In Lent, I often return to the words of the great Bishop of Cambrai, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon. He is a perennially refreshing source of spiritual wisdom and guidance. Since we are finally in Passiontide, I thought this excerpt from Fénelon’s sermon on prayer, “The Saints Converse with God,” would be greatly edifying for all those of my readers keeping up with the Lenten Spirituality Series.
We must pray with perseverance. The perfect heart is never weary of seeking God. Ought we to complain if God sometimes leaves us to obscurity, and doubt, and temptation? Trials purify humble souls, and they serve to expiate the faults of the unfaithful. They confound those who, even in their prayers, have flattered their cowardice and pride. If an innocent soul, devoted to God, suffer from any secret disturbance, it should be humble, adore the designs of God, and redouble its prayers and its fervor. How often do we hear those who every day have to reproach themselves with unfaithfulness toward God complain that He refuses to answer their prayers! Ought they not to acknowledge that it is their sins which have formed a thick cloud between Heaven and them, and that God has justly hidden Himself from them? How often has He recalled us from our wanderings! How often, ungrateful as we are, have we been deaf to His voice and insensible to His goodness! He would make us feel that we are blind and miserable when we forsake Him. He would teach us, by privation, the value of the blessings that we have slighted. And shall we not bear our punishment with patience? Who can boast of having done all that he ought to have done; of having repaired all his past errors; of having purified his heart, so that he may claim as a right that God should listen to his prayer? Most truly, all our pride, great as it is, would not be sufficient to inspire such presumption! If then, the Almighty do not grant our petitions, let us adore His justice, let us be silent, let us humble ourselves, and let us pray without ceasing. This humble perseverance will obtain from Him what we should never obtain by our own merit. It will make us pass happily from darkness to light; for know, says St. Augustine, that God is near to us even when He appears far from us.
Here is an extremely amusing (and, in its own way, edifying) little chapter from Introduction to the Devout Life. I’ve only just encountered it by chance. It’s passages like this that rather make one understand why Evelyn Underhill summed up his teaching in the one line, “Yes, indeed, my dear Duchess, as Your Grace so truly observes, God is love.”
One can almost hear the Gentleman Saint sipping his tea at the end of each numbered item in the list below.
CHAPTER XXXIII. Of Balls, and other Lawful but Dangerous Amusements.
DANCES and balls are things in themselves indifferent, but the circumstances ordinarily surrounding them have so generally an evil tendency, that they become full of temptation and danger. The time of night at which they take place is in itself conducive to harm, both as the season when people’s nerves are most excited and open to evil impressions; and because, after being up the greater part of the night, they spend the mornings afterwards in sleep, and lose the best part of the day for God’s Service. It is a senseless thing to turn day into night, light into darkness, and to exchange good works for mere trifling follies. Moreover, those who frequent balls almost inevitably foster their Vanity, and vanity is very conducive to unholy desires and dangerous attachments.
I am inclined to say about balls what doctors say of certain articles of food, such as mushrooms and the like—the best are not good for much; but if eat them you must, at least mind that they are properly cooked. So, if circumstances over which you have no control take you into such places, be watchful how you prepare to enter them. Let the dish be seasoned with moderation, dignity and good intentions. The doctors say (still referring to the mushrooms), eat sparingly of them, and that but seldom, for, however well dressed, an excess is harmful.
So dance but little, and that rarely, my daughter, lest you run the risk of growing over fond of the amusement.
Pliny says that mushrooms, from their porous, spongy nature, easily imbibe meretricious matter, so that if they are near a serpent, they are infected by its poison. So balls and similar gatherings are wont to attract all that is bad and vicious; all the quarrels, envyings, slanders, and indiscreet tendencies of a place will be found collected in the ballroom. While people’s bodily pores are opened by the exercise of dancing, the heart’s pores will be also opened by excitement, and if any serpent be at hand to whisper foolish words of levity or impurity, to insinuate unworthy thoughts and desires, the ears which listen are more than prepared to receive the contagion.
