Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 19
There is nothing greater nor more elevated in the life of a Christian," says Saint Ambrose, "than to train the soul in the practice of virtue. To do so, the flesh must be mortified and reduced to submission, so that it will learn to obey and become accustomed to the direction of reason. Notwithstanding the effort and difficulty in carrying this out, the Christian must do so courageously. He should bring to fruition the good desires and holy resolutions he has conceived in his heart." <Ftn: PL 16:76.>
With good reason the holy doctor spoke this way, for the sage says "It is a glorious thing to follow the Lord." <Ftn: Sir 23:38.> The first thing that must be done to follow him, as Jesus Christ himself says in the Gospels, is to renounce oneself and to carry one's cross. A Christian ought to look upon self-denial and mortification as titles of nobility, and as a sign that he belongs to Jesus Christ and is in his band of followers. Monsieur Vincent always made a special profession of following this divine Savior and of walking in his footsteps, as we said in an earlier chapter. <Ftn: Ch. 8, sect. 2.> There is no reason to doubt that he was clothed in the livery of the Savior, and bore in his body, following the expression of the apostle, the mortification of Jesus Christ. His life was practically a constant sacrifice of the body and every sense, of the soul and all its powers, and of all desires and movements of his heart. He spoke out of the abundance of this mortified heart as he addressed his community on the words of the Gospel, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross." <Ftn: Matt 16:24.>
This is the counsel given by our Lord to those who would follow him. He declared that the first step is to renounce themselves, then to carry the cross, and then to persevere in both for all time.
We can well apply to this matter what our Lord said on another occasion: Non omnes capiunt verbum istud ["Not everyone can accept this teaching"]. <Ftn: Matt 19:11.> There are few who give themselves truly to Jesus Christ to follow him under these conditions. Among the many who came to listen, nearly all abandoned him and went away because they were not prepared as the Savior had directed. They were not disposed as they should have been to mortify themselves and carry their cross.
For those who would wish to be disciples of this divine Master, they must renounce their own judgment, will, senses, passions, and so on. By judgment, we mean knowledge, intelligence, and reasoning. What an advantage for a Christian to submit his own lights and his reason for the love of God! What is this but to follow and imitate Jesus Christ, and to sacrifice one's own judgment? For example, if someone puts forth a question for discussion, each says what he thinks. To renounce yourself on this occasion is not to stay silent, but to be disposed to submit your judgment and reason to follow willingly the judgment of others in preference to your own.
Our Lord gave us the example of what it means to renounce one's own will during his whole life, up to his death. He was careful to do not his own will, but the will of his Father. He did always what he knew to be most agreeable to him. Quae placita sunt ei, facio semper ["I always do what pleases him"]. <Ftn: John 8:29.> Oh, may it please God to give us the grace to remain always in the disposition of doing his will, obeying his commandments, the rules of our state of life, the orders of obedience, and thereby becoming true disciples of his Son. As long as we remain attached to our own will, we will never be properly disposed to follow him, to bear our sufferings, or to walk with him.
We therefore ought to mortify our senses and watch over them constantly to subject them to God. How dangerous curiosity is, to see and hear everything, and so turn our minds from God! How we should pray to God to give us the grace to renounce this curiosity, which caused the fall of our first parents.
