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Madeleine Delbrel–a French Dorothy Day–writes We, the Ordinary People of the Streets

Review of Madeleine Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).

Last August during a catechesis delivered to French-speaking youth in Rome for World Youth Day, the president of the Jubilee Committee, Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, en-couraged young people to take up “the arduous battle of holiness” (le dur combat de la sainteté). From a personal list of friends to keep by one’s side in the struggle, he cited St. Augustine the Berber, St. Francis of Assisi, both Teresas, Pope John XXIII, and Madeleine Delbrêl. While many have heralded the recently beatified Pope John as a future saint, the last figure in the list is rarely mentioned in such company. But the Roman Cardinal is not the first to consider the laywoman Madeleine Delbrêl (1904-1964) alongside highly revered men and women. Others have compared Madeleine’s fortitude to that of St. Joan of Arc, her sense of mission in the Church to the Carmelite doctor St. Thérèse de Lisieux, and her apostolic activity to Dorothy Day. Madeleine nonetheless remains an unknown quantity in the English-speaking world. In order to discuss this new translation of posthumously published writings, it may be helpful to begin with a few facts of her life.

Madeleine grew up without a Catholic upbringing in a middle-class, French family. By the age of fifteen, she was by her own estimation “a strict atheist” and felt herself to be in an increasingly absurd world. The biographically arranged collection, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, accordingly opens with the earnest musings of a seventeen year-old entitled: “God is dead…Long live death!” Once her family moved to Paris, she became steeped in the intellectual life of that city and was soon attending philosophy lectures at the Sorbonne. Then suddenly she underwent an unexpected conversion at the age of twenty. In spite of her attachment to reflection, her conversion was not just the discovery of a new idea: “By reading and reflecting I found God; but by praying I believed that God found me and that he is a living reality, and that we can love him in the same way that we can love a person.” Enthusiasm on the part of a new convert is hardly atypical; however, Madeleine, a self-described “reporter of God’s eternal newness,” maintained the vibrancy of this initial encounter for the next forty years of her life. Few aspects of her very busy life make sense without recognizing in them the lived conviction that Christian faith was for her an all or nothing proposition.

In 1933 she arrived in Ivry-sur-Seine, a hotbed of Communism in the suburbs of Paris. She remained in that city for most of her life, laboring at first privately and then on the city’s payroll for the ordinary people of the streets. Starting in 1941 she served as a lay advisor to the French bishops’ Mission de France, a seminary whose main apostolate was to re-evangelize the country. In 1943 Cardinal Suhard founded Mission de Paris, an effort to form bonds of lay and clerical solidarity with the urban working class. These activities fueled Madeleine’s conviction that Christians today are called to be “missionaries without a boat.”

Through Mission de France and Mission de Paris, she developed a special fondness for the worker-priests (les prêtres-ouvriers) and was disappointed when the Vatican intervened in the 1950’s to forbid priests in France from working in factories. Her carefully reasoned and faithful response, “In the Wake of a Decision from Rome,” shows that she still viewed the Roman directive as an opportunity to purify the Church in its missionary apostolate. The directive nonetheless strengthened her resolve to carry her missionary apostolate to the workers. The missionary stance, she claims, always involves “a normal state of violence” since the earthly antagonism between the Kingdom of heaven and the world is insuperable. In addition to joining the struggle on behalf of workers’ dignity, Madeleine wanted to erect a contemplative Carmel at the center of her mission. For Madeleine the kingdom of heaven cannot be reached by extending one’s engagement with the world into a utopian future. Contemplative prayer was the foundation for her missionary work. By submitting her own vocation to St. Thérèse, Patroness of the Missions, her mission together with the lives of the workers would act jointly as an ecclesia semper reformanda (a Church constantly undergoing reform).

The reference to the ascent of Mount Carmel in the footsteps of Thérèse and John of the Cross was just one of several instances in which Madeleine conceived of her faith in such radical terms. In an essay from 1960 entitled “Light and Darkness,” she develops the same metaphor with new insights:

“…our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejections of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators.”

