SECTION TWO: His Special Care to Imitate Jesus Christ, and Conform Himself to His Example
Love implies a resemblance, or even better creates it. The beloved does what he can to transform himself into the image of the other, to render the loving union more stable and more perfect. The Son of God, wishing to witness to the depth of his love, became man to make himself like unto us. Also, those who truly love Jesus Christ seek, with the help of his grace, to make themselves like him by imitating his virtues. The greater this love, the more exact and fully achieved this modeling will be.
We have seen in the preceding section the singular devotion which Monsieur Vincent had for our Lord Jesus Christ in the blessed sacrament of the altar. His great love for the Lord did not stop at honoring this adorable mystery. He extended this love by honoring all the phases of the Lord’s mortal and glorified life, and he strove to imitate the virtues which the savior practiced in every part of his life. He realized that the design of the Eternal Father, in the Incarnation of the Son of God, was not simply to give us a redeemer to draw us from the slavery of sin and hell, but also to offer a model who would show us all the virtues we might practice which would conform us to his image. He firmly resolved to follow this design of God by striving to imitate this divine model, and to reproduce in his own heart this exemplar of all virtues. He followed this plan so constantly and faithfully that it could rightly be said of him that his life was nothing else but a perfect expression of the life of Jesus Christ. In his own person he verified these words of this divine Savior: “Every student when he has finished his studies will be on a part with his teacher.”1
In order to recount fully all his practices in imitation of the son of God would require a full account of his entire life. Therefore, in order not to be too long delayed, we will concentrate our remarks on two or three of the main traits which merit some more discussion.
First, Monsieur Vincent strove to imitate the ordinary and hidden life of Jesus Christ, a life which outwardly appeared to be in no way singular, but which inwardly was all holy and fully divine. In imitation of this incomparable master he led a life most ordinary in appearance. Nothing about him appeared on the surface to be outstanding or extraordinary, and he lived without any kind of show or singularity. Yet in the secret of his heart was a wealth of praiseworthy and truly heroic actions, marked by all manner of virtues.
He was neither completely withdrawn into himself nor constantly in the public eye, but in imitation of his divine model he led a life which perfectly united elements of both the active and the contemplative. He sometimes retired into solitude like Jesus Christ, but at other times he would come forth also like Jesus Christ to preach penance and to work for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of souls.
We might say that our Lord practiced the hidden life, not so much by separating himself from any human contact but rather by concealing the more excellent and divine traits of his character. He could have allowed himself be seen and honored everywhere and all times as the true Son of God. He could have allowed the rays of his glory to shine forth in all Judea, as he did on Mount Tabor. He preferred, however, to be seen as the son of a simple carpenter and as an ordinary man. Following his example at every opportunity, Monsieur Vincent gloried in saying that he was only the son of a poor peasant. He sought to be known as a simple country priest. He hid from the eyes of all the excellent gifts of nature and grace which he had received from God, and which rendered him worthy of honor and veneration.
He had thoroughly studied theology, and even, as we remarked in Book One2, had received his degree from the faculty of theology of Toulouse. Nevertheless, he spoke of himself as an uneducated man, and customarily referred to himself as a poor student of the fourth class.3 He fled from any dignities with more care than the ambitious sought them. In every sort of circumstance he admired and perfectly imitated this dual public and hidden life of his divine master. Since he knew from his own experience that the treasures of grace lie hidden in the mystical field of the Gospel, he invited and exhorted others to share in them there. Here are some extracts of several letters he wrote to a person he was directing to follow this way:
We must always honor the hidden life of the Son of God. This must be the center of our activities for the present, the future, and for ever. We cannot be mistaken. He does not want anything else from us but to imitate his way of life. Let us honor, I say, the ordinary life our Lord led upon earth, his humility, his self-denial, and the practice of the most excellent virtues of the way of life he chose. Let us especially honor our divine master in the moderation with which he acted. He did not always do all that he might have done. This was to teach us that there are times when it is not expedient for us to do all we can do, and that we should be satisfied to do only what charity dictates and what conforms to what his divine will desires of us.
