A new year approaches but, in case we need reminding that we are not masters of time, the liturgy has beaten us to it and already started a new year: and now we wait!
But really, what do we have to say or live that is truly new? We live as “consecrated” women in this world, in its darkness and light. With our lives immersed in it, sometimes even submerged, we try to find a way of proclaiming Jesus Christ. We use words, songs, cries, actions, silence, to attempt to mumble something of his love to those we meet. Sometimes we fail miserably. Sometimes we ourselves suppress our inner flame and close up: we are no better than anyone else! We share the emotional upsets, spiritual deserts and many dissatisfactions of the world around us. We do not have “the” ready answer to the questions that nag us all... We simply hold two beliefs which form the pillars of our spiritual lives:
“We have been chosen by love, and that is our identity. You did not choose, no, He chose you, He called you and has joined Himself to you… If we do not believe this, we have not understood the Gospel. We may have great virtue but very little or no faith. God fell in love with our lowliness and chose us for that reason.” (Pope Francis, Homily, 23 June 2017 at St Martha’s).
“I invite you to have a faith that can recognise the wisdom of weakness. In a society of efficiency and success, your life, marked by the ‘humility’ and frailty of the lowly, by empathy with those who have no voice, becomes an evangelical sign of contradiction.” (Benedict XVI, Homily, 2 February 2013 for the World Day of Consecrated Life)
So let us follow the liturgy which every year invites us to “repetition”, and we will plough the furrow of our faith in Him who loves us.
The Incarnation is not a past event – “He is not the God of the dead but of the living” –, it is of the present: God becomes incarnate today. And He becomes flesh for us, the very ones who doubt it.
Let’s take a detour and find the apostle Peter:
“‘I will give my life for You!’ he swears with impassioned sincerity.
We know what happens next. Three times Peter disowns his friend, just as fiercely, in a categorical denial of unconditional love (…)
But later: ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?’
(Lytta Basset, « Loving without devouring », p. 323 à 333)
I think this question was one that Peter put to himself: it is not Jesus’ style, he never quantified love. Everything now happens as if Peter saw it as his duty to love Jesus more than the others, since he had been shown to be the weakest of them all, the least worthy, apart from Judas who was already dead. ‘Am I a failure who no longer deserves to be loved?’ When asked a third time, ‘Do you love me?’, Peter is so tortured by doubt that he is affected, sad, anxious. He can almost hear Jesus say: ‘Do you still love me, or have you destroyed the love inside you… because your great ideal love is now dead?’ Is this not the most serious consequence of the breakdown of our close relationships? We no longer believe in the love of others, and believe our capacity to love is also dead.
‘You know I love you’, replies Peter firmly. The question is asked twice using the verb of unconditional love (agapaô), but the reply only uses a verb of endearment (phileô). Peter abandons all attempts to evaluate his kind of love. He allows himself to be loved, to be known by unconditional Love.
‘Feed my sheep’, Jesus asks him, the only such request in the New Testament. No-one else has received this call. Here, then, is a unique task, within his capabilities, not because he might now be more worthy than the others, but because each love is to be lived in its own way. The three devastating denials eventually become three great gusts of wind which blow Peter towards his kin. Leading the sheep to pasture, to a place of safety, water and nourishment. Peter therefore has to perceive the needs of others, to show them the way and walk with them to where they can live in peace. Note that Jesus is not talking about all sheep throughout the world, but rather ‘my’ sheep, the sheep that Jesus will place on Peter’s path; nor does he ask him to ‘love them’ but to ‘lead them’ in the way that is good for them, to satisfy their essential needs. More importantly than being a feeling, loving someone means helping them find the way to a state of wholeness, which brings peace, quenches their thirst and satisfies their hunger, without worrying about knowing whether we can love enough, or are truly capable of it.”
God takes flesh so that we might take flesh in our turn. He becomes flesh with us. We have chosen the religious life so as not to live a “disembodied” life; so as not to see the world as on a television screen or a smartphone which show us images we cannot change.
