“Refuse God nothing ….”
~ St. Jeanne Jugan
Do movie trailers ever make you cry? Here’s one that always gets to me:
Of Gods and Men (2010) tells the story of the Tibhirine martyrs, seven French Trappists who refused to abandon their Algerian monastery during the 1990s’ civil war, despite government requests and offers of assistance. The monks were kidnapped by Islamic extremists in March 1996, and then found dead two months later. The cause of death remains controversial – some say the extremists were responsible; others claim the military accidentally killed the men in a raid – but the fact remains that the monks chose to stay put in the face of tremendous risk.
I recommend the film frequently, and that often involves tracking down the trailer online to forward via email. Invariably, I end up watching the trailer again, and, even though I know it’s coming, I always burst into tears when the prior asks, “Who prefers to stay?” and the monks all raise their hands.
My tears and sudden surge of emotion associated with that one scene are related to two things I think: The painful drama that unfolds so exquisitely in the film, to be sure, but also my awareness that I probably would’ve chosen differently than the Trappists. I mean, really, who has that kind of courage? I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing I would’ve packed it in long before that episode – maybe a shrug of the shoulders and apologies to my brother monks, but grabbing the first night train outta’ Dodge.
Saints aren’t like that though.
Which brings me to St. Jeanne Jugan – it’s her feast today. In 1839, in Saint-Servan, France, Jugan was inspired to take in an abandoned, infirm elderly woman, giving up her own bed in order to do so. “This was the initial spark that kindled a great blaze of charity,” as the Vatican’s biography of Jugan puts it, and it led to the founding of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international congregation dedicated to the care of the indigent elderly.
Jugan is one of my nursing heroes, and her story (along with Rose Hathorne’s) convinced me to quit my church job some 15 years ago and go to nursing school. What inspired me was her selflessness and humility – I wanted to be like her when I grew up, and I knew it wasn’t an accident that she manifested those traits in the context of caring for the sick. It’s an apostolate that seems to be a constant in the lives of so many saints, at least for a season – which only makes sense. Nursing is exhausting work, demanding and exacting, and if you’re not a praying person when you take it up, you’ll be pleading for God’s help soon enough.
Plus, nursing compels us to turn away from our petty egos and toward the needs of others – note the word “compel.” Selflessness is not something we’re naturally inclined to, we self-absorbed humans, but once we become responsible for doing for others what they can’t do for themselves (the heart of nursing), then there’s no time for fixating reflexively.
It helps in that regard, as Jugan reminds us, that the ill and infirm in our care are really Christ himself in disguise. “My little ones, never forget that the poor are Our Lord,” she was known to say. “In caring for the poor say to yourself: This is for my Jesus – what a great grace!” In other words, when our human reserves of charity toward our sick patients and neighbors begin to ebb, we can default to that mystical encounter with the hidden Christ and, please God, find our charity replenished.
But it’s not St. Jeanne’s example of heroic charity that leads me to compare her to the Tibhirine Trappists. Instead, it’s what happened to her once the Little Sisters really took off. Due to political maneuvering and ecclesial power brokering, Jugan was forced from her leadership role in 1843, and was reduced to begging on the street to support the order’s work. Then, in 1852, when the congregation gained official recognition by the local church, Jugan was denied even the opportunity to collect alms, and was forced into retirement for the last 27 years of her life.
Outrageous, right? One of the greatest saints of her age, sidelined and practically discarded – much like the very discarded elders she set out to serve in her congregation. If it had been me being sidelined, I’m pretty sure I would’ve objected and complained. And then, I probably would’ve advocated for my rights, and insisted on proper recognition and respect.
Not so, St. Jeanne.
In 1879, the congregation’s constitutions were approved by Pope Leo XIII. Ironically, Jugan died later the same year, totally forgotten. By then, the community she’d founded had drawn over 2,000 Little Sisters, and it had established itself throughout Europe and the United States. However, it was only after her death that many members of the community discovered Jugan’s true role as foundress, and her amazing accomplishments were properly acknowledged.
So, I think about those Trappists in Algeria – holy men who dedicated their lives to poverty and isolation and prayer in a foreign land. And I think about Jeanne Jugan – a holy visionary who has touched countless lives through the charitable enterprise she initiated. And, in both cases, I think, “Wasn’t that enough?”
The Trappists were already pouring out their lives in service to their Muslim neighbors and in prayer for the world – to what end their kidnapping and grisly demise? Jugan was already pouring out her life for the elderly and her community – to what end her humiliating ouster and unwarranted exile?
St. Paul directed my attention to a possible answer in today’s first reading:
God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
Apparently, the lowly Trappists were not lowly enough and had to virtually disappear that the Lord’s designs could be accomplished – and they all volunteered. St. Jeanne, in her outreach to the destitute and forsaken, apparently wasn’t despised enough, and had to likewise disappear – and she went away without resentment.
How do the saints do stuff like that? Jeanne Jugan pointed the way. “To be a good Little Sister of the Poor, one must love God and the poor a great deal, and forget oneself,” she’d tell her sisters. “Little, very little, be very little before God.”
Put another way, “I’m not in charge” – a hard lesson to learn and relearn, over and over, and who better to tutor us in the ways of humility than Jeanne Jugan? But there’s one more final twist. At her 1982 beatification, none other than Pope St. John Paul the Great had this to say about the overlooked and disregarded Jugan: “God could glorify no more humble a servant than she.”
Greatness through obscurity; glory through humility. It’s all so topsy turvey this Gospel stuff.
St. Jeanne, really, pray for us.
A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.