Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


[Cette lettre en français]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Deze brief in het Nederlands]
[Esta carta en español]
[Questa lettera in italiano]
October 7, 2003
Our Lady of the Holy Rosary


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

«Hey, dynamite!» joked a student to her friend, one morning in 1973. The latter hid a very rich interior life behind the outward appearance of a fiery temperament. In 1975, a few days before the illness that would strike her down at the age of 21, she confided to her mother: «I am so happy that if I died now, I believe I would go straight to Heaven, since Heaven means praising God, and I'm already there!» The official investigation for her beatification was opened in 1990.

Claire de Castelbajac was born on October 26, 1953, in Paris, the youngest child in a family of five. Baptized three days after her birth, she was placed under the protection of Saint Claire and the Immaculate Virgin. With her family, she spent the first five years of her life in Rabat, in Morocco, until their permanent return to France in 1959. Her mother taught her at a very early age to make the sign of the Cross and to pray. During her errands and walks, she often went to the church to say short prayers, because she knew well that the church is «Jesus' house.» Her passionate nature manifested itself at an early age: there were no limits to her love, desire or generosity. When she was about three years old, Claire often had temper tantrums, but these outbursts were followed by immediate acts of contrition that were as intense as her anger. Despite this liveliness, the child often suffered the trial of illness—at the age of four, she nearly died of toxicosis. Shortly thereafter, an intestinal infection, followed by a viral angina, required a regimen of injections. Every time she saw the nurse, she turned into a wild thing, howling and getting agitated. It wasn't until the following winter, before her First Communion, that she would understand what it means to «offer one's sufferings to Jesus,» and she would gradually learn to control herself so as to endure the pain.

Returning to France was a psychological shock to Claire. Leaving the charming villa in Rabat and its marvelous garden, to go live in the old family home in Lauret (in southwest France), «the big wrecked house,» as she would say, was truly wrenching. She received Holy Eucharist for the first time in June 1959, after having tried very hard to prepare for it. Her generosity to offer herself to God in little things lasted in the years that followed. She jotted down, for example: «1) I didn't take water—2) Act of love—3) I obeyed Mommy right away—4) I didn't complain about having a stomach ache,» etc. For her first confession, Claire wanted to make a careful self-examination. She took her children's book and carefully considered «all the sins on the list.» She then said to her mother: «I don't understand anything on it, so I don't know if I've done these sins... But explain them to me... If I knew all the sins, then I wouldn't do them anymore, because I wouldn't want to hurt Jesus.»

So they all go to Heaven!

Claire was not yet six years old when one evening she spontaneously composed the following prayer: «Jesus, make the bad people, and those who don't love You, and those who don't know You, become nice, and know You and love You, and make them say their prayers three times a day, so that they all go to Heaven.» Her mother asked her, «Did you think about offering your heart and your day this morning?»—«Of course! I always think about it! If I didn't, what good would I be?» But this lively piety was not without battles. One day she abruptly said to her mother: «Why did you have me? Why did you have me make my First Communion so young?» And she complained about the exertion this brought with it in her life...

In her intense need to communicate, Claire addressed letters to her parents that she deposited in great secrecy on their plates or under their pillows. She had just turned nine when she wrote these lines: «My most dear beloved mother, I shall start by telling you that I love you very much, very much, the most in the world. You are so nice!!! Then to beg your forgiveness for all the faults I have committed you will forgive me, you are so good, dear mother...» (sic). The morning of her 10th birthday, despite being tired, Claire was anxious to go to Mass. That evening, she confided to her mother, «Do you know what I asked for this morning?... That I will always stay pure, like I was after my baptism.» She made a habit of invoking the Blessed Virgin every morning when she first woke up: «O Immaculate Mary, I entrust to You my purity of heart. Guard it always.» When she was eleven and a half, she made her solemn Communion (French custom from the days when children did not receive their First Communion until the age of 11 or 12). While her boarding-school friends received an avalanche of secular gifts, Claire thanked her parents for not having given her any, but rather a souvenir holy card, on which her mother had written a text that would hold great importance for her: «Have an intimate desire that His Majesty grant you what He knows you lack for His honor and glory.» (Saint John of the Cross).

