Abelly: Book 1/Chapter 19

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Index of Abelly: Book One

Monsieur Vincent's Dispositions of Body and Soul and his Manner of Acting

Monsieur Vincent was of medium height and well proportioned. His head was somewhat fleshy, large enough, but well suited to the rest of the body. His forehead was broad and stately, his face neither too full nor too pinched, his appearance mild, his look penetrating, his hearing acute, his bearing grave but benign, his countenance relaxed and open, easy to approach, his disposition kindly and good. <Ftn: He always refused to have his portrait painted, even at the repeated requests of those closest to him like Mesdames Goussault and de Lamoignon. His confreres also tried to persuade him to allow a portrait to be painted. Finally, a painter was secretly brought to Saint Lazare to study his proposed subject, and he produced a portrait. The details of this were preserved by Brother Bertrand Ducournau, the saint's secretary.> His temperament was sanguine and bilious. His constitution was strong and robust yet he was more subject to the bad weather than one would have thought. This left him open to developing fevers.

His spirit was broad, composed, circumspect, capable of great things, and difficult to take unawares. He was not a quick learner, but when forced by circumstances to do so, he could penetrate quickly to the heart of the matter. He looked into all the circumstances both great and small. He foresaw the difficulties in a course of action and the likely outcomes. Unless forced to take quick action, he would seek counsel before deciding. He looked into the reasons for and against and was happy to consult with others. When asked for his advice, or when obliged to come to some decision, he outlined the problem at hand in such clear order that he astonished even the most expert in the field, above all in matters spiritual or ecclesiastical.

He never rushed into business matters. Neither the magnitude of the question nor its problems bothered him. With determination and force of mind he would undertake a project, applying himself with order and insight and would bear its burdens with patience and tranquility.

When a question of some issues arose, he would listen respectfully, never interrupting the speaker. By contrast, when he himself was interrupted he would stop at once and later take up again the thread of his argument. When he gave his opinion on some matter, he did not speak at length. He would express his thought in few words, with his natural eloquence. He could not only explain his perspective clearly and solidly but also touch his listeners by his affective language when he thought it proper. Both prudence and simplicity marked his speech. He said sincerely just what he thought. He kept quiet on some matters when he saw it could cause some hurt if he spoke. He was ever present to himself, careful never to say or write anything showing anger, rancor, or disrespect towards anyone.

His mind was not given lightly to changes. His maxim was: if things are going well, do not easily change them to improve them. He suspected new and extraordinary propositions, whether merely speculative or practical. He held to common usages and customs in matters of religion. He used to say: "The human mind is quick and restless. The most active and most creative minds are not always the best, if they are not accompanied with discrimination. Those walk most securely who travel the same path as most of the wise."

He did not stop at mere outward appearances, but penetrated to their nature and end. By his own excellent common sense, he was able to distinguish the true from the false and the good from the bad, even though they often appear under the same guise.

His heart was tender, noble, generous, and free. He easily developed an affection for what was good and in keeping with the holiness of God. Nevertheless, he had an absolute control over his natural tendencies. Reason so controlled his passions that it was hard to know he had any.

We cannot say he had no defects, for Holy Scripture says otherwise. Even the apostles and other saints were not preserved from faults. All the same, scarcely anyone in this final age was so involved in all sorts of situations, meeting all types of people, and participated in a large variety of enterprises and who met with less criticism than Monsieur Vincent did. God had given him the grace to be fully self-possessed, so nothing seemed to surprise him. His viewpoint was ever directed towards our Savior Jesus Christ and so his words and actions were influenced by this divine model. In this way he acted with great circumspection and reserve towards the great and with kindness and affability towards the least. His life was not only above reproach but worthy of the universal and public approbation he received.

Since there are ever those who do not follow the general opinion, some spirited types took exception that he took too long to make up his mind and carry out his decisions. Others objected that he spoke too poorly of himself and too well of others.

There is something in these two points, but most people fall into the opposite defect. We might say of Monsieur Vincent what Saint Jerome wrote about Saint Paula: "Her faults would be considered virtues in others."

As to the first charge, Monsieur Vincent was slow and deliberate in making decisions because of both his nature and his understanding of what was proper. His own understanding gave him an extensive view of a question, which required some time to resolve, and often left him in a sort of indecision. His spiritual viewpoint was that we must never anticipate divine Providence. He had a most sensitive conscience on this point. He was convinced that God could accomplish what he wished just as well with him as without him. What God does of his own accord is done better and with greater assurance.

