Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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November 21, 2000
Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

In 1907, a book with an evocative title appeared in Paris: From the Devil to God. In it, its author, Adolphe Retté, recounts his conversion to Catholicism. The work was a considerable success, contributing to the conversion of many souls who found in its pages light and encouragement for their own spiritual battles.

Born in Paris on July 25, 1863, Adolphe Retté did not know in his childhood the joys of the family circle. His father lived in Russia, working as the tutor of a grand duke's children. His mother, a musician absorbed in her art, looked after her son only when the whim struck her, in order to experiment on him with contradictory methods of upbringing. The child was baptized as a result of the entreaties of his grandmother, a pious and practicing Catholic. His grandfather, the rector of the University of Liège, was a fierce anticlerical, and objected to all religious instruction.

As a child, Adolphe was dreamy and impressionable, a voracious reader and already a friend of solitude. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to boarding school. His father demanded that he observe the practices of the Protestant faith. From this experience, the young man drew no more than a vague belief in God, and a repulsion for Christianity. He was eighteen years old when he signed on for five years in the army. Military life taught him to control his imperious nature, but he allowed himself to give in to debauchery. If one of his friends suggested, «Let's go to the party,» he exclaimed, «Let's not go there, let's run there!» Released from military service, he began a literary career. He was enthusiastic about nature, especially the forest, and turned first towards pantheism (a system which identifies God with the world.)

Squandered savings

In 1894, he fell in love with a devoted and upright girl, on whom he imposed a purely civil union, thinking that it would be hypocritical to seek the blessing of a Church in which he did not believe. Despite the love that he had for his companion, Adolphe was a violent and unfaithful partner. One day, the young woman had succeeded in saving a bit of money so as to buy him some books that he wanted, as well as a dress she herself needed. As soon as he learned of this, he demanded that she give him this amount. After she refused to do so, he took it away from her by force, and left to squander all of it with a woman of ill repute. Madame Retté died prematurely, the victim of many similar scenes. Adolphe then began to live with a woman without morals, who wasted their meager resources, thereby fanning the arguments and insults between them. Only the influence that this woman exercised over Retté's perverted senses kept him close to her, for he was becoming increasingly sad and disgusted, but too weak to break with her.

«I would have wanted to die»

Having become an atheist, Adolphe was obsessed with the one idea of ridiculing the Church. One evening in Fontainebleau, he boasted in front of about thirty workers the limitless progress of science, which explains everything. «War on the priests, war on the capitalists…!» he exclaimed. As everyone was leaving, four listeners took him aside, and one of them, a gardener, asked him, «We know that there is no God. But since the world wasn't created by anyone, we would really like to know how 'everything' began? Science must know about it…» Retté would have been able to drown his listener in an impenetrable torrent of words. But the good faith of these poor people touched him. «I would have wanted to die if I had deceived them,» he wrote. «So?» the gardener asked again. «So,» I said, urged on by truth, «science cannot explain how the world began.» Yet the question echoed in Adolphe's head: «Who made the world?» The following night, he couldn't sleep, and the next morning, he asked himself, «And yet, if God existed…?» A century after Retté's avowal of his powerlessness, science has made much progress in knowledge of the universe, but the more it advances, the more arduous the difficulties it meets, and it still cannot answer the simple gardener's question.

Thus began for Adolphe a period of fluctuations, searching for a belief that might calm the disquietude in his heart. Already in his youth anarchy had appealed to him. «Let's throw everything to the ground—God, family, property, laws, traditions. Then men will fall into one another's arms, and, sharing the goods of the earth according to each individual's needs, they will live in a perpetual feast, totally free and showing their solidarity!» But after deeper reflection, he wrote, «He who does not possess any faith at all may allow himself to be attracted for some time by the noble ideals and poetic illusions of anarchist doctrine… But it is not long before one realizes that society as the anarchists want it could not survive unless all the human faculties kept among themselves a constant equilibrium.» However, experience taught him that it is difficult to resist the slavery of anger, lust and pride.

