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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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CHAPTER THREE: His Hope and Confidence in God

If we say that the faith of Monsieur Vincent was great, we must also add that his hope was no less perfect. In imitation of the Father of all believers he often hoped against hope itself, by which we mean that he hoped in God when according to all human expectations he ought to have despaired. Just as his faith was simple and pure, founded on the truth of God alone, so his hope was not based on the considerations and reasonings of human nature but solely on the mercy and goodness of God.

Whenever there was a question of undertaking something for the service of God, after invoking his guidance and perceiving his will, he confidently relied on his infinite goodness. In carrying out his projects he used all the conventional human resources, yet he did not rely on these, but only on the help he anticipated from God. Once he had undertaken a project in this spirit, he expected that God would help him and his Company. Should one of his confreres, through a lack of hope and trust or because of human prudence sometimes points out the difficulty or even impossibility of achieving the purpose of the project, he would usually say, “Let us leave that to our Lord, for it is his work. It pleased him to begin it, so we must be sure that he will bring it to fruition in the way he deems best.” He would sometimes encourage those who doubted: “Have courage, trust in our Lord. He is our inspiration and our help in this work we have begun and to which he has called us.”

Writing one day to a superior of one of the missions of the Congregation, he said:

I sympathize with you that your labor is so difficult, and has become even more so because of the sickness of some of your confreres. The good God has brought this about, and doubtless he will give you added strength to bear this added burden. He is your strength, and will be your reward for the extraordinary efforts you display on this occasion. Believe me, three men are worth more than ten when our Lord takes charge. He does help when human means are taken away, especially when he asks us to do more than is humanly possible. We pray, however, that in his divine goodness he will restore your sick priests to health and fill your community with great trust in his mercy.1

To cultivate the perfect confidence in God that he recommended so often to his confreres, he urged them to have a low opinion of themselves. They should also be convinced that they could accomplish nothing by themselves, unless it were to ruin God’s designs. Thus by being so thoroughly convinced of their own powerlessness, they were to develop an entire and perfect dependence on the guidance of God and on the effects of his grace. For this gift they were to have constant recourse to him in prayer. Writing to one of his priests he said:

I thank God that you have learned the art of humbling yourself by recognizing and speaking about your faults. You are right to think of yourself as unfit for many works, for on this foundation our Lord establishes his grace to accomplish his designs towards us. When you allow yourself to think of your own insufficiency, you then must also recall his adorable bounty. You truly have good reason to be wary of yourself, but you have even greater reason to trust in God. If you feel yourself drawn to evil, believe that God draws you even more to the good, and he can effect it in you and by you. Please meditate on this. During the day allow your mind to reflect on this principle so that, after reflecting on your own weakness, you may turn to his help. Think of his infinite mercy more than of your own unworthiness, of his guidance more than of your own weakness. Abandon yourself into his paternal arms in the hope that he will work through you, blessing the works you do in his name.2

When Monsieur Vincent sent his priests and brothers to the farthest and most difficult missions in foreign lands, his chief recommendation was that they fill their hearts with a true and perfect confidence in God. He said to them:

Go, gentlemen, in the name of our Lord, for it is he who sends you. You begin this voyage and this mission for his service and his glory. He will guide, help, and protect you. We hope for this from his infinite goodness. Remain always dependent upon his guidance. Have recourse to him everywhere and in every encounter. Throw yourselves into his arms, recognizing him as your loving Father, completely confident that he will help you and bless your work.

Lastly, even in all the greatest and most difficult enterprises which caused him such trouble and cost him so much, once this holy man had ascertained the will of God he plunged ahead. He was undeterred by any obstacle, believing this truth which he often repeated, “Divine Providence will never fail us in those things we undertake by its direction.” He devoted himself even more to those great undertakings which he saw as being more difficult and painful.

