Blessed Sebastian Valfrè

A Homily on Bl Sebastian's Day I

Blessed Sebastian Valfrè was born in 1629 and died in 1710, at the age of eighty. He was a priest of the Turin Oratory, which he joined in 1651 and of which he became Superior in 1671. Hailed as the Apostle of Turin, Sebastian was recognized as the Father with Paradise in his eyes. And yet within, concealed from a world which saw only peace and calm and joy, the things of God were, for Sebastian Valfrè – and this almost continually – occasions of repugnance and anguish.

Like St Theresa of Avila, he could barely say a Hail Mary without distraction and weariness. Violent temptations assailed him at the altar, and he longed to be able merely to hear confessions, without the unease caused in him by having also to give direction. Teaching theology to fellow Oratorians was a torment; public instructions, hospital visits, and his care of the Secular Oratory were tasks he undertook only with great bitterness of heart: to these things he had to bind himself, by making private vows to persevere in them. And this pattern of repugnance extended to his fellow Oratorians, among whom his acute sensitivity easily turned into antipathy, so that beneath his unfailing courtesy and kindness were often concealed thoughts and feelings of profound irritation and aversion.

Hardly anyone knew, almost everyone assumed it must be entirely otherwise. We can speak of it at all only because small parts of Sebastian’s extensive autobiographical testimony have come down to us.  Usually he wrote in this way only for himself, probably as a kind of therapeutic exteriorization of his suffering, but occasionally he showed what he had written to others similarly afflicted – which on one day one of them copied, and others later recalled reading, and something therefore survived the general destruction of personal papers which Sebastian himself conducted before he died. And so it is that we have a glimpse, Providential no doubt, of the seemingly unsustainable polarities which, taking up an expression of St Jane Frances de Chantal, divided Sebastian Valfrè from himself. In this separation from himself, nothing within could delight him, or even secure for him a place of simple repose. He was therefore forced out of himself: compelled, again as St Jane Frances de Chantal would put it, to look elsewhere, towards God alone, but in a very pure Faith – a naked Faith, as St John of the Cross would say – without any corresponding experience of presence or security. Held fast in this all but impossible place, Sebastian nonetheless became a saint – in this place where another, as one of his biographers has said, would have lost his reason.

But what was going on? Sebastian himself puts his finger on it: he was afraid. He was afraid, first, of his unworthiness – so profoundly that he could only with great perseverance and courage bear to appear at all as the priest that he was. That he should be called to do and say these things, to come before others as one claiming an entitlement, as it were, to disseminate grace and truth – this thought haunted and almost paralyzed him, so conscious was he of his interior poverty and chaos, and the terrible opening it created between appearance and reality. And being afraid of himself, Blessed Sebastian was secondly, and above all, afraid of God. [My] trouble, he wrote, comes from the dread of that moment on which eternity depends; for I know that I shall be judged, not according to the judgement of men who only see what appears outwardly, but according to God, Who sees what is in the heart. It is true that I try to live outwardly so as not to give scandal to those who see me; but even though my neighbour may not be disedified, my interior life does not correspond to my exterior…The terror of having to give an account of myself to God…[means] I [can] obtain no relief. And again, even more starkly: I feel within me such anguish that my very soul is wrung by it….I would have given the whole world for even one gleam of interior light by which to know what to do, and how to fulfil God’s will…Meanwhile my spirit failed me lest I should be damned, and I lived in a constant state of terror. 

So Sebastian was haunted by a terrible misapprehension: that in the eyes of God he was reprobate, excluded from the elect, damned. And the misapprehension here was not so much of himself, but of God: the god that haunted him was in waiting to condemn him, having assured his condemnation by already having rejected him. It doesn’t matter, now, how that god was produced. What matters is  what Blessed Sebastian did with it. And what he did was to see through it; or rather, unseeing, throw himself beyond it, where the true God was awaiting him. And I think it is this in which his sanctity above all consists. Had he not suffered in the ways that he did, we would perhaps find him serenely proposing a god who rejects some in advance in order, later on, to condemn them; but because he suffered as he did, the necessity of overcoming a thought of God that would otherwise have driven him mad became inescapable. And this necessity was not only for himself. We are told of a doctor, Paolo Calvo, who was crushed by the thought of being rejected by God. He recounted his anguish to Sebastian, who replied with the words Put it under your feet – and the biographer reports that as he said the words he stamped his foot on the ground to illustrate his meaning. What was here symbolically crushed was every tortuous doubt raised against God’s mercy. 

Writing of the fear of Divine judgment, from what St Francis de Sales calls the highest point of the soul where, despite every affliction, a pure and unencumbered faith becomes possible, Blessed Sebastian says this: True though it be that…the enemy makes furious and final efforts to secure his prey, knowing that he has but little time in which to work, it is equally certain that on that very account God gives greater help at the same hour, as a king who even in time of peace maintains a sufficient garrison in a city to keep it in order, but sends reinforcements if it be threatened by an enemy. Thus does God act in the distribution of His grace even towards those who have abused it in their lives. At the hour of their death he deigns to help them according to the measure of their need, and of His mercy. Thus at the very last moment we have greater grounds for hope than for fear. 

In the midst of his own ghastly temptations, indeed because of them, we may feel that Blessed Sebastian had truly earned such liberating confidence and simplicity.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

A Homily on Bl Sebastian's Day II

‘Be thou faithful until death, and I will give thee the crown of life.’—words, brethren, from the Apocalypse

This homily, on the feast of the Oratorian Blessed Sebastian Valfrè, addresses three topics—service, suffering, and seeing. In Blessed Sebastian’s mission the three are linked, and so we hope he will afford us the will and the understanding in our own measure to incorporate them, as well. 

