At the end of In search of French past (5): Why are you so downcast, oh my soul? I described how Albert-Louis and I met. One Sunday after Mass at St Julien le Pauvre in Paris, I was sitting on a bench in the courtyard when a Dominican priest, sat down next to me. He said he was sitting close to me during the Mass and was struck by my fervor. His name was Louis-Albert Lassus, an itinerant retreat master serving the monasteries of Europe. His birth name was Louis and his priest name, given at ordination, was Albert. I admired the monastic life very much; most Roman Catholics do, especially recent converts like me. I found Roman Catholicism not only intellectually impressive, it also appealed to the “deeper” mystical side, the nectar of the soul. Louis-Albert invited me to his priory in Bordeaux. This was the beginning of many journeys and retreats with Louis-Albert in different monasteries in France and other parts of Europe. A few weeks later, I quit my job at the food depot and joined Louis-Albert in Bordeaux whence we departed on our peregrinations “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10).
Before Louis-Albert and I leave Bordeaux on our journey, I say something briefly about the rationale, or rather mysticale, for the monastic life. In brief, monasticism in all religions is the struggle to overcome concupiscence (lust, inordinate desire): the lust of the flesh, of the eyes and of the pride of life for the soul and sole purpose of uniting with God. The most conducive environment for this purpose is generally considered to be reclusion (permanent seclusion) – in a monastery or hermitage. A key verse for such aspirations in Christendom is 1 John 2:15-17: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 17 And the world passes away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of God abides forever.
Here is the Haydock Roman Catholic Commentary on 1 John 2:16:
“All that is in the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, under which is comprehended all that pleases the senses, or the concupiscence of the eyes; i.e. a longing after such things which enter by the eyes, as of riches in gold and silver, in apparel, in houses and palaces, train and equipage, &c. curiosity as to vain arts and sciences; or, the pride of life, as to honours, dignities, and preferments. But the world passes away, and all these things that belong to it. — He that doth the will of God, abides for ever, with God in heaven.”
Matthew Henry’s Protestant commentary below says practically the same thing. Protestants, though, would would not seclude yourself away from world to be close to God.
“The things of the world are classed according to the three ruling inclinations of depraved nature. 1. The lust of the flesh, of the body: wrong desires of the heart, the appetite of indulging all things that excite and inflame sensual pleasures. 2. The lust of the eyes: the eyes are delighted with riches and rich possessions; this is the lust of covetousness. 3. The pride of life: a vain man craves the grandeur and pomp of a vain-glorious life; this includes thirst after honour and applause. The things of the world quickly fade and die away; desire itself will ere long fail and cease, but holy affection is not like the lust that passes away. The love of God shall never fail.”
These three concupiscences incite the corruption of morals, indifference, unbelief, pride; in sum, the rejection of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the divinely appointed guardian and restorer of the virtues. Here is Pope Gregory XIV in the introduction to the first volume of the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, describing the strides that the Church has made in controlling concupiscence. I translate from the French, which follows in brackets:
“Societies and their institutions have undergone essential modifications: polygamy is eschewed, divorce abolished, monogamy uplifts ennobles marriage and defines the family; the wife is liberated and rediscovers her dignity as encouraged in the Gospel; chastity purifies morals; celibacy, embraced by a multitude of Christians, becomes the yardstick of higher vocations; maternity is given due honour and respect; and, above maternity, hovers the angelic virtue of virginity, which elevates the soul to a heavenly perfection. (Italics added). All these facts attest to the tempering of the flesh (the “law of he flesh”) and the beginning of a return to the unity of the spirit.
(French: Les sociétés et leurs institutions subissent des modifications essentielles; la polygamie est réprouvée, le divorce aboli; la monogamie ennoblit le mariage et constitue la famille; la femme, affranchie, reprend sa dignité avec la liberté que l’Évangile lui présente; la chasteté purifie les mœurs; le célibat, embrassé par une multitude de chrétiens, devient la condition des vocations supérieures; la maternité est entourée d’honneur et de respect; et, au dessus de la maternité, plane une vertu angélique : la virginité, qui élève les âmes à la perfection du ciel. Tous ces faits attestent l’affaiblissement de la loi charnelle et le commencement du retour à l’unité de l’esprit).
It’s very hard for most to remain celibate or virginal in this world, and consequently to rise to the virtuous heights of angelic beings, who, by nature, are sexless. Is the solution a monastery? Much more, of course, goes on in a monastery than the mortification of the body. I describe monastic life as I go along on my journey.
I stayed with Louis-Albert in the residence of the Dominican Order in Bordeaux for a few days.