How greatly I appreciate the generous resolution you have taken to imitate the hidden life of our Lord! Evidently this thought comes from God, since it is so foreign to the impulses of human nature. Believe for certain that this is the proper attitude for children of God. Remain firm, therefore, and courageously resist all contrary inclinations which may arise. You must be convinced by this attitude that you are in the state God asks of you. In it you can accomplish his holy will, which is what we all hope to achieve, and which all the saints have achieved.4
Monsieur Vincent led not only individuals to this holy practice, but also the members of his Congregation as a whole, often exhorting them to become true imitators of Jesus Christ in his ordinary and hidden life. On this topic, he was once explaining the renunciation to be made by all those who wished to follow the Lord. Among the six or seven examples of ways of practicing what he suggested, all taken from the life of our Lord, he referred to one taught by Saint Basil about renouncing pomp and show. He raised an objection to this, only to answer it then in his own way. In speaking to his community about what they must do, in this instance he allows us to see an example of his own way of acting. Here are his words:
Perhaps you will say to me, we are but poor priests who have already given up all the outward show of the world. We wear the simplest of clothes, our furniture is primitive, and nothing about us shows vanity or smacks of the luxury so prevalent in the world around us. What need is there, then, to exhort us to avoid pomp, which already is so far removed from us? O gentlemen and my brothers, we must not deceive ourselves! We do have poor clothing and ordinary furniture, yet even with all this, we still might have a spirit of show and pomp. How could this be, you might ask. Well, if you take pains to prepare a beautiful sermon, and are pleased at the results and what people say about it in approval and appreciation, or should you publicize the good you have done, or even take pleasure in it, all these are marks of the spirit of outward show. To combat and crush this spirit, it is sometimes more useful to do something outwardly less perfect, than to congratulate yourself on how well it was done.
Also, we must be ever on our guard not to give any opportunity to our spirit of vanity. We should renounce all the thoughts and feelings which come to us interiorly, as well as the public applause we receive. We must give ourselves to God, my brothers, fleeing from self-love and the praises of the world, which are the vanity of the spirit. In this connection, a celebrated preacher said to me just a few days ago that whoever seeks public approval when he preaches, hands himself over to the tyranny of the public. If he thinks he is making something of himself by his beautiful sermons, in reality he is enslaving himself to his vanity and to his frivolous reputation. We might add that those who adopt a pompous preaching style, featuring beautiful and rare thoughts, directly oppose the spirit and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. He said in his Gospel, blessed are the poor in spirit.5 By these words, the Eternal Wisdom showed us how evangelical workers should completely avoid any showy behavior and studied eloquence in speech. Instead, they should adopt a manner of speaking and acting that is humble, simple, and ordinary, after the example he himself gave us.
Be careful, my brothers. The demon inspires in us the desire to succeed. He persuades some of us that to speak in our simple way is too base and is unworthy of the grandeur and majesty of Christian truths. This is a ruse of the demon which we must avoid, and renouncing these vanities, we must remain faithful to the simplicity and humility of our Savior, Jesus Christ. He could have done startling things and spoken momentous words, but did not do so. Even beyond that, to confound our pride even more by his own admirable abasement, he wanted his disciples to accomplish even more than he did. Speaking to them, he said, “You will do what I have done, and even more.”6 Why was that? Because, gentlemen, our Lord wanted to show by his public actions that he excelled in the humblest and lowest, something which men no longer value.
He desired the fruits of the Gospel rather than the noise of the world. He wanted his disciples to accomplish even more than he did himself. He preached only in parts of Judea, but sent his apostles to preach the Gospel throughout the whole world. They enlightened everyone by the light of his doctrine. Though he did much by himself, he willed that his poor, ignorant and crude apostles and disciples could still, if animated by the Holy Spirit and his power, do much more. Why is this? To give us the example of a most perfect humility. O gentlemen, should we not imitate our divine Master? Should we not give way in everything to others? Should we not choose for ourselves the worse and the most humiliating? This assuredly is what our Lord did, and he is the perfect one we all strive to imitate. Let us resolve today to follow him.
