Louise de Marillac: a bold and creative woman
by: Celestino Fernández, C.M.
(This article first appeared in Vida Nueva in 2010 and was then posted by Javier F. Chento on the website somos on March 15, 2011 … http://somos.vicencianos.org/blog/2011/03/luisa-de-marillac-una-mujer-audaz-y-creativa/)
On September 27th, 2010, the Jubilee Year commemorating the 350th anniversary of the death of Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac (1660-2010) was officially concluded. On the occasion of the Vincentian Jubilee Year Vida Nueva published a special edition on Vincent de Paul (Vida Nueva, #2.704, 24-30 de abril de 2010). In that same edition, and as a postscript to the celebration of the Jubilee Year, Vida Nueva also published the following article on Saint Louise de Marillac. This was an attempt to draw people closer to this exceptional woman, forgotten for so many years and only recently joyfully rediscovered … a strong woman, an advocate, bold, creative and radically committed to the poor and the marginalized.
In our search for this woman we find very contradictory signs of her identity. We are able to view sketches that present us with the image of a sad widow, a complex mystic and a forward looking, bold advocate on behalf of the dignity of those who were oppressed. We can examine the profile of a truly Christian woman, a tender and suffering mother … a woman who promoted a new way of following Christ.
One thing is clear: this woman, Louise de Marillac or Mademoiselle Le Gras (whichever you prefer) has, for the most part, been unknown. Furthermore, an endless series of clichés and stereotypes have distorted her true personality. Someone has said that this woman has had no luck. Her exceptional talent, which could stand on its own, has always been placed on a secondary level, that is, in the shadow of an illustrious figure: that of her friend, guide and collaborator, Vincent de Paul.
Without a doubt we stand in the presence of one of the most complete women in the history of the Church and in the history of humanity … one of the most intelligent and astute persons who provided assistance and advocated on behalf of the liberation of those persons who were poor.
The mountain of stones and the diamond
The chronicler stated that on Monday morning, March 15th, 1660, when Vincent de Paul, ailing at the priory of Saint-Lazare (Paris), was informed about the death of Louise de Marillac, his appearance remained impassive and no tears were shed. The chronicler, however, does not tell us anything about what the elderly Vincent was experiencing in his mind and heart. One therefore dares to adventure a loving hypothesis: perhaps Vincent saw passing before his eyes (like a technicolor movie) all the activity of Mademoiselle Le Gras from the time that he, almost by coincidence, first met her in 1625. It would be difficult to find an appropriate title for such a film, yet Vincent himself, in a letter dated April 1630, wrote what could perhaps serve as a title: one beautiful diamond is worth more than a mountain of stones (CCD:I:75).
Finally, that anguished, indecisive, insecure and anxious woman had become a true diamond. There is no doubt that Vincent would have had no qualms in signing off on such a film.
Yes, the historians, even the most cautious historians, have recognized the incredible value of having transformed this mountain of stones into an extraordinary diamond. All the biographers of Louise de Marillac have coined the same definitive expression: the perfect work of Vincent de Paul is called Louise de Marillac.
This expert director of consciences did not fall into the trap: from the very beginning of his ministry as Louise’s spiritual director he did that which is most difficult … he allowed God to polish those stones, one by one, until they became a diamond. So that there could be no doubt about this Vincent stated very clearly in one of his last conferences to the Daughters of Charity, a conference on the virtues of Louise de Marillac that Louise is the work of the hands of God (CCD:X:575).
Vincent de Paul realized immediately that Louise had her own personality and that very calmly and quietly the grace of God was leading her to a radical commitment.
The fertile soil of suffering
Anyone who approaches the life and the writings of this woman will find a series of repetitive and seemingly obsessive expressions about suffering, pain, the cross, Christ crucified … One will also notice that at important moments in her life Louise highlighted the need to suffer as the path that leads to God.
For example in one of her meditations she writes: God, who has granted me so many graces, led me to understand that it was his holy will that I go to him by way of the cross. His goodness chose to mark me with it from my birth and he has hardly ever left me, at any age, without some occasion of suffering (SWLM:711 [A.29]).