Believe me, my daughter, these frivolous amusements 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.
To return to the medical simile;—it is said that after eating mushrooms you should drink some good wine. So after frequenting balls you should frame pious thoughts which may counteract the dangerous impressions made by such empty pleasures on your heart.
Bethink you, then—
1. That while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.
2. Remember how, at the selfsame time, many religious and other devout persons were kneeling before God, praying or praising Him. Was not their time better spent than yours?
3. Again, while you were dancing, many a soul has passed away amid sharp sufferings; thousands and tens of thousands were lying all the while on beds of anguish, some perhaps untended, unconsoled, in fevers, and all manner of painful diseases. Will you not rouse yourself to a sense of pity for them? At all events, remember that a day will come when you in your turn will lie on your bed of sickness, while others dance and make merry.
4. Bethink you that our Dear Lord, Our Lady, all the Angels and Saints, saw all that was passing. Did they not look on with sorrowful pity, while your heart, capable of better things, was engrossed with such mere follies?
5. And while you were dancing time passed by, and death drew nearer. Trifle as you may, the awful dance of death must come, the real pastime of men, since therein they must, whether they will or no, pass from time to an eternity of good or evil. If you think of the matter quietly, and as in God’s Sight, He will suggest many a like thought, which will steady and strengthen your heart.
A portrait of Mother Mectilde de Bar adoring the Blessed Sacrament. (Source)
Sometimes readers ask me about more information on Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614-1698), the saintly foundress of the Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. I would of course direct those who read French or Italian to any of the several biographical studies about Mother Mectilde that have come out in those languages. However, I would perhaps more eagerly urge my readers to a series of recent posts at Vultus Christi presenting what is, I believe, the first English translations of some of Mother Mectilde’s spiritual letters. Here they are with the titles the translator has given them at VC.
And on top of all that, there’s a letter from the lay mystic Jean de Bernières to Mother Mectilde. Bernières is a good example of someone who, though posthumously condemned as a “Quietist,” is now being recovered as a source of valuable mystical insight. We have seen the same happen to Benet Canfield before, and it may yet occur to someone like Pietro Matteo Petrucci. More work needs to be done in this area. At any rate, translation of these early modern mystical works is badly needed.
Both as a practicing Catholic and as an historian of early modern Catholicism, I am encouraged that these works are being put into English for the first time. The English-speaking world is now getting a much better sense of the importance of this unique tradition within the Benedictine family. More translations, we are told, are coming. I eagerly await their publication.
There are some very exciting publications coming out soon…especially for those of us who study religion in the early modern period.
First, there’s a new series from CUA Press on Early Modern Catholic Sources, edited by Ulrich Lehner and Trent Pomplun. The first volume covers Christological debates among the Discalced Carmelites of the School of Salamanca. I think it’s a fair assumption that this material has never been translated before. The first volume should appear in 2019.
Second, and more germane to my own work, we have Jeffrey Burson’s very promising intervention into the perennial “Enlightenment” v. “Enlightenments” debate. His new book, Culture of Enlightening: Abbé Claude Yvon and the Entangled Emergence of the Enlightenment, is scheduled to be released from Notre Dame Press in May 2019. Burson has already established himself as a major scholar of the Catholic Enlightenment, and his newest foray promises to be his most ambitious work yet.
For those of you who, like me, take an interest in the Jansenists and in early modern Catholic women, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a new study of Pascal’s sisters by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J. The Other Pascals: The Philosophy of Jacqueline Pascal, Gilberte Pascal Périer, and Marguerite Périer, another ND Press piece slated for an April 2019 release, will no doubt shed new light on these fascinating figures. Conley has done important work before on Catholic women in the 17th century – I look forward to his newest treatment of the subject.
The Ascension fresco at Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford – perhaps my favorite chapel in the entire University. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew OP. (Source)
One of the greatest luminaries of the French Church in the 17th century, that period known as the GrandSiècle, was Jean-Jacques Olier. Though barely read today, he exerted a profound influence upon the formation of the French School of Spirituality through his work in founding the Sulpician Order. He was a close associate of St. Vincent de Paul, who always regarded him as a saint.
