Because Napoleon Died a Catholic Death

A few weeks back, my family and I hit the used book sale that is held annually to benefit our local public library. Going to this sale has been an annual event for us, ever since we moved to Tennessee six years ago. It is at that sale where I first picked up the collection of Harvard Classics, where I met Blaise Pascal and Thomas à Kempis.

Now that I’m a Catholic, I go to this sale on the lookout for books about the Faith, and works written by great Catholic authors. 

I hit the jackpot this year, with a treasure trove of titles. Four Faultless Felons by G.K. Chesterton, for example. A paperback from 1956 called The Papal Encyclicals, with writings from St. Peter all the way up to Pope Pius XII. More Chesterton with Father Brown of the Church of Rome, edited by John Peterson. I picked up 17 titles in all, including The Waters of Siloe by Thomas Merton and The Peasant of Garonne by Jacques Maritain.

And the selection I am sharing with you today is from Hilaire Belloc’s biography of a famous French general and Emperor you may have heard of named Napoleon Bonaparte. Published in 1932, and weighing in at 379 pages, in a large hardback sporting “16 Illustrations and 22 Maps,” I’m looking forward to getting to know Napoleon better, through Hilaire Belloc’s pen.

A cursory glance of the volume landed me near the end of the book where the death of the exiled leader is imminent. Much as he did in The Great Heresies, Belloc doesn’t bother with footnotes here. But from what he writes about how Napoleon died, I hope to meet him in heaven.

Here is how Belloc tells the tale,

The Death of Napoleon

In exile on St. Helena

It was nightfall on Sunday, April 29, 1821. Napoleon lay dying. The little iron camp-bed with the silver eagles on its four corners and its green curtains was placed in the middle of the low petty room, its head to the light between two windows, its foot towards the simple fireplace, on the mantlepiece of which, in front of a large square looking-glass, stood the bust of his little son.

Wretched as the room was, it was the best in the shanty of a house—a place that was soon to be turned into common stables and was most suitable perhaps for that. It had been worse, when first the Emperor and the few who followed him came into that exile. They had found shreds of the wall-paper turned moldy and rotten with moisture and the ragged carpet on the floor gnawed into holes by rats. So much had been set right; muslin had been stretched over the walls and fluted round, the ceiling white-washed, and the place reasonably clean.

Napoleon’s Lodgings

It stood not far from the summit of a sort of very wide shallow cup sloping down easterly towards the sea from on of the ridges of that volcanic island (St. Helena in the South Atlantic), the floors of the long low place being somewhat less than 2000 feet above the sea, the noise of which could be heard coming up the funnel from the mouth of the depression below. And up that broad cup of the valley, and from the ocean below too, frequently blew the south-east gales—which the failing Emperor dreaded, finding that they suited him ill.

To the right end of the bed as he lay in such extremity he looked through an open door at the chapel which had been set up as best might be in the next room of the suite, the dining room. He gazed through to the wooden altar which the Chinese workmen (serfs of the East India Company) had set up; and his eyes could rest there on one of the last monuments of his name; the four golden letters “N” embroidered on either corner of the green velvet cloth which covered the two steps.

Through this door that morning he had heard the Sunday Mass which Bertrand’s young son had served. There also was the Tabernacle, rough, amateur, cardboard covered, but ornamented as best might be with gilt paper and the white of it gleaming against the red satin behind, while above stood a great Crucifix in ebony, too large it seemed for the altarpiece. Its great silver figure of Christ dominated the scene. He had given orders that when his last agony should be upon him, the Blessed Sacrament should be exposed and the Prayers of the Dead recited; also, said he, he desired to fulfill all the duties of the Catholic Faith.

Now as he had said these words, Antommarchi—the surgeon attendant upon him, who was an atheist in the spirit of his time,as also from the boast of science that he had, could not restrain a smile; whereat Napoleon, with some remnant of strength, flamed up at him and cried, “Be off! Stupidity fatigues me, but I can forgive shallow wits or even bad manners. I cannot forgive dullness of heart.”

It being not long after dark, Montholon had already taken up his watch at nine o’clock, which he changes alternately with the valet Marchand, and it ran till two o’clock in the morning. But on that day he had occasion to leave the Emperor alone, for this reason, that the priest Vignali was to attend. For Napoleon had said long before, when first he discovered what awaited him in his exile, “I must have a priest about me: I would not die like a dog.”

The Emperor had not feared death. He had seen it coming for now long past, ever since the beginning of the year. For when, on New Year’s Day, Marchand had pulled the curtains in the morning, Napoleon—who loved a joking converse with a familiar, and was devoted to those about him—had said, “Well, and what present have you for me this New Years?”

