Louise de Marillac: a Spirit-Filled Evangelizer
by: Sister María Ángeles Infante, DC
[This article was first published in Anales, volume 122, #2 (marzo-abril 2014), p. 137-143.]
Pope Francis dedicated the last chapter of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, to spirit-filled evangelizers. I have read and reflected on that section of the Pope’s exhortation and I have come to realize that what is being presented there was fully accomplished by Louise de Marillac. She lived those words and taught the meaning of those words to the members of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Today, the Church needs to hear that message and according to the Pope, living in accord with those words, makes the Church credible: Spirit-filled evangelizers mean evangelizers fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, the Spirit made the apostles go forth from themselves and turned them into heralds of God’s wondrous deeds, capable of speaking to each person in his or her own language. The Holy Spirit also grants the courage to proclaim the newness of the Gospel with boldness (parrhesía) in every time and place, even when it meets with opposition. Let us call upon him today, firmly rooted in prayer, for without prayer all our activity risks being fruitless and our message empty. Jesus wants evangelizers who proclaim the good news not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence (Evangelii Gaudium, #259).
Fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit
Was not that what Louise did throughout her life and her ministry. We recall her experience of enlightenment that occurred on the feast of Pentecost, June 4, 1623. She had been walking in the shadows of darkness and asked the Spirit for light. That light of the Spirit was shone upon her and she accepted that gift with the total openness of her mind of heart. Her doubts with regard to her vocation, the meaning of her life, the existence of God and her concern about a new spiritual director that she was seeking … all those doubts were dispelled: On the Feast of Pentecost, during holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was instantly freed of all doubt ... I felt that it was God who was teaching me these things and that, believing there is a God, I should not doubt the rest (SWLM:1 [A.2]).
Her openness to the movement of the Spirit changed the direction of her life: her fear was replaced with a confidence in God; her concern for herself gave way to a concern for the needs of others; her vertical approach to spirituality (God and me) became an open spirituality that was impelled by the universality of charity. Her heart, sensitive and highly affective, became a heart that was open to charity and risk and boldness for the glory of God and for the well-being of the poor.
Louise expressed all of this in her letter of August, 1646, written to Sister Jeanne Lepintre. Louise was returning from Nantes, the Company of the Daughters of Charity was growing and had just been approved by the Archbishop of Paris as an institution that was dedicated to works of charity, an institution that was given its proper autonomy and thus, was independent of the Confraternity of the Ladies of Charity. That was an important event because it signified the Church’s recognition. From that time the Sisters were called to care for and provide for the needs of every kind of poor person. Louise had traveled to Nantes in order to establish the Sisters in the hospital there and Sister Lepintre had remained at the motherhouse as the person in charge. The trip to Nantes had been filled with risks and difficulties. Louise, calmly and boldly, confronted those situations and in her letter to Sister Jeanne expressed her faith and her feelings: I praise God with all my heart for the guidance of his Divine Providence in the affairs of the Company. We have such reason to adore him for it that we would be the greatest ingrates in the world if we did not confide ourselves to it. It is Divine Providence alone which must keep us and provide for all our needs, particularly those which human prudence can neither foresee nor meet. With all my heart, I hope that all our Sisters will enter totally into these sentiments without ever relying on anything else (SWLM:164 [L.153]).
On August 8, 1656, near the end of Louise’s life, Queen Anne of Austria requested that the Daughters go to La F?re, to a field hospital on the battle front. Louise sent the Sisters there and accompanied them with her letters. In those letters that were exchanged we see the boldness and the courage of the Sisters as they cared for the wounded soldiers. Louise wrote to Vincent in order to inform him about the situation of some communities and the trip of the Sisters to La F?re. In her letter she expressed her convictions with regard to the present and the future and those convictions can be viewed as an expression of her openness to the Spirit: I believe that Our Lord always desires more confidence than prudence in order to maintain the Company, and that this very confidence will imperceptibly give rise to prudence when the need arises. It seems to me that experience has often shown this in the many occasions on which the laziness of my mind made it necessary (SWLM:519 [L.490]).
Acting in accord with the missionary action of Pentecost
Pope Francis stated: At Pentecost, the Spirit made the apostles go forth from themselves and turned them into heralds of God’s wondrous deeds. Louise was able to put aside her own concern as a result of the illumination that occurred on the feast of Pentecost, a feast and an ecclesial event to which Louise had a special devotion. Louise spoke about this with her spiritual director, Vincent de Paul: It is true that I have a special affection for the feast of Pentecost and this time of preparation for it is very dear to me. I recall that some time ago I was greatly consoled to hear a preacher say that is was on Pentecost that God gave his written law to Moses and that, under the law of grace, it was on the same day that he gave to his church his law of love which contains within it the power to effect this love. Since on this same day, God in his goodness placed in my heart a law which has never left it (SWLM:339-340 [L.118b]).
