Chapter II: The rule of the Sisters of Charity
WE have seen the gradual degrees by which the Company of Sisters of Charity advanced to their position as a great institution. Collectively and individually they were to live in the spirit of humility and of obedience. M. Vincent himself is the best exponent of such a vocation; he knew its privilege and its difficulty, and when—in simple language—he summed it up for the benefit of one novice whose heart was failing her, he was expressing the lesson needed by all alike.
” I beseech you, Mademoiselle,” he wrote, ” reflect for a little on the Son of God, Who came down to earth not only to save us by His death, but that He might submit Himself to the Will of His Father, and draw us to Him by His example. If you will consider Our Blessed Saviour, Mademoiselle, you will see how ceaselessly He suffered, how He prayed, how He laboured, and how He obeyed. If you live after the flesh—S. Paul tells us—you die; and if you would live after the Spirit that gives life, you must live as Our Lord lived, and that is to say, deny yourself, do the will of another rather than your own, make good use of every difficulty, and prefer suffering to satisfaction. ` Is it not needful that the Christ should suffer these things ?’ He said to His disciples when they spoke of His Passion, and by that He shows us that as He came to His glory only by the way of affliction we may not hope to ascend without suffering.”1
To pray, to labour, and to obey, was the whole duty of a Sister of Charity ; and M. Vincent, while exhorting them never to aspire to equality with a Religious, reminded them constantly that their life was the closest imitation to that of Chri `t which was possible to a woman, for it was spent in travelling from place to place that they might heal the sick and comfort the despairing. Mlle. Le Gras, from her standpoint of close personal association, urged on them chiefly the necessity of charity among themselves. ” You must love each other,” she told them, ” as Sisters whom Jesus Christ has united by His love, and you should try to understand that because God has chosen you and placed you together to do Him one special service, you must be as one body governed by a single will, and must regard each other only as different members of the same body.”
The impression of the Company of Sisters of Charity left on us after study of the ” Conferences ” of the Founders is an inspiring one; we seem to be in sight of the fulfilment of a magnificent hope, but the reality was not as fine as the ideal. Great courage, sustained self-denial, pure and unquestioning faith—these qualities were to be found among the first Sisters of Charity, and not a few laid down their lives in the service of others. It would be easy, without departing from the truth, to draw a picture of them that would glitter with the glory of good works, and be free from any blots or shadows; but it would not be possible to see them in relation to M. Vincent and Louise Le Gras, and omit the deformities of their common life. For, indeed, M. Vincent never gives deeper proof of his knowledge of human nature than in his dealings with the Sisters of Charity. He might exhort them to the highest flights of aspiration, but he did not expect them to be perfect, and he was less disappointed than was Mlle. Le Gras when they gave proof of the weakness of human nature. There were so many possibilities of failure inseparable from their condition in that period of experiment. Organization and Rule were not adjusted, and causes of disagreement might very easily arise; two or three women, drawn from different provinces and often from differing grades of society, and placed in close association in a country town to which all were strangers, were not likely to uphold the principle of brotherly love without a struggle. It is clear that frequently there were lamentable outbreaks of ill-temper; we find the proofs of it among M. Vincent’s letters, for when a crisis was approaching appeal was always made to him. No instance of his intervention is more characteristic than a letter addressed to the Sisters at Nantes, a settlement where difficulties of many kinds were always present. Rumour, or perhaps clear testimony, seems to have accused the Sisters of conduct notably unworthy of their vocation, but the Superior-General does not approach them with any violence of reprimand.
” Continue to grow nearer to perfection, my dear Sisters,” it is thus that he addresses them. ” Consider the sanctity of your condition as truly the Daughters of God. It is so wonderful that human understanding can conceive nothing greater for a poor earthly creature.
” It seems to me, my dear Sisters, that here you reply that this is what you desire to do, but that you are disturbed by an infinity of temptations which overwhelm you. To which I answer that all these temptations are sent to you, or are permitted for you by God, for the same reason that they were sent or permitted to His Son —that He might have opportunity to give proof of His infinite love of His Father.
