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,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. Anthony, St. Cuthbert, Margaret, St. Kizito, St. 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.