Vincent de Paul, priest and philanthropist 12

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: E. K. Sanders · Year of first publication: 1915.
Estimated Reading Time:

Part II: The companions of Vincent de Paul

Chapter I: Mlle. Le Gras

THE violent outward events that make up the history of his time affected M. Vincent; his life, as a whole, cannot be understood without consideration of them; but its deepest realities were independent of recorded events, and if we desire to see him amidst them, we must leave the society of the Court, and cease to make any reference to Cardinals. To know M. Vincent we must attempt to watch him in the spiritual relationship that forced revelation, and to mark the effect of personal failure and of bereavement upon his character. We must join ourselves to the Sisters of the Poor as they drew from his fund of common sense and from his more inspiring knowledge; we must share with the Ladies of Charity as he checked their waywardness and stimulated them to new feats of generosity; and, finally, among his Mission Priests we shall find him bearing the burdens that he imposed on others, setting a standard that did not stop short of perfection, but setting it as his Master had done in Galilee, with clear understanding of all the human weak­ness that made for failure. It is, then, in his life at S. Lazare, in the daily monotonous routine which is the test of faith, that we must seek him, if his message to the world has any meaning for us.

Mademoiselle Le Gras

Mademoiselle Le Gras

He had to bear—increasingly after he settled at S. Lazare—the strain of the dependence of other souls upon himself. So close and constant did this claim become, that his capacity for response must have rested in the unsullied purity of his own character. It was the influence of his personality rather than individual direction in separate cases that worked such wonders, and any deviation from his practice of rigorous self-discipline must have been reflected in those whose advance seemed to depend upon his guidance. During the last twenty years of his life there was a very numerous company of men and women scattered at immense distances from each other who all equally gave obedience to M. Vincent, and would have regarded his decision in any matter as final. They had all made the choice which M. Vincent required of his children—they had all renounced the satisfactions that the world might offer them for a life of toil and discomfort. He set the example, and they followed. There is a curious simplicity in the picture. Neither to the Mission Priests nor to the Sisters of the Poor did he offer anything that would appeal to emotional instincts. The essence of their sacrifice was that it must be hidden; they were to have nothing that could excite envy or stir enthusiasm. And most of them lived through long years of quiet labour, and died in harness, content with the knowledge that they had been faithful servants. These were the real representatives of M. Vincent’s spirit, and it is because in the Sisters of the Poor we find this spirit in its simplest form that they are specially his representatives before the world.

The Rule he gave them seems to summarize his: theory of life, and the gradual development of their Company coincided with the development in himself of the power to mingle practical and spiritual capacity. For this reason its foundation has immense importance, and in connection with it we come upon an episode in the life of M. Vincent that is important to comprehension of him —the one instance of his friendship with a woman.

We have already referred to Mlle. Le Gras and the gathering of the first unrecognized Sisters of Charity beneath her roof. She was the ideal Superior for a Company that was not only new, but was an innovation on all established ideas for Communities of women. M. Vincent was nearly fifty years old when he and she first came in contact, and he possessed deep experience of that form of service which she desired to make the object of her life. For a long period they had no relation to each other except as priest and penitent; but in fact the work of each would have been incomplete without the other, and both seem to have been guided into that sane uniting of their forces which established the Sisters of Charity for the service of the poor.

Louise de Marillac, known to her contemporaries as Mlle. Le Gras, was a woman of deeply religious mind. In her youth she desired to enter the cloister, but she had not the contemplative vocation, and so many of the established orders had grown lax in discipline, that her guardians were energetic in dissuading her from this form of self-surrender. When she was twenty-two she accepted the alternative they desired, and married M. Le Gras, a man considerably older than herself, who was Secretary to Marie de Medici. There was no place for her in the society of the day. Eighty years later she might have been one of the intimate circle round Mme. de Maintenon, but a sincere dévote was at variance with the spirit of the Court where Concini held first place, and if Louise Le Gras had desired to shine in the eyes of others, it would have been necessary for her to alter her whole system of life. The possibility of such a choice does not seem to have occurred to her. As a married woman she held herself as still dedicated to the service of God, and her husband did not oppose her devotion to works of charity. Possibly, at a time when Court life was complicated by perpetual intrigues, his mind was so fully occupied with his official duties that he had no knowledge of the spiritual experiences which were so engrossing to her; but he was indulgent to her proclivities for visiting the homes of the poor as he might have been to a craze for any special form of amusement. Outwardly, therefore, her years of married life were peace­ful. A son was born to her, and she fulfilled her duty towards him and towards her household assiduously ; there was no indication in the well-ordered routine of her daily life of the inward storms through which she passed.

