“The Woman of the Lord”: Madeleine Delbrêl, a mystic in her works

The Lord’s Wife. Madeleine Delbrêl in her works

by Claude Langlois

Venison, 404 p., €25

What a bulimia of writing! Madeleine Delbrêl, during her lifetime (1904-1964), published five books, around thirty articles, or 850 printed pages. After his death came the posthumous works, three volumes of 800 pages and unpublished ones. Then a plethora of correspondence, very recently discovered and published, more than 5,000 pages of complete works…

For a woman who is also a social worker, responsible for communities, always on the go to welcome those she calls “street people” in his house in Ivry-sur-Seine, it is considerable. And just as considerable, the meticulous and patient work of Claude Langlois, historian, to read these pages, compare, annotate, examine the evolutions, the contradictions, the rewritings. This great specialist in Catholicism and feminine mysticism was undoubtedly needed for this titanic work.

Another, more complex Madeleine

The result is identical: a huge book, not easily digestible, complicated, detailed. But a fascinating work, as long as we take the time to immerse ourselves in it, from which emerges another Madeleine, so much more complex and rich than the “forward-thinking Catholic activist”which excessively hagiographical and simplistic narratives have too often described…

Many doors in this work, and we cannot all open them here. We can become attached to the poet Madeleine, gifted and intuitive, whose talent was not recognized, no doubt at a time when it was difficult for women to break through. To the converted Madeleine, whose conversion, as Claude Langlois endeavors to show, has never ceased to be revisited, rewritten, as if each time to deepen the question of her relationship to God. A social worker Madeleine, a pioneer in this profession where so many women were then able to flourish. A feminist Madeleine, despite very traditional visions of the roles of men and women, who had the audacity to impose herself with great authority on elected politicians, and also in the Church, with priests and bishops. A Catholic Madeleine, who sees in communist atheism a diabolical temptation, all the stronger as this ideology uses an evangelical vocabulary to better twist it.

An inspiring figure for the future of Catholicism

Communism is no longer frightening today. But atheism does, and this intellectual’s vision of the Christian’s role in a hostile environment would benefit from being reread, with its insistence on the risk of losing, by dint of compromise, the centrality of Christ. As the young Madeleine wrote, “to hold on, you have to take the temptation (atheism, Editor’s note) as a provocation to revise our faith”. But it is on the mystical Magdalen that the book is most fascinating, allowing doubts, sufferings, questions to emerge from her intimate relationship with God, and undoubtedly a night of faith, even if, as admitted the author in a nice formula, “we don’t have the key to the garden of his soul”.

For Claude Langlois, and we gladly follow him, Madeleine was a great mystic and her writings attest to it. The book has the merit of making us rediscover forgotten or rewritten texts, whose dazzling belief can only amaze us. All in all, this little bit of woman, who founded nothing as an order (she was wary of religious life, “in that it would have brought us to decide in advance”), but who knew how to put “at street level”, in a demanding and never deferential partnership with the institution, has enjoyed great national and international influence. And could be an inspiring figure for the future of Catholicism, with this gospel of the street, carried by small informal communities, converts, but firmly attached to the person of Christ. A Catholicism that is combined with the feminine…

We would like to say thanks to the writer of this write-up for this incredible material

“The Woman of the Lord”: Madeleine Delbrêl, a mystic in her works

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