“The little Arab girl” — St Mary of Christ Crucified

Blessed Mary Baouardy of Christ Crucified (the Little Arab Girl) had mystical experiences and bore stigmata on her body – wounds resembling those inflicted upon Christ. Miraculously, she survived martyrdom on account of her faith. As a young girl, she took vows of chastity and at twenty-one joined a Carmelite convent in Pau, France. All her life abounded with incredible gifts from God, but her sanctity was founded on humility.

In August 1870, Sister Mary of Christ Crucified, together with five other sisters, left for a missionary outpost in Mangalore, India. While travelling by sea, three sisters died.

In Mangalore

After arriving at the convent in India, Sister Mary went through a period of strong temptations. Satan appeared to her in the form of various saints and urged her to leave the convent and get married. Each time, Sister Mary would expose his presence and chase him away with the sign of the cross. She told the other sisters: “God allows temptation only for us to grow. Never lose heart, you are not angels, are you? I cannot do anything on my own, nothing but sin, but God can do great things in me.” She encouraged the disheartened to trust in God’s infinite mercy: “People of a contrite, humble and righteous heart are always forgiven all sins by God.”

God allows temptation only for us to grow. Never lose heart

Sister Mary made her first religious profession on 21 November 1871, in the chapel of the Mangalore convent. After taking the religious vows, she pointed in an ecstasy to the Blessed Sacrament and cried in admiration: “This is Love!” When she was later asked what one had to do in order to be able to love Jesus as she did, she bent down, lifted a bit of dust off the ground and said: “You have to become as humble as this dust.”

On the next day, the Sister Superior asked Sister Mary to reveal all her internal life to her. Sister Mary replied that it was a secret reserved for her confessor. The prioress believed that the refusal indicated the action of an evil spirit. To make matters worse, the local Bishop Efrem backed her. Consequently, efforts were undertaken to convince Sister Mary that she was under a delusion and that her ecstasies and stigmata were the work of Satan. In February 1872, Bishop Efrem informed the sisters in the convent that the ecstasies and stigmata of Sister Mary should be treated as the work of a demon or her sick imagination. She was pressured to renounce all her previous mystical experiences. For this purpose, she was banned from the choir when the sisters prayed together and her food rations were lowered. Sister Mary accepted with humility all the decisions made by her superiors, including the decision to subject her to exorcisms. When the exorcisms failed to bring the expected results, the prioress insisted that Sister Mary mend her ways. This was a period of particularly severe suffering for her.

During a revelation, Jesus explained the sense of the suffering to her: “My daughter, you are like a grapevine. Look how a vineyard owner works, how he cares for the grapevine: he breaks up the soil around it. The soil is your body: I cultivate the grapevine through suffering. For the grapevine to bear a lot of fruit, the vineyard owner cuts off the bad twigs and cleans the good ones. I also use temptations, humiliations and contempt to clean my grapevine and cut off bad and unnecessary twigs: pride and the nature that must die. The vineyard owner does not work in vain, he awaits fruit with hope. […] Beware, you must bear fruit. The Lord cuts down trees which do not bear any fruit, casts bad trees into fire and plants new ones. Endure the trial, temptation, suffering, toil, aversion and loneliness. All this purifies bad soil and prepares it to receive my grace.” On another occasion Jesus said: “Do you think that only you suffer? I suffer more than you, I bear the burden of all your sins.” One day, when she was praying, Sister Mary heard a voice: “God is hidden in a human heart like a seed in a fruit, like five seeds in an apple. He is hidden there with the mysteries of his Passion, which are symbolised by the five seeds. God suffered and man needs to suffer whether he wants it or not. If he suffers out of love, in unity with God, he will suffer less and will be given credit for it. Deep in his heart, there are these five seeds which will germinate and bear abundant fruit, but if man rebels, he will suffer more without obtaining any credit for it.” Sister Mary realised that the most beautiful aspect of life on earth was accepting all suffering and offering it to Jesus.

Sister Mary referred to obedience to God as the wings of a religious soul. She explained to the sisters that “obedience is to a soul what wings are to a bird. Woe betide any man who does not sacrifice everything to obedience: his desires, his will and all that he likes. If he does not make this sacrifice, he will never see God. A soul that is obedient to God is obedient to a superior – such a soul is the queen of peace and joy. A soul that is not obedient to God, is not obedient to a superior, is the queen of confusion and anxiety.”

At the decision of her superiors, Sister Mary left Mangalore on 23 September 1872 and returned to her home convent in Pau, France.

Back in Pau

After arriving at the Pau convent, Sister Mary requested that she be a lay sister, assigned to perform the most humble chores. In this community of nuns, she was treated normally. The superiors were not prejudiced against her mystical gifts.