Let us begin by looking at seeing, trying to see seeing, as it were. Of course no one can see through another’s eyes. But that is not to say that we are mere mechanisms that can only register blind nervous impulses. “They did not see me,” says the thief, creeping stealthily through the darkness to execute a heist. “How he longs to see you,” reports a soldier to his buddy’s hometown fiancée.” “He will not be pleased to see me,” gloats the embittered antagonist, cutting his hated rival in the street. Beyond the seeing encased in such social relations, a subtler hint can dwell in our eyes. Greeted by Brother Guest Master on my first visit to a monastery, I was struck, as he recited the prayer for guests at the image of our Lady, by an unwonted light in his eyes. Perhaps it signified nothing, but he was not the only Brother whose eyes shone so. Perhaps that, too, signified nothing, but I later heard a non-believing classmate make reference to a professor “whose eyes shine like a monk’s.” Again, perhaps insignificant, but we read that Blessed Sebastian was called “the Father who had Paradise in his eyes.” The first point is: Blessed Sebastian saw things we cannot see, in a way we cannot see. 

We turn now to serving. It is said that there was nothing remarkable about Sebastian’s priestly life, its charities and duties. He was a man, like St Philip Neri, who aspired to do “ordinary things in an extraordinary way.” In this he somehow succeeded, although he lacked Philip’s sweetness of temperament and signal graces. Sebastian is known for his emphasis on faithful service. “Far, far from us, dear fathers and brothers,” he would say, “be the foul stain of being called unfaithful servants.” Persevering through a multitude of obstacles, steadfast in what he called “the slow fever” of Oratorian life, Sebastian’s overflowing faithfulness strengthened others. Two Fathers of the Oratory of Fossano, weary of their vocation, decided to leave the Congregation. But first, they felt they should consult Father Sebastian in Turin. Had they, in fact, succeeded in their plan to secure his advice, could Sebastian have persuaded them to return to their house? I wonder. In any case, when the Fathers arrived in Turin they were advised that the Father was preaching. Unheard and unseen by the preacher, they took a place in the last pew until he should be done. ‘Manete in vocatione, in qua vocati estis—Remain in the vocation in which you were called,’ he declaimed from the pulpit, and proceeded to explicate this passage of Scripture. It was a word of grace for the renegade Fathers, who returned to their Congregation, where they persevered until death.

Sebastian has also left us instructions for remaining faithful in the Lord’s service. “Do you know what is meant by our being servants of God?” he asks. He answers catechetically: “It means that we are bound to esteem the interests of God more than our own; extending his supreme dominion over us to all our actions, internal or external; to our health, our life, and our death; to our fame and repute; to our talents, riches, and goods.” In other words, it is only when our horizon is dilated by faith and our sight is fixed on the limitless Good that we can escape our all-too-weak egos.

Finally, we turn to suffering. The élan of a will that esteems the interests of God more than our own may be daunting, but also exhilarating in its scope. What Sebastian has to say about suffering, however, is not very seductive on the face of it. “When it is all over, you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little and suffered that little so badly.” Sebastian says this as one who was no stranger to suffering. He suffered from poverty in childhood. He suffered the trials of reviving the Turin Oratory, reduced to one “ragged and eccentric priest.” He suffered scruples of conscience. He suffered antipathy to some of his duties and to fellow Oratorians. He suffered dryness in prayer. He was touchy and easily offended. “When it is all over, you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little and suffered that little so badly.” Suffering is not an obstacle to seeing and serving, but the royal road thereunto and an earnest that the old self is on the verge of being transformed into the new. It is a sign of reaching a limit where only the grace of God can carry one through. Suffering borne well, as Sebastian intimates, is the beginning of self-overcoming. “Remember that patience is worth almost a hundred other virtues,” he said, “for he who can keep himself from being disturbed, and who can repress every opposing movement in small things, easily gains the victory in great ones also, and is able to triumph over himself.”

Suffering cannot well be sought, lest it become a thing chosen and inflicted, not accepted and undergone. Needless, avoidable suffering would be charity to avert. Sebastian calls for genuine “suffering borne well,” and that is difficult enough for us to understand as we kick against the pricks. Perhaps we need eyes to see—eyes, like Sebastian’s, opened to paradise. 

How does one see suffering in Paradise? In 1856 our Lady appeared to two shepherd children at La Salette, weeping. She said, “I am suffering for you.” Léon Bloy was fascinated by the splendid incongruity of this apparition, about which he wrote: “She whom all generations should call Blessed weeps at La Salette. She weeps as she alone can weep. She weeps infinite tears… Thus she is stricken, even in the very bosom of Beatitude. Reason is lost in this thought. A beatitude that ‘suffers’ and weeps—is it possible to conceive such a thing?” 

Bloy’s god-daughter, Raïssa Maritain, perhaps traces a way forward. She suggests, “Because suffering implies in its very idea some imperfection, it cannot be ascribed to the ‘impenetrable Essence’ [of God]. But in some form which no human name can name, is it not needful that there be found in that Essence the whole element of mysterious perfection which pertains to the suffering of the creature? These ‘inexpressible conflagrations of the Light’, this kind of glory of suffering, perhaps it is to this that correspond on earth the suffering of the innocent, the tears of children, certain excesses of humiliation and misery which it is almost impossible for the heart to accept without being scandalized, and which, when the face of this enigmatic world has passed away, will appear at the summit of the Beatitudes.” 

Then, excusing herself for the obscurity of her speech, Raïssa quotes Léon Bloy, her godfather: “When one speaks lovingly of God, all human words are like blinded lions seeking a spring in the desert.”

Blessed Sebastian, who sought a spring in the desert, pray for us. 

Blessed Sebastion, who had Paradise in his eyes, 

pray for us.

By Fr Derek Cross, Cong. Orat.

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