The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book III, Chapter V, 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 FIVE: His Conformity to the Will of God

When Saint Basil was once asked how a person could show his love of God, he responded that it was in doing all he could, and even more than he could if we may speak this way, to accomplish continually, in all things, the holy will of God with an ardent desire for procuring his honor and glory.1 It was with good reason that he said this, since the union accomplished by love is mainly a union of hearts and wills. A person can never make his love of God more apparent than when he perfectly conforms his own will to God’s.

This is what Monsieur Vincent practiced with so much holiness. As a result, it could be said this conformity of his own will to the will of God was the moving force, and the overriding virtue of this holy man, shedding its light on all his other virtues. It was the master virtue controlling all the other faculties of his soul and even of his body. It was the prime motive of his exercises of piety, of all the holy practices of religion, and of all his actions. Whenever he knelt in God’s presence in his mental prayer or was attentive to his presence, he could say with Saint Paul, “Lord what would you have me do?”2 If he was so anxious to consult God, to listen to him, and to use such circumspection in discerning the true inspirations coming from his Spirit, in contrast to the false inspirations from the demon or the disordered movements of human nature, it was to discern the will of God with more assurance, and to dispose himself better to accomplish it. If he strongly rejected the teachings of the world to embrace those of the Gospel, if he renounced himself so perfectly to embrace the cross with such affection, and if he abandoned himself to do and suffer all for God, it was to conform himself most perfectly to the will of his divine Master. He had such high regard for this disposition of soul that he once said: “Whoever conforms himself in everything to the will of God and takes his pleasure in it, leads a truly angelic life upon earth. He can even be said to be living the very life of Jesus Christ.”

On another occasion he said: “Our Lord unites himself continually to those virtuous souls who remain faithfully and constantly united to his holy will, to those who choose or do not choose according to his wishes.”3 Since he was so filled and penetrated with this important truth, and knew from his own experience all the graces and blessings flowing from this conformity to the will of God, he sought to inspire this same sentiment in others, particularly in the members of his own Congregation. He even left them a precise regulation on the point, as follows:

Since the holy practice of doing always and in everything the will of God is an assured means of acquiring Christian perfection, each one should do all he possibly can to familiarize himself with it. It would be helpful to consider these four steps: (1) To accomplish promptly the things we have been directed to do, and to flee from those forbidden, with the thought that this command or restriction comes to us from God, the Church, or our superiors, or even through the rules and constitutions. (2) In indifferent things, choosing those things more repugnant to human nature rather than those more pleasing, unless they happen to be necessary. They were to be chosen then, not indeed because they are pleasing to our senses, but solely because they are pleasing to God. If some indifferent things come up, being neither agreeable nor disagreeable in themselves, then we should accept either one, indifferently, as coming from the hand of divine Providence. (3) As to those unforeseen things which happen to us, such as afflictions or consolations, whether bodily or spiritual, we should receive them with an equanimity of spirit, as coming from the fatherly hand of our Lord. (4) Doing everything for the sole motive of the good pleasure of God, imitating in this as far as we can, our Lord Jesus Christ, who always acted this way, as he said himself in these words reported in the Gospel: “I always do the things which my Father has commanded me.”4

He considered this practice as a sure remedy for all ills. When he was asked how one should correct oneself of some fault, such as impatience or some other imperfection, or how to overcome some temptation, or how to preserve peace of soul in the midst of losses and sufferings, he would say that the secret was to conform oneself to the will of God. He insisted that this holy practice should be followed courageously, and that God’s holy and divine will should be sought out perseveringly. He would not allow any lessening of this attitude. He wished the will of God to be the usual concern of the soul, as if it were the air it breathed, and the happiness to which it aspired. Once, speaking to his confreres on this topic, he said:

The perfection of love does not consist in ecstasies, but in fulfilling the will of God. Whoever who would be the most perfect of all is the one who has best conformed his own will to God’s in such a way that no distinction remains between his own will and God’s. Whoever would excel on this point would be the most perfect. When our Lord wished to instruct the man spoken of in the Gospel about how best to arrive at perfection, he said: “if anyone wishes to come after me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”5 Now I ask you, who renounces himself more, or who carries the cross of mortification better, or follows Jesus Christ more perfectly than he who seeks to follow the will of God rather than his own will? Scripture says somewhere that the one who adheres to God is one spirit with him. Again I ask, who adheres more perfectly to God than he who does the will of this same God and not his own, who wills and does nothing but what God wills? Oh what a means for acquiring quickly in this life a great treasure of grace.6

On another occasion, he wrote to a priest of the Congregation, a victim of a serious accident:

What can we do? We must will what divine Providence wills, and not anything else. This thought came to me this very morning in my wretched mental prayer. A great yearning to accept all that comes, whether good or bad, whether the evil around us or personal sufferings, just as God wills, and just as he sends them to us. It seems to me that this practice is most necessary for missionaries, and is likely to produce marvelous results. We must strive to acquire this disposition of having our wills conform to God’s. Among the great benefits of this, surely peace of soul will not be the least.7

