«He speaks to us in a whisper»
The First World War broke out; Henri left for the front. After six years in the armed forces, he returned with the rank of lieutenant, decorated with the Military Cross and the Legion of Honor. In August 1919, he returned to the seminary, but his readings of the saints of Carmel (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of the Child Jesus) awakened in him the desire to become a Carmelite. He wrote to his youngest sister: «God speaks to us directly and very clearly only on rare occasions. Most of the time, He slips into our souls through inspirations, through circumstances that He causes. He speaks to us in veiled terms, in a whisper, and shows us what we might do if we wanted to please Him.» He was ordained a priest on February 4, 1922; on the 24th, Father Grialou crossed the threshold of the Carmelite monastery in Avon, near Fontainebleau. After an austere novitiate, where he learned of the primacy of mental prayer, he made his first religious profession on March 11, 1923, taking the name Father Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus. «Mental prayer,» he wrote to a friend, «is, as it were, the sun and center of all one’s daily occupations. One has the impression every evening that one has done nothing else of importance… Mental prayer is a great consolation here and makes me forget everything else.» What is mental prayer? Saint Teresa of Avila answers, «Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us» (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 2709).
The years 1923-25 were marked by the beatification and canonization of Sister Thérèse of Lisieux. This gave Father Marie Eugène great joy. On April 29, 1923, the day of her beatification, he wrote to a seminarian friend, «I have the impression that this is one of the most beautiful days of my life. It’s the realization of very old and very deep desires…. This glorification of the little Sister is the form in which I best understand the glorification of Jesus Himself. The little Blessed’s mission is an outpouring of the divine love in souls, in the form God desires for our age.» During these two great events, just as for the proclamation of Saint John of the Cross as Doctor of the Church, in 1926, Father Marie-Eugène was called upon to give numerous conferences or homilies on the spirituality of the Carmelite masters. Having come to intimately know their spiritual doctrine, he would publish syntheses of their teachings in two books in 1949 and 1951, I Am a Daughter of the Church, and I Want to See God.
An antidote for atheism
Father Marie-Eugène had long been convinced that the doctrine of the Carmel saints was something everyone could understand, provided that it was presented in a form adapted to the needs of our time. On Pentecost Monday, 1929, at the time superior of the Carmelite boys’ school at the Petit Castelet in Tarascon, he was approached by three young female teachers, including Marie Pila, who wished to know the tenets of Carmel and to learn mental prayer. He quickly realized that God intended him to found an organization for them, but he also knew that he would have to «have the humility to wait for the moment, the way, the hour, and God’s grace, instead of rushing into plans to carry out this project, which would then be arrogant because they would be our own.» So he waited until May 1931 to begin a series of conferences on mental prayer at «Our Lady of France» in Aix-en-Provence. There, he discovered an audience of young women who were very anxious to be introduced to the contemplative life, all the while retaining their jobs. Thus was born a secular institute, which he set up on the property of Our Lady of Life in Venasque, in the diocese of Avignon. The aim of this institute was the original Carmelite ideal, realized by the prophet Elijah: «To closely join a contemplative and apostolic life in the world, by permeating every apostolate with mental prayer, so as to be the witness through word and life to the living God.» Each of these women began by spending a year in the solitude of Our Lady of Life; she then could take the spirit of contemplation into her social circle, while trying diligently to be a model of professional ability.
Father Marie-Eugène deeply rooted his disciples in the mental prayer of faith, this simple looking at God that leads one to discover His Merciful Love. Struck by this phrase from Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus: «I beg You to look down with Your divine look on a great number of little souls, I beg You to choose a host of little victims worthy of Your love» (Ms. B 5 v. 5, 42), he explained, «I would like you to go where we (religious) cannot go, on the boulevards, in the middle of the sea, in every environment.» The organization wanted itself to be an antidote to the practical atheism of modern times: «In a world that has lost a sense of God, that is perhaps losing this sense more and more, the Institute has its place, it has its mission all the more urgent because atheism is taking more victims: atheism does not make us flee; on the contrary, it calls us, because it calls for a testimony, the testimony that affirms the existence of God and of His rights.» Indeed, the more the world forgets God, the more it is necessary to give witness to God. Mankind is hungry for God without knowing it, and it is groping for Him in the darkness. «Let us be anxious to lead them to God!» the priest loved to say. But the conditions of this apostolate are those of «the struggle between two ferments, between two kingdoms, that of God and that of Satan. For the divine ferment to triumph, it is necessary that it be the strongest and invincible in each apostle… This overwhelming ferment must be capable not only of keeping up the fight, but of strengthening itself to continue this fight… If it were otherwise, the first meeting would be presumptuous and would lead to a defeat of the kingdom of God, and perhaps to the loss of the apostle.»
