Dictionary of Oblate Values  vol.: 1  let.: C

CHARITY

CHARITY IN THE EXPERIENCE OF THE FOUNDER

We cannot speak of Eugene de Mazenod's charity solely in terms of moral appreciation or of virtue. In his life, love was much more than simple moral conduct. It was not a virtue, but a Person, God himself.

JOURNEYING TOWARDS A DECISIVE RESPONSE TO LOVE.

The object of our study here will not be the moral effort made by Eugene or his spiritual journey to acquire this virtue. Rather, we will examine the workings of God, Love itself, to penetrate gradually, but in an ever more radical way into Eugene's life, capturing his heart and setting it afire.

a. "Created solely for love"

Eugene was not born a saint.1 [1] But it is in the course of reflecting on his life that he would discover at its inception the active presence of God. He loved to stress the fact that God had freely given him certain attitudes which shaped his manner of being: "It is hard to understand, given the portrait of myself I have just painted, how sensitive a heart I have, overly so in fact. It would take too long to give you all the stories of my childhood traits I have had related to me and which are really rather surprising. It was quite normal for me to give away my breakfast even when I was hungry to satisfy the hunger of the poor, I used to bring firewood to people who complained of the cold and of not being able to afford to buy it, on one occasion I went as far as to give away the clothes off my back to clothe a poor person, and many, many other stories in the same vein. When I had offended someone, even if it was a servant, I never had a moment's peace until I had been able to make reparation for what I had done, with some gifts, or gesture of friendship, or even a hug for the one who had reason to complain about me. I have not changed over the years. 2 [2]" As we see, Eugene was "created by God with a sensitive soul, a tender heart, loving, generous"3 [3]. At the same time, as far back as he could remember, he found in his heart an extraordinary attraction for God, an attraction that envelopes his whole life: "God placed in me I would almost say a kind of instinct to love him, my reason was not yet formed when I loved to dwell in his presence, to raise my feeble hands to him, listen to his word in silence as if I understood it. By nature lively and irrepressible, it was enough to bring me before the altar to make me gentle and utterly tranquil, so ravished was I by my God's perfections as if by instinct, as I said, for at that age I did not understand them."4 [4]

From the context, we can deduce that the love for which Eugene felt he was created went beyond the depth of feelings and presupposed a total consecration to the service of God: "He wished to give nature a priest, he wanted to create a being who would enter into relations with him [...] able to love him. This being, I told myself, this being is me. My soul is an emanation from the divinity, that tends naturally towards it, and will never find rest outside of it; created solely to love God, etc. And my body equally is formed only for his service, to give glory and homage to God.5 [5]" One could say: here is Eugene as he came from the hands of the Creator. All of these traits were freely given to him as "a talent" (Matthew 25:15) in order that he could make them bear fruit throughout his life.

b. "A continuance of creation"

Eugene was nine years old when his eleven year period of expatriation began, a period which he considered a continuation of the creative action of God: "I saw these graces as a continuance of creation, as if God, after he had formed me, had taken my by the hand and given me these successive experiences, saying: I created you to love me, serve me, etc.; I do more, feeble creature that you are, I insert you here and there, so that you may achieve that end more easily [...]".6 [6]

Let us endeavor to uncover the events and persons the creative hand of God used to continue his work in Eugene. According to the testimonies we have, his stay at Turin was, without doubt, a time of an intense personal encounter with Christ in the Eucharist7 [7]. Eugene was far away from his parents in a foreign country, obliged to communicate and study in a language which was not his mother tongue. God was his only friend. He then learned that God alone was enough for him and he learned this lesson well8 [8]. At the College of Nobles, he got up "every day, one hour before the other students" to pray alone in his room9 [9]. In Venice, Don Bartolo Zinelli10 [10] outlined for him a spirituality suited to his age and temperament. He taught him to love God with a love that was genuine, lively, tender, and able to express itself in external gestures11 [11]. He was free from sentimentality as well as from Jansenism and moral rigorism. He spent a good deal of his time reading and studying certain selected questions. In fact, not only did he know his faith, but he professed this faith with pride and was prepared to defend it12 [12]. On the other hand, faith was not for him merely a question of the heart, nor a matter of convictions, but a very personal relationship with God.

