As France headed towards a resounding victory in the World Cup final on Sunday night I was in the chapel of the Miraculous Medal at the Rue du Bac in Paris. We had rushed there in time for Vespers after a gruelling journey from out of town, caught up in the traffic heading home for the match.
I love this chapel. Though it is just through an arch at the end of a courtyard off a typical Parisian side street, it always feels like stepping into a different ambit altogether. It’s true that since Mary’s Child took flesh the threshold between the sacred and the profane is always to be found close by whenever I direct my own activity and affection towards the one who is God-With-Us. That there are particular physical places that invite and facilitate this, is part of the same lore of Incarnation. Rue du Bac is one such.
This is because I always feel a powerful physical sensation of Our Lady’s presence there, and partly, I think, because of the faith of the procession of people who come to lay their secret hopes and sorrows before Our Lady. In so doing they are imitating her, the one who ponders and treasures in her heart, who knows how God can be so close, can desire to be so intimately part of who I am, who allows me to touch Him, and yet at the same time remain so mysteriously and infinitely greater than anything I can grasp, sometimes to the point where I feel I have lost him.
As we sing the Magnificat and I see the golden rays coming from the hands of the statue, I suddenly realise the deep force of this particular apparition; something more than merely Our Lady as a dispenser of favours. The problem with my faith is that all too often I simply don’t want God enough. Or rather, I want God, but I see that the intensity of my desire is for God as the one who will complete something in me, will assuage my hurts and anxieties, fix all the problems that beset me or my world – a God who will, in fact, magnify me.
Mary’s heart and soul do not want to control what the Lord does, but to magnify him. In response to the divine initiative, she desires to give herself without condition to the divine will. She will become whatever her Lord asks of her, do whatever he asks of her, simply because it is He who asks it of her and Holy is His name.
And “Holy” is just another word for Love. This is the holiness to which I must aspire: not the version in which I acquire superpowers to escape the shocks that flesh is heir to, but a holiness which says that there is always someone greater than I who dwells at the centre of my being as its source and complement. This holiness is the conviction that there is nothing about my life which is not defined by relationship to Him. The more I explicitly embrace this relationship as the end of all my activity, the more I will become myself.
And having named all those for whom I want to pray, I set aside my shopping list of favours and, with a profound consciousness of Our Lady’s presence and embrace, I simply tell God that I rejoice in his holy will. I am not sure I even tell him; it is a movement of the heart to rest in the awareness that I am because He Is.
And he has done great things this week. I have been in France to launch the first Grief to Grace site here. In the French translation it is called Du Chagrin à la Grâce. In its English appropriation, chagrin is a kind of bitterness, a resentment. This hardly begins to touch the reality of the grief suffered by those with histories of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, or their deep and long-suffered shame: the pain of years lived hidden behind a mask of defence mechanisms, the dalliance with compulsions or addictions as a destructive anaesthesia for the suffering of a wounded, uncomforted child within.
It has been fascinating and profoundly moving to witness the retreat at work in a different language and culture, and to see that its unique insights into the spiritual and psychological impacts of abuse cross such boundaries. In a few moments of peace and rest before Paris erupts into post-match fever, I entrust all those who came on the programme to the sanctuary of Mary’s Immaculate Heart, and the future of this work among the people and the Church of France to her miraculous intercession.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.