Recently I've been taking consolation from something Jesus told Marcel about the most beautiful thing. This saying of Jesus is in the very first entry of Conversations, among the early pages headed "Before 7 October 1945," and the passage I've been pondering lately is at (14), that is, on the fourteenth page Marcel wrote for Fr. Boucher. It shows us concretely what we already know generally, that Jesus is full of truth and grace from the beginning. Still, I'm not going to tell you yet what it is that Jesus said was the most beautiful thing, because it's got me thinking, and I'd like to share my thoughts first, to lead up to His. That's just one outrageous aspect of a blog--if you're silly enough (and apparently I am), you can preface Jesus' Truth with your own musings.
Since Jesus is telling us through Marcel about what is the most beautiful thing, I've been thinking about beautiful things. It's kind of fun to imagine what might be the most beautiful thing. What if you had three guesses?
If I had three guesses as to what the most beautiful thing might be, I've decided that first I'd guess Jesus, second Mary, and third friendship, and in particular, friendship with the Saints.
That Jesus is most beautiful might seem too obvious to comment upon, but here is a delightful commentary from Marcel which surpasses anything I could have imagined. When Marcel was serving Mass for Fr. Boucher on Christmas night, 1945, he saw Jesus. Here is what he wrote:
"His hair was blond and curly, His eyes were dark and of average size, His lips were fresh and bright red and His face was quite round but not entirely so. Finally, He was barefooted. Seeing Him like this I found Him very handsome but it is impossible for me to describe Him perfectly; all that I can say is that He was of a beauty which surpasses all imagination. However, if at that moment I had been an artist possessing all the colours I could wish for, I would have painted His portrait immediately. But, as I am very clumsy, all I could do was feast my eyes on Him . . .I stayed there quite dumbfounded, while Jesus sat with me in the cradle, looking at me and laughing . . ."
Ah, beautiful little Jesus!
And must not His Mother, from whom He takes His beauty, be then the next most beautiful thing? Some might argue that since He came from her, she must be more beautiful, but I think we have to make allowance for the beauty of His Divinity transcending even the beauty of our spotless Mother.
I love the story of Lucia, the seer of Fatima, who was pressed by a sculptor to admit that his image of Our Lady of Fatima, perfected with directions from Lucia herself, was most beautiful. Poor Lucia! Having seen the real Lady, clothed with the sun, she could only respond, "It's not as ugly as all the others!"
But then when I consider what else is beautiful and what I might guess third as to the most beautiful thing, I'm inclined to say friendship with the Saints. I'm just bowled over by the joy and consolation that flows from this understanding that we are not alone. Not only has God given us each our own guardian angel (and if we could see them, I bet they would be on the top of our list of most beautiful things!), but He gives us too, in increasing numbers as our lives in exile go on and on, the friendship of His favorites. He gives us everything, and so He gives us His best friends as our own as well.
It's no accident that when musing upon Marcel and his writings, my thoughts turn to friendship with the Saints. His friendship with Thérèse is the stuff that dreams are made of, and she in turn has such a profound understanding of love and friendship, especially friendship with the Saints. By "saints" we can mean those around us striving for sanctity, but in particular the depth of friendship increases when one of the parties has gone to cash in on the Heavenly reward. I love reading in Proverbs 3 that:
"The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality . . . In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks among stubble."
We are the stubble, and the souls of the just are so happy to dart about as sparks among us! To the foolish it looks like our friendships are over, but that is far from the reality. Here is what Thérèse wrote on the subject to another of her spiritual brothers (this one her contemporary), Maurice Belliere:
"I have to tell you, little brother, that we don't understand Heaven in the same way. You think that, once I share in the justice and holiness of God, I won't be able to excuse your faults as I did when I was on earth. Are you then forgetting that I shall also share in the infinite mercy of the Lord? I believe that the Blessed in Heaven have great compassion for our miseries. They remember that when they were weak and mortal like us, they committed the same faults themselves and went through the same struggles, and their fraternal tenderness becomes still greater than it ever was on earth. It's on account of this that they never stop watching over us and praying for us."
If you have not yet experienced this compassion of the Saints, and, more specifically, of a particular Saint for you, I urge you to delve into this beautiful world. If you don't know where to start, start with Marcel. Having been himself very weak, he can certainly relate to your weakness and have pity on it. And further, having been himself the beneficiary of one of the sweetest friendships ever between Heaven and earth, he certainly knows the importance and beauty of such friendship. If you ask him, I'm sure he'll be glad to be your friend. And as he's still relatively unknown, you'll be getting in on the ground floor, so to speak!
I could say more, but I must not abuse my privilege of writing about Marcel, and this I would do if I either taxed your attention or (worse yet) Jesus'! He's infinitely patient, but it's not polite of me to bank on that, making Him wait to tell us what He, Truth, knows to be the actual most beautiful thing.
So here goes. Here is what Jesus told Marcel sometime before October 7, 1945, and according to His words, what He'd told another friend of His, the Visitation nun Sister Benigna Consolata sometime in the early 1900's (she lived in Como, Italy from 1885-1916, and was another of Jesus' little secretaries). Are you ready? [The ellipses (or little dots like these . . . ) are in Marcel's text here at (14); I'm not leaving anything out, though I'll add bold for the Most Beautiful Thing.] Here goes then. Jesus tells us:
"What I said previously to Sister Benigna Consolata . . . My little flower, My spouse, little apostle of My love, I recall it now for you . . . Nothing is more beautiful than to do the will of the one who one loves . . . Accept, therefore, to do My will. My child, I am taking you in My arms, I am lifting you to My lips and I am giving you a kiss. Seeing your soul burning with love for Me, I am beside Myself and My sole desire is to see many souls love Me as you do . . . My spouse, there is nothing so beautiful as to do the will of the one one loves. There are still many things that you must write and that I will tell you later . . . Little apostle of My love, the words that I am dictating to you here, do you find them beautiful? . . . As for Me, I find them very beautiful as they are coming from a heart overflowing with love."
I admit it. I find Jesus' words beautiful.
