The Life of Vincent de Paul (Abelly): Book I, Chapter IX

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Louis Abelly · Translator: William Quinn. · Year of first publication: 1664.
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Vincent Secretly Withdraws from the de Gondi House but Later Returns There

The good opinion of all those who knew Monsieur Vincent grew abundantly. God bestowed great blessings God bestowed on his charitable enterprises and everyone came to recognize that he was filled with the Spirit of God. Both the general and Madame shared this opinion, which they showed publicly on occasion, much to the confusion of Monsieur Vincent who sought only abasement and lack of recognition. This situation concerned him so that, in imitation of many the saints, he saw no other remedy than to flee from the danger of vanity. More than one person before him, despite a life of virtue, had been seduced by calm seas and a favorable wind.

Saint Ambrose had written of Moses of old: “He fled from King Pharaoh’s court. He feared that the favors he had received would tarnish his soul and that the power and authority he had acquired would bind him to the place he was. He fled, not from the lack of resolve or courage, but to find the path of innocence, the road to virtue and the freedom to express his piety.” 1

Although the de Gondi household was one of the best managed of the court, and Monsieur Vincent did nothing contrary to true piety, the honors he received and the signs of affection which he experienced were enough to cause him anxiety. He felt that the influence he exercised over the minds and hearts in this illustrious family were only traps that would prevent his progress in the way of perfection so appropriate to his station in life. He therefore closed his eyes to all natural influences, to all worldly prospects, and resolved to leave this position so that he could give himself more perfectly to God.

Another reason which suggested itself to Monsieur Vincent that he should leave the service of Madame was his recognition that she was becoming too dependent upon him. She was troubled by scruples and other interior trials, brought about by God to add the crown of patience to that of charity. She had developed such an esteem and confidence in his spiritual direction that she feared losing his service. She was convinced that she would never be able to replace him with anyone with his grace and understanding who could calm her troubled soul, lighten her fears, and lead her in the way of true and solid virtue. She was so afraid of losing him that on those occasions he was forced to be away she could hardly bear his absence. She feared that hot weather or some accident was bound to happen. Surely all this was an imperfection in an otherwise virtuous woman. When Monsieur Vincent became aware of her obsession, he tried to help her by directing her to see a Recollect priest in confession. 2 He was a well-known director of souls, and Monsieur Vincent judged he would be acceptable to Madame. This proved to be the case. It gave Monsieur Vincent the opportunity to convince her that God could just as well lead her by another as by himself, if only she would put all her trust in his infinite goodness.

These sentiments were not strong enough to overcome what she saw as the necessity of having someone as prudent and charitable as he to accompany her on her trips to the country where she owned much property. She was obliged to visit these holdings frequently, often for a good part of the year. Yet she felt unable to bring herself to seek the help of the priests of the small towns to resolve her personal difficulties. Monsieur Vincent considered her situation and her wish that no one else have the least thing to do with her personal life, plus the fear he had of seeing the esteem people had for the “wretched man,” as he imagined and described himself. Added to this was his fear that this excessive attachment might block the spiritual progress of an otherwise virtuous soul. Instead of being an indispensable help to her he feared he might actually prevent her advancement along the way of perfection. Thus he finally concluded that he must leave the service of the de Gondi family.

Since Father de Berulle had persuaded him to accept this position in the first place, Monsieur Vincent now presented this plan to leave for his approval. He said only that he felt an interior movement of grace to go to one of the distant provinces to devote himself to teach and serve the poor country people. Father de Berulle did not object to this. He had seen in Monsieur Vincent a man so committed to God and so enlightened by his grace that he felt he could propose nothing better than what had been suggested.

He left the de Gondi house in July of 1617, using as pretext a previous agreement to make a short trip. He was well aware that there would likely be adverse judgment on his leaving like this, even accusations of ingratitude for such honor and good treatment he had received during his service in this house. He undoubtedly was sensitive on this point, for he was by nature thankful for all that was done for him, and yet he rose above all human considerations. He renounced personal interest and opened himself to criticism. Yet he felt that he was being faithful to God and was acting for the greater benefit of the virtuous soul confided to his spiritual direction. Although the means he used were extraordinary they show his lack of self-interest and his commitment to God alone.

