Sister “Mary of the Incarnation” chose her own name in religion.
She wished to be closely associated with the mystery of the Incarnation; to be close to Jesus, the Son of God, who took on the body of a vulnerable human being, close to Him in His birth as a tiny baby and in His childhood; close to Him in His crucifixion, as He suffered and saved the whole of the human race. God became man through Mary’s humble consent, proof of the immense of God our Creator and Father.
In Jesus Christ, Madame Acarie recognized at one and the same time the God whom she adored and the Man Jesus who is God, our pattern of behaviour in everything. This was the source of her prayer, “I beg you to transform me totally into yourself and into the mystery of your self-giving.” This was the source of her ecstasies and stigmata.
The most remarkable aspect of her life of union with Christ is Madame Acarie’s outstandingly human behaviour as an attentive wife, mistress of a household, mother of a family and competent manager in every sphere of activity during her husband’s absence and in the establishment of the first Carmels in France. And all this took place against a background of death and suffering, during a difficult and war-torn half-century.
The Incarnation – Basis of Madame Acarie’s spirituality
Paper by Père DUJARDIN, March 25, 2000.
I should like to say to you, as an aside, that the fact that I am an Oratorian does not give me a special qualification to speak about Madame Acarie’s spirituality. It is true that the Oratory has, and has always had, a deep sympathy, in the full sense of the word, with the Carmelite Order. The links between the Oratorian community in Pontoise and this Carmel are a clear proof of this. But I must specify that until recently, although I was familiar with Madame Acarie’s life-story, I was not familiar, I must admit, with her writings. Fortunately, they are not extensive and this has allowed me to read them with close attention.
I have, however, a greater familiarity – at least, I think I have – with the spirituality of the Incarnation, insofar as I am a disciple of Cardinal de Bérulle. Those who are familiar with Madame Acarie’s story know, however, that although there was a very close relationship between her cousin and herself, they nevertheless experienced moments of tension and difficulty; there was perhaps even a serious misunderstanding between them on the occasion of what is known as the introduction of the “vow of servitude” to the Carmelite Order.
But my purpose is not to dwell on these aspects; it is to try, in the first place, to give you an account of Madame Acarie’s spirituality and its links with the doctrine of the Incarnation.
You must consider what I am about to say as the effort of a beginner, and not a synthesis; I am not aiming to produce such a thing, since I am not, I repeat, a specialist in these matters.
I should now like to enlarge on three important points.
- First of all, I shall give a brief overview of her works, that is the writings by means of which we are able to reflect on her spirituality.
- Next, I shall try to extract from her writings and from the testimonies available to us the passages concerning her spirituality, especially in its connection with the Incarnation.
- And finally, I shall pose a more sensitive question which has a bearing on the above outline of my talk, but it is only a partial bearing, because I see my study as something complementary. The question is this: why did Madame Acarie and all the men and women who worked alongside her in the reform of religious life and of the Catholic Church in France, focus their activity so strongly on the mystery of the Incarnation whereas the person for whom the Incarnation was most central was, it seems to me, Cardinal de Bérulle? All of them, in different degrees, took this mystery as the starting point of their spiritual activity.
So, to begin with, I shall say a few words about Madame Acarie’s writings. I mentioned just now that they were not very extensive, but I ought nevertheless to give you a brief account of them. I will base it on the work which has been put at my disposal.
First of all, there are the letters, fourteen complete letters or extracts written to Michel de Marillac, to Père de Bérulle, to her daughter, Mother Marie of Jesus, sub-Prioress of the Carmel in Amiens, to Monsieur Fontaines, who was probably the father of Sister Madeleine of St. Joseph, the Prioress of the Paris Carmel, and so on. So there are these letters; I shall refer to them presently. I am not going to go into any more detail about them.
