CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: His Patience in Sickness
The evil spirit knows well how weak our flesh is, and how sensitive we are to what affects our bodies whether in sorrows or sicknesses. The demon rightly said that we would willingly endure anything to escape the pains and illnesses which are the forerunners of death itself. After he had unsuccessfully attacked the patience of the patriarch Job by the loss of his possessions and his children, he promised himself victory if only God would allow him to attack him bodily by sickness and suffering. In this last and furious test, this holy man displayed his virtue to the fullest. He mastered this severe test, not only with patience, but with a perfect submission to the good pleasure of God. He blessed and praised God with an affection as great as his sorrows had been grievous and his pains severe.
We could truly say that this same test of sorrow and sickness gave the final touch to the patience of Monsieur Vincent, and crowned all his other virtues. He was robust in body and of a sound temperament, and his manner of life was so well ordered we might have expected that he would have a long life of perfect health. Nevertheless, God willed that he be tried by various frequent illnesses. Perhaps this came from what he suffered during his captivity among the Moslems, or from the violence he did to himself. Perhaps it came from the work and fatigues of the missions which he endured for many years, or lastly, from his constant worry about the great enterprises of charity and piety which were so often trying and difficult. From whatever cause, it is certain that this holy man, by a singular disposition of divine Providence, was nearly always in poor health, either with running sores on various parts of his body, or by the fevers he often experienced, or by falls or painful accidents which he suffered. The swelling and inflammation of his legs troubled him almost continually. Despite these painful ailments, he preserved a peace and serenity of spirit so great that he would have been thought to be healthy, if the evidence of his body were not so clear.
Writing once to a friend about his sufferings, he expressed his thoughts in this way:
I hid my condition from you as best I could, and did not want you to know of my indisposition, for fear of saddening you. But, O Lord, how could we be more affectionate towards you than to share with you the happiness of being visited in this way by God? May our Lord strengthen us to find our happiness in his good pleasure.1
Various members of his household, and some from elsewhere, saw him in some of his sicknesses. They were astonished at his patience and tranquility, especially in the face of the violent pains he suffered in his legs. His discharges which were so abundant that, despite his legs being bandaged, the floor was moistened by them. In this condition he could no longer rise from his chair or scarcely move. Though he was in constant pain and could not sleep day or night, not a single word of complaint passed his lips. His features retained the same gentleness and affability as he always showed in health, and he continually practiced a near heroic patience. A virtuous priest who knew him well testified:
The more he advanced in age, the more his body weakened. His afflictions increased so that he was no longer able to celebrate mass. Before this, it had been his joy and consolation. Because of his feebleness and sufferings, he had to remain in his chair, and even then he continued to receive a stream of visitors, both from within and from outside the house. He continued to direct the affairs of Saint Lazare and his entire Congregation. He responded to all his visitors with grace and a serenity of speech as if he were in good health and felt no pain. This affability and gentleness remained reflected in his features up to the time of his death.
One day one of his priests met him in his room when his inflamed and ulcerated legs were being treated. Seeing how painful they were, and moved with compassion, he said, “Oh, Monsieur, how terrible your sufferings are!” To this Monsieur Vincent replied, “What? You call terrible what comes from God, and what he sends to make a miserable sinner, such as I am, suffer? May God pardon you, Monsieur, for what you have just said, for this is not the language of Jesus Christ. Is it not just that the guilty should suffer, and are we not more guilty in the sight of God than we think?”
Another time this same priest remarked that it seemed that these painful conditions worsened each day. Monsieur Vincent replied: “It is true, from the soles of my feet to the top of my head I feel them getting worse. But alas, what account would I have to render before the tribunal of God I am soon to appear before, if I did not make good use of them?”
