My Discovery of Little Sister Magdeleine

Just as a friend, first impressions

Five years later and almost a year after the death of Little Sister Magdeleine, Little Sister Iris-Mary telephoned me to say that you were looking for someone to write the biography of this woman whom I had encountered only so cursorily through Brother Roger. I was heavily committed to two other books. I made various excuses. But after several more telephone calls... (Last time I was at Tre Fontane, I told the story of how Little Sister Iris-Mary invited me to come 'just as a friend', and so in a way that I could hardly refuse)... I agreed to come 'as a friend', without the slightest inkling of what that friendship would entail. Before leaving England I tried to find out a little more about Little Sister Magdeleine. The sum total of what I discovered was not very helpful: she had, I was told, been obliged to struggle with the Roman Catholic Church authorities in order that her congregation might live the poverty of the poor working class. She was suspected of being rather mistrustful of psychology. She had led a hidden life behind the Iron Curtain. She had been 'remarkable but sometimes difficult'. Such diverse and fairly superficial impressions seemed to me to lack a certain fundamental unity.

And then I received by post, courtesy of Jean Vanier, (who, I was later to discover, was behind the invitation to come to Rome) Little Sister Magdeleine's two published books: 'Du Sahara au monde entier' ('He took me by the Hand') and 'D'un bout du monde a 1'autre'. I was only able to read the first and that only very swiftly before arriving at Tre Fontane. My first impressions were of a woman with a surprising practical sense, who was good with her hands, who at Sidi Boujnan, had been capable of becoming 'architect, mason, labourer and carpenter' all rolled into one.
She was someone concerned with the details of life, who took the trouble to explain to her readers that in her book 'a series of dots did not always indicate that the text had been cut, but more often arose because of considerations of style'.
She was a demanding woman who could not hide her initial reaction of disappointment even from her faithful friend Athman, when she discovered that the dome he had built on the Sacred Heart koubba was not quite straight on its axis.
What struck me most, however, was that she was someone who loved. It is a word which recurs frequently in her book: ‘I love them very much', she wrote of the nomads; and the same applied to the factory workers she encountered, her first Little Sisters, the Pope and the Church. It seemed to me that with her love was something which expressed itself most frequently in a practical concrete way, in the desire to provide fordaily needs. But it was also something very much more.    
To love' was 'to be like'. Already at Boghari an Arab who wanted to thank her for having come to live amongst his people to care for them, said to her: 'You love us, you are like us!' and in January 1937 she made a note of the fact in her diary.
When I read 'Du Sahara au monde entier' for the first time, I had not yet discovered the full significance of this association of ideas but I copied that sentence into the notebook that accompanies me everywhere.
I also noted down what she wrote a little later at Sidi Boujnan when, admitting that she had become 'really one of their race' and that she felt their humiliation as if it were her own, she also claimed: 'We love each other dearly. My eyes tell them so'.