Chapter IV: The Ladies of Charity
THERE are many indications that for actual work—whether as Nursing Sisters or as Mission Priests in country districts, M. Vincent considered the lower and middle class as the most useful. The Sister of Charity would be better able to whisper a word of advice or exhortation to those whom she attended if, by experience, she understood their point of view. The Mission Priest could stir the hearts of his hearers to more real purpose if he had actual knowledge of their trend of thought. ” The best are those who really have the same nature as the villagers,” said the Superior-General; ” there are note more full of faith or who turn more readily to God in their time of need or hour of gratitude.”
The Servants and Priests of the Poor were, therefore, according to the original desire of M. Vincent, to be, for the most part, humble persons not very widely separated by condition from those they served, but his intention of thus limiting them does not imply that he ignored the immense force that lay outside such limits; had he done so, his work would have been disastrously hampered. The period was one in which exaggerations of excitement and self-indulgence led directly to the extreme of reaction in practices of piety. The history of Port Royal furnishes many notable examples. The unflinching sincerity of the Port Royalists caught the imagination of an age when that virtue had fallen into disuse, and it was the reality of its asceticism that made its suspected doctrines so dangerous to orthodoxy. M. Vincent was vigorous in his condemnation of Port Royal, but he would not have denied that there was some element purer than mere excitement in the penitence of the heroines of the Fronde or in the renunciation of the lawyers and scholars who became the Hermits of Port Royal. In fact, the infection of spiritual aspiration that was responsible for the Cabale des Dévots was betraying its presence by many differing methods, and without its influence M. Vincent could not have maintained much of the work that was dearest to his heart. Money was an absolute necessity to him, and money cannot be obtained unless the springs of self-sacrifice are touched; but gifts of money are at best only the most elementary expression of spiritual awakening, and if M. Vincent’s power with his high-placed contemporaries had been confined to the unloosing of their purse-strings, his connection with them would hardly merit record. In fact, the external generosity which he had the gift of inspiring was only a very small part of his effectiveness, although the traces of his dealings with individuals are not easy to disentangle.
Class distinctions at that time were very decided, and certain confusions did not lessen the division. The daughters of Colbert, in the later years of Louis XIV., married into the proudest houses in the realm; so—far less worthily—did the nephew and nieces of Cardinal Mazarin. At the Hôtel Rambouillet Princes and Dukes consorted with scribblers of humble origin, and considered that they were levelling society; but, in fact, the condescension which began in the Society of the Précieuses and continued amid the explosions of the Fronde had not the least effect in lessening the gulfs of division. The noble was only the more conscious of his nobility because he was magnanimous enough to recognize the existence of persons whom he had formerly ignored. The established customs of the time were all in favour of maintaining him on an exalted level. On his own estate he would have squires and pages, gentlemen-at-arms, a company of guards, an endless retinue of servants. Among all these persons he was supreme, as the King was supreme in his Court. At table he and his lady would occupy armchairs, while his guests and relations sat on stools. If he went out, a bell was rung, and his suite lined the hall when he passed through, and followed at a respectful distance when he took exercise. As may be imagined, the whole welfare of the neighbourhood fluctuated with his coming and going. If he was cruel and a despot, his tenants trembled until the delights of the capital or the excitement of a war once more claimed him; if he was generous, they profited by his presence. The whole tendency was to teach him to look on himself as of different texture to ordinary human nature. Even in church he was privileged, for he took precedence in a religious procession, and could claim the first presentation of incense or of holy water1.
