10] A personalized pedagogy
Louise de Marillac, whose personality was shaped by her profound faith and the various experiences of her life, placed herself, as a woman and a Christian, at the service of Christian education. Her pedagogy was simple: she personalized the formation that she offered; she began with the reality and then communicated the dynamism hidden within said reality.
Reading her approximate three hundred fifty letters to the Daughters of Charity one begins to see how the style and tone varied according to the Sister who was being addressed. Louise was mindful of the individual’s culture, character and personality. She was very direct with those Sisters who had a strong character, in fact, she could give the impression of being rude. On the other hand, when addressing Sisters who were timid or more withdrawn, Louise revealed her tenderness and gentleness. Louise adapted herself to the individual who was being addressed and she viewed this adaptation as proof of her respect for the other.
Louise never reproached anyone without highlighting some positive characteristic: an individual’s ability to share, a talent for baking or a Sister’s fidelity to God. Louise realized that her observations ought to help an individual progress and move forward and not crush an individual or cause one to become rebellious.
Louise’s sensitivity was revealed especially in her dealings with the infirm or dying Sisters. The majority of the time she was unable to travel to the distant places where the Sisters ministered, but she often sent another Sister to visit. Thus she sent Elisabeth Jeanne Dalmagne a very moving letter from her superior: God knows how much I regret not being able to assist you in this final act of love which I am confident you will make by willingly offering your soul to the Eternal Father, desiring thereby to imitate the moment of death of his Son (SWLM:108 [L.97]).
In the seventeenth century death was not some hidden reality but one that was lived out as a family. For the Daughters of Charity, death was the ultimate act of one’s love for God.
Louise was not only attentive to the Sisters but was equally attentive to their families. It was often impossible for the parents and their daughter to correspond with one another, especially when as a Sister, their daughter had been missioned in some distant place. Many did not know how to read or write. Louise served as an intermediary, receiving or communicating news through means of the sisters and then transmitting the news to their families. The letters of Louise allow us to follow the life of the Angiboust family in Chartes, the Menage family in Serqueux and the Carcireux family from Beauvais. We are made aware of the numerous family deaths, the difficulties that family members encountered as they looked for work and the multiple concerns of daily life.
In this way each Sister was known and recognized by Louise. When this did not occur, Louise was made aware of the situation and often made aware with some very strong words. Charlotte Royer referred to nasty Louise (SWLM:254 [L.254]) who sent her to the distant mission of Richelieu. Anne Hardemont, who was persuaded to leave Paris, wrote to Louise from Ussel about her suffering using words that were not in any way friendly. In her response Louise made every effort to calm their anxiety. If it was possible for Louise to establish a relationship with the Sisters despite all their differences, it was because she respected each Sister. The mutual trust enabled her to share with them and to do this with true humility and simplicity.
Louise possessed a profound knowledge of the realities which the Sisters encountered. She was informed about all of this through the letters that the Sisters wrote, through conversations with the Sisters when they returned to the motherhouse and through her own visits to the different houses. Louise also received letters from the Ladies of Charity, from the administrators of the different hospitals, from the pastors and from the Missionaries who visited the Daughters. This knowledge allowed Louise to lead the Sisters in a deeper reflection on the specific events that they had experienced.
In Richelieu the two Sisters complained that they were unable to do all the things they were expected to do. Louise invited them to examine their lives and the way they spent their time and then outline a method of procedure. The Sisters pointed out the manner in which they lived their lives from the time they woke up to the time they went to sleep and noted that they did not waste time in useless conversation or visits. Was it necessary to take meals outside the community? Louise invited them to reflect again on the spirit that motivated them as they moved through the day: what place did prayer and obedience have? what motivated their activity among the poor? Louise asked them to share with her the results of their community reflection.
In Angers the community life was less fraternal. The Sisters were invited to reflect on how they interacted with one another. In a very simple way Louise introduced some psychological ideas: if our sister is depressed or forlorn, if she is too quick or too slow, what in the world do you expect her to do about it? This is part of her character. Although she often tries to overcome herself, nevertheless, she cannot prevent these inclinations from frequently appearing. And should her sister, who is supposed to love her as herself, become annoyed with her, be rude to her or frown upon her? O my dear Sisters, be on your guard against acting like this. Instead, pretend that you do not notice it and do not criticize her, bearing in mind that it will soon be your turn and you will want her to act this way toward you (SWLM:114 [L104B]).
In certain communities difficulties arose as a result of wrongful interpretations of recommendations that were made. Hygiene and cleanliness are indispensible in community life. Using that reality as a pretext some Sisters pursued their well-being in a manner that was not compatible with their vocations as Daughters of Charity. In many parishes the Sisters taught catechism to the poor children. To do this well they needed to spend time preparing the lessons. But some Sisters found personal satisfaction in studying the catechism and became careless about their other obligations: the humble daily chores and the services that were demanded of them in their ministry with the infirm. To adapt the habits of the Ladies of Charity and to present oneself as a wise person in order to be recognized by others is to be lacking in one’s commitment and as such one runs the risk of provoking the disappearance of the Company as it departs from its objective.
In all of her teaching Louise communicated energy to the Sisters, energy that gave them life: the love of their sisters and brothers that flows from the love of the incarnate Christ. In the numerous meditations that Louise wrote she directed her attention to the human person that God had created, that God had so loved that he himself desired to share in this humanity in order to make it more pleasing, in order to make it divine in some way. Louise pointed out in a powerful way how the incarnation of the Son of God restored greatness to men and women. In the Son of God, made man, Louise recognized the greatness of every person and she believed in their possibilities, whether they were orphans or abandoned children, galley salves or mentally ill, forgotten and cast aside by society. She made every effort to share this conviction with the Sisters, insisting that they love, respect and hold in esteem each and every person: Our vocation of servants of the poor calls us to practice the gentleness, humility and forbearance that we owe to others. We must respect and honor everyone; the poor because they are members of Jesus Christ and our masters; the rich so that they will provide us with the means to do good for the poor (SWLM:468 [L.424]).
Louise invited the Sisters to contemplate the earthly life of Jesus in order to clothe themselves in his attitudes of sensitivity and love of those who are poor. She taught the Sisters to contemplate the humanity of the suffering Christ whom they would encounter in so many different people as they exercised their ministry. Indeed, through their service, the Daughters of Charity prolong the work of redemption as they help those who are humiliated and rejected to find new life, the dignified life of a man or woman, the dignified life of a child of God.
Respect for every person, providing for the whole person and service of love … these are the characteristics that Louise focused on as a result of her reflections and profound faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Mary, the Mother of God. This is also the dynamism that she communicated to the Daughters of Charity.