The Life and Death of René Page

René Page died on February 2, 2010. He was eighty-six. His obituary did not appear in the New York Times or, as far as I know, in any other newspaper. He was little known outside the fraternities of Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916), those religious communities of men and women whose prayer and work lives are modeled on the “hidden” life of Jesus, that is, his life in Nazareth before his public ministry.

Page was born in Aubiers, a town in the west of France. At the age of sixteen, he entered the local minor seminary and later studied at the famed Saint Sulpice. But Page quickly realized that donning a cassock cut him off from others and upset his own natural spontaneity. This weighed heavily on him and he began to question his vocation to the priesthood. When he discovered the fraternities of Charles de Foucauld he recognized what he had been seeking: a consecrated life of prayer, lived among the poor, without privilege or status.

René made his novitiate with the Little Brothers of Jesus at El-Abiodh, in the Sahara, and took his first vows in October 1948 at the age of twenty-five. He spent the next two years with a small fraternity in Aix-en-Provence, where he worked on construction sites. This was followed by two years of additional theological studies at St. Maximin, interspersed with periods of work in the mines and in a textile factory.

It was apparent from the start to members of the fraternity that in René Page they had found someone special. He had a depth and a simplicity that the community needed, especially during the heady, chaotic postwar years, when postulants were arriving from all over the world and the number of local communities was multiplying. It was no coincidence that after René was ordained a priest in 1952, he was made provincial for France and Belgium. Later, in addition to this charge, he was asked to serve as novice master. René Voillaume, the founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, eventually designated Page his assistant prior, which made him the obvious choice for successor. When Voillaume resigned as prior in 1965 to found a new group, the Brothers of the Gospel, Page was chosen unanimously.

The style of the two Renés could hardly have been more different. René Voillaume was an iconic figure, the founder who defined the vision of the fraternity, an author whose books were widely read, and the only person in the fraternity called “Father.” He was greatly admired and appreciated by the brothers, yet he seemed to belong to the universal church rather than to his religious community. In those days he was constantly on the move, giving conferences and retreats, visiting the different fraternities, and often spending more time with the hierarchy than with the brothers. In that foundational epoch, it could not have been otherwise. To survive and prosper, the fraternity had to be accepted by the official church. It was to this task that Voillaume tirelessly dedicated himself.

René Page was in his late forties when he was elected prior, but he looked like a teenager and didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. He had a wry sense of humor and was a consummate storyteller. He also had a nervous tic and, for reasons I never knew, always wore dark glasses. Some have observed that he had the soul of a child. He was capable of suddenly being caught up in astonishment and admiration at the sight of a cloud formation or a meadow flower, and he could be scandalously indignant in the face of injustice or cruelty—as if he could not believe such malice possible in others. What most impressed me about René was the love he had for all of us in the community, a geographically scattered group of self-starters. That love manifested itself in very simple but unmistakable ways. With René there was never the least trace of superiority or condescension. Someone recently reminded me of the difference in context between the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, Jesus “went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them...” In Luke, Jesus “went down with them and stood on a level place.... Then raising his eyes to his disciples, he said...” These differences seem to characterize the distinct styles of René Voillaume and René Page.

One Holy Thursday, a feast the brothers always celebrated together, Page performed the ritual washing of the feet. For him it was no mere ritual. He washed our feet with a joy and a passion that moved me to the core and gave me an intuition of what was in the heart of Jesus at the Last Supper. René was always there to serve; it was the reason for his existence.

On another occasion, I was passing through the Marseilles fraternity and had to catch an early-morning train to Paris. I got up around 4 a.m. and was trying to leave without disturbing the other brothers. René was already up and waiting for me. He insisted on accompanying me to the station and on carrying my bags. We shared many other adventures over the years, and we had our disagreements, but I always remained in awe of the man and never detected a false note in him.

René’s respect for each member of the fraternity was a two-edged sword. It made it difficult for him to make personnel decisions, and it led him to assume others’ problems as his own. I recall one occasion when I put myself in a very difficult position. After I informed René of the mess I’d created, he responded by saying he had not been sufficiently attentive; then he proceeded to assume all the blame. This habit eventually wore him down, and after his second six-year term as prior, he begged to be relieved of his responsibilities. Following that he spent several years in Paris, working first as a security guard and then as a mailman in a hospital—a job that put him at ease. He eventually moved to a fraternity near Toulouse, where he spent his latter years in semiretirement.

I once went to René for confession. When I had finished, he said quite simply that when we ask for the light of the Holy Spirit, we don’t fully realize what we are asking for. This light, he said, is terrible and disorienting; it can destroy us. It is only “sweet” to authentic saints or to those who have no idea what they are talking about. For this light will reveal what we do not want revealed, tell us a truth we do not want to hear, and lead us where we do not want to go. This encounter revealed something of René’s inner life to me. It challenged me then and still does. But in René’s case it was also tragically prophetic—in a way I could not have imagined at the time.

In Toulouse, René’s physical and mental health began to decline. He developed Alzheimer’s, and this great temple of the Holy Spirit was physically and mentally emptied. It seemed as if the petition of the Miserere, “Do not withdraw your spirit from me,” had simply been refused. To me, it was obscene, scandalous, that this gifted man, so full of the wisdom of God, had become a babbling idiot. Not only did the Holy Spirit appear to abandon him, other spirits invaded the premises. René, so compassionate and Christlike, began to exhibit fits of violence that were totally alien to him. Patients in the nursing home where he spent his last days characterized him as cruel—the last thing René would have tolerated in himself or in others. This shattering change troubled me deeply, and still does, two years after his death.