M. Vincent accepted the world as he found it. He had been a dependent in a great man’s house, and was not less vigorous in his practice of the teaching of Christ because he breathed an atmosphere so antagonistic to its observance. And while he did homage, as was demanded of him, to the outward adornments of nobility, one may conjecture that he was all the time seeking for the real being behind the artificial trappings. It is significant that M. de Gondi—a representative type of the most superb of the courtiers of that day—spent his last years in complete retirement as an Oratorian. There are other instances of the same species of revulsion which may be linked with the personality of M. Vincent. As Were Angélique, in her stern self-renunciation, seemed, from the shadowy cloisters of Port Royal, to arraign her contemporaries, so did M. Vincent, in his attempt to live the Christian life with direct simplicity, disturb the satisfied assurance of those with whom he came in contact. If, as a parish priest of humble origin, he had become engaged in large schemes of philanthropy, he would have been hampered by his ignorance of the real characteristics of the great folk with whom common interests brought him into contact; but his ten years with the de Gondi provided him with just that necessary external knowledge without which interior insight would have been impossible. A score of years lived within half a mile of the Luxembourg or the Marais Quarters might not have revealed even a faint reflection of what life meant to the high-born inhabitants of the great hôtels ; they were of another race and of another world, and the Founder of the Company of Mission Priests and of the Sisters of the Poor had work enough to do for his generation without heeding them. But the mission of Vincent de Paul was not only to the poor; his own choice would have set that limit upon it, but he was not guided by his own choice. It is quite impossible to gauge the extent of his influence, but it is clear that for the thirty-five years during which he was a well-known figure in Paris he represented—all the more vigorously because there was about him no element of the picturesque—the power of religion on a human life. The demonstration that, simply and unconsciously, he was giving day by day drew men to him, not only the humble, but those whose traditions were completely different from his own, and the response of understanding was constantly required of him; and it was in the time of training, against which he had rebelled, that he had been taught to understand. He could be almost as severe with the wealthy women, whose work for others he had inspired, as with the Sisters of Charity, but it was his knowledge of their temptations and their inherent feebleness that made his severity so effective.
He did not mingle with the circle gathered round Mme. de Rambouillet, nor with the crowd that centred a little later on the rising sun of Royalty; but though his actual presence might be wanting, there was no condition of life and no grade of society at that time in Paris that was altogether untouched by the fact of his existence. One incident, lying entirely outside the orderly development of project and fulfilment, brings him into connection with the romance of those glowing days, and suggests how great a part he may have played in unrecorded drama. There was plenty of evidence to the strength of human passions; they swayed the fortunes of the State, and of necessity disturbed the peace of the most tranquil salon, but testimony to an opposing power was not so common. Vincent de Paul was a silent witness, but in the midst of clamour such silence appeals to the imagination more than eloquence. One instance of the power put into his hands must be recorded.
Among the brilliant group, of which Mme. de Longueville was the leader, there were numbered two sisters, daughters of M. de Vigean. The younger, Anne, contrived eventually to become Duchesse de Richelieu, and developed into an extremely clever woman of the world ; but Marthe, her elder, eclipsed her in those early days, and was the most admired of all their circle. The young lady of quality at that period was trained for the winning of matrimonial prizes, and the esteem of her contemporaries depended on her success. Marthe de Vigean was pre-eminently fitted for a triumph of this kind, and her favours were the more coveted because she was known to have inspired Condé, the hero of the nation, with the great passion of his life. He was married, and she was both virtuous and prudent, therefore their connection cast a halo of romance about her career without disturbing it2. She was an acknowledged beauty, and it could truly be said of her that she had the world at her feet, and needed only to choose the form of glory that would please her most.
It chanced, however, that her mother, Mme. la Marquise, fell ill, and that M. Vincent came to visit her. At the end of his visit the eldest daughter of the house accompanied him to the door. It is not difficult to picture them descending the great staircase side by side, the girl radiant with youth and beauty, the natural possessor of the best of this world’s gifts, and the priest in his shabby cassock, ugly and ungainly in his appearance, and with none of those graces of speech and manner that won popularity for the ecclesiastics of the salons. Probably there was no attempt at conversation between them; but before they parted M. Vincent had a message to deliver:
” Mademoiselle,” he said, ” you were not intended for the world.”
Marthe de Vigean understood his meaning with a gasp of apprehension. She protested eagerly that she had not the faintest inclination for the religious life, and besought him not to pray that she should discover a vocation ; but M. Vincent would give her no assurance, he went away in silence. For a time she continued to be a favourite in a society that had for her no taint of dulness. One very desirable marriage was suggested to her—other offers were certain. Two years passed before she gave her family any warning of what was in her mind, but before the end of the third year from M. Vincent’s visit the doors of the Carmelite Convent in the Rue S. Jacques had closed upon her3.
M. Vincent’s connection with her destiny can only have been known from the lips of Mlle. de Vigean herself, and we cannot trace the process by which that sudden warning of his ultimately bore fruit. It was not his mission to go about the world gathering recruits for religious houses, and the detail of Mlle. de Vigean’s experience was probably isolated; but, though it may have been to her . only that he presented the supreme decision between the cloister and the world, the sight of him must have suggested to many a thoughtless pleasure-lover that a choice betwixt two masters must some day be made, and consideration of it might claim reflection.
