EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD FROM EXPERIENCE: LIVES TRANSFORMED
The greatest testimony to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is the transformation of lives from wantonness and misdirection to virtue and meaning. The encounter with God that many have experienced may prove nothing more than an interesting passing moment unless it impacts one’s life. While this may not always be a dramatic turn, there are those examples of men and women whose lives have been genuinely transformed, even to the point of being unrecognizable from what it was before.
Charles de Foucauld
Born in Strasbourg, France, Charles de Foucault was orphaned at six. He and his younger sister went to live with their grandmother. After a few months, however, she died of a heart attack, leaving the two children utterly alone. An intelligent boy, he read everything he could get his hands on, but in adolescence, Charles abandoned his faith. “At seventeen,” he wrote later, “I was totally selfish, full of vanity and irreverence, engulfed by a desire for what is evil. I was running wild.” An inheritance at the young age of twenty allowed him to enjoy a life of dissolute living. Over the next several years, he lived the life of a playboy and earned the nickname “Fats Foucauld” from his peers. “I sleep long. I eat a lot. I think little.”
His laziness and habits of self-indulgence almost caused him to fail to graduate from the military academy. But, in 1880 he was sent by the French Foreign Legion to Algeria, which he loved. He lost his position, however, because he refused his superior’s orders to give up his mistress. From 1883 to 1884, he took part in a bold adventure through Morocco, which at that time was closed to Europeans. Disguised as a Jew, he was able to travel over 3000 kilometers in eleven months, writing about his experiences, including a number of occasions when his identity as a “Christian” was discovered and he was nearly killed.
Returning to France and to his family, Charles was received warmly by them. This, in turn, warmed his heart. “At the beginning of October of the year 1886, after six months of family life, while in Paris getting my journey to Morocco published, I found myself in the company of people who were highly intelligent, highly virtuous and highly Christian. At the same time, an extremely strong interior grace was pushing me. Even though I wasn’t a believer, I started going to Church. It was the only place where I felt at ease and I would spend long hours there repeating this strange prayer: ‘My God, if you exist, allow me to know you!’”
He was especially impressed by the example of his cousin, Marie de Bondy, a devout and deeply spiritual woman. Charles wrote to God, “You then inspired me with this thought: ‘Since this soul is so intelligent, the religion in which she believes cannot be folly. So let me study this religion: let me take a professor of the Catholic religion, a wise priest, and let me see what it is about and if I should believe what it says.’” De Foucauld found his wise priest in the person of one Fr. Huvelin. He asked for religious instruction. But, “He made me kneel down and made me go to confession, and sent me to communion right away. … If there is joy in heaven over one sinner who is converted, there was joy when I went into this confessional! … How good you have been! How happy I am!”
Charles de Foucauld was transformed. “As soon as I believed in God, I understood that I could not do otherwise than to live for him alone.” He first joined the Trappist in France, then in Syria. He lived with the Poor Clares in Nazareth. Finally, after being ordained a priest in 1901, he made his way back to Algeria, where he spent the rest of his life living among the Tauregs people. He desired to be among those who were, “the furthest removed, the most abandoned.” He lived among them as a brother, never trying to convert them from their Muslim faith except by the example of his love for them. “I would like to be sufficiently good that people say, ‘If such is the servant, what must the Master be like?’” He put together a rule for a religious community that he called the Union of the Brothers and Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The community never became a reality during his life. On the night of December 1, 1916, Charles de Foucauld was murdered by a gang of marauders who had dragged him from his hut. He never succeeded in converting even one person to Christ.
Charles de Foucauld died alone. The love and grace of God, however, had transformed the life of this man from one of debauchery, laziness and self-absorption to one of living completely for the sake of God and others, so that his life and writings have led many others to Christ over the century since his death. He is the inspiration for numerous religious communities across the world, from the Central African Republic, to Canada, to Vietnam and, of course, the United States and France, including the Little Brothers of Jesus, the Little Sisters of Jesus, Jesus Caritas and the Little Brothers of the Gospel. De Foucauld believed that his life’s calling was to love: “Let us concern ourselves with those who lack everything, those to whom no one gives a thought. Let us be the friends of those who have no friends, their brother. The love of God, the love of men, that is my whole life, that will be my whole life, I hope. When we can suffer and love, we can do much, the most that one can do in this world.” Charles de Foucauld was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
Elisabeth and Felix Leseur
Elisabeth Arrighi and Felix Leseur were married on July 31, 1899. Both came from wealthy Catholic Parisian families. Shortly before their marriage, however, Elisabeth learned that Felix no longer practiced his family’s Catholic faith. This was not an obstacle for her, however, since they shared a strong personal bond, and her own Catholic faith at the time was more one of social convention than deep conviction. Felix was a medical doctor, well known in Paris as the editor of an atheistic newspaper.
Their religious differences eventually became a trial for Elisabeth. Her husband would attack her Catholic faith, conventional as it was. This inspired in Elisabeth a desire to know more about her faith. As a result, at the age of thirty-two, she experienced a religious conversion. Her faith was now firmly embedded in her heart and soul, and she regarded the conversion of her husband as her primary mission. Elisabeth became concerned about the plight of the poor. She gave her time and money to charitable efforts to relieve their misery, though her own poor health (she suffered from hepatitis for most of her life) often made it difficult for her to be personally involved. Unbeknownst to Felix, she kept up an extensive spiritual correspondence with friends. She gave herself to prayer, spiritual reading and writing, and the life of the sacraments. Her health continued to deteriorate, and in May of 1914, Elisabeth died from cancer.
After her death, Felix came upon a note she had written him prophesying his conversion and his becoming a priest. Undeterred in his atheism, Felix made a trip to Lourdes, the site of St. Bernadette Soubirous’ visions and of miraculous healings. He intended to expose the healings as a sham. Instead, he experienced his own religious conversion. Felix began studies with the Dominicans and was ordained a priest in 1923. He dedicated much of his life as a priest to publishing his wife’s spiritual writings and preaching on her story and his conversion. In 1924, Fr. Leseur served as the spiritual director on a retreat in which a young Fr. Fulton Sheen participated. Sheen, of course, would later become famous for his own writings and his television series, Life is Worth Living. He often told the story of Elisabeth and Felix Leseur. Fr. Felix Leseur was instrumental in getting started the cause for his late wife’s canonization. In 1934, she was given the title Servant of God.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.