Louise’s Preparation for Formation 1626-29 Continuation of “Louise de Marillac, Formator of the Laity”
All the members of the Vincentian Family are aware of the excellent formation that Louise received at Poissy. This formation provided for the human, cultural, social and religious aspects of her life. Nevertheless, from the time that Louise became a widow she prepared herself in a personal and particular manner to become a formator. Her correspondence with Vincent de Paul during those three years reveals some of the details of that preparation … she was guided by her spiritual director, she waited from the revelation of divine providence and also waited until the will of God was clearly made known.
During the three years following the death of her husband, Louise became involved in a search for God’s plan with regard to her life. She was very aware of the ways in which she had been inspired and kept in the front of her mind the comings and goings that she had referred to in her spiritual experience of June 4, 1623, an experience that she called the light of Pentecost.
At that time Louise’s spiritual director was the itinerant missionary, Vincent de Paul … like him, Louise turned to Mademoiselle Isabelle de Fay, a friend and a pious and charitable member of the parish of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet (Louise was also a member of this parish). A brother of Isabelle, Antoine Hennequin, was a priest and a faithful friend of Vincent de Paul … he would be admitted to the Congregation of the Mission in later years. Also Isabelle’s uncle, René Hennequin, had married Marie de Marillac, Louise’s aunt. Thus besides being related to one another, Louise and Isabelle were members of the same parish and had the same spiritual director. Those circumstances created a strong bond of friendship between these two women. The depth of this friendship can be seen in the letters that these women exchanged with Vincent de Paul. In the first letter that Vincent wrote to Isabelle de Fay in October 1626, we find the following words: Mon Dieu! how different your director’s daughters are: one full of respect for the defense of the Church, and the other fully confident that she is right about the Poissy affair! Have courage! Our Lord is honored equally by both of them from what 1 see of your community, to whose Mother 1 send my regards (CCD:I:25).
As is clear from the text of the correspondence, both women had experienced the community at Poissy and were concerned about the change of the prioress there and the difficulties that might arise from such a change. This concern was quite normal since Poissy was the center of a circle of spirituality that both women often frequented. The letters that were exchanged between these women and Vincent between 1626 and 1629 highlight the following events:
• Isabelle du Fay and Louise de Marillac maintained a friendly relationship that led them to help one another in their spiritual life, to seek the will of God and to minister on behalf of the poor. They learned how to make shirts and to live in obedience to the guidance of their director (CCD:I:26-31).
• This time was a period of formation for both women: they read the gospel together and commented on what they had read; they practiced a form of lectio divina and frequented the same spiritual circles and also read the same spiritual books (CCD:I:26-27).
• Both were concerned about Vincent’s long absences from Paris and his lengthy missionary journeys. They frequently wrote to Vincent and communicated to him their spiritual situation (often doing this in the same letter). Thus in the letter that they wrote on June 5, 1627 Vincent became aware of Isabelle du Fay’s anxiety and soon thereafter was told about Louise’s illness. Vincent responded to both in the same letter.
In October 1627 Vincent suggested that Louise broaden her circle of friends. At that time Vincent was ministering in the villages of Poitou and Cévennes where he recognized the needs of the poor country people and their lack of formation … Vincent had considered incorporating Mademoiselle de Fay and Mademoiselle Le Gras in this mission but M. de Fay, without having discerned or consulted anything with Vincent, offered this possibility to Louise. Vincent expressed his opinion in this manner: I thank you … for notifying me of good Mademoiselle du Fay’s donation. Please keep it until you need it, unless she thinks it should be set aside and reserved for going to win over poor souls to God in the regions of Poitou and the Cévennes. If that is not her intention and she wishes it to be used for the poor of this area, be so kind as to forward it to me and send three shirts to Mademoiselle Lamy in Gentilly for the Charity of that place(CCD:I:27-28).
The text reveals that Vincent gave Louise the responsibility of helping Mademoiselle du Fay in her discernment process while at the same time she was to contact Mamemoiselle Lamy and Catherine Vigor, the wife of Antoine Lamy, Auditor in the Chambre des Comptes and president of the Confraternity of Charity in Gentilly (CCD:I:28 [footnote #2]). Both spouses were benefactors of the various Vincentian works and in 1634 they established a mission house in Ferreux. This relationship with Catherine Vigor broadened her circle of friendships and expanded her charitable action.