When Father de Berulle realized that Monsieur Vincent was set on leaving the de Gondi house but had no particular place to continue his priestly work, he suggested that he might look into the region of Bresse where there was a serious lack of Gospel workers. He suggested the parish of Chatillon-les-Dombes, where his zeal could reap a great harvest. 3 Monsieur Vincent followed this recommendation. One of the first things he did upon arriving at Chatillon was to gather together the five or six clergymen he found in the area. He formed them into a sort of community to make their ministry more effective for God and his Church. 4 This arrangement lasted for a long time, to the great edification of all the parish. He applied himself with his usual zeal to instructing the people and converting sinners by his effective preaching and exhortations in both public and private. He did not neglect the sick and poor. He visited them and consoled and helped them in all kinds of ways. God blessed his efforts to bring back to the faith some heretics, as we shall see later in this book.

Up to this time nothing was known in the house of the general of the galleys of these events, for Monsieur Vincent had told no one his intentions except one or two confidants in Paris. Sometime after his arrival he thought he ought to inform the general, who then was in Provence, of his reasons for leaving his service. He lacked the capacity and the grace, he said, to serve adequately as tutor of his children. He included the remark that he had told neither Madame nor anyone else of his intention of not returning. 5 The general was so struck and saddened by this information that he immediately informed his wife in the following letter:

I am in despair at a letter I have just received from Monsieur Vincent. I am sending it to you to see if whether something can be done to prevent his loss to us. I am astonished that he did not discuss this with you and that you had no hint of this. Please use every means to make sure we do not lose him. Although his position may be true (his alleged incapacity,) it makes absolutely no difference to me. Nothing is more important to me than my own salvation and that of my children, which I know he can greatly help, or the fulfillment of some resolutions that I have often spoken about to you. 6

I have not yet replied to him. I will await more news from you. Do you think the intervention of my sister, Madame de Ragny, who is not far from him, would make any difference? 7 I doubt if anyone has more influence over him than Father de Berulle. Mention to him that although it may be true that Monsieur Vincent may be weak when it comes to teaching the young, we could easily supply a tutor to work under his direction. Emphasize that I am extremely anxious that he return to our service. He may lead his own life, and I shall be a right-thinking man myself only if he stays with us.

This letter was written in September 1617 and was received by Madame on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This was truly a cross for her, a sword of sorrow which pierced her soul. After receiving this letter she did not stop crying, and could neither eat nor sleep. She wrote to a confidant in this vein:

I never would have thought that Monsieur Vincent’s charity towards my soul would allow him to leave me like this. But, God be praised, I do not blame him. I believe that nothing ever happens but by God’s special providence as inspired by his holy love. Nevertheless his leaving is strange. I admit I cannot understand it at all. He knows the need I have for his direction and for the business affairs I have taken up with him. He is aware of the pains of mind and body I must bear without his help and the good I wish to accomplish in my towns which I will not be able to do without his advice. In short, I am in a sorry state. You can see how disturbed the general is by what he writes. The children are depressed, and the good accomplished in my house and in my lands and for these seven or eight thousand souls shall be no more. What? Are not these souls as much redeemed by the precious blood of our Savior as those of Bresse? Are they less precious?

In truth, I don’t know what Monsieur Vincent intends, but these matters are so important to me that I must do all I can to see him again. He acts only for the greater glory of God. I certainly do not want to act contrary to his holy will, but I will pray with all my heart for his return. I pray to the holy Mother of God and would pray even more earnestly if my own personal interest were not so intertwined with those of the general, my children, my family, and my subjects.

These were the sentiments of this virtuous lady. She wished to use the most efficacious means at her disposal to revise this decision, and so turned to prayer, both by herself and by all those whose piety she could count on. She recommended this intention to all the leading religious communities of Paris. Several times she visited Father de Berulle. She opened her heart to him, exposing the great pain and affliction she suffered. Her tears and pressing arguments convinced this great servant of God of her need for the presence and counsel of Monsieur Vincent. He agreed that she could in all good conscience do everything possible to bring about his return, for he saw that amid her acute suffering she retained a complete resignation to God’s good pleasure. She was disposed to suffer all rather than go against his holy will. To her great consolation he assured her that he would use his good offices with Monsieur Vincent to persuade him to return.