On another occasion, reflecting on the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra, [“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”],8 he said:

By these words, our Lord wished to teach us that just as the angels and the blessed in heaven accomplish the holy and adorable will of God, so too he wishes those of us still on earth to apply ourselves to this same attitude with as much love and perfection as is possible for us. He gave us the example of this himself. He came from heaven to earth just to do the will of God his Father in accomplishing the work of our redemption, and he delighted in doing what he knew to be most pleasing to God, at the time and in the way he recognized as being in conformity with his will.9

SECTION ONE: Continuation of the Same Topic

Monsieur Vincent showed his appreciation and fidelity to this holy practice in an almost unique way. He never took up any work or sought any temporal advantage for his Congregation unless he clearly recognized this was in keeping with the will of God. Even then he acted only if he was strongly urged to do so by others. He was always careful to conserve the resources divine Providence had given his Company, because God so willed it, but he never went ahead to seek out such benefits. He did not bother himself with these matters or seek them out. Neither did he even seek to have recruits for his community, although it would certainly have been permissible and even praiseworthy to persuade others to enter a state in which they could better serve God, provided this was being done through a pure zeal for his glory. The practice of this holy man was to await the good pleasure of God, and follow it faithfully, but never to run ahead of it. This is a rare enough virtue. He was so filled with the desire that the will of God rule his heart and rule over all those dependent upon him, that he took it as a maxim to spare no expense, no trouble, not even life itself, when it was a question of accomplishing this most holy will.

He found it hard to accept that those called by God to a state or profession of holiness would sometimes decide on their own, even with good or reasonable pretexts, to move on to something else. This is what he wrote to a pastor in this quandary, who had been thinking of resigning his responsibility:

I would counsel you not to be too hasty. What you are about to do merits serious consideration. I would be chagrined if you had taken a final step without praying to God, and consulting Monsieur Duval, or Monsieur Coqueret, or both. It is a question of knowing if God wills you to leave the wife he has given you.10

The superiors of the houses of his Congregation have remarked that in all his letters he recommended nothing more often than this conformity in all events to the good pleasure of God. Several of them had written to him to alert him of threatened legal proceedings, or the dangers posed by malicious persons to their goods, property, and houses. His usual response was that nothing could come about except by the designs of God. God was, after all, the master, not only of temporal possessions, but of our very lives, and so could dispose of them just as he saw fit.

When suffering from spiritual aridity or bodily infirmities, he recommended that all should live in submission to the will of God. Those in this condition should be content to remain in the state in which God was pleased to place them, and they should not even desire to be relieved unless it became clear that this would be agreeable to him. He used to say it was the noblest and most excellent practice he knew of upon earth, for both lay persons and priests alike.

When one of the leading and most useful priests of the Congregation fell sick and was in danger of death, Mademoiselle le Gras, superior of the Daughters of Charity, was very affected by the possibility of his death. Monsieur Vincent wrote to her as follows:

You must act against what causes pain, break its spirit heart, or soften it, to prepare the heart for what will come. It seems that our Lord is about to take his portion of our little Company. It belongs entirely to him, I devoutly hope, to use as he wills. In my own case, my greatest wish is to hope for nothing except the accomplishment of his holy will. I cannot express how far advanced our dear sick confrere is in this holy practice. It seems our Lord wants to call him where he can continue this practice throughout all eternity. May he give us a like submission of reason and feeling to his adorable will! He shall be the source of both our reason and feeling if we serve him alone. Let us pray that you and I may always have this same desire to be in union with him, since in this way we already experience paradise in this life.11

On another occasion, seeing a good lady in great anxiety over what was to become of her son, he wrote:

Give both the son and the mother to our Lord, and you will both profit. Allow him to accomplish his will in you and in him. In your spiritual exercises, strive to attend to his will without wishing anything else. This is all you need to do to give yourself wholly to God. How little it takes to become holy. The highest and almost the only means is to strive always in all things to do the will of God.12

This same lady took sick on one occasion. She wrote to Monsieur Vincent, asking him to reveal to her the sickness of her soul, which she felt was the cause of her bodily ailment. He responded:

I cannot tell you any other cause of your illness except that it is in the designs of God. Adore his will without trying to understand why God is pleased to have you in a state of such sufferings. It is most glorious to abandon ourselves to his guidance, without seeking to know the reason for his actions. His holy will itself is his reason, since his reason is his will. Embrace this sentiment, as Isaac accepted the will of Abraham, and as Jesus Christ did that of his Father.13

He himself had taken this practice of conformity to the will of God so much to heart that he rejoiced to see evidence of this sentiment among his confreres. He wrote to one of them:

God be praised that you are ready to do his holy will in everything, and to live and die wherever he calls you to. This is what we find in true servants of God, in truly apostolic men, who stop at nothing. This is a mark of God’s true children, ever ready to respond to the designs of such a worthy Father. I thank him for you with a great sentiment of tenderness and gratitude as I ask of his divine bounty. I am persuaded that a heart as prepared as yours is, will receive heavenly graces in abundance to accomplish much good upon earth.14

