Fall 2011

The Desert of Solitude: Reflections on Apostleship in the Work of Madeleine Delbrêl

Michelle K. Borras

“At the heart of even the most engaged and active of missions lies this solitude at the foundations of all communion, a solitude that is adoration.”

Madeleine Delbrêl, the French laywoman who at the age of seventeen penned a remarkably lucid atheist manifesto entitled “God is dead . . . Long live death!”1 knew the pitiless suffering of the world of unbelief. In 1960, shortly before her death, she would describe what she held to be the most “profound misfortune” that can befall a man: “The inner support that holds all things in being crumbles from within . . . and all things are swallowed up in nothingness.”2 The same woman, who at twenty found herself in the grips of a “violent” conversion to Christianity and who would spend the rest her life in a bastion of French Communism, seeking to respond to the commandment, “You shall love . . . ,”3 also knew the, not pitiless, but even more unbearable suffering that lies behind every genuine Christian mission. The missionary has the searing experience of the finite creature suddenly faced with the love of God, and finds himself drawn into the infinite desire of the Love that “is not loved”: “only the realization that God yearns for all this love, for the love of all men who have been born, are being born, or will be born—this realization alone creates missionaries.”4 Madeleine was a missionary, who possessed what Hans Urs von Balthasar describes as the capacity to make the “hairline distinction” between “perfect love” of one’s brother and “a decisive rejection” of every ideological program “so expertly, that . . . she is able to become the great advisor for the worker-priests” in France.5 And she was this because she herself lived that reality toward which she once said that her équipe, the community of laywomen who gathered around her, should strive: “At bottom, this is a matter of learning to be in and with the Church.”6

Madeleine, whose clear-sightedness and fidelity sustained her own community striving to live the evangelical counsels in the midst of the world, as well as the task of the Mission de France,7 knew the source of mission. She knew the trajectory of God’s Word, which descends into our flesh and further still, into the “profound misfortune” of the world of unbelief. She knew that this Word is not ours, that it thoroughly expropriates whoever dares to receive it. And she knew that it is an ecclesial Word, received and kept by the Church, the Bride of Christ, for the sake of the world. Madeleine was, in other words, an apostolic Christian, in the double sense of the word: a Christian who, in receiving the Word, allowed herself to be sent forth by and with it into the world, and who recognized that her “apostolate” (a term she seldom used) could bear fruit only if it retained its organic connection to the hierarchical Church of the apostles and thereby remained a living cell of the “whole Christ,” the “Christ-Church.”8

1Madeleine Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (=We), trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. and Charles F. Mann (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 47–49.

2Ibid., 174.

3“Missionary Love” (an extract from Missionaires sans bateaux [=MSB]), in Communio: International Catholic Review 24 (Fall 1997): 626–29; at 628.

4Ibid., 627–28.

5Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Preface to the German Edition of Nous Autres, Gens des Rues,” in We, xv–xvi; at xv.

6La Joie de croire (=JC) (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968), 174.

7Prompted by the de-Christianization and material misery of the French proletariat, the seminary of the Mission de France was founded in 1941 at Lisieux by Émile Cardinal Suhard of Paris and the French Bishops’ Conference. The seminary and the missionary movement associated with it centered on the formation of priests who would perform manual labor in factories and live among the working class.

8Cf. We, 96.