He had for some time become closer to Clémenceau and the Radicals, whose anti-religious passion he shared. This was the period of his life in which he blasphemed the most. He felt a vague joy in ridiculing the life of Jesus, whom he never called anything but «The Galilean.» Paradoxically, in the depths of his being, he was indignant at the persecution against religious congregations, and at expulsions and sufferings of all sorts inflicted on the Church. But his repulsion for Christianity was so great that he could not declare his true feelings. In the end, disillusioned, he withdrew into solitude. His precious forest at Fontainebleau calmed him to some degree. At home, he appeared somber, morose, and agitated, for the woman whom he lived with exasperated him with her lies uttered for the sheer pleasure of lying, and with her incessant quarrels. When from time to time he considered his soul, he found it as filthy as a sewer. He felt the need for a higher ideal.

«If God existed, what luck for me!»

One day in June 1905, while reading in Dante's verses about the joy of the faithful in Purgatory who are sure to be admitted into Heaven after a fair expiation, he was dazzled by an interior light. He saw his vices like toads in the mire of his heart; at the same time, both remorse and an indescribable joy penetrated his entire being. «What?» he said to himself, «the Catholic faith would be correct in affirming that a sinner who repents and joyfully accepts penance for his sins becomes worthy of Heaven? I could cleanse myself of my transgressions and be saved? But then… God would exist!… Oh, if God existed, what luck for me!» But soon thereafter, a deceitful voice rose in him and whispered, «All this is literature. You know very well that Catholicism is nothing more than an antiquated fable!…» He returned home. He responded not a word to his concubine, who was in the mood for an argument. She was astounded! One might think that, thus touched by grace, Adolphe was going to change his attitude. But the afternoon of that same day, when a friend confided to him religious concerns, Retté responded by mocking the Catholic faith, belittling the Blessed Virgin with contemptible remarks that dare not be written. Shortly thereafter, he realized with fear that an evil spirit had made him speak against his conscience—yet he dared not reverse his opinion in front of his friend.

The next day, during a walk, he went over all the errors in which he had believed. They crumbled away, one after the other, and he exclaimed, «What do I have left now?» An interior voice answered him, «God.» He leaned up against an oak and continued his reflection. «Why were we put on the earth? A hundred religions have tried to resolve this problem. They have differed depending on the circumstances and especially depending on the whims of the human mind. In the midst of this perpetual fickleness, the Catholic Church has remained immutable. And it has lasted nineteen centuries already… So the Church, never having changed, must have more than a human cause for its unity and perseverance, since humanity, left to its own devices, is nothing but change. Besides, its moral precepts are salutary, and it is certain that if we would put them to use, we would be better off. The Church must possess the consoling and saving truth… and so God does exist…!» Falling at that moment to his knees for the first time since he was fifteen, Adolphe prayed, «My God, since You exist, come to my assistance!»

He then had to find a priest, but the prospect of this frightened him. However, at that very moment, an elderly priest passed on the path, not far from him, reciting his breviary. Retté heard him say these words which Saint John the Evangelist applied to Christ: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). «Monsieur, please,» he asked.—«What would you like?»—«I beg you, pray for me.»—«Yes, I will pray for you, and I'll do it immediately.» Adolphe allowed him leave without saying anything more to him, repeating continuously to himself: And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The Holy Trinity had impressed on his mind the adorable mystery of the Incarnation. «I was beginning to pray to the good Lord every time I was afflicted with moral difficulties or with financial troubles,» he wrote. «I can attest to the fact that never were my prayers not heard. It was not always in the manner that I was expecting; but it was always for my greatest good.»

«Free will exists…»

If it is sometimes difficult for Christians to remain in the state of grace and to reject temptations, what to say of the man in the process of being converted, having neither the sacrament of Penance, nor the Holy Eucharist! Adolphe had at this time the experience of a spiritual battle which became more intense. He discerned in his soul three kinds of thoughts. The first were his own—they were the «reflections in which one talks with oneself, where one weighs the pros and cons of a decision to make, where one analyzes one's feelings and sensations…» But he also perceived, without hearing anything with his ears, interior «voices,» «which left me consoled or sad, depending on whether the voice came from a good or an evil spirit… No human theory is capable of explaining this phenomenon… Ah! How one then realizes that free will exists. For the soul tormented by this conflict remains entirely in control, capable of submitting itself to one or the other of the combatants.»

