THE INNER FLAME OF ST. JOHN BREBEUF
Elmer O'Brien, S.J.
IntroductionI suppose we shouldn't worry.
Somewhere in the innumerable mansions of Heaven there must be a special, celestial secretariat where a score or two of young-eyed cherubim with pens of living, lambent flame are capturing forever the high, hidden, and humanly negligible romance of our lives here below: the piercing sweet drama of a little child's First Communion; the daily, cosmosshaking triumphs of man over temptation; the long love song of suffering that rises somewhere from a lonely hospital cot all the things, in fact, that matter but are naturally never mentioned in our crowded history books. And when we get to Heaven we can probably read all about it.
Certainly in Heaven alone shall we ever have a chance to learn fully the story of the Jesuit Martyrs. The casual externals of their lives (where they were born, what they did, how they died) we know of course even now: such things the most carefully prosaic of history books take pleasure in tabulating. But about the inner, the real lives they led that men saw only once, briefly, in the red sunburst of their martyrdom we can here merely conjecture.
So in this pamphlet we are going to conjecture a difficult, probably an altogether temerarious, thing to do. Yet it definitely needs the doing.
For looking at the mere outside of their lives we inevitably see much that is baffling, inexplicable probably even disconcerting: a great deal to admire, little or nothing to imitate.
Looking beneath the surface at those lives they led, hidden deep in Christ, we shall see even more to admire and everything to imitate. And herein lies the reason for our bothering with this pamphlet at all. The Saints are given us not merely to pray to nor merely to admire, but to imitate closely, carefully, generously. The things they did in men's eyes we just cannot imitate sometimes; frequently we should not even try. The things, however, they did in God's eyes -their endless loving of Him; their eager, tireless following of the leadings of His grace; their long annihilation of themselves these things we can imitate in safety. (Actually, unless we imitate them we can never be safe). In the inner lives of the Martyrs we shall find just such things, those same rare and precious solvents of all the multitudinous difficulties of living which the Saints have utilized from the first day ofChrisiaanity to our own and which are ours, too, for the using.
And we shall read therein as well an immortal, tumultuous epic that makes even the towering drama of their labour and sufferings so familiar now in our history books slight, almost small, by comparison.
To piece together this story we have to conjecture. It will not, fortunately, be airy and capricious guessing with no roots in reality, for to begin with, the Martyrs were forged and tempered in the Spiritual Exercises and the Jesuit Rule, and these two, at least, we can understand and talk about. Some of them, further, left behind careful records few and brief but lavishly eloquent of their inner, spiritual journeyings. In the pellucidly candid letters that one or two had occasion to write to superiors there is even more material. And then, of course, there still remain, scattered throughout the 'Relations" and restlessly dormant in a few precious manuscripts, the testimonies oftheirpersonal confessors and of the other religious who lived with them and worked by their sides.
Admittedly we'll know the full story of the Martyrs only when we are at last comfortably in Heaven. In the meantime, however, our knowledge of that story can be slightly deepened and widened, to our own delight here and eternal profit hereafter. To that end this booklet is dedicated.
St. Jean de Brebeuf
He closed the little spiritual diary of the Saint which had lain open before him. It was difficult to brush away the haunting recollections of this man who just a few weeks ago had died a martyr at St. Ignace a mere six miles away. Sternly he set himself to completing the more prosaic details of his 1649 report to his superior back in France
"His death, the crown upon his life." Father Ragueneau, who had live intimately with him for the last twelve years and who knew him well, was right. St. John de Brebeuf by deliberate choice had worn the red, regal robes of a martyr ever since he entered the Jesuit Novitiate in Rouen thirty-one years before, and for love of Him who had previously passed that way had trodden, the rest of his days, down the long Royal Road of the Cross. On March 16, 1649, he found shining at its end the reward the crown accorded Paul and Lawrence and Sebastian and legions of Christ's nobility before him. The fitting culmination of a martyr's life was a martyr's death.
Martyrdom each DayAlthough he came from a France then in spiritual ferment, Brebeuf's inner life remained to the end simple, direct, resolvable into one or two easily recognized elements. Its fibrous centre was the Jesuit Rule, its inspirational source the Passion of Our Lord, its overall characteristic daily, hourly martyrdom.