This was balm for her soul. She later said that Father de Berulle was the most consoling man in the whole world. She could not rest at ease, however, for she was well aware that Monsieur Vincent was not a person to do things by halves. He had undoubtedly already thought of whatever she might do or say, before leaving. All this did not prevent her from taking every measure she could to convince him to return. She wrote several times, after showing her letter first to Father de Berulle. She sent him the letter her husband had written to her and asked him to weigh well the great hope he expressed of having Monsieur Vincent come back under whatever conditions he might impose. In one of her letters which will allow us to see her state of mind in regard to him she wrote as follows:

I was not wrong to fear losing you, as I expressed to you many times, for it has come about as I dreaded. The anguish I experience would be insupportable were it not for an extraordinary gift of the grace of God, which I do not deserve. If this were only temporary I would not mind it so much, but when I consider all the occasions when I need your help, your guidance or your advice, whether in life or in death, my sorrow knows no bounds. Can my soul and body long endure these trials? I do not look for or receive any help from elsewhere, because you know well that I cannot open my soul to many. Father de Berulle promised he would write to you. I, too, beseech God and the Holy Virgin to return you to our home for the salvation of our entire family and for many others who will benefit from your charity. I beg you once more to do this for us for the love you bear for our Savior. I submit to his will, although I do not know for how long. If you refuse me, I shall place at your feet all that shall befall me and all the good I shall not be able to do for want of your aid. You will be responsible for my being in places deprived of the sacraments and for whatever suffering I endure, for you are aware of how few can help me.

You see that the general has the same hope as myself, by the mercy of God. Do not refuse to do what you can for his salvation, for he in turn can do much good to others. I know that my own life is useless, since I live, it seems, only to offend God. It would not be of great consequence to put my life in danger, but at least my soul should have some help at the hour of death. Recall the anxiety I experienced the last time I took sick in one of the villages. I fear that something worse will befall me and the very thought does me such harm I do not see how I can avoid dying from it. 8

Before leaving this matter we should reflect on the admirable way God acts towards those called to a high degree of virtue. He disposes the various events and accidents of life as elements in their advance along the road of perfection. What shows the wisdom and power of God is that often those very things which seem most contrary to his divine plan are the ones that contribute best to fulfilling it. God’s good pleasure, without a doubt, had given Monsieur Vincent to Madame de Gondi to serve as a faithful guide in the pilgrimage of life. Her great progress in the path of virtue and the ardent charity which inflamed her heart and flowered in such marvelous deeds, were evident signs of God’s blessing upon the direction of her wise counselor.

For his part, Monsieur Vincent found new occasions every day to exercise his zeal for building up the kingdom of Jesus Christ. However, God had brought it about that Monsieur Vincent and Madame de Gondi would be associated for his service and their mutual sanctification by works of piety and charity. In the same way, he caused their separation, which at first glance seemed so contrary to all the desirable results already attained and so harmful to this virtuous lady, to prepare them both for still more graces. By their resignation and acceptance he prepared them to receive still greater blessings. They would be worthy instruments for his all-powerful mercy in cooperating more completely in the salvation of a great number of souls. We shall see this later in this book.

God willed that Madame, his faithful servant, should make several acts of heroic resignation. She had to sacrifice her Isaac, her support, her counsel, her consolation, her help deemed so necessary to both her own advancement in virtue and even her own salvation. For Monsieur Vincent, God willed that he make several heroic acts of perfect detachment from those dearest to him, to whom he had been led by divine grace to esteem with a pure and sincere charity.

Beyond doubt, he was obliged to make a great effort to overcome his natural inclination when he left this house without even saying a word to anyone. Another renunciation was called for when he received this letter from Madame, not to succumb to the reasons, recriminations, prayers and entreaties it contained. A person less enlightened or less united to God than Monsieur Vincent could easily have been taken unawares by the recital of the pain, the distress, the great need she had of his help, the language she used to implore him to reconsider, and the recollection of the esteem, respect, and good will she expressed.

Since he had committed himself completely to God and wished to conform himself totally to his good pleasure, the first thing Monsieur Vincent did upon receiving this letter was to raise his mind to God. He then renewed his promise of inviolable fidelity to his divine Majesty and offered the sacrifice of all human inclination and consideration. He asked for the light and grace to know the divine will and to have the strength to follow it. After some reflection in God’s presence he felt that he was not being asked to change the decision he had taken. He accordingly wrote to Madame, expressing his sympathy for her suffering but urging her to submit to the designs of God’s holy will. 9

She had already been assured that she might in good conscience pursue the possible return of Monsieur Vincent. This letter did not in the least hinder her efforts to bend his spirit. She persuaded people of all different classes and occupations to write to him. He received letters from her children, from Cardinal de Retz, her brother-in-law then bishop of Paris, from her close relatives, from the chief officers of the household, from several pious persons. They all requested and urged his return. 10

Father de Berulle wrote also, as he had promised he would, but he wrote in a style worthy of his great prudence and piety. He merely pointed out the extreme discomfort of this virtuous lady, the dangers threatening her, and the wish the general harbored for his return. He said nothing more. He left it to the discretion and charity of Monsieur Vincent to consider if the will of God were sufficiently manifest. He was persuaded that Monsieur Vincent was more than capable of discerning the designs of God in his own regard and able to carry out this divine purpose with no need of outside advice or persuasion.