Marchand had answered, “Sire, the hope of seeing Your Majesty soon set to rights and leaving this air which does you only ill.”

But to such words Napoleon, no longer smiling, had gravely replied, “It will not last long, my son. My end is on me; I cannot carry on much more.”

Said Marchand, “As I see things it is not so.”

And then Napoleon had ended all this by the few words, “It shall be as God wills.”

As his illness had increased upon him he had known more and more that certainly it was death.

There came a time when he could no longer walk or ride out of doors, and when he attempted to do so turned faint. In March his blood had chilled and they needed to put warm clothes about his feet, and by the middle of the month he said to a doctor who begged him to take remedies prescribed, “Well, sir! I am at your orders! But do you not see that death will be to me a gift from Heaven? I do not dread it. I will do nothing to hasten it, but I would try no sortilege to make my life the longer.” And at another time he said, “Death has now been for some weeks beside me upon my pillow,” meaning that he had become familiar with that Visitor.

He had told them also, with more instinctive knowledge than their science possessed, that he was dying of what his father had died of; and so he was—with a cancer in the stomach which was certain soon to make an end; so that he could also say, when his English doctor asked him how he felt upon a certain day, “I shall soon give back to the earth the remnant of that life which it is of such import to the Kings to seize.”

He had asked, while still he could attend to reading, that they should read him Homer for a while; and that same day, Sunday the 29th, he had dictated, as he had dictated upon the day before, what he termed “A Reverie”—would that we possessed it! But now, when the night had come, greater things were at hand. The priest was with him alone.

Napoloeon Bonaparte confessed, and was absolved; his peace with the Faith was made; the Last Sacraments were administered—save for this, that he might not receive the Viaticum since he could retain no food. They therefore dared not give him the Eucharist. But he was at peace, while yet his reason remained to him.

It remained to him still for a brief four days. Upon the next day, the last of April, the Monday, his thoughts being still clear but his weakness very great and the sickness upon him very grievous, he kept his eyes still fixed upon the bust of his little son showing there against the glass at the foot of the bed upon the mantel. His sleep had left him, but he lingered on through May 2 and until the 3rd. Upon the 3rd, the last flicker of his great will being, as he thought, still at his service, he attempted to rise for a moment, but fell back. They gave him wine, and as he tasted it he murmured, “How good is wine!”

With that night of the 3rd, however, all around know that the end was upon him, and all watched. With the morning, before noon, his delirium began, in the frenzy of which at one moment he attempted to seize on Montholon at his side; and in that fever he muttered continually words the whispered confusion of which suggested now this, now that. It is said that the last of them which any mortal could distinguish were, “Army…army…” and “Head of the Army….” But there can be no certain record of such things.

All that day long, all the afternoon, right on through the night till four in the morning of the Saturday, the 5th, that final unconscious communion with the last flicker of this life continued. Drowning the slight murmurs of it, came violent rain for hours against the window panes at either side of the beds head, and mixed with that noise the saying of the Prayers before the Altar. Out of the sea a great wind arose and blew furiously up the valley, shaking the frail and miserable tenement with its gusts and rattling the casements and driving more furiously still the waters of the tempest against the glass.

But as the afternoon grew louder in the heavens without, the Emperor at last lay still, and even the faint whisperings from his lips were no longer heard; but they still moved imperceptibly in breathing. The household were assembled. It was near six in the evening. At nine minutes to the hour, the sunset gun was heard far off down the wind; and the rush of the tropical twilight fell under the hurrying clouds and that now lessening gale all those silent about him saw the change: the mouth half fell, the eyes opened; but they saw nothing of this world any more: Napoleon was dead.

They covered him with the cloak he had worn at Marengo, a Crucifix upon it, and by his side laid his sword.

You better believe that if I can say a prayer for the soul of Dracula, then I can certainly say one for Napoleon’s soul as well. And in the spirit of Lenten almsgiving, I’ll throw another one in for Hilaire Belloc’s soul for good measure too.

Update: Napoleon answers the question “Who is Jesus Christ?”

For Your Lenten Friday Night at the Movies

I had this idea last year to feature movies on Friday nights during Lent. I wrote posts as if I were the co-pilot of a plane flying passengers for YIMCatholic airlines. Remember those?

Well this year I’m not the co-pilot any more. But I still want to share movies with you during Lent. I’ve got a neat collection of films for us this season starting with one of my all-time favorites (as long time readers know well). Kenneth Branagh’s version of William Shakespeare’s Henry V.

