Some great news to finish the month. Angelico Press has released the first book by (or about) Mother Mectilde de Bar in English, The Mystery of Incomprehensible Love: The Eucharistic Message of Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament. Translated by a Benedictine Oblate and with a foreword by the Prior of Silverstream, this book of meditative excerpts is sure to inject a new and healthy dose of sound French spirituality into the veins of the modern Church. It will also, I hope, help generate new scholarly interest in the considerable spiritual contributions made by Mother Mectilde.
The book is very reasonably priced, and would make great reading for Ascensiontide, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi. Please consider buying it today!
This week’s contribution to the Lenten Spirituality Series comes from Jean de Bernières-Louvigny (1602-1659), a pious lay mystic who lived and died in Caen. From his hermitage in this rainy Norman town, Jean de Bernières gave himself over to profound experiences of contemplative prayer. His spirituality, as expressed in the two volumes of his Le chrestien intérieur (Paris: 1661), was deeply indebted to the apophatic tradition of mystical theology. Although a solitaire, Jean de Bernières was engaged in ecclesiastical and charitable networks that included some of the greatest spiritual figures of his day. He was a member of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement in Caen and corresponded with such notable individuals as St. François de Montmorency-Laval, Bishop of Québec, and Mother Mectilde de Bar, Foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. He met the latter at Caen; she became, as it were, a dear friend. Translated into German in the eighteenth century, Jean de Bernières had an important influence on the trajectory of Pietism in that country. He has, as far as I can tell, never been fully translated into English. What I produce below is my own translation, in the hope it may offer some aid to pious souls in this time of temptation. The excerpt comes from the Second Volume, Book V, Chapter II of Le chrestien intérieur, pp. 6-11. I would add, for those who take an interest in such matters, that one of the extra difficulties in translating Jean de Bernières is that he uses Norman French vocabulary that no longer appears in standard French. I hope I have managed to capture his sense here.
To commune worthily, one must place oneself in a state conformed to that of Jesus, in the Blessed Sacrament.
Jesus Christ wishes to give Himself to us in this august mystery, in a state of death with respect to the life of the senses, but as a source of life with respect to the interior life, the divine life, the life of grace, the life of contemplation and continuous application to the grandeurs of God His Father; a life poor and annihilated [aneantie] in exteriors, but entirely brilliant with majesty, and infinitely rich under the veil of the species that hide it from the eyes of the world. It is with these dispositions that that He comes to present Himself to us, wishing as well that we too should present ourselves to Him with dispositions conformed to His.
The Humanity that He gives to you in Communion has been elevated to the divine life by the hypostatic union; we too must be such by grace, that our understanding would be elevated to a high knowledge, and our will to a sublime sentiment of love of God, and that our soul would live the life of grace. O sublimity of the life of grace, you are so admirable, you are so high, you are so ineffable! You raise man from earth to heaven, and you make him live in God, and even of God, because you dispose him to live on the earth from the same substance by which the Blessed live in heaven. O great life of grace, you are poor to the exterior, but very rich in the interior: you seem low, but you are most high: you have ravished me with you beauty, I can no longer live a moment without thee, who make [me] live from a divine life, who places the soul in the heart of God, and who disposes her to see God placed in her heart.
Since the beauty of this life manifests itself to the soul, she leaves everything to embrace it, and everything else seems to her naught but death and corruption; we abandon the world, honors, and riches; we condemn ourselves to penances, to mortifications, to poverty, so as to live this divine life; and we feel a holy hunger for this adorable food that nurtures the soul. O that I might know it, my God, and that I might follow it, this divine life, so little known to the world, practiced by so few in the world, that also does not find itself altered by the waters of Thy eternal fountains! O Jesus, draw me after Thee in the actions of the life of grace, which is in its full exercise in misery and scorn. Draw me, Lord, I run after Thee in the odor of Thy perfumes. What pleasure, my soul, to behold you walking as a giant in the ways of grace, nourished and fortified in your course with the bread of grace: Ambulavit in fortitudine cibi illius usque ad montem Dei.
