Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


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November 18, 2005
Dedication of the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Desire and yearning for God are inscribed in the most profound depths of the heart of man. Saint Augustine, at the beginning of his Confessions, witnesses to the urgent nature of this desire: «You have made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in You» (Confessions, I, I, I). We are about to see this «restlessness» direct the progress of a soul to the truth.

Alessandra di Rudini was born in Rome on October 5, 1876, to a family of Sicilian high aristocracy. Her father, the marquis di Rudini, the mayor of Palermo at age 25, became minister after the surprise attack of Garibaldi's mercenaries on the Bourbons' Sicily. He shared Victor Emmanuel II's antagonism toward the Church. Marie de Barral, Alessandra's mother, suffered from her husband's revolutionary ideas, and her poor health did not allow her to give her daughter all the care that her affection would have liked to surround her with. Alessandra had one older brother, Carlo.

A constantly erupting volcano

From childhood «Sandra» showed a stubborn and incorrigible disposition. Fascinated by horses, she quickly became an excellent horsewoman. At ten, she was sent to the boarding school of the Sacred Heart of Trinita' dei Monti, in Rome. Her mother hoped that the Sisters would help correct her independent character, but Sandra stayed rebellious, making as much trouble as possible in the boarding school, and distracting the other students. She was sent home at the end of the year. Her father then sent her to school at the Annunciation de Poggio Imperiale—in this liberally-minded school, the headmistress gave her complete freedom to follow her passion for reading... Despite everything, Sandra soon became an excellent student. However, at the age of thirteen, influenced by an atheistic teacher, she suffered doubts against the faith. «Her intelligence was like a volcano, always erupting,» one of her school friends would say. She also had a heart of gold, and often returned to the boarding school with an empty purse, having given everything to the poor.

When she returned to the family estate at the age of sixteen, Sandra did not find her mother there—illness had forced her to move to a nursing home. So she drew closer to her father, who was proud of her: tall, as beautiful as she was intelligent, Sandra was one of those young women people notice. She filled the role of mistress of the house while being initiated into politics by her father, who would be president of the city council many times. However, a profound spiritual crisis began to trouble her soul. «It seemed to me,» she would later say, «that everything was crumbling around me, and I was looking with a desperate passion for something firm to lean on outside of myself. I recall nights of anxiety and an indescribable distress. There is no worse suffering than that of the mind that seeks but cannot arrive at the truth.» Aware of the difficulty experienced by people in search of the truth, Pope John Paul II wrote, «There is today no more urgent preparation for the [proclamation of the Gospel] than this: to lead people to discover both their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life» (Encyclical Fides et ratio, September 1998, no. 102).

Reading Renan's Life of Jesus, a work that denies the supernatural and sees in Jesus no more than an «extraordinary man,» was fatal to Alessandra's wavering faith. She would later say that this day «was one of the saddest of my life. At that moment, I felt that life for me lost its only reason to be.» A long, gloomy road opened before the young woman. She tried to distract herself by frequenting the most exclusive company: she went on a cruise on the personal yacht of Kaiser William II of Germany, and maintained a close friendship with Queen Margherita of Italy... At eighteen, Sandra surprised her circle by marrying Marcello Carlotti da Garda, the marquis de Riparbella, ten years her senior. This decision may be explained in part by a desire to leave the family home—her father had just brought into his home a mistress, who would become his wife after Marie de Barral's death in 1896. The young couple moved into the luxurious Carlotti estate in Garde. In the following years, Sandra would give birth to two sons, Antonio and Andrea.

