If I were forced to define what sort of community PayingAttentiontotheSky were, I would have to say that it is a community of like-minded readers. I would be hesitant to define them as all Catholics, although that is the thread that for me ties all of the diversity of the readings together. But the fact that I have hosted comments from a wide variety of others who are not Catholic in their outlook shows that my thread soon unravels in passing it along to others.
I belong to a small reading group that meets at St. Clement’s Eucharistic Shrine in Boston. Our focus is the monthly Communio International Catholic Review. We each choose an article from the review and discuss. I am off shortly to discuss The Promises Of Christ To The Extremities Of The Earth by Madeleine Delbrêl and a piece by Hans Urs von Balthasar that he titled Madeleine Delbrel:The Joy Of Believing. von Balthasar, the eminent Swiss theologian and author was one of the founders of the Communio review.
Madeleine Delbrêl (1904–1964) was a French Catholic author, poet, and mystic, whose works include The Marxist City as Mission Territory (1957), The Contemporary Forms of Atheism (1962), and the posthumous publications We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (1966) and The Joy of Believing (1968). She came to the Catholic faith after a youth spent as a strict atheist. She has been cited by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray as an example for young people to follow in “the arduous battle of holiness,” and there is a movement in the Catholic Church to have her beatified.
Delbrêl decides to consecrate her life to God in the midst of the worldliest world of French Communists, for she knows of the mystery of the Church, which is no “institution,” but Christ’s Living Body, in which the members, however great the loneliness they appear to endure in the world, are bound with a bond different from that of mere brotherhood. “One cannot live a realistic life according to the gospel in an abstract Church.” It is a message that I first encountered in Chesterton when he took me to one side and cautioned that the beautiful thoughts he was relating could not be engaged by mind alone – it required a commitment to Christ’s Living Body, the Catholic Church.
I can’t tell you how deeply disappointing and fearful a message I found that. It meant I would have to bring my newly found faith into communion with a group of morons, liars and knuckleheads that I had been avoiding, if not feeling superior to, all my life. In my parish these knuckle dragging penitents come festooned with Red Sox caps and T-shirts. You can imagine my horror.
One cannot live a realistic life according to the gospel in an abstract Church. It rather jumps off the page at me. Six years past conversion now and I reflect on how odd my situation has become. Drawn to the Church by the power of its abstractions and now conflicted by a Church mired in abstractions and unable to provide clarity when it comes to interpreting them, I find I need two different voices to interpret Church Teachings: the magisterium on the one hand and then figures like Richard John Neuhaus, Chesterton or Timothy Cardinal Dolan on the other. They make the Church come alive for me.
Delbrêl is an example from earlier in history who provided much the same voice for her times.
The fact that all her world-changing power flowed from unceasing prayer in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life, from a heart that never turned its gaze from God, is what makes her so profoundly relevant today.
It may seem daring to present such a luminous figure, so expansive in her social work, so unique in her ties with the municipal administration of Ivry, the Communist citadel of France, to the German reading public through her texts on interiority and prayer. But other texts, which describe the exterior work of this fighter, who counts among the most important women of our century, have already been published. Madeleine is not as original as she is because she worked unprotected as a Christian in a Communist environment and with Communists, but rather because through all of this she bore within herself an unwavering, glowing Christian faith, a faith that was as naive as it was deeply reflected; she confirmed firmed this faith ever anew in a bursting of all traditional forms.
At the same time, it poured into her a love that no painful disappointments could confuse: a love for the Catholic Church from whose mystery she lived and drew her boundless, loving engagement for her non-Christian brothers. This first, small book wishes to approach this most interior source which made her entire work fruitful, and which she never kept secret. For the fact that all her world-changing power flowed from unceasing prayer in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life, from a heart that never turned its gaze from God, is what makes her so profoundly relevant today.