For Louise Le Gras, reality, the possibilities of joy, of suffering and of defeat, lay outside her experiences as wife and mother and mistress of a household. She neglected none of her responsibilities, but her being centred on a secret combat in which she was assailed by the insidious temptations to exaggeration, to scruples, to spiritual insincerity, that can work such havoc among aspirants towards the life of prayer.

” Do not be so disturbed over things that do not matter,” says a letter from her director, which has its own significance. ” Withdraw your eyes a little from yourself, and fix them upon Jesus Christ.”1

The writer was Le Camus, Bishop of Bellay, a man whose wisdom and tolerance fitted him for the difficult charge that had fallen into his hands. Circumstances arose, however, which prevented his return to Paris. He was aware of the dangers to which the fervour of his penitent exposed her, and he appealed to Vincent de Paul to undertake the office he was relinquishing. M. Vin­cent’s consent was not given readily. He was then at that difficult transition period of his own life when he was still bound to the household of the de Gondi, and was also responsible for the first foundation of the Congregation of Mission Priests; and it is clear that he acceded to the desire of Le Camus with the utmost reluctance. He did not regard a task of individual direction as part of the service to which God summoned him, it presented itself as a hindrance to the great labours developing before him, and he had no prescience of the importance of this un­welcome charge to the very work it seemed to interrupt.

To Louise Le Gras, also, the time of her first link with M. Vincent was a time of crisis. Her husband lingered through years of painful illness, during which his claim on her taxed her fortitude and bodily health, and then died. During her married life her mind had been full of aspirations after more complete self-dedication than was then possible. At his death she reached one of those difficult moments when vague aspirations must be moulded into definite intentions, or be recognized as dreams. She was overstrained, and had a tendency to religious exaltation. It would have been easy for her to lose balance and imperil her spiritual and mental powers in those exaggerated outward practices of piety of which (in that period of extremes) there are many instances. But M. Vincent was a good guide for one who might be tempted to overstep the boundaries of common sense. He noted the design of the new life that was to be consecrated to the service of the poor, and required that the spiritual preparation for it should be of the simplest.

“Don’t overdo yourself with rules and practices,” he wrote to her, ” but rather be very sure that those you have already are well observed, that the actions and duties of every day are well done. And beware of those eccentricities of thought that have tormented you before; they are the trick of the Evil One to set you off on a false line.” She agreed with herself to make in the day thirty-three acts of adoration in honour of the thirty-three years of Our Lord’s life, but M. Vincent could not take this sort of pledge very seriously. ” As to these thirty-three acts and other things of the same kind, don’t be distressed when you have missed them. God is Love, and desires that we should go to Him in love. Do not feel yourself bound by any of these good inten­tions.” Excessive fasting he forbade also. The form of self-immolation which he required was more searching than any self-inflicted bodily suffering; and he began his test of her as soon as she was established in the home she had chosen in the midst of the dwellings of the poor. Mlle. Le Gras desired to give her labour to aid the Priests of the Mission; this was her ideal of service. Every attempt to organize the Confraternities emphasized the need of women’s work, and she offered hers in the spirit of sacrifice, without taint of excitement or emulation. Nevertheless, M. Vincent was not prompt in acceptance. The work these two were to do together was of Divine appointment, and it was required that it should be solemnly approached. This, probably, is the true ex­planation of the long delay between her secret self-dedication and her actual employment in the work of the Missions. Before Louise Le Gras, in the first years of her widowhood, there lay a great vocation, unrevealed as yet, but there was never to be for her a moment of decisive and sensational choice. She yielded gradually and consistently to each demand that God might make; she learnt to wait and to bear suspense, as well as to spend herself in the service of others; and so, by steps that were hardly noted as she took them, she mounted to the place that God intended for her.

