01-12-2012 - Traces, n. 11

A day at...


It is the only place in the world where the man who accompanied Jesus’ childhood is known to have appeared (alone), saying just one sentence, and causing a spring to well up–one that is still there four centuries later. At the cloistered convent now on that site, we discovered a world marked by a friendship born as a miracle.

by Paola Bergamini

“Mom, remember to put the paper with the intentions in your handbag, the ones your friend gave me for Saint Joseph. It’s on the dresser.” Looking out the car window at the soft hills of Provence, I recall my sleepy boy’s words this morning. He never stops asking for intercession for himself and those he loves. Over the years, asking and praying have become more charged with humble affection. This is how it is at the cloister in Cotignac as well, where in 1660 Saint Joseph appeared and caused a spring of miraculous water to well up; this is the only place at which the Church has formally recognized an apparition of Saint Joseph alone. This day will be spent with him and the cloistered Benedictine sisters who have been living in the convent next to the sanctuary since 1977.
“We’re almost there,” says Adele, my reason for the journey and also my driver today. Five years ago, she and some friends of the Fraternity of Saint Joseph (the vocational companionship born of the charism of Fr. Giussani that unites people called to live virginity, continuing to live and work where the are), having heard of the apparition, came on pilgrimage and met the Benedictine sisters. Before the summer, she had said, “We go to visit them twice a year. We brought them Fr. Giussani’s books. They are always a comfort for us. It is a dear friendship. You have to meet them–we’ll take you there.”
And here I am with these six travel companions, most of whom I hardly knew before today. We leave the French village where we had stayed overnight  behind us, take a narrow lane between vineyards, and after a curve in the middle of some woods, halfway up the mountain we see the “Monastere la Fonte Saint Joseph du Bessillon.” In a few minutes we arrive, while some pilgrims are leaving the church. “Here is the spring,” Irene tells me. A faucet is fixed almost at ground level in a wall in front of the monastery door; above the faucet is a plaque with the verse, “With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation” (Is 12:3). Behind it, in a niche, is a statue of Saint Joseph and a basket with little pieces of paper for writing prayer intentions. It is so simple and essential, even poor, I feel like saying, but that is not the right word. The silence is impressive, but not oppressive.

From Medea to Bessillon. In the monastery, we are met by the sister who will accompany us for a couple of hours, until Vespers. As soon as she sees my friends she smiles happily, hugs them one by one, calling them by name, and asks for those who couldn’t come today. Adele asks, “How are you?” “We’ve recently finished our spiritual exercises on the virtues, above all that of humility, which is fundamental for Saint Benedict. It’s difficult.” Why? “Humility is a virtue that must constantly spring anew; you think you’ve reached it and instead you have to keep going further. Humility is complete poverty, that is, being pure vessels of the love of God. We are administrators of the gifts of God.”
This sister (who does not want her name in this article–“It’s not important, believe me. We are not the ones who need to be seen”) has a lively, transparent gaze. She tells me about her vocation, her story. She lived in the region of Paris, and after graduating with a degree in Philosophy, worked as a humanities teacher for 13 years. “I was a good teacher, but I understood that even though I gave it my all, I could do little for others. I remembered that, as a girl, I had felt the call of Saint Benedict.” In 1979, she arrived in Bessillon, where, two years before, the community of 13 Benedictine sisters had moved from Medea, in Algeria (see p.35), with the approval of the Roman Congregation for Religious, because of safety issues. She was their first novice in Bessillon. “The convent had been abandoned because of the French Revolution, and it was in terrible condition. It had to be totally rebuilt. Many benefactors helped us. I remember the offering every month from a waiter in Marseilles. A famous architect, Fernand Pouillon, offered his work for free, and kept faith with the original design of the building. He told us it was his most beautiful project.”
What do Saint Joseph and Saint Benedict have in common? “Both love silence, serving and loving Christ in total humility. Saint Joseph’s hidden life is Saint Benedict’s ideal. Total humility. This is why both are fathers: one the protector of the Church, the other of Europe. In Medea there was a statue of Saint Joseph, and nobody knew about the apparition. He brought us to Cotignac. And Saint Joseph had us encounter your Movement.” Looking at my new friends, she continues,  “When we met you, I understood that you were not like the other pilgrims. There was a very profound spiritual search, a love of the Church that united us. And then you brought the books of Fr. Giussani!” What is striking about these books? “The sense of the human, of man.”
The sister who guides the novices and knows Italian well used Giussani’s Is It Possible to Live This Way? for her lessons. “She realized that the sisters loved this book very much because nobody speaks of freedom the way Fr. Giussani does.” And for her? “I was curious, and so I read The Risk of Education. It was like a lightning bolt. I had never read a book like it. Now I am reading The Religious Sense. For me, the fundamental intuition is the contemporaneousness of Christ, as in the Rule of Saint Benedict. In the same way, Fr. Giussani proposes a journey, a journey of faith.” She stops a moment and lifts her eyes toward the photo of Benedict XVI on the wall. “You see, I listen to the Pope and then I read Fr. Giussani, and they say the same thing. It’s striking. This Pope constantly amazes me.”   What does mean living the Year of Faith for the cloistered sisters? “It means going more deeply into our vocation. You have to live conversion every day. Conversion means reaching the point of living by faith.” It is not enough for me. I want to understand more. What does it mean to live by faith? “Trying to see people, events, the world with the gaze of Christ. It is a journey that does not leave you tranquil. The Pope asks this of us. In a contemplative convent like ours, it means giving God our whole selves so that others may receive His grace. The Mystery touches us with His hand. He leans down over us. Sometimes God gives us glory, because someone writes to thank us for our prayers. But on our part, everything is gratuitous. The others can ‘profit’ from it only if we live this freedom. This is why we need your prayers.” Her words are so sublime and yet at the same time so concrete that it is impossible not to see how much they are in the world. “Excuse me, now I’ll go call Mother Superior, because she wants to greet you. On the tray are some drinks I’ve prepared for you.”
 “What a flurry of questions,” says Irene, my translator. It’s true. One asks everything. Five minutes later, the Mother Superior arrives. She looks at Giovanni, the photographer, who never stops taking pictures. “It’s a machine gun!” she exclaims, laughing, and he laughs too. I understand him.