Madeleine Delbrel was born in 1904 in Mussidan (in the Dordogne region of France), in the house of her maternal grandparents. Her father, a railroad employee, was transferred frequently in his career: Lorient, Nantes, Bordeaux, Chateauroux, and finally Montlucon in 1913, which was not conducive to the education of the young girl. She was taught privately and made contact with a few pious priests, who awakened in her a simple, living faith.
The portrait changes as soon as her father is summoned to Paris in 1916, and Madeleine finds herself in agnostic and atheistic circles. Under their influence, her Christian faith is extinguished: “If remarkable people taught me the faith between the ages of seven and twelve, they were followed by no less remarkable people who gave me the contradictory formation. At the age of fifteen I was strictly atheistic and found the world more absurd by the day.”
She would later write, “God was absurd in the twentieth century because he was incompatible with sound reason, intolerable because he could not be classified.” At the age of seventeen, she composes, already in the lyrical prose — rhythmic, gripping, both festive and un-academic — that would later become so characteristic of her: “God is dead — long live death.” If God is absurd, death is even more so, and the world and its history reveal themselves to be “the gloomiest farce imaginable.” 1924: “At twenty, an intellectual religious search is followed by a violent conversion.” 1927: a book of poetry.’ The conversion is in fact so “violent” that it lasts to her death (1964):
God is for her the miracle that is new every day, that she experiences as an incomprehensible gift, bequest, surrender, that she can only answer with the indivisible, twofold surrender of herself: to God in prayer, and to her fellow men inside or outside the Church.
Hans Urs von Balthasar
And finally, a reading selection from Madeleine Delbrêl herself. Titled He Who Has the Bride Is the Bridegroom …they come from notes, intended for her eguipes, or small communities, which were originally published in La joie de croire (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968).
“That which we, and I rather think everybody, more or less needs, is to come back more concretely to the Lord Jesus, to come back to him in the close relationships which are his own relationships in the Church.
We need to see our life anew as the life of women who are given to him. That is to say:
- to learn or to relearn the personal and active intimacy of the love of Jesus Christ: the charity that is then called “prayer”;
- to learn or to relearn the responsibilities of the work of Jesus Christ: the charity that must be in action in a world to which Jesus has given the right, and the charity that is then and always called “goodness”;
- to learn or to relearn the fruitfulness of those whom Jesus Christ possesses: the charity that must be proclaimed, proposed, obtained, the charity that is then and always called “suffering.”
- at bottom, this is a matter of learning to be in and with the Church, the Lord’s wife. It is simply the translation into the feminine of: man of God. .
I am haunted by the double mystery in the midst of which our life must pass like a straight line:
the mystery of charity — the mystery of the Church.
In the Church, the Bride of Christ, it is all of humanity that is called to his love. Each of the baptized participates in this nuptial love. With all the religious, with all consecrated beings, we have accepted to content ourselves with this love alone.
If we do not devote to him our entire being, or if we do not give it the dimensions that are his, we are celibates who serve neither the dissemination of life nor that of eternal life.
At the dawn of the New Testament, John the Baptist said: “He who has the Bride is the Bridegroom, but the friend of the Bridegroom rejoices ….”
Unbelievers who are better than us, Christians who are better than us have not been called to live in fullness the mystery of the Church, the Bride of Christ. They are like the friend who rejoices. Our temptation might be to mistake our vocation and to take that of the friend.
Whatever the things might be that the Bridegroom gives to his friends: trust, confidences, responsibilities, it is to his wife that he gives his name, so that she might be what he is, do what he does, and transmit his own life through her.
It is not because she goes into the streets to buy provisions — there, where the friends are — that she is Bride: the housekeeper could go. It is because she dines with her husband and spends the night with him.
It is not being in the world like the Son of God who was sent into the world that grafts us onto the Church-Bride; it is emerging ceaselessly from the night of the theological mystery of Love, going from it to the world.
It is not working with her husband that makes her his wife; his friends work as she does, and sometimes much better than she does; it is being entirely possessed by him. That which she earns is his twice over, for she herself is his.