Perhaps the hardest test was the period of waiting. M. Le Gras died in 1626, and she removed to the small house in the Rue S. Victor, which was to be the birthplace of the Sisters of Charity. For three years she lived alone, and did humble service to the poor in the miserable houses of that quarter. The objects of the Mission Priests possessed her imagination; she desired to be employed in their interests, and the need for work such as she could give was self-evident; but M. Vincent withheld the boon he might have given. There were not in those days any great organizations to which she could unite herself; she was obliged to work alone, and to bear the innumerable discouragements that are the lot of the solitary worker. And as she had not the protection of high rank or wealth, malignant gossip busied itself with her. In spite of her seclusion, it was rumoured that she had accepted an offer of marriage. To her sense of secret dedication this was an outrage, and her resentment was boundless. M. Vincent’s expression of sympathy is worth recording : ” How deeply am I grieved at your distress ! But in fact what does it all amount to ? Here is a man who says you have promised to marry him, and it is false, and people are making untrue reflections on you, and you fear you are continually talked about ! That may be; but understand that on this earth you could not have a better means of being united to the Son of God, that by this you may touch self-conquest such as you have never before imagined. What a blow it will strike at self-complacency ! What opportunity for self-abasement it offers ! Be assured that it is altogether for your good—in this world and the next. Let that assurance be your weapon against your natural impulses, and the day will come when you will thank Our Lord for testing you just in this way.”

The immediate result of this trial was increased eager­ness to be recognized as set apart for the service of God. Delay and discouragement only intensified the sense of vocation in Mlle. Le Gras; and if M. Vincent had not been within reach, she must certainly have taken the obvious step for one in her spiritual condition and entered one of the religious orders already in existence. But he waited for Divine guidance concerning her, and she trusted him completely. The simplicity of their attitude towards life and towards each other is very remarkable. M. Vincent would not permit any indulgence of the imagination, any of that secret bargaining that claims the joy of self-contentment in exchange for self-oblation. We shall find him exacting the most rigid spiritual aus­terity from the Sisters of the Poor, but assuredly the discipline imposed on them was never more severe than that endured by their leader and first Superior.

For three years Mlle. Le Gras divided her days between self-imposed labours for the benefit of the poor and her hours of prayer and worship, and then, in 1629, she received her first commission, and went to visit Mont­mirail, in the diocese of Soissons, to investigate the pro­gress of the Confraternity established there by the Priests of the Mission. The Company of Sisters of the Poor was the high development of the schemes of the Con­fraternities. The idea of social service, inseparable from the teaching of the Mission Priests, was ineffective with­out sustained and careful organization, and the idea was so new that to maintain an immense number of isolated organizations on a good footing was a task beyond human capacity. M. Vincent was making this discovery when he sent Mlle. Le Gras to report on the state of things at Montmirail, and he knew that she would require tact and prudence. He gave her careful direc­tions in writing that sbe might have the full benefit of his experience for her actual conduct, and, in addition, he sent her the following brief suggestion on the eve of her departure:

” Go, Mademoiselle, go in the name of Our Lord. Beseech Him that His blessing may go with you, that it may be your comfort on your way, your strength in your labour, and finally may bring you back in good health. You will make your Communion the day you start to do honour to the Charity of Our Lord, in memory of the journeys He took for the sake of charity, and the suffering, the rebuffs, the weariness, and the labours, which He endured; with the intention that He may give you this same spirit and help you to bear your suffering in the same manner as He bore His own.”

This was the perfect encouragement of her great venture. The dangers might be great, and were certainly unknown, and this first embassy was the preliminary of others more difficult. To look upwards with complete simplicity was the one safeguard against the tremors and misgivings that might assail her.

No detailed record was kept of her sojourn at Mont­mirail, but its success is attested by her employment in a succession of similar visits of inspection. Travelling at its best involved hardship, and Mlle. Le Gras permitted herself no unnecessary luxury. She used any vehicle that could survive the jolting of the roads, and accepted the roughest entertainment on the way. She took with her one or two companions, who were ready to share her discomforts and help her in her labours, and she bore the heavy expense of the journey herself. When she reached her destination, it was her custom to summon together all those who had enrolled themselves in the Confraternity of Charity, and rouse them to a sense of the obligations they had taken upon themselves. Pos­sibly a public display of eloquence from a woman was in those days so unusual that it failed to rouse admira­tion, but it is clear that the extraordinary effectiveness of her visits to the scenes of former Missions was due in large measure to her power of speaking; and M. Vincent, writing to her when she was at the height of her energies, expresses a hope that she will not strain her lungs. She was not content with exhortation, however. One of her first cares was to fulfil those labours which were the charge of members of the Confraternity, and visit and tend the sick in their own homes. By this practice she not only set an example, but—which was equally important—she was able to discover the degree of previous neglect, and the extent of the distress in each individual case. It is easy to imagine the opportunities for discord which such an enterprise afforded; but if Mlle. Le Gras had in her progress left a trail of grievances and indignation, M. Vincent would not have continued his commission to her. It seems certain that she had the secret of that correc­tion which is without offence, and was made welcome by the very persons whom she came to condemn by precept and example.