Then there is the short work, which is of great interest to us, entitled “LES VRAYS EXERCICES DE LA BIENHEUREUSE SOEUR MARIE DE L’INCARNATION composés par elle-même” (“The true exercises of Blessed Sister Mary of the Incarnation, composed by herself”) The first edition appeared in 1622. It has gone through many editions since and appears to have had de facto a tremendous influence on all the men and women connected with the spiritual revival of the seventeenth century. We ought to mention that the “Vrays exercices” do not claim to be a synthesis of spirituality (at least, that is my opinion), but they are a kind of journey, a spiritual “way of life” offered to believers. The way begins with the recognition of our littleness in the sight of God, taking the form of an initial self-offering; then, through various stages, it leads to our giving thanks for the graces we have received; finally, at the close, there is a new act of self-offering, but it differs from the first, because it is made with greater awareness, not only of our own littleness, but also of all the gifts that God has showered on us, and there is a surrender of self-will into His hands.
This spiritual “way” put forward by Madame Acarie is an authentic one.
Then there is a third source, the depositions. There are, of course, many others in addition to the ones I shall mention. The first depositions to which I shall refer are the letters of Père Coton, an eminent Jesuit and royal chaplain, who in his correspondence with Michel de Marillac seems to me to have analysed certain aspects of Mary of the Incarnation’s spirituality with particular acuteness. There is also the deposition of Mother Jeanne of Jesus, Prioress of Gisors Carmel, or again, the biography of the man who was so close to her, Abbé André Duval; and finally, there is the account of her life by the Oratorian Père Daniel Hervé published in 1666.
These then are the principal sources of information on her spirituality which I consulted as a priority.
From this starting-point, what is it possible to say about the subject ?
With the reference to the mystery of the Incarnation, there is first of all a fact which stands alone, because it is significant and eloquent in itself; it is the choice of her name in religion. It seems likely, according to all the witnesses (M Duval mentions it in particular) that she herself chose the name “Mary of the Incarnation” and it was a free choice. Père Hervé, and I do not know if he is referring to something which is altogether authentic from the historical point of view, (being something of a historian myself, I am, of course, rather critical) – Père Hervé tells us that the name was disclosed to her in a Divine revelation. That is quite possible. But the manner in which it was revealed matters little; it seems that the desire to associate the mystery of the Incarnation with her religious life was at the heart of her personal approach to spirituality. Père Hervé adds, moreover, that “Her devotion was inclined towards the consideration of Our Lord in His Humanity and in the mystery of His Incarnation.” I think that what he says is perfectly correct. He also says that when the first Carmelites were established in Paris by Père de Bérulle, she wished, with his full agreement, that this first monastery should be dedicated to the mystery of the Incarnation. So we have here some elements which allow us to demonstrate her devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation, even if we must add that she gave hardly any explanation of it herself. But this does not really matter; the important thing is that she experienced this attachment and , as we shall see, the mystery took on a profound meaning in her life. Perhaps Père Coton would go further, in one of the letters to Michel de Marillac which I have just mentioned, by showing us the main reasons for this.
It seems, in effect, that Madame Acarie drew up a kind of parallel between Mary, Mother of the Word Incarnate and the mystery of the Incarnation itself. In the mystery of the Incarnation as we know, there is a union of two natures, the Divine and the human; but the union took effect within Mary through the reception she gave to the message of the Annunciation on March 25; and how symbolic it is to be speaking of this on this very day. I have found no text in Madame Acarie’s writings which is particularly devoted to this subject, but it is a fact that in Cardinal de Bérulle’s minor spiritual writings there can be found meditations on the Annunciation that are very profound, because, according to him, the whole mystery of the Incarnation became effective at that moment and, as he says himself, became effective through the Virgin’s consent to God’s plan. It is permissible to suppose that, from that point of view, Bérulle had an influence on Mary of the Incarnation. So it is possible that in choosing that name, Mary of the Incarnation was attracted to it by being in sympathy, as it were, with Bérulle’s thought. But she was very cautious about everything to do with the emotions; in addition, I think she was attracted to it without any strictly theological considerations; she was attracted to it for reasons which were profoundly interior, the thought that Mary welcomed the Word of God: we too have to welcome God’s Word and to live out in our turn the mystery of the Incarnation in our own lives.
