One of the things that always struck me about Blessed Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus was his deep freedom to simply be who God wanted him to be and not to conform himself to other models, no matter how holy they may have seemed. This fidelity to the personal grace God had given him was the key to his life and sanctity.
Henri (his name before he became a Carmelite) was always a free man with his own path. He discovered his vocation to the priesthood as a young boy sitting on a wall outside the local rectory. He saw the priests come in and out—no fanfare, no glory—but he decided then and there, “I will become a priest.”
His first seminary was run by a religious order, the Fathers of the Holy Spirit. They took him in and educated him for free, which was unusual in those days. But when it came time to take the next step, and many pressured him to continue, Henri knew deep down it wasn’t for him, and he left.
He eventually went to the diocesan seminary near Paris, but after several years he was drafted into the French army for WWI. He did so well that he quickly rose up the ranks and became a decorated officer. At the war’s end, he was offered a promising military career. For a boy who grew up extremely poor, this would have been very compelling. All was working out for him to go in this direction: to have a wife and family, and to be a decorated career man. When his local town was having a festival to celebrate the French victory, Henri was supposed to show up in his officer uniform to reveal to the world what he had become and where he was going. But to the surprise of all, he showed up simply in his old cassock, breaking not a few hearts, and soon went right back to seminary to continue where he left off.
Shortly before his ordination, he befriended some Carmelite nuns who gave him a book on St. John of the Cross. It was rough and poorly written, but something about it struck him one night, and in an instant he knew, “This is precisely it!” He knew he must become a Discalced Carmelite. This cost him from every side: his friends, family, spiritual director, and bishop all showed deep resistance. His own mother was the most stalwart opponent to his call. Henri was broken down; he could have heeded the voices and gone the safe route. Instead, less than three weeks after his ordination, he went to the Carmelite novitiate in Avon, France.
In the novitiate, the models and lessons given were mainly about rigorous penance with a strong emphasis on asceticism. The newly named Fr. Marie-Eugène, with his powerful intellect and will, gave himself to this path completely, excelling in everyone’s eyes. And yet, it didn’t sit right with him; he knew deep down this was not his way. As he explored more the teaching of St. Thérèse, he learned his path was more the little way of merciful love. Even though this seemed to go against his formation, he threw himself in this direction and flourished.
As a friar, he was a gifted teacher, preacher, and leader; there was so much he could do. And yet meeting three laywomen who wanted to consecrate themselves to God through their work in the world convinced him he must devote himself to their cause. Soon he put all his energy into making this plan of God blossom, and the small group would eventually become a new secular institute in the Church, Notre Dame de Vie. This community continues to flourish and has brought Carmelite spirituality into the world in a unique and powerful way.
All these examples show that Blessed Marie-Eugène was a true son of St. John of the Cross, who taught that there are not two souls in the world who are more than half alike. He was a brother of St. Thérèse, who compared souls to all the different flowers in the field. He was a son of St. Teresa of Avila, who made it clear that God is sovereignly free to act in the soul in any way he pleases, through any means.
Blessed Marie-Eugène always taught that we must not only cooperate with grace, but with ‘my grace’, the absolutely unique gift that God has given me. As he says in his book I Want to See God:
The Holy Spirit appears in this world under a thousand human faces that reflect the power and grace of His hidden presence. The Spirit never repeats Himself in the exterior forms He chooses. Is this not the reason why Saint John of the Cross asks us never to take a saint for our model? This would be to expose oneself to failure in suppleness, in fidelity to the movement of the Spirit, who manifests His power and perfection as Spirit in the variety of His works and the perfection of His incarnation in each one of His instruments.
It is so easy to compare ourselves to others in the spiritual life and to grow either prideful or discouraged by what we find in ourselves. Leave all this aside, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, may I know what is my path, my grace, and like Blessed Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus may I follow it wherever it may lead.