“Even in the irreparable, hope remains”

“Even in the irreparable, hope remains”

First a business manager, then a nun and psychoanalyst, accustomed to listening to detained people, Sister Isabelle Le Bourgeois looks human distress in the face. But affirms, in his latest book, a deep faith.

After having been a prison chaplain, you are a psychoanalyst. Why these choices?

I have always been curious about others. Why is it so different? As a teenager, people already confided in me. This also led me to ask myself questions: am I going to talk to someone? Entering religious life opened me up to speaking to others. Sister Jeanne, responsible for the novitiate at the time, was able to understand the person I was, a businesswoman who had earned lots of money, had had a man in her life. I arrived in a very strange world, confusing Moses and Abraham! But she accepted me as I was: I felt welcomed like I had never been before. And I couldn’t forget the words I heard eighteen months earlier: “God loves you and you don’t know it. »

Where did you hear this saying?

She provoked my conversion. An incredible moment. In 1981, I received friends at my house in the countryside. On Sunday morning, Easter Day, I go to get croissants while waiting for them to rise. I take a detour to see the beautiful church. I heard a priest pronounce this sentence in his sermon that turned my life upside down. Forty-three years later, I am still in religious life. If I sometimes have doubts about the existence of God, I say to myself: “Wait, remember! »

Having been listened to has given you the taste to listen…

To put myself in this attitude of unconditional welcome from which I myself have benefited on several occasions. I'm here, I'm waiting. I listen. It's free. And something happens.

Can the person being welcomed discover themselves then?

It can be discovered in both senses of the term. She removes what protects her and at the same time discovers who she is. A real experience.

Why did you write this book, Living with the unrepaired?

To pay tribute to all those who come to entrust me with the secret of their life, and who, as they discover themselves, shed light both on what is irreparable in their lives, and the traces of this irreparable, which I call “the irreparable”. Other words exist – injuries, trauma, etc. – but I prefer this word, irreparable, because it gives hope of repair. I stand by my patients to believe with them that it is possible to overcome the irreparable.

What is irreparable?

Lose a child, suffer from an incurable illness?

An accident or an illness constitute irreparable events in the sense in which they took place. More broadly, what is irreparable is the passage of time: we will not go back. This must be understood as an essential fact of our existence.

You affirm that we must recognize the irreparable in our lives. For what?

We can only treat something, we can repair it, heal it, from the moment we know what it is. We get lost with “I would have liked… if I had known… I'm going to start from scratch…” No, we don't start anything “from scratch”. To live, we must integrate what has happened in our lives. Taking into account what I call the irreparable is part of reality. Listening to detainees taught me a lot. I remember a man who killed his wife and daughter: these irreparable acts had left their mark of “irreparable” in him. How to live with this, regain dignity, the taste for living? It is irreparable, but hope remains.

Your patients know that you are religious, since your office is within the walls of your congregation. How does faith in the resurrection of Jesus inform your practice?

This is an important question. If we say: “Jesus died, but finally, he rose again,” we evacuate his passage through the irreparable. Now this passage turns out to be absolutely essential for his life to emerge. And if this story of resurrection only concerns Jesus, that doesn't interest me at all. But if we hear that Jesus' passage through death concerns us, that is something else. Because the irreparable in our lives makes us experience deaths, small or large. The Easter Triduum – Holy Thursday, Friday and Saturday – puts believers in this perspective: Jesus descends “to hell” to recover everything we do not want, our shadows, our filth, the irreparable part of our lives. For me, he goes back with that during his resurrection; it goes back with our humanity to the point where it needs to be healed and saved. I insist on the fact that Jesus himself is irreparable: resurrected, he keeps the traces of the crucifixion, the traces of the irreparable. And he tells us that we enter into eternal life with the unrepaired. This is what keeps me listening with hope for those I welcome.

