XI. The Dark Night of a Soul
While all this was being done—the making of the Medal, its marvelous spread, and its official acceptance by the Church—Catherine Laboure, hidden away in Enghien, was adjusting to the routine of a lifetime.
The years 1830-36 were eventful ones for her. In no other period of her life did so many things happen in so many conflicting ways to this quiet girl from the country. It was a period of high heavenly favor in the visions vouchsafed her; and also a period of the deepest frustration in the refusal of her director to believe her. It was a period of attainment, when she laid hold at last of the quiet religious life she had always wanted; and a period of anxiety, when it seemed her serenity might be lost forever in the questioning and probing. It was above all a period of beginning, of setting forth on a new high road to sanctity with the determination to walk it to the end.
A shallow observer might see anything that would happen to Catherine after the Apparitions as an anticlimax. Such a view is understandable, but entirely shallow. It would regard the long remaining years as a gradual descent from a mountain top when they were in reality an ascent to a yet higher peak. Such a view would consider only what happened to Catherine, ignoring completely what she effected herself.
For the Apparitions in themselves added nothing to the sanctity of Catherine Laboure; it was her reaction to them that was important. She saw them in proper perspective: not as a personal favor to herself—although there was that element in them surely—but rather as a general boon to mankind. She never considered herself as anything but “an instrument,” and she was right. Nor is there an exaggerated humility here; it is the hardheaded realistic insight of the saints. The mission of the Medal was but a further vocation added to the religious vocation already given her. Catherine’s eternal success or failure would depend upon how she responded to both vocations, just as anyone’s salvation depends upon how he lives the life ordained for him by God.
This then was the crucial period of Catherine’s life, when she came to a full knowledge of what God wanted of her and set about accomplishing it. True to character, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the task. There were no half-measures with Catherine. She was a thorough workman.
The spiritual life, like any work of God, has its rules; and any saint, no matter how distinctive his holiness, must observe them. Ascetical writers define three great stages in spiritual development which they call the Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive Ways. While these three stages are successive in general: the soul first purging itself of sins and faults and the perverse movement of the passions, then advancing to a fuller knowledge of God with the help of divine illumination, and finally uniting itself wholly to Him in faith and hope and love, there are points of contact where all three of these stages may be experienced at the same time. In fact, it is usual enough for them to be so experienced. In Catherine’s life at home, for instance, we can see her absorbed in daily prayer in the Chapel of the Laboures and at the same time giving vent to occasional flashes of temper. These movements of temper endured almost to the moment of her death, when she had attained to a very high sanctity.
The extreme instrument of purgation is contradiction, and the supreme example of contradiction is the state spiritual writers call “the dark night of the soul,” a period when the soul, having abandoned the things of earth, feels itself abandoned in turn by God. It is accompanied by a horrible dryness and distaste for prayer, and a feeling very like despair; it can only be ridden out by clinging with blind faith to the hem of God’s garment. St. Teresa of Avila suffered this state for twenty years. Blessed Jean Gabriel Perboyre, C.M., Catherine’s religious brother, passed through it in 1840, shortly before his martyrdom in far off China. So black was his “night” that he was absolutely convinced that he would lose his soul, yet his unswerving hold on God shone out in the magnificent cry: “If I cannot love you in the next life, dear Lord, let me love you at least in this one.”
Catherine, too, had her “dark night”; when, we don’t know, but have it she did, for it was essential to the heroic sanctity she attained. She herself speaks, in passing, of “periods of dryness,” but these may have been the ordinary trials common to all who embrace the religious life. Since contradiction often accompanies the great trial of the “dark night,” we may justly look for it in the major contradictions of Catherine’s life: the refusal of her father to allow her to follow her vocation and the agonizing years that followed; in the refusal of Father Aladel to believe in her visions and the mission they enjoined—her terrible suffering at this time is evident in the despairing, exasperated complaint to Our Lady that she might better appear to somebody else “since no one will believe me,” or the pleading cry: “But, my good Mother, you see that he will not believe me”—and finally in the lifelong refusal of the priest to do anything about the statue of “Our Lady of the Globe,” which Catherine, who never exaggerated, called “the torment of my life.” It could be in one, or two, or all of these. The essential thing is to understand that she suffered interiorly, that her life was not as placid and uneventful as might seem, and that she clung to God tenaciously until He brought her into the light again.
Both God and Catherine got right down to business in this matter of sanctity. Catherine knew in theory that it would not be easy. She had learned in the seminary, from books and conferences, that it consisted essentially in the subjugation of the will, the citadel of the soul. It was a teaching she accepted without demur, a teaching indeed she actively endorsed, for she had sought the Will of God from earliest childhood. It is one thing, however, to accept a theory; it is another thing entirely to practice it. It is one thing to bow to God’s Will directly; it is another thing to bow to it indirectly, hidden behind the will of a superior as human as oneself.
Until now, even in following out God’s Will, Catherine had always gotten her own way. She had been the mistress of her father’s house from the age of twelve; her father, who stood in the place of God, disposed it so. She had received her spiritual direction from God immediately, without the agency of human directors. Even when, in God’s Providence, she had encountered human opposition, she had eventually gotten her way: she had bested her father in the matter of her vocation; she had bested Father Aladel in the matter of the Medal. Again, God had so ordered it. It would seem that He had set about bending this human will, so implacable and yet so capable of heroic submission, gradually, increasing the opposition to be overcome a little at a time. Now God changed His tactics. Catherine would never have her own way again. There would always be a superior to tell her what to do. Many times the superior would be unreasonable; sometimes she would be entirely wrong. Yet Catherine had no choice but to obey, for in making her religious profession she accepted wholeheartedly the religious axiom that the superior’s will is the Will of God.
