Doing ordinary things with love
Dries van den Akker SJ reflects on the the life of St Jan (John) Berchmans SJ - what made him a saint, and how can we emulate him?
‘A miracle! A miracle!’
Shortly after eight o’clock in the morning of the 13th of August in the year 1621 Jan Berchmans died at the age of twenty-two in the sick ward of the Roman College of the Jesuits. He was laid out in Saint Ignatius Church next to the College on the same day. Believers, and souvenir hunters, immediately came pouring in. There was pushing and shoving; people cried: “A miracle, a miracle!” After the prayer service it turned out that many people had torn a small piece from his clothes or the cloth on the bier, and taken it with them. The corpse had to be clothed anew. There was even a toe missing..
How was it possible for a young Flemish Jesuit, who had lived in Rome studying for only three years, to have become as famous as that, and to be venerated as a saint as soon as he died?
The best student
Over a month before, on July 8th, he had drawn people’s attention to himself because, being the best student in Jesuit training, he was allowed to hold the final debate. It was a kind of public examination that was organised at the end of the school year. All clerical and other dignitaries of Rome were invited. Anyone who was eager to be seen as beneficiary of God’s Church would attend. They were the sponsors. Often, the size of their donation depended on that Public Exam. If that went down well, they would proudly proclaim in their circles that they had contributed to it.
The best student of the year was challenged on all subjects of their study by a committee of teachers and guest teachers from different specialisms. The student was to summarize each argument of the learned examiner by heart, iterate each point and demonstrate what was right in it and what was not. And all that in compliance with the rules of Latin eloquence. In doing so, father Jan, soft-spoken as he was, combined amiability with firm views, and modesty with disarming humour. Someone in the audience whispered: “For all I know, rather than a young man standing there, he could be an angel.”
A month later, on August the 6th, Jan had been allowed to represent the training college in a similar debate at the Greek College. As it appeared at the last minute that the chairman of the day was unable to attend, Jan was asked to stand in. There too, those present were pleased by his charming performance.
Illness and death
Immediately after that tough day in the heat of the Roman summer he called on the nurse with a headache. In the following days his health deteriorated noticeably. He was completely exhausted. A week later he died with his cross, rosary and the rulebook in his hand.
What was his secret? His housemates said that Jan was always kind and cheerful. Indeed, they had nicknamed him brother Hilaris. He was a diligent student. When he had spent too little time on his studies because of his daily occupations, you could see the light in his room burning until very late at night. He was courteous, did everything he was asked to do with remarkable cheerfulness. One of his fellow brothers said: “I don’t know how he does it, but whenever I am in a sombre mood, I go and sit with him; then my sombre mood will be gone in a minute.” Every time that the Jesuits wanted to make a good impression on other people, they preferred to ask brother Hilaris. People liked him; nothing was too much for him. It duly led to his death in the end.
Further proof of this was found when his rector, Father Cepari, leafed through his personal notes. Within them he read of Jan’s devoutness and his attachment to his prayer life, how he tried to serve God in everything, especially in the ordinary things of everyday life. Exactly as he had learnt it from his novice master in the novitiate: “The most important thing in life is not to do extraordinary things, but to do the ordinary things in an extraordinary way.” For him, any service that was asked of him was a service to Jesus himself. Study, aversion and even physical discomfort were of no consequence. Father Cepari found that Jan had suffered from headaches and chronic fatigue for months before his death. That had gone completely unnoticed at home. Jan had consistently taken all this in his stride. The others and his study were of more importance: he served God in that way; and he dedicated his pain to Jesus, as his offering to Jesus’ suffering.
Father Cepari decided to write a book about Jan, as he had done before when, thirty years earlier, Aloysius Gonzaga had died at the age of 23. He sent two Flemish students back home with a relic of Jan. They had to make inquiries about Jan’s youth: in his birthplace Diest, and in Mechlin where he lived in lodgings and had completed the novitiate. His father was a master shoemaker, and a member of the town council; his mother was the daughter of a mayor. Jan was the eldest of five children, who were born within a six-year period. As his mother fell ill he learned to adjust himself at home already at an early age, to lend a hand in the family, not to be too noisy, to do the odd chore, to take the little ones out to play, to quietly withdraw in Jan (Johannes) Berchmans: to a corner. Even during that time, the desire to become a priest grew in him. When he was ten years old, the children were placed into care anyway. Jan came to live with a neighbouring pastor who was pleased, given Jan’s character and qualities, to take him in for a reasonable fee. Two years later he moved to Mechlin in order to visit the ‘Grootschool’ (secondary education). He lived with a canon and earned his living there as a servant taking care of two Dutch boys. Even though he was only thirteen he did well, for he had never done anything else. Each time that his duties took up too much of his time during the day, he would study at night.
