a. My life, my history and my Christian conversion. a. Ma vie, mon histoire et ma conversion chrétienne

Friday 12 February 2016 — Latest update Saturday 13 February 2016

a. My life, my history and my Christian conversion.

First of all I needed to get out of this poverty I was in. It weighed me down and was proving to be an obstacle for me , preventing me from recognising the Gift of God that was within me.

My Childhood.

Born in the Vosges mountains on the 16th July 1940, in a country in the middle of war, occupied by the Germans who came into our region on the very night I was born. As soon as they came, they moved the clock forward one hour. About this, my elder brother told me that we had found in a neighbouring church the clock with a small piece of paper hidden in its mechanism, written on it : So and so « moved the clock forward one hour from the 15th July to the 16th July 1940. » I like to recall how the official date of my birth is 00h00 on the 16th July, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Mary ’imposed herself’ on me and has been a great help to me from the first day I was born. Always so gentle and so respectful of me, I really do thank her.

My father was in fact mobilised at the time of my birth, and there was a curfew. On the evening of the 15th July my mother had gone into labour. To help my delivery she only had the help of a neighbouring farmer’s wife. My Aunt who was at home went to fetch the Doctor, but he came far too late. My mother wasn’t yet ’delivered’. After having taken care of her the Doctor looked to me. Seeing me in my cradle he exclaimed ’What have you done ?’ For I was bathed in my blood, the neighbour hadn’t tied the umbilical cord well enough. I then had bleeding which might well have had fatal results. For along while after, I remained ’rachitic’ and I understand how marked I am by all thai has to do with ’survival’.

This is what my mother told me when I asked her about my birth.

My parents owned a small farm in the Vosges mountains, just a little outside of the small town of Trougemont, in the Basse sur le Rupt commune.

My family was agricultural and my parents had five children. I was the fourth child. Two years after I was born came along a little sister , Annette. My mother Marguerite was a weaver, working at the village factory, and my father Robert worked on the farm. My elder brother Paul started work very early at

the granite and my tow sisters Yvonne and Lucienne were 14 when they began working in the textile factory with Mummy.

I am still attached to this small area where I was born and grew up.

What can I say about my childhood ? My first memory is one of an American char coming up the path of our small farm.

I’d have to talk about being deprived, the fear and anguish I went through ! We used to dwell in the cave for fear of bombings and inquisitions for we used to hide Moroccan soldiers in our farm attic.

I’ll skip over some early memories to get to the age of about five. We needed to get out of the ruins left behind by the war.

It’s not easy to appreciate what I missed out on during my life as a child. How can I discern the effects the violence I had to go through had on me, memories I have forgotten ?

As a small lad I would go and look after the goats on the hillside. I can remember being intrepid as I played with my little sister Annette and how I would get her to join in my games.

Our house was a way back on the hillside, as you went out of the village.

I remember starting at the local school at the age of around six. There I was, by myself amongst around thirty pupils unknown to me.

I’ve always remained a bit ’wild’. The relationships we had with aunts and ’relations’’ of the neighbouring villages were always very’ familiar’ ones.

My father was a sick’ man that we were best not to contrary, otherwise he would become violent, especially when he had had a glass of wine down him ! What traces did those long evenings leave in me when he would come home around midnight ? We would be there, my mother and sisters and I, really afraid of him for he would often be drunk. I can recall one evening when my mother put me in their bed since she didn’t want to be in it, and she thought my father would fall asleep very quickly. I was the only one who could be in that place since my sisters were older than I was. I can still remember him ’drawing near’, thinking it was my mother here in bed. I must have been seven or eight. My father was drunk and I still have the scars on my forehead from being struck in the middle of the night by his clogs that were meant for my mother. When fights would break out around the house we used to try and

hide ourselves with our mother. I would get in between them when things would get too hard for my mother. I believe I have been marked deep down inside of me by all this violence ! When I was in the school yard at play time and saw my father go off on his bike to buy a litre of wine at the local shop, I would die of shame inside. I wanted to hide in a mouse hole ! My father would play the accordion at parties to bring some gaiety. There again, I could sense how ambivalent he was and this displeased me. I was very quick at being able to disappear whenever he wanted to lash out at me, however whenever he did get hold of me he would give me double the amount of blows, from behind, in quite an underhand way. What traumatism did my mother’s desire to commit suicide set off in me when she declared no longer able to put up with my father’s violence, saying she wanted to end it all ? I held onto her skirt begging her not to do it when she took hold of the rope used to tie the goats with ! I can still see myself in that place pulling on the rope she was holding in her hands. I must have been eight years old. If there were guests in the house, things would always end in disagreements and yelling. It got to such a point that I would dread any kind of party, at home or anywhere else. Times together in family always ended badly. Still today, I apprehend parties. The only feasts I like are the liturgical celebrations ! With all these family tensions, I had mixed feelings concerning my father. We would ’be with’ our mother to protect her and at the same time we had to make the link with my father ! I could go on with my comments, but what’s the use ? Apart from all this, my father could be very pleasant. I used to admire him as he would repair shoes or make tools for work. I used to work hard with him to get wood for the Winter months. When I was around ten, I had to be operated on for a hernia, for I had gone over my body’s capacities of as I was carrying too heavy a load. My mother was a very brave woman and worked very hard. She and my sisters would keep an eye on our home, making it pleasant. She was ’pious’, I realised this later on, when Annette would tell me stories.

