- A Mysticism of Kindness: The Biography of “Lucie Christine.” by Astrid M. O’Brien
Evelyn Underhill quotes the French mystic “Lucie Christine” (Mathilde Boutle, 1844–1908) three times in her classic work, Mysticism. Underhill first cites evidence of God’s claim on Boutle’s life and soul: “Suddenly, I saw before my inward eyes these words—God only.” Next, Underhill adduces evidence of the dark night experience of this well-to-do married mother of five: “I am plunged into such spiritual darkness that I think myself utterly lost in falsehood and illusion.” Finally, Underwood lets the by-then widowed Mathilde speak to the relief of surrender: “At the end of such a long and cruel transition, how much more supple the soul feels itself to be in the hand of God.” Such is the shorthand spiritual journey of a woman whose story caught the eye of Astrid O’Brien in 1968. A philosophy professor at Fordham University, O’Brien spent forty years thinking, searching, wondering, and finally researching and writing Boutle’s biography.
Some English- and French-speaking readers had learned of Boutle through her spiritual journal, edited and published by Jesuit Auguste Poulain in French as the world moved toward World War I, and then in English, while embroiled in the war. The war notwithstanding, Poulain argued that here was an educated laywoman who lived (and documented) a deep prayer life rife with mystical experience. Poulain told the story without the story, however. Many of Boutle’s immediate family members were alive, so they provided the personal details and context for her mystic experience.
Much later, O’Brien obtained both permission and significant details of Boutle’s life from her descendants to contextualize the story of this well-to-do woman with greater perspective. In her telling, crafted with previously unknown details and replete with quotations from her journals, O’Brien moves Boutle more clearly into the ranks of lay mystics whose interior lives dealt with both the mundane and the tragic events of ordinary life. [End Page 150]
Some of the events of Boutle’s life come from a time of more and more historical remove. She lived in France at a time filled with the anti-clerical determinations of the Third Republic, which the Catholic Church responded to with a spirituality of reparation to the Sacred Heart. The great basilica of Sacré-Coeur at Montmartre began to rise in 1875, and was completed a few years after Boutle’s death, in 1914. In many respects, Boutle’s interior journey mirrored the basilica’s construction. Boutle was married, yes, but the marriage was arranged and her husband never quite broke from his attachment to his foster mother. She had children—five in fact—but their relationships with their mother seem more distant than one might imagine today—even as at times they are clearly quite close, and she is a creative and engaging parent. Boutle’s marriage was less than ideal. Her husband became increasingly abusive as he fell deeper into the arms of absinthe addition and alcoholism, which eventually caused his death in 1887 when Boutle was 43.
Throughout her years, Boutle documented her experiences of God, the loss of God, and the final resolution of her life with the will to be in God’s care. Even as this is clearly a biography, it reads like a spiritual autobiography wherein the facts of her life support and explain the records of her spiritual experiences. Boutle’s notebooks provide abundant information about her prayer—but not much else. However, given what we know about life in the Boutle household as described by O’Brien, we stand in awe of her experience of a God who consoles and comforts, who advises and aides, and who eventually provides a way for her to deal with the results of absinthe-fueled abuse at the hands of her husband. Boutle recorded one of many consolations at the height of his illness and abuse: “I feel great troubles are in store...