We left Bordeaux for several monasteries where Louis-Albert would lead retreats for the monks and nuns. Our first monastery was a Carmelite monastery for nuns deep in the hills. I don’t recall its name. We spent about a week there. The Roman Catholic Church has decreed that The Carmelite Order is under the special protection of the Virgin Mary, and therefore it has a strong devotion to her. But then, all monastic orders, in fact all Roman Catholic priests, indeed all Catholics have a special devotion to Mary, regarding her as the mother of all graces and the way to Jesus, “the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus, the head, Mary, the neck, the conduit between the head and the Body of Christ – the Church. The “Church” for Romans Catholics means the Pope and his Magisterium in Rome; for Protestants it means believers.
Newly converted Roman Catholics often acquire very quickly a strong devotion to Mary. When I was a student at the University of Cape Town, there was another Jewish student Andrew (not his real name), who was taking instruction with me in the Catholic faith at Kolbe House, the university residence and chaplaincy. Father Peter Paul Feeney was the chaplain and our instructor in the faith. At the end of our instruction, Fr Peter Paul baptised us together. During our year of Catholic instruction together at Kolbe House, Andrew and I used to spend time sharing our joy in our new found faith – two wondering Jews wandering no more. I had rented a room in a quiet part of Rondebosch near Kolbe House. Andrew lived in the main residence on campus. Whenever Andrew talked about Catholic things, his voice quivered, his eyes shone; he was in love. I was not too far behind him. He had a special love for the mother of Jesus. Many Catholics tend to gravitate to the mother of Jesus more than to her Son. This is generally true not only of born Catholics but also of converts. There’s just something special about “Mother”, Ma-me-le (Yiddish). If you can have a heavenly father, why can’t you have a heavenly mother. Sometimes your father can be so “other.” That’s why you need mother. Mary’s role for Catholics, though, is far more than that, as several papal encyclicals make clear. For example: “Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself “in the middle,” that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she “has the right” to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession: Mary “intercedes” for mankind. And that is not all. As a mother she also wishes the messianic power of her Son to be manifested, that salvific power of his which is meant to help man in his misfortunes, to free him from the evil which in various forms and degrees weighs heavily upon his life. (Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church, 1987.03.25). (See Enough already with serving the Mass, have to get home to recite why this night is different from other nights – the Passover).
As with most of the monastic orders dating from medieval times, the First Order of the Carmelites consists of the friars , who combine activity and contemplation, the Second Order is the nuns, who are cloistered, and the Third Order consists of lay people who live in the world, who can be married, and who participate in the liturgical prayers, the propagation of religion or doctrine (the apostolates), comtemplation and prayer. There are also Carmelite sisters who are active in the world such as schools, hospitals and other social institutions.
Louis-Albert told the nuns I was Jewish and knew Hebrew. The mother superior asked me to sing for the nuns a few of the Psalms in Hebrew. She led me into an alcove, drew open a curtain in the centre of the wall opposite to reveal a grill behind which sat rows of sisters seated on tiered benches. The original tunes of the Psalms is unknown, so I made up my own, adapted from the tunes and “davening” (Yiddish for recital of prescribed prayers of the synagogue), which I was familiar with from the synagogue. “Daven” is probably derived from the church Latin divin, as in “divine service.”
I couldn’t have been closer to a mystic, if not to mysticism, than Louis-Albert, who, in his lifetime, published about a dozen books on the great hermits (solitaires, recluses) among them Romuald of Ravenna, the hermits of Camaldoli (Les Camaldules) , Denys of Chartreux, Séraphim of Sarov, and Nazarena, the recluse. He also had been leading retreats (prédicateur de retraites “retreat preacher”) in monasteries for many years. Monks on retreat – retreating deeper into reclusion (long-term seclusion).
Not all monks are hermits. Hermits hardly speak to anyone; neither do they seek one another’s company. Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk (Trappists are Cistercians who hold to a stricter observance) relates that he only spoke to another human being twice in six years. Keeping mum for such a long time does not mean that he was a hermit, that is, seldom in human company, because Trappists gather in the church several times a day for the liturgies. Don’t you want to be a monk? a Cistercian? Haven’t you had enough of the vanities of this world? The ideal life is possible. Here is a phantasmagorical version of the peace you’ve been looking for written by the Cistercian Fr. Raphael in his “The Praise of Bells.”
