Book Review: Br. Andre on 'The Family that Overtook Christ' by Fr. M. Raymond
The Gentle Air and the Hurricane
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.
St Bernard of Clairveaux
RICHMOND, NH (Catholicism.org) - A fortnight ago, I was 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 ...
Rate This Article
Leave a Comment
More Living Faith News
- Receiving the Eucharist: I Have Decided to Kneel For Jesus
- Pope Francis says atheists can do good and go to heaven too!
- Exorcism or not, it's still a miracle
- The Holy Spirit: Sanctifier and Giver of Life, Love and Truth
- Pope Francis tweets his prayers following devastation in Moore
- The Paraclete: The Counselor Who Helps Us Fulfill Our Calling
- Pope Francis calls for change within the Church
- Atheists to have their books placed atop Gideon Bibles
- Killer whale with missing fins cared for by its pod family
- Fr. Paul Schenck: Finding Living Faith on Catechetical Sunday
- The Movie Yellow: Incest as 'Normal' and Cassavates's Slides Into the World of Woes
- The Chicago School Teachers Strike Reveals the Need For School Choice
- The Sexual Barbarians and the Dissolution of Culture
- The Happy Priest Challenges Us to Ask: Who is Jesus to Me?
- Michael Coren on Canadian Public Schools: Teachers, leave those kids alone
- We Cannot Ignore Our Consciences: Cardinal Dolan On Religious Liberty
- In the Face of Danger, Successor of Peter Travels to Lebanon as a Messenger of Peace
- Reflections on the Dignity and Vocation of Women: Who or What?