4 - In memory of Rene Voillaume 1905 -2003, Landmarks

On Friday September 22. 1933, around five in the evening, having come from Geryville, Brother Marcel, Brother Andre and I arrived at the 'bordj'(fort) of El Abiodh. Perched on the load carried by the small truck was Father Le Cordier, who came from Morocco having decided to accompany us for a few days. Father Le Cordier, whom I had known at the seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux, had been ordained two years before me. Later, he became the first bishop of the diocese of Saint-Denis in the north of Paris.

We were welcomed by a strong sand-wind that had accompanied us all along the way. The first night in our fraternity was a major event for us. It was as if a dream had come true! After so many years of waiting and preparation, we were finally in the desert, and in Islamic territory, in order to found there the fraternity that Brother Charles had desired so much. October 6, the Feast of St Bruno, the great founder of the Carthusians, was taken as our foundation day. We celebrated the first Mass. In the afternoon we took tea at the home of Si Bou Amama, our close neighbour, who had a long beard tinted with henna, who became one of our closest and most faithful friends.

El Abiodh Chapel of the BrothersEl Abiodh Chapel of the Brothers

We arrived in El Abiodh to lead a religious life of silence, solitude and prayer. However, we envisaged this communal and cloistered life as a presence in the Islamic world. We wanted to adapt in as many ways as possible to the Moslem religious mentality and to the customs of the population. Following Father de Foucauld meant that we were not going primarily to the desert but to encounter a population that we would take into our life, through our witness and our intercession. We had an active desire to be adopted by the tribes of Ouled-Sidi-Cheik. (Charles de Foucauld and his first disciples, Paris, 1998 available in French only)

I met Sister Magdeleine for the first time at El Golea on March 19, 1938, at the tomb of Charles de Foucauld. At that time this was just a first contact in the course of which I listened to her tell me of her plans to have sisters among the nomads.

1950 El Abiodh Tent with Rene Voillaume1950 El Abiodh Tent with Rene Voillaume

I then invited her to come and spend a few days of retreat at El Abiodh. Three months later, she arrived at El Abiodh. Despite my young age (I was only 33 at that time) she asked me to be her spiritual director. Her trust and openness about her plans and about everything she was living interiorly, remained consistent during the fifty years that our close collaboration lasted. (First document about Sister Magdeleine and Jesus)

There were so many things she said to me that I did not regard as important at the time, and which I now regret not having noted! My reactions from a too rational prudence, and a certain brusqueness due to the timidity of my temperament, must have often caused her pain or discouraged her. (To the Little Sisters of Jesus, March 25, 1991)

Exactly fifty years ago, the period that extends from February to May 1947 saw certain events unfold that would profoundly mark the orientation and development of the Fraternity of the Little Brothers of Jesus, and through them, all the other groups and institutes that have found their roots and their spirituality precisely because of these events. In many ways, the year 1947 was of fundamental importance for the future of the fraternities. The Little Sisters of Jesus were continuing their experience of working in factories, while the brothers set up their first 'worker fraternity' in Aix-en-Provence.

The spirituality of the fraternity is defined and expressed in various documents. The vocation and mission of the worker fraternities was defined by a series of "conferences" given to novices and in letters addressed to the brothers that were published three years later as a book with the title Au Coeur des Masses ("At the heart of the masses". The English translation of this book is called "Seeds of the Desert"). This collection of documents had been submitted to the Bishops in charge of the fraternities, who approved them, and also to Little Sister Magdeleine and the foundation in Aix was made in deep union with her. However, we satill had alot to learn, and our enthusiasm was not totally free of illusion.(To the brothers, Cepie, 1997)

After more than twelve years of cloistered life in the desert, it was as if we found ourselves suddenly incorporated into the great missionary movement that had just been born in the Church of France. (Charles de Foucauld and his first disciples, Paris, 1998 available in French only).

Never has the world had such need for signs of the Church. The most supernatural, the most divine values, are things the Church has to express exteriorly. The realism of the contemporary mind, the weariness provoked by advertising, by the press and the radio, by speeches and ideologies, mean that, more and more, people will only be convinced by concrete, living facts. But what signs does the world most expect,from the Church?

It is necessary that the Church should express, visibly, through its religious brothers and sisters, through its baptised members, through its militants, through its priests, the detachment and poverty that are the sign that it is concerned, before all else, with divine values. This poverty needs to be an expectation of something else; it is not only interior, it should also be apparent on the outside and translate itself into a language that the people of our times can understand. And it is here that material things, which in themselves are neutral, have a certain importance. An immense question is posed to the Church, and isn't it sad that only a small number are aware of this?

The second sign for the Church, which is more important than the first, is witnessing to true love for people and to the respect which is due to them. Here, too, the Church has to undergo some transformations in the way in which it has presented this sign up to now. Certainly works of assistance, of merciful charity, of very tender charity towards all those who suffer are important, but they are no longer enough. Wherever love for human beings is expressed through the Church, there is a thirst and an expectation in the world:

- To prepare the way for peace between people in a real and effective way;

- To condemn all the means of incredible destruction which are being created at the present time and to contribute to developing social justice; that there be a greater and more widespread attention in Christianity to the condition of the poor, wheresoever they may be.

Rene Voillaume at workRene Voillaume at work

There is, lastly, a final sign, that people expect from the Church and this is the sign of the transcendence of God, the sign of prayer, of the sacred, the sign of the One in whom the Church believes. In the face of the contemporary materialistic state of mind, accustomed to a new style, marked by the use of technology, the Church appears as somewhat badly adapted in some of its means of expression.

