FASCINATED BY GOD
by Sister Teresa, OCD(1)
I. THE SCHOOL YEARS
November 7, 1979, God called to the vision of His glory Sister Frances of the Redemption, aged thirty-two years, temporary professed of the Carmel of Sitagarha since August 15, 1978. She died suddenly following an operation at the hospital of the Ursuline Sisters of Lohardaga (Ranchi Bihar, India).
Frances, the hippie Frances was born November 1, 1947 during the French occupation of Germany and was raised by some German Sisters in a kindergarten where she learned German as well as French, while her mother worked as an auxiliary in the French army of occupation. It was in the ups and downs of life in a regiment, in a milieu of indifference to faith, that the years of her early childhood were passed.
During her school years at Baden-Baden, Germany, when she was only twelve years old, her curiosity was aroused by her young companions going to catechism, and for the first time she heard someone speak of God. From a distance she followed this first lesson on God given by a lady: these words about God suddenly filled her soul with a profound joy and sweet consolation, and made so vivid an impression on her it was destined to endure in a permanent way. This was the first direct gift of God to her soul.
Later, she herself asked her mother if she could receive baptism. Her mother, although indifferent and of a Protestant background, consented to her desire and took her to the military chaplain, who conferred baptism on her in the Catholic faith. On her own she continued as she could to be instructed, and was eventually confirmed.
From Germany she followed the French army into Algeria, and there contact with the Arab world opened up a field of vision for her. As she was too young, she could not understand why or how the French could kill the Arabs; and the problem of war in the world made a deep wound in her sensibility. She was thirteen or fourteen at the time, and the fact of being confronted with the problem of suffering at so tender an age pierced her heart and left it filled with bitterness and anguish.
As she recalled it one day: " ...The atmosphere of distance, the cowbells, the dry earth, everything struck me and reawakened my memories of Algeria, my long hours of solitary walking in the hills, the wind that blew against my skin and whispered God to me, the little shepherds who called to one another from afar and threw pebbles at me when I passed; during that period I was suffering terribly, at times I asked myself why I had to suffer so much."
From Algeria she returned to France with her brother and sister, to continue her classes, and it was not long before she had to live by herself in order to pursue her studies at the university of Grenoble. She passed her baccalaureate in 1966 and 1967 and obtained her degree in 1971.
On her return to France she began to make frequent visits to a Carmelite monastery, drawn by its peaceful and recollected atmosphere, and she could sometimes be seen in the parlor or deeply recollected and silent in prayer in the chapel. However, she was very quickly influenced by the student milieu of the university of Grenoble, and for several years she went through periods of obscurity and struggles during which the light of Faith no longer held priority in her life.
To provide for her school expenses she followed the example of many of the students and worked with them in the hotels in the summer, or in the mountains of the Vercors during the vintage in autumn.
Pursuing the student's independent life and wanting to live just for herself without constraint, she gave scarcely any thought to her family. Later in Carmel, she understood how egotistical and insensible this attitude had been; she was filled with remorse for her lack of consideration towards her mother, for whom she had a deep affection. But at the time she was completely taken up by the atmosphere and mentality of the university youth; in it she developed a critical cast of mind, a skeptical mental attitude, judging everything from her own criteria: she was the perfect type of the youth of her time.
II. FROM JOB TO JOB ACROSS THE EARTH
Having completed her studies, she continued to work, while at the same time she shared the experiment of a hippie commune. She took a secretarial course, after which she worked successively for different employers. She was gifted intellectually, but much less so on the practical level. She limped slightly on one leg - the result of a birth defect - and was rather awkward and slow in her movements, often breaking everything that went into her hands, and exhausting the patience of her employers, as she loved to recall later on. Her clumsiness, however, was compensated for by an unalterable good will, her smile, and her boundless good nature that touched all hearts. She tried several employments, from secretary to telephone girl, servant, nurse-maid, business woman, nurse's aid, etc.
With the intention of preparing an anthropological thesis on the customs of the Papuan tribes, she left France to travel around the world. Having exhausted her resources, she arrived in Australia and got a job working in a hospital in Sydney. As she loved to recount later on, the salaries were so high for the least bit of manual labor that she was quickly able to save enough money for her travels - and at the same time learn enough English - to enable her to leave for Papua at the end of the year. Hardly had she disembarked there than she began to wander from one place to another at random, until, in one distant post she met an American missionary Father who resided there. She was able to live in the midst of the tribes, going to meditate in the mountains round about, or helping Father Bob in his dispensary. She became the friend of all those good Papuans of Nondri. The catechist himself sent her a letter in Papuan some time later, after she had become a Carmelite in India.
At the sight of the splendid countryside of Papua and the beauty of its mountain chains, she was once again drawn by God, and spent long hours in solitary reflection. She completely lost her interest in the pretended thesis - which she eventually abandoned completely. When her resources were exhausted, she returned to Sydney and found employment first as a secretary, then as an aid in a clinic, where her services were appreciated because of the lack of nurses. After a second sojourn in New Guinea, she embarked for the Far East, joining some hippies whom she met on the way. She kept up contact with a few of these friends of hers, one of whom came twice to visit her at Carmel, to share spiritual experiences with her and to discuss principles of faith.
