Abbot Bruno Ryan
Years at Mount Melleray, Ireland
James Ryan, a native of Tipperary, Ireland was born on Dec. 19, 1865. He entered Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland in 1888. He had two fears on entering, that his health would give out, the other that he would not persevere. He would have becone a lay brother but his Superior and confessor told him to become a choir monk and go on to the priesthood. He made solemn profession March 25, 1894 and was ordained August 16, 1896.
Father Ailbe Luddy, O.C.S.0. wrote:
I first became acquainted with Father Bruno in September 1899, when I entered Mount Melleray Seminary to begin my classical studies. He taught Latin, Greek, French and Mathematics to boys of the second year, so that I came under his personal influence only in 1900. I learned almost immediately what the students thought of him. He was considered different in some subtle way from the other monastic members of the teaching staff. It was not that we thought him more or less devout, more or less mortified than his confreres. I believe I can say with truth, that we stood more in awe of him than of any of the others. I can not explain or conceive why it should be so. The cause may have been our realization of his extreme sensitivity and self-consciousness, he would blush scarlet and appear painfully embarrassed without any or very little apparent reason. We also considered him a little scrupulous. Certainly he was scrupulously exact in the matter of poverty. We noticed too, how he never remained longer than was absolutely necessary outside the enclosure. I never heard that he had a vow against wasting time, but I do not believe any such vow could make him more economic in the employment of his time. In class he confined himself strictly to the lessons for the day. Yet I would not regard him as a good teacher. The students were never at ease in his class, an essential requirement for assimilation. He had a system he called ‘Ups and Downs.’ If you missed a question, it was passed on to the boy next below you, who if he gave the right answer took the place above you on the bench. The answer was expected to come like an echo. For as a ready memory goes with youth, it happened not seldom that a brainless young scamp of twelve or thirteen would sit at the top-end of the class. A quinquagenarian “late vocation” at the tail end. I do not remember to have ever heard Father Bruno scold a boy, but often enough when anything occurred to provoke him, such as prompting, he would flush scarlet, making manifest efforts for self-control. Efforts which always succeeded, but we got the impression that if he let himself go, the quiet monk would be transformed instantly to a volcano in violent eruption.
In the summer of 1903 I introduced to him a near cousin of mine, mentioning that he had arranged to enter the novitiate here in September. His answer was, ‘Then he will be nearer to me than to you, because he will be my brother.’
To tell the story of his life in the cloister would be tantamount to writing the biography of a clock. He lived by the rule and the bell. The common life seemed to be his great devotion, unvarying punctuality at every exercise. In one point only did he show himself singular, he attended all the classes for the scholastics: Theology moral and dogmatic, Cannon Law, and Church History. Sitting silent amongst the juniors, as if everything was new to him, though we were all convinced he could teach every subject, so far as the knowledge went, at least as well as the professor in charge.
It was a great joy to him when about 1911 he was relieved of the duty of teaching at the Seminary and given charge of the lay brothers. But in spite of his great and universal detachment, it cost him a hard struggle to comply with the Abbot’s request that he should go to New Melleray and take up the duties of Prior in that house. When he had gone, Abbot Maurus told us about it in Chapter. “When I asked him if he would go, the tears welled into his eyes. There was a very, very slight hesitation. Then his great heart came out in the words, ‘Whatever you wish, Rev. Father.” That was his Gethsemani. His sacrifice was amply rewarded, for years later he told me he had found in the New Melleray even greater happiness than he knew in the old. It was about the same time he declared that amongst the many graces wherewith God had favored him, there was one which he particularly prized, namely, that through all the chances and changes of the years, in spite of all the disappointments and disillusionments, he had persevered in tact and undiminished the reverential respect which he felt for the monks when he first came to Mount Melleray as a student. That ought to be enough to Canonize him!.