A long time ago, when England was still Catholic, there was a great king. The Hundred Years War lasted, ahem, a long time. The Battle of Agincourt was a miracle (for the British). And simply the “Best. Speech. Ever.” is right here too!

What’s for dinner tonight? Pescado el Horno, of course. And after dinner,  if you haven’t given up popcorn for Lent, you can enjoy that along with the movie. Here is a taste,

YouTube Preview Image

By order of the king, get thee to the video store, a library, or Netflix!

For All the Saints: Philip of Heraclea & Companions

There are many saints on the calendar for today, but I’d like to share with you this story about St. Philip, the Bishop of Heraclea, and his two companions, the priest Severus, and the good deacon Hermes (named after the Roman god of fleet feet).

People are still being martyred in the present day. Physically, believe it or not in many parts of the world, and mentally elsewhere. Prepare for it because it is likely to happen to you, and maybe it already has, in some way, shape or form.

The following account is from the work of another saint, Alphonsus de Liguori’s Victories of the Martyr’s. Does St. Al’s name sound familiar to you? It should because I shared something else he wrote right before I went on vacation this past summer.

Would you think me macabre if I told you that I find tales of this sort motivating? Well, I do. Because these three men didn’t abide by the dictum that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Instead, they are faith-filled and fearless men. After all, as a famous Marine once screamed, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” So let’s wade in to a triple play of Christian courage, shall we?

ST. PHILIP, BISHOP OF HERACLEA, AND HIS TWO COMPANIONS, ST. SEVERUS AND ST. HERMES.

St. Philip was elected Bishop of Heraclea, the metropolis of Thrace, in consequence of his extraordinary virtue; and so fully did he correspond to the expectation of his people, that, while they tenderly loved him, there was not one among his flock who was not the object of his most affectionate pastoral solicitude. But there were two of his disciples whom he loved with peculiar affection—Severus, a priest, and Hermes, a deacon, whom he afterwords had companions of his martyrdom.

In the persecution of Diocletian he was advised to retire from the city. This, however, he refused to do, saying that he wished to conform to the dispensations of God, who knows how to reward those who suffer for his love, and that consequently he feared not the threats or torments of the tyrant.

The audacity of this Bishop. And fearless? The governor decides to lie in wait and call his bluff.

In the year 304, the saint was one day preaching to his people upon the necessity of patience and resignation, when a soldier, by the order of Bassus, the governor, entered the church, and having commanded the people to retire, shut the doors and sealed them; upon which Philip said to him: “Dost thou think that God dwelleth in these walls, and not rather in our souls?”

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to hear strains of Tom Petty singing I Won’t Back Down. Man, Philip might even have looked like Tom Petty! Back to the story,

Philip, although unable to enter the church, was unwilling to abandon it altogether, and remained at the door with his people. Separating the good from the bad, he exhorted the former to remain constant in the faith, and called upon the latter to return to God by sincere repentance.

“Seperating the good from the bad…” Ahem, Phil, shouldn’t you really just chill out brother?! I mean, the governor’s soldier-boy is here and he’s mighty important, and looking kind of serious. What if the governor himself comes?

Bassus, (I warned you Phil!) finding them assembled, caused them to be arrested, and having demanded who was their master, Philip answered: “I am he.”

The governor said: “Hast thou not heard the edict of the emperor, that in no place shall the Christians be assembled, but shall sacrifice to the gods, or perish?” He then commanded that the gold and silver vessels, together with the books that treated of the Christian law, should be delivered up; otherwise that recourse would be had to torture.

I told you a bluff was going to be called. But Philip has a mind of his own, see, and a heart that belongs to the Lord because,

Philip replied: “For my part, I am willing to suffer in this my body, tottering with age, whatever thou canst inflict; but abandon thou the thought of having any control over my spirit. The sacred vessels are at thy disposal; but it shall be my care to prevent the holy books from falling into thy hands.”

In other words, you can kill the body, but not the spirit. Hmmm, where have I heard that before? Right! Matthew 10:28. And what effect does this have?

Bassus, infuriated at this answer, called forward the executioners, and caused the saint to undergo a cruel and protracted torture.

He didn’t waste any time, did he? Kind of like NPR in the firing of Juan Williams.

The deacon, Hermes, witnessing the agonies of his bishop, told the governor that, although he were possessed of all the holy books, good Christians would never fail to teach Jesus Christ to others, and to render him the honor he deserves. After these words the holy deacon was most cruelly scourged.

