Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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March 17, 2005
Saint Patrick

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

I t had rained all night at a prisoner of war camp close to Stuttgart, and, the morning of October 2, 1940, tiny drops remained hanging here and there on the barbed wire. «What a strange rosary, Mr. Chaplain! These are our sufferings that are hanging motionless—a little stupid and completely gray... A ray of sun, and you see them burst out in the light.»—«You are really pious today, I congratulate you.» The chaplain looked in astonishment at Lieutenant Darreberg, who added, turning around, «It's just poetry and literature... an elegant way of saying hello to you.»

The chaplain knew Lieutenant Darreberg well. He had scattered the Christian upbringing of his childhood to the four winds, and was quite proud of the fact. When he declared, «I don't want at all to become a saint, absolutely not, but the complete opposite of one,» one was struck by his strange sincerity. At the camp, he had made it his job to entertain his fellow prisoners, his own vocation, he said. As a matter of fact, his fellow prisoners didn't get bored with him.

A pious fable?

But this morning, Darreberg didn't have his usual air. «What's wrong?» asked the chaplain. After he had asked a second time, the lieutenant replied, as if reluctantly, «Here goes. At the beginning of our captivity, you told us the story of La Salette. It's obviously a pious fable, but, all the same, some guys in the camp were moved by it. It's very good to imagine these sort of things to while away the days less stupidly.»—«It's not a 'pious fable,' » protested the priest.—«I want to go to make an on-the-spot report on this legend. To go to your mystery mountain, what exactly do I have to do?»—«You have to wait for better days, we're 'locked up' for months...»—«Well, I, Father, am going to 'unlock' myself up today!»—«Really?»—«I'm escaping tonight.» That night, in fact, Lieutenant Darreberg regained his freedom, cleverly hidden under the tarp on the truck that delivered the bread. The chaplain shot out a fast benediction: «Our Lady of Salette, Virgin who wears chains, the symbols of our souls captive under the power of sin, accompany your bold pilgrim on his trip!» When night had come, this crazy escapade was discussed in every barracks. «If Our Lady of Salette is waiting for him on the mountain,» thought the chaplain, «there's no need for a map, supplies, compass, or any rational plan. Quite the contrary.»

On November 12, the chaplain received a letter from Darreberg, dated from La Salette, October 20: «Know first of all that I had to make a rather long trip without experiencing much comfort.» Indeed, after having reached Stuttgart in the bread truck, he went to the train station and managed to settle himself on the outside bumpers of a train car leaving for Constance. At every stop, he slid under one of the axles on the car so as not to be discovered. He traveled in the same way from Constance to Basel. Once in Switzerland, he was free and was able to get to Lyon, then to La Salette. «Now I can tell you the truth,» he continued, «that I felt irresistibly called. I had to leave... I have been here for five days, and I'm living as in a dream... What an idiot I was to call it a 'pious fable'; it is true that at the time I had no idea. Already during my trip, I began to understand so many things. Here, I found a priest who explained to me the story of this mountain.»

Here is this story, in short: On September 19, 1846, two uneducated children, Maximin (age eleven) and Melanie (almost fifteen) were tending their flocks on the mountain, above the village of La Salette, in the diocese of Grenoble. A brilliant light appeared to them, in which they could see, seated in a posture of profound sorrow, the one they would call «the Beautiful Lady,» her head in her hands and her chest shaken by sobs. The two little shepherds felt very afraid at first, but the Beautiful Lady rose and called them with a very gentle voice: «Come near, my children, do not be afraid.» Without further hesitation, they rushed forward and planted themselves so close that they were almost touching her. She bore on her shoulders and chest two chains from which hung a Cross, on which bled Christ, radiant with light.

Her eyes were filled with an immense sadness: «She cried the whole time she talked to us,» Melanie testified; «I could see her tears fall.» She told them, «If my people will not submit, I shall be forced to let fall the arm of my Son. It is so strong and so heavy that I can no longer hold it up... Six days I have given you to labor, the seventh I kept for myself; and they will not give it to me... Those who drive the carts cannot swear without introducing the name of my Son into their curses. These are the two things that make the arm of my Son so heavy.» After having spoken of catastrophic harvests caused by the sins of mankind, she added, «If they are converted, the rocks and stones will turn into mounds of wheat...» She concluded thus: «Go, my children, and make this message known to all my people.» Then, climbing to the top of the plateau, she rose above the ground and slowly vanished.