As a theo-logian of Christian existence, Madeleine believed that the mystery of God is experienced in solitude. “To find God is to find solitude.” Solitude is not loneliness. The isolated individualism that serves as a secure shelter of personal insecurities held no interest to her. The solitude of prayer is in fact the experience of a dizzying, new precariousness, an objective view of twin abysses. From this vantage point we can observe “the walking death that constitutes our love for man: the ravages of time, universal weakness, the periods of mourning, the age of decay, of all values, of ourselves.” This love is neither sentimental pity nor an indifference to the structural injustices that afflict the poor. Faith forms a realistic love, “a science of charity” that perceives unblurred the universality of sin but never escapes to the individual realm of one’s own righteousness. Faith grasps that the nonbeliever and the victims of social injustice are condemned to variant forms of the same life in death.

From the same summit one can also be overcome by the darkness of God. Faith is a supernatural gift from God. The knowledge it offers cannot be extrapolated from human goodness. Madeleine conceived of faith as a self-consciously ignorant peering into the well of the divine mystery. The saint’s vita apostolica is thereby wedded to the mystic’s via negativa. She could consequently speak to the gift of silence as a hard won stance of receptive dwelling: “Silence…leads us to make a gift of self rather than a selfishness that has been gift-wrapped …Silence does not mean running away but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God.”

In 1957 Madeleine published a book entitled Ville marxiste, terre de mission (The Marxist City as Mission Territory). These last years of her life were often spent traveling and lecturing. Throughout the world small teams (équipes) had sprung up along the lines that she and her spiritual mentor Abbé Lorenzo, the pastor of Ivry, had founded in France. Her vision had spread to Spain, Poland and the Ivory Coast, and Madeleine visited these new communities whenever her fragile health permitted it.

Not a small part of her task in this period was to address the Christian-Marxist dialogue. Madeleine gave her entire life to God’s kingdom, which left no room to accommodate the plans devised for the future by her Marxist neighbors in Ivry. She was even less sanguine about the prospect of “collaborating” with those whose ideological program was based upon the denial of God’s existence. In her view, a servant of God’s kingdom has no right to downplay the likelihood that “collaboration” for a Communist is a first step in the indoctrination process. Her faith allowed her to view realistically the injustices that the Marxists rightly condemned as well as the social sins they proliferated.

But Madeleine also viewed the Communists through the same lens that she looked at God’s poor: as neighbors and persons created in God’s own likeness. Neither party membership nor a scientific analysis of class divisions could be the last word on the fate of the individual. She could discern genuine love in the aspirations of the Communist for the working class. Since she followed the Gospel’s mandate to be evangelized by the poor, the goodness imbedded in the Communist ideals could not be rejected either. Accordingly, she condemned the mechanism of the assembly line and the rapid destruction of the family that was taking place among France’s working classes. Madeleine recognized the profound disrespect for the human person that is expressed when a worker is deemed less valuable than a machine. Above all, she decried “poverty of the mind” in all of its ugly manifestations. By this, she meant the personal attitudes, social behaviors, and structural realities that reduce human intelligence and the natural quest for happiness to something merely utilitarian. Materialism and utilitarianism impede the spread of the Gospel and the promotion of the dignity of the urban poor.

The address that she delivered in 1961 on “Communist Hope and Christian Hope” to a French union of sisters of hospital and social service is quite instructive. Here she distinguishes between Christian espérance and Communist espoir. The difference between the two hopes is a difference between progress towards a future in which things will be better than they are now and the appearance of a gift not of our own making bestowed by Someone. There could be no clearer contrast between the objective determinations of history as espoused by scientific materialism and the personal dimensions of existence unveiled by Christian revelation. If Communist espoir satisfies a certain longing of the human heart, it is because it is an extension of Christian espérance and flows from it. Notice that Madeleine nowhere treats Christian hope as a vertical relationship between an individual and God. In her view, Christians share with Communists the hope for the elimination of economic sins. Christian hopes in the present are realized not through the operations of a political body but through the corporate activity of God. The Christian hopes within the body of the Church of Christ and hopes for its organic development. Since the substance of Christian hope is faith, the solidarity created in the ecclesial body is more immediate, intimate, inclusive, and universal than any political bond.