Up until this point, Eugene had had the opportunity to become acquainted with the mystery of God. For the moment, he had to integrate his interior life with his daily social life. He arrived at Palermo. Until now, he had been obliged to live: "without having occasion to meet even one child or having learned any amusement, even the most unworldly" 13 [13]. Without exaggerating, we can consider his stay in Palermo as providential. If we take seriously Eugene's admission that "from twelve to sixteen years of age the separation from the female sex had an air of the anti-social"14 [14], with the result that he would not "shake hands with ladies, except for those advanced in years"15 [15], we must acknowledge that his stay in Palermo contributed an essential element to his human development. Eugene was not alone in this journey. God, "who always watched over him from his tender years, now opened to him the doors of the Cannizzaro family. The Duke and the Duchess both became very fond of him.16 [16]" It was especially his encounter with the Duchess of Cannizzaro that was providential. A woman in her forties, happily married with three children, this lady considered Eugene one of her own "sons" and he called her his "second mother." He "loved her" and had a "tender affection" for her17 [17]. He learned to express his feelings through small outward signs, for example, having the thoughtfulness of presenting her "a bouquet"18 [18].

On her part, the Duchess of Cannizzaro felt she had a responsibility to contribute to Eugene's spiritual formation and human development. She brought him to the theater and on walks. Some nights, she read with him, for example, "the tragedies of Racine"19 [19]. At the same time, she "often" shared her faith with Eugene and offered him advice20 [20]. Eugene's father characterized the Duchess as: "a mother to the poor and afflicted" who "without keeping anything back for herself", gave "immense amounts to charity". Eugene became "the confidante of all her plans, the co-worker and distributor of all her good works"21 [21]. He also took part in the social scene. The Duchess presented him to her sister, the Princess of Ventimiglia. Her daughter, "angelic in beauty", counted him "among her dearest friends" and he "loved [her] as tenderly as if I were her brother"22 [22]. However, Eugene did not carry on like an empty-headed fool. According to what he tells us, he constantly felt "a kind of abhorrence for any kind of dissipation" and he "deplored it with disgust in others". His aspirations were directed to "a totally different kind of joy"23 [23]. Upon leaving Palermo, Eugene seemed to have retained the lesson he learned. He showed himself a mature person, open to God and open to the world as well. He viewed man as "the finest of the Creator's works"24 [24]. He was not ashamed to cry25 [25], nor to love tenderly26 [26], nor to show weakness, of having a hand that "trembles a little"27 [27]. He could laugh at himself28 [28]. He had "a deep love of music" and was enchanted "with the superb pieces by Paisiello, Cimarosa, Guglielmi, etc"29 [29]. He took an interest in books on history and literature, but also had knowledge of "Les entretiens avec Jésus Christ dans le très saint sacrement de l'autel"30 [30]and needed "a prayer book that belonged to his mother"31 [31].

On October 24, 1802, Eugene returned to France and led an existence that fluctuated between diversion and dejection. During the carnival of 1803, we see him dancing and attending concerts. He wrote to his father to describe how he was amusing himself.32 [32] But his heart was not at peace. He became ever more sarcastic, sometimes even contentious and cynical33 [33]. He "often" took "walks alone"34 [34]. "For sometimes three weeks" he remained "sad" and visited no one35 [35]. From 1804 on, between concerts, picnics and light comedy, he found more and more time to visit churches. The documentation attests that during this period, a very intriguing evolution was taking place within him. In May of 1804, he noted: "When I enter a church to place at the feet of the Eternal God my humble supplications, the idea that I am a member of that great family of which God himself is Head, the idea that I am so to speak in that situation the representative of my brothers, that I speak in their name and for them, seems to give my soul an instant expansion, an elevation that it is difficult to express. I feel that the mission I am fulfilling is worthy of my origins"36 [36].