Yes,’ you say, ‘ but it does not seem to me that all the other righteous souls in the world or in religion have the inward suffering that I have.” Thereon I answer that there are no souls on earth who profess to have given themselves to God and to His creatures who do not bear trials outward and inward equal to yours, for it is God’s Will—not against, but in favour of righteous souls—that all whoever they be shall suffer temptations.
” And you answer, my dear Sisters: ` Bah ! they may be tempted sometimes, but to be tempted always and everywhere, and by everyone with whom I am forced to live, this it is which is unbearable!’ It is the good pleasure of God that the chosen souls who are so dear to Him should be tempted and afflicted daily. This is what He shows us when He says in the Gospel that those who would come after Him must deny themselves, and take up their cross —that is to say, must suffer—daily. Weigh that word daily, my dear Sisters.
” ` I will’bear anything from outside persons willingly, Monsieur,’ you say, ` but that it should be from my own Sisters, from those who should help me, but who are nothing but a care and a cross and a distress in all they do, and all they leave undone.’ Alas ! from whom should we suffer if not from those amongst whom we live ? Did not Our Lord suffer from His Apostles, His disciples, and the people among whom He lived who were God’s people ?
” ` As to that,’ you answer, ‘ I am better able to put up with the distress that is due to my Sisters than when it comes from the Sister in Charge. Her coldness, her harshness, her silence, the fact that she never says a gentle word to me, and if she does say anything it is only something severe or irritating—it is this which I find I cannot bear, and which drives me to seek consolation from those of my Sisters who suffer the same distress; it is this which causes me to talk as much as I can to my Confessor, and to tell my troubles to people outside.’ To which I can only say, my dear Sisters, that we are poor weaklings if we must needs be flattered by our Superiors in all they say or order, and that instead of a Daughter of Charity seeking softness, she should feel that if the Sister in Charge humours her she is being treated as a child or an invalid. Our Lord led His own with severity, and sometimes even with hard words … and He foretold for them nothing but the evils and trials that were to come. And yet—though that was so—we desire to be flattered by our Superiors, and we withdraw from them (as did the wretch who betrayed Our Lord) to make a party with other malcontents and with our Confessors ! Oh, my very dear Sisters, may God preserve us from this !
” If you have not fallen into this miserable condition, I give thanks to God ; but if you have so fallen, here are the means to rise out of it by the help of God:
” 1. To devote your prayer three or four times to what I have said.
” 2 Each of you shall confess to M. N. every fault in this connection of which you have been guilty, not only since your Iast confession, but also since your coming to Nantes, and shall resolve to accept the counsel he gives you and to follow it.
” 3 After the Holy Communion you shall all kiss and ask pardon of each other.
” 4 For a year your prayer shall once a month be devoted to this subject.
” 5 You shall not follow inclination in choosing the Sisters with whom to hold intercourse, but those who attract you shall be avoided in favour of others.
” 6 You shall not speak to your Confessor outside the Confessional unless it be one or two words for absolute necessity, following in this the rule of the other Sisters of our house in Paris with their Confessors at S. Lazare.
” 7 You shall—each separately—write to me the thoughts Our Lord has given you.
” 8 The Superior shall write to Mlle. Le Gras every month touching the progress of her family.
” Here, my dear Sisters, are my poor thoughts on your reason for praising God for your vocation, for persevering in it and perfecting it, and also a summary of those faults into which a Daughter of Charity might fall in a new settlement and the method for remedy.
” I ask you in all humility to accept what I have said to you for the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”2
The Sisters at Nantes, however great the degree of their misdoing, were privileged; they were given direct touch with the mind of their Founder, and it becomes—by reason of his dealing with them—more possible to understand how he maintained the original spirit in his two great Companies in spite of their rapid growth. Probably there had been serious failure, and chattering tongues were busy with the proceedings of this newfangled Order. There was opportunity for righteous wrath, for sharp severity. But instead there comes this letter from M. Vincent, with its suggestion of the true ideal, its graphic outline of the evil of short-coming, its homely recommendation for reform. It is a summary of his policy and of his spirit ; sympathetic understanding and the most practical common sense are here, and withal that thirst for the imitation of Christ which was the secret of his energy of service.
