Madeleine Debrel provides an interesting model for those living in the world yet seeking to be wholly consecrated to God. She could see clearly the need in her own day for "real faith" - that is, the faith that has as it's primary concern the handing of oneself over to Christ. Only this allows the Good News not simply to be held but truly proclaimed.
Peter Casarella (2001) captures the fundamental focus of Madeleine's life as follows:
"Madeleine grew up without a Catholic upbringing in a middle-class, French family. By the age of fifteen, she was by her own estimation “a strict atheist” and felt herself to be in an increasingly absurd world. The biographically arranged collection, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, accordingly opens with the earnest musings of a seventeen year-old entitled: “God is dead…Long live death!” Once her family moved to Paris, she became steeped in the intellectual life of that city and was soon attending philosophy lectures at the Sorbonne. Then suddenly she underwent an unexpected conversion at the age of twenty. In spite of her attachment to reflection, her conversion was not just the discovery of a new idea: “By reading and reflecting I found God; but by praying I believed that God found me and that he is a living reality, and that we can love him in the same way that we can love a person.” Enthusiasm on the part of a new convert is hardly atypical; however, Madeleine, a self-described “reporter of God’s eternal newness,” maintained the vibrancy of this initial encounter for the next forty years of her life. Few aspects of her very busy life make sense without recognizing in them the lived conviction that Christian faith was for her an all or nothing proposition. In 1933 she arrived in Ivry-sur-Seine, a hotbed of Communism in the suburbs of Paris. She remained in that city for most of her life, laboring at first privately and then on the city’s payroll for the ordinary people of the streets. Starting in 1941 she served as a lay advisor to the French bishops’ Mission de France, a seminary whose main apostolate was to re-evangelize the country. In 1943 Cardinal Suhard founded Mission de Paris, an effort to form bonds of lay and clerical solidarity with the urban working class. These activities fueled Madeleine’s conviction that Christians today are called to be “missionaries without a boat.”
For Madeleine the focus of evangelization was neither a formal system of apologetics nor the platitude that the witness of an individual life suffices. She recognized that the principal threat was not the vocal denial of the idea of God but the systematic and quiet filing away of the Creator into a realm remote from all thinking and acting. “By a strange act of substitution, creation has taken the place of the Creator…[we live] in an age in which God will no longer be denied or forced away, but simply excluded.” Such a frank avowal of the practical “a-theism” of contemporary culture sets both an internal and external agenda for the Church. In terms of Christian self-examination, this insight forces the issue of distinguishing between what Madeleine termed “a Christian mentality” and real faith. In a situation where everyday a-theism is not confronted, excessive moralism, overly restrictive political commitments, and the adoption of certain lifestyles and customs dominate the Christian consciousness. Ecclesial obedience is thought to be sterile and lifeless. The freedom that derives from handing oneself over to Christ is secondary. “When faith is faith,” by contrast, “it holds firm.” A faith distorted in favor of its own naturalization cannot evangelize in atheist milieus. A Christian mentality is not firm enough to grasp the full consequences of life without God, for the Christian mentality reduces the challenge of evangelization to a discussion of variant religious outlooks. For such Christians the Good News is held but not proclaimed because even to the Christian there is a self-conscious worry that the news might seem old."
Below are quotes from "Ordinary People of the Streets" that capture how living in the extraordinary love of Christ transforms the simplest actions of our day into moments in which heaven is given to us and through which we are able to given heaven to others.
We, the ordinary people of the streets, are certain we can love God as much he might desire to be loved by us.
We don't regard love as something extraordinary but as something that consumes. We believe that doing little things for God is as much a way of loving him as doing great deeds.
Besides, we're not very well informed about the greatness of our acts. There are nevertheless two things we know for sure: first, whatever we do can't help but be small; and second, whatever God does is great.
And so we go about our activities with a sense of great peace.
We know that all our work consists in not shifting about under grace; in not choosing what we would do; and that it is God who acts through us.
There is nothing difficult for God; the one who grows anxious at difficulties is the one who counts on his own capacity for action.
Because we find that love is work enough for us, we don't take the time to categorize what we are doing as either "contemplation" or "action."
We find that prayer is action and that action is prayer. It seems to us that truly loving action is filled with light.
It seems to us that a soul standing before such action is like a night that is full of expectation for the coming dawn. And when the light breaks, when God's will is clearly understood, she lives it out gently, with poise, peacefully watching her God inspiring her and at work within her. It seems to us that action is also an imploring prayer. It does not at all seem to us that action nails us down to our field of work, our apostolate, or our life.
Quite the contrary, we believe that an action perfectly carried out at the time and place it is required of us binds us to the whole Church, sends us out throughout her body, making us disposable in her.
Our feet march upon a street, but our heartbeat reverberates through the whole world. That is why our small acts, which we can't decide whether they're action or contemplation, perfectly join together the love of God and the love of our neighbor.
Giving ourselves over to his will at the same time gives us over to the Church, whom the same will continuously makes our saving mother of grace.
Each docile act makes us receive God totally and give God totally, in a great freedom of spirit.
And thus life becomes a celebration.
Each tiny act is an extraordinary event, in which heaven is given to us, in which we are able to give heaven to others.
It makes no difference what we do, whether we take in hand a broom or a pen. Whether we speak or keep silent. Whether we are sewing or holding a meeting, caring for a sick person or tapping away at a typewriter.
Whatever it is, it’s just the outer shell of an amazing inner reality: the soul’s encounter, renewed at each moment, in which, at each moment, the soul grows in grace and becomes ever more beautiful for her God.
Is the doorbell ringing? Quick, open the door! It’s God coming to love us. Is someone asking us to do something? Here you are! … it’s God coming to love us. Is it time to sit down for lunch? Let’s go … it’s God coming to love us.
from "We the Ordinary People of the Streets"
by Madeleine Delbrel