Catholic World – Dom Guéranger and Solesmes

print of Father Prosper Louis Paschal Guéranger, 1874, by Claude-Ferdinand GaillardThe church in France has just sustained a severe loss in the death of Dom Guéranger, the illustrious Abbot of Solesmes, who, on the 30th of January 1875, rendered up his soul to God in the noble abbey which he had restored at the same time that he brought back the Benedictine Order to France; and where, during the last forty years of his life, he had lived in the practice of every monastic virtue, and in the pursuit of literary labors which have rendered him one of the oracles of ecclesiastical learning.

We are not about to enter into details of the religious life of the venerable abbot. It belongs rather to those who have been its daily witnesses to trace its history; but we feel that it may be of interest to touch upon certain features of the character and public works of this humble and patient religious, this vigorous athlete, the loss of whom is so keenly felt by the Holy Father, whose friend and counsellor he was, and by the church, of which he was the honor and the unwearied defender.

Dom Guéranger, in mental temperament, belonged to that valiant generation of Catholics who, after 1830, energetically undertook the cause of religion in their unhappy country, more than ever exposed to the attacks of the Revolution. The university had become a source of anti-christian teaching; the press everywhere overflowed with evil and daring scandals of every kind were rife. A new generation of Jacobins had sprung from the old stock, and were eager to invade everything noble, venerable, and sacred; legal tyranny threatened to do away with well-nigh all liberty of conscience, while the government, either not daring or not desiring to sever itself from the ambitious conspirators to whom it owed its being, allowed free course to the outrages and persecutions against the church. It was the most critical and ominous period of the century, and French society was rapidly sinking into an abyss.

One man, who had foreseen all this evil, and whose genius would have probably sufficed victoriously to combat it, had he only possessed the virtue of humility, was M. de Lamennais. Happily, the pleiades of chosen minds whom he had gathered around him did not lose courage after the melancholy defection of their brilliant master. The three most illustrious of these shared among them the defence of the faith against the floods of unbelief that threatened to overwhelm the country. Montalembert remained to defend the church in the public assemblies; Lacordaire adopted as his own the words of Saint Paul to his disciple, Prædica verbum, insta opportune, importune, and succeeded so effectually that he brought back the robe of Saint Dominic into the pulpit of Notre Dame, amid the applause of the conquered multitude; Guéranger felt that prayer and sound learning were the two great wants of society. The number of priests was insufficient for the labors of the sacred ministry. The needs of the time had indeed called forth some few weighty as well as brilliant apologists; but deep and solid learning as yet remained buried in the past, and the patient study so necessary for the polemics of the present and the future threatened indefinitely to languish. It was to this point, therefore, that the Abbé Guéranger directed his especial attention, and he it was who was chosen of God to rekindle the expiring, if not extinguished, flame.

He was led to this sooner than he himself had perhaps anticipated, and by a circumstance which rather appeared likely to have disturbed his projects. Solesmes, which, up to the Revolution, had been a priory dependent on Saint Vincent de Mans, had just been sold to one of those “infernal bands” who in the course of a few years destroyed the greatest glories of France. Everything was to be pulled down: the cloister of eight centuries and the church, renowned for the admirable sculptures now doomed to fall beneath the “axe and hammer”; the authorities of the time doing nothing to check the devastation effected by the bandits who were rifling their country after having assassinated her.

The Abbé Guéranger could not endure to witness the annihilation of so much that was sacred and venerable; besides, the ruins of Solesmes were especially dear to him, and had been the favorite haunt of his early childhood and youth, so much so that from this and other characteristic circumstances he was at that period known among his school comrades at Le Sablé as The Monk. In concert with Dom Fontaine and other ecclesiastics of the neighborhood he rescued the abbey from the hands of its intending destroyers. It had already suffered considerably from the Revolution, but remained intact in all essential particulars. He spent the winter of 1833 at Paris, going about the city in his monk’s habit – which at that time had become a novelty – and knocking at every door, without troubling himself about the religious opinions or belief of those to whom he addressed himself. The sceptical citizens of the time amused themselves not a little at his expense; but the learned world received with distinction the energetic young priest who was so bent upon giving back the Benedictine Order to France. He never once allowed any obstacles to hinder or discourage him in the prosecution of his undertaking. In 1836 he repaired to Rome, there to make his novitiate; and, after a year passed in the Benedictine Abbey of San Paolo Fuora Muri, he pronounced his solemn vows, and occupied himself in preparing the constitutions of Solesmes. These, on the 1st of September, 1837, were approved by Pope Gregory XVI, who at the same time raised the Priory of Solesmes into an abbey, and authoritatively nominated Dom Guéranger to be its first abbot.

