The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book III, Chapter XI, 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 ELEVEN: His Charity Towards His Neighbor

to the first great commandment of loving God with all one’s heart is the second, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. These two commandments are so inseparable that the first cannot be fulfilled if the observance of the second is lacking. Those who do not love the neighbor cannot say that they truly love God, no matter what feelings of fervor and zeal they might think they have for God’s honor and glory.

Monsieur Vincent was totally convinced of this truth. He knew that the precept of loving the neighbor is so strong that whoever observes it fulfills the law of God. All the precepts of the law come down to love of neighbor, for according the doctrine of the holy apostle: Qui diligit proximum, legem implevit [“He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law”].1

Speaking one day in a conference he said:

Show me a person who limits his love to God alone, a soul, if you will, so elevated to the heights of contemplation, so taken up with this way of loving God that he savors only this infinite source of blessedness, and takes no thought of his neighbor. Now consider a second person who loves God equally with all his heart, but loves his neighbor also, no matter how brusque, crude or imperfect, for the love of God. This person who also strives with all his strength to bring his neighbor to God. Tell me, please, which of these two loves is more perfect and the least self-serving? Beyond doubt, it is the second. This love unites the love of God to the love of neighbor or to say it better, it extends the love of God to the neighbor, fulfilling the law more perfectly than the first.

Then, applying this to his own Congregation, he continued:

We ought to impress these truths deeply on our minds, to guide our lives by this more perfect love, and to do what it demands, for no one in the whole world is more obliged to this love than we are. No other congregation should be more committed to this than ourselves, nor more dedicated to works of true charity. Our vocation is neither to go to a single parish nor a single diocese. We are to embrace the whole world to gain the hearts of all. The Son of God said that he had come to light a fire upon earth, to fill hearts with his love, and we must do the same.

We are sent not merely to love God but also to make him loved. It is not enough for us to love God if our neighbor does not love him as well. We will not know how to love our neighbor as ourselves if we do not procure for him the same good we want for ourselves, to know the divine love which unites us to the one who is our sovereign good. We must love our neighbor as the image of God and as the object of God’s love, and act in such a way that everyone will in turn love their loving creator. We must develop among ourselves a mutual charity, for the love of God, who loved us so much that he sent his own Son to die for us. Gentlemen, please look upon our divine Savior as the perfect exemplar of the charity you ought to have towards your neighbor. O Jesus, tell us, if you will, what impelled you to leave heaven to suffer so on earth? What excess of love led you to humble yourself, and accept the infamy of the cross? What excess of charity made you take upon yourself all our miseries, to adopt the form of a sinner, to live a life of suffering and submit to a shameful death? Where can anyone find such an excellent and admirable charity?

Only the Son of God is capable of such love, of leaving the throne of his glory to take a body subject to all the infirmities and miseries of this life. He alone was capable of doing all he did to establish in us and among us, by word and example, the love of God and neighbor. Yes, this same love crucified him and produced the marvelous work of our redemption. O gentlemen, if you had but a spark of that sacred fire which consumed the heart of Jesus Christ, could you spend your life with folded arms, and abandon those who call for your help? Certainly not, for true charity does not know how to live in idleness, nor of seeing our brother in need, and not to respond. Since our exterior actions show our interior dispositions, those who have true charity will show it by the way they act. Fire gives light and heat, and in the same way, love shines forth in action.2

He expressed this same thought on another occasion when he said to his community that they should be happy if they became poor themselves in exercising charity towards others.

You should not fear this poverty, never doubting the goodness of our Lord and the truth of his word. Even if you were forced to go to work for the pastors in the villages to support yourselves, or had to beg your bread, or sleep in barns, exposed to the rigors of the weather, suppose someone were to ask you: Poor priest of the Mission, what has brought you to such extremity? What happiness, gentlemen, if you could respond: Charity. How blessed this poor priest would be, before God and his angels.3

Once the missionaries he had sent to Algiers to work among the poor slaves there found themselves in danger of having to pay a large amount for one of the fugitive slaves for whom they had supplied bail. Monsieur Vincent told the members of the Congregation about this in a noteworthy statement: “What is done out of charity is done for God. It is a great honor for us if we are asked to give away what we have, for charity’s sake, since it was for God who gave it to us in the first place. In this case, we should thank him and bless him for his infinite bounty towards us.”4