So now that we know what Truth has to say is most beautiful, what does become of my list? (What Miss Marcel Muses, we could call it, or WMMM for short!)
Maybe Jesus is being modest. I don't think He can deny that HE is most beautiful :)
And if you asked Him straight out, I very much doubt He could deny His Mother's beauty either!
As to friendship with the Saints . . . well this is exciting. I think in my musings I've made a connection or had an insight.
But first a confession. When I initially read that nothing is more beautiful than to do the will of the one who one loves, I was a more struck by a low-grade anxiety than by its beauty. You see, I have (and I guess others might have to) a fear that the will of the One I love is going to include suffering. This is something Marcel shared with me, and it brings me tremendous comfort to read about Jesus' teasing, laughing, ever patient responses to Marcel's fear. He (Jesus) says, "I haven't even mentioned the word!" or in another place, "All I have to do is mention the word (suffering) and you are a basket case!" I'm paraphrasing, but not by much!
What I forget, and perhaps Marcel often forgot too, is that the One whom we love is Love! There is nothing scary in Love! On the contrary, as St. John tells us in his first letter in the New Testament (and he should know--He was Jesus' beloved disciple and leaned on His sacred breast at the Last Supper when Jesus poured out His love, Himself, in the fullest gift He, God, could come up with: Himself as food for us in the Eucharist)--"Perfect love casts out fear."
Marcel has helped me see, in his friendship with St. Thérèse and with Mother Mary, and especially in his friendship with Jesus, that these words that Truth speaks are true: There is nothing more beautiful than to do the will of the one who one loves. That is a kind of act of friendship, that doing. It is an act of devotion, of expression of love for the One who loves us into being and keeps us here until such time as He will take our being to Heaven to live happily forever with Him. We do not have to be afraid, or even a tiny bit anxious. The most beautiful thing is to do His will because His will is from Love, for love, in love--there is only Love!
I've been clinging to Jesus' revelation lately because I had hoped to write more frequently on this blog. But the will of the One I love has recently included laundry and grocery shopping, preparing meals (and eating them - much more fun!), and many other ordinary actions of daily life that aren't writing. Bummer! And yet . . . I have been able to read Marcel (if not write about him), and in Marcel's Conversations I find Jesus encouraging me with His trademark, "Be not afraid!" and "I love you, little one" over and over again (and delightfully, in many other words, phrases, sentences, and thoughts of His heart). As long as I am trying to do the will of the One I love, I can let go any calendar of blog post entries that I'd been semi-consciously hoping to fulfill. It is all for the love of Jesus, so what does it matter if I have to set aside my schedule for His? I have the unshakable feeling that His schedule is by far the more beautiful one!
I end this post, then, with the hope of writing another soon, but along with that hope is a conviction that whatever Jesus has me doing next will be most beautiful. Meanwhile, may I recommend to you something with which you can fill your time until we meet here again? You know a picture is worth a thousand words. I wonder if that means that a moving picture is worth a million? There's a terrific video about Marcel Van, and thanks to modern technology and the generosity of many of Marcel's friends, you can watch it for free (with English subtitles even) on your computer. My favorite part is the part about friendship with the Saints . . . well actually that comes up several times, but my very, very favorite is when the movie includes part of an interview with Marcel's "bearded Jesus," his novice master, spiritual director, confidante, and eventual translator, Fr. Boucher. The emotion with which Fr. B speaks of Marcel is overwhelmingly beautiful. Praised be God, who gives us friendship with the Saints!
The movie is called Hidden Apostle of Love, and you can get to it by clicking on these very words: Hidden Apostle of Love.
If you get a chance to watch that, and then you find you want more Marcel, you can explore the website (full of treasures) where you find the video. If you are further inspired to want yet more friendship with Marcel, I continue to highly recommend (even when I'm not writing!) his Conversations. And now I'm signing off to go and have a good friendly chat with him myself, to let him know he may be hearing from you soon!
Sometimes it seem like you can find anything on the Internet.
That's not actually true though. I discovered recently that there is nothing (at least nothing I could find) on the Internet about long haired poodles except scary pictures about the pelt the groomer will have to shave off if you try this (a long haired poodle) at home . . . Which reminds me, speaking of things you should not attempt with dogs: you should also not try putting on roller skates before you take your dog for a walk (especially if you have a big dog, your driveway is sloped, and the leash is "retractable" which also means extendable before the dog takes you for quite the ride of your life) . . . which reminds me, at last, of what I'm supposed to be talking about here, namely Dummies books.
Did you know that (supposedly, according to Google) you can find free Dummies book cover generators and templates on the Internet? Well fortunately for us all, I'm such a dummy myself that I couldn't figure out how to make them work, so instead of an insulting and ugly book cover as the image at the top of this post, we get a laughing picture of Marcel - or a picture of Marcel laughing - and I can't yet figure out if he's laughing with us or at us, but I guess that depends on if we're laughing! I'm laughing now, as I think about my new book series. We have "for dummies" and "idiots guide to" -- but let's face it, those are both insulting, and as I heard someone funny say on the radio, they're also rather confusing for those of us who qualify. Hours of indecision can follow when a dummy or idiot (or simply an indecisive person like myself) discovers a bookstore that carries both series. How to choose whether one is a dummy or an idiot, and thus know even where to begin finding the books you need?
I think I should start a less insulting series called "___ for Blondes." Or do you think that might carry its own pejorative connotations? I've already told you my soul is blonde, so I'm certainly not excluding myself, and being from California I find it not only a more flattering series title, but one that is sure to make me millions . . .
Anyhow. On to Marcel.
I realized a few months ago that one of the things I love about Marcel and Conversations is that what we have here is The Little Way for Dummies! I even thought that could be my next book, until I realized I'd have to join the bright yellow or bright orange colored covers franchise. I really do like beautiful book covers, and I hate lots of bullet points inside and little icons and sidebars and fingers with strings tied to them. (Although we just watched It's a Wonderful Life last night, and Uncle Billy's fingers tied with strings were charming!)