In her correspondence Louise almost always concluded her letters with a series of formulas that revolve around the theme of the goodness and the love of Jesus crucified. In her last will and testament Louise requested that over her tomb should be placed a large wooden cross with a crucifix attached and an inscription at its foot bearing this title: "Spes Unica." She recommended that the Daughters, whom she wanted to grow in perfection, have great devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ.
People might easily conclude that Louise sought refuge in some form of masochism or that she was enveloped in pathological pessimism. Such a conclusion would not, however, enable us to understand the human and spiritual nature of Louise … we would have an image of some melodramatic woman, an image that would be quite contrary to the reality.
Louise dwelt like no one else in the land of suffering. She was born on August 12th, 1591, an illegitimate child, a member of the Marillac family, one of the most renowned and famous families in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Louise did not experience the affection of a mother or the warmth of a home. She lived in a house where she was cared for but not loved. At an early age she was brought to the monastery of the Dominicans in Poissy (it was as if the family wanted to hide her because they viewed her as an embarrassment to the family). There in Poissy, under the auspices of her aunt, Louise received a cultural education and was taught the way of profound prayer.
It is not known if it was before or after the death of the individual whom we presume was her father that Louise took up lodging in a pension that was managed by a poor, capable and virtuous woman . The other family members, concerned about their reputation, did not want to accept responsibility for this child. In this new “home” Louise began to experience work, austerity and various hardships.
She attained the age when one must make important decisions and so she requested admission into the Capuchins. However, the Provincial, Pѐre Honoré de Champigny stated: you cannot be a religious because you are not healthy enough and because God has other plans for you . Louise’s family had washed their hands of her and now it seemed that the house of God had shut its doors on her. Louise would remain remorseful because she felt she had reneged on her promise to become a religious.
Now marriage seemed to be the solution and her family negotiated the arrangements. Therefore at the age of twenty-two, on February 15, 1613, Louise married Antoine Le Gras, one of the secretaries of the Queen Mother and Regent, Marie de Medici … he was a member of the bourgeois class and not an aristocrat. Therefore, because of the inferior rank of her husband Louise could not refer to herself as madame but had to use mademoiselle. Louise also understood that this meant that she was separated from the circles of the upper social class.
Married life was not as happy as some biographers have presented it. A confidant of Louise informs us that her husband was more concerned about the matters of other family members than the affairs of his own immediate family. He was almost always ill and was frequently away from home. At the same time Michel became a source of pain and disillusionment.
From time to time during this era Louise experienced a profound interior crisis. Scrupulosity and anxiety never seemed to be far removed from her. In 1621 when her husband became ill (a long and painful illness that would continue for four or five years and that made him irritable and difficult to deal with) Louise believed that this was a punishment for being unfaithful to her youthful promise to become a Capuchin. She began to feel that she had an obligation to abandon her husband and son. Her spiritual director, Jean-Pierre Camus, the bishop of Belley, allowed her to make a vow of widowhood if her husband should die. She entered into what appeared to be a dark void, deprived of human and divine light. The feast of the Ascension, 1623, marked the high point of this terrible dark night of Louise de Marillac for it was during this time that she lived the experience of Christ’s abandonment on the cross.
This synthesis of the suffering of Louise is beyond simple psychological and sociological analysis. We do not want to debate the value of suffering, but we do want to place all of this in a context so that suffering is viewed not as despair but as birth. Louise came to view suffering as fertile soil that was able to engender strong individuals, individuals prepared for very difficult and daring endeavors.
In suffering Louise grew interiorly, experienced the sting of poverty, and came to understand the meaning of insecurity and disgrace. From the margins of happiness she began to experience, without realizing it, the despair and abandonment of those who go against the tide of history.
With great reason Louise could imagine herself portrayed in the words of present day poet who wrote: Don’t break the glass with a single blow because a strong and poor heart can bear much pain and suffering.
This word, light, as short as it is enveloping, places us in the midst of that which all those who have studied the person of Louise de Marillac refer to as the pivotal experience which gave true meaning to her life and her work.