The charity of Monsieur Vincent was so perfect and his heart so filled with the effects of this divine virtue that we might say in some way that he anointed all who came in contact with him. It could be said of him what the apostle Paul said: Christi bonus odor sumus in omni loco, we are an aroma for Christ’s sake.5 Once he said to his community:

Everything creates an image of itself, much like a mirror which reflects things just as they are. An ugly face appears ugly in a mirror, and a beautiful face appears beautiful. In the same way, good and bad qualities shine forth from us. This is especially true of charity which by its very nature communicates itself and produces charity. A heart truly filled and animated by this virtue shows forth its inner fire, and everything in a charitable person breathes and preaches charity.6

The charity of this great servant of God was not restricted or limited, but extended to everyone capable of receiving its effects. As much as possible he preserved an affectionate and cordial relationship with everyone. This virtue always led him to be united and submissive to the sovereign pastor of the Church, that is, our holy father, the pope. In the person of the pope Monsieur Vincent respected and loved Jesus Christ, whose vicar he was upon earth. When the Apostolic See became vacant by the death of a pope, he prayed incessantly and had the community pray that God would be pleased to give the Church a man after his own heart. When a new pope was elected he showed respect and affection for the person raised to this sublime dignity. Leaving aside all human consideration he saw in the person of the sovereign pontiff only the person given to the Church by God’s providential will.

This same virtue inspired him with sentiments of love and reverence for all the bishops of the Church, as we shall see in one of the following sections of this chapter. He showed them every kindness and submission that he possibly could. He supported their plans, promoted their wishes, and maintained their authority. He wanted and did all he could that the clergy and people might regard their sacred persons highly, and deferred humbly and promptly to their directions.

He was also united to the pastors and other clergy. He honored and served them as dictated by circumstances, both as a general rule and also in each particular case. He was on good terms with the orders and communities of religious and even of seculars, and as occasions arose, met with the superiors of these groups. He showed a remarkable deference to all persons in authority, whether clergy or lay. If someone did not want to use his services, a lord in his territories, a pastor in his parish, or a bishop in his diocese, he never went over their heads to override their objections. Even in a matter which was just and reasonable, he preferred to leave a good action undone rather than do it against their will.

He was particularly noted for his open profession of sincere affection and his faithful service to the king, going so far as to risk the welfare of his community and even his own life to support the interests of His Majesty. A member of the nobility testified to this one day in the presence of the queen mother during the regency:

I know of few people attached with such a sincere fidelity, constancy, and disinterestedness to the service of the king as Monsieur Vincent. Your Majesty knows well how during the troubles in Paris he risked the pillage of his house at Saint Lazare, and risked even his own life, when he gave refuge to your chancellor on his way to Pontoise to find the king. You are aware of how he endured slander and the hatred of some by the firm and faithful way he handled the pious wishes of Your Majesty, as you had directed him, particularly in the administration of ecclesiastical goods.

The queen acknowledged this tribute and said that it was true.      In summary, Monsieur Vincent was everyone’s friend. He conserved and cultivated friendships, not simply to avoid having trouble with anyone, but rather to promote that holy unanimity of spirit that the Son of God so earnestly recommended. He was more anxious to do good than to receive any favors. We can say in all truth that he never acted to increase his own possessions or to receive honors. He acted for the good of his neighbor because of his true and sincere spirit of charity. It would not be inappropriate to cite the testimony of the religious of the first Visitation house in Paris, his spiritual daughters for over thirty-five years.

This great servant of God burned with such a love of God that he wanted everyone to share this virtue. He wanted charity to be practiced in all things as thoroughly as it could possibly be. He would not tolerate in this community anyone who showed a lack of esteem for others or who spoke to discredit her neighbor. He said that he feared that the community would be destroyed if its members were not united with one another, especially when disunity was caused by a lack of esteem, mutual support, and charity. He stressed that religious should look upon each other as spouses of Jesus Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit, and the living images of God.

This view should lead each person to have a mutual respect and love for one another. In turn, this should lead to the two following things. First, we must have recourse to the goodness of God who is all love and charity, to beg of him a share in his divine spirit. Second, we should be most anxious about our own conversion, and try to correct the faults and failings we may commit against the virtue of charity. We should use this as the subject of our particular examen, to root out of our hearts anything that might hinder the union we should have with God and among ourselves.