Nonetheless, whether or not a book comes out with the name, the reality remains: Marcel being very little, he manages to translate St. Thérèse's Little Way of Spiritual Childhood into a language spoken by those of us who are, while I don't want to say dummies or idiots, at least very, very little like he is. He makes the Little Way more accessible. He brings it down to our level.
What makes me smile is that the Little Way was already supposed to be doing that - bringing sanctity down to the level of the littlest ones. But something happens over the years - accretions, our sister Thérèse's fame and her miracles, lots of books written to explain what is supposed to be simple. Don't get me wrong: I love some of those books and all of her fame and miracles; I wouldn't trade them for a million dollars, but still the whole kit and caboodle does tend to obscure the original message, at least for someone as prone to distraction by shiny things as I am.
I was delighted today to find in my bucket of endless treasures (Conversations) Jesus' confirmation of the quote I used to lead into "Who is Marcel Van?" There I quoted his vice-postulator saying Marcel was the one who was weaker and littler than Thérèse . . . and sure enough, there's evidence in the text (as we used to say in college). On p. 225 in my edition (506), Jesus says it plain as day (the day was, to be precise, April 22, 1946).
He says, "Little brother, it is necessary for you to know that you are very weak, that no soul is as weak as yours; and I admit that your weaknesses never cause Me the slightest sadness. It is only your scruples that make Me feel such pain as to clasp you in my arms, to spoil you and give you my kisses." And then (who can stop, once he's begun quoting Jesus to Marcel?), Jesus adds, "Enough, Marcel, my little brother. Do not be sad, do you understand? From now on, no more worrying, all right?"
So there we have it. Marcel is the tiniest of the little ones, the weakest of the weak. When you read the Conversations you'll see it clearly. Jesus tells him all sorts of wonderful truths, and Marcel either changes the subject (because he's distracted by his uncomfortable sandals, or a stomach ache, or something someone said to him earlier, or any number of the exact same things that distract us constantly) or he admits to Jesus that he's already completely forgotten the important things Jesus told him. To which Jesus responds with His trademark patience and kindness (hallmarks of Love, that is Himself), and that characteristic gentleness of Heart which He begs us to imitate when we come to Him, rest in Him, and learn from Him.
Jesus also responds with humor, and reassurance in case Marcel (or we) think He is being harsh when He is only teasing, and in case Marcel (or we) think He's scolding, when He's only pointing something out, and in case Marcel (or we) worry and fret, as we so often do, and worst of all despair that our weaknesses are causing Him pain or frustration with us.
What could be more perfect than Jesus' infinitely sensible and adorable explanation of why Marcel (and all little souls) should not worry about their constant forgetfulness of His truths?
To those for whom the Little Way, even in its simplicity, is somehow still too much to remember, Jesus says, "What did your sister Thérèse teach you? You have forgotten everything already; it's hopeless! And it is also so much the better, since what you have forgotten, I am always there to remind you of and then you can continually learn the lesson anew. What happiness can be compared to yours?" (387)
What is it, again, that we've forgotten when we've forgotten what little Thérèse taught us?
I think her Little Way can be summed up in five words:
Failure is the new success.
Or again: Weakness is the new strength.
Or how about: Losing is the new winning.
These are all straight from the Gospel . . . and yet I, for one, have a really hard time remembering them. Especially when I've just failed or lost or said or done something (or failed to say or do something) so that I'm left wearing my weakness on my sleeve or on my face. I'm supposed to remember that these failures, losses, weaknesses are all to the good.
Jesus teaches it this way on page 296 (652) of Conversations: "Yes, it is just as you say, little brother; it is only in these moments of fatigue that I am able to make you see your weakness and to teach you that, truly, you haven't got a scintilla of virtue . . . Little brother, see how weak you are. That it is enough for you to abandon yourself to Me and to put all confidence in Me alone."
To which Marcel replies, "Now, I am not angry any more because I no longer am tired." (Talk about a familiar pairing!)
And Jesus responds, "Nevertheless, little brother, your weakness has not disappeared for all that; it will remain in you until the time when you receive from Me the first kiss of your life . . . Little brother, always remember that you are a truly poor and destitute soul. Do not worry about your weaknesses, as your sister Thérèse has told you, and as I, Myself, have told you many times. It is in knowing your nothingness that your confidence in Me will be truly firm."
Ah, Jesus! Ah, Marcel! Ah, forgotten message of little Thérèse!
For no matter how many times I hear it, no matter how many times I tell myself, "Don't forget! Remember this, at least!" (and I just can't bring myself to tattoo it on my forearm - I'd probably forget to look there anyhow) -- well, despite all these admonitions and reminders, like Uncle Billy I still forget!
This is why the Conversations and Marcel himself are the Little Way for Dummies. Because we find repeated in them over and over the same message of love, the same truth that will set us free, that Word of littleness that came to us first in the manger on Christmas in the darkness of night.
"It is in knowing your nothingness that your confidence in Me will be truly firm."
"It is enough for you to abandon yourself to Me and to put all confidence in Me alone."
I open at random and read Jesus repeating again His message to Marcel and to us: "I have a means which can allow you to understand: this means consists in loving Me and in abandoning yourself to Me in total confidence." (429)
To which I add: Don't worry if your confidence feels less than total. This will put you somewhere nearer Marcel on the scale of littleness, rather than next to Thérèse. (Although this is, recall, a scale of littleness, so you won't be far from either of our sister and brother team -- it's a little scale!) What can you lose from being weaker and littler, by any measure? Remember: weakness is the new strength. As for little, that's what puts you in the game. I'm tempted to quote Thérèse on staying very little and becoming littler all the time, but Marcel is the commentator and I'd only have to quote him again then too (or Jesus' words to him).
So let's keep it simple - not with bullet points or bright yellow covers or stick figure faces with crew cuts, but with a final quote from the ultimate authority. There will be time for more later. For now I've found a good ending in these words of Our Lord. He's speaking to Marcel (p. 48) but much more importantly, He's speaking to you:
"My child, the smaller your love is for Me, the more mine will envelop you with its intimacy."
That's the Little Way for us, and who could ask for more?