One day, when she was praying, Sister Mary heard a voice coming out of a magnificent light: “If you want to look for me and follow me, call the light, that is the Holy Spirit, which has illuminated my disciples and which illuminates all the peoples who call him. Whoever calls the Holy Spirit will find me. His conscience will be delicate like a wild flower. If it is a father or a mother, peace will reign in his or her family. Priests who celebrate a Mass of the Holy Spirit once a month will worship me. Every person who participates in it will receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, will receive light and peace. He will heal the sick and wake those who are asleep.”

Sister Mary loved Jesus so much that when somebody in her presence pronounced his name she would go into raptures and fall into an ecstasy. On 22 June 1873, the sisters witnessed her amazing levitation. The prioress and mistress noticed that Sister Mary was absent from supper. They went to the garden and saw her floating through the air above huge linden trees, calling in rapture: “Oh, Love!” Levitation – when a body floats in the air, defying the law of gravity – was experienced by many saints. It is a tangible sign of man’s close encounter with God. The scared prioress ordered Sister Mary to come down to earth immediately. When the nun was descending, one of her sandals got caught on the highest branch of the linden tree and hung from it. Being in ecstasy, Sister Mary did not realise that her body was levitating. When she returned to normal, she was amazed to see her sandal hanging from the top of the linden tree and asked how it was possible.

A humble soul is always happy. A humble heart is a vessel, a chalice, which contains God!

During some ecstasies, Sister Mary praised God’s unutterable goodness, love and mercy by singing wonderfully. During another ecstasy, she said: “Everyone is asleep! And they forget about God, who is so good, so great and so worthy of adoration. Nobody thinks of him! He is praised by nature, the skies, stars, trees and plants, everything praises him. Man should also praise him, knowing his blessings, but he is asleep! Quickly, quickly, let’s wake up the universe! Let’s go and praise God and sing him thanks! The world is asleep, let’s wake it up!” On anotheroccasion she said in tears: “Jesus is not known. Jesus is not loved. He, so full of goodness and kindness. He who has done everything for man.”

However, Sister Mary’s sanctity was founded on humility and not extraordinary mystical gifts. This is how she described it: “Sanctity is not prayer or apparitions or revelations or the ability to speak well or a hair shirt or penance, but humility and strict rules. Humility is peace! A humble soul is always happy. A humble heart is a vessel, a chalice, which contains God! If the souls that practise many virtues do not try their best to achieve humility, they will never please Jesus. While those who do practise humility, even if they sin far more, will find grace with God. The Lord says: ‘A truly humble soul will work more miracles than the ancient prophets.’ ” In the light of Jesus’ love, Sister Mary could see all her nothingness, hence she was indifferent to any praises, criticism and slander. She said: “I am what I am before God.

I am nothing but sin, misery and ingratitude. My God, show me your mercy!”

Only a humble man has a pure heart, given entirely to God; he then participates in the indestructible joy of resurrection. Sister Mary wished that everyone could realise this, hence she argued: “Man, be happy and rejoice, because the Most High is your treasure! Be proud that you have so great a God! If you love what was created more than God who created it, then your love will turn into darkness. Love God who created all things with all your heart and your love will turn into light!”

Sister Mary advised others: “If you do anything for Jesus, do it whole-heartedly. He does not like half-hearted efforts. A soul which does not give him everything is like lukewarm water, which Jesus expels from his mouth. […] He who has not given his will to Jesus has done nothing.”

After returning from India to Pau, Sister Mary told her Mother Superior that Jesus had called her to Bethlehem, because he wished that a Carmelite community be founded there. She maintained that before three years passed, she would leave for Bethlehem with other sisters to found a new Carmelite convent. Initially, the superiors did not give much attention to her prophecy, but Sister Mary insisted, reminding them that it was a request and instruction from Jesus

Seeing the scepticism of the superiors, Sister Mary told Jesus: “As proof that it is your will that a Carmelite convent be founded in Bethlehem, cause this withered geranium leaf to develop a root.” Soon, all the sisters could see a magnificent geranium grown from a withered leaf. Yet the founding of a new Carmelite convent in Bethlehem seemed an unattainable dream. There were no funds, nor a plot of land to build on, and indeed no permission from the Holy See.

However, there is nothing impossible for God. During an adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a Mrs Dartigaux of Pau received inner inspiration that she should finance the founding of a new Carmelite convent in Bethlehem. She came to see the superior and Sister Mary and told them about everything. The sisters petitioned Bishop Lacroix, who after much hesitation sent a request for permission to found a new Carmelite convent to the Vatican. To everybody’s surprise, Blessed Pius IX sent a decree establishing a Carmelite convent in Bethlehem very quickly. By May 1875, all the formalities had been completed.