We must renounce another passion which is strong in some. It is the immoderate desire of preserving our health, and to keep ourselves in top form. This causes them to do everything possible, and even the impossible, to preserve their health. This unregulated attention and fear of suffering any inconvenience, which we see in some, occupies all their thoughts. It directs them to the care of their wretched life, to the great detriment of the service of God. It deprives them of the liberty of following Jesus Christ. Oh, gentlemen and my brothers, we are disciples of this divine Savior, and yet we find we have become slaves. To what? To an item of health, to an imaginary remedy, to an infirmary where nothing is lacking, to a house of our taste, to a walk which will distract us, to a time of rest to satisfy our laziness. But some will say, a doctor has told me to cut down on my work, to take the air, to change location. O miserable and foolish one! Do nobles leave their domains because they feel indisposed? Does bishop leave his diocese? A governor his palace? A tradesman his town? A merchant his shop? Do even kings do this? Rarely, and even then when they fall sick, they remain where they happen to be. The late king fell sick at Saint Germain en Laye, but stayed there four or five months until he died his truly Christian death, worthy of a most Christian king. <Ftn: CED XII:211-27.>
On another occasion, he spoke on the same topic:
Sensuality is found everywhere, not only in seeking the esteem of the world, in riches, and in pleasures, but even in our devotions, in the most saintly actions, and in books, pictures, and in a word, everywhere. O my Savior, give us the grace to rid ourselves of ourselves! Please give us the grace to hate ourselves, so that we may love you more perfectly, you who are the source of all virtue and perfection, and the mortal enemy of all sensuality. Give us the spirit of mortification, and the grace to resist the love of self which is the root of all our sensuality. <Ftn: CED XI:71.>
Up to this point we have faithfully reported the words and thoughts of Monsieur Vincent and even more the affection and dispositions of his heart in regard to the virtue of mortification. It could rightly be said that this was one of the virtues he most constantly and universally practiced during his whole life, right up to his last breath. He certainly did not project an image of an extremely austere life. He judged that a life seemingly more ordinary would succeed better in the service of the people and the clergy to which God had called him. Such a life would also be closer to that of Jesus Christ and the holy apostles, after whom he sought to model himself and his missionaries. He felt obliged to give the example of a well ordered life, neither too free nor too strict, neither too lenient nor too rigorous. In private he treated himself more roughly, chastising his body in various ways and mortifying his interior faculties to have them both perfectly submissive to the will of God. His way of doing this was the more excellent and more holy in that it was concealed from the eyes of others. He made himself like the grain of wheat spoken of by Jesus Christ in the Gospel. It lies hidden in the earth, but finally sends forth its shoots, and produces its fruit in due season.
First, he mortified that love of honor and self-esteem which is so natural to everyone. It makes us hide anything which could cause the least lack of regard from others. This holy priest resisted this natural inclination. He never allowed an occasion to pass when he could humble himself by speaking of his low birth and the poor status of his parents. He wrote to one of his priests in 1633:
Oh, Monsieur, how happy we are to honor the poor lineage of our Lord by our own poor and wretched families. I spoke most happily just recently to one community that I was the son of a poor peasant, and to another that I had been a swineherd. Would you believe, Monsieur, that I might have taken vain satisfaction in so overcoming natural feelings? It is true, the devil is artful and clever, but whoever honors the poverty of the infant of Bethlehem and of his holy parents is even greater than he. <Ftn: CED I:206.>
Monsieur Vincent mortified his affection for his relatives. He was of a generous nature despite his tender affection for them, as he has told us himself, and he had sacrificed this affection as an offering to Jesus Christ. On this subject, he spoke once to his community on separation from relatives, as directed by this divine Savior for those who wished to follow him.
Some who have gone back to their own region have become involved with the life of their family and its joys and sorrows. They have been trapped like flies caught in a spider's web, and have not been able to extricate themselves.
I can use my own experience as witness to this truth. When I was still in service to the general of the galleys, and before the establishment of our Congregation, when the galleys were at Bordeaux, he sent me to give a mission to these poor convicts. I did so, with the help of some religious of the city of various orders, two to each galley. Before I left Paris for this trip I spoke to two of my friends. I told them I was going to my native region, but was not sure that I should visit my relatives. Both advised me to do so, telling me that my visit would be a consolation for them, and I could speak to them of God, and so forth. I hesitated because I had seen several good priests who had done wonders away from their native country, but I had noticed after a visit to their families that they returned completely changed. They became useless in their work because they were so taken up with the affairs of their relatives. They were preoccupied with that, whereas before they were not concerned with these matters but solely with what referred to the service of God, so distant is it from mere natural tendencies. I told my friends that I feared I would become too attached to my relatives after spending eight or ten days with them, even after speaking of the way to assure their own salvation, and to avoid covetousness, and to expect nothing from me. Should I have a treasury of gold and silver, I told them, I would not be able to give them anything, for a priest who has anything owes it to God and to the poor.