The drama of affection.The energy of this woman, one of the sisters who came from Algeria, is captivating. They introduce me, and she says, “In Traces (the French version) I read with great interest about the American elections. One must be informed about what happens in the world. We do not have much time to read. We have only Osservatore Romano and Traces.” Then she picks up the French translations of Fr. Giussani’s books we brought, opens In Search of the Human Face, and gives a little start: “‘Ascesis, the drama of affection.’ This is fundamental! I have been praying for quite some time to find someone who could preach on this subject.” She explains, “I’m speaking from a Christian point of view. For a long time, affection remained closed within the morality of duty, something to restrain, in the French Church’s Jansenist outlook. With Saint Thérèse of Lisieux there was a passage from this type of morality to attraction toward God. God made a heart for us so that we could use it, so that we could manifest His love. I understand why Pius XI defined her as the greatest saint of modern times. Today, instead, there is a trend toward a kind of affection that one is unable to control. Do you understand why this work by Fr. Giussani is so important?” I understand. The bell rings for Vespers, and we gather in the church. Here, too, everything is essential. The marble of the altar and the carpet came with the first sisters from Algeria. A niche hosts the oldest statute of Saint Joseph in Cotignac. Beyond the grate, we listen to the singing of Vespers in Gregorian chant. The silence is filled with prayer. Mine, too, though I do not open my mouth.
The next morning, we return. The same sister waits for us, with two large books full of photographs: it is their story, from Medea to Cotignac, with pictures of the renovation work, the consecration, relatives, friends, and benefactors who have passed through over the years. Leafing through these pages, I see a photograph with the French scholar of medieval studies, Régine Pernoud. Do many pilgrims come to the sanctuary? “They arrive from all over France, and beyond. Then, between June and September, every weekend there is a constant flow of pilgrimages, of fathers, of mothers, of couples who aren’t able to have children, of those who have not yet found their vocation, of grandparents. We see them arrive in procession. It’s a beautiful tradition. They all leave their little pieces of papers with their intentions. But one thing should be clear: we do not organize anything. If they knock on the convent door and ask, we tell them about the apparition. Our work is a different one.” What is it? “In the Rule of Saint Benedict it is written: prefer nothing to the work of God, and prefer nothing to the love of Christ. Therefore, the work of God is Christ. And Christ is the center of our life. The Liturgy of the Church makes Him present 24 hours a day. This is why our day is full of prayer. I don’t like to say it is ‘scheduled,’ because it seems like something ‘administrative.’ We dedicate about five hours a day, broken up, to work. Right now I am working with you! It’s a beautiful occupation.” Now the “work” time is over, and we say goodbye. I see them one last time at Mass.
Before departing, I stand in front of the statue of Saint Joseph and write my intentions. I realize there are many, and entrust them all to him.