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Life and letters of Henry Van Rensselaer, priest of the Society of Jesus online

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giving too many authorities. It is rather hard to treat as
children grown men who know as much about the subject
as you do yourself. And yet that is what we are supposed
to do in order to get a facility in asking questions as simply

182



as possible and to explain in short and easy words. Usuaiiy
a story of some kind is told to enliven the young ones. We
get another chance at story-telling every evening, for there
is always a pious story with a good moral at our recreation
and each one has his turn. I told one very apropos the
other evening.

"We are all busy this month in preparing sermons, as
each one has to preach before the community at supper
time. As many of the novices seem to be trusting mainiy
to books, I selected an instance in St. Vincent Ferrer's life.
He was a great Dominican preacher and missionary, and a
very holy man. One day he was told that a distinguished
nobleman was coming to hear him preach. The saint usually
relied principally upon prayer for his sermons, but on this
occasion, departing from his custom, he gave the time to
extra study. The consequence was that he did not preach
as well as usual, and the nobleman went home disappointed.
However, he went another time unannounced and was de-
lighted. This was told St. Vincent, who replied: 'No
wonder, for the first time he heard Vincent preach, but this
time it was Jesus Christ, Himself.' It is a pretty anecdote,
is it not ? But I must stop. With best love for everybody
and most for yourself,

"Ever your devoted son,

"HARRY."

"MANRESA HOUSE,

"ROEHAMPTON,

"August 17, 1879.
"Mv DEAREST MOTHER:

"Many happy returns of your birthday; not such happi-
ness as the world can give or appreciate, but true and solid,

183



LIFE OF HENRY VAN RENSSELAER

which can come from God alone, and which consists in
growing in the deeper knowledge of Our Lord and of the
end for which we were created to serve, praise and rever-
ence Him. Few people, when really brought face to face
with this truth, will deny it, but" at the same time they do
practically deny or at least ignore it. Look at their lives,
how perfectly aimless they seem, unless one can call that the
aim of their life to which they devote most of their time,
energy, attention and money. And what a waste of time it
will seem to them when they are called upon to give an ac-
count of their lives. Vanity of vanities, indeed ! Yet, with
the best of intentions, how hard it is for us to keep really
before our eyes the object of our being! We so crave after
happiness that we practically do make it our aim, and so in
the real sense it is happiness, but only that which comes
from doing God's will as well as we can. What happiness,
what satisfaction, when we can say and feel after some-
thing we have done, that our intention was purely God's
glory ! Too often some vanity, self-seeking or other motive
has crept in to take away the merit of the action, or at least
tarnish its lustre. The greater glory of God is our motto,
this the object, the summing up of our lives. This will be
the standard by which we shall be judged, and is it not a
glorious one, too? The glory of God, who laid aside the
glory which he had with His Father before the creation of
the world. He abased Himself and we must exalt Him.
He led the way and we must follow Him; the way of the
cross is the only way that leads to true happiness. We may
have 'the cross laid upon us or we may take it upon our-
selves of our own accord. It is a great consolation for those
whose lot lies in home duties, to think of Our Lord's life at
Nazareth with His Mother and St. Joseph. What quiet

184



and apparently uneventful lives they led for thirty years;
to human eyes St. Joseph seemed only the carpenter: the
Mother of God only his wife; and Our Lord Himself only
the carpenter's son. Truly it matters very little what the
world thinks of us, what opinion it passes upon us. We
are living not for it and its judgment, nor can it appreciate
pure motives. So it often happens that those who are con-
sidered unfortunate are very far from being so; for the
trials they have undergone have been so many means of
grace, means of bringing them nearer their Divine Model,
who was the Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Really, one's own experience tells one that frequently in
penitential seasons of the Church we have more true peace
and comfort than at the greater festivals, which often bring
with them dissipation of heart, and wje do not feel as near
Our I^ord as when kneeling at the foot of the Cross. Then
we throw ourselves, as it were, upon Him for support, for
we feel our weakness and need His sympathy, and with
such dispositions we can never fail to touch His Sacred
Heart ever open to the sighs of His children.

"I wish that I could drop in upon you now and then to
have a little chat. letters are so unsatisfactory; one never
says what one wants to, but very often just the reverse. I
hope I have not done so this time. At any rate you will un-
derstand me aright. You are always much in my thoughts.
With l>est wishes. I am, my dearest mother.
"Your devoted son.