Louise in a very elegant and transparent style tells us: 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 was advised that I should remain with my husband and that a time would come when I would be in a position to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that I would be in a small community where others would do the same. I then understood that I would be in a place where I could help my neighbor but I did not understand how this would be possible since there was to be much coming and going. I was also assured that I should remain at peace concerning my director; that God would give me one whom He seemed to show me. It was repugnant to me to accept him; nevertheless, I acquiesced. It seemed to me that I did not yet have to make this change. My third doubt was removed by the inner assurance 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]).
I have never been interested in entering into some mystical discussion about the “enlightenment” of Mademoiselle Le Gras. That was what it was … what interests us here is the birth of the “new” Louise de Marillac. Here we begin to see the profile of a strong, calm, balanced woman, a bold woman who would become the co-founder and formator of the Daughters of Charity and an advocate for the liberation of the poor. Here we want to make it known that the woman, who was once tormented, has reaped the fruit of her “experience in Egypt” and is about to break the chains of her intricate, self-centered world.
The silent victory
Among the many letters that Vincent wrote to Louise during their thirty-five years of friendship, collaboration and counsel, we find the first one dated October 1626 … a little more than a year after the death of her husband when Louise was thirty-four and her son, Michel, was eleven.
This brief, somewhat dry letter is an indication of the pedagogy that Vincent utilized in order to transform the young woman, Mademoiselle Le Gras … an insecure, fragile, anxious, helpless, dependent individual who vacillated between fear of commitment and a euphoria to engage in every form of activity: God himself will act as your director … always wait patiently for the manifestation of his holy and adorable will (CCD:I:24).
Some authors have committed the “heresy” of imagining that Louise de Marillac, during the time that she was a widow, was being directed by some learned, aristocratic ecclesiastic who lived one of those lofty forms of spirituality that was then being widely practiced throughout Paris. The conclusion is obvious: Mademoiselle Le Gras had never become Louise de Marillac … she remained a pious, mediocre widow.
Nevertheless as the result of God’s action, Louise met Vincent de Paul, a man whose feet were firmly planted on the ground, “allergic” to spiritualistic literature, with a clear understanding that the perfection of love does not consist in ecstasies, but in fulfilling the will of God (Abelly III:41) and convinced that the judgment of the poor was most important.
Thus Vincent’s tactic was that of the patient sculptor who worked with clear and simple instructions. In light of Louise’s excessive piety that was focused on countless practices of prayer and fasting and discipline, Vincent suggested a Christian life that was centered on love: God is love and wants us to go to him through love (CCD:I:81). In contrast to her image of God … an image that filled her with fear and anxiety, Vincent emphasized the reality that Our Lord is a continual communion for those who are united to what he wills and does not will (CCD:I:233). In view of the haste to gain merit for salvation, Vincent remained inflexible in always honoring the inactivity and unknown condition of the Son of God (CCD:I:54). When overwhelmed by sadness and feelings of depression, Vincent suggested the potential of joy and contentment to live and trust in God’s love (CCD:I:150).
In the film, Monsieur Vincent, a film in which Louise de Marillac is not portrayed accurately, there is a dialogue between Vincent and Louise which could be seen as a symbol of Vincent’s transformational task with regard to Louise.
•Louise de Marillac: You ask too much of me. I do what I can. This crowd appalls me. I’m scared of the poor.
•Vincent de Paul: They are terrible, as terrible as the justice of God. We, with our decent clothes, can cheat. But these rags, diseases, poverty … wolf-like faces … they are men. Men hard and unjust, who must be served and loved as though they are our masters.
•Louise de Marillac: I’m afraid. I’m weak, clumsy and I can’t command …
•Vincent de Paul: You were my first convert; the first to understand. You will be strong, brave, clever. I need you.
The decisive moment in Louise’s evolution is seen in her effort to internalize the words which her director, Vincent de Paul, constantly repeated in a thousand and one different ways: doing the will of God inevitably and necessarily involves one in building up the Kingdom of God and his justice on behalf of the victims of the system.
The heart is expanded
Many years ago on a radio talk show the following response was given to an anxious listener: My response to those individuals who are anxious is always the same: do not curl up and hide in a corner like some frightened dog. Go out into the streets and establish relationships with your sisters and brothers; advocate on their behalf. When you have loved them sufficiently you will have expanded your heart and you will be cured … Ninety out of every one hundred illnesses are the result of a paralysis and smallness of heart.