She completed her elementary school studies at home, under her mother's direction. In 1964, she entered the boarding school in Toulouse, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. There she displayed an intense joie de vivre, a passionate generosity, and a special attraction for things of God: «It's fabulous!» she wrote. «This morning, I went to Mass and I received Communion... I thought of you, dear parents, who taught me the Catholic faith, who taught me to pray, who had me baptized. I owe you everything and I thank you more than I can say or think.»

Children are asking

During the turmoil in France in May 1968, Claire listened and thought a great deal. She keenly felt the political and social disturbances she was witnessing, and saw only one remedy: prayer to Our Lady, according to the requests at Fatima. On her own initiative, she led the students in her 9th -grade class to write to all the bishops in France: «Your Excellency, in 1917, Our Lady asked for: the daily Rosary, consecration to Her Immaculate Heart, communion of reparation on the first Saturdays of the month. 'If you hear my requests, Russia will be converted and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world.' At this time, Russia is spreading her errors and peace is far from complete. It is likely that France and Catholic countries have not asked the Blessed Virgin enough for the conversion of sinners... This is why, Your Excellency, we are begging you to ask your priests to transmit Our Lady's message to all their parishioners... Your Excellency, we are children who are asking you, as well as all the bishops in France, to make this appeal to the Church of our homeland. We are certain that you will consider it and we thank you for this.»

As a high-spirited fifteen-year-old, Claire was indignant at the winds of protest blowing through the Church, and which aimed at making a clean sweep of the past. She suffered from this to the point that she fell ill and had to complete her 10th-grade year at home. Having noticed that the young people in her town did not have the opportunity to meet to have fun together, she first organized a choir. Then the group embarked on two plays to entertain senior citizens in the nearby nursing home, the handicapped, or simply the town residents. Claire entered her 11th-grade year at the Dominican school in Seilh, close to Toulouse. She was unenthusiastic, but her good spirits won out. «It's funny,» she wrote to a friend, «when I think about the reasons you can find for being happy! Life is happiness! There are people who make it unhappiness.» However, her struggles were ever present. On September 8, 1970, the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin, a feast Claire loved very much, she refused to go with a very good friend to Mass. Her impassive face betrayed another influence that had overcome her that day. For her last school year (1970-71), she moved into a private room in Toulouse, and continued to pursue her studies at the Dominican school.

Difficult but beautiful

That year, her mother fell ill. She was hospitalized, then had to remain bedridden for more than a year. Claire went to see her every evening at the clinic. On Friday nights, she returned to Lauret to keep her father company. This family crisis made her suffer greatly: «I'm sick of it..., and still sick of it...,» she wrote to one of her sisters, on February 15, 1971, but then she added, «Anyway, I have come out of this sad time matured and grown-up, because I saw that we didn't live for ourselves but for others, and that everyone is made to live for others, and to make them happy. It's terribly difficult, but when you manage to do it, it's beautiful.» During the following April, Claire herself had to be hospitalized for sciatica. On her bed, she wrote a great deal: colorful letters about everything, but rarely of her illness. She took advantage of opportunities that arose to evangelize. To a night nurse who confided in her and claimed not to have the time to bother with matters of God, she retorted, «But Madame, don't you know that Faith helps you to act better? So waste an hour finding it, and you will be happy and not empty anymore, like you feel right now!»—«What a precious treasure our Faith is!» she said to her parents. «How I wish that this woman would discover it!»

In August, after five months of suffering, the doctors decided to perform an operation on the spinal column. The procedure was successful. Claire was soon back on her feet again, but attacks of sciatica periodically returned. Three weeks after leaving the hospital, she passed her baccalauréat (French national high school exit examination), then decided to devote herself to restoring painting and frescos. This profession would provide an advantage that was very significant in her eyes—independence in her work and the opportunity to remain at home later on.

Claire decided to take the entrance exam for the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome, a government-operated institute that reserved three spots every year for foreign candidates. The art history courses at the university in Toulouse would prepare her. She set to work. A very sociable person, she visited a lot of people, and went regularly to the homes of the elderly and infirm in her neighborhood. Her devotion did not weaken. «I decided last night to go to Mass every day... I have just enough time to go to the university as soon as it's over. I come out all good, all pure, all holy, and getting on my bike, I go into exile in the crowd.»