On the other hand, people often do more harm than good. They contribute some of their own frailty or passion. He used to say: "Nothing is more common than the poor success of things done too precipitously." <Ftn: CED I:434.> Experience proves that Monsieur Vincent's deliberate way of acting did not hinder any good work. On the contrary, he did more of the most varied and important things and stuck to his projects better than most other people, as we will have occasion to see during this book. It seemed that God wanted to convince everyone that ardor and haste were not the key points. The earth, solid and heavy as it is, is what brings forth trees and flowers. The vivacity of fire, if not well regulated, is suited more to destroy. As to the second point, the world is so given to self-praise and pulling down the reputation of others that if he conformed to this way of acting no one would ever have said a word of reproach. But since he did just the opposite, there were complaints. His usual practice was to praise virtuous people, but speak disparagingly of himself, as being in a long line of sinners. In so doing he was following the example of the greatest saints, and even the Saint of Saints. He said by the mouth of a prophet that he was a worm and no man. <Ftn: Ps 22:7.> Although Jesus was just and innocent, or rather Justice and Innocence itself, he passed for a sinner among men. He presented himself before his heavenly Father loaded down with the sins of the people.

Monsieur Vincent had so taken to heart this practice of humility and self-deprecation that he seemed to see only vice and sin. When he requested prayers to help him bless God, it was not to thank him for the singular graces his goodness had bestowed upon him, but to praise the patience with which divine mercy bore his sins and, as he used to say, supported him even in his abominations and infidelity. Only in the secret of his heart did he express his thanks to God for his great favors and the evident gifts he had received from his hand. He never spoke of these things, fearing to attribute any of this to himself. He looked on the graces he had received as belonging to God and on himself as being unworthy of them. He did not think of these gifts as belonging to himself but as coming from God and belonging to him. He imitated the apostle in boasting only of his infirmities and concealed all the rest.

On the other hand, in closing his eyes to the weaknesses and faults of others, particularly in those he was not actively directing, he gladly praised the good he perceived in them. He did so not so much to attribute these good qualities to the other person but so as to glorify God, the sovereign Author of all good. He said once: "Some always think well of their neighbor, as much as true charity will allow them to do so. They cannot witness virtue without praising it nor virtuous persons without loving them." He was himself an example of this maxim, but always with the greatest prudence and discretion. He seldom praised the members of his own Congregation publicly, and then only when he judged it would be expedient for the greater glory of God and the greater good of all. For others, he rejoiced openly with them for the graces they had received from God and the good use they had made of his gifts. He spoke this way to encourage them to perseverance in the good they had begun.

Lastly, to express in few words what we will say more fully in Book Three on the virtues of Monsieur Vincent, he had taken Jesus Christ, our divine savior, as the only exemplar of his life. He had so imprinted the image of Jesus Christ upon his mind and was so penetrated with his holy maxims that he spoke, thought, and acted only in view of God. The life of our divine Savior and the lessons of the Gospel were the sole rule of his life and actions. They were his book of morals and his book of politics, and they guided him in all the matters that passed through his hands. They were, in a word, the sure foundation on which he built his entire spiritual edifice.

We can say in truth that without realizing it, he left us a miniature portrait of his whole life and a sort of motto, when he said one day: "Nothing pleases me except in Jesus Christ." <Ftn: This statement and a few other slight corrections on one page of this chapter were added to a second printing of the first edition in 1664.> This was the source of his unshakable constancy and firmness in doing good and of his being able to stand unmoved by any consideration of human respect or his own personal interest. This source enabled him to support the contradictions, to endure the persecutions, to put his life on the line and, as the wise man says, to defend to the death justice and truth. Towards the end of his life Monsieur Vincent spoke in these remarkable words: "Whoever speaks of the teachings of Jesus Christ speaks of an unshakable rock: eternal truths, which infallibly produce their proper fruit. They should rather expect the heavens to fall than find the truths of Jesus Christ to fail." <Ftn: CED XII:116.>

To impress this truth more firmly in the minds of others, he would sometimes use the following story:

Our good peasants know that the moon changes. It causes eclipses of the sun or the other stars. They often speak of these events, and observe them when they occur. An astrologer looks at these same things from afar in another way. By his art or science he can say that on such and such a day, at such an hour, at such a minute, we will have an eclipse. And this is true not only of astrologers in Europe but in China or elsewhere. Looking into the obscure future they can predict what will happen in the heavens a hundred, a thousand, four thousand or more years ahead. They know the rules which govern the motion of the heavens. If these people have this kind of knowledge, how much more should we believe that divine Wisdom penetrates into the least circumstances of the most hidden things. The truth of his maxims given in the teachings of the Gospel, although unknown to many in the world, are clearly seen after they occur, ordinarily only at the hour of death. Alas, why are we not convinced that these same truths as proposed by the infinite charity of Jesus Christ will never be proved wrong? The truth is that we are not convinced and quickly turn to human prudence as our guide. Do you not see that we are to blame if we trust in human reasoning rather than the promises of eternal Wisdom, to the deceitful disappointments of the world rather than the love of our Savior, who came down from heaven to show us the right way? <Ftn: CED XII:121-22.>