His confidence in God was also apparent when he saw the poverty and pressing needs of some of the houses and communities of his Congregation. Once, a superior of one of his houses wrote to tell him of the great difficulties that had arisen because of the poor crops and the resulting high cost of living. Monsieur Vincent replied to him:

You must not be overwhelmed if there is a bad year, or even several bad ones in a row. God is abundant in riches. You have lacked nothing up to now, so why do you fear? Does he not take care of the sparrows, who neither sow nor reap? How much greater will his goodness be toward his servants? Naturally, you want to have all your supplies stored away to be assured of having everything you desire. Yet I think spiritually you would do better to find the occasion to depend on God alone, as a truly poor person, for the Lord is generous and infinitely wealthy. God wishes to have pity on his poor people who are so ready to complain at a time of scarcity, since they do not know how to use adversity well, nor do they seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice. They do not make themselves worthy of those things necessary to the present life over and above what is given to them for eternal life.3

It became known that one day the treasurer of the house of Saint Lazare came to tell him that there was not a sou left in the house to cover either the ordinary or the extraordinary expenses arising during the ordination retreats about to begin. Full of confidence in God, he raised his voice: “What good news! God be blessed! Fine, now we will see if we have confidence in God.” One of his priest friends spoke to him one day about the large expense these ordination retreats must entail. He thought that the house of Saint Lazare was surely put to great inconvenience and could no longer support such a responsibility. He suggested that perhaps each ordinand should be charged something for his stay at Saint Lazare. Monsieur Vincent replied, with a smile, “When we have spent all we have for our Lord and nothing remains, then we will leave the key under the door and go.”

Also, some of his own community remonstrated with him on the large debts incurred because of the clergy conferences and other works of charity centered at Saint Lazare. It was pointed out to him that the community was in danger of financial ruin if he did not curtail his charities and limit the number of people who came for retreats. His reply to this was, “The treasures of God’s Providence are inexhaustible, and our distrust of God does him no honor. If our Company of the Mission is destroyed, it will not be by poverty but by wealth.”

He said practically the same thing to a lawyer of the Parlement of Paris who was making a retreat at Saint Lazare. He was surprised to see so many people in the dining room, besides the large number who normally lived there. His curiosity led him to ask Monsieur Vincent how he managed to feed so many. He answered, “Monsieur, the treasury of God’s Providence is large. We must put our cares and concerns into his hands, for he will never fail to provide our food, as he has promised.” He added these words of the psalmist he especially savored: Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das illis escam in tempore opportuno; Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione [“The eyes of all look hopefully to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing”].4

Once the house of Saint Lazare experienced a serious loss while he was absent. When Monsieur Vincent was informed of this, he wrote to the community:

All that God does he does for the best, so we must hope that this loss will profit us, since it comes from God. All things work for good for the just. We have been told that the one who receives adversities from the hand of God must receive them with joy and blessing. Gentlemen and my brothers, please thank God for what has happened, for this loss, and for the disposition he has inspired in us to accept this loss for the sake of his love. It is a great loss, but he knows how to turn it to our profit by means we are now unaware of, but which we will surely see one day. I hope the way everyone reacted to this unexpected accident will serve as the foundation for the grace God will give us so that in the future, we may make good use of any troubles which he may send.5

Several of his friends suggested that he appeal the loss by having recourse to the legal remedy which they proposed. He refused, and among the reasons he gave in a letter to one of them, he included the following:           We have good reason to hope that if we seek first the Kingdom of God, as Jesus Christ teaches us in the Gospel, we will want for nothing. If, on the one hand the world deprives us of something, you can be sure that, on the other, God will make it up to us. This we have already experienced with this present loss, for God has inspired a friend to make a gift to us that covers almost all we lost.6

We should report here a remarkable letter on this same topic which Monsieur Vincent wrote to one of his priests who had taken charge of a certain farm. After giving him some general directions about its management, he concluded: “There you are, with many directions about temporal affairs. May it please God that they not distract you from spiritual affairs. May his holy Spirit, which cares for the needs of all creatures of the entire world down to the smallest insect, dwell in you. O Monsieur, we must apply ourselves well if we are to participate fully in this holy Spirit.”7

