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Exempla: Stories that Teach Catechism

Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.

I recently heard a radio preacher speaking about the moral crisis of our days. He kept shouting passionately: “We’ve got to give our children religion. We’ve got to give them some religion.” He made it sound like you give religion like you pour a bowl of cereal or fill the empty gas tank.

Religion is much more than “giving” a Bible study or catechism class. Religion breathes in and impregnates the air of an authentic Catholic society. It is imbibed, so to speak, with a mother’s milk. Religion forms the traditions and customs; it is integrated into the language; it lies in the legends and stories of a people.

In the Middle Ages, story-telling was a very popular method of catechesis, and this kind of story had a name – exempla, from example. Verba docent, exempla trahunt, says the wise maxim. Words teach, but it is example that changes, that transforms.

In the past, parents and teachers were always telling stories. There is a series of old Catechism books that ‘teaches the teachers’ called I Teach Catechism. Interspersed in the instructions on how to explain the Baltimore catechism questions are exempla, little stories and examples from daily living that teach the catechism doctrine. Like adding wine to a meal or sauce to a vegetable, these little stories add spice and vigor to what can be dry and dull.

So, today, let me add a little spice to several plates that aren’t being served very often today: the harmonic balance between Catholic justice and mercy, and the need for prayers for the poor souls in Purgatory.

The runaway nun is stopped

The first is a little more unusual and it reflects a very militant and Spanish medieval spirit. It is a story about the intercessory action of Our Lady, as so many of the medieval exempla were. This is from a 12th-century book compiled by King Sancho IV “Sancho el Bravo” of Castile. It was for his son, and entitled El Libro de los Castígos (the Book of Punishments), a moral-political treatise filled with exempla.

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The medieval statue Virgin of the Bird shows the sweetness and tenderness Of Our Lady
This story The Runaway Nun Stopped came from the section Instructions for the Good Life. It is interesting to note that this is not a storybook for children. It is a king who compiled this work for his eldest son and heir, who was already a grown man, and who would be the future ruler of Castile.

The story begins, “Never be so bold as to tamper with the acts of God. I shall relate to you a beautiful miracle that Our Lord Jesus wrought in this regard at the request of his mother, St. Mary. I relate it so that you will understand how much it grieves Him and how evil He considers the man who would steal of His nuns from a convent”. (1)

In A Benedictine house of nuns called Fontenblay in England, there was a young noble woman who was very beautiful and good, and renowned for her devotion to Mary. Whenever she passed Our Lady’s statue she would always address it, “Hail, Mary!” and genuflect.

However, it happened that through the devil, “who is ever accustomed to contrive and fabricate such things,” a noble knight fell in love with her. He had heard about her beauty and pretended to be her relative in order to speak to her. He managed to convince her that they should steal away together one night. On the planned night, as the nun returned from Complines, she slipped out of line to hide inside a narrow postern door instead of going to the dormitory. As soon as she was sure all the sisters were gone, she left her hiding place, went to the high altar, knelt and said “Hail, Mary!” following her custom.

But when the statue of Mary, which was close to the crucifix, saw her leaving, it called out and said: “Where does thou go, my daughter? Dost thou leave me and my Son for the devil? And dost thou make mockery of the prayer with which thou art accustomed to hail me?”

Then the image from the crucifix moved, and Our Lord removed one of the nails that had fastened him to the Cross, and raised His hand to throw it, so that the nail pierced the nun from one cheek to another. The nun fell unconscious to the floor.

The next morning the sisters came to the convent, and found the crucifix on the cross with the right hand raised in the attitude of striking. To this day it remains so as proof of what took place. Then the nuns discovered the sister on the floor, plucked the nail from her cheek, and she regained her senses. The poor sinner wept greatly and repented utterly for her sin, confessing all that had taken place and why she had been so punished by Our Lord. Thenceforth she was a pious and holy sister and ended her days in the convent in God’s service.

AAnd the knight? After waiting with four of his kinsmen the whole night, he left, humiliated and believing he had been mocked by the sister. The author draws this lesson: “So it was that even though the devil had prepared the hearts of the nun and the knight to be joined as one, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is always the devil’s adversary, nullified and undid everything that the Evil One had wrought. For the nun turned her mind away from the knight because of God’s punishment, and the knight put away the love of the nun from his heart from anger at being humiliated. Further, when he learned what had happened, he considered himself to be a great sinner and repented for all the sins he had committed, left the world to become a monk, and served God well, ending his days piously.”

