XII. Three Anguished Letters
While Catherine was in the thick of trying to convince Father Aladel to have the Medal made and of adjusting herself to her new way of life, a third cruel trial struck her unawares. Her older sister, Marie Louise, who was superior at Castelsarrasin, left the Community in a huff. There are no details of why she left, except that she was angry about something, presumably some real or fancied wrong on the part of her superiors. It must have been on this level to bring about her withdrawal from the Community.
To leave religion is a very serious thing. Vincent de Paul had some hard things to say about it. He spared no feelings in pointing out the terrible danger, even to eternal salvation, which lay in wait for him who had promised himself to God by vow and then taken it back. When all else failed, Vincent resorted to a father’s tears. He was known to plead on his knees with priests who were about to leave the Community for the secular clergy or for some other order, and even to throw himself across the doorway, so that they must step across his body to depart. Such dramatics from so sensible a saint as Vincent de Paul serve to point up his horror at anyone s turning back once he had laid his hand to the plow. Vincent was on safe ground, for Christ Himself said that such a one was not worthy of the kingdom of God.
There are, of course, times when a return to the world is not only called for, but even necessary to the happiness and salvation of certain individuals, but these are the exceptional cases.
Marie Louise’s return to the world seems to have been unwarranted. This judgment is made because of the haste of her departure, because she left in a fit of pique, because Catherine never viewed her sister’s action as anything but wrong, and because of Marie Louise’s eventual return. Marie Louise’s background, also, favors such a judgment. She was obstinate by temperament, like her father and like Catherine. She had been raised by a childless uncle and aunt, who might be expected to have spoiled her to a degree, and who gave her special schooling which raised her above many of her Sisters in religion. Her rise in the Community had been fast, because of her education and the small number of Sisters at the time; she had entered the seminary in 1818 and by 1829, and possibly even before, she was already a superior. All these factors could have made her more vulnerable to contradiction.
It is not too much to say that Catherine was heartbroken at this defection of her sister. Not only had Marie Louise been Catherine’s idol, but she had been her strength in the dark days when Catherine was longing to flee the world. What hurt Catherine most, however, was that she herself had tasted the joy of union with God in religion and knew with the utmost clarity what Marie Louise had thrown away. There was, also, of course, the humiliation Catherine must have felt before the other Sisters, but this was something she could offer to God against her sister’s return; it must be counted but a small part of Catherine’s pain. Her great agony was in the thought of God-knew-what dangers the soul of her beloved sister might encounter in the world.
The first letter Catherine sent to Marie Louise has an undercurrent of anger, the kind of anger that comes with the first sting of pain, the first rush of tears. There is a curtness and sarcasm that borders on cruelty in this first letter, and in the action that accompanied it. Catherine sent back the letter Marie Louise had written her when Catherine was trying to escape from her brother’s cafe in Paris. She appended to it the following blistering lines:
Before you leave for the country of our childhood, I send you a letter that will no doubt give you pleasure, a letter you wrote me at the time I wished to enter our Community. The promises you made me, and the good counsels you gave me—apply them now to yourself. Repeat especially the words: “If at this moment someone were powerful enough to offer me the possession of, not merely a kingdom, but the whole universe, I would look upon it as the dust at my feet, knowing that I would not find in the possession of the whole world, the happiness I feel in my vocation.” You once preferred this happiness to what?—I dare not say it—to a temptation: we must agree that we are very weak when we do not put all our confidence in God, who knows the depths of our hearts.
I must tell you that I am very pained to see, in nearly all your letters, that you speak to me of a miracle, as if the good God performed them for no reason at all; we are poor creatures indeed, to hope that God would grant us miracles. You speak to me of one, when you have left the Community. Alas! God knows whether that is one! Have Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin and all the saints prated about their miracles? Where is your humility? It is far removed from theirs; or, to put it more precisely, you have none at all.
Farewell. I advise you to go to our father’s house; you will find solitude there, and it is there that God will speak to your heart. Meditate well on the death of our mother, which you witnessed, and on that of our father, still so recent; to meditate on death is the best way of finding grace before God.
It is hard not to compare the letters of the two sisters. Catherine’s direct, telling language seems to pour scorn on the fine flowing sentences of Marie Louise. This, however, is not to excuse the brutality of Catherine’s words, except to repeat that they were probably a sort of blind striking back in the first flush of pain. They were certainly well-intentioned, no matter how cruel the approach. Indeed, Catherine, knowing her sister, may have felt that Marie Louise might be goaded to return by such a broadside.