Such a text reveals unmistakably a great spiritual maturity. Then, there is the seventeen pages of "Remarques sur le Génie du Christianisme of Mr. de Chateaubriand". These notes date from January 1805. By reading them, "we can recognize Eugene's good judgment and in particular be astonished at his interest in and his knowledge of Christianity, apologetics, etc"37 [37], and of patristics. We see that faith is not for him a question of poetry, emotion, humanism or of the advancement of liberty, but an "essential matter of life eternal"38 [38]. Likewise, he had a conscience which was sensitive to the exalted dignity of proclaiming the Word of God, the priestly vocation and the centrality of the message of the cross in communicating the Gospel39 [39]. Finally, during the last months of 1805 or at the beginning of 1806, he committed himself to the apostolate. He went from "garret to garret" visiting the poor and the sick. When the need arose, he made beds for the sick, swept out their hovels, bandaged their wounds, called the priest at the appropriate time and closed the eyes of "those he had cared for until their dying breath". "Several times a week", he visited the hospital where, he said, he went to "show honor and service to Jesus Christ in his suffering members"40 [40]. On December 30, 1806, the Mayor of Aix offered to make him administrator of the prisons. Eugene accepted; he subsequently offered this consideration: "I cannot tell you how much it costs a heart such as mine to live, so to speak amidst the miseries and sufferings of every kind and especially when I consider the hardness of the people and their perseverance in evil"41 [41].

EUGENE RESPONDS TO LOVE

We have seen how, "at various times [...] and in various different ways" (Hebrews 1:1) through persons and events, God showed himself on Eugene's path. That brings us to the year 1807. An objective analysis of Eugene's writings reveals that it was a case of a defining moment in his journey. At that moment, even if we do not know exactly how everything happened, God "spoke through his Son" (Hebrews 1:2) by depicting before his very eyes "the features of Jesus Christ crucified" (Galatians 3:1). One could say that this Good Friday was the day of God's victory in Eugene's life. God, who had been in constant pursuit of him for a long time, finally captured him and made him fall in love with him. Faced with the revelation of the love of God in Christ crucified, stripped and powerless, but filled with inexpressible attraction in a tireless search for sinners which he led with an extraordinary gentleness, Eugene could not remain indifferent. He owed it to himself to respond. His first response came from the heart.

a. A response from the heart

The first response of his heart was silence and tears42 [42]. Then came wonder. Eugene was aware that words were powerless to express what he had undergone from "this infinite, incomprehensible goodness"43 [43]. But, at the same time, he felt compelled to tell people about it. The first thing to astonish him was the lavishness with which God poured his blessings "without limit" upon him44 [44]. His astonishment grew when he understood that God was a totally unselfish benefactor. In total awe, he exclaimed: "He put up with me, he affected not to see the damnable injuries that I continually inflicted on him; never changing, he opened to me his loving heart. [...] How long did it last, this prodigious scene of love on the one hand, of barbarity, folly on the other?45 [45]" He became aware that God, in spite of his "sovereign majesty"46 [46], did not look upon our sins; in his omnipotence, he did not want to act toward Eugene as "master as he well could"47 [47], but he shows himself to be "a tender and dear father" who struggles for his happiness. Thus Eugene's wonder went beyond the level of intellect, and embraced his whole being, turning into adoration: "[..] glorificabo animam tuam in aeternum quia misericordia tua magna est super me [Forever I will give glory to your name; great is your love for me]"48 [48].

Adoration was not "an exercise of piety" in Eugene's life; his whole life was filled with delight and wonder. Like the lover, he sought the most fitting name he could find for God. He called him: "Excellent, rich, generous Master". He cried out to him: "O my Savior, o my Father, o my Love!" "my good Jesus". But never satisfied in his endeavor, he preferred "to admire his goodness"49 [49]. In his life, adoration therefore became the "happy necessity of centering its thoughts solely on this divine Saviour, of serving him with more ardour, loving him without cease"50 [50]. Saying a great deal about his experiences, we can say that Eugene loved to remain in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, "touched and permeated by love". His manner of adoration was that of the silent presence of lovers, side by side. With great intimacy he poured forth "his heart into the bosom of the one who loved him"; he rejoiced "to spend some moments in his company"51 [51]; he stood in awe of "his excessive [...] goodness"52 [52].