I have excerpted here his short chapter on the Ascension from his book, The Interior Life of the Most Holy Virgin. I must ask my readers to forgive me for not translating this edifying work, as I did not have the time. Those with French, however, will appreciate the depth of M. Olier’s insight.
Le sacrifice de Jésus-Christ étant offert pour l’Église, qui est visible, devait être visible lui-même dans toutes ses parties, afin de nous donner une certitude parfaite de notre réconciliation avec Dieu. Marie, dans le jour de la Purification, avait paru à l’offrande de la victime, en présentant elle-même, au nom de l’Église, Jésus-Christ notre hostie, et en le dévouant à l’immolation. Elle avait aussi été présente à la deuxième partie du sacrifice, à l’immolation réelle de Jésus-Christ sur la croix. La troisième, qui était la consommation ou le transport de la victime en Dieu, avait eu lieu dans le mystère de la Résurrection. Mais cette consommation s’était opérée d’une manière invisible; et la bonté de Dieu voulait que, pour notre consolation, cette partie du sacrifice devînt visible aussi bien que les deux autres, ou plutôt que Notre-Seigneur montât au ciel pour aller se perdre dans le sein de Dieu non-seulement à la vue de la très-sainte Vierge sa mère, mais encore sous les yeux de tous les apôtres par qui l’Église était représentée. C’est ce qu’avait figuré autrefois Élie montant au ciel dans un char de feu à la vue d’Élisée ; et ce prophète avait déclaré expressément à son disciple que, s’il le voyait monter, il aurait son double esprit. Don mystérieux, qui exprimait le fruit du sacrifice, c’est-à-dire l’esprit de mort et de résurrection ou de vie divine, que Jésus-Christ devait laisser à l’Église figurée par Élisée.
Après sa résurrection, il communiquait toutes les dispositions et tous les sentiments de son âme à sa bénite Mère. Il lui exprimait spécialement les désirs ardents qui le pressaient d’aller enfin se réunir à Dieu son Père, pour le louer et le glorifier dans le ciel. Marie, de son côté, éprouvait un véhément désir d’y accompagner son Fils, pour s’unir à ses louanges; et sans doute qu’elle eût terminé alors sa vie et l’eût suivi dans les cieux, s’il n’eût voulu se servir d’elle pour aider l’Église dans ses commencements.
L’oeuvre de cette divine Mère était encore incomplète. Après avoir donné, par Marie, naissance au chef, Dieu voulait procurer aussi, par elle, la formation de tout le corps. Il voulait la rendre mère de sa famille entière, de Jésus-Christ et de tous ses enfants d’adoption. Par zèle pour la gloire de Dieu et par charité pour nous, elle accepte avec joie la commission que Notre-Seigneur lui laisse de travailler à faire honorer son Père par les hommes, et de demeurer sur la terre jusqu’à ce que l’Église ait été bien affermie.
Le quarantième jour après la Résurrection étant donc venu, Jésus-Christ- se rend à Béthanie avec sa sainte Mère et ses apôtres; là élevant les mains et les bénissant, il se sépare d’eux, et en leur présence s’élève vers le ciel. Ils l’y suivirent des yeux, jusqu’à ce qu’enfin une nuée le dérobe à leur vue; et comme néanmoins ils tenaient toujours leurs regards fixés au ciel, deux anges vêtus de blanc leur apparurent et leur dirent : Pourquoi vous arrêtez-vous à regarder le ciel? Ce Jésus, qui a été attiré du milieu de vous dans le ciel, viendra de la même manière que vous l’avez vu monter au ciel. Ainsi Dieu voulut-il que l’acceptation solennelle qu’il faisait de notre hostie, eût pour témoins non-seulement tous les apôtres et la très-sainte Vierge, qui l’avait produite de sa propre substance, mais les anges eux-mêmes.
