Wednesday, December 10, 2014

St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783)

A beggar. A bum. A stinking, dirty tramp. A saint. Benedict Joseph Labre is a stunning challenge to our sanitized images of sanctity and, while not a Franciscan, his total embrace of poverty makes him a true kinsman of St. Francis.

The son of a village shopkeeper, Benedict Joseph grew up amid comfortable surroundings in the French countryside. His parents interpreted his reserved manner, evident piety, and concern for the poor as signs of a priestly vocation and sent him away for an education.

Benedict Joseph Labre, depicted by Antonio Cavalluci (1795)
Benedict studied under his uncle, a parish priest, but the boy's heart was rarely fixed on his Latin lessons. Instead, he gravitated to the transient poor of the byways and lonely places, and he delighted to mingle with them, often emptying out his pockets among them. Labre's attraction to the despised appeared eccentric to his contemporaries, no less than to us, yet his impulse was right – he intuitively recognized the continuity between his time with outcasts and the long hours he spent before the Eucharist.

During a cholera outbreak, the priest and student selflessly cared for the sick and dying. After losing his uncle to the disease, Benedict left his studies and career behind, determined to follow his true calling – poverty, hiddenness, and prayer. He set out with his family's permission to locate a monastic family where he could lose himself in abandonment to God.

The Carthusians, the Cistercians, the Trappists – all turned him away due to his curious affinities and poor health. But he never gave into discouragement. He knew God was faithful and would lead him aright, and as it turned out, Labre's wanderings proved to be a providential trajectory that did indeed set him on his life's course.

For Benedict Joseph's calling was to be a monk with a singular vocation: His monastery became the world, his chapel the streets, and his habit rags and filth. Like St. Francis, Labre's heavenward gaze was so intense, so fixed, that he found it difficult to conform to any of the world's categories – even the best of them – and he found his niche by not having a niche.

Giving up on monastic life, Labre made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1770. In the next six years, the saint crisscrossed the European landscape: Always on foot, generally sleeping outside, rarely begging, and accepting only those alms he needed for any given day. With an old cloak, his Rosary beads, and a couple of books as his only possessions, he made multiple journeys to a variety of shrines, including Loreto, Compostela, and, fittingly, Assisi. His days were spent in prayer and his nights among the homeless poor. Since he never cared for his body, he was often reviled and abused – signs to him of God's special favor.

Eventually Benedict settled in Rome, and he served the rest of his life as the Eternal City's holy fool, destitute yet joyful. He frequented many of the city's churches, and had a particular enthusiasm for the then-popular Forty Hours devotion. The supplicant would sit for long stretches in silent meditation before the tabernacle, completely enveloped in the presence of Christ, and then retire to the ruins of the Colosseum, his adopted home, to spend a good part of his night in further, intense prayer. 

Labre's tomb in S. Maria dei Monti, Rome. The effigy was made by Achille Albacini in 1892.
In his last days, Labre's rapidly declining health forced him to find refuge in a poor house. On Wednesday of Holy Week, 1783, the 35-year-old beggar collapsed on the steps of a church; he later died peacefully in the home of a friendly butcher. Immediately the city's children took to the streets exclaiming, "The saint is dead! The saint is dead!" The entire populace turned out to pay their respects and extra police had to be brought in to control the crowds. As Donald Attwater says in his Dictionary of Saints, "The people of Rome never had any doubt about the holiness of this 'new St. Francis,' and he was eventually canonized."

Benedict Joseph is truly a saint for our times. His radical detachment – from possessions, from the world, even from himself – shows up the emptiness of modern self-absorption and greed. Not that we should all resort to a semi-contemplative existence on the streets, but we would do well to follow Labre's lead in cultivating detachment and put away whatever distracts us from God.

Therein lies sanctity and sanctity is our destiny – we only must seize it, and God gives us the grace to do so. God can fashion a saint from a homeless tramp; he can make saints of us. All he needs are the raw materials.

A version of this essay was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.