O God, who, after having shown to us in Saint Augustine the very excess into which corrupt nature causes us to fall, hast also caused us to see in him the strength and the empire of Thy Grace over our hearts, grant us, we beseech thee, so perfect a knowledge of our extreme misery and of Thy infinite mercy, that, expecting everything from Thee, and nothing from ourselves, we might hope fully in Thee by defying ourselves completely.
O God, who in embracing Saint Augustine with Thy Love, and in elevating him above all men by the knowledge of Thy Truth, hast placed him in Thy Church as a fiery and shining lamp, so that he might illuminate and defend her by his doctrine, and console and edify her by his sanctity; grant, by the help of his charitable intercession, that we might imitate his virtues; and, at his example, rejoicing only in the truth, and having taste only for the fruits of charity, we might despise this mortal life by the hope and feeling of the all-divine life which Thou hast promised us; so that, loving Thee alone, we might also place all our happiness in Thee alone.
Thus we beseech thee by Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(From Jean Hamon, Entretiens d’une âme avec Dieu, New Edition (Avignons, 1740), pp. 405-06; original translation by The Amish Catholic)
Eight years ago today, I received the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Brigid’s Church, Johns Creek, GA, and united myself to the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ. So much has happened since then – especially in the last year. This will be the second Holy Week that I miss as a Catholic, thanks to the pandemic.
I usually dedicate each year in my life as a Catholic to a mystery of the Faith, or to a holy person. This last year I gave to the Precious Blood of Jesus, by whose efficacious power alone I think I have retained my faith. I would like to dedicate this next year to the Holy Angels and Archangels. I ask for their prayers and protection in the coming year, and for yours.
It is customary to regard Christmas as a feast of divine manifestation. God has become man. He has entered the human story in a definitive and absolutely singular way. Grace, like a geyser, erupts from the cave at Bethlehem to inundate the whole world.
Our festivities have made this season merry. Our sermons and celebrations, our songs and specials, our gifts and feasting – everything seems to collude in a joyous conspiracy to rob us of our gloom at what is, by nature, a terribly depressing time of year. And there is much to rejoice in when we regard the Holy Infant surrounded by his Virgin Mother and foster-father. But I think we have missed something.
God is everywhere hidden – a Deus Absconditus. His Face, as it were, abides behind more veils than that which cloaked His glory in the Temple. In the depths of human sin, the heart fashions idols and chases phantasms. This is not merely true of those outside the Church; how often do we Christians find ourselves falling into the same wicked habits, preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven! I am not excused from this very charge. I, too, am in need of mercy.
Christmas is not so much a feast of divine manifestation as a testament of God’s enduring hiddenness. The Infant King has no caparisoned herald to announce him in the highways and byways, so as to bring the mighty to pay their homage. Instead, He sends His angels to summon the lowly and humble from afar off in the fields. Why were the shepherds summoned first, and not the townspeople of Bethlehem? Only a few souls received this extraordinary grace. We do not know their names. We have no idea what happened to them in the end. We have no sense of whether the peculiar privilege granted to them bore fruit in their own salvation. But I would like to believe that they did achieve the Beatific Vision. I hope they are in a high choir of Heaven. As deep calls to deep, so does the Hidden God love those elect souls who remain hidden in pious obscurity. In a beautiful passage, Fr. Faber calls these souls, which exist even today,
a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then, to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us, when the world’s wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His own uunder our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it.
Fr. Frederick William Faber, Bethlehem, 228.
How then is this a divine manifestation? If anything, God draws the shepherds into the very obscurity in which He always abides. It is a manifestation that negates itself. They share His hiddenness, so similar to the dim glory of the Holy of Holies. The shepherds become human extensions of His sacred obscurity. Each one is a living shroud of the Divine Presence. Their lives, already hidden from the proud eyes of the world, are now forever hidden in God’s and written into His story.
God led the shepherds to that bed by the grace of an angelic call. He led the Magi instead by a less glorious, if no less effective, grace. They saw a marvel in the sky and followed it. Strange phenomena are another of God’s many veils, though not so beautiful and not so clear as revelation. We do not even know if the star they followed was supernatural or just a prodigy of nature. Directly or indirectly, Providence used it as a beacon to light their way to the dark and holy cave.
But the shepherds were first. And surely in this we discover a truth confirmed throughout the long history of the Church’s experience in the world. God does not reveal Himself to the learned and those wise in the judgment of the World. The Incarnation, like all the works of grace, is “unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 DRA). Our Lady sings as well that “He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-52, BCP 1662).
Worldly learning is totally bereft of access to God. It is little better than blindness. Thinking otherwise is mere pride and vanity, and only deepens the darkness. St. Paul tells us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). Natural reason can help us see that there is a God, as well as to illuminate a few of His basic features. But no sage, however wise, and no scholar, however learned, grasped the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos. Still less could they have foreseen that this holy child was, as it were, born as a sacrifice. Even the Prophets were entrusted with signs alone, and not the true substance of the mystery they preached. That was reserved first for the Virgin Immaculate in holy poverty, then for St. Joseph her Most Chaste Spouse, then the family of the Holy Forerunner, and then to the humble shepherds. Only after all of them did the Magi arrive to gaze upon the faze of God Incarnate. In delaying the Magi, Providence teaches us that the mysteries of grace are a crucifixion of natural reason. But in condescending to let them enter and adore the Divine King, He shows us that He will crown our earnest efforts to reach Him, as only He can, with His mercy.
But still, so very few are the witnesses of this God who remains, as it were, quite hidden! A handful of Jewish shepherds, and three pagan scholars with their retinue. He is brought to the Temple and circumcised – a prophetess and a priest, both soon to depart for eternal life, are entrusted with the secret. Anna and Simeon are a reminder that “salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4:22 KJV) and comes from no other people on earth. The gratuitous particularity of this chosen people, this priestly nation among all others, comes from the newborn babe that Simeon held in his hands. Perhaps, looking upon that smiling face, he suddenly saw all the covenants telescope into one, all collapse into themselves and center upon and magnify this child. Perhaps he knew he was holding the heavenly High Priest, of which his own office was merely a shadow.
Quite soon, the Lord departs from Bethlehem when a wicked and impudent king seeks His life. Then those martyrs, the Holy Innocents, water the ground of Bethlehem with their sainted blood. That grisly dewfall covered the steps of the escaped God who, in His Mercy, made them a very different kind of witness to His Incarnation. But their names are also covered in obscurity. They, too, remain in a kind of holy hiddenness.
There is a common thread between these four groups – or at least, explicitly in the first three, and only implicitly in the last. Contact with the Divine Presence, hidden for so long, brings forth adoration in the soul. The shepherds adore, the Magi adore, the dwellers in the Temple adore, and the Holy Innocents join Him in an oblation of their very blood. This grace of adoration is not given to all souls, but is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the Christian life. It is the sine qua non of Heaven. It is the essence of Christian life. Wherever one adores Our Lord in truth and earnestness, even a soul very imperfectly purified, we can be sure that grace is working there.
This Christmas, let us pray that the Incarnate Lord will grant us the graces of humility, of adoration, and of an earnest search for the God who remains always hidden from our mortal eyes.
“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal
“We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus
Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.
So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.
St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone. If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such. It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.
And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.” But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke. And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.
Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity. Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.” Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.