To be resurrected, you write, would be to regain a foothold on “the living earth of oneself”, remade by the shared trust and love which annihilate the power of wounds…

I have had this intimate spiritual experience on several occasions, particularly when listening to detained people. Their life stories first invite me to despair. Faced with human capacity to do so much harm, what does God do? And today, the rumblings of the world – the war in Gaza, Ukraine, and many other places – frighten us in the same way. And I ask: “Jesus, you have led me to trust you… What are you telling me now? » Because at the same time I experience the presence of God. It's very strange. Very disturbing. He is not absent, but he does not intervene. But his presence, through the person of Jesus, makes me say that he does not abandon humanity in distress. My faith, experienced through listening, allows me to say this.

So, the experience of faith is not “the Coué method”, a form of self-persuasion?

This experience is neither cerebral nor the Coué method! God escapes us as to who he is, but he does not escape as to his presence. How to say ? I know he's there. This is the essence of love, true love, the one that is not said every day. It forms the most reliable pillar of our lives. If in 1981 I was shocked to hear “God loves you, but you don’t know it,” now I can say: “God loves you and I know it.” As they say in rugby: converted try!

I don't touch him, I don't have conversations like with a friend and yet, I experience a deep intimacy. He is completely in my life. So, I guess I'm part of his. It's true that there are a lot of people, but that doesn't take away from our relationship. I love this verse from Victor Hugo about maternal love: “Everyone has their part and everyone has it in full. » And I liked that the detainees I met at the prison called me “Sister Isabelle”. Being a “sister” refers to a common parentage, and also constitutes a trace of our common history.

Do you feel like everyone’s “sister”?

As a young nun, I lived for two years in Mexico with sugar cane cutters. Their culture, their relationship to the things of life made them a priori distant to me. But reciting the Our Father together daily ended up engraving in me this conviction, experienced later in other encounters: we are mysteriously connected to the same God. Over the years, something has become obvious to me: my life only has meaning based on three terms, regardless of their order: God, the other and me. Whether lovable or loathsome, the other is unavoidable. Without him, we do not exist. And the relationship with God, with the other, with me is subject to uncertainties which constantly disturb and give new grist to the loving machine.

Experiencing fraternity with a multitude of strangers seems “dizzying, but possible”. How?

Through what the Church calls the communion of saints. A long time ago, one of my colleagues, Geneviève Desporte, asthmatic, reached the last extremity, still mobilized all her strength for others: “I have to get up, millions of people are waiting for me to get up and I do not despair. » For me, my morning and evening prayer expresses the most vivid fraternity with humanity, connected to the despair of the world.

Every day, children die, lives barely hatched are shattered. What does the hope of eternal life mean in light of what seems definitively unfulfilled, wasted?

Spontaneously, accomplishment equals success for us. We must completely depart from this very human scale of value and dare to believe that the unaccomplished, the unrepaired enters, whatever happens, into eternity. My question does not concern the victims of evil so much as the executioners, the aggressors. What eternity for them? What can be saved then? From a human perspective, the atrocities of October 7, 2023 in Israel, the bombings and deaths in Gaza and many other countries are unforgivable. As for me, I leave the problem to God, because I cannot do anything with this question. Everyone has their own job. But I'm angry. I cry injustice. I want to destroy. However, I believe I am called to not add an atom of hatred to this world, as Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died at the Auschwitz camp in 1943, said.

You complete your book by reproducing two cooking recipes from a man, Malo, who became a restaurateur after being abused as a child. For what message?

Good cooking connects with yourself and others! Malo was able to overcome the irreparable and builds a bond through his culinary art. In the Bible, the “wedding supper of the Lamb” means conviviality, brotherhood, accomplished communion with God.

His bio

  • June 23, 1947 Birth. Spent his childhood partly in Stockholm (Sweden), then in Moscow (Russia).
  • 1969 Graduated in literature and law. Creates several insurance brokerage companies.
  • nineteen eighty one Conversion on Easter Day.
  • 1983 Enters the novitiate of the Helping Sisters.
  • 1985-1988 License in theology, in Lyon.
  • 1989-1990 On mission in Mexico.
  • 1997-2009 Chaplain at the men's prison of the Fleury-Mérogis remand center (Essonne).
  • 2009-2014 Controller at the General Control of places of deprivation of liberty.

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