The Faith of Saint Louise in light of an Individualistic Society

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoLouise de MarillacLeave a Comment

Author: Benito Martínez, C.M. .
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The title of this presentation is the faith of Saint Louise in light of an individualistic society. This title does not refer to the society in which Louise lived nor does it refer to our society, rather it refers to any society that is individualistic. Our objective is the following: if our society were individualistic and if we were living the faith of Louise de Marillac, then what would we emphasize.

The person and present day society are individualistic

Our society, is it individualistic? First of all, I believe every person is an individualist. Persons, families, sports teams, political parties, nations, and religious congregations find themselves searching for their own identity, searching for something that distinguishes them and gives them some insight into their personality. All people want to be protagonists of their life and destiny, want to mold their life to their satisfaction and then demand that others respect their criteria. In other words, we are individualists. Freedom is the most essential and necessary trait in order to be a person. Without individual freedom men and women are not persons. Article one of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948) states: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. This is a defense of individuality but it also places limits on individualism: the natural unity of all people, which enables them to communicate with one another, becomes integrated into the group in which the individual participates and shares life. When individuals place their own personal interests before the common good, they are being selfish, divisive and evasive.

There is another side that usually prevails in an individualistic society and so I also believe that individualism is a typical characteristic of our western society on which neo-liberalism has imposed individual competition in order to highlight the individual and thus affirm the primacy of the individual over the groups that surround the individual and that are inseparable from the individual. In the midst of the collectivity and the community we find possessive individualism. In the modern society of western culture every individual makes an effort to affirm his/her personality in juxtaposition to others.

There is certainly a positive side to an individualistic society: it annuls absolutism and fosters democracy; it builds society, beginning with people and moving out toward institutions; therefore each citizen progresses and society moves forward as each and every one of its citizens advances. But there is always the demand that no member of society use another person in order to achieve one’s own personal objective. If individualism is an attitude that leads one to act and to think in an independent manner, then in order for this to be positive the common good must take precedence over the good of an individual. This is the new commandment that the Lord gave us: This is my commandment: love one another as I love you (John 15:12).

A believing society

It is interesting to note that the Catholic faith has been unable to convince people of the gospel message. The Church has defended the individual values of each person, created in the image and likeness of God, and has done this by appealing to the gospels (which is a contradiction in terms). All of this has favored the individualism of our society

After Descartes and therefore during the time of Saint Louise and in our own society at the present time we often hear it said that morality is an individual matter, that the individual is the source and the arbiter of morality. The Christian church has also insisted on individual morality as it has continually emphasized individual sin and individual salvation in an after-life. We have so exalted eternal salvation that we have falsified the faith of the gospel that Jesus of Nazareth revealed when he said that the Father desires our happiness in eternity and in the present life … that the Father desires happiness for our soul and body, that is, happiness for the whole person. Jesus began to gift us with this happiness by removing evil from the life of individual persons: illness, death, sins and the origin of evil which was represented by those who were possessed.

Driven by the present economic crisis, with its tragic burden of unemployment, we frequently live in the midst of social relationships that are focused on our particular usefulness, on what is mine, and my family (family being restricted to parents and children). The other members of society, the other families and social groups become a competitive threat to my person and my interests.

This is the result of the primitive instinct of the human person who seeks happiness. If the members of our society were aware of the true meaning of society, then they would be concerned about seeking the happiness of every person. Since we are not, however, in that situation, individualism has led us along a path where we seek first the happiness of our family, then we seek the happiness of each individual person and, in the post-modern era, we have reduced happiness to an individual feeling of enjoying momentary, fleeting, exciting pleasure.

Corporate individualism

For its part democracy insists that the legitimacy and the authority of the government is derived from the consent of the citizens; that political representation is not a representation of sectors or classes but of persons; and that the purpose of the government is to protect individual and family interests. Nevertheless, the globalization of transportation and information and the instantaneous communication between millions of people through the internet … people who live in distant places from one another … all of this has become a concern for many people who fear the destruction of the individuality of the human person. In a certain manner this destruction has been achieved. Those who are leaders in society and those who possess power and money have been able to make the individual person and particular families fade into the background. The person no longer matters! What is important now is the number of consumers, the number of people who are employed, the number of tourists and above all, the number of people who vote. In this way another form of individualism is coming to the forefront: the individualism of social classes, political parties, organizations, multinational corporations, etc., … these groups defend their corporate interests in a way that no individual would do.

Because of globalization, the majority of social groups tend to maintain a certain corporate individualization for the purpose of protecting themselves from the influence of other groups and thus preserving their identity. This also occurs in religious institutions in which members speak of their identity in such a way that they see themselves as different and distinct from the members of other religious congregations. When Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul and Frederic Ozanam redacted their rules for the Confraternities, Conferences, the Missionaries, the Daughters of Charity, and the Vincentians, they were indirectly defending the corporate individuality, the identity and the uniqueness of these institutions … institutions that were to be preferred and loved above all others. They were motivated by the gospels: these institutions were established because they were considered to be more capable than other existing structures of serving and evangelizing the poor.

The individualist society of the seventeenth century

Despite increased feelings of nationalism, the society in which Louise lived was individualistic. Almost a hundred years before France had freed itself from the medieval theocratic mentality and had become part of the Renaissance and Humanist movement. This led to a new concept of the human person and his/her role in society … a role that was now viewed as being a protagonist of history. In this new anthropocentric society the idea of the human person as the center of creation who had the power to transform the world took on new strength. In this new vision of society the development of the human person became an exclusive objective. With all of this, however, the idea of individual salvation continued to dominate the social organization, as did the medieval theocentrism.

Richelieu made an effort to strengthen France with an absolutist government and to build a state (the famous hexagon) that united and grouped people together under the domination of the king. Nevertheless corporate individualism of the social classes, of the clan of the nobles and of specific families established the domination of the nobles while the poor struggled to survive as individuals and as a particular family.

