12] Toward a relationship of communion
Thirty-five years of working together, thirty-five years of intense activity. For Vincent and Louise was this simply a manner of collaboration that was imposed on them by circumstances or was this collaboration more than mutual assistance that involved them in the multiple works that had been begun? Did their common journey lead to a true friendship? Their first encounter was initiated by Louise who had the need to find a spiritual director in Paris. Vincent was not very enthusiastic about accepting this role for this restless woman. In lengthy letters Louise explained her scruples and torments as well as her concerns for the education of her son. Vincent responded and attempted to calm her and appease her. Vincent used the language of the seventeenth century, a certain circumlocution that provided him with an elaborate way of expressing his feelings: Well now, I have said enough to my daughter. I must conclude by telling her that my heart will have a very fond remembrance of hers in that of Our Lord and solely for that of Our Lord, in whose love and in that of His holy Mother I am her most humble servant (CCD:I:56).
Vincent attempted to separate himself from Louise who seemed to want to possess him and always wanted him to be at her side. It seemed to be difficult for Louise to move forward without the presence of her director: I hope that you will excuse the liberty I am talking in telling you how impatient I have become because of your long absence, troubled as I am about the future and by not knowing where you are or where you are going (SWLM:5 [L.1]).
If this relationship of director-directed had not been accepted by one or both of these individuals as obedience to God’s providence which is revealed in events, then this relationship would never have existed. On a human level there were many differences to keep Vincent and Louise apart.
Gradually, through the exchange of letters and face to face meetings, they came to know one another and discovered their similarities and differences. Love for the poor and a on-going search for the will of God were two realities that united them. Vincent began to discover how some of the harsh realities of life had marked Louise. He was thus able to understand her anxious reactions, her torments and her extreme sensitivity. He discovered the depth of her spiritual life and her union with God. For her part, Louise came to know Vincent as a very level-headed priest, one who was close to God and the poor, totally committed to the work that had been entrusted to him.
In May, 1629, Vincent sent Louise on a mission and this event changed her life and also altered her relationship with Vincent. In his letters Vincent no long used the expression, my dear daughter, which indicated a certain dependence of Louise on her director, but rather began to refer to her as Mlle. which affirmed her full participation in a common mission. Louise’s personality developed and she was fearless and unafraid and began to organize and guide and rectify. With total simplicity and clarity she communicated her observations to Vincent. He relied on her to establish new Confraternities and to give new life to those that were languishing. They established an intense and effective collaboration in the midst of incredible activity. Both acted with great maturity: Louise was forty and Vincent was fifty. The letters from this period reveals Vincent’s admiration for Louise and her tactfulness in dealing with the Ladies of Charity: I am satisfied with everything you told me about the Charity. Please propose to the sisters whatever you find appropriate in that regard, and draw it up, as much according to what you have written me as to what you will consider best (CCD:I:101). Vincent recognized and utilized Louise’s competence in drawing up rules for the different Confraternities: You are a skillful woman to have adapted the rule of the charity in this way; I think it is fine (CCD:I:114).
Louise appreciated Vincent’s sure counsel and prudence and the fact that he was not afraid to tell her that she had to mature. She was also grateful for the way that Vincent provided for her son’s education who in reality was not in the least interested in studies. The many letters that were exchanged between both of them naturally touched on the missionary work that was being carried out in the midst of the confraternities. They also exchanged news about daily events, their health, and their reflections on different matters.
The arrival of Marguerite Naseau, who ministered with the Confraternities of Charity in Paris, was followed by the arrival of other young women from different villages. This led Louise to consider something different: the need to bring these young women together as a group that would be distinct from the Confraternities. Louise’s insistence and the speed with which she organized and prepared all that was needed for this new group to come into existence startled and surprised Vincent. She had to wait for Vincent’s consent but since she was convinced that this was God’s will, she moved forward with humility but also was quite firm in her conviction and insistence. After the establishment of the Company, Vincent and Louise provided for the formation the Sisters and together they reflected on the different problems that they had to confront: vocational discernment with the young women who were seeking admittance into the Company, the demands of the Ladies of Charity, the illnesses of the Sisters, difficulties that arose as a result of living together in community, etc. Their complimentarity was obvious, recognized and appreciated. The prudent pace of Vincent was compensated by Louise’s insistence. The differences between them became the source of mutual enrichment and balance.