The objection might be raised that the context for Madeleine’s apostolate receded into the background with the radical changes that took place internationally in 1989. Remnants of an outright clash between the Catholic faith and Communist ideology-so the argument would go–survive today in isolated regions, e.g., for example, Havana and mainland China. The global conflict between these worldviews, however, is hardly what it was in the past. Madeleine herself admitted in the 1960’s that “Communism is already becoming ‘dated’… Its seed, its doctrine, and its initial inspiration are over.” While global political realities have certainly changed in recent years, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets does more than address the confrontation between Catholicism and Communism, however remote that opposition may seem at present.

The most intriguing contribution of the book, in my opinion, lies in its far-sighted perception of the challenge of contemporary unbelief to the task of evangelization. In this Madeleine Delbrêl is a fellow pilgrim with both Pope Paul VI, the author of Evangelii nuntiandi(1975), and our present pontiff, who has spoken like Madeleine of “a new springtime” of evangelization.

For Madeleine the focus of evangelization was neither a formal system of apologetics nor the platitude that the witness of an individual life suffices. She recognized in her study of 1962, The Contemporary Forms of Atheism, that the principal threat was not the vocal denial of the idea of God but the systematic and quiet filing away of the Creator into a realm remote from all thinking and acting. “By a strange act of substitution, creation has taken the place of the Creator…[we live] in an age in which God will no longer be denied or forced away, but simply excluded.” Such a frank avowal of the practical “a-theism” of contemporary culture sets both an internal and external agenda for the Church. In terms of Christian self-examination, this insight forces the issue of distinguishing between what Madeleine termed “a Christian mentality” and real faith. In a situation where everyday a-theism is not confronted, excessive moralism, overly restrictive political commitments, and the adoption of certain lifestyles and customs dominate the Christian consciousness. Ecclesial obedience is thought to be sterile and lifeless. The freedom that derives from handing oneself over to Christ is secondary. “When faith is faith,” by contrast, “it holds firm.” A faith distorted in favor of its own naturalization cannot evangelize in atheist milieus. A Christian mentality is not firm enough to grasp the full consequences of life without God, for the Christian mentality reduces the challenge of evangelization to a discussion of variant religious outlooks. For such Christians the Good News is held but not proclaimed because even to the Christian there is a self-conscious worry that the news might seem old.

Madeleine raises the tantalizing question of whether Christians as Christians are placed by God in atheist milieus since the setting forces the Christian to proclaim the faith to others in both word and deed. The atheistic environment of her native Ivry-sur-Seine, she contended in her very last lecture, was actually favorable to the conversion of the already baptized. Madeleine entered into dialogue with her neighbors ready to profess her Catholic faith on her lips. In a virulently Communist milieu there is no place for any separation between Christian life and apostolic life. Their choices were too starkly posed. The ideological program of the Marxists called for the dissolution of public belief. One could not legitimately counter such aggressive atheism without seeing oneself as evangelized and without sensing that one’s own capacity to carry the Gospel into the world was pure gift. Practical a-theism and modern relativism have the same force, but their methods of inculcating the Christian mind operate more subtly. From a personal perspective, I have noticed a similar renewal of Catholic faith emanating from some of the most secular academic institutions in this country that remains almost without parallel at the major Catholic universities.

With the publication of We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, Madeleine Delbrêl joins Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, S.J., Georges Bernanos, and Dorothy Day as figures whose thought has appeared in the Eerdmans’ series: “Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought.” The book’s back cover explains that each of these authors aspired to give renewed form to a classic Catholic sensibility. Hans Urs von Balthasar, a leading advocate of Ressourcement theology in the twentieth century, praises Madeleine in the book’s preface: “The clear style [of her prose] is…an expression of her relentlessly precise thought and Christian decisiveness…”

