Recently I translated a book about a great Spaniard whom most people have never heard of. What makes someone great? Among others things I would suggest the way they cope in the face of adversity. Here was a man who was blessed with a good family, a comfortable upbringing, and an exceptional brain. He was also gentle, kind and likeable. However, in spite of these qualities and maybe because of them he made enemies within the holy Order of Carmel.
Gratian, born in the 16th century, could have been many things, such were the opportunities given by his upbringing and education. He chose to become a simple friar, much to the surprise and disappointment of his father who wanted him to work in the Court of King Philip II. However, Gratian was attracted to Carmel. After much thought and prayer, and not a little heartache, he opted to join the Order of Carmel, in great part because of his love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom the Order is dedicated. He was already a priest by the time he entered the novitiate. After this initial year he rose rapidly in the hierarchy of the Carmelites. Too rapidly, some would say. No sooner had he finished his novitiate than he was given a position of responsibility, to supervise the other friars in the south of Spain. This caused both jealousy and resentment. He met with open hostility and difficulties of various kinds which were to remain with him for all his time in Carmel. He was subject to lies and slander of the worst kind; even accused of fathering children with nuns. It got so bad that he was forced to leave the Order. I cannot begin to imagine how he felt the day he took off his habit for the last time. It had cost him so much to join the Order, to go against his father’s wishes, to overlook other more prestigious Orders that would have snapped him up, all because he wanted to join an Order dedicated to Our Lady.
He left Spain for Rome where he hoped to see the Pope and ask him to restore him to his beloved Order. However, before this was to happen, and indeed while on his way by sea to Rome, he was captured by Turkish pirates, who kept him locked up in a prison in Tunis, where he was to remain for 18 months until he was ransomed. His Order never lifted a finger to help him. Eventually, he met the Pope, Clement VIII. Gratian explained how he had been expelled unjustly from his Order, but without resentment or bitterness. The Pope was so impressed that he declared there and then , “This man is a saint”. This is Gratian’s greatness: his ability to forgive those who did awful things to him.
He remained in Rome as his Order would not have him back, even with a Papal Bull telling them to do so. After some years he returned to north Africa on behalf of the Pope to help ransom captured Christians. He then settled in Spain before moving to Brussels for the last ten years of his life. During much of this time he helped to promote the beatification of his great friend, Teresa of Avila. What must have been his delight when, in 1614, he heard she had been beatified; he died some months later.
Because he was formally expelled from the Order his name had almost been forgotten, at least formally within the Order. No one was encouraged to write about him. I say almost forgotten because anyone who reads Teresa’s book ‘The Foundations’ will know just how much she valued him, and saw him as a ‘godsend’. In 1999 he was formally reunited with the Discalced Carmelite Order. The official wording apologises for the way he had been treated during his life but also for the way his name has been besmirched over the years. Now the process of his beatification has begun.
The book is a good read. It is interesting to see what life could be like in 16th century Spain within a religious Order. Some of it is quite shocking; we don’t expect so called holy men to behave so badly towards one of their own. The ending is uplifting, as the truth has at last been revealed. I can see him, Jerome Gratian, becoming a really influential figure within the Carmelite Order, on a par with Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. For he truly was a great man; one who overcame adversity and who refused to be embittered by those who treated him badly.