The fate of Marthe de Vigean may inspire many minds with repugnance. That a young and charming woman should stamp out every natural desire and check the development of all the talents with which God endowed her may be regarded as a matter for infinite regret and a course which reason could not justify. There are innumerable arguments against such a choice as hers, there is only one in its favour; but M. Vincent, as he found his way back through the squalid streets that separate the Louvre from S. Lazare, would not have recognized that the fair young girl he had just left had any true possibility of choice as to the future. We must remember how closely and continuously he touched the problem of the world’s miseries and inequalities, and that that problem cannot be met by those who adhere to accepted standards. A complete subversion of established ideas is necessary to the merciful man who sees life as it really is. M. Vincent believed that the one hope for the world was the realization of the Presence of Christ; his efforts for the temporal welfare of his fellows were all subordinate to his desire to give them understanding of the gift that only awaited their acceptance. It is easy to see, therefore, that the glittering prospects of a Court beauty would have no weight in the balance against the possibility that God was calling her to a life of painful fellowship with Him. In such a connection the language of mysticism was for M. Vincent the language of the plainest common sense; it was clear to him that he who would save his life must lose it, and therefore that the only prayer possible on behalf of Marthe de Vigean was that she might turn from the riches and pleasures of the world and obey God’s summons without flinching.
The necessity of obedience to the claim for sacrifice has its most dramatic example in her story, but as a principle it rules all M. Vincent’s dealing with himself and others. He was relentless in his searching demands on the members of the two Companies, believing that their only hope of peace lay in complete surrender, and we find that with such of the Ladies of Charity as showed themselves worthy of the name they had assumed he was hardly less insistent. It was not a small matter to be one of M. Vincent’s Ladies of Charity. In early days it is likely that neither he nor they realized what an important step was taken by those who enlisted in that band. The field of philanthropy was unexplored, and the needs in all directions were so stupendous that the only course for a really prudent person was to ignore the thought of them entirely. But these Ladies were in their way as remarkable as the Servants of the Poor, and one great factor in their development was the enormous difficulty with which they had to contend. They had no tradition to help them, nor could they avail themselves of the experience of others, yet all the characteristics of the undeserving were present among many of those they desired to aid.
There had been a persistent endeavour on the part of State authority to cope with the evil of drunkenness. ” What the men earn in the week they spend on Sundays in the tavern, while their wives and children are left to starve,” so runs a village record in 15764; and forty years before that date François I. issued an edict which condemned any man proved to be intoxicated to punishment of increasing severity until at the fourth offence he was deprived of his ears and banished. The measures prescribed were sufficiently drastic, but, as an old writer sapiently observes, ” when a Sovereign makes a law of any kind it would be well that he should discover beforehand whether he has any chance of enforcing it,” and the futility of the decree in question is proved by the prevalence a century later of the vice it strove to check. A very familiar difficulty was therefore presented constantly to the Ladies of Charity by the encouragement given to the drunkard by the assistance of the drunkard’s family. The indiscriminate method by which former generations had administered charity had, moreover, encouraged the habit of idleness. The distribution of food from convent steps or at a rich man’s gateway was the simple and obvious form of obedience to the teaching of the Gospels, and the founding and support of hospitals supplemented the provision for the active poor by affording to them a refuge in time of sickness. In theory the position was unassailable; but, as we have seen, the maladministration of the hospitals rendered them practically useless, and the daily doles of food supported sturdy beggars, who should have laboured for their bread, and did not reach the starving.
During the forty years which M. Vincent devoted to labour for the poor there were periods of abnormal distress which would have taxed the ingenuity of the most experienced of philanthropic leaders, but apart from these the difficulties that had to be met were very serious. The poor were there—in constant need of bodily and spiritual assistance—and all the old plans of providing for them seemed to have collapsed. The Ladies whom he had stirred to sympathy must have looked back with regret to days when it was possible to entrust alms-giving to the parish priest, knowing him to be the friend and leader of his flock. It will be seen that it was not only in spiritual matters that the degradation of the clergy affected the people. The astonishing system of bestowing the emoluments of a cure on a person who did not accept its responsibilities had destroyed the old relations of the curé and his flock. The ill-paid deputy, who owed his post to a condition of disorder, became himself disorderly. He was continually at strife on his own behalf, and was therefore no longer able to be arbitrator in the differences of others; he was often the slave of those sins against which it was his duty to warn his people, and was as eager a gambler as any of the tavern ne’er-do-wells. It was not to such as he that the bounty of the rich could be entrusted, if it was ever to be of service to the poor.