So we used to struggle against misery, against all kinds of poverty. I didn’t used to have much time to enjoy myself ! It is my belief that the defensive and voluntary attitude I developed then still pursues me today, on a subconscious level anyhow ! At the local school, you had to succeed ! I was almost always the last in the class ! I usually had the following comment written on my school report : ’Dissipated and lazy pupil, could do better.’ I really do think the teacher had taken a disliking to me, he would pull my ears and I would often get hit on my knuckles by the ruler. I would make up for all that by playing with

my school pals, and so he thought I was provoking him by messing around with them ! I would always feel guilty with the spelling mistakes that I would make, getting the letters the wrong way around ! It was a long time afterwards that I realised that I was dyslexic. I would inverse the letters and sentences. At that time in the mountains dyslexia was unknown to us ! It was hard for me to concentrate on everything during the lessons and I had to be more attentive to be able to follow through with the exercises given to us. I didn’t have any memory for things ! I would suffer from that. I have to admit, I didn’t cultivate my memory very much ! This feeling of poverty and of not being adapted is still with me today. I notice this too with the people we welcome into l’Arche. They are ill at ease with subjects that are beyond them, yet they are very much at ease when the level of expression and listening is one of the heart, of the Gospel.

At home, I didn’t have neither the time nor the ’ inner space’ to do my homework. When I got home from school, I had to go and fetch wood and see to the goats with Annette. Just as well, I did make the most of these times to play with her !

From time to time, we would get out of this ’closed world’ and open up to our family on my mother’s side. We would walk the fifteen kilometres to our aunts homes, in Saulxures. I used to love playing with my male and female cousins. As a child, I used to like reading a magazine called ’The Coper’.

A place where I had ’different’ experiences was at catechism. The daughter of the director of the factory where my mother worked took it in hand. She was a hump-back, a very kind lady and she liked me very much. This is one of the rare positive experiences I have of this period.

But afterwards it was the parish priest who did the catechism. He wasn’t a very easy man. Anting to justify his violence and angry outbursts, they would said he was ’a trepan of the war’ That Parish priest wasn’t very ’amusing’, he used to frighten me. If I ’flinched’ the blows would fall down on me, like at school, like at home. In order to be able to make my First Holy Communion, I had to do a written exam. All the canton met up in the small town of Vagney in a big classroom. We had twenty written questions to answer and I got 3/20 ! Thanks be to God when I resat them the questions were easier and more adapted.

When I felt the call to follow Jesus, I said to myself ’Anything, except diocesan priest like Father Maxel !’

At around fourteen, I felt home and the village didn’t give me the space I needed so I chose to widen my horizon. I was completely unaware that I had any sort of inner life, in the inmost part of my heart. I didn’t realise how much the wind, nature smells, bird songs were so important to me. I hadn’t been aware of how sensitive I was to the beauty of nature. There was something that happened much later on that shed light upon the sensitivity which dwelt within me from then on. I recognised that Jesus was Present, hidden. I was given this understanding during a retreat I spent with the White Fathers, ten years later, in 1964. This discernment took place at the Jesuits’ in Manrèse.

I had gone to confession and was going back to the Church to pray there. All of a sudden, I had this inner revelation that I didn’t believe in forgiveness ! In fact, faced with the ’miseries ’of our humanity, all the violence I had discovered when in the Army, and for many other reasons, I didn’t believe that Jesus could forgive all this misery. Having become aware of this, I went back to confess myself again ! The priest, seeing me come back, asked me if I had forgotten something ! Then, understanding what I shared with him, he gave me absolution again. When I went back into the Church, I then ’found myself’ in a situation in my past as a child, one which I hadn’t been yet conscious of. What is was, was that I was coming back home after having been to Confession with the Parish Priest. I was in the mountains and I can still see that place with my mind’s eye. Very strong feelings of joy, love and beauty, of the Presence of God given to me on that day, long ago, were given back to me at Manrèse ! So I was like in the inner state of my childhood, yet I had just been to confession ! I had been around twelve years old when I had had this beautiful experience of God ! Before this experience at Manrèse, I hadn’t been aware in the least of what had been going on in that most intimate place of my heart and to what extent God was present in my life. It was on that day at Manrèse that I came to realise it, ten years later, coming back from Confession at Planois village.

If I stop to look at the hardships I had had to face up to during my childhood, that made of me someone who was ’poor’ I find the violence inflicted on me from the outside. The way I would make up for it was to introject this outer violence so it became on the inside. It would secretly express itself against these ’violent people close to me’ and against ’God’ by way of swearing-this was the hidden means I had of defending myself. I would make up for the dyslexia through ’cheating’, ’copying’. I would copy my neighbour so as not to give in a blank sheet at exam time. By taking on an indifferent manner I would pretend not to hear swear words and cursing, as though they didn’t do

anything to me. But deep down I was very ill ate ease and they would become a part of me ! All this brought about an ambiguous way of being, for I built up a double attitude : on the outside I was ’fine’, defensive and strong when faced with other people and like this I didn’t show how much I suffered, but deep within, I was in fact in pain and in a state of suffering. No one could guess it nor notice any of this. These defensive attitudes required much energy from me, energy that could have been used to build myself up in a more positive way.

Apart from a few exceptions, all that was ’religious’ was a world hard for me to grasp. I had to put a lot of effort into acquiring a religious language that I was unfamiliar with and as well as that I couldn’t remember things very well. My father was opposed to religion, so too was my brother, and they kept swearing all the time. This religious territory was something in me that seemed far away.

In this context of my childhood, it wasn’t such an obvious thing for me to become a ’Friend of the poor’ - I was much too aware of my own poverty ! The weakest people were dominated by the rich who took on responsibilities in the city. I felt on the side of weakness, inferior to wealthier people who had more means to succeed. This ’poverty’ paralysed me and this ’non recognition’ handicapped me.