Benedictines and Other Saints in Times of Plague
At this unhappy time when we may be forgiven for anxiety about the health and welfare of our loved ones, Society and, indeed, ourselves it may be helpful to consider times when Christians have turned their concerns upside down by asking themselves “what can/should I do about it”?
Worry and it’s co-destroyer, fear, mount a double attack. Firstly a kind of mental paralysis stripping us of our ability to see clearly ahead and secondly, the imposition of hopelessness. These accomplished, the remaining damage is effected by ourselves through panic and inactivity.
When at a loss as to how to respond in a terrible situation we have a resource that is easy to forget in times of stress. That resource, like that attack, is twofold: first, the example of our Lord’s life and, second, prayer. These are among the building blocks of faith. Our Lord’s life is not just an example to us individually. It has inspired Christians down the ages, evidenced by the lives of the Saints who met challenges through paths illuminated by the light of Christ with God-given humanity and courage.
Consider St. Bernard Tolomei, who founded the Archabbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in the 13th century. He commenced a life of quite extreme asceticism. However, in 1348 he returned to his plague-stricken home city of Siena to care for his monks. Undoubtedly aware of the dangers he himself succumbed to the plague not long after. No dithering, that was where his duty lay and that was his answer to its call.
Again, accepting and responding to one’s duty to the last is illustrated in the 17th century by the nuns of Sante Croix Abbey at Poitiers. When the plague struck the nuns responded to the suffering population. Between 1628 and 1632 many nuns died of plague but adhered to their duties until the Vicar General Jean Filleau ordered the surviving nuns to retreat to the coast.
In the 14th century St Roch arrived at a plague-stricken town in Italy. He cured the sick and moved on to other places, eventually arriving in Rome. Everywhere the plague retreated until he himself fell ill. He retreated to a forest where legend holds he was fed and attended by a dog until he recovered. He was thereafter commonly invoked in times of plague.
We might consider St. John Southworth and St. Henry Morse in the 16th Century. The former, ordained in 1618 after attending the English college at Douai, returned to the considerable dangers facing Catholics, and priests in particular, in England to minister to the recusant poor. Constantly persecuted by the law he suffered repeated imprisonment, but before being executed spent time aiding plague sufferers together with St. Henry Morse. The latter converted to Catholicism and went to the English College Douai and later the English college in Rome. Ordained about 1624 he later spent time as chaplain to Spanish troops, but returned in 1636 to England to minister with courage and devotion to plague victims alongside St. John Southworth. He contracted the plague and experienced a miraculous recovery.
It is easy to think of Saints as historical but we should remember that during their lifetime they were ordinary folk. Many Saints have lived and died unrecognised. Indeed no doubt there are many Saints around us today. One 20th century Benedictine, Vincent de Paul Crosby, personifies the Benedictine ideal in adversity. In the USA when AIDS was little understood and an increasing scourge, he opened Benedict House in 1987 to provide accommodation for sufferers temporarily or longer term with hospice care if necessary. As an artist and vestment maker he used his earnings initially to support the House. After a whirlwind 3 years setting it up and tirelessly travelling seeking support he returned exhausted to his Abbey in 1990. This explosion of energy and effort meant the House was able to continue its saving work during time of great need.
With such examples before us I cringe at the thought of being frightened by the Covid 19 epidemic. Of course, fear is natural in the face of danger. Fear is a great and powerful enemy; it robs us of reason, strength and balance. Its power arises so often from our powerlessness. How can we not fear something we cannot control? Before fear spawns its hideous offspring panic, we must remember there is One who can defeat all evil. To Him in prayer we must bring all fear and lay it before Him. Only then can we know that, whatever the outcome for us, we can accept His will confident that fear will never be able to defeat that will or outstrip his Love for us. We must do all in our power to conquer fear, God will do the rest.
Carol Lewis MA
Oblate of Douai Abbey