know about her comes from St Gregory the Great's Dialogues. He tells us that she was born (c.480) into the Italian nobility, in Nursia, and was dedicated to the Lord from infancy. The historical sources are mostly silent on the events of her life. We do know that by the time Benedict had founded the monastery at Montecassino (c.530) she was living in a women's religious community nearby, and that she made an annual pilgrimage to visit her brother and to speak with him about spiritual matters.

Two famous stories have come down to us, both from the last days of her life, in the year 542. During one of her annual visits it came time for the two to part, but Scholastica, unwilling to be parted just yet, asked Benedict to stay. When he protested that he was needed in the monastery, she quietly bowed her head and prayed. Immediately "there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightening and thundering, and such abundance of rain" that Benedict was forced to prolong his time with her. (On account of this incident, she is invoked as intercessor against storms.)

Just three days later, Scholastica died. We do not know the reason or the circumstances. Perhaps it was sudden, for Benedict was not present with her. Instead, he is said to have seen her soul ascending to heaven in the form of a dove, a symbol of purity and peace, and thereby knew that she had died. At his instruction, her body was brought to Montecassino and interred in the same tomb in which Benedict himself was later laid.

What became of her relics I do not know. Raids by Lombard soldiers forced the evacuation of Montecassino for most of the 7th century, and during that period St Benedict's remains are believed to have been taken to France, but I've found no record of what happened to St Scholastica's. In death, as in life, it seems she remains largely hidden.

Yet despite this poverty of knowledge, the Church has through the centuries remembered and honoured her; her feast day is February 10. Her tender affection for her brother, her devotion to Our Lord, and her place at the fount of Benedictine spirituality have endeared her to many of the faithful.

Indeed, she is rather close to my own heart. My wife and I even gave her name to our eldest child (as a middle name). Initially some people took that name as an indication that her over-educated parents were tagging her for a life of academic achievement, but of course this was not the case. For each of our children, we've tried to give them a saintly middle name that, we hope, will give them a personal connection to a saint who will, by example and prayer, teach them something essential, something that the world is otherwise unlikely to teach them. In the case of St Scholastica, it was precisely her vocation as a contemplative that appealed to us, for if anything can be said to be wanting in our culture, and if any virtue can best equip a soul for a life of communion with God, it is surely a disposition to contemplation, of goodness, of beauty, and of truth. And so our daughter, and ourselves, we commend to the intercession of St Scholastica.

Saint Scholastica, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, true sister of St. Benedict, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, chosen by God from eternity, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, prevented by the grace of Christ Our Lord, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, consecrated to God from thy infancy, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, always a virgin incorrupt, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, espoused to Jesus Christ, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, scholar of the Holy Ghost, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, mirror of innocence, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, model of perfection, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, pattern of virtues, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, glory of the monastic life, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, mother of numberless virgins, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, imitator of the angelic life, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, full of faith in God, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, replenished with hope of the goods of heaven, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, ever burning with the love of thy Spouse, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, resplendent with humility, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, trusting as a daughter in the Lord, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, intent on prayer, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, quickly heard by the Lord, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, famed for the praise of perseverance, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, who didst enter the courts of Heaven in the form of a dove, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, who dost now follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, who dost rejoice in delights of thy Spouse for ever, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, adorned with a crown of glory, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, advocate with God of those who invoke thee, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, generous patron of those who imitate thee, pray for us.
St. Scholastica, holy and innocent virgin, pray for us.

-- from the Litany of St Scholastica

-- Craig Burrell blogs at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. In this series he has also written about St. Andre Bessette, Beato Angelico, and St. Nicholas Owen.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 46 ~ Blessed John Henry Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is unusual among those who have been formally honored by the Church for their virtue in that he is a figure of stature in the secular world. I first encountered him in a literature course in which prose writers of Victorian England were studied. He very much belonged there, since he is acknowledged by everyone of sense to be one of the intellectual lights of England in the 19th century, and in particular one of the great prose stylists. The main thing I remember about Newman from that course was the excerpt from his The Idea of a University which my professor, not a believer but a man of great discernment and intellectual honesty, pointed out as particularly memorable:

Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.

I was not a Catholic or any sort of Christian then, but I thought that was not only a very fine bit of prose but also real wisdom. In one sentence it exhibits what I later came to see as the persistent shrewdness and balance of the Catholic mind, which does not disparage or dismiss human capacities such as reason, but yet never forgets that they are not sufficient to keep us on the right path.

I imagine most people reading this have at least heard of Newman and have some idea of his significance for the Church; this is surely true for anyone who’s ever been involved or interested in the Anglican tradition. Many of the saints in this series have been ones of whom little is known. Newman is the opposite: not only did he live in the modern era, but he was very well-known and influential in his own time, and continues to be so. So his life is known and studied in great detail. I’m going to give you the briefest biographical summary. A moment on the Internet will turn up a great deal of information; for starters, here is his Wikipedia article.

