The Letters of Louise de Marillac to the Daughters of Charity
Part II by: Sister Carment Urrizburu, DC
(This article appeared in Anales volume 199, #4, July-August 2011)
- 1 Introduction: Let us allow Louise to speak to us today through her letters
- 2 A perspective on the situation in which our charism came into existence
- 3 Some aspects of Louise de Marillac's character
- 4 The letters, a path toward our roots
- 5 CONCLUSION
Introduction: Let us allow Louise to speak to us today through her letters
Louise's correspondence with the Daughters of Charity was more abundant than we might imagine. She wrote many more letters to the Daughters than the 383 that have been found up to the present time. As we begin to read the letters, it becomes clear that many of them were lost and never arrived at their destination. As the sisters began to live and work in places outside of Paris, the exchange of letters was the only way to maintain relationships with the sisters. Louise had a facility in writing and also enjoyed writing. She was able to express herself precisely and also able to communicate her feelings and ideas clearly and concisely. Yes, she had her own unique style and, as occurs with every person who writes, her personality and character are reflected in her writing.
Louise was a woman who needed to communicate and wanted to share her ideas and thoughts with others. She lived a profound human and spiritual experience and felt a need to communicate that experience. She cared deeply for those young women and through her correspondence she was able to make them feel supported, encouraged, and loved by her. She took pleasure in writing to each individual sister. She continually insisted that they should write to her frequently and was not satisfied that the sister servant or some other sister would communicate to her news abut the sisters. She repeatedly asserted that each Daughter of Charity should maintain a direct relationship with her --- unless she could not write --- and would keep her informed about her growth in her vocation, her difficulties and any other important matters. She wanted to receive news from the different houses and from each of the sisters: send me news of yourself as often as you can (SWLM:617 [L.698]); write as often as you can (SWLM:111 [L.142]); write lengthy letters (SWLM:525 [L.499]). Louise also knew that the sisters wanted to receive her letters that were filled with expressions of concern and encouragement as well as news about the community. In fact Louise realized that on certain occasions some sisters might have every right to complain about the length of time I let pass without expressing the joy I felt … to receive such a detailed letter (SWLM:456 [L.419]). because she was accustomed to open her heart to the sisters. She also complained when the news that was communicated to her was simply a statement of facts. When she received news from the sisters this gave her great pleasure (SWLM:497 [L.465]). On many occasions she repeated the fact that I am happy to receive your letter (SWLM:46 [L.36]) and what is communicated in these letters she calls news or dear news (SWLM:680 [L.167]; 262 [L.219]; 299 [L.218]; 379 [L.405]).
Through her letters Louise revealed her identity ... she "painted a picture" of herself and handed over the best of herself. She allowed her spirit to be poured forth and as a result, the charism became contagious as she shared her convictions and values and ideas. Today her letters are also a source of nourishment that enable us to renew our spirit, nurture our spirit and cleanse ourselves of any impurity. Because these letters are documents from a specific era they refer to events or actions that have lost their significance or they refer to customs that are no longer practiced ... we find in the letters some ideas that are dated. Yet in all of that which is circumstantial, transitory and ephemeral, we discover a communication of that which pulsates with love and resonates with the experience of that which is most sacred.
The letters place us in the situation in which the charism and the Company were born. We are allowed to see the social and religious environment, as well as the customs and the mentality of the people of that era. Those who might experience a certain curiosity and accept the invitation to satisfy said curiosity will find themselves in the midst of a personal encounter with our Founder, Louise de Marillac. Through the reading of these letters, it is possible to establish a relationship that enables us to be in harmony with Louise's experience, a relationship that can transform our life. These letters also allow us to see how the first sisters lived, the difficulties they faced, the manner in which those difficulties were overcome, the organization of the Company, the sisters' lifestyle and many other elements that make an attentive reading of these letters both interesting and attractive.
A perspective on the situation in which our charism came into existence
In the political arena, France had established a kingdom and was a monarchy that was led by Cardinal Richelieu who aspired to be raised up as one of the great leaders among the European powers. He would obtain this glory by revitalizing the hegemony of the Hapsburg dynasty that ruled in Spain and Central Europe ... a hegemony that he believed he could usurp. The admiration and the love which the people of France showed toward the monarchy is reflected in Louise's letters. Louise XIV was a young boy, eleven years old, when he was brought to Paris and this event was news that was talked about: Our good King arrives in Paris today and there is joy in the hearts of all (SWLM:297 [L.253]). The Queen, Anne of Austria, was a very good and very devout woman (SWLM:189 [L.435]) and in several places where the sisters were serving the poor, their ministry had been requested by the Queen. The sisters were present in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Fontainebleau and when the Court resided in those places the Daughters of Charity had the happiness of having our good Queen in Fontainebleau (SWLM:245 [L.432]). But the social and psychological distance between the king and the simple people was such that some of the sisters, poor peasant women, felt embarrassed when they had to present themselves to the court. Nonetheless, the Queen's virtue and charity give the lowliest the confidence to declare their needs to her (SWLM:245 [L.432]). Even though the sisters felt that they owed respect of her person, yet when they had the opportunity to speak with her they should not be fearful in approaching her (SWLM:245 [L.432]). Above all they should be sure to present the needs of the poor to her as they truly exist (SWLM:245 [L.432]). Yet people in these political positions do not always fulfill their promises and long periods of time would pass before the Queen handed over to the sisters the money that she had promised ... money that enable to Confraternity to function in Fontainebleau. Yet nothing could extinguish those collective feelings of veneration, esteem fidelity, reverence, and honor which the sisters, as French women, felt toward the monarchy. When danger seemed to approach the royal family, when the rebellion threatened the life of the king and when insecurity placed the French army on a state of alert, Louise de Marillac invited the sisters to pray for the king’s army (SWLM:447 [L.412]) or for the safety of the king (SWLM:451 [L.451]). The same applied to the sisters in Poland because when Louise received news about the war there she asked the sisters to pray that the divine goodness will bring peace to that kingdom and will safeguard the King and the Queen (SWLM:451 [L.451]).
The environment at the Court, however, was not very exemplary and so the sisters had to express themselves with modesty and reserve in the midst of these people because the enemy can sow weeds among the good seed and you will know that this is happening if, during your stay in the Court, your contact with these ladies alters your devotion even the slightest bit. You will know it also if you are less careful in the observance of your Rule, and less gentle and humble (SWLM:189 [L.435]). The sisters also had to be careful so that they were not too bold when speaking to the ladies, both those of the Court and of their entourage (SWLM:189 [L.435]).
Louise's letters made reference to many noble women: Madame de Goussault, the wife of the President of the Administration of Finances; Mademoiselle Viole; Madame, the Duchess de Ventadour; and Madame de Traversay with whom the sisters had frequent encounters. But the sisters were with the poor. They had dedicated themselves to better the conditions of those persons who suffered in a most sever manner the consequences of poverty. The sisters also realized that they were members of this same social class. They were witnesses to the difficulties that arose from time to time, for example, when the economic situation was in decline ... difficulties that affected the relationships between the nobles and the people. On day the sisters living in Bernay received a letter from Louise that stated: I am certain that your charity is always directed toward assisting the people and that you do not relate their complaints and their whining to Monsieur de Bernay. This would serve only to make matters worse, as you know. Moreover, you will accomplish more by a gentle word than all the Lords and Officers will by their threats (SWLM:469 [L.476]).
The letters also describe the terrible situation in which the poor found themselves. The sisters, especially during times of war or other difficult moments, saw a great amount of misery that [they could not] relieve (SWLM:396 [L.353]). The poverty that the war had created became news: There are parishes here in which there are five thousand poor to whom we give soup. In our parish two thousand are give soup --- not counting the sick (SWLM:397 [L.353]); here, nearly two thousand bowls are served to the bashful poor. The same is being done in all parts of the city (SWLM:401 [L.349]). The situation became worse: most of the sisters in the area of Paris have been forced to take shelter; however, thanks to our Lord, they have until now experienced no evil or distress (SWLM:397 [L.353]). Poverty increased: If you only knew how incredibly difficult it is to place someone now in Paris. It seems as though the war has been here for a long time and that everyone has grown poor from it. I assure you, Sister, that at the beginning of the war it seemed that the parishes would be obliged to send all our sisters back. Nonetheless, divine Providence saw to it that alms were given for the sick and bashful poor in amounts for which no one had dared hope. It seemed that the Lady Officers and others were more concerned about finding wheat for their poor than for themselves (SWLM:295 [L.252]). The same situation was occurring in other places and Louise encouraged the sisters to accept the poor whenever possible (SWLM:230 [L.171]) and to do as much good for the poor as you can (SWLM:245 [L.432]).
