So far we have been looking at Charles more or less from the outside, observing his actions, seeing what he did at various times and in various places. We might ask ourselves what was going on behind the scenes we have witnessed. Every day Charles was coming into close contact with misery and sickness. What was all this pain doing to him?
It would have been easy for him, seeing so much human suffering and having to listen to so many people’s problems, to become hardened, to begin to treat people in a routine or impersonal manner. Indeed at times he may have felt tempted to do so even as a means of survival. Instead, he is remembered by those who knew him as someone who was always open and accessible:
Fr Charles was entirely at the disposal of the sick and poor and dying. He was greatly in demand by them. I myself came to him several times: he was always very kind and accessible.... All that interested him was that they were in trouble and needed his help which he gave most readily and effectively.
I myself recall his blessing me: he looked at me so kindly and laid his hand on my head and, child though I was, I felt that the man who blessed me was out of the ordinary, on a higher plane than others but still so accessible.
Fr Charles’ charity towards his neighbour was universally spoken of in Dublin in those days. He was much sought after by all kinds of people in sickness or trouble and he was at the disposal of all. Many a time on my police beat I was stopped by people inquiring when and where they could see Fr Charles. I often marvelled at Fr Charles’ patience; he never showed any sign of impatience when he was so persistently and, as I sometimes felt, unreasonably followed by people. I often felt inclined to intervene and send them away, but he never showed any sign of being annoyed with them.
What was the secret behind this accessibility to which so many refer? What was the source of his patience, his openness to others? Rather than being hardened by his contact with suffering, Charles developed a deep sensitivity which was rooted in his devotion to the Passion of Jesus. The Passionist Constitutions state, ‘We seek the unity of our lives and apostolate in the Passion of Jesus. His Passion reveals the power of God which penetrates the world, destroying the power of evil and building up the Kingdom of God’ (par. 5). For Charles the Passion was the link between his life and his apostolate; his ministry and his own personal life were the two complementary facets of his commitment to Christ crucified. Meeting Christ suffering the the poor, the sick and the dying, he was being drawn daily into a deeper participation in the mystery of Christ’s Passion as it was lived out by others and as it was to be lived out by him. right: Father Charles’ crucifix
His while life of prayer was centred on Christ crucified. At Mass he often wept, especially at references to the Passion. Father Eugene Nevin, a member of the Mount Argus community who has left us his personal recollections of Charles, wrote:
The simplest discourse on the Passion moved Fr Charles to tears. During the reading of the meditation which takes place every day in choir, it was touching and edifying to see him lean forward hand to ear straining to catch every word, eager that none of its golden treasure should be lost to him. Little needed he remind of Calvary, for it was never absent from his thoughts. Nevertheless he invariably carried about him a small crucifix, sometimes placed on top of his little devotional manuals as seen in the photo, but more often locked in his left hand palm. From time to time he could be seen to open the hand, look affectionately at the crucifix and raise it tenderly to his lips. I saw it after his death showing signs of long and frequent use.
The Stations or Way of the Cross was one of his favourite devotions, though by no means an easy performance from the difficulty he experienced in kneeling and rising unsupported. But that only made it all the more dear to him. He generally practised the devotion in the seclusion of the religious choir or oratory, where he was free from any interruption or distraction, a luxury not likely to be allowed him in the public church.
Living far from his family, in a community where he could never speak his own language, Charles had what was in some ways a lonely life. Always having to express himself in English, a foreign language which he never fully mastered, it was inevitable that he would at times experience a deep sense of isolation. One of the community has remarked that ‘although we all loved and honoured him, he had no intimate friend. He gave the impression of being lonely, though in reality of course that could not be the case, for Christ was his constant companion.’ On 10 July 1878 his uncle wrote, inviting him to come home on holiday and meet his brothers and sisters. Charles politely turned down the invitation; such visits were not usual among the Passionists at that time:
I have thought about the long journey by land and sea. After so many years I hardly remember how to speak my own native tongue. I hope to see you all again in heaven with Jesus and Mary, and all the angels and saints.
