Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 07

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

The Help Given by Monsieur Vincent to the Convents of the Religious of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Diocese of Paris While He Was Their Superior and Father

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The help and services which the religious of the order of the Visitation of Saint Mary of the diocese of Paris received from Monsieur Vincent for the thirty-eight years he was their superior and spiritual father deserve to have a place in this second book. This work not only shows the extent of his charity but also how enlightened he was from on high in discerning spiritual matters, and what prudence, meekness, firmness and other excellent virtues he possessed for the guidance of others.

We do not intend to give more space to this than it deserves, but simply to report what we have garnered from some reports furnished us, mostly from religious of this holy order.

Blessed Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva, founder of this order of the Visitation of Saint Mary, and the Venerable Jane Frances Fremiot, foundress and first superior of this order, and superior of the first convent of the Visitation in the city of Paris, learned and recognized the rare qualities of Monsieur Vincent as a wise and saintly director. They earnestly besought him to accept the office as superior and spiritual father of the houses of this holy institute in Paris. [1] Also in 1622 the late Cardinal de Retz, then bishop of Paris, asked him to accept this office and take over the direction of these virtuous women. [2]

The venerable mother, their foundress, soon realized the gift God had given in the person of this worthy superior. She developed such appreciation that she turned nowhere else for advice in the management and progress of her institute. Her successors in office did the same, not seeking guidance elsewhere except from him. This resulted in great blessings from God, in preserving union and regularity for the community, and for the progress of the individual religious and the spread of their houses.

A second convent opened soon after, and a third soon followed. The one was situated in the Faubourg Saint Jacques, and the other in the village of Saint Denis. Monsieur Vincent, directed them both, and God funneled his graces as abundantly through him as he had done for the first convent. After some time the convent of Saint Jacques led to yet another convent in Paris, situated on the Rue Montorgueil. It too came under Monsieur Vincent's direction with equally happy results. In this way, he was responsible for these four convents up to the time of his death, in all thirty-eight years of service to this institute. He acted with so many blessings and successes that from the first two of the houses in Paris about twenty others have come in various cities of the kingdom. The daughters of this wise superior spread the good odor of their virtues and testify to the spirit of their blessed founder. They thereby attract many other women to the service of their divine Spouse.

Blessed Francis de Sales had met Monsieur Vincent in Paris several times. He said he had met no one so wise and virtuous as Monsieur Vincent. The late Monsieur Coqueret, doctor of theology of the faculty of Paris, at the college of Navarre, reported that he had heard this judgment himself from the lips of the bishop. [3] This blessed prelate was called to heaven soon after he had confided the direction of the daughters of the Visitation in Paris to Monsieur Vincent. He was happy to have put in his capable hands the pious enterprise he valued more than any other he had accomplished.

The venerable mother superior survived Blessed Francis by nearly twenty years. Because she was obliged to travel on business affairs and for the general good of her Congregation, she often wrote to Monsieur Vincent. She placed herself and her institute under his guidance, and received great light and consolation from him. In November 1627, while he was away working on a mission, she wrote him about her interior state. This shows the confidence she had in this wise counselor, and we report it here for the edification of the Christian reader:

You are working, my dear father, in the province of Lyons and so we will be deprived for a long time of seeing you. We have nothing to say when God acts, except to bless him in everything, which I do, my dear father. I take the liberty you have given me to speak my confidences to you, and I do so simply. I made four days of the retreat, not more, because of some business matters which came up. I recognized that I must work at the virtues of humility, and of care for the neighbor. These are virtues I chose last year, and our Lord has given me the grace to practice them to some extent, but I owe all to him. He will help me again, if it pleases him, since he provides me so many opportunities to practice them.

As to my inner state, I think I am in the frame of mind to accept whatever God will ask of me. I have no desires or goals. Nothing matters but to let God direct my steps. I do not yet see where I am being led, but in the depths of my soul I am ready. I have no agenda or plan. I do at the moment what seems needed, without troubling myself about the future.

Often, in the lower part of my soul there is revolt, which causes me much suffering, but I realize that in patience I shall possess my soul. Also, I have much annoyance in my responsibilities, for my spirit is not adapted to action, and being compelled to act in necessities, my body and spirit are beaten down. On the other hand, my imagination troubles me greatly during the spiritual exercises, to my chagrin. God also allows many exterior difficulties so that nothing in this life pleases me except the will of God who wants me here. I ask you most earnestly to beg that God may have mercy on me. On my part I shall pray, as I do with all my heart, that he will strengthen you in the role he has assigned to you. [4]

In another letter, written about several matters, she began in this way:

May I never experience any other emotion but sorrow if I forget the charity you showed me the day of your departure. My heart is consoled in difficulties and strengthened in the troubles it meets, coming from whatever quarter. I prostrate myself in spirit at your feet, asking pardon for the pain I caused you by my lack of mortification, now embracing lovingly the humiliations which come to me. To whom can I reveal my weaknesses but to you, my dear father, who understands so well? I hope that in your goodness you will not grow weary of me. [5]