This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.” Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.
That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.
Sometime in the last month, this blog received its 200,000th view. Thank you to all my wonderful readers for their consideration, their comments, their recommendations, and their sharing of my essays here. Much has changed over the last three years. For instance, it was a pleasure to host my first-ever co-publication as well as my first guest post recently. Yet I’d like to think that some things stay the same. Where has been change, I believe it has been (mostly) improvement. Everything’s coming up roses!
As a way of recapping, here are some of my stats.
These are all the countries where I’ve had views since the start of my blog. While the vast majority have been in the United States, I also have had an appreciable readership outside my native land. Here are the top ten countries where I’ve had the most views overall.
I’m proud to say that I’ve had a total of six views in the Vatican, too.
While I can’t verify this exactly, I believe that the single month with the greatest number of views was March of 2019, when I published “100 Edifying Lenten Penances.”
Thank you again to everyone for taking the time to read The Amish Catholic and making it what it is today. I couldn’t do it without you.
Popular Catholic memory of Port-Royal, especially outside the Francophone world, is of a knot of disgruntled nuns who, in a spirit of disobedience to their lawful superior, refused to condemn the heresies of Cornelius Jansen. There are many problems with this unfair caricature, an inheritance of the final Ultramontane and Jesuit victory over Jansenism in the wake of the French Revolution. The truth is much more complicated, as truth tends to be. We too often forget that these nuns and the community of hermits, servants, and local peasants around them led a life of penance and prayer that was widely admired in their own time (even by saints, as Ellen Weaver notes, building on Louis Cognet and Augustin Gazier). The liturgical and devotional aspects of Port-Royal’s community life have too often been neglected by scholars and, especially, popular Catholic writers who turn their eyes to the Jansenists. We have fixated too much on the controversies of the 1640s-60s, and too little on what daily life was like for those who worked out their salvation in “fear and trembling” at Port-Royal.
It is thus with great pleasure that I here co-publish an edifying and informative excerpt from the Voyages liturgiques of Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, Sieur de Moléon, translated by the authors at Canticum Salomonis. They have already given an excellent overview of this text, in which they note that Marettes, educated at the Petites écoles de Port-Royal, retained something of a Jansenist liturgical sensibility. They sum up his work thus:
On the whole, the picture he paints is of a French people who are deeply engaged in their liturgical life and cathedral chapters that observe the whole office. His “taste” is for antiquity and ceremonial splendor, and this leads him to admire the pontifical liturgies of the middle ages. Admittedly, perhaps he does so because he believes them to be much more ancient than the extant source-books: expressions of the most ancient Gallic liturgies.
Aelredus Rievallensis, “The Voyages Liturgiques: A Roundup,” Canticum Salomonis
Their introduction to the translated chapter on Port-Royal, pages 234-43, follows with the text below. However, let me add a brief preface of my own.
The Voyages liturgiques offers several fascinating glimpses into the communal piety of Port-Royal des Champs. Marettes pays attention to the physical space of Port-Royal. He reports that the paintings in the church are by Philippe de Champaigne. The great French classicist had a daughter at the convent, Soeur Catherine de Saint-Suzanne, and seems to have provided the monastery with several portraits of both nuns and solitaires as well as several edifying works of art. The large altarpiece depicting the Last Supper is today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, with a copy in the Louvre. Marettes devotes particular attention to the epitaphs in and around the church. The epitaphs for the solitaires Emmanuel le Cerf, an Oratorian, and Jean Hamon, a medical doctor and mystic, are especially moving.
Yet it is the liturgical and communal details he provides here that are most exciting for the historian of Jansenism and which, in fact, force us to take the nuns more seriously as daughters of St. Benedict and St. Bernard. Following the egalitarian reform of Mère Angélique, the Abbey did not require dowries of its postulants. Singing the office according to the use of Paris, they prayed the whole Psalter every week. The first chapter of the Constitutions of Port-Royal is dedicated to veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, a significant organizational choice. There were in fact both communal and individual devotions to the Blessed Sacrament at Port-Royal; for, “in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration…they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive holy communion.” Following an ancient usage, they only exposed the Blessed Sacrament during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and even then, only after the daily High Mass. Usually, the Sacrament was reserved in a hanging pyx, “attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier.” The French Jansenists seem to have had a fixation with hanging pyxes; both M. Saint-Cyran and M. Singlin wrote about “suspension” of the Blessed Sacrament in this form.
The community would meet for chapter daily. The nuns engaged in an exacting and penitential adherence to the Rule, including silence, vegetarianism, abstinence from strong drink, and only a single meal per day in Lent. In their persons as in their ecclesiastical furniture, they followed the Cistercian spirit of holy simplicity; Marettes reports that “The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.” Yet they were not without the consolation of quiet reading in the garden during summertime.
Marettes reminds us that Port-Royal was not just a community of nuns, but also included male hermits and domestics. He writes, “After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics.” These servants and workers seem to have had a special participation in the liturgy through this rite, so reminiscent of the blessing of bread found even today in the Eastern Churches. The Necrology of Port-Royal includes these men as well in its roll-call of the Abbey’s luminaries, confirming the sometimes-overlooked egalitarianism of Port-Royaliste spirituality.
One of the more striking moments in the text comes when Marettes writes that “On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.” The practice of lay communion at every Mass contradicts the usual picture of the Jansenists receiving infrequently or as discouraging lay communion. The nuns themselves, at least, seem to have received the Sacrament daily.
And I cannot help but see in one custom a potent metaphor for the troubled history of the monastery. Marettes writes, “On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.” The extraordinary and unjust persecution that the nuns endured under the authorities of the French Church and State – to the point of being deprived of communion during Easter, of being denied the last rites, of condemnation to a slow decline even after reconciliation with the Archbishop, and, at the very end, of having their bodies desecrated and even fed to the dogs – must have seemed like a very long Holy Saturday. Yet the blessed fire of the Holy Ghost does not abandon those who faithfully serve God in humble prayer and penitence. Where we find the Cross, Resurrection follows.
It is not for us to resurrect the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal; historians can only do so much. But by taking the dead on their own terms, we can at least pay them the homage we owe any historical figure, and perhaps especially the defeated, the maligned, the powerless, and the forgotten. Only by doing so can we reckon with our implication in the longstanding myths that efface those voices. It is my hope that the publication of this important translation will help us in that process of revision.
In his monumental Institutions liturgiques, Dom Prosper Guéranger famously castigated the Neo-Gallican liturgies that proliferated in 17th and 18th century France for, inter alia, being products of Jansenist inspiration. Setting aside the question of whether these liturgies betray a heretical notion of predestination, it is true that many figures associated with the Jansenist movement did have a keen interest in the liturgy. Contrary to what one might expect given Dom Guéranger’s accusations, these “Jansenists” prized respect for ancient custom and repudiated needless novelty.
The intellectual centre of Jansenism was the Abbey of Port-Royal, a community of Cistercian nuns who were reformed in the early 17th century by the formidable Abbess Angélique Arnauld and became noted for their exemplary religious observance and cultivation of liturgical piety. This attracted a number of intellectuals who chose to settle as solitaires on the abbey grounds, leading a retired life of study and simple manual labour, including Angélique’s brother Antoine, one of the most prominent Jansenist theologians. Both the nuns and solitaries set up schools to teach neighbouring children.