This was the essence of the holiness of Catherine Laboure: unswerving obedience to superiors, even under stress; and the stress usually lay in the fact that very often Catherine was more competent to do the work than the superior who ordered it, and both knew it. For example, Catherine was a better housekeeper than Sister Dufes, her last superior, yet she always did things the way Sister Dufes wanted them, though she knew her own way was better. Even more, the Sisters who lived with her recognized Catherine’s domestic talents and were “on her side.” They urged her not to defer to Sister Tanguy, the new and inexperienced Assistant placed over her in 1874, but Catherine would have none of it. The heroic victory over self, evident in these submissive actions must be fully grasped to understand the sanctity of Catherine Laboure.
But it must also be fully grasped that such a victory was not easily won. It was not always like this. The change from lay to religious life was very hard for Catherine. She who had been mistress now became a servant, or something very like it. She who had mastered every facet of keeping house was now tried at this task and that, to determine what she could do. It must have been extremely humiliating, much like the plight of a doctor of philosophy forced to return to the first grade.
Not that it was done intentionally to humiliate her. After all, her superiors did not know all her capabilities. They could discover them only by trial and error. So, when she came to Enghien she was tried first in the kitchen, and then in the laundry, and finally in the charge of caring for the old men of the house. She measured up to each task. But, ironically, the task that became her lifework was the task she was least fitted for, in the sense that it was new to her. She had had practice in cooking and washing; she had had none in taking care of old people.
The reverence for superiors that was the mark of her sanctity showed itself in the very first assignment, which was the kitchen. When she had prepared a meal, she entered upon a ritual that was, in a sense, a vignette of her life. Dishing out the first portion, she would say:
“This is for Sister Servant.” She said it in the same respectful tone in which she might have said: “This is for God.”
Then: “This is for the gentlemen,” and “This is for the Sisters.” And, what was left:
“This, if you please, is for myself.”
That she did not rise above contradictions easily is perhaps best illustrated in an incident from these early days. Catherine was given a Sister to help her in the kitchen, and the two did not get along. It is probable that fault lay on both sides, for Catherine had very fixed ideas about how things should be done. As regards the chief difficulty between them, Catherine seems to have been right. Her companion insisted on doling out stingy portions to the old men, and Catherine remonstrated with her repeatedly. Finally, it reached the point where Catherine seriously considered asking for a change. She took her problem to Father Aladel, who told her to put all thoughts of a change out of her mind, and counseled her to bear this trial with patience. It was enough for Catherine. She brought all her virtue to bear on the situation, so that she was not only patient under the continued annoyances of the Sister, but even deferred to her as much as was possible and right.
There is a homely little tale of the way Catherine repaid this Sister good for evil. The bell had rung for supper one evening when the Sister discovered she had forgotten to make soup for the meal. She was in a sweat, for she would have to face the grumbling of the old men, the criticism of the Sisters, and a possible rebuke from the Superior. It was indeed a little thing, but little things can assume great proportions in community life and, at the very least, her pride was in for a tumble.
“Never mind,” Catherine said, “I have just come from milking the cows, and I’m sure everyone will welcome a change to fresh milk.”
And so the incident was carried off as a deliberate substitution of milk for soup, and the poor Sister’s honor was saved.
This first trial of Catherine’s community life might seem to have been a tempest in a teapot. It was nothing of the sort. The seriousness of it can be judged from the fact that Catherine actually sought her confessor’s advice as to whether she should ask for a change. Had she gone so far as to request one, had she retreated from this first test, who knows how it would have affected her whole life and, ultimately, her sanctity?
Sanctity for a religious, after all, consists in rising above such ordinary annoyances of community life. St. John Berchmans has wisely said: “The common life is the greatest mortification.” Only one who has tried to live the common life can understand how right he was. It is not so much the tiny act of annoyance in itself; it is the tiny act of annoyance repeated and repeated, day after day. Religious are human beings, and it is a commonplace that certain human beings rub other human beings the wrong way. In the roominess of the world, it is possible to avoid the people who annoy you; in the confines of the convent you are thrown together with them constantly, must even love them as sisters. The ordinary soul occasionally breaks under the strain, and charity is wounded; the heroic soul suffers in silence, and becomes a saint. St. Therese of Lisieux had her companion in the laundry who splashed her daily with dirty water and stretched her nerves to the breaking point. Catherine had her companion in the kitchen; and she was only the first of many. In winning this crucial victory, she set the pattern of her life. She would always accept the contradictions that came her way and make the most of them, piling up a wealth of eternal merit.
Vincent de Paul had been wonderfully wise. He had forbidden his followers bodily austerities that would sap their stamina for the unremitting physical toil of their vocation. Not that he discounted mortification. He knew well that it was the indispensable whip of sanctity. Rather, the mortifications of his followers were to be little privations, like the “holding back of a useless word.” And his keen mind knew that these little privations, ceaselessly practiced, were the greatest mortification of all. So, there would be no hairshirts, no chains around the waist, no rigorous fasts, for Catherine Laboure. Her penance would be the painful bending of her stubborn will in the give and take of the common life.