The RulesFor almost twenty years before his death, Brebeuf's resolution had been: "I'll burst rather than voluntarily break any rule." Such a resolve, if kept (and on the testimony of Ragueneau we know that it was kept), would alone be enough to make a man a Saint. It had been enough already to make a Saint of his fellow Jesuit, the Belgian John Berchmans, who died at Rome 1621, the year that Brebeuf became a sub-deacon. (It is not at all unlikely that Brebeuf modeled his resolve explicitly upon that of St. John Berchmans whose life by Cepari, first published in Italian in 1627, was re-issued in French and Latin in 1630, the year affer Brebeuf returned to France. He did not come back to Canada until 1633). But a curbing of oneself so violent ("I'll burst rather . . .") would, some might imagine, result in a character distorted, rigid, something less than human. But it didn't; the constantly recurring description of Brebeuf, provided us by those who lived with him, is that he was "natural"; conformity to the multitudinous demands and restrictions of the life to which he had consecrated himself seemed somehow native to him. The violence, admittedly present, was not that of chaining oneself arbitrarily, frantically, - irrationally - to external formulae; it was violence born of a love that made his heart ache (explained, as we shall see later, by his consciousness of what Christ suffered for us in the Passion) which made him cast about on every side in search of hard, painful things to do in turn for Christ, for only therein could he find assuagement and relief. The first thing at hand, of course, was the Rules and he conformed to them therefore eagerly, lovingly, to the letter - and so, in the eyes of his contemporaries, "naturally."
The Rules were a depthless fund of mortification, some of them (as the 11th and 12th of the Summary) demanding explicitly an inner martyrdom. But they were more than that. Inevitably in practice they coalesce into a clear, complete programme of sanctity, charted out originally by a master in the spiritual realm, St. Ignatius, under the guidance, at least, of his own experience and of the Church's rich treasure of ancient monastic constitutions. As a result, Brebeuf's long, faithful performance of them all developed, strengthened, and purified him in every department of the spiritual life, and slowly provided the broad, integrated foundation upon which God, later, erected a towering and tremendous mystical life.
In 1629 he was forced back to France by the English capture of Quebec. Back at his old job, Bursar of the College of Ronen, the missions of Canada and the prospects of martyrdom must have seemed lost to him forever. There remained, though, to his generous heart the daily dying to be found in the Rules. During his annual retreat in the May of the following year he wrote this vow:
"Lord Jesus Christ, my Saviour, You have redeemed me by Your blood and by Your most precious death. Therefore do I promise that I will serve You all my life long in the Society of Jesus, and no one else except you and because of You. This have I signed with my own hand and with my blood, ready to pour forth my entire life as freely as I do this drop."That this was no mere comfortable bravado of a man securely immured in an effete civilization will become doubly clear when we see the similar but more terrible vow which he will make after his return to the missions.
Meditation on Our Lord's Passion Prepared Brebeuf for His OwnBrebeuf's forced return to France in 1629, his hopes for a missioner's life and for a martyr's death apparently dashed forever, was a spiritual milestone. He spent three brief years in France at this time, pegged to the distracting job of Bursar in a busy college. Yet for him these years were what a near lifetime passed in desert solitude might have been to some early eremite. They were fruitful years of probing self-knowledge, of, deepening and of simplification. During this period, his inner life assumed characteristics that would remain and single him out, among a hundred apparently similar saints, to the end of his days. This was the time when he set the perfect observance of the Rule of the Society of Jesus at the very centre of his spiritual life. It was during this period, as well, that he began really to lay bare the inexhaustible riches of Our Lord's Passion. Now too came more sharply into focus his program of daily, hourly, self-inflicted martyrdom, since the possibility of that other martyrdom seemed forever removed. And at this time he was initiated, briefly, into the mystical life.
When David Kirke forced the French regime and the Jesuit missionaries temporarily out of New France he was doing a better thing than he knew. He was instrumental in providing strong impetus to the formation of a mystic and a saint.