Entering the Jesuit Order
When, three years later, a Jesuit College was founded in the town, Jan wanted to go there. Everyone around him was against it. But Jan went there all the same. The same thing happened when Jan decided to enter the Jesuit Order. This was preceded by a long period of pondering and praying. He had even spent the greater part of the money that he had carefully saved up for books on masses, in order to come to the right choice about for his life. What attracted him to the Jesuit Order? We may think of the inspiring lessons of the fathers at the College, in which science and faith were brought together. These lessons responded to his inquisitiveness and his desire for spiritual deepening; here too, he was the best pupil of his year. Or we may think of the personal guidance of the fathers in prayer and study. Or the fact that he had joined the Congregation of Mary, where he could perform to his heart’s content the pious practices that a congregationalist solemnly promised to do. We may also think of the principled position of the fathers on the emerging Reformation; they stood firm in their belief and bravely opposed errant doctrines. Later, when Jan explains to his parents that he wants to join the Jesuit, he calls the Society ‘the Hammer of all heresies’. But Jan himself will later state that he had not thought of entering before he read the biography of St Aloysius Gonzaga. Aloysius was the heir to the famous family of Gonzagas, but from an early age he had been captivated by God´s affairs. Everything else lost its appeal in comparison. Remarkable for someone who was used to spend his time in a very refined life at court. Out of love for Christ, Aloysius had taken up the care for plague victims. He became contaminated himself and perished. It is this that Jan recognized: the irresistible way in which God may captivate and attract you, through everything. Anything else, even one’s own welfare and health, appear less important. He read that Aloysius had resisted his father’s anger, kindly and with pain in his heart. To become a Jesuit was not the dream that father Gonzaga had cherished for his son. The same applied to Jan. After he had decided to enter, he wrote a letter to his parents. As could be expected, his father moved heaven and earth to dissuade him. Jan, who had always been compliant, appeared adamant without losing his kindness. Just like his great inspiration. When he had only been in the novitiate for a month, he received the message that his mother was dying; a plea to him to come home and say goodbye. Jan did not go; he wrote a pious letter. This was painful for his parents. But some months after his mother had died his father applied for the seminary so he could train as a priest. His priestly ordination took place more than a year later.
What makes Jan a saint? We might think of his ability to subordinate his pain and physical discomfort to his daily duties and services of love. After all, Jesus did the same in Gethsemane: “Father, let your will be done, not mine.” However courageous Jan’s attitude is and however much it was prompted by the enthusiasm of his young age, a critical note is appropriate here. Ignatius of Loyola always emphasised that health is very important. According to the Constitutions, Jan should have been more open and clear towards his superior on this matter. Jan´s superior and his housemates, too, should have been more aware of it.
Maybe we should try and seek his holiness in his desire to turn even the most ordinary things into services of love. In the spirit of Father Ignatius: to seek and find God in all things. To love and to serve in everything. To be a person of prayer. According to the reactions of the people around him, this grace was actually bestowed upon him.
Jan’s childhood years were marked by his mother’s illness. He had not had a home of his own since the age of ten. Of necessity he learned to obey, to be helpful, to be quiet, to take care of little children, to look out for other people’s needs, to efface himself; to study at night when he could not have done so during the day. God knows with how much pain grew alongside these virtues have developed inside him. And these are the very qualities in him, as a young Jesuit, which impressed people. The meaning of his religious life was to put everything that he had learned as a child at the service of God. To live for God, we might learn from Jan, does not imply that one must do things that one really is not capable of doing. But one should do, in the service of the gospel, the things that one can do: the ordinary things, with love.
Dries van den Akker SJ