Throughout the later years of her life Louise continued this devotion to Pentecost, a devotion which she instilled in the Company. She expressed those thoughts in her reflections entitled, Reasons for Giving Oneself to God in Order to Receive the Holy Spirit. There she has left us an important affirmation with regard to the action of the Holy Spirit upon us: the Spirit, through the power of love, heals our weakness and gives us the light that enables us to respond to the needs of the Church and the needs of the poor. The same Spirit strengthens us so that we can correct our bad habits and sinful attitudes. The Spirit converts us, like the Apostles, into witnesses on behalf of the gospel: You [the Trinity] infused into this Mystical Body the union of your works, giving her the power to perform miracles so as to enable her to bring to souls the true witness which you willed her to bear to your Son (SWLM:820 [A.26]).
In that same reflection Louise affirmed that at the time of Baptism the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to every follower of Jesus Christ and thus every person has the obligation to make those gifts fruitful by allowing themselves to be guided by the Spirit of Pentecost. Louise expressed the fact that she lived her life in a form of spiritual harmony with the Spirit and she wanted all the Sisters to live in the same manner. She stated: The lack of these gifts is apparent in the strange difference in comportment between persons who are animated by them and those who are not. The actions of the latter are earthy and unreasonable (SWLM:818 [A26]).
Louise concluded those reflections with a prayer to the Holy Spirit and a resolution that is also a communication of a mystical experience of the presence of Jesus Christ in the person of the poor: I shall strive, with the help of his grace, to overcome my sloth and to make use of a practice which was recommended in a reading: to look upon all the occasions for doing some good for my neighbor not only in terms of the recompense which Our Lord has promised to me because he considers such acts as done to himself, but also in light of the fact that the neighbor has been given to me in the place of Our Lord, by means of a love which his goodness knows and which he has revealed to my heart, although I am unable to put it into words (SWLM:821 [A.26)]
The Holy Spirit, whom we invoke as the father of the poor, always encourages us to overcome our laziness in serving the poor and to discover Jesus Christ present in the person of the poor.
Spirit-filled evangelizers are supported by prayer
At the beginning of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls our attention to the fact that sadness and discouragement affect some evangelizers as they proclaim and transmit the gospel: The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ (Evangelii Gaudium, #2).
As a result of that accurate diagnosis, the Pope, from the perspective of prayer, invites us to take risks and to be bold in our charitable activity: I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms (Evangelii Gaudium, #3).
All of Louise’s life can be viewed from the perspective of a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus, the missionary of the Father’s love. Louise’s prayer was not some combination of practices and devotions but rather was an orientation that she gave to her life and her ministry as she lived in communion with God: Should I be so fortunate as to receive the Holy Spirit, oh, how I must desire this with my whole heart! No longer to walk any path but this one; no other satisfaction but that of loving and of willing your good pleasure (SWLM:819 [A.26]).
Louise carefully guarded her time of prayer and the time of her personal encounter with the Lord in order to find in that relationship of love the necessary strength and the courage to serve the poor and to give witness to the good news of the gospel to the children in the various schools, to the teachers and the Sisters whom she formed, to the women who saw her as “an expert” in prayer and requested her to guide them in their spiritual retreat (SWLM:571 [L.545d]; 679 [L.40)]. Her life and her ministry was oriented toward God … she surrendered herself to God’s will and she renewed that act of self-surrender on many different occasions. Like Samuel, she was able to live in the presence of God and knew how to listen: Here I am. You called me (1 Samuel 3:9).
Louise’s only desire was to give herself totally to God and to do God’s will. Like some of the persons that we find in the Bible we could say that Louise was a woman who walked with God (cf., Genesis 5:22). Living in that manner she found the courage and the strength to be a witness of Jesus Christ and to proclaim the gospel through her words and deeds. Like the apostle of charity she realized that she had to live her life rooted in God and therefore, she had to be mindful of God’s loving presence. In light of that reality she gave a conference to the Sisters entitled, On the Interior Spirit Necessary for the Daughters of Charity (SWLM:825 [M.73])
In that conference we find counsel that was not only valuable during the seventeenth century, but is equally valuable today:
- Our interior conversation with God should consist in the continuous remembrance of his holy presence.
- When pleasant things happen to us or when our undertakings succeed as we wish them too … let us glance interiorly toward God and thank him.
- We should strive to use all the things that strike our senses as means to raise our minds to God.
- When we are under pressure, and it seems to us that we urgently need and hope for help from others. However we are disappointed … We must then look immediately to the will of God and accept it in this situation. We should raise our minds to God and depend only on him (SWLM:825-826 [M;73]).
Louise’s whole life was a journey to the peripheries that existed at that time because rooted in prayer she lived the boldness of charity. Therefore, when she wrote to the Sisters, her words were heartfelt … it was as if her words were a hymn that resounded in the depths of her being with vibrant notes: Be courageous in serving the poor (SWLM:123 [L.113b], 254 [L.254], 411 [L.360b]). She told the Sisters that the strength and courage that comes from the Holy Spirit and that enables them to be bold in the practice of charity is an impetus for evangelization: Go then courageously, advancing moment by moment on the path on which God has placed you in order to reach him. In the name of God, my dear Sisters, do your utmost to help the souls of your sick poor to make the acts of faith, hope and charity necessary for salvation (SWLM:412 [L.360b]).
Louise de Marillac was a spirit filled-evangelizer because she made the invitation of Pope Francis a reality: I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day (Evnagelii Gaudium, #3).
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM