CHAPTER TWENTY: His Chastity
Monsieur Vincent submitted his body to the mortification of Jesus Christ, so that, in the words of the holy apostle, the life of Jesus Christ might be in him.1 He manifested this by a life of angelic purity and by his chastity, secure from all that might lead him astray, as was shown in his way of dealing with women of all ages. He conducted himself in a way that never gave the least cause for any calumny, but rather was always a matter of edification to all.
Since he was well aware of the necessity and the importance of this virtue especially for those in who constantly worked for the spiritual good of their neighbors, as the missionaries of his Congregation did, he often gave advice about it.
It is not enough for missionaries to excel in this virtue. They must act in such a way that no one may be able to have the least suspicion that they have fallen into the opposite vice. This suspicion, even if not well founded, will harm their reputation. It would prejudice their success as missionaries more than any other crime of which they might be falsely accused. We therefore must not be satisfied to use ordinary means to prevent these suspicions, but we must use extraordinary means if the occasion demands it. We should, for example, sometimes abstain from actions otherwise licit, good, and even holy, such as visiting the sick poor, when in the judgment of those who direct us, we would provide an opportunity by doing so for these suspicions to arise.2
A parish priest once asked Monsieur Vincent a question on this subject. It serves to show both his own naivete, and Monsieur Vincent’s exactitude on this matter. The priest wanted to know if it was proper to feel the pulse of a sick girl or woman, to ascertain if she were on the point of dying, and thus ready to receive the last sacraments and the prayers for a departing soul. Monsieur Vincent replied:
You should be on your guard in this matter. The evil spirit might well use this pretext to tempt both the living and the dying. The devil uses any weapon available for this last opportunity to harm a soul. Resist him firmly, even though bodily strength is fading. We should recall the example of the saint who when dying would not allow his own wife to touch him. He had separated from her by mutual consent, but said with the strength left to him, “Alas, there was still fire under the ashes.” To ascertain if death is imminent, the surgeon or another person at the deathbed might be called upon, since they would be in less danger than yourself. The doctor might be asked what he thinks. Until his arrival on the scene, however, the priest should not touch the girl or woman for any reason whatsoever.
On this point he was a rigorist, even though he was understanding on all other matters.
He once wrote to a brother of the Congregation telling him to abstain from spending time with a female friend, even though his intentions were praiseworthy. “Even if these conversations are not bad in themselves, there will always be those who think they are. Besides, the way to preserve purity is to avoid any occasions which might stain it in any way.”3
Another brother experienced temptations against chastity because of what he saw during his comings and goings while tending to the business of the house. He thought that he could remedy this problem by leaving the Congregation and becoming a hermit. He wrote of his intention to Monsieur Vincent, only to receive this reply:
On the one hand, your letter consoled me, seeing the candor with which you write. On the other hand, it caused me the same distress which Saint Bernard experienced when one of his religious, under the pretext of seeking greater discipline, wanted to leave his order to join another stricter one. The holy abbot pointed out to him that this desire was a temptation. The evil spirit wanted nothing better than this change to happen. He was well aware that if the monk could obtain this change, then a second change could be even easier, so that soon the person’s life would be totally unsettled. And that’s what happened.
What I wish to say, my dear brother, is that if you are not chaste in the Congregation of the Mission, I can assure you that you will not be so anywhere else in the world. Be on your guard against the flightiness expressed in your wish to change. In this matter, after praying, the one thing necessary in all our needs, the remedy is to consider that no place on earth is free from temptation and the accompanying temptation of remedying the situation simply by changing one’s location. After this consideration, reflect that God has called you to the Company where you now are. He has in all likelihood linked the grace of your salvation to it, and he may not give it to you in some other place to which he has not called you. The second remedy against temptations of the flesh is to avoid meeting and even seeing the persons who disturb you. You should be open with your spiritual director, who will suggest other remedies. What I would advise, then, is to entrust yourself completely to the hands of our Lord, with the help of the immaculate virgin, his mother, to whom I often recommend your welfare.4
A pious woman once wrote an affectionate and tender letter to a friend who happened to be under the spiritual direction of Monsieur Vincent. He in turn sent it to Monsieur Vincent for his comments, which he gave as follows:
I would like to believe that the person who wrote to you so feelingly meant no evil. It must be said, however, that her letter could harm a heart not properly disposed or less strong than your own. May the Lord help you avoid the company of someone capable of unsettling your peace of soul, even slightly!5
In keeping with this opinion, Monsieur Vincent included in his rule that his confreres should avoid speaking and writing in too affectionate terms to women and girls, even when it was a question of giving spiritual advice. He himself was very reserved on this point. He wrote and spoke well and respectfully to everyone, but never too softly and endearingly to women. What is more, he avoided the use of terms which, though perfectly proper, might conceivably lead to the least unworthy thought in the minds of those to whom he spoke. The very word “chastity” itself was too strong for him. He rarely used it, for fear of bringing the opposite vice to mind. He preferred to use the term “purity,” which has a wider sense. If he was obliged to refer to or speak of a fallen woman or girl to bring about some improvement to an unhappy situation, he would ordinarily use another word than “woman” or “girl,” such as “this poor creature.” He would refer to her fall by more general expressions, like “her unhappiness” or “her weakness.” In a word it is impossible to exaggerate his care to avoiding anything having even a shadow of impropriety about it.
