Let us adore the Lord, the King who is to come.
Psalm week: 2.
|Other saints: St Melchiades (d. 314)|
Born in Africa, Melchiades was pope in Rome when the Church obtained its freedom after centuries of persecution. He took advantage of the new favourable situation to organise the Church on solid foundations. He ordered the construction of many churches and was the first pope to occupy the cathedral of St John Lateran. He was pope for only 3 years.
|Other saints: St John Roberts (1575 - 1610)|
He was born in north Wales and studied law. He travelled on the Continent in 1598 and was converted to Catholicism. He entered the English College at Vallalodid to study for the priesthood; he then became a Benedictine monk. He was ordained in 1602 and set out on a mission to England. He was arrested and banished, returned to England, arrested and banished again, arrested, imprisoned, and banished yet again. By now it was July 1606. He spent fourteen months at Douai in northern France, where he founded the English Benedictine community of St Gregory, which, having been exiled from France at the time of the French Revolution, is now at Downside Abbey, near Bath. He returned to England and was arrested in October 1607, escaped, went on the run for a year, was arrested again and imprisoned: the intercession of the French Ambassador saved him from execution, and he was banished. He returned to England within a year, and was arrested on 2 December 1610 while celebrating Mass and taken to prison still wearing his vestments. He was tried on 5 December and convicted of being a priest, and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 10 December. See also the article in Wikipedia
and the Downside Abbey
|Other saints: St John Roberts OSB (1575-1610)|
John Roberts was born in 1575, the son of John and Anna Roberts from North Wales. He matriculated at St John’s College, Oxford, in 1595-6, but left after two years without taking a degree (possibly because he was unable to take the Oath of Supremacy) and was very briefly a law student at one of the Inns of Court. In 1598 he travelled on the continent and, through the influence of a Catholic fellow-countryman, was received into the Catholic Church at Notre Dame in Paris. He then entered the English College at Valladolid, Spain where he was admitted in 1598. The following year he joined the Abbey of St Benedict in Valladolid. After ordination in 1602 he set out for England. Although observed by a Government spy, Roberts and his companions succeeded in entering the country in April, 1603; but, his arrival being known, he was soon arrested and banished. He almost immediately returned to England where he worked for a time among the plague-stricken people in London, where he became known as “the parish priest of London”. In 1604, while embarking for Spain with four postulants, he was again arrested, but not being recognized as a priest was soon released and banished, but returned again at once. He was immediately rearrested and though acquitted of any crime was imprisoned in the Gatehouse at Westminster for seven months before again being exiled. Back at Douai he founded a house for the English Benedictine monks; this was the beginning of the monastery of St Gregory at Douai which today exists as Downside Abbey. In October, 1607, he returned to England, was once more arrested and placed in the Gatehouse, from which he contrived to escape after some months. He now lived for about a year in London before being taken and this time was committed to Newgate; he would have been executed but for the intercession of the French ambassador, whose petition reduced the sentence to banishment. However he returned to England within a year, and was captured on 2 December, 1610. On 5 December he was tried and found guilty under the Act forbidding priests to minister in England, and on 10 December was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn.
|Other saints: St Edmund Gennings (1567-1591)|
Edmund Gennings (or Jennings), born in 1567, came from Lichfield, Staffordshire. He was a thoughtful, serious boy naturally inclined to matters of faith. At around sixteen years of age he converted to Catholicism. He went immediately to the English College at Reims where he was ordained a priest in 1590. He soon returned to England under the assumed name of Ironmonger. His missionary career was brief. He and Polydore Plasden were seized by Richard Topcliffe and his officers whilst celebrating Mass in the house of Swithin Wells at Gray’s Inn in London on 7 November 1591 and was hanged, drawn and quartered outside the same house on 10 December. His execution was particularly bloody, as his final speech angered Topcliffe, who ordered the rope to be cut down when he was barely stunned from the hanging. It is reported that he uttered the words, Sancte Gregori ora pro me while he was being disembowelled. His martyrdom was the occasion of the conversion of his younger brother John, who had disowned him but who later became a Fransiscan, and wrote his biography, published in 1614 at Saint-Omer.
|Other saints: St Eustace White (1559-1591)|
Eustace White was born in Louth, Lincolnshire in 1559, he was a convert to Catholicism who travelled to Europe to study for the priesthood. He was ordained, probably at the Venerable English College, Rome in 1588, and returned to England for his ministry later that year – the year of the Spanish Armada. He thus began his ministry just as anti-Catholic feeling was reaching fever pitch. A friendly conversation with a fellow traveller led to his arrest in Dorset three years later. Eustace put up a very articulate defence in the West Country but was given no chance to defend himself when he was taken to London to face trial. He was severely tortured. He is recorded as having described his torture in the following way: “The morrow after Simon and Jude’s day I was hanged at the wall from the ground, my manacles fast locked into a staple as high as I could reach upon a stool: the stool taken away where I hanged from a little after 8 o’clock in the morning till after 4 in the afternoon, without any ease or comfort at all”. After several days of such treatment he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 10 December 1591.
