Tag Archives: solitude

11 August: An American Story from 1921

Image from SJC

Another serious and humorous story. E.V. Lucas crossed the US from West to East soon after the Great War, staying in hotels or with friends. It was about 14 years since a destructive earthquake hit San Francisco, but California was still booming. There were, though, a few people who were rather more solitary, and here we meet one of them.

I heard many stories in America, where every one is a raconteur, but none was better than this, which my San Francisco host narrated, from his own experience, as the most perfect example of an honest answer ever given.

When a boy, he said, he was much in the company of an old trapper in the Californian mountains. During one of their expeditions together he noticed that a camp meeting was to be held, and out of curiosity he persuaded Reuben to attend it with him. Perched on a back seat, they were watching the scene when an elderly Evangelical sister placed herself beside the old hunter, laid her hand on his arm, and asked him if he loved Jesus. He pondered for some moments and then replied thus: “Waal, ma’am, I can’t go so far as to say that I love Him. I can’t go so far as that. But, by gosh, I’ll say this—I ain’t got nothin’ agin Him.”

From “Roving East and Roving West” by E. V. Lucas, 1921.

There are times when I feel the old trapper’s words are spot on: ‘Love him. I can’t go so far as that.’ That would be an honest but incomplete assessment based on conscience rather than aspiration. Think of Peter at the end of John’s Gospel: he was more than aware of his lack of love, but still said to Jesus, You know I love you.

Perhaps the trapper had pondered these things in his heart during his hours, days, and weeks of mountain solitude, but he was not ready with the right words when the sister touched his arm.

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10 October, Little Flowers LXXXII: Dens in the Woods 6.

Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury

And the feast of the Assumption being now come, Saint Francis began the holy fast with great abstinence and severity, mortifying his body and comforting his spirit with fervent prayers, vigils, and scourglngs ; and in these prayers ever growing from virtue to virtue he made ready his soul to receive the divine mysteries and the divine splendours, and his body to endure the cruel assaults of the demons, with whom he oftentimes fought in sensible form.

It befell on a time during that fast, that Saint Francis leaving his cell one day in fervour of spirit and going aside a little to pray in a hollow of the rock, from the which down to the ground is an exceeding deep descent and a horrible and fearful precipice, suddenly the devil came in terrible shape, with a tempest and exceeding loud roar, and struck at him for to push him down thence. Saint Francis, not having where to flee, and not being able to endure the grim aspect of the demon, he turned him quickly with hands and face and all his body pressed to the rock, commending himself to God, and groping with his hands, if perchance he might find aught to cling to. But as it pleased God, who suffereth not His servants to be tempted above that they are able to bear, suddenly by a miracle the rock to which he clung hollowed itself out in fashion as the shape of his body, and so received him into itself, and like as if he had put his hands and face in melted wax, even so was the form of the face and hands of Saint Francis imprinted on the rock; and thuswise helped of God he escaped out of the hands of the demon.

But that which the demon could not then do unto Saint Francis, to wit, push him down thence, he did a good while after the death of Saint Francis, unto one of his dear and pious brothers, who was setting in order some pieces of wood in the selfsame place, to the end that it might be possible to win there without peril, out of devotion to Saint Francis and the miracle that was wrought there, on a day the demon pushed him, while he had on his head a great log that he wished to set there, and made him fall down thence with the log upon his head. But God that had preserved and delivered Saint Francis from falling, through his merits delivered and preserved his pious brother from the peril of his fall; for the brother, as he fell, with exceeding great devotion commended himself in a loud voice unto Saint Francis; and straightway he appeared unto him, and catching him, set him down upon the rocks, without suffering him to feel or shock or any hurt.

Then the other brothers having heard his cry as he fell, and deeming him dead and dashed in pieces by reason of his fall from such a height upon the sharp rocks, with great sorrow and weeping took up the bier and came from the other side of the mountain for to gather up the fragments of his body and bury them. When they were come down from the mountain, that brother that had fallen met them with the log upon his head wherewith he had fallen, and he was singing Te Deum laudamus1 in a loud voice.

1We praise you, O God.

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9 October, Little Flowers LXXXI: Dens in the Woods 5.

