St. Simon Stock—a Sturdy Kentishman —England's First Carmelite Friar
by Joseph Christie, S.J. FEAST OF ST. SIMON STOCK
(To-day) Friday, May 16
AT first sight the most intriguing thing about this great Kentish saint is his peculiar surname, bearing as it does a relationship to those of two other of his namesakes—Simon Peter and Simon Stylites. Although we are quite certain of their connection with the Rock and the Pillar, we have nothing evidential to go on, as far as the Carmelite's predilection for a Stock or tree trunk is concerned. The explanation offered by legend is that his early love of the hermit's life was manifested in the choice of an oak tree for a cell. True or false, this is the only account available of the origin of his charming name and we must, perforce, be content with it.
Conjecture plays too large a part in the story of St. Simon for any exact knowledge of his tire before 1247, the year when he was promoted to the Generalship of his Order at the Aylesford Chapter. Fr. Zimmerman, the distinguished Carmelite writer, has given it as his view that he left England for the Holy Land, where he joined the Carmelite Order, returning home in the train of the Earl of Cornwall's crusaders, With Simon Stock in this party was a future Provincial of the Order. Ralph Freshburn, who hailed from Northumbria.
Through Cornwall, a younger son of King John, the Friars were well received at Court and greatly helped by the nobility, Invited to Alnwick in his native county,
Ralph Freshbui n founded Huln Abbey, while Simon Stock returned to his own Kent and opened a house about a mile from Aylesford. Both the foundations were carried out in 1242 and with local vocations added to Friars returning from Saracen persecution, the numbers ol the Order rapidly increased.
HUNTED FRIARS It was necessary for the hunted Friars to re-settle in Europe amidst circumstances and conditions of lire to which the constitutions of the Order were not adapted. There were problems connected with climate. means of subsistence and intellectual training to be solved and. over and above, the need at official approbation.
This last difficulty arose from the fact that the confirmations granted by Popes Honorius III arid Innocent IV applied only to the Order as domiziled in the Holy Land. it was to deal with these pressing matters that the Aylesford Chapter of 1247 was convened and the hazy light of conjecture is momentarily clarified by its choice of Simon Stock as the man best fitted by nature and grace to guide the Order through difficult times.
OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE AS CENTRES Taking the most pressing problems first, the new General sent two men to Rome with the object of securing from the Pope the stabilisation of the Order in its new environment. Success justified his policy and choice of men since he obtained, through his legates, a Bull enjoining a favourable reception of the Friars and a Commission of enquiry into the Rule.
When the Pope had approved the findings of this Commission, fhe Rule was established that is still observed by disca[ced Carmelites and nuns.
One of the early difficulties troubling the Friars had been their inability to settle in places other than the most remote and uninhabited, but the revised rule empowered them to open houses where they willed and support themselves by active work.
St. Simon further realised the need for facilities in the education of his men with the result that he opened houses in Oxford and Cambridge where they might obtain the best education available and recruit members from the University type. He brought then; also to London, York, Bristol, Norwich and many other populous centres, where lay numerous opportunities for ensuring the salvation of others besides the perfection of themselves.
DIFFICULTIES ACCUMULATE Courageous as was the policy, it was not sterile of difficulties as burdensome to the sturdy old Kentish saint as those already successfully surmounted. Rapid •increase is in itself pregnant with problems and the growing Order was no exception to the general rule.
The fusion of the new University recruits with the simpler Friars, trained in a different school, was not an easy task. Besides their valuable gifts these men brought a counterbalance in the form of an independence of spirit difficult to control. There was jealousy, too, on the part of those who regarded the incursion of the Carmelites as unwanted and unnecessary—a jealousy not slow in making itself felt.
In 1256 a legal but severe persecution of the Order began reaching its climax in 1259 and lasting for about eleven years. Men grew restless under the strain, some leaving to seek refuge in other Orders.
In the evening of his life St. Simon, faced with the possible ruin of a great work for God, gathered his failing powers together to meet arid crush the danger, The chroniclers tell us that his faith in Our Lady was tremendous. During long nocturnal vigils the old General begged her to help him and his brethren in their FLOS CARMELI As might be expected, the faith he placed in the Mother of God was not allowed to go unrewarded. It was at this time that the famous vision, so closely connected with the Carmelite devotion to the scapular, took place. The Flos Carrneli, as he called Our Lady, told him that all who died faithful to the habit of his Order—she held it in her hand—would obtain eternal salvation, and she advised him to take his problems to Rome, St. Simon stayed the failing hearts of his brethren with the vision and its promise, spreading the devotion by a later miracle worked at Winchester, Success attended the appeal to Rome, giving St. Simon, before his death in 1265, the consolation of witnessing the series of Bulls in favour of his Order The life of this great English Carmelite is a tract for the times in its spirit of dogged tenacity and devotion to the Mother of God. He worked to establish what was, for England, a new Order, succeeding in the face of enormous difficulties by wisdom, courage and prayer. We. too. have a new order to build: if we use his means and emulate his courage we cannot fail to succeed.