The PassionBrebeuf was a giant, physically and spiritually, and so we are not surprised when he goes forward with great strides where other men, even other saints, appear to creep. But the reason for his swift progress lay ultimately in the motive which prompted him the Love of God, the strongest as well as the highest of all possible motives. This is especially apparent when he starts earnestly and methodically to weave the red strands of the Passion into the pattern of his life. Many a holy man has, at least in the beginning, been impelled to a life of reparative suffering at the thought of his own earlier sins. No so Brebeuf. With him it was love for Love. In his heart the pained cry of the first St. Ignatius, "My Love is crucified!" found true and responsive echo.
"I feel a great longing to suffer something for Christ," he wrote in January, 1630 simply that, without further qualification except to say that God is treating him so gently these days that he is beginning to fear that he must be lost. Later in the same month he speaks of his sins, but only to balance them off against God's goodness to him, and ingratitude to ask, "Lord, make me a man after Thine own Heart." And paraphrasing that other great lover, St. Paul, he goes on to protest: "Nothing henceforward shall separate me from Thy love, not nakedness, not the sword, not death."
A few days later he records: "February 9 It seemed to me that I was rapt, bereft of all sensibility, and united to God; yet with some disturbance of the flesh." Now this might well have been the contribution of an over-active imagination, an attractive little fancy proceeding from the prayer-oppressed brain. And we might, forgetting the sturdy virility and solid realism of Brebeuf's every word, label it thus and say no more.
But this experience of February 9, 1630, is
of a piece with the undeniable mystic phenomena of his life from this time
forward not only of a piece with, but the almost indispensable preface
to higher experiences that are to follow. There is in it the immediate
intuition of God's presence (which is the essence of the mystic state)
and the disturbance, the protesting, of the flesh (which is all but invariable
accompaniment of first mystical experiences). Brebeuf did not wish himself
into this higher spiritual life. He does not seem even to have
deliberately prayed himself into it: his prayers are still
practical, the recurring request at this time being the rather pathetic
one that he be found worthy to return to Canada as an Indian missionary.
And the usual preliminary purgation seems to have taken place, for a few
days previously, he recorded that he felt not the slightest pull toward
"On this same day I seemed to see an extremely terrifying countenance, like that of a lion (such as is, I think, in the picture of Fr. Joseph Anchieta but much bigger and growing gradually even larger). I thought it was the Devil, yet I was not at all frightened but said: 'Do whatever has been permitted you by God.' And I think I blessed myself, and immediately the apparition vanished."Two days later he again had a vision of Christ on the Cross. His Sacred Body "not as ordinarily it is portrayed, but as leprous and in which there was no longer any beauty or comeliness." This seemed for the time, to be his last lesson in the Passion but an unforgettable lesson, certainly, in the completeness of sacrifice.
"Around about nightfall on the same day as I prepared for the meditation on Christ's perfections and on the various relations He has to me and I, wretch, to Him, and as I was thinking that all those things really come down to this one: His wondrous love of us; at that time I seemed immediately to behold a great rose or glass of extraordinary size and beauty from which, as from a centre, all beauties did proceed."
At the final vision of the retreat, we can hardly be supervised, knowing how devoted he had always been to this Lady and her Son:
"It seemed to me I saw the Blessed Virgin, as though in an azure cloud, nursing the Child Jesus. And through different parts of the cloud there burst forth rays of gold of a marvellous beauty."
And his account closes on a pathetic little note:
I was expecting that the Blessed Virgin might present me to Christ, but this didn't come about.
The Inner Life of BrebeufThis next section in our study of the inner life of St. John de Brebeuf will be written by St. John de Brebeuf himself.
It will consist of some of his reflections upon missionary life among Indians, jotted down (probably around 1635) for the information of fellow Jesuits who intended joining him. In them, if anything, he unconsciously minimizes the difficulties of the existence which he and the other priests and the Lay Brothers were leading: with his eyes so completely on eternity, life here and its hardships and its rewards necessarily became dwarfed to near insignificance. Yet for all that, they show, how from the seeming dross of even so hard an existence, he filtered off treasure. And they hint at (although naturally they do not explain) how he could be both missioner and mystic.
Missioner's LifeWhen you come to us (he writes) we will receive you with open arms into the vilest dwelling imaginable. A mat, or at best a skin, will be your bed and often enough you will not sleep at all because of the vermin that will swarm over you. If you have been a great theologian in France, you will have to be a humble scholar here and taught by an unlearned person, or by children, while you furnish them no end of amusement. The Huron tongue will be St. Thomas and Aristotle, and you will be happy if after a great deal of hard study you are able to stammer out a few words.
