“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.
An unlikely mystic
It’s doubtful that anyone who knew Gabrielle Bossis as a young woman would have 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 Gabrielle 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—in fact, most of the photographs that remain of Gabrielle 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.
Yet perhaps in Gabrielle this was precisely where the seeds for her later mysticism were sown, in a terrible first-hand experience of life and death. Returning to Nantes after the war, her life followed a predictable course; she traveled, wrote, painted. But she declined marriage offers and must have seemed restless, because finally, when she was 49, her parish priest suggested that it was time for her to “set sail” by transforming her spiritual thoughts into plays. Gabrielle immediately started working out the words of her faith through an intense involvement with the theater, in a mere 13 years writing 13 plays and 14 operettas. She financed the productions and became playwright, actor, set designer, and costumer for dramas produced in theaters around the world.
Two radically different careers, one might think. And yet… and yet. It seems that in one way or another she was reaching out to others, telling a story. What she didn’t know yet was that it wasn’t just her own voice she was destined to transmit.
The first time she heard Jesus’ voice
Gabrielle was 62 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 that seems extraordinary to us in its sheer simplicity. “She was exceptional among exceptions,” says de Laubier, “yet also unexceptional.”
It’s that friendship that is stressed again and again through the years that Jesus spoke to Gabrielle and she recorded their conversations. This is a true conversation as Gabrielle asks questions, makes comments, voices concerns… and Jesus responds. “Mysticism is easier than theology,” says de Laubier. “It’s more accessible.” And so what we’re seeing here is amazing simplicity and ease of communication in the dialogue; she is listening to God, longing for God, delighting in God. His compassion for her experiences, his gentleness, his desire for total unity with her is clear through all of Gabrielle’ words.
“Of the 22 doctors of the Church, one-third are mystics,” says de Laubier, “We read the mystics… so we can hear.”
One of the aspects of these mystical conversations that it’s hard to ignore is the sheer ordinariness of the venues. Much of the communication takes place in churches, as one might imagine, sometimes during Eucharistic adoration (what she calls the “holy hour”), sometimes right after communion. But so much more of it, also, was wrapped up in everyday life: the first conversation was on a cruise ship and others were on trains, in railway stations, in fields and town and forests. There’s a kind of sanctification of the ordinary here: a blessing, as it were, on the regular activities of life.
Simple words to guide you
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 Gabrielle, and he 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?”
Not that everything was perfect. Wandering into an empty church, Gabrielle laments, “I hurt someone without wanting to, and I am so distressed.” Let go, comes the answer: “When there is nothing you can do about a situation, give it to Me, full of trust that I’ll put things right for you. I’ll give you an opportunity to make up for it with an act of kindness.’”
For all of this intimacy, this closeness, Gabrielle also doubted herself, particularly as time passed. “This inner silence," she complained in 1945, "is not easy.” And the response encourages anyone feeling frustrated, lonely, or inadequate: “Try. If you don’t succeed one way, find another. You remember the branch of the tree that you couldn’t cut down in your garden until you tried cutting from another direction? It fell by itself then. But it takes patience.”
Patience is certainly something Gabrielle’ account can teach us all. In all of these conversations, God is revealing something extraordinary. Most religions are the story of humanity reaching out to God; Christianity is the story of God reaching out to humanity, and that comes alive on every page of He and I. This is what de Laubier called “evangelization of the heart, not of the mind.” He sounds affectionate. “Here she is, 62 years old, and Christ talks to her! He made her his friend.”
“Christ chose an original person, a layperson,” says de Laubier. “She was a lit candle who could light others.” And that, at the end of the day, is 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