"HENRY VAN* RKXSSF.I.AER."



185



LIFE OF HENRY VAN RENSSELAER

"MANRESA HOUSE,

"ROEHAMPTON,

"November 16. 1879.
"Mv DEAREST MOTHER:

".. . . Last Thursday was a great day with us the
feast of our Patron, St. Stanislaus Kostka. He is the patron
saint of all novices, because he died a novice, when he was
only eighteen years old. As the Church says of him in the
collect of his day, Almighty God had bestowed on him in
tender youth the grace of mature sanctity. He is the Patron
of Poland, and one of the most popular saints, especially
among the young. I daresay you recollect seeing some
frescoes representing scenes in his life in our Church in
Montreal.

"It was a day for long walks sunny, though cold. Bro.
Sherman and another and I thought we should spend our
morning profitably by paying a visit to Nazareth House, a
home for aged men and women and homeless children. It
is under the care of Sisters very like the Little Sisters of
the Poor. We were delighted with everything we saw,
were very kindly received, and the Mother General of the
Order showed us all over the establishment. Everything
was in the most exquisite order. Each bed had a many-
colored patch-work spread and looked comfortable and
cheery. The old people said that nothing could exceed the
kindness of the Sisters, and there were some Protestants
who told me the same. The Sisters, many of them of good
family, do all the work themselves, and live entirely on what
they get by alms. Their food consists of scraps which they
beg. One cannot imagine happier, more contented and
gayer people than these Sisters, who are brimful of charity
and zeal. There were children either idiotic or nearly so,

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LETTERS TO HIS MOTHER.

but I was glad to see them in such a home. We went away
very much edified, and thankful that there are so many de-
voted people who were glad to leave the world and what it
can give in the way of pleasures, and live a life of hard
work and service for the bodies of others that they may save
their souls. When we got back to Manresa House we had
a panegyric of our Saint by one of the novices; then came
Benediction and afterwards dinner with conversation. In
the evening there was a seance in which the choir figured
by singing several glees. Brother Sherman composed and
read a very pretty poem on the bell which announces our
duties. As he had the office of ringing it as beadle not long
ago, he could speak feelingly. There were some other
poems and readings, and altogether we enjoyed ourselves
very much. The choir have been kept very busy of late
getting ready the glees for the seance, and besides that we
sing Vespers in our own chapel every Sunday afternoon;
we have also to prepare new music for Christmas, which
will be upon us before we know it.

"Love to everybody, much for yourself,

"Your devoted son,

"H. V. R."

"MANRESA HOUSE,

"ROEHAMPTON, S. W.,

"April 22, 1880.
"Mv DEAREST MOTHER:

"The weeks have l>een slipping by so quickly and un-
eventfully that I can hardly keep any track of my letters.
We are having most lovely weather now, for it is full
spring. The country is delightful. How thankful I am to
be able to enjoy it ! With all the helps that the beauties of



LIFE OF HENRY VAN RENSSELAER

nature give, one ought to live more in God's presence in the
country than in the city. Everything is so peaceful and
fitted to raising one's thoughts from earth to heaven, yet I
doubt if country people are as religious as the city people;
perhaps the latter feel more need of God's help than the
others ; still we cannot help feeling how weak man is when
we see the changes of nature. What can he do? Nothing;
not even force a blade of grass to grow ; and so a lesson of
humility is preached by every blade of grass and every tinv
flower. But it is a lesson we do not heed, it is so contrary
to our wishes and inclinations. We make up our mind to
praise and admire humility as a virtue; when, however, it
is urged upon us, we rebel. Why is it that so many thou-
sands who call themselves Christians, and profess to be fol-
lowers of the Crucified, cannot bear the sight of a picture
which represents Our Lord crucified, much less a carved
crucifix? It is simply because it pictures to them too readily
and vividly what their Captain and Leader has done and
suffered, and what He expects of them. They are not pre-
pared for any such imitation of Christ as this. They do not
object to reading about it, but that is enough. You see how
a blade of grass has carried me off. Still, we can never
think enough about our own weakness and what should
arise out of the consideration of it what we should be,
humble and ready to accept what Almighty God proposes
to us.