The peasants and the poor existed as a mass of people but not as individuals. The greater majority of the poor had no last name, no personal identity. They lived in subordination to institutional religion and the authority of the wealthy class and therefore lacked any semblance of a private life. They ate, slept, clothed themselves and lived in one room houses. This situation created a double feeling in them: on the one hand, a desire to struggle in order to survive individually … knowing, however, that every other poor person was also taking care of and watching out for themselves; on the other hand they experienced a desire to join together with others of their class in order to be able to resist falling deeper into poverty (an example of this occurred during the first Fronde).

Louise’s faith told her that God continued to act in the world

In accord with everything that has been said so far I present the first proposition: faith led Louise de Marillac to admit and to live the conviction that God continued to act in the history of the world. Louise affirmed this dimension of her faith and Vincent confirmed Louise in her belief, but this conviction was also a consoling response to the experience of her life.

At the age of fifteen Louise began to reflect in a serious manner on her life. She was born into a noble family but because she was an illegitimate child she was disinherited and marginalized by her family and by society. Indeed, it was thought that her illegitimacy deserved punishment. She had to leave Poissy because she was not a noble and she began to realize that she was alone in the world. In the seventeenth century, membership in a clan or a family gave a person security and yet Louise found herself separated from the Marillac family. Furthermore, Louise was a woman and every woman had to submit herself to a man: a father, husband, brother or guardian. Louise had no man who defended her and she felt alone in life and in order to survive she became caught up in the individualism of the era.

This situation made Louise feel that she was not the one who gave shape and form to her life, but rather that life molded and formed her. Louise was accustomed to examine her life as though it was a person who was standing in front of her, in other words, reflection on her life was seen as vital and decisive with regard to her personal existence.

Louise came to realize that everything that happened to her seemed to have been planned by God from time eternal. When she reflected on her life as a mature woman she wrote: It was God’s will that I go to him by way of the cross. His goodness chose to mark me with it from my birth and he has hardly ever left me, at any age, without some occasion of suffering (SWLM:711 [A.29]). She asked herself why she had to live a life with so much suffering. Her faith led her to search for an answer in the heart of the eternal divinity: the life that she lived was part of the eternal plan of God and her faith confirmed this reality and therefore led her to collaborate with God so that his plan might be accomplished. These were consoling thoughts and gave meaning to her life as an individual: to collaborate with God so that his plan might be fulfilled. As a result of this divine confidence faith led Louise to contemplate how all these events could be integrated into the life that she was invited to live.

Faith convinced Louise that God was acting in all these events and that God was speaking to her from the midst of all the personal, family and social events that she experienced. This faith conviction strengthened her and enabled her to discover God in all the events of her life. Faith was the central element that allowed her to respond to God. As the rain watered the fields so too faith (even in the darkest moments of life) gave meaning to her existence and gave her hope in times of suffering. Faith, combined with hope and love for the poor, became the foundation of her spirituality. Even though Louise never read Pascal’s Pensées, she certainly experienced his words: Be consoled, you would not look for me if you did not possess me through the gift of faith.1

Louise needed faith and God in order to move beyond the anxiety that she experienced as a result of her personal life that was filled with so much suffering as well as rejection by family members and civil and ecclesiastical law. The humiliations, weaknesses, and her situation as an illegitimate child led her to believe in God and to find a transcendent and absolute One whom she loved and in whom she believed. Without faith in the existence of God her life would have had no meaning and she would have been filled with despair. She needed someone in whom she could hope and who would satisfy her thirst for eternal happiness just like Miguel de Unamuno when he responded to a friend who reproached him for his search for eternity, telling him that this was pride and presumptuous: I do not see pride or sanity or insanity. I do not say that we merit a higher power nor that it is logical that we should be shown one. I simply say that I need a higher power regardless of whether I merit this or not. What is happening does not satisfy me because I have a thirst for eternity and without eternity everything appears to be the same to me. I need this. I n-e-e-d t-h-i-s! Without this there is no joy in life and joy itself becomes meaningless. It is very easy to say, “one must live!’ “one must be content with life!” … and those who are not content with life?2

The position of a discontented individual, such as Unamuno, became in Louise’s unconsciousness her own position. Convinced and committed in faith to the reality that helped her, she expressed this in language that today might seem strange to us but in the seventeenth century was very common. In her testament which was a form of prayer and written when she was fifty-four, she stated: Behold, 0 my God, your poor creature, prostrate at the feet of your grandeur and majesty! Acknowledging herself a criminal and deserving of hell, to which your strict justice would have condemned me, were it not for the immense love which made your son become man to deliver me. May it please your divine majesty that I, with my son, be among the number of those who through your son will eternally glorify you! Deign to look kindly on the acts, desires, and dispositions made in this will, drawn up in the belief that such is your divine will, which has always directed mine, and without which I protest with all my strength never to will anything, and in which, I affirm, I wish to terminate my life, as I have this writing, which I have done and signed with my own hand, this Friday, the fifteenth day of December, 1645. Louise de Marillac.3

Personalized faith

Everything seems to be individualism because faith is personal. The faith of Louise de Marillac, like the faith of any other person, was conditioned by her situation and her sensitivity as an individual person. God makes himself known to the individual through that person’s psychology. God does not impose himself on the individual from outside or through the use of force. God is revealed to us through our personal intelligence and will which are distinct for each person, and therefore, in accord with this distinct reality God gently infuses us with the gift of faith. Centuries ago Saint Augustine affirmed: everyone sees his own faith in himself; but does not see, but believes, that it is in another; and believes this the more firmly, the more he knows the fruits of it, which faith is wont to work by love… the latter is in the mind of the believer, and is visible to him only whose it is.4

The faith that had been communicated to Louise through her family, the Church and society, the faith that Louise had lived from the time that she was a little girl, became a personal faith through means of prayer. This was especially true from the time that Louise was fifteen, a time when she committed herself to more intense prayer. The deeper her prayer, the more she experienced the object of her faith and experienced the presence of the divine Spirit within her. Her faith naturally would also involve knowledge since she was a child of the seventeenth century; but above all else her faith was a feeling of God within her, an experience of faith. Her faith was certainly belief but above all it was a personal encounter with God, a personal relationship with God.