It is not doing this or that work perfectly, exercising this profession perfectly that grafts us onto the union of the Church; it is being so acted upon by Christ that this small action in the world is truly his.
It is not keeping house that makes the Bride the Bride: an innkeeper could do this very well; it is because, before living in the house, the children of her husband have lived in her flesh, because she has carried them, nourished them with herself.
It is not in keeping the world that we will be grafted onto the wedding feast of the Church; it is in carrying in ourselves each of the men of this world, each of those whom we meet; in giving them not the organization of their life, but the right to live in our life; in communicating to them all that we are, all that is ours, from bread to grace.
It is not giving gifts to the children that makes the Bride: the friends could do this; it is giving them the life of her husband at the same time as her own.
It is not giving happiness to men that makes us brides of Christ, but it is giving eternal life, the very life of God. And if we transmit the life of the world to those who are our children, we are terribly adulterous.
It is the man of tomorrow that the Bride is raising in her children. She does not prepare them for the future with toys and candy.
It is beings that belong to eternity that we have charge of, and if we give them only well-being, culture, we are like a mother who builds the future of her children with pieces of baby clothing.
The wife must make her life there, where her husband makes his.
Jesus Christ does not dwell in the powers of the world: he was the child of a family in decline, an old, modest people. He was neither a Roman citizen who had the empire of the earth, nor a barbarian who would have the empire of tomorrow, nor a Greek who would have the empire of the spirit, nor a slave who would have the force of the oppressed masses. He dwelled, he dwells in that which is the weakness of the world.
The wife shares the living conditions of her husband.
Jesus Christ dwells in peace and not in tranquility, for he is mercy and he who gives to each person what each person lacks is never finished.
The Bride is not a fiancee who has time to take walks along the canal, to sit on a bench. She is the one who slaves away, who keeps vigil, who gives birth. She knows her husband much better than at the time of the benches and canals. She knows his life with her life.
But at the same time she knows his tasks, his struggles. She does not ask him to think of her, but they think together.
With friends, one chats, one speculates, one evokes memories …. The wife is not a friend …
Life Is Short And The World Is To Be Saved.
With friends, one has a good time together and leaves rested. The love of the Bridegroom for his wife gives children, and she does not choose the way of bringing them into the world, she must suffer.
She does not give birth to works of art in euphoria and quiet, but to children of Adam that she must make into children of God with her flesh and with her soul.
The friend knows the Bridegroom by looking at him, listening to him. It is not because she listens to her husband and looks at him that the Bride is Bride, but because she knows him in a different way. The eyes of the friend are perhaps better than hers and his intelligence will perhaps understand better what the Bridegroom says; but what the Bride will know, he will not know.
And it is this that the Church knows, and that we know in her, and that is the faith.
The friend can wait for the Bridegroom; it is his wife who desires him, who “hopes” for him. She does not wait for something from him; she hopes for him, him, to become living in a different way.
The Church’s desire is hope, and she is so consumed by it that she cannot desire anything else.
The friend can be rich or poor; he can be free or a slave. The wife cannot but be poor and she cannot but obey. For her, love is a poverty that only her husband can enrich. The child she carries and forms tears itself from her and leaves her poor anew. For her, love is an obedience: she is made fruitful passively and gives birth passively.
The Church is in the world the great poor one and the great obedient one, and in her, we cannot find love without poverty or without obedience.
It is not only by mistaking the kingdom of heaven for the earthly city that we cease to be brides with the Church and become “friends.” It is also when poverty and obedience or purity become things “in themselves” and not conditions of love.
It is also when faith and hope, which are the great means for love, but which pass away, are lived too weakly by us and leave us halfway down the path.
The friend is he who makes the absolute with the relative, and we, we don’t have the right.
But if we accept, with and in the Church, to live this simple and strong vocation to love, we will really bear the name of Jesus Christ. Everything that we will ask in his name will be granted to us, we will be “efficacious” with the very efficacy of God, for that which is of the work of God.”