The reference to “talk of miracles” is most obscure. It may have been merely a general reference to Marie Louise as one of those people who see the miraculous in everything. However, the reference seems more pointed than that. Had Marie Louise, perhaps, been exclaiming over the miraculous Apparitions of Our Lady to an unknown Sister of Charity? Were this the case, Catherine’s abrupt words would be the natural reaction of one who seeks to deflect any suspicion from herself. There is a story among the members of the Laboure family that might provide a clue to the reference. According to this story, Marie Louise was at one time afflicted by a painful and disfiguring rash on her face, and Catherine cured it instantly, merely by passing her hand over the afflicted part. In this case, too, Catherine’s brusque discounting of the miraculous would be a natural reaction.
The allusion to the recent death of Pierre Laboure places it in 1833 or 1834, when he would have been approximately sixty-six years old. We have no first-hand account of Catherine’s reaction to his death, except that we can detect, in certain reproachful lines written by her to Marie Louise some ten years later, a daughter’s pity for his bereft old age and a smoldering resentment, even after all that time, that Marie Louise had not gone to comfort him in his last days. There may be even a twinge of conscience in the picture Catherine paints, in this letter, of her old father “dying separated from his family, abandoned by his family.” Such a twinge, however, could be but human regret: it would not indicate guilt on her part, for in leaving home, Catherine had left her father provided for, and had followed the clear call of God.
Since Catherine loved her father dearly, it is not hard to realize her genuine grief on hearing the sad news of his death. That she had not seen him since 1828, that their parting had been strained, would only make her grief the sharper. Never once in her entire lifetime did Catherine ever allude to the harsh way her father had treated her. Rather, especially as she grew older, she loved to speak of him to her Sisters in religion, and to recount the many wise lessons he taught her.
Strangely enough, she never mentioned her mother; although it is perhaps not so strange when we consider that Catherine was only nine when her mother died. Yet it was her mother who had given Catherine her start in sanctity, and Catherine must have realized it. Nevertheless—whether she held her relationship with her mother too sacred to discuss, or for whatever reason—when Catherine spoke of her home and her childhood, it was always of her father.
Now her father was gone, and Catherine, in the depths of her heart, mourned him sincerely.
When Catherine’s first letter to Marie Louise failed of its purpose, she took a new tack. The tone of her second letter, written in 1835, is so different that one suspects the kindlier approach to have been advised, possibly by the Superior General or the Sister Superior referred to in the letter.
I know that you want news of me. I hasten to share my happiness with you, wishing that you had the same happiness. I have just made the retreat for holy vows. I had the happiness of pronouncing my vows in union with the whole Community. What good fortune for me! Tasting this good fortune, I can better understand your unhappiness at not being able to reunite yourself with the Community, in order to pronounce your vows. When I was younger, I used to dream of this beautiful day and to long for it, and I would say to myself: My sister has the happiness of pronouncing her vows. I wished at that time only to unite myself to you and to the whole Community; and now that I have that happiness, I search for you, in order to unite myself to you, and I find you no more, except in the midst of the world. What sorrow to my heart! This wound you have given it is very deep. You know that, my dear one; I will say no more about it.
Some time ago, I spoke to M. le Superieure, and I told him I had no other sorrow except that of seeing you in the world; he understood my sorrow and your misfortune. M. le Superieure has had the kindness and the charity to ask me to write to you for him that he offers you his services to help you return. Choose any house, it doesn’t matter which one, and he himself will take the necessary steps to have them receive you. So, you see, my dear sister, the goodness of M. le Superieure. I can assure you of his goodness; more than anyone, I have proof of it myself. Reflect on the grace the good God still holds out to you. It is a great grace; try to profit by it.
I must tell you that it is no longer the same superior. The Community has had the misfortune of losing the former one; he died, and M. le Directeur also. It is M. Nozo who replaces him as superior of the Community. I think you would know him, and M. Grapien, who is the director; both of them are very good.
You can not doubt, dear sister, the goodness of Sister Superior, which she always showed you, and still she offers to render you every possible service. You were always secretive, and would not open yourself to her, a fact which caused her great pain. Since she has always shown herself to be understanding, I have spoken to her about the loss of your vocation. She always loved you, and she still loves you, as if you were her daughter. She speaks to me often of you. She would be very happy if you wished to return to the Community. She has offered to make all the necessary arrangements. You see, my dear sister, you cannot refuse the grace which constantly pursues you. I think you will not resist it. I pray the good God and the Blessed Virgin to enlighten you on the state of your salvation.
I pray you, dear one, to make your decision. We on our part will await it with the greatest pleasure; it will give us great joy and satisfaction. I want this with all my heart. To aid you in making a generous sacrifice, I send you the Infant Jesus in meditation, and the Blessed Virgin, who is your patroness, and St. Louis, who is your patron. Further, I send you the Eight Beatitudes, a thought which comes to me from M. le Superieure, which renders it the more perfect. He gave it to me as a New Year’s present.
This long and solicitous letter was apparently written on May 1, 1835, the day Catherine first pronounced her holy vows, or very soon after. At the simple, private vow ceremony, she was given as her name in religion the name with which she had been baptized, Catherine.