En montant dans les cieux, Jésus-Christ élève avec lui tous les saints patriarches et les autres justes qu’il avait retirés des limbes, et va les offrir à son Père, comme les premières dépouilles qu’il a ravies au démon par sa mort. Enfin, dérobé par la nuée à la vue de ses disciples, il laisse rejaillir la splendeur de sa gloire, qu’ils n’auraient pu soutenir et dont il avait retenu l’éclat dans ses diverses apparitions.
Comme les enfants des rois donnent des présents à leurs sujets, en faisant leur entrée dans leur royaume, Jésus-Christ, montant à la droite de son Père pour prendre possession de son trône, voulait envoyer à ses apôtres son esprit et ses dons, c’est-à-dire dilater son coeur en faisant entrer les hommes dans ses sentiments de religion envers Dieu son Père, et achever ainsi son ouvrage. Dans ce dessein et par son commandement, les disciples s’assemblèrent à Jérusalem avec la très-sainte Vierge et plusieurs saintes femmes; et là ils étaient en prière, louant, bénissant le nom de Dieu, et attendant la venue de l’Esprit-Saint. Marie était au milieu d’eux et présidait ce sacré concile, comme ayant, pour aviser à établir la gloire de Dieu dans le monde, une grâce qui excellait par-dessus celle de tous les apôtres. Quoique Jésus-Christ n’eût pas voulu qu’elle fût présente à la Cène, ni qu’elle offrît extérieurement le saint sacrifice, ni qu’elle fût prêtre selon l’ordre de Melchisédech, il voulait néanmoins que Marie, destinée à être la mère des vivants, se trouvât dans le Cénacle avec les apôtres, afin de verser la plénitude de son esprit en elle, comme dans le réservoir de la vie divine, et de la distribuer par elle à tous ses enfants, et aussi pour apprendre à l’Église que jamais elle ne serait renouvelée qu’en la société de sa divine Mère et en participant à son esprit.
A rococo altar depicting the Ascension, Ottobeuren, Germany. (Source)
In my final post of Wednesday spiritual masters, here is a passage from Part V, Chapter XIII of St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life. I thought it was particularly appropriate for Holy Week.
The Love Which Jesus Christ Bears Us
Consider the Love with which our Dear Lord Jesus Christ bore so much in this world, especially in the Garden of Olives and on Mount Calvary; that Love bore you in mind, and through all those pains and toils He obtained your good resolutions for you, as also all that is needful to maintain, foster, strengthen and consummate those resolutions. How precious must the resolutions be which are the fruits of our Lord’s Passion! and how dear to my heart, since they were dear to that of Jesus! Saviour of my soul, Thou didst die to win them for me; grant me grace sooner to die than forget them. Be sure, my daughter, that the Heart of our most Dear Lord beheld you from the tree of the Cross and loved you, and by that Love He won for you all good things which you were ever to have, and amongst them your good resolutions. Of a truth we have all reason like Jeremiah to confess that the Lord knew us, and called us by our name or ever we were born, the more that His Divine Goodness in its Love and Mercy made ready all things, general and individual, which could promote our salvation, and among them our resolutions. A woman with child makes ready for the babe she expects, prepares its cradle, its swaddling clothes and its nurse; even so our Lord, while hanging on His Cross, prepared all that you could need for your happiness, all the means, the graces, the leadings, by which He leads your soul onwards towards perfection.
Surely we ought ever to remember this, and ask fervently: Is it possible that I was loved, and loved so tenderly by my Saviour, that He should have thought of me individually, and in all these details by which He has drawn me to Himself? With what love and gratitude ought I to use all He has given me? The Loving Heart of my God thought of my soul, loved it, and prepared endless means to promote its salvation, even as though there were no other soul on earth of which He thought; just as the sun shines on each spot of earth as brightly as though it shone nowhere else, but reserved all its brightness for that alone. So Our Dear Lord thought and cared for every one of His children as though none other existed. “Who loved me, and gave Himself for me,” S. Paul says, as though he meant, “for me alone, as if there were none but me He cared for.”