Spiritually and practically it was a necessity that the charity of the Sisters should be an interior virtue; it was not sufficient that they should tend the sick and feed the hungry. It was magnificent that so many of them found the courage to brave peril and face death without flinching, but it was necessary that they all should also possess endurance of the weaknesses of others. Only a few were martyrs to their vocation, but all who accepted it were Sisters of Charity. One of the Articles of their Rule in its final form reminds them of the title (more familiar to their generation than to ours) of Daughters of Charity, and exhorts them to think often of it, and to be worthy of it. In one of his ” Conferences”3 on the Rule M. Vincent dwells especially on this with full comprehension of all that was involved :
” Is there, indeed, a title more honourable than that of a Daughter of Charity ?” he asks. ” Could any name be found approaching it in honour ? No, my Daughters, and you never will hear of one more glorious. For, in fact, what do we mean by a Daughter of Charity ? Nothing else than a Daughter of God. Oh, my Sisters, what a reason to yield yourself entirely to God, that you may be worthy of so noble a name !
” I do not know if you have ever fully considered the three things which are implied in this Rule. The first is love of God above all else, to be His altogether, to love nothing except Him, and if one does love anything else that it should be out of love of Him. If you love God thus it is the first mark of a true Daughter of Charity who really loves her Father. The second is love of our neighbours, to give real service to the poor ; and when there is difficulty in so doing to force oneself to give it, that being the purpose for which one has given oneself to God. The poor must be regarded as lords and masters, and spoken of with deep respect; therein lies the second mark of a true Daughter of Charity. The third point is that you should never be at variance among yourselves to the degree of never allowing a single spiteful thought to rise up between you. Directly such thoughts rise up they must be stilled, my Daughters, and if, nevertheless, they still come back, you must be particular in disowning and rejecting them until such time as God shall give you grace to escape from your evil inclination. Be careful, also, to say nothing that can anger your Sister, nor hurt her, unless you do so officially, for officials not only may, but must, rebuke, even when they see they will rouse resentment. It would be a strange thing to see a surgeon not daring to use his lancet because a patient disliked the operation ! And not less so if a Superior or an official dared not speak for fear a Sister should not take it in good part.
” And beware, my Daughters, for it will not do to listen to this which I am saying with indifference; it is a thing in which you have a special charge from God, and which you must force yourselves to practise. Otherwise, you will not be true Daughters of Charity; you will only be so in name and in dress. And as the saying goes, ` The cowl does not make the monk.’ ”
The lesson was extremely difficult to learn, and M. Vincent was obliged to elaborate and to insist, for he held that it was absolutely necessary for them to learn it. In another ” Conference”4 two months later he comes back to the same subject even more forcibly: ” The very moment that you feel a little sense of antagonism, or that you see that one of your Sisters is slipping out of the friendliness that should prevail among you, let her know at once that it is so, and say to her with all the warmth that is in you: ` My Sister, if you only knew how I love you, and how greatly I desire to be friends with you! Oh, believe that it is with all my heart, and as God has required of me; love me as I love you, I beseech you.’ If the Sister does not accept what you say the first time, tell her that you love her again, and God may grant that she will change. Ah, but, Monsieur,’ say you, ‘ I do not feel like that in my heart, and it would be hard to tell her so.’ Never mind, say it just the same, for it is the evil in your nature that makes it hard, and the Devil uses this evil to prevent you from loving each other.
