Carmel in the World
2006. Volume XLV, Number 1
- Editorial: A Few Words to Ponder...
- No Greater Love ... Blessed Hilary Januszewski
- Brother John of Saint Samson - Love for One Another (given below)
- A Gift on the Mountain
- The Father of his Country - The Cause of Blessed Nuno
- Frank Duff, T.O.Carm.: Founder of the Legion of Mary
- Rhythm of my Heart
- Dynamic Woman: A meditation
- A Carmelite Library just for your Community
- Carmel around the World
Brother John of Saint Samson – Love for One Another
Alfred Isacsson, O.Carm.
Until recently, the works of Brother John of Saint Samson have not been easily available. Coupled with this is the difficulty of perceiving Brother John’s meaning. Blind from the age of three, he had few images to use as metaphors or similes in expressing his doctrine. Light, for example, is a widely used metaphor; but what could he, a blind man, mean by light?
Despite the effort involved, any time spent on John of Saint Samson is very rewarding. Here I would like to present his teaching on charity, the love for one another, as well as some illustrations from his life of how he put this teaching into practice.
Love conserves and strengthens itself when it penetrates the other virtues and transforms them into itself. When love has done this, it becomes the ruler and director of the other virtues and then gives more pleasure to God, its infinite object.
Love and the Virtues
Only when love informs the other virtues do we become immersed in divine love which, except for its object, is the same as our love for one another. The other virtues must be cultivated for they are the opposites of vices which interfere with the love for God. Unless they reign supreme, charity cannot be exercised. As Brother John says, “Love then preserves the virtues and the virtues preserve love. They show us whether we love or not. The one cannot be without the other…”
When love is joined with humility, it has as its proper effect the ability to bear the defects of another with patience. This ability is a sure sign by which a soul’s vigour and the solidity of its piety can be judged. John reasons that the need for bearing the defects of another is that one cannot arrive at the death of oneself without union with God. This union is possible only to those who can bear the defects of another, and who can see others with the compassion of a soul that loves God in one’s neighbour.
John of Saint Samson put this into practice in his own life. While a professed brother in the Carmelite house at Dol, those appointed to look after him shirked their duties. His appointed “nurse” set before him the worst food of their meagre table. He would eat this food without trying to procure from outside the house food more pleasing to his taste, as was the custom of others in the community. Since his clothes were not cared for, his cleanliness was an invitation to the vermin that came to infest him. He knew this neglect of his brothers and offered it as a silent sacrifice.
When the members of his own community doubted his sanctity, John had good reason to complain. Even his superior at Rennes, Philip Thibault, had doubts about him. Philip had a Carmelite, Louis Perrin who was passing through Rennes, examine him. Despite Louis’ assessment, “There is no doubt. Wisdom is dwelling in him,” Philip still had his doubts and ordered John to dictate the state of his soul to a scribe. Philip circulated this statement to various religious orders seeking their opinion. Despite the advice of the Discalced Carmelite, “Do not extinguish this spirit,” Philip went on to test Brother John in various ways.
Shortly before John’s death, the community at Rennes was still divided over Brother John. While some considered him a saint, others felt that he should be like the rest of the community and not live so arduous a life. If he talked about God, some would say he was preaching to them. If his conversation turned to political affairs, some would say that he should only talk of God. He bore these sharp tongues with patience, something he taught, and certainly it was a manifestation of his own patience. This was charity in practice.
Brother John thought that those who ridiculed and made jokes about the faults of others lacked the spirit of simplicity, something he felt was never absent from a soul truly touched by God. In contrast, John taught that “A holy person ought to be an example to his neighbour not only in himself but in his works…”
John made the keen observation that those who analyze the actions of others were living in continual unrest, which was like a living hell. Going a step further, he said that the belief of some that they were called by God to reform others came from a lack of strength and fidelity needed to reform oneself. He thought this to be vanity and the desire to please oneself.
Vibrant charity is resigned not only to suffer on all occasions but it impels one to act towards others with love trying to benefit them. This living charity acts this way on every occasion and is not suppressed by daily routine.
“When we see someone suffering we should not be satisfied to have interior compassion with him or her but we should demonstrate it exteriorly.” By these words, Brother John saw charity as not being merely a passive form of sympathy but as an active virtue always looking for an occasion actually to place one’s shoulder under another’s cross lest that person falter or stumble and then lose that precious burden.
Sickness and Health
While a novice at Dol, John was stricken by a fever which the large tracts of marshes made prevalent at Dol. Medication did not dispel his fever and he suffered this enduring malady without complaint. When the provincial, Louis de Cenis, came to visit, he pitied the still ill Brother John and taught him a prayer which was said over the sick in Rome. John was cured through this prayer and, when asked to do so, he cured other ill members of the community by reciting this prayer over them.
When ordered to do so, he exercised love for others in a remarkable way. The sick were gathered on the steps of the church at Dol and John would pray over them. Brother John also visited and comforted the sick. Later, when stationed at Rennes, this was the sole reason that drew him from his monastery’s solitude and into the town.
Love for others was dynamic for Brother John of Saint Samson. As he said, “True and firm charity looks for neither a precept nor a duty before helping one’s neighbour but only an occasion and an opportunity.” This is perhaps demonstrated by an event at Dol when there was an extensive fever epidemic. The extent of the fever prompted the prior to depart the monastery, leaving Brother Oliver and Brother John to care for the sick. Loud noises drew John to the infirmary just in time to stop a young religious, delirious with the fever, from jumping out the window. With Brother Oliver and a domestic, they were able to return the religious to his bed where John prayed for the return of his reason so he could die a Christian death. When the prior returned for a visit, John brought religious, still ill but returned to his senses, to a window. The prior heard his confession and shortly afterwards, the religious passed away.
Symphorien Godivier, a prior at Rennes, was so devoted to Brother John that he wished to die in his presence. Symphorien had a fever and in is delirious state blasphemed and uttered words of despair. Through John’s prayers and attempts to calm him, he was calmed and received the Sacraments. When dying, Symphorien declared he owed his salvation to Brother John.
This is the teaching and practice of Brother John of Saint Samson on the love for others. For him, it was a dynamic virtue and in his lifetime his charity seems to have always been in action. It did not wait for obligation but sought occasions to exercise itself.