“Lord, your poor little girl, your poor image is here before you, yearning for you with all the strength of her being.”
The woman writing these words in 1945 was named Gabrielle Bossis. She wasn’t, in fact, a little girl: she was 71 years old. But that image, the image of a child coming—in trust and love—to listen to the words that would eventually become the spiritual classic He and I, is indicative of the heart and soul of this mystic who discerned and followed the Holy Spirit throughout her long life.
It’s doubtful that anyone who knew Gabrielle Bossis as a young woman thought she was destined for mysticism. “She was someone who never spoke much about religion,” says Swiss sociologist and Bossis expert Father Patrick de Laubier. “But she was a friend of Christ’s.”
That friendship began when Bossis was born into a well-to-do family in Nantes, a city in Brittany where the Loire River meets the Atlantic Ocean. She did everything a young girl of her time and class was expected to do, but even while enjoying a life of ease, she studied nursing; most of the photographs that remain of Bossis were taken of her as a young nursing sister. She volunteered for the front and was present at the terrible battle of Verdun in 1916. It’s hard to imagine the horror of that experience not imprinting itself on her, and yet she was apparently always lighthearted. Then and later, what people remembered most about her was her infectious laughter. She went on to become a playwright and an actor, and lived a life of ease thanks to her family inheritance.
In case you believe that saints and mystics start young, Bossis was 62 years old when, on a ship midway between Europe and Canada, she heard a voice she immediately recognized as Jesus’, a voice choosing to strike up a conversation. And from that moment until the end of her life, she continued to talk to, listen to, and write about Jesus. Every new year he gave her a theme (she called them “keynotes”) for the year, and every year she faithfully recorded everything.
This isn’t a narrative divorced from reality. The conversations aren’t taking place in a void. The German occupation of France is a not-so-silent backdrop to the story, and Bossis isn’t hesitant about praying for liberation. She worries about those around her, mourning the deaths of the people in her house when it was bombed in 1943, worrying about prostitutes’ souls. “Lord,” she says, “there are still these poor girls in the brothels. Every Sunday I pass in front of the doors so that You, who are in me, will send grace to someone inside.” Jesus’ response: “I told you that when you cannot enter a place yourself, your prayer will enter. There is no sin that I cannot forgive, no soul fallen so low that I cannot heal. You see in the Gospels how some people were scandalized. My heart always goes to the most unfortunate.”
And then there is the sanctification of effort, the sense that anything can be holy, everything can be holy, as long as it is an offering of love. “I was weeding in the garden,” starts Bossis, and Jesus answers before she takes the thought further: “Instead of thinking that you are working for yourself, why not think that it is for Me all day long? My meals, My walks, My garden, My room, My mending? Won’t that be more tender? Won’t it be balm for you?”
One May morning, she hears, “You thank Me for the springtime with all its flowers and for the birds that sing in your linden trees, for the first butterflies and all My beautiful creations.” Returning from Paris, she is delighted to find nightingales nesting near her window, and hears Jesus say, “I too know how to make surprises. Some people don’t see them. I’m so glad that you guessed. On earth, you always have to guess.”
On earth, you always have to guess.
Perhaps that’s one of the greatest gifts of He and I: it reminds us every day of our limitations, and assures us that God knows them and is with us through them. “Christ chose an original person, a layperson,” says de Laubier. “She was a lit candle who could light others.” A voice. A woman. Illumination. That’s the final gift of He and I: the light of Christ in conversations that can reach anyone, anywhere, at any time.
by Jeannette De Beauvoir