Solesmes and the grand Order of Saint Benedict were thus restored to France. The new abbot was soon surrounded by men nearly all of whom have taken a distinguished rank in learning and science, and during forty years the austere discipline and deep and extensive studies of the sons of Saint Benedict flourished under his able rule.

Dom Guéranger, moreover, restored Ligugé, the oldest monastery in France, built in 360 by Saint Martin of Tours. He also founded the Priory of Saint Madeleine at Marseilles, and at Solesmes the Abbey of Benedictine Nuns of Saint Cecilia.

The attention he bestowed upon these important foundations did not hinder this indefatigable religious from amassing the treasures of erudition which he dispensed with so much ability in defence of the truth and of sound doctrine. To the end of his life his pen was active either in writing the numerous works which have rendered his name so well known, or in correcting the errors of polemics and answering his adversaries when the interests of religion required it; habitually going straight to the point in his replies, fearlessly attacking whatever was false or mistaken, and never allowing any approach to a compromise with error. The defence of the church was his constant and engrossing thought, and no important controversy arose but he was sure to appear with the accuracy of his learning and the always serious but unsparing process of a logic supported by a thorough acquaintance with doctrine and facts.

The Abbot of Solesmes was endowed with a large amount of prudence and good sense. When his former companions of La Chesnaie undertook to popularize “liberal Catholicism,” the precise creed of which has never yet been ascertained, and the unfailing results of which have been scandal and division, he undertook to bring back the church in France to unity of prayer by writing his book entitled Institutions Liturgiques, which, exhibiting in all their beauty the forgotten rites and symbols, succeeded in securing for them the appreciation they merit; so that from that time the liturgy in France began to disengage itself from the multiplicity of particular observances.

In this matter Dom Guéranger had engaged in no trifling combat, his opponents being many and powerful; but he energetically defended his ground, and did not die until he had seen his undertaking crowned with full success by the restoration of the Roman liturgy in France.

Besides these liturgical labors, which chiefly occupied him, and his Letters to the Archbishops of Rheims and Toulouse, as likewise to Mgr. Fayet, Bishop of Orleans, in defence of the Institutions, he undertook the Liturgical Year, which, unfortunately, was left unfinished at his death. His Mémoire upon the Immaculate Conception was included among those memorials sent to the bishops by the Sovereign Pontiff on the promulgation of the dogma. His Sainte Cécile, remarkable for its historical accuracy, as well as for its excellence as a literary composition, is a finished picture of Christian manners during the earliest centuries.

When the Vatican Council was sitting, Dom Guéranger appeared for the last time in the breach. Confined a prisoner by sickness, but intrepid as those old captains who insist on being borne into the midst of the fight, he wished to take part in the great debate which was being carried on in the church. He fought valiantly, and answered the adversaries of tradition by his work on The Pontifical Monarchy, defending Pope Honorius against the attacks of an ill-informed academician.

We are unable to give a complete list of the writings of Dom Guéranger, numerous articles having been published by him in the Univers – notably those on Maria d’Agreda and the reply to an exaggerated idea of M. d’Haussonville on the attitude of the church under the persecution of the First Bonaparte. We will only name, in concluding this part of the subject, his Essais sur le Naturalisme, which dealt a heavy blow to free-thinking; his Réponses upon the liturgical law to M. l’Abbé David, now Bishop of St. Brieuc; and a Défense des Jesuites.