It is very probable that the host of that radio program knew nothing about the life of Louise de Marillac. If, by coincidence, he did know something about her, then he would have seen a certain similarity between his advice and the progressive expansion of Louse’s heart.
Louise’s new and definitive vocation would consist, above all, of moving beyond her small self-centered world and making a decision to travel down the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho where she would encounter those who had been plundered, wounded and massacred.
At last Mademoiselle Le Gras concluded that the poor were not some pious hobby or pastime but rather represented a profound and passionate plea of God that demanded an urgent and bold response. It was not in vain that Louise communicated to Vincent that she felt impelled to serve the poor in their spiritual and physical needs.
In May 1629, at the age of thirty-eight, Louise verified the expansion of her heart as she (in the words of Vincent de Paul) ran to provide for the spiritual needs of her neighbor as if she were running to a fire (CCD:XI:25).
In her own way Louise would always guard the words of her tenacious director as he sent her forth on her mission: Go, therefore, Mademoiselle, go in the name of Our Lord. I pray that his divine goodness may accompany you, be your consolation along the way, your shade against the heat of the sun, your shelter in rain and cold, your soft bed in your weariness, your strength in your toil, and, finally, that he may bring you back in perfect health and filled with good works (CCD:I:64-65).
Passion for the poor
She often used to say, “We are servants of the poor; therefore we must be poorer than they are” (CCD:X:572). This was one of the many testimonies of the first Daughters of Charity as they described Louise de Marillac. This is also an important detail if we want to form a true image of Louise.
Louise realized that following Christ meant moving beyond good intentions and becoming involved in the sufferings of humankind. She put aside a theoretical Christology in favor of a Christ who became incarnated in the marginalized, a Christ who became a servant in order to proclaim and be good news for the poor. The power of the Spirit made her feel that she was sent to free the captives, to give sight to the blind, to restore the dignity of the oppressed and to proclaim the goodness of the Lord!
During her journeys Louise met innumerable nameless, faceless people who seemed to be almost inhuman, a legion of depressed individuals who were counted as nothing in society. She had to confront the oppression of countless people who were condemned here on earth, people who were mortally wounded and left for dead on the side of the road. Louise experienced the hell of the extreme marginalization of seventeenth century France.
Louise dared to look at the other side of the coin and realized that the poor, though vulgar and rude, are the sacrament of Christ. She was convinced that the poor, besides being the beneficiaries of her services, were signs of the clear and evident presence of the crucified Lord in the midst of the world. The poor were viewed as the ultimate criteria for salvation or condemnation: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:35-36).
As a result of this the starting point for Louise’s ministry was not some form of ethics or humanism, but rather it was the passion of Christ as seen in the poor … thus the suffering of the poor was united to the suffering of Christ.
Louise was also very clear that the poor demand more than alms or medicine or clothing or some form of permanent assistance. They demand the total surrender of one’s life: to give one’s material goods is nothing in comparison to the giving of one’s self and making good use of every moment of our life, including exposing our life to danger for the love of God … and doing all of this in order to serve the poor.
Louise wanted to emphasize the passion that we must have in ministering to the poor and so she cried out to the first Daughters of Charity: Oh, what a happiness, if, without offending God, the Company could be employed only in the service of those who are destitute in all things! (SWLM:833 [A.100]). If it is true that in the final moments of life people become most sincere, then the scene of Louise on her deathbed is most revealing because she recommended that the Daughters take good care of the service of the poor (SWLM:835 [Spiritual Testament]).
In the pious anthology one can still find an image of Louise as a woman distributing alms. In fact, in some books on the history of the social services we find pictures of Louise providing assistance to the poor … in both cases the true character of Louise is distorted.
One of Louise’s most outstanding and original characteristics was that of providing effective organization to the practice of charity. So much so that many present day experts in the field of social action are surprised by the organizational system that Louise established more than three and a half centuries ago. Without any exaggeration her system could be classified as a true revolution in the field of social action.
