Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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May 24, 2005
Mary Help of Christians

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

During the 1863 Polish uprising against the Russian occupation, a Polish cavalryman, Adam Chmielowski, distinguished himself by incredible boldness. On October 1, 1864, he charged on horseback at a gallop through a forest. Caught in a burst of gunfire, he suddenly felt a hard blow on his leg and fell to the ground. He was carried to a woodsmen's cabin where, soon after, Finnish light infantrymen allied with the Czar found him. The captain recognized this young calvaryman, whom his men had on many occasions tried to shoot, without success, to the point that friends and enemies alike believed him invulnerable. «You certainly had a lucky charm,» the captain told him. «I had Our Lady's scapular on my chest,» Adam answered proudly, looking him straight in the eye, because he knew well that he was dealing with Protestants. His shattered leg was gangrened—it would have to be amputated. «When?» he asked. «Right away.»—«Very well, begin!... Give me a cigar—that will help me pass the time.» The horrible operation was performed without anesthesia. Then Adam was taken to a military hospital to wait for a doctor to give a decision on his fate. Thanks to some accomplices, he managed to leave the hospital, hidden in a coffin.

Adam was born on August 20, 1845, in Igolomia, Poland. After the uprising of 1863, he studied at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 1868, he was in Krakow, where he was a frequent visitor to the Siemienski home. Faithful to the faith of his ancestors, Mr. Siemienski was nevertheless very open to the scientism of his day coming from the West. His wife, a deeply Christian woman, was very sensible and had a great deal of influence on Adam. At the time, making tables turn to «conjure up spirits» was popular. Seeing that her husband's guests indulged in these spiritualist practices, Mrs. Siemienska asked her confessor for advice, for she was unable to persuade her husband to put an end to these dangerous amusements. The priest advised her to take her Rosary and pray peacefully, and not participate in the séances.

Split in two

«One day,» Adam related, «we were seated around a large oak table so heavy that two men could barely move it. Under our fingers, the table began to turn and jump, responding to our questions with sharp and violent knocks. Never before had the table been this wild... Mrs. Siemienska was seated in an alcove, saying the Rosary in a soft voice. Meanwhile, we were spinning across the whole room with this diabolical leaping table. Mrs. Siemienska wanted no more of it. She suddenly stood up, came towards us, and threw her Rosary on the turning table. We then heard what sounded like a pistol shot, and the table stopped dead. When we turned on the lights, we saw that the table had split in two—the thick slab of solid oak had shattered from one end to the other, in spite of the bolts holding it together underneath. From that day on, we never again played at turning tables.»

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that «all forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to 'unveil' the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone. All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others—even if this were for the sake of restoring their health—are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion... Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it» (CCC 2116-2117).

Full of concern for Adam, Mrs. Siemienska obtained a scholarship for him for the 1869-1870 school year, and the young man went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. There he met many friends and quickly became their leader. One of them wrote of him: «He had a remarkable influence on the group and his penetrating and logical mind discovered before anyone else the exact meaning of art and its connection with the human soul.» Less advanced in his painting technique than most of his companions, he practiced painting «with passion and relentlessness,» but always in a very personal way and with true talent.

Adam hid the handicap of his wooden leg as much as possible. But his prosthesis caused him a great deal of suffering. He sometimes fell into sudden bouts of melancholy until his friends' affection made him sociable and communicative again. This melancholy was deeply rooted in his temperament, which always aspired to more, to do better, and to be too demanding with himself. At times, he would furiously tear up the canvases he had painted, thinking them worthless. However, he was usually in good spirits, very helpful, and loved to joke.

Building on the Gospel

From 1871 to the spring of 1873, Adam stayed with two friends in Paris. He remained deeply religious and practiced his faith. Passionate about art, he did not allow himself to be affected by dark temptations. «Work absorbs the painter to such a degree, he so desires to recreate on his canvas the ideal glimpsed, that nothing else matters,» he wrote. Faced with the social revolutions that were causing great distress in France, he commented, «If they want progress, why do they not build their States according to the Gospel?» In the same vein, Pope John Paul II affirmed, «The branch, grafted onto the vine which is Christ, bears its fruit in every sphere of existence and activity. In fact, every area of the lay faithful's lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God, Who desires that these very areas be the 'places in time' where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of the Father and service of others» (Christifideles laici, December 30, 1988, no. 59).

After another stay in Munich, he returned to Poland and published an article on art. Art is called to be «the friend of man, his guide,» in his ascent to God. Without ignoring the value of technique, talent, and craft, he held that the purer and more beautiful the soul, the more its work would bloom in beauty. At the beginning of 1879, Adam went to Lvov to stay with a friend. It was there that the decision to become a religious ripened. On September 24, 1880, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Stara Wies. His soul was flooded with joy. But a terrible trial awaited him. A thirty-day retreat began. Adam devoted himself to it with all his passion; however, he was soon overcome with anxiety. After a minor breach of his resolutions, he fell into scrupulosity and became ill. It was a profound crisis, and his brother, Stanislaw, took him into his home to help him rest. One day, he heard a priest speak at length about God's mercy, and a light went on in his mind. He found his peace of soul again but was never to return to the Jesuit novitiate.

