Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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September 8, 2005
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

France, February 17, 1903. The anticlerical and antireligious war was at its peak. Georges Clemenceau, nicknamed «the Tiger,» received in his library Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, the abbot of Notre-Dame de Sept-Fons. The laws expelling religious congregations just having been enacted, the abbot was pleading his Order's case before the very anticlerical head of the government commission charged with deciding their fate. After enduring «the Tiger's» ridicule and mockery of monks, the Father Abbot, visibly inspired, began to speak: «The Eucharist is the central dogma of our religion. It must have monks dedicated to adoring it. Christ is alive—He is present in the Eucharist. Mustn't there be a court to adore this divine King present among us? It is with our whole being that we chant, with our whole heart that we pray, because it is to Him whom we love that we chant. The Mass is the greatest event that can take place on earth. And the mystery of Communion—God, infinite Love, who comes to fill me with His own life! Alive with the graces of Communion, we want to pour out the benefits over all humanity through a joyously austere life, in union with the divine Crucified.» Visibly moved, the «Tiger» replied, «I understand how one can be proud of being a monk when one is totally a monk. Consider me your friend!» The Trappists were not to be expelled. Dom Chautard was unaware that at that moment, he was being supported by the prayers of a young monk in the Trappist monastery of Sainte-Marie du Désert, Father Marie-Joseph Cassant.

Attracted to prayer

Pierre-Joseph Cassant was born on March 7, 1878, in Casseneuil-sur-Lot, near Agen, in southwest France. The next day, he was born into the life of grace through holy Baptism. His parents were well-to-do farmers, hard-working and deeply Christian. His older brother, Emile, was nine years older. The child seemed frail. Very early, Joseph showed an exceptional attraction to prayer, and his usual game consisted of setting up improvised altars here or there, before which he would imitate the gestures of a priest at Mass. His mother later said that he «planned to be a priest from very young,» and that from then on, «there was nothing he wanted more.»

Joseph was just six years old when he began school with the Christian Brothers, where he would stay nine years. He proved himself an excellent friend, kind, devoted, without pride, affectionate, and unaffected. However, the throng at recess, the boisterousness of boys with their pushing and shoving frightened him and made him long for the peace of the fields. In class, a trial awaited him—a profound mental slowness made his studies difficult for him. His imagination was weak, his memory poor, his intelligence less than penetrating. Nonetheless his application earned him satisfactory results. From this he learned, by experience, the truth of the classic adage, «Labor improbus omnia vincit: Great labor overcomes all things.» In October 1889, Joseph was admitted to the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an organization of students who promised to honor Mary. Several months later, he received the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and, on June 15, 1890, he made his First Communion. At the end of a parish mission in 1892, he received the sacrament of Confirmation.

In the spring of 1893, the priest from Joseph's parish was perplexed—neither he, nor his vicar, nor the director of the Christian Brothers' school doubted the young man's vocation, but they questioned his abilities and were convinced that he would not get into the Minor Seminary. Their solution was to take Joseph on as a boarder at the presbytery to study under the vicar's direction. Joseph proved to be studious, and happy to be able to live close to the church and to devote himself frequently to prayer, although he was sometimes a bit mischievous with the sacristan. But his difficulties with studies continued, and the parish priest concluded that he would never reach the level required of a priest charged with a parish. He therefore advised him to turn to monastic life, which better suited his aptitudes and his spiritual attraction to prayer and silence; in this way access to the priesthood, in conditions better suited to his temperament, would be open. This way of realizing his vocation appealed to Joseph. In the fall of 1894, he went with his parish priest to the Trappist monastery of Sainte-Marie du Désert, thirty kilometers from Toulouse. This first exposure to monastic life captivated the young man. Father André Malet, the Novice Master at the time, wrote after his first interview with him: «I had the impression of a very gentle and very deep soul who sought God. I made the sign of the cross on his forehead and told him, 'Have confidence, I'll help you to love Jesus.' His eyes filled with tears.»