Another religious of this same order, who lived a saintly life in the second of the houses of the Visitation established in Paris, left us this testimony about Monsieur Vincent.

We can truthfully say that this holy man strove to imitate the life of Jesus Christ, who did good to everyone during his sojourn upon earth. Who has not felt the charity of Monsieur Vincent in fulfilling the needs of their lives, whether of body or soul? Can anyone be found who had recourse to him and went away without receiving some help? Is there anyone who turned away from him when he spoke or consoled them? Who had a greater claim on the goods of his community than the person in need?

One more aspect of charity remains which we should not omit mentioning. Besides looking to the actual needs of both body and soul, he was most careful to safeguard the honor and reputation of everyone. Remarkably, he was never heard to complain about anyone, even when he had been treated poorly by them. On the contrary, the absent had an advocate who defended their cause and one who openly urged the virtue of charity. He spoke as well of others as the truth allowed. He would not allow anything negative to be said about anyone else in his presence, even when it concerned someone who had done him harm.

SECTION ONE: Some Remarkable Examples of Monsieur Vincent’s Charity

To illustrate what we have just said of the charity of Monsieur Vincent we will in this first section give some examples, chosen from many others which filled the life of this great servant of God.

During the recent troubles in the kingdom, the people of Montmirail were distressed at the prospect of mistreatment at the hands of the soldiers. They did know where to turn to safeguard their persons and their belongings from the ravages and annoyances of the soldiers. Monsieur Vincent wrote to the priests of this Congregation working in the region to do all they could to protect these poor people. The priests in turn pointed out that they were themselves in danger and would be at risk in attempting to help others. Monsieur Vincent replied: “We must come to the help of our neighbor in need. Since everything you own you have received from God, his divine majesty has the right to take it from you when he so wills. Rising above your fears, you are to come to the help of this poor town however you can.”7 This they did, helping the poor townspeople save most of their goods and their household furniture from the soldiers, leaving all that might happen to themselves in the hands of God’s providence.

The priests of the Congregation of the Mission, who direct a seminary under the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Toulouse, became involved in a lawsuit about the seminary.8 The Prince de Conti urged a solution to the difficulty by having the priests submit the case to arbitration in the city of Toulouse. Nevertheless, a bishop concerned with the seminary, and a supporter of the priests of the Mission, did not approve of the arbitration and ordered the priests to break it off.9 They soon informed Monsieur Vincent, and sent him the letter which the bishop had written them. One of the priests then pointed out to Monsieur Vincent that the Prince de Conti, then in Paris, should be informed that the Priests of the Mission were not the ones responsible for breaking off the negotiations.10 Monsieur Vincent replied: “No, this course of action would reflect badly upon the bishop, which we must not allow to happen; this would give the priest reason to complain about the bishop. It is preferable that we take the blame, and let the recriminations fall upon us. We must never do anything to work to the harm of our neighbor.”

The greatest example of charity, as our Lord pointed out in the Gospel, is to give our lives for those we love. On several occasions Monsieur Vincent, who had this virtue in the highest degree, freely risked his own life in the service of his neighbor. Some time after the priests of the Mission moved into Saint Lazare, God permitted a plague to strike the house, and the sub-prior was among its victims. As soon as Monsieur Vincent learned of this, he went to visit the priest, to console and encourage him, and to offer to render any service within his power. He approached his reeking bedside, and remained there as long as he was permitted to do so. At this same time, a young boy at Saint Lazare was stricken. Several were thought that the boy should be transported to the hospital of Saint Louis, but Monsieur Vincent would not allow it. The boy was to be cared for at Saint Lazare. Monsieur Vincent saw to it that one of the brothers was assigned to take special care of the sick child.

Once, while in the faubourg Saint Martin, Monsieur Vincent came upon six or seven armed soldiers, swords in hand, chasing a man of the working class and just about to kill him. He had already been wounded and it was all to obvious that he would not escape death. None of the bystanders wanted to risk the anger of the soldiers in attempting to help the victim, but Monsieur Vincent thought nothing of risking his own life in assisting his neighbor. Moved by a spirit of charity, he threw himself among the soldiers, using his own body as a shield against their swords, allowing the man to escape. The soldiers, astonished at this display of courage and charity, allowed themselves to be persuaded by his remonstrances, and they gave up their evil intent.

