Fr. Jean Brébeuf on Missionary Vocations II

Source: District of Asia

Οn July 16, 1636, Father Jean de Brébeuf wrote a lengthy report to his religious superior. Father Paul Le Jeune, on the state of his mission among the Huron savages, to the east of what is now Lake Huron. The document contains some fascinating chapters, illustrating what might be called the romance of the missions. In chapter three, however, by way of interlude, the heroic missionary decides to give a timely word of advice to those in France, presumably his younger religious brethren, who are ardently longing to go on the foreign missions of New France. He does not "pull his punches" when he tells of the hardships, trials, and sufferings of missionary life, but neither does he omit the compensations and consolations of that apostolate. In these lines Brébeuf seems to be giving us the proper technique in dealing with a vocation to the missions. It is this; don't overemphasize the romance, but tell the truth, the whole truth, the bitter along with the sweet, of the call to the foreign missions.  Following is the second part of the letter. 

The Bright Side

Ah! whoever you are, to whom God gives these sentiments and this light, come, come, my dear brother, it is workers such as you that we ask for here; it is to souls like yours that God has decreed the conquest of so many others whom the devil holds even now in his power. Fear no hardships; there will be none for you, since your whole consolation is to see yourself crucified with the Son of God. Silence will be sweet to you, since you have learned to commune with God and to converse in heaven with the saints and angels. The victuals would be insipid indeed, if the gall tasted by our Lord did not make them sweeter and more savory to you than the most delicious viands in the world. What a satisfaction to ascend these rapids and to climb these rocks for him who has before his eyes that loving Savior, wracked with torments and ascending Calvary laden with His cross. The discomfort of the canoe is very easy to endure for him who thinks of the Crucified. What a consolation for I must use such language to please you what a consolation, then, to see oneself even abandoned on the road by the savages, languishing with sickness, or dying of hunger in the woods, and still being able to say to God: "My God, it is to do Your holy will that I am reduced to the condition in which You see me," and to consider above all, the God-man dying on the cross and crying out to his Father: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). If God preserves you in health amid all these hardships, without a doubt you will arrive pleasantly in the Huron country with these holy thoughts. "He sails pleasantly, whom the grace of God carries along."

Now, as regards shelter, food, and bed shall I dare to say to a heart so generous and disdainful of all that I have. already said on this point, that, although we are hardly in a better position than the savages, still, in some unknown way, the Divine Goodness makes every difficult thing easy, and each and all of us find everything almost the same as in France. The sleep we get lying on our mats seems to us as sweet as if we were in a good bed; the native food does not disgust us, although there is scarcely any other seasoning than that which God has put into it. Notwithstanding the cold of a six months' winter spent in the shelter of a bark cabin, open to the daylight, we have yet to experience its evil effects; no one complains of his head or stomach; we do not know what diarrhea, colds, and catarrh mean. This leads me to say that delicate persons in France do not know how to protect themselves from the cold. Those rooms so well carpeted, those doors so well fitted, and those windows closed so carefully, serve only to make its effects more keenly felt. It is an enemy from whom one wins almost more by proffering him one's hand than by waging a cruel war against him.

As for our food, I shall say this, that God has shown us clearly a very special providence: we have secured within a week our provision of corn for the whole year, without taking a single step beyond our cabin. Dried fish has been brought to us in such quantities that we are compelled to refuse some of it and to say that we have sufficient. You might say that God, seeing that we are here for His service, wishes Himself to act as our provider, in order that we may labor only for Him. This same Goodness takes care to give us from time to time a change of provisions in the form of fresh fish. We are on the shore of a large lake, which affords as good fish as I have ever seen or eaten in France. It is true, however, as I have mentioned, that we do not ordinarily procure them, and still less do we get meat, which is even more rarely seen here.