Joseph's departure for the Trappist monastery on November 30, 1894, was not without sadness. Tearing himself away from his parents revealed to him the strength of the ties that attached him to his family. But very quickly, he entered fully into his new life: «It's impossible to get bored,» he wrote to his parents, «because every hour is regulated... The main work is studying and manual labor. A great deal of time is also spent praying the Divine Office.» A few days later, he wrote, «I'm very content in this new life that, once you get used to it, is pleasant.» The life was nonetheless austere: rising at two o'clock in the morning, an exclusively vegetarian diet, six months of fasting a year, no recreation... On Epiphany, 1895, he received the monastic habit and the name Brother Marie-Joseph.

«Full of Jesus»

In Father André's eyes, religious life was a perfecting, a developing of Christian life, of the life of union with Christ Jesus. When he spoke of the Cistercian ideal defined by two words—penitence and contemplation—the Novice Master underscored the subordination of the first to the second. «By penitence, the monk frees himself from the hold of the senses; by contemplation, he lives the supernatural life, he draws his life from God.» For him, the Rule of Saint Benedict was an apprenticeship in the love of Jesus. «Would it be enough, though, in order to discover Jesus, to have the text of the holy Rule before your eyes or on your lips? No—we must be 'full of Jesus.' For Jesus is not found or tasted except through love, and love craves union with the Beloved.» The supernatural life so understood is a joining to the Incarnate Word by means of an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the furnace of charity and symbol of the love God has for us. To the extent that we conform ourselves to the divine will, even amidst the bitterest pains, peace and all the goods of Heaven will dwell in our soul. The path to perfection is primarily a work of interior asceticism, done in obedience.

During his novitiate, Brother Marie-Joseph read and studied a great deal, not without difficulty, but with unflagging perseverance. His instinctive desire to be supported by a structure, to melt into an organized whole, made community life and obedience easier for him. He acted with the conviction that he was doing God's will, submitting to all, as Saint Benedict wanted, and finding contentment in the most ordinary and humblest of things. But his life was not without struggles. He felt the hidden stings of self-love and sometimes violent jealousy at the superior intellect or virtue of others. Very emotional, even the most trivial of events upset him—a minor problem, a disagreeable word, a personal slip could trigger great agitation. Thoughts against purity did not spare him. He wrote, «When a bad thought crosses my mind, if it remains in spite of me, I am not responsible for it... For it to be a sin that must be confessed, I must have voluntarily lingered there.» And again, «Put the love of Jesus in the place of bad thoughts.» He often repeated the short prayer, «All for Jesus!»

A task of reassurance

The profound relationship of mutual trust between Brother Marie-Joseph and his Novice Master steadied the balance of the young monk who had a tendency to fall into scruples. Father André's understanding, steadfastness, and patience were able to appease his deep anxieties. But it was sometimes necessary to reassure him several days in a row, because the brother would remain disturbed by doubts about the forgiveness of his sins, anxiety about the worth of his confessions, fear of offending God by imperfect actions or by not responding to grace, of not having a good death, etc. Despite these constantly recurring fears, Brother Marie-Joseph was very docile to his director's wise advice. From year to year, he felt more and more deeply attached to this spiritual father; this affection itself alarmed him. So Father André reassured him: «I do not find fault with this feeling, it is natural in the heart of a child. God does not forbid us from being attached to those we love. On the contrary, it is He who made our heart and He made it in such a way that it needs to attach itself to one it loves. So if our love is legitimate and holy, our attachment will be legitimate and holy. We must govern it, that's all. What must we do to govern it? We must keep it, like the rest of our being and the rest of our operations, in the hands of God...» Father André's firm direction often used the sacrament of Confession to make the young brother progress in his union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. «It would be an illusion to want to strive for holiness in accordance with the vocation that God has given to each one of us without frequently and fervently receiving this sacrament of conversion and sanctification,» affirmed Pope John Paul II. «We will never be holy enough not to need this sacramental purification: humble confession, made lovingly, gives rise to an ever more delicate purity in our service to God and the motivation that sustains it. ... Gradually, from confession to confession, the believer experiences an ever deeper communion with the merciful Lord to the point of fully identifying with Him, which one finds in that perfect 'life in Christ' in which true holiness consists» (Address of John Paul II to the Participants in the Course on the Internal Forum Organized by the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, March 27, 2004)

