IPUT these two boys together, because of the likeness of their vocation and fidelity to it, and because of their difference in practically everything else.
Stanislaus belonged to the great nobility of Poland, so his boyhood experienced a great deal of grandeur, of robust simplicity, of athletic freedom, of coarseness of talk, and of a Catholic piety taken for granted. There is an ancient painting' on wood, which has every chance of being authentic. He had the round Polish head; his black hair was cropped short; his blue eyes were prominent; and in the picture it is quite obvious that he is trying not to laugh. There is no hint at all that he did not possess to the full the fascinating Polish temperament, quick in its reactions to emotional challenges; gay and melancholy by turns; able to absorb itself in devotion and be just as vehement, a minute afterwards, on horseback, in the water; and so truly aristocratic as never to find the slightest difficulty in associating gladly and freely with anyone who might come along.
In such a period, and in such circumstances, prudery (as 1 have often had to say about St. Aloysius) was out of the question: but he had a true sensitiveness of spirit which made him loathe what was unclean: his father, during the rather rowdy supper parties, would have to cry out: "Don't tell that story! We should have Stanislaus fainting. . ."
The Elder Brother After a preliminary education at home under a tutor called Bilinski, he and his elder brother Paul were sent, under Bilinski's guard, to Vienna. At first they lodged with the pupils of the Jesuit college there; but in a few months the Emperor took back the house that his predecessor had lent to them, and Paul persuaded Bilinski to hire smarter lodgings in the town.
Unluckily, the landlord was a Lutheran, which was not at all to Stanislaus's taste. We have not to create melodramatic contrasts by painting Paul dead black, and Stanislaus a snowy white. Yet Paul was extremely proud of being a prince; he spent all he could on clothes; he ranged around the town at night; and it would be straining one's sense of probability to suppose that he was particularly virtuous.
Now while, at first, he had simply thought Stanislaus to be silly, and to have no spirit, the sheer contrast between what Paul knew to be right, which he was aware of in his brother, and what he knew was wrong, and was aware of in himself, developed into hatred : he bullied the boy atrociously; just. because Stanislaus did not resist, he knocked him about all the more violently; and above all the continual mental pressure on the boy's mind (for Bilinski was worse than useless) became intolerable. He actually told his brother that if he did not let him alone, he would run away. Before a boy like Stanktaus runs away you may be sure that he has suffered atrociously. Anyhow, before that happened, he fell ill. In his delirium, he saw black dogs attacking him : he routed them with the sign of the Cross. He asked for Holy Viaticum : the Lutheran refused to allow the Blessed Sacrament into his house. Bilinski, now thoroughly frightened, was sitting up with him. Suddenly he saw Stanislaus rise and kneel on his bed : he declared that St. Barbara (patron of the Last Sacraments) and two angels had brought him his Communion. Another time, he felt that he had seen Our Lady, who placed her Child in his arms, and told him that he would be-though not yet-a member of the Society of Jesus.
He applied, in Vienna, for permission to enter as a novice. With what one cannot much admire in the line of candour, he was refused (for fear of his father); but was given letters of introduction to St. Peter Canisius, provincial of upper Germany.
Stanislaus told one of his school friends what he proposed to do, and ran away. Paul and Bilinski pursued him. Here the narrative is not surprisingly confused. Did they pass him without recognising him in his peasant's dress? Did their horses re fuse to proceed? I cannot feel any security about this very dramatic part of the story.
Stanislaus arrived at Augsburg only to
learn that Canisius was further on, at Dillingen. Canisius is the most reliable personage in this episode. He was a man of hard sense as well as learned and as well as holy. He put the young prince to wait on the students in the college there and to clean their rooms. Stanislaus, despite his tramp of 350 miles, enjoyed it immensely, the real point being that no one knew he was not a servant, so he got no direct flattery from decent young men impressed by being waited on by a prince-engaged-inhumbling himself.
After three weeks, Canisius sent him on to Rome, saying curtly that " much may be expected from him." Up, via Innsbruck, over the Alps he climbed, and down into the loveliness of Italy. I cannot at present reckon up the mileage.
Stanislaus began his noviciate at once (1567) and received a furious letter from his father, who threatened to have all the Jesuit houses in Poland suppressed if he did not return.
1 am here met by a (presumably) insoluble problem. What is almost certainly a myth-that St. Francis Regis was dismissed from the Society of Jesus but died just in time before the dismissal letters could reach him, contains the remark : " Just as Stanislaus Kostka was dismissed." I ask myself : Did the question seriously arise? Did the Roman Jesuits think that it was better, after all, to let one novice go, rather than to have their very existence throughout the kingdom of Poland annihilated? I must say-had I been a Roman superior just then, 1 should have felt inclined to say to Stanislaus : "My dear boy : we would love to keep you: we hope to have you yet some day amongst us: but would you yourself wish to have the whole of the Society suppressed throughout all your native land, for your private consolation?" There is not a shred of evidence (so far as I know) that the suggestion was ever made : but in itself, it could not seem to me an astonishing one. Anyhow, it would have been waste of time.