” Be careful to be worthy of the name you bear, so that it shall not be said of you as to the man of the Apocalypse: ` Thou hast the name of living, and art dead.’ You are Daughters of Charity; you bear this glorious name, and there is hate amongst you! You are false to it, then, for charity and hate cannot go together ! Oh, my Daughters, offer yourself to God, that you may be made worthy of this name you bear. Say to yourself: ‘ It is true that my Sister annoys me, but I must put up with her because it is God Who bids me do so.’ Say to yourself also: ` It is possible that I annoy her equally, and that it is more difficult for her to bear with me than for me to bear with her.’ ”
Let us picture the Sisters gathered together on a Sunday afternoon for the weekly ” Conference,” sitting with downcast eyes while M. Vincent, in this homely way of his, puts into words the half-formed remonstrance in their minds, or depicted in plain language the unacknowledged facts of their daily life. There was no escaping him; he assuredly was not of the race of surgeons who dare not use the lancet because the patient dreads the operation. Yet they could not have loved him more had he been less severe, and now and again, as he enlarged upon their Rule and illustrated special ways in which the breaking of it was to be apprehended, one of his hearers would humbly make acknowledgment that in just this way she had offended. In this there was an entire absence of sensationalism. Self-accusation of this kind was accepted calmly by M. Vincent, and by some mysterious method the fault immediately became his own. No details of the lives of these Daughters of his was too small to claim his attention. No one understood the difficulties so well as he did, nor the danger of that dread monotony which undermines and slays the enthusiasm of an impulsive nature; but we get glimpses of the individuality of his correspondents from his letters to them, and sometimes it is plain that they were very difficult people to deal with.
” You say that you have shed many tears, and made prayers, and kept novenas,” he wrote to one of them; ” all that is to the good. Our Lord said that the blessed are those who weep, and that those who ask receive. He did not say, however, that our prayers will be granted immediately, because He desires that we should go on praying. Therefore, my Sister, you must not allow yourself to say that the more you pray the less you get, for it betrays that you are not yet resigned to the Will of God, and do not confide yourself sufficiently to His promises. Often He is more gracious to us in His refusal of what we ask of Him than He would be in the granting of it, and we must be certain that what He sends us is the best, because He knows better than we do what is good for us, even though we dislike it, and all our hopes are disappointed.
” Ah, my Sister, how deeply I sympathize with you in your troubles, and how I pity our poor Sister Anne weighed down by discontent ! But, surely, it is a trial which, as you say, God allows to test you ! Accept it, therefore, as from the hand of your Father, and try to make good use of it. Help your Sister to carry her cross, as yours is a little lighter, reminding her that she is a Daughter of Charity, and that she should be ready to be crucified with Our Lord, and to submit to His pleasure, if she is not going to be utterly unworthy of Our Father.
” She should not—neither should you be so much put about because the hospital is not well organized nor sufficiently provided for. You must do your best yourselves in the service of the poor, and leave the rest to the goodness of God.
” You are wrong in blaming Mademoiselle (Le Gras ) for your troubles, and in resolving not to write to her again because you are not pleased with her letters, also in holding her responsible for the selection of you two instead of others, for it is solely due to the Providence of God that you are placed where you are. This you will realize when, for the love of God, you are obedient to your Superiors, and learn to think only of Him when you are given orders.”5
As the sentences unfold themselves, the outline of the mutinous Sister of Charity grows clearer—hating her work and the place where she is sent to do it, distrustful of her prayers because they bring no satisfaction to her rebellious wishes, bitterly angry with the Superior who had assigned her post to her. If the spirit of the Religious was in any way inculcated among the Sisters of Charity—and assuredly it was so—here was a case for uncompromising severity. Yet M. Vincent, though his gentleness hides here and there a little irony, could hardly be more gentle. No one, in truth, in all his immense and scattered family needs his compassion more than does this very discontented Sister—for had she not lost the joy of serving, which was the sole but satisfying treasure of all the Company of Mission Priests and all the Daughters of Charity ?—and if by sympathy he might restore it to her it was not in him to withhold his sympathy, however serious her offence.
In circumstances such as these his tolerance and charity may have reconciled many a fretful soul to the lot that demanded sacrifice; but though in one direction he gives proof of his exceeding gentleness, in another we find him absolutely rigid in decision. It must always be remembered that the vow of the Sisters of Charity was taken annually, and did not involve the life-long dedication of the Religious. Each year on Lady Day they were renewed, and every Sister who renewed her vow did so by permission of the Superior. This regulation necessarily placed a Sister on an altogether different footing fiom that of a nun, but it is obvious that the Sisterhood must have declined rapidly if those that entered it had not regarded their renunciation of the world as being permanent. For five years they were tested before being recognized as fully trained and responsible Sisters; after that time their service was regarded as part of the established strength of the community. But it happened that some, even after long testing and association, did take advantage of the open door and return to the world. Mlle. Le Gras never got over the intense distress which these defections caused her. Sometimes there was an epidemic of desertion, and to her it may have seemed that if such a spirit could find acceptance by a few, there was no reason to hope for any limit on the spreading of it. But M. Vincent did not share her apprehension. In his opinion all this wonderful growth of self-devotion which went on around him proceeded from the direct influence of Christ Himself on human souls, and any check therein was the concern of the invisible Head, and need not dismay his adjutants.