Like so many others, on their knees

The story of this apparition deeply moved Darreberg. He thus continued his letter to the chaplain: «At the exact spot where these events took place, there's a splendidly vivid page, a password, a holy instruction, an invitation to stand immediately at attention so as to hear orders you must execute, that absolutely must be carried out to their completion. And the young fool you know, well, he did as so many others have done, he got down on his knees and confessed like a child, except that he had much more to tell. The confessor didn't stop punctuating with 'good's' and 'very good's' a pile of things that I would have preferred to confide to a deaf man, because they weren't edifying. He went so far as to say 'perfect' at one thing that, I assure you, wasn't that at all. So I protested, 'But no, that's not perfect,' and he had this response: 'Oh, yes it is, my brave little one, it's perfect!... It's perfect what the Blessed Virgin has done for you, and the way in which you are accepting this.' In short, I've gotten scrubbed all clean... Afterwards I felt very light and a little proud.»

«Mary, Mother full of love,» wrote Pope John Paul II, on May 6, 1996, «showed at La Salette her sadness before the moral evil of humanity. Through her tears, she helps us to better grasp the distressing seriousness of sin and of rejecting God, but also the passionate faithfulness her Son, the Redeemer whose love is wounded by neglect and rejection, maintains for His children.»

«Sin is an offense against God: Against You, You alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Your sight (Psalm 50 [51]:6). Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become like gods, knowing and determining good and evil (Gen. 3:5). Sin is thus 'love of oneself even to the contempt of God' (Saint Augustine). In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation... There are a great many kinds of sins. Scripture provides several lists of them. The Letter to the Galatians contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissention, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21)» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, [CCC] 1850, 1852).

At La Salette, Our Lady placed particular emphasis on sins committed against God by the lack of respect given His Name. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: «Among all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God... The Lord's name is holy. For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it. Respect for His name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God Himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes... Blasphemy... consists in uttering against God—inwardly or outwardly—words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; of speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward Him in one's speech, in misusing God's name... The prohibition of blasphemy extends to language against Christ's Church, the saints, and sacred things. It is also blasphemous to make use of God's name to cover up criminal practices, to reduce peoples to servitude, to torture persons or put them to death... It (blasphemy) is in itself a grave sin. Oaths which misuse God's name, though without the intention of blasphemy, show lack of respect for the Lord» (CCC 2143-2144, 2148-2149).

The seventh

Through the Virgin, God told the children of La Salette: «I have given you six days to work. I have reserved the seventh for Myself and they do not wish to grant it to Me.» We are thus reminded of our duty to sanctify Sunday. In 1998, Pope John Paul II published an Apostolic Letter to remind us of the Christian meaning of Sunday: «Those who have received the grace of faith in the Risen Lord cannot fail to grasp the significance of this day of the week with the same deep emotion which led Saint Jerome to say: 'Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, it is the day of Christians, it is our day.'... From the beginning of my Pontificate, I have not ceased to repeat: 'Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors to Christ!' In the same way, today I would strongly urge everyone to rediscover Sunday: Do not be afraid to give your time to Christ! Yes, let us open our time to Christ, that He may cast light upon it and give it direction« (Dies Domini, May 31, 1998, 2, 7).

Participating in the shared celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony to one's membership and fidelity to Christ: «The Mass in fact truly makes present the sacrifice of the Cross. Under the species of bread and wine, upon which has been invoked the outpouring of the Spirit Who works with absolutely unique power in the words of consecration, Christ offers Himself to the Father in the same act of sacrifice by which He offered himself on the Cross... To His sacrifice Christ unites the sacrifice of the Church: 'In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of His Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer and work, are united with those of Christ and with His total offering, and so acquire a new value' (CCC, 1368)» (Ibid., 43).