Oh, you expected kow-towing and capitulation, did you? Heh, civilians. Not to be outdone by the bishops subaltern,

Bassus commanded that the sacred vessels should be removed from the sacristy, that the Scriptures should be burned, and that Philip, with the other prisoners, should be led by the soldiers to the forum, to be executed, in order that the pagans should be gladdened and the Christians affrighted by the spectacle.

Power…it’s all about the power. And our shining heroes would have nothing to do with bending their knees unto the temporal power of a mere despot.

Philip, having arrived at the forum, and being informed of the burning of the Scriptures, spoke at length to the people of the eternal fire prepared by God for the wicked.

Get that? Philip believes in Hell. And the really crazy thing? He prefers Heaven. And just when he was getting, ahem, warmed up,

During this discourse, a pagan priest, called Cataphronius, came carrying some meats that had been sacrificed to the idols. Hermes, seeing him, exclaimed: “This diabolical food hath been brought, that we, being forced to eat it, may be contaminated!” St. Philip desired him to be calm.

The good Bishop, in the face of certain death, tells the good Deacon to remain calm. I wonder what scheme the governor is planning next.

In the mean time the governor, arriving at the forum again, commanded the holy bishop to sacrifice to his gods.

Why be subtle, right? And was Philip impressed? Not hardly.

The saint asked: ” Being a Christian, how can I sacrifice to marble?” “Sacrifice at least to the emperor,” said Bassus. “My religion,” said the saint, “commands me to honor the princes, but teaches me that sacrifice is due to God alone.”

An in an effort to seem reasonable, the governor said,

“But doth not this beauteous statue of Fortune,” said the governor, “deserve a victim?”

The saint replied: “It may receive that honor from thy hands, since thou dost adore it; but it shall not from mine.”

Uh-oh, the governor thought, this wise-acre of a Christian is calling my bluff! I blinked once but I’ll give him another chance.

“Let then,” urged Bassus, “this fine figure of Hercules move thee.”

Whereupon Philip makes an audacious speech and,

Here the holy bishop, raising his voice, rebuked the insanity of those who worship as gods statues that, being taken from the earth, like earth should be trodden upon, not adored.

Much to the consternation of the governor, who seems to be begging now as we see when,

Bassus, turning to Hermes, asked him if he at least would sacrifice. The holy deacon resolutely answered that he was a Christian, and could not do so; and having been told that, should he continue obstinate, he would be cast into flames, replied: “Thou dost threaten me with flames that last but for a short time, because thou art ignorant of the strength of those eternal flames in which the followers of the devil shall burn.”

Uh-oh, stand-by for the good part,

Bassus, exasperated at the constancy of the saints, remanded them to prison. As they went along, the insolent rabble frequently pushed the venerable and aged bishop, so as to throw him down, but he with joyous looks quietly raised himself again.

Those would be the actions of the crowd of reasonable, though “god-fearing” idolators. Warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile the term of Bassus’ government having expired, Justin, his successor, arrived at Heraclea.

And then term limits kicked in and everyone lived happily ever after. Right? Dream on, because the new guy on the job has something to prove. Because,

He was a much more cruel man than his predecessor. St. Philip, having been brought before him, was told that if he would not sacrifice, he should, notwithstanding his extreme age, have to suffer tortures that were intolerable even to youth.

And here, the drama continues to unfold.

The venerable bishop replied: “Ye, for fear of a short punishment, obey men: how much more ought we to obey God, who visits evil-doers with eternal torments? Thou mayest torture, but canst never induce me to sacrifice.”

Justin: “I shall command thee to be dragged by the feet through the streets of the city.”

Philip: “God grant that it may be so.” The bloody threat was executed; yet the saint did not die in that torment, but his body was torn to pieces, and in the arms of the brethren he was carried back to prison.

Why am I thinking of the movie Hard to Kill? Surely the old Bishops companions will bend to the governor’s will after this near death experience.

After this, the governor called before him Hermes the deacon, whom he exhorted to sacrifice, in order to escape the torments that were being prepared. But the saint replied : “I cannot sacrifice and betray my faith; do, therefore, according to thy pleasure—tear my body to pieces.”

“Thou speakest thus,” said Justin: “because thou knowest not the pains that await thee; upon a trial thou shalt repent.”

Hermes: “Atrocious though they may be, Jesus Christ, for whose love I am about to suffer, will render them not only light, but sweet.”

Justin sent him also to prison, where the saints remained for seven months.