” You take the departure of your Daughters rather too much to heart,” he wrote to her. ” In the Name of God, Mademoiselle, try to acquire grace to accept these occurrences. Our Lord shows His mercy to the Company in purging it after this manner, and this will be one of the first things that He will reveal to you in Heaven. You must be quite certain that none of those whom Our Lord has really summoned into the Company will fail in her vocation. Why should you trouble about the others ? Let them go; we shall not lack for Daughters.”6
He was not, it must be owned, as tolerant of desertion among his Mission Priests, for the difference between the broken vow of the one class of defaulter and the broken purpose of the other seemed to him very material. And he had one rule to which he adhered unfalteringly. Neither Lazarist nor Sister of Charity who had once denied their vocation should ever be received again. He commiserated the despair which sometimes overwhelmed them when they discovered what they had done, but their repudiation once made was made for ever. There were many who, as he once told his listeners at a ” Conference,”7 ” were incessant in their petitions through M. So-and-So and Mme. So-and-So to be received again.” But in this matter he was relentless; the door that they closed behind them when they went forth could never again be opened.
It was necessary that the cloister, ” built not of stone but of free will,” should be thus defended; the escaped nun had no hope of support or protection from any but heretics, but no outward stigma rested on the renegade Sister of Charity: her penalty was the perpetuation of her self-chosen freedom. The only safeguard with which M. Vincent could provide the faithful Sisters was a reminder of their high vocation. ” My Daughters, to my thinking you need greater perfection than a Religious,” he said to them. ” ` Eh, how can this be ?’ you ask. How is it possible for us to need greater perfection than a Religious ?’ For this reason: The aspirations of each one of us must be in proportion to the grace received from God. Now has any Religious ever received from God favours that equalled yours ? No; no one has been called to anything so great, and by such means as you have been called, and therefore God requires higher perfection from you than He does from them. You, my Sisters, serve those who are brought to you, and those whom you must seek. It can truly be said of you, as of the Apostles, that you go from one place to another, and that just as they were sent by Our Lord, so are you also in His Name by order of your Superiors, to the end that you should do what Our Lord Himself did upon earth. O my Daughters, if this is the call to you, realize how greatly you need to seek perfection.”8
In the boldness of that recommendation we have a glimpse of the strength of M. Vincent. In those days the working nun was unheard of : ” Qui dit religieuse dit un cloître.” It was tacitly admitted that the inhabitants of the innumerable monasteries were not so concentrated upon spiritual things as their profession and their garb implied, and the many splendid efforts at reform had been the means of directing public attention to the abuses that made such efforts necessary. Nevertheless the pious still cherished their ideal of the consecrated life, separated from contact with the world and devoted to prayer, and therefore M. Vincent’s assertion that the Daughters of Charity were more highly favoured than the orthodox Religious was in defiance of public opinion; and many of them, in the performance of their daily duties, were by their own admission the prey of continual temptation. Their humble origin made the life of the streets attractive. Those who came from the country required superhuman self-control not to look about them as they hurried to and fro on their errands of mercy, but they were required to keep their eyes downcast, and to notice nothing. Vincent came to their ” Conference ” one day smiling and exultant. A gentleman had just left him, he told them, who had said: ” Monsieur, I have seen two of your Daughters to-day; one of them carried a basket, and the other a bowl of soup for the sick. So great was the modesty of one of them that she never so much as lifted her eyes.”
It would be very easy to prove the absurdity of such an exaggeration of self-repression, but undoubtedly for the accomplishment of M. Vincent’s purpose it was the only way. Once permit the least distraction, and this dangerous experiment of his must have ended in utter failure, and the Sisters themselves were the first to admit that it was so. One of them, Sister Marguerite Laurence, acknowledged at one of their ” Conferences”9 that when she passed a troupe of mountebanks or a peep-show in the street, the desire to go and look was so strong that she had to press her crucifix against her heart, and repeat over and over again: ” O Jesus, Thou art worth it all.”
