Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sampler: Jerome Gratian: Treatise on Melancholy

The excerpt is from a small volume about Jerome Gratian [AKA Gracián and Jerome of the Mother of God], a great collaborator with St. Teresa in the founding of the Discalced Carmelite community. The book contains a biographical sketch, important because he was a controversial and complex man in his own day and since. He wound up being expelled from the Order by a rival, following the death of Teresa, and ended his days in a monastery of the Ancient Carmelite friars. He has only in recent years been formally recognized by the Discalced for his important role and is now being presented for beatification and possible eventual canonization. The "Treatise on Melancholy" is a brilliant scathing critique of certain tendencies for religious neurosis that are common in religious communities (and many other communities!), written in the form of a parody of legislation for men and women in monasteries and convents. In his day, such behavior went under the rubric of melancholy. Despite the title, the work is very humorous, especially for those familiar with the life.

My volume provides the first complete English translation/paraphrase of the work. It also includes my interpretive essay about certain points, something that was first published in Spiritual Life magazine.

I include here a passage from that essay. I think the point stands alone without elaborating further on the context. Of all my books, by the way, this is undoubtedly the most difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with life in monasteries and convents.

Gratian then adds a short but rich section entitled, “Brief, Clear and Certain Plan for Attaining the Height of Perfection”: 

Devote yourself to being very humble and love God tenderly.
And put that person who has hurt you the most, whether inside or outside the convent,
In your heart and together with the Heart of Christ love that one greatly.

Let this be the first person you pray for.
Ask nothing good for yourself that you do not first ask for the other.
Make many acts and promises to God that if for the glory and honor of God,
it were necessary for you to lose honor, health, and life, and even your own glory
for the honor, health, and life, and even glory of that person,
then you are determined to give all that good.
By making these promises and desires often and continually kissing their feet interiorly
and even the ground on which they walk,
and orienting allyour acts and  resolutions in prayer,
you will by this single road rise to the highest grade of perfection and attain heroic virtue…

In the mythical meeting that provides the context of these remarks, the members of the gathering assure one another that no one could possibly understand such doctrine. It does seem quite exalted, for all its apparent simplicity. Readers might be tempted to respond in the words of those followers of Jesus who were unsettled by the Bread of Life discourse presented in John 6, “This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?”

Yet is this advice so far beyond the ordinary person?

A personal testimony

When I entered the Discalced Carmelite novitiate at Marylake outside Little Rock in 1972, I

had a classmate who had the faculty of displeasing me in everything. He was a fine and talented man, and I imagine no small part of my difficulty was envy of his creative nature. It was

not long before I found my prayer life taken up largely with complaining to God about him.
At some point I stumbled across the idea contained in Gratian’s text, although I don’t recall where or how. Every night after the community completed Night Prayer and the others returned to their cells for the evening, I stayed behind and prayed for a while for my companion. I prayed that he do well, that he be filled with blessings, that his struggles be lightened. In a matter of a week and a half, I no longer was filled with resentment towards him. When he chose to leave the community a few months later, although I agreed with his decision, I was sad to see him go.

A corporate witness

This approach to dealing with resentments and interpersonal difficulties is well-known to people in Twelve Step programs. In a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, significantly titled “Freedom from Bondage”, the reader is advised that the way to move beyond resentments is to pray

for the person resented, asking for everything that one would want for oneself. The author asserts that within a very short time, one will discover that resentment and bitterness will have been replaced by love and compassion.

In Twelve Step meetings around the world, men and women who have struggled with the destructive power of addictions bear witness to the power of this approach. They will be the first to tell you they are not saints. Yet in this, they are following a clear and certain path to the heights.

For what is the height of perfection if it is not compassionate understanding and love?


To read about the Twelve Step advice in context, see Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Edition (New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001) 552.
A further note: Tom did the cover design, basing it on an old portrait of Gratian. The publications director of ICS Publications liked it so much that she asked permission to use the image in the cover design for a translation of Gratian's lengthy autobiographical materials that they will publish, I hope, in the near future. I assisted in a small way with the editing of that volume, too.


1 comment:

Ur-spo said...

this was splendid. thank you for this.