With this in mind, it is clear why all her spirituality – and I am going to use a term which she did not, but others would – why all her spirituality is a “Christology”. Everything was centred on Christ. Christ was at the centre.
I should like to give you a little example of this at once. It is an extract from a letter to her daughter, Mother Marie of Jesus. She says “May Jesus be forever the only possession of our souls, as He will be, if we love nothing but Him, and look for Him alone in all things.” So she expressed her thought in a very forceful way. Again, still in the same letter, she used another, rather curious, expression: “I beg you”, (referring to the other Sisters) … “I beg you to be so kind as to greet them… on our behalf, in the loving Heart of the Infant Jesus.” We shall return to this aspect of her spirituality presently.
So it is incontestable that the whole thrust of her spirituality is in essence directed towards Jesus, towards Jesus the Christ and towards Jesus at the centre of Christian life, with a devotion to Christ in His mysteries. She does not, however, use the expressions which one finds in other spiritual writers, and here I make reference to a work by Cardinal Bérulle, which is written in rather a difficult style, called “Les états de Jesus” (“The prerogatives of Jesus”). There is something equivalent in Madame Acarie’s writings: she invites her correspondents, the Sisters and others, to meditate on what she calls “The virtues of Our Lord.” I think that here one must understand the word “virtue” in its original sense, the sense of the Latin word for “strength”; it means the actions and fundamental attitude of Jesus, not His reactions, such as we ourselves could experience through mere fellow-feeling or emotion. It is Jesus’ motives which are the subject of the meditation. Here again, the purpose of the meditations is clear. What is it? It is to effect an identification of our whole life with Jesus Himself, and she writes about this in “Les vrays exercices”: “I beg You most humbly to look from now on through my eyes, to speak with my tongue and to carry out, through all my senses and members whatever is pleasing and agreeable to You”. May I identify myself totally with Christ. It is not surprising that something of this can be found in the celebrated prayer of Elizabeth of the Trinity, that is, her Prayer to the Trinity, which was written well into the twentieth century.
So she had a devotion to the virtues of Our Lord, and the will to reproduce throughout her life these virtues of Christ which she had contemplated. But it seems, if I may say so, that there were two episodes in the life of Jesus which were of special concern to her. I was particularly impressed with the first. She was especially interested in what Bérulle called “The state of childhood”. She called it simply “the childhood of Jesus”. Why was she particularly interested in the childhood of Jesus when, as we know, there was in the seventeenth century none of the sensitivity towards children which we have today? At that time, childhood was considered to be a period of inferiority or in reality a state of impoverished humanity. Now she was interested in the childhood of Jesus because the almost negative attitude of the time towards the “state of childhood” showed her to what degree the Word of God made Flesh had espoused what is most lowly and limited in the human condition; it was the sign of self-abasement par excellence. If God had wished through His Son to encounter us in the “state of childhood” with all the limitations of childhood, this shows the extent of His love for us.
It is clear that the devotion she had to this period of Jesus’ life signifies her appreciation of, and immense gratitude towards a God whose encounter with humankind was in its lowliest and most insignificant aspects: and because these two are connected, He is a God who invites every Christian to practise the same humility, the same self-abasement as Jesus did when He Himself became a child. I said just now that I was particularly touched by this because Bérulle would later write a life of Jesus which to all intents and purposes has its culminating point at His Birth. And it was a fact that Madame Acarie urged her correspondents and her sisters to have a special devotion to the feast of Christmas.
Then there is the closing episode of Jesus’ life; there is Christ in His sufferings. Can I remind you that in her whole survey of the life of Jesus, “Les vertus de Jesus”, two episodes are given special treatment, the Birth of Christ and Christ suffering on the Cross. I think that one of the features of her spirituality, perhaps the most outstanding, was her union with the sufferings of Christ.