The Confraternities in the country and the Ladies of Charity in Paris had to create a system, and to work it out themselves; they had to face the fact that they were likely to make very serious mistakes, and that the onlookers who thought their attempts absurd would jeer at all their blunders, small and great. It was, moreover, extremely difficult for them to decide on a reasonable limit to their labours or to their gifts; more service and more money were needed than it was possible to give. With M. Vincent as their leader the drawing towards sacrifice might be gradual, but it was persistent. When once light had penetrated to a soul, he considered that response to it must never stop, and the obvious difficulties that hamper the advance of the wealthy were not, in his eyes, worthy of consideration.
” Nothing so alienates us from the Spirit of God as to live the life of the world,” he said, in addressing an assembly at the house of Mme. d’Aiguillon. ” The more one has of luxury, the less one is worthy of the indwelling of Christ. The Ladies of Charity must shun the atmosphere of the world as they would shun air that is tainted. They must show that they have chosen the side of God and of Charity; they must show definitely that they have done so, for those who are willing to remain ever so little on the other side are able to destroy everything. God will not accept a divided heart; He requires all—yes, He requires all.”
We have seen that no allowance was made for the weaknesses of the dévoie, and M. Vincent had as little tolerance for the harmless follies of the leisured class. A lady in whose company he chanced to find himself for a period of ten days showed so many symptoms of extreme melancholy that he was moved to ask her the reason of her grief. He found that it proceeded from the death of her dog, and in relating the experience5 he inveighs against the vacancy of mind that could make such sorrow possible. It is quite plain that those who submitted to him at all were not allowed to reserve for themselves any sheltered territory of indulgence, that he was jealous of the completeness of an offering made to God; but the real dedication of a life lived in the world is so rare that the identity of some of those who achieved it is worth discovering. The Ladies of Charity were for the most part of the class that can command the indulgence of every whim; they lived in an age when women were attaining prominence in all directions, and excitement and variety were never lacking. Chief among them was Mme. la Duchesse d’Aiguillon, the niece of Richelieu6. After two years of wedded life she was widowed at eighteen. It was open to her to make a second marriage on a magnificent scale. She had great natural charm, great wealth, and, as the favourite of her uncle, was a desirable bride for an ambitious man; but she decided to remain single, and was immovable in her resolution. It is impossible to estimate the extent of the debt owed to her by the charitable organizations that were springing up in all directions. Not only did she display the greatest sagacity in the ordering of schemes of relief, but the magnificence of her generosity made it possible to put theories into practice. Her own personality, as well as the reflection of her uncle’s glory, had made her a celebrated figure, and it is possible that at the outset the prestige of her presence among them won many recruits for the Ladies of Charity.
Hardly less notable was Mme. de Miramion. The story of her abduction by Bussy de Rabutin, Grand Prior of France, had furnished most satisfying food for the chatterers, and that incident had a certain bearing on the work of M. Vincent. She also was a young widow, and she was strong enough to withstand and to defeat Bussy ; but any charm the world had retained for her was dispelled by her violent contact with the manners of the period, and, like Louise Le Gras (to whose influence much of her development was due), she gave herself to a life of devotion and of good works. She was not as wealthy as Mme. d’Aiguillon, but she was not less generous, and she did not recognize the outward claims upon her time which the niece of Cardinal Richelieu could not escape. She might have proved the ideal of a Lady of Charity, and set a standard by which newcomers might form themselves. She missed this consummation, however, and the reason of her falling short is worthy of remark. It should always be remembered that those who were imbued with M. Vincent’s spirit gave their service to the poor because they recognized a law of love, and were able to find Christ Himself in the degraded outcast whom they strove to succour; it was not in any way a means to an end. But Mme. de Miramion was a visionary, and at all times her own spiritual condition was a matter of more urgent anxiety to her than the amelioration of the miseries of the poor. She accomplished a vast amount of charitable work in the course of her long life, but its accomplishment was not the faithful fulfilment of tasks entrusted to her by the Council of Ladies. She was the inspired Foundress rather than the loyal follower; she left her mark on her generation, but she is an isolated being struggling after personal perfection rather than one of a company battling for others. The difference is of the same nature as that which divides the contemplative from the Sister of Charity, and the Church admittedly has need of each.
The strongest collective aid received by M. Vincent came from the legal and parliamentary class. The first President of the Ladies of Charity (and the foundress of those assemblies of deliberation which probably were the first ladies’ committees that ever existed), was Mme. Goussaulte. Her husband had borne the office of President in the Parlement, and she and her most intimate colleague, Mme. de Herse, were associated with the busy practical side of city life. It was she who had compelled M. Vincent’s interference in the affairs of the Hôtel-Dieu, and she was the confidential supporter of Mlle. Le Gras, who could turn to her and her circle of intimate friends in matters that were not sufficiently weighty to demand the attention of a great lady of the Court. It is unnecessary to attempt to apportion credit betwixt the nobility and the members of that great middle class whose force was then beginning to assert itself; the movement had need of both, but the Magistrates’ Ladies were at least as ardent in their service as Mme. de Condé or Mme. de Liancourt. Undoubtedly they all looked to M. Vincent for their inspiration, but there was nothing enervating in his method of dealing with them. He desired their help and valued it, but he had no arts by which to draw them into the practice of self-sacrifice. It was his own uncompromising reality that stirred them, the honesty of purpose that takes for granted a corresponding honesty in others.
At first their Assemblies were held at S. Lazare, but it is likely that the crowd of waiting carriages and lackeys were an inconvenience at the headquarters of the Mission Priests, and the plan of meeting at the house of one or another of the group was adopted. One may imagine that the Citizen Ladies were touched to an excitement that was quite independent of their good work when they were summoned by Mme. d’Aiguillon to the Luxembourg Quarter and felt around them the aroma of the Court. In the Rue des Bernardins, where Mme. de Miramion was hostess, they would touch a note of exalted piety that echoed through the most practical detail of their undertakings; but possibly for real business they preferred the more familiar surroundings of the Rue Pavée, under the roof of Mme. la Présidente de Herse. M. Vincent was generally present at their conferences, but it was not his custom to pay any visits to individuals; he made this a rule, and only infringed it on some very urgent demand of illness. His strictness in such matters was exaggerated, and he never relaxed it even for Mlle. Le Gras, but the strength of his position towards his Ladies of Charity was undoubtedly increased by the fact of it. He regarded them as united for the service of God, and he guided them in their labours collectively. We have seen that they needed at times both restraint and exhortation. A new enterprise will sometimes appeal to the imagination when zeal for an old one is flagging, and these ladies were pioneers, and had not discovered their limitations. It was not easy to understand that every piece of successful work was a claim on their resources in the future, and an addition to their burden of responsibility; that, in fact, no one of their undertakings was possible to complete, but that each had a tendency to increase in its demand. Probably no other generation could provide an instance of sustained and united benevolence that could be compared to that of the Ladies of Charity; nevertheless, they could not completely be relied upon. It had needed a vigorous remonstrance from M. Vincent to prevent the abandonment of the Foundlings, and there were hours of stress when Louise Le Gras was in despair for lack of the funds which the Ladies had promised, but did not supply. There were periods when an infection of heedlessness spread among them. The Sisters of Charity had no alternative to the doing of duty. If they shirked it, they had no facilities for amusing themselves; but the Ladies were in reach of all the excitements of life, and occasionally there were signs of reaction which threatened to compromise all the labour of the dedicated workers. There were also the times of national distress when money was very hard to find, and the majority had no thoughts to spire from personal anxieties. These were the crises when M. Vincent showed his real power. In 1649, when circumstances had combined to exile him from Paris, there seemed good reason to believe that all the organizations he had founded—for the love of God and in the service of the poor—would be abandoned. The pinch of poverty was touching the wealthy class, and the destitution among the ordinarily poor was appalling. The usual expedient of assembling all the Ladies could not be resorted to for fear that despair should spread among their ranks, and the situation teemed with difficulties. Under this pressure of anxiety M. Vincent wrote the following letter to a meeting that seems to have been a subcommittee of working members :
” Being by God’s good pleasure separated from you, I commend you and those dear to you to Our Lord at the altar, being assured that you of your charity pray for God’s mercy upon me. Indeed, I ask you very humbly, Ladies, to do this for me, and I assure you that if it please God to hear my prayers for you, you will be specially protected in those afflictions with which He now visits us.