This restless, lively, daring woman placed no boundaries on her heart. She knew that the poor were her master and that openness and sensitivity toward all the various forms of poverty, old and new, were the barometer of one’s fidelity to God’s plan. She heard the words of Vincent echoing in her ears as an inevitable commitment and a constant reminder: love is inventive to infinity (CCD:XI:131)
One of the most significant signs of her creative boldness is seen in the role that Louise played in the first institution that was established by Vincent de Paul: the Confraternities of Charity (presently known as the International Association of Charity [AIC]). This lay institution, for the most part composed of women, was initiated on August 23, 1617 in the town of Châtillon-les-Dombes (today known as Châtillon-Sur-Chalaronne) where Vincent was pastor of the parish church. These Confraternities spread rapidly throughout France and formed an extensive charitable network.
Obviously not all the Confraternities functioned properly … indeed some were lacking vitality. Louise was sent forth to visit, encourage, organize, and coordinate the ministry of the Confraternities. Were we to enumerate all the places that Louise visited and all the Confraternities that she organized and encouraged, the list would be endless. Let us take the year 1630 as an example. In February she visited the Confraternities in Asniéres and Saint-Cloud (northwest of Paris); in May she was in Villepreux (west of Paris); in October she was in Montmirail (100 kilometers east of Paris); in December she visited the Confraternity in Beauvais (north of Paris) … she traveled mile after mile on horseback, in stagecoach and on foot.
During her visits Louise observed the functioning of the various confraternities, its financial situation, the commitment of each member … she was informed about the spiritual life of the members … she herself visited the poor and was not satisfied with simply providing good advice … she engaged in the most humble and difficult tasks and was careful to attend to one of her great concerns: the formation of the members.
In the Rule of the Confraternities we see detailed descriptions that are so characteristic of Louise de Marillac. We notice the tact of one who did not impose some theory or system or rigid method. The Rule was based on reality, on common sense and was adapted to the distinct circumstances and needs. Nevertheless the Rule demanded commitment, fidelity and preparation. The Rule was very detailed and this guaranteed that the poor would be served with tenderness, cordiality and respect. The Rule also served as a catechetical tool that enabled the members to become more Christian as they became involved in a process of on-going conversion to Christ through the person of those who were abandoned and excluded from society.
It could be said that it was here that Vincent and Louise discovered their complimentarity. Vincent found Louise to be an intuitive, creative, vital woman, one who was always willing to work on behalf of those most in need.
Only with the poor can I save the poor
These words spoken by Vincent in the film, Monsieur Vincent, could serve as a summary of the beginnings of his most beloved and treasured institution: the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Here also we find Louise as a primary protagonist, so much so that no one disputes her role as the co-founder of the Daughters of Charity.
Vincent unambiguously proclaimed the theological reality: God is the only author of the Company. Nevertheless, the historical truth is rooted in Louise’s concern to gather together a group of poor women, servants, who were willing to dedicate their lives to the poor. For some time Vincent was hesitant to consider this proposal because his mind [was] not yet enlightened enough before God (CCD:I:200). It was not until September 1633 that he wrote the following words to his collaborator: I think your good angel did what you told me in the letter you wrote me. Four or five days ago, he communicated with mine concerning the Charity of your young women … and I gave that good work serious thought (CCD:I:216).
On November 29 of the same year four young women, Marie, Michelle, Nicole and Jeanne gathered together in Louise’s house.
According to the words of one of her biographers, the house of Mademoiselle Le Gras became a cenacle in which these young generous-hearted women came together to pray and to prepare their souls to receive the Spirit of God and the unknown mission that was reserved for them.
The establishment of the Daughters of Charity constituted the definitive stage of the human and spiritual journey of this woman who was forty-two years old. From this time forward Louise dedicated herself tirelessly to the same task that her director, Vincent de Paul, carried on with her: molding, encouraging, forming and transmitting the Vincentian spirit to these women, “her daughters”. She would not separate herself in any way from the spirit of Vincent de Paul. The intimate aspects of her spiritual life, that is, her mystical desires … these would be locked away with seven keys in the depths of her being. She would send out the Daughters along a realistic path, a path of commitment that was pointed out to her by that priest of crude peasant country appearance. As a result a new, better image of Louise takes form … a mature woman, strong, clear-sighted, bold and creative.