Should it be asked how the Abbot of Solesmes could find the time for so many considerable works, the answer is given in the Imitation: Cella continuata dulcescit. He had made retreat a willing necessity for himself, and, being in the habit of doing everything in its proper time, he had time for everything without need of haste.

From the day that he became Abbot of Solesmes he was scarcely ever seen in the world, never absenting himself without absolute necessity or from obedience. Of middle height, decided manner, with a quick eye and serious smile, Dom Guéranger attracted those who came to him by the simplicity and kindness of his reception, and those who sought his advice by the discerning wisdom of his counsels. High ecclesiastical dignities might have been his had he not preferred to remain in the seclusion of his beloved abbey.

He leaves behind him something far better than even his books, in bequeathing to the church and to society a family of monks strongly imbued with his spirit, and destined to perpetuate the holy traditions which he was the first to revive in his native land.

The imposing ceremonies of the funeral of Dom Guéranger, which took place on the 4th of February at the Abbey of Solesmes, were conducted by the Bishops of Mans, Nantes, and Quimper; there were also present the Abbots of Ligugé, La Trappe de Mortagne, Aiguebelle, and Pierre-qui-Vire, besides more than two hundred priests of La Sarthe.

The remains of the reverend father, clothed in pontifical vestments, with the mitre and crozier, were exposed in the church from the evening of the 30th (Saturday) for the visits of the faithful, crowds of whom came from all the country round, in spite of the exceeding inclemency of the weather, to pay their last respects and to be present at the funeral of the illustrious man, who, during his forty years’ residence among them, had made himself so greatly beloved. Just before the close of the ceremony, when the Bishop of Mans invited those present to look for the last time upon the holy and beautiful countenance of the departed abbot, who had been a father to many outside as well as within the cloister walls, a general and irrepressible burst of sobs and tears arose from the multitude which thronged the church.

Among those present were many noble and learned friends of the deceased, besides the mayor and municipal council of Solesmes, and also of Sablé (Dom Guéranger’s native place), a deputation of the marble-workers of the district, and people of every class.

“La voyez vous croitre,
La tour du vieux cloitre?”

Before concluding our notice we must devote a page or two to the “Old Cloister Tower,” which is discernible from a considerable distance, with its four or five stories and its heraldic crown rising above the walls of the ancient borough of Solesmes. The abbey itself next appears in sight, majestically seated on the slope of a wide valley, through which flows the Sarthe, on a level with its grassy borders.

The locality, which is pleasing rather than picturesque, is fertile, animated, and cheerful. Besides several châteaux of recent construction, which face the abbey from the opposite side of the river, may be seen, at some distance off, the splendid convent of Benedictine Nuns, built some years ago by a lady of Marseilles, and on the horizon appears the Château of Sablé, with its vast terraces and (according to the country-people) its three hundred and sixty-five windows.

The Abbey of Solesmes, founded about the year 1025, has preserved, in spite of several reconstructions, the architectural arrangement, so suitable for community life, copied by its first monks from the Roman houses of the order. The enclosure consists of a quadrangle, with an almost interminable cloister, out of which are entrances into the church, the chapter-house, the refectory, the guest-chamber, and all the places of daily assembly. There silence and recollection reign supreme. Excepting only during the times of recreation, no sound is to be heard save the twittering of birds, the sound of the Angelus or some other occasional bell, or the subdued voice of a monk who, with some visitor, is standing before a sculptured saint, or examining the fragments of some ancient tomb.

It is chiefly the abbey church which attracts the curiosity and interest of artists and antiquaries. There is not an archæologist who has not heard of the “Saints of Solesmes,” as the groups of statues and symbolic sculptures are called which fill the chapels of the transept from roof to pavement. These wonderful works, executed for the most part under the direction of the priors of Solesmes, form one of the finest monuments of mediæval sculpture to be found in France. They are mystic and somewhat mannered in style, but of bold conception, vigorously expressed.

A multitude of personages, sacred, historical, or allegorical, intermingle with coats-of-arms, heraldic devices, bandrols, and all the details of an ornamentation of which the skilfully-studied arrangement corrects the redundance, which would otherwise be confused. This, however, is but the purely decorative portion; the principal works being enshrined in deep niches or recesses, in which may be seen groups of seven or eight figures, the size of life, and wonderfully effective in attitude and action.

In a low-vaulted crypt resting on pillars, to the right, is represented the Entombment. This group, which is the earliest in date, having been executed in 1496 under the direction of Michel Colomb, “habitant de Tours et tailleur d’ymaiges du roy,” is the most considerable, and perhaps also the most striking. All the figures, ten in number, have impressed on their countenances and movements the feeling of the dolorous function in which they are engaged. Most of them are represented in the costume, and probably with the features, of persons of the time. Joseph of Arimathea in particular has the look and bearing of the lord of the place, or, it may be, of the prior of the monastery. But nothing attracts the attention more than a little statue with features so refined that it might have descended from the canvas of Carlo Dolci. It is the Magdalen, seated in the dust; the elbows supported on the knees, the hands joined, the eyes closed. All her life seems concentrated in her soul; and that is absorbed in penitence and prayer, grief, love, and resignation – she is as if still shedding her sanctified odors at the Saviour’s feet.

The left transept is devoted to the honor of the Blessed Virgin. She has fallen asleep in the Lord, surrounded by the apostles. Then follow her burial, her Assumption, and finally her glorification. She tramples under foot the dragon, who, with bristling horns and claws, vainly endeavors to reach her. He is bound for a thousand years. This subject, rarely attempted, is here powerfully treated; all these heads, with horrible grimaces, appear to be howling and blaspheming in impotent fury – Et iratus est draco in mulierem – but the Woman is raised on high, and with her virginal foot tramples on the enemy of mankind. Facing this subject are the patriarchs and prophets, in niches royally decorated. This work was executed in 1550 by Floris d’Anvers, after the plan given by Jean Bouglet, Doctor of the Sorbonne, and Prior of Solesmes.

But time would fail us to describe all these remarkable sculptures, which so narrowly escaped destruction or desecration at the hands of the revolutionists. The First Napoleon had the idea of transporting them to some museum as curiosities of art. It would have been a sacrilege, and one which, alas! has been too often perpetrated in other countries besides France. But what Catholic that visits the garden even, to say nothing of the museum, of the ancient monastery of Cluny (now Musée de Cluny, at Paris), is not pained at seeing saints and virgins, angels and apostles, more or less shattered and dismembered, torn from their places in the sanctuary, and figuring as statues on the lawn, or mere groups of sculpture picturesquely placed to assist the effect of the gardener’s arrangement of the shrubs and flower-beds?

Bonaparte, however (after testing with gimlet and saw the hardness of the stone), found himself obliged to leave the “Saints of Solesmes” where they were, as, unless the whole were to be ruined, the entire transept would have had to be transported all in one piece, every part of this immense sculptured fresco being connected and, as it were, enwound with the other portions, and each detail having only its particular excellence in the completeness of the rest.

It is amid the ceremonies of Solesmes that those who enter into the spirit of Christian art can penetrate more deeply into the meaning of the vast poem carved upon the walls of the church. During the simple recital of the psalms, as in the most solemn and magnificent ceremonies, there is a striking harmony between the decoration and the action, the one being a commentary on the other. The monks, motionless in their carven stalls, or disposed on the steps of the altar, seem to make one with the Jerusalem in stone, while the saints in their niches may almost be imagined to sing with the psalmody and meditate during the solemn rites at which they are present. At the most solemn moment of the Mass, when clouds of incense are filling the holy place, the mystic dove descends, bearing between her silver wings the Bread of Heaven, and, when it is deposited in the pyx, mounts again into her aerial shrine, which is suspended from a lofty cross.

This custom of elevating the tabernacle between heaven and earth was not the only one in which the venerable abbot exactly copied the ancient rites. The ceremonies of Solesmes are full of the spirit of the church’s liturgy, and the community formed by his teaching and example will not fail to perpetuate the pious and venerable observances which he was the first to restore in France.

– text from Catholic World, May 1875″>1875 issue