Some weeks later M. Guérin (the wife of Gilles Guérin, Councilor of the King and Auditor of Accounts) became a member of Louise’s circle. She was also a member of the parish of Saint-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet. In this case M. Guérin offered her services to Louise and participated in the spiritual circle and the charitable group that Louise had created. Louise’s spiritual and charitable leadership continued to develop … Vincent recognized and encouraged this development and also utilized this gift on behalf of the poor. In a letter that was probably written during the autumn of 1627 Vincent entrusted her with the administration of donations because he knew that the women admired her and her accurate and effective administration: As for the money from Mademoiselle du Fay’s Charity, I gladly approve the use you wish to make of it, and I am also pleased with the decision those good young women have made to put everything in common (CCD:I:31).
Louise was creating a charitable movement in Paris as a way of following up on the missions that Vincent and his companions preached in the towns and villages. She not only collected and administered donations but also became the spiritual formator and animator of the group which later would give rise to the Confraternity of Charity in Paris.
The letters that Louise exchanged with her spiritual director reveal another dimension of Mademoiselle Le Gras. We notice the detailed information that she gave Vincent about the young women she was forming … this took place between 1627-1629, two years before she began visiting the Confraternities.
In a letter date June 5, 1627 Louise provided Vincent with a very precise report: Father, allow me to trouble you once again about a young woman, twenty-eight [years] of age, whom they wish to bring from Burgundy in order to entrust her to me. She is intelligent and virtuous, from what they tell me. However, before her, the good blind girl from Les Vertus told me that her companion, who is twenty-two [years] old, might perhaps come to our house. She has been under the direction of the Fathers of the Oratory for four years and is a genuine country girl. I am not sure that she wants to come; nevertheless, she has given me evidence of some desire to do so. I most humbly entreat you, Father, to let me know what I should do about this(CCD:I:27).
The report creates some questions. Louise spoke about three young women: one who was living in Burgundy and with whom Louise had had no contact even though some people wanted to bring this woman to her to be formed (probably to work as a servant of the Ladies of Charity who would pay her for this service). But, should Louise undertake this mission of formation? She wanted to know the thinking of her spiritual director and therefore asked him for advice. The other two women were from Les Vertus. Louise knew them and had spoken with them. One of them was blind and the other was able to see … both were virtuous women and were being directed by members of the Oratory (founded by Pierre Bérulle). The woman who was able to see desired to enter the spiritual and charitable circle of Louise.
How did Vincent respond to this? We do not know. Louise feared that Vincent’s letters were lost (CCD:I:33). But the mission of Louise as a formator of young women, servants of the Charity, continued. Louise made it clear that her son was studying at the seminary school of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet but had no intention of becoming a priest. This disturbed Louise and she sought Vincent’s counsel and wrote him on January 13, 1628. As soon as Vincent, who was in Joigny, received Louise’s message, he responded. First, he attempted to calm her about the decision of her son and then he asked her to take charge of two poor girls from Joigny:get ready to do an act of charity for two poor girls whom we have decided should leave here. We shall send them to you from here in a week’s time and ask you to direct them to some good woman who can find them work as servants, unless you know some upright lady who may need them (CCD:I:35).
Vincent responded to Louise through action since he understood that Louise was able to form these girls and place them with some family, that is, Vincent realized that Louise could provide these women with work which would give them a sense of purpose. In this case, however, the objective was not to form these girls so that they could serve the poor who approached the members of the Confraternity for assistance. One of these girls would become a servant in the house of Isabelle du Fay and the other girl would work as an employee of the Confraternity of Charity at Joigny (CCD:I:36).
In February 1628 Vincent wrote to Louise and thanked her for receiving into her home another young woman from Joigny (CCD:I:37). Louise’s service and her mission as a formator were most providential and were the result of events. Louise did not look for this but rather these young women sought Louise and therefore, both Vincent and Louise viewed this as in expression of God’s will. Vincent wrote to Louise and said: Mademoiselle … be quite cheerful in the disposition of willing everything that God wills. And because it is His good pleasure that we remain always in the holy joy of His love, let us remain in it and attach ourselves to it inseparably in this world (CCD:I:36).
