Feast of the Presentation of the Lord and Purification of Mary
Congregational Feast of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur
by Sister Barbara Metz, SNDdeN (February 2, 2018)
It was 1806. The community was, according to custom, gathered round their Mother in the workroom for the evening “Instruction” in Christian doctrine. Julie spoke in burning words of the mystery of the day and then all at once intoned with extraordinary joy of spirit the canticle of Simeon, which was taken up by her daughters. Lumen de revelationem gentium, sang the Sisters, when suddenly St. Julie Billiart’s voice broke, her eyes fixed themselves on the crucifix in a rapt gaze of love, her countenance glowed with light. The whole community saw her in ecstasy, raised above the ground, motionless, inundated with the very beatitude of heaven. It is a constant tradition in the Institute that in that rapture God had shown Julie that her daughters should one day cross the seas and oceans to carry the light of revelation to nations sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.
This remarkable experience happened on this very day, February 2, two years after the birth of our Congregation in 1804.
From that first consecration on the Feast of the Purification dates the name of “Sisters of Notre Dame,” or “Sisters of Our Lady” Our Lady carried the light of Christ and so would we. This day marks the culmination of a magnificent work of God in the life of a simple French woman. The light of Christ was planted in her soul as part of her baptismal grace. It was a light that would never be vanquish. It was a light that blazed within her being and expressed itself in remarkable zeal to communicate the love and goodness of God.
As a child, it was evident to all who knew her that power, warmth and energy were at work in Julie’s spirit. Stories of her childhood catechism lessons to the field workers, her longing for Eucharist, her prayer before the statue of the Sacred Heart in the local Church and her visits to the shrine of Our Lady are legendary.
In the midst of it all the circumstances of her life, a very difficult life, there was a clarity and steadiness that could only be explained by a light within guided her and empowered her to trust and to love.
She was, we know, reduced to utter dependence on others. She knew constant physical pain and the pain and frustration of being unable to articulate her needs much less her deeper experience. Yet the light within enabled her to be patient and to live with a confidence that God was somehow at work.
She was often alone. When asked by Françoise Blin de Bourdon, who became a Co-Foundress of the religious congregation, whether she knew loneliness and boredom in her long confinement, Julie claimed that her days were filled with God. She was present to the presence of God within, praying for four or five hours daily. People around her marveled at her prayer and all called her a saint. In her friendship with Françoise, she needed a great detachment. She needed to let the relationship unfold. It was God’s gift to her. Where would it go? It was God’s to reveal to her.
She knew powerlessness in the face of her aging and still she cherished a deep desire to help others. How would she reconcile the two realities? The allowing that marked her spirituality led to her profound peace and equanimity. She would allow God to act. She would trust in the face of all contradictions. Years of pain, powerless, frustration defined Julie’s life. In the midst of the pain there was a light that was never absence even when it was but a flicker in the darkness. God was with her. I am always with you. God is infinitely good and loving and everything was working toward the good. Julie’s trust was incredible.
Everything was about God and God’s will. She was but his handmaid. She would let her life unfold and continue to be available to God in His good time and place. A great unfolding come on this feast. It was as if Julie, as she listened to reading of this Gospel, was peering into the darkness of the night when suddenly as she heard the words that Jesus was to be a Light of Revelation to the Gentiles. The earth was illumined and she understood the mission of Jesus and her mission.
“These are the daughters I will give you in an institute that will be marked by the cross.” They will go to the ends of the earth. They will be my light. It was all perfectly clear in that mystical moment to Julie. The darkness had been overcome. She saw clearly the way of God for her and for the few simple women around her. She courageously moved forward with no plan but the one she knew would unfold day by day if she were faithful to what she now knew. God willed Notre Dame to be born and he willed it to enlightened the nations of the earth.
She went on day by day always trusting the good God. She had successes and failures. Her physical pain was constant. She knew exhaustion. She dealt with the conflict with Sisters like Mère Victoire who threatened the fragile beginnings of the community and undercut so much that had been tenderly begun. She struggled with the bishop of Amiens who wanted the Congregation to stay with in his diocese when God had shown her that was not to be. And yet she smiled and went peacefully forward. The light of God was her guide. God was her only focus. She was a woman in love---a woman possessed by God and his love. Her experience of God was something that burned so brightly within that she lived to share it. Fire consumes. Fire did consume Julie’s spirit.
She had touched the heart of God and found there a profound love for the poor. She knew that God leaned into their lives. Desperately poor women and children needed to know they were loved and cared for. She would gather them, teach them about God’s goodness and give them, as she put it “What they needed for life.” The grandeur of education was understood by Julie. It is the noblest work on earth. “When I see you in the midst of the children I know you are greater than all the potentates of earth.”
She saw each of us, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and she loved us. She was a mother even to those yet to be born in Notre Dame.
Today we honor Julie, we thank her for her fidelity to the action of God in her simple life and pray we are able to grow daily in the spirit she imparted to us. We profess again in our vow renewal our desire to live our lives in simplicity, charity and obedience.
We remember the two powerful symbols Julie bequeathed to us to help us remain true to the charism of our community.
The sunflower which turns always toward the sun, toward the light of the good God in every circumstance of life.
The crystal: “Be simple, as exceedingly pure crystal, which reflect the light of Christ to all you meet.”
We remember Julie, we celebrate her today and every day! We give thanks for the greatness of her spirit and pray to live faithfully within the community of Notre Dame that God gave to the Church through our Mother, St. Julie Billiart.