It should be remembered that the Missions and their after-fruit had no official support from Church or State. Vincent de Paul was recognized as a power for good, but his earlier efforts were not backed by any of the im­pressive paraphernalia of established authority. There­fore Mlle. Le Gras depended on good-will for her reception and for her opportunity of usefulness, and therefore there was added to her labours—in themselves sufficiently arduous—the strain of cultivating the good opinion of those who were to aid her in her efforts. The tasks en­trusted to her, which she seems to have grasped in all their many aspects, absorbed all her energies, and she overworked until her health broke down. She had undermined her strength when she was young, and had no reserve to meet an excessive claim. M. Vincent awoke to the risk that her zeal might defeat its object, and wrote her a charge that has in it a touch of the tender wisdom of François de Sales. It occurs in a letter of congratulation on her safe return from a visit of super­vision to Beauvais in the depths of winter.

” Thanks be to God that you have arrived in good health,” he says. ” Now, for the love of God and of His poor, do your best to take care of it. The Devil has a trick of urging good servants to do more than they can that they may be unfitted to do anything. The Spirit of God leads us to do as much as we can do reasonably, that we may continue and persevere in it. When this is your method of working, mademoiselle, you will be work­ing according to the Spirit of God.”

Immense interests seem at that moment to have de­pended on her health. Her efforts to reanimate the spirit of charity that had been inspired by the Mission Priests serve to reveal the failure of the Confraternities as they originally stood. The bond of mutual service—the brotherhood recognized by the first Christians, which taught them to hold all things in common—was to have been their abiding inspiration. The idea of them was received with enthusiasm at the moment of a Mission, but, as a rule, before many months had passed, all tasks of neighbourly service slipped into the hands of the very few whose fervour survived the test of monotonous demand. Of these few each one was, in fact, a free­lance. The elected officers found it hard to enforce authority over voluntary workers when the faithlessness of the majority gave exaggerated value to any service. The chaotic result discovered in many districts may easily be imagined, and the reports brought to him must sometimes have taxed even the strong hopefulness of M. Vincent.

Mlle. Le Gras is responsible for the first practical sug­gestion of a remedy. In the Missions which M. Vincent’s Company were preaching constantly it was not an un­usual thing for a woman, who had been till then content to take life as it came and do her duty, to wake up to higher aspirations that were hard to translate into prac­tice. The Missions were not intended for the rich, and this sort of response came from women who had been brought up to work for their living. Their response was not to a call to the religious life in the common acceptance of the term, but the Mission Priests recognized the call as that of a special vocation. And women such as these were welcomed by Mlle. Le Gras at her house in Paris, and employed among the poor whose daily needs had engrossed her own energies until M. Vincent summoned her elsewhere. It is not possible to discover at what point her mind began to foreshadow the future impor­tance of that curious household she had gathered round her. Some of those who came were sent for their own sakes rather than for hers. Dawning capacities in them might depend on the encouragement and guidance they received at the outset, and to the true Mission Priest the development of the rough-mannered peasant-maid had the same importance as that of the keen-witted demoiselle of the Marais. At first the rule of daily life was that of a well-ordered and pious household, and those who came to Mlle. Le Gras came without any vast resolve of self-abnegation. It was a simple matter—the gathering of a few young women from different parts of the country who had in common that awakening to possibilities of service which the Mission Priests had inspired. Belonging to the working class, a life of labour came to them by nature; it was the special dedication of the labour that was to be the work of grace.