I would here again like to illustrate this immediately by a very small extract from a letter. What is she contemplating when she contemplates the sufferings of Christ? She contemplates once more the self-abasement of Christ on the Cross. “I was astonished to see”, she says, “the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity in this position.” (this means of course, on the Cross) but she had a profound awareness that, if He was there, it was because He was experiencing all our faults in His Flesh and in His Body; He was bearing them “…in this position for the sake of my sins and those of mankind”. Christ on the Cross was bearing the sin of the world. It follows that if He was there, He was taking on the human condition through extreme suffering, as the Just One. It is undeniable that she had a very clear insight into this.
The Cross was not only the sign of self-abasement but the sign of overwhelming love. “What is felt interiorly”, she says, “cannot be expressed or even less put into words; I clearly recall that my soul was in admiration of His wisdom and particularly of His excess of love”, expressed in the mystery of the Cross. And so we, as Christians – this is what she says – have to follow this Way of the Cross in our turn. She explains this quite clearly in a short text that I am going to read to you. “I beg You to transform me totally into Yourself and into the mystery of Your self-giving”.
So her attitude was one of identification with Christ, and we know that she even experienced this identification with the mystery of the Cross through the stigmata (which she treated with mistrust and was reluctant to mention). But there is a clear continuity between her devotion to the mystery of the Cross and its expression in her own body through the stigmata.
Finally, at the end of this survey, (which I would call “Identification with Christ”) I think I can say that in this matter she was particularly aware of the reflections of St. Paul. St. Paul clearly had a great influence on her. She was familiar with his writings. At this point in her survey [of the virtues of Jesus] she is clearly thinking about the “Divine Kenosis”, that is, she is thinking of the hymn in the Epistle to the Philippians : “He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” She went as far as this herself; and so you have here a preliminary account of some aspects of her spirituality.
I should like to end this section by affirming that she was “Christocentric”, to take up the expression which has become standard since Brémond (even though I think that by limiting the French school to Christocentricity and identifying it with this idea, Brémond has forgotten that it could only be Christocentric because it was theocentric). This is not a play on words: Christocentricity is a way of going to God, Christ being at the centre of our relationship with the Father.
Madame Acarie’s piety was a piety based on the Scriptures; this is quite remarkable. One can find no trace in her writings of what I would call “pious exercises” in the pejorative sense, but one finds constant references, even if they are not developed, to the Gospels and to St. Paul. She demonstrates an astonishing familiarity with Scripture. This is something to which several people testified: I am thinking of Mother Jeanne of Jesus who was specific in her statement that she was very familiar with the texts of the Gospels and St. Paul. But, you will say, that is because she was a woman of culture. That was not the only reason. It was also a matter of personal choice. Other people, no doubt just as cultivated as Madame Acarie, did not necessarily base their spirituality on Scripture from the start; in Madame Acarie’s case, it was something which made a great impression on me. It is something very characteristic, something, moreover, which we find in the great spiritual masters of the French school: a thorough familiarity with the Scriptures with the obvious addition, in certain cases, of a knowledge of the Fathers of the Church and of other writings. But it is quite remarkable to see this so clearly demonstrated in the case of Madame Acarie.
There is another characteristic which impressed me; it is the human balance of her spirituality. I might dare to say that hers was the spirituality of a woman who had a thorough knowledge of the demands of everyday life. She was no dreamer, no frenzied mystic. She was not a woman set apart from the realities of the world; she was familiar with all that . One can tell from her writings that she knew and had lived through the anxieties of running a household and educating children. Even after she became a religious, she remained, so to speak, an admirer of those who, in spite of a real attraction to the consecrated life, were willing, or even chose, to continue living in the world. She did not reproach them and she definitely did not say that it would have been better if they had entered Carmel. On the contrary, she said “If you succeed in living your Christian life in the world, you are to be admired”, because she knew what it involved. These experiences, then, of the demands of everyday life were not only familiar to her but she retained the memory of them after she became a religious. She did not forget them and this led her to give very wise and human words of counsel. One might object that this happened before she entered Carmel! But when the young Pierre de Bérulle was in Spain negotiating the coming of the first Carmelites to France, she sent him some very judicious advice on the choice of candidates. The advice was not about spending hours in mental prayer, no, it was very human down-to-earth advice about emotional stability, discernment, wisdom and the day to day practice of the virtues. This is very striking.