Clinging to God
Mental prayer is therefore indispensable: «A certain experience of God is necessary to strengthen our faith and keep it strong in the midst of all these waves, and even in the midst of all these tidal waves, interior and exterior, that we all endure…. It is essential that we meet God, that we make contact with Him, that we live in close friendship with Him, that we cling to God so that we are not carried away by the torrent that threatens us all. For this clinging to God through faith implies that we devote time to God every day.» Indeed, «One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time,» the Catechism of the Catholic Church clarifies, «one makes time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter» (CCC2710). This time devoted to God implies that a person organizes his or her daily life to make room for it. How much time is it necessary to provide for? «It seems,» said Father Marie-Eugène, «that, if a person wants mental prayer to have a certain influence on his life, he must spend a half-hour a day. How do you organize it? You can divide this time in two, in three or in four, according to your capacity, and resolve the problem in this manner. I myself have seen many people who are busy, mothers of families, households, religious who have consuming occupations, administrative concerns with heavy correspondence burdens, and who manage to put in their two hours, their three hours of mental prayer each day.» How is this possible? Saint Francis de Sales explains that souls who devote themselves to mental prayer act more efficiently, because the time spent with God makes possible a spiritual relaxation which refines and improves the faculties, even from a human perspective. It can be added that the soul that often rests its gaze on the eternal truths sets priorities in life better, eliminating that which is useless. Such a soul also becomes capable of lengthening its prayer even during its occupations: «It is possible to offer fervent prayer even while walking in public or strolling alone, or seated in your shop, … while buying or selling, … or even while cooking» (Saint John Chrysostom). All this becomes even more important when one considers that prayer is a vital necessity. The person who does not allow himself to be led by the Spirit falls back into the slavery of sin. «Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned» (Saint Alphonsus de Liguori; cf. CCC 2743-2744).
Getting his new organization up and running did not exempt Father Marie-Eugène from weighty responsibilities entrusted to him by the Carmelite Order. Having taken on the duty of Prior in several monasteries, in 1937 he became Definitor General for the Carmelite Order in Rome. His numerous absences led him to entrust direction of the Institute to Marie Pila. Possessed of a strong personality, very balanced, far-reaching intellectually, this soul devoted herself entirely to the foundation. Father Marie-Eugène’s stay at the Carmelite General House in Rome was cut short by war in 1939, which called him back to France. Demobilized at the end of 1940, and unable to go back to Rome, he stayed at the Petit Castelet and devoted his activities to the French province of the order until the end of the war. At this time, a group of young women joined those who made up the Institute’s first nucleus at Our Lady of Life. The Father mapped out for these women, destined to observe in the world the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the principal lines of a program of perfection. A very realistic educator, he integrated manual work, outings, and recreation into this formation. All this promoted a fraternal environment, so necessary to spiritual growth, which can undergo crises. «The great proof of holiness is not to not have temptations or weariness, but to always go on, to react, to climb towards God.» He also trained them in an asceticism adapted to each one’s temperament and to the difficulties of our times. Far from urging them on to do spectacular penances, he proposed an «asceticism of smallness,» which one could call «enduring the difficulties of our state.» He said, «If you know how to accept the trials, worries, sufferings, and fatigue arranged by God throughout the days and hours of life, you will practice a lot of asceticism, and you will not have to look for more of it.»
A complete Christianity
At the end of the war, the Father returned to Rome. Pope Pius XII’s promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia, which officially recognized secular institutes, made it possible for Our Lady of Life to be canonically erected, on August 15, 1948. «Secular institutes,» Pope Paul VI would say, «are currently the great army that the Church is sending out onto the battlefield of the world. Their members are immersed in this human reality which is so heterogeneous, so chaotic, and so disorderly, to sanctify it from within and configure it to God.» It was not until August 24, 1962 that the Institute, which had grown to include a men’s branch and a priests’ branch, would be receive a pontifical charter. On February 23, 1948, Father Marie-Eugène was named Apostolic Visitor for the Discalced Carmelites living in France. Over six years he made visits to 150 Carmels. In 1954, he became Vicar General of the order. As such, in the years that followed, he went to Cairo, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Palestine. During these journeys, he made every effort to gain a deep understanding of people of various cultures. «We must give them a complete Christianity,» he affirmed, «to Christianize their civilization, but while respecting or even extolling the human values of these refined civilizations, as the Church did for the Greek and Latin civilizations… The aim of adaptation is to translate doctrine that is good and necessary for all times, into a clear language for a given audience, and into a form adapted to its needs. This is an enormous task. It requires a perfect mastery of doctrine, a possession that is not only verbal, but that is able to go beyond words and even definitions, seizing the reality it signifies.» However, he also warned the contemporary apostle against the temptation to adapt Catholic doctrine to the taste of the day in order to make it accepted. «The great sin is not giving the complete message… Mutilating the Christian message is a crime not only against God, but against souls… Christ did not water down His message to make it accepted.»