The Sisters of Charity take the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and a fourth vow of stability, a promise to spend their entire lives in the Community of St. Vincent, working for the poor. These vows are not taken perpetually, but for a year at a time, and are renewed every twenty-fifth of March, the feast of the Annunciation of Our Lady. Both the private nature of the vows (they are not formally received by an official representative of the Church) and their temporary character, distinguish the Sisters of Charity from nuns, who are religious properly so called. Technically, the Sisters of Charity are a group of laywomen living in community. They are unique among women’s groups in the Church. St. Vincent established them thus to keep them from the confines of the cloister, in order that they might move freely among the poor and unfortunate of the world.
After all the years of striving toward her goal, Catherine must have pronounced the formula of dedication with a supreme and total abandonment. If, upon entering the gateway of rue du Bac five years before, she had felt that “she was no longer of the earth,” how must she have felt now! And how heartbreaking for her to look about for her sister to share in her happiness, and not to find her “except in the midst of the world.”
Unfortunately, this second letter of Catherine’s had no more effect than the first. Marie Louise left her native village after a while and returned to Paris where she took a job as a schoolteacher. Although the two sisters were living in the capital, they apparently saw nothing of each other for several years: Marie Louise was too embarrassed to call on Catherine at Enghien, for she knew several of the Sisters there. However, they continued to correspond.
The last extant letter written by Catherine to her sister, probably in the year 1844, has a curiously despairing tone. Catherine seems to have given up. This, coupled with what we know of Catherine’s tartness, would explain the vein of bitterness in it.
My dear sister and good friend,
I received your letter, which gave me great pleasure. It tells me that you wish to go to the country of our childhood, to care for our young brother—who lacks nothing. In buying the house, Antoine has promised to take care of him. To go to take care of a brother, that is all very well, the world would approve it; but the world would have approved also—ten years ago, when you had left the Community—if you had gone to render the last services one should render an afflicted father in his old age afflicted as our father was in his old age, and dying separated from his family, abandoned even by his family. The world would have applauded you, had you rendered him the last duties a child should render parents at the moment of death. The moment of death is the moment of reunion, when families that have been separated come together again, especially when they are free to do so, as you were. Do not be surprised, then, if you are not looked on kindly in the family, and do not expect to be well received….
Have you forgotten the wonderful religion of the country? One Mass on Sunday, and it is still necessary for a pastor from a neighboring parish to come to say it. Vespers are chanted by the schoolmaster, so there is no benediction. To go to confession, you must first look for a confessor. Have you considered whether so little religion can be safe enough? Judge for yourself…. As for me, to the little that can be gotten there, I say farewell…. What will the world say? … Ah, it will say—we must let the world say it, for it is not for a Sister of Charity who belongs to God to say it…. We must leave it to the judgment of God.
My dear friend, as for your project of coming to see me, there would be much inconvenience, since you are known to most of the persons in the house. I do not urge you to come. You tell me that you made a sacrifice in leaving me. I believe you made your sacrifice ten years ago, and I believe you made it gaily. I do not believe you can make further sacrifice. I have made my sacrifice, which has cost me very dear. The good God knows the sorrow I have had; yes, God and Mary our good Mother alone know it; and now this sorrow is renewed. Up until now, I had thought you would return to the Community, but I see the time pass, and it has already passed…. Time past is no longer in our power; the present is in our power, but the future is not. Let us profit by it, let us give ourselves to God without reserve. I recall the letter I wrote you six years ago: T, made you the best offers . . .
It was the dark before the dawn; Catherine’s hope for her Sister was at its lowest ebb. After all her letters—and it must be remembered how laborious it was for this poorly educated girl to write a letter—after all her prayers, it must have seemed to Catherine that this resolve of Marie Louise to return to Fain, away from the religious advantages of Paris and the daily sight of Sisters of Charity on their missions of mercy, was the end. Once gone, she would never return. Certainly Catherine invoked the power of the Medal to bring her sister back. It must have been bitter as wormwood for her to hear of famous conversions, like those of Archbishop de Pradt and Alphonse Ratisbonne, to hear of the countless daily wonders worked through the Medal, and to have her own most important prayer go unanswered. It would not be surprising had she felt that the Medal was not for her, as Bernadette was later to feel that the miraculous healing of the spring at Lourdes was not for her.
Yet Heaven was only waiting out Catherine. Her tears for her sister were, in the end, as effective as the tears of Monica for her son, Augustine. Shortly after this last letter of Catherine’s, Marie Louise returned to the Community, probably in 1844 or 1845. Marie Louise had been about thirty-eight years old when she left; she was nearly fifty when she returned. Although eleven years older than Catherine, she was to outlive her, confined the last ten or fifteen years of her life to the infirmary at rue du Bac.