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Marthe Robin

A Prophetic Vision of the Gospel Message

Author(s): Bernard Peyrous

ISBN13: 9781847302373

ISBN10: 1847302378

Publisher: Veritas

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  • Marthe Robin is one of the most intriguing figures of the twentieth century. Born into a peasant family in a remote French village, by the age of eighteen she was confined to bed in a state of paralysis and by thirty-eight she was blind. Throughout her life, she received over 100,000 visitors, ranging from Church leaders and prominent intellectuals to farmers and school children, all seeking and receiving consolation, prayerful support and counsel.

    Her own identification with Jesus was so intense that she bore on her body the marks of his wounds and every Friday for many years experienced the Passion of Christ. However, she was no holier-than-thou mystic and insisted on her own ordinariness. Her courage and wisdom despite her suffering are an inspiration.

    This book, based on Bernard Peyrous’ uniquely comprehensive knowledge of Marthe Robins writings and the testimonies gathered for her beatification cause, traces not only her life and spiritual journey, but also the growth of the initial community she founded (Foyer of Charity) and of others born from it throughout the world.

  • Bernard Peyrous

    AND TRANSLATOR Bernard Peyrous, priest, doctor of letters and member of the Emmanuel Community, is an authority on the history of spirituality and the postulator for the cause for beatification of Marthe Robin. He was helped in the writing of this book by Marie-Thérèse Gill, vice-postulator and a member of the Foyer of Charity. Kathryn Spink, author of numerous spiritual biographies, is the translator of Jean Vanier’s Made for Happiness, as well as many of Dominique Lapierre’s books.

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  • A SMALL VILLAGE IN FRANCE (1902 , 1917)

    Peoples life stories are often intertwined with that of their place of origin. Marthe Robin is no exception. She was a child of the small French village of Ch?óteauneuf-de-Galaure.


    Marthe Robin was born in 1902 in Ch?óteauneuf-de-Galaure, in eastern central France, the former province of Dauphin?®, in the d?®partement of Dróme and the diocese of Valence, seventy kilometres south of the city of Lyon and forty-six kilometres north of Valence, which is the pr?®fecture and the seat of the bishopric.

    Ch?óteauneuf is situated in the valley of the Galaure, a small tributary of the Rhóne into which it rushes some twenty kilometres to the west. The district encompasses two sorts of terrain: the valley itself which is fertile and flat, and the hillsides above it. As for the actual village, the old part is situated on the hill slopes. A more recent part has been built alongside a secondary road which runs through the valley. In former times it was dominated by a ch?óteau which gave it its name: the new castle or manor house, which over the years belonged to the Moirans family and then to the Montchenus. After that it fell into disrepair with only a section of the main building and the stables remaining. Apart from the main agglomeration which had 676 inhabitants at that time, Ch?óteauneuf was made up of two separate ones: Saint-Bonnet-de-Galaure with 539 inhabitants and Treigneux with 137. Saint-Bonnet subsequently became an independent district. At the beginning of the twentieth century the three units, Ch?óteauneuf, Saint-Bonnet and Treigneux, were three separate parishes. Ch?óteauneuf was then a rural district with most of its occupants, apart from a few craftsmen, living off the land. This was right in the depths of pre-First World War France, in a world that was slowly paced and linked to the soil, in which people worked hard for a living and had no State assistance on which to rely. It was a society with well-established reference points; everyone knew who they were and what they had to do. People did not call morality, or the love of work or homeland, into question. Most residents expected to marry locally and carry on the family farm. As we shall see, however, the world had already started to change.