In the midst of her random travels she preserved an imperturbable calm and always found the desired means, or friendly aid at the opportune time to free her from embarrassing circumstances. One day, not having anything to eat, she was fainting from weakness while walking along, and suddenly found herself - without knowing how - among passengers on a bus who had picked her up on the way. She knew neither what had happened nor where the bus was taking her!
A prey to doubt and uncertainty, she rambled about the world, ever in quest of God, but she was also prey to all the temptations that were not lacking along her way:
"....I should have fled immediately. I did not do so; I preferred to be evasive with myself: what was wrong with traveling with D.? I had never had the experience of a traveling companion. It was You, Lord, who saved me, who tore me away by force at N., You who were waiting for me at Hong-Kong."
III. SENSING GOD'S CALL
It was in fact at Hong-Kong that the grace of God was awaiting her, for God pursued her all along her way, in spite of her weaknesses, her falls, her doubts and her struggles. All of a sudden the light flashed and burst upon her. She was on a desert island not far from Hong-Kong, attracted by the solitude of the wild place, when suddenly, a veil was torn from her, and the certainty of the existence of God invaded her. It was like the explosion of the Divine within her.
She herself recalled it in her notes:
"Suddenly, after days and days of questions, of cries, of anguish, suddenly something was torn away, a torrent overwhelmed me, and I laughed with boundless joy, until I choked, until I cried for joy, saying: 'Why of course, why certainly, God exists, God loves you, poor idiot, why of course!'.... 'It was as if You exploded within me, I perceived You so vividly, so clearly. The certitude was such that it still inflames me; heaven was opened for me, I had the abrupt impression of being born, above all that it was You, You at last, at last, and I suddenly knew that You were good, and your mercy staggered me.' I close my eyes, I try to relive that moment, and the only word that comes to me is 'Father.' O Father!, my father. There are moments when words are no longer adequate."
This experience that was so profound and so sudden changed her life completely and radically. She continued to wander at random along the shores of the East, but with one sole end in view: to find a solitary place where she could live "her grace." This contact with God burning within her no longer left her any repose, and she could no longer wait or loiter on the way. Whether it were Saigon, Singapore, or Bangkok, no place could any longer hold her back. She took a plane and went to Calcutta. There, in that overpopulated city where hundreds of people lived on the sidewalks, she looked for a solitary corner, a room to lodge where she could live alone and pray. She met a Belgian Jesuit Father who helped her to see clearly and to understand that this action of God was perhaps a call to the contemplative life. The attraction to Carmel that she had felt in her youth in France was reawakened in her, and it was then that she was directed toward the Carmel of Soso-Gumla (Bihar), and this contact with the Carmel in India enabled her to determine her vocation. But it was impossible for her to remain in India with a tourist visa, so she had to leave the country.
Having finally returned to France in 1975, she worked in a children's home in the mountains, where she continued to experience that contact with God in the depth of her soul and to submit to an intense work of grace in it.
"Those months when I saw nothing in my life but You, those months when your love held my breath from the rising to the setting of the sun, those months when my whole being was thirsting for You...."
In spite of those months of burning intimacy with God that followed her conversion, she again became the prey of temptations and struggles: the longing to set off again, to travel at random, to set out on a discovery of the world, to love, to enjoy. All these temptations took hold of her again in one last combat, until the day when it was not "the cock that crowed," but a letter from the prioress of the Carmel that came to wake her and remind her of the certitude of God's call. The last and most convincing sign of God's fidelity toward her came with the obtaining of her permanent visa for India that she received in January 1976.
Her trip to the West Indies on her way to enter the Carmel of Soso-Gumla was one last trial on the part of God. She could not make up her mind forever and ever to renounce travels, and going around the world.
" I wanted to travel, to see, to know, to love .... I was sick, really sick at the thought of renouncing this intoxication of going from place to place, of discovering something new. The temptation to travel, to lead a free vagabond life was very strong, too strong."
IV. ENTERING CARMEL
Her entrance to Carmel was the occasion of profound anguish for her whole being. The actual complete giving up of the gift she had enjoyed so much before, was a cruel wound to her nature. God alone knew the sacrifice she had to make by accepting for his Love the strict enclosure of a monastery in the heart of India.
The beginnings in Carmel were painful and difficult. She had to sacrifice her natural inclinations so much in order to fit into some of the conventual structures and to adapt herself to the life of an Indian community. But she had come to live "his grace:" the unique and pure gift of God himself, and she applied herself to live it in all its reality.
"My God, thank You for all these humiliations, the pain of being lazy. weak, proud. The suffering caused by my too obstinate character, by my will that is not able to yield sweetly to others. I feel I am clumsy and slow, powerless and vulnerable. These are the things that I offer You, O my God....To take up my cross in silence and to follow Christ moment by moment, toward the Father. But what is this suffering in comparison to such a grace: the certitude of the Love of God!"