Some of the Confraternities had been in existence for a long time when Mlle. Le Gras first opened her doors to the future Servants of the Poor, and their organization and discipline in ideal was known. The employment of these humble colleagues of hers was therefore a matter of simple transition from an undefined position to a recognized one. The urgent need of the Hôtel-Dieu and the partial failure of the Ladies of Charity made just the claim on them for which they were prepared. Their aim was identical with that which had drawn the Ladies of Charity to their first endeavour; theirs was not the grudging service that is done for payment, but they were better equipped for attendance on the sick than their magnificent predecessors. Thus the Company of Servants of the Poor found their place as the natural agents of the Ladies of Charity in accordance with M. Vincent’s theory that their existence and development was wrought directly by the Hand of God. In their joy at the greatness of their task, it was natural that the Sisters should aspire to an outward token of their voca­tion. They wished—and Mlle. Le Gras led them in the expression of the wish—to have the bond of a common vow, to be recognized as dedicated to God’s service. Such a step as this was not to be taken hurriedly under M. Vincent’s guidance. Never has there been a more consistent advocate of delay than he, and the foundation of the new Order was a fixed object of desire to Mlle. Le Gras before he would admit that it was a reasonable possibility. Her plan was to bind herself to the service of the Sisters, and then to let some time elapse before any of them were permitted to enter on any engagement of the nature of a vow. She was to be the pioneer and to bear the brunt of failure, should failure be ordained. She had a real wish to pledge herself, believing, one may conjecture, that a venture of faith was needed to give vitality to her scheme. The Servants of the Poor were already depending on her capacity to train and to direct them, and she believed that that capacity would be deepened if she herself was dedicated irrevocably to this form of service. M. Vincent, however, was not clear that her idea was of Divine prompting, and was unmoved by her insistence.

” As to this undertaking,” he wrote to her, ” once and for all I bid you not to think of it until Our Lord has made it very clear that He wishes it; for the present my leading is all against it. One may desire many things, good in themselves, they may seem desires that are accord­ing to the Will of God; nevertheless, they are not so always. God permits that this should be, that our spirit may be trained to accord with His desire. Saul sought a she-ass, he found a kingdom; S. Louis sought to conquer the Holy Land, he found how to conquer himself and to win the Crown of Heaven. You wish to be the servant of these poor maidens, and God would have you be His servant, and the servant, perhaps, of many more persons than you could be in this particular way. And when you are His only, is it not enough that your heart should be conformed to the peace of Our Saviour’s Heart and wait in readiness to serve Him ? The Kingdom of God is the peace of the Holy Spirit; it will abide in you if your heart is at peace.”

We shall find that Mlle. Le Gras had been inspired by M. Vincent to the mystic’s aspiration after the constant sense of the Presence of God. But once more he put her to a severe test when he checked her wishes in this matter. She believed that her zeal was of God’s prompting, that He showed her what He required of her; it must have been extremely difficult to let the precious months go by while she awaited a summons more definite than that which she felt she had already. It was the second time that she had been required to submit to the extremities of M. Vincent’s prudence. Possibly, by the discipline involved, she was fitted to be herself the director of others, and her scheme was ripened by just those denials that seemed to hinder it. His dealings with her are a striking instance of M. Vincent’s detach­ment in direction. He had great respect for her judgment and reverence for her character. Eventually he came to agreement with her original opinion, yet he had no misgivings in ignoring it until he was convinced of God’s guidance of himself. The demand he made on others was at all times and quite clearly made as God’s agent. No personal knowledge of those with whom he was in contact made any difference to his message, and the confidence with which he delivered it was therefore not self-confidence. It is noticeable that he never expresses any regret for delaying the undertakings which eventually he approved. In 1634, on Lady Day, Mile. Le Gras was permitted to take a vow, and was thenceforward dedicated to the Company of the Servants of the Poor; but the individual members were not allowed the same privilege till eight years later, and then it was extended only to a few. The contrast to the precipitate spirit of modern times is very remarkable. In the twentieth century many leagues and societies for differing forms of service come into being, shoot into celebrity, and are completely forgotten in the period required by M. Vincent to assure himself that a new idea was approved by God.

The solid foundation of the Company owes as much, however, to the faith and determination of Mlle. Le Gras as to the prudence of M. Vincent. She realized the need for the Sisters, and she would not be discouraged in her scheme. They were very rough, some of them of the most rugged peasant type. In early days one had to be sent away for beating another, and almost all of them required rigorous training in self-control; but difficulty spurred the zeal of their Superior, and if she could not get all that she desired of encouragement regarding the future from M. Vincent, she was secure of his practical help in the present. The first of the Servants of the Poor were very ignorant, and if they were to use their oppor­tunities for instilling spiritual knowledge, it was neces­sary that they should possess the faith in so pure and simple a form that they could find words for it. His training of them took the form of ” Conferences.” He questioned them to begin with, and afterwards addressed them. This system, begun in early times, was continued during their experimental establishment at La Chapelle, and became a great feature of the life at the mother-house when the new Company fixed itself in the Faubourg S. Lazare2. In the records of these ” Conferences ” we get some of the most intimate details of the relations of M. Vincent with the Sisters, and of his point of view towards many a difficult question of the spiritual life.

