III. The Dream
The most convincing proof of the reality of Zoe Laboure s vocation was that she talked about it. It seems a ridiculous piece of evidence at first glance, for teen-age girls talk about everything: their technicolor dreams of the future, the type of man they mean to marry, the kind of home they plan to have. Many of them “get religion” at one time or another and vow fervently that they will go to the convent—not forgetting to let a requisite number of chums in on the exciting secret. All this is natural, normal, healthy girl talk. Zoe Laboure, however, was not given to such harmless chatter. When she said something, you could be sure that she had thought about it for a long time first.
She talked about her vocation, according to Tonine, “from the time of her first Communion.” Characteristically, too, Zoe acted to further it, not in a sudden fever of activity, for hers was a long-range plan: she did not intend to leave home tomorrow or the next day; it would be years before she went. In the meantime, nevertheless, her intention one day to embrace the religious life was her chief motive for training Tonine in the role of housekeeper. When Tonine should be old enough to take over the care of the house, then, Zoe decided, she herself would go off to fulfill her vocation. In the years of waiting she would bolster it with prayer and with the intimate conversation and sympathy of her little sister and friend. Nor did she so much as mention it to anyone but her sister. Zoe went every Sunday to the hospital in Moutiers-Saint Jean to visit with the Sister Servant or Superior, Sister Catherine Soucial; but nothing was ever said on either side about vocation.
This Sister Catherine had an interesting history. As a young girl, she had been in a predicament similar to Zoe’s: what to do, where to go, to find her vocation. She had the answer while praying before the famous shrine of Our Lady of Buglose, where St. Vincent de Paul had gone barefoot on pilgrimage. When her seminary in Paris was over, Sister Catherine was sent to the community house in Chatillon-sur-Seine, the very house where Zoe was to be given the final sign of her calling and where she was to serve her postulancy. The violence of the Revolution reached Chatillon in 1793, and the Sisters were driven out. Not knowing where to go, Sister Catherine was on the point of returning to her parents’ home, when she heard that the Sisters of Charity were still at Moutiers-Saint Jean. She took refuge there and stayed on for sixty years.
Sister Catherine Soucial and Zoe were fast friends. That, and the religious atmosphere of the house, made it natural for Zoe to reveal her vocation; yet she kept her counsel, and Sister Catherine kept hers. The good Sister went no nearer to the heart of the matter than to encourage Zoe in her devotions and in her hard and laborious life. While it is true that the Sisters of Charity had a tradition of not seeking out vocations, yet the tradition was not ironclad; and furthermore, Sister Catherine never mentioned vocation to Zoe at all, to any religious community. It would seem that this wise woman, who had had first-hand experience of the workings of Providence, was content to let God indicate His plans for Zoe in His own good time. Besides, she must have seen that Zoe was already living the life of a Sister of Charity in the world, and that her way of life would certainly influence her choice of vocation.
As for Zoe, it was her nature to pray and to wait and to ponder and to be silent.
One night in 1824, when she was eighteen, Zoe had an extraordinary dream. She dreamed that she was in her favorite oratory, the chapel of the Laboures in the village church, assisting at the Mass of an old and venerable priest she had never seen before. Each time the priest turned from the altar for the “Dominus Vobiscum,” he raised his eyes to Zoe’s face and held her gaze. Each time she was forced to lower her eyes, blushing, unable to hold the steady and compelling eyes of the priest.
When Mass was over and the old man had started for the sacristy, he turned back and beckoned to Zoe to follow him. She was suddenly very frightened and, jumping to her feet, ran from the church. She glanced back over her shoulder as she ran, and the priest was still there, standing by the sacristy door, looking after her.
Then the thought came to Zoe in her dream to stop to visit a woman of the village who was sick. On entering the sickroom, she came face to face with the same venerable priest. Wild fright seized her again, and she began to back away. For the first time, then, the priest spoke directly to her:
“You do well to visit the sick, my child. You flee from me now, but one day you will be glad to come to me. God has plans for you; do not forget it.”
At these words Zoe awoke and lay wondering what it could all mean; and, strangely enough, there was no more fear in her, only peace and comfort and a great happiness. Although she did not understand it then, this dream was sent Zoe by God to point out with certainty the vocation of His choice.