Between 1640-1442, the relationship between Vincent and Louise, a relationship of trust and simplicity, entered a difficult phase, one filled with many tensions. At that time the differences between them seemed to create greater distance between them rather than unite them. During her trip to Angers, Louise was forced to sign a contract with the administrators of the hospital. She was hesitant to sign this contract as director of the Daughters of Charity which was not legally approved or recognized and Vincent was in no hurry to move forward with the procedures that would lead to ecclesial and state recognition. Louise was uncomfortable with this situation and she expressed her feelings about this matter to Vincent, who responded in the same manner to her concerns. In his third letter, dated January 22, 1640, Vincent wrote: Here is the answer to the principal matters about which you wrote to me … with regard to the stipulations [of] the Directors of the hospital, it seems to me that you would do well to sign them in your own name, as Directress of the poor Daughters of Charity, under the authority of the Superior General of the Company of the Priest of the Mission, Director of the above-mentioned women (CCD:II:11).
In 1640-1641 the selection of the new motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity reveals the different points of view that Vincent and Louise held. Louise wants to the two houses, the motherhouse of the Daughters and the Missionaries, to be close to one another. Vincent did not want this because he feared that people would begin to talk if they saw one of the Missionaries enter the house of the Daughters or one of the Daughters enter the house of the Missionaries. Vincent finally gave in to Louise and looked for a house close to Saint-Lazare, but according to Louise, his collaborator, Vincent was not moving on this matter as quickly as she had hoped. During the month of February 1641, Vincent responds with some harsh words to Louise’s impatience: I still see a little of the human in your feelings as soon as you see me ill. You think all is lost, for want of a house. O woman of little faith and acceptance of the guidance and example of Jesus Christ … for a handful of young women whom His Providence has manifestly raised up and brought together, you think He will fail us! (CCD:II:177).
Other letters in the same tone reveal a certain tension in the relationship between Vincent and Louise. Vincent reproached Louise for her seriousness and her demands on the young women who enter the Company. Louise, on the other hand, could not understand Vincent’s attitude, that is, his carelessness with regard to conferences and meetings that he committed himself to in order to offer spiritual formation to the Sisters. Twenty-eight letters between March 1640 and June 1642 refer to this commitment: if I can, I will be there tomorrow; these letters also contain many excuses as to why Vincent was unable to fulfill this responsibility (or simply that he forgot about the commitment). Louise kept count of the few conferences that Vincent gave during this period and commented on his reflections and words. Louise began by noting Vincent’s excuses: I was nearly unable to come at all today because I had to go far into the city; therefore I won’t have much time to talk to you (CCD:IX:30)
On August 16th, one year later, Louise again highlights Vincent’s excuses: I should have brought you together long ago but was prevented mainly by my own wretchedness and my business affairs. Well, Sisters, I hope that God’s goodness itself has made up for what I should have done for you (CCD:IX;35). With greater severity Louise highlights Vincent de Paul’s excuses with regard to his commitment for the March 9, 1642 conference: Because of urgent business, M. Vincent was unable to be present at the beginning of the conference … M. Portail began the conference … M. Vincent arrived around five o’clock (CCD:IX:49-50). Usually the conferences began at 2:00pm. On March 16th Louise noted with some sarcastic humor: M. Vicente did us the honor of being present from the beginning (CCD:IX:51).
Only the conferences that were given between August 1640 and March 1642 have such notations. Louise de Marillac was aware of the fact that Vincent gave priority to the Ladies of Charity, the Archbishop of Paris, the ordinands, the Queen … the Daughters of Charity seemed to be an afterthought. Was it Vincent’s education that led him to consider the Daughters in this way? Louise found it difficult to accept this form of reasoning. With the freedom that arose from her trust and confidence in Vincent she wrote to Vincent on September 11th, 1641: I very humbly supplicate you to do us the charity which your goodness leads us to expect and which we greatly need. The occasions which have prevented you from doing so will continue to arise as always unless you do us the honor of postponing them. Pardon me for taking this liberty (SWLM:59 [L.107B]). In Louise’s mind the Daughters of Charity had to be treated with the same respect as the Ladies of Charity or the Queen.
An unexpected event put an end to this difficult period. On Saturday, June 7, 1642, the vigil of Pentecost, the floor of the meeting room in the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity collapsed. No one was injured. A conference had been scheduled but Vincent was unable to be present.