One of those children was Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, whom our readers will remember as the author of the Voyages liturgiques. His father had been sent to the galleys for publishing Jansenist works, and Jean-Baptiste himself once did a stint at the Bastille for his involvement in the controversy. His main interest, however, was not moral theology but liturgy. His Voyages evince his veneration for liturgical antiquity and opposition to modern developments in matters of ritual, furnishing, and vestments. Yet he found a way to reconcile such views with his enthusiasm for the Neo-Gallican reforms of the Mass and Office, ultimately sharing the hubristic certainty of most men of his age that their own putative enlightenment was able to improve upon “Gothic barbarism”. Our Aelredus has described and critiqued the seemingly contradictory tastes that Jean-Baptiste Le Brun shared with other Jansenist figures.
With these remarks in mind, let us see how the liturgy was celebrated in the Jansenist stronghold of Port-Royal, in a chapter of the Voyages that Jean-Baptiste Le Brun wrote before the abbey’s suppression in 1708 and the destruction of most of its buildings. (Although the Voyages was published in 1718, Le Brun employs the present tense in this chapter.)
We are obliged to the Amish Catholic for his help in translating this chapter.
Port-Royal-des-Champs is an abbey of nuns of the Order of Cîteaux lying between Versailles and the former monastery of Chevreuse.
The church is quite large, and its simplicity and cleanliness inspires respect and devotion.
The main altar is not attached to the wall, since the ample and well-kept sacristy is located behind it. Above the altar hangs the holy pyx, attached to the end of a veiled wooden fixture shaped like a crosier. It is set under a large crucifix above a well-regarded painting of the Last Supper by Philippe de Champaigne.
There is nothing on the altar but a crucifix. The four wooden candlesticks are set on the ground at its sides.
The woodwork of the sanctuary and parquet floor is very well maintained, as is that of the nuns’ choir. Indeed, the stalls are kept in such good condition that one would think they were carved not twenty years ago, when in fact they are over 150 years old.1
The church contains some paintings in the style of Champaigne, and a very well-kept holy water basin to the right of its entry.
Inside the cloister, there are several tombs of abbesses and other nuns. From these tombs one can garner
1. that the first abbesses of the Order of Cîteaux, following the spirit of St Bernard, did not have croziers. Even today, the Abbess of Port-Royal does not use one.
2. that in this monastery the nuns used to be consecrated by the bishop. Two of them are represented on the same tomb wearing a sort of maniple.2See figure XIV. The inscription around the tomb reads:
“Here lie two blood-sisters, consecrated nuns of this abbey, Adeline and Nicole aux Pieds d’Estampes. May their souls rest in everlasting peace. Amen. Adeline died in the year of our Lord 1288.”3
There is an ancient necrology or obituary in this abbey that includes the ritual for the consecration or blessing of a nun. It describes how on these occasions the bishop celebrated Mass and gave communion to the nun he blessed. To this effect he consecrated a large host which he broke into eight particles, giving one as communion to the nun. He then placed the seven other particles of his host in her right hand, covered by a Dominical or small white cloth. During the eight days after her consecration or blessing, she gave herself these particles as communion. Priests also used to give themselves communion during the forty days after their ordination or consecration.4
Under the lamp by the baluster lies a tomb dated 1327, if I remember correctly, which is worthy of description, especially given that its most interesting aspect is misreported in the Gallia Christiana of the brothers de Sainte-Marthe.
It used to be the custom for devout noble ladies to take up the nun’s habit during their last illness, or at least to be clothed in it after their death. See, for example, the tomb of Queen Blanche, mother of King St Louis, at Maubuisson Abbey near Pontoise. Here in Port-Royal we find the tomb of one Dame Marguerite de Levi—wife of Matthew V de Marly of the illustrious House of Montmorency, Grand-Chamberlain of France—buried in a nun’s habit, with this inscription:
“Here rested, whose name thou shalt have there hereafter. Marguerite was the wife of Matthew de Marly, and daughter of the noble Guy de Levi. She bore six boys. After her husband died, she went to the nuns. Amongst the claustral sisters she chose to make her home. In her long rest, may she be buried in nun’s clothing. May eternal light shine upon her in peace everlasting. Year 1327.”5
By the door of the church, in the vestibule, is the tomb of a priest vested in his vestments. His chasuble is rounded in all corners, not cut or clipped, gathered up over his arms, and hanging down below and behind him in points. His maniple is not wider below than it is on top, and he does not wear his stole crossed over his breast, but straight down like bishops, Carthusians, and the ancient monks of Cluny, who have rejected innovation on this point. His alb has apparels on the bottom matching the vestments: this is what the manuscripts call the alba parata. They are still used in cathedral churches and ancient abbeys.
Next to the church door and the clock tower lies the small cemetery of domestics, where two epitaphs are worthy of note.
“To God the Best and Greatest.
“Here lies Emmanuel le Cerf, who, after dedicating most of his life to the education of the people, deemed the evangelical life superior to evangelical preaching and, in order that he who had lived only for others should die to himself, embraced a penitential life in his old age as eagerly as he did seriously. He embraced the weight of old age, more conducive to suffering than aught else, and various diseases of the body as remedy for his soul and advantageous provision for the journey to eternity. Humbly he awaited death in this port of rest, living no longer as a priest but as a layman, and attained it nearly ninety years old. He died on 8 December 1674, and wished to be buried in this cemetery near the Cross. May he rest in peace.”6
And the other:
“Here rests Jean Hamon, doctor, who, having spent his youth in the study of letters, was eminently learned in the Greek and Latin tongues. Seeing that he flourished in the University of Paris by the renown of his eloquence, and that his fame grew daily for his skill of medicine, he feared the lure of flattery and fame and the haughtiness of life. Suddenly stirred by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he quickly poured out the value of his inheritance into the bosom of the poor and, in the thirty-third year of his age, he dragged himself into this solitude, as he had long pondered doing. First he applied himself to the labour of the fields, then to serving the ministers of Christ, and soon returned to his original profession, healing the wounded members of the Redeemer in the person of the poor, among whom he honoured the handmaidens of Christ as the spouses of the Lord. He wore the coarsest garments, fasting nearly every day, slept on a board, spent day and night in nearly perpetual vigils, prayer, and meditation, nocturnal works everywhere breathing the love of God. For thirty-seven years he accumulated the toils of medicine, walking some twelve leagues every day, very often while fasting, to visit the sick in the villages, providing them what they might need, helping them by counsel, by hand, with medicines, with food whereof he deprived himself, living for twenty-two years on eating bran bread and water, which he ate secretly and alone, while standing up. As wisely as he had lived, considering every day his last, thus he departed this life in the Lord, amidst the prayers and tears of his brethren, in deep silence and sweet meditation of the Lord’s mercies, with his eyes, mind, and heart fixed on Jesus Christ, mediator between God and man, rejoicing that he obtained the tranquil death for which he had prayed, that he might gain eternal life, at the age of 69, on 22 February 1687.”7
Heeding the spirit of St Bernard, the nuns are subject to the Lord Archbishop of Paris, who is their superior. They also sing the office according to the use of Paris, except that they sing the ferial psalms every day in order to fulfill the Rule of St Benedict which they follow, and which binds them to saying the entire psalter every week. This they do with the approbation of the late M. de Harlay, Archbishop of Paris.
At the blessing and aspersion of holy water on Sundays, the abbess and her nuns come forward to receive it at the grill from the priest’s hand.
After the Credo, the priest descends to the bottom of the altar steps and blesses the bread offered by one of the abbey’s domestics. He then announces any feasts or fasting days during the coming week, and gives a short exhortation or explanation of the day’s Gospel.
At every High Mass of the year, the sacristan or thurifer goes to the nuns’ grill at the end of the Credo to receive, through a hatch in the screen, a box from the sister sacristan containing the exact number of hosts needed for the sisters who are to receive communion. He brings them to the altar and gives them the celebrant.
At High Masses for the Dead, the sacristan goes to the grill to receive the bread, a large host, and the wine in a cruet, and brings them to the altar. He gives the host to the priest on the paten, kissing it on the inside edge, and the cruet of wine to the deacon, who pours the wine into the chalice.
At the Agnus Dei, the nuns embrace and give each other the kiss of peace.
On Sundays and feasts of abstention from servile work there is a general communion; at every Mass said in this church at least one of the nuns receives communion.
Devotion for the most blessed Sacrament is so great in this monastery that in addition to engaging in perpetual adoration as part of the Institute of the Blessed Sacrament (it is for this reason that they have exchanged their black scapular for a white one charged with a scarlet cross over the breast, about two fingers in width and a half-foot tall), they also have the custom of prostrating themselves before the Sacrament before going up to receive holy communion.
Nevertheless, the Blessed Sacrament is only exposed during the Octave of Corpus Christi, and this every day after High Mass. For here Mass is never said at an altar where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. We will come back to this point.
The nuns of this monastery observe an exact and rigorous silence. Except in cases of illness, they never eat meat, and fish only rarely, about twelve or fifteen times a year. They solely drink water, and observe the great fast of Lent in its full rigour, as in the age of St Bernard, eating only at five in the evening after Vespers, which they usually say at 4 p.m., even though they wake up at night to sing Matins and perform manual labour during the day.
A spiritual conference is held after lunch, during which they continue to work, and during which it is not permitted to speak aloud.
During the summer, the nuns are sometimes allowed to go into the garden after dinner, but many refrain from doing so, and those that go do so separately, taking a book to read or some work to do.
Matins are said here at 2 a.m. together with Lauds, but in winter Lauds are said separately at 6 a.m, and then a Low Mass is celebrated between Lauds and Prime. During the rest of the year, Prime is said at 6 a.m., followed by a Conventual Low Mass. Chapter follows with a reading from the Martyrology, the Necrology, and the Rule, some chapter of which the Abbess explicates once or twice a week. Then they hold the proclamation of faults, and appropriate penances are imposed.
Terce is said at 8:30 a.m., followed by High Mass. Sext is at 11 a.m., and on ecclesiastical fast days at 11:45, after which they go to lunch, except in Lent when they do not dine, for in the Rule of St Benedict to lunch means not to fast. None is at 2 p.m. in winter and at 2:30 in summer.
The first bell for Vespers rings at 4 p.m., and the office begins some fifteen minutes later. It finishes at 5 or 5:15, for they sing very unhurriedly and distinctly. After Vespers in Lent, they sound the refectory bell, and the nuns go there to lunch and dine together. One sees nuns following this regime until they are 72 or 75 or even older. Not too long ago there was a priest who, in Lent, only ate in the evening, even though he was 87 years old, and lived till he was 92.
On Holy Saturday, they extinguish the lights throughout the entire house, and during the Office they bring back the newly blessed fire.
The nuns’ habits are coarse, and there is neither gold nor silver in their church vestments.
The Abbey receives girls without a dowry, and makes neither pacts or conventions for the reception of nuns, following the primitive spirit of their monastery, as is clear from the following acts:
“Be it known to all men that I, Eudes de Thiverval, esquire, and Thècle my wife gave in pure and perpetual alms, for the salvation of our souls and those of our ancestors, two bushels of corn, that is, one of winter-crop and the other of oats from our tithe-district of Jouy, to the Church of Our Lady of Port-Royal and the nuns serving God therein, to be collected every day on the feast of St Remigius. Be it known that the Abbess and Convent of the said place freely received one of our daughters into their society of nuns. Not wishing to incur the vice of ingratitude, we have given the said two bushels of corn in alms to the said House of our will without any pact. Which, that it may remain ratified and fixed, we have made to be confirmed by the support of our seal. Done in the year of grace 1216.”8
“Renaud, by the grace of God bishop of Chartres, to all who would earlier or later inspect the present page, in the Lord greeting. We make it known to all future and present that by these presents that the Abbess and Convent of Nuns of Porrois [i.e. Port-Royal] freely received in charity Asceline, daughter of Hugues de Marchais, esquire, as a sister and nun of God. Thereafter the said esquire, lest he should give away his said daughter to be betrothed to Christ without a dowry from part of his patrimony, standing in our presence did give and grant to the Church of Porrois and the nuns serving God therein in perpetual alms for the portion of his said daughter the return of one annual bushel of corn in his grange of Marchais or Lonville to be collected every year in the Paris measure of Dourdan, and three firkins of wine in his vineyard of Marchais to be collected yearly, and ten shillings in his census-district of Marchais. That his gift may remain ratified and fixed, at the petition of the same Hugues we have made the present letters to be confirmed by our seal in testimony. Done at Chartres in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord 1217, in the month of April.”9
“Be it known to all them that I, Odeline de Sèvre, gave in pure and perpetual alms to the house of Port-Royal for the soul of my late husband Enguerrand of happy memory, and for the salvation of my soul, and of all my children and ancestors, and especially for the salvation and love of my daughter Marguerite who received the religious habit in the same house, four arpents of vine in my clos of Sèvre to be possessed in perpetuity. My sons Gervais the eldest, Roger, and Simon praised, willed, and granted this donation, to whom it belonged by hereditary right. And further we offered the same donation with the book upon the altar of Port-Royal. In testimony and perpetual confirmation whereof, since by said sons Gervais, Roger, and Simon were not yet esquires and did not yet have seals, I the said Odeline confirmed the present charter by the support of my seal with their will and convent. Done on the year of our Lord 1228.”10
Author’s note: [After the Abbey’s suppression] the altar and choir stalls were purchased by the Cistercian nuns of Paris and placed in their church, where one can see them.
Hic jacent duae sorores germanae, hujus praesentis Abbatiae Moniales Deo sacratae, Adelina et Nicholaa dictae ad Pedem, de Stampis quondam progenitae: quarum animae in pace perpetua requiescant. Amen. Obiit dicta Adelina anno Domini M. C. C. octog. octavo.
Author’s note: See Fulbert. Epist. 2 ad Finard. Rituale Rotomag. ann. 1651.
Hic requievit, ibi post cujus nomen habebis. Margareta fuit Matthæi Malliancensis Uxor; & hanc genuit generosus Guido Levensis. Sex parit ista mares. Vir obit. Petit hæc Moniales. Intra claustrales elegit esse lares. In requie multa sit Nonnæ veste sepulta; Luceat æterna sibi lux in pace suprema. Anno M. C. bis, LX. bis, V. semel, I. bis.