Zoe told no one about her dream, not even Tonine. She recounted it for the first time to her confessor in Chatillon some four years later, when she began to realize what it meant. Out of the confessional, she spoke of it only toward the end of her life nearly fifty years later, when, in a sudden transport of joy, she recounted this vivid and mysterious dream to Marie Louise, whom she had gone to visit in the infirmary of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity on the rue du Bac.
Dreams and their interpretation are a slippery business, especially in spiritual matters. Everybody dreams; dreaming is a purely mechanical action of the human mind. The imagination is like a moving-picture screen upon which the films or images stored up by the memory are flashed. If the projection machine is left unguarded, as it is when the operator falls asleep, the film tends to rewind itself and get all mixed up in the process. The results are dreams. Because of their lack of intelligent control, dreams are obviously not to be trusted as guides to action. Yet the superstitious often look upon them as such guides. For this reason the Church has seen fit to condemn the interpretation of dreams generally, along with fortune telling, omens, and other occult claptrap.
Nevertheless, God has at times and for His own wise reasons made important use of dreams. There were, for example, the Old Testament dreams of Jacob and Joseph his son, and the New Testament dreams of the Foster Father of Jesus. And there was the dream of Zoe Laboure.
That God could use so perilous a means to communicate with a girl of only eighteen is eloquent testimony to Zoe’s hardheaded common sense. Moreover, Zoe’s ability to distinguish between this type of communication and her other supernatural illuminations makes her a most trustworthy witness. She was always precise as to whether she “dreamed” or “saw” or “heard” or “understood interiorly” whatever Heaven had to tell her.
Meanwhile, at nineteen, Zoe had her first proposal of marriage.
Zoe Laboure had certain physical, social, and housewifely graces that made her eminently desirable as a wife, especially a country wife. She was not pretty; neither was she homely. Her best physical feature was her eyes—large, solemn, wise, and blue as cornflowers. She was strong and well knit, an excellent thing in a farmer’s wife. She dressed well and neatly, but not with foolish ostentation. She was innocent and good. She had already proven her ability to manage a home. With all this, she was of good family, and, since her father was prosperous, her dowry would be substantial.
The name of the young man who first proposed marriage to her has long been forgotten. He and Zoe had probably known each other from childhood, for the district was not thickly populated and everyone knew everyone else. Most likely he was one of the group of young people Zoe and Tonine stopped to chat with after church.
It is impossible to imagine Zoe encouraging this young man’s attentions in any way, “dating him” as we would say today, or even going along with the ritual of courtship then in vogue. Not that she was stuffy or prudish: she was just not interested, for she had other plans; and she was too honest to waste a boy’s time or ambition for nothing. She would be gentle and kind and polite with him, as she was with everyone.
Evidently this was encouragement enough for the young blade for, in accordance with custom, his father stepped in to play his part, making a call on Pierre Laboure to propose a marriage between Zoe and his son. Pierre was flattered: the boy’s family was solid and respectable and ranked high in the village. He promised to speak to Zoe, to further the suit.
Zoe, of course, turned it down. Nor did her father press her to consent. Secretly, he was highly pleased. There was enormous satisfaction in the knowledge that his favorite child was desirable; it reflected favorably both on her and on him, on her good qualities and on his position. At the same time, he was more than content to have Zoe remain with him; her loss would have been a high price to pay for his social pride. The incident ended, therefore, to the satisfaction of the Laboures, father and daughter; only the young suitor was disappointed and had to look for greener pastures.
Tonine, the romantic miss of seventeen, had followed it all breathlessly. She was puzzled, to say the least, at the outcome.
“Will you never marry?” she asked her sister.
“I shall never marry,” Zoe answered. “I am promised to Jesus Christ.”
“Then, you haven’t changed,” Tonine persisted.
“I haven’t changed.” All her life, change would be the last thing to expect of Zoe Laboure.
There were at least two more proposals of marriage for the first lady of Fain, and they came to the same impasse. Her father smiled to himself, secure in the possession of his treasure. He slumbered on, not realizing that he was to lose her anyway. If he suspected Zoe’s vocation at all—and her pious way of life certainly gave him reason enough to suspect it—he was, apparently, confident that he could deal with it.