"St. Therese wrote at the end of her Manuscript B, 'If by chance God found a soul smaller than mine and still more simple, I really believe that He would fill it with graces still greater.' I believe that this soul is truly Van." --Pére Olivier de Roulhac, O.S.B., vice-postulator for Marcel Van's cause
Marcel Van is the beloved little (spiritual) brother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. When I have mentioned him to people, sometimes they say, “Oh, yes, one of St. Thérèse’s adopted missionary priest brothers to whom she wrote while in the convent.” No, I have to explain, that would be Maurice Belliere you’re thinking of. He was also a beloved little spiritual brother of St. Thérèse, but he was her contemporary and also French, whereas Marcel Van, like us, was born many years after she died, and in another country. And yet Marcel lived on quite intimate spiritual terms with Thérèse. That he lived in a different time and place than she did was no obstacle to God’s plan for their sibling affection, conversation, and friendship, and because of Thérèse’s love for him and his love for her, this “other” little brother of hers has much to teach us.
Joachim Van (later known as Marcel Van) was born in Vietnam in 1928, thirty years and six months after his big sister, St. Thérèse, died in France. He was born into a family that had already welcomed a boy and girl, and would later include another girl and boy, so that finally Van was one of five children. His early memories, about which we can read in the Autobiography he wrote at the request of his spiritual director, were very happy. His family had enough, and more importantly they were full of virtue and striving for holiness.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Van’s childhood became a series of great sufferings. His older brother went blind, the family experienced financial setbacks, and his father became embroiled in gambling and alcoholism. Perhaps most painful of all, Van’s very early devotion and discernment of a call to the priesthood led him to convince his mother to take him, when he was only seven years old, to another town and leave him there in the care of a priest in the hopes that this would be a kind of minor-minor seminary and the beginning of fulfilling his dream of becoming a priest.
The separation from his family would have been hard enough if the priest had been the good man he’d appeared, but as time went on, Van’s benefactor had no qualms about putting him to work as a household servant, and it was years before Van could escape this and other equally humiliating and heart-wrenching situations where his aspiration to the priesthood kept him away from his family and no closer to the kind of training a priest needs.
These vicissitudes were, however, all serving a purpose in God’s loving designs. Finally, at age fourteen, Van attained a place in a much more authentic minor seminary, one named for the young woman who was to become so much to him, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Here he lived a regular life of prayer, study, work, and play, under the auspices of French Dominican missionaries to Vietnam, and among other boys his age who were also discerning their vocations.
It was in October of 1942 that Van first met Thérèse, and when I say met, I mean, you know, really met her, like you might meet the person who will become your best friend, or your spouse, or your spiritual director—though usually when we have these first meetings, we don’t know as quickly as Van did just how significant the meeting is.
It happened like this . . .
One evening Van was in the chapel with all the other boys, but rather than simply praying or daydreaming, he was struggling with a deeply troubling thought. He was feeling a tremendous desire to become a saint, but he was fighting this feeling with all his strength because it seemed wrong to him, presumptuous, to dare aspire to sainthood.
When I reflect on Van’s moral dilemma, I am newly appreciative of Vatican II’s emphasis on the universal call to holiness, as well as grateful again for St. Thérèse’s Little Way. We are so used to thinking, “Of course we’re supposed to become saints!” that we don’t realize what a blessing this knowledge is. Van was suffering interior torment because he thought his desire to become a saint was one huge temptation! He decided, wisely, to turn the whole problem over to the Blessed Mother. He told her to take care of it, and then he left the chapel for study hall.
Once there, since he’d already done his homework, he had the privilege of choosing a saint’s book to read. He went to the shelf and browsed the titles. No luck—he’d read them all before, at least all the good ones. Sure there were some he hadn’t read, but they didn’t have pictures! Nonetheless, he figured he’d better choose one, so he told the Blessed Mother, “You choose for me and I’ll read what you pick,” and then shuffling the books and closing his eyes, he chose at random.
Bad news—it was Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. No pictures inside, and furthermore, he could predict what it would contain. “I know it already,” he told himself. “Same old story. You were born amidst miracles and prodigies, lived an austere life full of penance and many more miracles, then died in old age, having been perfect from start to finish.” He laughed to himself, but then realized he was not keeping his part of the bargain. He’d told the Blessed Mother he’d read the book she had him choose. So with an uninspired imagination, he opened the book and began reading.
He was caught! It took no time at all for him to realize this was unlike any other saint book he’d read, and quite unlike what he’d predicted. Deeply involved in Thérèse’s words from the first page, Van found himself full of joy and his earlier dilemma (about becoming a saint) resolved. Here was a book that spoke to his fervent young soul. Here was a saint who wrote about just the kinds of things he felt. The book became his constant companion.
This conjunction of boy and book was, however, merely a faint foreshadowing of the joy and friendship that was to come.
Not long after his discovery of Story of a Soul, Marcel was with his two best friends one desultory afternoon during vacation. They were all staying over at the presbytery during the break, but some of the staff was gone, and this meant the task of mending their clothes was left in their own boyish hands. Marcel thought up a plan to get out of this hated task which took so much time from their play. “Why don’t we ask one of the young women who works over the break if she’ll be our big spiritual sister? We can promise her rosaries, and in return she can do our mending and laundry!” It sounded like an ideal plan, and Marcel dictated a letter which they then threw—with all their dirty and torn clothes—into the designated girl’s work area. Not so subtle, but definitely worthy of fourteen year old boys!
Soon after, a note came back, attached to a rock that sailed through the window. “I see right through your ploy,” the young woman wrote, “but I find your childishness somewhat charming and I will be your big sister and darn your pants—except not Van’s! He’s too old and can do his own work.”
Van’s friends thought this was hilarious and teased him to no end, but Van ignored them and continued with his reading (he’d finished the book and begun again) Story of a Soul. He was enjoying it tremendously, and especially loved Thérèse’s scenes from childhood. Though Van’s own childhood had not been easy, neither had Thérèse’s, with the death of her mother when Thérèse was only four. Still, they both had wonderful early memories of loving times with their devout parents, and Van was fascinated by all that Thérèse related.