“A call from God is how a Cistercian vocation is born. Throughout the course of a monk’s or nun’s day, this divine call finds expression in the sound of bells that call us to prayer, to spiritual reading, to manual labor, or to simple enjoyment of the company of our brothers and sisters. When night falls, the heart of a Cistercian savors the impressions of a day in which body, mind, and spirit have been formed by Christ whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. We remember the gentle rhythms of prayer chants, the scent of a well oiled tractor rolling through fresh cut fields, the way aged wooden floorboards retain the smell of burnt incense, the heaviness of weary legs stretched out on a simple hardwood bed prepared with fresh laundered sheets. It is remarkable how swiftly the days pass in a monastery. At days end, a last bell is heard whose music delights for a moment and passes away — like a life given to God. (In “A Monk’s Diary”, March 24, Fr. Raphael )
The real picture is not so rosy. Truth gives the low-down as well as the highlights; blurbs, in contrast, highlights only.
In the monasteries where I stayed, I spent much time alone, reading theology, the saints, the mystics, trying to pray. If I don’t pray and dwell on what I read on these topics, it remains nothing more than information (notitia) and mental assent (assensus). There would be no divine sap coming up the vine to feed the dry branches. “I am the vine, you are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Knowing stuff is not abiding. According to the world’s most famous and dangerous “theologian,” Oprah Winfrey, all that matters is to believe in a higher force (fortz, in Yiddish ). Knowing who God is, however, is crucial; our eternal destiny depends on this knowledge. Knowing who or what God is, is only the beginning. In Christianity we learn who God is through Christ, and in Christ. To know Christ in a personal way cannot be done without information about him, without learning who he is. This knowledge is found in divine revelation, which, for Protestants, is found in scripture alone, but for Roman Catholics in scripture and post-biblical tradition.
Like most Roman Catholics, I didn’t read much scripture outside the missal – the book of instructions and texts used for the Mass. “Mass” is the English for the Latin missa from the phrase Ite, missa est (“Go, it is the dismissal/sending”), which came to mean the ceremony of the Mass itself. Far was it from me to know that my missal was to revert to revert to dismissal two decades later when I left the Roman Catholic Church. They say, once a Catholic always a Catholic. They also say once Jew oiveys a Jew (See When is an “ex-Jew” not a Jew? Once (your mother’s) a Jew Oiveys a Jew . And once a Catholic Jew always a Catholic Jew.
Louis-Albert and I never discussed mysticism. Although my French was still more effluent than fluent – effluent French is good enough to pass at many universities in the English-speaking world – I could still understand quite a lot on philosophical and religious topics in French. The reason why I could understand was, firstly, because I had some knowledge of the subject matter, and secondly, French and English have many words in common with regard to mysticism, philosophy and theology. For example, here is the French translation of the italicised portion of the previous sentence, which even Peter Sellars’ English minkey would understand: “Le français et anglais ont beaucoup de mots en commun à l’egard du mysticisme, la philosophie et la théologie.” From a teacher’s view, one of the main reasons for the failure of learners who use a second or foreign language as a medium of instruction is not only poor knowledge of the language but also a lack of knowledge of the subject matter and of mental – I have to politically correct – energy. (See my Language, Content and Skills in the Testing of English for Academic Purposes).
Having joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1960, I had only been a Roman Catholic for two years. In 1961, I started my philosophy courses at my university (Cape Town). I didn’t get high marks in philosophy partly because I neglected the secular philosophy of my courses in favour of the Scholastics, the “schoolmen” of the Middle Ages such as Anselm, Abelard and Aquinas, and partly perhaps – though my children will vehemently deny this (love you Dad) – because I was not as mentally energetic as the others in my class. There were six of us majoring in philosophy. One, his surname was Cobban, went “up” to Oxford University (is Oxford on a hill?); another, Heard was his surname, became an editor of a prominent newspaper in Cape Town, and another, Rick Turner, went to the Sorbonne in Paris to do a doctorate on Jean Paul Sartre. I shall say more about Turner later on.
After the Carmelite monastery we went for the day to visit a a Cistercian monk, one of Louis-Albert’s friends, at the Cistercian monastery of Senanque. The monastery was founded in 1148. In 1544, it was badly damaged during the Wars of Religion, and was vacated. The state bought it during the French Revolution in 1791. It was restored in 1854, and the Cistercian monks returned, but in 1903 new laws against religious congregations forced the monks to leave. When Louis-Albert and I visited the place in 1962, there were hardly any monks – a skeleton staff; skeleton in more ways than one, which will become clear shortly
Before we went to this monastery, Louis-Albert and I spent the previous night with a well-to-do friend. The next day, the three of us went to visit the monk at the monastery. We didn’t enter the grounds of the monastery. It seemed we weren’t allowed to do so. We stopped on the gravel path that sloped down to the gate of the monastery. We waited for while. Two moving figures in the distance, one quite far in front of the other. As they came nearer, we saw that the one in front was dressed in normal worker’s clothes, and the one behind, the monk, was wearing a “habit” consisting of a black strip over a white robe. “Habit” is derived from the French habillement “clothes.”
