Written by M. Raymond
(IVE Press, 2008)
Reviewed by Jonathan Quist
* This review originally appeared in our 2014 Lent issue.
From a veritable mountain of Catholic literary kitsch about the lives of the Saints, emerges a book that is truly inspirational and avoids the frequented pitfalls of hagiography.
The Family that Overtook Christ is a book written by Father M. Raymond in the form of a novel that depicts the real lives of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and his family, all of whom became saints. The book is delightfully refreshing in style with an admixture of realism and medieval enchantment, and a spirituality that is as authentic as it is diverse. Stories range from the very dramatic life of St. Bernard, including his public debate against Peter Abelard, to the very private life of his mother Blessed Alice of Montbar, who was primarily a housewife. I would heartily recommend this book to all Catholics: those who are looking for an uplifting, entertaining read, and those who want learn more about the monastic life. I particularly recommend it to Catholic men, since the book contains a rare glimpse at masculine spirituality, one that calls men on to fight bravely for the kingdom of God.
The story begins with an introduction consisting of a dialogue between the author and a Trappist nun, Sister Mary Clare, where she implores the author to write without any sentimental pietism but to depict the saintly characters as ‘real people.’ This dictum establishes the tenor of the whole book which makes valiant efforts to depict the individual personalities of each character and their joys and struggles in their own personal journeys to sanctity. Each story contains its own unique lesson along with a compelling story. The story of Bernard’s father, Venerable Tescalin the Tawny, the brave chevalier, is a fascinating one: a father who raised his boys as mighty knights, pursuing lives of moral and physical virtue, who eventually followed his children’s example and cast aside a life of earthly glory and entered into the monastery. Great too is the story of Blessed Guy of Citeaux who, through the prophetic insight of St. Bernard, followed his brother into contemplative life, despite having a wife and two daughters. These women also, in turn, joined the contemplative life.
In The Family that Overtook Christ the contemplative life is not depicted as an escape or refuge from the world for those who cannot bear it, but rather a place where penance and prayers are made on behalf of those in the world, to balance the scales in God’s favour. In fact, the characters of the story all have healthy, or sometimes even excessive, attachments to their earthly lives which they give up in order to follow the higher path of being moulded in God’s love in the abbey. One story I found particularly compelling was that of Blessed Gerard who was so fixated with his knightly career that he only entered the monastery after a grave injury and imprisonment by his enemies that ended in an eventual Pauline-esque, miraculous escape. Gerard later is visited by his friend Dennis who is curious as to how such a mighty knight could become a humble monk. Gerard concedes that he does miss “the clatter of armor and the importunate pawing and neighing of horses” but that he has never ceased to be a knight, he had only “changed weapons and liege lord, that’s all”. Rather than fight for a lord of this world Gerard chooses to fight for the Lord of heaven and earth and to do battle by doing penance for the sins of the world.
This book reminds readers that the call to sanctity is universal, whether it be to lead an extraordinary life of great deeds, like that of St. Bernard, or to live in simple domesticity like his mother Blessed Alice. Whatever his walk of life may be, the reader is reminded by the words of St. Bernard that “it profits man little to follow Christ if he fails to overtake him,” which is to say that we are called beyond mediocrity and onto the path of holiness through the zealous, but very real, examples of St. Bernard and his family who, despite hardships, radiate the joy of God’s love.