|Other saints: St Polydore Plasden (1563-1591)|
Polydore Plasden, aka Oliver Palmer, was born in London in 1563. He was the son of a London horner. He was educated at Reims and at Rome, where he was ordained priest on 7 December, 1586. He remained at Rome for more than a year, and then was at Reims for some months in 1588, before being sent on the mission to England. He was captured on 8 November 1591, in London, at Swithin Wells’s house in Gray’s Inn Fields, where Edmund Gennings was celebrating Mass. At his execution he acknowledged Elizabeth as his lawful queen, whom he would defend to the best of his power against all her enemies, and he prayed for her and the whole realm, but said that he would rather forfeit a thousand lives than deny or fight against his religion. By the orders of Sir Walter Raleigh, he was allowed to hang till he was dead, and the final part of the sentence was carried out upon his already dead body.
|Other saints: St Swithin Wells (c.1536-1591)|
Swithin Wells was born at Brambridge, Hampshire, around 1536, and was christened with the name of the local saint and bishop Swithin. He was for many years a schoolmaster at Monkton Farleigh in Wiltshire. During this period, he attended Church of England services, but in 1583 was reconciled to the Catholic Church. In 1585 he went to London, where he took a house in Gray’s Inn Lane. In 1591, Edmund Gennings was saying Mass at Wells’s house, when the priest-hunter Richard Topcliffe burst in with his officers. The congregation, not wishing the Mass to be interrupted, held the door and beat back the officers until the Mass was finished, after which they all surrendered quietly. Wells was not present at the time, but his wife was, and was arrested along with Gennings, another priest, Polydore Plasden, and three laymen, John Mason, Sidney Hodgson, and Brian Lacey. On his return Wells was immediately arrested and imprisoned. At his trial, he said that he had not been present at the Mass, but wished he had been. He was sentenced to be hanged, and was executed outside his own house on 10 December 1591, just after Edmund Gennings. On the scaffold, he said to Topcliffe, “I pray God make you a Paul of a Saul, of a bloody persecutor one of the Catholic Church’s children.” His wife, Alice, was reprieved, and died in prison some 10 years later.
|Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)|
Thomas Merton was a wild young man and an artist, until one day he became a Trappist monk. Thus far goes most people’s recollection of him. The fact that this Trappist monk was far from silent, writing extensively on spirituality and also (more controversially) on what he saw as the correct application of spirituality to world affairs, is less often remembered; which, at least as far as the spiritual works are concerned (some may feel that the political aspects have dated somewhat) is a sad thing.
Probably Merton’s greatest work was his spiritual autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain (called Elected Silence in early, abridged UK editions). Here is an appreciation of it:
What people need is somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity.
To summarise the plot of Seven Storey Mountain in a sentence, it is the story of how a rather wild young man settled down to become a Trappist monk. This sounds a little like St Augustine’s Confessions but although they are of the same literary genre, the books couldn’t be more different. Augustine savours too much of Grand Opera to be readily assimilable. Thanks to an expensive rhetorical education, he spends half his time in bel canto arias to the Almighty and the other half beating his breast – starting with his confession of how wicked he was even in the cradle, where he used to yell when he wanted his parents to do things for him. Meanwhile, Merton, a poet rather than an orator, writes of himself that “Free by nature, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born... loving God and yet hating him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers” – altogether more likely in the modern world!
Principally what makes the Mountain worth reading is that as he looks into his past Merton loves himself and forgives himself, and loves and forgives everyone else too. This doesn’t mean that he thinks that what he did was good, just that he looks on it dispassionately and sees its proper place in his life. He has drunk of Dante’s Lethe and Eunoë, and so remembers his sins “only as an historical fact and as the occasion of grace and blessedness” (Dorothy L. Sayers, introduction to the translation of Dante’s Purgatorio).
Merton starts his narrative by seeing himself in relation to God, and that’s how it continues. Everything is seen in terms of its true context within his life and its true significance in the course of it and there are a few surprises, as when we see William Blake and James Joyce leading him towards baptism. If this sounds rather ponderous, it isn’t. It isn’t ponderous precisely because it is orthodox. The new man that he has become is like the New Law given by Christ: not a rejection of the old but a fulfilment; and so he loves his old self, like all the rest of God’s creation, but with clear eyes, distinguishing the good from the bad; seeing good in unexpected places and assessing its nature and usefulness.