To live in one’s own death, as Jesus seems to us in the Blessed Sacrament, to lose one’s glory in contempt, to be ravished when one is annihilated [aneanti] and sacrificed; this is proper to the life of grace. Making everything dead to the exterior, it brings life to the interior, and gives principally the spirit of prayer, putting it almost continuously in exercise in the soul, applying itself to this infinite and incomprehensible Being that it adores, unable to comprehend It, and annihilating itself [s’aneantit] before Him, unable even to admire His divine grandeurs, as annihilated [aneanties] in the Eucharist. O my soul, how great is your vileness, how extreme your poverty! What is man, that You should have remembrance of him, Lord, and that You should visit him, and that You should take Thy delight from coming to dwell personally with him? His soul is drawn from nothing, and his body is nothing but a little mud, and Thou deignest to set Thine eyes upon him! How is it that this creature, so dirty, so minuscule, so coarse, could receive the infinite majesty of God? Humble thyself to the bottom of thy nothingness, and confess thy baseness, my soul. Lower thine eyes, and swear that thou art unworthy to turn them only towards that formidable grandeur; but be still more moved with admiration, of recognition and love of such excessive goodness, which deigns well to annihilate itself [s’aneantir] in that incomprehensible mystery, to bring itself to you even unto your nothingness.
We must truly love the state of interior captivity, where the soul, bound and tied up, stays in the obscurity of its prison. This state will honor the captivity of Jesus enclosed under the little host. This divine Lord place himself in a little prison for our love. The King of Glory is restricted under these small species, and thereby a captive and prisoner of man, He renders Himself, it seems, his slave, giving Himself entirely to him; He suffers, so to speak, and dies for him, and communicates to him all the merits of His Precious Blood. O divine Captive, captivate my heart so strongly, that it may never more return to natural liberty; but that all destroyed and annihilated [aneanti], it may not live another life than the superhuman, nor may it enjoy any other liberty than that of Thy children.
Each time that one takes Communion, Jesus Christ giving Himself entirely to all, there are all new obligations that we contract to live entirely for Him, and to render all our actions divine. It is necessary therefore for a good soul not to say: I have not such time to prepare myself for Communion; because she must not aim at another thing by all the actions of her life, but to receive the Bread of Life, in order to live the life of Jesus, and to persevere perpetually in similar dispositions to those that appear to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
The COVID-19 crisis is impacting all of us at some level. Yet we are not alone in the midst of our fear and pain. In His grace, the Good Lord provides so many ways for us to grow in holiness in the midst of this affair. I offer a few ideas here for the general edification of the faithful.
Offer up your suffering for the salvation and sanctification of sinners
The life of a Christian is the death of Christ. We can therefore unite all our sufferings – physical, emotional, mental – to the Cross. When we do so, we can impetrate tremendous graces for ourselves and others. If you are afflicted by the disease – offer it up. If you are worried for those you know who are ill – offer it up. If you are mourning – offer it up. If you are struggling with troubles related to work (or the lack thereof) – offer it up. If you are bored in quarantine – offer it up. Even minor inconveniences can become springs of grace when we offer them to the Great High Priest on high. A terrible crisis like the one we are now facing is also a marvelous opportunity to grow in holiness, to help others spiritually, and to nurture our abandonment to Divine Providence. Especially as we move through Lent.
Devote time to pious reading, especially of the Holy Scripture
It is the duty of every Christian to be conversant with the Holy Scriptures, especially the Gospels. The stories and teachings of the Divine Physician may be especially comforting in this difficult time. On the other hand, I can hardly think of circumstance more apt to induce us to read the Prophecies and Apocalyptic books of the Bible. Beyond the Scriptures, one might turn to such edifying texts as In Sinu Jesu, All For Jesus, or Revelations of Divine Love.
Develop a friendship with one or more of the plague saints
There are many saints whom Catholics have called upon to help them in times of plague and pestilence. I listed a few here. You might find yourself drawn to St. Rosalia, or St. Sebastian, or St. Charles Borromeo. I have set up a candle in my own prayer corner dedicated to St. Roch. He has been a good intercessor for me in times past, and as the patron of bachelors (I am unmarried) and of animals (my family has many pets), I think he is a very appropriate saint to honor while I am stuck at home during this crisis.
