The Maternal Face of Jesus. A Note on Vincent de Paul

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Robert Maloney, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1995 · Source: He hears the cry of the poor.

Robert P. Maloney, CM, 23rd Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission (1992 to 2004), made extensive contributions to the understanding of the Vincentian charism.

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There is much that one could say about Vincent de Paul’s relationship with women. Among his closest friends and collaborators were two women saints, Jane Frances de Chantal and Louise de Marillac. Other women played a very significant role in his life, and he in theirs: from the unlettered peasant girl, Marguerite Naseau, to the Queen of France, Anne of Austria.

Some have even suggested tentatively that, in his role as a leader, Saint Vincent related better to, and had a more significant influence on, women than men1. While that judgment may be difficult to sustain, given Saint Vincent’s formidable array of male friends and counselees, he surely did have an impressive list of female admirers and collaborators: Madame de Gondi, Jane Frances de Chantal, Louise de Marillac, Madame Goussault, Mademoiselle du Fay, Anne of Austria, Marie de Gonzague—just to name a few.

It would be a mistake to think that his relationship with these women was “purely business.” He related to them with warmth and affection, without, as he might put it, “the slightest suspicion of unchastity” (CR IV, 1).

His letters contain some lovely passages filled with human warmth. In October 1627 he tells Louise de Marillac: “I am writing to you at about midnight and am a little tired. Forgive my heart if it is not a little more expansive in this letter. Be faithful to your faithful lover who is our Lord. Also be very simple and humble. And I shall be in the love of our Lord and his holy mother…” (SV I, 30). On New Year’s Day 1638, he concludes his letter to her: “I wish you a young heart and a love in its first bloom for him who loves us unceasingly and as tenderly as if He were just beginning to love us. For all God’s pleasures are ever new and full of variety, although he never changes. I am in his love, with an affection such as his goodness desires and which I owe him out of love for him, Mademoiselle, your most humble servant … ” (SV 1,417-18).

To Jane Frances de Chantal, he writes: “And now, my dear Mother, permit me to ask if your incomparable kindness still allows me the happiness of enjoying the place you have given me in your dear and most amiable heart? I certainly hope so, although my miseries make me unworthy of it” (SV I, 566). In another letter to her, he describes Saint Jane Frances as someone who is “so much our honored Mother that she is mine alone, and whom I honor and cherish more tenderly than any child ever honored and loved its mother since our Lord; and it seems to me that I do so to such an extent that I have sufficient esteem and love to be able to share it with the whole world; and that, in truth, without exaggeration” (SV II, 86-87).

From his writings, it is evident that Vincent’s esteem for women was very• high. He was inclined to think, for instance, that women are apt to be better administrators than men (cf. SV IV, 71), He had no doubts that God wanted them to have an equal role in the service of the poor. In his famous conference on “The End of the Congregation of the Mission,” given on December 6, 1658, he states: “Did the Lord not agree that women should enter his company? Yes. Did he not lead them to perfection and to the assistance of the poor? Yes. If, therefore, our Lord did that, he who did everything for our instruction, should we not consider it right to do the same thing? .. . So God is served equally by both sexes” (SV XII, 86-87).

But the purpose of this brief note is to focus not so much on Saint Vincent’s way of relating to women as on one of his ways of relating to Jesus. To put it simply: While he comes among us as a man, Jesus, for Vincent, also has a maternal face.

Vincent writes to Nicolas Etienne, a cleric, on January 30, 1656: “May it please God to grant the Company to which you belong the grace .. . to have a deep love of Jesus Christ, who is our father, our mother and our all” (SV V, 534).

The following year, he writes to a priest of the Mission whose mother had died, saying that he has recommended to the prayers of the Commu­nity “not only the deceased mother, but also her living son so that the Lord himself might take the place of his father and mother and might be his consolation” (SV VI, 444).

In 1659, upon the death of the mother of Mann Baucher, a brother in the Congregation, he writes: “I ask our Lord to take the place of your father and mother” (SV VIII, 55).

The most striking passage of all appears in a letter to Mathurine Guerin, written on March 3, 1660, just after the death of Monsieur Portail and just before that of Louise de Marillac:

Certainly it is the great secret of the spiritual life to abandon to him all whom we love, while abandoning ourselves to whatever he wishes, with perfect confidence that everything will go better in that way. It is for that reason that it is said that everything works for the good of those who serve God. Let us serve him, therefore, my Sister, but let us serve him according to his pleasure, allowing him to do as he wishes. He will take the role of father and mother for us. He will be your consolation and your strength and finally the reward of your love. (SV VIII, 256)

Two ideas emerge from these texts:

I. Vincent sees the maternal face of Jesus

Saint Vincent wrote to the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity, with his characteristic simplicity, about both the father and the mother in the human personality in Jesus. In doing so, he makes it evident that he had appropriated into his own spirituality a basic scriptural truth.