Indeed his home was never far from his mind. In his letters to his family we find that his brothers and sisters are constantly in his prayers. Sometimes too his mind drifts back and he asks for news about friends from his days in Munstergeleen, indulging in a little nostalgia for the land of his birth. According to Fr Eugene, when Charles visited a house in Rathgar, Dublin, in which there were many paintings,
there was one picture in particular, and it the least valuable of the lot, which beyond all others claimed his attention, and elicited his emotions -- a Dutch Winter Landscape. When he came upon it for the first time he exclaimed, ‘Ah, a Dutch painting!’ and remained long looking at it and viewing it from every angle. On each of his subsequent visits he acted in a precisely similar manner. The subject being a familiar one no doubt called up memories of his early associations, with please recollections of the house where his childhood’s days were spent.
Speaking of the Stations of the Cross, Fr Eugene referred to the ‘difficulty he [Charles] experienced in kneeling and rising unsupported’. This was the result of an accident which took place on the Tuesday of Holy Week, 12 April 1881. The cab in which Charles was travelling collided with another carriage and was overturned. He tried to jump clear but was caught under the cab and badly hurt. In his diary, Fr Salvian writes that,
On the last Tuesday Fr Charles having jumped from a Jaunting Car, whilst in motion, he broke his leg at the ankle. Fr Charles’ absence from the Church during this busy time was felt very much, especially that we had to find another to put in his place in singing the Passion on Good Friday, the Lamentations, etc. It is not expected that he will be able to get out from bed soon, which to him is of the greatest trial, on account of not being able to say Mass. On Maundy Thursday Holy Communion was brought to his room, with great solemnity. All the students accompanied the Blessed Sacrament with lighted candles.
Charles himself, in a letter to his brother, Fr Peter, says, ‘I must tell you that much to my regret I have broken my right foot. I was in great pain for three weeks and four days.’ This fracture never healed properly and for the rest of his life Charles had difficulty in walking. Thomas McGrath, who was then a postulant at Mount Argus but later became a doctor, remembered the incident:
I was refectorian, and was to take a cup of coffee to Fr Charles every morning during his illness. Fractures then were not as well treated as they are now, so that I think he must have suffered severely in the cold of the night. He must have suffered immensely from thirst. I found Fr Charles in his usual ecstatic state. He used to try to deceive me by his smiles.
Fr Salvian mentioned that because of the accident Charles was unable to take part in the singing of the Passion Gospel on Good Friday. This Holy Week he was being called upon to share in the Passion of Christ by his own suffering, uniting his pain to the pain of Christ. Fr Eugene recalls for us the scene on other Good Fridays:
His part during the years I knew him was always that of Christus which suited his style of voice admirably. But it was still more in accord with his sentiments in that he had to sing the words of our Lord in the garden, in His trial, condemnation and death. His very appearance was striking as he entered the sanctuary accompanied by the two other priests appointed for other parts....
Entering wholeheartedly into the meaning and spirit of the words, Fr Charles soon became lost to his surroundings, overwhelmed by grief in the sympathy he felt for the Divine Victim. There would be many long pauses, unrubrical it is true, but necessary to suppress the sob and wipe away those tears that dim the page. ... There would be tears in more eyes than Fr Charles’ before he had finished, for no preacher could produce such effects as he did by his appearance and general bearing during his singing of the Passion. It was the important feature of the Mount Argus Holy Week services in those days.