Newman’s life shows a pattern which has become somewhat familiar since his time: early embrace of evangelicalism, movement into high-church Anglicanism; awareness of the difficulty of reconciling Protestantism with the historic Christian faith; conversion to Rome. He was an intellectual and scholar by nature, and a celibate by choice, and the drama of his life takes place in the world of ideas. Externally there is nothing very exciting to note. He was associated with Oxford University from his late adolescence until 1843, when, recognizing that he could no longer in good conscience remain an Anglican, he went into a sort of limbo that lasted until 1845, when he was formally received into the Catholic Church. He was one of the central figures in the Oxford Movement, which attempted to bring Anglicanism into greater harmony with the Catholic tradition, and in the associated Tractarian Movement, which issued a number of tracts, many written by Newman, making the Catholic case for Anglicanism. In the end many of the people associated with and influenced by the Oxford Movement did convert.

As is often the case with converts, the roughly half of his life that he spent as a Catholic was not altogether smooth sailing. He was apparently regarded with suspicion by many in high places. And although throughout his life he was engaged in fierce intellectual combat with religious liberalism, by which he meant the effort to make human reason the final judge of religious truth, he was himself considered something of a liberal. I think—I am no expert, but this is the impression I’ve gotten—that this was at least in part because his theological approach was founded less on Thomism and more on the Fathers. He was opposed to the solemn definition of papal infallibility (1870), not because he disbelieved it but because he thought such a declaration “inopportune.”

In 1864 the very anti-Catholic Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley wrote something about Newman which provoked one of Newman’s most well-known works, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Defense Of His Life). It is not an autobiography, not even a spiritual autobiography, in any usual sense. Newman introduces it as a “History of my Religious Opinions,” and that’s exactly what it is. We learn about those in great detail, but most of what can be learned about the man himself and his life can only be inferred.

Kingley’s offense was to say that the Catholic Church did not consider truth to be a virtue, and that his source for this charge was Newman. In a well-known passage, in the course of reviewing a book on the history of the Church, Kingsley asserted, with no reference to anything Newman had ever written that might justify the accusation, that

Truth, for its own sake had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be...

These were fighting words, and a fight was what Kingsley got, and got the worst of. Newman objected, and Kingsley responded smoothly that he must have misunderstood Newman’s words, and was glad to be reassured that Newman had not meant what Kingsley thought he meant.

This sly tactic did not work. “Never meant it? I maintain that I never said it,” responded Newman. A lengthy and complex war of words ensued in which Kingsley only dug his hole deeper. In the end Newman’s reputation was enhanced, and Kingsley’s diminished, because it was clear to any fair-minded observer, whatever his view of the Catholic Church, that Kingsley was in the wrong.

The Apologia followed from this controversy, because Newman believed that at the root of Kingsley’s accusation, and his confidence in making it, was a widespread and largely whispered suspicion that Newman had for many years been secretly Catholic, remaining formally Anglican and operating as a subversive within the Church of England. The idea of sneaky malicious Catholics plotting in dark places against everything decent had a powerful hold on the English (and American) Protestant mind in the 19th century, and this gave Newman the chance to bring it into the light and combat it. In the Apologia he described in detail every turn of his thinking, and the action resulting from it, with the aim of showing that he had never done other than act openly in accordance with his evolving convictions.

For someone like me, who came into the Church from the Anglican tradition (growing up as a Methodist, later spending a few years as an Episcopalian), this is a pretty fascinating work, because it follows Newman through the slowly dawning realization that the belief that Anglicanism is in continuity with the Church of the first millennium is untenable. There are some often-quoted passages about that. In 1839, for instance, Newman was studying the Monophysite heresy and concluded here, in the middle of the fifth century, I found, as it seemed to me, Christendom of the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries reflected. I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a Monophysite.

Most of Newman’s other work has more than held its place since his time. A Grammar of Assent is an inquiry into the nature of religious truth and our grounds for holding it. I read it many years ago in inconvenient circumstances, didn’t really understand it, and would like to read it again, as I think it articulates and expands upon some of my own intuitions. There is the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, in which occurs another well-known remark: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”

His sermons collected in a huge volume as Parochial and Plain Sermons are full of insight and wisdom. The hymn “Lead, Kindly Light” is a setting of one of his poems. His long poem, “The Dream of Gerontius,” about death and judgment, was set to music by Edward Elgar; if you are a classical music lover and don’t know it, you should seek it out, as it is one of Elgar’s best works. And Newman himself was an amateur musician who played violin and viola.

But to be a capable defender of the faith in controversy, and to have impressive intellectual achievements, is not to be a saint. What of Newman’s personal virtue? I wouldn’t necessarily call his duel with Kingsley saintly. Newman is pretty pugnacious—but then many saints were in defending the faith. The original edition of the Apologia has an introductory section which concludes thusly:

Away with you, Mr. Kingsley, and fly into space! Your name shall occur again as little as I can help, in the course of these pages.

So let us turn to the words of Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of Newman’s beatification:

While it is John Henry Newman’s intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls. The warmth and humanity underlying his appreciation of the pastoral ministry is beautifully expressed in another of his famous sermons: “Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you” (“Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel”, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3).