The will of God is known in two ways: either in those events we have no control over, those which depend solely on his good pleasure, such as sicknesses, losses, or other accidents of life, or those which his commandments or his counsels reveal to us. These tell us what things are pleasing to him, but they still leave us with full liberty to respond as we see fit. The second way we know the will of God is through the interior movements of his inspirations. Monsieur Vincent made it a personal rule to respond to either indication of God’s will. First, he kept himself in a disposition of submission to God’s will, even in the most serious accidents that might happen, since those were ordained or at least permitted by God. His disposition and resolution was to receive and accept these events. He did so not only with patience and submission, but with affection and joy. He remained content to see God’s holy will accomplished in himself, and that all God’s directives would be faithfully carried out.

In those matters where he was at liberty to act, he sought always to do what he felt was most agreeable to God. He formed his intention at the beginning of each action, saying within himself: “My God, I do this, or I leave that, because I believe it to be your holy will and agreeable to you.” From time to time he renewed this sentiment, so that always and everywhere he would accept the will of God faithfully and religiously. He called this practice the “treasure of the Christian,” because it embodied mortification, indifference, self-denial, imitation of Jesus Christ, union with God, and in general all the virtues, since they are virtues only when they are agreeable to God in conformity to his will. He is the source and rule of all perfection.

Coming to know the will of God in interior inspirations is always difficult, for it is easy to be deceived. Self-love can disguise the inclinations of human nature as movements of the Holy Spirit. Monsieur Vincent used to say that we should put a pinch of salt on these movements so as not to be fooled. He meant we have to discern carefully, not trusting our own mind or inclination. This is what he once said to his confreres on this subject:

Among the multitude of thoughts and inclinations that incessantly arise within us, many appear to be good, but do not come from God and are not pleasing to him. How, then, should one discern these? We must look at them carefully, have recourse to God in prayer, and ask for his light. We must reflect on the motives, purposes, and means, to see if all these are in keeping with his good pleasure. We must talk over our ideas with prudent persons, and take the advice of those placed over us. These persons are the depositories of the treasures of the wisdom and grace of God. In doing what they suggest, we are carrying out the will of God.15

Speaking one day to his community, he made some important remarks on this matter.

I imagine that some present here have today undertaken some actions which in themselves are good and holy, but which may have been rejected by God because they were done through the natural movement of their own will. Is this not what the prophet said, speaking for God: “I do not want your fasts which you think honor me, for they do just the opposite. When you fast, you are doing your own will, and this spoils and compromises your offering.”16 We could say the same of other works of piety, in which the addition of our own will spoils our devotions, our missions, our penances, etc. For the past twenty years, I have never read this epistle in the mass, taken from the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah, without being very upset. What must we do, if we are not to waste our time and our efforts? We must never act through the self-motivation, inclination, humor, or imaginings, but rather accustom and habituate ourselves to fulfill the will of God in everything, never just in some things. This is the effect of grace which makes the person and his actions pleasing to God.17

We shall finish this chapter by considering a devout reflection which this holy man made one day on the happiness of a Christian confirmed in this practice of conformity to the will of God.

Notice the holy dispositions in which he lives, and the blessings which accompany all he does. He is committed to God, to him alone, and God leads him in everything and by everything. He could say with the prophet: Tenuisti manum dexteram meam, et in voluntate tua deduxisti me [“With your counsel you guide me, and in the end you will receive me in glory”].18 God holds him by his right hand, and he accepts this divine guidance for tomorrow, the following week, the whole year, and his entire life, in peace and tranquility, and in an uninterrupted movement towards God. Everywhere he spreads in the souls of his neighbors the happy spirit with which he himself is filled. If you compare him with those who follow their own inclinations you will see how filled with light he is, how fruitful in his work. He makes notable progress, and all his words have strength and energy. God blesses all his undertakings, and accomplishes by his grace the designs God has for him. The advice he gives to others and all his actions give great edification. On the other hand, when we look at those attached to their own inclinations and pleasure, their thoughts are worldly, their words those of slaves, and their works are lifeless. All this comes from their being attached to creatures. These allow nature to influence their souls, while grace acts in those who raise their hearts to God and aspire only to accomplish his will.19

  1. PG 31:3, 1223.
  2. Acts 9:6.
  3. CED I:233.
  4. John 8:29; Common Rules, ch. 2,3.
  5. Matt 16:24.
  6. CED XI:317.
  7. CED VI:476.
  8. Matt 6:10
  9. CED XI:313.
  10. Michel Alix, pastor of Saint-Ouen-L’Aumone; see CED I:190.
  11. CED I:586-87; he refers to Antoine Portail.
  12. The recipient is Louise de Marillac; CED II:36; Abelly has edited the original.
  13. CED IV:446-47.
  14. CED IV:446-47.
  15. Abelly gives a much different version from CED XII:340-55.
  16. Isa 1:11, and 58:3-4.
  17. CED XII:155-56.
  18. Ps 73:23-24.
  19. CED XI:46-47.

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