She had an evident attachment to the life of prayer, it is true, and something I could have emphasised just now is that one of the features of her spirituality was in no way absent from Christ’s own life, that is, the practice of living continually in the presence of God; as one used to say in the traditional prayer of the Church, “Let us place ourselves in the presence of God”. It is evident that she lived continually in the presence of God and mental prayer played a very important part in her life, but she was very wary of any practise of mental prayer which did not lead to the cultivation of the human virtues. If mental prayer has made you a person who is out of touch with reality, who does not know how to behave appropriately with the other Sisters, or who is unwilling to take on the humble tasks of everyday life, then that mental prayer is on the wrong track; one could add that Madame Acarie gave a good example herself, because she busied herself with the lowliest tasks and in so doing, say the commentators, she displayed great gentleness and modesty. I will even add that she mistrusted not only those who deviated from the right path, but also herself; so she felt a kind of resistance to her ecstasies, which leads one to believe that, even if she was reticent on the subject, she was devoted to meditating on the Humanity of Christ in the Mystery of His Incarnation, as we have already said. So she showed great equilibrium and great humanity.
The last characteristic which I shall emphasise is that she was not a theologian. She did not set out to be one, according to all the evidence. But although she was not a theologian, the glimpse she affords us of her knowledge of the mysteries of Christ is accurate; she had a genuine devotion (something which we emphasised just now, and which was emphasised by Bérulle) to the mystery of the Eucharist as Christ’s gift of Himself. She placed great emphasis on it as being the presence of Christ among us. Moreover, she had a great sense of the nature of the Church; that was remarkable; and of course she developed this within the perspective of a Church torn apart by the Protestant Reformation. She had, I might add, some rather harsh words to say about the Huguenots. This is understandable in the context of the period, but at the same time she did not go to extremes. Her preoccupation was with the division in the Church and how one should attempt the reconstruction not simply of institutional unity but of the Body of Christ.
It seems to me that people often forget that the French School of Spirituality was already much more inclined to think of the mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ rather than as an institution. I think that the theology, especially the theology of St. Robert Bellarmine, through which the four marks “one holy, Catholic and apostolic” would later be developed, a theology constructed largely as a response to Protestantism, has made us forget these men and women who thought of the Church primarily as the Body of Christ. Fortunately, in his writings on the Mystical Body of Christ, Père Mersch has done justice to this spiritual study which was hardly an integral part of theological formation until the twentieth century.
In addition, Sister Mary of the Incarnation had a deep sense of the mystery of the Redemption. Here again, she based herself on St. Paul; one can see that, whilst not being a theologian in the strict sense of the term, (it seems she never envisaged this for a single moment, because she was too modest ) she had a precise understanding of the essential points of the Christian Faith.
To sum up, I will say that it is clear that what is most remarkable about her is the equilibrium of her spiritual life. One can understand the influence she exercised and how many people gained from her not only help and comfort but also a deep sense of purpose. One is able to understand that her devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation is in the tradition of St. Teresa, who was known to her, because St. Teresa of Avila (and you should re-read her letters) shows herself through her writings to be a very human person and a realist. She is also in the tradition of other spiritual writers, being particularly influenced by St. Ignatius; but I think that, in her own way, she too was the great inspiration behind the contemporary effort to re-centre spirituality on the mystery of the Incarnation.