When Zoe had reached the age of twenty-two, she sat down and took stock of her situation. She had done her duty; she had served her father faithfully and well. Tonine, at twenty, was capable of handling the household alone; and Zoe had made sure, in a long and earnest conversation, that she was not only ready but willing to do so. Satisfied, therefore, that her family responsibilities were at an end, Zoe decided to act upon her vocation. Nor would it be rash to state further that God was nudging her to action, for she never undertook anything unless she was convinced that it was the Will of God.
Nothing now stood in the way but to secure her father’s consent. It would seem that Zoe had taken this for granted; otherwise she would not have waited so long to join battle with him for her rights. She would have prepared this ground as she prepared all others. As it was, she was taken by surprise.
Pierre Laboure said “No!”
Zoe’s reactions to this unexpected refusal are not recorded, but they are easy to reconstruct. There would be amazement, of course; it was totally unlooked-for. There would be hurt; it was a callous display of ingratitude from the father she had loved and served so well. Especially, there would be anger.
Zoe had a will of her own and a temper to match it. She was a quiet, docile, withdrawn person, until she was crossed. Her father’s refusal to consent to her vocation was probably the first time she had been crossed since childhood. She had had the ordering of the household; her father had gladly left it in her capable hands. He had given her a certain authority over Tonine and Auguste. He had left her free to follow her pious inclinations; he had not even forced her to relinquish the fasting she began when she was fourteen. It must have been like running full tilt into a stone wall for this favorite child of her father to have him refuse to grant her dearest wish. We do not know whether a sharp exchange between father and daughter followed upon this refusal. Probably not. Zoe was too much mistress of herself to resist her father in words. She withdrew from the encounter, bewildered, hurt, angry, and heartbroken.
Until now life had been good on the Laboure farm. Pierre Laboure had basked in the mellow autumn of his days, well off, well served, respected by his fellows. Zoe had been content. She liked to manage things, and she did it well. The bright sun of her vocation had climbed steadily in the sky, promising a glorious day. Tonine had been happy also, and Auguste; but their happiness was beside the point, in a sense, since it depended greatly upon the harmony between Zoe and her father. Now that harmony had been shattered, and the former placid way of life was no more.
Things were the same on the surface. The floors were scrubbed, the woodwork dusted, the meals prepared, the livestock fed, with the same clockwork regularity; yet the life had gone out of these things. They had become routine, a way of putting in time between daybreak and sundown. Zoe’s heart was no longer in them, and her heart was the heart of the home and all its works. Only her prayers kept their vitality, and they grew sad and poignant, filled with pleas and longing.
Into this house divided came a letter from Charles Laboure, Zoe’s brother, who was in Paris. Years before, Charles had finished his apprenticeship in the catering trade and had gone to work for an established proprietor. Now, at twenty-eight, he had his own restaurant. Charles mentioned in this letter written to his father, that he was in need of domestic help, due apparently to the recent, untimely death of his wife. A plan took shape in the mind of Pierre Laboure. He would send Zoe to stay with her brother and help him with his business. The change would be good for everyone, because of the tension in the house. Especially—and this was Pierre’s true motive—the change would serve to distract Zoe from her religious purpose. She had seen very little of the world she wished to leave, only a few straggly hamlets in fact. Paris was the world, a world the daughter of Pierre Laboure scarcely knew existed, save in rumor and story. Paris would knock this vocation nonsense right out of her young head. So Pierre Laboure argued. So thousands of doting fathers have argued over the centuries. To keep their daughters from the convent, to prevent them from marrying ineligible young men, these fathers have sent them travelling up and down the paths of the earth. Such plans have failed more often than they have succeeded. Certainly Pierre Laboure’s plan was to fail, for, in sending Zoe to Paris, he was sending her away from him forever. She was never to return to Fain.
Zoe obeyed her father’s wishes, now, as always. This obedience is the hallmark, the strength, of Zoe Laboure. No matter how fiercely the gorge of rebellion rose within her, no matter how useless she knew the command to be, Zoe always obeyed. Even at the adult age of twenty-two, even with the divine wishes crystal-clear in her own mind, Zoe felt constrained to submit to the superior God had placed over her in the person of her father. It is the only explanation for her allowing herself to be put to such torture of mind and soul during the next two years.