The winter is almost unendurable. As for leisure time, the Hurons will give you no rest night or day.
You may expect to be killed at any moment, and your cabin, which is highly inflammable, may often take fire through carelessness or malice. You are responsible for the weather, be it foul or fair, and if you don't bring rain when it's needed you may be tomahawked for your lack of luck. And there are foes from without to reckon with. On the 13th of this month a dozen Hurons were killed at Contarea, which is only a few days' distance from here; and a short time ago a number of Iroquois were discovered in ambush quite close to the village.
In France you are surrounded by splendid examples of virtue. Here, all are astonished when you speak of God. Blasphemy and obscenity are common things on their lips. Often you are without your Mass, and when you do succeed in saying it the cabin is full of smoke or snow. Your neighbours never leave you alone and are continually shouting at the top of their voices.
The food will be insipid, but the gall and vinegar of Our Blessed Saviour will make it like honey on your lips. Clambering over rocks and skirting cataracts will be pleasant if you think of Calvary; and you will be happy if you have lost the trail, or are sick and dying with hunger in the woods.
Little more than a half-dozen jottings have been preserved to us from St. John de Brebeuf's spiritual diary during these fruitful years in France, and considered alone they might indicate almost anything. But considered in the light of what we shall have occasion to discuss later (his resolutions and revelations after the return to Canada) they point to one thing: an initial attempt to complete, in his body, the Passion of Our Lord. Having once started in that direction he never turned back.
The Early VisionsOne of the most remarkable things about Brebeuf's inner life after the return to Canada in 1633 is the frequency of the visions which he was vouchsafed. Of them we shall speak in this article.
And at this bit of news I can just imagine your throwing your hands despairfully into the air. Visions! Seeing things! Why, it was promised in the Introduction to this pamphlet that in studying the inner life of the Martyrs we should find therein "everything to imitate"; are we expected to imitate Brebeuf by having private little visions ourselves?
Hardly. We couldn't if we wanted to. And we shouldn't even if we could. True visions normally are part of the high, distant reaches of sanctity. In every case they are free gifts, accorded by God, unattainable by man's sole efforts.
Well, where does the imitation come in?
You'll see as we discuss each of the visions in detail. And you'll find much, let me assure you, that is imitable: the Saint's pliancy, for instance, beneath every inspiration and movement of God's grace; the intelligent humility with which he receives such signal manifestations of divine favour; the same, ever-increasing awareness of the need for uncompromising mortification throughout life; and his courage, especially, as the tortures and torments of his approaching death are slowly indicated to him.
The Retreat of 1640For simplicity sake, we shall talk almost exclusively herein about the visions he received during his annual retreat of 1640. There is in his own diary, record of one vision previous to this time, but it was manifestly of diabolic origin (as Brebeuf was quick to recognize) calculated to frighten him away from the way of sanctity. To such false visions Brebeuf's reaction was very characteristic. As the devils stormed and raged horribly about him he would calmly tell them to wreak unreservedly upon him whatever torment God permitted, finally dispersing them with a Sign of the Cross. The Devil seems eventually to have given up as wholly futile such attempts at terrorizing and tried rather, with quaint and meaningless apparitions, at least to disturb the Saint during his prayer: the vision, just after this 1640 retreat, of the Spaniard in his very distracting "Spanish hat" is an instance.
It was the night on which he began the retreat. He had just been to Confession and was on the point of saying his penance.
"There appeared to me (he writes) two suns shining with a blinding light in the midst of which stood a Cross. Its arms seemed to be of equal length and width, yet of what material I was unable to make out. On each of its extremities there was either a lily or the face of a Cherub. On that part, however, which was raised aloft there appeared the image, if I am not mistaken, of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Afterwards I wondered if it had not been an image of the most Blessed Virgin. At the time I felt myself called interiorly to the Cross and to mortification."
It is not unusual that after returning to the natural state the mystic should have difficulty in expressing coherently what he saw in the supernatural. And it is not important. They are after all private revelations, not intended for the rest of us and that this particular experience was intelligible and valuable to Brebeuf is clear from its having drawn him eveh closer to true and solid virtue - "to the Cross and to mortification."