Even fruits, in season, are not lacking to us, provided the year be somewhat favorable. Strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are to be found in almost incredible quantities. We gather plenty of grapes, which are fairly good; the squashes last sometimes four or five months, and they are so abundant that they are to be had almost for nothing, and so good that, on being cooked in the ashes, they are eaten as apples are in France. Consequently, to tell the truth, as regards provisions, the change from France is not very great. The only grain of the country is a sufficient nourishment, when one is somewhat accustomed to it. The savages prepare it in more than twenty ways and yet employ only fire and water; it is true that its best sauce is that contained in it.

Spiritual Advantages

As for the dangers of the soul, to speak frankly, there are none for him who brings to the Huron country the fear and love of God. On the contrary. I find here unequalled opportunities for acquiring perfection. Is it not a great deal to have in your food, clothing, and bed, no other attraction than simple necessity? Is it not a glorious opportunity to unite yourself with God, when there is at hand no creature whatever to which you can possibly become attached, and when the spiritual exercises you perform constrain you without effort to inward meditation? Besides your spiritual exercises, you have no other task than the study of the language and conversation with the savages. Ah! how much pleasure there is for a heart devoted to God to become the pupil of a savage and of a little child, in order to win them afterwards for God and make them disciples of our Lord! How willingly and liberally God communicates Himself to a soul which practises out of love for Him these heroic acts of humility! The words he learns are so many treasures he amasses, so many spoils he carries off from the common enemy of the human race; so that he has reason to say a hundred times a day: "I will rejoice at thy words, as one that hath found great spoil" (Psalms 1,18: 162).

Viewed in this light, the visits of the savages, however frequent, cannot annoy him. God teaches him the beautiful lesson he once taught Saint Catherine of Sienna, to make of his heart a chamber and a temple for Him, where he will never fail to find Him, as often as he withdraws to it. And if he encounters savages there, they do not interfere with his prayers; they serve only to make them more fervent, and from this he takes occasion to present these poor wretches to His sovereign Goodness, and to beseech Him earnestly for their conversion.

Certainly we have not here that exterior solemnity which awakens and sustains devotion. We see only the substance of our religion, the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, to Whose marvels faith must open our eyes, aided by no sensible mark of Its grandeur, just as in the case of the Magi in the stable. Nevertheless, it seems that God, supplying for what we lack and recompensing us for the favor bestowed on us of carrying It, so to speak, beyond so many seas, and of finding a place for It in these wretched cabins, wishes to confer the same blessings on us which He is wont to confer on persecuted Catholics in heretical countries. These good people scarcely ever see either a church or an altar, but the little they see is worth double what they would see, were they entirely free. You can imagine what consolation there is in prostrating ourselves at times before a cross in the midst of this barbarism, and, engaged in our petty domestic tasks, in turning our eyes towards and entering into the place which the Son of God has been pleased to take in our little dwelling. Not to be separated from this Well-Beloved of the nations except by a little bark or tree branch, is it not to be in paradise day and night? "Behold he standeth behind our wall" (Canticles 2:9). "I sat down under his shadow, whom I desired" (Canticles 2:3).

So much for the interior. If we go outside our cabin, heaven is open to us, and those great buildings which lift their heads to the clouds in large cities, do not conceal it from our view; so that we can say our prayers with complete abandon in that grand oratory, which Saint Francis Xavier loved more than any other. 

With regard to the fundamental virtues, I will glory, not in myself, but in the lot which has fallen to me. Or if I must humbly acknowledge it at the foot of the cross, which our Lord in His grace gives us to carry after Him, certainly this country, or our work here, is much more suited to feed a soul with the fruits of heaven than with those of earth. I may be mistaken, but I think that there is here a splendid means for advancing in faith, hope, and charity. Are we to sow the seeds of the Faith here, and not ourselves profit by it? Could we put our trust in anyone but God in a region where, on the human side, everything is lacking? Could we want a finer opportunity to exercise charity than there is amid the roughness and discomfort of a new world, where no human art or industry has yet provided any conveniences? Is there a better occasion for practising charity than by living here in order to bring back to God men who are so unlike men that we must live in daily expectation of dying by their hands, should the fancy take them, should a dream suggest it to them, or should we fail to open or close the heavens at will, giving them rain or fine weather at command. Do they not make us responsible for the state of the weather? And if God does not inspire us or if we cannot work miracles of faith, are we not continually in danger of seeing them, as they have threatened to do, fall upon us who have done no harm? 