We also find in the letters references to religious ceremonies, such as the funeral of a sister which was to take place this evening, after vespers (SWLM:82 [L.127]), after reaching agreement with the pastor. Prayers for the dead will be said over her body and please see to it that there are six half-pound candles and six two-ounce tapers (SWLM:82 [L.127]). Forty two penny candles will be needed for the sisters (SWLM:82 [L.127]) and you will need a casket and a spray of white flowers (SWLM:82 [L.127]).
That was a time when pilgrimages were at their height and there was great interest in medals. Monsieur Portail brought many medals from Rome that were to be distributed to the sisters and Louise made it her business to insure that these medals were delivered to the sisters in the different places where they ministered.
During the second Fronde, the people of Paris, completely exhausted, felt overcome by the certainty that only an intervention of God could remove the hatred from the hearts of the powerful and thus bring about an end to the horrors of the war. The archbishop of Paris had convoked special processions in Paris. On June 11 the last of these was celebrated, a beautiful ceremony which was held today for the procession of the reliquary of Saint Genevi?ve (SWLM:397 [L.353]) to the cathedral of Notre Dame. This event took place in the midst of a great multitude of people who prayed for an end to the horrible suffering. Besides the vast number of people who participated in this procession, the princes and members of the royal court, as well as the members of Parliament clothed in their red robes and members of other civil associations dressed in their ceremonial robes ... all these groups participated in the procession. Such a devout gathering of people had never before been seen in Paris.
The manner of supplying the necessary products for the subsistence of the community was also a recurring theme in Louise's correspondence with the sisters. In Paris there is a candle shop on the Place Maubert (SWLM:83 [L,127]). In Saint-Denis, there are small, good, unbruised pears, and Barbe sent Louise a bushel (SWLM:345 [L.282]). In Brienne, a village of Borgona, butter is inexpensive (SWLM:405 [L.354b]). Louise is grateful for the grapes that are perfectly beautiful because I do not have any teeth to eat the small ones (SWLM:407 [L.356b]). She is also grateful for the flax because even though it is a bit expensive for you to buy there, it reaps a real profit here (SWLM:407 [L.365b]). But it would be good to know when is a good time to renew our supply of flax. It can be spun or raw, but preferably spun. Four or five hundred pounds would be needed if it could be bought and transported inexpensively (SWLM:414 [L.360]). In the motherhouse we use linen cloth only for our toquois and collars. It would be very useful for us provided it is very white and not too fine (SWLM:492 [L.502]). Louise also spoke about the need for good quality stuffing, which is all sold by the pound, with no bargaining (SWLM:414 [L.360]). In Bernay they have good cider and fine fruit (SWLM:524 [L.497]). From this same locale and also from an area near Saintd-Marue-du-Mont the sisters sent thread to Paris. The transportation of this material was difficult and they asked for help from the merchants in Bernay. In Fontainebleau the sisters bought good pens (SWLM:230 [L.171]) that were also sent to Paris.
The exchange of good was mutual. Louise sent to Brienne sugar and a few other drugs (SWLM:396 [L.353]). She also sent tamarinds (SWLM:396 [L.353]), a type of laxative made of dates, as well as some money, two gold coins (SWLM:396 [L.353]) which were minted in Spain and Italy and other money that the sisters needed (SWLM:397 [L.353]).
We also find in the letters various pharmaceutical preparations and prescriptions for distinct illnesses. Louise would not advise people to use these prescriptions unless she herself had tried them. For a sister who had difficulties with her eyes she suggested: our mildly fortified water --- but not too much – is excellent for her … purge her often with a hot drink containing a laxative, although the best remedy is a cauterization at the back of the head (SWLM:413 [L.360]). It was good to use orvietan to purify the air during times of contagious illnesses. This was a bland mixture and one should take a pea size dose every morning (SWLM:547 L.520). For a cold it is good to take some lukewarm, sweetened barley water at bedtime (SWLM:582 [L.559]). The the pain (unspecified) that one of the sisters was experiencing Louise wrote: I believe she must purge herself quite often, although gently. Each morning, while fasting, she should take a large glass of well-boiled barley water. However, it should be well-strained and a bit of good honey or sugar should be added. She should do the same in the evening, well after mealtime (SWLM:250 [L.82]). Catolicon was a very common purgative and was used as a universal remedy. It had the appearance of a paste and was prepared with senna leaves, rhubarb roots and tamarind pulp (honey sugar or syrup was also added). This mixture should not be made in large quantities since it is more effective when freshly made (SWLM:222 [L.186b]).
At that time travel involved many difficulties. In order to travel to the different places the sisters used the ordinary means of transportation, usually the least expensive (except for unusual circumstances). They walked when they traveled to places nearby. They traveled by horse or wagon when they wanted to arrive directly at a specific destination and when they were not far from Paris. Not all the sisters knew how to ride a horse or a mule and this made it difficult for them to travel. When traveling on foot, the roads had to be dry ... it was tiring to walk through the muddy streets and it was also harmful to one's health and, on more than one occasion, it was impossible to do. Traveling by coach was more comfortable and more expensive but was used when the need arose. Another frequent means of transportation was to travel by boat, that is, on barges that were propelled forward by the current of the river or were pulled by horses moving along the riverbank. This means was utilized for traveling long distances to places situated near the river. In those cases it was normal to travel the distance between one's point of origin and the river by foot, horse, wagon or coach. At different times the movement of the barges and coaches (SWLM:208 [L.183]) caused a dizziness or a certain unease. Because of the cold and inclement weather, travel during the winter jeopardized the health of the sisters . There were coaches there were better conditioned and as a result mitigated the rigors of traveling in the cold. when it was necessary for one of the infirm sisters to travel Louise advised: Please make the trip back in two days so that it will not be too much for our dear, weak sister (SWLM:285 [L.132]). On long trips one had to take precautions and it was good for the sisters to travel together (SWLM:731 [A.77]) in order to avoid abuse from irresponsible travelers. In Louise's letters we find expressions of gratitude and praise to God for having had a good trip or for having returned in good health.
Some aspects of Louise de Marillac's character
We find emerging before our eyes the character of this great woman, a character that is hidden in the words and messages of Louise's letters. Her personality is revealed in what she said and how she said it. Through an attentive reading of the letter we can discover that:
Louise was a woman with a strong trust in God, a woman of great hope
In her writing we find a constant and grateful praise of God. In everything that Louise did and in everything that she and the sisters experienced, she found some reason to praise God. Many of her letters began with an expression of her praise of God and in this she communicates to us the fact that she built her house on a solid foundation of trust in God. Therefore, everything that happened was good, that is, things had meaning; they contributed to her personal growth and gave her something positive for which to live. She lived "in God".
Her experience of personal transformation placed her in an existential relationship and in a position of dialogue with God's Providence. She experienced God's loving care, a care that God has for all women and men, a care that is replete with love, warmth, commitment and solicitude so that, despite all the difficulties that one might encounter, one is still able to find a path that allows one to walk toward the fullness of life. Louise learned to reflect on all the events of her life from this perspective. She realized that God walked before her, anticipating her moves and helping her to avoid danger. It was as though the difficulties in life conspired together against the person and yet God was able to make the rough paths smooth and able to repair the broken roads and thus, encouraging one to begin anew. Louise expressed with certitude: We would be the greatest ingrates in the world if we did not confide ourselves to Providence. 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 (SWLM:164 [L.153]).
