Today is the feast day of Saint John of Matha. Ora pro nobis.
from the Lives of the Saints.
Collected from Authentick Records, 1750
Saint John of Matha was born in the Year 1160 at Faucon in Provence on the Feast of St. John Baptist. His parents, who were considerable both for their virtue and rank in the world, took a particular care to give him a religious education. His childhood was full of manly virtues; his modesty, sweetness, prudence, and innocence engaged the affections of all that knew him. He made his first studies at Aix the Capital of Provence, and there learned fencing, riding, and other genteel exercises. But none of those gay amusements broke in upon his virtues. What money his parents allowed him for his pocket was distributed amongst the poor; and at an age which usually abounds with levity, and a false niceness proceeding from pride, and want of compassion, he visited the hospitals once a week, and took a singular pleasure in binding up and cleansing the wounds of the patients. Thus he spent his first years, in acquiring such learning as was suitable to his age, and practising those virtues which make the brightest part of the character of a Saint.
At his return from Aix he retired to a little hermitage near Faucon; but finding he could not enjoy the solitude he longed for so near his relations, to whose conversation he was exposed, he got leave of his parents to study Divinity at Paris. His capacity and application distinguished him in that learned University, where he passed all his degrees with applause. Here he was ordained Priest, and said his first Mass in the Bishop’s Chapel, where he was honoured with the presence of the Maurice Bishop of Sully, the Abbots of St. Victor and St. Genevieve, and the Rector of the University. But this was an inconsiderable favour in comparison of another that he received at that time. For it was then that God opened to him his particular vocation, and while employed in offering the Price of our Redemption, gave him the first thoughts of employing his time and care for the relief of Christians oppressed with slavery. But he thought himself obliged to consult the will of God in silence, and prepared himself for the execution of so great and glorious a design by prayer, and penance.
While our saint was considering on a place proper for those pious employments, he remembered he had heard of Felix of Valois, that lived in a Wood near Gandelu in the Diocese of Meaux, and was famous for sanctity and penance. Persuaded that holy hermit would be a proper master for him, he begged to be received into his Hermitage, and favoured with his instructions. Felix entertained him, according to his desire, and looked upon him as one sent by Divine Providence for his benefit and improvement. Here they lived in the constant practice of such Virtues as are to be expected from those that live for heaven only. Fasting and other austerities were their whole business; prayer, and contemplation their ordinary employment; and their conversation always tended to excite one another to the love of God.
After some time thus spent together, John communicated to Felix the pious design he had conceived at his first Mass; and enlarged upon the necessity and advantage of such an undertaking. He did this in so moving and strong a manner, that Felix was persuaded the proposal came from God; and offered to join him in the execution of it. They entered into the particulars of this great work, and finding it attended with many difficulties, prepared themselves for it by three days strict fast and continual prayer; and then set out for Rome in order to consult the Pope about the matter. They began their journey in the dead of winter 1197, and reached the City in January following. Innocent the III was then just raised to the Holy See. Upon reading their letters of recommendation from the Bishop of Paris, and the Abbot of St. Victors received them like two angels sent from heaven, and gave them an appartment in his own Palace. They had several audiences of his Holiness, in which they explained their whole design. The Pope called his Cardinals and some bishops together in St. John Lateran’s, Church, laid the proposal before them, and desired the assistance of their advice in this important affair.
After this consultation, his Holiness ordered a fast, and some particular prayers to be offered up Feb. 8 upon this occasion; and having thus recommended the business to God, gave them leave to erect a New Order, which should be under the direction of the Saint, who was first favoured with the Design. The Bishop of Paris, and the Abbot of St. Victor were employed in drawing up the Rules, which the Pope approved of, with some few additions, by a Bull dated December 17, 1198. Those,that are admitted into this Order, are to wear a white habit, with a red and blue Cross on the breast; and devote a third part of their substance to the redemption of slaves. All their churches are to be dedicated to the Holy Trinity. This Order afterwards took the name of Mathurins, from an old Church dedicated to that Saint at Paris, and given to them about thirty Years afterward.
When things were thus settled, the two holy hermits returned to France, where Philip was then King. Upon their report of what had passed at Rome, his Majesty allowed them to set up their Order in his Kingdom; and contributed very largely toward the good work. After founding several houses in his own Country, he left the care of them to his companion in that pious undertaking, and went to Rome; where he obtained of the Pope a monastery for his Order on Mount Celius. His Holiness had wrote to Mirammolin, King of Morocco, the Year after this new Order was formed, desiring him to second the charitable designs of the Trinitarians, who would either pay the ransom of his Christian slaves, or give an equal number of his subjects that were detained in Italy, France, and Spain, in exchange for them. In Consequence of this application in the Year 1200, John sent two of his Religious in that Kingdom, on that errand. Their success was answerable to the purity of their intention, and they redeemed 186 Christians. The year following he went into Barbara and there purchased the Liberty of 110 Slaves. From thence he returned into his own Country, where he met with very considerable encouragement and assistance in his charitable designs. After that he went to Spain; where the large contributions of Princes and men of the first rank enabled him to build several Monasteries of his Order. About nine years after his first voyage to Barbary, he made a second to that country, and brought away 120 Captives.