D. O. M. Hic jacet Emmanuel le Cerf, qui cum majorem vitæ partem erudiendis populis consumpsisset, vitam evangelicam evanglicæ prædicationi anteponendam ratus, ut sibi moreretur, qui aliis tantum vixerat, ad pœnitentiam accurrit senex eo festinantius, quo serius; pondusque ipsum senectutis, quo nihil ad patiendum aptius, et varios corporis morbos in remedium animæ conversos, tanquam opportunum æternitatis viaticum amplexus; mortem humilis, nec se jam sacerdotem, sed laicum gerens, in hoc quietis portu expectavit, quæ obtigit fere nonagenario. Obiit 8 Decembris 1674 et in Cœmeterio prope Crucem sepeliri voluit. Requiescat in pace.
Hic quiescit Joannes Hamon Medicus, qui adolescentia in studiis litterarum transacta, latine græceque egregie doctus, cum in Academia Parisiensi eloquentiæ laude floreret, et medendi peritia in dies inclaresceret, famae blandientis insidias et superbiam vitæ metuens, Spiritus impetu subito percitus, patrimonii pretio in sinum pauperum festinanter effuso, anno ætatis xxxiij in solitudinem hanc, quam diu jam meditabatur, se proripuit. Ubi primum opere rustico exercitus, tum Christi ministris famulatus, mox professioni pristinæ redditus, membra Redemptoris infirma curans in pauperibus, inter quos ancillas Christi quasi sponsas Domini sui suspexit; veste vilissima, jejuniis prope quotidianis, cubatione in asseribus, pervigiliis, precatione, et meditatione diu noctuque fere perpetua, lucubrationibus amorem Dei undique spirantibus, cumulavit ærumnas medendi quas toleravit per annos xxxvj quotidiano pedestri xij plus minus milliarum itinere, quod sæpissime jejunus conficiebat, villarum obiens ægros, eorumque commodis serviens consilio, manu, medicamentis, alimentis, quibus se defraudabat, pane furfureo et aqua, idque clam et solus, et stando per annos xxij. sustentans vitam, quam ut sapienter duxerat, quasi quotidie moriturus, ita inter fratrum preces et lacrymas in alto silentio, misericordias Domini suavissime recolens; atque in Mediatorem Dei et hominum Jesum Christum, oculis, mente, t corde defixus, exitu ad votum suum tranquillo lætus, ut æternum victurus clausit in Domino, annos natus 69 dies 20 viij Kalend. Mart. anni 1687.
Noverint universi quod ego Odo de Tiverval miles et Thecla uxor mea dedimus in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam, pro remedio animarum nostrarum et antecessorum nostrorum, Ecclesiae beatae Mariae de Portu-Regio et Monialibus ibidem Deo servientibus duos modios bladi, unum scilicet hibernagii, et alterum avenae in decima nostra de Joüy, singulis annis in festo S. Remigii percipiendos. Sciendum vero est quod Abbatissa et ejusdem loci Conventus unam de filiabus nostris in societatem Monialium benignereceperunt. Nos vero ingratudinis vitium incurrere nolentes, praedictos duos modios dictae jam domui de voluntate nostra sine aliquo pactoeleemosynavimus. Quod ut ratum et immobile perseveret, sigilli nostri munimine fecimus roborari. Actum anno gratiae M. CC. xvj.
Reginaldus Dei gratia Cartonensis Episcopus, universis primis et posteris praesentem paginam inspecturis salutem in Domino. Notum facimus omnibus tam futuris quam praesentibus quod, quoniam Abbatissa et Conventus Sanctimonialium de Porregio Acelinam filiam Hugonis de Marchesio militis in sororem et sanctimonialiem Dei et caritatis intuitu gratis receperant, postmodum dictus miles in nostra constitutus praesentia, ne dictam filiam suam nuptam Christi parte sui patrominii relinqueret indotatam, Ecclesiae de Porregio et Monialibus ibi Deo servientibus dedit et concessit in perpetuam eleemosynam, pro portione dictae filiae suae unum modium bladi annui redditus in granchia sua de Marchesio vel de Lonvilla singulis annis percipiendum ad mensuram Parisiensem de Dordano, et tres modios vini in vinea sua de Marchesio annuatim percipiendos, et decem solidos in censu suo de Marchesio. Ut autem donum ejus ratum et stabile permaneret, ad petitionem ipsius Hugonis praesentes Litteras in testimonium sigillo nostro fecimus roborari. Actum Carnoti anno Dominicae Incarnationis M. CC. septimo decimo, mense Aprili.
Noverint universi quod ego Odelina de Sèvre donavi in puram et perpetuam eleemosynam domui Portus-Regis pro anima bonae memoriae Ingeranni quondam mariti mei, et pro salute animae meae, et omnium liberorum et progenitorum meorum; et maxime pro salute et amore Margaretae filiae meae quae in eadem domo religionis habitum assumpserat, quatuor arpentos vineae in clauso meo de Sèvre jure perpetuo possidendos. Hanc autem donationem laudaverunt, voluerunt et concesserunt filii mei Gervasius primogenitus, Rogerus et Simon, ad quos eadem donatio jure hereditario pertinebat. Immo et ipsi eandem donationem obtulimus cum libro super altare Portus Regis. In cujus rei testimonium et conformationem perpetuam ego praedicta Odelina, quia praedicti filii mei G. R. et Simon necdum milites erant, et necdum sigilla habebant, de voluntate eorum et assensu praesentem Chartam sigilli mei munimine roboravi. Actum anno Domini M. CC. vigesimo octavo.
The rather romantic image of St. Philip Neri as always laughing, joking, and cheerful is a far cry from reality, as anyone who has immersed himself in the saint’s biographies and hagiographies will know. St. Philip, well-versed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, displayed a profound and salutary disillusionment with the charms of the world. Well did he know the verse that reads, “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
St. Philip expressed this mépris du monde in a little-known song based on famous verses in Ecclesiastes. It is one of the few writings allegedly from his hand to have been preserved. While the attribution remains uncertain, the opinions expressed below conform to the Maxims of the Saint, especially his frequent attempts to provoke thoughts of death. He was known to approach worldly young men and ask what they desired. At each answer, he would like Socrates say, “And then? And then?” leading eventually on to death. At which point, many souls realized the vanity of their desires and subsequently converted. St. Philip also used to say, “The things of this world do not remain constantly with us, for if we do not leave them before we actually die, in death at least we all infallibly depart as empty-handed as we came.” And he exhorts all Christian souls, “We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time.”
The song can be found in an appendix to Fr. Faber’s English translation of The School of Saint Philip Neri by Giuseppe Crispino, whence I have transcribed it. The original Italian text may be seen there as well. I offer it here to my readers who many not have access to this rather obscure book for their edification and private devotions to the Saint.
