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Madame Acarie and the Eucharist

All that is necessary in order to be aware of the place of the Eucharist in Madame Acarie’s life as a believer is to read “Les vraies exercices”, some short writings of hers. The Eucharist, communion with the Body of Christ, holds centre place.
“The great love which you have for me impels me to come to you, all the more because of the existence of the Sacrament of your love, in which you have clearly shown me your love and have drawn me to love you in return; this is why I desire to receive you, so that when my soul is satiated with this spiritual food, I may joyfully embrace you within my soul, never be separated from you and love you with all my heart.”

Madame Acarie and the Eucarist

Conference by Rev. Richard Cadoux, Priest of the Oratory.

" It was impossible for such a profoundly Christian century not to be the great age of the Eucharist, and I make bold to say that this is what it was ; it was perhaps even the age of the Eucharist par excellence »H. BREMOND, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, deuxième édition, Paris, 1967, t. IX, p. 43..

Abbé Brémond’s reflection is not without its relevance. The purpose of this lecture is to situate Madame Acarie firmly in the context of this great age of the Eucharist. The Eucharist was at the time a sacrament which was the subject of debate; it was a controversial sacrament about which the different Christian denominations held opposing views. In July 1598, the Protestant Philippe Duplessis-Mornay published a work entitled « De l’institution, usage et doctrine du saint sacrement de l’eucharistie en l’Eglise ancienne, Ensemble  : comment, quand et par quels degrés, la messe s’est introduite a sa place ». (« Concerning the institution, usage and doctrine of the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist in the early Church; in sum, how, when and by what stages the Mass replaced it.« ) Madame Acarie lived at the time of this confrontation between Catholics and Reformed Christians. She was married to an intrepid member of the Catholic League. She was heavily influenced by the culture of controversy which was characteristic of the period. For her, Protestants were « impious and perfidious Huguenots »Extrait des Vrais exercices, cité dans BRUNO DE JESUS-MARIE, La belle Acarie, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1942, p. 740.. A witness relates :

« I have often heard her say that if the unbelieving heretics who deny the truth and real presence of the holy Body and Blood of our Saviour in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar had tasted the unspeakable delights with which her soul was divinely restored, this would have more than sufficed to convert them from their heresy and bring them back to the bosom of Holy Mother Church »A. Estienne, Oraison funèbre de Marie Dudrac, citée dans BRUNO DE JESUS-MARIE, op. cit., p. 111..

The development of the theology and spirituality of the Eucharist was one of the weapons used in the Counter-Reformation movement.

But within the Catholic Reform devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist was also undergoing a thorough renewal. Many accounts of pastoral visitations describe the « most pitiable state of the churches in France ». Take, for example, Anne of Jesus, writing about her journey to France and the foundation in Paris :

« I felt no fatigue until we arrived in France, when I saw the Blessed Sacrament being so badly treated. It is impossible to describe how It is reserved in many places. In one of them we found the Host crawling with worms; It was a year since It had been renewed. It was impossible to touch It; it had to be left in that state »ANNE DE JESUS, récit du voyage en France et de la fondation de Paris, dans Ecrits et documents, Toulouse, éditions du Carmel, 2001, p. 185..

But from 1580 onwards, the progressive adoption of the decrees of the Council of Trent in France coincided with an outburst of religious fervour. It was the age of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. More than ever, the Mass was at the centre of the religious life of Catholics. 1570 saw the promulgation of the Missal of Pius V. The Eucharist was brought into the wider community by means of processions, especially those taking place on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi, when the Sacred Host was carried as a boundary marker, accompanied by all the groups which made up the hierarchical society of the time. We must also remember the Eucharistic devotions promoted by the main religious orders : Eucharistic adoration, and the Forty Hours’ Devotion which served to reinforce that characteristic feature of the Middle Ages, the desire to gaze on the Host.

Madame Acarie was a woman of her time. To situate her in her milieu, I am relying in the first place on the writings of André Duval, who gives us many insights into the place of the Eucharist in the experience and spiritual doctrine of Blessed Mary of the IncarnationAndré DUVAL, la vie admirable de la bienheureuse sœur Marie de l’Incarnation, deuxième édition, Paris, Lecoffre, 1893.. Secondly, I have made use of Les vrais exercices, published in 1623. It is a work which was in all likelihood compiled after Madame Acarie’s death from her writings, which had been slightly reworked. It consists of a compilation of three texts :

  • Devotions for Communion composed for her daughter Marie during the first stages of the latter’s spiritual life.
  • Aspirations for her own use.
  • Short devotions for Communion written for Soeur Thérèse du Saint Sacrement of Amiens Carmel.On trouvera le texte des Vrais Exercices dans BRUNO de JESUS-MARIE, op. cit., p. 717-750. Ajoutons que Duval analyse les Vrais exercices dans op. cit., p. 352-359.