He began to paint again. His art reflected the spiritual progress that the suffering had brought him. One day, he discovered the Rule of the Third Order of Saint Francis of Assisi. It dazzled him. He asked to be received into the Third Order and took the name of Brother Albert. Returning to Krakow, he continued his profession of painting, with a supreme freedom of spirit toward everything that was not God. Moved by the spirit of poverty, he made a point of seeing the Holy Face of the Lord in the faces of beggars he met. In effect, «here below, Christ is poor in the person of His poor» (Saint Augustine, Sermon 123, 3-4). Passing a boy, pale with cold and covered in rags, Brother Albert said to him, «Come home with me.» In the studio, where there was a good fire, the brother prepared something to eat, then he added, «And now you are going to sleep.»—«But where?»—«Well, in the bed, of course!»—«What about you?»—«I'll manage.» The little tramp didn't even have the strength to object. He threw himself on the bed and was sound asleep ten minutes later.

«I'd rather sleep under bridges!»

Brother Albert discovered his vocation. Soon, he was leading a double life—at night, in the company of the vagrants he brought to his studio; during the day, in front of his easel making a living. He visited the best families of the Polish aristocracy and pleaded on behalf of the poor, but his efforts seemed to him to be a drop of water in an ocean of needs. However, the presence of strange tenants in his studio caused him problems. When he was there, everything was fine, but if he left, they made a ruckus and the neighbors complained. He had to move out. Where would he go? He asked one of his guests, «Where did you spend the night before you came here?»—«In the night shelter, in Kasimierz.»—«You'll have to go back there, since we're being evicted.»—«Go back there? I'd rather sleep under bridges! I'd rather freeze to death...» Brother Albert thought, then added, «Can you take me there?»—«What an idea! They'd kill you, and me with you.»

With some friends, Brother Albert nevertheless went to visit the vagrants' night shelter, which was called Ogrzewalnia. As soon as they entered, they choked on the terrible stench. The room was big, but unspeakably filthy. The walls were lined with crude wooden benches where sinister characters who inspired terror were crammed together, swilling liquor and playing cards. Under the benches lay sick and elderly men, who begged in vain for someone to give them a drop of water. A burning hot pipe went across the room, under which were huddled the bodies of street urchins and children sound asleep. Around midnight, more regulars arrived, and beat others black and blue so they could find a spot. Leaving this foul place, Brother Albert and his companions felt they were waking from a nightmare. All of a sudden, in the long silence, the Brother exclaimed, «We have to go live with them. I can't leave them like that!»

Even lower

His spiritual director, a Lazarist, made him wait several months to discern if this burst of generosity was coming from the Holy Spirit. Later, when asked the reason for his extraordinary vocation, he would reply, «To save the poor, you can't just heap admonishments upon them, or lecture them while well-fed and well-dressed. You have to lower yourself and go down even lower, become even more wretched.» This was indeed the method used by the Son of God Himself. For Brother Albert, true Love comes from God, is incarnated in Christ, is communicated through the Eucharist, bears fruit in mercy, becoming the source of all good, private and public. In his eyes, the absence of love and the refusal of mercy were the fundamental cause of all the evils that ravage the world.

In his Apostolic Letter for the Year of the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II wrote, «In the Eucharist our God has shown love in the extreme, overturning all those criteria of power which too often govern human relations and radically affirming the criterion of service: If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (Mk. 9:35)... Can we not make this Year of the Eucharist an occasion for diocesan and parish communities to commit themselves in a particular way to responding with fraternal solicitude to one of the many forms of poverty present in our world?... We cannot delude ourselves: by our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ (cf. Jn. 13:35; Mt. 25:31-46). This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged» (Mane nobiscum Domine, October 7, 2004, no. 28).

Before embarking on such an exceptional adventure, Brother Albert introduced himself to the Archbishop of Krakow. The prelate granted him his full confidence and allowed him to take the three religious vows. During a stay in a Carmelite monastery, he became familiar with the works of Saint John of the Cross who became his favorite author. The Superior of the monastery, Father Raphael Kalinowski, suggested to him that he become a Carmelite. Brother Albert answered him, «What would my tramps do without me?» and the Father replied, «Go, Brother, where God is calling you.»

The big day had arrived—Brother Albert went to Ogrzewalnia. He was greeted there with looks that varied from unfriendly to mocking to intrigued. Dressed in rough clothes, he had the disability of his wooden leg to command respect. He unfolded his little bundle. «Who wants to eat with me?» They looked—he had some garlic sausage and white bread. «Do you have any liquor?» asked an unshaven face. He had brought some. «What's your name?»—«Brother Albert.»—«Well, if you don't have any place to sleep, stay!» The first welcome had been made. But around midnight, the most hard-boiled men arrived. Seeing him, they exclaimed, «Go away or we'll throw you out!» The others pleaded his case: «If he doesn't have a place to stay, he has the right to stay here, just like you and me.» A brawl was about to break out. But in the end, everything quieted down.