This is not a matter just of the liturgy, but of the Church's life of prayer within each one as much as in exterior signs (such as liturgical vestments, the style of Churches, etc.) The transcendent values of the divine life of the Church, which are expressed most deeply in its contemplative life, should co-exist with a total presence to the people of our times and to a true understanding of their needs. This is not contradictory because opposition between the transcendence and the presence of the Church to this world is resolved through interior values. The solution lies in the words of Christ:

"You are not of the world, but I am leaving you in the world. You are in the midst of the world without being of the world."
(A Council for our times, Cerf, 1961 - in French)

Once the foundation of the Fraternity in El Abiodh was completed, I was convinced that I was going to spend the rest of my life in this corner of the desert among the Ouled-Sidi-Cheik people to whom I was deeply bonded, and where I thought I would die one day. Providence, as you know, decided otherwise. But what perhaps you do not know are the conditions under which this came about, firstly in the extension of fraternities beyond El Abiodh, then beyond North Africa, and then my participation in various foundations by other groups or Secular Institutes, which have followed, one after another, especially during these last twenty years. As I have already had the opportunity to tell you, I do not believe that I ever took the lead; each time it was as if I was asked by Providence and advised by the hierarchy of the Church, in such a way that I could not doubt that my duty lay there. Through my whole temperament - and more deeply, I hope, through vocation - I aspired to live in the solitude of the desert, alone with the Lord. But it was precisely this desire to be faithful to my vocation that has led me, for some time already, to ask myself a question and to take today a decision that has matured over several months. I believe that the time has come for me to be more completely faithful to my responsibilities as a founder, and for the higher good of the Fraternity of the Little Brothers of Jesus, I am resigning as Prior, asking you to understand the reasons for this step, and asking you not to ask me to reconsider my decision. Although it is for me to take the initiative in this step, it is for all of you to sanction it in an atmosphere of fraternal affection and mutual trust. At the beginning of this letter, I talked to you about the fidelity that each of us should have to his vocation. For me, this fidelity consists of accepting, with all its consequences, the responsibility of founding the Fraternity of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of the Gospel. Not being able to avoid this task without failing in my duty, I thus need to take the means able t devote myself to it as required. (To the Little Brothers of Jesus, Christmas 1965)

1990 Chapter of Tarres Br Rene with three successive Priors:  Michael, Carlo and Rene Page1990 Chapter of Tarres Br Rene with three successive Priors: Michael, Carlo and Rene Page

At the time when the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus are reflecting on their thirty or twenty years experience of religious life and developing a clearer awareness of what their proper form of contemplative life following Jesus at Nazareth truly is, at the time when the Fraternities of the Gospel are, in their turn, discovering their apostolic life following the "evangelical worker", it is essential not to forget that for Brother Charles these forms of life were, before all else, simply the exterior consequence of an immense and passionate love, without compromise, for the person of Jesus.

Dare I say that, in the life of Brother Charles, we should not seek anything other than this lesson and this source of love for Jesus? For the rest, for things that concern this or that manner of realising the life of Nazareth or of following Jesus in his life as an evangelical worker, I do not believe that Brother Charles had a very defined mission. Didn't everything in his solitary life remain as unfulfilled intuition, successive desires and uncertain realisations? Trying to find in Brother Charles's life something other than the love of Jesus and fidelity to a few great intuitions would be to expose oneself to vain discussions and become distracted from the essentials of his message. May the Lord give us light! (Beni-Abbes, November 1966)

In your letters (received on the occasion of my 80th birthday), you have all told me of feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving for everything that my life at the service of the Fraternities has been. For my part, I can only thank the Lord for having called me, like many of you, to build up in the Church this spiritual structure that consists of the various Fraternities as a group, a structure that is founded on Brother Charles of Jesus in his life and in his death.

1996 Chapter of Taanayel, Br Rene with three most recent Priors: Carlo, Marc and Michael1996 Chapter of Taanayel, Br Rene with three most recent Priors: Carlo, Marc and Michael

I do not feel that I am anything much in all that, and I only feel a kind of astonishment at the role that Providence has led me to play, without me having been able to foresee it. And in all that I have been as nothing. I received the work from God much more than I contributed anything to it. I have many defects and also many faults and errors to reproach myself for: I recognise them. On the other hand, I do not believe that I have ever seriously felt the temptation to attribute to myself whatever useful things I have been able to do in the constructing of these various foundations. On the contrary, I have very often had the acute awareness that I have not known how to do it properly. This is an awareness that rests on my soul with peaceful clarity. Peaceful, yes, because having done what I could, the Lord could expect only this of me in choosing me as an instrument.(To brothers and sisters, August 13,1989)

It is very difficult to express the feelings I have in the face of such a loss, that of the last surviving brother of the first community of El Abiodh in 1933... I never feel surprised when I hear of the death of a brother, because it is with a view to this moment that we entered the Fraternity.

At my age this truth becomes more evident every year. Isn't it in the light of this moment that we should appreciate the events of this temporal world and learn to respect in every human being the seed of eternity that it is for us to venerate as a ray of the Glory of the Word Incarnate, and continue to make this present to the conscience of those whom the Lord entrusts to us, in one way or another, so that it may be, for all these people, a source of strength, love of life and fraternal communion in the Living One?

In the face of the burdens of the things of this present life and its trials, we may have a tendency to forget that Jesus came for this:

"God, in fact, loved the world so much that he gave his Son, his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life" (After the funeral of Brother Andre, July 22, 1986).