At this moment, he was reading again about how, after their mother’s death, Thérèse’s sister Celine turned to their eldest sister Marie and said, “Now, you will be my mother.” Thérèse would have liked to say the same to Marie, but thought of their next oldest sister, Pauline. Wouldn’t she feel left out if no one chose her? “Pauline, you will be my mother,” Thérèse said.
Van just loved this—and suddenly it occurred to him. Why should he ask this young woman to be his big sister just because the other boys did? Wouldn’t Thérèse feel left out? He would ask St. Thérèse to be his big sister. Not that she’d darn his pants, but certainly she would be the best big spiritual sister anyone could ever have.
He went to the chapel and knelt down to say his prayer. He asked Thérèse to be his big sister and accept him as her little brother. And then . . . he was filled with such a rush of joy that he couldn’t remain in the chapel! He darted out and ran all the way to the bottom of the mountain where he and his buddies loved to play. He was alone there now, and he could give full vent to his feelings. He sang every holy song and religious hymn he knew—in Vietnamese, in Thai, in French and Chinese! He cavorted and gamboled around the mountain base and among the rocks, singing at the top of his lungs to give some relief to this tremendous joy which flooded his soul. She had said yes! He knew St. Thérèse had said yes and would take him as her little brother—not that he had heard anything, but oh, the joy! It far surpassed any consolation he had ever felt, and he knew it meant yes.
Exhausted and unable to sing another note, he happily collapsed, sitting on a rock, his arms behind him, his legs outstretched in complete openness. Every once in a while he’d manage another phrase from a song. The joy did not abate, but he began to think over the situation. Why was he so happy?
And then he heard a voice. A woman’s voice, or a girl’s really.
“Van, Van, my dear little brother!” he heard.
The tone and the words were so intimate that he was at a loss who could be speaking. It couldn’t be anyone he knew; it couldn’t be the young woman who’d rejected him as her brother. But who then?
Again he heard the gentle voice:
“Van! My dear little brother!” There was only one possibility . . . Could it be?
“Yes, Van, it is really your sister Saint Thérèse . . . I have come here to reply to your words which have echoed in my heart. Little brother! You will be personally and from now on my little brother, just as you have chosen me, personally to be your big sister. From now onwards our two souls will be separated no longer by any obstacle as they formerly were.”
This was their first meeting, but not their last. Van tells us that his big sister spoke to him for a couple of hours, explaining many things about God’s Fatherhood and love for him, about her love for him, about the life of love God had planned for him.
Three years later when Van had entered the Redemptorist Order to become a brother (St. Thérèse had eventually gently broken it to him that God desired him to be a religious brother, not a priest), his novice master and spiritual director, the French Canadian Redemptorist Father Anthony Boucher, asked him to write his life story.
Van, now Marcel Van, wrote four entirely separate drafts, each several hundred pages long. In the final draft, now published as his Autobiography, Marcel takes several pages to recount Thérèse’s first conversation with him. He then says that each time he’s written an account of it (at least three other times in his previous drafts), it comes out differently. There was so much she said to him that he could never in one attempt remember it all. But, he says, this gives you the gist of it. Honest to Pete, the gist is not enough for me! I hope someday to have every account he wrote so that I can have as many words as possible and as many bits and pieces, fragments or paragraphs of this awesome conversation!
She told him of God’s love for him, as well as her own love for him, and most importantly she encouraged Van to speak to God with utter simplicity. This came naturally to Van, for he was charmingly simple and remained so, but he had been taught that it was proper to speak to God in long, fancy prayers, and so he tended to repress his spontaneous and natural effusiveness. Once Thérèse explained that God loves to hear our little stories, our heartfelt feelings, our thoughts and experiences and ramblings, Van was free to reach a new level of intimacy with God, his Heavenly Father, and with Jesus, his true Love.
After that first meeting with his big sister Thérèse, Van was blessed with many more heavenly conversations. And not only with Thérèse, but with Jesus and Mary as well. It was, as I mentioned, about three years later that Van was admitted to the Redemptorists as a novice. There in the novitiate, Jesus asked Van to be His little secretary and write down all that Jesus said to him. When he told his novice master, Fr. Boucher, about these conversations, the wise priest first approved, and then instructed him to cease writing down the conversations. Van instantly obeyed. After two weeks, Fr. Boucher lifted the restriction and Van continued writing Jesus’, Mary’s, and Thérèse’s words to him (as well as his own to them, as Jesus had instructed him to do) for about a year and a half. He confided the pages to Fr. Boucher, who carefully recopied them and who later, leaving the original in Vietnam, smuggled out the copies to Canada with a fellow Redemptorist priest.
Marcel Van went through the novitiate and made his temporary vows on September 8, 1946 (when he was 18; St. Therese had made her vows on this date in 1890 when she was 17), and later his final vows in 1952 (at age 24). He had been born near Hanoi and lived until 1950 in the north of Vietnam, but obedience brought him to Redemptorist houses in Saigon and the south of Vietnam from 1950 to 1952. In 1954, at his request, his superiors allowed him to return to the Hanoi Monastery on what turned out to be the last plane from the South to the North. The communists had taken over North Vietnam and Marcel wanted to go there so that someone would love God amid the communists.
It was only a matter of months before he was arrested on a lame charge and put into a prison camp, condemned to 15 years of re-education. At one point he left the camp to try to procure the Eucharist for fellow prisoners and was caught and put into the dungeon for long months. After three years in the camps, having served God and his fellow prisoners with great love and affection, Marcel Van died on July 10, 1959. He was 31 years old.
Fr. Boucher, by God’s providence, lived to be much older. When he returned to Canada in 1964, he spent the next 20 years translating Marcel’s writings from Vietnamese into French. Fr. Boucher had such a mastery of both languages that his translations are considered perfect. In all, he collected, copied, translated, and preserved for us four volumes of Marcel’s writings: his Autobiography, Conversations, Correspondence, and Miscellaneous Writings.