But Marcello soon began to show the symptoms of tuberculosis. From early 1900 he knew he was dying and forced himself to see his death in purely materialistic terms. His wife wrote at this time, «Marcello is making every effort to appear calm and, I would say, almost indifferent... Nevertheless, I am almost sure that all that is artificial and that the poor man suffers twice over, in not wanting to even show that he is suffering.» As a result, Sandra at this time came somewhat back to the faith and tried to prevent her husband from leaving this world without the help of the faith. She spoke to a prelate of Verona, Bishop Serenelli, but he could do nothing more than sympathize with the stricken household, for Marquis Carlotti refused all religious aids. He died on April 29, 1900, without having given any sign of openness to the eternal realities. Alessandra was left a widow at 24 with two children and the feeling of not having known how to succeed in her spiritual mission for her husband.

An emptiness that nothing can fill

Nevertheless, the marquise devoted herself to raising her sons and seemed to recover her taste for life. In November 1901, she wrote to Bishop Serenelli, «I feel profoundly the lack of an ideal; it is an emptiness in my life that nothing can fill, no amusement, no folly, no occupation. What difference does it make if I have health, a large fortune, or a name, if I am hateful to myself? You who have dedicated your life to relieve so many miseries, believe that mine, though secret and hidden behind an impassive face, is nevertheless not among the least of them.» During the winter of 1900-1901, Alessandra left her children under the care of a governess and left, with an English Lady, for a dangerous trip to explore Morocco. Alessandra was struck by the religiosity of her Muslim guides, who prostrated themselves five times a day before the Eternal. Impressed, she asked herself whether all religions were not worthwhile: «For a long time, I have thought that all religions had an almost equal value and must all, as a result, be considered from the point of view of value to society» (letter of January 14, 1902).

This attitude is quite widespread today. To it the Church replies: «Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father's one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In Him He has said everything; there will be no other word than this One» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, no. 65). «[I]t is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In fact, it must be firmly believed that, in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, Who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6), the full revelation of divine truth is given» (Declaration Dominus Iesus, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 2000, no. 5). The Church can give such teaching with assurance because Jesus Christ proved by His works that He is God. He could say to those who were going to put Him to death: If I am not doing the works of My Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me and I am in the Father (Jn. 10:37-38). Jesus Christ's greatest miracle is the event, at once historical and transcendent, of His own resurrection. He Himself had publicly predicted it, and the Apostles attested to it at the risk of their lives.

Filled with doubts, Sandra turned to God: «I prayed sometimes,» she would later write, «earnestly begging God for a ray of light and grace, and above all for the gift of faith... I repeated often, over quite a long time, my promise to give my life to Our Lord, in the most perfect and complete way that He gave me, if He would deign to give me this grace.»

Loyal but ineffective labor

On her return to Italy, Alessandra again immersed herself in the world, though she confided to a few people her confusion and spiritual quest. The French Cardinal Mathieu advised her to study philosophy and theology with perseverance; he even gave her a work plan. Unfortunately, instead of following it, she feverishly threw herself into reading of works of philosophical or Biblical criticism which had a rationalist spirit. As she herself admitted, she came out of this deeply troubled. She imagined she would be able to resolve this intellectual crisis through loyal and persevering labor. But to want to conquer the faith by one's own strength is to forget that faith is a divine gift: apart from Me you can do nothing, says Jesus (Jn. 15:5). Believing herself able to indiscriminatingly read anything, Sandra was constantly tossed about by waves of doubt. Bishop Serenelli noticed and, in a letter, recommended that she be humbler in her search for the Truth: «The pure and radiant faith is not the fruit of human reasoning, but a gift from God... Therefore, let us ask the Lord for the gift of this faith.» Following his exhortations, in February 1902 she confessed and received Holy Communion. But this step lacked depth, resulting in only an intermittent sacramental practice, performed in confusion and uncertainty—she had not truly recovered her faith. A more serious crisis was coming.