Joy was indispensable for one who wanted to form young women from the countryside so that they could find work and a thus feel a sense of purpose. Louise was like that well-grounded tree that began to produce fruit for the Kingdom of God. Vincent expressed this opinion in a letter dated July 30, 1628 … the gospel for Mass that day was the passage about the good tree and the rotten tree (Matthew 7:17-20) and Vincent stated: Now then, I imagine that the words of today’s Gospel touched you deeply; they are so impelling to the heart that loves with a perfect love. Oh! what a tree you have appeared to be today in God’s sight, since you have borne such a fruit! May you be forever a beautiful tree of life bringing forth fruits of love, and I, in that same love (CCD:I:46).
Louise experienced her involvement in the formation of the Ladies of Charity and in the formation of young girls in the villages as servants of the Charity as a blessing from God. Encouraged by her spiritual director she decided to make a spiritual retreat and in the presence of God wanted to discern how she might respond to the idea that was welling up in her heart of expanding her mission of formation. Vincent encouraged her with these words: Well yes, dear lady, I do consent. Why not, since Our Lord has given you this holy thought? Go to Communion tomorrow, then, and prepare yourself for the salutary review you have in mind; after that, you will begin the retreat you have arranged. I could not tell you how ardently my heart desires to see yours in order to know how this has come about in it, but I am quite willing to mortify myself for the love of God, in which love alone I desire yours to be immersed (CCD:I:46).
At the end of 1625 having concluded her retreat, she made the decision to offer herself unconditionally to serve God in the Confraternities of Charity, a ministry in which she saw Christian formation and teaching the Catechism as urgent needs. On the sixth day of her retreat she expressed this in the following words: I must be mindful not to seek tenderness or spiritual consolation as a motive for serving God. Rather, I accept all the dryness and lack of consolation for which my soul is destined. 1 offer myself in total abandonment to God to endure all the temptations it will please Him to send, and to live and to die in this state if such be His holy will (SWLM:701 [A.7]).
This decision of unconditional surrender was made known to Vincent who in the beginning remained silent but found this most pleasing even though he delayed responding to Louise because of his work. Nevertheless he found some time to explain to Louise his silence: You are wrong, my dear daughter, in thinking that I was of the opinion that you should not accept the young lady’s suggestion, because I have not given it a thought. And I have not given it a thought, because I am sure that you wish and do not wish what God wishes and does not wish, and that you are disposed to want and not want only what we tell you that God seems to want and not want. Therefore, confess your fault with regard to that thought and never let it enter your mind in the future. Try to live content among your reasons for discontent and always honor the inactivity and unknown condition of the Son of God. That is your center and what He asks of you for the present and for the future, forever. If His Divine Majesty does not let you know, in a way that cannot be mistaken, that He wants something else of you, do not think about or let your mind become engrossed in that other matter. Leave it to me; I shall think about it enough for both of us (CCD:I:54).
Was Vincent afraid that Louise might have made her decision because she was seeking some notoriety or popularity and was this why he asked her to honor the unknown condition of the Son of God? This is very possible because vanity and rashness were defects that Louise recognized and confessed. Therefore Vincent took some time to discern the will of God with regard to this unconditional offering of Louise. A few weeks later, near the end of 1628, he encouraged Louise to trust in Providence in the midst of waiting to know God’s will: Mon Dieu, my daughter, what great hidden treasures there are in holy Providence and how marvelously Our Lord is honored by those who follow it and do not try to get ahead of it! (CCD:I:59; cf; CCD:I:59-63).
In the same line of thought with regard to waiting patiently and accepting the will of God He wrote her six letters between February and May 1629. He recognized Louise’s qualities as a formator of young country girls but he wanted it to be clear that this mission was what God expected of her.
Meanwhile Louise prepared herself spiritually as she meditated on the Word of God and together with Isabelle de Fay, Lamy and Guérin and the other members of the Charities assisted the poor who approached the different Confraternities that were near to Paris and which she presided over.
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