During her visit to Annecy, in some hope of seeing Monsieur Vincent, she write to him as follows:

Alas, my true and dear father, would it be possible for God to give me the grace to meet you in this region? This would be the greatest consolation I could receive in this world. This would be for me, I dare say, a special gift of God's mercy for my soul. It would be greatly consoled in relief of an interior trial I have borne for more than four years, in a sort of martyrdom. [6]

Monsieur Vincent visited the houses in Paris and Saint Denis from time to time to look to their general progress, and to the welfare of each individual religious. He sought to lift them up from falls common to humanity, and to encourage them in perfection. He displayed such humility, recollection, prudence, and charity that he was evidently led by the spirit of God. He acted so prudently among the sisters that they would clearly see that his ardent zeal was a fruit of the Holy Spirit working in him. This made his visits profitable and successful. The community seemed anointed with his devotion, filled with the desire to strive for perfection, but an effective and firm desire appeared in the various spiritual exercises of these religious. He stimulated their love of their vocation, and led them to embrace the spirit of their holy institute. He inspired them especially with the maxims of the Gospel and the precepts of their blessed founder contained in their rules and constitutions. He drew from this source the good advice he gave, and the practices he recommended, knowing that this fidelity to rule was the secret of the perfection of their state.

He strongly recommended the other writings of their blessed founder and of their worthy mother foundress, for which he had such a high opinion. His esteem for these writings was so marked that he could never read them without being moved. He was seen to be in tears while reading the book Responses by the venerable foundress, from which we cite the extract of a letter written to her devoted superior in September 1631. [7]

You are always admirable in your humility, from which I always receive such special consolation. I am especially pleased to hear of your satisfaction in your visit to our house in the faubourg. The superior has written also, saying she and the sisters were most pleased with your visit. Blessed be God, praised and glorified always. May he give our dear father a glorious crown for his troubles and the charity he shows in dealing with our sisters. Alas, my dear father, how good you are. I was convinced of this in seeing the tears you shed in reading our recent Responses. [8]

After citing these letters of the venerable mother foundress, we will turn to others written by the older and principal religious of the convents of this holy order at Paris. They knew Monsieur Vincent particularly well.

We can say with assurance that several times almost miraculous things occurred during his visits or immediately after. From the first time he came, he set free one of our sisters from a troubled mind that was so strong it affected her whole body, making it impossible for her to give any service to the convent. She aroused the sympathy of all who saw her, but since her cure she has been able to exercise various offices for several years, including that of mistress of novices, and even superior. At length, by the grace of God she died peacefully.

Several other religious troubled by pains and serious temptations found they were entirely delivered in speaking of their difficulties to this charitable father. Others had a decided change in conduct by the help of the abundant grace which flowed from him. In fact, all were renewed at each of his visits, and walked more joyfully on the road to perfection than ever before. We might add that his blessings extended even to temporal things following his visits.

The special graces this humble servant of God had received to enlighten, console, and strengthen souls was seen on several occasions, especially in regard to the late Mother Helene Angelique Lhuillier. [9] She was led to God through the severe interior trials she endured. She was severely troubled by various extreme ailments of body and soul, but she found no relief, after God, except in this dear father, who had such a gift of consoling tortured souls. On one occasion, when it was thought that perhaps he was being bothered too much, he said that he deemed nothing more important than to be of service to someone in this sad state. He spoke agreeably to these suffering ones, often using light and joyous expressions to divert them from their sadness and sorrow.

His charity for the consolation of his neighbor was a source of much suffering for him, when his own infirmities prevented him from attending the sick religious who asked him to visit. He was not satisfied to offer some words of consolation to those in difficulty. He did all he could to alleviate their sufferings. One day a domestic sister, whose virtue he much appreciated, took sick and developed a high fever. She said she was at peace and ready to die. "O my sister", he replied, "your time has not yet come." He made the sign of the cross upon her forehead, and at the instant the fever left her, and she later experienced neither fever nor pains.

As he had experienced all the facets of human existence himself, infirmities, humiliations, and temptations, he would console those in similar circumstances by saying he had come through the same, and God had delivered him, and would do the same for them. "Have patience," he would say, "accept whatever is the good pleasure of God, and meanwhile, use this or that remedy." Once a good domestic sister mentioned she was too rustic to apply herself to spiritual things, because in her own region she had looked after the animals on her father's farm. He said to her, "My sister, this is the first thing I did myself--I looked after the pigs. But if this serves to humble us, we will be all the better prepared for the service of God: Courage!"