Father Marie-Eugène was also interested in the intellectual formation of all members of the Order of Carmel. To this end, he closely followed the construction of the Teresianum, an international school in Rome. The general development of culture among young Carmelites requires very advanced intellectual formation, the Father thought, but at the same time, he insisted that this go hand in hand with the life of prayer and contemplation, so as to foster a better knowledge of the Lord. «Contemplation,» teaches the Catechism, «is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. ‘I look at him and He looks at me’: this is what a certain peasant of Ars used to say to his holy curé about his prayer before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illuminates the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of His truth and His compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the ‘interior knowledge of our Lord,’ the more to love Him and follow Him (cf. St. Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises, no. 104)» (CCC 2715).
Relieved of his responsibilities in Rome, Father Marie-Eugène was able to return to France and, in 1961, he obtained permission to live at Our Lady of Life. After so much hard work, he felt tremendously fatigued. «A person needs,» he said, «this feeling of weakness, of poverty, of physical powerlessness… It is good to feel our weakness, so that we turn to mercy! Remember that for yourselves. God has placed me among you so that I might show you how to use weakness. It’s the way you take to return home with joy, with your fullness of soul.» Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus had likewise put it: «O luminous Beacon of love, I know how to reach You, I have found the secret to appropriating your flame. I am just a child, powerless and weak, yet it is my very weakness that gives me the boldness to offer myself as a Victim to Your Love, O Jesus!» (Ms. B, 3 v. 36).
«The Holy Spirit is your Friend!»
Father Marie-Eugène’s strength was diminishing. After a circulatory accident in February 1962, he recovered enough to accept the responsibility of provincial in 1963, and to undertake visits to the various countries where the organization had installed itself. In February 1965, a new health problem threatened his life. At this time, he wrote to his spiritual children: «This is the testament I leave you: may the grace of the Holy Spirit descend upon you, that you might all be able to say as soon as possible that the Holy Spirit is your Friend, that the Holy Spirit is your Light, that the Holy Spirit is your Master…» Another change for the better allowed the Father to take up his work again, and he spent the year 1966 traveling and preaching retreats. But at the end of December, his state of exhaustion forced him to stop. On Holy Thursday 1967, he was brought Holy Communion in his bed. On Holy Saturday, after having received the sacrament of Anointing, he murmured, «My God, I love You! Jesus, I love You! It seems that I love You perfectly and that I resemble You! All the minutes that pass allow me to love You more. God has given me everything… The depths of God are Love.» On the night of Easter Sunday, he sighed, «Into Your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit,» and the next day, Easter Monday, March 27, 1967, Father Marie-Eugène died, to, according to his own expression, go «toward the Holy Spirit’s embrace.» His beatification process is underway in Rome.
«For many souls, even Christian souls, God is no longer the aim of our existence,» Father Marie-Eugène sadly observed. But, he added, «man has a supernatural vocation. Our end is the Holy Trinity!» It is precisely prayer that guides us towards this ultimate end, by putting us in a living relationship with God while we are here on earth. By devoting time to Him every day, we make an act of faith in Him from Whom we have everything and to Whom we must return at the hour of our death. Our Baptism will thus bear fruit not only for us, but also for the salvation of many souls. Indeed, «a soul filled with God cannot not give Him,» Father Marie-Eugène loved to repeat. If we do not know how to pray, let us call upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Carmel, for «everywhere that God is Father, Mary is Mother. Everywhere that the Holy Spirit spreads love, She collaborates in His work, through Her role as Mother.» Let us likewise call upon Saint Joseph, whom Saint Teresa of Avila recommended to all as a master of mental prayer. In a world suffering from the fleeting distractions of materialism, may Our Lady and Saint Joseph open our hearts to the light of the Holy Spirit!