Justin must have been thinking that these guys are on to something. Maybe he wanted to study it, or maybe more pressing matters came about which led him to forget about these three pesky Christians. The parishoners were probably underground by this time. After seven months of waiting,

Thence he sent them before him to Adrianople, and upon his arrival again summoned Philip to his presence, intimating to him that he had deferred his execution in the hope that, upon mature consideration, he would sacrifice.

Surely, you’ve had plenty of time to see the reasonableness of the governments position. But Philip plays the man and,

The saint boldly replied: “I have already told thee that I am a Christian, and I will always say the same. I will not sacrifice to statues, but only to that God to whom I have consecrated my entire being.”

I sense the denouement coming on.

Angered by this reply, the judge ordered him to be stripped and scourged until the bones and bowels were laid bare. The aged bishop suffered this torture with so much courage, that Justin himself was astonished.

Justin must have been thinking “why won’t you die?!”

Three days afterwards he was again summoned before the tyrant, who inquired why it was that with so much temerity he continued to disregard the imperial edicts.

The saint replied: “That which animates me is not rashness, but the love I bear my God, who one day shall judge me. In worldly matters I have invariably obeyed the rulers, but now the question is, whether I will prefer earth to heaven. I am a Christian, and cannot sacrifice to thy gods.”

These Christians are damned inflexible. Well, inflexible maybe, but surely not damned. Maybe they’re just gung-ho.

Seeing that he could not shake the constancy of the holy bishop, Justin, turning to Hermes, said: ” This old man is weary of life, but thou shouldst not be so reckless of it: offer sacrifice, and consult thy safety.”

Justin figures ol’ Phil is suicidal, so he appeals to the younger Deacon. Would you believe that Hermes takes this as an opportunity to school Justin in reality?

Hermes began to show the impiety of idolatry, but Justin hastily interrupted him, saying: ” Thou speakest as if thou wouldst persuade me to become a Christian.”

“I earnestly desire,” said the saint, ” that this should happen not only to thee, but to all those who hear me.”

Wow! Way to be a witness Deke, and way to try and save a soul too! Not that Justin cared, but that is never the point is it? Hermes and Philip didn’t answer to Justin, but to Our Lord.

Finally, the tyrant, perceiving that he could not win over these generous confessors, pronounced sentence in the following manner:

“We command that Philip and Hermes, for having contemned the imperial edicts, shall be burned alive.”

Time to get this over with.

Sentence having been pronounced, the saints proceeded to the place of execution, evincing by their holy joy that they were two victims consecrated to the Lord. But from having been tortured in the stocks their feet were so sore that the holy bishop had to be supported, while Hermes with great difficulty followed, saying to Philip : “Let us hasten, Father, nor care for our feet, since we shall no longer have need of them.”

Now that is hard corps!

When they came to the place of their martyrdom, according to the custom of the country, they were placed standing in a trench, and covered with earth up to the knees, in order that they might not be able to flee from the fire. Upon entering the trench, Hermes smiled with holy joy, and the fire having been kindled by the executioners, the saints began to thank Almighty God for their death, terminating their prayer and their martyrdom with the usual “Amen.”

Remember the priest, Severus? He was left behind, and not too happy about it. So he started praying,

Severus, who was the other disciple of St. Philip, had been left in prison while his holy bishop consummated his martyrdom in the flames; and having been informed of his glorious triumph, was deeply afflicted at not having been able to bear him company; hence he earnestly besought the Lord not to think him unworthy of sacrificing his life for his glory. His prayers were heard, and on the following day he obtained the desired crown.

And there is a somewhat miraculous twist to the story still because,

After the execution, their bodies were found entire and fresh as in full health, without any trace of fire.

And St. Alphonsus de Liguori (a Doctor of the Church) has this to share to round out this story,

St. Hermes, though a simple deacon, was a distinguished man. He had been first magistrate of the city of Heraclea, and had fulfilled the duties of his office with so much wisdom that he conciliated the esteem and veneration of all his fellow-citizens. After having renounced everything to devote himself to the service of the Church, he took the resolution to live only by the labor of his hands, like the great Apostle (St. Paul), and he had a son named Philip whom he brought up in the same principles.

While the executioners were setting fire to the pile in which he was to be consumed, and perceiving one of his friends in the crowd, he called him and said: “Go, and tell my son: ‘These are the last words of your dying father—words that he leaves you as the most precious marks of his affection. You are young: avoid as dangerous everything that can weaken your soul; above all, avoid sloth; keep the peace with every one.’” The flames having risen prevented him from continuing. These details are given by Ruinart. —ED.

Gung-ho for Christ until the end. Semper Fidelis, Philip, Hermes, and Severus and if you please, pray for us.

