Over the months I have been exploring the spiritual journey of the young Eugene de Mazenod. From the age of 9 in exile we saw him taking his first steps of commitment in his first communion and confirmation. Then in Venice, under the guidance of Don Bartolo Zinelli, the adolescent received a solid human and Christian formation and aspired to holiness in his way of life. Naples and Palermo made him abandon these ideals – perhaps in a delayed adolescent rebellion that he had not been permitted to in Venice. The twenty-year old’s return to Aix en Provence was marked by several years of self-centered values and behavior.
Within a few years his behavior began to change and we became aware of an interest in his religion in his reading and desire to come to know the truth of his faith in the context of his “uncle” Joannis’ Jansenism. What he had learnt and experienced in Venice was now returning – but now with an adult commitment and not an immature adherence. We find Eugene dedicating an enormous amount of time to the welfare of the prisoners – and joining the canons for prayer in the cathedral. It is obvious that something deep had stirred in his soul.
Ignatius of Loyola helps us to identify this as a process of a conversion from self-focus to God-focus. In Eugene’s life we do not have enough source material to be able to date this exactly, but it is clear that from the age of 24 (1806) the conversion process was at work. It is only some seven years later (1814), when he was doing the retreat known as the “Ignatian Exercises” that he pinpointed and spoke about a peak experience that had taken place and given him a clear understanding of the process “one Good Friday.” A year or so after this event he entered the seminary to be formed for priestly ordination and ministry.
Six months after entering the seminary he wrote about this journey in a spiritual conference at the seminary:
Beginning with the happy moment when regenerated in the saving waters of baptism, I was raised to the awesome dignity of child of God, loaded with my Savior’s gifts, I could more easily count the successive and rapid movements of my breathing than the number of the inestimable benefits that this adorable Master has poured out on me in generous measure. But there is not one of them, I do believe, that I can more suitably dwell on than that ever-memorable act of mercy (crossed out in the notes: that still today I have difficulty understanding) by which this powerful God snatched me with sweetest violence from the midst of a corrupting world…
Spiritual Conference, 19 March 1809, EO XIV n 48
“The conversion movement of this time might be captured in the phrase ‘from self – focus to God – focus.’ For the grace of this first movement is one of being caught up in the love of God and in God’s saving action. My response is not to continue looking at the gift, but rather my focus is on the giver of the gift, the one who loves so much, even to death on a cross.” David Fleming SJ