Another example of this same virtue, as remarkable as it is rare, has been reported by several persons from both within and outside the Congregation, and especially by the superior of the priests of the Mission of Marseilles, who heard the story from several persons of that town. Long before he established the Congregation, Monsieur Vincent emulated the charity of Saint Paulinus, who sold himself to ransom from slavery the son of a poor widow. It happened that once Monsieur Vincent came upon a convict in the galleys who had been forced to abandon wife and children to a life of abject poverty. He was so moved by compassion at the wretched state to which these persons were reduced, that he resolved to do everything in his power to help them. He was unable to find any way to help, however. Then, moved by extraordinary charity, he thought he would take the place of the poor convict to enable him to go to the help of his impoverished family. He convinced the authorities to allow this exchange, and freely accepted the very chains of this poor man whose liberty he had secured. After some time, his extraordinary virtue manifested in this episode was appreciated, and he was released from servitude. Later, people, perhaps correctly, thought that the swelling in his legs may have come from the chains used to secure the convicts in the galleys. Once, a priest of the Congregation asked Monsieur Vincent if these things had really happened, that he had once taken the place of a galley slave. Monsieur Vincent merely smiled, but gave no answer to the question.11

We can surely say that this act of charity was most admirable. Yet we can say with even more certainty that Monsieur Vincent gave greater glory to God by using his time, talents, goods, and his very life in the service of all convicts, not just of the one he replaced on the galley bench. Through his own experience he knew their sufferings and needs, and he worked to secure both bodily and spiritual help, in sickness and in health, for the present and for the future, far beyond what he could have accomplished if he had remained chained among them.

It is not hard to accept the idea that he was minded to give up his personal liberty in favor of an abject slave in imitation of Saint Paulinus if we reflect upon his later years. Following the example of Saint Paul, he was willing in a certain sense to allow himself to become accursed for the sake of his brothers.12 A remarkable example of his occurred during the time Monsieur Vincent was a chaplain of Queen Marguerite. We owe this account in part to what he said one day in a conference to his community, and in part to the recollections of several reputable persons reported after his death.

I once knew a famous professor, who for a long time had defended the Catholic faith against heretics in the exercise of his role as diocesan theologian. Because of his learning and piety, Queen Marguerite had even invited him to court, which required his leaving his other responsibilities. Since he no longer preached or catechized he fell prey to serious temptations against the faith. Incidentally, this warns us of the danger of idleness, either of body or mind. Just as the fields, no matter how good the soil, will yield weeds and thorns if they are not cultivated, so too our souls cannot long remain at rest or in idleness without feeling the rise of passions and temptations which lead it to evil.

This theologian, realizing that he was in this sad state, came to me. He admitted that he was undergoing violent temptations against the faith, and was even assailed by blasphemous thoughts against our Lord Jesus Christ. He was in such despair that he felt tempted to hurl himself from a window to his death. He was in such a bad way that he had to be excused from reciting the breviary or celebrating mass, or even reciting any other prayer. Beginning even the Our Father raised a multitude of evil spirits to torment him. His imagination was so drained and his mind so exhausted at the effort to resist these temptations that he could no longer function. In this extremity he was advised to observe a simple practice. He should lift his hand or even a finger in the direction of Rome, or even toward any church, signifying whenever he made this gesture that he professed his faith in all that the Roman Church taught. What was the outcome of all this? God at length had mercy on this man, for when he fell sick he was suddenly delivered from all his temptations and the blindfold fell from the eyes of his soul. He began to see anew the truths of faith but with such clarity that it seemed he could almost touch them with one of his fingers. He finally died, giving thanks to God for allowing him to fall into these temptations only to be delivered by great and admirable insights into the mysteries of our holy religion.13

We know of this episode from a talk which Monsieur Vincent gave to his confreres on the subject of faith. He does not mention anything at all of the means he used to deliver this man from his violent temptation. Only after his death did it become known that it was by his own prayers and self-offering to God that this deliverance came about. This it how it happened, according to the written account of a trustworthy person, someone unaware of the conference of Monsieur Vincent cited above.