Father Boucher knew Marcel better than anyone on this earth, having been his spiritual director from the time of Van’s entrance into the Redemptorists until Van’s death in 1959. Fr. Boucher himself died in July of 1991, aged 84, after having successfully introduced Marcel’s Cause of Beatification. Here is what the holy French Canadian Redemptorist missionary had to say about his spiritual son, the beloved little brother of St. Thérèse:
“In my capacity as master of novices and spiritual counselor, I testify that I have lived, day by day, and at the side of Brother Marcel, all the events and little facts related on the small pages that he gave to me regularly each week. On reading these texts, I sensed that this very small brother whom Jesus, Mary and Thérèse were leading by the hand would have a role to play in the Church and in the world. I also felt myself constrained not to allow anything to be lost from the treasure which was unfolding before my eyes, by his hands and his heart. I humbly recognized that Brother Marcel taught me more on the spiritual life than I was able to teach him.
“First of all, I have been profoundly moved by the unbelievable familiarity and tenderness of which Brother Marcel has been the object on the part of his heavenly interlocutors. On the other hand, his exemplary life, his limpidity of soul, his perfect obedience to his director and his generosity in face of sacrifice favorably impressed me regarding his truthfulness and the authenticity of his communications; this, obviously, with all the reserve necessary, nor wishing in anything to anticipate the final judgment which belongs by right to the authority of the Church.”
Here's Marcel smiling down on us. Rather disingenuous of him since, in fact, he's laughing right now. He thinks it's funny that I'm trying to make such a big deal out of him; that I've quoted his "bearded Jesus" to impress you and make you love him . . .
If I could make the whole world love Marcel Van, I would. And it's quite a mystery to me how he remains so unknown (which is the only way he could remain unloved!) especially when he is truly a second St. Thérèse, his spiritual sister who prophesied before her death, "The whole world will love me!" There's a strange logic at work here . . .
If the whole world loves her, and he is a second her, then how can the whole world not love him? Ah, mysteries. They make life interesting and give us something to write about!
Well, it's my joy to write this now as the year of Our Lord 2017 is drawing to a close. Given the fascinating combination of longevity and ephemerality that characterizes a blog post (and the internet in genera)l, I hope this answer to "Who is Marcel Van?" will last until Jesus comes on the last day, that wonderful day when all that is hidden -- including our dear Marcel and his extraordinary message of littleness and Love -- will be made plain. Meanwhile, you are now one of the cognoscenti, clearly loved immensely by God, for He has introduced you to one of His very best friends, St. Thérèse's little brother Marcel Van.
In my next post, I'll fill you in on Marcel's life (on earth) story, but first I couldn't resist sharing the conversation he had with Jesus on this day in 1945. It's just so funny, so sweet, so absolutely Marcel!
First there's a moving colloquy with Our Lord, in which Jesus says something amazing and profound. Then there is Marcel's response: something amazing and incredibly silly. Well, I can't say I wasn't charmed and somewhat convinced, but Jesus' reaction gave me a hint that Marcel might be a little off in his picture of the life of the Holy Innocents in heaven. See what you think . . .
Marcel: My dear little Jesus, Monday will be the feast day of your Holy Name. On this subject, I must ask you a question. This name of Jesus, of whom is this name, little Jesus?
Jesus: Marcel, I do not find your question at all difficult; I am happy to answer it immediately. Pay great attention. Write clearly, I am going to dictate each word separately: "The name Jesus is the name of the Spouse of Souls." Is that quite clear Marcel? I wish to choose all souls to be my spouses; that is why I call myself the Spouse of Souls.
Marcel: Little Jesus, today is the feast of the Holy Innocents. I wonder if, in heaven, these little saints are mischievous like children. They must, without doubt, spend all day playing with You. When I go to heaven it is absolutely essential that I ask You to admit me to their ranks. Indeed they have much time for leisure pursuits doing nothing but playing every day without ever working. Moreover they don't have to be afraid that anyone may come to bother them since no one knows their name and their age. So, since I am very lazy, liking only to play, if it happens that someone asks me to intercede for him with You, little Jesus, I will not busy myself and their attempts will fail. If, on the contrary, I am in the ranks of the Holy Innocents I will have all the time to play with You, to be always at Your side and also to tease You freely. Then on Thursdays and Sundays we will have time to go together to see the heavenly countryside, pay a visit to the Blessed Virgin, etc. I will then have everything I could wish for like You little Jesus. It will be very pleasant.
Jesus: Marcel, what it is that you just said that gives me an insane desire to laugh? It is really discouraging; you speak without understanding anything of what you are saying. So, listen carefully to me: in the same way that the Holy Innocents had to suffer death for me, you also will have to die for my love. Because of this, you will be admitted to their ranks . . .
Now lest you think Jesus is being harsh with Marcel, let me mention that He frequently reassures Marcel after He has to correct him, "I am not scolding you." And sure enough, only a few moments later in this conversation, Jesus adds, "My dear little brother, I am covering you unceasingly with kisses and I keep my lips forever pressed against your cheek."
If this is what earthly life can be like, I tend to think like Marcel that heaven must be one terrific party, with special events on Thursdays and Sundays. Though I know Marcel does stand corrected in at least one detail of his heavenly tableau: far from ignoring those who ask his intercession, he's known, rather, to be quite the doting brother, quick to hear and quick to respond. Try him yourself and you'll discover how very quickly and effectively he moves Jesus, who loves him and us so much, to act on your behalf!
I can hardly begin this post, I'm so distracted by the punctuation (and lack thereof) in my title. The British grammar handbook Eats, Shoots and Leaves keeps coming to mind, both the one written for grown-ups and the children's version.
Believe it or not, I have no intention of this being a grammar blog (grammatical, yes, but not typically focused on punctuation). And yet I'm enthralled by the possibilities suggested in the heading "Why Miss Marcel."
I could, for instance, be earnestly searching for answers from a certain Miss Marcel, with the intonation thus: "WHY, Miss Marcel?" The real question being, "Just why did you do it?" as if she'd been discovered to have done him in, rather than the more typical solution that the butler did it.
Or I could be pleasantly surprised to see this elusive Miss Marcel, with the intonation thus: "Why, Miss Marcel!" as if she doesn't usually frequent a blog like ours.