In this year of pestilence, I am reminded that St. Philip Neri began his good works in Rome by, among things, tending to the sick. The hospitals of sixteenth-century Italy were houses of profound mortification and little hope, not much more than palaces of death. They were chronically understaffed and overwhelmed with the indigent and the ill, who rarely recovered. The conditions were extremely unsanitary: the beds were filthy, the air putrid, the din of agony unremitting. Into these seething crowds of the desperate came St. Philip. He assisted the sick as best he could. His first biographer reports that, once he began to gather a following of disciples,
It was Philip’s custom on weekdays to divide his children in Christ into three or four groups and send them to the city hospitals. To begin with, he would himself go after dinner [lunch – RTY] to visit the sick in hospitals, to enkindle by his example in his followers a great desire to do this work; he would speak to the patients, tend them and do all sorts of things for them, which encouraged in his disciples an ardent desire to do the same. One example will serve to show you how devoted they were to the sick. Giovan Battista Salviati, being very dedicated, was in the hospital called the Consolazione, and headed straight for a patient intending to make his bed, asking him politely to get up so that he could do so. The patient thought he was being mocked. “No, my Lord,” he said, “don’t make fun of me, I’m a poor man.” He knew all about Giovan Battista’s licentious way of life, but was unaware of his marvellous change of character, by which he had wholeheartedly turned away from material concerns to the love of heaven. But what next? Giovan Battista urged him most earnestly, and the sick man was struck not only by his air of authority but even more so by his humility, and got out of bed, lost in admiration. Giovan Battista retained that style of life with an unwavering intent until the day of his death, and having once put his hand to the plough, he never looked behind him.
Antonio Gallonio, The Life of St. Philip Neri Trans. Fr. Jerome Bertram Cong.Orat.
St. Philip inspired others to help the sick in whatever way the could manage. These works of mercy were the fruit of the genuine conversion he wrought in their hearts by that peculiar influence he possessed. The palpable indwelling of the Holy Ghost in his heart turned him into a living fountain of graces whose streams brought miracles to many souls. Some of these miracles healed the sick and even raised the dead. Yet we must never forget that it was not these extraordinary moments but, rather, the graces of repentance, of conversion, and of final perseverance that were truly the greatest fruits of St. Philip’s particular sanctity. St. Philip’s true fame rests in those whom he carried with him to Heaven, not in the strange and marvelous works that he effected while on earth. The story of Giovan Battista Salviati is one example among many of those who tasted of such sweet fruits. He actualized the grace of his conversion through works of charity towards the sick.
Subsequent writers have retained this act as a sine qua non of the Oratorian life, and then only because St. Philip so clearly demonstrates how essential it is to the Christian life per se.
And it seems to me that on this, St. Philip’s feast day, we would be well-advised to do the same. We find ourselves in the midst of a new and terrifying pandemic. Death is everywhere. In the United States alone we have lost 100,000 souls with almost no public mourning. Many of these people have died alone, afraid, in pain, and deprived of the comfort of God’s Church. The nature of the disease means that most of us cannot actively assist in the hospitals for fear of transmission. All we can do is show kindness to our neighbors, help each other obtain the necessary supplies to stop the spread of the disease, and give blood if we have survived the sickness ourselves. That’s as far as practical action goes for most of us. So much for the corporal works of mercy.
But a Christian is never without a way to directly help his brethren. The first and last resort of the faithful must be prayer. Here, too, we can take St. Philip as our model. Lest we place too much emphasis on St. Philip’s merely material acts in visiting the sick, let us turn to the testimony of Giuseppe Crispino,
When we enter a sick-chamber, let us imitate the holy Father Philip, who was accustomed, immediately upon his arrival, to pray for the patients in their own room and to make the bystanders do the same, especially in the case of the dying. The Saint was also accustomed to retire into another room, and there to pray for the sufferer.
Giuseppe Crispino, The School of Saint Philip Neri, pg. 174 Trans. Frederick William Faber
As I have written elsewhere, we must offer intercession for our suffering fellows now more than ever. And we must do so in union with the whole communion of saints. Indeed, one small blessing of this crisis is that it can, if we let it, draw us closer to the “great cloud of witnesses” ever ready to help us. One of St. Philip’s spiritual sons, Fr. Agostino Manni, made special prayers to the Blessed Virgin whenever he went to the hospitals; the Blessed Juvenal Ancina likewise sought the prayers of the living when he ministered to the sick (Crispino 174-76). And that most perfectly Philippine of English Oratorians, Fr. Faber, conceives of intercession for the dying as an intrinsically Marian act. He tells us that
We learn [a lesson] from Mary about the deaths of others. It is, that devotion for those in their last agony is a Mary-like devotion, and most acceptable to her Immaculate Heart. There is not a moment of day or night in which that dread pomp of dying is not going on. There are persons like ourselves, or better than ourselves, and whose friends have with reason loved them more than ever ours have loved us, who are now straitened in their agony, and whose eternal sight of God is trembling anxiously in the balance. Can any appeal to our charity be more piteously eloquent than this?…Are not the dying our brothers and our sisters in the sweet motherhood of Mary? The family is concerned. We must not coldly absent ourselves. We must assist in spirit at every death that is died in the whole world over, deaths of heretics and heathens as well as Christians. For they, too, are our brothers and sisters; they have souls; they have eternities at stake; Mary has an interest in them…How much more must they need prayers, who have no sacraments!…How much more earnest must be the prayers, when not ordinary grace, but a miracle of grace, must be impetrated for them!
Fr. Frederick William Faber, The Foot of the Cross
I cannot help but hear a ringing call to intercession for our own times in these words of Fr. Faber. A greater and more fearsome calamity of general death demands a greater and more dedicated oblation of prayer. Especially when even our brethren in the Faith are so often deprived of the Sacraments that should be their final stay and consolation. Yet the power of God to furnish extraordinary grace is far mightier than any earthly sickness. Healing, protection, mercy, conversion, and consolation: let us boldly ask for these gifts on behalf of the ill, the dying, the dead, their caregivers, and their families…while we still can. The hour is late. Tomorrow we may be struck ill with the dread and deadly pestilence. And then, our every thought diverted, our breath failing, our bodies plunged into the depths of a fatigue from which we shall never rise again, we will be grateful for those pious souls who lift us up to the face of the Father in prayer.
So let us pray while we still can. If we do this in a spirit of charity, we will become true Sons and Daughters of St. Philip and more perfectly emulate the Divine Physician who desires to heal us in soul as well as in body.
May St. Philip Neri pray for us all in this troubled time.
Ascensiontide is perhaps my favorite season of the Church Kalendar for personal as well as theological reasons. And so I am delighted to share with my readers an extremely good post over at Canticum Salomonis, featuring a translated sermon by Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1080-1154), a lesser-known contemporary of St. Bernard. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of this richly-illustrated translation:
The sun was raised aloft, and the moon stood still in her course. Christ is the eternal sun who sheds his radiance upon all the choirs of angels; he is the true light who enlightens every soul, who long lay concealed behind the cloud of his flesh, wreathed in the shadows of our frailty. Emerging at last from the shadows of Hell, today he rises gloriously above the stars and, raised above all the decorated ranks of angels, he sits, Lord of majesty, at the right hand of the Father. The moon, that is the Church, stands still in her course, gleaming in his light, when in the person of the apostles she saw him ascend into heaven. For the apostles showed themselves to be the Church’s course when they taught her the course of good living, and taught her how to order her course after the Sun of justice. O! what brilliant horns the new-born moon has beamed forth today, when the Sun reaching the heights of heaven has infused her with a ray of eternal light! O! how serene her face as she stood in her course, when she saw her flesh penetrate the heavens in her Head, her Redeemer, her Spouse, her God! She saw them, I say, through the eyes of the apostolic chorus, who were her course, and of the Virgin Mother of God, her type! O what joy burst forth today among the angels in heaven when the Son of God, who had gone from his palace into the Prison for the sake of his servant, yea from his fatherland into banishment, an exile for an exile, now returns in triumph to his Father’s kingdom! And so today is clept the day of God’s triumph, when the victor over death triumphant was welcomed by the senate of the celestial court with hymnic praises, glorifying the author of life!