Another sentiment "permeated" the heart of Eugene, that is, gratitude, the gratitude of the person who felt he has been pardoned and loved despite his faults. To show his gratitude gradually became one of Eugene's major preoccupations. It seems that God rightly used this sentiment to introduce him into an ever deeper intimacy. To the Eugene who states that he is appreciative of even "an insignificant favor which flows from the heart", God simply showed his magnanimous heart and so won his "eternal" gratitude53 [53]. Contrary to what one could have expected, the relationship between Eugene and God was not that of a debtor and his benefactor, or the sinner and the one sinned against. Not at all. The relationship was one of a tender love of friendship54 [54]. Here is a passage from his numerous retreat notes: "My God, that is all over henceforth and for my whole life. You, you alone will be the sole object to which will tend all my affections and my every action. To please you, act for your glory, will be my daily task, the task of every moment of my life. I wish to live only for you, I wish to love you alone and all else in you and through you. I despise riches, I trample honours under foot; you are my all, replacing all else. My God, my love and my all [...]."55 [55] The desire expressed in this prayer is in no way insignificant, just one desire among many others. There is no ambiguity in his words when Eugene says: "My Lord, my Father, my love, bring me to love you; this only do I ask, for I know full well that is everything. Give me your love"56 [56]. No less eloquent is the experience of celebrating his first Mass with the intention of obtaining "the love of God above all things"57 [57].

b. A vital response

Without a doubt, it was love which infused dynamism into Eugene's life. Nonetheless, he was far from shutting himself up in sentimentalism and spiritually exclusive intimacy. He was brought to express his love in daily life.

After his Good Friday experience, we find in Eugene a particularly strong concern to be docile to God. This is merely the expression of the love of one who desires to form one single will with the Beloved and who is happy when the Beloved feels free to do what he wants with him. In all things, Eugene wanted to act "only for God", without "getting back anything" for himself or any thought for men's opinions58 [58]. He was not satisfied with external obedience only; he desired to sincerely love the will of God: "[...] I will try to arrive at a loving preference for what is conformed to the will of the Master, which alone must rule not only my actions, but even my affections"59 [59]. In his seeking the will of God, we can note one more characteristic of those who have fallen in love; along with his docility, we find in him the desire for "total abandonment". In this abandonment, he wanted to be radical, to the point of "sacrifice of himself" and of "renouncing himself"60 [60]. If it is true that Eugene sought and abetted the will of God, there were times in his life when he admitted, "The ways of Providence are a deep mystery to me"61 [61] and that the "decrees" and "secrets" of the Lord are "unfathomable"62 [62]. His attitude was always the same: "Let us adore the designs of God".

In pursuing the dynamic of love, Eugene went even further; he felt the desire of making his own the mission of the Beloved. Becoming aware that Jesus had been sent especially to evangelize the poor, he conceived the desire to "follow in the footsteps of [...] Jesus Christ", (Preface) and be co-workers with the Savior, the co-redeemers of the human race63 [63]. As a motto for the Congregation, he chose the words Jesus Christ used to describe his own mission (Luke 4:18). The desire "to follow Christ" made of Eugene a missionary to the poor. This desire led him even further. He was not satisfied with sharing the mission of Christ; he wanted to be united with him. This desire embraced his whole life to the innermost recess of his heart. Eugene dreamed of uniting himself to Christ to the point of identification. The term "conformity with Jesus Christ" constantly recurred in his writings. He wanted to be "like" him, to imitate him with all his strength and to "live" from his life64 [64]. During his preparation to receive the priesthood, he noted: "I applied myself to consider our Lord Jesus Christ, the lovable model to whom I must, as is my desire with his grace, conform myself"65 [65]. He wrote: "How indeed can I say: Vivo ego iam non ego vivit enim in me Christus [Galatians 2:20]. There are no half-measures, if I want to be like Jesus Christ in glory, I must first resemble him in his humiliations and sufferings, like Jesus crucified; let us try therefore to conform in all I do to this divine model so as to be able to address to the faithful these words of St. Paul: imitatores mei estote sicut et ego Christi [I Corinthians 4:16]"66 [66]. This desire for union with Christ to the point of identification with him reached its high point in his aspiration for martyrdom. His whole life long Eugene dreamed of martyrdom. While still at the seminary, it was his desire "to follow my Master on to Calvary"67 [67]. From the time he became a priest, "every day at the elevation of the chalice", he asked to die a "martyr of charity"68 [68]. He "ardently" desired this kind of death69 [69], and envied the lot of those who were able "to sacrifice themselves for their brothers [...] like our Divine Master who died for the salvation of men"70 [70]. In the first article of the original text of the Constitutions and Rules, Eugene communicated his ideal of his Congregation: "The end of this Institute [...] is above all things [...] to imitate the virtues and example of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ"71 [71]. Later on, as he was developing his thought, he expressed himself in even bolder, stronger fashion: "In a word, they will strive to become other Jesus Christs"72 [72]. It would be difficult to say more. For Eugene "it is all there"73 [73].