When the evolution of the quantitative and qualitative service dimension of the Company of the Daughters of Charity is being contemplated, one must remember that it was Louise who was encouraging, directing and organizing the activity of this group of women. Furthermore, Vincent de Paul himself stated that without Louise none of this would have been possible. It was because of Louise that the Daughters first cared for the sick poor in their homes and taught the peasant girls in the various towns and villages. Then because of circumstances and need the arms of the Daughters reached out to embrace those persons afflicted by the threefold curse of the plague, hunger and war.
The Theology of Tenderness
The greatness of Louise de Marillac can never be understood until this false image of a timid, dour, drab and cheerless woman has been put aside …her nature was outgoing, her life given over to people. She was a creature of love and she loved with all the ardor of a warm heart.
These affirmations of Joseph I. Dirvin, one of the more recent and more serious biographers of Louise de Marillac, introduce us to one of the most outstanding and yet least commented upon facets of her character: her tenderness. Unfortunately on many occasions and for a rather long period of time we have been presented with a false image of Louise: an image of a harsh, distant, and unfocused woman … the reality is quite distinct!
In her gestures and attitudes Louise radiated tenderness. In fact during the process of her canonization her manifestations of tenderness created serious difficulties … that was certainly a different era.
Someone has said that Louise’s whole life was a vocation of tenderness and that this tenderness provided a foundation for her tenacity, her strength, her organizational ability and the existential course of her life. The human and spiritual character of Louise would be greatly diminished if her tenderness were not highlighted as an essential trait. It is clear that Louise is presented to us as the channel of God’s tenderness toward the poor.
Louise’s tenderness toward her husband is revealed in the letter she wrote to Father Hilorion Rebours, a letter in which she described the death of Antoine Le Gras. In fact, ten years later, in her last will and testament, she again spoke with great emotion and tenderness about her husband.
Her tenderness as a mother surpasses all limits when dealing with her son. Vincent attempted to make her see her excessive maternal tenderness when with a certain humor he wrote: Our Lord most certainly did well not to choose you for His Mother (CCD:I:109).
Her friendship with Vincent de Paul was also characterized by a certain tenderness that was based on authenticity, a profound acceptance of the other, and a recognition of and a respect for the complimentarity of their relationship. In her correspondence with her director, we find many expressions of confidence and endearment.
There is a chapter of her life in which Louise’s tenderness became most evident. Here I refer to her relationship with the Daughters of Charity, with “her daughters”; I refer to the community dimension of her life. It is interesting that the Daughters did not view her as the superior, as the one who ordered and/or commanded. Rather they saw Louise as their friend who accompanied, educated and consoled them and who created bonds of friendship.
During the famous conferences of July 3rd and 24th, 1660 --- more than three and a half months after the death of Louise de Marillac --- Vincent spoke with the Sisters about the virtues of the deceased and the Sisters spontaneously responded with the following: she was very supportive of the sick Sisters, often going to visit them in the infirmary … when she saw that I was troubled, she would treat me very kindly … she always excused the Sister who had been angry … she had great love and charity for all the Sisters … she was very gentle and approachable … as soon as someone approached her, she smiled and never showed that she was being inconvenienced … at times, many Sisters would be talking to her at the same time about different matters, but she answered all of them without urging them to leave her in peace … she was often worn out from speaking too much but if she was unable to speak to the Sisters she greeted them with a warm, kind expression. During her illness she always showed a cheerful contented countenance … she was very respectful of all the Sisters always speaking to them by way of requests and entreaties (CCD:X:569-590).
It is in light of this pedagogy of tenderness that we read the final recommendations of Louise to the Daughters: Above all, live together in great union and cordiality, loving one another in imitation of the union and life of Our Lord (SWLM:835 [Spiritual Testament]).
 Nicolás Gobillon, Vida de la Señorita Le Gras (The Life of Mademoiselle Le Gras), CEME, Salamanca, 1991, p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 39.
Translated:Charles T. Plock, CM