Marthe Robin and the Foyers of Charity, by Martin Blake, (Theotokos Books £7.95)
Marthe Robin: Modern Stigmatist, Mystic, and Foundress
When I encounter alleged mystics giving out directions from heaven, my first reaction is to run for cover. My negative reaction is even stronger if the person in question has devoted followers, and stronger still if he or she is physically handicapped, because such handicaps often incite a presumption of authenticity. I’m also an extremely distant stranger to personality cults. Too many people seem to be too easily deceived by preternatural claims. I’ve seen enough frauds to last me several lifetimes. But there are occasionally real mystics who deserve recognition for their holiness. St. Pio (Padre Pio) comes to mind as a pre-eminent recent example. So one must be cautions without being closed.
Imagine my chagrin, then, when Donal Foley of Theotokos Books in the UK put me in the position of saying something useful about Marthe Robin, the twentieth-century foundress of the Foyers of Charity. Foley offered me a copy of the new English biography of this extraordinary woman by Martin Blake, and it seemed cautiously right to read it. I did detect some evidence of excessive enthusiasm in the book, but only a little. One gets a slight hint that true devotés of Robin give her credit not only for her own Foyers but also for: Vatican II, the reformed liturgy, the apostolate of the laity, a wide variety of new ecclesial communities, the completion of the work of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and collaboration in St. Faustina’s mission of Divine Mercy. But while there is certainly a clear spiritual connection between Robin and the Little Flower, this name-dropping is mostly a legitimate tracing of connections among similar movements which the Holy Spirit very clearly inspired during the course of the last century.
In the end, I find I am unable to brush Marthe Robin off. Born to peasant farmers in France in 1902, she became partially paralyzed in 1918; within a few years she completely lost the use of her legs, arms and hands. Her interior life developed even as her exterior life failed. From about 1930 until her death in 1981, Marthe began experiencing the passion of Christ each Friday, including the stigmata, with frequent loss of blood. She was confined to a couch in a dark room, from which she never rose. She also reportedly never ate, drank or slept. But she said she received visits from St. Thérèse, from Our Lady and from Our Lord, including instructions concerning her divinely-given mission to collaborate with Fr. Georges Finet to found the Foyers of Charity, which have since spread throughout the world. She also received more strictly natural visitors unceasingly, well over 100,000 of them, many of whom came away encouraged or completely transformed.
As Blake very fairly points out, the Foyers of Charitythe first of which was founded in 1936 in Marthe’s home village of Châteauneuf-de-Galaurewere somewhat unusual for their time. They incorporated a strong emphasis on the apostolate of the laity, with lay men and women together sharing in common all their goods and striving to bring about “the family of God on earth”, adopting Mary as their mother and under the guidance of a priest father, “in a continuous effort of charity” (to quote Fr. Finet). Each Foyer adapts itself to the customs and needs of the region in which it develops, but “by their life of prayer and work in the world they bear witness to Light, Charity and Love” (again quoting Fr. Finet), providing not only a source of authentic renewal but a true haven for all visitors. (Marthe explained that the word “charity” refers to the relations among the men and women of the Foyer, while the word “love” refers to their relationship with God.) Through the priest assigned to direct it, each Foyer is firmly rooted in both the larger mission and the hierarchical structure of the Church. The Foyers often include schools for young people and/or special facilities for those with disabilities, but their chief apostolic work is to form and educate lay people through five-day retreats.
There are now over 70 Foyers (literally “hearths”, or places of welcome) throughout the world, most in Europe and Africa, but also in India, the Far East, and North and South America. Catholics as notable as Jean Guitton of the Académie Française have written inspiring books about Marthe Robin, and apostles as notable as Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe, OP (founder of the Community of St. John) have been profoundly influenced by her life, theological insight and mysticism. Although there are Foyers in Canada, the United States, and Ireland, the movement is not as widespread in the English-speaking world as elsewhere, a fact Martin Blake hopes to change through his book.
The book itself is not brilliant biography. Seldom does the reader sense he is coming to know deeply Marthe Robin, Fr. Finet, or those who committed themselves to the first Foyer. For example, very little is made out of the journals Marthe dictated or her spiritual teachings in general. Clearly there is still much to be done. But Blake does provide the essential information through both a direct recounting of Robin’s life and the insights of other authors who have written extensively about her in French. In any case, this is a much-needed introduction for English readers.
The “Canonical Structures” of the Foyers were first submitted to Rome in 1986, and approved by the Pontifical Council for the Laity in 1999. Further information is available on the web at: www.foyer-de-charite.com/. All in all, I’m pretty sure there is no need to run from either the Foyers or Marthe Robin, who seems to have been speaking with the strictest honesty when she said:
I have no other dream than to conform myself at every moment with the suffering and Eucharistic life of our Divine Savior, to unite my host with His Host, so that my heart may be consecrated with His Heart to the Glory of the Father for the salvation of the world. For the more my life is submitted to God and in conformity with the Redeemer, the more I shall participate in the achievement of His Work.