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Starting Point

Madeleine Delbrel and the ordinary people


Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, lived a colorful life advocating for the poor and all things good.

Now a new book, Madeleine Delbrel: A Life Beyond Boundaries, by Charles Mann (New World Press, PO Box 640432, San Francisco, CA 94164-0432), introduces a fascinating woman I can best sum up as a French Dorothy Day. This colorful little woman (4 feet 10 inches) moved from atheism to Catholicism only to find her home among the communists of Paris, where she gathered other professional women around her to live an authentic Christian community life.

She engaged a mighty pen and a forceful personality, as well as a certain diplomatic grace and unbounded energy, in all the major social, political and religious movements that marked France before, during and after World War II. She was a true humanitarian who loved God intensely and found God in all the ordinary things in life. Happily, Rome is now studying her cause for canonization.

Delbrel is hardly known in the English-speaking world (Mann's is the first biography of her to appear) because none of her writings has yet been translated. But here are some reflections of hers, not yet available in English, which I came upon by chance:

"There are some people God calls and sets apart in convents and monasteries. There are others God calls and leaves in society, the ones God does not 'withdraw from the world.'

"These are the people who have an ordinary job, an ordinary marriage or an ordinary celibacy. The people who have ordinary sicknesses and ordinary sorrows. The people who live in ordinary houses and wear ordinary clothes. These are the people of ordinary life. The people we meet on any ordinary street. ...

"We believe that we lack nothing necessary here in the streets; if we did need something more, God would have already given it to us. ...

"We, the ordinary people of the streets, have the distinct impression that solitude is not the absence of the world, but the presence of God.

"Our solitude is the encounter with God everywhere. For us, being alone in a crowd is participating in the solitude of God.

"God is so great that there is no place for anything else; everything is within God.

"For us, the whole world is the meeting place with the One whom we cannot avoid. We encounter God's living plan right there on the busy street corners. We encounter God's splendor in the laws of nature and science. We encounter God's imprint on the earth. We encounter Christ in all these 'little ones' who are his own, the ones who suffer in their bodies, the ones who are bored, the ones who are troubled, the ones who are in need of something. We encounter Christ rejected in countless acts of selfishness.

"How could we possibly have the heart to mock these people or to hate them, this multitude of sinners of whom we are a part?

"Godly solitude is the love of people, it is Christ serving Christ, Christ in the one who is serving and Christ in the one being served. How could such activity be for us a distraction from God or mere busyness and noise?

"We, the ordinary people of the streets, are certain we can love God as much as he might want to be loved by us.

"We do not think love will be something extraordinary, but something all-consuming. We believe that doing the little thing in union with God is as loving as our greatest activities. Besides, we are unaware of the size of the measurements of our own activities. We know that everything we do can only be small and everything that God does in us is always great. And so we go about our activities with a sense of great peace.

"We know that all our work consists of being at peace, one with God, while not avoiding the very things that need to be done. Basically it is letting God act through us. ...

"It matters little what we have to do, pushing a broom or a pen, speaking or listening, sewing a dress or teaching a class, taking care of a sick person or tapping away at a computer.

"All this is the meeting place of God, minute by minute, the very place where God's love is revealed."

Madeleine Delbrel deserves to be better known in America.

Trappist Fr. Basil Pennington is living in Hong Kong.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997