In the Christian tradition there are two different ways of approaching human suffering; these are clearly expressed in the two Opening Prayers of the Mass for the Sick in the Roman Missal. The text of one prayer reads:
All-powerful and every-living God,
the lasting health of all who believe in you
hear us as we ask your loving help for the sick;
restore their health, that they may again offer joyful thanks in your Church. (Roman Missal p. 838)
The other Opening Prayer, however, is not a prayer for healing but for the grace of acceptance. This prayer reminds us that Jesus accepted suffering to teach us the virtue of patience in human illness; it goes on to ask that all who suffer pain, illness or disease may realise that they are chosen by God and united with Christ for the salvation of our world. right: Father Charles, c. 1881
Not all those who came to Charles for healing were cured physically; some he encouraged to bear their cross in union with Christ while others he advised to prepare for death. In ministering to the sick there is a great need for discernment, to know when we should pray for healing and when for acceptance. Charles realised that there were cases where the cross of suffering must be carried bravely. Writing to his sister Mary Christine he expressed the hope that she would
bear her illness with resignation, because this is God’s will, and with devotion, since this will be to her advantage. She must not lose heart in her sufferings and should think of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. St Paul says, ‘The Lord chastises those whom he loves’. May be sister grow used to saying these words, ‘Blessed be God! Thy will be done! I adore your holy will! My God, I thank you for this illness, for crosses, etc.’
On another occasion he wrote to his brother Peter,
I was sorry to hear that you have been ill. I hope you will recover soon. I was very pleased to hear that you have been totally resigned to God’s will. Oh, holy will of God! May his will be always obeyed, honoured and blessed by men! Oh holy will, oh blessed will! Our happiness in this life and in the life to come lies in carrying out God’s will, as Jesus said, ‘Here I am, Father; I come to do your will.’
This resignation in suffering was not something to be preached to others; Charles had to learn its meaning in his own life. He had advised his sister not to lose heart in her sufferings but to think of the Passion of Christ, as he had learned to do. The exhausting nature of his ministry, the loneliness he often felt, the continual pain in his leg which was soon to be followed by other sicknesses: all these were for Charles opportunities of faith, invitations from Christ not to lose heart but to think of his Passion.
From about this time Charles’ health began to deteriorate. On 23 January 1882 Salvian wrote in his diary, ‘Poor Fr Charles, not being well lately, has been dispensed from coming into the Choir for Matins and Prime.’ Significantly, Charles had written to his nephew only two days earlier,
Let us ask the Infant Jesus to give us the virtue of patience and of complete submission to the will of God in all that we do and in all the suffering we have to bear, especially in our last illness and at the hour of our death. Let us ask him not only for the strength to resist temptation and persevere in his divine love, but also for the grace of being able to pray always, since through prayer we acquire divine love and perfection, perseverance and eternal happiness. May our divine saviour share the eternal glory of heaven with us. Amen.
On 10 August 1883 Charles’ brother, Fr Peter Joseph Houben, died; he was fifty-six years old, six years young than Charles. In all, five of his brother and sisters predeceased Charles, but perhaps he felt Peter’s death more intensely than any of the others. Writing to his uncle, Charles said that he was deeply saddened by Peter’s death but, he added, ‘we must frequently call to mind that it is the holy will of God. From the beautiful letters he wrote to me I can say with certainty that he was a good and holy priest, and so we must hope that he has already tasted the joys of heaven.’
A fortnight later, Charles was still immersed in his grief; his mind was not really on what he was doing, much to the annoyance of Fr Salvian who tells us in his diary that ‘the monthly Procession was a regular confusion... The was no organist. Fr Charles intoned some extraordinary “Dutch Litany” which no one knew, and elicited general laughter, especially among the youngsters.’ No doubt Salvian told Charles afterwards just what he thought of his ‘Dutch Litany’. As always for Charles, his place of refuge was at the foot of the Cross, where his suffering and the sufferings of others could be seen in their true light, as he himself had written:
The Cross patiently borne for the love of God helps greatly for our eternal salvation.... Strive to think every day, for a few minutes, on the bitter sufferings of Jesus Christ.... May Jesus and Mary always reign in our hearts.
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© Paul Francis Spencer, C.P. 2007 - all rights reserved
This biography, paper-published in 1988 at the time of Father Charles’ beatification, was how I became acquainted with the life of Father Charles. Although you will find the entire text at this site, I encourage you to look for the new paper edition of the book, which will be available in bookshops in mid-2007.