"What a dreadful state of things in France ! One must
always hope for a turn of the scales, there are so many ups
and downs in that changeable country. I am glad there is
such a unity of action among all the religious orders and all
the bishops ; they realize the truth that it is religion that is
being attacked and not any one order in the Church. It is

188



LIFE OF HENRY VAN RENSSELAER

certainly a strange Republic where there is no freedom. We
have had some very good music lately, though I say it who
shouldn't, being in the choir. We have been singing one of
Gounod's masses. We also had a seance in honor of the
Provincial, who has been making his visitation. We sang
The Storm.' To-day, the 23d, is St. George's Day, and is
a holiday, which gives me a chance of writing. I have also
a sermon on hand which I must preach on the 12th of May.
My ideas do not flow as I should like. I wish you would
get 'Christian Schools and Scholars.' It is a charming
book, giving an excellent and pleasant picture of the early
and middle age Christianity. It is not a controversial work
at all, merely historical. They are really dark ages because
most people know so little about them, but it is astonish-
ing to find how bright the true light shone in those rude
times. . , ."

"Ever your devoted son,

"HENRY VAN RENSSELAER."

Van Rensselaer's stay in England was drawing to a close
Under the strict discipline of the novitiate, he had become a
new man with new ideals, new aspirations, new impulses,
and new ways of thinking and acting. This mental and
spiritual development, or rather transformation, is shown in
a letter written while still a first year novice:

"The time is slipping away, a time of much grace. The
saying is, that the height of sanctity to which we aspire in
the noviceship will be the highest to which we shall ever
aspire in after life; so we must aim now at nothing short of
l>eing saints, however impossible that may now seem. After
all, what is a saint but one who so fully corresponds to the

180



LETTERS' TO HIS MOTHER.

grace given him that he merits more and more? It is simply
acting up to our vocation and the abundant graces given to
us. 'Pensons au ciel et nous aurons le courage d'etre fideles
a Dieu quoiqu'il en coute.' This motto was on a signet that
a fellow-pilgrim to Paray-le-Monial gave me, and if we did
but keep the end in view, all would seem very plain."

The progress he made in the knowledge and practice of
spiritual things was such that he could now be entrusted
with the guidance of other souls, and in the last letter from
Roehampton, he writes enthusiastically of a work of this
nature committed to his charge.

"May, 1880.

"I have a delightful task at present, to unfold the reli-
gious life to two lay-brother postulants ; they are both con-
verts of two years' standing, but totally unlike; both very
good, and earnest, and teachable. It is most humiliating to
speak to them of high ideals and perfection, and then to
realize how far short one is oneself. But it is most inspirit-
inging to feel that one is really helping others. I have had
a great increase of love for the Spiritual Exercises of St.
Ignatius. I have been reading the life of Father de Ponle-
voy, the author of de Ravignan's life, and his intimate
friend. They were both men of the Exercises; everything
they did or said was influenced by them. This is my aim.
as it should be that of every Jesuit. Father Morris has been
a great help to me. He has been away for two weeks giving
a mission at Arundel. His place was taken by Father Pur-
brick, for many years Rector of Stonyhurst. He is a con-
vert, an Oxford man, the most perfect gentleman I ever
saw, most spiritual, most humble, most talented. There is
a paragon. His short rule was a delightful one."

190



CHAPTER XII.
WOODSTOCK COLLEGE.

VAN RENSSELAER returned to America in the sum-
mer of 1880, with two other Americans, his fellow
novices at Roehampton, Thomas Sherman, a son of Gen.
Willam Tecumseh Sherman, and Thomas Kernan, a son of
Senator Kernan of New York. After a brief stay at St.
Francis Xavier's, New York City, Van Rensselaer, as he
was still a novice, went on to the novitiate "of the Mary-
land-New York Province, at Frederick, Md.

A few days after his arrival at the novitiate he wrote to
his sister, Mrs. George Waddington:

"NOVITIATE,

"FREDERICK CITY. MD.