Let this be graven in your soul, my child, the better to cherish and foster your good resolutions, which are so precious to the Heart of Jesus.
François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai in the age of Louis XIV (Source)
Continuing my Lenten series of Wednesday spiritual masters, I present to you here a letter by Archbishop Fénelon to an officer, often identified as the Chevalier Colbert. The translation I am using comes from 1877, but I would also recommend to you the version by fellow Wahoo Chad Helms in the 2006 Paulist Press edition of Fénelon‘s Selected Writings. It struck me by its beauty and force of feeling, as well as its Lenten spirit.
You have forgotten me, sir, but it is impossible for me to forget you. Something in my heart continually recalls you, and makes me want to hear of you, as I have more especially felt during the campaign and its perils. Your forgetfulness only makes me feel the more. The friendship you showed me once is of a kind never to be forgotten; and when I recall some of our conversations, my eyes are filled with tears. I trust that you remember how pleasant and hearty they were. Have you found anything since then more acceptable than God? Have the truths which then satisfied you failed? Is the pure light of the kingdom of God quenched? Has the world’s nothingness acquired some fresh value? Is that which was but a wretched dream not still the same? Is the God to Whom you poured out your soul, and Who filled you then with a peace beyond all earthly ken, no longer to be loved? Has the eternal beauty, ever so fresh to pure eyes, no longer charms for you? Is that source of heavenly joy, of unmarred happiness, which springs from the Father of Mercies and God of Consolation, dried up? No, for He has filled me with an urgent desire to recall you to Him. I cannot resist it: for long I have hesitated, and said to myself that I should only worry you. Even as I began this letter, I laid down a limit of discretion to myself; but after the first few words, my heart burst its bounds. Even should you not answer, or should think me absurd, I should not cease to speak sorrowfully to God of you, when unable to speak to you yourself any more. Once more, sir, forgive me if I exceed all due limits. I know it as well as you, but I feel irresistibly urged: God has not forgotten you, since He stirs up so eager a desire for your salvation in me.
What does He ask of you, save to be happy? Have you not realised that one is happy in loving Him? Have you not felt that there is no other real happiness, whatever excitement may be found in sensual pleasures, apart from Him? Since, then, you know where to find the Fountain of Life, and have of old drunk thereof, why would you seek foul, earthly cisterns? Bright, happy days, lighted up by the soft rays of loving mercy, when will ye return? When will it be given me to see this child of God reclaimed by His powerful Hand, filled with His favour, and the blessings of His holy Feast; causing joy in Heaven, despising earth, and acquiring an inexhaustible fund of humility and fervour from his experience of human frailty?
The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661-69. (Source)
I am not dictating what you should do. God will Himself make that plain to you according to your needs, so long as you hearken inwardly to Him, and despise boldly that which is despicable. Do whatever you will, only love God, and let His Love, revived in your heart, be your guide. I have often thanked Him for having shielded you amid the perils of this campaign, in which your soul was even more exposed to risk than your body. Many a time I have trembled for you: put an end to my fears, and fill my heart with gladness. None can possibly be greater than to find myself once more with you in the house of God, united in heart and soul, looking together to one glorious hope, and the Coming of our Great God, Who will fill us with the flood of His pure delights. Your ears are not yet closed to the sublime language of truth, your heart is made to feel its charms. “Taste and see” the pleasant bread daily spread for us at our Father’s table. Why have you forsaken it? With such support, who can fear that anything else will be lacking? Even if you do not feel strong enough to regain the happy position where you were, at least answer me, at least do not shun me. I know what it is to be weak; I am a thousand times weaker than you. It is very profitable to have realised what one is; but do not add to that weakness, which is inseparable from human nature, an estrangement from the means of strength. You shall regulate our intercourse; I will only speak to you of such things as you are willing to hear. I will keep God’s secret in my heart, and shall be always, with unchanging affection and regard, etc.
