Every religious community has its own charism, a particular way of life and a spirit that forms its identity. In setting the charism of the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary, Sr. Mary Elizabeth Gintling looked to an obscure French priest who lived from 1858 to 1916. His name was Charles de Foucauld.
Charles spent his final years in the Sahara Desert, seeking to imitate the “hidden life” that Jesus lived in Nazareth. Emptied of pride and vanity, Charles embraced his littleness, eager to be non-threatening and approachable to others. He welcomed everyone as a “universal brother.”
Charles represented a new kind of missionary, one who practiced a ministry of presence. Although he wrote a rule for religious communities, it was considered too strict to be livable. Elements of his spirituality, however, can be applied to any number of circumstances, and in this way his life became the blueprint for the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth was already in tune with what defined Charles: love for the poor, faithfulness to the Gospel, simplicity of lifestyle, and a preference for silent adoration of the Eucharist. These became the identifying marks of the community she founded in 1974, and Charles is considered its founder in spirit. For the remainder of her life Sr. Mary Elizabeth modeled for us how to live his spirituality.
We are half a world away from the Sahara, and more than a century has passed since Charles’ death, but Sr. Mary Elizabeth showed us how to embody a key component of his message, which is, as he wrote:
“Let us preach the Gospel in silence and with words….”
“It is the responsibility of all to preach in silence.
As for preaching with words, some should do it more than others,
but there are very few who should not do it at all.
This is according to each one’s vocation.”
Sr. Mary Elizabeth made preaching the Gospel her life’s work.
What made it natural for her was that she let the Gospel shape every aspect of her life. Anything she might possibly call her own she gave back to God. He had access to everything.
Sister exemplified the observation of St. Vincent de Paul: “If God is the center of your life, no words are necessary. Your mere presence will touch hearts.”
She had a few big moments in her life, but like everyone else her days were filled with little ones. She did the same things, with the same people, day in and day out. She “preached” a lot in those moments, giving witness to the love and mercy of God by being loving and merciful herself. Charles said his goal was to have people look at him and say, “If that is the servant, imagine what the Master must be like!” Sister took that approach, too.
For personal reflection: What am I preaching by the way I live my life? I might be the only sermon someone else hears today.