The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book I, Chapter L

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
Estimated Reading Time:

Monsieur Vincent’s Illnesses and the Saintly Use He Made of Them

To perfect the holocaust of the life of this holy priest and to consume all in him that was not for the honor and glory of his sovereign Lord, bodily sufferings had to complete the sacrifice begun in his spirit. Having permitted him to be subject to different infirmities during his life, God sorely afflicted him in his last years to show his great patience and to give the crown of life to his perseverance and his love.

In one of the earlier chapters we mentioned his having a robust physique, but one subject to several afflictions dating from the time he served in the de Gondi household. He fell ill while there and carried with him a chronic swelling of his legs and feet.

Besides that, he was sensitive to changes in the atmosphere, which brought on a rather constant low fever lasting three or four days, and sometimes two weeks or more. This did not affect his ordinary routine, however, for he rose at 4:00 A.M. as did the others, made his meditation in the church, and tended to his usual duties and business as though he were in perfect health. He called this ailment his little fever. It was helped only by severe perspiration for several days running, especially during the summer. During the hottest times, when even a sheet was too much cover at night, he was obliged to sleep under three blankets. He also had two metal tubs filled with boiling water at his side, and he spent the entire night this way. In the morning his bed was soaked in sweat, but he insisted on changing it himself, not allowing anyone else to touch it.

The remedy was doubtless not quite so bad as the disease, but it still was most inconvenient to Monsieur Vincent, who bore it with courage. The brother who watched over him felt the treatment was excessive because it kept Monsieur Vincent awake the whole night, and because the excessive heat during the already oppressive summer weather was most painful to endure.

These long sweats and lack of sleep, which he never made up during the day, weakened him considerably. This in turn caused him to fall asleep even while speaking to visitors, sometimes to people of a high station. He did violence to himself to resist this tendency, but instead of speaking of its cause, the lack of sleep during the night, he would attribute it simply to his miserable nature, a term he ordinarily used.

Besides this low fever, he also experienced a quartan fever once or twice each year. 1 During these times God used him for some of his greatest deeds, as we have already reported. Instead of resting in an infirmary, he worked with even greater application and blessing in the service of the Church and for the benefit and salvation of the poor.

He had a serious attack in 1645. During this illness his devotion led him to receive communion every day. The severity of the fever caused several hours of delirium during which he repeated words from the abundance of his heart, which showed the dispositions of his devout soul. Among others, he repeated these words often: In spiritu humilitatis, et in animo contrito, suscipiamur a te, Domine. That is, Deign, O Lord, to receive us, who come to you with a humble spirit and a contrite heart. 2

One event during this serious illness deserves mention. Monsieur Dufour, a priest of the Congregation from the diocese of Amiens, was sick in the same house. 3 Learning that Monsieur Vincent was in danger of death, he prayed the same prayer as did David for Absalom his son, that God would take him in place of the father of his soul. We mention simply that as Monsieur Vincent began to get better, the illness of this good priest took a turn for the worse, and shortly after he died.

On the night this priest died, those attending Monsieur Vincent heard, at midnight, three knocks on the door of his room but, going to see who was there, found no one. Monsieur Vincent called a cleric of the Congregation, asked for his breviary, and then had him recite a section of the Office of the Dead, as though he were aware of the priest’s death, although no one had said a word of this to him.

When he was in Richelieu in 1649, he suffered from a tertian fever, 4 but did not allow it to interfere with his usual duties, despite the long and violent attacks.

In 1656 he had another illness, which began with a fever that lasted several days but which ended by a swelling of one leg, confining him to bed for some time. He had to stay in his room for nearly two months. He was unable to stand and had to be lifted in and out of bed to be near a fire. Only in this sickness could he be persuaded to accept a room with a fireplace, which gave him some relief in his sickness.

From this time on, that is, from 1656 until his death in 1660, he had frequent attacks of fevers and other sicknesses. One Lent he was especially ill, hardly being able to eat at all. In 1658 he developed an eye infection which would not clear up. He tried several remedies without effect, until the doctor finally suggested his putting the blood of a freshly killed pigeon upon his eye. When the brother surgeon of the house of Saint Lazare brought a pigeon, Monsieur Vincent would not allow it to be killed despite all remonstrances. He said that to him this innocent animal represented his Savior, and besides, if God wanted him to be cured he certainly knew how to do so. This indeed is what happened.

About the end of 1658, as he was returning from the city together with another priest, the axle of the carriage in which he was riding broke, throwing him to the ground, where his head struck the roadway. He was incapacitated for a long time, and to make matters worse the fever returned several days after his fall. This reduced him to a state in which he himself thought he might be in danger of death.

So as not to weary the reader with a listing of all the other illnesses suffered by Monsieur Vincent from time to time to prove his virtue, it is enough to say there were few sicknesses he did not experience. God so willed it to increase his sympathy for his neighbor, especially his spiritual children. He never failed to visit the sick in the infirmary, edifying, consoling, and making them happy at his every visit. When he came upon someone who was discouraged or, because of the length or nature of his sickness, feared he was going to die, he would say a word of edification to help him raise his mind to God. Then Monsieur Vincent would ordinarily say, especially to the younger men:

Do not be too concerned, brother. I had this same illness in my youth, and I survived. I had shortness of breath, but no longer; I suffered from rupture, but the Lord has cured me; I had headaches, but they have passed; difficulties with my lungs and a troubled stomach which I have overcome. Have patience (he used to say), your troubles will pass and God will find use for you. Let things develop, and resign yourself to him in peace and tranquility.