    On the hillsides above the valley were several hamlets with a few houses clustered together. In a place called La Plaine (meaning the plateau), one of these hamlets was known as Mo?»lles. It was made up of three farms: the Achard farm and two others very close together, occupied at that time by cousins: the two Robin families. They shared their agricultural buildings under the same roof. The well was also communal. Mo?»lles felt quite a long way from the village two kilometres below. The landscape was completely different. It was not at all like being in the valley. From the hillside when the sky was clear the view was vast. To the east you could see the Jura Mountains, the Alps with Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe (4,807 metres), the mountainous mass of La Chartreuse above Grenoble, Le Royans and Le Vercors. To the west, beyond the Rhóne, the mountains of Vivarais with Mount Pilat were visible, and the view to the south stretched as far as Mount Loz?¿re , approximately two hundred kilometres of mountains lay to the east and a little less to the west. Later Marthe Robin was to say: From the poplar (about three hundred metres from her farm) you can see a quarter of France. An obvious exaggeration, but indicative of what the locals said. Sometimes on the hillside the view was limitless and the air invigorating.
    There was nothing to obstruct the wind from the mountains.

    Marthes father, Joseph Robin, and family owned their farmhouse and thirteen hectares of agricultural land. It was not a large concern and land on the hillside was less fertile than in the valley. The Robins were not rich. Their farm might even be described as modest but they had a home of their own on their own land. They were not part of the agricultural proletariat, nor could they really be described as poor. They had what they needed to live, even if it was at the price of much labour and devoid of luxury. The children went to the primary school which at that time provided an excellent foundation for the rest of life. But it was a not very cultured, perhaps even rough, environment.

    As I have said, the world had started to change. The Galaure Valley was affected by the anticlerical struggle that defined a good part of life in the Third Republic. In the nineteenth century the State had not involved itself , or involved itself very little , in education. Consequently districts had often turned to religious who were inexpensive and provided an education acknowledged to be sound and reliable, and that gave the children religious instruction. The Third Republic drove these religious out and replaced them with teachers from training colleges that were, according to the teacher, novelist, playwright and filmmaker, Marcel Pagnol, anticlerical seminaries. At Ch?óteauneuf, after the Brothers and Sisters had left, the lay school became a centre for subjecting children to anti-religious propaganda. An anti-Christian group was formed in the village and brought pressure to bear on the local people. A Masonic lodge even set itself up in Ch?óteauneuf and more or less controlled the elections. On one occasion Marthe Robin was to have her Catechism book torn up in one of the village streets. In 1961 she recounted: One day I was on my way to Catechism class. I had a copy under my arm in a brown cover; a gentleman from Ch?óteauneuf asked me, Where are you going? I answered him quite proudly, To Catechism. And whats that? He pointed to my Catechism book. Show it to me. I handed it to him. He took it and tore it in two But I was so attached to that book that I kept it after that, torn as it was, as a relic I must have been seven or eight years old. Faith in the Church diminished and religious practice waned. Men went less frequently to Mass and whole families dropped away. In Ch?óteauneuf the number of Easter communicants fell from 105 men and 200 women in 1897 to 37 men, 92 women and 47 children in 1926. The clergy spoke out adamantly against the drive to de-Christianise. True, religious life still went on: all the children were baptised, people married in churches and there were very few civil burials but there was a real crisis in the very heart of the countryside.


    In those days women gave birth at home so Marthe Robin was born in her parents farmhouse at 5 p.m. on Thursday 13 March 1902. She was the last child of her parents, Joseph and Am?®lie, who had married in 1889. Five children had preceded her: C?®lina, Marie-Gabrielle, Alice-Victorine, Henri-Joseph and Cl?®mence. Their father had a reputation for being an affable, kind man, very good with his hands but authoritarian, and their mother was a smiling, friendly woman. It would seem, however, that husband and wife went through a difficult patch. Am?®lie Robin is purported to have had an affair with a farm-hand employed by the Robin cousins. Word went round the family and the locality that Marthe was not her fathers legitimate daughter. She herself is thought to have believed it. Although several testimonies seem to imply Marthes illegitimate conception, however, there is not enough evidence to be completely sure.

    Even if the affair did take place it seems certain that the father forgave his wife. He recognised Marthe as his daughter. More than that, there were occasions when he showed special affection for her. Similarly Marthes mother really loved her daughter and was to prove it. Marthe would speak of her parents as the two people I cherish most on this earth. Child upbringing was very strict then. I wasnt a spoilt child, Marthe was later to say. But if her background was tough, it was not without qualities of the heart. Her parents were generous to passing beggars, especially during the First World War, and they taught their children to be generous too, even encouraging them to give the beggars some of their own food.