«Since the Eucharist is the very heart of Sunday, it is clear why, from the earliest centuries, the Pastors of the Church have not ceased to remind the faithful of the need to take part in the liturgical assembly... The Code of Canon Law reiterates this, saying that 'on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to attend Mass' (canon 1247). This legislation has normally been understood as entailing a grave obligation... Sharing in the Eucharist is the heart of Sunday, but the duty to keep Sunday holy cannot be reduced to this. In fact, the Lord's Day is lived well if it is marked from beginning to end by grateful and active remembrance of God's saving work. This commits each of Christ's disciples to shape the other moments of the day—those outside the liturgical context: family life, social relationships, moments of relaxation—in such a way that the peace and joy of the Risen Lord will emerge in the ordinary events of life» (Ibid., 32, 46, 47, 52).

A worthless droning?

During her apparition to Melanie and Maximin, the Blessed Virgin had recalled the importance of prayer. «Do you say your prayers, my children?»—«Not really, Madame.»—«Oh, my children! You must say them morning and evening, if only an Our Father and a Hail Mary. And when you can, say more.» Lieutenant Darreberg understood this necessity of prayer. Having gone on to England where he was assigned to the air force, he wrote in his journal: «October 14, 1941: I met a Catholic chaplain.... He told me that victory is certain. I told him, 'The war could be over tomorrow—we would only need to do one thing.'—'What's that?'—'To submit... To submit to God's command and pray.' At least three times, I repeated to him, stressing, 'Frequent recourse to prayer!' » Darreberg himself began to pray: «I better understand how reciting the Rosary makes the soul more flexible and gradually teaches it how to respond. It once seemed to me that the Rosary was a sanctimonious prayer and a worthless droning. What idiocy! It's something marvelous. Saying 'Hail Mary...' fifty times in a row ends up making you bow your head appropriately... When you've said 'Pray for us sinners' fifty times, you end up believing, a little, that you are not worth so much...» He would write again: «Much more than the chaplain's pipe, reciting the Rosary, even monotonously and mechanically, is a pacifying harmony.»

«The center of our faith is Christ, Redeemer of the human person,» Pope John Paul II reminded us on October 16, 2002. «Mary does not detract from Him nor does she detract from His saving work. Assumed into heaven in body and soul, the Virgin Mary, the first to enjoy the fruits of the Passion and Resurrection of her own Son, is the one who in a sure way leads us to Christ, the ultimate goal of our deeds and of our entire life... For contemplating the face of Christ along with Mary, is there a better way than the praying of the Rosary? However, we need to rediscover the mystical depth contained in the simplicity of this prayer, so loved by popular tradition. This Marian prayer in its structure is, in effect, above all a meditation on the mysteries of the life and work of Christ. Repeating the invocation of the 'Hail Mary', we can deepen our understanding of the essential events of the mission of the Son of God on earth, that come to us through the Gospel and Tradition» (General Audience, 2, 4).

Prayer, and especially the Rosary, opens us to hope. Pope John Paul II wrote, on the topic of La Salette, «Our Lady asks that her message 'go out to all her people' through the two children's testimony. And in fact, they were quickly heard. Pilgrims came; many conversions took place. Mary had appeared in a light that recalled the splendor of humanity transfigured by Christ's Resurrection. La Salette is a message of hope, for our hope is sustained by the intercession of her who is the Mother of mankind. Conflicts are not irreparable. The night of sin gives way before the divine light and mercy. The suffering borne by humanity can contribute to purification and salvation» (May 6, 1996).

A six pence fine

Darreberg's story resulted in several conversions—the lieutenant's own, but also his mechanic's. «April 5, 1942: Easter. The mechanic told me, 'I always go to church for Easter and Christmas... Then there's you, too—it all makes you think, this medal (of Our Lady of La Salette), this story that you told the mates...' He confessed, he received Communion... It had been twenty years... The chaplain admitted, 'This Virgin of La Salette is fantastic.' » A few days later, the mechanic came looking for Darreberg: « 'There is something you have to see.' In his big repair shop, there was a sign... I read, 'From now on, cursing at work is prohibited. Fine: six pence for the fund to pay for rounds of whiskey.' » It was his way of implementing the Most Blessed Virgin's recommendation on cursing...