His countenance reflected the modesty of his heart, and it so ruled his tongue that his words made it evident to all that the virtue of chastity was precious to him. This is why, in his rule, he included every imaginable precaution to preserve it. We have already referred to his mastery of his body by his arduous work and constant penances, by his practice of humility, and by his temperance in eating and drinking. He watered his wine so much that a person of piety, and very trustworthy, remarked that he was often astonished to see an old man drink so little, even at the age of eighty or more.6
He was reserved in the use of all his senses, especially his sight, never looking around idly or curiously in an uncontrolled manner. He did not stare fixedly at women, or speak to them alone except within sight of others, with the door of the parlor open.
He would never visit the women of his assemblies [of the Ladies of Charity] in their homes without necessity, not even Mademoiselle le Gras, superior of the Daughters of Charity which he had founded. This is what he wrote once on this matter when she lived in the village of La Chapelle, a quarter of a league from Paris:7 “Should the need arise, I may soon come to see you at La Chapelle. If such a visit is necessary I ask you to tell me, if you please. Otherwise, I would prefer not to come, as we had agreed from the beginning of our association.”8 In another letter written at a time Mademoiselle had fallen ill, he wrote, “If you wish me to come to see you in your illness, please let me know. I have taken it as a rule not to visit, unless it is really necessary or useful.”9
Sometimes he found it necessary to meet with this virtuous lady and with her spiritual daughters in his role as founder and spiritual father, especially during their annual retreat. He had to be asked in advance and urged, and even then he accepted as seldom as he could, and only often after a long delay. He always brought a companion along, and never allowed him to leave the room he was using while he talked with these women. During his conversation his companion would remain some distance apart, to insure the privacy of the interview. He always wanted to have witnesses present on these occasions when he spoke to women. This would assure that there would be no possibility of sin, and would as well put him beyond the evil suspicions of even the most small-minded persons. Even the best of men may have their reputations ruined by calumny. Even our Lord, although falsely accused of so many other crimes, did not allow himself to be accused of anything relating to his virginal purity, which shone as bright as the sun.
Once, Monsieur Vincent was counseling a family from Paris, in which the husband and wife were being divorced. The young and attractive wife was in a dangerous situation, living apart from her former husband. While speaking with her in the parlor at Saint Lazare, the brother in the room felt he ought to leave, to give them greater privacy. He left and closed the door behind him, but no sooner had he done so than Monsieur Vincent called him to have the door left ajar, which he did. He acted this same way on all occasions when he was obliged to speak to women.
Once, he went to the city to speak to a woman separated from her husband, about some important affair that needed detailed discussion. He was surprised to find that the woman was not yet out of bed. He finished his business with her in a few words. This astonished his companion, but he understood perfectly that Monsieur Vincent had cut the conversation so short because she was still in bed, even though at the time he was more than seventy years of age.10
The affection he had for the virtue of chastity motivated him to help many girls and women to leave their sinful profession. First, by giving missions, he sought to take them away from the company of those who had led them into evil.
Second, in provinces ruined by war, he attempted to supply food and clothing to those tempted to lose their virtue because of the lack of these necessities. This was particularly true in Lorraine. He was able to bring to Paris some of these young women, who were most susceptible of being abused by the soldiers. With the help of the Daughters of Charity these women were cared for and placed in the homes of respectable people.
Third, Monsieur Vincent used the good offices of Mademoiselle Pollalion, a member of the Ladies of Charity and under his spiritual direction, to help these young women. By her advice, service, and support, she succeeded in helping a large number to keep from perishing, such that her name became known all over Paris. One day this zealous lady brought one of these young girls to Monsieur Vincent. She was about fourteen or fifteen years of age and very beautiful. He said he was most grateful to God for having permitted her to be placed in a pious family and under the care of a charitable person who looked after her honor and her salvation. He hoped that she would be grateful and appreciate having such a place of refuge, and would make good use of this favor from God. He felt sure that Our Lord would do the same for others, for he had so loved virgins that he allowed them to accompany him in his travels. He hoped that she would be happy to remember this.
Fourth, he used the good offices of his spiritual daughter, Mademoiselle le Gras, to receive into her home some of those who had been solicited to evil, or who were in danger of falling. By her advice and spiritual retreats, she helped them re-establish themselves until they could be placed in more suitable surroundings.
We have seen elsewhere what Monsieur Vincent had done for the Daughters of Saint Madeleine.11 A gentleman from Paris has reported that shortly before his death Monsieur Vincent had spoken of establishing a hospital in Paris especially for abandoned women and girls, particularly for those who had corrupted others. These men had spoken together several times about this project. Although Monsieur Vincent anticipated great difficulties in carrying out the project, he had begun to work out the details with some other devoted people. If he had lived longer, he might have been able to make it succeed, as he did with so many other enterprises he had undertaken. Since his death, his collaborators on the project have advanced it to the point that it is about ready to begin.