Of Frs. Christian Mignon & Lawrence Abello or, Lectio Divina 2 (R.I.P. Fathers)

Christian Mignon SJ
Fr. Christian Mignon, whom I knew personally from age 11. (Photo used without permission from online sources.)
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Henry David Thoreau
Fr Mignon swimming in Kurseong
Fr. Mignon is on the right in 1953 at Kurseong St. Mary’s Seminary. (Image has been used without permission.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Benedict of Nursia wants us to perform the work of God in silence. The work of God is the celebration of the Divine Liturgy or, in the case of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the reading of the Holy Office. It is reductionist to think that Jesuits are exempted from Opus Dei. The repeated examen of conscience; the private reading(s) of the Divine Office are in fact  re-working(s) of the Camaldolese way of life. The Camaldolese Way is an extrapolation of the Benedictine way. All these monastic Ways lead up to St. Bruno‘s Way, which is important for understanding the Jesuit Fr. Mignon since the Founder of the Jesuits, was in a sense the spiritual son of St. Bruno.

St. Bruno exhorting silence
St. Bruno exhorting silence. It is this tradition of silent work that informs Ignatian spirituality.  St. Ignatius moulded Fr. Mignon.

This deep monasticism within Ignatian spirituality will be the subject of a future blog post.

Taking the cue from St. Benedict,  St. Romuald in his brief Rule asked his monks to make  heavens of their cells.

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it…
And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more…

As St. Romauld says, perfection of being can be accomplished in one’s cell/room. Fr. Mignon perfected both his spiritual and intellectual life in his room at St. Xavier’s, Kolkata. One does not need to be a globe-trotter to change either the globe or oneself. Henry David Thoreau would understand this very well.

This is the way of the Saints. St. Alphonsa in her sick-bed in Kerala, mimetically reliving the life of The Little Flower of Jesus became a Saint without leaving her monastery or becoming a public spectacle. Saint Ignatius of Loyola is to be seen within this tradition of inner-engineering. Ignatius’s spiritual mentors were the Carthusians and the Saint himself desired to be a Carthusian once. It is another matter that the Carthusians guided by the Holy Ghost did not accept him, for YHWH preserved Ignatius for other works whose reverberations are to be felt to this day in Calcutta.

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St. Alphonsa. She reenacted the Passion of the Nazarene in her sickbed from her rural monastery in Kerala; hidden from the prying eyes of worldly powers hungry for name and fame.

It is within these traditions of Benedictine, Camaldolese and Carmelite spiritualities should we see the late deceased Fr. Christian Mignon of the Society of Jesus. And his spiritual sons amongst whom was the late Canadian Piedmontese, Fr. Lawrence Abello SJ. Unless I digress into the life of Fr. Abello, it will not be possible for us to understand the life of Fr. Mignon. And unless we understand the lives of these two Jesuits, we run the risk of not understanding Jesuit spirituality at all. Fr. Abello’s Father-confessor was Fr. Mignon as Fr. Mignon was the Father-confessor of the Jesuit community at St. Xavier’s, School and College, Park Street for a very long time. It is no easy task to be the confessor of a community of radical Roman Catholic Religious men. Thus, in passing we must note that Fr. Mignon parat from being a linguist was a masterful director of souls. 

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Fr Lawrence Abello, India’s greatest unacknowledged physicist and neo-Thomist was the spiritual son of Fr. Christian Mignon. When Fr. Abello was on his deathbed I used to speak to him through a landline in his room. I knew Fr. Abello SJ from age 10. Fr. Abello taught me philosophy and theology at St. Xavier’s parlour. Fr. Abello SJ was as radical as Che Guevara; only he’d have no truck with Guevara.

Neither was Fr. Abello seen in physics seminars in Kolkata or abroad, nor was Fr. Mignon known to the thousands of capitalist-machines who transact power in the  academic centres of India and the First World. Yet intellectuals globally acknowledge Fr. Abello as a great neo-Thomist who happened to be a whiz-physicist and, his confessor, Fr. Mignon is now acknowledged as one of our greatest translators (from Hebrew, Aramaic, New and Old Greeks to Bengali). One Bengali newspaper while eulogizing Fr. Mignon’s skills in Bengali praised his desire for shunning the world. The newspaper rightly contrasted Fr. Mignon with the flamboyant Fr. Detienne SJ. The journalist forgot to mention that Fr. Mignon was proficient in Aramaic, Hebrew and both Old and New Greek. Without knowing those languages one cannot even begin understanding the Holy Bible.