For Dom Lou’s Thoughts on The Effects of Secularization in China

I just finished reading Lou Tseng-Tsiang’s Ways of Confucius and of Christ. In the latter pages of the book, he gives a seminar in Chinese history that I think you may find of interest. Secularization of a culture, the scrubbing away of their religious heritage, is not some new idea. [Read more...]

Because Once Upon A Time, The Premier of China Was A Catholic

Imagine that you woke up to the news this morning that a former President of the United States, say Jimmy Carter for example, has just held a press conference saying that he has entered the Abbey at Gethsemane to become a Cistercian monk. Would you be flabbergasted? Amazed? Incredulous? Or would you be intrigued? That’s how I felt when I learned the news that I am going to share with you today. [Read more...]

YIMC Book Club, “The Great Heresies,” Introduction

This week’s reading is the introductory chapter of The Great Heresies by Hilaire Belloc. My first impression? This guy is smart. My next impression? There is heresy everywhere! Heck, it’s behind every tree, rock, and corner.

First Belloc defines heresy as the removal of one or more aspects from a belief system. Think of a sphere of cheese, and then start taking bites out of it.  What used to be perfectly round is now not, and as such it no longer will roll smoothly. It is no longer whole, but retains some of the structure of the original. Thus,

On this account it can appeal to believers and continues to affect their lives through deflecting them from their original characters. Wherefore, it is said of heresies that “they survive by the truths they retain.”

And as a result, the functioning of society is changed when heresy rears its head. Belloc uses several great examples of this from doctrines of Christianity such as the Christian who believes all the doctrines except that of the immortality of the soul. Not believing in this, Belloc argues, would change the way humans behave. And he uses the example of Christian marriage vs. the idea that marriage is only a contract dissolvable by divorce being a concept that undermines the original idea of marriage.

Which is why I said earlier that after reading a wee bit of Belloc, heresy is seemingly everywhere. Is that your impression too? It also seems like the words and thoughts of Belloc could have been written last week, by George Weigel or someone similar. Which is another great reason to read a book like this, because the big wheel keeps going around and there is nothing new under the sun. Modern anti-Christian spirit in society is nothing new and reading this book will help us open our eyes to that reality.

But why study heresy at all? Belloc argues as follows:

What we are concerned with is the highly interesting truth that heresy originates a new life of its own and vitally affects the society it attacks. The reason that men combat heresy is not only, or principally, conservatism, a devotion to routine, a dislike of disturbance in their habits of thought; it is much more a perception that the heresy, in so far as it gains ground, will produce a way of living and a social character at issue with, irritating, and perhaps mortal to, the way of living and the social character produced by the old orthodox scheme.

This is going to be interesting, to say the least.  What were your impressions? Throw them into the comm-box so we can all chew them over. Thanks for reading and thanks to Brian Vogt for volunteering to lead the discussion for Chapter 6, The Reformation.

Next week we read Chapter Two, on the scheme of the book.

Song of the Mystic (A Few Words for Wednesday)

I know of Father Abram J. Ryan (1838-1886) because he was once the pastor of the parish where I usually attend daily mass. Each day I walk by a historic marker that tells the story of this “poet, patriot, priest.” The thing is, he was a Confederate loyalist, which makes him a rebel patriot.  Thankfully, the rebels lost the war. But even the Confederate troops needed a chaplain, and that is how Father Ryan served.

Father Ryan is best know for writing the poem Conquered Banner which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, was “read or sung in every Southern household, and thus became the apotheosis of the ‘Lost Cause.’” Lost causes are good and all, but I prefer the following poem by Father Ryan instead. It is simple, beautiful, and evokes the theme of solitude, silence, and prayer.

Song of the Mystic 
  

I walk down the Valley of Silence—
  Down the dim, voiceless valley—alone!
And I hear not the fall of a footstep
  Around me, save God’s and my own;
And the hush of my heart is as holy
  As hovers where angels have flown!

Long ago was I weary of voices
  Where music my heart could not win;
Long ago was I weary of noises
  That fretted my soul with their din;
Long ago was I weary of places
  Where I met but the human—and sin.

I walked in the world with the worldly;
  I craved what the world never gave;
And I said: ” In the world each Ideal,
  That shines like a star on life’s wave,
Is wrecked on the shores of the Real,
  And sleeps like a dream in the grave.”

And still did I pine for the perfect,
  And still found the False with the True;
I sought ‘mid the Human for Heaven,
  But caught a mere glimpse of its blue;
And I wept when the clouds of the Mortal
  Veiled even that glimpse from my view.