I shall deal in my lecture with the following three aspects of the Eucharist : the Eucharist as Communion, the Eucharist as a focus of adoration and the Eucharist as a sacrifice.

The Eucharist is the Sacrament of communion, which unites God with humankind. In opposition to all the interpretations which give the Eucharist a symbolic or allegorical meaning, the Roman Catholic Church solemnly reaffirms the transubstantiation of the bread into the true Body of Christ through the words of the priest. At the Council of Trent, the Eucharistic presence of Christ was defined as being « substantial », after the Consecration, only the appearance of bread and wine (the sacred species) remains on the altar. The Council retained the term « transubstantiation », derived from medieval theology. Describing an illness which brought Madame Acarie close to death when she was in Amiens, Duval writes :

« For, after her confessor asked her if she believed that the host which he was holding was the true Body of Our Lord, she boldly replied, ’Yes, Father; I do believe it, and have always believed it, and shall believe it for the rest of my life,’ and rising from her bed, although she was extremely feeble and wasted, she demonstrated that she would have wished the ground to open beneath her, so that she could bow even lower in the presence of Our Lord; this is sufficient evidence of the lively faith she had in that presenceAndré DUVAL, op. cit., p.320.. »

This is the attitude with which the Church invites the members of the mystical community to consume the Sacred Body. The tendency of the period was towards ever more frequent reception of Sacramental Communion. (This is the subject of one of the great controversies in Catholic spirituality.)

What was the place of the Eucharist in Madame Acarie’s experience as a believer? Holy Communion was for her the occasion of a personal experience of encounter with God. At this point I should like to describe her First Communion, which she made in 1568, when she was a boarder at the convent in Longchamp, on the advice of a Franciscan priest and the Mistress of Novices, Jeanne Mailly :

« … She made her First Communion at the age of twelve. Since at that time people did not receive Communion very often, nor were children put forward as candidates at such an early age, it seems that through this action God took possession of her soul in a new way, for she felt within herself the great and powerful attraction of the Holy Spirit and experienced caresses and ardent feelings which gave her a distaste, as she said later, for the things of earth and made her cling to those of Heaven »Ibid., p. 4..

This was a precocious First Communion and, in consequence, out of the ordinary, but it was decisive, because at that moment the young girl crossed a threshold. It was a powerful experience, which whetted her appetite for God and made her long for Him.

I have just described her First Communion. I should like now to speak about her last Communion. Let André Duval take up the story :

« During her last illness, she received Communion several times in addition to the Communioons which she received as Viaticum, because the Prioress, seeing that her desire for it was so great that it seemed she had no other consolation in the midst of her great suffering, asked Monsieur Fontane, her confessor, or Monsieur Coton, the monastery chaplain, to bring her Communion.Ibid., p. 478. »

Between this « alpha and omega », it is fitting to remember her many other Communions :

« But it was the Blessed Sacrament which set her all aflame and her heart on fire, so to speak … I scarcely ever gave her Communion (though I have done this on several occasions) without seeing her taken out of herself. She usually remained immobile, almost always with her eyes closed, never standing up at the Gospel and remaining at the time of the Elevation in the same position which she had throughout the rest of the Mass. It often occurred to me, when I was about to give her Communion that seeing that she was so interiorly recollected, that I should give her some sign, such as a nudge, to alert her to the fact that she was about to receive Communion; but nevertheless, as I approached her, I was astonished to see that she opened her mouth with such perfect timing, that you would have said that her Guardian Angel had given her an interior prompting. Reverend Doctor Gallot, however, told me that when he was about to give her Communion he was sometimes obliged to prod her in order to make her open her mouth, because she was so taken out of herself, while this was going on, but that normally there was no necessity to do this.Ibid., p.476-477. »