The witness of Madeleine Delbrêl also reminds me of the character of Adam Chmielowski from the play Our God’s Brother. The play was written by a young Karol Wojtyla at a time when he was living out his faith in a milieu even more militantly atheistic than Ivry. In this play Adam, a painter and freedom fighter, is searching for answers to the question of how to respond to the reality of abject poverty. He discusses his dilemma with a political revolutionary named “the Stranger” and concludes that the Stranger’s subjection of individual responsibility to “acts of collective awareness” needs to be thought through more carefully. So Adam engages a philosopher named “the Other.” The philosopher confirms Adam’s belief that the problem of poverty demanded an intelligent solution, but “the Other” also left Adam profoundly dissatisfied since he seemed incapable of distinguishing the presence of persons. The philosopher posited a class of oppressed workers; he could not see their faces or enter into the concreteness of their situations. Adam then returns to the Stranger, and they discuss their divergent positions. While the Stranger will continue his program of revolutionary praxis, Adam tries to explain that his own motivation for action comes from a different source. In the presence of Christ, Adam argues, intellectual analysis is subordinated to the very fact of the encounter. Facing Christ’s total self-gift to the world, both the universality and particularity of human suffering take on new meaning. Adam explains that he has allowed himself to be molded by the love of Christ because the anger of the revolutionary is an insufficiently radical response to the real suffering they both hope to alleviate.

In his introductory remarks, the editor of this book’s series, David L. Schindler, draws the analogy between Madeleine Delbrêl and the Catholic Worker Movement. I wholeheartedly agree and think that the deepest level of convergence lies in the espousal of personalism. I will conclude by touching upon a few aspects of Madeleine’s personalism as they related to the ideas of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. First, Madeleine addressed the theological paradox of personal existence in communion. “You have to know how to be alone with God in order to make a community,” she stated. Christ’s mystical body knits together individual lives into a new whole while at the same time forbidding the absorption of the concrete individual into a homogenous, collective identity. Apostolic activity grows out of a desire to share in the new communion proclaimed by and embodied in Christ, but it requires by the same token that one attend to and care for one’s neighbor. Madeleine begins her essay on “The Many Faces of the One Working Class” by saying: “Let’s start with something concrete: we’ll take Pierre, Jacques, and Jean, who live near me.” Her social critique was inseparable from her love of neighbor. She addressed her neighbors by name, and she was therefore able to analyze the structural and economic problems that afflicted them as persons. Likewise, her decision to live with the ordinary people of the streets was inseparable from her desire to live in Christ. “To preach the gospel, you have to become poor.”

This leads me to a second similarity between Madeleine’s personalism and that of The Catholic Worker movement. In Ivry the issue of freedom was on everyone’s minds. One could utilize one’s freedom to engage the world with the conviction that man, the homo faber, is the ultimate measure of reality. Alternatively, one could recognize in one’s choices to make something of the world the opportunity to image God’s own love for humanity. The obedience of faith consists in loving God more than anything else. Human action performed in obedience to God’s love necessarily includes love of neighbor as well as the goodness of creation itself. In this view, the only obstacle that impedes the realization of God’s own goodness in temporal terms is the reality of death and the impact that it has on those who fail to question its dominion. Faith in an incarnate God teaches us that our fullest freedom lies in the One who suffered for all sinners and befriended, above all, the poor and downtrodden. Like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Madeleine was a practical theologian of faith’s freedom.

Madeleine Delbrêl learned to love the atheist as her neighbor even as she cast aside his scientific plans for the future. In that she is a model for the bearing of the Catholic faith to the entire (post)modern Western world. She labored one person at a time to carry the terrifying force of Jesus’ gospel of love into the hearts and minds of those who were certain that Christian faith was a well-meaning but misguided form of idealism.

Such boldness in proclaiming the Gospel may also be necessary for the future conversion of Christians. In other words, we may ask, “Do the systematic unbelief, practical ‘a-theism,’ and readily dispensed relativism of a late modern, hastily globalizing culture create an opportune moment in God’s providential plan for self-identified Christians to come to a deeper awareness of their baptismal faith?”

Book Review by Peter Casarella, Catholic University of America

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 2, March-April 2001.