Sunday, December 18, 2011

Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right



I recently read Emile Cammaerts' Albert of Belgium: Defender of Right (1935), a famous and beautiful biography of the brave, thoughtful, gracious and beloved third King of the Belgians. It is tinged with sadness by the terrible events of the First World War and by the violent, untimely death of the King in a mountaineering accident. Opening with his courageous decision to defend with arms Belgium's right and duty to be neutral, it tells the dramatic story of his life in a noble, rigorous and eloquent manner. His love for God, his fellow man, his family and the people of Belgium are all conveyed with poignant intensity. Rare and beautiful photographs and samples of the King's delicate, even handwriting, assist in bringing to life a rich and sensitive personality. Particularly moving are the pictures of the royal couple's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including a beautiful scene of Albert and Elisabeth in the Garden of Olives. I was glad that Cammaerts emphasized the role of Catholicism in the lives of the King and Queen, as it tends to be overlooked today. It is generally known that Albert's mother, Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was a fervent Catholic who gave her children a strict religious upbringing; it is less well known that her son continued his theological studies, on his own initiative, for several years after becoming heir to the throne. At his desk in Brussels, he kept a bronze cast of Cardinal Mercier's hand, holding a small crucifix, so that he could not raise his eyes from his work without seeing the image. A lady who hosted him during the war noticed that he kept a prayer-book on his night-stand and read a few pages every evening. The Imitation of Christ was always at his bedside. At the royal family's idyllic country retreat of Ciergnon, he used to go to Confession at the village church, humbly taking his place in line, and refusing to go before his turn. He was an ardent admirer of monastic and missionary discipline. Simple and conscientious in his daily religious practice, Albert was also capable of moments of mystical exaltation, as the author illustrates through the testimonies of his intimates. One morning, for example, during a Mass in the Belgian Congo, the King was deeply touched by the sight of a poor, ailing, miserable old negro, approaching Holy Communion alongside some white officers. It was one of the few times that Albert expressed strong emotion in public. On another occasion, when the King and Queen were shown, in Jerusalem, the site of Pilate's praetorium, they were so moved by the words of their learned guide, a Father of the École Biblique, that they both spontaneously knelt before the steps leading to the first station of the Via Dolorosa. The King of the Belgians, who would himself die tragically, only a year later, at the feet of a rustic crucifix in the Ardennes, contemplated the sacrifice of Christ where the King of Kings had suffered.  Cammaerts notes that he was never able to discover an instance of Albert acting against his conscience. Although some of his decisions may have been mistaken, the author indicates, the King never appears to have adopted a course of action he did not sincerely consider just as well as prudent. He was a man of rare nobility and sweetness of soul.

4 comments:

Christina said...

A beautiful post, Matterhorn. What a rare example of a truly genuine man and king.

Matterhorn said...

Thank you, Christina. It was challenging to write. There was much more I could say but I had to cut it down to keep the focus. But Cammaerts shares many other interesting facts and stories I will have to mention later on as seems appropriate.

gio said...

He was an amazing, just and brave man. Thanks for this wonderful post, I'm really curious to read this book too now.

Matterhorn said...

Thank you, Gio! I think you would really enjoy it.