SECTION ONE: Continuation of the Same Topic

If, as we have just seen, the Monsieur Vincent’s confidence in God was great in the pressing needs which he and his community experienced, it was no less firm in the reverses, difficulties, and other annoying and threatening things that happened to him. It was noticed that no matter what occurred, or in what difficulties he found himself, he was never beaten down or discouraged, but was always full of trust in God. He enjoyed a constant evenness of spirit and a perfect abandonment to his divine Providence. He seemed pleased to be put in such disturbing situations, to give himself the opportunity to put himself more completely and absolutely into the hands of divine Providence.

A superior of one of the main houses of the Congregation alerted him to some intrigues against the community that seemingly threatened to harm it. Even some highly placed persons supported the community’s adversaries. Monsieur Vincent replied, in this manner:

As to the intrigues against us, pray God to spare us from this spirit. If we blame others for harboring this defect, it is only reasonable for us to avoid the same fault. This is a fault against divine Providence which makes one unworthy of the care God has for all. Let us remain completely dependent upon him, in the confidence that if we do so, God will bring good from all that people may do or say against us. Yes, Monsieur, even when everyone works against us they will be able to achieve only what pleases God, in whom we have put our trust. Please adopt these sentiments and preserve them, so that you never even bother to think about these useless worries.8

One more thing showed his perfect confidence in God. This was the preservation and spread of his Congregation. Even though its welfare was dearer to him than life itself, he depended entirely on God for all that concerned its development and safety. To assure himself that this dependence was absolute and his confidence complete, he never acted in any way to obtain any benefices, houses, or establishments, nor even to attract any candidates for the Congregation. He preferred to rely on Providence alone. When offered gifts he was more inclined to accept the lesser rather than the greater. When there was a question of admitting someone to the community, he hesitated more to receive persons of some distinction or of some renown in the world than he did for accepting those of the lower class. He did not make a distinction between persons, but he was most cautious of doing anything based on mere natural impulses or from a mere human respect. He feared he might be circumventing the direction of the Providence of God.

For this same reason he was on his guard in the face of anything out of the ordinary. He was uneasy even with gifted spirits, unless he saw that these people were endowed with a true and sincere humility. He felt that those not blessed with abundant natural talents, or those who had not acquired a special competence, were more apt to place their trust in God. Thus they would be better suited to the Congregation, where they would succeed with greater blessings than the other more gifted ones who were likely to trust more in themselves and less in God. A prelate who had often remarked on this trait in Monsieur Vincent, said on one occasion: “This principle, introduced by him into the Congregation, of not favoring gifts of nature or fortune unless they were joined to virtue and subservient to grace, was one of the major means by which God inspired him to preserve his Congregation in the purity of its spirit.”

Monsieur Vincent often recommended to his confreres not to solicit anything for themselves or for the Congregation, whether position, comforts, or favors, but simply to accept with humility and thanks whatever God sent them. He wanted them to put out of their minds all worry or pressures about their needs or their occupations, so that, after taking a reasonable and moderate care of these things, they would leave everything to the good pleasure of divine Providence. He wrote the following to a priest of the Congregation who was substituting for the superior of the house in Rome during his absence.

Every day you give me reason to praise God for your affection for our Congregation, and for your attention to the affairs of your house. I praise him with all my heart, and yet I am also obliged to tell you, as our Lord told Martha, that there is a bit too much worry on your part. Only one thing is necessary, and that is to give more to God and to his direction than you now do. Anticipation is good when it is accepting, but it goes to excess when we worry about avoiding something we foresee. We expect more from our own insights than we do from Providence. We think we will accomplish much by substituting our blindness for his light, and by putting our trust in human prudence rather than in his word. Our divine Savior assures us in the Gospel that not a sparrow, nor even a hair of our head, will fall to the ground without his permission. Yet you fear that our little Company will fail if we do not take this or that precaution, if we do not do one thing or another, so much so that you fear that if we fail to do these things others will build on our ruins. As soon as someone raises an objection against us, we must answer it. If someone seems ready to steal our followers, we must get ahead of him, or else all will be lost.

