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May 24, 2005|
Mary Help of Christians
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
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 otherseven if this were for the sake of restoring their healthare 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
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!»
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!»
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 arrivedBrother 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 lookedhe 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
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
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)!