The Fatigues of this last expedition, joined to his continual mortifications, quite disabled him and obliged him to spend the remainder of his days at Rome; while Felix employed all his concern and actions for advancing the Order in France. Our Saint being now incapable of pursuing his inclinations in his former way, found an employment proportioned to his strength, and spent the two last years of his life, in visiting the prisons, relieving the poor, assisting assisting the sick, and preaching. In these Exercises of charity he quite exhausted himself, and died on the 21st of December, in the Year 1213. He was buried in St. Thomas’s Church at Rome and his festival fixed to this Day by Pope Innocent XI. in 1679. (2)
The Mantle of St. John de Matha
A strong and mighty Angel,
Calm, terrible, and bright,
The cross in blended red and blue
Upon his mantle white.
Two captives by him kneeling,
Each on his broken chain,
Sang praise to God who raiseth
The dead to life again!
Dropping his cross-wrought mantle,
“Wear this,” the Angel said;
“Take thou, O Freedom’s priest, its sign,
The white, the blue, and red.”
Then rose up John de Matha
In the strength the Lord Christ gave,
And begged through all the land of France
The ransom of the slave.
The gates of tower and castle
Before him open flew,
The drawbridge at his coming fell,
The door-bolt backward drew.
For all men owned his errand,
And paid his righteous tax;
And the hearts of lord and peasant
Were in his hands as wax.
At last, outbound from Tunis,
His bark her anchor weighed,
Freighted with seven-score Christian souls
Whose ransom he had paid.
But, torn by Paynim hatred,
Her sails in tatters hung;
And on the wild waves, rudderless,
A shattered hulk she swung.
“God save us!” cried the captain,
“For naught can man avail;
Oh, woe betide the ship that lacks
Her rudder and her sail!
“Behind us are the Moormen;
At sea we sink or strand
There’s death upon the water,
There’s death upon the land!”
Then up spake John de Matha
“God’s errands never fail!
Take thou the mantle which I wear,
And make of it a sail.”
They raised the cross-wrought mantle,
The blue, the white, the red;
And straight before the wind off-shore
The ship of Freedom sped.
“God help us!” cried the seamen,
“For vain is mortal skill
The good ship on a stormy sea
Is drifting at its will.”
Then up spake John de Matha
“My mariners, never fear
The Lord whose breath has filled her sail
May well our vessel steer!”
So on through storm and darkness
They drove for weary hours;
And lo! the third gray morning shone
On Ostia’s friendly towers.
And on the walls the watchers
The ship of mercy knew,
They knew far off its holy cross,
The red, the white, and blue.
And the bells in all the steeples
Rang out in glad accord,
To welcome home to Christian soil
The ransomed of the Lord.
So runs the ancient legend
By bard and painter told;
And lo! the cycle rounds again,
The new is as the old!
With rudder foully broken,
And sails by traitors torn,
Our country on a midnight sea
Is waiting for the morn.
Before her, nameless terror;
Behind, the pirate foe;
The clouds are black above her,
The sea is white below.
The hope of all who suffer,
The dread of all who wrong,
She drifts in darkness and in storm,
How long, O Lord! how long?
But courage, O my mariners
Ye shall not suffer wreck,
While up to God the freedman’s prayers
Are rising from your deck.
Is not your sail the banner
Which God hath blest anew,
The mantle that De Matha wore,
The red, the white, the blue?
Its hues are all of heaven,
The red of sunset’s dye,
The whiteness of the moon-lit cloud,
The blue of morning’s sky.
Wait cheerily, then, O mariners,
For daylight and for land;
The breath of God is in your sail,
Your rudder is His hand.
Sail on, sail on, deep-freighted
With blessings and with hopes;
The saints of old with shadowy hands
Are pulling at your ropes.
Behind ye holy martyrs
Uplift the palm and crown;
Before ye unborn ages send
Their benedictions down.
Take heart from John de Matha!–
God’s errands never fail!
Sweep on through storm and darkness,
The thunder and the hail!
Sail on! The morning cometh,
The port ye yet shall win;
And all the bells of God shall ring
The good ship bravely in!
by John Greenleaf Whittier (7)
Image: Saint John of Matha sculpture from Mafra Palace, Portugal, main entrance (8)