When she was still in the world, she made it a personal habit to receive Communion almost everyday. Soeur Marie du Saint Sacrement (Saint Leu) stated moreover that her husband would sometimes prevent her from doing so, in order to mortify herTémoignage cité dans BRUNO DE JESUS-MARIE, op. cit., p. 124.. When she became ill, « she received permission from the Bishop of Paris to have a chapel in her house, where she attended Mass.André DUVAL, op. cit., p. 477. »

Her personal habit of frequent Communion was fairly unusual for the period. The faithful would receive Communion three or four times a year. In connection with this, we should recall the attitude of St. Francis de Sales; he recommended Holy Communion as a means of progress in the devout lifeSAINT FRANCOIS DE SALES, Introduction à la vie dévote, Livre II, chapitre 20 et 21, dans Œuvres, Paris, Gallimard, La Pléiade, 1969, p. 116-121.. Making reference to the words of St. Augustine, he accorded neither praise nor blame to the practice of daily Communion, recommending Philothea to follow the advice of her spiritual director, making it clear at the same time that good interior dispositions – mortification of the passions and desire for progress in the spiritual life – are necessary. The Bishop of Geneva advocated weekly Communion, but let it be understood that if such a practice appeared outlandish, one should receive Communion either fortnightly or monthly. Nevertheless, St. Francis de Sales’ convictions were manifest :

« Communicate often, Philothea : yes, as often as you can, with the advice of your spiritual Father; and, believe me, the hares on our mountains become white in winter because they neither see not eat anything but the snow; and by dint of adoring and feeding on beauty, goodness and purity itself in this Divine Sacrament, you will become wholly beautiful, wholly good and wholly pure »Ibid., livre II, chapitre 21, p. 121..

Madame Acarie was involved in the movement which took place in this splendid century and which witnessed, though not without conflict and polemic, the developing practice of frequent Communion. She encouraged others to go in this direction :

« In spite of the fact that she only required them to take Communion on the major feasts, some of her servants, even male servants, communicated more frequently, almost every Sunday »André DUVAL, op. cit., p. 53..

As regards nuns’ Communions, her position revealed great discretion and wisdom and was close to that of St. Francis de Sales :

While on this journey, Blessed Mary spoke to me about frequent and daily Communion by religious sisters. She did not think it good that they should communicate so frequently. She said to me that if Communion was to be so frequent, then it was essential that the young woman’s progress in virtue should be evident and if this improvement was not apparent, she should be forbidden to receive Communion so often, because this was a clear sign that she did not communicate with the attitude and the respect which should be shown towards this august Sacrament, but that she was communicating out of habit or for some natural satisfaction »Ibid., p. 172..

Duval was able to add, a few pages further on :

« She was of the opinion that superiors of both sexes should limit the number of Communions except in the case of a person who, because of some special attraction or great need, felt the necessity of communication more often; for otherwise, she said, it is to be feared that they will approach the Sacrament out of routine or familiarity rather than with a spirit of fervour or desire for amendment, and this is a very greatt evil for a soul. »Ibid., p. 478.

This explains why we find in the Vrais ExercicesVrais Exercices, dans op. cit., p. 729-731. a collection of acts of contrition (also suitable for the morning and evening examination of conscience) which are designed as a preparation for the Sacrament of Penance, which is closely connected with the Sacrament of the Eucharist :

« My sweet Jesus, wash me with Your Precious Blood, heal me and sanctify me completely, so that I may have the right disposition to receive not only this most holy and venerable Sacrament but also its virtue and good effects, which I would be unable to do if my heart were not purified from every form of vice and sin; on account of which, finding in myself an infinity of faults and imperfections, I am impelled to present myself to this same Sacrament, hoping that I may thereby, as if by means of a host and a fragrant offering, be purged and cleansed from every sin »Ibid., p. 731..

The desire to communicate and to welcome the Saviour in his mysterious gift caused Madame Acarie to experience overflowing peace and joy. Her approach shows no trace of fear, anxiety or rigidity.

« She not only felt this profound and sensible devotion within her soul on the day when she received Communion but also on the preceding day and night of her thoughts turned to the Holy Eucharist. And even if she was in a church where the precious Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ was reserved, this indescribable joy would suddenly take possession of her heart.A. Estienne, oraison de Marie Dudrac, dans BRUNO DE JESUS-MARIE, op. cit., p. 110-111. »

She describes Eucharistic Communion as the Sacrament of love :

« The great love and charity which You have for me also impel me to come to You, all the more so because this is the Sacrament of love in which You have clearly shown me Your Love and through which You have impelled me to love You in return; and for this reason I desire to receive You, so that when my soul has been filled to capacity with this spiritual food, I may embrace You joyfully within my soul, may never be separated from You and may love You with all my heart.Vrais exercices, op. cit. ,p. 732. »

The Sacrament of the Eucharist is therefore the token of a covenant, which expresses the mystical union of the soul and God. There is an experience of indescribable joy not only in the Sacrament of Communion however, but also in contemplating a Body which is there for all to see; for the Eucharist is a mystery of adoration.

