Fall 2011

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

Michelle K. Borras

This brief sketch will simply seek to articulate something of a mystery that Madeleine herself both confessed and expressed, perhaps nowhere better than in a wordless gesture that sums up her understanding of the relationship between the Word safeguarded by the apostolic Church and Christian mission, between the Word who wishes to incarnate himself in believers and a world waiting for God. As Jacques Loew describes it, a “realistic Christian” possesses a ready, joyful, and living “realism of faith.”9 But what does such a realistic Christian do when the mission to which she has given her life and her strength is beset by apparently insurmountable difficulties, and risks losing “the grace of the apostolate that was granted to France”?10 What is called for when the apostolic Church that one loves and from which one draws all one’s life appears, through the severity of its reprimands, to threaten the existence of the mission that is its own fruit? For Madeleine, the answer is simple: despite a lack of money, despite the incomprehension of her friends, despite the absurdity of the undertaking, she sets off on a pilgrimage to Rome for exactly one day. Humor accompanies the trip,11 but so does fidelity, and the unfailing discernment that knows that in such a crisis, only one kind of act can serve:

Sharing for eighteen years the life of a population not only without faith but without a Christian memory: bound very profoundly to what the Church, in France, conveys that is nova and vetera, persuaded that our fidelity demands a missionary thrust that is ever more ardent as well as an ever stronger rootedness in obedience, I desired to go to Rome, in the name of us all . . . . So that this might be an act of faith and nothing more, I arrived in Rome in the morning; I went immediately to the tomb of St. Peter . . . . I remained there the whole day, and I left again for Paris in the evening.12

With this woman who was, as Balthasar describes it, “ecclesial in her bones”13 and who thus expressed in our age and in her way something of the anima ecclesiastica [the ecclesial spirit], the ancient ideal of the Fathers,14 we will look at what it means to be that kind of human being who allows himself to be drawn into the movement of God’s Word into flesh and time, and finally into the suffering of the world of unbelief, to become, as a participant in the mission of the “Christ-Church,” a covenant between the world and God. In other words, we will try to allow her to show us what it means to be an apostolic Christian.

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9Cf. Jacques Loew, “Introduction” to We, 1–43; at 22–23.


10We, 114.

11Cf. Loew, biographical notes to We, 77–78. Loew explains that, when her community balked at the expense of the proposed daylong pilgrimage, Madeleine agreed to go “only if a sum of money equal to the trip’s expenses fell from the sky. . . . Now, that very week, one of Madeleine’s friends, a nonbeliever, brought a distant relation from South America to Madeleine . . . . After her visit, ‘Aunt Rosa’ left the équipe with a national lottery ticket, which no one paid any attention to until someone noticed that it was in fact a winning ticket—with a prize big enough to cover the expenses of a trip to Rome.”


12Cited in Henri de Lubac, Theology in History, trans. Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 584–85.

13“Foreword” to Madeleine Delbrêl, Gebet in einem weltlichen Leben [translation of La Joie de Croire], trans. Hans Urs von Balthasar and Cornelia Capol (Freiburg: Johannes Verlag Einsiedeln, 1993), 7–13; 13. Cf. the full English translation of this text in the present edition of Communio.


14Cf. Balthasar, commenting on Origen, in “Who Is the Church?” in Explorations of Theology, vol. 2: Spouse of the Word (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 173.