Before dying on May 21, 1861, he told his Oblates: "Among yourselves, practice charity, charity, charity - and outside, zeal for the salvation of souls". Spontaneously, we recognize here the spiritual testament which summarizes the true spirit with which he wanted to see the life of his Congregation imbued74 [74]. To grasp the full richness of this testament, we cannot be satisfied with only the moral aspect of love. We have to see it in the context of "the history of love" which Eugene lived with God. "Anyone who has not personally experienced in his own life what it means to have been loved by Christ and to have cost Him the price of his blood can never entirely grasp the full meaning of the Oblate vocation. [...] But he is not an apostolic man, indeed, he cannot be one, unless he has first of all encountered Christ personally in his own life, and personally known Christ's love for him. Father de Mazenod's initial experience consisted in precisely that"75 [75]. This experience of the love of Christ is the very source from which the charism flowed.
KAZIMIERZ LUBOWICKI


[1] One can find a first rate characterological portrait of Eugene de Mazenod in PIELORZ, Józef, The Spiritual Life of Bishop de Mazenod, 1782-1812. A Critical Study, Ottawa, Oblate Studies Edition, 1956, p. 227-238.
[2] "Portrait of Eugene for Mr. Duclaux, October 1808", in Oblate Writings, I, vol. 14, no. 30, p. 67 & 68.
[3] Retreat in preparation for the priesthood, 1-21 December, 1811, in Oblate Writings, I, vol. 14, no. 95, p. 218.
[4] Ibidem, p. 215-216.
[5] Ibidem, p. 215.
[6] Ibidem, p. 218; and Retreat before episcopal ordination, 7-14 October 1832, in Oblate Writings, I, vol. 15, no. 166, p. 201 & 202.
[7] RICARD, Anthony Charles, Monseigneur de Mazenod, évêque de Marseille, fondateur de la Congrégation des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée, Paris, 1892, p. 12.
[8] REY, I, p. 18-19.
[9] Ibidem, p. 17-18; ARNOUX, A., in Positio super virtutibus, II, Romae, 1936, p. 870.
[10] MAZENOD, Eugene, Diary, in Ecrits oblats, I, vol. 16, p. 40-43 and REY I, p. 25.
[11] PIELORZ, Józef, op. cit., p. 89-92.
[12] Diary, in Ecrits oblats, I, vol. 16, p. 43. 53-55.
[13] Ibidem, p. 56.
[14] Ibidem.
[15] Letter of Charles Anthony de Mazenod to his son, October 26, 1801. Correspondence between Mr. de Mazenod and his son or his wife can be found in Aix, Méjanes Archives, Boisgelin section.
[16] Diary, in Ecrits oblats, I, vol. 16, p. 87.
[17] Letter from Charles Anthony de Mazenod to his son, May 2, 1802.
[18] Letter from Eugene to his father, October 21 & 22, 1799. Only a few letters from Eugene to his father have been published in volumes 14 and 15 of Oblate Writings, I. The originals can be found in Aix, Méjanes Archives, Boisgelin section.
[19] Letters from Eugene to his father, November 4 & 7, 1799, May 3, 1802.
[20] Diary, in Ecrits oblats, I, vol. 16, p. 87.
[21] Letter from Charles Anthony de Mazenod to his wife, May 14, 1802.
[22] Letters from Eugene to his father, November 15 and December 3, 1806. Oblate Writings, I, vol. 14, p. 35.
[23] Diary, in Ecrits oblats, I, vol. 16, p. 91-94; letter from Eugene to Francis Cannizzaro, July 1816, in Oblate Writings, I, vol. 15, no. 136, p. 124 & 125; see BEAUDOIN, Yvon, L'itinerario spirituale del beato Eugenio de Mazenod, Frascati, 1988, p. 25.
[24] Notes on "Raison, folie, chacun son mot", in Oblate Writings, I, vol. 14, no. 2, p. 4.
[25] Letter from Eugene to his father, May 2, 1802.
[26] Letter from Eugene to his father, May 3 and 10, 1802.
[27] Letter to his mother, September 3, 1802.
[28] Letter to his father, May 16, 1802.
[29] Letter to his sister, March 12, 1802.
[30] Letter to his father, May 14 and 15, 1802.
[31]

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