When Isaiah visualizes what comes to a person who feeds the hungry and helps lift burdens from peoples’ backs, he draws on the image of light. “If you satisfy the afflicted,” he promises, “then light will shine on you in darkness, will break forth like the dawn, and make the gloom all around you as bright as midday.” (58: 5,10)
I’m struck by how much his prophesy weaves in and out of the life of St. Louise de Marillac. And this is not just because of that intense spiritual awareness that came to her one Pentecost Sunday, an event which she named “Lumiere” (The Light). It’s because throughout her life, more so in its earlier part, she experienced times of darkness: the loneliness of her upbringing, her sick husband and learning-disabled son, doubts about the afterlife, periods of depression and anxiety. Yet while walking those somber corridors, she came to discover right there in the gloom a flickering light that held her on course. It was a glow that came to shine out over her creative and steady care for the downtrodden. And it was a light which even though sometimes hardly visible, she knew in faith was there.
Again, this is not to say that her life was one continual struggle with gloom, but rather that through its ups and downs, its hazy and sharp shadows, she gives repeated testimony to this inner light, this presence of The Lord within.
One of her biographers cites the discovery of a creased, yellowed piece of paper found in Louise’s belongings soon after her death. Written on it was the word “Lumiere,” and it seems she kept it close as a sacred touchstone for many decades.
Joyce Rupp is a writer who often plays on this theme. In one of her books, Little Pieces of Light (p.30) she gives this depiction: “The power of the Radiant Light within us urging us to stay in the struggle, to wait in the dark, to believe in the value of the tomb stage of our journey, and to trust that our own bud time will come again.” This is her lyric rendition of that interior illumination, of being strengthened and guided by this elusive and hidden radiance.
Do not those words fit Louise’s experience? The shimmering spark within prodding her to keep on walking, not just through the dark but out onto the busy streets of all that practical devotion to God’s poor.
Ten years after that Pentecost Lumiere, Louise welcomes six village girls into her home, young women who also have caught the glow of that light shining within and leading them to serve the poorest of the poor. The rest is history, the history of the thousands of women who as Daughters and Ladies of Charity sensed that light and allowed it to guide them down that very same road.
May all of us who follow in Louise’s footsteps catch fresh sight of that “little piece of light” and let it lead us along her path.