The day I left I felt the sadness of leaving my poor relatives so deeply that I wept all along the way, almost without stopping. These tears begot the thought of helping them, and making it possible for them to move to a better condition, to give this one something, another something else. I thought of what I could give of what I owned, and of what I did not possess. I say this to my own humiliation, because perhaps God allowed this to make me understand better the evangelical counsel of which we are speaking. I was three months in this state of agitation about helping my brothers and sisters. It weighed down my poor spirit.
When I came to my senses, I prayed God to deliver me from this temptation. I prayed so hard that he finally took pity on me and lifted this concern for my relatives, even though they were on the threshold of beggary, and still are. This gives me the grace to commend them to his Providence, and to recognize that they were happier than if they were well provided for.
I say this to the Company because there is something great in this practice recommended in the Gospel. It excluded from the number of the disciples of Jesus Christ all those who did not hate father and mother, brother and sister. In keeping with this, our rule exhorts us to renounce the uncontrolled affection for our relatives. Let us pray to God for them, and, if we can help them in charity, let us do so. But be careful of nature, which inclines us that way, and would turn us, if it could, from the school of Jesus Christ. Hold firm to this. <Ftn: CED XII:218-20. The date of his return to Pouy was 1623.>
A priest of the Congregation from Gascony went of his own accord to visit the relatives of Monsieur Vincent. On his return to Paris, he related how he had found them, and among other things said: "What simplicity, piety, and charity they showed, but they have nothing to live on except what they earn by their own labor." Monsieur Vincent replied to this, "Alas, are they not happy? Could they be better off than in the situation where they carry out the sentence pronounced by God that men should eat their bread in the sweat of their brow?"
Poverty was not the only virtue practiced by these good folk, for they were once defamed and denounced before a noted Parlement. Some friends of Monsieur Vincent urged him to intercede to stop the investigation. He answered: "Is it not reasonable, gentlemen, that justice be done to satisfy the justice of God? The punishments of offenders in this life will save them from the rigors of divine justice in the next." The judges later discovered that the accusations against his relatives were pure calumny and deceit. Monsieur Vincent, however, made himself the protector of the accusers, and was able to save them from the punishment they so richly deserved. This same priest said he had learned this in Monsieur Vincent's home town. Monsieur Vincent wrote a letter in regard to these events: Only by a singular action of divine Providence were you defamed. God permitted this for his glory and for your good. For his glory, that you would be made like his Son, calumniated to the point of being called a seducer, ambitious, and possessed by the devil. This was allowed for your good, to satisfy the justice of God for any other sins you may have committed of which you may be unaware, but which are known to God. <Ftn: CED III:19.>
A relative of Monsieur Vincent, although he did not bear the same family name, was condemned to the galleys. He succeeded in obtaining the right to an appeal, through which he hoped to be restored to his legal rights against the designs of his accuser. He addressed letters to the Parlement of Paris hoping to profit from Monsieur Vincent's reputation, but this faithful servant of God wrote him several times advising him to omit several points in his appeal, so as to get a prompt hearing and decision in his case. He said: Would you dare to refuse this advice from so many persons trying to help you? I cannot believe it. Also, your age and circumstances will not allow you to support the long and costly trial of such a lengthy case. If you are building your hopes on my help, I must tell you that I can give none. I would rather contribute to your salvation in advising you to make some adjustments to better dispose yourself for death, than to see you squander all your resources in a long and dubious lawsuit. I hope you will think seriously of this. <Ftn: CED V:433.>
This man persisted in wanting to plead his case, but Monsieur Vincent continued to insist that he would not help him nor receive him into his house. He did nothing to relieve his poverty.
One of his nephews came to Paris in the hope of receiving some help to enable him to lead a life of greater ease. He was received cordially, but was given nothing when he was sent on his way, except ten ecus, for his trip on foot of about 180 leagues. Even then, Monsieur Vincent asked the Marquise de Maignelay for these ten ecus. It was the only help he gave to his relatives.