Another sister spoke of a temptation which troubled her. He took the occasion to tell her that he had experienced a similar temptation for several years, but this never gave him matter to confess. He thereby made her realize the distinction between temptation and sin, and that she should not be concerned, for she had not consented in any way. He spoke of this about himself despite his great care never to speak of the graces God conferred upon himself, unless it clearly benefited someone else, as in this instance.

He did not think it useful or expedient that the religious should have too frequent or too familiar communications with superiors. If some wished to speak with him and he saw no great necessity, he would make them wait a long time to oblige them to weigh well what they were to say.

He used to say one thing to be avoided at all costs was for the religious to instigate petty intrigues against the rule of the mother superiors. This had harmed many, and ruined many houses. If one or several religious complained of the superior, he would look into the matter carefully, and judge prudently if it was a natural impulse or motivated by a true zeal. If he found the complaint justified, he would provide a remedy and speak to the superior about it. He would never align himself with malcontents against their superior, but would seek to excuse her, if he could do so in justice, to maintain her reputation and authority, knowing that this was necessary for the smooth running of the community.

He was most concerned that the houses in Paris and the others founded by them be careful of the clergy who visited, lest they be infected with the new opinions prevalent in clerical circles. "For," he said, "those who have adopted a false doctrine strive to spread it everywhere. They do not immediately show their hand. They are wolves which come meekly into the sheepfold to ravage and destroy."

On his advice the late Mother Helene Angelique Lhuillier, superior of the first convent in Paris, refused a large sum of money from a noble lady. She had offered it to the community for her retirement, but on condition that on occasion several Jansenists would be allowed to come visit her at the grille. [10]

When a religious or a group of religious would request his blessing, he would fall to his knees, recollect himself, and convey the sense of his own unworthiness and the majesty of God. He would say a devout and touching word or two, invoking a blessing upon the work and their person, always with some word of encouragement.

Despite his incomparable meekness, he still was firm in facing up to serious failings, but his prudence dictated that he await the proper moment for his corrections to be well received. Once he was asked to rebuke a young woman for some fault she had. He responded: "You give medicine to those with a fever only in cases of great necessity," for she was not yet disposed to accept this remedy. He taught the superiors to use their admonitions with much circumspection and charity if they were to be helpful. For himself, he acted so when he had to give penances, for evidently it would have been easier for him to do the penance himself than to impose it on others.

He once met a group of religious, who, in a spirit of holy liberty, criticized those more exact in their observance of the rule. He quickly put an end to their pretensions. He made them see that only in the mastery of their passions found in perfect mortification would they attain the perfect liberty they sought.

He had a marvelous facility to bring down the haughty without their being aware of what was happening. His zeal was reserved even more for those who disobeyed in something serious. He would reprimand them so severely they would be humbled, and would think of what it would be like before God on the day of his fearsome judgment, since the word of a mere man abased and humiliated them so severely.

He was beyond compare in supporting the weaknesses of others, whether of soul or body. His very presence commanded respect, but rather than repel, hearts opened up to him. No one inspired greater confidence than he, or received the most secret thoughts or the weaknesses most difficult to disclose. He supported and excused everyone, like a tender mother making excuses for her child.

One of the most enlightened and capable of the mother superiors of the entire order excused herself from speaking of Monsieur Vincent, for her house had already sent several reports from the other sisters. [11] She added this:

Since what has already been written says what I had in mind, I find I can add little. I would not want to speak in generalities, however admirable, and only of what his profound humility could not hide. As to certain particular events, I am sure you have already received accounts of those. I prefer to honor the silence I observed in him on a thousand occasions, to our great admiration. I often marveled at the depth of his mind, hardly ever leaving his presence without sensing my own superficiality, seeing him penetrate to depths I could scarcely follow. By the grandeur of the lights I saw in him, which he revealed only by degrees, I felt the poorest and most incapable person in the world.

He inspired in hearts a confidence that led people to speak to him of the most painful things, but this confidence was coupled with a most profound respect for him. His words had a marvelous effect upon the soul, whether to calm those in trouble or put others at peace.

His tolerance for the failings of others was extreme, but this did not detract from his firmness. He held to the exact balance when forced to correct someone. If he could be said to lean to one side more than the other, it was always on the side of those two great virtues, humility and charity, which he held so dear. I have fallen into the very pit I wanted to avoid, for I speak from the abundance of my heart, which preserved for this saintly man greater esteem, love, and respect than can be expressed or imagined.

Monsieur Vincent was without human respect. He stood firm for the interests of God and for the spiritual good of the religious houses he was responsible for, despite any objections or temporal disadvantages he was threatened with. This was particularly shown by the way he handled requests for visitation rights, often from noble women, even from princesses. Some of these were curious about what went on in these communities, or out of devotion wished to pass some hours with the sisters. Some, whether of high or low estate, who had run into some misfortune, felt they had a right to be received. He generally but politely refused all such unjustified requests, explaining the reasons he could not accord this permission, sometimes using conscience as his argument. Some ladies were granted this privilege. Occasionally he gathered the superiors and principal sisters of the convents to see which ones were founders or major benefactors of the religious, and who had a right to such visitations. Once they established this list, he had it put in writing and made it a rule to exclude all others. The religious were forbidden to go against this list, because when they made exceptions, the grand ladies refused entrance complained. He feared greatly that the spirit of the world would penetrate the convents. He feared that after these ladies left they would leave the religious less devoted for having seen and spoken with secular persons, who often displayed their vanity in the cloister and even during the exercises of piety.

He was firm even in dealing with the queen mother of the king, while still respecting the honor due Her Majesty. She wanted one of her ladies of honor to be received in the original Paris convent. When he had to refuse such requests, he never hid behind the religious, but spoke up himself in their place and for them. [12] In 1658 he received word that Madame Payen, the mother-in-law of Monsieur de Lyonne was at the gate of the monastery on the rue de Saint Antoine demanding that she be allowed to enter to see the dying granddaughter of the minister. Vincent responded: "I am the very humble servant of Madame Payen, and I very much desire to be at her service, but my rule is to permit no such visits. I have refused Madame de Nemours, Madame de Longueville, and the Princesse de la Carignan. They have never forgiven men and what would they say if they were to learn I had made an exception? To do anything else would go against my conscience." [13] On other matters, he preferred that nothing extraordinary be done if it were a matter of some consequence, without first seeking the advice of the superiors and councillors, so as to act in union with them and with a common understanding. Even then, his chief recourse was the oracle of truth, for before responding to any proposition he would seek the guidance of the Spirit of God within himself. In seeing his evident recollection the sisters accepted his advice as a light from heaven. His frequent practice of beginning his remarks by his customary words In nomine Domini ["In the name of the Lord"], emphasized this view.

If we put down here in detail everything written in the reports of these good sisters in praise of their superior, this chapter would be far too long. We will simply append to what we have already said some remarks sent by the religious of the convent at Saint Denis.

His behavior always seemed to us to be so unselfish, looking always to the glory of God alone, in everything he did.

From the moment he recognized something as the will of God he would be thoroughly committed to it, saying with a marvelous serenity, "In all things we must believe in his divine Providence."

In the advice he gave upon matters presented to him, he acted with great prudence and with a judgment so profound and enlightened that no circumstance escaped his notice. This became evident in several complicated matters referred to several enlightened persons, and even to some learned doctors, but the questions remained unresolved. After he had recourse to this worthy father, he wrote with such clarity and justice, penetrating to the heart of the question, that we were able to arrange the solution without harming the community or failing in charity for our neighbors. This caused several people to remark that only the Spirit of God could provide such an equitable discernment to satisfy all parties. Also whatever the question, he would never give an answer before entering into himself, seemingly invoking the grace of the Holy Spirit.

We were always pleased with his way of acting, recognizing the fullness of God in him, and the evangelical spirit in his calm yet persistent zeal, on fire for the glory of God. He had a mild persistence in maintaining the observance of our rule. He often asked if we had failed in any one of them, and spoke of our blessed founder and worthy mother to encourage us to their faithful practice. He gave as much attention to the smallest observance as to those of greater moment. He never used his own authority to introduce any change in the rule. On the contrary, he attempted to confirm and maintain it.

We had a good example of his edifying firmness in his efforts to preserve the exact observance of the cloister, despite any human consideration or selfish interest. He refused entry even to influential people whose position and wealth could have benefited both him and us financially. He preferred the incomparable good of our solitude to all the vain hopes of the world.

In his own visitations he spared no pain to make them useful, doing everything with thoroughness, serenity, and attention. He had a kindness reflecting the spirit of God, listening to the newest novice of the house with the same patience as he did for the oldest religious. When he reproved any faults, he prepared and disposed the minds of those concerned with such charity and meekness that the grace of his words was remembered long after the sting of the correction, so great was his gift of leading souls to God.

To know and recognize our faults, he used to have us enter into judgment with God (to use his way of speaking) and with ourselves. He used to say the lightest faults were serious, considering the designs of God and his expectations of us.

We noticed that although extreme charity and understanding always accompanied his admonitions, when it was a question of failings in reciting the divine office he seemed to take on a new personality. His holy zeal moved him to speak with such vigor and strength that it impressed on our hearts the fear and respect for the majesty of God, as one who dwelt in unspeakable glory. He wanted even the least ceremonial directives to be observed, saying that God directed his people to preserve his rites and his commands. He threatened those who failed to observe the rites just as he did against those who disobeyed the law. He suggested that we read our rule and directories often, as well as what pertained to our institute. He wanted us to imitate the Israelites, who after their captivity, wept tears of contrition while reading the law, at the remembrance of their failures in observing it.