Christmas Night 1597, Christmas Night 2017… Let us walk now with Alix and her first companions:
At the well of Poussay, we will learn to cross the “Ocean”. And, in the first instance, simply to believe. Believe that he can be our “whole love”. With Him, we can renounce the self and self-sufficiency – at least just a little. With Him, we can forget our fear of being – at least just a little –, which is often the flip side of our convictions and expectations. With Him, we can dare to be ourselves and go towards those He decides we should meet.
In her “Relation”, Alix tells us that everything starts with a confession (like Peter!): the confession of “a tiny flea before the majesty of God” which has led her to break with worldliness and its vanities. In her own way, she experiences the “God alone suffices” of Teresa of Avila.Never mind now what people think, or say against you: “She is led by obedience to a deeper understanding than those ‘upsets and disagreements’ (obstacles put in her path by her family, many church people, the Congregation itself). Through all of this, she constantly aims to please God.” (Paule Sagot, Présentation de la Relation, p. 42)
This confession will be followed by the temptation always “to do more”: subjecting herself to “discipline”, « vowing to sleep alone », in a scrupulous understanding of the concept of purity. Alix even mentions twice her desire to die, without denying the “neurotic”, depressive side to this “sacrificial” desire, which is actually an expression of her search of self:
- I have always had a great longing to die, ever since I understood true goodness and the dangers of the present day. This longing has sometimes been excessive. Five years ago when I was being severely tested, it seemed to me I could find no consolation in this world, other than in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar, which through faith obtained great good for my soul, and I strongly desired to receive it often.
One morning as I was dressing, I was in the same state of longing for death, so unhappy was I at having to serve my body in so many ways, I was suddenly unable to move; and from within my being, I felt the Lord reprimanding me, saying: ‘When I am with you, you have all you need; but you are still searching within yourself.’
And ever since then, those great longings have diminished; for whenever they return, they are immediately followed by a sweet and calm resignation to the will of God, laying bare that love of myself which this Truth teaches me; and that one must love God for love of himself.” (Relation n° 25)
- « Another time in Nancy, I was walking alone, considering the purity of being one with Jesus Christ in the other life, and I was giving great sighs in my desire for death. » Something stopped me dead, and I heard: ‘When I am here with you, is that not enough? Beware the danger of pride.” (Relation n° 68)
On the subject of searching for this idealised image of self, Alix pronounces twice, quite clearly :
- « When I was in Paris with the Ursuline Mothers of the faubourg Saint Jacques, one day I was in choir with the nuns, when I felt a strong desire to know what I could do to most please Our Lord, and I prayed to him about this. I fell into a trance and heard a voice tell me that I should always enquire, inwardly and outwardly, whether my actions were always done purely for love of God. » (Relation n° 67)
- « A few months ago, I was attending Holy Mass in the choir with all the other Nuns, and I earnestly prayed to Our Lord that he engrave forever in my memory his Passion and example of his holy life. He replied: ‘Always keep one eye on me and the other on your faults, so that you may correct them and attain your desire’ » (Relation n° 70)
There is a « cantus firmus » with Alix: she is filled with a Presence and a desire always to return to it. Her one “ambition”: to praise her Lord for evermore.
And yet, she experiences a spiritual struggle within her body. She walks literally through fire: fire of the flesh and fire of the love of God. Her “devilish” torments by night are comparable to our erotic dreams: « There is nothing more difficult or dangerous to me in this world than the temptations and rebellions of the flesh. » To such an extent that she feels defiant – « strong temptations against the faith » – and no longer dares “raise the eyes of her thinking towards God”, finding suicide, if it were possible, preferable to this distressed state. She openly admits that she is “frequently lifeless, lacking devotion, closed to understanding, filled with confused thoughts.”
And that she has a “great devotion to the psalm ‘De profundis’ because, from the depths of my nothingness and insignificance, I cry to God of unfathomable majesty and greatness.”