Monsieur Vincent was not content to fill only his own mind and heart with the truths and maxims of the Gospel. He used every opportunity to persuade others, and particularly those of his own Congregation, of these same truths. This is what he said, on one occasion, on this subject: <Ftn: CED XII:182-94. The Congregation must give itself to God to be nourished by this heavenly ambrosia, to live the way our Savior lived, to direct our actions to him, and to mold our lives on his example.>

He made it his first maxim always to seek God's glory and justice, always and before all else. How beautiful this is, to seek first the reign of God in ourselves and in others! If any group accepts this precept of working for the glory of God, how great will be its own happiness! What reason for hope that all will turn out well! If it pleases God to give us this grace, our happiness will be beyond compare.

In the world, when someone takes a trip, the first concern is that he is going the correct way. How much more those who have professed following Jesus Christ in the practice of the teachings of the Gospel (particularly seeking the glory of God above all things else) should be aware of why they are acting as they do. They must ask themselves, why am I doing this? Is it because I feel like it? Is it because I have an aversion to something else? Is it to please some unworthy creature? Or could it be to fulfill the good pleasure of God and seek his justice? What a noble life that would be! Would it be a human life? No, it would be an angelic life, since I do what I do purely for the love of God and leave aside what I do not do.

If you add to this the practice of seeking to do the will of God, which ought to be the soul of the Congregation and a practice you should keep close to your heart, you will have a means of perfection that is easy, excellent, and infallible. Our actions will be more than human, more even than angelic, but in some way divine, for they will be done in God by the movement of his Spirit and by his grace. What an excellent way of life such a way of acting would be! What a way of life that of the missionaries would be, if it embraced this practice.

Next comes simplicity, which causes God to take delight in the soul in which it dwells. Look around our own group to consider those in whom this virtue is particularly noticeable. Are they not the most lovable? Does not this candor appeal to us when we speak with them? Who should not strive for this virtue, since our Lord himself was so pleased to be with the simple?

Well regulated prudence also makes us agreeable to God since it leads us to those things conducive to his glory and makes us avoid what is opposed. With prudence we do not simply avoid duplicity in word and action but act with wisdom, circumspection, and rectitude. We reach our goals by the means suggested by the Gospel, not for a time only, but forever. How blessed we would be, ourselves and our Congregation, if we walked this path.

If you add to these virtues meekness and humility, what would be lacking? They are two blood sisters, just like simplicity and prudence. Our Savior Jesus Christ taught us this lesson when he said we must learn of him because he was meek and humble of heart. Learn of me, he said. What words! What honor to be his pupils, to receive this short but powerful lesson, which would be so impressive if it were to make us like himself. O my Savior, shall you not have the same influence over us as the philosophers had over their students, who were so strongly attracted to their statements that it was enough to say, The Master has said . . . , to gain their belief? What will we say in response to our Lord who has taught us so much, if we have learned so little? But what happiness for us if we embrace these virtues born so nobly in the heart of Jesus Christ! Do you want to know? They will lead us to that furnace of love whence they took their birth. O my God, who of us would not be all in love with you!

What can we say of him who would seek the kingdom of God, would embrace the holy practice of seeking his most holy will, who tries to be simple and prudent and practices the meekness and humility of our Lord? What would we all be if we were to act this way? What sort of Congregation would the Congregation of the Mission be? God alone could reveal this to you. For my part I do not have words enough to express myself. Tomorrow at mental prayer think about this, about what such a person and such a Congregation would be.

To all this Monsieur Vincent added two other important maxims, which he professed himself, and which he strove to inculcate in his followers.