During his visits he recommended union with our superiors, but it should be, he said, union of hearts, deferring to their wishes even in indifferent matters. He recommended respect and cordiality among us, especially for the older sisters, in whom we were to honor the Ancient of Days. When reproving us for any failure in charity, he would recall the spirit of meekness of our founder. He taught us to honor the silence of the divine Word upon earth by our own silence. He said we were to give ourselves to God by a perfect practice of obedience to God, to our rule and to our superiors. Since we had vowed obedience, we had surrendered our own personal direction.

He wanted an account of the visit to be composed, which should be read from time to time in chapter. "This reading will attract the grace of God upon you," and in fact it did give us the blessing of renewing the dispositions of fervor, exactitude, and recollection that we had experienced in the visits.

He led the houses he directed to a great simplicity and perfect self-denial. He taught us to avoid all show, all love of creatures, and everything that would lead the religious to have communication with lay persons. He made us see the blessing it was to be located outside Paris, separated from high society. He urged us to shun all curiosities, such as books and meetings with spiritual persons possibly tainted with the dangerous opinions of the day. He counseled us to confine our reading to the writings of our blessed father, for whom he had a special veneration.

In this spirit of self-denial he respectfully refused the request of the Ursuline sisters, our close neighbors, to entertain some of our sisters, their relatives, even though their superior had authorized this. When the wall separating our communities was broken down, he did not want them to visit our community, saying to us, "Religious are dead to the world, and should no longer even recognize their own relatives."

He spoke little, but we realized that one of his words had greater effect than entire sermons, through the spirit of God which spoke through him and the respect he had for his holiness. A sister told us that when she made her confession to him, he said in four words just what she needed to hear in her troubled state. That astonished her as much as satisfied her.

To another sister he counseled the exercise of the presence of God. He mentioned that since adopting this practice he had never done anything in secret he would not have wanted to be known on the public square. He said, "The presence of God ought to have greater influence over our minds than the presence of every living creature of the whole world, assembled together."

From a large number of examples of his charity from which we might choose, we select one from when time was so valuable to him, towards the end of his life, when he was weighed down with infirmities and cares. He came here several times to speak with the poor extern sister who was asking to be dispensed from her vows so she could marry. This holy man felt in making the change she would put her salvation in danger. He presented reasons why she should remain in such a touching way it could have softened a heart of steel.

He treated matters of charity with such care that there never was the least hint of self-interest. When it became necessary to reveal a fault of someone in the interests of truth, he made a special effort to seek out the good qualities of the person, to erase any bad impression that had been formed.

He was most serene in handling business matters, to which he gave all the time necessary to understand them thoroughly. His equanimity of disposition made him accessible to all, even allowing him to amuse the sick and afflicted persons he dealt with, for whom he had an incomparable charity. His generous nature accommodated itself to their weaknesses whether of body or mind. It could be said of him, with Saint Paul, that he made himself all to all, to gain all to God.

His deference and respect for all sorts of persons was admirable. His efforts to speak only good of everyone was equaled only by his habit of speaking poorly of himself as a sinner, and lowering himself in the sight of all, for the greater glory of God and the edification of the neighbor.

These are the testimonials about their superior from the religious of Saint Mary, or at least the principal ones they sent. For the sake of brevity we have left out some others, containing some spiritual advice Monsieur Vincent gave to these religious on various occasions, either in general or in particular cases. These generally dealt with the virtues most suitable for them. They were, especially, the union and charity that should reign among them, obedience to their superiors, fidelity to the observances of the community, interior recollection, mental prayer, preparation for reception of the sacraments, purity of intention, love of poverty, the necessity of mortification, perseverance, and other similar topics.

Monsieur Vincent had a heart totally inflamed with charity towards the neighbor. Consequently, it was only natural that he should communicate some spark of this ardor to his dear daughters, and that he should lead them to give themselves to the salvation of souls as much as their situation would allow. They hoped to do this, not only by their prayers, but also by some more practical help, which they believed to be in the spirit of their institute and conformable to the intentions of their blessed father and founder. They felt that it was not enough to exercise their charity among themselves, but that this divine light and fire should extend to others outside, to help them achieve good order, regularity, union, and all sorts of other spiritual goods. These ideals had inspired the superior, Monsieur Vincent, to agree that the religious of Saint Mary should work with other convents in need of reform. We will give here but a single example. It will suffice to show the saintly dispositions of this charitable spiritual father and of his virtuous daughters also, in extending their charity to those outside their convent.

Several years previously the piety and good will of the late Marquise de Maignelay, whose memory is held in benediction, and with the help of many other like-minded persons, founded the convent of Sainte Madeleine, near the Temple in Paris. [14] It was to serve as a sort of refuge for girls and women who wanted to leave their lives of vice, and become converted to God. From its first days, the management of the convent was recognized as its greatest weakness. Those who came had no experience in directing a house, nor the other qualities necessary for such a position. After thinking about how to remedy this problem, it was suggested that the religious of the Visitation might be asked to take over the administration of this new convent, since they seemed to be more capable than any others. The spirit of their institute, which obliged them to the twin virtues of charity and meekness, seemed most suitable to win the affection of the poor souls, and bind them with the bands of love to Jesus Christ.