Though usually grave and always recollected he laughed easily, and had an unsuspected sense of hiimour. By 1908 Father Bruno was in charge of the lay brother novices. Br. Gabriel Scanlon, who entered Mount Melleray that year wrote in 1956 from Mount Melleray:
What I must first say is that I owe my perseverence to his kind spiritual help and encouragement. In those days it was the custom for novices to make manifestation of conscience to their Father Master. It was in these spiritual talks that he taught us the way of the interior life and the practice of virtue. His favorite theme was on prayer, 1st, meditation, 2nd, affective prayer, 3rd, the prayer of simplicity for those who were prepared for it. Another subject very dear to his heart and which he practiced so well, was the Presence of God. By acquiring the habit of it we were preparing for a life of close union with God. I look back on those days and years of my novitiate with Father Bruno as the happiest of my life. As a privilege he gave me for my Lenten book “Sancta Sophia”–I had it for eight years in succession. He has been everything to me in the spiritual life, as I frequent the places here where he used to go I feel a contact with him and repeat about a dozen times a day, Bruno, Bruno. To me he was the ideal Father-Master and the perfect monk.
Life at New Melleray
Father Bruno was Sub Prior at Mount Melleray when in July 1914 he was sent to New Melleray near Dubuque, Iowa. On his arrival there were 17 in the community–mostly old men who were over-worked. He became Prior under Abbot Alberic Dunlea who was 81 years old. On the death of Abbot Alberic in 1917 Father Bruno became Superior. Written and oral tradition presents a good description of him.
He was impetuous and hasty in the first years but long before his death it had all disappeared; there was a calmness and serenity about him that impressed you very much. He ruled the house by good example and kindness. There was no one in the house so humorous and cheerful as Father Bruno.
He was a very holy monk with a good mind and a strict disciplinarian. He slowly got the brethren to put work in second place. The Divine Office, conventual Mass, meditation, pious reading, regularity and practice of virtue was daily insisted on with the result that the Abbey began to prosper. At his death in 1944 there were about 50 in the house and a great spirit of fervor. However as with all the saints he experienced lots of the cross following Him who died on the Cross. He practiced what he preached. He was first at all the offices and community exercises. He never seemed to care about traveling. Even if he was visiting with important persons, when the time came for office, he would excuse himself. Even when visiting other monasteries he would attend all the divine offices.
He had a remarkably kind, pleasant disposition, most patient, never grumbling. He visited the sick twice daily, morning and evening, visited each department once a week, and once daily went to the Guest House to greet overnight guests, say a few cheery words and after a brief visit return to his cell. No one could equal him in meeting visitors. He showed a warm welcome to all and his humorous remarks had visitors in roars of laughter. Hence the Archbishop, priests, sisters, laity, Catholic, Protestant or Jew all loved him. However he had some failings or rather lack of business ability and perhaps prudence which seemed God’s plan to test the brethren.
First he was so big hearted that he took into the community every Tom, Dick, and Harry and would never send them away no matter how they behaved. Another weakness in Abbot Bruno was not providing necessary improvements. For instance up to 1937 all visitors, men and women roamed around gardens orchards, barns and even in the woods. It took the Father Immediate, Abbot Celsus to remedy this. When he opened the visitation in 1938 he remarked: “This very day I want the procurator to appoint workmen to build an enclosure and keep visitors out to the west.” The result was that within one week the enclosure was up. As an example of obedience, at Dom Bruno’s election as Abbot in 1935, Dom Celsus remarked that he should shave off his beard and Dom Bruno did so immediately.
Even as Abbot he cleaned his own room and helped the novices sweep the cloister and chapter room etc. He was so zealous for poverty that on returning from the General Chapter and finding a room painted, he stopped it and left it about half finished. Though the monastery was in debt he would take alms sent in a letter and send them out to others saying, “They need it more than we.”
Doctrine and Spirituality
His talks to the community were excellent, usually five to ten minutes, and well liked. When addressing the novices he would say, “We novices.” On Mondays he gave a special spiritual talk which often moved brethren to tears. They spoke highly and appreciatively of his sermons long after his death. Once quoting a letter in chapter he read: “Get fun out of every cow in the barn,” and said, “I repeat that” and read it again. He frequently spoke on purity of intention and perseverance. An old brother looking back over the years at the number who fell by the wayside remarked, “One wonders did he say it often enough.”