Monsieur Vincent took it upon himself to help this man who had revealed his troubled spirit. He counseled him to perform good acts to obtain the grace of deliverance. Later, it happened that this person fell sick, during which time the evil spirit redoubled his efforts to gain his soul. When Monsieur Vincent recognized his pitiable condition he feared that the man would succumb to the violent temptation of infidelity and blasphemy, and would die poisoned by the implacable hatred of the devil toward the Son of God. Monsieur Vincent prayed earnestly that God in his goodness would deliver the sick man from this danger, and in a spirit of penance he offered to take upon himself whatever sufferings divine justice might require. In this, he imitated the charity of Jesus Christ who took our infirmities upon himself that we might be cured, and who bore the sufferings we deserved.

In his hidden providence, God accepted this offer of Monsieur Vincent, and heard his prayer. He delivered the sick man from his temptation, calmed his soul, enlightened his darkened and troubled faith, and gave him such sentiments of reverence and gratitude toward our Lord Jesus Christ as he had never before experienced.

At the same time, God in his divine wisdom permitted this same temptation to trouble the soul of Monsieur Vincent. This beset him for a long time after. He had recourse to prayer and self-denial to rid himself of this trial, but these had no other effect than to allow him to bear these torments from hell with patience and resignation, always with the hope that God would pity him.

Since he realized that God wished to try him in permitting the devil to attack him so violently, he had recourse to two remedies. The first was to write out a profession of faith which he placed over his heart as an antidote to his trials. He specifically repudiated any thoughts contrary to faith, and entered into a sort of pact with the Savior that every time he placed his hand over his heart and upon this paper, as he often did, he intended by the gesture to renounce temptation, all without saying a single word. At the same time he raised his mind to God and easily diverted it from the thoughts which troubled him. In this way he confounded the devil without directly confronting him.

The second remedy he used was to do the exact opposite of what the tempter suggested, striving to act by faith in rendering honor and service to Jesus Christ. He carried this out particularly in his visits to the sick poor of the charity hospital in the faubourg Saint Germain where he lived at the time. This charitable practice is among the most meritorious in Christianity since it bears witness to faith in the Savior’s words and example and to the desire to serve him. Jesus himself said that what was done to the least of his brethren he would regard as done to himself.14 God allowed Monsieur Vincent to draw such grace from this period of temptations that not only did he never have occasion to confess any fault in this regard, but on the contrary the remedies he used were the source of innumerable blessings drawn down upon his soul.

Three or four years passed in this severe trial which bore down upon Monsieur Vincent, and he groaned before God under their weight. Yet, seeking to strengthen himself more surely against the attacks of the devil, he thought of taking a firm and unbreakable resolve to honor Jesus Christ and to imitate him more perfectly than ever before by committing his entire life to the service of the poor. No sooner had he done this than, by a marvelous effect of grace, all the suggestions of the evil one disappeared. His heart, which had been so troubled for such a long time, was suddenly freed, and his soul filled with such abundant light that he admitted on several occasions that he seemed to realize the truths of faith with remarkable clarity.15

Thus did that temptation cease. The result of his decision was that one might say that God in his grace drew forth from his servant all the great works he did for the aid and salvation of the poor and for the greater good of his Church. Besides the one who gave this account, several other worthy persons still living have told us the same thing. Monsieur Vincent had told it to them in confidence when he wished to help them overcome similar temptations in their own case. He spoke of what he had experienced in these situations to bring them to use similar remedies and to obtain relief in the trials they were undergoing.

  1. Rom 13:8.
  2. CED XII:261-64. The Abelly text differs considerably from Coste’s.
  3. CED XI:76.
  4. Dodin, Entretiens, 1001.
  5. 2 Cor 2:15.
  6. CED XI:76.
  7. CED V:44.
  8. The seminary at Cahors. The lawsuit concerned the abbey of La Fauvette.
  9. Blessed Alain de Solminihac, the bishop of Cahors.
  10. Guilbert Cuissot, superior of the seminary at Cahors.
  11. This account is still much debated.
  12. Rom 9:3.
  13. CED XI:32-34.
  14. Matt 25:40.
  15. The authenticity of this account has been debated on chronological and psychological grounds.

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