But in fact, I'm simply wondering (along with you, I imagine): Huh. Why "Miss Marcel"? This is a pen name I haven't run across before . . . And why is Miss Marcel musing? Or is she a muse? Or is she amused? And why, if I put "MIss Marcel's Musings" into Google do I get nothing like this blog? [Don't bother trying it now . . . you're here . . . that's all that matters :)]
Happily, I can answer all these questions except the last . . . and since this is a blog set up so that I can ramble, and through which I hope to change the world one soul at a time, rather than for the purpose of demanding universal attention through a high algorithm launch which will be so en masse that it will take over the internet and threaten the cyber universe as we know it, I don't think we have to worry about Google and what it does for readership here . . . I can though, and will, tell you why Miss Marcel is musing (Jesus is the answer), whether she is a muse (sort of), and how amused she is (very).
What I'm a little at a loss to explain is how her name evolved, but I'll give that my best shot too.
It all started about a year and three months and twenty-four days ago. I was in a library looking for one particular book (Canticle of Love by Blessed Dina Belanger) when another book ambushed me. This ambushing book, which made its move by catching my eye and drawing my soul unto itself, was none other than the Autobiography of Marcel Van. I'd been introduced to Marcel some years ago by a booklet Leonie Caldecott wrote for the Catholic Truth Society, but he only got a page or so there since she was introducing several of St. Therese's spiritual brothers and sisters. Still, I remembered him and how I'd wanted to learn more about this Vietnamese boy who'd actually talked to St. Therese (though he lived 50 years after she died).
Down came the book, and being me I didn't bother with the first 223 pages or so. Life is short and books are long . . . a classic case of too many books, too little time . . . or most likely, as I've come to realize, the Holy Spirit is in charge of my reading, and page 224 was the natural starting place for me.
[We interrupt this blog post to announce a cool thing. Page 224 in the book I took off the shelf turns out to be page 562 in Marcel's own original copybooks; this is marked in the Autobiography with a (562) in the margin, and from now on in my posts, I'll use or add these numbers one sees in the margins so that readers of any edition can easily find the quoted passage.]
I started where I did, more than half way through the book, because it's there Marcel begins to tell us about "The Little Way of Childhood" and his encounters with St. Therese. I won't spoil the story at this juncture - we've got lots of blog space to fill up so we can redeem the internet and have fun at the same time; no use blowing our wad now - but suffice it to say I feel head over heels madly in love with Marcel Van.
And somewhere in my reading about him from that day to this, I came across this delightful fact: that some of his friends (I think among the Redemptorists, which Van eventually joined) nicknamed his sister "Miss Marcel" because she reminded them of him. Both Marcel and his younger sister Té were small in stature and devout, but I imagine they also shared some mannerisms and maybe facial expressions. Anyhow, it feels like I might as well be imagining it all, because for the life of me I can't find the place where I read about "Miss Marcel." I've asked St. Anthony, I've combed through the four volumes of Marcel's collected works, but alas, I am destined to be . . . Miss Marcel too!
You see, among Marcel's many charming and endlessly endearing traits, perhaps the one I relate to most is his forgetfulness. Like Dina Belanger in Canticle of Love (her autobiography and the book I was looking for when I found Marcel's), our hero had the mission of writing out the words Our Lord spoke to him. But while Dina, like most mystics of this kind, focused primarily on Jesus' part of their conversations, Marcel was specifically instructed by the Author of Life to write out both parts of the conversation: Jesus' words and his own. Which is how we know, besides Jesus mentioning it, that Marcel is very, very forgetful (as well as easily distracted).
For while Marcel's autobiography is wonderful, the book that really took me by storm was (and is) his Conversations with Jesus, Mary, and Therese of the Child Jesus. And there he is forever asking Jesus to repeat Himself, since Marcel has so often forgotten what it was Jesus said and wanted him to write down for us.
I console myself, then, that not only Marcel's sister (if that is truly who was first called "Miss Marcel") but I, too, resemble my spiritual brother. Forgetful? Not a problem, and in fact, if I can find the spot, I'll quote for you some convincing words on the subject . . .
Ah, here we are . . . p. 71 (178) of Conversations, written by Marcel on Christmas Day, 1945.
Jesus says, "The more you forget, the more you see your weakness and your ignorance, and the more you are dear to me and receive my kisses."
I wanted to find that reference to little Miss Marcel the first, but I'll gladly trade finding it for receiving little Jesus' kisses!
I mentioned in my previous post that I have a dear friend who urged me to begin this blog. The day she suggested it and I began to seriously consider it, I wrote to another dear Friend, the British gentleman who had the privilege of translating Marcel's writings from French into English. (Marcel's spiritual director, the French Canadian Redemptorist Fr. Anthony Boucher, had the previous privilege of translating Marcel's writings from Vietnamese into French.)
I told My Friend the Translator (talk about privileged! I still can't believe I know him!) that I was hoping to start this blog . . . and he wrote back that he'd been preoccupied for some time with the thought and desire of making Marcel better known. He'd suspected a blog was the way to go, but hoped he wasn't the man to do it, as his translations being completed, he'd rather not tackle another large project, especially one with new technology to master. When he received my news of this blog, he counted it as a blessing and a sign that the Holy Spirit had marked out someone else for this apostolate of sharing Marcel -- namely me!
Not to change the subject, but Merle Oberon has a brilliant (and brilliantly delivered) line in the Wuthering Heights film that featured Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. Distraught and beside herself, she explains their spiritual union at one point by crying out in thoroughly dramatic and haunting tones, "I . . . Am . . . Heathcliff!"
You can appreciate, then, my natural propensity, once I'd discovered my close spiritual bond with Marcel, to cry out frequently myself in what I hope are dramatic and haunting tones, "I . . . Am . . . Marcel!"
But just as Jesus and Therese explained to Marcel that he needn't (and wouldn't) be changed into a female though he wanted to resemble Therese in everything, so too I've come to understand that I need to be my own version of Marcel (a female one since that's how God made me, for which I'm ever grateful). I can resemble him spiritually in everything while retaining my femininity by simply being his female other half. Hence, again, we are forced to the conclusion that I simply am Miss Marcel!