And I toiled on, heart-tired of the Human,
  And I moaned ‘mid the mazes of men,
Till I knelt, long ago, at an altar
  And I heard a voice call me. Since then
I walk down the Valley of Silence
  That lies far beyond mortal ken.

Do you ask what I found in the Valley?
 ’Tis my trysting place with the Divine.
And I fell at the feet of the Holy,
  And above me a Voice said, ” Be mine.”
And there arose from the depths of my spirit
  An echo—” My heart shall be thine.”

Do you ask how I live in the Valley?
  I weep—and I dream—and I pray.
But my tears are as sweet as the dew-drops
  That fall on the roses in May;
And my prayer, like the perfume from censers,
  Ascendeth to God night and day.

In the hush of the Valley of Silence
  I dream all the songs that I sing;
And the music floats down the dim Valley,
  Till each finds a word for a wing,
That to hearts, like the Dove of the Deluge,
  A message of peace they may bring.

But far on the deep there are billows
  That never shall break on the beach;
And I have heard songs in the silence
  That never shall float into speech;
And I have had dreams in the Valley
  Too lofty for language to reach.

And I have seen thoughts in the Valley—
  Ah! me, how my spirit was stirred!
And they wear holy veils on their faces,
  Their footsteps can scarcely be heard;
They pass through the Valley like Virgins:
  Too pure for the touch of a word!

Do you ask me the place of the Valley,
  Ye hearts that are harrowed by care?
It lieth afar between mountains,
  And God and His angels are there:
And one is the dark mount of Sorrow,
  And one the bright mountain of Prayer.

Belmont Abbey College, located near Charlotte North Carolina, has an archive on Father Ryan which you can access here.

Because of The Stations of the Cross

One of the dreams my wife and I have is to go on a tour of the Holy Land. We want to make a pilgrimage there and see the sights and holy places where the greatest story ever told took place. That is a trip we are really looking forward to.

There are many sites outside of the Holy Land to make a pilgrimage to as well. Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe come to mind. So many places, so little time, and dare I say it, so little cash. But there is a way to go to the Holy Land this week right in your local parish. [Read more...]

For All the Saints: Macarius the Great

When I was going through the RCIA program as a candidate, the need to choose a Confirmation name came up. The director of the program and my sponsor both gave me some suggestions (including St. Francis Xavier, as I recall).

I liked what I read about him, but he didn’t seem right for me. I thought a lot about it. I realized that I was choosing a friend in heaven whom I could ask to pray for me. That is a special trust, so choosing this person haphazardly wasn’t in the cards for me.

By this time in my journey, I had come across the Desert Fathers & Mothers. I love these people! Such stories, such sacrifice, such practical sayings! All very motivating to a guy who, despite all my earlier objections to Catholic Christianity, found himself standing in the recruiting office saying “sign me up.”

I really enjoyed what they had to say about living our faith. But one of them stood out to me most, and I knew he was the patron saint for me: St. Macarius the Great. His feast day was yesterday (January 15, so I humbly apologize for not getting this post up sooner, Abba!).

St. Macarius is known by other sobriquets as well: Macarius the Great; Macarius the Wonder Worker; Macarius the Elder. As for me, I just call him Abba Macarius when I ask him to pray for me. He once said this about prayer:

Abba Macarius was asked, “How should one pray?” The old man said, “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.”

Amen to that! Here a few other stories and wise sayings to give you a taste of my patron:

A brother once came to the abbot Macarius and said to him, “Master, speak some word of exhortation to me, that, obeying it, I may be saved.” St. Macarius answered him, “Go to the tombs and attack the dead with insults.” The brother wondered at the word. Nevertheless he went, as he was bidden, and cast stones at the tombs, railing upon the dead. Then returning, he told what he had done. Macarius asked him, “Did the dead notice what you did?” And he replied, “They did not notice me.”

“Go, then, again,” said Macarius, “and this time praise them.” The brother, wondering yet more, went and praised the dead, calling them just men, apostles, saints. Returning, he told what he had done, saying, “I have praised the dead.”

Macarius asked him, “Did they reply to you?” And he said, “They did not reply to me.” Then said Macarius, “You know what insults you have heaped on them and with what praises you have flattered them, and yet they never spoke to you. If you desire salvation, you must be like these dead. You must think nothing of the wrongs men do to you, nor of the praises they offer you. Be like the dead. Thus you may be saved.”

Wow, talk about learning to be dead to the world. Sheesh-ka-bobbers!