Merton’s prose style is deceptively relaxed. It looks so effortless that you think there’s nothing to it; until you try to reshape one of those laid-back sentences and realise that it’s a tautly efficient machine and that it says what it has to say in half the number of words that anyone else would need. One very different author with the same quality of writing is P.G. Wodehouse: again, you don’t notice how good Wodehouse’s writing is until you stop to examine it.
That style is an important reason for the success of the form Merton adopts: straight autobiographical narrative, drawing morals, where it seems natural, in occasional brief digressions. The longest of these mini-sermons is three paragraphs long, and most are shorter; but his prose style, his poet’s command of ideas and feelings, and his sound knowledge of scholastic theology make them worth more than three pages of anyone else, and so interesting that you find yourself looking forward to the next one.
Another contrast with Augustine is his sense of humour. No-one can be all bad who says of Michelangelo’s Moses that “I’m glad the thing couldn’t speak, for it would probably have given out some very heavy statements”; or of Platonic philosophy that “there is a considerable difference between Plato and Plotinus, but I am not enough of a philosopher to know what it is. Thank God I shall never again have to try and find out, either.” Even when he performs some meritorious action, he scrupulously points out his mixed motives. Here he is on the way to hospital to be treated for appendicitis:
‘In the Fourteenth Street subway there was a drunk. And he was really drunk. He was lying prostrate in the middle of the turnstiles, in everybody’s way. Several people pushed him and told him to get up and get out of there, but he could not even get himself up on his feet.
‘I thought to myself: “If I try to lift him out of there, my appendix will burst, and I too will be lying there in the turnstiles along with him.” With my nervousness tempered by a nice warm feeling of smugness and self-complacency, I took the drunk by the shoulders and laboriously hauled him backwards out of the turnstiles and propped him up against the wall. He groaned feebly in protest.
‘Then, mentally congratulating myself for my great solicitude and charity towards drunks, I entered the turnstile and went down to take the train to the hospital. As I looked back, over my shoulder, from the bottom of the stairs, I could see the drunk slowly and painfully crawling back towards the turnstile, where he once again flung himself down, prostrate, across the opening, and blocked the passage as he had done before.’
Thus he skilfully deflates the whole drama and convinces the reader that the act was at once infinitely unimportant and infinitely worth doing. This is, of course, true of everything we do; but the truth is easier to assimilate when you see it in action.
Rational poets aren’t too thick on the ground, but Merton is one. He can convey emotion both subtle and intense – and also argue. In our supremely emotionalistic and anti-rational age this is rather refreshing.
Even his anti-war activities show this clear-headedness, all the more noticeable because there wasn’t much of it on either side of that debate. In a letter to a draft board in support of a conscientious objector, he says that pacifism is an allowable Christian position, but that just wars can exist [and he gives the criteria]; that it’s up to an individual’s conscience to decide whether any particular war is just; and that he thinks that Vietnam can’t be [and he gives his reasons]. Compare the clerics from the anti-nuclear movement who seem determined to prove the absolute moral depravity of anyone who opposes them. And how many anti-nuclear clerics also write letters of spiritual support to soldiers serving in the very war to which they object?
Obviously we ought to read the Mountain in order to be better Christians. If we hadn’t been brainwashed by the world’s rhetoric (and by the Church’s acquiescence in it) that would be reason enough, since becoming better Christians automatically means that whatever we do becomes better too. But if we need other reasons, we should read it for its insight into the spiritual plight of modern man, and, above all, so that we can apply his way of thinking in our own political thought.
In a cogent passage towards the end of the book, Merton synthesizes both the active and contemplative lives: essentially, he says that the active life is valueless unless it is the result of an overflow of contemplation into action. That says something about the way we should approach things.
And perhaps the ultimate lesson of Seven Storey Mountain is that if we think there is something that we’ve got to do, it may really be our vocation, and in any case we should throw ourselves into it as if it were.
|Mid-morning reading (Terce)||Jeremiah 23:5 ©|
See, the days are coming – it is the Lord who speaks – when I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land.
|Noon reading (Sext)||Jeremiah 23:6 ©|
In his days Judah will be saved and Israel dwell in confidence. And this is the name he will be called: ‘The Lord our righteousness.’
|Afternoon reading (None)||(Ezekiel 34:15-16) ©|
I will pasture my sheep, I will show them where to rest – it is the Lord who speaks. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I shall be a true shepherd to them.