The Gentle Air and the Hurricane

Last week saw me at a secluded hermitage in Western New York for a week of R and R (rest and retreat). Thankfully, I was able to assist at a daily traditional Mass, pray, read, rest, and otherwise remain far away from the worries of administration. Then I came back to a hurricane, literally. Irene, whose name ironically means “peace” (Gk: εἰρήνη), ravaged some of the towns in Vermont that were on my route, and made life difficult here in bucolic Richmond, New Hampshire. Less than 24 hours after I drove on it, Vermont’s Route 9 was rendered untraversable.

There’s a parable here.

The parable resonates with a book I read during my restful week: The Family That Overtook Christ, by the Trappist, Father M. Raymond. It’s the story of the remarkable family of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Venerable Tescelin the Tawny, Lord of Fontaine and Counsellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Blessed Alice of Montbar, sired an entire family of blesseds and one saint: Blessed Guy, Blessed Giles, Saint Bernard, Blessed Humbeline, Blessed Andrew, Blessed Bartholomew, and the baby of the family, Blessed Nivard. All the children — even the married son, Guy — entered religious life, the boys all at Citeaux, and Humbeline at a Benedictine monastery. (The female Cistercian reform had not yet begun.) Saint Bernard had a sister-in-law (Elizabeth) and a niece (Adeline), who also entered religion and became blesseds, Blessed Adeline working to begin the Cistercian reform of nuns. Even Venerable Tescelin himself, a seasoned knight and trusted advisor to the Duke, spent the last two years of his life as a Cistercian lay brother.

The book is written like a novel, but it is not one. It purports to be true history, written in the genre of a novel. Each chapter is a series of tableaux that form a miniature biography of a single family member. If the author set out to undo notions of the drab and colorless Middle Ages, his laudable goal was met with considerable success. For here we find ourselves in the world of chivalry and religious fervor, with personalities as colorful as their knightly heraldry and stained-glass windows.

Among the delightful literary devices employed to tell the story of these larger-than-life characters, the one I enjoyed most was a scene from the chapter on Blessed Alice. Two Benedictine abbots, a German and a Frenchman, were in an abbey church, where they overheard the conversation of two serfs discussing the remarkable fact that this lay woman was interred in a monastic church. As they beheld the sarcophagus, one serf rather forcefully instructs the other on the worth of this noble lady, her kindly deeds done for the poor, her piety to God, her love of her children, etc.  The two abbots then withdrew and entered into a prolonged conversation on the matter, the Frenchman eventually convincing the German that the woman was a great saint. The reader gets to “eavesdrop” on the conversation, which makes what is heard all the more precious. In fact, he gets to eavesdrop on the conversation of the serfs, then he eavesdrops on the conversation of the eavesdroppers, the Lord Abbots. Facts that might appear cold in a conventional biography are given life as part of a dialogue between fictional (or perhaps fictionalized) characters. Their reactions and counter-reactions, assessments, and arguments concerning Alice’s wondrous life help to impress the woman’s qualities deeper on the reader. At the end of it, we know Alice from the conversations of people who knew her. Blessed Alice, incidentally, was the only one of Saint Bernard’s immediate family that her pied-piper son did not lead into the religious life. God took her to Himself before Saint Bernard’s famous entry into Citeaux with his thirty knight-companions he recruited for Abbot Saint Stephen Harding’s community.

Similar devices are used throughout the book. Most of the stories of the family members are told in the context of a dialogue, although we also get direct narrative of the events from the third-person omniscient narrator. It must have been challenging to do, but Father Mary Raymond incorporated passages of Saint Bernard’s writing into the dialogue, so that the literary Saint Bernard speaks using the historical Saint Bernard’s recorded words; other characters in the book quote from his works, too. It was enjoyable to recognize a familiar passage from the Doctor of the Church slipped into the book’s intense dialogue.

If the book has a downside, it is a certain overkill. Father Raymond was, as the front matter makes clear, reacting against a sort of lifeless and cold type of hagiography, one that emphasized the inessential in the saint (e.g., extraordinary phenomena), and forgot to show the substance of the subject’s character, and how he became holy. This type of hagiography might tell you all of Saint Pio’s miracles, but leave out his virtues, his struggle to grow in sanctity, and the divine conquests over his human frailties. Father Raymond shows Saint Bernard and his kin in living color, but sometimes (albeit rarely) the color gets vivid to the point of garishness. For instance, the beautiful Blessed Humbeline’s “raven black hair” gets a bit too much attention. (I have nothing against the girl’s hair, but perhaps some synonyms for “raven black” might have helped.) Also, a couple of times I was wearied by slightly over-the-top scenes of emotion, especially those terminating with the saline effluence of feminine lacrimal glands gathering into lovely crystalline formations at the outer extremities of beautiful eyelashes. No, the prose wasn’t that saccharine, of course, but some of the poignant moments of female weeping could have been rewritten to have a little less vibrato, and to avoid sounding like something we’ve read before. One gets the impression that Father Raymond was a very ardent soul telling the stories of several very ardent souls — very ardently. A tad bit of editing by a more phlegmatic redactor might have helped.

But this downside is minor. The book is entirely worth reading. And because it is, I should continue my little review by returning to its strong points. Each chapter, as I said, relates the story of one family member in a series of scenes. As the reader moves from one chapter to another, the chronology overlaps in such a way that characters we’ve already seen die are reintroduced into the story. Some incidents are referred to multiple times, each time from the perspective of a different family member. I don’t know if it was intended by the author, but one result of this method is that names and events become much more memorable. By the end of the book, for instance, I had all the names of the immediate family, and some others, memorized with very little effort.

I read the book in a few days, for my little R and R break gave me sufficient leisure to do so. Some of the most enjoyable reading time was spent sitting on a bench situated near a pond named after the Sacred Heart. One afternoon, as I read, a gentle breeze blew over the wooded hills, blowing away a hungry host of flying insects, and cooling off my cropped head. It was reminiscent of the “whistling of a gentle air” that signaled the presence of God to Elias the Prophet (3 Kings 19:12). That “gentle air” came after much tumult: “and a great and strong wind before the Lord over throwing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: the Lord is not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake: the Lord is not in the earthquake” (v. 11). But the Lord was in the gentle air.

Saint Bernard experienced the gentle air of God in contemplation, for he was the consummate contemplative: a rigorous ascetic, devotee of the liturgical life and lectio divina, monastic reformer, lover of silence, and tiller of the earth. But the irony of St. Bernard’s life is that the Mellifluous Doctor became a public polemicist, a preacher of the Second Crusade, a censor of sovereigns, counselor to popes, and healer of schism. His consuming activity was such that he is said to have “carried the twelfth century on his shoulders.” But, as the book relates, immediately after the great abbot saw to it that the antipope, Peter de Leone, submitted to the true Roman Pontiff and ended an eight-year-old schism, he returned immediately and without fanfare to his beloved Valley of Light, Clairvaux. Lesser men would have stayed around to celebrate, but Bernard wished to leave behind the hurling mountains and breaking rocks for the gentle air of his monastic life. Like Elias before him, that’s where he spoke to God.

While Saint Bernard had storms around him to the very end, he ever had that enviable fruit of the Holy Ghost, peace, because his soul was well ordered. Peace, as Saint Augustine taught, is the tranquility of order (tranquillitas ordinis).

So, when I left the gentle air of this blessed hermitage where I read The Family that Overtook Christ, and found myself in a Hurricane named “Peace,” I relished the irony.