Saint Francis must have taken some looking after! His quest to live a more simple life must have worried his companions who, after all, had joined his company to be with him, among other motives.

Saint Francis sought how he might find a place wherein he might the more solitary keep the forty days’ fast of Saint Michael the Archangel, which beginneth with the feast of the Assumption. wherefore he called unto him Brother Leo; and said: “Go and stand in the doorway of the Oratory where the brothers lodge, and when I call thee, return to me again.”

So Broth Leo went and stood in the doorway; and Saint Francis withdrew himself a little space, and called aloud. Hearing him call, Brother Leo returned to him again, and Saint Francis said to him: “Son, let us seek for another more secret place, where thou canst not hear me when I call.” And as they searched, they found on the side of the mountain that looked towards the south, a lonely place and very proper for his purpose, but they could not win there because in front there was a horrible and fearful cleft in a huge rock. Therefore with great pains they laid a piece of wood over it as a bridge and got across to the other side.

Then Saint Francis sent for the other brothers and told them how he was minded to keep the forty days’ fast of Saint Michael in that lonely place, and therefore he besought them to make him a little cell there, so that no cry of his could be heard by them. And when the cell was made, Saint Francis said to them: ” Go ye to your own place, and leave me here alone, for, with the help of God, I am minded to keep the fast here, without disturbance or distraction, and therefore let none of you come unto me, nor suffer any lay folk to come to me. But, Brother Leo, thou alone shalt come to me, once a day, with a little bread and water, and at night once again at the hour of Matins, and then shalt thou come to me in silence, and when thou art at the bridge-head, thou shalt say; “Domine, labia mea aperies”1 ; and if I answer thee, cross over and come to the cell, and we will say Matins together, and if I answer thee not, then depart straightway.” And this Saint Francis said because at certain times he had been so rapt in God, that he nor heard nor felt aught with the bodily senses. And again Saint Francis gave them his blessing and they went back again to their own place.

1Lord, open my lips. The first words of the Divine Office.

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5 October, Little Flowers LXXVII: Dens in the Woods 1

We continue celebrating Saint Francis with a series about life on Mount Alvernia, where he and a few companions lived a hermit existence. Francis and his companions are setting up a camp in the woods on the mountainside on land made available by a local landowner, Orlando.

Orlando, hearing that Saint Francis with three companions had climbed up the mount of Alvernia for to dwell there, rejoiced with exceeding great joy, and on the following day set out with many of the folk of his castle, and came to visit Saint Francis, bringing with him bread and wine and other victuals for him and his companions; and being come there, he found them at prayer, and drawing near unto them, saluted them.

Then Saint Francis arose, and with great love and gladness gave welcome to Orlando and his company, and this done, they sat them down to have speech of each other. And after they had spoken together, and Saint Francis had given him thanks for the holy mountain that he had given him, and for his coming thither, he besought him that he would let build a poor little cell at the foot of a fair beech tree, the which was a stone’s throw from the place where the brothers lived, for that place seemed to him very fit and hallowed for prayer. And straightway Orlando let build it and this done, as it was drawing near unto evening and it was time for them to depart. Saint Francis preached unto them a little, before they took leave of him.

When he had preached unto them and given them his blessing, Orlando, finding he must needs depart, called Saint Francis and his companions aside, and said unto them: “My brothers most dear, I would not have you suffer any bodily want in this wild mountain, whereby you might the less be able to give heed to spiritual things : and therefore I desire, and this I say to you for once, for all, that ye securely send to my house for whatsoe’er ye need, and if ye do otherwise, I shall take it ill of you.” And this said, he departed with his company and returned to his castle,

‘Then Saint Francis bade his companions to sit down and taught them what manner of life they ought to lead, both they and whoso desireth to live the religious life in a hermitage. And among other ‘things, he straitly laid on them the observance of holy poverty, saying: “Take not such heed unto the charitable offer of Orlando, lest ye in any thing offend our Lady and Madonna, holy poverty. Be sure that the more we despise poverty, the more will the world despise us, and the more shall we suffer want; but if we cling to holy poverty with a close embrace the whole world will follow after us and abundantly provide for us. God called us into this holy Order for the salvation of the world, and hath made this pact between us and the World, that we give unto the World a good example and the World make provision for our needs. Let us then persevere in holy poverty, seeing that this is the way of perfectness and is an earnest and pledge of eternal riches.”

