CHAPTER TWELVE: His Meekness
Charity reaches its perfection,” Blessed Francis de Sales said, “when it is not only patient, but mild and good mannered.” Meekness is like the flower of this divine virtue. It reveals its excellence with the more difficulty it has in repressing the outbursts of nature, often under the guise of zeal, which would give greater freedom to the passions.
Monsieur Vincent was by temperament a bilious character. His spirit was lively, and therefore given to anger. He had so dominated this passion by the help of grace, and by the practice of its opposite virtue, meekness, that not only did he not offend, but he seemed not even to feel the first movements of anger. While he was in the household of the wife of the general of the galley, as he himself mentioned to a confidant, he sometimes showed his bilious and melancholic temperament. This caused this good lady to wonder if perhaps there was something in the house which displeased him. It became apparent later that God was calling him to live in community where he would be dealing with all sorts of diverse personalities. “I addressed myself to God,” he said, “to beg him earnestly to change this curt and forbidding disposition of mine for a meek and benign one. By the grace of our Lord and with some effort on my part to repress the outbursts of passion, I was able to get rid of my black disposition.”
Monsieur Vincent never spoke of himself unless he thought it necessary to do so, or if it would help the edification of those with whom he conversed. His humility was such that even in these cases he would later beg pardon for having spoken in this way, for fear of having scandalized his hearers.
Monsieur Vincent has told us how, with the grace of God, he was able to acquire this virtue of meekness, even though it was not natural to him. He earned it by his prayer to God and by practice. Once, speaking to his community he said:
Sometimes we see persons who seem to be gifted with great meekness, a feature of their natural disposition. This, however, is not the Christian virtue of meekness, whose proper role is the suppression of the opposite vice. A chaste person is not one who never experiences the urgings of lust, but one who resists them when they occur. We have an example right in our own community of a most truly meek person, Monsieur N. I don’t hesitate to say it for he is not present. You are aware that his natural disposition is dry and laconic. You may judge for yourself if there are two people in the whole world more crude and surly than he and I! Yet this man has so conquered himself that he has become more than he is. And how is that? It is the virtue of meekness, at which he has worked so hard, while miserable me, I have remained dry as a thorn. Gentlemen, please do not let your eyes rest on the bad example I give, but rather I exhort you (to use the words of the apostle) to walk worthily in all meekness and good manners in the vocation to which God has called you.1
It is not enough to have acquired a virtue. It must be preserved and cultivated. The virtue must be practiced often in real situations. This faithful servant of God did this, for, before instructing others, he always put his lessons into practice himself. We give here an abridgement of the advice he gave on this matter, and which he himself had already observed.
In order not to be surprised by those occasions when we might offend against this virtue of meekness, we must first foresee situations which might arouse our anger. We then can prepare our hearts in advance the acts of meekness we want to practice.
Second, we must detest the vice of anger, seeing that it displeases God. Yet even here we must not get annoyed nor angry with ourselves if we are subject to this vice. We must hate this vice, and love the opposite virtue, not because we are unhappy with ourselves but solely for the love of God. He is pleased by this virtue and displeased by this vice. If we act this way, the sorrow we feel for faults committed against this virtue will be calm and peaceful.
Third, when we the passion of anger moves us, we must not act or speak, or even decide anything, until the passion has passed. What we do in anger is not fully controlled by reason, for passion troubles and obscures this faculty. Even if later what we do seems right, it will never be perfect.
Fourth, when we feel angry we must make an effort to ensure that no trace of this emotion appears on our face, which is the image of the soul. Rather, an expression of Christian meekness should appear. This is not against simplicity, for we do this not to appear other than what we are. We are to act through the sincere desire that the virtue of meekness, which resides in the superior part of the soul, appear in our features, on our tongue, and in our exterior actions, to please God and the neighbor for the love of God.
Lastly, in the fifth place, we must above all be careful to restrain the tongue. Despite the storm of anger and all the sentiments of zeal we may think we have, we must use kind and agreeable language if we are to gain others to God. Sometimes it takes only a soft word to convert a hardened sinner, and on the contrary, a harsh word can upset a soul, and can cause it endless sufferings.2
In this connection he recalled that on only three occasions did he use harsh words in reprimanding others, believing he had good reason to do so. But each time he regretted having done so, for it proved not to be helpful. On the contrary, he never failed to obtain what he sought when he acted with kindness.
There is a big difference between true and false meekness. Meekness which is so only in appearance is soft, cowardly, and indulgent. True meekness is not foreign to firmness in doing good. It is always a part of it, for true virtues are all interrelated. On this subject Monsieur Vincent said:
No one is more constant or more firm in the good than the person who is meek and well-mannered. On the contrary, those given to anger and the passion of the irascible appetite are usually most inconstant, for they act by fits and starts. They are like raging torrents which have power only when bursting down the stream, but quiet down as soon as the flow of water stops. Rivers represent milder persons, without noise or show, flowing on without pause.3 One of his favorite maxims was attigit a fine ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter [“She reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well”].4 To accomplish our end we must remain firm, yet all must be done with gentleness. He recalled the example of Blessed Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, who he said “was the meekest and gentlest person I have ever met. The very first time I saw him, I saw from the outset that his expression, his way of speaking and conversing with others was an expression of the meekness of our Lord Jesus Christ who had taken possession of his heart.”
We could say in truth that Monsieur Vincent profited well from the example of the blessed prelate. Like him, he conveyed at first encounter a mildness and marvelous affability, and the most respectful language towards all classes of people.
One day he said to his community:
We have great need of affability because by our vocation we must often talk with one another and with our neighbor. What contributes to the difficulty of such conversation is that we come from such diverse backgrounds, in our place of origin, our temperament, and our dispositions. Dealing with our neighbor we will have much to put up with. Yet affability will ease the problems, for it is like the soul of good conversation. Affability will make it not only useful, but agreeable as well. Affability will help us converse with pleasure, with mutual respect for all. As charity is the virtue which unites us as members of the one body, affability is the virtue which perfects that union.5
He recommended that this virtue be particularly observed in dealing with the poor country people.
Otherwise, they will pull back, and fear to deal with us, thinking us too severe or too lordly for them. When they are treated affably and cordially, they feel otherwise, and are better disposed to profit from the good we seek to do for them. Since God has destined us to serve them, we must do so in a way that is most helpful, and therefore treat them with great affability. Each of us should take the words of the wise man in Scripture as addressed to ourselves: Congregationi pauperum affabilem te facito, “make yourself agreeable to the assembly of the poor.”6
Although Monsieur Vincent was most affable in his speech, he was in no way a flatterer. On the contrary, he strongly opposed those who used such speech to insinuate themselves into the good graces of others. He said once to his community: “Be affable, but never a flatterer. Nothing is worse or more unworthy of a Christian than flattery. A truly virtuous man holds nothing in such horror as this particular vice.”
Another maxim concerning this virtue of his, was that we must never dispute with others, even when trying to convert the most vicious. He wanted only mild and affable language to be used, as prudence and charity demanded. Acting on this principle he forbade his priests to enter into debates and disputes when it was a question of meeting with heretics, for he believed they were more influenced by mild and amicable words. He reported on a trip he had once made to Beauvais, when he had converted three heretics he had met. His mild manner contributed more to their conversion than anything else in their conversation. He said:
When we argue, it becomes obvious that our effort is designed to gain the upper hand over our opponent. This is why he prepares a resistance rather than a recognition of the truth. In this sort of debate, rather than finding a way to his mind, we ordinarily succeed in having him close the door of his heart to us. Mildness and affability, however, would have opened it. We have a good example of this in Blessed Francis de Sales, who though well versed in controversy, converted heretics by his kindness and not by his teaching. On this subject, Cardinal du Perron used to say that he worked hard at convincing the heretics of their error, but the bishop of Geneva alone converted them.7
Recall the words of Saint Paul to the great missionary, Saint Timothy: Servum Domini non oportet litigare.8 A servant of Jesus Christ ought not enter into controversies and disputes. I can tell you frankly, I have never seen or heard of a single heretic converted by the force of a debate or a subtle argument, but only by the kindness he had experienced. This virtue alone has enough strength to gain men back to God.9
The kindness of Monsieur Vincent was most evident in the corrections or admonitions he was obliged to make from time to time. He acted with such moderation and meekness and spoke so graciously but effectively, that the hardest hearts were softened. They could hardly resist the strength of his meekness. We will give here only a single example to show not only his kindness but also the prudence of the wise and charitable superior when he had to reprove one of his own. On one occasion he heard that a priest of the Congregation was not applying himself well to the work of the mission, even though he was capable of doing so. Also, when he did preach, he was rude to the poor people in church.
Monsieur Vincent wrote him a letter exhorting him to be committed to the work and more gentle towards the poor people before him. He did so in a manner that was kindly, prudent, yet energetic, with no show of personal displeasure, or hint of who had raised the question of his failings.
I write to you to ask for news, and to give you news from here. How are things going with you after all your work? How many missions have you given? Do you find the people well disposed to follow the exercises and to draw from them the fruit we hope for? I shall be much obliged if you inform me about on these matters.
I am in good contact with other houses of the Congregation. They all report that they have great success, thanks be to God. They don’t quite reach the example of Monsieur N., who has been working in his mission only nine months, but who works without ceasing. It is a marvelous thing to see the strength God gives him and the extraordinary good he does, as I hear from all sides. The vicars general have written to me, others have either told me or have written, and even neighboring religious have written. The happy success he has had is attributed largely to the care he uses to speak to these poor people with mildness and kindness. It had made me resolve more than ever to recommend to the entire Congregation to be committed more and more to these two virtues. If God has blessed our first missions we may say that it is because we have acted amiably, humbly, and sincerely towards all sorts of persons. It has pleased God to use the most miserable members of all in our Congregation for the conversion of several heretics. They themselves stated that because of the patience and cordiality shown them they were moved to return to the Church.
The convicts among whom I lived reacted the same way. When I spoke to them impersonally I spoiled everything. On the other hand, I began to praise them for their resignation, sympathize with their sufferings, and pointed out how fortunate they were to be making their purgatory in this life. I also kissed their chains, shared their sorrows, and spoke against their bad treatment. After that, they began to listen to me, give glory to God, and enter upon the road of salvation. Monsieur, please join me in thanking God for this. Let us ask him to give all our missionaries this custom of treating our neighbor kindly, humbly, and charitably, both in public and in private, even hardened sinners, without ever using invectives, reproaches, or crude language against anyone. I have no doubt, Monsieur, that you will strive to avoid this unfortunate way of serving souls. It tends merely to annoy them and drive them away, rather than attracting them to you. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the meek master of men and of angels. By the practice of this same virtue you will go to him and bring others to him as well.10
SECTION ONE: Continuation of the Same Topic
The great meekness which Monsieur Vincent displayed in his correspondence and corrections came from a maxim he had learned from Saint Gregory the Great, that the faults of our neighbor ought to arouse our pity more than our anger, and that true justice leads to compassion rather than indignation in dealing with sinners.11 This holy man, Monsieur Vincent, often used to say that he was not surprised to see men fail. Just as it is in the nature of thorns and thistles to be prickly, so it is in the nature of fallen man to fail, since he was conceived and born in sin. Even the just man, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, falls seven times, that is, several times a day. He added that the spirit of a man is subject to indispositions just as his body is. Rather than being troubled and discouraged, he ought to recognize his miserable condition, humble himself, and say to God, as David did after his sin: Bonum mihi quia humiliasti me, ut discam justificationes tuas. It is good that you have humbled me that I may learn your justice.12 He must learn to live with himself in his weaknesses and imperfections, all the while working to overcome them.
This knowledge of the common misery of men made him act with compassion and meekness towards sinners, and even cover their failings with prudence and a marvelous charity. He used to say that it was forbidden to judge anyone harshly, and it was even less licit to speak ill of anyone, since the apostle says charity must cover a multitude of sins.13 In this regard, he quoted the word of the sage of Holy Scripture: Audisti verbum adversus proximum tuum? Commoriatur in te: Have you heard something against your neighbor? You must let it die within you.14 He would often refer to this virtue as being present in the person of the wife of the general of the galleys. Her tenderness and purity of conscience would not allow her to speak ill of anyone, and she would not tolerate anyone else doing so in her presence.
When several confreres withdrew from the Congregation, through temptation or for some other reason, some would gossip about the case even though they did not know the full story. Monsieur Vincent, of course, held to the maxim of never complaining of those who left and never discussing the reasons for their departure. On the contrary, when the opportunity presented itself, and he could do so honestly, he would speak to their advantage. He would provide all sorts of favors for them when he could, even though he knew some had been poorly disposed towards him. Several of the original members of the Congregation, and others who later came and persevered in the community, have said that after God they owed their perseverance in their vocations to the meekness and charitable support they had received from Monsieur Vincent.
Although he corrected the faults of others directly, it still was with an attitude of excusing and minimizing the failures as much as he could. He did so with such expressions of esteem and love for those who had offended that his reprimand in no way broke their spirit. On the contrary, it renewed their courage and increased their confidence in God. He greatly edified them by being, in his remarkable charity, the first to humble himself.
We might cite some extracts from his letters to allow us to better see his thoughts about the meekness that should accompany correction, and about the great concern he had to establish mutual support among the members of the Congregation.
Writing to the superior of one of the houses, he said:
I praise God that you have gone yourself to take care of the matters Monsieur N. refused to do. You did well to act in this way, rather than insist that he go. There are those good and virtuous persons who fear God and do not want to offend him, but still fail in some matters. When this happens we must stand by them and not insist on our own way. Since God grants pardon in the confessional, I would judge that you would do well to act in this same spirit. Make allowances here for his failures since, thanks be to God, he is not a person of bad will.
The harsh words of the other priest you wrote about may have come from a natural outburst and not from a disordered mind. Even the wisest people sometimes say things under the influence of passion which they are sorry for soon after. Others speak adversely about people or about their work, and still manage to do good. With some people, Monsieur, as you know only too well, we will always have something to put up with, but we must gain merit, too. I hope he of whom we just spoke will be won over by the charitable way in which he is handled, and that he is warned mildly and with prudence, and prayed for to God, as I do for your family.15
He wrote to another superior on the same subject:
The priest you mention is a good man. He is striving to be virtuous, and had a good reputation in the world before he was received into the Congregation. If, now that he is among us, he has a restless spirit, is too occupied with external things and concerns for his relatives, and is a nuisance to the others, you must support him with patience. If he did not have these faults he would undoubtedly have others, and if you had nothing to suffer your charity would have little chance to be tested. You must make your response to him resemble the Lord’s. He had to deal with his crude disciples, who lacked many refinements of personality, to teach us by his meekness and support how those in charge of others must act. Monsieur, please model yourself on this example. It will lead you not only to support your confreres but help them to overcome their imperfections. You must not tolerate evil, it is true, but you should seek to remedy it with gentleness.16
He wrote to a third, who worked in a distant diocese with another priest:
I trust the goodness of our Lord will bless your work if cordiality and support for one another exists between you both. In God’s name, Monsieur, please make this your first care. As you are the older and also the superior, support him who is with you with as much gentleness as you can. You must abandon any sense of superiority over him, adjusting yourself to him in a spirit of charity. This is the way our Lord won over and strengthened his apostles, and is the way you will win over this good priest. You must make some allowance for his moods. Don’t scold him immediately when you first see some failing, but only later, and then humbly and cordially. Above all else, never let any division be seen between you, for you are in the public eye, and a single display of annoyance would ruin everything. I hope you will use the advice I give you, and that God will use the countless acts of virtue you practice as the base and foundation for the good he wishes to accomplish by you.17
In effect he recommended nothing so much by his letters and his conferences to the superiors and members of the Congregation, as meekness and mutual support to be a source of peace and a bond of perfection uniting all hearts. When the superior of a house would ask for the transfer of a sick member of their local house because he could no longer contribute to the work of the mission, he would reply that it was only just that he should remain. He had taken sick there, and it would be an opportunity for the other members of the mission to practice fraternal support and charity. If he would be asked to change someone because of his faults, he would say the others should support him because there was no one without faults. It was quite possible that the person taking his place might have even greater ones than he.
If some officers of the Congregation or other confreres would fail to follow his directives, doing something other than what he had been told, as happened more than once, he would say, “Monsieur, or, my brother, perhaps if you had done this in the way I asked you, God would have given it his blessing.” On other occasions he would say nothing. He would allow his silence and patience to make the correction, if it were not an important matter, or not a case of formal disobedience that would require him to act more directly.
Above all else, he had a marvelous meekness and support for the sick of mind or body. He never complained of the cost of caring for them, but putting himself in their place, he gave them the same care and treatment that he would have wished to receive if he were in their state. We should remark here that among those seeking admission to the Congregation some would occasionally be found who to all appearances ought not to have been received into the body of the Company. Monsieur Vincent would not send them away, but would provide medicines and additional rest, and use other remedies he thought proper. Although some others recommended to him that these persons be dismissed, he insisted that they be kept and supported. In many cases cures took place, and these confreres then rendered good service to God in the Congregation.
If he used a charitable gentleness towards those still on probation before being accepted into his Congregation, he was even more definite in regard to those who were already members. He would send no one away for health reasons, regardless of his illness. He looked upon the sick as those who would attract the blessings of God upon the Congregation. This is what he wrote to one of his priests who was thinking of leaving the Company because of his poor health. “Do not fear that you may be in any way a burden to the Company because of sickness, and you must be convinced you never will be. By God’s grace, the sick will never burden us. On the contrary, it is a blessing to have them.”18 This was the mind and practice of Monsieur Vincent on this point, and his Company was so much of this same spirit that no one was ever sent away because of sickness.
He was especially gentle with the brothers of the Congregation, especially the most rustic and the least able. He never wanted to send them away because of their lack of skill or use to the community. He would have them speak in the conferences and spiritual colloquies of the community to open their minds. Even though they sometimes spoke too long, tediously, or off the topic, he would allow them to say what they wished without interruption. He never showed his disapproval of what they said, unless they said something untrue or erroneous that needed to be corrected. In these cases he spoke most paternally and gently not to discourage or sadden them. He would put a good interpretation on what they had said or excuse what he could, but pointed out how they might have been mistaken.
His kindness and understanding went beyond the natural faults of mind and body, and extended to those committed against the moral law. From time to time he met in his own or in other communities those who had fallen from the way of virtue. They caused more harm than good by their complaining, slander, or other failings. When these were publicly known, people were surprised that Monsieur Vincent did not dismiss them from the Congregation, and he was sometimes urged to do so. This charitable and meek superior supported them all with an almost unbelievable charity and patience, to give the offenders time to come to their senses, but he nevertheless used appropriate means to remedy their failings.
The superior of one of the missions of the Congregation was happy to be rid of some lax confreres with difficult personalities. He wrote to Monsieur Vincent that such people should be put out of the Company. Monsieur Vincent responded to him in a remarkable way, revealing his thoughts on the subject we are discussing:
I agree with you about the person you describe. I do not think he will improve, but on the contrary I fear he will continue to cause much trouble to this house where we have had him report. Not only do I fear this, but I begin to see it myself, and I must tell you that he and two others give us much grief. One has left, after we had put up with all we could, and it would be helpful if the others too would go away. To cut away the gangrenous members would do justice to the Company, and even prudence suggests we should do so. But because we are called upon to practice all the virtues, we must show support, meekness, patience, and charity, while hoping for their amendment. We will attempt to apply appropriate remedies, threats, prayers, admonitions, all with no other hope than what it will please God to bring about by his grace. Our Lord did not reject Saint Peter because he had denied him three times, nor even Judas, though it seems he died in his sin. I think, then, that the divine Goodness will be pleased if the Company will extend its charity to these two troublemakers, and to spare or neglect nothing to gain them for God. Only after they show no improvement should we then resort to amputation.19 Some timorous and scrupulous souls, a trial to themselves and bearing an almost insupportable burden, often tested the charity of Monsieur Vincent, and gave him the opportunity to practice the virtue of support and meekness. Among his confreres were some who for years were afflicted by scruples. They were the likely source of much annoyance by their incessant demands upon him, yet he never complained nor put them off. He supported them and received them graciously, to give them no cause for discouragement or sadness. In whatever company he happened to be, he would rise at once when he saw them approaching, and allow them to speak to him in a corner of the room where he was. Although they would return to speak of the same thing several times over, even sometimes three or four times in a single hour, he would receive them with the same serenity as before. He would listen to them patiently, and reply with his customary meekness. This is what one of these unfortunate persons reported later:
Monsieur Vincent was always a great support for me, and treated me with great kindness during my depression. I interrupted him continually, even when he was preparing to celebrate mass or to recite the divine office. When I had heard his response, and left, and then came back again to speak with him several times in succession and at length, I never heard from him a single harsh word. On the contrary, he would always speak to me gently, and never scolded me, something he would have been entirely justified in doing, seeing the constant demands I made upon him. Even after he told me what I must do, I would allow new doubts to arise. He took the trouble to write out in his own hand what he had said to help me remember it, and to support this effort he would then have me read it aloud in his presence. Whenever hour I went to see him, even late in the evening, or even when he was occupied with others in matters of business, he would always receive me with the same kindness. He would listen to me, and reply with such gentleness and charity that I can hardly express it
Another confrere reported he had often tried the patience and charity of Monsieur Vincent by asking him to repeat several times what he had said. This charitable superior did so graciously with no trace of displeasure, repeating what he had said as often as requested, and each time explaining just what he meant. He would show as much interest and concern the final time as he had shown the very first. Once, as happened on several other occasions also, when he was occupied with the business of some persons of rank, he called a brother to say something to him. This brother did not understand exactly what was meant. He had Monsieur Vincent repeat it more than four times, which he did without the least sign of impatience. He spoke the fifth time with the same mildness and tranquility of spirit as he did the first, showing by a smile that he was pleased rather than annoyed.