On May 26, 1903, at la Scala in Milan, Alessandra was introduced to Gabriele d'Annunzio, a friend of her brother's. The young woman, knowing his reputation as a seducer, took an immediate dislike towards this fashionable man, said to be the greatest Italian poet of his time. He, on the other hand, developed a great passion for this woman who was as beautiful as she was intelligent. He was not discouraged in the face of her coldness, for he knew how to make himself irresistible by the matchless brilliance of his words. By her own admission, Alessandra received the «bolt of lightening» on November 12, 1903, the day of her brother Carlo's wedding; she agreed to see d'Annunzio again many times after that and fell under the spell of this seducer. Nevertheless, Sandra tried to escape, refusing the daily letters he sent her. She even planned a convent retreat that Bishop Serenelli recommended to her; but it did not take place. At that point, the trap slammed shut. In spite of her family's protest, in May 1904 she joined d'Annunzio in his villa, the Capponcina, close to Pisa, renouncing her honor and abandoning her two sons. The two lovers' intoxication lasted a year.

In the spring of 1905, Sandra fell gravely ill and had to be taken to a clinic where she underwent three operations. She feared dying without the sacraments, but did not have the courage to break with d'Annunzio. When she left the clinic, cured, her beauty was somewhat faded and she soon noticed that the poet was no longer the same with her; the unfaithful man already had another conquest in sight. At the end of 1906, he let her know that she was unwelcome at the Capponcina. The following year was terribly painful for Alessandra. Nevertheless, this deplorable adventure helped her understand that she was made to love, not a creature, but the Creator. The beatitude to which God calls man «invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement—however beneficial it may be—such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love» (CCC, 1723).

«The unique subject of my thoughts»

When she returned to her villa in Garde, Alessandra renewed, at the end of 1907, her friendship with Bishop Serenelli, to whom she wrote, «I know that my prayer is too unworthy to ascend to God. Yet I will dare to say, with King David, 'Have pity on me Lord; heal my soul, for I have sinned against You...' Help me to find the path to lead me to God, for I suffer greatly in being away from Him, and this is the unique subject of my thoughts.» The prelate did not refuse to receive the prodigal child, whose confession he soon heard. In the spring of 1908, Sandra made an Ignatian retreat. The Exercises of Saint Ignatius have, over the centuries, produced a rich harvest of holiness. Pope John Paul II, like his predecessors, recommended them for everyone, and especially for youth: «They are almost necessary, particularly during certain delicate periods of growth, if we wish for young people to remain Christian» (November 17, 1989).

To assure the education of her two children, Alessandra hired as a tutor a French priest, Father Gorel, to whom she exposed her own objections to the faith. Convinced that Catholic doctrine contradicted reason, she had difficulty admitting, for example, the possibility of miracles. She had not yet understood that, «Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth» (Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, IV). Miracles are possible since God, the Author of the laws of nature, equally has the power to depart from these laws. Jesus Christ performed miracles to prove His divine mission and nature, and He gives this same power to some of His saints, for the benefit of souls.

Father Gorel then advised Sandra to make the journey to Lourdes. She agreed, though not without skepticism, and on August 5, 1910, was providentially at the office of medical investigations during the most remarkable miraculous cure of the year, a paralytic who had had an incurable myelitis. She instantly gained a belief in miracles. Deeply recollected, she made her confession to Father Gorel, who would say after her death, «All wavering, all procrastination, all opposition were overcome, this time for good.» Alessandra explained, «I thought a great deal about the act that I accomplished in Lourdes, and I am happy to know that it wasn't the result of a moment of religious emotion, but a well reflected act of the will, prepared for by long years of study and meditation.»

The place of your rest

The idea of becoming a religious would not leave her. She renewed her offering of herself to God and asked for His light. She who once had exclaimed, after visiting a nun: «As for me, I could put up with poverty, but not renounce my independence and submit my will to another,» now aspired to obey. She felt drawn to Carmel, in large part «because it is an order of penitence... I absolutely need a life that is somewhat hard—this is one of my main reasons for choosing Carmel.» In July 1911, the marquise set off for the town of Paray-le-Monial, made famous by the apparitions of the Sacred Heart; Father Gorel had recommended the Carmel there to her. Better France than Italy, where she was too well known. She had scarcely arrived when she heard an interior voice tell her, «Here is the place of your rest.» The Prioress accepted her and her entrance was set for the following fall. Before leaving Garde, she went to the parish to ask forgiveness for the scandals she had caused. On October 28, 1911, the door of the Paray Carmel closed behind her.