    Marthe Robins childhood was that of any little girl living in the country, following the rhythm of the seasons and the work in the fields, close to nature and animals. As soon as children were capable of doing so they used to help with small jobs. As a very young girl, in summer she would take drinks out to the men working the threshing machine. Little by little the children learned to cope in a number of domains and do useful things with modest means. The farm was like a very small family enterprise in which everyone had their role. Grandfather Robin lived on the farm, as was usual at the time, and helped out where he could (his wife Thérèse had died in 1888). In November 1903, however, the household was disrupted by typhoid fever, brought on by polluted well water. Four people were affected. The grandfather died of it. The two frailest children , Cl?®mence, who was five, and Marthe, who was one , were taken seriously ill. Cl?®mence died on 12 November 1903 and Marthe was believed to be lost. After two months of illness, she started to recover but was to remain frail throughout her childhood.

    Fragile as she was, Marthe still had to go to school. Her sisters had gone to a Catholic girls school but it had been closed by the anticlerical government in 1905, so she was obliged to attend the State school in the lower end of the village in the valley, near the station. From the age of five she used to walk the two kilometres in the morning and afternoon. On the way back there was a very steep slope to climb. At midday she would eat the snack she had brought with her at one of her friends houses. She stayed on at school until she was thirteen which was not compulsory at the time and took her beyond primary education. The fact that her schooling was slightly extended suggests that her parents considered she had the ability to study. She was frequently ill, however, and could not pass her school certificate, an exam to which great importance was attached at the time.

    We know virtually nothing about Marthes experience of school. She does not seem to have been unhappy there, much less traumatised by it. In those days a close eye was kept on children and any aggression between them was curbed by strict supervision. Boys and girls were segregated. Marthe seems to have been a rather happy, even somewhat mischievous, pupil. She was always to have a sense of humour. Some effects of the instruction she received would no doubt remain with her and form foundations on which she could build: a sharpened sense of historical chronology and geography, the love of appropriate and precise words, a supple, simple and direct use of the French language. By the time she left school, her intellectual world was limited, but it was still much better organised and effective than that of most contemporary children of the same age.

    Marthe had good relationships with her family. Henri Robin, her brother, was described as timid, which could imply many things, including limited intelligence and difficulty in relation?¼ships. Perhaps he was also a little crushed by his fathers personality. He would never really be able to work out where he belonged and problems arose as a result. Marthe was later to say: I loved my brother very much because he was timid and his timidity made him awkward. I always defended him. With her sisters Marthe had excellent relations. In 1908 the eldest, C?®lina, married Claudius Serve and went to live in Saint-Sorlin. Marthe felt her elder sister was being taken away from her and reacted badly to the marriage. She was very upset. It was only from seeing C?®lina happy with her husband that she derived some consolation. She stayed in their home on several occasions. The second daughter, Gabrielle, loved a young man and wanted to marry him but fell pregnant by him. His parents opposed their marriage. She gave birth to Gabriel-Raymond in 1914. The father acknowledged the child as his but died in the war in 1916. Marthe remained close to her sister and nephew. Alice, the sister closest to her in age, was in the same class at school. She married in 1924.


    In the meantime something different, something that transcended all this was beginning to happen to Marthe. Even as a child she had known about prayer: I always loved God very much indeed as a little girl All my life I have always prayed a great deal, in my bed and everywhere. But she was coming to know God more closely. Initially there did not seem anything exceptional about her compared with friends born at the same time. Her parents were believers but not practicing. Her father did, however, receive Holy Communion at Easter, which allows us to suppose that her mother did too. Although baptised, her brother Henri did not go to Catechism classes. Marthe suffered greatly over this spiritual deficiency, and in 1930 was to say of her family: What I ask above all else is that my good parents return to the faith and to religious practice. Cousin Ferdinand Robin in the house next door was indifferent to religion. The neighbouring Achards had no faith. By contrast her sisters Alice and Gabrielle went regularly to Mass on Sundays and Marthe definitely accompanied them.