The first was not to be content with an affective love for God, to have exalted notions of his glory. These sentiments must be expressed in action or as Saint Gregory says, "to give proof of your love by your good works." <Ftn: PL 76:1220.> On this matter he one day spoke thus to his community:

Let us love God, my brothers, let us love God, but let it be in the strength of our arm and in the sweat of our brow. Sentiments of love of God, of kindness, of good will, good as these may be, are often suspect if they do not result in good deeds. Our Savior said that his Father was glorified in our bearing much fruit. We should be on our guard, for it is possible to be well mannered exteriorly and filled with noble sentiments towards the Almighty in our minds and yet stop there. When the occasion for action arises, such people fall short. They may be consoled by their fervent imagination or content with the sweet sentiments they experience in mental prayer. They may speak like the angels, but when it is a matter of working for God, of suffering, of mortifying themselves, of teaching the poor, of seeking out the lost sheep, of rejoicing at deprivations, of comforting the sick or some other service, oh, here they draw the line. Their courage fails them. No, no, we must not deceive ourselves: totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit ["all our work consists in action"]. <Ftn: CED XI:40-41.>

He often repeated these words, which he said he had first heard from the lips of a great servant of God on his deathbed, when asked for some final edifying words. He had replied that he saw clearly in this last hour that what some people took as contemplation, ecstasy, or overwhelming experience of God were not evidence of divine union but were mere smoke. This feeling proceeded from idle curiosity or the natural inclination of a mind inclined to the good. All this was far from that good and perfect action which characterizes true love for God.

Monsieur Vincent said:

That is so true, that the holy apostle declares that our good actions alone will accompany us to the next life. Reflect on this, especially so because there are those in our time who seem virtuous enough, and perhaps are. However, they are inclined to an easy and soft life rather than to a solid and laborious one. The Church is compared to a great harvest that needs workers, but workers who actually labor. Nothing conforms more to the Gospel than to take the light and strength one finds in his soul in mental prayer, in spiritual reading, or in solitude, and bring this spiritual nourishment to others. This is what our Lord did, and his apostles also. This is to join the Martha's role to Mary's. This is to imitate the dove that takes but a part of its food for itself, while bringing the rest to the nest for its young. This is what we should do, how we should prove by our works that we do love God: totum opus nostrum in operatione consistit ["all our work consists in action"].

The second maxim of this faithful servant of God was always to see our Savior Jesus Christ in others, to inspire our charity towards them. In the Holy Father, the pope, he saw our divine Savior as pontiff and head of the Church. The bishop he saw as Jesus the bishop and prince of pastors. He saw the doctors of the Church as Jesus the doctor, priests as Jesus the priest, all religious as Jesus the religious, the king as Jesus the sovereign ruler, gentlemen as Jesus the noble one, magistrates, governors, and other officers as Jesus the judge and all-wise ruler. In the Gospel the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a merchant, and so it was that he looked on traders. He saw Jesus the worker in the artisans, Jesus the poor man in the poor, Jesus suffering in the sick and dying. He looked on all states in life, seeing in each the image of his sovereign Lord who dwelt in the person of his neighbor. He was moved, in this view, to honor, respect, love, and serve each person as our Lord, and our Lord in each individual. He wanted his followers and all those with whom he spoke to enter into these same sentiments, to make their charity towards the neighbor more constant and more perfect.

This is a sketch of the mind of Monsieur Vincent, traced out for the most part by his own hand, without his being aware of doing so. His constant effort was to remain in the background, to cover the gifts and grace he had received with the veil of silent humility. God willed it so that he unwittingly revealed much of the graces and excellent qualities poured into his soul, to make him a worthy instrument of his glory, and to use him in those great enterprises for the good of his Church, as we shall see in this book.

To summarize in a few words what has been said in this chapter about Monsieur Vincent, we can say without fear of contradiction: (1) He was a saint ever directed towards God and leading others to him, as well and directing all things to God as to their final goal. (2) He was humble, mistrustful of his own lights, quick to take counsel in his doubts, and attentive to the Holy Spirit as his guide and teacher. (3) He was mild in his way of acting, understanding the weaknesses of others and accommodating himself to events and persons. (4) He was firm in his accomplishment of the will of God and whatever concerned the spiritual development of his own community. He was not swayed by opposition or cast down by difficulties. (5) He was straightforward, never allowing himself to be turned aside from the ways of God by any element of human respect. (6) He was simple in his behavior, rejecting all pretense, duplicity, artifice, or prudence of the flesh. (7) He was prudent, choosing the best means of accomplishing the end he ever proposed to himself, which was to do what he considered most pleasing to God. He took care in carrying out his designs that he would not shock or sadden anyone, as much as lay in his power, and either avoided difficulties or overcame them by his patience and his prayers. (8) He was circumspect, not speaking of matters before their time or to those with no right to be informed. He used to say, "The demon rejoices in needless publicity given to good works. These then become trivial and without effect." (9) He was reserved and circumspect, not given to levity, not pushing himself to the fore. (10) Lastly, he was disinterested, not seeking honors or personal satisfaction for himself, or any temporal gain. His sole goal, in imitation of his divine Master, was the glory of God and the salvation and sanctification of souls.

Index of Abelly: Book One