Marthe Robin and the Foyers of Charity, by Martin Blake, (Theotokos Books, 156 pages, 2010, £7.95), reviewed in the July-August 2010 edition of Faith Magazine.
It is difficult reading about the life of a mystic. In fact I tend to resist doing solots of information about visions, and ecstasies, and hours spent in prayer, often written in a very sentimental style, can be rather irritating. So, although I knew something of the story of Marthe Robin, and knew she was the inspiration behind a significant new movement in the Church, the Foyers de Charité, I opened this book with some reluctance.
But in fact it is an unsentimental and interesting book, which sets out the facts of this unusual story very well. Marthe Robin was a young Frenchwoman, born in 1902, who contracted an illness while in her late teens, and eventually became an invalid, living in a darkened room because any light caused her intense pain, but writing and speaking in an ordinary way and revealing extraordinary wisdom, faith, and knowledge of spiritual things all conveyed with kindness and affection to her many visitors.
Put like that, it all sounds rather simple and indeed in a strange way it was. Her illness began with unexplained headaches and lapses into unconsciousness. She was a matter-of-fact young woman from a farming family, and not one to seek attention or be encouraged in doing so. She sought medical help but found no relief. Gradually she came to understand that her physical sufferings which increased and became very severe were part of a deep spiritual reality and that God was asking great things of her.
Through Marthe’s friendship with a priest, Father Finet, the Foyers of Charity came into existence. Marthe explained how it would all be: there were to be groups of people gathered for silent retreats. She explained the sort of programme they should have, and emphasised that these retreats were specifically for lay people, and that all of this was in due course to be something important for the Church in France and in the world. All of this, and much more, was revealed to her as she lay in bed and experienced visions and locutions from Christ and from Our Lady.
It seems strange to think of an ill Frenchwoman lying in the dark and instructing a priest to run a retreat for a large group of people whom she had never met and who would be gathered together by unknown means. But that is what happened. He believed that this was a project he should undertake and he went away and obeyed her instructions, finding that it all came together just as she had said it would. Something quite unusual was occurring and it still goes on.
The first Foyer retreat proved inspirational, and would be followed by others. From these, communities were founded which today run retreat-centres and also schools. In a time of turmoil in the Church, the Foyers have indeed proved to be crucial and in France have been centres of joyful faith, prayer, devotion and doctrinal orthodoxy. They are often hailed as being an authentic example of what the Second Vatican Council really wanted to achieve, in terms of an active and informed laity working to pass on the Faith and to bring it alive in the hearts of those to whom the Church had seemed remote and boring.
Marthe gained nothing, humanly speaking, from her life as a bedridden invalid. Her family was of very modest means, and her physical sufferings were very considerable. But all her visitors spoke of her cheerfulness, her attention to others’ needs rather than her own, her common sense and kindness. She never courted any sort of public acknowledgement. Her life of prayer was something between her and God but she did know that she was meant to pass on certain information, such as that concerning the work that was to become the Foyers. However, as her reputation as a mystic grew, visitors came, and people would ask her to pray about their problems and difficulties, and also to seek her advice.
This book is written with affection by some one who obviously found the whole story a very powerful one. It is undeniable that Marthe Robin’s extraordinary life produced a whole new movement in the Church, and that this was achieved without her ever leaving her sickbed. It is a tale that could belong in the distant past, and has echoes of the lives of other mystics whose 1ives have illuminated the Church. But this is France in the 20th century, and the work begun by Marthe is flourishing and growing all the time.
Marthe took a great interest in all the details of the retreats run by the Foyers. On one occasion a priest was giving her details of the simple meals that were being provided, and she asked what the retreatants were being given for the cheese course “et pour le fromage?” She was insistent that the food should be good, and all the Foyers simply but pleasantly furnished. She also supervised the sending of large numbers of parcels to poor families, initiating a massive work of charity today [some] Foyer members send parcels to, among others, people in prison, with gifts of chocolate, soap, Bibles, rosaries, and religious literature.
The life of a Foyer is centred on the Eucharist, with Adoration as a central part of the programme of all retreats. There is great devotion to the Rosary. At the heart of each Foyer is a community of people who have chosen to give their lives to this vocation. Some Foyers run schools, [and] all run retreat centres.
Many vocations to the priesthood or religious life in France have begun at a Foyer retreat. The Foyers are also associated with producing and publicising good devotional and catechetical materials.
And at the core of all this is the life of a mystic who suffered, prayed, and gave herself wholly to God. Marthe Robin’s cause for beatification has been introduced, so we will all be hearing about her in the years to come. This remarkable paperback is an excellent introduction [to the life of this mystic]. And it made me think that it would be rather good to have a Foyer in Britain.