It was close to sunset and chilly outside. The monk approached Louis-Albert and knelt down before him. Louis-Albert said, “No, no, it is I that should kneel before you.” Next to Albert and the kneeling skeletal soul stood Louis-Albert’s ruddy-faced friend, puffing a cigar, swathed in a beige coat of pure wool. I think of another skeleton, this time without a soul or flesh sitting in a cage above the altar of the church in Mondsee, Austria, orbiting the extravagant wedding Mass for the dashing Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews, his bride. The hills are alive. (See The Bishop under the Bell Jar – and the food!).
Louis-Albert and I went to Barcelona to spend 10 days with Jaime Torres (“Jaime” pronounced like the Jewish name, Hymie – add the guttural ch) – James Bull in English. Wh en it came to Spanish I knew as much as Edith Piaff’s “Non, rien de rien” (no, nothing of nothing). Louis-Albert spoke Spanish fluently because he had been a missionary in Argentina for many years. There was much festivity in Jaime’s house over those ten days.
On the train journey back to Bordeaux, France, we broke our journey at Miranda. I had previously asked Louis-Albert if I could spend some time at a hermitage. He arranged for me to spend a solitary night, in both senses of the word, at a hermitage. I left Louis-Albert behind and took a tatty taxi with bad shocks. We travelled about14 kms on a narrow pot-holed road into the winding hills. It was dark and very cold when I arrived at the hermitage. I knocked on the front door, a little panel in the door opened. I couldn’t see the face behind it. I pushed the note Louis-Albert had given me through the opening. The big door opened. A hooded smile greeted me and with few words, which is less than a few words, the monk came outside and led me to a very large building with many windows and several storeys. We entered the building and climbed a few flights of stairs. My host led me, candle in hand, down the passage into one of the rooms. He lit another candle from his own, left one on the table, turned round and left, closing the door behind him. In the morning I learnt that this building had been abandoned for many decades; the few hermits that remained occupied the part of the monastery whose door I had knocked on the previous night.
A thin quilt covered the hard mattress on the iron bed. The candle flame threw flickers of shadow and light across the ceiling and stone walls. It was freezing. I lay on the bed, covered myself, and thought of Edmond Dantès in the dungeons of the island fortress of the Chateau d’If, the first prisoner to escape from the island. I heard a scratching sound coming from the bottom of my door. A hatch I had not noticed, opened and a tin plate slithered into the room. The hatch flopped back. I heard no footsteps coming or going. Hungry as I was, I couldn’t eat the mess of pottage.
I crept back under the quilt and tried to sleep. I was alone in this giant deserted building that use to house thousands of monks over the centuries. Shadows skated up and down the window. No angels for comfort. The wind howled. I had a “madeleine” moment; a remembrance of time past, of time lost. Marcel Proust wrote a gigantic novel called “A la recherche du temps perdu (In remembrance of time past). The most famous passage in Proust’s novel is “La petite Madeleine” (a small cake):
“Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”
My “madeleine” moment, in contrast, was more of a maudlin moment. I’m seven years old, in the Cape Jewish Orphanage’s holiday camp at the beach town of Muizenberg, South Africa. I have a cough. They’ve left me all alone after lights out; the other children are in the hall doing nice things. It’s so windy. Something is scraping at the window. Please come back quickly, please! I shivered myself to sleep. The scraping against the window was the unsurprising branch of a tree.
After Toulouse that we went to stay at the Cistercian Abbey of Lérins on the island of Saint-Honorat (Lerina in Roman times) very close to Cannes in Southern France. In 410 Saint Honoratus, a disciple of a local hermit,Caprasius of Lérins built a monastery on the uninhabited island. Saint Honoras intended to live alone as a hermit, but before he could say “peace” was ambushed by disciples, who formed a monastic community around him, which, 17 years later was bursting, it seems, at the you know what.