Reading the mystics and guided in the beginning by the Capuchins and the bishop of Camus and later by Vincent de Paul, Louise became convinced that the personal faith that she experienced was the highest form of faith and therefore this faith had to be lived on a daily basis not as some rational belief but as life itself, as an encounter with God. Faith was the door that enabled her mind to come into contact with the Divine and enabled her will to be deeply penetrated through the intimacy of love. In this way her emotional life shared in the divine life and was transformed into a supernatural reality (John 3:16; 11:25;21:31).

Thus through faith Louise experienced that the personal encounter with God clothed her in the Spirit of Jesus Christ whom she experienced as dwelling within her. She felt that she did not simply possess faith but was possessed by God. This belief was so profound that no one, no matter how wise or intelligent, could convince her otherwise. We have become aware of this dimension of her faith because Louise has shared her personal faith with us: I suddenly felt moved by the desire that Our Lord should come to me and communicate his virtues to me (SWLM:825 [A.18]). On the Feast of All Saints, I was particularly overwhelmed by the thought of my lowliness, when my soul was made to understand that my God wanted to come to me. However, he did not wish to come into some temporary dwelling but to a place that was rightly his and which belonged entirely to him (SWLM:697-698 [A.17]).

She had become a mystic in the way that Karl Rahner spoke about when referring to Christians of the present century: Christians of the future will either become mystics, that is, person who have experienced something, or they will not be Christian. The spirituality of the future will not be supported by some unanimous, clear and public statement or by an environment that is generally religious, rather spirituality will depend on and individual’s decision and experience.5

To believe in God and in God’s word

This faith was the foundation of her beliefs for if faith was the response that she gave to God who wanted to enter into a relationship with her then it was also faith that led her to believe in God and God’s Word. Her faith was based on the acceptance of a series of beliefs that ought to be affirmed because they have been revealed by God and therefore she and the Daughters were obliged to teach these truths to the sick poor and the girls in their schools. Vincent and other theologians of that era felt that the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Trinity and the Eucharist had to be known in order to enter Paradise. Therefore these mysteries were presented in the catechism that Louise wrote, in the rules for the different groups of Daughters and in the many letters that she sent to the different communities, inviting the Sisters to assist those who were dying in such a way that they could make an act of faith that was necessary for salvation and that was taught by the Catholic Church at that time.

Trinitarian faith

There is no doubt that the faith of Louise de Marillac encompassed those Christian truths that were obligatory in order to be a member of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, in which church I wish to live and die and I command my son, as far as I can, to do the same since that is the only path to paradise for which we were created.6 Louise understood these truths as a commitment to the living God with whom she had established a relationship. Louise’s spirituality was not some doctrine but involved clothing herself in the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as she had been taught by her spiritual director, Vincent de Paul).

But God is the Trinity and we see how her faith introduced her to each one of the divine persons (this was done in accord with the customs of that era and the circumstances of her life). In the beginning her faith united her with God the Father who calmed her life of suffering and at the same time supported her and give meaning to her life of bitterness. Her faith enabled her to understand that she would find a consoling explanation of her difficult experiences in the eternal plan of God, in the divine and eternal absolute. Thus, as a young woman and a married woman, Louise found refuge in the divine.

The above mentioned aspect of her faith is revealed in the letters that she sent to Vincent in the first years of their relationship. In these letters there is almost no mention of Jesus and the same occurs in the notes that she made during her retreats … retreats made under Vincent’s direction. She always used the word God while Vincent (in his letters and in the themes that he proposed for her retreats) used the word Jesus or Our Lord. Slowly Louise became immersed in the saving mission of Jesus, the God-man, immersed in his ordinary way of thinking and living and acting. The center of her spirituality would become the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity and would embrace all of Jesus’ life including his death on the cross.

Her faith gave her a Trinitarian vision of her experiences, especially during the final seven years of her life when she discovered that it was the Holy Spirit who was directing and had directed every one of the events of her Christian life and her life as a Daughter of Charity. Her faith pointed out to her the role that each person of the Divine Trinity played as persons of the one Godhead, the role that each person played in her interior life and in her service with the poor. Louise explained this in the notes that she wrote during a retreat that she made three years before her death. There she spoke about the role of the Holy Spirit and stated that Jesus revealed the Spirit as love and because the Spirit is love, the Spirit is both unity and trinity at the same time. The Spirit, as love, is shared with all people.

As a conclusion we see that Louise’s faith revealed to her the reality of the Holy Spirit acting in the interior of each person and therefore she had to give a response to this action and movement of the Spirit. Her response did not only depend on her freedom but also was dependent on divine grace which filled her with hope. The experience of faith gave Louise an experience of hope which Vincent would remind her about when he said be happy. In the same way love also filled her with hope that in turn led her to search for and encounter God, first in her interior and later, when she had met Vincent, she searched for and encountered God in the poor and in the events of her life.

Accompanied on an unknown path

Until Louise met her spiritual director, Vincent de Paul, her faith had been an individualistic faith, that is, she was concerned about saving herself and her son and also concerned about becoming holy. In accord with the common Christian mentality but especially the mentality of the seventeenth century Louise was convinced that in order to be saved and become holy the help of another person was necessary. This was due to the fact that the actions that individuals perform during their life can be interpreted in the light of faith and can also be interpreted in light of selfish, ambitious and arrogant interests, interpreted in ways in which God appears to be absent. The medieval monks and more recently Saint Ignatius had stated that in order to discern the divine will one needed the assistance of a spiritual director.

As a young sixteen year old woman Louise placed herself under the direction of Capuchins near the parish of Saint-Honoré. Thus she was encouraged to set off on a individual path toward holiness and as she embarked on this path she was not exactly sure where this would lead her. When she married she asked Jean-Pierre Camus to be her director so that she would not be detoured from the path she was travelling. She knew that she was impelled by love and she was willing to give her consent to God whom she loved and who was revealed to her on the night when she presented her plans without understanding the implications of these plans.