Catholic theology emphasises the Real Presence, Jesus who is adored in the Host. He is the « God of flour and water » mentioned by the Huguenots in the course of controversy. This is the way in which the Church demonstrates Christ’s Divine nature and the nature of His human Body, bruised for our redemption. The Risen Christ, who is perpetually present should therefore receive perpetual adoration and reparation. Eucharistic adoration became increasingly one of the essential practices in the « devout life », hence the importance of the theme of adoration in the I  :

« O my God, I praise You, I adore You, I praise You fifteen thousand times over »Ibid., p. 734.

But this adoration comes up against a paradox. The paradox of a hidden God. Here we find one of the chief Eucharistic themes in the seventeenth century. For the spiritually minded in the seventeenth century, the Deus Absconditus was not primarily the apophatic, incomprehensible God beloved of the Dionysian tradition, but the God of the Incarnation, Who conceals Himself in His own act of Revelation.

So we have here a series of mysteries passing from the Trinity to the Eucharist by way of the Incarnation. The Trinitarian God, the All-Powerful One, stoops down in the Incarnation. A radical kenosis takes place in the concealment of the Person of the Word of God within the human nature of Jesus. Berulle is probably among those who have given the clearest explanation of this dimension of the Incarnation. In Madame Acarie’s case there is also a real sense of the Incarnation, and a consideration of the « wandering life » of Christ.Voir Vrais exercices, p. 733.

But the Risen Christ is now concealed under the appearance of the Host and His glory is only revealed to the eyes of faith. The Incarnate Word annihilates Himself in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This paradox of a God who reveals Himself by concealing Himself under the appearance of bread and wine is a test of faith for the believer.

Just as God was hidden in the Incarnation and the Risen Word is concealed in the Host, so the lives of consecrated religious are hidden in Christ; the Eucharist becomes the model for a hidden self-obliterating life.

« O more than admirable power, wisdom and goodness of my Lord and God, why am I not able to make every created being into a soul at will, and to build in every soul, especially my own, a heavenly Kingdom for You, in which You may find joy and peace, in exchange for all the pains and sorrows which You endured for me. Open to me, I beg You, the great treasures of Your more than admirable Divinity, and hide me within Yourself, so that no created being may discover me. »André DUVAL, op. cit., p. 356-357.

This sense of the hidden life and self-obliteration in God is evident in the life of Madame Acarie; Duval was happy to extol her humility, her love of being accounted as nothing, and her desire for self-obliteration :

« Perfect humility consists as much in the submission of the spirit, through which the soul sees and accounts itself as pure nothingness, as much as in the abasement of the will … Her nothingness was so apparent to her and she saw it so clearly, Père Sans said, that if the whole world had proclaimed that she was a saint she would no more have been moved to vanity or self-satisfaction than if she had been made of stone … (literally ’a great wall’) From this base and lowly opinion which she had of herself such profound abasement was produced within her soul that she sought only to be despised and to occupy the lowest place. »Ibid.,, p. 379-382.

Spiritual life, therefore, leads to renunciation and to a struggle with self-love, « that deceitful power », to use Pascal’s expression; a struggle which was waged indefatigably in the seventeenth century. I mention in this connection the opening words of the Vrais Exercices. « The beginning of this exercise will be an aid to confessing and admitting one’s nothingness and spiritual poverty and to offering oneself in all this to God ». So adoration of God hidden in the Eucharist is the basis of a spirituality which is expressed in terms of abnegation and self-obliteration. But this choice of terms, which is so specialised (and so disconcerting to modern ears) is interpreted in a Christological manner. The « Trop est avare à qui Dieu ne suffit » can be fully understood in the light of the mystery of Christ. This self-obliteration is, strictly speaking, a sacrifice.