The suggestions which come from the demon produce darkness of soul and turmoil of spirit, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love and leave the soul slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord (cf. Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, no. 317). The demon suggested to Adolphe: «If God allows you to be walled up in distress, it's to show you that you no longer have anything to hope for from Him… Sinners of your caliber cannot be redeemed… Take up your old ways again… Since God rejects you, since your existence has become a continual torment, you had best escape in death. So be a man—admit that everything is finished for you, jump into the darkness…» Conversely, his good angel consoled him and gave him courage and strength, sending him good inspirations (cf. Ibid. 315): «The mercy of God is infinite towards him who repents. Hope and pray… Accept this trial with perseverance, for it is necessary… Go, humble yourself, fear nothing, you will be heard.» Under this beneficial influence, Retté felt his confidence return: «At these moments, a great sense of peace entered me; I thought of God in a very gentle way and I began to pray.»

«I can't, I'm afraid…»

During a walk in the forest in Fontainebleau, he perceived, at the top of the Rocher de Cornebiche, a little chapel, atop of which was a statue of Our Lady of Grace. Without hesitating, he undertook the rock climb and beseeched Mary, «O you whom I have never before invoked, ask your Divine Son to inspire me with what I should do.» A very gentle voice answered him in the depths of his heart: «Go find a priest. Confess, enter the Church.» At the prospect of this, he rebelled, «I can't, I'm afraid of revealing myself in that way.»

At about this time, Adolphe separated with his concubine. But soon the demon attacked him with violence and, in order to carry him to the point of despair, he reminded him of the many books and articles in which he had liberally sowed blasphemy. One evening, exhausted by these attacks from the evil spirit, Adolphe went to bed, but he could not find sleep. A new, relentless battle against the demon put him in a sweat. «Suddenly,» he exclaimed, «I heard, yes I heard—I maintain it on my eternal salvation—I heard the celestial and well-known voice that cried out to me, 'God! God is here!' Struck down by grace, I fell to my knees, and at the same moment, I believed to see above me the image of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, smiling with an expression of ineffable mercy. A great sense of peace entered my soul… I stayed there, delighted, stupefied, overflowing with gratitude, continuously repeating, 'Thank you, my God. You have saved me!' » At daybreak the next morning, he returned to the statue of the Blessed Virgin to thank her.

A comforting smile

Shortly thereafter, he went to Paris and asked one of his friends, the poet François Coppée, to suggest a priest to him. «I could no longer walk all alone,» he said. «I needed a support…» Full of joy, Coppée addressed him to a vicar of the Saint-Sulpice parish, who received him that same day. «The simplicity of his welcome immediately made me trust him,» wrote Adolphe, «to the point that I had no difficulty in recounting my life to him… Then, quite anxiously, I asked him, 'Now, Father, do you believe that I can be saved?' A goodly smile lit up his face: 'My dear friend,' he told me, 'you are three-fourths of the way there. You have repented, you have wept tears of blood for your sins. Be sure that you have been heard Above. I have nothing more than to teach you the essential truths of our holy faith. A few days from now, you will make your general confession and receive Communion. And you'll see that everything will go well.' I was dumbfounded, for I had this idea fixed firmly in my head that it would take long months before I would be judged worthy of the sacraments.» And the priest concluded, «Thank the Blessed Virgin.»

The priest gave him a catechism, asking him to first learn the acts of faith, hope and charity, the «Our Father,» the «Hail Mary,» the Creed, then he added, «Do you know how to make the sign of the cross?»—«Alas, no.»—«I'm going to teach it to you…» The interview having ended, the priest dismissed his penitent: «Go in peace, my dear son. Faith and prayer—everything is there.» Adolphe remained quite thoughtful and quite happy for having made the right decision. «Who would have imagined, I thought, that it would be so easy? Then I admired the goodness of Providence which had led me, as if by the hand, to the priest I had gone to. 'Now,' I thought while going to bed, 'I have nothing more than to let myself be led… Oh, what deliverance!… O Mother of my God, I place myself entirely in your hands…' Then, having made the sign of the cross, I drifted into a peaceful sleep, such as I hadn't known for many years.»