I should like, finally, as I said earlier, to question myself in public about the main reason, or reasons, (and I shall try to get to grips with them) which brought these men and women, Mary of the Incarnation amongst them, to base contemporary Christian spirituality more firmly on the mystery of the Incarnation (our main topic today). I should also like to question myself from another angle, in a way which I think perfectly compliments the original point. The question is about the link between the mystery of the Incarnation and what I would call an evolution of religion which lasted longer than the crisis, properly so-called, which happened with the split within the Church.
You know that in the study of different forms of spirituality it is usual to look for their origins in the forms of spirituality which preceded them. This is quite a fascinating study, but it is not at all the issue I am dealing with. But it seems to me that if there are spiritual masters who are considered to be outstanding in a particular period, this is because, even if we do not find in their writings any reflective analysis of the problems of their time, the spiritual characteristics which they foster are closely allied to the needs of their time, at the deepest and most significant level, a level beyond, even far beyond the immediate crisis.
It seems that the problems of the period can be summarised under three headings. I am going to go back a fair way into history.
- First of all, (and this is, by the way, very apparent in the art of the time) there is the ever-present spectacle of death and its mystery. This is not surprising. There had been tragic events in history going back even as far as the end of the fourteenth century, but in general, it is only necessary to read contemporary wills to learn, for example, that many of the children who were born did not survive. The ever-present spectacle of death resulted in people being dogged by anxiety and distress, and haunted by profound questions such as “Who am I?” “What is the value of human life?”
- Another feature which one must take into account was “the expansion of the known world”. As far as the cultured elite were concerned, wrote the historian Pierre Chaunu, the sixteenth century saw the greatest changes in our human territory through the opening up of the high seas; America was discovered in 1492; some years later, Vasco da Gama reached India, Magellan began his round the world voyage and Mercator designed a map of the world which in its essentials is obviously the same as the one we have today. In the space of fifty years, the world was completely integrated. In the first half of the sixteenth century, European expansion had turned the world upside down; in the second half the rest of the world turned Europe upside down in its turn. We were witnessing the glorification of humankind.
Scientific thought was given its rightful place in the Europe of the time. I am thinking of the Copernican Revolution which would feature prominently in Bérulle’s spirituality in particular. He was not sure if Galileo’s thinking was better from the scientific point of view, but it seemed to him very useful as a means of returning Christ to His place at the centre of the universe.
- Finally there is a third characteristic which I should like to emphasise, without dwelling on it; it is what the historians call “the religious impoverishment at the close of the Middle Ages”, impoverishment and fatigue; the writers wish to emphasise by this that the Church was at that point incapable, (and I use the word “incapable” in a broad sense which is consequently unfair to many people and masters of the spiritual life) incapable of meeting people’s expectations or of finding adequate responses to those caught between the agonising prospect of death and their own glorification.
It was not at first an institutional crisis (this has been broadly emphasised by other historians) but it was a religious crisis, a crisis that scholars also call “a crisis in the relationship between the visible and the invisible”. I do not have the time to go into this, unfortunately; what I mean by this is, how do we establish a healthy relationship between ourselves as human beings and the mystery of God? In this perspective, it is possible to understand the inadequacy of some of the responses formulated in the sixteenth century, and the reaction of the “reformers”. This was not the only situation, I might add, which led to Luther’s acting as he did; there was also his opposition to indulgences, as if the “instrumentalisation” of indulgences, making them into a mere tool, traces of this attitude remaining in the seventeenth century, when the Sacraments tended to be turned into mere tools; it became current practice to celebrate many Masses for the dead; one can scarcely credit it, but imagine having a thousand Masses celebrated on the occasion of someone’s burial; the religious “numbers game” seems unbelievable! There are even contemporary wills which include the stipulation that 50,000 Masses must be celebrated! In short, when I talk about a process of “instrumentalisation”, it is very clear what I mean.
It became a matter of necessity to redress the balance. I am going to show briefly that this is where the insight provided by the doctrine of the Incarnation had its place, not at a halfway point between the responses offered by the Humanists and the Protestant reformers, but on another plane.