The novitiate was a trying time for Alessandra, who had taken the name of Sister Marie de Jesus; in spite of her generous spirit, getting used to a life of poverty and subordination was hard for her. She was 35 and not at all prepared for the austerity of Carmelite life, nor for the restrictions of a cloistered convent. But more than anything else, it was spiritual dryness that tortured her, starting at the beginning of 1912: «Prayer, thinking, reading are all impossible. I see no end to this trial. I don't know if it is from God, or if I have been swallowed up into a bottomless abyss,» she wrote in her diary. Only her faith, won so laboriously, and the certainty of her religious vocation, remained intact. However, in 1914, this interior desolation gave way to consolations and mystical graces.

The devil, greatly bothered by this novice, pestered her in a thousand ways, including physical harassment, often heard by the other Carmelites: strange rackets, footsteps following Sister Marie de Jesus... But she did not allow herself to be intimidated. Her attraction to reparative suffering and penitence was deep—it even had to be reined in by her Prioress. Appointed nurse, she took care of a Carmelite suffering from tuberculosis. While she was giving the patient an injection, she clumsily pricked herself with the needle and infected herself with the microbe. Within a few days the disease began to manifest itself in the untrained nurse—bouts of fever, enormous abscesses that reappeared frequently over a period of four years. But she did not die—the Lord still needed her. On April 26, 1913, during a lull in the illness, Sister Marie de Jesus made her vows. One year later, the Prioress named this very recently professed Novice Mistress.

In 1916, she lost her two sons, also struck down by tuberculosis. Then, in March 1917, it was the Prioress of the Carmel of Paray who died. Sister Marie de Jesus was elected to succeed her. She made a profound mark on her Carmel by means of a demanding spirituality, and stressed the role of contemplatives, who are charged by God and the Church to obtain, through prayer and sacrifices, the graces of conversion that the world needs. She thought of the many souls that, like her formerly, were searching for the light.

Thanks to the many vocations that flowed to the Paray Carmel, Mother Marie de Jesus was able to undertake three foundations: in 1924, the Carmel in Valenciennes; in 1928, one in Montmartre, a stone's throw from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris. This one came into being in the midst of numerous financial and political difficulties. Lastly, this same year 1928 saw the beginning of the restoration of the former Carthusian monastery of Reposoir, in the lofty solitude of the Alps, as a Carmel. Mother Marie de Jesus had felt driven to establish a «Carmel on a mountain» to glorify Jesus Christ in the mystery of His Transfiguration. The very dilapidated property had to be patiently rebuilt, and Mother Marie de Jesus spent every summer there. The establishment of the enclosure was scheduled for 1931.

Easy and good

But in March 1930, the Mother was stricken with liver and kidney disorders; she still wanted to leave for Le Reposoir to oversee the last of the work. Her illness worsened in November. Moved to a clinic in Geneva on doctor's orders, she underwent four ineffective operations. She received last rites and died on January 2, 1931, as she spoke the last words of Jesus on the cross: Into Your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. Although fear was her usual reaction in the face of death, she had confided several days earlier: «I felt something that I have never felt at the approach of death—a drawing towards God, a thirst for God—and I understood how easy and good it is to go to Him... Although physically I've had the most agonizing suffering, my soul has been at peace, in an indescribable happiness, through this presence that fills all things.»

Encouraged by the example of Alessandra's conversion, let us ask the Holy Spirit to guide us too toward all the truth, as Jesus promised (cf. Jn. 16:13), so that we might go to God, in Whom is found the happiness and peace for which we were created.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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