Honoratus Augustodunensis, On Our Lord’s Ascension
Read the whole thing, and have a blessed Ascension Day.
Recently I got in a small argument on Twitter about the exact nature of Jansenist rigorism. It was pointed out by a friend, citing the estimable work of John J. Conley SJ, that Mère Angélique strictly forbade instruction in singing and dancing at the Port-Royal schools. Her comments on this point, taken from a letter to Madame de Bellisi, are as follows:
Singing, however innocent people like to find it, is very corrupt in its charming words, which are full of poison beneath their decent appearance. The same problem exists in simple airs where a false joy and foolishness are found. As for dancing, beyond its evil there is madness. Finally, my dear sister, according to the laws of the gospel, the morals of Christians must be as pure as they were at the beginning of the church.
Mère Angélique Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal Quoted in John Conley, Adoration and Annihilation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) pg. 87
Conley goes on to point out that this attitude represents the rigorist discipline of the Jansenists, especially in contrast to the Jesuit schools where theatre, song, and dance were important elements of the curriculum.
He’s not wrong. Certainly, the Abbess’s words on singing are a bit severe, to put it mildly. Yet while Conley does a good job setting this opinion in the context of the seventeenth-century French church, he fails to consider the broader and deeper context of Catholic moral teaching. This point matters insofar as it helps us assess the extent to which we can actually classify Jansenists – and the Port-Royal community in particular – as “rigorists.” What was the traditional teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, Saints, and Councils on dancing? Can we discern a general stream of teaching here? If so, what does it say, and how does it compare with the teaching of Mère Angélique?
To make a tentative answer to this question, I have compiled a brief florilegium of quotes on dancing. Where I have specific textual citations, I have included them. I will also preface this florilegium by saying that I don’t necessarily agree with these authorities in all cases. I am not a Puritan at heart – though I did once play Reverend Shaw More in a High School production of Footloose. Quite apart from that, there is a problematic gender dynamic here; the authorities quoted below are much more attentive to women dancing than men (though once again, this is perhaps one reason that Mère Angélique, a learned nun responsible for the moral instruction of an early modern Catholic girls’ school, took the position she did). The point here is to ascertain whether or not the position of Mère Angélique was a reasonable interpretration of longstanding Catholic teachings, or whether it was a truly “rigorist” aberration and an innovation with heretical tendencies.
With those caveats, let us begin.
The Fathers of the Church
“For there are excessive banquetings, and subtle flutes which provoke to lustful movements, and useless and luxurious anointings, and crowning with garlands. With such a mass of evils do you banish shame; and ye fill your minds with them, and are carried away by intemperance, and indulge as a common practice in wicked and insane fornication.” – St. Justin Martyr, Discourse to the Greeks, Ch. IV
“Since, then, all passionate excitement is forbidden us, we are debarred from every kind of spectacle.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVI
“Are we not, in like manner, enjoined to put away from us all immodesty? On this ground, again, we are excluded from the theatre, which is immodesty’s own peculiar abode, where nothing is in repute but what elsewhere is disreputable.” – Tertullian, The Shows, Ch. XVII. While this florilegium will not go deeply into the (extensive) Patristic condemnation of the theater, I will note that the nuns and solitaires of Port-Royal also adhered to this neglected teaching. Their position caused some tensions with one of their most famous students, the celebrated playwright Jean Racine.
“Now the pomp of the devil is the madness of theaters and horse-races, and hunting, and all such vanity: from which that holy man praying to be delivered says unto God, Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity. Be not interested in the madness of the theatre, where thou wilt behold the wanton gestures of the players, carried on with mockeries and all unseemliness, and the frantic dancing of effeminate men.” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 19.6
“Whence comes the dance? Who has taught it to Christians? Truly, neither Peter, nor Paul, nor John, nor any man filled with the Spirit of God; but the hellish dragon!” – St. Ephrem the Syrian
“With unkempt hair, clothed in bodices and hopping about, they dance with lustful eyes and loud laughter; as if seized by a kind of frenzy they excite the lust of the youths…With harlots’ songs they pollute the air and sully the degraded earth with their feet in shameful postures.” – St. Basil of Caesarea
“There ought then to be the joy of the mind, conscious of right, not excited by unrestrained feasts, or nuptial concerts, for in such modesty is not safe, and temptation may be suspected where excessive dancing accompanies festivities. I desire that the virgins of God should be far from this. For as a certain teacher of this world has said: “No one dances when sober unless he is mad.” Now if, according to the wisdom of this world, either drunkenness or madness is the cause of dancing, what a warning is given to us amongst the instances mentioned in the Divine Scriptures, where John, the forerunner of Christ, being beheaded at the wish of a dancer, is an instance that the allurements of dancing did more harm than the madness of sacrilegious anger.” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 5.25
“What say you, holy women? Do you see what you ought to teach, and what also to unteach your daughters? She dances, but she is the daughter of an adulteress. But she who is modest, she who is chaste, let her teach her daughter religion, not dancing. And do you, grave and prudent men, learn to avoid the banquets of hateful men. If such are the banquets, what will be the judgment of the impious?” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book III, Ch. 6.31.
“Our rest is from evil works, theirs from good; for it is better to plough than to dance.” – St. Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 92, Paragraph 2.
“Avoid also indecent spectacles: I mean the theatres and the pomps of the heathens; their enchantments, observations of omens, soothsayings, purgations, divinations, observations of birds; their necromancies and invocations….. You are also to avoid their public meetings, and those sports which are celebrated in them….. Abstain, therefore, from all idolatrous pomp and state, all their public meetings, banquets, duels, and all shows belonging to demons.” – Apostolic Constitutions, Book II, Paragraph 62.
“For where dancing is, there is the evil one. For neither did God give us feet for this end, but that we may walk orderly: not that we may behave ourselves unseemly, not that we may jump like camels.” – St. John Chyrsostom, Homily 48 on St. Matthew’s Gospel, Ch. IV.
“Christians, when they attend weddings, must not join in wanton dances, but modestly dine or breakfast, as is becoming to Christians.” – Council of Laodicea, Canon LIII
“Since therefore the more these things contribute to usefulness and honor in the Church of God, so the more zealously must they be observed, the holy council ordains that those things which have in the past been frequently and wholesomely enacted by the supreme pontiffs and holy councils concerning adherence to the life, conduct, dress, and learning of clerics, as also the avoidance of luxury, feastings, dances, gambling, sports, and all sorts of crime and secular pursuits, shall in the future be observed under the same or greater penalties to be imposed at the discretion of the ordinary.” – Council of Trent, Session XXII, Decree Concerning Reform, Ch. I
While I have not been able to find the specific quotes from medieval councils, I appeal to historian Ralph G. Giordano, who has helpfully summarized high medieval ecclesiastical discipline on this matter. He writes, “Actually, during the thirteenth century, all social dancing as part of religious ritual was eliminated from the Catholic Church. In 1215, the Lateran Council declared ‘lascivious’ dancing a sin requiring confession to a parish priest. In 1227, the Council of Trier specifically excluded ‘three-step and ring dances.’ Similar edicts were issued by the Synod of Cahors (1206), the bishop of Paris (1209), a Hungarian church council (1279), and the Council of Wurzburg (1298). All the edicts upheld the common decision to prohibit dancing in any churchyards, the churches, or as part of religious processions” (See Giordano, pp. 49-50).