More amazing still was the conversion of Norton, another fighter pilot. «Norton is the biggest ace in the group,» wrote Darreberg. «But he is vulgar and unbelieving. He asked me, 'What's with this date the 19th (the apparition at La Salette, September 19th)?' I wanted to escape, but I thought, 'You will make this message known to all my people.' I briefly explained it to him. He replied, mockingly: 'I didn't think you were so stupid.' A bit hard to take. I dropped it... December 25, 1941: Christmas. What happens on a day like this when the baby Jesus is driven away!... Norton was more offensive than ever. I left the table. He said, 'The cockroaches are going away, the weather is going to change.' I forced myself to close the door without banging.»

On April 14, 1942, taking advantage of the dangers of an aerial battle, Norton fired at Darreberg. The next minute, Darreberg saved Norton's life by shooting down his pursuer. That evening, at the base: «Norton came up to me. 'Darreberg, I shot at you up there.'—'Why?'—'I hated you.'—'And now?'—'You saved my life. Forgive me.' We shook hands... Thank you, Our Lady of La Salette.» On June 13, Norton was hit by enemy bullets. «June 14: There's no hope for Norton. They amputated both his legs and his right arm. He mustered the last of his strength to ask me, 'Give me her medal... Not to be cured... To not die like a dog.' His face was completely wrinkled with suffering. 'What did she say, Darreberg, I want to know, now, before I die.' It's never too late... 'I have never prayed,' Norton confessed. 'How do you do it? I always made fun...'—'Have you been baptized?'—'No, but I want to be, I want like you... Darreberg, I wanted to kill you... I'm asking you to forgive me. Tell me you've forgiven me.' The Catholic chaplain came. Norton received the sacrament of Baptism. Then the nurse said, 'I'm going to give you a little morphine. You'll be able to sleep.'—'No thanks... Let me suffer up to the end... I must pay, I must pay.'—'See you tomorrow, my dear Norton.'—'Maybe... Tell the mates... Tell them I'm sorry for me.' The priest had this thought: 'The Blessed Virgin is a great thief of souls. You have seen—she is slyer than the devil!'—'June 15: Norton died this morning. The nurse told me, 'He called out for you all night. He kept repeating, 'I believe, like Darreberg... I want the mountains of wheat.' I gave him some morphine all the same, and he went to sleep. A few minutes ago, he opened his eyes and he murmured again, 'Here is the Lady of the Mountain. She is smiling. She is not crying. Why did Darreberg say that she was crying?' Those were his last words. He just died.»

«I'm expecting a great joy!»

In March 1943, Darreberg was wounded. After several months of convalescence, he resumed his duties. On January 19, 1944, he didn't return to the base. Later, the mechanic would relate: «Before he took off that day, he told me, 'Farewell, my dear friend!'—'It's your 19th!', I replied, 'you'll be lucky!' I will hear his answer in my head for as long as I live: 'Today, old chap, I'm expecting a great joy!' He had a blazing look in his eyes, and it was only afterwards that I understood what this flame meant... He had a very beautiful smile... I heard his motors rev for a minute. Everything was going very well... Usually, he took off a bit slowly, as if he were hesitating. That day he left, snapped up by the sky... You would've thought he was pulled up into the air by a rope.» No one has ever known how Darreberg died. But is this question so important? For him, death was no longer death, but the joy of the child who is going to be reunited with his Mother in Heaven, the joy of the faithful servant who is going to receive from the Queen of Heaven the reward for his labors: «When we work in the Blessed Virgin's service,» he had noted in his diary a week before, on January 10, «she knows how to pay her debts with the lavishness of a Queen and the tenderness of a Mother.»

«At La Salette, Mary clearly revealed the constancy of her prayer for the world. She will never abandon those who are created in the image and likeness of God and to whom it has been given to become children of God (cf. Jn. 1:12)» (John Paul II, May 6, 1996). Darreberg's conversion shows the power of the intercession of our Mother in Heaven—let us have complete confidence in Her!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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