” You will have heard, Ladies, how God gave me opportunity to visit the houses of our little Company, and how I set forth with the intention of returning when the condition of affairs made it possible for me to do so. The question now arises: What are we to do with the work that God has put into your hands, especially the work of relief of the Hôtel-Dieu and of the poor Foundlings ? Assuredly it looks as if individual distress dispensed you from any further care for that of others, and that we have a good excuse before the eyes of men for-laying down this responsibility. But, Ladies, I do not know how the question will look before God, Who may surely ask of us, ` Have you yet resisted unto the shedding of blood ?’ or as S. Paul asked of the Corinthians who found themselves in a similar difficulty, have you at least sold a portion of such treasures as you possess ? What am I saying to you ? I know well that there are some among you (and I can believe it of everyone) who have made offerings which would be considered immense, not only from persons of your own rank, but even from Queens; the very stones would proclaim it if I was silent, and it is by reason of the infinite charity that fills your hearts that I am able to speak to you like this. I should be very careful not to do so to persons who were less full of the Spirit of God.
” What, then, are we to do ? It seems as if it would be well to raise the question, Ladies, whether it is desirable that you should hold the great assembly that has been suggested ? Also when, and where, and how ? There are reasons for and against. It seems natural that it should be held, because it is our custom to have one about this time, and also because the need is abnormal we need some abnormal effort, like that of a General Meeting. On the other hand, this does not seem a good moment, because of the distress which is touching everybody, filling their minds with anxiety, and chilling their hearts. Possibly many Ladies would be afraid to come, and those who did so, unless they were filled with extraordinary charity, would only make each other more cautious. Moreover, Mme. la Princesse (de Condé) and Mesdames d’Aiguillon and de Brienne being absent is a serious drawback, especially if there is an idea of making any fundamental changes in your work. This, then, Ladies, is the for and against, as I see it. You will consider and decide it by vote.”7
Contemporaries of M. Vincent claimed for him that he possessed an immense faculty of concentration; this letter might be produced in support of such a contention. At the moment when it was written his own personal credit was threatened; he had defied Mazarin, and thereby forfeited the favour and protection of the Queen, and his rash attempt at arbitration had aroused the suspicions of the people, and destroyed the affection and confidence won by long years of labour. As a consequence S. Lazare had been pillaged, and the whole of his scattered Community ran risk of actual famine. In Paris and in every part of France the maintenance of order in the streets had become almost impossible, and the Sisters of Charity lived in constant peril. Responsibility for every disaster that might occur rested on the shoulders of the Superior and Founder of the two Companies, and at the same time his heart was wrung by the suffering that political troubles imposed upon the poor. If he had issued brief directions to the Ladies, or even been forgetful of the detail of their distresses, there was sufficient excuse. But it is plain that when he thought about them they were as vivid in his mind as if their concerns were the only care he had. He does not overstrain his right of interference or attempt definite prohibitions, though he foresaw that the terror of the times was likely so to affect the majority that, if they met together, the sparks of enthusiasm in a valiant few ran risk of being extinguished. He knew the need was desperate, and unless the Ladies made a superhuman effort all their past work would be rendered ineffective, and their failure would aim a blow at charitable enterprise which might check its development for generations; but there is no fretfulness in his petition, he dwells on what they have done in the past rather than on the overpowering demand of the present. And history testifies to his success. These Ladies performed prodigies of self-sacrifice, and thousands of persons would have died of starvation but for their assistance. We are less concerned with the statistics of result than with the springs of generosity to which the results bore witness. The fact that they had hesitated, and had had a moment of feeling that the demand made upon them as individuals was beyond reason, only deepens the reality of their offering. It is a well-known fact that a sudden awakening to the spiritual life, or the stabs of sincere repentance, have often induced an indifference to worldly possessions, which expresses itself in gifts to the Church; but the Ladies of Charity were not moved by such influences as these. There was nothing to disturb the tenor of their inner life; there was every inducement to more than ordinary prudence in outward affairs. Yet the cause of the starving poor prevailed, and the reserving of funds for the possible exigencies of an unsettled future was held to be unworthy caution.