An icon always in bloom

In November 1888, Brother Albert made an official agreement with the city of Krakow for the use of Ogrzewalnia, the right to collect money in the streets and the rehabilitation of the fittest. Very devoted to the Blessed Virgin, he hung an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa on the wall at the night shelter. Even the most heathen dared not tamper with her who is the Queen of the country. A little oil lamp burned day and night before the venerable icon, and unknown hands decorated it with flowers. When the fine days of summer 1889 arrived, Brother Albert, helped by a team of volunteers, renovated Ogrzewalnia. They scraped, they scrubbed, they hunted down bugs, they patched holes, they whitewashed the walls, and they aired the mattresses. When winter returned, the premises looked different. The poor vagrants were a bit disconcerted, but the burning love that Brother Albert showed them renewed their confidence. These men, who lived in misery, felt how much this strange monk loved them.

To feed his poor, Brother Albert roamed the streets of Krakow begging for charity. Criticism rained down hard on him as he passed, but little by little, public opinion took his side. The farmers selling their produce in the markets of Krakow greeted him warmly every day and hurried to fill his cart with donations in kind. Providence sent Brother Albert good-hearted youth who let themselves be led by the flame of love that set him on fire. They shared the life of the poor and served them with love, cleaning, washing, cooking. For meals, everyone sat on the floor, chattering joyfully. However, the poor in the night shelter were no bed of roses. There were notorious crooks there, people who were in trouble with the law and who abused alcohol. Sometimes, the brothers came close to death. When the atmosphere became heavy and menacing, a brother musician would take his violin and express all the fervor in his heart through his bow. Often then quarrels would stop, and faces would soften.

Every day, Brother Albert gathered his sons together and gave them spiritual instruction. He taught them to do mental prayer and to take care of the poor for love of Christ. In his Apostolic Exhortation on consecrated life, Pope John Paul II would write, «The option for the poor is inherent in the very structure of love lived in Christ. All of Christ's disciples are therefore held to this option; but those who wish to follow the Lord more closely, imitating His attitudes, cannot but feel involved in a very special way. The sincerity of their response to Christ's love will lead them to live a life of poverty and to embrace the cause of the poor... Even before being a service on behalf of the poor, evangelical poverty is a value in itself, since it recalls the first of the Beatitudes in the imitation of the poor Christ. Its primary meaning, in fact, is to attest that God is the true wealth of the human heart. Precisely for this reason evangelical poverty forcefully challenges the idolatry of money» (Vita consecrata, 82, 90). In the face of a materialism indifferent to the needs and sufferings of the weakest and even devoid of any consideration for the balance of natural resources, evangelical poverty is a call to rediscover a sense of moderation and the value of things. «The call of evangelical poverty is being felt also among those who are aware of the scarcity of the planet's resources and who invoke respect for and the conservation of creation by reducing consumption, by living more simply and by placing a necessary brake on their own desires» (Ibid., 90).

The contagiousness of example

To restore the dignity of his poor, debased by poverty, Brother Albert used work, understood as a means of moral improvement and human development. «There are some things that society does not have a right to deny its members,» he declared; «the right to work that provides them with lodging and their daily bread. If society fails in this duty of justice, it must make up for it with charity.» Brother Albert opened workshops where his sons, dressed in their coarse habits and bent over their workbenches, gave an example of untiring work. This example was contagious—the poor took heart and gradually found a sense of their dignity again in a life of work. Brother Albert wrote little plays that he had performed for his poor with the means at hand. It was very successful—hearts were opened and real miracles of conversion took place. Thus, when Brother Albert and his sons said their prayers, on their knees in the middle of the night shelter, their companions felt drawn and joined them.

In his contract with the city of Krakow, Brother Albert was required to also take responsibility for the women's night shelter, which was even more horrific than the men's, because, in addition to extreme poverty, it sheltered organized debauchery. For this work, the Lord sent him women who would form the women's branch of his congregation. But the work that Brother Albert asked of his sons and daughters was exhausting. Therefore, to give them rest, he set up hermitages in remote places, where they could recover their physical and spiritual strength by living from the work of their hands, in the open air, in the midst of the wonders of nature.

Many cities asked Brother Albert for foundations. He traveled a great deal, always as a poor man, at the cost of many sufferings. He wore himself out to give, always give. He wrote, «For the perfume to spread, we must break the vessel. It is not enough for us to love God, we must also inflame other hearts when we meet them. That is what matters. No one goes to Heaven alone.» In 1914, the First World War caught him as busy as ever. But his days were numbered. For a long time, he was being eaten away by stomach cancer. He survived another two years in great suffering. At the end of 1916, after a long period in which his stomach had been unable to endure any solid food, he entered into a lengthy agony. Up to the very end, he accepted the will of God, in faith and gratitude. Finally, on Christmas Day, he rendered his soul to God during the midday Angelus. Pope John Paul II canonized him on November 12, 1989.

In a world that is often marked by a materialism greedy for possessions, evangelical poverty calls for temperance and rediscovering the meaning of giving freely. May Saint Brother Albert's example and the contemplation of Jesus' life of poverty encourage us to adopt a modest lifestyle for the benefit of the poorest! There we will find happiness and salvation: Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Lk. 6:20)!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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