Ecclesiam Apostolicam

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

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.

. . . . . . . . . .

To read this article in its entirety, please download the free PDF, buy this issue, or become a Communio subscriber!