Which brings us full circle, Now that we know "why Miss Marcel", the next question is, "Why is Miss Marcel musing?"
The truest answer I can think of, an answer that G. K. Chesterton, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel all express quite winningly, is that it's a wonderful world . . . and so wonder seems the natural response. Which explains why this Miss Marcel muses.
But is Miss Marcel a muse? Certainly her inspiration - Marcel Van - is inspiring me . . .
And is Miss Marcel amused?
To that I say, unequivocally and absolutely, yes! Miss Marcel is highly amused!
Because, first and foremost, she has her brother Marcel and his antics to amuse her.
When I started reading Conversations and couldn't help but read snippets aloud to my husband, his reaction was the following (and I quote verbatim because I, like Marcel, write things down and thus know sometimes at least where to find them). He said:
"As the world (and the Church) takes itself more seriously,
the Saints get sillier! The greatest are the littlest - so little that this is their greatness."
I've discovered that there's a lot of laughter in Jesus, and if it doesn't come out in the Gospels, it definitely comes out in his conversations with Marcel. And who could blame Him? Marcel is very funny! And so, yes, as his sister who cherishes his charming guilelessness and silliness, like Jesus, I too am highly amused.
Now I've told you all I can about "Why Miss Marcel."
So what remains to be said?
To begin with, a tremendous amount about Marcel, the true inspiration and genius behind Miss Marcel. But that must be told in another post, for that's how blogs work.
I will only add here that I'm tremendously grateful for God's kindness and solicitous tenderness shown through His beloved Son and our true Love, Jesus. Do you know what day it is as I write and officially begin this blog? It's the feast of St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, the Apostle of Love "to whom secrets were revealed and who spread the words of life through all the world" (as the opening antiphon to his Mass puts it).
I am in awe of God's marvelous timing.
Marcel Van was (and is from heaven now), like St. John, an Apostle of Love, and he too had secrets revealed to him and spread the words of life through all the world.
I too would like to be an Apostle of Love. Marcel has shared his secrets with me, and especially the secret of Jesus' limitless love, and I too want to spread Marcel's words of littleness and Jesus' words of life through all the world.
Like Marcel, I don't even need to understand exactly what it is I'm writing: I'm likely too little to understand the secrets confided to my heart and pen, even as I can say, with St. John and St. Peter, "Surely we cannot help speaking of what we have heard and seen."
But Jesus always puts it best, and I hear Him tell me as He told Marcel on that Christmas night 72 years ago in 1945: "Your duty simply consists in writing."
I rejoice in my mission of writing, and I ask my guardian angel to protect me from ever worrying for a single moment about how many people my words will reach - that is, as Jesus would tell the Apostles of Love before me, none of my business. My business is simply to write, and if I reach one single soul, it will have been worth it (not to mention my concern about exploding if I don't get some of these words out from inside me).
You are reading this post now, so it has already been worth it.
When my brother got an RV, I said to my husband that was crazy, and I'd never do that. A perfect opening for God to step in and orchestrate our 12 year and 7 RV experience...
I said I wanted a poodle but told my husband not to worry, since I'd never get one now, not for years and years. I was just as surprised as he was when Hamlet the apricot standard poodle pup came to live with us a few months ago...
I've resisted saying I'll never be a blonde, though I readily and frequently admit I have a blonde soul. I even had fun telling a hairdresser once (while she was cutting my hair) that every woman should be blonde at least once in her life. She told me she'd love to make me a blonde, and she'd do it by slow incremental changes (as if, at the end of the process, no one would notice my very dark brown hair had been dyed!)...Fortunately I simply said "No thanks, just kidding," instead of "Never!" It's the only reason I can see that my hair's still Lebanese and not L.A.
But the one thing I did say I'd never do, and I said it to my husband over and over, as well as writing it down more than once complete with copious reasons, was have a blog. Never!
So here I am, practically forced into writing a blog. Forced by the irony of God's providence, His sense of humor, and the timely suggestion of a good friend, who emailed me this morning asking if I'd like to use this outlet for my writing. She's a good friend for a million reasons (if I run out of topics for the blog, I'll start listing the reasons, but for now suffice it to say she's very affirming), and she wrote:
"I think it would be fabulous for all souls for you to write a short blog each day or a few days a week or once a week...no pressure! How cool would it be to write your thoughts about anything, from fast food to good emotional boundaries to great novels and mention your book and Marcel and see who bites! It’s just a thought, but you are so very gifted at writing, and your soul has such beautiful treasures, I sometimes feel sad for anyone who doesn’t know you like I do! God has opened His Heart to you in a very unique way...I wish more people had your way of loving Catholicism and living out the Faith with your true joy. Joy is one of the first words that comes to my mind when I think of you."
Well with an invitation like that, who could resist?
Just to clarify my intentions and expectations, let me say I'm not sure this will be fabulous for all souls, but I do hope it will provide good and pleasant reading for some (whomever God and the angels lead here). I hope to write things that will share my joy and God's delight in us, and I hope that sometimes I'll provoke laughter. It's a really funny world we live in, and it would be a shame to forget to laugh!
At my husband's suggestion, I'm disabling the comments (in other words, there won't be a place for comments here) for a very practical reason: We don't have the internet at home, and it would take time and preoccupation to moderate comments or even simply to respond to them. Feel free, though, to shoot me an email by clicking the "Contact Me" button in the sidebar at the right . . .then please be patient waiting for me to write back. Sometimes it's a little while before I get online, and that doesn't mean you're not interesting (far from it, I'm sure!) but rather that the rest of life has me running. Okay, not literally. Maybe we could say that the rest of life has me offline!
I'll end this post now and save for another post the explanation of this blog's name. I can't wait to write about that, but meanwhile, time to check in with my offline world. If you're reading this, then know I'm praying for you - before I do anything else, I'm saying a chaplet of Divine Mercy for all your intentions. May sweet and adorable Jesus fill your heart, your home, and your life with Love!