We might call the most serious of all the maladies of Monsieur Vincent a sort of martyrdom which finally claimed his life. Yet it brought him closer to Jesus Christ in imitation of his sufferings as he always had been in imitation of his virtues and good works. This condition was the swelling of his feet and legs, which troubled him for forty-five years. Sometimes the pain was so severe he could not stand or walk, and at other times his legs were so inflamed he was obliged to keep to his bed. At this time, in 1632, when he began to live at Saint Lazare, he acquired a horse because Saint Lazare was some distance from the city, and at this time he began to be involved in a multitude of enterprises which continued until his death. This horse served him well until 1649, when the trouble with his legs increased greatly. It was brought on by the long trip he had made to Brittany and Poitou, and it became impossible for him to mount or dismount. He would have been forced to remain at Saint Lazare, as he had resolved to do, were it not for an order of the late archbishop of Paris which obliged him to use a small carriage.

This swelling of the legs increased, affecting even the knees by 1656, so he could stand only with great pain and walk only with the help of a cane. Later, in 1658, one of his feet developed an ulcer and this added to the difficulty with his knees, preventing him from leaving the house from 1659 on. For some time he continued to come down from his room for the prayers of the Church and to celebrate holy mass, as also to attend the Tuesday Conferences held at Saint Lazare. As to the mass, it came to the point that he could no longer mount the steps of the altar. He was obliged to put on and take off the vestments at the altar itself. This led him to remark with a smile that he had become a great lord, for only prelates dressed at the altar.

Towards the end of 1659 he was obliged to offer mass in the infirmary chapel. By 1660 his legs became so bad he was no longer able to offer mass. He continued to attend, however, until the day of his death, despite the pain he felt in going from room to chapel, walking with the help of crutches.

His strength lessened daily, for he ate almost nothing. He did not want anything special brought to him, especially anything fancy. His doctor and some well-placed and pious friends persuaded him to take some broth and chicken they had brought. After one or two times, however, he said these things did not agree with him, and that he preferred not to have them brought in future. All the same he continued to tend to business, and looked after all things according to his custom.

This good servant of God was reduced to walking only with the help of crutches and with indescribable pain. There was always the danger of falling, for he could hardly move his legs. In July 1660, he was urgently requested to allow the room next to his to be made into a chapel so he could hear mass without leaving his room. He would not hear of it and gave as his reason that such domestic chapels must never be created without overriding necessity, which he did not admit to in his own regard.

He was prevailed upon to allow a chair to be made in which he could be carried from his room to the infirmary chapel to avoid such great pain of walking and to obviate the possibility of falling, as he went each day to attend mass. He resisted the suggestion of the chair until August, when he was no longer able to walk, even with crutches. He finally consented to having the chair made. He began to use it on the feast of the Assumption of the most blessed Virgin and continued to do so for about six weeks, until his death. He regretted the inconvenience he caused the two brothers who carried him, and he never wanted them to carry him any farther than the chapel, about thirty or forty paces away.

Certainly, if this venerable old man had no other illnesses than having to remain seated every day from morning till evening for two years, and especially the last year, practically without being able to ease his pains, it would have been enough to try his patience. If we add to this the trouble he experienced with his swollen knees and the ulcerated feet for which there seemed to be no relief we can appreciate the true martyrdom he endured. Besides all these difficulties, God allowed still another problem to make him resemble even more his Master, a man of sorrows. He experienced a great difficulty in passing his water during the last year of his life, and this caused him much suffering and inconvenience. He was unable to rise from bed or use his legs. His effort to rise by pulling on a rope attached to a bracket in his room caused him much pain. He was never heard to utter any complaint, but only some aspirations to God, such as “Ah my Savior! My blessed Savior!” or other like expressions which he pronounced devoutly, casting his eyes upon a small wooden crucifix placed near his bed to console him.

Amid all the suffering he endured throughout his hard and austere life, he never wanted to sleep on a soft bed. He preferred a straw mattress to pass five or six hours of the night, not so much to take his rest as to find a new source of suffering. Fluid drained from the ulcers on his legs during the day in such abundance that it sometimes left stains on the floor. At night it would settle in his knees, causing him great pain and leading to his increasing weakness.

Even in this condition he continued to apply himself to the direction of his Congregation and to the other groups he was responsible for. He had his priests represent him in places he was too weak to attend, but he would instruct them in what they were to do and say. He received a large number of letters which he read and answered. He called together the officers of the house and his assistants to speak with them, either all together or in private as the situation demanded. He asked how things were going and deliberated with them and gave orders as he saw they were needed. He sent his priests to the missions, but not before calling them together to discuss how they were to make themselves useful and efficacious in their new assignment.

With all these efforts to continue his activity, and with his sufferings, his strength lessened so that he could apply himself and speak only with much pain. Despite this, he would still talk for a full half hour or more with such vigor and grace that those who heard him were astonished, they said later, for they had never heard him speak with such order and energy. What is most remarkable is that in the case of both his own confreres as well as those from outside who came to see him, he received them politely, with a smile and with agreeable words, just as though he were in perfect health. If asked about his illnesses he would make light of them, saying they were as nothing compared with the sufferings of our Lord, and much less than he deserved. With this he would turn the conversation to any ill his visitor might have, showing more concern for them than for his own difficulties.

  1. A fever, probably malarial, occurring approximately every seventy-two hours.
  2. Saint Vincent used these words in response to Father Jean Baptiste Saint Jure, S.J., a close friend, who had come to visit him in his illness.
  3. Antoine Dufour, born at Montdidier, was received a young priest into the Congregation of the Mission at Paris, December 31, 1639.
  4. A fever occurring approximately every forty-eight hours.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *