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

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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Simplicity is the more praiseworthy among those who strive to follow the maxims of Jesus Christ, in that it is so poorly esteemed by the vain and false wisdom of the world. It is the virtue which discovers the paths of true justice and leads us on the right way to God’s Kingdom. To phrase this better with the words of Saint Gregory, “simplicity is like the serene day of the Christian soul. It is not obscured or troubled by the clouds of fraud or deceit, by envy, or by trickery or disguise. It takes its light from truth itself, and shines with the splendor of the presence of God.”1

This virtue was so esteemed by the great saints of the Church that Saint Ambrose, in the funeral oration over his brother Saint Satyrus, puts it among the main virtues. He stated that this noted man, coming from an exalted status in the world, developed such a love for this virtue that he became childlike in his simplicity. He showed by his manner and actions that his entire life was a perfect mirror of innocence.2

We may likewise bestow the same praise upon Vincent de Paul. Living in a decadent age and being deeply involved in the world, even among the great of the court, he nevertheless preserved an innocence of life, uprightness, and simplicity. His heart was like the pearl, which though immersed in the waters of the sea, takes on none of its impurities but is nourished only by the dew of heaven.3

Saint Bernard had great reason to say: “it is a rare occurrence to see humility preserved in the midst of honors.”4 We might add that it is also rare, and maybe ever more so, to find true simplicity of heart maintaining its uprightness and purity among the vexations and intrigues of the world. This, however, is what we saw and admired so much in this great servant of God. He seemed like a lily among the thorns and corruption which abound in the world.

Simplicity allows us to go directly to God and the truth, without pomp, evasions, or subterfuge, with no thought of personal interest or of human respect. Monsieur Vincent acted this way himself. He led us to believe that much of the success which he enjoyed in his various enterprises was to be attributed to the simplicity of his character. It attracted the blessing of God upon him, and the approbation of men. Nothing so pleases God and wins the affection and respect of all sorts of persons as directness and simplicity in the heart, in life, and in one’s words.

Since he esteemed this virtue so highly, he strove to cultivate it in his followers. For example, when speaking to them of Jesus Christ’s words to his disciples to be simple as doves,5 he said:

In sending his apostles to preach the Gospel throughout the whole world, he particularly recommended this virtue of simplicity as one of the most important, to attract the graces of heaven, and to dispose the hearts of the people to hear and believe the word. He spoke not only to the apostles, but to all those whom Providence has called to preach the Gospel, and to instruct and convert souls. Therefore, Jesus Christ speaks to us in recommending this virtue of simplicity, so agreeable to God that his good pleasure is to be with the simple of heart: cum simplicibus sermocinatio ejus [“with the simple is his speech”].6 Think, my brothers, of the consolation and happiness of those numbered among the truly simple. They are assured by the words of God that his good pleasure is to dwell with them.

Our Lord further lets us see how agreeable the virtue of simplicity is to him by these words he addresses to his Father: Confiteor tibi Pater, quia abscondisti haec a sapientibus et prudentibus, et revelasti ea parvulis.7 I acknowledge and thank you Father that the doctrine I have learned from you and which I have spoken to men is known only to the little ones and the simple. The learned and prudent have not understood, and the sense and spirit of this word is hidden from them.

Certainly, if we reflect on these words, we ought to be appalled, we who chase after knowledge as if our happiness depended upon it. I am not saying a priest, a missionary, ought not to have learning, but it must be needed for his ministry and not simply what will satisfy his ambition and curiosity. He ought to study and acquire learning, yes, but with sobriety, as the holy apostle says. Others pass themselves off as being well

informed on every subject. God leaves them without understanding of truth and the Christian virtues, just as he does for those who are so learned in worldly wisdom. To whom then does he give a knowledge of his truth and his doctrine? It is to the simple, the good people, most often the poor. This is seen by the difference between the faith of the poor peasants and that of persons who live in the world. I can say from long experience that lively and practical faith and the spirit of true religion are most often found among the poor and the simple. God enriches them with a lively faith. They believe and savor the words of eternal life that Jesus Christ has left them in the Gospel. Ordinarily, they bear their sicknesses with patience, their shortages and other ills without murmuring, and complain little and rarely. Where does this come from? God is pleased to confer an abundance of the gift of faith upon them, and other graces which he does not give to the rich and wise of this world.

We should also consider that everyone is attracted to simple and candid persons. These never resort to clever distinctions or duplicity but say simply and directly what is in their heart. Everyone appreciates them, even if they are at court. And high society appreciates and trusts such people. Even more remarkably, those who do not speak candidly or with simplicity, nor have such qualities in their mind, still admire those who do. Strive then, my brothers, to please God by acquiring this virtue, which by his mercy we see that some of our own confreres have. Their example invites us to imitate them.

To understand the excellence of this virtue better, we must realize that it brings us close to God, and makes us in some way resemble him. He is a totally simple being, an essence admitting of no composition. What God is by his essence we strive to become, as far as our wretched and miserable nature will allow. We must have a simple heart, a simple mind, a pure intention, and act simply. We must speak directly, act forthrightly, with no subterfuge or artifice, looking to God alone with the intention of pleasing him alone.

Simplicity comprises more than simple truth and purity of intention. It puts far from us all deceit, trickery, or duplicity. Since this virtue is shown chiefly in our words, we are obliged to say exactly what is in our heart. We must state simply what we have to say, with the pure intention of pleasing God alone. This is not to say that simplicity obliges us to say everything in our mind. This virtue is discreet and never opposed to prudence. It allows us to discern what should be said and what should not, and when we should keep quiet and when we should speak up. If, for example, I have something to say worthwhile and good in itself and in all its circumstances, I should express myself directly and simply. If, on the contrary, some circumstances are evil or useless, then I should keep quiet. Generally, we ought not speak of things against God or our neighbor, or which might tend towards our own glorification, or would have some sensual or temporal connotation. One must be careful not to sin against one or more of the other virtues.

Simplicity in actions causes us to act directly and forthrightly, always in view of God, in our business, our employment, or in our exercises of piety, avoiding all hypocrisy, artifice, or vain pretense. Someone, for example, might make a gift to another feigning that he is doing so through affection. In reality he hopes thereby to secure something of greater worth in return. He may be acting according to worldly standards, but this is opposed to the virtue of simplicity, which never allows us to do one thing but really mean another. Just as this virtue requires us to speak the way we think, it also makes us act with Christian frankness and directness. All must be done for God, the only end of all our actions. We may infer from this that the virtue of simplicity is not honored in those who through human respect wish to appear other than what they are, or who do good deeds exteriorly to be thought virtuous, who collect quantities of books to be judged learned, who strive to preach well to have the applause and praise of others, or lastly, those who do their spiritual exercises or pious works for unworthy motives.

May I ask you, my brothers, if this virtue of simplicity is not beautiful and desirable? Is it not just and reasonable to be on your guard against all duplicity and artifice in our words and actions? But this virtue must be practiced to acquire it. This is done through frequent acts of the virtue of simplicity by which we become truly simple, with the help of God’s grace, which we must often ask of him.8

We have cited at some length this conference of Monsieur Vincent on the virtue of simplicity, for we believe we could not give a better description of his own simplicity than by using his own words. He was himself, and he wished his confreres to be, just what his words conveyed. It could be said in truth that he had this virtue in such a degree, by the grace of our Lord, that all the powers of his soul were influenced by it. What he said and what he did were influenced by this virtue. His external words and deportment were always in harmony with his interior. His actions truly reflected his intentions, which ever tended to the most perfect.

In this connection he said, “To make things look good on the outside while being otherwise within is to be like the hypocritical Pharisees. It is to imitate Satan, who disguises himself as an angel of light.” One of his maxims was: “Since prudence of the flesh and hypocrisy are so prevalent in this corrupt age, to the prejudice of the spirit of Christianity, the best way to overcome their baneful influence is by a true and sincere simplicity.”

His fidelity to the practice of this virtue was obvious in all encounters, and extended to the least things. Among other examples we could cite, we might mention that he was so taken up with diverse and important matters that he sometimes forgot simple matters, such as speaking with someone, answering a letter, or doing something else which had been recommended to him. Rather than invent an explanation, he much preferred to acknowledge his shortcomings, even when it was a source of embarrassment to him. He used to say that it was good to state things just as they are, for God blessed this frankness. On this point he once remarked: “God is very simple, or better, God is simplicity itself, and therefore where one finds simplicity one finds God. As the wise man of Scripture says: ‘He who walks simply walks with assurance, but he who uses cunning and deceit is in constant fear that he will be found out.’9 If his duplicity is discovered he will never again be trusted.”10

Once, when sending one of his priests to a certain province where rumor had it that dissimulation was a way of life, he gave this excellent advice: “You are going to a region where the people are for the most part cunning and devious. If that is so, the best way to be of help to them is to treat them with great simplicity. The maxims of the Gospel are utterly opposed to those of the world. Since you are going there to serve our Lord, you ought to carry his spirit, a spirit of uprightness and simplicity.” In this same spirit, some time later he founded a house of the Congregation in that same province. He sent as the first superior a priest of his Company who had a reputation for great simplicity.

Since he worked as hard as he could to cultivate in his confreres this virtue of simplicity, he would not allow them in their words or actions to show that they had lost sight of God, who should be the sole end of all they did. He was attentive that they not allow their minds or hearts to be taken up with created things. In a reply to one of his priests who had written that he had given his heart to Monsieur Vincent, he wrote:

I thank you for your letter and for the gift you give me. Your heart is too good to be put into my poor hands, but I am well aware that you give it to me merely to be passed on to our Lord to whom it belongs, and to whose love you must ever return. May your loving heart then be given from this moment to Jesus Christ, fully and forever, in time and in eternity. Please ask the grace that I may share some of the candor and simplicity of your heart. I stand in great need of these two virtues, whose excellence is beyond understanding.11      He wrote to another of his community who had revealed that he had acted selfishly or through human respect:

You have done well to win the esteem of the persons you name. To tell me you did so that they might support or defend us was an unworthy motive. It is removed from the spirit of Jesus Christ, which would counsel us to do all for God alone, acting out of love for him. If on the contrary you wanted to protect our interests and use the good opinion of your friends to preserve our reputation, this is done in vain if it is not founded on truth. If our reputation is in fact based on truth, why do you fear? Another point in your letter reflects human respect, where you say that when you speak well of some people I will let their friends know of it, to that they may give him recognition. Alas, Monsieur, what are you thinking of? Where is the simplicity of a missionary, who ought to go directly to God? If you do not see good in these persons, don’t say anything. If you find good in them, speak of it to honor God in them, for all good comes from him. Our Lord reproved a man who called him good because his intention in acting was not good. What will he say to you if you praise unworthy persons out of deference, to put yourself in good with them, or for any other unworthy motive? I am aware that you acted only out of another good intention, for you sought the esteem and love of others only to advance the glory of God. You must, however, realize that God is never honored by duplicity, and that to be truly simple we must think of him alone.12

If Monsieur Vincent was so careful to have his community practice the virtue of simplicity on all occasions, it was particularly so in their preaching and instructing the people that he wanted this virtue to shine forth. One day he spoke to them of the desire for praise and esteem, which often creeps into the minds of many preachers:

They want to shine and have people talk about them. They love to be praised and to hear that they have been successful and have worked marvels. Behold this monster, then, which hides under beautiful pretexts. He insinuates his venom into the hearts of those who give him entrance. O cursed pride, how you corrupt and destroy the good, and how much evil you cause! You bring it about that these people preach themselves and not Jesus Christ. Instead of building up the body of Christ, they tear it down and bring it to ruin.

Just today I was at a conference given by a prelate to his ordinands.13 Afterward, in his room, I said to him, “Bishop, today you have converted me!” He responded, “How is that?” “You spoke so directly and so simply that I was deeply touched, and could not refrain from praising and blessing God.” Then he told me, “Monsieur, I must confess, with the same forthrightness with which you have spoken, that I had prepared something more profound and more learned. I realized in time that in giving that talk I would have offended God.”

You see, gentlemen, the way this bishop was thinking. This is the way all should act who are truly seeking God and the salvation of souls. If you act this way, I can assure you, God will surely bless what you say and give strength and power to your words. Yes, God will be with you and work through you, for he is pleased to remain with the simple. He helps them, he blesses their labors and their projects, but on the contrary it would be blasphemy to think that God would favor or help those who, filled with vanity, preach only themselves, and seek glory from others.

In their preaching these persons do not exhibit either simplicity or humility. Do you think God would help a man destroy himself? A Christian should not even think such a thing. If you would reflect on the great evil it is to use the office of preacher to present the message in any other way than that used by Jesus Christ or his apostles or many great saints and servants of God, and is still used by them to this day, you would be horrified.

I must tell you that for three consecutive days I once knelt before a priest. He was at the time a member our Company. I begged him with all possible insistence to preach and speak simply, following the outline we had given him. I was never able to make any headway with him. He gave the conferences to the ordinands, but they produced little fruit. His fine thoughts and expressions went up in smoke. Words do not profit souls, but only simplicity and humility, and they attract the grace of Jesus Christ into our hearts.

If you want to know the truth, what draws these ordinands, theologians, bachelors, licentiates of the colleges of the Sorbonne and Navarre? It is not the learning or doctrine they are shown, for they have much more than do we. It is the simplicity and humility they see, by the mercy of God, and the way which we act towards them. They come here to acquire virtue, and if they do not find this among us they will not return. This is why we must desire and pray that God would be pleased to give the entire Company, and each of us in particular, the grace of acting directly and simply, of preaching the truths of the Gospel in the same way our Lord taught them, so that everyone will understand and profit from what we say.14

We will finish this chapter by citing the testimony of a superior of one of the houses of the Mission about the virtue of simplicity which animated the heart of this holy man and which shone forth in his words and actions.

Monsieur Vincent, who himself spoke so humbly and simply, but with energy and efficacy, recommended this same humility and simplicity in the public and private utterances of his confreres. He wished to rid the community of anything smacking of pomposity or the vanity of the world. To convince us even better, he recalled as an example, among many other motives, how much more we are attracted to living animals rather than those which have been mounted for display. He used to say that this was the way it was for talks and conferences–the simpler and more direct they are, the better they are received, especially as compared with those affected and artificially polished.

He had an interest in helping me in many ways. The great number of my imperfections gave me the advantage of receiving much advice and helpful suggestions from him. I recall my days as a student of theology when it came my turn to speak to the assembled household. I prepared well, and spoke in a way I thought marvelous. That evening he called me, and in the presence of twenty people I regarded as my masters, dissected my talk at length. Finally, he summed up all with a graciousness which restored my spirits. He said I must strive to preach as Jesus Christ had done. As the Son of God, he could have talked about the deepest mysteries of religion in the most profound way, being the Word and the Wisdom of the Eternal Father. Nevertheless, he preached humbly and simply, accommodating himself to the people, giving us the model and the manner of teaching his holy word.

  1. PL 79:605.
  2. PL 16.2.1:1307.
  3. Pliny popularized this opinion about pearls formed in the oyster shell by dew from heaven in his Natural History 9, 54, 107ff.
  4. PL 183.3-4:85.
  5. Matt 10:16.
  6. Prov 3:32.
  7. Matt 11:25.
  8. CED XII:167-81.
  9. Prov 10:9.
  10. CED XI:50.
  11. CED VI:141.
  12. CED IV:484-87.
  13. The bishop of Sarlat, Nicolas Sevin. See also CED V:571-72.
  14. CED XII:22-25.

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