Brother Marie-Joseph took his first monastic vows (for three years) on January 17, 1897. After this day of joy, daily life resumed its monotony. Celebrating the Offices took about seven hours a day in the church. He found joy there, but also much suffering. More than once, he was reprimanded for not bowing deeply enough; it was only later that it became apparent that an illness in his chest made this bending extremely painful. His reedy and out-of-tune voice did not allow him to sing with spirit. In addition, his duties weighed on him due to his shyness and his conviction that he was incapable.

The book, a means of prayer

In his prayer, he perseveringly asked for much. Usually, during mental prayer in community, he read. «When I don't have a book,» he explained, «if I keep my eyes open, I become distracted; if I close them, I fall asleep.» In fact, he lived in a state of continual fatigue. Father André would later say, «There was nothing extraordinary about Brother Marie-Joseph's prayer. He preferred to think about the mysteries of our Lord's Passion when he had to pray without a book. He followed this latter method—meditative reading—whenever he could, because, lacking a good memory and utterly convinced of his inability to form correct and holy thoughts himself, he preferred to use those he found in devotional books.» Prayer has no other goal than to unite us with God. For some, this exchange of intimate friendship that is prayer is readily established. But for most, it does not come so easily. Saint Teresa of Avila herself suffered much from this difficulty and she suggests a remedy that was quite successful for her: «It is good for these souls,» she affirms, «to devote themselves a great deal to reading, because they cannot draw from themselves any good thought» (Life, ch. 4). Although one must follow the action of God when He wants to raise one to a higher form of prayer—for at such a time any reading would be useless and even counter-productive—it also would be detrimental to leave one's thoughts being tossed about at the mercy of distractions and a dryness that is not at all supernatural or profitable. At such times books remain useful to try to establish a contact with God that isn't coming about or that has been lost. It is not a matter of substituting reading for prayer or trying to kill time. If by this means a conversation with God starts up, one must know how to stop reading, however fascinating it might be, and abandon oneself to an intimate exchange with Him. The book might be Holy Scripture, the writings of a Saint, or another devotional book, according to one's inner attraction or the need of the soul. One may also, to enter into prayer, make use of a beloved prayer, or look at a picture, the crucifix, the tabernacle, or contemplate creation. Brother Marie-Joseph often used for prayer such devotional objects, particularly pictures. He was partial to ejaculatory prayers: «I always remember,» he noted, «that a short prayer from the bottom of one's heart, if one can do no better, is the most pleasing to God.» His desire was expressed in this way: «O Jesus, grant me the grace that I might be in continual conversation with You.»

Brother Marie-Joseph was also full of concern for the souls in Purgatory; for them he offered his sufferings according to a formula allowed him by his spiritual father at the beginning of his religious life: «My God, I willingly turn over, with all my heart, to the souls in Purgatory the merits of all the good works that I will do in the future, the indulgences I will earn, and the prayers in suffrage that will be offered for me after my death, and I place them all into the hands of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.»

An experience to have

From childhood Brother Marie-Joseph wanted to be a priest, and, while accepting the possibility of not becoming one if his abilities did not allow him to, he persisted enthusiastically towards this goal. The Eucharist was not a banal devotion for him. «To live,» he wrote, «to be able to receive Communion every day if I do not manage to be a priest, if Jesus allows.» In the Eucharist, Brother Marie-Joseph saw Jesus tenderly welcoming all who trust in Him to be cured of their spiritual illnesses: «O my Jesus, how good You are to give Yourself to me, so wretched, so burdened with iniquities. You want me to receive You into my heart, poor as it is, because You know that in receiving You I receive life, and You want to make me live.» In his Encyclical on the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II wrote, «It is pleasant to spend time with Him, to lie close to His breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn. 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in His heart. If in our time Christians must be distinguished above all by the 'art of prayer,' how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often, dear brother and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation and support!» (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, April 17, 2003, no. 25). Brother Marie-Joseph did not separate Communion from the sacrifice of the Mass, from which he drew the strength to carry the Cross. Recalling the Masses celebrated throughout the whole world, he wrote, «Each day the victim of Calvary travels throughout the whole world, to immolate Himself continually for the glory of His Father and the salvation of the world..., the crippled, the sick, the afflicted can, at any hour of the day or night, during the long hours made so difficult by suffering and insomnia, these poor souls can say, 'at this moment, at such a place, a priest mounts to the altar, offering the Victim of propitiation, the Victim of expiation.' »