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29 February: Desert IV, In the Rain.

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Thomas Merton was living as a hermit in the grounds of Gethsemane Abbey, Kentucky, when he wrote this journal entry.

January 5, 1966. Vigil of the Epiphany.

Steady rain all day. It is still pouring down on the roof, emphasising the silence in the hermitage, reinforcing the solitude. I like it.

From Learning to Love, The Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol 6, 1966-1967, ed Christine M Bacher, Harper San Francisco, 1997.

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26 February, Ash Wednesday. The Desert, I: This Space

cold-grey-sea

This Lent we will offer daily reflection on the Desert. We begin with a few lines from the Canadian poet, Kate Braid, which set the scene admirably.

This space is not emptiness,

This space is not, as you would say, Nothing there.

It is a space of fullness, open

to possibility. You would say, A foolish space.

Perhaps.

This is not denial. This is joy,

an empty palette waiting, bone

against the sky.

We are so afraid of the larger space.

Kate Braid, Inward to the Bones, Victoria BC, Polestar Book Publishers, 1998. The book explores the life and work of the artist and desert dweller, Georgia O’keeffe.

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January 13: Thomas Traherne XXII, Suppose the Sun were absent

darkevening

It is on this day that the people of Greenland have their first glimpse of the sun for the new year.

Place yourself therefore in the midst of the world, as if you were alone, and meditate upon all the services which it doth unto you.

Suppose the Sun were absent; and conceive the world to be a dungeon of darkness and death about you: you will then find his beams more delightful than the approach of Angels: and loath the abomination of that sinful blindness, whereby you see not the glory of so great and bright a creature, because the air is filled with its beams. Then you will think that all its light shineth for you, and confess that God hath manifested Himself indeed, in the preparation of so divine a creature.

You will abhor the madness of those who esteem a purse of gold more than it. Alas, what could a man do with a purse of gold in an everlasting dungeon? And shall we prize the sun less than it, which is the light and fountain of all our pleasures? You will then abhor the preposterous method of those, who in an evil sense are blinded with its beams, and to whom the presence of the light is the greatest darkness. For they who would repine at God without the sun, are unthankful, having it: and therefore only despise it, because it is created.

Meditations 2:7.

‘Repine’ here we read as ‘moan’. Better to be grateful for what is given us, and so be happy.

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28 December: Little Flowers of Saint Francis LXI: Brother Conrad goes into the wood.

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More early Franciscan characters! When I took the part of Simeon in a Mystery Play, I was more aware of the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart than of the sweetness sought by Brother Conrad in this story. No doubt trials came his way, but they were not recorded in this book of ‘little flowers’.

The holy Brother Conrad of Offida lived in the House of Forana, in the Custody of Ancona. He went one day into the wood to meditate on God, and Brother Peter followed him by stealth, for to see what might befall him.

Brother Conrad began to pray, most devoutly beseeching the Virgin Mary to beg of her blessed Son this grace, that he might feel a little of that sweetness that Saint Simeon felt on the day of the Purification, when he held in his arms the blessed Saviour Jesu. And when he had made this prayer, the Virgin Mary of her pity heard him; and behold: there appeared unto him the Queen of heaven with her blessed Son
in her arms, with a great light exceeding bright, and coming near unto Brother Conrad, she laid in his arms her blessed Son: who taking Him with great devotion, embracing and kissing Him and pressing Him to his breast, was melted altogether and dissolved in the love divine and consolation unspeakable.

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Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury

And in like manner Brother Peter, who from his hiding-place saw all that befell, felt in his soul exceeding sweetness and consolation. And when the Virgin Mary had departed from Brother Conrad, Brother Peter gat him back in haste to the house, that he might not be seen of him: but thereafter, when Brother Conrad returned all joyful and glad, Brother Peter said unto him: “ O what heavenly great consolation hast thou had this day!” Quoth Brother Conrad: “What is this that thou sayest, Brother Peter? and what dost thou know of that which I have had?”