This fact strengthened Bishop Lacroix’s conviction that Sister Mary, who called herself “a little nothing”, had been endowed with extraordinary mystical gifts and charismata. The bishop mentioned this at a meeting with the priests of his diocese, who in turn passed this opinion to their parishioners. People began to flock to the Pau convent to meet the humble nun. In obedience to her superior’s instructions, Sister Mary saw people in need of spiritual help in the convent’s parlour. Many miraculous conversions took place there at that time.

Passage to Bethlehem

The time of departure for Bethlehem came. Sister Mary, together with nine other sisters and the foundress, Mrs Dartigaux, left Pau on 20 August 1875, stopping over at Lourdes.

While crossing the Strait of Bonifacio, Sister Mary, delighted with its beauty, said: “How beautiful it is, but how infinitely more beautiful God must be who has made all this! Lord, God of hosts, how great you are!”

The entire crew of the ship enjoyed the presence of Sister Mary – a small and humble nun who took note of everyone and had a word of encouragement for them all. She spoke to the sailors about the necessity of prayer and the transience of life on earth. They listened to her with great respect. When she spoke about God, her words emanated the ardour of love and became embedded in human souls. She consoled the worried, and she restored the joy of life to the depressed and confident faith and hope to the doubtful. After meeting her, everyone felt stronger and better. She had enough courage to speak the truth, because: “Jesus does not want compliments to be paid.” The people she spoke to accepted a painful truth from Sister Mary on many occasions, only because they knew she was guided by disinterested love.

On 3 September 1875, the ship called at Alexandria for three days. It was in this very city that Sister Mary had survived martyrdom for her faith thirteen years earlier. A murderer cut her throat, because she had adamantly refused to renounce her faith in Jesus and convert to Islam, but God miraculously restored her to life.

On 6 September, the ship called at Jaffa. On the evening of the same day, the sisters went to Ramallah, and on the next day to Jerusalem. Over three days, they visited the most important shrines of that holy city.

When they reached Bethlehem, on 24 September 1875, they first went to pray at the Grotto of the Nativity. They were solemnly greeted and led inside by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, representatives of the French government and almost all the residents. Next, they were led in procession to a temporary convent where they were to live for a year. The sisters wanted to buy a suitable plot of land to build a permanent convent as soon as possible. A few years earlier, during a revelation, Jesus had shown Sister Mary a plot of land for the future convent in Bethlehem and said that it was the place where the Virgin Mary rested for the last time on her way to the location where he was born. This hill is also called the Hill of David, because David was anointed king in a grotto there. The plot was owned by several Muslims and non-Catholic Christians. Hence the difficulties preventing its purchase mounted. According to Jesus’ announcement to Sister Mary, the owners themselves were to ask the sisters to buy the plot. And that is what happened after several days. The transaction was completed without further delay and the sisters became the owners of a large plot of land. Jesus showed Sister Mary the architectural design of an entire convent, which was later used in its construction.

The convent in Bethlehem

As Sister Mary spoke Arabic, the superior assigned her the task of caring for the workers and supervising the construction of the convent. Among the workers was a young man who had renounced Christianity and converted to Islam. Sister Mary saw his baleful and mistrustful glances. She started to talk to him about her love for Jesus, endearing herself to him so much that the young man opened his heart to her and confessed to the crime he had committed. He went to confession, solemnly rescinded his act of apostasy and accepted Holy Communion. Everybody witnessed the miraculous metamorphosis that Jesus brought about in him.

Sister Mary said to her fellow sisters: “Jesus cannot bear duplicity, but He loves a righteous heart. God loves a righteous man, and even if he has sinned a lot, God will give him light to reform; but God cannot stand the sight of a hypocrite and even if he showed all the appearances of sanctity, he would not be pleasing to God as a righteous man is, in spite of all his imperfections.”

True wisdom and intelligence presuppose the attitude of a ‘simpleton’, understood as docility to the Holy Spirit

Sister Mary’s greatest fear was sin, to which she felt an aversion. With her whole heart, she wanted everyone to love God. She wanted to set human hearts ablaze with love for Jesus, and that love was inseparable from love for the cross, which is the sign of love “until the very end.” She wanted to respond with love to Jesus’ love by accepting the suffering of the cross in herself. She was called to share in his suffering in a special way for the salvation of sinners. In Bethlehem, her co-suffering with Christ reached a climax. She suffered the most when, thanks to the grace of bilocation, she witnessed the persecution of Christians and crimes committed against them around the world. God made it possible for Sister Mary to participate in these tragic events in places hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. She left behind many notes on this subject. Let us quote one dated 28 January 1877: “Yesterday evening, I saw preparations for a massacre of Christians in a distant place. I was scared. The Christians had been warned, but they were not able to escape. I saw a massacre. Heart-rending cries and calls for help, but no help was forthcoming. It was terrible.”