The Renaissance and Humanism, on the one hand, had tended to glorify human nature and its corollary, overweening pride; I could quote passages which would be a perfect illustration of this. I shall quote just one, because in certain respects, it is rather amusing. It is a quotation from the mathematician, philosopher and astronomer Cardan, who says “Amongst the prodigies of nature, the first and rarest is that I was born in this century.” He can be admired for saying something like this “I was born in the century when the entire earth was discovered, whereas our ancestors were scarcely aware of one third of it; our knowledge has increased; what more wonderful thing can there be than artillery, and the man-made powder which is far more dangerous than the powder of the gods?” “What is there left for us to do? To begin the conquest of the heavens”. And Pico della Mirandola wrote, “I read in ’The book of the Arabs’ that there is nothing more admirable to be seen in the world than mankind.” Here we have the glorification of mankind and a trace of this glorification of mankind would still be present in the spiritual writers of the 17th century. In the well known short work by Cardinal Bérulle on Man, one finds this: “He is an angel, an animal, a god; he is a nobody surrounded by God, in need of God, and capable of attaining Him if he so wishes”. But if a trace of this glorification of human nature remained, it would be presented in a different way, and we are going to see how the mystery of the Incarnation fits in with it.
The Reformation was also a response of another kind, which went in quite a different direction, no longer in the sense of the glorification of mankind, but in its absolute abasement, to the point that one almost despaired of salvation, even if one did not lose one’s faith; this even led to the doctrine of predestination in the Calvinist sense. In this context, I personally find that the theological balance of the Council of Trent was very remarkable; it was subsequently much disparaged, but the synthesis it proposes is really extraordinary. The problem with the Church Councils however and it is always the same, is to know how their decrees are going to be received; and we know that the decrees of the Council of Trent had not yet been accepted in France at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It is not simply a matter of whether the decrees themselves are accepted or not, but how they are put into practice and put into practice in the spiritual life.
It seems to me that Madame Acarie’s spiritual genius, and the spiritual genius of all those who united in following her, consisted precisely in their understanding of the central importance of the mystery of the Incarnation. The Incarnation was the continuation of the plan of the Creator. Of course, mankind’s failure and sin, the fall, have to be taken into account, but one is tempted to say – and let us re-read some passages from Berulle – that even if that had not taken place, the Divine plan would perhaps have gone so far as to include the Incarnation. Bérulle is one of a line of theologians who think that, in any case, the mystery of the creation prefigures the mystery of the Incarnation, the image of the ideal man; and who is that? The perfect Man who adores the Father and who has in some way achieved a right relationship with God. The Incarnation dawns upon us as the fulfilment of God’s creative plan. There is perhaps a slight difference in emphasis between Bérulle and Madame Acarie. Madame Acarie places more emphasis on the Sufferings of Christ; it is not that the idea of Divine Kenosis is absent from Bérulle’s thinking, but perhaps Bérulle concentrates more on the mystery of the Incarnation as a mystery. Why, when he speaks of it, particularly in his work “Les grandeurs de Jesus” (“The sovereignty of Jésus”) does he say “God had a meeting in His secret room to ponder the problem of Man?” “The problem of Man”: What a bold statement! In this sense, the Incarnation represents the desire of God to bring the Project of Man to its fulfilment. It is perhaps because of this, that even though he is well aware that the mystery of the Incarnation signifies the coming of God in human form, Bérulle puts the emphasis on what he calls “deified humanity”.
What is Madame Acarie’s approach? Her way of considering the dimensions of Jesus’ humanity is not unallied to the above. What are the reasons for the centrality of the Incarnation? There are several. There is the desire to consider the questions posed by the humanists but from a different point of view, asking “How can I bring my human life”, my humanity to its fulfilment? There is also the desire to consider the anxious questions of ordinary people, questions which had been fully utilised by the Protestant Reformers; questions such as “How can I form a relationship with God?” And it is clear that the mystery of the Incarnation offers the valid response to these questions, because it is the mystery of a God who goes out towards mankind. Because of this, and because of the road which we travel as we follow Jesus, mankind has the possibility of making a complete return to God. In this event, I am fully human. I am the one who “has achieved his capacity for God” to use Bérulle’s expression.