Nevertheless, the apparent lack of certainty with regard to the path is the foundation of our faith. If through natural experience we could be certain of God’s presence then there would be no need for faith. Faith is the voice of God who makes up for his silence throughout the history of salvation beginning with the word of Jesus and not through direct evidence.

A year before Louise became a widow she allowed herself to be guided by Vincent. The first thing that her new director would attempt to do7 is to convince her to live with joy and with hope since if God intervenes in the events of life then this is because God wants to give us happiness.

Four year later and under the guidance of Vincent, Louise radically changed the course of her life and entered into an unknown world, the world of the poor. She moved from living as an individual to committing herself to a universal society. She preferred to walk toward that which was unknown in order to please God whom she loved than to remain in her comfort zone which she also loved. She moved out from under the clouds of night and, like an emigrant, left behind her homeland uncertain as to where she might find herself. Her personal ideals as a noble woman, her likes as a bourgeois, and her individual criteria as an intelligent woman … all of these became secondary. Through an act of complete abandonment and trust in God Louise surrendered herself to God’s plans.

Vincent would certainly have said to Louise the words that he wrote to M. Codoing: Rest assured that the maxims of Jesus Christ and the examples of his life are not misleading; they produce their fruit in due time. Anything not in conformity with them is vain and everything turns out badly for one who acts according to the contrary maxims. Such is my belief and such is my experience. In the name of God hold that as infallible (CCD:II:316).

The Incarnation

This was the faith of a woman in the midst of an individualistic society, but Vincent de Paul convinced Louise that her faith would never be true unless it became communitarian, ecclesial and universal. Yes, faith is individual and above all blesses and sanctifies the one who has personally received it. But faith is also a charism, a divine gift that is to be used for the good of the community and therefore cannot be limited to its personal dimension. In the Church when referring to salvation everything is personal and communal at one and the same time. Therefore we place the poor at the center of the community not because we are Vincentians but because we are Christians who are guided by the gospel of Jesus. Thus ecclesial faith ought to lead us to change society when it is necessary.

These two dimensions of faith, individual and communal, were always part of Louise’s life. Even though she was able to put aside the events surrounding her birth and the subsequent rejection by her family, another event would dominate her life and eventually would create a guilt complex in her. Here we refer to the vow that she made as a single woman to become a religious. At that time a vow was something sacred, divine and therefore it was imperative that such a vow be fulfilled. Louise, however, was unable to fulfill her vow. Her family obliged her to marry and Louise saw this as a betrayal of God and these feeling were transformed into a guilt complex. This complex would be revealed when something unpleasant occurred in her life or in the life of the Company.

In the doctrine of the Incarnation we discover the individual and the communal dimension of faith. During prayer Louise frequently meditated on her life8 and guided by her faith she came to a theory of the Incarnation that consoled her and encouraged her to overcome her life of suffering and her guilt complex. She was also encouraged to dedicate herself to God through service of people who were poor.

In order for lo to be true love, one must love someone or something that is not only a part of the divine — the Trinity — but must also love someone or something that is outside the sphere of the divine. Therefore as divine love moves outside of itself, it creates the universe as the object of its love. Louise said that God did not create the world from nothing but rather that the world was created by God and God is love. The human person is not only the fruit of God’s love but also participates in the same divine love. Men and women want to be happy but they will never find definitive and complete happiness in created things, in things that are imperfect. Tue happiness is only found in God. But temporal, finite and imperfect human beings can never be fully united to the eternal, infinite and perfect Divine Being. This led Louise to come to the conclusion that the human person can never be happy. Thus it was that God decided to become man. In this way, in the humanity of Jesus Christ men and women are able to encounter the Divine One and happiness if they incorporate themselves into the divine, if they clothe themselves in the divine. Therefore, Louise had to incorporate herself into the humanity of Christ … Louise frequently and profoundly meditated on this conclusion: I saw that God’s power to possess me was, by the excellence of the divine plan in the creation of the human race, to be found in his close, eternal union with his creatures. He brought this about through the unique means that he possessed which was the Incarnation of his Word. As perfect man, the Son willed that human nature should participate in the Divinity through his merit and through the close union of his nature with the Father (SWLM:817 [A.26]). This union of man with God is like air without which the soul is lifeless … I see the Redemption of men in the Incarnation … all of nature is thereby honored since it causes God to see his image in all humankind (SWLM:785 [A.14]).

Following Berulle and the Capuchins the mystery of the Incarnation became the center of Louise’s personal life and the center of her commitment as a Daughter of Charity. There are several signs of this reality: she wanted to take vows in the company on the feast of the Incarnation; she meditated on this mystery and wrote some wonderful pages that were in accord with the doctrine of John Duns Scotus who believed that the salvation of humankind was accomplished in the incarnation and that holiness is achieved by incorporating ourselves into the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Even though Louise spoke at times about following Jesus Christ and at other times about imitating Jesus Christ, yet what Louise (in accord with Vincent) most desired was that the Daughters would empty themselves and put on the Spirit of Jesus Christ. To imitate another is to copy a model that is distinct from self; to follow another is to go after someone who is at one’s side or ahead of one; to take on the spirit of another is to take possession of that person in our interior, to take on that person’s attitudes, virtues, feelings and prayer. To imitate and to follow is to be like Christ; to put on the spirit of Christ is to be Christ himself. This implies incorporating ourselves into the humanity of Christ and this is precisely the invitation that today is extended to the Vincentian Family: to be grounded in Jesus Christ as the source and the model of charity, or in the words that Saint Paul wrote to the Colossians: As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted in him and built upon him and established in the faith as your were taught (Colossians 2:6-7).

