In 1584, a “young Irish gentleman” by the name of Ailworth spent his last eight days of earthly life alone in the stench and filth of a dungeon in “the very worst prison in London”. His crime was that he had rented a “commodious” house for Catholics to gather in for preaching and Mass, for he and his brethren had “set more value upon what belonged to the honour and worship of God, than upon any earthly toys”. *
More than four centuries later, on the other side of the world but still technically in the realm of a Queen Elizabeth of England, I had an odd sense of what such gatherings might have been like. There was something clandestine about our tiny twilight assembly in a cold stone church in the middle of nowhere. The two previous clothing ceremonies had been standing room only, but this one was different. We were there despite – despite our island location, despite floods and fallen trees, despite illness and discouragement – and it was sobering to look around and see how few of us there were.
The magnitude of what was about to take place was etched on the faces of Dominic (the novice who was to be clothed with the Benedictine monastic habit) and the other monks.
Even the prior seemed to take an extra moment in prayer. What this ceremony lacked in the mass anticipation of a large congregation it gained in the quiet gravity and apprehension of a select few.
Then it began. Centuries of tradition embraced us in its gentle clasp and led us into the comforting familiarity of the Church’s sacred tongue and eloquent ritual.
It is popular among Catholics to talk about being counter-cultural, but being counter-cultural defines us by what we are not. The focus is on what the herd is doing, how we’re outside of the herd. Sometimes we even fall into a self-pitying persecution mentality. Mr Ailworth and his fellow recusants were undoubtedly persecuted and defined by the heretical services which they refused to attend, but they did not leave it at that. Their focus was not their recusancy or their persecution but the altogether dangerous preservation and restoration of the Church of which they sought to remain part… and with which they remained in communion at the risk of death.
I wondered as Father Prior began his exhortation whether anyone else had found themselves plunged into such sombre ruminations, but it did not take long for me to be reminded that he had thought about it deeper and longer than me. The first mention of St Maximilian Kolbe sent an electrifying ripple through the church. By the second mention we were certain we had a Brother Maximilian kneeling before us.
“The real conflict is the inner conflict,” Father Prior quoted the Polish saint. “Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves defeated in our innermost personal selves?” And that’s why we were there, participating in a quasi-secret ceremony at nightfall, not to be counter-cultural, but to fortify ourselves in the real conflict.
Dom Pius girded Dominic with the Benedictine leather cincture, symbolic of St Paul’s “belt of truth” in the epistle to the Ephesians, and in echo of the words of St Maximilian Kolbe we had heard earlier: “No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it.”
Dominic bowed his head in humility, his visage hidden beneath his cowl, suspended between his old life as Dominic and his new life as Brother Maximilian. Then Father Prior pushed back his hood and gave him his new name, bringing a smile to every single person’s face, for it was ordained and it felt so.
The next morning, there were even fewer folk at Mass, but that sense of providence lingered and intensified. We were not there to rebel against society but to rehabilitate the Church (and in so doing ourselves). This was ab initio, from the beginning, rather than contra, in opposition, restoration rather than revolution.
In the timeless and sacred light of tradition, the path ahead of us does not seem insurmountable, for we can see so many who have gone before us, and we know that we are not alone.
The full album of photos from Br Maximilian’s clothing may be viewed on Flickr.
* Henry Holland (d.1625) in Richard Challoner’s Memoirs of Missionary Priests, Vol. I, p. 414.