Father Maurus Henrich, who followed closely in the footsteps of Dom Bruno til his holy death in 1975 wrote:
My first sight of him in the Guesthouse was that of a white haired and bearded monk whom I judged to be about seventy years of age. He was rather short (about five feet four). His cowl was grayish white and he wore one black and the other brown ordinary oxfords that looked worn and unpolished, but still clean. His voice was very weak, though pleasant and musical. He had me sit down on the sofa and he got close next to me, holding my arm and hand. He asked the usual questions about education, etc., and decided then and there that I would do as a monk. He didn’t exactly give me a fervorino (a sermon) but he did say a few things about the community, and that I should not expect everyone to be a saint. His large blue eyes were kind and always smiling. Yet one could see that he was able to be serious. He never, at least in conversation tried to appear educated. Even in his sermons he aimed at being ordinary. He corrected me as I remember for using a word that was too big. He seemed to dramatize sometimes, as for instance, in speaking of the importance of saving one’s soul, he pictured very vividly the death and burial of a religious. As each new development would unfold he inserted the words, “but what of his soul?” His delivery, due to the weakness of his voice, Irish brogue and stammering whether intentional or not, may, from a natural point of view, have been considered below perfection. What he said was informative and inspiring more because of his sincerity than any eloquence.
One of the key notes of his spirituality was constant meditation upon the will of God. He told us in chapter one time that his spiritual life seemed to lack direction until the verse of the Psalms “Teach me, O Lord to do thy will, for thou art my God,” made a deep impression. From then on everything seemed more simple. He advised us to say it often.
In private talks his advise was always short. On the eve of my retreat for solemn vows his only advise was, “Try to see the Will of God in everything.”
No one emphasized more the necessity of thanking God for the grace of our religious vocation. He strongly urged that we have a special time each day for doing so. He maintained that growth in appreciation for our vocation was always the measure of our sanctity. The following is a good example of what his chapter talks were like. He gave this on April 10, 1944, one of the last of his life:
There is an article in one of the magazines about thanksgiving after Mass. It says that ingratitude is the most odious quality anyone can have and gratitude the most lovable quality. That is proved from my own experience. There was a lad at school who was very popular. He entered Mount Melleray and he was looked up to as a model whom all admired. Later he became Prior. He died in middle age. His name was Father Eugene. At his funeral many people were crying. The reason for his popularity was because he was so grateful for the least kindness. Here is a little incident which when I told before, a priest who was in this community and is now passed away, said he thought that priest certainly was big hearted to do what he did. I was a junior priest and had the Mass de Beata on Holy Thursday. Father Eugene was sickly and I was a little afraid to take the Mass because I would have to distribute Communion to some very old priests. Therefore, I suggested to him that he should take the Mass and I would fast until the General Communion at High Mass. I didn’t think hardly anything of it at the time, but later Father Eugene told me that he said the whole fifteen decades of the Rosary for me just because I let him say that Mass. It was his wonderful spirit of gratitude such as shown in that case that made him liked by everyone he came in contact with.
Wednesday, May 24th, was his last talk in chapter when he told us:
We cannot live an interior life if we are mixed with all the affairs of the world and all kinds of external business. Still there are some and even in this monastery we have had them, who are too anxious about being recollected. We must make an effort not to be gloomy or sad. When our Lord promised the hundredfold in this life, He meant for us to be happy.
A useful question for all whether young or old is the question that St. Bernard asked himself very frequently during the day. “Bernard why have you come here?” Too many seem to show by their words and actions that they have come to be learned, to be able to discourse well, to work. Was it to be a great preacher that you have come? or a good mechanic? or to enjoy yourself? Certainly we did not come to have a good time in the sense the world understands a good time. We came to be holy monks. That is what everybody expects us to be. The world does not want our works, it wants our sanctity and it is rightly scandalized when we are not trying to be good monks.
Speaking of Holy Communion he said:
I do not intentionally like to repeat myself in my talks, but there is one fact I have often repeated, and, if I am given more time by God to live, I will keep on repeating, and that is our whole life should be a preparation and thanksgiving for Holy Communion.
This trait of Abbot Bruno’s Spirituality had it’s source also in his deep appreciation and spirit of gratitude. He realized what a great gift the Eucharist is, and he was very grateful for that gift. What preparation meant for him was that we prepare our souls by each day living to please God and desiring Him so that we may receive Him worthily. Thanksgiving meant realization of the infinite goodness of God in giving Himself to us. In their essence, preparation and thanksgiving are really one. The best way to prepare ourselves to receive new graces is to be grateful for the ones we have already received. He emphasized very often that Holy Communion was the greatest gift we could ever receive. Therefore it is the most important act each day and so important that each act of the day should be an act of thanksgiving and preparation to be worthy of such a sublime and infinitely great gift.