"August 1, 1880.
"Mv DEAR BESSIE:

" . . . I had a pleasant visit in New York, although
I found the family very much scattered. I am convinced
that it is unadvisable in religious questions to say anything
aggressive. Try to let people know what the true religion
is and then leave the rest to God. We. having the truth on
our side, can always speak with authority, and this is pecu-
liar to the Catholic Church. I found on the steamer that
when one inquired into what people believed in their hearts,
it amounted to Universalism that God is very good and
merciful and will not condemn. They call themselves Pres-
byterians, and Episcopalians, and free thinkers; there was

191



LIFE OF HENRY VAN RENSSELAER

much they had in common, the rest they considered merely
external forms. As I look back now on our trip, I think we
wasted time ; for several days we kept quite aloof until peo-
ple began to question us, and even then we were rather on
the defensive. Father Pardow, who was our leader, told
me not to be shy in talking, but to improve my opportunities,
so then I set to work, and having had experience in religious
matters I discovered in myself a certain power. In the end
I talked quite openly, though in the beginning everyone
warned everyone else against us, and a third person invaria-
bly would come up to try to interfere. The captain regu-
larly walked off with two ladies who wished to talk with
me, and naturally I was at a disadvantage because I could
not walk up and down the deck with ladies. In the end,
however, I won over the captain ; he and I became excellent
friends, and he entered into a compact not to interfere.
People respect you much more if you talk to them up and
down without fear.

"I am delighted with the Jesuits I have met in America.
They have overwhelmed me with kindness. I spent a few
hours at Woodstock en route, and was charmed. I will tell
you more about it when I go there in September. Frederick
is a great contrast to Roehampton ; there is something very
gentle and sympathetic about the Fathers and novices here.
Not that they were not good and kind in England, but John
Bull has his peculiarities. It is pleasant to be in a religious
habit, rosary and all. The Roehampton novices lose much
by not wearing the habit. Here the novices are wonder-
fully edifying.

"I shall enjoy my month in this place immensely. The
scenery in the neighborhood is beautiful, but best of all there
is here a wonderful spirit of charity and gentleness; just

192



WOODSTOCK COLLEGE

what I need and hope to get, for my late experience on the
ship tells me that what people yearn for is sympathy and
kindness. . . .

"Ever your devoted brother,

"HENRY VAN RENSSELAER, SJ."

In the beginning of September he reported for his studies
in philosophy at Woodstock, Md., where he was to spend
three faithful and happy years. On the approach of the
Feast of All Saints, he returned to Frederick to take his
first vows as a Jesuit scholastic. The interruption was a
brief one, for it was from Woodstock College that he wrote
the following letter:

"WOODSTOCK,

"November 2, 1880.

"I have had the great happiness of taking the vows. I
went down to Frederick on Saturday afternoon, sj>ent Sun-
day in recollection and silence, and then on Monday in the
domestic chapel, took my vows before the Community. Just
think, I had about thirty Masses said for me that day, be-
sides many receiving Holy Communion for my intention.
There is such a beautiful feeling of charity in the Society.
I like this quotation very much and it has made a great im-
pression on me: 'Petit sacrifice, petit bonheur; grand sac-
rifice, grand bonheur ; sacrifice complet, bonheur complet.' '

Shortly after his reception into the Church his sister, who
had also heard Clod's voice calling her to a religious life, en-
tered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity at Mount St.
Vincent-on-Hudson, New York. Most of the following
letters are addressed to her. On the Feast of the Immacu-
late Conception, 1880, he writes:

193



LIFE OF HENRY VAN RENSSELAER

"I do not know that I have ever spent a happier feast,
except perhaps All Saints, and this was a breathing of the
same air. We had our half-yearly renovation of vows.
What the Society wishes is homo in vita spirituali perfec-
tus, and for this, great talents are not necessary, thank God,
else I might despair of attaining it, for I shall never shine
as a learned man, nor do I regret it much. It has many
dangers which I shall be spared. Let us desire better gifts,
for desire paves the way."

The Christmas holidays brought with them welcome re-
laxation from the study of dialectics and abstruse meta-
physics. He writes :

"WOODSTOCK COLLEGE,

"December 27, 1880.

"What a delightful season this is! How one's heart over-
flows with love and gratitude to the God who cares so ten-
derly for His ungrateful creatures! This has been a very
happy season for me ; we are like a large, yet united family,
rejoicing with holy simplicity in our little pleasures. We
have had several entertainments, one most amusing, some
acting Scrooge and Marley in Dickens' 'Christmas Story.'
The parts were capitally taken, and we laughed ourselves
hoarse. Last night we had a Christmas tree with a present
drawn by lot for everybody, so that one got generally just
the wrong thing a non-smoker, for instance, would be sure
to receive a pipe, etc. Some amusing things were said very
apropos, and a clever local poem read. On Wednesday we
are to have Father Ryan, the poet-priest, for our guest ; he
has a poem for the occasion, and there will be others from
Ours, as we have several poets among us. The choir have
several fine glees ready, so altogether we expect a pleasant



WOODSTOCK COLLEGE

evening. I have enjoyed singing in the Christmas choir and
in the glees. It is my greatest amusement. You see by this
that we are quite a lively set of people, in fact, the lightest-
hearted in the world, I believe."