This had been discussed with the blessed bishop of Geneva. He agreed that it might well be undertaken one day, but for the moment the time was not yet ripe. Some years later, when the suggestion was made to Monsieur Vincent, he considered before God the importance and necessity of this venture. He was persuaded that the religious of the Visitation ought to undertake it. He spoke with Mother Helene Angelique Lhuillier, superior of the first convent, and she in turn discussed it with her community. Notwithstanding the apprehensions she and her sisters felt at such a difficult undertaking, they agreed to do so. They were encouraged by the great good to be effected in this work and by the help they hoped for from God.

In 1629 Monsieur Vincent chose four religious of the first convent of the Visitation to move to the convent of Sainte Madeleine as prioress, director, and porter, with the blessing of the archbishop of Paris. From time to time these sisters were replaced, because of the trying nature of the work. Their direction was so successful that soon good order reigned in this large house. For more than thirty years all has gone well, even to the extent of this convent led to two others, in Rouen and in Bordeaux. Monsieur Vincent contributed much by his wise counsel and his charitable care, either going to visit it in person or by writing often to the sisters there. He helped especially in obtaining good confessors who could maintain peace, obedience, and good order in all that concerned the worship of God.

Since the beginning, many obstacles to its realization marked this work. Because many regulations had to be adopted, Monsieur Vincent, with his usual prudence, held several meetings with doctors or other pious people, to discuss ways of meeting the difficulties of the enterprise and to resolve doubts which arose. This enabled him to act with greater assurance in a matter of this importance, affecting the relief and edification of the public, and the spiritual good of so many poor creatures who found in this new enterprise a safe harbor amid their stormy lives.

Ordinarily around a hundred, or a hundred and twenty girls lived in the house. Some of them took the three vows of religion, others not, but they remained of their own free will, and all lived a regulated and well-ordered life. Some others were there under duress, but God who is rich in mercy gave the grace to some of these to pass from this third group to the second, and some even to the first. They were helped in this by the charitable care they received from the sisters of the Visitation, who undoubtedly found much difficulty in guiding this house. God gave them the grace to surmount all these sufferings by their humility, patience, and meekness. By these virtues they were able to overcome the contradictions, persecutions, and calumnies raised by the devil and the world against them. Monsieur Vincent helped them greatly. He encouraged them to persevere, showing them how much their patience and their charity redounded to the glory of God. They merited grace and attracted blessings for the entire order by their devotion. It was a great honor for them to do what the apostles did, and what Jesus Christ himself came upon earth to do, to convert souls to God. This is what he wrote to Mother Anne Marie Bollain, the first superior sent to the convent of Sainte Madeleine, where she worked successfully for several years.

Our Lord who always calls us to what is most perfect would prefer you to continue your services to Sainte Madeleine than to do anything else. The grace of perseverance is the most important of all, the crown of all the others. Death that would find us arms in hand for the service of our divine Master would be the most glorious and the most desirable. Our Lord ended his life as he lived. His life had been hard and painful, his death severe and agonizing with no human consolation. For this reason some of the saints wanted to die alone, totally abandoned by all, in the hope of having God alone as their comfort. I am convinced, my dear sister, that you seek him alone, and when presented with a choice you always prefer what is for his greater glory, and not your own personal interest. [15]

Among all the other considerations referred to, which Monsieur Vincent extended with such affection to the sisters of the Visitation in this undertaking, and which have continued to this day despite all the difficulties that have arisen, he dwelt on one subject more than on any other. He feared that if these religious withdrew from this enterprise, the venom of novel errors would enter this house, for it had a way of spreading everywhere. He would say that besides the harm it did to faith and religion, it introduced dangerous seeds of ill feeling into the community. It was a source of division which the enemy sowed secretly to destroy it if great care were not taken, as experience only too well confirmed.

Before ending this chapter, we have felt that for the edification of the reader, it would be well to include two accounts written in Monsieur Vincent's own hand about the two great servants of God who founded the saintly institute of the Visitation. These show the extraordinary and remarkable graces it pleased God to bestow on his faithful servant. They also manifest the sanctity of Blessed Francis de Sales, founder of the order, and of the Venerable Mother Jane Frances Fremiot, its foundress. Here is what he wrote, in the first of these pieces:

It pleases the goodness of God to work miracles through the saints, to show forth their sanctification. I write of one, of which I was witness, in the person of sister M. M. of the Visitation of Saint Mary, in the convent in the faubourg Saint Jacques, in Paris.

