A poorly repaired plaster Jesus lay on a cushion, beneath which was a note. Little Sister Magdeleine, foundress of the Little Sisters of Jesus, had carefully written: "This infant Jesus is a precious souvenir of the beginnings of the foundation. He has brought numerous graces. Let us keep him, even if he isn't very artistic."
I came upon the broken doll in what had been her room, in Sidi Boujnan, Algeria, where I was doing research for her biography. The message it symbolized—that God exalted our frail human nature by taking on our humanity out of love for us—was at the heart of Sr. Magdeleine's relationship with him and with other people. It led her into a hidden, humble, but radically evangelistic life of reflecting Christ's loving presence in the most unlikely places.
Master of the Impossible. Madeleine Hutin, as she was called, was born in France in 1898 to devout Catholic parents. Through her father, who had served as an army doctor in North Africa, she felt an early attraction to the Muslims of the Sahara. Their deprivation had touched him deeply, and he kept in contact with some of them on his return to France.
Before the age of eight, Madeleine also felt called to the religious life. Her response was delayed for years, however, both by poor health and the First World War, which decimated her family.
During that time, her one source of illumination was a biography of Charles de Foucauld, the French explorer and priest who lived among the suffering Saharan people and was murdered by rebels in Southern Algeria. In his writings, Madeleine found her ideal: "The Gospel lived, total poverty, a life in the midst of people who were otherwise forgotten . . . and above all love in all its fullness." Though she was ill and her widowed mother's sole support, Madeleine prayed she might follow Charles into the Sahara.
Despite all odds, her prayer was answered. The damp climate of her home in northwestern France was causing her intense pain. Arthritis would cripple her unless she left for where it never rained, she was told. For Madeleine and her spiritual director, this medical advice confirmed her vocation to the Sahara.
In 1936, together with her mother and another woman, Madeleine set sail for Algiers. As she later said, "God took me by the hand and, trusting in Jesus, master of the impossible, blindly, I followed."
Look to the Manger. Madeleine envisaged a life of contemplative prayer and solidarity with the poor in the midst of the Muslim world. At first, she shared a poor house with several Muslim families and provided food and medical aid to the desert nomads. Then, at the direction of the regional bishop, she went to Algiers for a period of formation with the White Sisters.
During this time, Madeleine underwent a series of powerful experiences in prayer that were made public only after she had died. Key among them was what she could explain only as a "manifestation" of the Virgin Mary giving her the infant Jesus. She held him so closely to her heart that she felt as if he was being "incorporated" into her.
Despite her mistrust of the extraordinary and the mystical, this experience illustrated the special focus of the congregation Madeleine was to create: the crib of Bethlehem and the infant Jesus. From then on, she made constant reference to Jesus in the manger. There she saw the truth of the whole life of Christ, God made man in all his vulnerability and surrender: "And in the extension of this cradle is the workshop of Nazareth, the Passion and cross, and all the glory of the resurrection and heaven itself."
A Community of Love. This woman of deep prayer was also practical and down-to-earth—a builder, carpenter, or plasterer, as needed. When she began her congregation in 1939, Sr. Magdeleine (her new name) and her companion, Sr. Anne, set to work on the first "fraternity," the building in Sidi Boujnan. The Arabs had given this name to de Foucauld's modest dwelling, and Magdeleine wanted to continue the associated ideas of brotherly love, gentleness, and kindness to all in need—initially, the nomads starving from drought and lack of aid in wartime Algeria.
In time Anne went elsewhere, and Magdeleine's mother returned to France. Sr. Magdeleine was left alone with the Arabs she had come to serve and upon whose friendship she had become dependent. Like de Foucauld, she was impressed by their faith: "I am stirred by the rhythm of the Muslim devotions, the resonance of the call to prayer, the way that in the great emptiness of the desert they know when it is time to pray, stop, and facing East, perform the rituals of their faith."
And they were touched by her: "The Sister will go to heaven like us even if she doesn't say the chahada [the Muslim profession of faith], because she loves us so. . . . She is a companion to us. She has become an Arab."
Magdeleine's Arab friends responded to the way she provided them with food, nursed them, and defended their interests with the French colonial authorities. They recognized her love as being "of God." Working together in defiance of the desert, the Christian woman who spoke little Arabic and the Muslim nomads who spoke little French developed a friendship of warm, mutual vulnerability and respect.