Even when we retire in the evening for rest we should call to mind the thought of Mass and Communion and also when we wake and have difficulty in going back to sleep. He would also have us think about a happy death at those times. He didn’t mean for us to meditate exactly but simply to call the facts to mind. He said, far from keeping sleep away they would actually induce it.
For those of us who are old in the religious life I can say that the older we grow the happier we are. We come to realize more and more that doing God’s will is the only way to true happiness. A religious is certain, if he has faith, that he is doing God’s will all the day long.
Last Days and Death
The Brother Infirmarian wrote:
Recurring attacks of asthma troubled Abbot Bruno for years. The wheezing could be heard though out the church at times as he shuffled in at 2 a.m. After a pause at the presbytery stall, he would proceed to his place in choir and there remain until Mass time (about 4 a.m.) The condition gradually became worse. Medicine no longer gave any relief. (At that time our church was on the second floor.) Unable to climb he asked to be carried upstairs to High Mass (in the morning) and vespers (in the evening.) Reluctant to absent himself from any Community exercise even at this stage he would be present for reading before Compline, wheezing badly, then return to his cell in the infirmary and complete the prayers on his knees, resting his clasped hands on the bedside like a little child.
His effort to continue offering Holy Mass was prolonged to an heroic degree. However the day came when his diminishing strength forced him to give it up, and a decision difficult and painful to make. When the time came for receiving the Blessed Sacrament during Mass, although urged not to do so, he would be out of bed on his knees, supporting himself against the door of his cell.
He had the faculty of always looking on the good side of things, Once while spraying his throat with adrenalin to get relief, he panted and said, “I’m not complaining, thank God, I always had good health.” Another time during an attack he said between gasps of breath, “I thank God that I persevered until now.”
He found it impossible to breathe reclining on a back rest in bed, and was obliged to sit on the side of the bed with his head forward, resting on the padded top of a crutch. Lack of rest and the heat had him utterly exhausted. August 2nd, came (1944), a slight breeze was coming from the south-west so he was placed in a wheel chair facing the south window of the infirmary with his head resting on the window sill. His mind was clear and fully alert, (Seeing brothers come in from work, he asked if they got all the oats in). In the evening Father Prior came in after Vespers to see him. He knew the end was not far away. As Fr. Prior turned to leave Abbot Bruno said, “I want to thank you for all you have done,” with an emphasis one knew came from the depths of his heart. He was transferred from the wheel chair to the bedside. As he sat down he began to sink forward. A pillow was placed on a table nearby and quickly drawn towards him in time to fall face down him with his forehead resting on an arm. Prior Albert was sent for and he and Fr. Vincent began the prayers for the dying. When half through the litany, the breathing having become slower and somewhat deeper, now stopped.
Father Maurus wrote:
After his death the newspapers, quoting Dom Celsus, our Father Immediate who knew Abbot Bruno for many years, stated that he never lost his novitiate fervor. That is the only thing that Abbot Bruno would like to have said of himself after death. Whether he was called a great Abbot or a great monk, according to my opinion, would have mattered little to him.
In his last Will Abbot Bruno said:
In regard to worldly goods I have none whatever. Of spiritual goods I owe an awful debt, first to God for His mercies towards me and especially for having brought me to Religion and for having enabled me to persevere therein until now. Next to the Blessed Virgin Mary I thank for the same. To the Archbishop and to all who offered Masses, Communions, sacrifices or prayers for me I return sincere and heartfelt thanks, I promise my poor prayers. To each in the community I owe very much. There might be an objection to mention names, but how can I refrain from expressly thanking those who carried me so often to Mass and to Vespers! How can I refrain from thanking those that watched so patiently at my bedside and deprived themselves of needed rest in order to assist me. To each and all I promise my lasting gratitude and my poor prayers. If you would desire an advice from an old monk here it is: Always value very highly your vocation, be grateful to God for it and prove your gratitude by fidelity to Him and to the ever Blessed Virgin Mary!