About six years ago this religious was seized with a horrible temptation of aversion against God, the blessed sacrament, and all the exercises of our holy religion. She blasphemed against God, and cursed him as often as she praised him, or rather as often as she heard the other sisters praise him in the divine office. In choir, she blasphemed and cursed aloud, in the hearing of all those around her. When her superior asked her to make an act of devotion toward God, she replied that she had no God but the devil. She had such anger and fury against God's divine majesty she was on the verge of killing herself, the better to be in hell, as she herself said, where she could curse God eternally. This is what she wanted.

The reverend mother superior had her see various persons who might help, such as bishops, priests, and others familiar with such internal matters. In keeping with their advice she was sent to medical doctors. They prescribed various remedies, but all without effect. Finally, the superior thought if she would apply a piece of the surplice of the blessed bishop of Geneva she would be cured. She did this, and a short time later the cure followed instantly. She lost the troubled spirit which so bothered her, and became completely at peace. Her weakened body regained its strength, and her appetite and sleep returned to normal. All this happened in an instant, and all has remained well in both mind and body ever since. She recovered so completely that she was able to take on some of the principal responsibilities of the house, and is now serving as mistress of novices.

What makes me believe in the miraculous nature of this cure is that it followed the application of the surplice of the blessed bishop of Geneva, and this only after all human remedies had failed. Her ailments increased at the moment of application of the surplice, something that usually happens in miraculous cures, but the cure came suddenly, justifying the faith of the mother superior. She is as convinced as if she had seen and touched him that our Lord did this miracle in favor of the blessed bishop, and by the application of his surplice. I write these things after talking to the sister during her illness and after her cure. I learned all the circumstances from the mother superior and from the religious herself immediately after her cure, which happened on the day I went to make my visitation of the convent, on the authority of the most illustrious and most reverend archbishop of Paris. [16]

After this account by the humble servant of God, there is no room to doubt this extraordinary and miraculous cure. It came about through the merits of the blessed bishop of Geneva, founder of the order of the Visitation, source of so many miracles since that time. This holy bishop should rightly be regarded as its true author, after God, who will be all the more honored and glorified in his saint. Nevertheless, some circumstances which accompanied or followed this miraculous cure involving Monsieur Vincent, make us think God wished him to play some part in this event.

We must remark, in the first place, that it pleased God to give this grace to the worthy superior whose visits to the house of the Visitation sisters usually produced such striking graces. Among others is the case of several of the religious suffering great pains or enduring most grievous temptations, who were entirely freed from them after he had spoken with them.

Second, the visit of which he speaks in this account was the first he made in the second convent of the Visitation at Paris, around 1623. [17] He was still in the service of the late general of the galleys, some years before the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission.

Third, having seen in this visit this good religious obsessed as she was and tormented with such pain, he was moved with much compassion. In an effort to be of help, he prayed for her. Afterward the religious was suddenly delivered. As we have already said, the glory of this cure belongs, after God, to Blessed Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva. By his intercession we believe God delivered this good religious from such horrible pains and temptations. However, without taking away anything from the honor due this holy prelate, may we not say it was also at the intervention of Monsieur Vincent, whom he greatly respected and loved in life, that he was moved to intercede before God in favor of him who was rendering him such faithful and helpful service in the person of his dear daughters?

The second document contains the following words:

We, Vincent de Paul, most unworthy superior general of the Congregation of the Mission, certify that for twenty years God has given us the grace to know the deceased, our very worthy Mother de Chantal, foundress of the holy order of the Visitation of Saint Mary. I had frequent contact with her by word and by letter. It pleased God that I met with her from the time she first came to this city, twenty years ago. I have met her other times, during which she did me to honor to put herself under my spiritual direction. It appeared to me she was gifted with many virtues, especially faith, although she was tempted her whole life long by contrary thoughts. She had great trust in God, and a generous love of his divine bounty. Her spirit was just, prudent, temperate, and strong, to an eminent degree. She possessed humility, mortification, obedience, zeal for the sanctification of her order and for the salvation of the souls of the poor, all in a superlative degree.

In a word, I never saw in her any imperfection, but rather the constant exercise of all the virtues. Although she appeared calm and peaceful, characteristic of souls who have reached a high degree of virtue, she truly suffered great interior pains. Several times she wrote or told me directly that she was so troubled by all sorts of temptations and obsessions that she could scarcely look into her own interior. She could not bear the sight of her own soul, filled with horror to such an extent that it was the image of hell for her. Despite these pains, she never lost her serenity of countenance, nor did she relax in the fidelity due God in the exercise of the Christian and religious virtues, nor in the prodigious solicitude she had for the welfare of her own order. I can say without hesitation that she was one of the most saintly souls I ever met on the face of the earth and that surely she is now among the blessed in heaven. I have no doubt that some day God will bring her sanctity to light, as I hear he has already done in some parts of this kingdom in various ways. I will recount one example of this. I learned it from a person worthy of belief, who would rather die, I assure you, than to report a falsehood.

