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Guided by them

· A French journalist on the centre of his spiritual life ·

“I owe much to women as regards the spiritual life”. It was not the first time that I had said this but this time my interviewer asked me to say more, which is what I am therefore doing now.

I said it certain of my intuition. Thinking it over, however, it somewhat surprises me. Many men have been important reference points on my spiritual path: extraordinary priests, men religious and laymen have counted a lot in my life as a Christian, quite a long one, given that I’m nearly 60. They were like brothers to me, sometimes older. For the most part, in fact, they were men who gave me a biblical, theological and spiritual formation. There is a simple explanation: for 12 years I lived in a small monastic type of fraternity, while also attending courses at university theological institutes. In those days, therefore, I did not have many opportunities to encounter women teachers. Likewise priests, and two exceptional laymen (Jean Vanier and Jean-Paul Légasse), were my generous spiritual guides, especially in the difficult moments on my journey.

Jean Guitton, “Femme” (1961)

Before I go on to discuss what I received from women in my life of faith, I must say simply what I owe them in life. Indeed, one thing is linked to another.

Before reaching maturity, everyone must come to terms with the radical otherness in the difference between the sexes. As an adolescent in the post-1968 years I was torn between the injunctions of a society that encouraged “unlimited pleasure-seeking” and my own perceptions as a young Christian who felt that sexuality was to serve love. I grew up with a certain fear of my sexuality. Later, several years of psychoanalysis with a woman therapist helped me to free myself of this fear and to live better.

More tangibly, I have frequently appreciated as feminine qualities an approach to life directly oriented to relationships, with a note of practical realism – women forget less than men the realities of the body – and a particular respect for words. I willingly associate my mother and my wife in their contagious love of life. I appreciate the fact that I work in a professional environment where men and women share tasks and responsibilities, not only on the basis of their sex but also of their personal skills and gifts: it is of benefit to all.

Let us now consider the life of faith. In the Gospels it was the women who were the first to proclaim the Good News to the apostles themselves. Their attachment to Jesus was real, whereas that of the apostles was primarily verbal. The women were in the right place at the right time. Like most children, I too received from my mother and later from other women, from women catechists, the basic notions of faith in Christ. Subsequently, in trying to live my faith with others, I found myself in a prevalently feminine environment.

Women have a spontaneously livelier spiritual need than men. Some will see this as the mere reflex of a dated attribution of the social roles of the male and female genders: for men, a public life, visibility, representation in the ecclesial institution; for women, room in the home, the care of the children and their basic education.

This analysis, however, is incomplete on the issue of the asymmetry of the male and the female. “The way in which a woman's life and body receives the Word is fantastic”, says Denis Vasse, a Jesuit psychoanalyst. And I agree with him.

When I reflect on what I owe to women in my spiritual life, I think of the spiritual dialogues I have with several women friends, repeated frequently, even though we do not meet often. And I think above all of the writings of women I haven’t met. Through my formation and then through my work as a journalist for a spirituality magazine (Panorama of the Bayard group) for about 12 years, I have come into contact with many works of both the ancient and contemporary spiritual traditions.

Well, the texts that impressed me the most, which I read and reread, were those written by three women: Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), Madeleine Delbrêl (1904-1964) and Etty Hillesum (1914-1943). When I say “impressed”, I mean to say that this reading helped me to live. I felt in communion with Thérèse, Madeleine and Etty, in spite of the years that separate us. Thérèse was a cloistered nun and Madeleine was a convert who lived as a social worker in Ivry-sur-Seine, a Communist suburb. As for Etty, a young Dutch agnostic Jewish girl, she switched from at least three years of a rather dissolute life to an intense relationship with God at the peak of the Nazi persecution. These three very different paths illustrate God's same mystery, God's overwhelming love received in their lives. They practised what they preached as best they could, devoted to the love they discovered and marvellous in their fidelity when their tribulations pitched them into the dark.

There were also holy men with similar qualities, whose memory I dearly cherish, but women speak as women. When they live radically their relationship with God, it is as though they were in love, in a more spontaneous way than men. I think that exactly this is the most precious thing they offer me. “Each and every human being, whether a man or a woman, is called to a certain virility as regards their nature, but also to a certain femininity in their relationship with God and with their neighbour”, Olivier Clément, the French Orthodox theologian, was not afraid to write.

Women incarnate the nuptial dimension of baptismal life which concerns both men and women. They speak of the Bridegroom and are spontaneously images of the Church.

Christophe Chaland

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