Let us offer him the puny sacrifices of our self-love. For example, if I do something publicly and can possibly derive some benefit from it, I will not do so. I will rather refrain from anything which might give my action some notoriety and bring me a certain reputation. If two thoughts come into my head, I will mention the lesser one to humble myself. I will not mention the more polished one, and keep it in the secrecy of my heart as a sacrifice to God. Finally, my brothers, it is a truth of the Gospel that our Lord rejoiced in nothing so much as in a humble heart and simple words and actions. His spirit is found here, and you would look for it elsewhere in vain. If you want to find it, renounce all the vanities and satisfactions of life, and your desire for exterior show both in mind and body.7
This faithful imitator was not content to conform himself only in general to the ordinary and hidden life of Jesus Christ, but as much as was in his power he strove to model himself upon the Lord’s way of speaking and acting. We have the following written testimony of a superior of one of the missions.
Monsieur Vincent’s love for our Lord resulted in his always keeping the Savior in mind. He walked always in his holy presence, and modeled himself upon him in his actions, words and thoughts. I can truly say, as we all know, that he was so filled with God’s spirit that he hardly ever spoke unless it was to recall a Gospel teaching or some action of the Son of God. I often admired how he would apply the words and deeds of our Lord whenever he counseled or recommended something.
Monsieur Portail had lived and worked for forty-five or fifty years with Monsieur Vincent. He is one of the oldest priests of the Congregation. I have heard him say that Monsieur Vincent was the perfect image of Jesus Christ whom he knew upon earth, and that he had never heard Monsieur Vincent say or do anything except relating to him who said: Exemplum dedi vobis, ut quemadmodum ego feci, ita et vos faciatis [“What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do”].8 This is what Monsieur Vincent so often urged us to do. In the advice he gave me on the occasion of my leaving to take over the Mission which I now guide, he recommended that when I was to speak or to do something, I should reflect within myself and say, What did our Lord say or do in this case? How did he do or say this? O Lord, inspire me with what I must say or do, for by myself I can do nothing without your help.
One day a noted doctor asked one of the priests of the Mission who knew Monsieur Vincent well, what his chief virtue was. He replied:
It was undoubtedly the imitation of our Lord, Jesus Christ, for he always kept him before his eyes to serve as his model. Christ was his light and mirror, and in him he saw everything else. If in some particular case he doubted how he should act, to be perfectly agreeable to God, he reflected on how our Lord acted in similar cases, or what he said, or what he taught in his various sayings. Without hesitation he then followed his example and his words. He walked in the brightness of this divine light, and trampled under foot his own judgment, human respect, or the fear his actions would be unacceptable to those who found the Gospel too severe, or who wanted to accommodate Christian piety to the spirit of the times.
He sometimes said, “Human prudence fails and often leads one away from the right path, but the words of Eternal Wisdom are infallible, and its guidance right and secure.”
Since he was so thoroughly convinced that our perfection and even our predestination consists in being conformed to the Son of God, and since his mind was so filled with this truth, he often spoke of it from the abundance of his heart. His responses to various consultations, or the advice he gave, were founded on this same truth, and always tended to influence the minds of those he spoke to. We could give a countless number of examples, but we will limit ourselves to but a single rather important one.
When the late king,9 of glorious memory, called for Monsieur Vincent in his last illness, he asked him how best to prepare for death. He replied to His Majesty that it would be best to imitate the way our Lord acted when he was about to die, and that the holy Gospel tells us that one of our Lord’s chief dispositions was an entire and perfect submission to the will of his heavenly Father, to whom he said: Non mea voluntas, sed tua fiat: may your will be done, and not mine.10 The king replied in a manner appropriate to his designation as the Most Christian Monarch: “O Jesus, I desire this with all my heart. Yes, my God, I say this and will say until my last breath, fiat voluntas tua, may it be done according to your will.” This is how Monsieur Vincent always kept before his eyes this Original of all perfection and sanctity, and not content to conform himself to it in all things, he strove to have others do the same.