The Old Testament unabashedly depicts God as a mother. “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49:15). Yahweh complains: “I have looked away, and kept silence, I have said nothing, holding myself in. But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting” (Is 42:14). The Psalmist rests in God with deep confidence: “I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me” (Ps 131:2).

In the New Testament, Luke’s gospel likewise does not hesitate to use the image of a mother in describing Jesus’ deep sorrow over the infidelity of Jerusalem. Jesus laments: “How often I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her young under her wings, but you refused” (Lk 13:34).

In reflecting on the scriptures and seeing Jesus as a mother, Vincent was surely not alone among the saints. One is reminded of the striking words of Anselm of Canterbury:

But you too, good Jesus, are you not also a mother?
Are you not a mother who like a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings? , . .
And you, my soul, dead in yourself,
run under the wings of Jesus your mother
and lament your griefs under his feathers.
Ask that your wounds may be healed
and that, comforted you may live again.
Christ, my mother, you gather your chickens under your wings;
This dead chicken of yours puts himself under those wings. . .
Warm your chicken, give life to your dead one, justify your sinner.2

In this age, when, under Jungian influence, people often speak of the animus and the anima within us3, and when there is considerable writing on a male and female spirituality4, it is interesting to note how naturally Saint Vincent wrote of both the father and the mother in Jesus.

2. Vincent’s view of providence has a maternal face

All of the letters cited above in which Vincent describes Jesus as a mother deal with tragic events. In some of them he appeals explicitly to the need to trust in providence; in others, the appeal is implicit. In each case, he is saying basically to his correspondent: God reveals, in Christ, that he loves you like a father, but also like a mother—like your own mother or like Louise de Marillac, the “mother” of the Daughters of Charity.

He is concerned to assure the readers of these letters that God accom­panies them, in Christ, as a mother accompanies her child, that he is concerned about their future, and that his love is warm and ever present.

In a conference given on June 9, 1658, he tells the Daughters: “To have confidence in providence means that we should hope that God takes care of those who serve him, as a husband takes care of his wife or a father of his child. That is how—and far more truly—God takes care of us. We have only to abandon ourselves to his guidance, as the Rule says, just as ‘a little child does to its nurse,’ If she puts it on her right arm, the child is quite content; if she moves him over to her left, he doesn’t care, he is quite satisfied provided he has her breast. We should then have the same confidence in divine providence, seeing that it takes care of all that concerns us, just as a nursing mother takes care of her baby” (SV X.503).

Reflecting on the texts cited in this brief note, one might suggest that Saint Vincent’s recognition of the father and mother in Jesus enabled him to develop both the father and the mother within himself. Like the Jesus he meditated on, he had a full share of the qualities usually associated5 with the “fatherly” side of the human personality (showing anger in the face of injustice, demonstrating formidable organizational skills in the service of the poor), but like him too, he could turn a warm, compassion­ate, provident “maternal face” toward the members of his congregations and toward the poor.

  1. Cf. Jaime Corera, “St. Vincent and Human Formation,” Vincentian Heritage 9 (#1; 1988) 79.
  2. Cf. The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, translated by S. Benedicta Ward (New York: Penguin, 1973), 153-56, as quoted in Elizabeih Johnson, She Who Is (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 150.
  3. While commonly employed, Jung’s analysis is much disputed today. Cf. Sandra Schneiders, Beyond Parching (Mahwah: Pa ul ist Press, 1991), 85.89; also, John Carmody, Toward a Male Spirituality (Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications. 1989)94-108. Carmody wisely comments that “no single formula will set the sexes into tidy traffic patterns” (p. 94). So far, it seems lo me, we have not come up with a proper analytical tool for speaking of masculine and feminine qualities, since it is not easy to discern what is in us “by nature” and what is “learned.” Nonetheless, almost everyone continues to use some conceptual framework for discussing this question. Non-scientific frameworks are usually based on our concrete experience of the persons we know. For a very interesting discussion of these issues, cf. E. Johnson, Consider Jesus 47-57.
  4. In addition to the works cited in the note above, cf. also William O’Malley, “The Grail Quest: Male Spirituality,” America, vol. 166. n. 16 (May 9, 1992), 402-06; O’Malley, “A Male’s View of Female Spirituality,” Human Development, vol. 14, n. 3 (Fall 1993), 33-3S; Sally Cunneen, “What if the Church is a Mother?” America, vol. 165, n. 17 (November 30, 1991), 407-10. Cf. also Patrick Arnold, Wildmrn, Warriors, and Kings. Masculine Spirituality and the Bible (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
  5. As stated in note 4 above, I use the terminology “qualities usually associated” with being male or female purposely, since such attribution is quite culturally conditioned.

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