“I know full well, I know,” said Brother Peter, “how the Virgin Mary with her blessed Son hath visited thee.” Then Brother Conrad, who being truly humble desired to keep secret the favours of God, besought him that he would tell it unto no one; and from that time forth so great was the love between these twain, that they seemed to have but one heart and soul in all things.

And may we welcome every baby and mother whom we meet, as if they were the Christ-child and his mother. Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents.

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4 October, the Franciscans come to Mount Alvernia, VII: Welcome, Francis!

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And when that they were come about halfway up the mountain, as the heat was very great and the ascent was weary, the peasant became very thirsty, in such sort that he began to cry aloud behind Saint Francis, saying : “ Woe is me, for I die of thirst; if I find not something to drink, I shall choke outright.” Wherefore Saint Francis got down off the ass and fell on his knees in prayer and remained so long kneeling with his hands lifted up to heaven, until he knew by revelation that God had heard his prayer. Then said Saint Francis to the peasant; “Run quickly to that rock, and there shalt thou find the living water, which Jesu Christ in this hour, of His mercy, hath made to come forth from out that rock.” So he ran to the place that Saint Francis had shown him, and found a fair spring that had been brought out of the hard rock by virtue of the prayer of Saint Francis: and he drank his fill thereof and was comforted.

And it doth well appear that this spring was brought out by God in miraculous fashion at the prayers of Saint Francis, seeing that neither before nor after was there ever seen in that place a spring of water, nor any living water near to that place for a great space round. This done, Saint Francis with his companions and the peasant gave thanks unto God for the miracle shown forth to them, and then went they on their way.

And as they drew near to the foot of the rock of Alvernia itself, it pleased Saint Francis to rest a little under the oak that was by the way, and is there to this day; and as he stood under it, Saint Francis began to take note of the situation of the place and of the country round. And as he was thus gazing, lo! there came a great multitude of birds from divers parts, the which, with singing and flapping of their wings, all showed joy and gladness exceeding great, and came about Saint Francis in such fashion that some settled on his head, some on his shoulders, and some on his arms, some in his lap, and some around his feet.

When his companions and the peasant marvelled, beholding this, Saint Francis, joyful in spirit, spake thus unto them: “I believe, brothers most dear, that it is pleasing unto our Lord Jesu Christ that we should dwell in this lonely mountain, seeing that our little Sisters and brothers the birds show such joy at our coming. And said these words, they arose, and went on their way and came at last to the place that his companions had first chosen. And this is the first reflection, to wit, how Saint Francis came to the holy mount of Alvernia.

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30 September, the Franciscans come to Mount Alvernia III: by divine decree made ready for us

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When Saint Francis had returned to Saint Mary of the Angels, he sent two of his companions to the said Orlando; who when they were come to him, were received of him with exceeding great joy and charity. And desiring to show them the mount of Alvernia, he sent with them full fifty men-at-arms to defend them from the wild beasts of. the wood, and thus accompanied these brothers climbed up the mountain and searched diligently and at last they came to a part of the mountain that was well fitted for devotion and contemplation; for in that part there was some level ground; and this place they chose out for them and for Saint Francis to dwell therein; and with the help of the men-at-arms that bore them company, they made a little cell of branches of trees: and so they accepted in the name of God, and took possession of the Mount of Alvernia and of the dwelling-place of the brothers on the mountain, and departed, and returned to Saint Francis.

And when they were come unto him, they told him how and in what maimer they had taken a place on the mount of Alvernia, most fitted for prayer and meditation. Hearing these tidings, Saint Francis was right glad, and praising and giving thanks to God, he spake to those brothers with joyful countenance, and said, “My sons, our forty days’ fast of Saint Michael the Archangel draweth near; I firmly believe that it is the will of God that we keep this fast on the mount of Alvernia, which by divine decree hath been made ready for us, to the end that to the honour and glory of God and of His Mother, the glorious Virgin Mary, and of the holy Angels, we may, through penance, merit at the hands of Christ the consolation of consecrating this blessed mountain.”

Today is the Feast of Saint Michael.

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