The spirituality of Vincent and Louise was marked by this event, a sign from God. The collapse of the floor made them react and they were transformed. Vincent immediately sent Louise a very tender letter. Louise indicated that during her meditation that day her interior was transformed. Vincent and Louise became aware of the fact that God was calling them to move beyond the crisis that they were living … God invited them to change. This was a sign that revealed that they should continue to pursue the work that they had begun on behalf of the poor and for the glory of God.
A difficult period was now behind them. Now began a long period of profound and deep friendship. The friendship that united Vincent and Louise was one that was based on a profound respect for the uniqueness of the other. They both felt free to express themselves, assured that what was said would be accepted by the other. This confidence did not in any way eliminate their different points of view in many matters.
They both understood that the confrontation of ideas was the source of personal progress and enabled one to come to a better understanding of the problem. Louise highlighted this reality in a letter that she wrote to Vincent: I beg you very humbly, Monsieur, not to let the delicate sensibilities which I have revealed to you lead your Charity, in a spirit of condescension, to think that I want you to defer to my ideas. That is very far from my desire. I am never happier than when I am reasonably contradicted. God almost always gives me the grace to acknowledge and appreciate the opinions of others even when they are completely contrary to my own. This applies particularly to the advice of your charity in which I am certain to see the truth clearly even in matters which are hidden from me for a while (SWLM:340 [L.118B]).
As in every institution, the Company of the Daughters of Charity held council meetings which provided a time to study and guide the life and the activities of the Sisters. On October 30, 1647, a specific problem was discussed: Could the Sisters in the different towns and villages admit boys into the schools and thus educate them together with the girls? Vincent and Louise viewed the matter differently. Louise was closer to the Sisters and knew the situation of the families in those areas as well as the needs of the boys who had no one who was willing to instruct them. Vincent maintained his position that there had to be distance between the boys and the Daughters. He also reminded those present of the orders of the King and the bishops who prohibited coeducation. Louise had no fear in being insistent and spoke about the difficulties that the Sisters encountered: At times a little girl could not attend school unless she brought her younger brother with her, since their mother was not at home to look after him (CCD:XIIIb:287).
Vincent, who presided over the council, listened to all the reasons that were presented and closed the debate. He refused to accept the boys.
Friendship that respects the other is powerful. Vincent and Louise knew that they could count on one another at all times, but especially during difficult times. In 1657 Louise, in accord with a style that was very common at that time, wrote to Vincent and called him my most honored father: The needs of the Company are pressing us somewhat to meet and to speak to you. It seems to me that my mind is completely preoccupied; it is so weak. Its only strength and peace, after that which comes from God, is to by his love, my Most Honored Father, your very humble and most obedient servant (SWLM: 553 [L528]).
The death of faithful companions is one of those times when friendship reveals all its tenderness and provides strength to overcome the deep pain that results from the loss of a loved one. In 1653 Vincent was overwhelmed by the death of one of his first followers, M. Lambert who died in Poland. Louise wrote to Vincent and expressed her sharing in his pain and sorrow: Am I not truly bold, my Most Honored Father, to dare to mix my tears with your usual submission to the guidance of Divine Providence, my weaknesses with the strength God has given you in order to bear the general share in his sufferings that Our Lord so often gives you? (SWLM:415: [L.516]).
In 1658 it was Vincent’s turn to express his support to Louise at the time of the death of Barbe Angiboust, DC, who had entered the Company of the Daughters of Charity in July, 1634. He invited Louise to take on the attitude of Mary who witnessed the death of her Son.
With a deep faith in Christ and aware of their common mission Vincent and Louise made themselves available to one another. This sharing became a source of mutual enrichment because it was based on a respect for the journey of the other. Vincent was repeatedly a witness to the changing moods and impulsiveness of Louise as well as her harsh judgments. In a conference to the Sisters after the death of Louise, Vincent spoke about her virtues and noted: Little acts of hastiness were sometimes seen in Mlle. Le Gras. That was nothing, and I’m far from thinking that there was any sin in it. She was always firm (CCD:XIIIb:574).
