On the Feast of St. John Berchmans, SJ


If you have the honor of the Society at heart, cherish modesty.
—St. John Berchmans, SJ

St. John Berchmans (1599-1621) is one of more difficult Jesuit saints to cozy up to nowadays.  Born of solid burgher stock in Flanders, he entered the Jesuits over the moderate opposition of his parents and died at the age of 22 (from studying too much).  He saw no mission lands and made no notable contribution to the arts or sciences.  In fact, it seems that he stood out mostly for his “regularity,” i.e., of his cheerful and exact observance of the rules, most of which prescribed impulse control and governed religious decorum.  I doubt that even Louis de Wohl could make a historical novel out of such scant material.

Still, the fact that a canonized saint devoted himself so wholeheartedly to external observances raises an interesting question: Is there a bearing or demeanor suited to Catholic religious of every time and place?  Before dismissing the idea out of hand, I think it worth mentioning that Ignatius not only thought that there was such a decorum, but he even wrote up “Rules of Modesty” detailing its more important elements.  These rules on “modesty” were not guidelines on covering up (a shift of meaning that suggests how much our understanding of morality has narrowed), but rules designed to govern “all outward actions” such that “there should appear modesty and humility, joined with religious gravity.”  Not content with vague exhortations, Ignatius goes so far as to specify how to hold one’s head (“straight, with a little inclination forward, without leaning on either side”) and eyes (typically “down” and slightly averted from the eyes of “men of authority”); he likewise explains how to maintain one’s forehead and nose (without furrows), one’s lips (“neither … too much shut nor too much open”), one’s whole countenance (“cheerful”), one’s hands (“decently quiet”), and one’s gait (“moderate” and “without any notable haste”).  As Ignatius saw, it exterior composure both reflected and supported interior composure.

Ignatius’ detailed rules seem a bit comical—or even neurotic—to us nowadays.  But complete dismissal is not so easy.  Few care to deny that our composure communicates something about how we understand ourselves and our place in the world.  Charles Taylor, with his typical flair for evoking what we already recognize (but seldom articulate), notes that a culture of honor and shame still forms the hidden background of many small actions:

The very way we walk, move, gesture speak is shaped from the earliest moments by our awareness that we appear before others, that we stand in public space, that this space is potentially one of respect or contempt, of pride or of shame.  Our style of movement expresses how we see ourselves as enjoying respect or lacking it, as commanding it or failing to do so.  Some people flit through public space as though avoiding it … others swagger, confident of how their presence marks it: think of the carefully leisurely way the policeman gets out of his car, having stopped you for speeding, and the slow, swaying walk over as he comes to demand your licence (Sources of the Self 15).

Neither do we expect a distinctive bearing from our soldiers and presidents alone.  We also feel secretly disappointed if a religious “guru” (NB: the word is etymologically related to “grave”) fails to cut a certain figure.  The expectations remain so consistent, in fact, that Jesuit Fathers Barry and Connolly can playfully evoke them in their book on spiritual direction:

“When one hears someone described as a spiritual director, one might, at least subconsciously, picture an ageless, emaciated man in a cowled robe, with his eyes cast down and his hands hidden in flowing sleeves.  He sits in a whitewashed, cramped room with one small, barred window high on the wall beside him ….  [This image of the spiritual director] suggests a distaste for life and a withdrawal from it, a ponderous, intricate system of thought that makes no contact with the basic energies and drives of life, but floats a little above them, like a cloud-world ” (Practice of Spiritual Direction 9).

Tellingly, Barry and Connolly presume—no less than Ignatius—that the fictional spiritual director’s demeanor signifies in a way that is neither ambiguous nor culture-bound.  They merely disapprove of the message, inasmuch as it “suggests a distaste for life” and “makes no contact with the basic energies and drives of life.”  Matching archetypal religious decorum, in other words, has little to do with authentic spirituality, with the nitty-gritty of daily life and its demands.  Here one can readily agree that a grave bearing is at least not the most important quality in a spiritual director.

St. John Berchmans, however, would certainly have objected to the idea that it is of no importance at all.  After all, several traits of the conjured “guru”—e.g., the downcast eyes, the hidden hands, and the custody of the senses assisted by “whitewashed” walls—are prescribed by the “Rules of Modesty” that Berchmans so loved.  At the very least, St. John would have been surprised to hear that such disciplines makes “no contact with basic energies and drives of life.”  He could have argued, on the contrary, that religious modesty touches some of life’s most “basic energies”: our awareness that we “appear before others,” our natural curiosity, our spontaneous impulses and reactions.  Finally, John’s whole style of holiness forms a sort of embodied objection.  One might question any particular rule, but St. John’s rapid transformation suggests that we all do well descend to a similar level of detail in our self-examination.

It seems to be Ignatius’ genius to have appreciated the importance of all aspects of human experience and, for the purpose of glorifying God, to have attempted to trace the sign of the cross over them all.  Everything human was to be examined in the light of Christ and unsparingly put into order.  Berchmans, for his part, seems to have embraced the “Rules of Modesty” not as a sort of religious vanity, but as a dimension of this evangelical ordering.  Reflecting on the life of Berchmans, Fr. Virgil Cepari, SJ, wrote in the preface to the saint’s first biography: “I take it that I am a member of a religious Order in which (by the grace of God) little things, whether for good or for evil, are regarded as important for the purpose of making us absolutely perfect Religious.”  Perhaps this best sums up the contemporary meaning of Berchmans’s “regularity.”


3 Responses to On the Feast of St. John Berchmans, SJ

  1. frjoseph says:

    Modesty, a rare element in today’s dress . .all you need to do is look at our Sunday worship . . it seems anything goes. It is now to the point that pastors need to advise parish members of the proper attire for worship. It would seem mothers and fathers would do that, but, in some cases they are dressed as badly as the children.

    None of them would win Mr. Black’s best dressed award!

    Good read for all . ..too bad that we even have to remind people about modesty .. .at age 80, I guess I am slowly by passing my time. ..great Advent, young man!

  2. thank yu aaron, that was magnificent write up on John, very much hits home

  3. […]  the cultivation of a grave and measured bearing (which St. Ignatius, by the way, rather prized—see here).  Pablo, who met his death while hiking with a young woman on Mt. Moncayo, is hardly the […]

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