In this story, which I’ve been told is too violent for the children of our days – which seems ironic given the horror and violence in the present films and entertainment - we can see how radical the Spanish Catholic of the Middle Ages was. In it we can see the beautiful harmonic contrast between justice and mercy that exists in the Church. Yes, there is a real justice, a justice that many would like to ignore or do away with today in order to have a Church only of mercy and not of punishment. But, at the same time, we see the tremendous goodness of Our Lady and Our Lord, who will not permit this beloved daughter to lose her soul.

There is a practical lesson to be learned: we can’t do anything we want and expect only mercy. At the same time, we can be sure that if we make even the smallest gesture to Our Lady, She will not abandon us. She will not allow us to be lost. She will go to any extreme – even to the point of the absurd — to save us, to give us a solution, to open a way we least expect, perhaps in a marvelous way.

Stories like this help make all the Marian doctrine real. They are a little legacy we can give to our children so that should they find themselves some day gone astray, no matter now black or desperate the situation, they can remember to have recourse to Our Lady, who never abandons anyone who comes to her asking for mercy. Or perhaps they will be able to see in a terrible trial or chastisement from God His just hand that compels us to return to the path of truth, the Holy Catholic Church.

A mother’s useless tears

This second exempla is a lesson on the value of the Sacrifice of the Mass offered for the poor souls in Purgatory. It seems an appropriate topic for our days: first, because since Vatican II, many priests and religious authorities no longer believe in purgatory and consequently do not preach on the importance of praying for the poor souls. Second, perhaps it will serve as a reminder to readers to have Masses said for the Poor Souls, especially for family members and relatives who have died and perhaps are only waiting for a single Mass to be released from their sufferings.

The story, “A Mother’s Useless Tears,” is from a wonderful 1918 book The Catechism in Examples by Rev. D. Chishol (reprinted by Roman Catholic Books). It tells about a mother who lost her son, for whom she had a special affection. She was inconsolable and wept for him day and night. One day she had a vision. She thought she saw a company of beautiful boys, all clad in shining garments, joyful and rejoicing. As they passed along, she thought she might see her own son among them, but he was not there.

Then she saw him coming after them, but at a great distance. He seemed to be walking with great difficulty, as if he were carrying a heavy burden. When his mother asked him why he seemed so sad and fatigued, he replied, “Look, mother, this burden I carry are the tears you shed for me. They have done no good. On the contrary, they have kept me from attaining the happiness of the others. If you must weep, weep with resignation to the Holy Will of God. Go, I beseech you, and have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered up for me, and then this weight will be taken from me.”

After telling the story, Fr. Chisol offers this good advice with the simple wisdom of a religious faithful to the teachings of Holy Mother Church: “This is a great mistake made by even good people. When anyone dies whom they love, and that person has been good, they say, ‘Such a person is sure to be in Heaven.’ And thus they neglect to pray for that one. Now this is a mistake, my child. You should pray for everyone, no matter how holy they may have been during life.”

I told this story to a class of 7th graders several years ago. One girl who had recently lost a family member was quite impressed by it and asked me for a book of prayers with indulgences that can be said for the Poor Souls. Her parents, who feared she was becoming too serious, complained to the parish priest. He advised the girl that since Vatican II, it was no longer necessary to follow these old practices, because now we understand that God’s grace was sufficient to open the gates of Heaven to the “saved.” I was sorry to see a 12-year-old girl caught between the “opinions” of two authorities – her religion teacher and her priest – who were supposed to be serving the one same immutable truth. It is difficult to know how or if she resolved this unfortunate contradiction between a supposedly pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II truth.

It is amazing to consider how quickly after the Council the souls in Purgatory seemed to be set aside or forgotten by so many priests and religious who followed the progressivist line. Perhaps they feared offending the sensibilities of Protestants and some schismatic Greek sects that deny the reality of Purgatory. This neglect has been most unfortunate. More than a mere matter of piety, there is the obligation of charity that belongs to Catholics to pray for those whom we loved on earth so that they might enjoy the happiness of Heaven.

Further, this disregard for the souls in Purgatory touches a more general concern. The Catholic Faith teaches us that the ensemble of the souls in Purgatory forms the Church Suffering. This new progressivist orientation being imposed on almost the entire Church in practice denies the existence of the Church Suffering. That is to say, we are facing an enormous amputation from the whole Church body which is composed of three parts: the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering and the Church Militant.


Blason de Charlemagne
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1. Medieval AgeAngel Flores, New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1963, pp. 350-3.
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