Immediately afterwards the essential message of the vision was confirmed by still another: As he was engaged in the first of the Exercises - endeavouring (as he tells us) to clear his heart of all attachment to created things and felt disturbed and unsettled:
"I seemed to hear within me: 'Turn to Jesus Christ crucified and let Him henceforward be the base of the foundation of your contemplations.' And then I felt myself drawn toward Christ."
A Road to SanctityThere is no danger for your soul, if you bring into this Huron country the love and fear of God. In fact I find many helps to perfection. For in the first place, you have only the necessaries of life, and that makes it easy to be united with God. As for your spiritual exercises you can attend to them; you have nothing else to do except study Huron and talk with the Indians. And what pleasure there is for a heart devoted to God to make itself a little scholar of children, thereby gain them for God! How willingly and liberally God communicates Himself to a soul who practises such humility through love of Him. The words he learns are so many treasures he amasses, so many spoils he carries off from the common enemy of mankind. And so the visits of the Indians no matter how frequent cannot be annoying to such a man. God teaches him the beautiful lesson he taught of old to St. Catherine of Siena to make of his heart a room or temple for Him where he will never fail to find him as often as he withdraws into it so that, if he encounters people there, they do not interfere with his prayers, they serve only to make them more fervent; from this he takes occasion to present these poor people to His Sovereign Goodness, and to entreat Him warmly for their conversion.
Of course you have nothing in the way of externals to increase your devotion, but God makes up for it. Have we not the Blessed Sacrament in the house? Moreover, we have to trust in God: there is no other help available.
And now, if after contemplating the sufferings that await you, you are ready to say "Amplius, Domine! Still more, Lord!" then be sure that you will be re warded with consolations to such a degree that you will be forced to cry: "Enough, 0 Lord, enough!"
The Promise of MartyrdomIn this same year, 1640, St. John de Brebeuf was accorded a vision which has since become the favourite with painters. Its nature will surprise no one who is familiar either with the abiding characteristic of Brebeuf's previous mystical experience the call to, and the strengthening for, suffering, or, especially, with the kind of death that was eventually his.
He spent the winter that year with Fr. Joseph Chaumonot, working among the Neutrals. And it was there, while in prayer, that he received this simplest of his visions to date and the most directly intelligible. It consisted merely of a cross of tremendous proportions spread out against the southern sky, large enough, as he told Fr. Chaumonot later, to hold not only some one person but every one of the Jesuits who were labouring on that mission.
Significantly, it appeared over the territory of the Iroquois. They would be the ministers of his martyrdom nine years later.
As we know, Brebeuf had always desired martyrdom. Now, this vision seemed to confirm his hope that God, who had been so liberal in according him the graces necessary to live his life of continual, self-inflicted martyrdom, would grant as well this last fruition of his love. For in this way alone, he felt, could he testify the completeness his devotion to so good a Leader. And only in this way, too, would the reluctant hearts of the Indians ever be won over. "0 Lord," he writes in his diary, "if only you were known: If only this land of Indians were converted to You - and sin abolished forever! If only You were loved Yes, dear Lord, if all the tortures that captives undergo in this land, if all the stark intensity of their sufferings should be my lot, I offer myself for it with all my heart: I will suffer them all, alone."
Brebeuf was ready not merely for martyrdom, for one martyrdom, but for all possible martyrdoms combined and fused and concentrated together. So Father Ragueneau tells us, and so Brebeuf himself writes in another entry: "For the two days past I have felt within me a great desire of martyrdom and of suffering all the torments which the Martyrs have undergone."
That is just the sort of thing we should expect from the giant heart of Brebeuf. And it is a desire in no way presumptuous. The Fathers were discussing one day the ever imminent prospect of their death at the hands of the Indians and they were wondering how they could possibly bear up under the shame, especially, that would be inflicted on them. For instance, one of them pointed out, what if they were stripped naked before torture. Fr. Brebeuf's answer was simple: "I could stand it, I think," he said. "It would all so manifestly be the will of God that I wouldn't be thinking of myself, I'd be thinking of God."