Slowly and patiently Vincent encouraged Louise to live calmly and serenely, to modify her way of seeing things and to conform her life to that of Jesus who was meek and humble of heart. Gradually Louise came to understand her impatience and her exaggerated anxiety as well as her tendency to dramatize little things. Goodness, meekness and forbearance (virtues that were so characteristic of Vincent) began to take hold of Louise … they transformed her and enriched her. In 1655 she was able to write: It is a good thing to suffer and to await patiently the hour of God in very difficult circumstances which is so contrary to my overly impulsive nature (SWLM:495 [L.463]).
Louise shared with Vincent her ideas and her vision of the future for the Company of the Daughters of Charity. During the course of many years she explained to Vincent the importance of placing the company under the direction of the superior-general of the Congregation of the Mission and not under the direction of the diocesan bishops. Louise was very aware of the powers of the bishops in their own diocese. She knew that the Bishop of Lyon did not allow the Visitation Sisters (founded by Saint Francis de Sales) to visit the infirm in their homes and that he obliged these religious women to remain within the confines of their monastery. In Bordeaux the Bishop imposed the cloister on the Congregation of women that had been established by Jeanne de Lestonnac. If the Daughters of Charity were to minister in various dioceses and at the same time they were under the authority of the local bishop, then their service of the poor ran the risk of being compromised in many places since many bishops did not understand or accept this form of women living in community and ministering in the world. Vincent did not agree with Louise on this matter. He did not want the Congregation of the Mission to separate itself from its twofold objective: the evangelization of the poor country people and the ministry in seminaries. Should the Congregation of the Mission accept the spiritual direction of the Daughters of Charity? … besides Vincent was always respectful toward the bishops and the Daughters of Charity would be able to remove themselves from the authority of the local bishop … they are not religious but simply Christians consecrated to God.
Louise de Marillac acted patiently and firmly. With all her feminine refinement she exchanged ideas with Vincent while highlighting at the same time two ideas that she knew were fundamental for Vincent (and also for herself): fidelity to the will of God and continuing service of the poor: In the name of God, Monsieur, do not permit anything to take place which even slightly draws the Company away from the direction which God has given to it. You can be sure that immediately it would no longer be what it is. The sick poor would no longer be helped, and thus I believe that the will of God would no longer be accomplished among us (SWLM:187 [L.130D]).
During the course of nine years Louise developed her thoughts and continually attempted to obtain Vincent’s consent. Finally in January, 1655, the Cardinal de Retz approved the Company of the Daughters of Charity and placed it under the authority of the Vincent de Paul and his successors as superior general of the Congregation of the Mission. Louise was happy not because of her personal success but because she felt that now the Company of the Daughters of Charity would be able to continue serving the poor in all places and in accordance with the charism that they had received from God.
During the last years of their life, several events reveal to us the closeness of their relationship. Beginning in 1655 Vincent and Louise are referred to as elders or people of advanced age. Their age (Vincent 75 and Louise 65) was quite advanced for that period of time. In the seventeenth century the expected life span was 37 years. Their respective state of health was a source of concern for one another. Louise, like a good nurse, proposed remedies and different teas for Vincent. She herself pointed out different ways of bandaging Vincent’s ulcerous legs. Vincent was consistently good natured and would try the different treatments that were proposed to him: Her charity will judge from that what she thinks advisable for me to take tomorrow, and at what time. I will do so, God willing. I was feverish last night and this morning. I have just taken the tea (CCD:VII:427).
With complete simplicity Vincent and Louise will help one another prepare to depart from this world in order to be born again in a new world. Louise addressed herself to Vincent: It is for this reason that I turn to your Charity so that I will not be shipwrecked as I arrive at port, because of my own navigation, but will be guided solely by your directives and the orders of divine providence (SWLM:489 [L.457]).
The vows that were formulated in 1659 reflect their mutual awareness and desire to follow the will of God. They accept serenely the reality that they are not going to see one another again. Their friendship moved beyond physical contact with one another and their relationship had become so open and transparent that there was no need for human support. When Louise was dying Vincent sent her this short message: You are going before me; if God forgives me my sins I hope to be with you soon in heaven.
The friendship between Louise and Vincent was based on authenticity, that is, on the profound acceptance of the identity of the other and in the acceptance and respect for the differences of the other. Their relationship began as one of obedience, the result of a voluntary relationship of spiritual direction that then moved to a complimentary relationship of collaboration and in the calmness of later years became a relationship of communion. This friendship became a journey of holiness and a journey that revitalized their humanness.