It was on the rock of simplicity such as this that the Company was founded, but even that virtue has its attendant failing, and it is easy to understand that the actions of Sister Marguerite Laurence and her compeers sometimes betokened undeveloped judgment. When the many demands for service necessitated that the Sisters should be scattered by twos and threes at great distances from each other, the task of directing them became a very anxious one. There is ample testimony to this fact in the letters of Mlle. le Gras and of M. Vincent. Small schemes were embarked upon without authority; accounts were confused because there was no method in keeping them; one Sister made an excursion to Orleans from Angers without leave; another journeyed to a place where a pious gentleman was dying, because she thought he might be induced to make a legacy to the poor. ” The intention may have been praiseworthy,” commented M. Vincent, ” but the act was not permissible in one who has consecrated herself to God under a rule of obedience.” Another Sister constantly makes little visits and little pilgrimages, and will not ask permission of her Superior. It was infinitely difficult to deal with such infractions of the Rule when distances were great, and means of communication very uncertain. The irregularity that the labours of the Sisters often necessitated increased the obstacles to direction, and Mlle. Le Gras was tortured by her misgivings as to the future conduct of her flock. It was fortunate for her that M. Vincent shared her burden, and reassured her by his cheerful acceptance of it. He did not lower his standard because his Daughters fell so far short of it : his ” Conferences ” at the Mother-House maintained their exalted level, but he knew the material out of which the Sisters of the Poor were being formed, and that the weaknesses inherent in their class did not vanish at the magic touch of their vocation. Moreover, though his faith in the Divine guidance of the new Company was absolute, he would have regarded its downfall as the Will of God no less than its success, and was convinced that human wisdom and experience could do very little to avert catastrophe.
The idea of separating the Sisters from the Mission Priests, and placing them under episcopal authority, was the outcome of M. Vincent’s certainty that the Company was independent of his control; it was a species of independence to which he wished them to aspire both as individuals and as a Company; the human element which he thought had too great a place in their desire to be directed by the Lazarists was to be eliminated; they were not to rely upon any particular Society, but completely upon God.
We have seen that the prayers and desires of Mlle. Le Gras overruled his intentions in this matter, but he never varied in requiring of the Sisters a conscious realization that the guidance of their lives must be Divine.
” Spiritual direction is of extreme value, it is true, my Sister,” he wrote to one of them to whom it was denied; ” it is an opportunity of receiving counsel in difficulty, and comfort when we are discouraged; it is a refuge from temptation, a support against despair—when the director is prudent and experienced it is, indeed, an infinite source of help and consolation. But do you realize that it is just where the help of man fails us that the help of God begins ? It is He Who teaches us, Who strengthens us, Who is everything to us, and Who draws us to Himself. If He does not give you a spiritual father to whom you can turn in every difficulty, do you suppose He intends to deprive you of the benefit of such direction ? By no means; it is Our Lord Himself who fills the vacant place, and of His infinite goodness directs you Himself.”10
It was not easy for an isolated Sister of Charity at a difficult post to regard her deprivation as a benefit, but for all his gentleness M. Vincent had no wish to make life easy. Not only was he severe in his requirements, but his severity was of the most searching kind; he knew the intimate dangers of the life of piety, and had grasped some of the contradictions of a woman’s character, therefore he intended to keep his Daughters out of reach of the snares that would surely be prepared for them.
” The Daughters of Charity must go wherever they are needed,” he said in one of the “Conferences”11 on their Rule, ” but this obligation exposes them to many temptations, and therefore they have special need of strictness.”
It was inevitable that they should be separated for long periods from the Mother-House, and they were scattered in such small detachments that it was hard to maintain the sense of Community life. Their possibility of loneliness had its own dangers, and with untiring insistence M. Vincent reiterates his warnings to them on the danger of any misuse of confession. The moment they found themselves seeking for sympathy, or tempted to pour out the distresses of their daily life, they must watch themselves carefully. Confession was a statement of sin, not of grievances. They went to the confessor appointed to them under obedience, and his individuality ought to be a matter of indifference.
