On the Feast of All Saints I was recalling my very first day as a postulant with the Passionists. I was 24 years of age, and it was October 4th 1975, the feast of my name saint, Francis of Assisi, when myself and another Glasgow lad left from the Retreat House the Passionists then had at Coodham in Ayrshire. We were driven by a member of the community to Ardrossan, and then sailed on a boat called The Lion to Belfast. All the belongings we were asked to bring easily fitted into the boot of the car. These included wellies and dungarees as we were told we would be doing a fair amount of manual work in the monastery and in the grounds. Our destination was The Graan in Enniskillen, the place where, until recent years, every Passionist from Ireland or Scotland began their journey of formation. I remember that the route from Belfast to Enniskillen took us through the three Tyrone villages of Augher, Clogher and Fivemiletown, until we eventually drove up the avenue to this very imposing monastery three miles outside of the town of Enniskillen where we were greeted, a bit sternly I thought, by our Postulant Director, and introduced to our four classmates, one from County Clare; two from Belfast, and the other from Nigeria.
After a cold supper and an introductory lecture to lay down the rules, I was shown to my room, which in monastic terms is called a cell. My cell comprised of an ancient single bed with a lumpy mattress; a single wardrobe with two wire hangers, a small desk, a rickety chair, a small rug on bare wooden floorboards, and a ceiling light without a shade. I immediately wondered what, in God’s name, I was doing there. After unpacking, I went along to the wash hall to brush my teeth, and on the way back I became aware of something whizzing past my head. It turned out to be a bat, and it wasn’t even Halloween yet.
The only other item in the room was a huge portrait in an old gilt frame of someone that turned out be St. Gemma Galgani, who lived in Lucca in Italy from 1878-1903, and who, even though because of poor health she never actually joined the Passionists, is numbered among the Passionist saints. She was a very pretty looking girl and I looked at her and said; “Well Gemma, it’s not much of a room, but if I’m going to share it with you for the next year or so, I’d better find out who you are”. I then tiptoed along to the monastery library and found a book on her life, written by her spiritual director, the Passionist, Father Germanus.
Still a bit overawed by my surroundings, and with so many thoughts and questions going around in my head, I realised that I wouldn’t sleep a wink that night, and so I spent the whole night reading Gemma’s story. By morning time, she had become one of my favourite saints, and ever since she has been one of my constant companions and soul friends on the rocky road of faith. I have visited her shrine at Lucca on three occasions, as well as her shrine at Madrid where her heart is kept in a reliquary; I carry her picture constantly in my breviary, and I even now have a niece called Gemma. Canonised in 1940, St. Gemma is now very much revered as a true mystic, and is called the Daughter of Passion, because of her profound imitation of the Passion of Christ, including being one of those saints who received the stigmata. Here are a few thoughts from Gemma, the mystic of the Passion, to leave you with:
“Why did you suffer for me, dear Jesus? For love! The nails…the crown…the cross…all for the love of me! For You I sacrifice everything willingly. I offer You my body with all of its weakness, and my soul with all of its love.”
“See, oh Jesus, even at night, those hours, those hours! I sleep, but Jesus, my heart does not sleep. It watches with Thee at all hours.”
“Can You see that as soon as the day breaks I think of You? As evening comes, I am near You. I am near You at every moment. I love You, Jesus…”