It will be easily understood that the Sisters needed all the help that could, be given them. Their very existence was an innovation of a startling kind. To their genera­tion devotion to God’s service implied retirement behind high walls, and the attempt to give it a more practical form laid them open to misinterpretation. At the beginning Mlle. Le Gras records that they could not appear in the streets without risk of insult, and the tone of society generally gave support to those who held that women should be shielded from contact with life as it was.

For the Servants of the Poor there was no shelter from the contagion of sin save that which they erected and maintained for themselves. They were—according to M. Vincent’s well-known definition—” a Community who have no monastery but the houses of the sick, who have for cells only a lodging or the poorest room, whose chapel is the Parish Church, who have the streets for cloisters. They are enclosed only by obedience, they make the fear of God their grille, and they have no veil but their own modesty.” He had very clear and practical knowledge of life in those streets which were to be their cloister, and experience in the guidance of others helped him to form a true conception of the difficulties a Sister of Charity would find in her vocation. From the earliest days of the Company, the life its members adopted was a very hard one. A Sister must rise at four in summer and winter alike, she must eat only sparingly, and of the plainest food, and was to drink no wine. Her duties as a sick nurse were of the most arduous and trying description. At a period when medical science had not yet adopted the methods of alleviating pain that are now ordinary, she was forced to witness every horror of suffering. Moreover, she breathed an infected atmosphere continually, and was exposed to constant danger of contagion. And as time went on the demands for the service of the Sisters became more and more insistent, and they seem constantly to have been overworked. In that last detail lies a part of their claim to be regarded as pilgrims on the Way of the Cross, and the physical weariness induced by long hours of labour dimmed to themselves the delight of their vocation. The Religious who mortified herself in the still seclusion of a cloister had her reward in a certain spiritual joy, but the Sister of Charity who combated the griefs of the outside world risked the dread experience of spiritual inertia, and therewith that reaction from self-suppression to intense desire which may make contact with the world so perilous.

” There is this difference between the Sister of Charity and a Religious,” wrote M. Vincent after thirty years, knowledge of them, ” that while for the Religious the one aim is the attainment of perfection for herself, the object of the Sister of Charity is the comfort and salva­tion of her neighbour.”3

It is generally accepted that the life of the cloister has its own dangers known only to those who have adopted it. Not less is this the case with the woman dedicated to a life of service. The Rule as it was finally given to the Sisters of Charity demanded all the more—as M. Vincent himself attested—because it seemed to demand so little. It leaves no scope for any of the self-indulgences of piety, it requires that the little duties of a servant should be fulfilled day by day, and those obedient to it must recognize that they are set apart for rebuff rather than applause. The true Servant of the Poor must fix her gaze on a Light very far off ; the joys of those to whom the contemplative vocation is accorded are not for her—indeed, her strenuous days need the inspiration of a faith too deeply rooted to be starved for lack of spiritual encouragement. Even the distinction of the dedicated life is not accorded to her. Her vow must be renewed every year; she may not rest in it with the security of consecration permitted to every Religious. Nothing, in fact, is left her for the fostering of self-esteem, and without real humility it is not possible that she should persevere.

The individual members of that first group had no high ideals for the future. They were simple people ready to do menial and arduous work without payment. Probably there were many in the earlier days who came and went away again, finding the test too hard. It was in July, 1634, that M. Vincent accorded to them the definite recognition of their life as a Community by recommending a preliminary Rule. Its chief provision is for the discipline of obedience. Wherever they worked in common, one must have authority, but the office of Superior was to be held by each in turn. In the early days the severity of the Rule depended on the amount of work to be accomplished; their work for others was the object of their lives, and hours of prayer and study were appointed with relation to its demands. At the beginning the figure of Marguerite Naseau stands out among these companions in labour as possessing in its purest form the spirit of devotion. In her girlhood she was seized with a desire to read herself and to instruct others. She seems to have taught herself by a method of patient questioning of all with whom she came in contact, and then to have journeyed from village to village trying to stir others to a desire for learning. She was heedless of physical hardship, and lived in constant fidelity to the service of her neighbour. M. Vincent found in her a finished model of the future Servants of the Poor, and she became—for the short time that her life lasted—the mainstay of her companions in service. She died, however, of the plague, caught from a patient she was nursing, before the new Community was recognized as having being.