A blossoming harvest

In the days that followed, Adolphe devoted himself to the study of the catechism, and made an inventory of his sins, frightened by their number and their seriousness, but reassured by the thought that soon he was going to be unburdened of these stains. He assiduously read the chapters of the Gospel which recount the Passion of Jesus Christ, addressing to him fervent acts of love. «I felt myself penetrated by an entirely salutary contrition. It was a mixture of shame owing to my sins and of poignant regret because for so many years, I had contributed towards putting again on the cross the Lamb of Redemption.»

On the appointed day of his confession, Adolphe reported to the priest who had instructed him. «As I confessed my sins,» he wrote, «it seemed to me that Our Lord Himself was there. It seemed to me that, with a hand at once caressing and authoritative, He gathered my sins in my soul and scattered them like dust at His adorable feet. At the same time, I felt my poor soul, totally bent over under the burdens of evil, straighten itself little by little, finally standing upright again, then blossoming out in floods of love and gratitude. When I had finished, when the priest had pronounced over my head the sublime formula of absolution, I stood up again. He opened his arms to me, and in tears, I threw myself into them. Certainly we were equally moved… We then chatted for several minutes, then I left… In the street, I walked quite lively. I told myself, 'I am forgiven, what bliss!' It seemed to me that I had become ten years younger… The following morning, I prepared myself for Holy Communion… I felt a peaceful joy and admired to what point all the obstacles had been leveled… As the moment of Communion approached, I felt myself lifted by surges of adoration… Neither the most refined pleasures of the senses, nor even the cerebral intoxication procured by art and poetry approached this ecstasy in which the soul, united with God, dissolves entirely. During my act of thanksgiving, I savored fully the radiant peace which reigned in me.» It was the year 1906, Adolphe was 43 years old.

To show God

Each conversion is a unique story. In Retté's case, the influence of vices had assumed such proportions that the evil could seem irreparable. His example is an extraordinary proof of God's infinite mercy and of the omnipotence of grace. It manifests the universal character of Christ's Redemption in whom everyone, even the greatest of sinners, can find salvation and peace. Saint Benedict exhorts us «never to despair of God's mercy… For the good Lord has said: «I do not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live» (Ez 33:11)» (Rule, ch. 4 and Prologue). Adolphe Retté's itinerary led him from the false to the true, from sin to the state of grace, from blasphemy to prayer.

Shortly after his First Communion, Adolphe withdrew into solitude, dividing his time between prayer and the editing of his book From the Devil to God, the point of departure of a new period of activity which he defined thus: «To show God to my contemporaries.» From 1907 to his death in 1930, he wrote twenty some volumes in which he invited his readers to live under God's watchful eyes, in a generous union with Christ in His Passion. He himself drew his strength from Jesus in the Eucharist: «Holy Eucharist, how greatly they are to be pitied, the ignorant and the lost who fail to recognize Your virtues!» he wrote. «As for me, I know that You are the source of all good, the fountain of hope and energy where, in the days of sadness and discouragement, the soul draws comfort and joy.» To express his love of the Virgin and his attachment to the Church, he found simple words which touched hearts. His works brought him numerous letters. Under his influence, his own mother, who lived in indifference, returned to religious practice; a number of doctors, professors of public instruction, and many other individuals started again on the road to Heaven. He made lukewarm Christians fervent, and aroused vocations. Far from being no more than a personal step towards purification, his conversion had an apostolic character, for so true it is that we achieve our own salvation while likewise working for the salvation of others.

Nevertheless, after such a tormented life, a constant effort of mortification is necessary in order to remain faithful to the Gospel. Adolphe remained weak and met with much suffering. «At the age of sixty-one,» he wrote in 1924, «I am a worn-out man who, having suffered much and worked tremendously, is beginning to weaken. What's more, I am paying fairly for the excesses of my foolish youth.» He would have liked to retire to a monastery to spend his final days there, but such was not the will of God.

He died in Beaune on December 8, 1930, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His tombstone bears the inscription, In te Domine speravi… In You, Lord, I have placed my hope… This hope was not disappointed. We ask Saint Joseph that an equal measure of hope support us all, on the stormy waves of this life, up to the port of a blessed eternity.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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