Fear not

At Easter 1972, Claire decided to move to Rome to better prepare for her exam. She was eighteen and a half years old. Three months of work in the studio and the library, from May to July 1972, then two months of study holiday in Lauret, interrupted by the national pilgrimage to Lourdes on August 15, kept her busy until the fall. In October, Claire went to Rome again, where two of her mother's brothers had lived for some time. One was a Carmelite monk. The other, the father of eight children, received her into his home often. In her diary can be read: «Holiness is the Love to live ordinary things for God and with God, with His grace and His strength» (October 17, 1972). She wrote to her parents: «I am terrified at the thought that I might get in! I know that it says Fear not 366 times in the Bible, once for each day of the year, and that the grace of state will be there, if need be. But I am scared to death of starting my adult life in two months...» This did not keep her from working so as to succeed.

The date of the exam, delayed by strikes, was set for December 1st. Claire was the third of the three foreign students accepted. She was enthusiastic, but new battles loomed ahead. «The hand of God never ceases to protect me,» she wrote to her parents. «What annoys me is my success—completely unintentional, believe me—with boys. One is totally in love with me. And then, there is a Lebanese boy who is full of consideration...; and I might add two Italians, who are especially complimentary and faithful dogs. At the end of nine days, it's a lot... It's true that they are soon going to know me better!... It's terribly difficult to change your disposition and keep yourself from laughing, from making a joke out of everything and making plays on words all the time... But I'm sure of the Divine, Virginal and Benedictine protection (she wore a medal of Saint Benedict), not to mention that of the Guardian Angels.»

A few days later, she added, «I can't wait to be really moved in, so that I can write my letters and do a half hour of spiritual reading every day. My rosary is said during the two 15 minutes, or four, that I spend in the subway. I really need your prayers... the more I get to know people, the more it depresses me. I thought Art for Art's sake and Beauty for Beauty's sake, and therefore the sense of the gratuitousness of things, gave people a profundity and something more... Apparently, except for two or three snobs, everyone is interested in what they are doing, and even passionate about it, but after that, plop! The only thing that interests them is pleasure in all its forms. So that depresses me and disgusts me a little. I can't judge them, but all the people I talk to, except for two, are like that. They all more or less live with a «partner»... So I am disappointed... All the boys chase me! Damn it! I don't wear miniskirts... And I even sprinkle with coldness and nastiness those I must avoid. And the more I sprinkle, the more they continue... But what I'm afraid of right now is me, because I am going to tell you everything. I am not encouraged at all by good people, like I was in Toulouse. So sometimes, when I see the people around me, I think to myself that it wouldn't be so bad to be like them... Then I pray, I pray, to have the courage, I could even say sometimes the heroism, to resist, to not have any «boyfriend» before marriage...»

Playing the fool

All the same, Claire gradually allowed herself to be carried away by her freedom. In mid-March 1973, she moved in with two female friends, in a self-contained apartment. They began to have people over and go out at night, having a really good time doing a lot of «moronic things,» as she would say, and not working very much. «I have so many things to tell you,» she wrote to her parents... «I come back from class to find the apartment full of friends, and we go to bed, totally exhausted, at 12, 1 o'clock in the morning. My view of things is changing—what will satisfy the thirst for life I have?... Yesterday we went out to the seaside. It was fabulous! All by ourselves to play the fool till the middle of the night... We were so passionately full of life, of independence, of total freedom and the intoxicating feeling of being outside of civilization.»

At this rate, Claire's grades at the «Restauro» became deplorable, and she was within an inch of getting herself expelled. One of her uncles reprimanded her one day: «I am sorry for your parents, especially your father, who is old, that you are wasting your life...» She retorted, «In the meantime, I'll be having a good time!» Nevertheless, she was secretly unhappy with herself. Her keen sense of God, her brush with failure in her studies and undoubtedly also a comment by a student: «You will see, my poor girl, you will be converted to our atheism. I don't give you a year before you'll be like us...», brought about a healthy turnaround. Summer brought with it a happy vacation in Lauret, interrupted by the National Pilgrimage to Lourdes. At the beginning of October, she left again for Rome with high spirits. She wrote to her parents: «I realize the level of vanity and sheer egoism I fell to, under the deceptive name of emancipation...» The excellent mood that marked the beginning of this new year would not flag again. God was again at the center of her life, in spite of occasional «revolts of the spirit.»

One year later, on September 16, 1974, Claire left for three weeks in the Holy Land, with a group of a dozen or so young people, led by a Dominican priest. «Are in Bethlehem. Walking in the desert for hours. Very tired and hungry. Asceticism: Incomparable for purity, it's true.» She wrote to her parents: «I am in the middle of making a complete conversion, of examining my faith, of finding the real meaning of it, and I am continuously learning the ABCs of my religion. I am accumulating lots of elements of fervor, piety, for example, poverty of spirit, so as to be able to arrange my life in Rome the way I see it now, and not how I was living it before. I am beginning to understand the meaning of the word «Love of God»: I believe you don't have to have a passion for adjacent matters, but point everything to God, and only to Him!»

A completely new happiness

A few days after she had returned from the Holy Land, Claire received her outside duty for Assisi where she would work on the restoration of the frescos in the Basilica. She stayed with the Benedictines, and wrote to her parents: «I am going to live a real monastic life: go to bed after dinner, Mass every morning at 7:30 and to work at 8 o'clock... What we are doing is the height for me! The Chapel of Saint Martin, by Simone Martini. It's the most beautiful... This guy, Martini, was a first-rate man of faith, you can see it even better up close... I feel a totally new happiness going to Mass during the week, reading Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint John and even doing my 15 minutes of daily contemplation.»

On December 10, she wrote again: «I am more and more blessed with bliss, since I can count the days that separate us. In the meantime, I am suffocating with feverishness—the excess that you know in me reigns in all its splendor... The dean leaves me free to go everywhere, to the places where the boards will be taken away the next day, to put the final touches on things. And she doesn't even go later on to look, which really bothers me, because the responsibility is greater than I can take on. So what—I have carte blanche. It's a great life, isn't it? Free, in one of the most beautiful places in Europe...»

Claire arrived in Lauret on December 18 for her Christmas vacation. Her relatives found her transfigured. She traveled to Lourdes on Monday, December 30. Prostrate on her knees before the Grotto, her forehead on the ground, she remained motionless for a very long time. When she got up again, her face was completely different, as if she were far away, infinitely removed. Something had taken place between the Blessed Virgin and her... On Saturday, January 4, she suddenly came down with viral meningoencephalitis. On the 17th, unconscious, she received the Sacrament of the Sick. On Sunday the 19th, while she seemed to be sleeping, all of a sudden she said, very clearly and very loudly: «Hail Mary, full of grace...» then stopped, exhausted. Her mother continued the prayer. At the end of every Hail Mary, Claire murmured, «and then... and then...», to make the Rosary continue. The evening of the 20th, she sank more and more into a deep coma. On Wednesday, January 22, 1975, at about five o'clock in the afternoon, she entered into the eternity to which God was calling her. She was 21 and three months.

Claire wanted «to go straight to Heaven.» She had spoken a great deal with her uncle, Father Philip of the Trinity, about the First Letter of Saint John: Our love is brought to perfection in this, that we should have confidence on the day of judgment (I John 4:17). In 1970, she had written to a friend: «Do you really think that the ever-growing closeness of death is frightening? I think it isn't. We shouldn't fear death. Death is just the passage from one life—that is just a test, in fact—of joys and little misfortunes... to complete Happiness, in perpetual View of Him Who has given us everything. Death frightening? No, it shouldn't be—but rather, hoped and waited for (so prepared for...) Do you remember that at the sisters of the Sacred Heart, several girls (you were one of them) had predicted that I would die young? Without having conferred about it. Oh well, I'll admit to you that I don't care at all, since in eternity, what is 50 years more or 50 years less of earthly life?»

Following the example of Claire de Castelbajac, let us strive to «point everything to God,» not seeking anything but to please Him, and the Lord will reward us beyond all measure.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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