But Marguerite Naseau was not a type. The task of Louise Le Gras would have presented little difficulty had there been many like her. The other recruits needed patient and continuous drilling, and their leader realized that all her hopes depended upon their response to training. M. Vincent realized it also. In his first “Conference”4 he told them that they were bound, because they were the first chosen members of their Company, ” to be irreproachable in conduct, and so set the example to all who might come after. When Solomon built the Temple of the Lord, did he not put precious stones into the foundation ? Sanctify your­selves, my daughters, that through you God may bless these beginnings.”

The high ideal he set before them was inspiring, and while they listened to him their spirits soared in sympathy with his; but in the year and tear of daily life they sank to earth again, and Mlle. Le Gras was never free from the pressure of anxiety after she had once accepted the rôle of guide and teacher. The deep humility which was essential to the true Servant of the Poor has made the person of Louise Le Gras somewhat mysterious. As the Confraternities and her work in connection with them became more important, her advice was sought for so eagerly by those whose social position called them to hold authority, that it became necessary that she should hold in Paris meetings of ladies to whom she could give instruction, spiritual and practical. Her supervision in the provinces had, as we have noticed, tested and practised her in public speaking ; but the woman-speaker—in days when her gift was not recognized as the common posses­sion of both sexes—risked the development of a self-sufficiency inimical to the mental attitude required of a Sister of Vincent de Paul. Louise Le Gras could hold the minds of her listeners, and she must have reached a high spiritual level before she made her first essay in oratory if she escaped excitement as her power declared itself. There is no record of misgiving on her part, or caution on that of M. Vincent, and her immunity in this is doubtless due to the qualities that made her the ideal Superior for the Working Sisters. She had a capacity f or prayer that brought her to the borderland of the true mysticism, and her passionate love of Christ made her snatch every moment that could be spared from duty, that in contemplation she might grow to nearer knowledge of Him. By her own experience she learnt that more was needed than the fervour of philanthropy to give the Sisters courage for their tasks.

In certain reflections that she wrote for them she may seem merely to be expressing the aphorisms of the devout life in simple language, yet to have read and accepted all that her words imply would equip the most faltering against the buffets of their difficult experience. ” If you aspire to perfection,you must learn to die to self. Those words, my Sisters, contain tremendous meaning. Why may I not write them with my blood, or leave them to you in letters of gold ? You must die to self, which means that you must destroy those im­pulses that come from your own capacities of soul or body, for they may conflict with the design of the Holy Spirit upon you.

” Try to preserve a quiet mind and a heart at peace amid all the painful chances that may occur. Make it your custom to accept all your little discomforts as from the Hand of God. He is your Father, and knows so well what is best for you. Sometimes you feel His Touch—to check or punish you; and sometimes to show you His great love by permitting your sufferings to give you a share in the merit of His Son.

” The lack of outward human help will serve to bring you nearer to the perfection of Divine Love, and will gain for you the special guidance of God. Do you know what He does to a soul that is deprived of all human comfort and support, if she has courage to profit by it ? It is His pleasure to lead such a soul, and, though she may not be conscious of it, she may none the less be sure that, if she clings to Him with entire confidence, He will support her with His own Hand, and will never let her sink beneath the burden of her misery.”5

These are not vague spiritual rhapsodies, they are definite instructions believed by their writer to be neces­sary for the training of the Sisters. There was to be no reserve. M. Vincent in one of his earlier ” Confer­ences ” asked them if they were ready ” to go wherever obedience required them to go, without regard to their country or their friends, or to any thought of distance,”6 and they had replied with one accord that they were ready for any order whatever it might be. Indifference as to the scene of their labour was symbolic of the deeper indifference Louise Le Gras required of herself and them. The immolation of self was to be real ; the Sister of Charity might find herself in spiritual as well as actual loneliness, and she must not repine because she seemed to be exiled from all that fed or encouraged the growth of her inward life. When we reflect that the original inspiration of her self-sacrifice came from devotion to the Church, and that her perseverance was ordinarily due to suggestion and example, we can measure the severity of the dis­cipline that left her in an unknown country town with perhaps one uncongenial companion, and no adequate spiritual guidance within reach. But a trial of this sort (part of the ordinary lot of a Sister of Charity) must be accepted as bestowed by the Hand of God. ” He is your Father, and knows so well what is best for you,” and she who has died to self must be able to resign herself completely to His Will.