The same Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul saying, ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’ (1Tim.6.7) ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1.21)

Ahem, I get a lump in my throat just reading that one. I personally am so far away from this level of spirituality that any help I can get from a friend like this is more than welcome! And then I found out he wrote twenty-two homilies too. Did he really write them? Or did someone else write them and use his name (much as the writer of Ecclesiastes leads us to believe he was King Solomon)? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. They are powerful homilies, and I feel duty bound to share them with you.

They have titles like the following:

That God alone is able to deliver us out of the bondage of the wicked ruler.

Christians ought to go over the course of this world with care, that they may attain the praise of God.

There is a wide difference between Christians and the men of this world.

The gifts of grace are preserved by a humble mind and a ready will, but destroyed by pride and sloth.

How the soul ought to demean herself in holiness and purity towards her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Christians that are willing to improve and increase ought to force themselves to every thing that is good.

If you think these titles are wise sayings unto themselves, you owe it to yourself to read the homiles yourself here. You’ll be glad you did!
Happy belated Feast Day Abba Macarius!

Because of the Desert Fathers and Mothers

I wrote earlier of my thanks for practical instruction on living the Christian life from a lecture I came across in the Liturgy of the Hours written by St. Augustine. I have always been enamored of “how-to” books that cut through the gloss and get straight to the point. For example, the theory on how internal combustion engines work is interesting, but the hands-on stuff you learn from actually tearing apart a motor (and putting it back together again) is invaluable. As I realized from my encounters with Blaise Pascal, and with Thomas à Kempis, and by reflecting on my own life as well, I needed help in this department. Especially regarding my prayer life.

So somewhere along my path to the Catholic Church, I discovered the Desert Fathers. I learned that about the time the Romans stopped killing Christians, some people up and sold all they had and headed for the desert in Upper Egypt to live as hermits for Christ. Some had fled persecution from the Romans too, but after Constantine the Great converted in 313 AD, persecution was no longer the reason to flee.

Leave the world they did. According to the Wikipedia citation, “These individuals believed that the desert life (modeled on the lifestyle of John the Baptist and Our Lord’s forty days in the desert) would teach them to eschew the things of this world and allow them to follow God’s call in a more deliberate and individual way.”

Pictured here is the cover of a delightful book of sayings from some of these hermits, translated and illustrated by by Yushi Nomura. At the time I found it in my local public library, I didn’t know Henri Nouwen from Adam, but he wrote a pretty good introduction explaining the history of this phenomenon and how the roots of Christian monasticism formed in the deserts of Egypt. Find it and enjoy it if you can. My daughter really loves reading it and looking at the illustrations.

Note: I keep writing Christian instead of Catholic because, by this time in my research, I understood that all Christians were Catholic until the Protestant Reformation. Christians who were not Catholic were heretics and, boy howdy, there is a rogues gallery of those! Heck, I’m still learning about them too: Arianism, Albegensianism, Docetism, Manichaeism, and more.

The sayings of the Desert Fathers are very practical and not heretical. And man, they can knock you right off your high horse in a way that makes you say “Thank you sir! May I have another?” Like this:

A monk once posed this question to an elder: There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.

Did I mention they had a sense of humor? Like here:

In the desert of Skete, a brother went to see Abba Moses for a word. And the old man said, Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.

I’m not sure that is what the brother had in mind. Or this one:

If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and pull him back down to earth, because what he’s doing is no good for him.

Amen to that! Replace monk with relative, co-worker, friend, or that fellow in the mirror, and who hasn’t seen that person before?!

The Desert Fathers and Mothers include the following saints: St. Anthony the Great, St. Macarius the Great, St. Arsenius, St. Paul the Hermit, St. John the Dwarf, St. Mary of Egypt, and many others.

Ever been told that you are working too hard at being a good Catholic Christian? See these words and think again:

The reason why we don’t get anywhere is because we don’t know our limits and we’re not patient in carrying on the work we’ve begun. We want to arrive at virtue without any labor at all.

I’ll wrap this post up by letting St. Anthony the Great have the floor,

Once the famous St. Anthony was conversing with some brethren when a hunter who was after game in the wilderness happened by. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves and clucked his tongue in disapproval. Abbot Anthony told him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” He did so. “Now shoot another,” said the abbot. “And another . . . and another.” The hunter complained, “If I bend my bow all the time, it will break.” Abbot Anthony smiled gently as his point stuck home. “It’s that way, too, with the work of God. If we keep pushing ourselves too hard, the brothers will soon collapse.”

This is a marathon, people, not a sprint!

 


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X