Zoe was quite capable of eloping to the convent; she had the courage and intrepidity for such a violent move. There can be little doubt that she would have been received, for she was of age and legally out of her father’s reach. The only human motive she might have for hesitating was the lack of a dowry, but it was a lack that could be supplied, as it was eventually, without her father’s help.
It is quite true, also, that Zoe loved her father and would not wilfully hurt him. She knew that he doted on her, that he had always dreamed of having her near him in his declining days. She understood, as perhaps no one else did, his self-righteous excuse that, having given one daughter to the religious life, he had given all God had a right to expect of a Christian man. She understood and allowed for it.
With all this, however, her profound obedience, a virtue evident in every phase of her life, cannot be too strongly insisted upon as the mainspring of her submission, for it was ever the mainspring of all her actions.
A sparkling bauble indeed was the Paris of 1828. It shone with the brilliance of a new day. Andre Marie Ampere and Jean Baptiste Lamarck worked in its laboratories. Nicolo Paganini played in its concert halls. Its citizens diverted themselves with the novels of Victor Hugo and the poems of Alphonse Lamartine; they read in translation the works of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Irving, in fact, had written his Tales of a Traveler in Paris only a few years before, and John Howard Payne, his immortal Home, Sweet Home. When Zoe arrived in the city, Cooper was actually in residence there, hard at work on his writing.
The storm of the revolution was past, the sun was out again, and Paris was back at its gay pastime of entertaining the world.
Not that Zoe could have known the social whirl and smartness of the capital. After all, her brother was only a restaurant keeper of the humblest kind. She could not miss, however, the beauty and enchantment of the lovely place. These were to be found on the boulevards and in the parks. They were the property of all and the poorest found delight in them.
Zoe did not. Pierre Laboure might have saved himself the hours of worry and scheming and the money spent on this experiment. He had miscalculated. The only effect Paris had on Zoe was to increase her misery.
Charles’s restaurant was not at all what we mean by the term. It was a plainer establishment by far, more like the modern lunchroom or grille, a hole-in-the-wall on rue de l’Echiquier, where the workmen stopped for a bit of bread and cheese and a tumbler of wine. The quarter of the city was known as Notre Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle—Our Lady of Good News: the title was ironic, to say the least, at this lowest point of Zoe’s life. Inside, the restaurant consisted of a single long, narrow room with a bare counter running from front to back on either side and plain benches set against the walls behind them. Here the rough workmen of the quarter took their daily meals, sitting all in a row like so many strange and noisy monks in their refectory, talking loudly, quarreling, laughing, raucous in their calls for service, beating with tin mugs on the scarred table-tops in deafening bids for attention.
The stale, smoke-filled air of the restaurant was a very different atmosphere from the pure country air of Zoe’s home. It was an atmosphere that symbolized the completeness of the change for her, an atmosphere that choked, smothered, pressed upon her, hemmed her in with the hopeless misery of prison bars. Her brother’s clients were rough, rude men who worked hard with their hands, men without culture or polish. It was not their roughness, however, that sickened Zoe; she was accustomed to roughness in the hired men of her father’s farm. A crude sophistication had intruded upon the basic goodness of these city workers. Their simplicity and plainness of manner were of a very different sort from the simplicity of the farmhand. The city had peppered their talk with vulgarisms and curses and occasional obscenities; in their shouting and loud-mouth remarks they had the offensive quality of a gang of bad boys.
For all that, Zoe was not afraid of them. It would be hard to imagine her afraid of anything belonging to this earth. The only fear recorded in her life was the fear of her confessor, and that was a truly spiritual fear. Zoe was far from timid. Any insulting remarks or fresh advances—and we might surely expect them in such a place from such men—Zoe would deal with promptly and firmly. They would not happen again. And, little by little, a deep respect for this different kind of waitress, the respect of every man for a good woman, would show in the faces and the manners of the clients of Charles Laboure.
Charles himself was unhappy over his sister’s lot. Knowing Zoe, he probably knew from the outset that his father’s plan to distract her from her religious vocation would never work; knowing his father, Charles dared not say what he thought. He made life as tolerable for her as he could, shielding her as much as possible from the unpleasantness bound up in her work. As time went on and he saw daily the acuteness of her pain, however, he knew that something had to be done.