The demands made on the Sisters by their Superior and by M. Vincent are always logical; but, if they seem sometimes a little inhuman, it is well to remember the knowledge and the tolerance that lay behind these counsels of perfection. The Sister of Charity might be denied all fulfilment of desire, but she was first trained to accept denial ; and however great the space of time and distance that divided her from the Mother-House she knew that, so long as she remained faithful, she had the prayers and the silent sympathy of her Sisters there, and was doing her part in the service they had all accepted. It was this sense of corporate life that was the great support of the isolated unit, and, as the Com­pany increased, their need of a bond stronger than that of a common aspiration became apparent. Louise Le Gras was pledged by a solemn vow to dedicate herself to the Company (every month she set apart a time of thanksgiving to God for this special privilege), and it was inevitable that the Sisters who aspired to a reflection of her spirit should be insistent in their demand to share it with her. The time came at length when M. Vincent encouraged a chosen few to give this outward proof of self-surrender. He was apprehensive of an attempt to make the Company into a new Religious Order, and never wearied of reminding them that they were not Religious ; nevertheless, their need for the support of the threefold vow could not be denied, and on March 25, 1642, they were allowed to take it, on the understanding that they were bound by it for one year only.

” I, the undersigned, in the Presence of God, renew the promises of my baptism, and make the vow of poverty, of chastity, and of obedience to the Venerable Superior-General of the Priests of the Mission in the Company of the Sisters of Charity, that I may bind myself all this year to the service, bodily and spiritual, of the poor and sick—our masters. And this by the aid of God, which I ask through His Son Jesus Crucified, and through the prayers of the Holy Virgin.”

Such was the purport of the bond accepted by the first four members of the Company, and before many years had passed it was the rule that every Daughter of M. Vincent must subscribe to it, for equality was as the alphabet of their education. Their real establishment dates. therefore, from Lady Day, 1642 ; their progress-after­wards was the natural growth and development of the root that had been planted, and M. Vincent no longer felt himself bound to check it, for he saw that the need for them and their capacity to fulfil the need had been proved beyond dispute. In 1645, at the earnest wish of Mlle. Le Gras, he drew up a letter to the Archbishop of Paris asking that the Company might be formally recog­nized as an Order, ” because labour in God’s service ends with those who give it, unless there is some spiritual bond between all those who are thus engaged.” And with their recognition he asked for sanction of the Rule that they were keeping and of their annual vow.

There was no opposition to the establishment of the Company with the full Archiepiscopal approval; they had no rivals and no enemies. Nevertheless, affairs moved slowly, and ten years passed before the Royal Letters Patent was accorded. During that ten years M. Vincent altered his mind regarding a very important point on which he and Mlle. Le Gras were not agreed. He had asked that the Sisters should be under episcopal authority; to her view their hope of stability depended on their direction by the Mission Priests. M. Vincent’s humility was in all likelihood responsible for his original decision, but the fear that it would take effect was a continual tax on the faith of Mlle. Le Gras. In the ten years of suspense she did all that lay in her power to show the unity that existed between the two Companies, and the loss to the Sisters if they were formally divided. The wars of the Fronde raged over their heads, the Church in Paris was distracted by the disputes over the episcopal authority, Princes and Princesses were driven into exile, and the Italian Cardinal lost and resumed his dominion over France; but the Sisters worked on steadily, and their Superior, though she was torn with misgivings and anxieties as to her own fitness for her task, never slackened her prayers that the disaster with which their Founder seemed to threaten the Company—a disaster more terrible to her than any national calamity—might be averted.

At the eleventh hour M. Vincent yielded. Jean François de Gondi was in exile at Rome, but he was Arch­bishop of Paris, and he was ready to accord any boon to Vincent de Paul. In 1654 a new application was made, and in January, 1655, Letters Patent were issued to the Sisters of the Poor, sanctioned by Church and Crown, and placing them in perpetuity under the authority of the Mission Priests. The petitions of Mlle. Le Gras were changed into thanksgivings.

  1. Gobillon, “Vie de Mlle. Le Gras,” edition 1676, containing Cor­respondence with M. Vincent and “Les Pensées de Mademoiselle.”
  2. In 1641. The mother-house was swept away in 1793. The Boulevard Magenta covers its site.
  3. “Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 55o.
  4. July 31, 1634.
  5. “Pensées,” chap. vi., liv. v. See Gobillon, ” Vie de Mlle. Le Gras.”
  6. “Conferences,” No. 10, January, 1643.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.