These are some of the reasons. The most fundamental gift which Jesus gives us is to show us the way. I am thinking of the meditation on the Samaritan woman and Bérulle’s emphasis when he says, underlining the well-known phrase, ” If only you knew what God is giving you” precisely this : “The God who goes out towards Man and Man who goes to God through the Man Jesus.” This is not done through spiritual techniques but by a deep devotion to and union with the mystery of Christ. Here, it seems to me, is the main reason for this interest in the mystery of the Incarnation.
I should like to end by asking myself in your hearing about the relevance of this spiritual emphasis for us today. The mystery of the Incarnation remains in principle at the heart of Christian life, you will say. Of course. But the main reason for my question is this: are we living in an era that is different from Madame Acarie’s? We are, undoubtedly; it is different in countless ways. But are not we, in our turn, tossed hither and thither, and torn between on the one hand, the glorification of man (as constantly suggested by those enormous scientific and technological advances, which could make one imagine that there are no limits to progress) and on the other, the yawning emptiness revealed at the end of the twentieth century, apparent in the misfortunes which humanity is capable of heaping on itself. The twentieth century is not perhaps the worst of centuries; I am not certain, and I should not like to make comparisons. Nevertheless, when it comes to horrific events, it has had its share.
It seems to me then, that some of the tension which people experience today already existed, and that is why I believe that the mystery of the Incarnation remains very central and very relevant. We must not look for exact parallels to what I have described in the works of experts on the spiritual life such as Madame Acarie; but I want to say that these experts invite us in our turn to make a profound meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation, and to give it its full significance in relation to the people of today and their spiritual quest.
In a work published a few years ago, to which I shall make reference, (the Sisters here may not remember it, but they will remember the author, Père Daboville) the author, following a lecture he gave during “La semaine des intellectuels catholiques” in Paris, affirmed, “Christ is also Man; in this century of science and technology what we are searching for” (these are his words) “is a “human myth”. By the word “myth” he does not mean an idea or concept of humanity, but rather a kind of ideal image which transforms actual existence without destroying it, which harnesses all our affective powers, which gives direction to human endeavour and allows us to discern the values necessary in the future. He goes on, “We need a human myth. Can Jesus help us to answer this question?" In the next part of his paper, Père Daboville is more specific. “If I reply as a believer, then yes, Jesus is the ’human myth’, the truly human Person. But the question we have to ask ourselves today is, why is this image unacceptable?” He ponders this difficulty. What is at stake is not the dogma of the Incarnation as such, but the refusal of everything that the dogma stands for. Have we made a thorough meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation? In particular: he deplores a tendency in certain authors, “an attitude which is too metaphysical and which presents the Redemption in a more exaggerated way”. To listen to and even to read certain theologians, it would seem that the Gospel contains many incidents of no value; according to them, for us to be saved, it was only necessary for Jesus to be born, to suffer, to die and to rise again; the Gospel is only necessary to the extent that the words of Jesus throw light on His extraordinary Being. The logic is astonishing. It sets limits on any free, loving initiative and restricts a concrete existence to a few rational categories. But Jesus was also a Man in the sense given to the word by everyday experience. He had an existence limited to a particular place, time, and human condition. Jesus lived as a man among men, that is, He submitted to the necessary laws which govern human activity. He did not seek to over-ride them; in the same way, God allowed the development of His revelation to be conditioned by the very human history of Israel. A Man who opens us up to the mystery of God; this is what is at stake in the mystery of the Incarnation.
I will finish here. Through the connections that I have suggested rather than explored fully, I think that I shall have convinced you of the present-day relevance of the mystery of the Incarnation.