Vincent sent Louise on several journeys and still a volunteer, she clothed herself in Jesus Christ in such a way that during some of her visits with the women of the Confraternities she felt that she was not the one who was ministering but rather, that Jesus Christ had taken possession of her (Cf., SWLM:704-705 [A.50]). We should not be surprised that one day she advised the Sisters that it was more important that they see God in the poor than that the poor see God in them (that is, in the Daughters)9

Faith experienced through love

Through her conversations with Vincent, Louise discovered God’s plan to establish a Company of women who would dedicate themselves to God in order to serve him in the poor. But in order to move from an individual faith to the more universal faith of a Daughter of Charity, Louise had to love the poor and thus she came to experience how faith becomes the fruit and the reflection of God’s love.

Louise, following the Capuchins, did not focus on the intellect, but rather on love, that is, she saw faith as a trusting attitude toward life because we love God who is in the poor. Because she loved God she relied on God, she trusted God, and she believed God. She had faith in God because she loved God, something that she affirmed as she reflected on the words of John’s letter: The person who does not love does not know God [does not have faith, for God is Charity. The cause of love is esteem for the good in the thing loved … the love of creatures enters into the nature of this love. But the effects are attached to the will in the practice of charity either toward God or toward the neighbor. The practice of charity is so powerful that it gives us the knowledge of God … and we can say that the greater our charity the greater our participation in this divine light which will inflame us with the fire of Holy Love for all eternity (SWLM:710-711 [A.29]).

If faith is the fruit of love then in order to be a true believer one must be wholly capable of loving God and therefore in love with the poor where God is found.

Faith and a life of service Here then I put forward my second proposition: guided by her spiritual director, Vincent de Paul, faith led Louise to serve God in the poor.

Until she met Vincent, Louise’s faith had an individual trait and perhaps we might even say there was a selfish dimension to her faith. Her faith enabled her to move beyond the situation that her life of suffering had created and then enabled her to receive a satisfactory answer to this situation, namely, become holy. Therefore the dimension of her youthful faith provided her with a foundation for another dimension: service of the poor. One day, a few years before her death, Louise counseled the Sisters to live the profound Love that God reveals to all people: The love of God for humankind willed that the Son should take human flesh because his delight is to be among his creatures. By becoming like them, he could bear witness to the fact that God has loved them from all eternity (SWLM:828-829 [A.27]).

The encounter with God in personal prayer led Louise to discover union with Our Lord in the neighbor. Her faith, which until then had consisted of a personal relationship with God, was now extended to all the poor, children of God, her sisters and brothers to whom she ought to communicate that which she had seen and heard in prayer. Referring to Saint Martha she told the Sisters: She was fortunate enough to serve the poor in the person of Our Lord, just as we serve Our Lord in the person of the poor (SWLM:314 [L.276]).

We could apply to Saint Louise the words that Henri Bremond wrote when referring to Saint Vincent: Love of neighbor did not lead Vincent to holiness, rather holiness made him truly and effectively charitable; it was not the poor who gave God to Vincent, rather it was God, that is, the Incarnate Word, who gave Vincent the poor.10

When Vincent met Louise she was a mystic. Therefore it was easy for Vincent, who was also a mystic, to help her to discover and to serve God in the poor for Jesus has taught us charity to make up for our powerlessness to render any service to his person (SWLM:820 [A.26]) … this was the fruit of her meditation during a retreat that she made near the end of her life.

Day after day Vincent introduced Louise to the poor and watched her slowly turn her life around in such a way that she was no longer satisfied with the fact that she and her son shared a life of faith. If God is active in the events of life then God certainly gives preference to those who attend the poor. Louise felt that she had to serve the poor and take on the attitude of seeking that which is best for them. In 1629 Vincent encouraged Louise and told her: Go in the name of Our Lord. I pray that his divine goodness may accompany you, be your consolation along the way … and that he may bring you back in perfect health and filled with good works (CCD:I:65). This was an effective step forward from an individual faith to the universal faith of the gospel.

From the time of his captivity and the dark night of his soul Vincent had become convinced that the poor were a part of his life and that he had to respond to their situation. He also convinced Louise of this same reality. This was not difficult to do because in Louise’s unconscious there was the idea that God had communicated to her in 1623 during her mystical night: the poor have touched her life and she must personally help them in their situation of need. This was the challenge that enabled Louise to make the faith of her personal life now guide all her activity, guide her in the mission of assisting the poor to achieve salvation. This was a new commitment that gave focus and direction to her life.

Certainly from the time of her encounter with the Capuchins Louise’s faith had given her the ability to interpret her questions in a new way, filling her with hope as she discovered a new meaning in her life, a new meaning for her personal life which she had previously experienced as a life of abandonment and exclusion. After her encounter with Vincent, faith transformed her into a servant of the poor.

If Vincent helped Louise to become the servant of the poor it was because her faith was so profound that he was able to convince and guide her to put on the spirit of Jesus Christ and to live in a manner that was demanded by the Kingdom of God which she proclaimed to the poor. To believe is to commit one’s self, like Jesus, to the struggle against injustice, to the refugees of war, to the emigrants who are looking for work and a better life. If our faith is not that which Jesus Christ has transmitted, it is not the faith of the Church, for as Louise pointed out to the Daughters: We must continually have before our eyes our model, the exemplary life of Jesus Christ. We are called to imitate this life, not only as Christians, but as persons chosen by God to serve Him in the person of his poor. Without that the Daughters of Charity are the most pitiful creatures in the world (SWLM:261 [L.217]).

Directed by Vincent de Paul, the spirit of Jesus taught Louise that humanity is composed of one single human group and that she ought to live in solidarity with humanity. In prayer she discovered, like many Ladies of Charity (do not forget the deep and sincere spiritual life that they led), that the Son of God in becoming man took on a human nature. As a result of the Incarnation all people have been incorporated into the humanity of Jesus Christ, every poor person has become a suffering member of Jesus’ humanity and the kingdom of heaven proclaimed by Jesus is meant for all people, including the poor, therefore she ought to assist the poor (SWLM:819-821 [A.26]).