Two years were going to be necessary for her to be firmly settled in her vocation, to overcome herself and to become peaceful in her progress toward God. One event, permitted in the designs of God, opened her eyes and was the starting point of her spiritual ascent. She found out that she did not have to remain passive or shun the difficulties of life, but on the contrary to make use of them for her spiritual growth, and that changed her whole orientation.
She gave herself completely to her community, was always ready to take on the worst jobs, the most fatiguing work, taking her share of the kitchen tasks without sparing either her strength or her time. The sisters have a touching remembrance of her good nature in all the kitchen work.
She had received the habit October 14, 1976; one year later in November, 1977, she came to join our recently established foundation (made in April 1977) at Sitagarha (Bihar), and from that time onward under the constant effect of grace, her transformation was evident. She changed progressively and the work of grace was visible in her. Her critical spirit and her too obstinate judgments gave place to a humble and supernatural attitude.
She was powerfully aided in this spiritual work by the instrument that God placed in her path on coming to Sitagarha. Some courses on Sacred Scripture, given to us regularly for the formation of the professed sisters, enabled her to discover and penetrate the riches of the Bible and above all of the New Testament. The teaching as well as the enlightened direction of the Father - uniting holiness and knowledge - aided her to detach herself quickly from herself and to build her spiritual life on solid foundations. These aids had been entirely lacking from the time she began her Christian life.
Centered thus on God, she now lived to the full, within the narrow limits of the cloister, all the profound aspirations that had carried her around the world in quest of God. She had finally found in Carmel the silence and solitude she had sought so avidly in the various countries of the East.
"O God, I would like to raise toward You a hymn of silence. When those two Japanese Jesuits came to show us in the parlor how people offer tea to guests in their country, one of their explanations struck me: 'We prepare the cup in silence, for this silence, this calm, this peace is the gift that we offer to our guests.' That is how, to those whom You have given me, to You, the guest of my heart, I wish to offer a heart that listens, a soul that is silent. I want my silence to be my adoration for You, my compassion for my brothers, my prayer for the world. A silence that accepts, a silence where You may take your repose, a silence that loves, a silence where You can be Yourself !"
This love of silence was but the expression of her deep sense of prayer. She was often plunged in intense contemplation, and was accustomed to go and hide in a thicket of bamboo covered with long leaves, that was like a hermitage of greenery, and there she would let her soul be lifted in God, soaring , above earthly contingencies.
"To be there before you, O God, simply to be there and love You. My God. may my life flow in one constant and conscious response to your Love that is never ending. To lose myself completely in this abyss of light and love where You have so humbly allowed me to penetrate."
At the same time she had a profound love for all humanity whom she bore most earnestly in her prayer. She was solicitous for the whole world and sometimes suffered keenly from enjoying a well provided life in Carmel, while so many people or children were dying of hunger and misery all around. These contrasts pierced her heart and were for her a reason for intensifying her prayer for the world.
"I am continually ill because of my brothers, all my suffering brothers, and I want to bring them Your Redemption. Help me, Lord, to offer You in silence all the suffering of men. I would wish O my God, that You could make use of what I am so that your Love might be driven a little deeper into the world. So that this immense joy of being able to call you 'Father' might go through me to those whom You wish to reach by means of me"
She had come to Carmel to live "her grace:" and God rapidly realized this work in her. She made her temporary profession on August 15, 1978, and during this last year, the transformation worked in her by God became still more visible.
God's ascendancy became stronger, as she herself said spontaneously one day:
"I am fascinated by God! Suddenly, for the first time I experienced terror in your presence. The consciousness (of being) a particular choice of God, the consciousness of the weight of your Love. The consciousness that You want me for your own."
V. THE FINAL JOURNEY
In these last months her health, which was already precarious, suffered a visible decline. She had arrived at Carmel with her physical condition much deteriorated by all her journeys in the Far East. In spite of successive treatments by the doctors, and the delicate attentions of her sisters who contrived to prepare dishes that her sick stomach could take more easily, she had to be hospitalized and undergo an operation on November 2, 1979. After some days during which she seemed to be recovering normally, surrounded by the affectionate care of the Ursuline Sisters at the hospital, she suddenly took a turn for the worse. The morning of November 7, she became very ill and died unexpectedly of an embolism, resulting from the surgery. Her agony was short, about the space of an hour, and she rendered her soul into the hands of the Father of Lights from the arms of her Mother Prioress who was there at her bedside to assist her.
From her hospital room Sister Frances had finished a letter to her Indian sisters with these words:
"Continual prayer - embracing the cross - Universal love - Universal communion."
Her body rests in the shade of the thicket of bamboo where she was accustomed to go and sit, so deeply absorbed in prayer, but now her soul, victorious, has entered forever into intimacy with the God of Love, to enjoy the vision of his glory. And her presence among us is even more living at this time, in the liberating force of her eternal and glorious life.
Her life, like a shooting star, is for us a tangible sign, a striking testimony of the Father's Love for all young people wandering at random in the entire world: his Love pursues them to the uttermost bounds of the earth.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of Life, Foreword, para. 11.
1. Sitagarha, Carmel, India, from the book of the same title, translated by Sr. Miriam, OCD, Eugene, Oregon Carmel.
BACK TO TOPICS