    At first Marthe went to Catechism classes in Saint-Bonnet because the Mo?»lles hamlet was part of that parish, but it was much further away than Ch?óteauneuf and in the end the priest, Abb?® Hippolyte Caillet, agreed to Marthes going to Ch?óteauneuf where Abb?® Cluze was the parish priest. Abb?® Cluze taught Catechism with the help of his housekeeper. Marthe was somewhat put out when she had to recite her lessons by heart, as was usual at that time. She was always to show signs of an exceptional memory. But she did not much like the highly moralising and guilt-provoking way the Catholic faith was presented. There is no love in this Catechism, she was later to say, which was exactly right. The Catechism did have the advantage of being very precise and quite complete, but it was not infused with any perceptible feeling of spiritual inspiration and the religious faith it presented was restricted in form. What Marthe was seeking was an experience of God. It was not long in coming.

    Marthe made her First Holy Communion with a friend on 15 August 1912. She did so late because she had the measles on the day originally set for the ceremony. This was her first contact with God: I think Our Lord took possession of me at my First Holy Communion. I believe he already took me to himself at that moment. My First Holy Communion was something very sweet. At that time children were given a Rosary. Marthe had certainly not been given one previously by her family. She made a habit of reciting it: When I was little and used to go on errands to the village I would always have my Rosary in my pocket and used to say it as I walked along. Her Solemn Communion took place on 21 May 1914. It seems that Marthe had a real desire for Holy Communion then, and that on Sundays when she was looking after the livestock she would still sometimes arrange things so that she could go and receive the Eucharist. She was already experiencing intimacy with God and was able to identify his hand at work in her environment: The desire to pray I sometimes had was definitely something that he himself was bringing about in me. As soon as there was less sensitivity on my part, he would call me back to him through this desire, and it was like intimacy with God. I think I felt God; it was more than prayer. Whats more I found him everywhere in nature, which helped me greatly to see him beyond it, even as a little girl. I found him in my neighbour and especially in priests. His person would call me to prayer without anything being said to me: the sight of a priest always moved me. Why? It was not for me to understand. What did I know more than others? I loved sick people very much and I would have crossed hills and vales if I had been allowed to, to go and see someone who was ill, not to nurse them but to love them.

    When she left school in 1915, Marthe helped on the family farm. She learned the thousand jobs that countrywomen do, looking after the livestock for example. She was charged with tending and milking the goats, and would always retain her love of animals. She also learned to cook. She learned to embroider. Pretty embroidery work of the kind done in the countryside was a way of earning money and of passing the time when rural labour died in winter. It was also a way of expressing herself, of doing something beautiful. Marthe became very adept at a craft which exercised the fingers in a particularly precise way. She and her thimble were not to be separated.

    Mutual support was strong in the country. Marthe used to go down to the village to do the shopping. Her sister Gabrielle was a seamstress. Marthe would deliver the dresses she made to the clients. The husband of her sister C?®lina, who had become Mme Serve, went off to war. His wife, who had two small children, one of them a baby, had to work in the fields. Marthe spent six months with her during the winter of 1915, 1916 when the second child was born. She was to go back there in the following year. She looked after the house. I often did the cooking with Robert in my arms, she was later to say.

    She then went through a relative cooling-off period: I was lukewarm for a while around the age of fourteen but it didnt last. She swiftly returned to the faith of her childhood. So at the time when her personality was being formed, Marthe appears to have been an intelligent, happy girl, open to the future, helpful, ready to tease in a way which suggested a sense of humour and a pleasant way with people. She had a temper. When she was younger it was not unknown for her to stamp her feet in anger. She was fearful by nature and did not like making the long trip alone to Saint-Bonnet to fetch string for the tobacco crop, but she went nonetheless. She learned to overcome her feelings and obey. She was a wholesome, devout little farm girl no doubt like many others in the France of that time.
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