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The ordeal of illness
A life turned upside down
Marthe Robin grew up like any other young girl of the rural communities of France in the early 20th century. She had a simple childhood within a farming family of the Galaure, in the hilly region of the Drôme.
Marthe loved life; she had dreams and plans for the future. But little by little, unbearable pain, fainting, and progressive paralysis made her enter a world of suffering that she knew nothing about.
Faced with the ordeal, faced with the absurdity of the pain, everything seemed to collapse around her. Where was God? What was his plan for her? These are the questions she was faced with when her life was transformed.
Marthe, farm girl of the Galaure
Born at the beginning of the 20th century, on 13 March 1902, in a small village of the Drôme in the hills at Châteauneuf-de-Galaure, Marthe was a girl of the country. At the top of the hill, on a plateau that was strangely known as "La Plaine" (the plain), the horizon was vast and the wind blew.
"From the poplar, you can see a quarter of France.”
In the hamlet of Les Moïlles, you feel as if the village, located two kilometres lower down, is relatively far away. The farm then belonged to the parish of St Bonnet-de-Galaure; it was there that Marthe was baptised on 5 April 1902.
From a young age, and despite her poor health due to having contracted typhoid at the age of one, she would make the journey to school, catechism or the shops on foot. She lived with the seasons and worked in the fields, close to nature and animals. You had to work hard to earn a living. As soon as she could, she took part in the work of the farm, where everyone helped out.
Marthe developed an intense personal relationship with God. "I always loved the good Lord as a young girl.” She always remained deeply rooted in the countryside. Full of common sense, she was both deeply spiritual and unfailingly practical.
Her childhood was like that of so many other young girls. Naturally playful and teasing, Marthe also knew how to make herself heard when she was not happy. The evenings beside the fireplace, when the neighbours came round, where a delight for her. They would peel chestnuts or crack walnuts while listening to legends of the region being told. When the musical instruments were brought out, it was quite natural for everyone to dance together. Marthe had a deep affection for all her family, and spoke of her parents as "the two beings I cherish most here on earth.”
I always had a great love for the good Lord as a young girl.
The ordeal of illness
As a teenager, Marthe was struck by encephalitis. In the kitchen, she fell on the floor and she cried out for someone to call a doctor. Nobody knew what she had. It was suspected that she had rheumatism. She suffered unbearable pain, fainting, paralysis... without an accurate diagnosis being established.
The disease progressed in stages, with periods of remission and relapse. In 1919, she became paralysed in the legs. Until 1927, she could use her arms. In 1930, a second outbreak of the disease caused the total paralysis of her digestive tract. In 1939, a third outbreak reached the optic nerves. The slightest glimmer of light made her suffer very much. From that moment on, she lived in darkness.
Revolt, discouragement, hopes
After the false hope of a recovery, Marthe became discouraged. She felt angry. She wanted to live! Marthe fought for her health. She embroidered to pay for her medicines. She sought treatment in health spas, all to no avail. She fought like any young person who loves life would and put every effort she had into fighting for her life. But her future seemed to be cut short.
What did the Lord want of her? How should she confront the disease? At an age where one has so many dreams, these questions remained unanswered:
"Everyone can, and must fulfil his vocation but not me... Life saw to it that my illusions were taken away and my plans destroyed."
She also suffered from loneliness. Her family worked in the fields. In the region, people were unsettled by this unknown disease. Was it contagious? Was she mad? No one came to visit her.
I struggled with God. I would be much better under the ground than above it, in my opinion.
Fruifulness of a sick person's life
Marthe did not let herself go, given her circumstances. She did not wallow in her suffering. But how can you find a purpose in living the life of a sick person? In the midst of this struggle, she kept going. She did not lose faith, nor did give up on love and hope. A deep peace began to settle within her.
"A long-lasting and deep peace emerged in prayer and more often in the suffering; it is like a crystal clear, calm and peaceful stream that flows between two flower-covered banks. Peace is so good and a thousand times better than success."
In November 1928, at the heart of the spiritual darkness, through which she was passing, she experienced an inner transformation. The experience of God's infinite love for her gave her an immense sense of consolation. Nothing would ever be the same again.
In 1930, she wrote,
Two years ago, I wanted to die to see God [...]. Now I feel like I have a mission to fulfil. I fight the disease every step of the way.
Marthe transformed the most dreadful situation and gave it a purpose:
"I believe that the physical and moral suffering have a very productive and very favourable effect on my spiritual activity."
"Suffering is the incomparable school of true love"
At the heart of the ordeal of the disease, which could have broken her completely, she found a source of life and fruitfulness:
"Pain and suffering do not come from heaven, but the saving help and happiness do"
The priest and the people of the village noticed the change that had taken place in Marthe. Little by little, friendships were renewed. In her little room, Marthe received more and more visitors. With her, you felt immediately at ease. She listened, she understood, she gave encouragement.
I know now the purest joy one can know, that of living for others and for their happiness.
My adorable Jesus, may all those who come to me leave feeling comforted, when they are crying, may they be lifted up, when they are overwhelmed, may their joy continue for days with the memory of a word, a look or a smile.
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