He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison. No wonder that on his death so many thousands of people lined the local streets as his body was taken to its place of burial not half a mile from here. One hundred and twenty years later, great crowds have assembled once again to rejoice in the Church’s solemn recognition of the outstanding holiness of this much-loved father of souls. What better way to express the joy of this moment than by turning to our heavenly Father in heartfelt thanksgiving, praying in the words that Blessed John Henry Newman placed on the lips of the choirs of angels in heaven:

If you read the Apologia or any summary of Newman’s life (I can’t speak to the full-length biographies such as Ian Ker’s), you know that as an Anglican he was the vicar of St. Mary the Virgin parish, a University parish which I take to have been (and probably still be) fairly posh. But this position included responsibility for a place called Littlemore, which to me and probably most people is just a name. But it was a poor neighborhood, a sort of suburb of Oxford, and Newman seems to have devoted more time as a pastor to it than to St. Mary proper. You can read a good deal about that in this paper (link is to a PDF file). It belies the image one is apt to have of Newman as an aloof and insulated don.

Will Newman eventually be declared a saint? I have no idea, but if he is there will be a lot of rejoicing.

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 AuthorsIn this series he has written about St HenrikSt. John FisherSt Ansgar, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. John Kemble.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 45~ Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

In 1901 Pier Giorgio Frassati was born in Turin into a prominent Italian family. His agnostic father, Alfredo,was influential in politics as founder and director of the newspaper, La Stampa.  Like his father, Pier was strongly anti-Fascist and did nothing to hide his political views.

His deep spiritual life was aided by daily communion (he had to obtain permission for this rare privilege) and frequent nocturnal Eucharistic adoration.  St. Paul's Epistles were favorite meditations and St. Catherine of Siena's writings were instrumental in his becoming a Third Order Dominican.

Pier never hesitated to share his faith with his many friends and he did nothing to hide his political views--physically defending the faith and at times involved in fights with anticlerical Communists and Fascists. On one occasion, participating in a Church-organized demonstration in Rome, he withstood police violence and rallied the other young people by grabbing the group's banner which the police had knocked down--holding it even higher while using the pole to ward off their blows.

While yet very pious Pier was described by his friends as "an explosion of joy." This handsome, vibrant fun-loving young man was an avid mountain climber--organizing many outings with his friends; he loved hiking, riding horses, skiing, and as a lover of art and music--he frequented the opera, theater, and museums. He appreciated good humor, laughter, and practical jokes.

Though the Frassati family was of enormous wealth and power, Alfredo's austerities never allowed his children too much spending money. Even so, Pier managed to donate most of his allowance to those more 'needy' than himself---becoming accustomed to giving away his train-fare to the poor and running back home so as not to be late for dinner.

This young man was dedicated to works of social action and charity. Having joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society at the age of 17, He was also involved with Catholic Student Foundation, the Apostleship of Prayer, Catholic Action, and became a very active member of the People's Party, which promoted the Catholic Church's social teaching based on the principles of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum.

Pier Giorgio was not a passive 'joiner'...records show that he was active and involved in each, fulfilling all the duties of membership.

He put his faith concretely into action through his constant, humble, mostly hidden service to the poorest of Turin. He lived simply and gave away food, money, or anything that anyone asked of him and considered it a privilege to to be the servant of the poor and suffering.

Just before receiving his university degree Pier Giorgio contracted polio....most likely from the very people to whom he was ministering in the slums. Even though he lay dying he would not draw attention to himself as his own grandmother was dying at the same time he was. On the eve of his death he scribbled a message to a friend reminding the friend not to forget the medicine for a poor man he had been assisting. After six days of suffering he died at the age of 24.

Upon their son's death,(July 4, 1925)  his family expected Turin's elite and political figures to come to offer their condolences and attend the funeral. Much to their surprise the streets of the city were lined with thousands of mourners---the poor and needy whom he had unselfishly served.  And many of these folks in turn were surprised to learn that the saintly young man was the heir of the influential Frassati family. The poor of the city petitioned the Archbishop to begin the cause for canonization....and the process was opened in 1932.

Pope John Paul II visiting Frassati's original tomb in 1989 in the family crypt in Pollone said, "I wanted to pay homage to a young man who was able to witness to Christ with singular effectiveness in this century of ours.  When I was a young man, I, too, felt the beneficial influence of his example and, as a student, I was impressed by the force of his testimony."

Upon exhumation his mortal remains were found completely intact and incorrupt. They were transferred from the family tomb in Pollone to the cathedral in Turin where his body is available for the veneration of the public.

St. Peter's Square was filled with thousands on May 20, 1990 when Pier was beatified--the Pope called him: the "Man of the Eight Beatitudes."

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati's time on earth was short, only 24 years and yet his was a life rich in meaning and purpose derived from faith in God and this despite two unreligious parents who misunderstood and disapproved of his piety and intense interest in Catholicism.

This young man is truly a saint for today--not just for young adults but for us all who would rally around the truth of our Catholic Church's teaching.

Sue is a dear friend from homeschooling days. Now she has moved back to her home state and I miss her all the time. I really appreciate her participation in this series, which she has previously written about St. Gertrude the Great.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.