Since all these remonstrances seemed to have no effect on Monsieur Vincent, Monsieur Dufresne, the general’s secretary and one of his closest friends, was sent to Chatillon in October 1617 to speak to Monsieur Vincent. 11 He succeeded in persuading him that God’s call to this remote place was not absolutely sure. This was enough to make Monsieur Vincent uncertain of just what the will of God for him really was. In an affair of this importance he did not want to act solely by his own lights.

In imitation of the apostle Paul he sought his own Ananias, that is, he took counsel of a wise and virtuous person. He suggested that Monsieur Vincent accompany him to Lyons, where he could consult Father Bence, superior of the Oratory. 12 After considering all these issues, he suggested that a return to Paris would allow Monsieur Vincent to consult with those who had known him for a long time. He would be able to discern with more light and assurance God’s exact will for him.

After receiving this advice he wrote to the general who was then in Marseilles, showing that in two months he hoped to be in Paris where he would search out the designs of God for him. He wrote much the same thing to Monsieur Dufresne but without committing himself in any way. Some time later, at Chatillon, he received the following reply from the general, on October 15 of the same year.

Two days ago I received the letter you wrote from Lyons, informing me that you will be coming to Paris towards the end of November. I am exceedingly happy to hear this news. I look forward to seeing you there, in the hope that you will answer my prayers and accept the advice of all your good friends. I will not now say anything more about this, for you have read the letter I wrote to my wife. I ask you only to consider the thought that possibly God wills you should contribute much to making the father and his sons worthy gentlemen. 13

Monsieur Vincent left Chatillon, to the great sorrow of the people there, who regretted losing one who had served them so well, and reached Paris on December 23. 14 Here he met with Father de Berulle and some other enlightened advisers. Encouraged by their counsel he finally returned to the service of the general of the galleys on Christmas eve. The whole family rejoiced, particularly Madame, who received him as an angel from heaven. She regarded him as sent by God to guide her along the right path leading to her salvation and her own perfection. Fearing that he might leave a second time, she made him promise that he would continue in her service until her death, which he did. God willed it so that this good woman would be his instrument in helping bring about the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission, as we shall see later in this book.

  1. PL 14:579.
  2. Probably a Franciscan Recollect, a reformed branch in the Franciscan family.
  3. This parish, in the ancient province of Bresse, was located near the principality of the Dombes. Today it is the chief town of the department of Ain. The church of Saint Andrew in Chatillon was dependent on that of Saint Martin in Buenans, a village close to Chatillon. Officially speaking, Saint Vincent was named as pastor of Buenans. He took canonical possession of both of these churches August 1, 1617. The canons of Lyons were the temporal lords of Chatillon. Appalled by the condition of the parish, which had been neglected by previous benefice holders, they appealed to the newly founded house of the Oratory in Lyons. This request came to the attention of de Berulle, its founded. Since no one was willing in Lyons to care for these parishes, he turned to Vincent.
  4. Saint Vincent was assisted by Louis Girard, a doctor of theology, who later served as his vicar and then as his successor. CED XIII:47, 52, 53-54, 439.
  5. CED I:21.
  6. Probably his desire to retire to the Oratory. This resolution was fulfilled after the death of his wife.
  7. Hippolyte de Gondi, who married Leonor de la Madeleine, marquis de Ragny.
  8. CED I:21-22.
  9. CED I:23.
  10. During Saint Vincent’s stay in the de Gondi household, three members of the family were in turn bishops of Paris: Pierre, uncle of the general of the galleys; Henri, brother of the general, and the first Cardinal de Retz; and Jean-Francois, another brother. This latter named his nephew and namesake his successor, and he became the second Cardinal de Retz.
  11. Dufresne had previous been a secretary to Queen Marguerite de Valois, and was responsible for the saint’s introduction to her household. Saint Vincent returned the favor by recommending Dufresne to the de Gondis.
  12. Jean de Bence, one of the first companions of Pierre de Berulle. One of Bence’s companions, Paul Metezeau, gave Saint Vincent a letter to introduction of Jean Beynier, a Huguenot, who provided hospitality to the new pastor. Beynier would later be converted by Vincent.
  13. CED I:23.
  14. His official resignation was dated January 31, 1618; his successor, Louis Girard, assumed the pastorate July 10 of that year.

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