Ablaze With the Love of Christ
Today’s Saint Alice of Schaerbeek, a Cistercian-Benedictine nun, was one of a constellation of holy women who in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries set the Low Countries all ablaze with love for Christ and, in particular, for the mystery of the Eucharist. Dame Alice died on June 11th, 1250; the Cistercian Order began celebrating her feast in 1702.
Thomas Merton wrote that the life of Saint Alice should be placed in the hands of every monk; he presented her as the perfect illustration of Chapter Seven of the Rule of Saint Benedict, On the Degrees of Humility. Father Chrysogonus Waddell ranked her with Thérèse of the Child Jesus and Elizabeth of Trinity; he saw her as the icon of that particular stream of Cistercian spirituality that Dom James Fox, abbot of Gethsemane in the 1950s, expressed in his abbatial motto: Deus crucifixus, God crucified.
This year again — as so often happens — the feast of Saint Alice falls within the erstwhile Octave of Corpus Christi. The significance of this “coincidence” should not be lost on us. If anything characterizes Saint Alice and the other holy women who were her contemporaries in the Low Countries, it is that they were all ablaze with “Eucharistic amazement.” I am thinking of Saint Lutgard whose feast occurs on June 16th, and also of Beatrice of Nazareth, Ida of Louvain, and Juliana of Mont-Cornillon. God inflamed their hearts, through the sacrament of the Eucharist, to give them the knowledge of his glory shining on the Face of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 4:6).
A Heart Crushed and Bruised
Living according to Rule of Saint Benedict, Saint Alice was configured to Jesus Crucified by her fidelity to the will of the Father in illness. She was a woman touched by suffering in every fiber of her being: all kinds of suffering. The saint’s most obvious suffering was the leprosy with which she was stricken after entering the Abbey of La Cambre, so called in honour of “the Chamber of the Virgin Mary.” Leprosy was, and to a certain extent remains, a disease that causes people to shudder. For Alice, leprosy was but the beginning. It brought in its wake other sufferings, sufferings of the heart, of the mind, and of the soul. It brought, more than anything else, a great loneliness. Her biographer says that the first night of her reclusion “her heart was so severely crushed and bruised, that her spirit fainted away, and her mind remained forcibly in shock.”
A Great Loneliness
Alice had entered her monastery to live with others, to share life, to love and to be loved in the communion of a Eucharistic body. Cistercian-Benedictine life meant, more than anything else, life together. Because of her illness, Alice was obliged to forsake life together, the very thing she thought would be her lifelong path to God. I often think of the loneliness of Alice, of her feelings of rejection, of isolation, of fear. Unlike Blessed Damien of Molokai who lived within a community of lepers, Alice had to live a great loneliness.
Refreshed with the Blood of Christ
I look at Alice in the little hut prepared for her outside the monastery, and I see an icon of the suffering Christ, the Christ of Gethsemane, the Christ who, in solitude, surrenders to the will of the Father for the salvation of the world. For fear of contagion, Alice was deprived of drinking from the chalice and of receiving the Precious Blood. One day, before her isolation, Dame Alice approached the altar with the other nuns for Holy Communion. The priest refused her the chalice of the Blood of Christ out of fear of contagion. Alice complained bitterly to the Lord in her heart. She burned to be inebriated with His Precious Blood, and was inconsolable about being deprived of the holy chalice. At that very moment, the voice of Christ sounded in her ears, saying:” Oh most loving daughter, do not be disturbed. Cease complaining as if something had been withdrawn from you. Firm faith calls for any who have tasted of My Body to rejoice in the belief beyond doubt that they are also being refreshed with My Blood.”
As One From Whom Men Hide Their Faces
It was with the greatest revulsion that the chaplain of her monastery brought the Body of the Lord to entrance of her little hut. Receiving the glorious Body of the Lord, she came to resemble, more and more, his humiliated and crucified Body. Her Eucharistic transfiguration grew in proportion to her outward disfiguration. The suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy conformed her to his own likeness: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces” (Is 53:3).
The Contagion of Holiness
By a strange and wonderful disposition of God, Alice was able to reach out and heal others in their afflictions, but herself she could not heal. Many dreaded possible contagion from Alice; the only contagion permitted by God was the contagion of holiness.
Death in Us, Life in You
One day another nun, Dame Ida, seeing the extent of Alice’s sufferings, began to groan and wail and weep. Alice, all disfigured and frightfully handicapped, consoled her, saying: “Sweetest Sister! Be not so afflicted! Do not imagine that is for sins of my own that I am prey to these torments. Rather, it is for the deceased, subject to long, excruciating detention in purgatory, and for the sinners of the world, already miserably trapped in the fowlers’ snares and apt to be endlessly seduced. Yes, while this penalty, as you see, is rapidly consuming me, it is also having the happy effect of releasing the living, and of freeing the deceased from all such snares.” Saint Alice’s theology of suffering was that of Saint Paul: “Death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:12).
Like the Bark of an Old Tree
At the end of her life, Saint Alice’s skin had become furrowed and hard like the bark of an old tree; her hands, so needed for even her limited tasks, were long shrunken from the illness. The disease affected her entire body, from head to foot. Her biographer says that, “all who caught sight of that body were shocked to a standstill, awestruck as at the sight of some terrible monster. They were convinced no creature could anywhere be found comparable with her for horror.”
Christ, the Divine Cellarer
Only Dame Alice’s tongue was left intact, and she used it to praise God until her dying breath. With the praise of God ever in her mouth, Alice found, in her solitude, a communion surpassing all that she had hoped to find in the company of her sisters. Touchingly, Our Lord tells Alice that He will be her cellarer; that is, that, according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, He will be a father to her, providing for all her needs. “My child,” He says, “I shall never leave you nor forsake you.”
The Pierced Heart
This promise of Christ was fulfilled in the mystery of the Eucharist. Receiving the Body of Christ, she knew that in that same sacrament of love He was welcoming her, drawing her into the inner chamber of His pierced Heart. Her humiliation, her sufferings, her loneliness were assumed eucharistically into His. And like Christ, the suffering Servant, Alice became wounded healer of both souls and bodies.
Compline and Matins
Saint Alice’s death agony began on Friday after Compline. She said her good-byes and recommended her soul to God in imitation of Jesus Crucified. Precisely at sunrise — a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, the Sun of Justice — she sighed gently and gave up her spirit. Designedly, Alice’s biographer described her death in terms borrowed from the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Christ. Saint Alice’s death was the culmination of her configuration to the crucified and risen Bridegroom.