Indeed, if He who is Truth itself had not declared that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life really and once for all for one's friends, I should deem it a thing equally noble, or even more so, to do what the Apostle said to the Corinthians (I, 15:31): "I die daily, I protest by your glory, brethren, which I have in Christ. Jesus our Lord"-that is, to drag out a miserable life amid the frequent and daily perils of an unforeseen death, which those whom you are trying to save will procure for you. I sometimes call to mind what Saint Francis Xavier once wrote to Father Simon, and wish that it may please God so to act that at least the same may be said or written one day even of us, although we may not be worthy of it. Here are his words: "Excellent news comes from the Moluccas, namely, John Beira and his companions are laboring amid the greatest hardships and continual danger of death, to the great increase of the Christian religion."

About Chastity, in Particular

There seems to be one thing here which might cause apprehension in a son of the Society, that is, to see himself in the midst of a brutal and sensual people, whose example, unless special precaution is taken, might tarnish the luster of the most and the least delicate of all the virtues-I mean chastity.

In order to obviate this difficulty, I make bold to say that, if there is any place in the world where this virtue so precious is safe, for a man who wills to be on his guard, it is here. "Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it" (Psalms 126:1). "I knew that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it, and this also was a point of wisdom, to know whose gift it was" (Wisdom 8:21). They say that the victories won by this daughter of heaven over her enemies are won by flight. But I believe it is God and no one else who, in the most severe encounters, puts to flight this same enemy before those, who, fearing nothing so much as his approaches, go where His glory calls them, humbly and with hearts full of confidence in His goodness. And where are we to seek this glory of His? I should say, rather, where find it more purified and freed from our own interests than in a place where there is nothing to hope for other than the reward of having left all for the love of Him of whom Saint Paul said: "I know whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12). You remember that plant called "the fear of God," with which it is said our Fathers at the beginning of our Society charmed away the spirit of impurity. It does not grow in the land of the Hurons, but it falls here abundantly from Heaven, if one is only a little careful to foster what he brings here

Barbarism, ignorance, poverty, and misery, which render the life of these savages more deplorable than death, are a constant reminder to us to mourn Adam's fall, and to submit ourselves entirely to Him who, after so many centuries, still chastises disobedience in His children in so remarkable a way. Saint Theresa said once that she never made better meditations than in those mysteries where she found our Lord apart and alone as though she had been present in the Garden of Olives and she called this a sample of her simplicity. You may reckon this among my follies, if you like, but it seems to me that we have here so much the more leisure to caress, so to speak, and to entertain our Lord with open heart in the midst of these uninhabited lands, because there are so few people who trouble themselves about Him. And on account of this favor we can say boldly "I will fear no evils, for thou art with me" (Psalms 22:4).

In short, I imagine that all the guardian angels of these uncivilized and abandoned nations are continually endeavouring and striving to save us from these dangers. They know well that if there is anything in the world that ought to give us wings to fly back whence we came both by obedience and by our own inclination, it would be this misfortune, were we not shielded from it by the protection of heaven. This is what urges them to procure for us the means to guard against it, that they may not lose the brightest hope they have ever had through the grace of God, of the conversion of these peoples.

I close this discourse and this chapter with the following words. If at sight of the difficulties and crosses that are here prepared for us, some one feels himself so strengthened from above that he can say it is too little, or like Saint Francis Xavier "amplius, amplius" ("more, more"), I hope that our Lord, in the midst of the consolations which He will give him, will also draw from his lips another admission, namely, that the consolation is too much for him and that he cannot endure more. "It is enough, Lord, it is enough."