Keep an extra day of special fasting, beyond Lenten Fridays
Wednesday was historically a day of penance in addition to Fridays. You might set aside Wednesday (or Thursday, in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, or Saturday, in honor of Our Lord’s entombment) as a sort of “second Friday.” You don’t have to give up meat; you could add an extra penance you only keep on this second day, such as giving up alcohol, or sweets, or praying an extra set of prayers.
Pray the Seven Penitential Psalms
The Divine Office is superior option to sanctify the hours, but for those who may lack the resources or time to do so, praying the Seven Penitential Psalms is a great alternative. Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 for those of you using Protestant translations) are a moving, profound way to express sorrow for one’s own sins and for those of the whole world.
Pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet
These popular devotions are widely-known, so I won’t go on at length here about their peculiar merits. They are to be commended for their brevity, depth, and penitential character. Both are particularly well-suited to a time when we must implore God to spare us in His mercy. The Rosary also has the added benefit of beseeching the aid of the Queen of Heaven, whose title “Health of the Sick” comes to mind as particularly apropos in view of present circumstances.
Give to the poor and to religious houses
The lack of employment and an inability to leave the house is hitting working class families especially hard in this period, not to mention the homeless, prisoners, and others among society’s most vulnerable. I don’t yet know how to directly help them in a time of social distancing, but would be happy to take and/or post suggestions in the comments to this article. That said, I do know that religious houses will be struggling as well. Please consider giving to these holy souls, many of whom rely on charitable donations to get by month to month. I would direct my readers especially to the good Fathers and Brothers of Silverstream Priory. And don’t just give – pick up one of their excellent handmade decals, books, or prayers to Mother Mectilde de Bar from their online store! I’m sure the monks could use all the help they can get in this time of economic crisis.
Dedicate one hour daily to reparatory Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament through mental recollection
You don’t need to go to a chapel or church to adore the Blessed Sacrament. Set aside an hour in your day as a time of adoration. It need not distract from your work or recreation (though an extra hour of prayer may be a good idea, if it does not become too laborious). We can simply say to God, “I give you the next hour,” then come back to adore Him mentally through the hour as we can recall. And why not take the opportunity to make reparation for offenses against Our Eucharistic Lord, or His neglect in the tabernacles and altars of the world? This is a sweet and easy means to preserve the presence of God. Done regularly, it will help us grow in the sense of God’s proximity and in the trust of His merciful Providence.
Make a plague cross
Those who are feeling crafty might wish to draw or paint a version of one of the old plague crosses used in Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods. Examples abound online, as a quick Google search will reveal. This prayerful activity is not only a way to invoke the aid of great saints, but also a great way to connect with the history of Catholic devotion.
Intercede for the dead and dying
Fr. Faber recommends frequent, dedicated intercession for those in their last agony and for the holy souls of Purgatory. In a time of great mortality, it is an act of charity to pray in a special way for those who are succumbing to death. Indeed, praying for the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. You might begin by offering prayers for the dead and dying of your parish, then your diocese, then your state, then your nation, then the whole church, then the world. Let your prayer cast a wide net.
Make spiritual communions and acts of reparation each Sunday
This will, sadly, be necessary until public Masses are restored. But spiritual communions are not to be understood as somehow second-rate communions. When you are away from Mass in obedience to your bishop and through no fault of your own, you can still make a good communion with Our Lord. It may not possess the full sacramental character of a good Eucharistic communion, but it still binds us to the Eucharistic sacrifice. And any grace we receive as a result is indeed infused into us by the merits of Christ’s sacrifice. So let us come to love Acts of Spiritual Communion, an underappreciated and undervalued weapon in the Catholic arsenal in good times as well as in bad. You can find a variety all over the internet. I would add to these an Act of Reparation in time of plague.
Pray for the grace of final perseverance
St. Benedict teaches us that the Christian must “Keep death daily before one’s eyes” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter IV). In a time like this, it is hard not to follow this advice. And yet, we can put off the reality of our mortality by the unconscious assumption that it will never be us. Surely, death will pass us by. Surely, we have blood on our door. But the fact is, we don’t know when our time will come. The more seriously we take the prospect of our own mortality, the more shall we find ourselves drawn to ponder our own judgment. Let this salutary meditation induce us to pray for the graces of final repentance and perseverance and abandonment to the will of God.
And may the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore. Amen.
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.