Henri Grialou, the future Father Marie-Eugène, was born on December 2, 1894, into a country family in the Rouergue region of France, in the small town of Gua. He was not yet ten years old when his father died after a few days of illness, leaving the young mother five children to raise. Growing up, Henri became a robust boy: enterprising, headstrong, aggressive. Later, he would speak of his «rough husk.» Very early, prompted by his family environment and encouraged by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, he wanted to be a priest. In 1905, he left for Suse, Italy, where he would be able to study for free with the Fathers of the Holy Spirit. There, he discerned that his vocation was not in this congregation and asked to enter the minor seminary in Graves. However, his mother, who thought she wouldn't be able to pay his boarding expenses, placed him in an apprenticeship with a metal worker. Henri applied himself as much as he could to this work that he didn't feel cut out for. His mother, a very intuitive woman, understood and took on the great sacrifice of paying his board at the minor seminary. At the end of his secondary studies, the young man entered the major seminary in Rodez, on October 2, 1911. After the retreat he took upon first entering the major seminary, he wrote, «Especially during a retreat, you perceive the 'pros and cons' of the priesthood, if I may put it in these terms. You weigh all the reasons... We are rushing, with the love of God in our hearts, and hope for the future in our heads, into the lists, where, it seems to us, we will be happy, if not to shed our blood all at one time, at least, and it maybe just as good, to shed it drop by drop, to use up our physical and intellectual strength little by little, and in the end, to fall on the field as a good captain in Christ's army.» During these years, Henri discovered the writings of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus, to whom he was passionately devoted. «Pray well for me,» he wrote in 1913 to one of his friends, «so that I might be, like Sister Thérèse, God's little thing, that He might do with me as He wishes, consuming my life little by little here or somewhere else, or taking me away in another manner as He wishes. Ask for this perfect conformity to His will for me.» The future Saint herself had written, «Perfection consists in doing the will [of God], of being what He wants us to be» (Ms. A, v. 2, 20). Later on, this communion of spirit with Thérèse would progress to the point that Mother Agnes of Jesus, the saint's eldest sister, would be able to say, «I have never seen a soul that resembled my little sister's as much as Father Marie-Eugène's.»
«He speaks to us in a whisper»
The First World War broke out; Henri left for the front. After six years in the armed forces, he returned with the rank of lieutenant, decorated with the Military Cross and the Legion of Honor. In August 1919, he returned to the seminary, but his readings of the saints of Carmel (Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of the Child Jesus) awakened in him the desire to become a Carmelite. He wrote to his youngest sister: «God speaks to us directly and very clearly only on rare occasions. Most of the time, He slips into our souls through inspirations, through circumstances that He causes. He speaks to us in veiled terms, in a whisper, and shows us what we might do if we wanted to please Him.» He was ordained a priest on February 4, 1922; on the 24th, Father Grialou crossed the threshold of the Carmelite monastery in Avon, near Fontainebleau. After an austere novitiate, where he learned of the primacy of mental prayer, he made his first religious profession on March 11, 1923, taking the name Father Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus. «Mental prayer,» he wrote to a friend, «is, as it were, the sun and center of all one's daily occupations. One has the impression every evening that one has done nothing else of importance... Mental prayer is a great consolation here and makes me forget everything else.» What is mental prayer? Saint Teresa of Avila answers, «Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us» (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC, 2709).
The years 1923-25 were marked by the beatification and canonization of Sister Thérèse of Lisieux. This gave Father Marie Eugène great joy. On April 29, 1923, the day of her beatification, he wrote to a seminarian friend, «I have the impression that this is one of the most beautiful days of my life. It's the realization of very old and very deep desires.... This glorification of the little Sister is the form in which I best understand the glorification of Jesus Himself. The little Blessed's mission is an outpouring of the divine love in souls, in the form God desires for our age.» During these two great events, just as for the proclamation of Saint John of the Cross as Doctor of the Church, in 1926, Father Marie-Eugène was called upon to give numerous conferences or homilies on the spirituality of the Carmelite masters. Having come to intimately know their spiritual doctrine, he would publish syntheses of their teachings in two books in 1949 and 1951, I Am a Daughter of the Church, and I Want to See God.
An antidote for atheism
Father Marie-Eugène had long been convinced that the doctrine of the Carmel saints was something everyone could understand, provided that it was presented in a form adapted to the needs of our time. On Pentecost Monday, 1929, at the time superior of the Carmelite boys' school at the Petit Castelet in Tarascon, he was approached by three young female teachers, including Marie Pila, who wished to know the tenets of Carmel and to learn mental prayer. He quickly realized that God intended him to found an organization for them, but he also knew that he would have to «have the humility to wait for the moment, the way, the hour, and God's grace, instead of rushing into plans to carry out this project, which would then be arrogant because they would be our own.» So he waited until May 1931 to begin a series of conferences on mental prayer at «Our Lady of France» in Aix-en-Provence. There, he discovered an audience of young women who were very anxious to be introduced to the contemplative life, all the while retaining their jobs. Thus was born a secular institute, which he set up on the property of Our Lady of Life in Venasque, in the diocese of Avignon. The aim of this institute was the original Carmelite ideal, realized by the prophet Elijah: «To closely join a contemplative and apostolic life in the world, by permeating every apostolate with mental prayer, so as to be the witness through word and life to the living God.» Each of these women began by spending a year in the solitude of Our Lady of Life; she then could take the spirit of contemplation into her social circle, while trying diligently to be a model of professional ability.
Father Marie-Eugène deeply rooted his disciples in the mental prayer of faith, this simple looking at God that leads one to discover His Merciful Love. Struck by this phrase from Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus: «I beg You to look down with Your divine look on a great number of little souls, I beg You to choose a host of little victims worthy of Your love» (Ms. B 5 v. 5, 42), he explained, «I would like you to go where we (religious) cannot go, on the boulevards, in the middle of the sea, in every environment.» The organization wanted itself to be an antidote to the practical atheism of modern times: «In a world that has lost a sense of God, that is perhaps losing this sense more and more, the Institute has its place, it has its mission all the more urgent because atheism is taking more victims: atheism does not make us flee; on the contrary, it calls us, because it calls for a testimony, the testimony that affirms the existence of God and of His rights.» Indeed, the more the world forgets God, the more it is necessary to give witness to God. Mankind is hungry for God without knowing it, and it is groping for Him in the darkness. «Let us be anxious to lead them to God!» the priest loved to say. But the conditions of this apostolate are those of «the struggle between two ferments, between two kingdoms, that of God and that of Satan. For the divine ferment to triumph, it is necessary that it be the strongest and invincible in each apostle... This overwhelming ferment must be capable not only of keeping up the fight, but of strengthening itself to continue this fight... If it were otherwise, the first meeting would be presumptuous and would lead to a defeat of the kingdom of God, and perhaps to the loss of the apostle.»