The Seed Grows. At intervals, Magdeleine returned to trudge through France with a film about her nomad friends, giving talks to raise funds for her work. Young women who heard her speak sensed in her the presence of the Holy Spirit as "a wind of the desert."
Many responded, seeking to live among Muslims as a witness to Christ's love for all, even willing to die of starvation if necessary. As they came to join her, the Little Sisters of Jesus began to grow.
Other communities were formed, mostly in North Africa. Then in 1946, Sr. Magdeleine had a "sudden certainty" that her congregation should become universal. A year later, this conviction was reinforced when, lost in prayer, she had a profound experience of the Passion of Christ—"with my eyes, in my whole being and with him, as if it were with my eyes but even more real than with my eyes, as if I were hearing it with my ears, but even more real than that." Even though she did not speak much about this experience, its effect on her was obvious: a growth of love for all people, a love that transcended boundaries and ethnicities, a love that was not a general sense of goodwill but a life of unity with all she encountered.
Determined to see this love extended to all humanity, Sr. Magdeleine traveled to over forty countries and founded nearly a hundred communities. In 1953 she set off on a truck journey literally around the world, seeking the "lost sheep" and leaving small groups of sisters to live with them and be a reflection of God's love among them.
"A Smile upon the World." Magdeleine's sisters went to the ends of the earth, crossing jungles and snowy wastelands, "crying the gospel" not by words but by their life. They were to be a "smile upon the world," reflecting God's love without proselytizing and recognizing that often the poor would reveal Jesus to them.
Magdeleine taught her sisters that prayer was not an activity but "a life." They were to live in the midst of humanity as leaven in the dough. They were to be contemplatives, maintaining interior silence but without the traditional separation between the religious life and the world. Like leaven, which must lose itself in the dough for it to rise, the Little Sisters were to become one with those they served. They were to be human before religious. They were to be "all things to all men"—Arabs among Arabs, nomads among nomads, workers among working people. They became gypsies among the gypsies, prisoners among the imprisoned, circus-travelers with the circus-travelers.
Like Jesus, the sisters were to earn their living with their hands, without the dowries or income from capital that provided security in other religious congregations. They traveled on the backs of trucks, hitchhiked, or worked their passage on ships. They lived in caravans and tents, worked in factories, and swept station platforms.
A Passion for Unity. Over time, Magdeleine's passionate desire for unity compelled her to go to Communist countries. From 1957 on, she spent time there each year as a prayerful presence, traveling in a converted camper van, with the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a secret compartment.
Border guards scoured the interior of the "Shooting Star" van and even broke the window in the roof, but never found the Blessed Sacrament. Under various guises, communities were begun behind the Iron Curtain. Little Sisters established friendships, particularly with fellow Christians but not exclusively: Unity did not mean being for some and against others but being for some while remaining open to others.
Magdeleine even dreamt of opening her congregation to Little Sisters from other denominations. They would be full participants, united in love for God and respect for others. Any difficulties, she believed, could be worked out not by conversion but as they lived together. Some non-Catholic Christians did join, on an experimental basis.
Sometimes misunderstood even by the church she loved, Magdeleine struggled for acceptance of her congregation's poverty and the apparent absence of a ministry or works. She also worked hard to receive permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in tents or caravans so that her tiny communities might themselves become tabernacles radiating the presence of Jesus. Foundresses, she remarked, "must be ground into their foundations like minced meat!"
The year 1959 brought an Apostolic Visit, a year of scrutiny by a representative of the Holy See. It was a time of profound suffering for Magdeleine. Five years later, however, the Little Sisters of Jesus were finally granted the official church approval she had sought.
Magdeleine continued her apostolate of friendship into her nineties. She had been extraordinarily healthy since 1936, but in 1989 the rigors of her travels took their toll. She died in Rome that year, leaving 1,400 Little Sisters from 64 nations; countless friends of all creeds, nationalities, and classes; and, perhaps most importantly for us, the message that a contemplative life need not be divorced from the everyday.
Leaven in the Dough. In Moscow in 1998, I launched the Russian edition of her biography. Crowds flocked to the occasion bearing small gifts as a tribute, not to the author but the subject. At that event, one young man pressed a model Jesus into my hand and touched his heart. It was a fitting tribute and testimony that the leaven of Little Sister Magdeleine's life is still at work in the world.
Kathryn Spink is the best-selling author of many books, including The Call of the Desert: A Biography of Little Sister Magdeleine of Jesus. For more on the Little Sisters of Jesus: rc.net/org/littlesisters/index.html.