A month later his letter takes on a more sombre hue. It
was probably written at the beginning of the Lenten season;
the exact day of the month is not given.

"WOODSTOCK,

"February. 1881.

"How hard it is for us to make full use of our oppor-
tunities! There is not a moment in the day or night when
we might not be meriting by a silent aspiration, a genuflec-
tion, even a smile, a pleasant word, a trifling act of fore-
thought. These are the brilliants, tiny indeed, but they
will add great lustre to our crowns. I rememl>er Father
Porter impressed upon us to make frequent acts of perfect
charity. It might seem presumptuous at first sight, but he
said it was not so, and we should tell Our Lord that we do
love Him, or at least desire to love Him, as well as any
creature can love Him, even the Seraphim and His Blessed
Mother herself. The desire comes from Him, so it must be
most pleasing to Him. who is Perfect Charity. \Ve must
decide to make the recreation hour the most profitable of
the day. and with this intention prepare for it by an act of
l>erfect charity, either in the chapel or on our way to the
recreation r<x>m. Our selfishness often hinders us from
helping our companions; I speak from experience. There
were certain novices in Kngland with whom I was not much
thrown, and I never sought them out when it was left free
to choose. B accident, a few weeks before I left, I sat next



LIFE OF HENRY VAN RENSSELAER

one at recreation. He seemed downcast, and by some kindly
questions I found that although within a few months of his
vows, he had not grasped the idea of the religious life. He
had all kinds of doubts as to his vocation. I tried to show
him the serpent's trail, and pointed out the beauties of our
life. To my surprise, I found that he had always felt drawn
to me, although I had done nothing to deserve it. When I
left he was one of the most affected and the last to bid fare-
well, as he stole away from the others and was at the lodge
gate for a last good-bye. The other day I had a letter from
him saying how happy he now was in his vocation. He had
taken his vows, and his doubts had long since vanished.
The moral may apologize for my speaking of this, and I
was only the unworthy mouth-piece of the Holy Ghost."

In March he alludes feelingly to St. Joseph:

"Let us have great confidence; this should be the domi-
nant note of all our prayers; it will make them most pleas-
ing to God. We should ask like children who feel they have
a right to ask, and are sure of having their petition granted,
because they cannot conceive the possibility of their Father
being unable or unwilling to fulfil their desires. I think T
owe a great deal to St. Joseph. I am convinced that he
helped me to my vocation, as his month in Paris, our first
month as Catholics, was a fruitful season to me, although I
was then only groping in the dark and cold and could not
tell whither Providence was leading me. Those are happy
days to look back upon, but what a blessing to be settled in
our proper place."

The Winter of 1880-81 was unusually severe. Old-
timers could recall nothing like it. All the more enjoyable

19G



WOODSTOCK COLLEGE

was it when the Spring came in all its freshness, and the
scholastics could take their long walks in the environs of
Woodstock. How those days were spent and enjoyed by
Van Rensselaer, we learn in the following letter:

"May 12, 1881.

"Yesterday, the feast of St. Francis Jerome, Mr. X. and
I made an excursion. We left at 7 A. M. and got back at
a little after 6 in the evening. It was one of the pleasantest
days of my life. Mr. X. is amiable, clever, intellectual and
spiritual. We made our meditation on the way, pausing
now and then, when it was concluded, to rest ourselves and
pick wild flowers. Our chief object was to discuss the
'Fundamentum' of the Spiritual Exercises, which we did
from time to time, as the spirit moved us. The terminus of
our walk was a mission church belonging to us, about ten
miles away. We took a cold dinner with us and refreshed
ourselves at midday in the shady woods by the bank of a
stream. When we reached the church we played on the
harmonium and sang hymns, etc., to our hearts' content, and
then retraced our steps to Woodstock. It was a perfect day."


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Online LibraryEdward Peter SpillaneLife and letters of Henry Van Rensselaer, priest of the Society of Jesus → online text (page 14 of 23)