Vincent de Paul was rooted in the country, and early in life he had every intention of staying fixed there. If he ventured beyond that setting after ordination it was to find clerical advancement, so he could return home more securely rooted. His hopes were not for himself alone, but For his family as well. In a letter to his mother about his search (in 1610) he apologized for his present inability to help her and the family, but he expressed confidence that God “will bless my efforts and will soon give me the means of an honorable retirement, so that I may spend the rest of my days near you.”
That intention would not hold but would undergo some shifting to change the face of this simple ambition. In time Vincent’s talents would gain him admittance into the highest civil and ecclesiastical councils of France, and into the company of people of social standing far above his own. His love for the country folk never diminished, but, in this upscale milieu, how did he maintain his perspective as one of them?
There were times when Vincent’s background was indeed an embarrassment to him. One incident occurred during his adolescent days at the friars’ school in Dax. It was an early event, to be sure, antedating his priestly ministry, but it exposed his vulnerability. In later years he recalled the incident, with deep regret, in a public confession to his confreres about his shame at being seen with his father in the town: “I was ashamed to walk with him and to acknowledge him as my father because he was badly dressed and a little lame.” He had also shared this same regret with Madame de Lamoignon. A reoccurrence of this feeling threatened Vincent on the occasion of a visit by his nephew from Dax_ “When the uncle reflected that the nephew was probably a badly dressed peasant,” says Coste, “he experienced a momentary weakness and gave orders to have the youth taken secretly to his room.” Vincent, however, resisted the passing impulse and welcomed the youth and introduced him to many of the residents and visitors at the College-desBons-Enfants.
It is not known how isolated these reactions were or how prolonged — his father died in 1598 — but eventually Vincent would shed this ambivalence and be open about his country origins. He could, for instance, talk easily about the simple, frugal meals that the peasants, himself included, usually ate. When people would make him more than he was, he would correct them as he did the poor old woman who asked for an alms on the score that she had been a servant of “Madame your mother.” He told her, “You are making a mistake, my good woman…My mother never had a servant, and she did all the work herself because she was the wife, just I am the son, of a poor peasant.”
lf, in the future, Vincent distanced himself from family, he did so for reasons other than embarrassment. Like Abraham, he said in a conference on mortification, the missionaries must be ready to leave everything to answer the call to the service of God: “Country and kindred are obstacles to…perfection.” To illustrate, he recalled his pain and the turmoil following a visit that he made to his family in 1622, experiencing “so much grief at leaving my poor relatives, that I did nothing but weep all along the road; to these tears succeeded the thought of giving them assistance…”
I Ie carried this burden for three months, praying all the time for deliverance from this “temptation,” as he called it. At the end he was indeed freed from “these soft affections for my relatives; and though they have been depending on alms, and are so still, God has given me the grace to leave them to his providence, and to consider them more happy than if they had been in easy circumstances.” Missionaries, he believed, can become so engrossed in their families’ affairs that they “are caught up in them like flies that have fallen into a spider’s web from which they cannot extricate themselves.”
The “softness” whereby he defined undue attachment to his Family did not mean repudiation, for during the rest of his life he often expressed affection for them, but also an enduring, stern detachment. When once he was urged to do something for them, he replied: “Do you think I do not love them? I have all the affection for them that any man can have for his own. If I allowed myself to follow the natural course of my feelings, I would hasten m assist them, but I am bound to follow the movements of grace and not those of nature.”
In 1626, Vincent took a definitive — and symbolic — step that divested him of any further financial responsibility toward his family. Within the agreement signed by Vincent and his early companions to labor together for the service of the poor country people, he turned over to his relatives whatever monies or property he then possessed, declaring these goods irrevocably “given, ceded, quitted, conveyed, abandoned.”
Throughout many of Vincent’s letters to bishops and nobles there runs a refrain that countered the widespread acclaim that he received. The saint once responded to a request to dedicate a book to him by saying: “I am utterly unworthy of praise. If you are to speak of me truly, you should say that I am the son of a husbandman, that I tended cattle and swine, and also add that this is nothing in comparison with my ignorance and malice.” For an explanation of this attitude we might say that it could have served to keep his accomplishments and his associations with the rich and the prominent in perspective by holding pride at bay. Or perhaps to maintain credibility. “Everybody loves those who are simple and sincere…who go straight on and speak without dissimulation, so that whatever they say they (do so) from the heart,” Vincent told his confreres, almost as if describing himself. “They are esteemed at Court (when such persons happen to be found there) with universal esteem. In good society, everyone shows them extraordinary affection. For, though all do not act simple, yet those who have no candor themselves, do not fail to love it in others.”
Again, it could be said that he used the device to counteract his early ambitions for himself and his Family and to reinforce his regret for his past embarrassment on their account. It might simply be that, because his whole life was oriented toward serving the poor country folk, he wished to give witness to a lasting solidarity with them from birth, whatever other changes had occurred in his life. In any case, each utterance gave evidence of an abiding humility.
Vincent sought to communicate this personal perspective as the corporate identity, too, for each of his communities and for much the same reasons. He always rebuked any confrere who would praise the Company, by reminding the member of its humble origins. Following Jesus, who chose as his apostles “poor, sinful men, workmen of humble origins,” Vincent urged his sons to acknowledge themselves as “only wretched folk, poor peasants and husbandman.” It is no coincidence that he chose as the distinguishing marks of the Company a group of virtues he called “little” — simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification, and xeaI — to serve as a hedge against pride and pretense that could easily overtake his confreres as well as himself.
The countryside was indeed Vincent’s spiritual home. It was the ground of his identity, the source of his strength, a refuge from acclaim, and a defense against pride. Moreover, it gave vigor to his style. It nurtured his common sense and practicality, as well as his shrewdness, in judging people and in dealing with them.
From the countryside, too, he derived forthright, pointed expression, using homely realistic imagery. He would speak of the apple, beautiful to behold, but meant to be enjoyed by eating; of the shell of the snail to suggest narrowness of vision; of the immobility of the ass or the donkey, now to mean stubbornness, now indifference; of the unchanging instincts of bees and pigeons to illustrate uniformity.
Vincent reversed the process of the vain person who never lets the world forget their exalted pedigree. He stressed his lowly origins in order to shed the pride that would obscure his true self and to remove the barriers that would prevent him from reaching others’ hearts. Such a stance of humility disposed him for drawing God’s grace on his work, very much like — in an image he used elsewhere — the valley that draws its fertility from the mountains above. God indeed did rain his blessings on the work of Vincent to make those lowlands bloom.