Alix experienced very little “respite” but she had moments of “light”, like beacons which restored her confidence and peace after times of trial,“with sweet tears” : :
her vocation, a wholly new project to create a « new house for girls »
her vision of Mary putting “little Jesus into my arms and telling me to persevere in my first vocation, without fear, and that he would be my hope « Our Lady stood before me holding her little Son; she gave him to me, telling me to nurture him until he grew up. Meaning that I should thus procure him glory »
Stained glass window, Chapelle Notre-Dame – Mattaincourt
“Paragraph 23 has perhaps a particular significance for us. Here Alix is so close to us in the joy of a woman receiving a child, and receiving him from the arms of Mary, very simply, like two mothers meeting. There is also the great joy, beyond all understanding, of the revelation of the living God. And finally, we see Alix’s joy as she receives her founder’s charism, together with the strength to suffer and offer her life.”
(Paule Sagot, Présentation de la Relation p. 41).
(Paule Sagot, Présentation de la Relation p. 41).
- her vision of Saint Anne calling by and greeting her
her vision of Saint Clare and Saint Elisabeth: “Neither wanted me to become their daughter but pointed to something between four columns, telling me this was my vocation. It was a child’s cradle and in it there seemed to be planted a single stem of oats with branches and grain. Something supported it all around. By the cradle was a big iron hammer which hit the branch every time the cradle rocked one way and the other. It occurred to me that the vocation I was embarking on would endure much persecution but would stand firm, like that stem of oats, itself so fragile, but which the hammer could neither break nor crush; and that Our Lord would render it firm and fast.” (Relation n° 45)
her vision of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “One evening some time later, I think I was in one of your houses, and a great number of your monks was processing along the cloister; our sisters were seated in a corner near the door; meanwhile I was using a rake with which one gathers hay in the meadows, and gathering up the little straws scattered about the cloister, in order to profit from them all.
None of the monks were paying any attention to me, and seemed to scorn what I was doing, save one, with a venerable appearance and an air of authority; he was looking at me kindly and signalling to me to persevere in my endeavour. When I came to, I understood that this was Saint Ignatius encouraging me to teach young girls, a task not held in very high esteem, just like the little straws. But I also heard clearly a voice which said: ‘I want these little souls, who are like bastard children abandoned by their mothers, to have a mother now in you’.” (Relation n° 47)
Stained glass window, Chapelle Notre-Dame – Mattaincourt
Alix’s visions helped her gradually to understand her vocation and the nature of the religious life she was to adopt: it would not be a monastic life, nor one based on a “Me and my God” spirituality, excluding all others and the world.
In his treatise on the Gospel of John, Saint Augustine is uncompromising: “Love of God comes first in the order of the precept, but love of neighbour is first in its execution (…) Because you do not yet see God, by loving your neighbour, you earn the right to see Him; by loving your neighbour, your sight is purified in order to see God.”
This is how we should understand Alix’s last words to her sisters: “May God be your whole love.”
Consider Alix’s simplicity, her transparency in telling us straight about the seductions of the Adversary and his fantasies, her spiritual journey which teaches her, often in extreme solitude, discernment and purification of desire… We have so much to learn from her, we really must return to her teachings!
Paule Sagot compares the humility described in n° 70 to that of the great masters of spirituality. In her simplicity, Alix resembles Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and other great mystics. This woman who once loved honour – her own image -, vanity and its dissipation, now humbly acknowledges her poverty, but with total love and confidence. Moreover, her restraint and discretion – her point was to dwell in God, not compose long treatises – illustrate her closeness to Mary. Following in her footsteps, Alix brings us back to Christ in his humanity.
Before we consider what we should do and be in 2018, before we decide how we are going to proclaim the Good News to our world, before we help young people discern their vocation, before we implement our Chapter and Vicariate priorities, why not first re-read the Relation?
Alix walks before us and alongside us in our religious life of love of neighbour; she invites us to take risks; with our lives founded on “divine goodness and providence”, we will, like her, be « moved to take on tasks above our capabilities »
Wishing you a Joyful Christmas and Happy New Year !
With my affection
Soeur Cécile MARION, cnd-csa