The two themes of self-obliteration and sacrifice converge in a Christological synthesis. In seventeenth-century thought, the abasement of Christ at His Incarnation is a sacrificial action which culminates on the Cross. The Council of Trent reiterated the sacrificial character of the Eucharist. The Mass is an actualisation of this unique sacrifice of Christ on the Cross in propitiation for the living and the dead.

« Behold, O Eternal Father, how my soul recalls the death of Your only Son. I offer You this Host, which He Himself offered to You for my salvation and that of the whole world. May the love and devotion which drew Your Son to earth and filled Him to the point that it made Him take upon Himself the sins of the world, may this same love, O my God and Father, constrain You to have mercy on me and pity me, who am so wretched. »Cité dans André DUVAL, op. cit., p. 354-355.

This sacrifice comprises two aspects, oblation and immolation, both represented in the Eucharist. The sacrifice of Christ is also an appeal for sacrifice by His faithful people and in consequence there develops the idea of a mysticism of holy sacrifice as a participation in the sacrifice of Christ. It involves the offering of the whole of one’s life, just as Christ has offered His. Several acts of offering can be found in the Vrais exercicesVrais Exercices, dans op. cit., p. 746.. I shall take an example from the beginning of the book :

« I offer you my soul, that You may deign to render it totally pleasing to Your Majesty, my understanding that it may know You, my will that it may love You and my memory that it may never forget You. I offer You, O my God, my aforementioned will, for I desire never to do or follow it; I therefore surrender it totally to Your will, so that I may no longer have any will of my own. I offer myself with the desire of carrying out completely whatever the blessed Holy Spirit asks of me. I offer you in particular a complete abnegation of myself, together with the curtailment of every sensory pleasure. I offer myself, and resign myself to being deprived of all consolations and sensible devotion which are not essential to my salvation. I offer myself with all my heart to bear willingly every kind of adversity and to suffer illness, confusion, difficulties, tribulation, interior oppression and everything else which it pleases You to send me here on earth or in eternity. Henceforth, O my God, I am completely Yours; this is why I make so bold as to request not only Your gifts and graces, but also Your very Self, especially in the reception of Your Most Precious Body in this holy Sacrament, which I desire to receive in order to be more perfectly joined with and united to you. »Ibid., p. 732.

Here we are confronted with a spirituality of the Paschal mystery. That which is signified in the Eucharist becomes a reality in the life of the believer. It involves dying to oneself in order to live for God. This is possible because believers participate in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the first-born of many brothers. This causes a prayer of thanksgiving to well up from Madame Acarie’s heart :

« Rejoice, therefore, O my soul, because you are able to welcome so noble and excellent a Guest. »Ibid., p. 743.

In conclusion, I should like to speak about the prime significance of the Eucharist in Madame Acarie’s spiritual experience, hers was an unfailing attachment, with no trace of spiritual gluttony :

« Sometimes when she was in church and had already approached the holy table in order to communicate, someone would whisper to her that her husband was asking for her; she would get up immediately, without receiving Communion; this was no light cross for her, seeing the ardent love she displayed when she communicated »André Duval, op. cit., p. 34..

The contemplative way is sometimes placed in opposition to the sacramental and liturgical way. In Madame Acarie’s case on the contrary, the Eucharist appears as the sacramental principle of mystical experience. It is in the Eucharist that her twin aspirations to unity and to self-annihilation are concentrated. The believer is annihilated in God’s presence, brought to life in Jesus and his spiritual experience takes shape in this Sacrament which gives concrete expression to sacrifice, adoration and communion at one and the same time.

Lastly, the Eucharist opens up the life of the believer to a specifically eschatological dimension. The Eucharist is the mystery of a Real Presence. But it is also founded on the idea of absence; it allows us to be drawn by the sight of a God who is ontologically hidden. It satisfies the believer while at the same time instilling in him a longing and a search for God. Madame Acarie writes :

Alas ! When, O my God will this union and conjunction of love reach the point that I can no long bear Your absence ? Come to me, O my God, and enter my soul. The thirst and longing I have for the love of Jesus Christ to grow within me also enkindle within me the desire to approach this holy table, close to the fountain of all grace, inasmuch as this Sacrament contains within itself the living source of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Author of our salvation, Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.Vrais exercices, dans op. cit., p. 732-733.

The Eucharist, source of hope, is food for the journey. It strengthens us, without however satisfying a longing which will only be fulfilled at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. And it is in this sense that Madame Acarie’s Eucharistic experience leads us back to the fundamental paradox of the Christian faith, the « already here » and the « still to come ».