A book can change your life.
It doesn’t have to be a “serious” book or a popular one or a religious one. Just as God touches us through the people we meet, the air we breathe, the art and beauty we encounter, the music we hear, so too does he touch us through what we read. It can be a brief moment of insight through a single sentence, or it can be the sum of the book itself.
It’s in the latter way that He and I changed my life.
I’d read it once many years ago in its original French when I was still living in France, and to be honest, fireworks didn’t go off. It went on the shelf in my mind where I store some of the better-known spiritual classics, ones that are lovely or helpful or just vaguely positive. It certainly didn’t join the ones I knew to be directly speaking to me, the ones in which I underlined whole paragraphs and turned to again and again in distress: Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle; Julian of Norwich’s Showings; the entire work of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton; Blaise Pascal’s Thoughts; the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
No; He and I just wasn’t one of those.
I came back to He and I, not through the book itself, but through its author. I happened to be doing research on the spirituality of the area in which I grew up—Angers, a city in the Loire valley—and came across Gabrielle Bossis, who lived for most of her life outside of Nantes and found herself, for various reasons, often in Angers; the two cities are not far from each other.
The more I read about her, the more entranced I became. Her c.v., if you will, reads like a novel: an enchanted childhood; the drama of becoming a front-line nurse during World War I; becoming an accomplished playwright, actor, and producer; and then finally holding conversations with Jesus as she lived out the last twenty years of her life through the occupation of another world war, active as always, traveling or simply talking to Jesus as she pulls weeds in her garden. The few photographs we have of her show an attractive woman, a slight smile on her face as though contemplating the folly of photography.
I was fascinated. I went to lectures given by people who had known her. I read everything about her I could get my hands on. And then it finally occurred to me: this woman couldn’t have written anything that would leave me feeling lukewarm about it. The fault wasn’t with He and I, it was with me.
So I picked the book up again. And read it straight through during one cold snowy gray New England day, pausing only for food and coffee. This time, I did find passages to underline, passages to meditate on, passages that seemed to be speaking directly to me and my situation. What a difference an attitude makes!
It helped, of course, that I was able to contextualize so much of the book. The dates, the places, were all familiar to me. I know from my family what the Occupation was like, the privations, the rationing, the constant fear; and as I read the pages from those dark years I knew what Gabrielle was living even as Jesus was consoling her. And I was sitting beside her on the train from Nantes to Angers, a train I’ve traveled on many times myself, as Jesus continued to assure her of his love. Perhaps it took that contextualization for it to get through to me; I suspect it’s far more accessible to someone less stubborn!
It didn’t change my life in sweeping dramatic obvious ways, of course. I didn’t enter a convent or start a new career or move to a hermitage in the mountains. But it changed my life in subtle ways, in listening to my thoughts more closely, in trying to discern if Jesus might speak to me in ways similar to how he’d spoken to that other French laywoman. Through my heart.
He and I is a substantial book, and there’s no reason you should need to read through it in one fell swoop as I did. In fact, the new daily devotional Jesus Speaking is the best possible introduction to this spiritual classic: it structures the reading, adds a meditation, and generally helps you get through to the very passages that will prove meaningful to you.
Welcome to the world of Gabrielle Bossis, to her conversations with Jesus, and to whatever marvelous things he has in store for you as you read and pray with Jesus Speaking!
by Jeannette de Beauvoir