It may be permitted to us to regard their action as directly due to M. Vincent. By her own choice each one had joined that courageous League of which he was the Leader, and already must have stood some testing by his uncompromising standards. Presumably, the faithfulness of each was due to her certainty that M. Vincent’s life was animated by the Spirit of Christ to a degree unique in her experience. She saw in him the meaning of self-sacrifice, consistent and sustained, in human life, and when the hour of crisis came the thought of him broke down the barriers of calculation, and she also was possessed by the folly of the Cross.
There is far less material from which to gather knowledge of the Ladies of Charity than of the Servants of the Poor. Some of the former may have been under M. Vincent’s spiritual direction, but he did not expend much time in writing letters to them, and therefore there is little record of any individual touch. The best idea of the conditions under which he required them to live may be gathered from his addresses to them. Almsgiving and good works by no means satisfied him. ” Your first duty,” he told them at the beginning, ” is to labour for your own spiritual advance, to be always aiming at perfection, always to have the lamp kindled within you.” He rejected those who cared greatly for frivolous amusements or were fond of gambling, and desired that each one should from time to time go into Retreat. In letters to Mlle. Le Gras one or another is commended to her by name, that they may be given the hospitality of the Mother-House, and assisted to escape from the clamour of the world; but there is no word that gives a glimpse of a personality. A few are historic figures. Mme. de Condé, mother of the great Condé and of Mme. de Longueville, was an active and loyal member of the Company, so was Mme. de Schomberg, wife of the Marshal. Mme. d’Aiguillon never slackened in her support. Mme. de Maignelay and Mme. de Miramion have both been the subject of separate biographies8, but these contain little reference to their connection with M. Vincent. Mme. Goussaulte and Mme. de Herse achieve a certain prominence in the record of work accomplished, but it is completely in relation to business. No one of them as an individual is shown in personal relation with M. Vincent. To a Sister of Charity he was a Father, grasping their troubles and temptations, and attempting to put himself in their place that he might help them; to the Ladies he is a Leader, and he claims allegiance from all equally.
The strength of the position he assumed towards them adds greatly to the dignity of their achievement. In their giving there was to be no commercial side; they had no reward of small adulation, nor were they allowed to use their outward liberality as a salve to their consciences —indeed, their personal life had to be purer because they aspired to make an offering of their possessions in the service of their neighbour. Previous generations provide examples of charity on the magnificent scale, and the devotion of self without any reservation, but the efforts of this Company of Ladies were on lines that were altogether new. They were hampered by the drawbacks of novelty, they were often fussy and imprudent, secure in their own opinion and restive under control; there were times when they must have tried M. Vincent’s patience, and they added appreciably to the burden of his anxieties. But there is never an indication of contention or rivalry among themselves for authority or credit; the spirit that prevailed among them was strong enough to be their protection from the special temptations of the philanthropist.
It was a great need that summoned M. Vincent’s Ladies of Charity, and not a desire in themselves that sought expression in outward service, and for this reason they cannot be regarded as the prototype of those who in later generations have laboured bravely and successfully in the same fields. The poor cried to them from the crowded wards of the Hôtel-Dieu, from the cribs of the Couche S. Landry, from the infected tenements in the byways of the city, and M. Vincent taught them that it was the voice of Christ Himself, and as Christians they must listen and respond, or be convicted of the most terrible of inconsistencies. Because their ears had been opened to this cry, he showed them that they might not share any longer in the indifference that was not a crime in others. That plea of his was extraordinarily potent. To those before whom he made it he was able to communicate his own complete sincerity. And as a result the charity that is pure from taint of self-consideration came into being.
- Babeau, ” Le Village sous l’Ancien Régime,” and ” Supplément aux Mémoires de Maximilien de Béthune, Duc de Sully.”
- Cf. lines by Voiture on Marthe de Vigean: ” Sans savoir ce que c’est qu’amour / Ses beaux yeux le mettent au jour / Et partout elle le fait naître / Sans le connaître.”
- For full details of this incident, see Victor Cousin’s ” Madame de Longueville,” vol. i., note to chap. ii.
- Quoted by Babeau, ” Le Village sous l’Ancien Régime.”
- Conferences,” No. 64, June, 1656.
- She married Antoine de Combalet in 1622, and received her duchy in 1638.
- “Lettres,” vol. i., No. 135.
- “Vie de Charlotte Marguerite de Gondi, Marquise de Maignelais,” by le Père “p.m.c.” Paris, 1666. “Vie de Madame de Miramion,” by François T. de Choisy. Paris, 1685.