It is not that I am unfamiliar with the ravages of Alzheimer’s. My mother suffered from it, as did my mother-in-law, who lived with us for ten years. But René’s case challenged me in a different way. True, I hadn’t seen him in almost forty years and had only sporadic contact with him over much of that period. But René’s words to me at the end of my confession had remained engraved in my memory. I also suspect that the quality and intensity of René’s compassion for others somehow contributed to his illness. And then there is the matter of the communion of the saints: those mysterious affinities that link us to other persons, living and dead, with whom we share a distinct “quality” of grace. These individuals constitute the particular “crowd of witnesses” who sustain and encourage us, and whose destiny is somehow tied to our own.

It would be presumptuous, even indecent, of me to speculate on what went on between René and God during René’s prolonged equivalent of “three days in the tomb.” There are, however, certain points worth reflecting on. One of the members of the fraternity who cared for René during his final stages wrote: “Every illness which affects a person in what is most profound and most intimate is a form of evil in the world which is especially scandalous; it confronts us with a mystery we have to respect.... [René] also gave us enough signs to assure us that, alone in his [dark] night, he was before God and with God.”

Modern medicine might explain René’s deterioration as the result of damaged or diminished neurons; a psychologist might explain it as a manifestation of repressed instincts; a psychopathologist might understand the hostility observed in some mentally ill patients as the regression to a childhood state where one acts out uncontrollable emotional impulses. At one level, all these insights are valuable. But I believe such experiences can include other dimensions. The dynamics of grace and of evil can give “ordinary” experience another significance. While we cannot pretend to fully understand the dynamics, at times we sense there may be a deeper meaning than what science can tell us or we can initially grasp. The destruction of someone’s unique personality, for example, strikes me as a manifestation of the mystery of evil. Sometimes the effects of evil or of grace in a person’s life have nothing to do with the particular goodness or badness of the individual involved. And beyond that, even recognizing the reality of the powers of darkness does not mean we can clearly name or define them.

The Gospels attribute certain infirmities to the “devils.” We must not take this lightly, for we confront a mystery here: evil in all its crudity and depth. In his final state, René Page seemed to be at the mercy of the Evil One, who mocked and destroyed him. In some sense, this is apparently where the Holy Spirit was leading him. I don’t want to propose or accept an easy answer to this; a real scandal is involved here. Jesus likewise was led into the desert by the Spirit. After his baptism and forty-day fast, he was tempted by the Devil who, according to Luke, had a physical power over him, transporting him to a high mountain and even the pinnacle of the Temple, mocking him for his pretensions to be the Son of God, and then leaving him, only to return at a more opportune time. On the evening of his betrayal, Jesus foresaw that Peter would be at the mercy of the Evil One and prayed that Peter’s faith would hold up. After the Resurrection, Jesus told Peter that in old age he would be led where he did not wish to go. In this, Peter would be following his master, the Wisdom and Word of God, the Giver of Life, who on the Cross was also taunted and physically destroyed. Through Jesus, God himself would become vulnerable.

Each year, the feast of Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of the Spirit’s gifts: peace and strength, light and joy, wisdom and discernment. But if the Spirit conforms us to Jesus, we will inevitably be led to the Cross, in one form or another. This is neither comforting nor guaranteed to edify. It may prove a humiliating experience, personally destructive and even scandalous. If the palpable gifts of the Spirit empower us to confront the manifestations of the “Mystery of Iniquity” and to cast out demons, they do not empower us to remain unscathed. For the only response given to the mystery of evil, the mystery of iniquity, is the one embodied in the crucified God. In a certain sense, we have to “give up the spirit” as Jesus did on the Cross. To pass to that other level, we will need to follow Jesus into the depths of hell.

“Live in hell and do not despair,” advised Silouan, the holy elder of Mount Athos. The onset of late-stage Alzheimer’s and the cruelty that René Page exhibited, so alien to all he represented and had lived, is perhaps analogous to the suffering of the giver of life himself, the pure one who “became sin” for us and destroyed death by assuming it from within. Where life has entered, death can no longer exist. For the Word remained united to the soulless body of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and to the bodiless soul of Jesus in the depths of hell. Might not the suffering and diminishment of someone like René Page (and others whose mental faculties and habits of being abandon them) prove, in a paradoxical way, the path to that very purity of heart required for seeing God? Not only does God’s mercy remain steadfast; his Spirit may be present to these broken ones in a different, more divine way—the Prayer within the prayer, the House within the house, the ineffable groanings of the Spirit above and beyond psychological experience.

We are in the throes of a great mystery here, one we cannot comprehend. René did not seek out his affliction any more than Jesus sought his Cross. There are indeed truths we do not want to hear, pathways we do not wish to follow. In my more lucid moments, I’m almost afraid to invoke the Holy Spirit, for not all of us are called to participate in the redemption at certain levels. Still, those who are called, like René Page, are signs who remind us of the scandal of the Cross, a scandal we can never take seriously enough or fully grasp.

Confidence in the Resurrection is crucial here—the conviction that life is stronger than death, that life has in fact already triumphed over death, that, in spite of appearances, there is a glory yet to be fully revealed and understood. Were it not so, God would be a monster. But God is our surest companion.

Related: Powers & Principalities: The Devil Is No Joke, by Luke Timothy Johnson

Published in the 2012-05-18 issue: 

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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