” ` But,’ says someone, ‘ he is the kind of person who repels me !’ But has his method done you harm, and has he not power to absolve you of your sins when you confess to him ? What more do you want ? Have you anything to do with him besides telling him your sins ? Do you expect him to relieve you of all your troubles ? Ah, my Sisters, you have no business to tell him about them; it is enough to confess your sins.”12
If we go carefully through the series of ” Conferences,” the evidence of M. Vincent’s astonishing knowledge accumulates. In these dialogues, which were often a part of his discourse, there is nothing mechanical; the phrase has the ring of individuality as if he had gleaned it from the lips of one or another of the Sisters. If any of them were ever tempted to resentment at his severity, they could not say that he was hard on them because he did not understand their difficulties; there can have been little in their lives that he did not understand, but he meant their sacrifice to have complete reality. Among their Rules was one that suggested they should deny themselves any satisfaction in the memory of enjoyment that had been theirs before they renounced the world, the pleasures of youth, the suggestions of marriage. Another required them to silence any expressions of gratitude from the sick whom they were tending, remembering that they were in very truth servants of the poor. (Mlle. Le Gras related with delight that one of the Sisters had been severely beaten by a patient, and had accepted this treatment uncomplainingly.) When they were ill themselves they were not to accept any luxuries that were not bestowed upon the poor even to gratify benevolent persons. They were never to receive reward for anything. They were never to pay a visit that was not part of their duty to the poor. They were never to receive a visit under any circumstances. • Except under pressure of special necessity they were never to stand talking in the street, nor at the door of their own dwelling, nor in the houses of the poor, except in fulfilment of their duty. They must never go out without leave, and must report themselves to their Superior immediately on their return. They must not send or receive letters under seal except to their Superiors. And they must not ask to be permitted special indulgences of piety, to be admitted to Communion more frequently than others, to practise abstinence or some form of mortification that set them apart from their Sisters.
Surely there was clear evidence of that which is not human in the lives of these women. M. Vincent constantly averred it was so, but M. Vincent, with all his knowledge, was himself so far riveted on thoughts of Heaven, that he could not grasp the full difficulty of renouncing earth. The ladies of the Court tore themselves from folly and excitement, and gave themselves to God at Val de Grace or at Port Royal. Before them was the prospect of a life of devotion, sombre and austere enough, but surrounded with the dignity of great tradition, and inspired by the majestic ceremonial of the Church; and behind them was the torture and fever and passion of the years that had brought them to seek safety in the cloister. Their experience is indeed almost as old as Christianity itself. But the Daughters of the Poor came from a humble existence of ordinary labour and small, unexalted amusements to a service of unbroken hardship, and to them there was not permitted any form of sensuous gratification whatever, no sentimental rapture, no delight of the imagination.
” ` What, Monsieur ?’ cries someone—’ what is this you tell me ? Do you ask me to be my own enemy, to be for ever denying myself, to do everything I have no wish to do, to destroy self altogether ?’ Yes, my Sister, and unless you do so, you will be slipping back in the way of righteousness. ` Ah, but, Monsieur, it is so difficult to be always denying oneself.’ Ah, yes, my Sister, but there is no avoiding it, for you must know that you have to make the choice either to live like an animal or to live like a reasoning being. To live like an animal you need only follow where passion and inclination lead, but if you are to live as a Christian, you must labour perpetually to deny yourself.”13
So M. Vincent—simplest yet most austere of teachers —set forth the choice that must be made by all alike; and those who shrank before it might not aspire to be numbered among his children.
- “Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 431, June, 1658.
- “Lettres,” vol. i., No. 109, April, 1647.
- No. 86, March, 1658.
- No. 87, May 3o, 1658.
- ” Lettres,” vol. ii., No. 441. August, 1658.
- February, 1653.
- No. 42, July, 1652.
- “Conferences,” No. 63, November, 1655.
- No. 5, August, 1640.
- “Lettres,” vol. i., No. 15o.
- No. 95, October, 1659.
- “Conferences,” No 89, June, 1648.
- “Conferences,” vol. ii., No. 71, 1657.