Early Modern Saints
“Dancing, so dangerous to Christian morals, should be banished entirely by the faithful, as it originates many sins against purity, and causes extravagances, evil deeds, and assassinations.” – St. Charles Borromeo
Another saint who will appear later in this list also notes that St. Charles Borromeo once gave someone (probably a cleric) a penance for dancing that lasted three years, and said he would excommunicate the sinner if he ever danced again.
“Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements [balls and dances] are for the most part dangerous; they dissipate the spirit of devotion, enervate the mind, check true charity, and arouse a multitude of evil inclinations in the soul, and therefore I would have you very reticent in their use.” – St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Ch. XXXIII. I have discussed St. Francis’s notable aversion towards dancing before.
I could certainly end my florilegium here and prove the point. However, for good measure, let’s continue to see if Port-Royal represents a particularly rigorous vision of dancing even in light of subsequent Catholic development.
St. Louis de Montfort, who clashed with the Jansenists in his own day, managed to agree with the Abbess of Port-Royal on this point. He writes, “Soldiers join together in an army to overcome their enemies; wicked people often get together for parties of debauchery and dancing, and evil spirits join forces in order to make us lose our souls.” – St. Louis de Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary, Forty-Sixth Rose.
In the very same chapter, the Saint continues, “Before the Holy Rosary took root in these small towns and villages, dances and parties of debauchery went on all the time; dissoluteness, wantonness, blasphemy, quarrels, and feuds flourished.” He takes it as self-evident that dancing is an occasion of sin.
But lest we fall into the trap of attributing this attitude merely to Gallic severity, let us turn our eyes south to Naples. When we consider that famously anti-Jansenist (even allegedly laxist!) moral theologian and Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori, what do we find?
“Parents should prohibit their children from all games, which bring destruction on their families and on their own souls, and also dances, suggestive entertainment, and certain dangerous conversations and parties of pleasures. A father should remove from his house books of romances, which pervert young persons, and all bad books which contain pernicious maxims, tales of obscenity, or of profane love.” – St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Letter to Parents”
St. Anthony Mary Claret, by no means a Jansenist, claimed that “The Devil invented balls for girls to be lost, and extended them throughout the world like an immense net in order to catch the young people and submit them to his tyrannical domination.”
And returning to France, we come to the Curé d’Ars. What has this patron of parish priests, this great and ever-to-be-esteemed shepherd of souls, this jewel of the ultramontane church to say on our chosen subject?
St. Jean-Marie Vianney was absolutely resolute in his opposition to dancing of any kind. He even set up a statue of St. John the Baptist under an arch in his church, whereat he painted the words, “My head was the price of a dance.” He preached against it vehemently on more than one occasion. I shall here select only one of many, many warnings he gave against dancing (which he seems to have taken as almost intrinsically sinful, given the number of sins to which it gave occasion) in his sermons.
“St. Augustine tells us that those who go to dances truly renounce Jesus Christ in order to give themselves to the Devil. What a horrible thing that is! To drive out Jesus Christ after having received Him in your hearts! “Today,” says St. Ephraim, “they unite themselves to Jesus Christ and tomorrow to the Devil.” Alas! What a Judas is that person who, after receiving our Lord, goes then to sell Him to Satan in these gatherings, where he will be reuniting himself with everything that is most vicious! And when it comes to the Sacrament of Penance, what a contradiction in such a life! A Christian, who after one single sin should spend the rest of his life in repentance, thinks only of giving himself up to all these worldly pleasures! A great many profane the Sacrament of Extreme Unction by making indecent movements with the feet, the hands and the whole body, which one day must be sanctified by the holy oils. Is not the Sacrament of Holy Order insulted by the contempt with which the instructions of the pastor are considered? But when we come to the Sacrament of Matrimony, alas! What infidelities are not contemplated in these assemblies? It seems then that everything is admissible. How blind must anyone be who thinks there is no harm in it…The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle forbids dancing, even at weddings. And St. Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, says that three years of penance were given to someone who had danced and that if he went back to it, he was threatened with excommunication. If there were no harm in it, then were the Holy Fathers and the Church mistaken? But who tells you that there is no harm in it? It can only be a libertine, or a flighty and worldly girl, who are trying to smother their remorse of conscience as best they can. Well, there are priests, you say, who do not speak about it in confession or who, without permitting it, do not refuse absolution for it. Ah! I do not know whether there are priests who are so blind, but I am sure that those who go looking for easygoing priests are going looking for a passport which will lead them to Hell. For my own part, if I went dancing, I should not want to receive absolution not having a real determination not to go back to dancing…Alas! How many young people are there who since they have been going to dances do not frequent the Sacraments, or do so only to profane them! How many poor souls there are who have lost therein their religion and their faith! How many will never open their eyes to their unhappy state except when they are falling into Hell!” – St. Jean-Marie Vianney, a sermon against dancing.
Lest I be accused of failing to adequately account for the context of these disparate condemnations, I would note that the Catholic solution is almost always to say “both-and,” not “either-or.” We have seen the saints attack a wide variety of dances, including but not limited to a) pagan rituals, b) secular spectacles, c) dances in Church precincts, d) dancing in general, e) dancing at weddings, and f) dancing between young men and women. These are not mutually exclusive.
Once again, I don’t pretend to agree with all of these warnings. I have often enjoyed myself at dances. Morris Dancing was one of the most charming English customs I discovered when I moved to Oxford. I have very fond memories of going to the ballet, both as a child and as an adult. And I have written very highly of the artistic use of dance in, for example, The New Pope.
But the point at stake is not my opinion, but rather how we evaluate the Jansenists. Are Mère Angélique’s words in any way divergent from the spirit of these diverse condemnations? I should think that the only reasonable answer is no. The reforming Abbess of Port-Royal, ever the daughter of austere St. Bernard, may have seemed a rigorist in a century when this teaching was largely unfashionable. Keep in mind, too, that the abbey she reformed – Port-Royal des Champs – had for several decades before been known for its laxity, including an annual carnival ball. That past state of affairs shaped Angélique’s pastoral concern here, and if she over-reacted a bit (especially in her comments on singing), it was with the memory of her personal experience of those abuses.
But even keeping all that in mind, I can find nothing in her words about dancing that sets her apart from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. If we condemn her, how much more must we condemn the Curé d’Ars, so much closer to our own more tolerant age!
Conley’s book is very good. I don’t mean to dispute his broader argument. I am not even making a point principally addressed to academic historians of Jansenism, who will not be surprised by what they have read here. What I mean to suggest, however, is that in general we (Catholics at large) are too hasty to judge the Jansenists by anachronistic standards that do not actually conform to our own moral tradition, a tradition with elements that are genuinely more rigorous than the practice of Catholicism we know today. And a reconsideration of those elements – whether we end up adopting them or, in prudence, choose not to – is a helpful exercise in becoming more self-reflective and more historically-grounded as Catholics.