Sister Mary related in detail the martyrdom of some missionaries in China and other missionary countries. For instance, shortly after the martyrdom of Father Baptifault in Yunnan, China, on 14 September 1874, Sister Mary related this event to Bishop Lacroix. A few months later, when the bishop read the official account of this martyrdom in the magazine Univers, he realised that the description was exactly consistent with the account of Sister Mary. All the humiliations, slanders and lies which people directed at the Church out of spite inflicted great suffering on Sister Mary, who felt herself to be a living member of the Church. And we know that the Church is Christ and that all of us poor sinners are in need of his mercy.

During Lent of 1876, Sister Mary’s stigmata reopened on her heart, head, legs and hands. These were bleeding wounds, signs of special cosuffering with Jesus for the salvation of sinners. It was then that she was mystically wed to Jesus. Sister Mary explained: “Calling us into being, God endowed us with a free will. He who offers his free will to God the Creator will receive a ring as a sign of being married to God. This is the pinnacle of what can be achieved here on earth. This is a wedding ring!”

Sister Mary was convinced of her great sinfulness. She was humble because she lived in the truth. She said: “My God, we are so insignificant! How can man ascribe goodness to himself? Despite all my unfaithfulness, God loves me and will save me solely through his mercy.”

The construction of the new convent proceeded very quickly. Already on 21 November 1876, the Carmelite sisters took residence in their new abode on the Hill of David. The patriarch celebrated the first Mass there, during which Sister Mary saw many souls pass from purgatory to heaven.

God suffered and man needs to suffer whether he wants it or not. If he suffers out of love, in unity with God, he will suffer less and will be given credit for it

The final stage

Sister Mary longed for heaven. She awaited death as the hour of her liberation. She prayed: “Hasten, Lord, the moment of my departure. I long for you! I am like a child that has lost its father and runs to search for him. I am like a bird in a cage. Open the door for me so that I can fly to you!”

She gave advice to the sisters: “On the path that we follow, be careful lest the enemy deceive us. Make often the sign of the cross. I tell you what I am told by the Lord. When you are tempted, wherever you are, kneel before the Lord. Say: ’Lord, I renounce Satan and his works; I want only your Spirit.’ When you do not know what is right and what is wrong, say deep in your heart, kneeling down: ‘Lord, I renounce Satan, his works and his feelings; I want only you and your Spirit.’ You will see that you will always win, provided that you stay faithful to these words, because blows and wounds will be often inflicted on you.”

In the spring of 1878, the Mother Superior, accompanied by Sister Mary and another sister, went to Nazareth to purchase land for a new convent. On their way, Jesus showed Sister Mary the place where two of his disciples met him after the resurrection and recognised him by the breaking of bread (cf. Luke 24:29–32). Subsequent archaeological excavations have confirmed that it was indeed Emmaus, mentioned in the Gospel.

On returning to Bethlehem, Sister Mary resumed her duties as the supervisor of construction work. On 22 August 1878, while climbing the stairs, carrying drink for the workers, she tripped and fell, breaking her left arm. Very quickly, gangrene developed. Aware of her approaching death, she said to the sisters: “I am on my way to heaven, the desire of my entire life will be satisfied soon. I will go to Jesus.” On 26 August 1878, the greatest desire of her life was fulfilled: Sister Mary departed for the Lord. She was thirty-three years old. Before her death, she confessed and accepted the sacrament of the sick and Holy Communion. She offered her suffering to the Church, France and the convent. In agony, she cried: “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God” (Ps 42:1). At the moment of death, her face froze in the expression of delight and joy at meeting Christ. On her body, stigmata wounds could be seen, and in their places, her body was transparent.

The funeral of Sister Mary, on 27 August, was attended by large crowds. On that day, a rainbow with a green crown in the middle could be seen over the convent, and the Carmelite convents in Bethlehem and Pau were permeated by the same incredible fragrance that had accompanied Sister Mary on certain days when she was there.

Sister Mary Baouardy of Christ Crucified (the Little Arab Girl) was beatified on 13 November 1983. In his homily, St John Paul II said: “True wisdom and intelligence presuppose the attitude of a ‘simpleton’, understood as docility to the Holy Spirit. With it one can, in the Son, through the Son and with the Son, know the mysteries of the Father, which remain unknown to the wise and intelligent of this world, blinded by stupidity and pride [cf. 1 Cor 1:18–21]. […] The whole life of this small Arab Girl, full of extraordinary mystical gifts, was, in the light of the Holy Spirit, a conscious and irrevocable answer to a vocation to holiness, that is, to that eternal plan of salvation […] that the divine mercy has established for each of us.” Thanks to her intercession with God, numerous miraculous healings and conversions continue to take place.

Blessed Mary of Christ Crucified, plead for the gift of a pure and humble heart for us. Teach us to accept all suffering and offer it and our will to Jesus.