Spiritual Retreats for Various Groups of People
A prophet of old said that the land was desolate because no one had reflected and meditated in his heart. 1 Exterior things preoccupy us, and we allow our minds to be taken up with all sorts of sensible objects. We hardly ever enter into ourselves, or rarely think of God, or consider the reason we have being and life, and the way to achieve our salvation. From this comes the blind spirit, the disordered heart, and finally the loss of salvation for the greater number of those who are damned.
The great saints have often spoken against this state of affairs and have exhorted the faithful to enter into themselves by the practice of meditation. In these latter days, Saint Charles Borromeo, Saint Ignatius, Blessed Francis de Sales, and many other saintly persons have favored spiritual exercises to bring souls to the practice of this vitally important recollection. Although these have been successful, lack of facilities and other difficulties have limited the number of people who could profit by them, particularly among the laity. This consideration led Monsieur Vincent to open the door of his house at Saint Lazare, and even more the door of his heart, to accommodate those persons wishing to pass some days in the exercises of a holy retreat. This faithful servant of God spoke more with his heart than with his mouth in imitating his divine Master so that everyone burdened with sin and vice should come to him to be comforted. 2
After beginning this charitable work in the College des Bons Enfants, he continued the practice in all the houses of the Mission, particularly those in Paris and Rome. The priests of the Congregation of the Mission (who themselves make an annual retreat following the example of their father and founder, who never failed to make his retreat, no matter how busy he might be) received with open arms all those who came to participate in these retreats, no matter what their class or condition. The rich and poor, clergy and laity, professors and illiterates, nobles and artisans, masters and servants, all were welcome. They sat at the same table and received all kinds of help and services for the good of their souls. They were helped to prepare for a good general confession, aided in committing themselves wholly to God either by adopting a rule of life suitable to their situation or possibly by choosing an entirely different state in life, or were aided in discerning God’s designs for them.
In the house at Saint Lazare it was remarked that there might be at any one time in the refectory nobles wearing the cordon-bleu, people from the palace, artisans, hermits, domestics, all making their retreat at the same time, not to mention some clergy as well. Monsieur Vincent remarked occasionally, with that gentle gaiety he knew how to employ, that the house of Saint Lazare was something like Noah’s ark, housing all sorts of animals, great and small.
We shall see in Book Two the great fruit and admirable effect these retreats produced on many occasions. Monsieur Vincent was particularly thankful that God in his goodness had chosen him and his confreres to effect the blessings of his mercy and grace. For this reason he had a particularly strong wish that the practice of these retreats be preserved in the Company. He called them a gift of heaven, although they were a serious drain on the resources of the community, for he supported the larger number of retreatants who each year came to Saint Lazare or other houses of the Congregation. No foundation or other regular source of funds existed to defray the costs of the retreats. This great servant of God had no thought of the expenses when it was question of working for the salvation of souls, redeemed at such a price by Jesus Christ. It seemed to him, as was said by the Holy Spirit in the Canticle of Canticles, that when he had used all the substance of his house in such works of charity, he had as yet done nothing compared to what this divine virtue demanded of him. 3
If it were not enough that men of all classes and condition found in the houses of the Mission all help in their progress in sanctity, his charity, not knowing the meaning of the words “that’s enough,” arranged that women and young girls would find similar help for the spiritual welfare of their souls. He arranged for them to go to Mademoiselle le Gras’ house. There they were received with open arms to benefit in every way from her generous disposition, which seemed never to be satisfied with what she had already contributed.
We give here an extract of a letter written by Monsieur Vincent to her on this topic.
Madame Goussault and Mademoiselle Lamy have gone to your house for their retreat. I would ask you to give them the outline of subjects of meditation which I gave you, to have them report to you in each other’s presence what good thoughts they have had in their prayer, and to have reading at table during meals so they may be relaxed and at ease. The subject might be of thoughts they have had in their recollection periods or possibly what they read in the lives of the saints. After meals they should walk a bit, but other than these two times they should observe silence. It would be good if they kept a journal of the principal inspirations of their mental prayer. They should plan on making their general confession on Wednesday. Their spiritual reading should be from the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. They should take time to reflect on each section. They might also read several chapters of the Gospel as well. It would be good on the day of their general confession for you to give them for their prayer Granada’s Memorial, 4 which is calculated to move them to sorrow for sin. For the rest, be careful that they do not become too intense. I pray our Lord will give you his Spirit in all this. 5
Another lady, on another occasion, made a retreat at the Daughters of Charity. She gave Mademoiselle le Gras a copy of what she had written of her reflections and resolutions so that she might send them on to Monsieur Vincent. This wise and experienced director replied in a letter to Mademoiselle le Gras:
I am returning the resolutions of Madame N., which are good, but it strikes me they would be even better if she would come down a bit to particulars. It would be good to apply this remark to all who make the retreat at your house. Otherwise it is only an exercise of the mind. There is a danger that having these good thoughts and having a certain consolation in thinking about a virtue, a person would begin to flatter herself that she has become virtuous. To acquire solid virtue practical resolutions have to be taken, and faithfully carried out. I am afraid without this, it would not be solid virtue, but simply imagination. 6