It is true that faith is personal but faith is also ecclesial just as it is individual and if faith is not communicated to another it will eventually disappear. Faith must be revealed through the evangelization of people and we, as members of the Vincentian Family, must reveal our faith through the evangelization of the poor. When Pope Paul VI asks if there is there any other way of handing on the Gospel than by transmitting to another person one’s personal experience of faith (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 46), he is indicating that the way to respond to the present day situation of indifference is to communicate our experience of faith. If this is necessary and appropriate today, it was also necessary and appropriate for the believing society of the seventeenth century and for the people of the upper classes who were concerned about living a true spiritual life, even though they were individuals who saw charity only as a dimension of personal holiness.

Methodology of serving the poor

As a result of her dealings with Vincent, Louise began to experience that her faith as an individual was being transformed into a social faith. Louise embraced this new reality and inculcated this doctrine in the Sisters who were by her side and also communicated through her letters this notion of faith to the Sisters who were living outside of Paris. In the catechism that she wrote to help the Daughters and the volunteers communicate the faith to children, she expressed the ecclesial meaning of her faith. God had given her the gift of faith through the Church and so it was within the Church that Louise found her faith nourished. Vincent discovered that the faith of the Catholic Church is revealed through affective and effective love of the poor.

At this time Vincent communicated to Louise what he had discovered in Châtillon: the efforts to form and mold the present society will be of no avail if they are done in isolation or by one individual person; they will only be effective if they are done as a group. Louise, convinced of this reality by her director, ministered first as a member of the Confraternities of Charity and then ministered through the Company of the Daughters of Charity (a work to which she dedicated the rest of life). From that time and throughout history the Vincentian Family has revealed its faith in its service to poor people and at the same time has been a powerful critic in the midst of society. Indeed the Vincentian Family has not forgotten that the recipient of the gift of faith is an individual person. The Daughters and the volunteers generally worked with girls, families and poor beggars … individuals who usually received no assistance from public institutions except in those situations when these entities wanted to avoid some kind of civil disorder or unrest. It was the religious confraternities that gave these people a sense of being a child of God and a member of the body of Jesus Christ. The Confraternities and the Daughters of Charity began to modernize the hospitals which at the time had become disorderly, disagreeable, uncomfortable, and in some situations, were in very poor physical condition.

To consider the poor as individual persons … this motivated Vincent to help the poor people in the city of Macon. When Vincent began this work the situation in Macon changed. Up until then the work there with the poor had failed because the poor were served and helped as a group, as a nameless collective. Vincent was successful in this work because he organized and directed assistance to each individual poor person, writing in a register their name and their individual situation. This is the methodology of direct service (to put some name to it) that the volunteers, the Daughters of Charity and the Vincentians have used. Therefore the Vincentian Family engages in this direct service and does not focus on helping them through other public institutions or other parish or diocesan entities … the Vincentian Family, however, does not reject working in close collaboration with these entities.

Louise’s faith made her aware of the fact that God was being served by those women who gathered together in the different Confraternities of Charity in order to address the material needs of poor men and women. Her faith also made her aware of the reality that God desired the salvation of these poor people, that is, God desired the salvation of each one of these people as an individual. It was for this reason that she gave the following recommendations to the Sisters: Do you provide towels at the beds of the sick? Do you maintain their cleanliness? Especially, my dear Sisters, do you have a great love for their salvation? It is this in particular that our good God expects of you. Reflect that you will have to answer for the sick not only for the time you have them in the hospital, but you will answer as well for faults committed in their confessions if you fail to do your utmost in advising them about making a good confession. Likewise, you will answer if, before they leave the hospital, you fail to exhort them to a good Christian life (SWLM:182 [L.160]).

The advice that Louise gave to the Sisters who were ministering in the different hospitals, advice that focused on their obligation to catechize the sick poor, could very well be applied to the present situation and our obligation to catechize those who have lost faith and have no love for Jesus. I say this because the distinct branches of the Vincentian Family were established in order to address the material and the spiritual needs of people.

It is frequently forgotten that faith involves every dimension of the human person and that there is no separation between the spiritual and the corporal dimension. In the middle of the twentieth century, when the society of Spain was viewed as a society of believers, it was easy to speak about God and easy to put aside (though not forget) the material needs of people. Today, the exact opposite is true. It is easy to be compassionate with the physical situation of so many people and thus place eternal salvation into the merciful hands of God the Father. In this way though we forget about the true freedom that Jesus has given us; we forget that Jesus has freed us from the slavery of sin and eternal death and has shared with us his risen life.

In her various rules and in her letters Louise continually insisted on spiritual and material service. In one of her letters she explained the way in which spiritual service should be rendered: All the Daughters of Charity are convinced that one of the main functions of the establishment of the Confraternity and the Company of the Daughters of Charity is the spiritual service of the sick poor (SWLM:833: [A.100]). Louise’s faith was not some angelic faith but rather a faith that was rooted in reality, a faith that led her to engage in a struggle for the temporal happiness of people. We see this expressed in one of her rules for the children who were abandoned: The Sister Servant must take care to point out to the Lady Treasurer of the Children the necessity of placing the children, particularly the boys, as soon as she sees that they are ready for domestic service or to learn a trade. She should try to recognize their inclinations and desires without their noticing it. She should especially do this for the boys so that they not be kept at the Motherhouse past the age of twelve … thus, it would be necessary to amend the article which speaks of sixteen as the age at which boys must leave (SWLM:739 [A.91]).

Solidarity in an individualist society is called compassion

I have already started that the faith of a person is revealed in conformity with his/her psychological state and Louise de Marillac was an emotional woman gifted with a great affectivity. On several occasions Vincent told Louise to be careful about her tenderness. We remember her infancy, a time of abandonment and loneliness when in fact it should have been a time when she became the center of attention in her family. Her affectivity led her to search for love and for someone who would love her. Thus we can understand how easy it was for her to reveal her compassion toward those who suffered.

I have also attempted to point out that for Louise faith was love, like James the apostle who gave witness to this reality when he stated in his letter that in those places where there is no love, faith is dead (cf. James 2:17). But since we refer to compassion when we speak about love for the poor and for those who suffer, we can then say that where there is no compassion, faith is dead. Louise de Marillac was convinced that for the faith of an individual Vincentian to become a social and ecclesial faith, one had to be compassionate, had to experience and to feel the pain of others, had to discover their suffering and then work to change the situation of these people. In this way they would begin to identify with and clothe themselves in the same compassion that Jesus shared with those in need. Through faith we experience and live the compassion of Jesus of Nazareth and this compassion becomes transformed into true Vincentian charity. This is also the faith that led Vincent to say: Since the Son of God was unable to have feelings of compassion in the state of his glory, which he possesses from all eternity in heaven, he willed to become man and to be our High Priest in order to share our sufferings. To reign with him in heaven, we must, like him, commiserate with his members on earth (CCD:XI:69).

The first step that one with a compassionate heart must take in order to express his/her faith is to approach those who are poor and to recognize their situation. The closer we are to a person, the more difficult it is to see that person suffer. Louise expressed this to Vincent during the tragic events of the Fronde and we should not be surprised by this since it was Louise who was present to the children who had been abandoned. She gathered these children together and they lived in her house where she treated them as her own sons and daughters. She was also the one who listened to the pain and the cries of the nurses of these children, poor peasant women: In the name of God, my Most Reverend Father, consider whether we should persuade these Ladies not to accept new foundlings so that we can pay our debts and bring back the weaned children from the country. I assure you that, in conscience, we can no longer stifle the pity aroused in us by these poor people who beg us for what we justly owe them. Not only do we owe them for their services but we also owe them for the personal money that they have spent. Because of this, they are afraid of dying of hunger and are forced to come quite a distance, three or four times, without receiving any money. We are in debt for quite an amount: for food, for the nurses, and often for seven or eight weaned infants, as well as for the money we have borrowed. However, it is not self-interest that causes us to speak in this way, although, if matters continue as they are, we will be obliged to liquidate whatever we have because we cannot refuse to pay them from the little we do have (SWLM:316 [L.279]).

It is uncomfortable to find oneself in a position in which one is unable to pay the poor what is due to them. But perhaps the compassion that one experiences for a woman who is not known … perhaps this expression of compassion is even more painful. This appears to be the situation of many women in our society who live in silence day after day because they see no solution to their problem: I do not recall every having seen anyone more worthy of compassion than a young woman who went to see you on two successive days … and was bringing your Charity a letter from her husband asking you to employ him or to find some employment for him. This good young woman is in such dire need that she questions if she cannot, in conscience, take advantage of an opportunity that is presenting itself. This offer comes, surprising enough, from a person you know who promises to put her in comfortable circumstances, telling her that it is only her need that attracts him to her (SWLM:540 [L.512]).

This is the faith that James spoke about. Even though it might seem that these texts refer only to human compassion, yet we know that it was faith in the revealed Word that enabled the blind and the paralytics and the lepers to approach Jesus and cry out, Jesus, son of David, be compassionate to us! This is the same compassion that the Daughters are exhorted to show toward others: I hope that your gratitude will place you in the disposition necessary to receive the graces you need to serve your sick poor in a spirit of gentleness and great compassion, in imitation of Our Lord who acted this way with the most unfortunate (SWLM:434 [L.3830]).

How many times have we heard Saint Vincent speak to his Missionaries and say: To be a Christian and to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! That is to be lacking in charity; it is being a caricature of a Christian; it is inhuman; it is to be worse than animals (CCD:XII:222)

The fruit of faith: compassion for the salvation of those who are poor

In this society dominated by a culture of insensitive individualism, we are invited to be more compassionate toward people who are viewed as “worthless”. No culture has ever prevented the Vincentian Family from reaching out in order to attend to the needs of the poor whom no one cares about. Yes, these types of poor people still exist. To be compassionate toward these individuals and to provide them with a livelihood is to express our faith.

But faith goes even further. We know that a person who is ill is an individual … he or she is ill and suffering … he or she is in danger of death and it is painful to come to the end of one’s existence. Those who are healthy might find it difficult to understand their situation. Therefore, we, as people of faith, should apply to ourselves the advice which Louise, a realistic and spiritual woman, wrote to those who suffered from illness or some other calamity: Since [you] are obliged to serve the sick poor both corporally and spiritually, in imitation of Our Lord … you shall see to it that the sick sisters make good use of their trials, offering them to God in union with those of his Son. They shall take care that the sisters’ hope for salvation be in the life and death of Jesus Crucified, that their intention for the future be to serve God better than ever before, and that they have great compassion for the sick poor who suffer so much without either the corporal or the spiritual help which they are given. From time to time, it would be well to say to them, “My Sister, while lying in your bed, do you ever think of the sufferings of our sick poor; how they are so often all alone without any fire, lying on straw without sheets or blankets, bereft of all kindness and consolation? (SWLM:809 [A.92]).

To make our faith explicit through compassion

We should not be surprised that God came into this world and became man even though no one had asked him to do this. We should not be surprised that it was God’s mercy and compassion that led him to act in this way. In the same way, when we seek out those persons who have been abandoned, we have created a situation which disturbs the conscience of others and enables them to see other inhuman realities that afflict our sisters and brothers. They are thus encouraged to commit themselves to change these situations.

The Vincentian Family could apply to itself the words of faith that flowed from Louise’s compassionate heart, words that were written to a Benedictine Abbess: These servants of the Confraternities in the parishes care for the poor who are abandoned and in great need and who can only find relief in the service of those good girls who are detached from all self-interest and who give themselves to God for the spiritual and corporal service of those poor creatures that His goodness wills to look upon as his members (SWLM:17-18 [L.9]).

Human compassion and faith are so united that they are frequently confused. Moved by human compassion we go to great lengths to assist the victims of catastrophes and calamities. But very quickly we realize that our faith is weakening and so we look for human reasons to excuse ourselves: the poor are deceiving us; these people are not doing enough to find work; there are other institutions that will help them, etc. Louise responded to this attitude when she stated the following in her rule: It should be included in one of the articles that the sisters shall not argue with the galley slaves, even to help them to understand the reasons for the unpleasantness which they claim to have been caused by the sisters. . Also, the sisters must never reproach them nor speak rudely to them. Moreover, the galley slaves should be treated with great compassion, as much for the spiritual state as for their most pitiful corporal state (SWLM:741 [A.91]).

At other times it appears as if society simply tolerates the poor and yet demands that they be treated with justice because as persons they are the subject of certain rights. But we know that if there is no faith or love then solidarity that is motivated by justice is not human. Therefore Vincentians raise their voice and proclaim that when we desire to treat the poor with the dignity that every person deserves, tolerance and justice are not enough. We cannot forget what Cicero said: Summum jus, summa injuria. Justice means that we give to the poor what is theirs, but the poor have nothing. Love means that I give to the poor what is mine. Vincent and Louise understood this distinction and therefore called the poor their lords and masters, their owners.

This does not mean that Louise did not demand justice … in fact she was scrupulous in her defense of justice and even stated that it was good to suffer for the sake of justice. She was scrupulous in paying for the food of the sisters because it was the poor who provided them with their food; she was scrupulous in settling debts with the poor and in making satisfaction for the harm that might have been inflicted on them; she was scrupulous and demanding with regard to the obligation to pay what is due to the Sisters or the Company … yet when dealing with the poor she felt that one had to be prudent and charitable so that they are not embarrassed.11

The Vincentian spirit and compassion

Louise also spoke about two virtues that are central elements of the Vincentian spirit and that are part of the essence of Christian faith: humility and simplicity.

Vincent and Louise made humility and simplicity part of the spirit of the Company in order to avoid making compassion appear to be self-sufficiency for those who can provide for themselves and humiliation for the poor. Faith made Vincent and Louise aware of the fact that humility was also a virtue of God who became man; a virtue of Jesus who was born in a manger, who was baptized as a sinner, who died on a cross, who had compassion on men and women and became identified with those excluded from society, with the humble and the anawin of the Bible.12 Faith and compassion also make us aware of the need to identify with these groups of people. This is the way in which we are able to express the fact that we are clothed in the humility of Jesus Christ. Humble faith gives us the courage to engage in the struggle to lift the poor out of their present situation and proclaim to them the kingdom of justice, love and peace which is more human and more compassionate than their current state. The rich man in the gospel was not condemned because he physically injured the poor man Lazarus, but rather was condemned because he was indifferent and allowed Lazarus to live at his doorstep. He was condemned because he was not compassionate toward Lazarus.

Faith told Louise that compassion ought to be authentic and there was no room for duplicity and deception. Because Louise was a woman of faith she was able to contemplate Jesus on the cross, Jesus who spoke about his thirst. She was able to contemplate Jesus as a child or contemplate Jesus as he spoke to the Jewish people and asked why they sought to kill him.13 As we read her letters we begin to understand that Louise, as a woman of faith, did not consider compassion as some task that had to be accomplished, but rather viewed compassion as a human way of living that enabled the Daughters of Charity to imitate Jesus. To live with compassionate faith toward the poor is to live the virtue of simplicity, that is, compassionate faith enables us to present ourselves authentically, with no deceit. Yet knowing that simplicity is not something external, Louise also realized another form of simplicity could be revealed as affectation. True simplicity, however, is something that interior virtue and is the source of sincere service. Thus faith is not supported by reason or norms which made the priest and the Levite insensitive to the injured man whom they met on the road. As Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans we find support in the compassion of the Good Samaritan and in the profound communion with the compassion of Jesus’ humanity: Let love be sincere … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation (Romans 12:9, 15-16).

In other words to clothe ourselves in the spirit of Jesus Christ is to accept the challenge of living as Jesus lived and thus making the Kingdom of God present among men and women who have either lost or been robbed of their human dignity. As we become aware of the fact that human nature has been elevated to a supernatural level which ultimately enables us to live in a kingdom of justice, love, and peace, then we can understand that no one can be genuinely human if they are prevented from living a supernatural life.


  1. Pensées (737) [555]: Le mystѐre de Jésus (The mystery of Jesus).
  2. Letter to Jiménez Ilundain in Robles Carcedo L. (ed.), Epistolario Americano (1890-1936) [American Letters (1890-1936)], Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, Salamanca, 1996.
  3. This document is not found in the Spiritual Writing of Louise de Marillac but is posted on the following web site:
  4. De Trinitate, XIII, II, 5; XIII, III, 6.
  5. Rahner Karl, Espiritualidad antigua y actual (Ancient and present day spirituality), Ecritos de Teologia (Theological Investigations) volume vii, Taurus, Madrid, 1969, p. 25
  6. See note #3.
  7. Vincent wrote an understanding note and said: I will try to be there in the late afternoon. However, let me tll you that you are a woman of little faith and I am you servant. Vincent de Paul.
  8. SWLM:698 [A.7], 709 [A.19], 801 [A.24], 817 [A.26], 827 [A.27], 802 [A.28].
  9. Translator’s note: the reference given is SWLM:817-821 [A.26], but I was unable to find this quote on those pages and using a word search was also unable to find this quote.
  10. Bremond, Henri, Histoire du sentiment religieux en France (The History of Religious Sentiment), Vol. III, “La conquête mystique” (The conquering mystic), Boud B. et Gay, Paris, 1923, p. 246.
  11. SWLM:16 [L.89], 184 [L.165], 296 [L.253], 338 [L.79], 419 [L.310], 429 [L.374], 650 [L.632], 688 [L.641], 738 [A.91], 784 [A.99], 794 [M.40b].
  12. SWLM:208 [L.183], 397 [L.353], 406 [L.377], 586 [L.565], 667 [L.647b], 717 [A.8], 784 [A.14], 796 [A.62], 784 [M.40b].
  13. SWLM:702 [A.9], 717 [A.8], 701 [A.21].

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