We must not be surprised if this great servant of God had such sentiments and spoke as he did of his grievous sufferings. He had long worked at acquiring the virtue of patience, and had filled his heart and mind with the perfect maxims of this virtue. He was disposed to practice it on all occasions, but especially in his illnesses. In this connection, he wrote the following to one of his confreres who was ill:
Sickness truly reveals who we are much better than health does. In the midst of sufferings, impatience and melancholy tempt even the most resolute. But since only the weak fail, you need have no fear, for you have profited by these attacks. Our Lord has strengthened you in the practice of accepting his good pleasure, and this appears in your resolution so courageously to resist impatience and discouragement. I hope it will be seen even more clearly in your accepting your sufferings for the love of God, not simply with patience, but with joy and gaiety.2
He spoke once to the community on this same subject:
It must be said that sickness is a grievous trial, almost insupportable to human nature. It is, however, one of the most powerful means God uses to recall us to our duty. It detaches us from our affection for sin, and fills us with his gifts and graces. O Savior, you suffered so much and died to redeem us. You showed us in this that sufferings can be used to glorify God and can sanctify us. Please grant us a knowledge of the great good and treasure hidden in sickness. It is in this, gentlemen, that souls are purified, and those who are weak in virtue have an opportunity to acquire it. It is not possible to find any situation so suited for practicing virtue. In sickness, faith is marvelously exercised, hope is enkindled, resignation, love of God, and all the virtues are encouraged. In sickness we discover who and what we are. Sickness is the measuring rod to tell each of us most assuredly what our virtues are, whether we have many, few, or none at all. We can never come to know just what is in a man any better than by sickness. This is the test to find out who is the most virtuous, and those who are not.
All this shows us how important it is to understand fully how we must act in sickness. If we accept it as a true servant of God, our sickbed becomes a throne of mercy and of glory. A true Christian surrounds himself with the mysteries of our holy religion. Above the bed is the symbol of the most blessed Trinity; at the head, the incarnation; on one side the circumcision of our Lord; on the other, the blessed sacrament; at the foot, the crucifixion. No matter which way he turns, to the right or to the left, or raises his eyes or lowers them, he sees himself surrounded by these divine mysteries, and finds God everywhere he turns. What a beautiful picture, gentlemen, what a beautiful picture! If God gives us the grace to act so, how happy we will be!
We have reason to praise God for his goodness and mercy if we have infirm and sick members in the Company. In their weakness and sufferings they have the opportunity to exercise patience and all the virtues. I have said it many times before, and will say it again: we should regard those in the Company who are sick as those who bring down the blessings of God upon it.
We must think of our illnesses and afflictions as coming from God. Death, life, health, all these come by order of his Providence. Whatever they may seem to be, they are always for the good and for the salvation of a person. However, some bear their sufferings with much impatience, and this is a great fault. Others want to move about, to go here or there, to this house or to that province, back to their native place, all under the pretext that there the air would suit them better. What do you think of that? These are people attached to themselves, effeminate souls, persons who want to suffer nothing as though bodily ills were evils they must flee at all costs. Yet to run from the state God wills for us to is to run from one’s happiness. Yes, suffering is a state of happiness and of the sanctification of souls.3
I know a man named Brother Antoine.4 His portrait hangs in our room. He could neither read nor write, yet he had the spirit of God in its fullness. He called everyone his brother, or a woman, his sister. Even when he spoke to the queen, he spoke to her as to his sister. Everyone wanted to see him. Once he was asked, “My brother, how do you accept the illnesses that happen? How do you manage? How do you make good use of them?” He replied that he received them as sent by God to test him: “For example, if a fever occurs, I say, My sister the fever, or my sister the sickness, you come from the hands of God. Welcome! And then I strive to fulfill God’s will in myself.”
There, gentlemen and my brothers, is how he used them. This is the way the servants of Jesus Christ use these things, those who are true lovers of his cross. This does not prevent them from using the medicines we have to cure each sickness, for this, too, honors God. He has, after all, given each plant its properties to bring about healing. All the same, to be too solicitous for oneself, to be too sensitive to the least suffering that comes our way, this we must avoid. Yes, we must avoid this delicate care of ourselves.5