Priest and victim

On June 24, 1900, Brother Marie-Joseph made his perpetual vows. However, on the path to priesthood, the obstacle presented by his difficulty with his studies was made worse by his theology professor who did nothing to make it easier for him, but rather treated him as incapable and judged him unfit for the priesthood. And other problems were added: violent pains in his head and stomach kept him from applying himself as much as he would have liked to. However, he was comforted by reassurance from the Father Abbot and Father André, both of whom believed that he would be able to finish his studies and be ordained. In fact, on October 12, 1902, he was ordained to the priesthood at the hands of Bishop Marre, a former monk of Sainte-Marie du Désert, who had been named auxiliary bishop of Reims in 1900. The next morning he celebrated his first Mass before the community. Here he was, a priest for all eternity! From then on, he would strive to implement the ideal that would be outlined by Pope Paul VI: «Many saints have wanted to unite the priesthood and monastic life, because they see a harmony between the consecration of the priest and the consecration of the monk. In fact, true solitude, in which one is occupied only with God, the complete renouncement of one's property in this world, and the renunciation of one's own will—all of which are practiced by those who enter a monastery—prepare the priest's soul in a very special way to offer holily the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the source and summit of all Christian life. Moreover, when this total gift of self, by which the religious consecrates himself to God, is added to the priesthood, the priest particularly resembles Christ, Who is at once priest and victim» (Paul VI, Letter to the Carthusians, April 18, 1971).

«In my own flesh»

The new priest's health was never very strong, but for some time Father Marie-Joseph had suffered from disturbing ailments: tremendous tiredness and chest pains. Shy and discreet, he almost never spoke about these problems, not wanting to draw attention to himself or trouble his superiors. However, from the beginning of 1902, it was necessary to admit the obvious: the young monk was wasting away. The doctor diagnosed only severe fatigue, but in reality it was a case of tuberculosis. Therefore, on the very day of his first Mass, Father Joseph went, on his superiors' orders, to his parents' home for a period of rest and to regain his deteriorating strength. In spite of this two months' rest, his health declined rapidly. When he returned to his dear monastery, with complete lucidity, he prepared himself to die. The daily celebration of the Holy Sacrifice helped him to unite his sufferings to the Savior's, following the example of Saint Paul, who said, in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church (Col. 1:24). «When I am no longer able to say Holy Mass,» said Father Marie-Joseph to his spiritual father, «the Heart of Jesus can draw me from this world, for I no longer have any attachment to the earth.»

In the last weeks of his life, the young priest suffered greatly. Lying down, he suffocated; seated, he had to endure the pain of deep bedsores. Father André spent long periods with him encouraging him to trust in the Sacred Heart. On Wednesday, June 17, 1903, while his spiritual father was celebrating the Mass of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary for his intention, Father Marie-Joseph passed away in his armchair in the infirmary.

During Father Marie-Joseph's beatification on October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II gave him as an example in these words: «Father Marie-Joseph always put his trust in God, in contemplation of the mystery of the Passion and in communion with Christ present in the Eucharist. Thus, he permeated himself with the love of God and abandoned himself to Him, 'the only true happiness on earth,' detaching himself from worldly goods in the silence of the Trappist monastery. In the midst of trials, his eyes fixed on Christ, he offered up his sufferings for the Lord and for the Church. May our contemporaries, especially contemplatives and the sick, discover from his example the mystery of prayer, which raises the world to God and gives strength in trial!»

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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