- 1 Introduction: accept old age as a blessing
- 2 Saint Louise accepted ailments and concerns calmly
- 3 Separation accepted with a spirit of faith
- 4 Waiting for sister death
We know that Louise’s health was always fragile. Vincent recognized this fact and spoke about this matter. Nicolás Bobillón, Louise’s first biographer, states that for an extended period of time Louise experienced serious ailments. In 1647 Vincent wrote to Monsieur Blatiron, superior in Genoa, and stated: In this you are almost like Mademoiselle Le Gras, whom I consider as dead, according to nature, for ten years now. To see her, one would say she has just stepped out of the tomb because her body is so frail and her face so pale. However, God knows the strength of spirit she possesses. Not so long ago she made a journey of one hundred leagues. Were it not for her frequent illnesses and her respect for obedience, she would often be going in every direction to visit her Daughters and work with them, although the only life she has is the one she receive from grace (CCD:III:257). Frequent low-grade fevers obliged Louise to cease her activity and visit doctors who prescribed purges and blood-letting which were the common remedies of that era. Her energy always enabled her to recover. Vincent saw a very special grace of God at work in Louise, a grace that flowed from the fact that the sisters and the poor still needed Louise. Beginning in 1652 Louise’s relapses were more frequent.
The ailments continue and are accepted as something natural and part of the cross
In her letters Louise speaks to us about her serious illness of 1656. Nicolás Gobillón also affirmed that in 1656 she was near death and said to Vincent that if this is the key to leaving this world soon, then I really need to learn how to prepare for it. I await this from your charity so that I will not be shipwrecked as I enter the home port of my voyage (CCD:V:461). To the surprise of everyone, she recovered and renewed her activity at the end of the year.
Writing on June 10, 1656 to Sister Françoise Ménager she described the dispositions of her heart: It did not please the divine goodness to remove me from the face of the earth, although I have deserved it for a long time. We must await submissively the order of Divine Providence. We must always be in that state, open to accept the death of a loved one, our own death or any other painful event so that God, in the exercise of His divine will, will never have reason to complain that we have not followed his order (SWLM:507 [L.478]).
Preparation for the definitive encounter with the Lord
Louise’s retreat notes of 1657, notes written a few days before the celebration of the feast of Pentecost, are a clear expression of her spiritual dispositions and her constant desire to receive whole-heartedly the Holy Spirit, the source of love and strength: to live for as long as it please You, but with Your life which is one of total love (SWLM:819 [A.26]). She proposed maintaining the necessary vigilance in order to overcome the temptations that must be confronted and in order to make fruitful the gifts of the Holy Spirit, gifts that were received at the time of baptism. She was encouraged in the practice of meekness, humility, tolerance and love of neighbor and this enabled her to reveal the love of our Lord Jesus Christ for humankind. She experienced herself as an active member of the Church and the Company, as a member of the mystical body of Christ in which the Holy Spirit creates unity and enables people to give witness with their lives, not be bearing witness to the doctrine of the church but by the perfect actions of true Christians (SWLM:820-821 [A.26]). She asked God for the gift of detachment from all creatures and even from the Divine Presence so that she would only act by the power of His love (SWLM:818 [A.26]). These dispositions were cultivated each day by her deep devotion to the Eucharist (SWLM:821-823 [M.72]).
Final illness and death
Gobillón describes for us in detail the events that surrounded her death. On February 4th, 1660 Louise became seriously ill. Her left arm was considerably swollen and she had a high fever. During the next eight days her situation worsened and she received Viaticum and the sacrament of the sick … every means was used to request God’s intervention for a cure … she was surrounded by her family and by all the sisters of the Motherhouse. Louise received the sacrament of sick with great calmness. During the celebration of the sacrament she blessed her son and his family: I pray the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by the power God has given fathers and mothers to bless their children, to bless you, detach you from all earthly things and unite you to himself … to live like good Christians (Joseph Dirvin, Louise de Marillac, Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970, p. 384).
Then looking at the sisters who accompanied her she recommended that they love their vocation and continue to be faithful in their service to the poor. Many prayers were offered for her health. The relics of Saint Charles and Saint Francis de Sales were placed on her arm. She appeared to get better … the swelling in her arm and her fever diminished. This continued for three weeks. Then on March 9th Louise’s arm appeared to be gangrenous. Louise understood the seriousness of her situation and asked for Viaticum. She prepared to receive God and spoke to the sisters about the greatness of the Eucharist. On the Morning of March 13th, the pastor of Saint-Laurent brought her the Body of Christ. After a lengthy act of thanksgiving, Louise addressed the sisters who were present: My dear Sisters, I continue to ask God for His blessings for you and pray that He will grant you the grace to persevere in your vocation in order to serve Him in the manner he asks of you. Take good care of the service of the poor. Above all, live together in great union and cordiality, loving one another in imitation of the union and life of Our Lord. Pray earnestly to the Blessed Virgin, that she may be your only Mother (SWLM:835).
These words were received by the sisters as her spiritual testament. Louise de Marillac had briefly reaffirmed that which had always been essential for the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Gobillon added: she gave signs of perfect contrition and accepted her illness as an expression of God’s justice toward her. She said that God was acting justly and mercifully. She showed that she was wholly detached from the world and that she had a burning desire to be united with God. Finally, she maintained a calmness of mind, a gentleness, a patience and was submissive to God and practiced the virtues that had been a part of her life, especially during moments of trial (Nicolás Gobillon, Vida de la Señorita Le Gras, libro IV, cap. V. Ed. Española CEME, pp. 188 y ss.). Now she experienced one of the greatest trials that God sent her during her illness: being deprived of Vincent’s assistance. At that time Vincent was also seriously ill and unable to visit Louise. She asked him to send her some written words of consolation but Vincent did not feel that is was right to grant her this grace … he sent one of the Missionaries who was told to communicate the following message to her: you go before me but I hope to see you very soon in heaven.
On March 13th Louise’s illness became more serious and this situation continued until March 15th … she rested in the Lord and handed over her soul on Monday of Passion Week, at 8:30am … she was sixty-eight years old. The pastor of Saint-Laurient who accompanied her during her final hours gave this testimony concerning her virtue: “such a beautiful soul that brought to the Lord the grace of her baptism” (Nicolás Gobillon, Vida de la Señorita Le Gras, libro IV, cap. V. Ed. Española CEME, pp. 188 y ss.).
Louise de Marillac accepted old age as a special blessing from God. She taught us how to journey along this path with peace, a path that involved engaging in activity to the degree that is possible, vigilance over ones senses, exercising the mind, trust, surrender, detachment from creatures and a constant desire to receive whole-heartedly the Holy Spirit, source of love and strength: to live for as long as it please You, but with Your life which is one of total love (SWLM:819 [A.26]).
This article appeared in Anales volume 119, #3 (July-August 2011) and was translated by Charles T. Plock, CM with permission from the editors of Anales.