This person, [18] having heard of the serious illness of our dear departed, fell to his knees to pray to God for her. [19] The first thought which came to him was to make an act of contrition for any sins she may have committed, or was in the habit of committing. Immediately after, there appeared before him a globe of fire which raised itself above the earth. This was joined by another, more luminous and larger. It united with the first, rising still higher, until this was absorbed into still another globe, infinitely greater and more luminous than the others. He heard an interior voice which told him the first globe of fire was the soul of our worthy mother; the second, that of our blessed founder, and the third the divine essence itself. The two souls were united, and together were absorbed into God, their sovereign principle.

Moreover, this same person, a priest, offered holy mass for our worthy mother, overwhelmed with sadness after hearing the news of her passing. When he was at the second Memento, the prayer for dead, he thought it would be good to pray for her, since she might be in purgatory for some light words she may have said that possibly were venial sins. At that moment he again saw the same vision as before, the same globes and the same union. He preserves an interior conviction that this soul was truly among the blessed, and had no need of prayers. This thought has remained imprinted on his mind, so much so that he cannot think of her without recalling it.

What might lead to some doubts about this vision is this priest has such a high regard for the sanctity of this blessed soul that he could never read her book, Responses, without weeping, so convinced is he that God had inspired her with its contents. Perhaps this vision was an effect of his too vivid imagination. What makes me think it was a true vision is that he was never known to have others, except the one related here.

As proof of this, I have signed this with my own hand, and affixed my seal. [20]

Monsieur Vincent made this declaration in 1642. He speaks of himself in the third person when he speaks of the vision of the globes. God revealed to him the blessedness of the holy foundress of the devout institute of the Visitation, but before he wrote or spoke to anyone he went to see the late archbishop of Paris, to whom he related what had occurred. He told him, simply and exactly, what had happened, so as not to be deceived. He spoke also to Dom Maurice, a Barnabite, whom he met at the convent of Saint Mary in the faubourg Saint Jacques, on the day following the death of Madame de Chantal, to have an assurance that the devil was not deceiving him. Both these advisers told him the vision had all the marks of a vision coming from God. They advised that he might safely relate this event to certain members of the order, who were so deeply moved by the loss of their dear mother. He did so, describing the details of the vision, and later put them into writing to preserve the memory.


References

  1. In 1619, Saint Jane Frances Fremiot de Chantal arrived in Paris from Bourges with three sisters to found the first monastery of the Visitation in Paris. Saint Vincent's relationship with the Order of the Visitation began then and continued until his death. The first monastery was established in the Hotel du Petit Bourbon on the rue de la Cerisaie. In 1628, the sisters purchased another residence, on the rue Saint Antoine, not far from their first monastery. Saint Vincent served as the director of these houses in Paris.
  2. See CED XIII:84-85.
  3. Jean Coqueret, 1592-1655, a friend and counselor of Saint Vincent.
  4. CED I:34-35.
  5. CED I:313-14.
  6. CED II:53. This took place in 1640. The complications which arose in the work with the foundlings made it impossible for Vincent to make the trip mentioned in the letter. In the following year, Jane de Chantal visited Paris. She saw Saint Vincent for spiritual direction for the last time during this visit. This visit restored the inner peace of Saint Jane Frances, who had been experiencing a long period of spiritual suffering. She died in December 1641.
  7. Réponses. . . sur les Règles, Constitutions et Coustumiers de notre Ordre de la Visitation, Paris, 1632.
  8. CED I:121-22.
  9. 1592-1655, several times superior of the Visitation in Paris and Chaillot.
  10. Anne Hurault de Cheverny, a widow from the second marriage of the Marquis d'Aumont.
  11. Probably Marie Henriette de Rochechouart.
  12. Vincent's refusal to allow these visits resulted in some rancor and opposition. A noblewoman to whom he had refused entrance to the Saint Denis monastery in turn refused him permission to conduct missions on her lands.
  13. See CED VII:476.
  14. The Temple was the former headquarters of the Knights Templars, a military order.
  15. CED VIII:252.
  16. CED XIII:64-66.
  17. The date should be 1626.
  18. Vincent himself; see CED II:212.
  19. Jane Frances de Chantal died at Moulins on Friday, December 13, 1641, at age sixty-nine.
  20. CED XIII:125-28. The testimony of Vincent de Paul and Francis de Sales were considered to be of such importance in the process for the beatification of Jane Frances that at the ceremony for her beatification, November 21, 1751, her image was placed between those of Francis and Vincent, "her two fathers and her two witnesses."


This page:
Abelly: Book Two/Chapter Seven
The Help Given by Monsieur Vincent to the Convents of the Religious of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Diocese of Paris While He Was Their Superior and Father

Index of
Abelly: Book Two/Chapters Five through Ten

Index of:
Abelly: Book Two