St. Paul's exultant cry "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me" contains in brief the explanation of the illimitable, unperturbable confidence of all the Saints - as of Brebeuf. The more conscious they are of how little strength they themselves have (and of that they are acutely conscious) the more they depend upon God, and because it is upon God they are so completely depending their confidence knows no limits. "I can do all things . . . "For God, after all, is all-powerful."
Progress and a VowAs every Saint before his time and since, John de Brebeuf very likely knew it well. You can't put limits on love - draw a circle around it, so to speak, and say: "Thus far and no farther." You can try it, of course. But you won't be limiting love. Because love by that time will already be dead.
For Brebeuf, as for all Saints, living was essentially a loving to the utmost and a giving, in proof of that love, of the utmost. The "utmost", though, rarely remained the same for very long. There were shiftings and changings, constant readjustings as in the light of grace fresh possibilities were shown him. And because his love was genuine (because, simply, it was love), there was never question of his saying: "I've done enough."
When he made his vow of sharp fidelity to all the exactions of the Jesuit way of life, that was - at the time - his "utmost." But having given that he soon learned of more he might give and even the rigours of the missioner's life became insufficient as he saw new opportunities of stern denial and penance. And then that, for a while, was his "utmost." But only for a while. The visions God accorded him from then on were forever revealing unsuspected, more distant horizons of possible love and possible giving.
Finally, on August 18, 1645, he sat down and wrote out this new vow
"Henceforward at Communion time I shall, with my Superior's consent, vow each day to do whatever I know to be to God's greater glory and service. There will be two ways of judging: either I will do it myself when openly, correctly, without shadow of doubt, I will know something to be to God's greater glory, or my Superior or confessor will do it for I will consult them when in doubt.
1. I vow to do whatever is of obligation in such a way that if it obliges under mortal sin its omission will be a sacrilege as a result of my vow, when however, it obliges only venial sin its omission similarly will be an added venial sin because of my vow.This vow he observed to the day of his death.
The Death of BrebeufThis was the consummation and the end. St. John de Brebeuf stood bound to a stake in the village of St. Ignatius.
Years before he had bound himself, willingly, to the long laborious torture of utter faithfulness to the Jesuit way of life. "I will burst rather than voluntarily break any rule," he had said.
The faggots about his feet were lighted now, and the flames began slowly to lick their way up his body.
"0 Lord,", he had written years ago in his diary, "if only You were known! If only this land of Indians were converted to You and sin abolished forever! If only You were loved! Yes, dear Lord, if all the tortures that captives undergo in this land, if all the stark intensity of their sufferings should be my lot, I offer myself for it with all my heart."
One of his tormentors, crying out, ran towards him. "You have always told people it was good to suffer,' he shouted. "Thank us for this!"
And he dropped over Brebeuf's head a cumbrous necklace of tomahawks, red-hot. Sputtering and hissing they began to eat their way into his flesh.
Yes, he had told them that. It is good to suffer, Christ suffered. Brebeuf had often said it and he had lived it always, long before this moment. His from the beginning had been a considered programme of daily, hourly, self-inflicted martyrdom. All his mystic experiences, all his visions had drawn him resistlessly this way, the one way, the Royal Way of the Holy Cross.
About him, triumphant, his tormentors swirled. He had seen the devil, many times, felt him warring about him, beheld him in a variety of terrifying forms. And always a prayer had dismissed him cowering. But these who stormed about him now were not devils, they were men, deluded men, men whom Brefeuf had come to save. And for them he prayed.
The flames were far within the flesh by now, fingering their way to his great heart. But still he lived. So had he lived for years, his body wasted, beaten, done almost to death with labor and penance, but the heart strong and unflagging within him.
Three hours had passed in torment .
Sixteen years had gone by in the daily threat of this, in the promise of it. Against the Iroquois sky he had seen a tremendous cross that presaged this, and he had reached out then with yearning to grasp it, he cherished it, every torturing detail of it, now, for the love of Him Who had given it.
From farther and farther away came the shouts of his tormentors. Standing amid flames he felt a greater light, inexpressibly sweet, surging up within him. The flames gripping his body seemed to lessen gradually and to fall away. The light was blinding now, but through it he heard a Voice, familiar and loved. It called .
Thus died March 16, 1649, St. John de Brebeuf, missionary. It was not merely the end. It was consummation: the final, external act of a life which, within, had always been martyrdom.