I had referred to Fr. Mignon’s great but under-unacknowledged contributions to translation-studies when I had reviewed an anthology of translated short-stories edited by Bashabi Fraser. Fraser, a meticulous scholar seemed to me to be under the sway of P Lal. According to me Lal, who had wanted to be a Jesuit as a young Turk, had got it mostly wrong when he pontificated on transcreation:

There is only one lacuna in [Fraser’s] anthology. The editor has been influenced by P Lal’s flawed understanding of translation though she is superior to Lal in the act of translating as will be shown in a moment. Lal came to believe in the primacy of the imagination over authenticity while he painstakingly botched up the Mahabharata, which he tried to translate over the years. Unlike Umberto Eco, Lal felt the need to invent, and not coin, new words when his own vocabulary proved inadequate for that tough task. Contrast him to Father Mignon SJ, still alive, who has just finished translating the Holy Bible into regular Bengali. Fraser is in the line of Mignon SJ, rather than Lal. Therefore, Fraser’s translators [the contributors to Fraser’s anthology] are immaculate in their grasps of both Bengali and English and yet Fraser unnecessarily speaks of the pitfalls of translation. But here too she is able to hold her own since she comments on the narratorial exigencies of Bengali literature vis-a-vis English narrative techniques. Her own ‘Looking Back’ proves that Fraser needlessly worries about translation. Readers are mercifully spared ‘transcreations’ in this anthology.

Fr. Mignon SJ as the newspaper-clipping attests is going to be remembered as one of the greatest men in Bengali letters. Yet as befits a man of God and letters, Fr. Mignon SJ would not care for these eulogies. He served the Ignatian magis constructed from Benedictine, Camaldolese and Carmelite Rules of Life to work in ‘hiding’ at St. Xavier’s School and College, Kolkata, Park Street and studying and writing in secret, as it were. Fr. Abello’s magis to live as a very poor man and to study and teach philosophy and Catholic dogma did not come from some neurosis or mere ecological concerns. Lesser intellects than Fr. Abello’s reduced Fr. Abello’s commitment to poverty for the sake of comprehensibility, to ecological concerns after his death while routinely filling obituary pages about him. On the contrary, Fr. Abello’s espousal of poverty and conviction in Roman Catholic Dogma came from his slow spiritual formation by Fr. Mignon. It takes one scholar to mould another; one saint to mould another. Fr. Abello was Saint Teresa of Kolkata’s spiritual director for some period of time. I was witness to the fact that the Saint held Fr. Abello’s adherence to Catholic dogma in very high esteem, notwithstanding the snide remarks of some priests who are now in the grip of moral-relativism. Moral-relativism comes from acedia, the noon-day devil.

The Bengali newspaper has got it right: while the Jesuit Detienne was all for publicity, Fr. Mignon was all for YHWH. A crucial difference noted forevermore.

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Fr. Paul Detienne. Great writer, may be great man; but not saint-material. Just another writer waiting to be forgotten. 

Generations of Bengalis knew and know of the worldly Detienne; but our Lord alone, He who sees into the hearts of wo/men, knew Father Mignon’s commitment to the cause of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Ignatius’ Master, the Man from Galilee; the Lamb from Nazarene who was slaughtered on His Wood. Fathers Abello and Mignon offered themselves up in slow fires as holocausts for the living God. Day after livelong meaningless boring day. At least while Father Mignon is at least passingly remembered by mass media; Fr. Abello SJ is  well nigh forgotten. India’s greatest neo-Thomist, Fr. Abello has been relegated to Jesuit necrologies. 

May be, someday we will begin the process of beatifying both Frs. Mignon and Abello — two subversive and countercultural men. Not a few Jesuits in Fr. Abello’s community in Kolkata found him to be a nutcase and a joke because he, like Fr. Mignon lived his vocation with his body and soul. He and Fr. Mignon were signs to other Jesuits that it does not pay to hobnob with the wealthy. Even in the name of evangelization.

While Fr. Detienne will be forgotten in the morass of time as another self-publicizing Jesuit who could not bear the poverty and heat of Calcutta; Father Mignon will be remembered  centuries hence as one who changed the course of indigenous Biblical reception in India and abroad. When Julius Lipner will be forgotten (even after so many faculty dinners and high-profile teaching assignments); Fr. Mignon SJ will be remembered as a true Christian who preferred YHWH over publicity. Mignon’s Bengali Bible will be read millennia hence. And YHWH willing, mayhap he will be canonized.

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Umberto Eco is Fr. Mignon’s true pareil. Lal and company will be delegated to hagiography. Eco will be remembered as a novelist and Mignon as a scholar-saint.

The only pareil to Mignon is Umberto Eco. Not Lal nor Lipner. PhDs will be done on Fr. Mignon’s corpus.

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St. Ignatius of Loyola