This is what I sense when what I read your letters, and what is worse, your lively spirit leads you to do what you say, thinking you have enough insight yourself without needing to consult others. Oh, Monsieur, how unsuited this is to a missionary! It would be better if a hundred missions were concluded by others, rather than to have prevented a single one. If our zeal is genuine we ought to be glad to see anyone prophesy, to see God sending new workers into his Church, or to see the reputation of others grow and ours decrease. Monsieur, please have greater confidence in God, let him steer our little ship. If it is useful to him he will save it from shipwreck. Neither the might nor the multitude of the other vessels will cause it to founder. On the contrary, it will sail along with them with greater assurance as long as it keeps to its course and does not interfere with the others.9

At the time of the approval of the Congregation by Rome and the royal letters patent for the establishment of the community at Saint Lazare, the two approvals on which the future of the community depended but which had aroused strong opposition, Monsieur Vincent had such confidence in God that he wrote these remarkable words to one of the priests of his Congregation:

I fear only my own sins, and not the outcome of the business at Rome and Paris concerning the success of the bulls and the affairs of Saint Lazare. Sooner or later everything will work out. Qui timent Dominum sperent in eo, adjutor eorum et protector eorum est [“Let those who fear the Lord trust in him; he is their help and their shield”].10

We should remark that he did not speak of the future success of these matters with a presumptuous certitude. He feared only his own sins and he placed no reliance on himself. He relied only on his perfect confidence that God, who had brought his small Congregation into being, would not abandon it, but would bring it to its perfection. He was often heard to say: “Once God has begun to do good to a creature he will continue to do so to the end unless it makes itself unworthy of his help.”

We should add here what he said one day to his community, in the early days of the Congregation, exhorting them to have a perfect confidence in God.

Have trust in God, gentlemen and my brothers, but have it completely and perfectly. You can be sure that having begun this work in us he will bring it to fulfillment. I ask you, who began this Congregation? Who called us to the missions, the ordination retreats, the clergy conferences, the retreats? Was it I? Not at all. Was it Monsieur Portail whom God sent to join me in the beginning? Not at all, for we never thought of these things, we never even considered them. Then who is the author of all this? It is God in his paternal Providence and his goodness. We are but wretched workmen, poor ignoramuses. Among us there are few or none of the nobility, no one powerful, learned, or capable of anything. God alone does everything, and he does it with people like ourselves, so all glory should be given to him alone.

Put all your confidence in him, then. If we place our confidence in men, or on some gift of nature or fortune, then God will withdraw from us. But, someone will say, we need friends, both for ourselves and for our community. Oh, my brothers, be on your guard against such thoughts, lest you be fooled. Seek God alone, and he will give you friends and everything else besides. Would you like to know why we will sometimes fail in what we do? It is because we rely upon ourselves. When a preacher, superior, or confessor relies too much on his own prudence, learning, or his own gifts, what happens? God withdraws, and leaves him to himself, and whatever he does produces no fruit. This makes him see his own uselessness, and he learns through his own experience that no matter how talented he may be, he can do nothing without God.11

  1. CED IV:115-16.
  2. CED V:164-65.
  3. CED VII:156-57.
  4. Ps 145:15-16, a prayer used as grace before meals.
  5. CED XII, 52-57.
  6. CED VII:406.
  7. CED I:475.
  8. CED IV:393-94.
  9. CED IV:346-47.
  10. Based on Ps 115:11. CED I:162-65.
  11. CED XII:38-39.

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