" I Shall Die Of It" The boy, who was only seventeen, had been torn out of the whole sort of life to which he had been brought up. He had had two enormous marches over mountains, and very little food. The terrific heat of Rome in July and August slogged at him. He began to have fainting fits. He felt sure he would not be able to resist for any long time. When he was put to bed, a friend, Fr. Fazio, said : " You man of little heart! Do you give up for so little?" He answered : " A man of little heart indeed 1 am: but this is not little: for I shall die of it." He then asked for the Last Sacraments: and early on the morning of the Feast of the Assumption, he, as he had hoped, died, having felt that toward three in the morning Our Lady. accompanied by angels, had come to accompany her very tired little son into his eternal rest.
A Courtesy Somewhat later, Paul arrived in Rome, fully armed with authority to bring the boy home at all costs. But he was dead. The shock to Paul was terrible. His whole mental outlook changed : he, with Bainski, became important witnesses in the Cause of Canonisation : and at 60, Paul himself asked to become a Jesuit. By a very touching act of courtesy, the Church, unable to put his Feast on August 15, already occupied by the Assumption, placed it on the death-day of Paul, November 13. So we can think of the two brothers as more closely associated than we could have imagined they ever would be.
Son of a Shoemaker
I like to put beside him, not that other famous grandee, Aloysius Gonzaga, but John Berchmans, born in 1599 in Flanders, son of a shoemaker.
He was a bright lad, clever at acting in pious plays, rather " taken up" by admir
ing ecclesiastics; but, when 13, it became clear that he must earn something so as to help to support his brothers and sisters. He wanted to be a priest-how many boys dol-but was put to be servant to a Canon of Malines. He waited at table, very nicely: he followed the not unsporting Canon who liked to shoot duck, and even taught a dog to retrieve.
Meanwhile, in 1615, the Jesuits opened a college at Malines, and John asked to study there, and was accepted : whence " a great gulf fixed " between the Canon and the Jesuits, who appeared to be poaching. Inevitably, he became a Jesuit.
Different " Approach" Now John's " approach " to the Jesuits was quite different from Stanislaus's half a century before. In a sense Stanislaus's approach had involved the defiance of almost everything: in John's case, he had lived always among little things, and though regrets would certainly be felt in his father's shop, "The Big and Little Moon," at Diest, and though Jesuits and Canons might for a while be at loggerheads about him, there was no question of whole kingdoms being upset by his decision.
John had in fact a sort of cult for "little things." His motto was, in fact: " Rank the smallest as the greatest ": and there is a meticulousness about his methods which might have driven a more sketchy-minded character almost crazy. But this did not at all imply that he was " pettifogging." He was very ardent by temperament, and his great desire was to be military chaplain in Flanders. He was also very sharpwitted; undoubtedly a purely commercial life was not meant for him; he had a remarkable power of so concentrating that he could " take in several subjects at the same time "; and when he had finished his philosophy at Rome he " defended," as exceptionally brilliant students were bidden to do, "all philosophy" in public. This was in July, 1621.
His Health A good deal of new material has recently been published about St. John Berchmans; but 1 have not been able properly to assimilate it yet. One point has, however, struck me-his consciousness of increasingly bad health-almost, his preoccupation with the problem that it set him.
" My penance," he wrote with singular frankness, " is the common life "-i.e., the living exteriorly just like everyone else, while not only needing to recover from the strain of a ten weeks' tramp from Antwerp to Rome in mid-winter (he had but one companion, a boy of his own age, apparently), but having to adapt himself to a very enclosed existence no more duck-shooting!-to lead the most intense " interior " life of study and prayer, and finally having to prepare for his public " defence " when he was feeling very ill, largely by reason of the heavy Roman heat, and indeed taking a leading part in another such "disputation " on the sixth of the suffocating month of August.
Moreover, it was always he who had to show visitors round Rome, and to serve Mass after Mass, an occupation which out
ran the patience of his confreres. For various reasons he began to feel sure he was soon to die, and hoped that he might " keep the coming feast of the Assumption in heaven." He fell sick, in fact, on August 7; his main worry was that the death of a second Flemish student in Rome might create friction between the two provinces: that the air of his infirmary might be kept fresh in case of visitors: and lest the wine with which they rubbed his forehead might be too expensive. When he was told that it wasn't, he remarked rather dryly : " Then you might pour it out a
little more generously." He died very peacefully on August 13, and celebrated his mother's feast where he had hoped to.
As sometimes happens (we have often said that God achieves His purposes in ways that defeat human probability), Rome seemed to know of this quite obscure young student all in a flash. • His funeral might have been royal, for the crowds. Within a few years, ten of the best engravers in Flanders had published his portrait-at least 24,000 copies were immediately struck off; not to mention a host of drawings or paintings by lesser-known artists.