Zoe had accepted her fate with good grace and all the stamina of her stout spirituality, but every human being has a limit of patience and endurance. Zoe had almost reached hers. It was not only the horror of the dank, stale tavern air in her country lungs, not only the rising panic at being trapped in a tiny, hopeless cage. It was especially a spiritual desolation, for she saw the minutes and weeks and months frittering away and dissolving into nothingness like snowflakes on a wet sidewalk.
Zoe would have seen her brothers in Paris frequently enough. Besides Charles, Antoine, Joseph, and Pierre were living there. Hubert, whose home and family were in Chatillon-sur-Seine, must have come often to the capital on military affairs. He was already, at thirty-five, a member of the personal bodyguard of Charles X and a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Each of Zoe’s brothers had known and felt the iron will of his father, and therefore could understand and sympathize with Zoe in her hour of trial. Some kind of a family conspiracy was hatched to rescue her, for letters went off in the mail. The plan was for Zoe to escape to Hubert and his wife in Chatillon. Even Marie Louise, away in the convent, was taken into their confidence.
Although Marie Louise was only six years out of the novitiate, she was already superior of the house of the Sisters of Charity at Castelsarrasin. Zoe wrote to her, probably through Charles, confiding her religious desires and asking what she thought of the proposed stay in Chatillon. Marie Louise’s reply is extant. It is a letter which Zoe kept and put to good use in saving her older sister from a terrible mistake years later.
My dear Zoe,
The grace of Our Lord be with us forever.
I cannot tell you what pleasure your dear letter gave me. I love you far too much not to congratulate you on the attraction with which God has inspired you for a community which is so dear to me. You say you wish you already possessed that happiness. Oh, if you could only realize it! If God begins to speak to your heart, no one has the right to prevent you from entering the service of so good a Master, which is the grace I beg Him to bestow on you.”
We find here the first evidence that Zoe was considering the Sisters of Charity as the religious community of her choice. That she had not definitely decided, however, is apparent from a further paragraph:
“It is not our custom to ask anyone to enter the community; I hope God will pardon my weakness in this regard for you. He knows that the salvation of your soul is as dear to me as that of my own, and how ardently I desire that you should be of the number of those to whom He will say one day: ‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ That is the life of a true Daughter of Charity.”
The letter is long and commonplace, filled with pious cliches the Sister Superior had heard in conferences or read in books, and needless urgings toward perfection for a soul already completely one with God. Yet it served its purpose, for it brought the sympathy and encouragement Zoe needed so badly. It reached its climax in a short, splendid sentence that must have clashed like Christmas bells in Zoe’s soul: “Therefore, if God calls you, follow Him.” Marie Louise, though she was to falter in serving God, will be forever blessed for that letter and that ringing sentence. In fact, as bread cast upon the waters always does, it returned its blessing to her in her lifetime. The letter concluded with complete approval of the family plans to circumvent their father.
“I wish that you would pass some time with our dear sister-in-law, as she proposes, so that you can get the education which is so necessary in any state of life. You would learn there to speak French a little better than they do in our village; you could also improve yourself in your writing and arithmetic, but above everything else in piety, fervor, and love of the poor.”
Everyone was in agreement. In a Catholic family, the brother or sister in religion is an oracle to be consulted in matters of moment. Marie Louise was especially an oracle to Zoe, for she had already attained the religious goal Zoe so ardently desired, and had even been chosen to direct others. Small wonder that Zoe was seized with a holy relief that this respected older sister should set her seal upon what Zoe wished to do.
The next step was to obtain Pierre Laboure’s permission for the venture. It was a formidable task, and the choice for carrying it out fell unanimously upon Hubert’s wife, Jeanne. Jeanne could twist her father-in-law around her little finger.
Jeanne Gontard Laboure was a cousin of Zoe’s mother. Perhaps that was the basic reason why she was a favorite of Pierre’s, for she seems to have been cut from the same cloth as his dead wife. She was educated, cultured, witty, and brilliant; she was also good, kind, and pious. She ran a boarding school for fashionable young ladies, and it tickled the vanity of Pierre Laboure that the noble families of the province of Barrois sent their daughters to be educated there.
This clever woman won the day. She managed to persuade her father-in-law that Zoe would profit by an extended visit with her. The old man was not altogether displeased that Zoe would mix with “young ladies of good family and receive a little education.” Little did he know that he was being hoodwinked, that he was lending himself to a plan that would bring about his own ultimate defeat.