Louise expressed her complete trust in the certainty that she communicated to the sisters when she said that everything would go well. She realized that God knows our present state, and that if we love Him for Himself and strive to do His holy will, the very things that now sadden us will in truth be a source of great consolation for us one day (SWLM:379 [L.405]). She was convinced that everything would work toward that which is good. When the soldiers entered Bicêtre and there was fear for the safety of the sisters and the children, Louise prayed that your guardian angels [might] be in accord with the angels of the gentlemen sent to you by God (SWLM:277 [L.234]) and she hoped that our good God will bless the care you give (SWLM:12 [L.43])
Louise's relationship with the sisters was based on this trust. The sisters work well because God gives them strength and courage in all their works (SWLM:111 [L.142]). I lovingly praise God for the courage which His goodness is giving to you (SWLM:31 [L.27]). They can be confident and have reason to hope always that His goodness will not abandon them and that their desire for perseverance will be fulfilled (SWLM:226 [L.197]).
For Louise this trust was an expansive treasure. Since she knew that this was a gift she was pleased that the Daughters entered into this dynamism of goodness because God would reveal to them how good it is to trust in Him. Louise encouraged the sisters to look to Him as children do to their father and mother for their needs (SWLM:277 [L.234]).
Louise was a woman who communicated her affectivity
After reading only a few of Louise's letters, we begin to realize that she was a woman with powerful feelings and emotions and was not afraid to express her loving concern for others. She expressed her feelings simply and naturally and she wrote in a spontaneous and loving manner. There was no rigidity or gruffness in her writing ... no expression that was not filled with life.
In reading these letters we find a wide range of feelings expressed: to rejoice with you (SWLM:639 [L.619]); I take singular pleasure (SWLM:514 [L.531b]); you give me great pleasure (SWLM:355 [L.347]). We also find expressions of sorrow (SWLM:390 [L.341]), distress (SWLM:401 [L.135]), and pain (SWLM:421 [L.367]). There are times when she is very worried (SWLM:501 [L.471]) about the illness of a sister or worried because she "just feels" that a sisters is ill and does not know why.
We also find in her letters simple expressions of her feminine gentleness. At the conclusion of a letter she wrote: I truly would like to be with you (SWLM:277 [L.234]). She wrote to a sister how she had wanted to write as if to a daughter if I had one (SWLM:191 [L.207]). And with great humility she wrote: I beg you to supplicate our dear crucified Lord to grant me the grace of loving Him well (SWLM:46 [L.36]).
Louise was intuitive and had an extraordinary capacity for empathy. She knew what the sisters felt and often began her letters by saying that she knew what was happening. She did this in order to assure the sisters that they were understood. In this way Louise as able to strengthen the union between herself and the sisters and also able to minimize any distance that might have existed between herself and others. Frequently we find expressions such as: my heart aches with yours because of all the suffering that has befallen you from all sides (SWLM:441 [L.398]); how I share in your suffering! (SWLM:34 [L.23]); with all my heart I share in your suffering (SWLM:31 [L.27]); tell her (one of the sisters) that my heart is as she would want it to be concerning the matter she spoke of in her letter. Tell her, also, that she knows that I love her (SWLM:437 [L.385]); I know your heart, so I am convinced that it will not recoil before the humiliation of such encounters (SWLM:442 [L.398]). Physical separation does not prevent spiritual presence among persons whom Our Lord has united by bonds of His holy love. The stronger this love grows within us, the closer it binds us together (SWLM:647 [L.628b]).
The familiarity and the friendship that she wanted to maintain between herself and the sisters was evident by the interest that she took in the sisters and also obvious because the sisters knew that Louise was happy to meet with them: I cannot tell you with what joy we will welcome you! (SWLM:442 [L.398]). She liked to cultivate friendship among the sisters and with herself. She received the loving concern (SWLM:360 [L.311]) of the sisters and gave thanks for this concernwith all my heart (SWLM:412 [L.360b]). Her desire for authenticity led her to express her feelings in the following way: Your confidence in speaking so affectionately to us brought me more consolation than I can ever express. Those whom Our Lord has united by His holy love should act in this way, my dear Sister. I beg you to believe that I return your affection (SWLM:526 [L.547b]). She knew that it was easier to grow and accept commitments and overcome difficulties, easier to cultivate unity, empathy, and love when there was a mutual caring relationship.
Louise also liked to express her closeness to the sisters with expressions such as, it seems to me that I share in your peace (SWLM:610 [L.595]). She wanted to be sincere and therefore did not allow any form of pretense to enter into her writing. On many occasions we find expressions that reenforce her intention, and so the words that she wrote reflected the reality that she was living, reflected what she was experiencing when she expressed her loving concern: with all the love of my heart (SWLM:86 [L.112]), warmly and lovingly (SWLM:286 [L.246]), your loving and affectionate sister and servant (SWLM:83 [L.127]).
Finally, hidden among her words we find the traces of good humor. When she sent one of the sisters her baptismal certificate she exclaimed with some irony: if you discover that you are older than you thought, remember that death is equally surprising and is coming sooner than we expect (SWLM:626 [L.606]).
We could say that Louise had the gift of leadership. When she addressed the sisters in order to ask something of them, she was respectful, humble, courteous and, if the situation required, she was also caring. She used expressions such as, I beg you (SWLM:335 [L.3]), I exhort you as strongly as I possibly can (SWLM:330 [L.130b]), with all my heart (SWLM:349 [L.302]), I beg you with all my heart (SWLM:587 [L.565]), I beg you to be on guard (SWLM:151 [L.141]).
Louise also trusted that the sisters were living the realities of their faith: God will give you courage during times of difficulty so that you might be faithful even in that which is difficult. She rejoiced in her relationship with the sisters and helped them to discover reasons to be happy. This was a wonderful attitude especially since it was communicated to others by one who was in a position of leadership. Louise was positive and optimistic and this was reflected in her letters: How fortunate are you! (SWLM:427 [L.370]). What a grace to have been chosen for this holy employment! (SWLM:354 [L.347]). If you realized how fortunate you are to be in a place where everything contributes to your sanctification, you would praise God continually for having chosen you for this work (SWLM:532 [L.505]). Fear nothing. Our Lord will suffice for you (SWLM:331 [L.130b]). In this way Louise encouraged the sisters during difficult times. She invited them to become aware of their situation and helped them to understand how they could please God by persevering in the practice of virtue.
Louise knew how to use pedagogical resources that were appropriate for each situation and utilized these when referring to the sisters' life. On the occasion of the death of one of the sisters, she encouraged the others by saying: What a sweet fragrance her virtues have left! Our sister, who was fortunate enough to live with her, related all the consolations she enjoyed while they were together. These poor daughters witness well to their fidelity to Our Lord. They live fifteen leagues from Caen, in an area through which no courier service passes, so they sometimes go three months without receiving any news of us and our letters are frequently lost. Despite all this, they live as if they were here with us. I beg you to thank God for this (SWLM:532 [L.505]). Louise was able to create in the group a lifestyle that was dynamic, daring, and bold, one that confronted difficult realities and that moved people to act in a heroic manner. She prayed for the sisters and encouraged them to accept death and to overcome their shyness.
When she had to call attention to one of the sisters, she spoke about a change in attitude and behavior and encouraged the sister to remedy the situation. She offered strategies to overcome the difficulty: I have no doubt but that your dear hearts beat in close union and that you share with one another what you are doing … your mutual support causes you to feel the effects of divine consolation (SWLM:510 [L.480]). With admirable clamness she expressed her sincere surprise when she became aware of behavior that she considered unacceptable: I was truly astonished to learn that you were in Angers. It must be something extremely urgent for you to go ahead of obedience. Outside of that I could not imagine you exhibiting such infidelity (SWLM:210 [L.184]).
When she became aware of the fact that a sisters was balanced and level-headed and that she attempted to do the will of God, she trusted that said sister would act in a good manner and therefore refrained from telling her how to act: Use it as you see fit; it will always be fine (about thread) (SWLM:517 [L.489b]) and I leave the matter to your prudence. Whatever you do will be fine (SWLM:492 [L.502]).
Louise delighted in communicating news and information and also liked to be informed
Louise was an educated and cordial woman and could be characterized as a courteous woman. In all her letters she sent greetings to the sisters, to friends and acquaintances, as well as to various benefactors. Her greetings were wholehearted and very caring. She shared news with the sisters about their families and she rejoiced when she received good news from the family. Louise also informed the sisters about the progress of the young women that they sent to participate in the formation program.
Louise also realized that the group would feel more united if they had good communication among themselves. In almost all her letters she shared news with the sisters and requested that they in turn communicate news to her. She was informed about the health of the sisters, their death, their good dispositions at the time of their death; informed about the travels of the sisters and she spoke with the sisters about the trips that she was obliged to take; informed about the death of family members and the work that had to be done at the motherhouse which in turn put a strain on the economic situation of the community; informed about the life of other sisters in other houses, their relationships with the people, their difficulties, etc.
Louise spoke about herself in her letters and did so simply, for example, when she was ill: almost five weeks ago I fell (SWLM:523 [L.497]); when she became involved in so much work that it was almost two o’clock and I have not yet had dinner (SWLM:437 [L.385]) [In the motherhouse the sisters ate at twelve noon]; or when she said: I do not write to you as often as I would wish … because as we grow older we have greater responsibilities (SWLM:447 [L.412]).
Louise liked that the sisters shared with her information about their personal life and their life together: I would be very pleased if you told me a bit about your spiritual welfare; if your Rules are strictly observed; if sometime during the day you make repetition of prayer together; if you hold the Friday conference; and if you take time for your other little exercises (SWLM:510 [L.480]). Tell me how you practice charity (SWLM:611 [L.592]).
The letters, a path toward our roots
The letters, which Louise de Marillac addressed to the Daughters of Charity when they first began to exist as a Company, are characterized by an interpersonal relationship, a reciprocal exchange of letters and a mutual dialogue in which Louise desired to move beyond necessary communication and sincere friendship. These letters give witness to the harmony that existed among those individuals who related to one another through an exchange of letters and through a commitment to a common project. These letters also reveal the fact that the common project involved a commitment of the whole person: the life of the different individuals, their personal growth, their relationships, their activity, their relationships with the rest of the community, the meaning of their existence, their spirituality and their faith. In this sense, then, the reading of the letters allows us to journey along the path that leads to the origins of this plan for life that we, as Daughters of Charity living the twenty-first century, are called to live to its fullest. To read the letters that Saint Louise wrote to the first Daughters of Charity is to open the window that allows us to enter into the holy space in which the Company was born as a response to God's call ... the Company in which women dedicate their whole life, in love, to serve Christ in those persons who are poor. Personal study, meditative reading of these letters and silent reflection that flows from this study and meditation allow us to travel along those paths that lead us to the place where this life springs forth, this life which is the root, the source, the beginning, and the foundation of that which we have in our hands and that to which we desire to commit ourselves.
We discover that everything that Louise de Marillace spoke about in her correspondence with the sisters can be organized in accord with those parameters around which the life of the first sisters was developed.
With regard to the personal life of each Daughter of Charity
Louise was very attentive to the life of each Daughter of Charity. This was very important to her because each sister, through the experiences of her life, through the faith that animates her life, through the options which she makes and the activities and attitudes that she cultivates, gives an existential response to her vocation. Each sister in the situation in which she finds herself reveals a specific form and vitality of the charism. Each sister, through her commitments and her interactions with the other sisters, also gives life to the essential elements that constitute the Company. If the personal life of the sisters is life-giving, if they are energetic and authentic, then even with their weaknesses they enable the charism to appear with greater clarity and attractiveness. If, however, the sisters lack vitality, if they are not enthusiastic and vacillate in their commitments, then a type of cloud covers over and hides the light and the brilliance of the charism and the sisters remain in a state of torpidity and cowardice (SWLM:637 [L.618]).
- The action of God in each sister
From the beginning, when Marguerite Nasseau approached Louise in order to serve the poor of the Confraternities, Louise realized that she was motivated by a powerful inspiration from heaven. The same would occur with the many other women who followed after Marguerite. Louise had a special gift that enabled her to recognize the movement of God's action in Marguerite and in other persons. Louise was always attentive to this movement because it was obvious that God gave them strength and courage to engage in the difficult and often unpleasant works that they were called to undertake.
Through her letters Louise encouraged the sisters to become aware of this action of God in them and to be strong during difficult times: I sincerely hope that your strength is greater than the obstacles and that your love and fidelity to the will of God have fortified your courage to resist all dangers (SWLM:649 [L.630]). She encouraged the sisters to cultivate this experience so that they were always alert and active: He will not fail us, my dear sisters; let us be careful not to fail Him by not corresponding fully to His love (SWLM:440 [L.391]). This was a question of love, of opening the heart and allowing oneself to experience the suffering of the poor and the greatness of God; it was a question of a burning love and a desire to live with the heart inflamed with this holy flame so that [everyone] may experience its sparks by your cordiality and tolerance (SWLM:625 [L.605b]. Therefore by giving a direction to life and doing good so as to please God (SWLM:379 [L.405]), even though doing good might be difficult, even though the circumstances appeared to oppose that which is good, even though no recognition was given to those doing good and even though there was no support, nevertheless, the lack of exterior help from creatures will enable us to advance in the perfection of holy love. Do you know, my very dear Sisters, what Our Lord does for a soul deprived of all consolation and help from creatures but courageous and blessed enough to use this trial in the way I have described? He delights in becoming the cherished guide of such souls. Even if they do not feel this help, they can rest assured that God will not permit them to do anything displeasing to Him. This should be the goal of all our desires (SWLM:379-380 [L.405]).
We are not always aware of this experience because very often this union is established in us through no action of our own, in a manner known only to God and not as we would wish to imagine it (SWLM:514 [L.531b]). Through our own efforts and natural resources we are unable to obtain this experience and we are greatly deceiving ourselves if we think that we are capable of [perfection], and even more so if we believe that we can attain this perfection by our own efforts (SWLM:520 [L.557b]). Therefore, we must deny ourselves and ask for the grace to walk simply and confidently along the path of His holy love, without too much introspection (SWLM:521 [L.557b]). We have to simplify our lives by acquiring the virtue of total dependence on Divine Providence (SWLM:768 [A.75]) in order to be able to act in all things according to His spirit (SWLM:648 [L.628b]).
- Love of one's vocation and the Company
Louise was pleased that the Daughters of Charity felt blessed and rejoiced for having been chosen by God, for having received from God one of the greatest gifts that He could confer on any creature regardless of condition, namely, that of calling us to His service (SWLM:391 [L.341]), for having been entrusted with so great a mission as that of serving Christ in the poor. She helped them cultivate an attitude of gratitude for their lofty vocation: let us continually marvel at this calling (SWLM:391 [L.341]). You should be very grateful for the graces God had given you by placing you in a position to render Him such great services. Remember also that the way to make yourselves pleasing in His eyes is to strive to grow in virtue for love of Him (SWLM:271 [L.228]).
For individuals to form their personality they need to engage in personal work and this requires that they reflect on their character and manner of living and that they understand that they have the ability to cultivate an authentic existence ... like being in a workshop where one patiently sculpts the person into the image of God, into the humble servant of the poor.
Louise guided the sisters to a true knowledge of themselves, a knowledge that enabled them to understand the subtleties of their actions. No one except ourselves can be the cause of the evil that we do. In this Louise realized that she was simply repeating to them what she was told long ago (SWLM:521 [L.557b]). She offered them simple strategies. For example, she encouraged them to acquire a calm, self-control which in turn would affect their way of thinking and their state of mind and would also affect their fidelity and enable them to control their thoughts, thoughts which might help them as well as cause them harm: never to let this terrible thought enter your mind, and I believe that it will dissipate (SWLM:244 [L.175]); you must mistrust any thought that comes to you that would turn you away from the paths that have given birth to your vocation (SWLM:637 [L.618]). The sisters must also be careful because the idea they may have of not seeking to please anyone may lead them to make no effort to be pleasant with outsiders (SWLM:321 [L.284b]). For indeed, you are called by God to make use of all your thoughts, words and actions for His glory (SWLM:637 [L.618]). The sisters must also work on their emotions and feelings: do not become weary during times of illness (SWLM:12 [L.43]). They must continue to strive to renounce their personal satisfaction and to overcome their natural habits and inclinations, in order to please God by serving Him in the poor (SWLM:586 [l.564]); Louise wanted the sisters to see to it that the enemy of our salvation does not sow the weeds of materialism which might hinder you from pleasing God (SWLM:422 [L.368]) because spirits lacking in steadfastness never lay solid foundations of virtue because their vacillations prevents them from developing habits of obedience, humility, forbearance and fidelity to the observance of their Rules (SWLM:637 [L.618]).
Louise saw that it was important to spend time on their "interior work". In order for attitudes to be expressed outwardly, these same attitudes must be formed in one's interior ... they have to be given a place in the depth's of one being which gives rise to behavior. Louise realized that a great part of the sisters' day was consumed in work and other activities, but she insisted: I am well aware that you cannot spend a great deal of time at this task. However, in coming and going, you can make many interior acts which can help them. Urge your sisters to do the same (SWLM:412 [L.360b]).
Louise believed that we must strive to acquire spiritual balance and inner peace in all the circumstances that may arise, even though this seems very difficult. In order to facilitate the journey along this difficult path we can make use of two or three means that will be of great help. Firstly, my dear Sisters, we must develop the habit of accepting all our little contradictions as coming from the hand of God, who is our Father and who knows well what is good for us. Another means is to reflect that the sadness we are experiencing will not last forever, and that after a few hours, we will be in a different frame of mind from the one in which we now find ourselves. A third means to preserve peace in the midst of our little trials is to recall that God knows our present state, and that if we love Him for Himself and strive to do His holy will, the very things that now sadden us will in truth be a source of great consolation for us one day (SWLM:379 [L.405]). Another means is to have courage and to not worry (SWLM:53 [L.46], to remain cheerful (SWLM:377 [L.331]), to remain cheerful by conforming yourself completely to the holy will of God and not worrying about anything (SWLM:56 [L.58b]. For Louise this is a way of taking care of oneself and therefore, if we walk in the presence of God, we will be rid of the trials we bring upon ourselves (SWLM:822 [M.72]).
- Practice of the virtues
O my dear Sisters, it is not enough to be engaged in the service of the poor in a hospital, although this is a blessing which you will never be able to esteem enough. What is necessary is to have the true and solid virtues which you know are essential in order to carry out well the work in which you are so happy to be employed. Without that, my Sisters, your work will be almost useless to you (SWLM:219-130 [L.121]).
One of the most necessary interior works for the Daughters of Charity is found in the practice of virtue. For the sisters, virtue is strength, courage, vigor, ability and advantage in their activity. Their vocation leads them to act, to self-surrender and to seek social change. Their work is not useless work but rather they are involved in an efficacious mission of evangelical salvation. Therefore their action and work must be related to the movement of God's spirit and must also flow from the same spirit. This energy and power that enables them to engage in the same activities as Jesus Christ is Jesus' spirit which consists of humility, simplicity and the love of the holy humanity of Jesus Christ (SWLM:406 [L.377]). Together with these virtues, the Daughters of Charity have to cultivate other virtues, such as gentleness, cordiality and forbearance (SWLM:406 [L.377]) as well as detachment from all things so as to attain the pure love of God (SWLM:437 [L.385]).
If each sister lives these virtues then the little Company will be made up of as many saints as there are persons. We must not wait, however, for someone else to begin. If it can be said that these holy practices are not universally in use, let each of us be the very first to start. Moreover, it is not enough to begin because she who starts out generously should say, “I will never tire of practicing these virtues even though I may not reach the level of holiness of others.” This latter would not happen (SWLM:532 [L.505]).
Together with these virtues, there are two others that Louise wanted the Daughters to cultivate. One of these was solidarity. Women who decide to serve the poor and to take on the condition of people who are poor have to grow in this solidarity that is rooted in love. The sisters attempt to walk in the same paths as the poor and thus become aware of the different situations that the poor have to confront. Louise encouraged each sister to experience within herself the needs that our masters, the sick poor, have for assistance, cordiality and gentleness (SWLM:12 [L.43]). Perhaps you share in this need; in that is your consolation because, if you had plenty, your hearts would be troubled to use it while seeing our lords and masters suffering so (SWLM:397 [L.353])
The other virtue is gratitude: gratitude to God, gratitude to other people and, in general, gratitude for life.
With regard to the community
Soon these first servants of the poor began to live together in a small rented apartment. But community life began on November 29th, 1633 when Louise de Marillac gathered these women together in her house so that they might learn to live a life of solid virtue. That small community was related to many other Christian communities that took their origin and their inspiration from Jesus Christ who called his disciples together so that they might live with him and then he sent them forth to preach the Good News. Later, after the death of Jesus, this community was enlivened by the coming of the Holy Spirit and the members of this group became a community with a great apostolic thrust. The same occurred with the community that Louise established. A group of Daughters of Charity gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ to learn how to live in accord with the inspiration of the Spirit, to be sent forth by Jesus to serve the poor and to announce the Good News that the Kingdom of God is near and is for them ... the sisters would do all of this as they accepted and overcame many great risks.
In her letters, Louise engaged in a labor of building up the community, of forming the members of the community to live together. In order to accomplish this task she spoke about a series of important themes.
- A dynamic community
The fact that these young women, who served the poor in the Confraternities, began to live together in the house of Mademoiselle Le Gras, awakened in Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac a new vision with regard to this group. They were not simply a team that worked together or a group of servants or friends. Rather they became an evangelical reality with a spiritual dimension that emerged from the relationships that were established among the sisters. They began to be called sister. This followed the same logic that led the first followers of Jesus Christ to call one another brother and sister at the dawning of Christianity. A new community, inspired by God, was establish as a result of these relationships that were enlivened by Love that was poured out into their hearts and that made each of these young women a child of God, a child of love. May you be of one heart and one will (SWLM:328 [L.130c]), one mind (SWLM:577 [L.551]) are words that Louise wrote and that reflected the spirit of the primitive Christian community.
In fact, we are not dealing with a group of people who simply lived together, something that occurs when a group of people are physically present to one another because they live in the same place. The Daughters of Charity are called and urged to live the mystery of a dynamic community through the experience of their union with one another. This experience is rooted in the unity in the diversity of the persons of the Blessed Trinity (SWLM:289 [L.248]) and this becomes part of the very being of the sisters. This experience arises from within and edifies the whole family as well as those outside of it (SWLM:479 [L.447]). Louise called this a holy union (SWLM:124 [L.113b]), a great union (SWLM:353 [L.429]), a close union (SWLM:119 [L.70b]). She said that this experience is a powerful experience (SWLM:579 [L.554]), one that is bestowed by God (SWLM:245 [L.175]), given by God (SWLM:579 [L.554]), one that must be requested (SWLM665 [L.646]). This union is established among those persons who are filled with the love of the Holy Spirit that is poured forth upon them. This union is constituted or built up by the charity of Jesus crucified (SWLM:119 [L.70b]) and the members of this community rejoice in the mutual friendship that is shared as a result of this love.
This union among the sisters is the source of joy and is communicated to those outside the community through a series of virtues and attitudes which are like the paths along which love travels. Many times when Louise wrote to the sisters she would join the word "union" with other words, such as cordiality (SWLM478 [L.447]), support (SWLM:517 [L.489]), harmony (SWLM:514 ][L.531]), gentleness (SWLM:125 [L.116]), meekness, humility (SWLM:397 [L.353]), holy affection (SWLM:125 [L.116]). These are not static virtues that are acquired during the course of a day and then remain with an individual throughout his/her life. Rather it is necessary to practice these virtues and to establish oneself in the practice of His virtues (SWLM:779 [A.71]) because these are practices that are proper to the Daughters (SWLM:406 [L.377]) and therefore they must be devoted to the practice of these virtues (SWLM:723 [A.52]). This authentic union is expressed in word and in deed (SWLM:479 [L.447]) and is a valued witness that is most attractive to those who see these virtues being lived in such an exemplary way. To edify (SWLM:538 9L.510]) causes people to be admired and as a result those who are edified begin to experience feelings of piety and virtue.
The experience of union was proposed as a reality that the sisters should cultivate. When one enters a community there are many opportunities to enter into mutual relationships that bring about joy. In fact there will such harmony among the sisters and what one does will be pleasing to the other (SWLM209 [l.200b]). The slight disagreements that might arise can be overcome by understanding and forbearance because ordinarily such reactions are natural and we are not masters of them and therefore we should rather try to win their hearts by support and cordiality (SWLM:115 [L.105]). If your natural temperaments are not alike, in the name of God, let His holy love appear in your hearts (SWLM:321 [L.270]).
The practice of this charity that creates unity among individuals is absolutely necessary since it leads us never to see the faults of another with bitterness but rather always to excuse them (SWLM:313 [L.275]; it prevents us from speaking ill of one another (SWLM:517 [L.489]); it helps us avoid particular friendships and cliques which share little secrets as things which are detrimental to mutual charity (SWLM:124 [L.113b]). The practice of this charity leads to conversations about God, and the practices of the Company into which He has called you, or whether you recall the virtues recognized in our sisters (SWLM:422 [L.368]). This unity enables the sisters to defer to one another so as to avoid contention and to acquiesce, as far as possible, to one another’s opinions (SWLM:353 [L.429]). This unity also leads to mutual communication (SWLM:463 [L.425]), and an openness of heart toward one another (SWLM:20 [L.11]) and in this way the sisters' lives become transparent. Even their everyday daily relationships acquire a pleasing tone when they greet and speak to one another with gentleness and cordially (SWLM:442 [L.398]).
When Louise de Marillac saw the first Daughters of Charity living in this way, she rejoiced: I cannot rejoice enough … at the thought of the union … that I am confident will exist among you (SWLM:479 [L.447]).
- The role of the sister servant
A great majority of Louise's letters were addressed to sisters who were engaged in some specific function on behalf of the community. In her letters Louise reflected on the manner in which the sisters should fulfill their role and also on the fact that they should be primarily concerned about creating an environment of great union and great support for one another. He also asks that you labor together at God’s work (SWLM:397 [l.353]).
In Louise's understanding of community life, the role of the sister servant should be accepted with humility. The sister who has a better understanding of herself, who is aware of her strengths and limitations, who is closest to living an authentic life ... such a sister is be able to be the servant of the sisters. The sister servant must realize that authority is not to be wielded absolutely but charitably (SWLM:330 [L.290b]). In her letters Louise presented a profile of the sister servant: she must be willing to grow in the attitudes of tolerance, meekness and cordiality (SWLM:191 [L.207]); she should be patient and practice great gentleness, condescension and discretion (SWLM:385 [l.337]), avoid every form of disdain and lack of tolerance (SWLM:19 [L.11]). She should practice active and passive forgiveness when conflicts arise, asking for forgiveness and extending forgiveness with an embrace and with true sentiments in her heart (SWLM:19 [L.11]).
Do not flatter yourself. Those to whom God gives the charge of others must forget themselves entirely and in all things (SWLM:458 [L.376]). The sister servant should anticipate the needs of the other sisters (SWLM:668 [L.647b]) and she should be the first in the practice of true and solid virtues of humility, forbearance, hard work and the faithful observance of our Rules and the practices of the Company (SWLM:549 [L.523]). She should also encourage the sisters to persevere and above all, to live together in very cordial peace (SWLM:57 [L.58b]).
The ones who are called to render this service in the community should love the sisters as Jesus Christ himself loves them (SWLM:19 [L.11]).Thus they should clothe themselves with this affective disposition which fills their heart with such love (SWLM:829 [A.27]) that they will treat them all in such a way that they will believe that they are truly loved (SWLM:118 [L.125b]). They must do all they can for the infirm sisters (SWLM:413 [L.360]) and be a consolation for them in their little trials by their cordiality and support; they should be patient in giving them little remedies and indeed, the greatest remedy is to comfort them in their suffering and to show them the importance of never deviating from the accomplishment of the will of God who never changes His plans (SWLM:330 [L.290b]).
Community harmony is a value that should be encouraged. Louise wanted the sisters to find a warm and cordial community living situation. The sister servant must be able to function then in different situations so that if anyone appears bitter or agitated, she [the sister servant] should calm her without seeming to do so, so as to maintain gentleness and cordiality (SWLM:135 [L.52]). The fact that the sisters are informed about all matters concerning their life together is a sign of respect, a sign of esteem for the person and sign of one's attention and love. Therefore Louise pointed out to the sister servants that they should involve the other sisters in all those matters that arise. In this way the sisters can participate in the decision making process and therefore everyone becomes equally responsible for carrying our the decisions that are made. There is a great difference between a Sister Servant who says, “Let’s do this,” and one who is content to say, “Do this,” without ever putting her hand to the task. In the first case, the Sister Servant is an equal among her sisters. In the second, when she gives an order, she removes herself from the group and from the work and cloaks herself with the mantle of her authority (SWLM:667 [L.647b]).
The sister servant must be careful with regard to her relationships with the sisters. Indeed, the community environment, the joy and the satisfaction and the happiness of the sisters depend on those relationships that are established between the sister servant and the other sisters. Every day she will find new opportunities to engage the sisters in conversation and she should welcome kindly those who might find it difficult to approach her (SWLM:391 [L.341]) and she must make herself readily available to the sisters who wish to speak with her (SWLM:619 [L.600]). When the character of the sister servant conflicts with another sister, she must overcome, to some degree, her little repugnancies (SWLM:391 [L.341]) and she must trust them for their needs, without showing partiality toward any of them (SWLM:548 [L.522]). To live is to grow and one of the aspects of community support consists of helping the sisters to grow as persons, to grow in virtue, and to grow in their vocation. In the daily sharing of life the sisters discover one another's gifts and also one another's defects of character.
One of the wonderful tasks of the sister servant is to guide the sisters so that they become aware of their gifts and their limitations. Thus the sister servant helps the sisters become aware of their positive qualities so that they might cultivate these characteristics and continue to grow. She also helps the sisters become aware of their defects, of those areas of their life where they have not grown, as well as those ways of acting that are not helpful to anyone. The sister servant must place herself in a position in which her respect and love and interest in the sisters is obvious. Therefore it is clear that she desires that which is best for each sisters and also desires to harvest good fruit (SWLM:329 [L.290b]). To express this idea of guiding the sisters Louise used the word "advertir" or "avertissement" which in English can be translated as "warning" "reminder" "admonishment" (SWLM:404 [L.351], 767 [L.131]) and which means to enable a person to see something, to counsel or teach someone or to help a person avoid some harm. In order to help the sisters in this way the sister servant must give the sisters the opportunity to speak to her privately once a month even if it is only for a quarter of an hour (SWLM:596 [L.564]) or at a time when it will be most beneficial for them (SWLM:118 [L.125b]). As a strategy it would be good to not form hasty opinions about our newly arrived sisters (SWLM:385 [L.337]) and to overlook their faults so as to keep her own before her eyes (SWLM:118 [L.125b]). The sister servant must never act on her own but rather teach by her actions, otherwise her advice will have little effect (SWLM:660 [L.634b]). This is a most gratifying way to act: How happy you will be if by your gentleness and cordiality in the way that you lovingly correct her, you are able to cooperate with grace in her efforts to sanctify herself. With all my heart, I beg you to do so (SWLM:329-330 [L.290b]). Discretion, however, is most important in all of this: nothing in your manner should ever reflect to any sister what they may have said to you (SWLM:586 [L.564]).
The sister servant has been entrusted with a special mission within the community, a mission that is not always easy to fulfill because it requires that they forget themselves entirely (SWLM:458 [L.376]) and bear the greatest burdens of body and mind (SWLM:330 [L.290b]). Louise was aware of the fact that this is a heavy burden (SWLM:513 [L.485]) and therefore, in order to fulfill this role Louise prayed to Our lord to grant [the sister servants] this ability for His glory and for the well-being of our sisters (SWLM549 [L.523]).
- Living in community
Community life is composed of details and caring for the sisters. Take good care of one another (SWLM:172 [L.157]), I hope that you are very careful about one another (SWLM:427 [L.370]) are expressions that Louise used in order to communicate the need for the sisters to be present to one another in a loving and courteous manner. Carefulness with regard to one's gestures of respect and friendship is a component of a warm, affectionate and welcoming lifestyle. To be pleasant, to be attentive during times of illness, to hold one another in esteem, to help one another in work, to cultivate mutual communication, to be sincerely concerned about one another and to express this concern lovingly and cordially (SWLM:407 [L.377]) are characteristics that express a sincere friendship, support our fidelity to our vocation, and enable us to feel good when we are together.
Community life is strengthened by co-responsibility. The sisters shall meet to discuss various matters (SWLM:728 [A.54]) and if occasionally they differ (SWLM:353 [L.429]), they shall make every effort to accept the view of the other, sacrificing their opinion to follow that of the Sister Servant. She can act in like manner in matters in which neither God nor the neighbor will be offended (SWLM:353 [L.429]). It is necessary to share information because such sharing promotes participation: If you still need another sister, please let me know (SWLM:13 [L.43]). Roles in the community should be distributed: One sister should be the Sister Servant and the other the bursar who would render her accounts to the Sister Servant so that all would be done cordially and with the knowledge of the other sister (SWLM:438 [L.375]).
Remember well this practice of ours of earning our living through work (SWLM:239 [L.169]). One must work because laziness brings sin to the soul and illness to the body (SWLM:587 [L.565]). In order to be close to the poor and in order to live among the poor the Daughters of Charity have to embrace a life of poverty. Poverty, in imitation of Jesus Christ who lived as a poor man, is a personal and community option of the Daughters of Charity. Austerity ought to characterize everything: No matter where you are, you must always practice moderation in both the quality and the quantity of your food (SWLM:555 [L.529]). Attention must be given to every detail. How I fear places where we are more comfortable than our condition indicates (SWLM:240 [L.208]).
The guidelines are clear with regard to the question of housing: You will be careful to choose a lodging appropriate for poor girls (SWLM:457 [L.419]). Be careful that there is nothing contrary to the humility and simplicity of the Daughters of Charity or that might interfere with living the values of their vocation and maintaining an austere and poor lifestyle (SWLM:509-510 [L.480]).
When the Sisters are sent to places far removed from Paris they are to maintain an option for people who are poor and humble and this option should be expressed in their lifestyle: Since those people are not familiar with your poor way of life and your humble dwelling, do not desire to be treated different, even in small matters. Do not argue but explain your reasons humbly, firmly, briefly and gently (SWLM:647 [L.628b]).
The sisters, in distinct places, were not always able to maintain the convictions that Louise suggested. This occurred, for example, in Bernay. Even though it was impossible to prevent the Sisters from living in places that were less austere, Louise offered the same advice: What shall I say to you about the beautiful house in which you live? Does not your profession of lowliness and poverty at times give you a twinge or fear? If so, I hope that you make heroic acts of virtue, both interiorly and exteriorly, so that you are ashamed to attract attention because you look upon yourself as the last and the least in that place, since you have only the food and clothing that God allows to be provided (SWLM:524 [L.497]).
- Use of time
The use of time was not only a theme of great importance from Louise's point of view, but Saint Vincent was also very insistent on this same point in his conferences. In Louise de Marillac's letters to the sisters, the expression use your time well (SWLM:743 [A.90]) had a precise meaning. The word well directed the sisters toward the gospel and gospel values that constitute the vocation, the charism of the Daughters of Charity. To use one's time well does not refer to an attitude that seeks to take advantage of different opportunities to develop personal interests nor does it refer to obtaining the greatest benefit from using one's time, an attitude that, as we are all familiar with, can cause much stress. This expression does not refer to doing much in a very limited space of time nor does it mean that one takes advantage of time (a precious gift of God) in order to enrich oneself with various experiences. In Louise's correspondence with the sisters, the expression to use your time well (SWLM:743 [A90]) was in accord with the gospel maxim: there is need of one thing (Luke 10:42) and this was in contra position to that state in which one is anxious and worried about many things. For the Daughter of Charity is is important to follow Jesus Christ and to dedicate oneself to the service of Christ in those persons who are poor (an absolute characteristic) ... these two realities provoke a commitment or a giving of oneself to God and the poor. When one's attention is divided then the energy that one has to dedicate to that which is most important is also weakened. Therefore Louise wrote: I am sure that you have no time to spare for anything else or for any other purpose than the service of the poor. Therefore, you must not think that you are obliged to visit or write to nuns or to the Ladies, unless there is great necessity. If you have time to spare, I am convinced that it would be better spent earning some money by working for your poor; or you could instruct your poor patients and say a few kind words to them that would be beneficial for their salvation (SWLM:668 [L.647b]).
- In service of the poor
Without a doubt the word service is used countless times in the letters that Louise wrote to the Daughters of Charity. The expressions service of the poor and to serve the poor were often mingled with other expressions, such as, service of God, to serve God and to serve God in the poor. To be servants and to serve were exterior signs of the identity of those first sisters.
When Louise wrote to the sisters and spoke with them about serving the poor she was referring to an experience that she viewed as intimate and one that had far reaching consequences, something rich and profound in meaning, something that created enthusiasm and that was contagious. Serving the poor was quite distinct from accomplishing some humanitarian task. The experience of serving the poor results in a life of commitment. To dedicate one's life to loving service of the poor promotes a specific way of life and is an expression of being that makes clear the nearness of God to the world of the poor and is characterized by the fact that all said individuals desire... to be filled with a great love which will immerse them so sweetly in God and so charitably in the service of the poor (SWLM:75 [L.441]). We are dealing with a way of life which is totally spiritual, although they will be employed in exterior works which appear lowly and despicable in the eyes of the world but which are glorious in the sight of God and His angels (SWLM:674 [L.651]).
Service is the only task of the Daughters of charity; it is their exclusive dedication; it is the activity that brings them into a personal encounter with the poor. It is also the privileged way of entering into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ because they have been chosen by God to serve Him in the person of His poor (SWLM:261 [L.217]) and God constantly provides them with opportunities for serving Him (SWLM:116 [L.105]). To be a Daughter of Charity is a unique vocation with a unique mission because the sisters validate the words of the gospel: Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40).
For Louise de Marillac the poor are members of Jesus Christ (SWLM:468 [L.424]), his dear members (SWLM:81 [L.547]). In the poor we encounter Jesus Christ and in this simple truth of our faith the relationship of each Daughter of Charity with Jesus Christ is intimately bound up with their relationships with people who are poor. No other position is possible. If we deviate in the slightest from the conviction that they are members of Jesus Christ (SWLM:113 [L.104b]), then our way of being present to the poor radically changes. Our attitude toward them also changes. This focus on Jesus Christ as the absolute point of reference has a profound influence on the attitudes which lead each sister to establish relationships with those persons who are poor. Louise said: do not be upset if your senses rebel against all of this. (SWLM:81 [L.547]). Nevertheless in our relationship with Jesus Christ we learn that we must respect and honor everyone (SWLM:488 [L.424]). Grounded in this experience of a lively encounter with Jesus Christ we become contemplative and we recognize that the poor possess a great dignity and therefore we must serve them with devotion, gentleness, humility and forbearance (SWLM:81 [L.547], 468 [L.424]).
- The poor, our lords and masters
The poor are members of Jesus Christ and our masters (SWLM:468 [L.424]). Please continue to serve our dear masters with great gentleness, respect and cordiality, always seeing God in them (SWLM:421 [L.361]). These words that form part of the church's tradition have become part of our Vincentian heritage and reflect the esteem, the value, and the dignity that the Daughters of Charity see in those persons who are poor.
Louise used the word maître in her letters and this word is best translated as lords-masters. At times Louise writes this word with a capital "M" and in those situations she is referring to God who is the absolute in the life of the Daughters of Charity, the greatest, the first and the principal reality, the giver of life, the Lord, the King of our life. She also used this word in a sociological sense referring to those individuals with whom she and the sisters must relate to. Those were individuals who worked on their land and who were wholly dedicated to and respected the sisters. Louise also used this word to refer to the poor and as a result of her option to follow Jesus Christ she placed the poor in a position of primary importance. Therefore she was able to say to each sister: Do not scruple to omit one or other of your exercises either to assist your sister or for the service of the poor. You do this for the love of God and this is what He asks of you (SWLM:526 [L.547b]).
The poor are our lords, our masters, our dear lords, our beloved masters; these expressions highlight a type of personal relationship characterized by an unconditional commitment, affection and love. In fact, it can even be said that the quality of the sisters' relationship with God can be measured by the quality of their relationship with the poor. For Louise the poor are the greatest treasure of the Daughters of Charity. Therefore, she insisted: Visit the sick please, and it is more appropriate for you to tend to them yourself (SWLM:12 [L.43]).
In light of all of this it is necessary to cultivate all the virtues in order to be able to be present to the poor with all our strength and energy. This is the only way that will allow us to serve the poor in the same way that Jesus did. Therefore it is necessary to work virtuously in the service of the poor (SWLM:182 [L.160]). If you will, the spiritual equipment of the sisters, that is, their very manner of being, is composed of the following virtues: charity, humility, meekness, compassion, cordiality, goodness and kindness. At the same time be very gentle and courteous toward your poor. You know that they are our masters and that we must love them tenderly and respect them deeply. It is not enough for these maxims to be in our minds; we must bear witness to them by our gentle and charitable care (SWLM:320-321 [L.284b]). The sisters should clothe themselves in another series of attitudes and qualities so that their personalities become fully developed and as a result they are better able to serve the poor. Here we refer to respect, tenderness and empathy.
- What would Jesus Christ do now?
When we are willing to ask this question we can then reflect on the different ways of serving the Lord: Is it not reasonable, my dear Sisters, that since God has honored us by calling us to His service, we should serve Him in a manner pleasing to Him? (SWLM:252 [L.319]). During the spiritual journey of Louise the figure of Jesus Christ, in whom the Father was well pleased, bursts through with great strength. The whole of Jesus' life was characterized by his dedication to the poor. Therefore Louise wrote: we must continually have before our eyes our model, the exemplary life of Jesus Christ (SWLM:261 [L.217]). What would Jesus Christ do now? To imitate Jesus Christ and to do what he did, to act in the way that he would act ... this is the only Rule of life!
But a mere exterior imitation of Jesus Christ, even though this might be necessary at different moments in life, is not very useful because it perpetuates a routine way of providing assistance that lacks creativity. In order to act like Jesus Christ we have to be inspired by the spirit of Jesus Christ, without which all our words and actions would be but clanging cymbals (SWLM:672 [L.650]); yes, we must be inspired by the spirit that anoints us to bring glad tiding to the poor; the spirit that sends us forth to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).
It is important to be mindful of the relationship that exists between the spirit that animates an individual and this same individual's manner of acting. The spirit inspires us to act, molds our attitudes and sustains our commitment. Clothing ourselves in the spirit of Jesus Christ is key to serving the poor as he did. The virtues that Louise recommended to the sisters in order to carry out their role of service were meant to provide them with strength and energy ... and those virtues flowed from the same spirit. When Louise spoke about these virtues, at times she made direct reference to the spirit, at other times no such reference was made. Louise spoke of serving the poor with devotion, gentleness and humility (SWLM:81 [L.547]) with tolerance and respect, with a spirit of meekness and devotion, with a spirit of humility and compassion. She always referred to acting with the spirit of Jesus Christ, to act as he did when on earth.
- Social action
Wherever a Daughter of Charity walks with humility and simplicity, she leaves footprints: You are accomplishing wonders (SWLM:111 [L.142]). The people who see her interact with the poor notice changes in their surroundings. The activity of the sisters provides relief to the poor, instruction to children, health to the sick and dignity to the person.
The activity of the sisters had repercussions, first of all, on the people whom they served. Some people who were ill and in the process of dying gave witness to having changed their life. Others were aware of being cured and valued the services that these women provided. Children, who never dreamed of learning to read and to write, some of whom had no interest in learning, now gave great value to the change that knowledge had brought to their lives. Abandoned children, the majority of whom died soon after death, survived those first days and months, grew, learned a trade, and were able to establish their own families. The poor men who were condemned and forced to row the ships, felt cared for, attended to and loved. Some elderly people as well as some men and women who were sick and, as a result unable to work, were invited to live in a house where they were able to recover their health and engage in some tasks that benefited the whole group ... these individuals began to feel useful once again. The mentally ill, soldiers wounded on the battlefield, orphans ... so many different people received the benefits of the services that were provided by these dedicated women.
Society itself was slowly transformed and people began to build up the Kingdom of God. In fact the activity of the sisters was a sign of this Kingdom ... a humble, simple and limited sign, but nonetheless, an efficacious sign. The sisters helped people understand that the poor ought to occupy a central position in society. The sister did this by working unpretentiously and quietly (SWL:600 [L.642]), like the yeast in the mass of dough.
The social dimension of service implied a technical competence in every form of service. Therefore in her letters Louise allows us to observe her concern that the sisters learn all that was necessary in order to provide the best care to those persons who were ill. She wanted them to learn the technique to use the lancet (SWLM:184 [L.165]) and to let blood … the dangers involved with the arteries, the nerves and other areas (SWLM:303 [L.352]). They will learn to prepare remedies in the apothecary shops (SWLM:763 [A.91b]) of the large hospitals or in their homes in order to administer these to the infirm whom they care for in their homes. It is important that these remedies or medicines be taken care of (SWLM:154 [L.144]). In the same way they must learn how to teach catechism in order to instruct children (they may also teach them to make serge stockings) but what is most important is the practice of virtue (SWLM:618 [L.599]). Louise considered this formation to be most important. Learning was something that was active; the sisters learned through practice and by accompanying Louise or some other sister. The sisters had a great interest in learning and Louise had a great interest in teaching. She wrote to one sister: Some time ago Monsieur Vincent spoke to me about our sisters involved in teaching and he expressed the desire for them to employ a common method. As soon as I am completely familiar with it, I will be sure to inform you of it (SWLM:230 [L.171]). Everyone is committed to learning new ways of serving the poor skillfully and well (SWLM:385 [L.337])
Louise was aware of the fact that service contained a social dimension and so she guided the sisters toward a deeper understanding of service. Therefore with authority Louise wrote: It is not enough to be engaged in the service of the poor in a hospital, although this is a blessing which you will never be able to esteem enough. What is necessary is to have the true and solid virtues which you know are essential in order to carry out well the work in which you are so happy to be employed. Without that, my Sisters, your work will be almost useless to you (SWLM:129-130 [L.121]). Louise wanted the sisters to be effective in their service because without effectiveness there is no social change.
- Corporal and spiritual service
In her letters Louise supported the ideal of formation so that the sisters could provide quality service. There service had to be corporal and spiritual (SWLM:515 [L.531b]). The corporal needs of the poor in XVII century France were great and so Louise insisted that the sisters do as much good for the poor as you can, and I would ask this especially with regard to the spiritual service you owe them (SWLM:245 [L.432]).
Their service was to be holistic, that is, the whole person was to be taken into consideration. To serve is to teach people how to live well, to teach people how to live as good Christians (SWLM:751 [A.84]). People who are poor need food and housing and medical care ... they need to establish relationships with other people. Service, therefore, implies accompanying the poor as they acquire those strategies that will enable them to live with dignity and to establish relationships with their surroundings, with other people, and with God. At the same time, we can see that serving the poor includes helping them to discover the gospel as a point of reference for their life. In this way people who are poor can internalize the gospel values and establish a relationship with God that is freeing and that leads them to the fullness of life.
To read is to live
We are grateful for the fact that the letters of Louise de Marillac have been handed down to us. But ... let us live them!
We admire the fact that an invisible and mysterious will was able to overcome all the great and small obstacles so that these letters could emerge from their secret, hidden and almost forgotten state. But ... let us live them!
Some time ago we joyfully received the book that contains the letters of Louise de Marillac ... a book that the Superiors gave to each sister and that many sisters preserve in a special place among their personal possessions. But ... let us live them!
We are surprised by the relevance of the message of these letters and we are equally surprised by the vitality that is reflected in her words. But ... let us live them!
Louise de Marillac was very practical. She had no use for theory unless she was able to put it to good use (SWLM:762 [A.91b]. Many a reality could touch her profoundly, could provoke her admiration as well as the admiration of her sisters. In fact, she was able to come to an intellectual acceptance of different realities through the efforts of her will. Indeed, unless all these different realities became grounded in her being and became an integral part of her life, then they were useless. It is not enough to read; it is not enough to admire the beauty and goodness of something or someone; it is not worthwhile to learn something from memory and to speak about something very interesting and relevant and even useful ... none of these things satisfy us. Rather each person must resolve to enter upon the practice of reading, admiring, listening, speaking, remembering and reflecting SWLM [L.647b] on that which is vital. Yes, one must read in order to live, in order to live a profound life!
And to live ... is to contribute with simplicity and humility, with great vitality and brilliance and splendor to the charism!
Translated by Charles T. Plock, CM with permission from the editors of Anales