Today, February 4, is the memorial of our newest beatified friar, Bl. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus. As a diocesan priest who entered Carmel five years after my ordination, I received much guidance from the writings and example of this great man who shared with me a common path. This post will focus mainly on his vocation to enter Carmel.
Henri Grialou (he took the name Marie-Eugene in Carmel) was born in 1894 in the Aveyron region of France. He discerned a call to the priesthood at a young age, entered the minor seminary, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. After distinguishing himself on the front he reentered seminary in 1919.
As he was on his retreat to prepare to be ordained a sub-deacon he took along a little book about St John of the Cross that he had just been given by a Carmelite nun. During his reading he had a eureka moment “This is exactly it!” he thought. He knew he had found his heart’s deepest desire and received an indisputable “call” from the Lord to become a Discalced Carmelite. Though he had never met a Carmelite friar and was unsure there were any in France, he knew God made him to be a Carmelite.
He first approached his seminary spiritual director; a gentle and holy man in whom he trusted very much. The priest told Henri: ‘absolutely not’ and forbade him to speak any more about this folly of an idea. Henri found himself in a crisis, his interior light was so strong, but was not being confirmed by God’s representative in his life. He was obedient, said not a word, and was left alone with this haunting thought of entering Carmel. It got to a point though that after he was ordained a subdeacon he said to the Lord- My spiritual director must bring this up before Easter of this year or I will know this is not really from you. Lent comes, Holy Week comes, the Triduum comes and still no word! Henri is on the edge of his pew on Good Friday wondering what will happen. Suddenly his spiritual director comes into the chapel, sits beside him, and says out of the blue- “So what is with this Carmel thing?” Henri explains his experience now matured over several months. At the end of the meeting the priest turns to him and says- “If you were not resolved to go to Carmel, I myself would force you to go!”
As the weeks pass, Henri is ordained a deacon and is set to be ordained a priest only a couple months later. He must now speak about this to the bishop. Henri was a gifted man and with great strength of personality, intellect, and heart. He was an incredible leader who distinguished himself in WWI and quickly became the lieutenant of his regiment. With this in mind, the bishop had a plan that Henri would head up a missionary band of priests to go throughout the diocese to bring back the many fallen away Catholics who were indifferent to religion. Naturally, at this request of Henri to depart for Carmel, the bishop said: “Absolutely not, you will report to your new assignment after ordination and that is all”. Henri leaves the meeting deeply saddened but confident that God would find a way. Several weeks later, the bishop asks the seminary spiritual director- “How is Henri doing?” To which he answered “he submits to you”. The bishop then recounted how since their meeting he has not gotten a good night of sleep, he cannot get Henri’s request off his mind and he is convinced that God will not let him rest until he lets him go. The bishop proceeds to order the rector- “Tell Henri he may go!”
The next obstacle is the greatest and most heart wrenching; Mom. His mother was a widow who spent the last ten years working numerous jobs to pay for Henri’s education in seminary. They were very close and shared a deep love for each other. Her one dream was to retire from her arduous daily labor and live with her son at his rectory as a housekeeper and companion. This was not uncommon for a widowed mother or a single sister to do in those days. When Henri told his mom about his desire to enter Carmel she became a wreck. She saw it as absolute treason for him to do such a thing. She believed he was going to hide away in a cloister and never see her again. Henri tried to explain to her that this was a misunderstanding but she would not listen to reason. She cursed his path to Carmel and even threatened to take her own life if he left. Henri was completely broken by these encounters. This was worse suffering than the five long years in the trenches of WWI.
He did not know what to do. He was about to be ordained a priest and his mother said she would not have any part in his ordination or first Mass. Henri knew his mother never went back on her word. He asked God for a miracle; if she comes to the ordination this will be the last confirmation that this call to Carmel is from God. The days pass and she will not talk to him. Ordination day arrives and she is not in the pew. Then right as the Mass begins, Henri spots her in a corner; his mom showed up! The miracle has happened!
After ordination Fr. Henri spends some days in his hometown making visits and celebrating first Masses before leaving for Carmel. In this brief period, some priest friends turn on him and accuse him publicly of running away from his duties and hurting his family. Yet nothing can stop him now. Just three weeks after receiving Holy Orders, Fr. Henri takes the train to Avon, France and is received into the novitiate of the Discalced Carmelites. He takes the name Fr. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus. After much prayer and suffering over two years, his mom was reconciled to her son’s vocation and they resumed their loving relationship. His life as a Carmelite bore abundant fruit as he took on various leadership roles, brings Carmelite spirituality to the Church in an unprecedented way and founded a thriving secular institute, Notre Dame de Vie.
I believe anyone who feels drawn to the Carmelite path should turn to Bl. Marie-Eugene for prayers and guidance. May he obtain for us the light and strength we need to embark on this way, no matter what the obstacle.
For more info on the life and spirituality of Bl Marie-Eugene:
Some of his books translated into English:
- I want to see God & volume II I am a Daughter of the Church (Thomas More Publishing, November 1, 1998)
- Where the Spirit Breathes (Alba House,1998)
- Under the Torrent of His Love (Alba House,1995)
- 15 Days of prayer with Fr Marie-Eugene (Alba House, 2009)
- Jesus Contemplation of the Paschal Mystery (Editions du Carmel;1986)