Fr. Maurice Zundel was one of the great, if often-forgotten, theologians of the last century. Sometime student of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, he wrote various works of Catholic philosophy in conversation with existentialism, Protestantism, and personalism. This wide-ranging and erudite scholarship led soon-to-be-Saint Paul VI to call him “a mystical genius.” However, he is best known in the Anglophone world for his writing on the liturgy. This extract is taken from his great work, The Splendour of the Liturgy (1943), translated by Edward Watkin for Sheed & Ward. It comes from his chapter on “The Collect” (pg. 61-67). I was struck by this passage’s profound depths of wisdom as well as its light, imaginative style.
Prayer is the soul’s breath, the creature’s fiat in response to the Creator’s in that mysterious exchange which makes us God’s fellow-workers. Its purpose is not to inform God of needs which He knows infinitely better than we do ourselves, nor to move His will to satisfy them, for His will is the eternal gift of infinite Love. Its sole object is to make us more capable of receiving such a gift, to open our eyes to the light, to throw open the portals of our heart too narrow to give access to the King of glory. There is no need to importune God for our happiness, for He never ceases to will it. It is we who place the obstacle in its way and keep his love at arm’s length.
Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children, as a hen gathers her chickens beneath her wings, and thou wouldst not.
This surely is the most poignant expression of the Divine Tragedy: ‘I would, I, thy Lord and thy God—but thou, thou wouldst not.’ If we place this complaint side by side with the text already quoted from the Apocalypse, ‘I stand at the door and knock,’ we must conclude that God always hears man’s prayer, that He is the eternal answer to prayer, and that it is man who too often refuses to hear God’s prayer.
And prayer is precisely the response to Love’s eternal invitation, which is made with an infinite regard for our freedom. It is, therefore, superfluous to ask whether every prayer is heard. It is heard if and in so far as it is a genuine prayer. For genuine prayer is the opening of the soul to the mysterious invasion of the Divine Presence, and it is completely summed up in the final appeal of the Apocalypse: ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ (61-62)
Throughout the chapter, Zundel strikes what we might call a sophiological note. He approaches the most basic substance of the Christian life—prayer—and carries on to the Eschaton, to spiritual nuptials, and to illumination from on high.
It remains true that there is no conversation without answers, no marriage of love without mutual consent. And it is a marriage of love that is to be concluded between God and ourselves. In this marriage whose intimate union must continually grow until its flower unfolds in eternity, prayer is our assent. There is no need to put it into words. It may be confined to a silent adherence, a simple look in which we give our entire being a calm silence in which, without adding anything of her own, the soul listens to Him who utters Himself within her by His single Word. And all prayer tends towards this transparent passivity which exposes the diamond of our free will to the rays of the eternal light. We can pray without asking for anything and without saying anything, that God may express Himself the more freely…
It is ultimately for the sake of God that the soul desires her own Beatitude, that no obstacle may thwart His love, that the world may realise its spiritual vocation, and that throughout creation all may be yea, as all is yea in God. (62-64)
Zundel notes that the peculiar genius of the Liturgy is the way it uses human spiritual needs as launchpads for a “flight” into the eternal. The Collects crystallize this function in that they often speak of our human wants. Zundel writes:
But their very sobriety forbids us to stop at their verbal surface. The soul has but to let herself go and she is launched on the open sea voyaging over abysses of light and darkness, of sorrow and peace. They are more than prayers, they are sacraments of prayer, formulas that induce the essential prayer which we have attempted to describe. (64-65)
Would that we might be ever mindful of what is really taking place at every Mass! (Source)
Among Prayer-Book Anglicans, there used to be a very old custom of memorizing collects. I do wonder how many still keep it up—certainly, I don’t know of any Catholics who memorize collects. Imagine what would happen to our own spiritual lives, to say nothing of the Church militant, if we committed to learning a few by heart. If you’re looking for a beautiful English translation of the traditional collects, might I recommend a little volume published by W. Knott & Son. Otherwise, there’s another good alternative that came out around the same time.