This holy man’s constant goal was to imitate Jesus Christ and conform himself to him, not only in his manner of acting and speaking, but also in his interior dispositions, desires and intentions. In everything he desired and hoped for only what his divine Savior desired and hoped for: that God would be better known, honored, loved, served, and glorified, and that his most holy will would be entirely and perfectly fulfilled. He held himself ready at every moment to do or to suffer whatever God might be pleased to send in pursuit of these noble and just objectives. He was always ready for whatever work, fatigue, humiliation, pain, or persecution that might arise. Because of this he was never surprised at what happened to him, no matter how unpleasant it might be. He was never surprised by any bad treatment he might receive, since, in imitation of his divine Master, he was prepared for anything when it was a matter of increasing the glory of God or submitting to his will. He was prepared to do all or suffer all, to be deprived of what he held most dear in the world, even to the point of seeing his own Congregation dispersed and destroyed, if such should be the will of his divine Majesty. On this topic, he several times said to his community, “I pray God two or three times each day to destroy us if we are not useful to him in his service. My brothers, would you want to continue if you were not pleasing to God, or were not succeeding in having him known and loved by others?”11
He sought to conform himself, not only to the desires and intentions of the Son of God, but even to his disappointments, sorrows, and interior anguish. Who could penetrate into the secrets of the heart of this faithful and zealous imitator of Jesus Christ? He took the same attitude as his divine Master towards the innumerable sins committed against God, and was filled with an aversion for the teachings of the world, so opposed to those of the Gospel. He was saddened and troubled at the progress of heresies and for the great damage they wrought to the Church. He was keenly moved by compassion for the temporal and spiritual miseries of so many, and for the license and abandonment by which so many souls were plunged into the darkness of ignorance or infidelity. How many times he wanted to die, to give his life, to remedy these ills! Since by his mortifications and sufferings his life was a constant dying, it could be said God accepted his offer, but over a long period of time.
He wished his own confreres to enter into these same sentiments. In imitation of Jesus Christ they were to become living victims, immolating themselves in union with their divine Savior for the salvation of all. He spoke of this once, as follows:
Whoever would wish to save his life, my brothers, shall lose it. Jesus Christ himself stated this, and he added, that he knew of no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friend. And then? Can we have a better friend than God, and should we not love what he loves, and take our neighbor as our friend, for love of him? Would we not be unworthy of the life God gives us, if we did not use it in this worthy manner? Surely, recognizing that we have received our very life by his generosity, we would be acting unjustly if we refused to use it, and to expend ourselves, in keeping with his designs, and in imitation of his Son, our Lord.12
Speaking another time on this same subject, he spoke these words from the abundance of his heart:
Those who use the word missionary speak of one called by God to save souls. Our purpose is to work for their salvation in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one true redeemer. He fulfilled perfectly the meaning of his name Jesus, that is, savior. He came from heaven to earth to exercise this function. He carried this out both in life and in death, and he continues as our savior by applying the merits of the blood he shed. While he lived on earth he thought of nothing but our salvation, and he continues this same work, for this is the will of his Father. He came, and continues to come to us each day, and by his example he teaches us all the virtues appropriate to this office of savior. We must give ourselves to him, that he may continue to fulfill this same office in us and by us.13
Lastly, he spoke in the same spirit to his Congregation in a letter he wrote to them which he placed at the beginning of the rules and constitutions.
You must consider these rules and constitutions as produced not by the human mind, but rather by God’s inspiration. All good proceeds from him, and without him we are incapable of doing any good by ourselves, as coming from ourselves. What will you find in these rules other than what will encourage you to flee vice, acquire virtue, and practice the Gospel maxims? We have attempted, to the extent of our powers, to base these rules totally on the spirit of Jesus Christ, and to draw them from a consideration of his life, as you will easily see. We have felt that persons called to continue the mission of the Savior, which was chiefly to evangelize the poor, should adopt his sentiments and teachings, be filled with his spirit, and imitate him in all his actions.14
- Luke 6:40.
- Ch. 3
- The French secondary school system worked up from the sixth class to the first. The fourth class would, therefore, be the third year of secondary school, with students thirteeen or fourteen years old. In the typical Gascon style of his origins, the saint’s reference seems, however, to be more an ironic allusion to the quality of his education or his style of speaking and writing than to his actual educational attainments.
- CED I:87, addressed to Louise de Marillac. The original letter differs in many significant respects from Abelly’s text.
- Matt 5:3.
- John 14:12.
- CED XII:211-27.
- John 13:15.
- Louis XIII.
- Luke 22:42.
- CED XI:2.
- CED XI:49.
- CED XI:74.
- Common Rules, Introduction.