One of the greatest leaders of this monastic community, the famous Vincent of Lérins, a semi-Pelagian, attacked Augustine’s theology of grace.Two of Augustine’s most popular sayings are, the more know, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” and “Grant what You command, and command what You desire” – both his “Confessions”. It was the second that got Vincent of Lérins’s goat. For most Christians and all Jews, “Grant what You command…,” evokes dismay, outrage and total contempt. That was Pelagius’s reaction, the famous rival of Augustine, in their dispute of the role of God’s grace and human will in salvation. For Pelagius, as for Judaism, the role of grace is highly exaggerated and leaves little play for man’s free willy. Nilly, says Augustine. When an Augustinian (we say Calvinist today) reads the Bible, he sees man freely following his heart. The man thinks, he desires, and his mind directs that desire to its object. The will is not a noun, it is a verb, a present continuous, always willing, moving, in its natural state, away from God (of the Bible). Man is dead, totally dead, totally deprived of the love for God; in other words, totally depraved. And that includes his willing. And that is the original Bible doctrine of ”original” sin; willy-nilly. (See The pith of ”It’s not he who willeth.” Romans 9 and free will).
One morning at passed a cadaverous monk shuffling his way to one of the daily liturgies in the chapel. His pallor melded into the marble hue of his robe. It was all sunshine and green outside. When I went to Rome a few weeks later and saw Michaelangelo’s Pietà’, I thought of the white marble face of the monk wafting past me in the corridor of the church in Lérins.
I left Louis-Albert to spend 10 days at the Dominican priory in Toulouse, which served as a training centre for priests. Here is an abridged description of the Dominican vocation to the priesthood.
“The 7-year process of becoming a Dominican priest or brother (known as “friars”) is called “formation”. The first year is called the novitiate. Novices engage in prayer, study, and various ministries. The Dominican formation process is both rigorous and balanced to ensure that candidates are well-adjusted and suited to this special calling. By offering a unique combination of tradition and contemplative life (wearing a “habit”, engaging in common daily prayer) balanced against preaching, teaching, and ministry in the greater community, the Order seeks to produce well-rounded, spiritually mature men who will provide outstanding leadership and genuine pastoral care to the People of God. The second step of formation occurs after the novice completes his year-long process of study, discernment and ministry in Denver. After taking first vows at St. Dominic Church in a ceremony called “Profession of Vows,” the novice becomes a professed student brother. The student brother engages in philosophical and theological graduate studies for approximately six more years before his ordination to the diaconate and priesthood.”
In Catholic seminaries, three of the first four years of study are devoted to Greek philosophy, mainly Aristotle. Aristotle is central to Catholic theology because Thomas Aquinas ((1225 – 1274) built much of his theology on Aristotle. The bulk of Catholic theology derives from the dazzling intellect of Aquinas whose Summa Theologiae/Theologica covers almost the whole of Catholic theology. He stopped working on it the year before he died in 1274 . (Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy and Education in the Middle ages)..
I aped the student priests’ routines. At meal-times, the only voice heard was that of the reader at his lectern. The books he read were not always of a religious nature, which is a good thing, because most Dominican priests work with people, and need to know what’s going on in the world. Although Christians are not meant to be of this world, they are meant to be in this world, which the Bible says applies to every Christian.
“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:14-16).
I asked one of the senior priests to observe me during my stay and tell me, not whether I was following the rules of the place, but when I was being selfish. He raised his eyebrows, said nothing and walked off. Now, how on earth could he or would he want to spend time filching through the trough of my soul? Monsieur Raphael you took too much butter at lunch and poured too much olive oil on your salad. Plus (de plus) you flare your nostrils at others. He didn’t understand: I often got a blocked nose. How else was I too breathe?
After dinner, I joined the student priests in an alcove outside the dining room, where they were allowed to socialise. The ceiling of the alcove was very low. Two close rows of stooping young men facing each other, walking in the same direction. When we reach the one end of the alcove, it’s the turn of the row that walked forwards to walk backwards. Backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards. One of the students told of a good laugh he had one time. What amused me was not what he was amused about, which escapes me, but how he expressed himself. J’ai vachement ri, he said. This means “I laughed my head off” or “I was in stitches.” Allow me to translate“I laughed my head off in French” into French: J’ai ri (I laughed) matête (my head)… shucks French has no word for “off.” “Erf” should do it: J’ai rima tête erf. Wonder what’s the French for “Gamar off.”
The literal French of J’ai vachement ri is “I laughed cowly.” Turning a noun into an adverb ”cow” to “cowly,” that was funny. There is a French processed cheese called La vache qui rit “The cow that laughs.” A laughing cow is a happy cow; a happy cow is a healthy cow. The same with people, including monks. There is the French insult: Vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole “You speak French like a Spanish cow.”
It was October 1962, the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Louis-Albert and I were off to Rome. Home?