About 1650, the late Monsieur du Fresne, a close friend of Monsieur Vincent of whom we spoke in Book One, <Ftn: Ch. 5.> gave him a thousand francs for his relatives. He did not refuse this gift, but instead of spending the money on temporal things, preferring to see them earn their bread, he thought of using the money to further their salvation and spiritual advancement by missions to be given to them and to others of the region. The benefactor agreed to this.
He kept this money for two or three years, awaiting an opportunity to send some missionaries to the region. The rebellion of the nobles in 1652 affected the whole area, and Guienne was overrun by armies. His relatives were stripped of all they owned, and some among them even died from the depredations of the soldiers. Afterward, he heard of his relatives reduced to begging, but did not know why. After hearing this distressing news he did not complain. On the contrary he entertained sentiments of admiration and thanks towards the goodness of God for having inspired him not to spend the sum of money he had received years before, so he could now aid these people in their extreme need. He continued this praise of God over several weeks, thanking God for this special Providence.
However, since he did not want to allocate this money by himself, he consulted some members of the Company. Afterward he sent it by stage to Monsieur de Saint Martin, canon of Dax, leaving it to him to distribute the money as he saw fit. His only recommendation to his friend was to try to use the alms to help the people earn their living. He could, for example, buy a pair of oxen for a farmer, rebuild the house of one, clear a plot of land for another, or give tools and clothes to a third. He could not do much with so little, because so many of the poor had been abused.
This is the sum of all the wealth Monsieur Vincent gave to his relatives, although it would have been easy for him in his position to contribute much to them, in a worldly sense, if he had wished to use the available opportunities. He spoke to the rich and charitable persons who could help, about the needs of various provinces and of many families, but of his own region, and his own relatives, he said not a word. Must he not have been dead to the demands of flesh and blood to have acted this way?
In this connection, when he was once urged by one of his confreres to help his relatives known to be in need, he said: "Do you think I do not love my relatives? I indeed have the same sentiments of affection for them that anyone would have. My natural instinct is to help them, but I must act according to the movements of grace, and not those of nature. I should think of those poor persons who are even worse off, rather than of my friends and relatives."
Monsieur Vincent not only did not lift a finger to help any of his relatives out of their low status and poverty, but he also discouraged others from doing so. There were several well-placed people, even some bishops, who, out of consideration for him, wanted to help his nephews. They even wanted to have them raised to the clerical state or to some other honorable profession. He responded to these initiatives by saying, "We must be careful not to turn these children from the designs God has for them. It seems to me that it would be better to leave them in the condition of their fathers. Being a farmer is the one of the most innocent and conducive to salvation." <Ftn: CED V:567-69.>
He went further, for he often felt that he should establish the priests of his Congregation in his own native region to give the same services there as they gave in other parts of the kingdom. He feared, however, some trace of self-love in this, and some natural attraction towards his own. He examined himself then before God, and decided against it, saying to himself: "O miserable one, what are you thinking of? Should not all places be equally indifferent to you? Are not all souls equally worthy before God? Why then would you prefer one to another?"
Mortifying this desire, which he feared came more from a natural impulse than from an inspiration of grace, he resolved not to take a single step or say a single word in favor of such a foundation in his own region. We can judge from all we have said how much Monsieur Vincent mortified the natural love he had for his relatives and for his place of birth.
It is commonly said that from the movement of the hand of a clock it is easy to form an opinion about the mechanism of the timepiece. The control of the tongue equally gives a good indication of the condition of the soul. The passions and movements of the heart usually are the mainsprings of action, particularly of the words we use. Certainly, if we had no other proof of the interior mortification of Monsieur Vincent than this absolute control he had over his tongue, it would suffice to show us his having this virtue in a high degree. According to the word of the apostle James, "He who does not sin by his tongue may be called a perfect man." <Ftn: James 3:2.>
He had such mastery over this organ, which the same apostle called "ungovernable," that he never or seldom employed useless or superfluous words. <Ftn: James 3:8.> He never used those expressing slander, boasting, vanity, flattery, contempt, mockery, impatience, or other similar expressions of ill-controlled passions. He was so self-possessed that even in the heat of public talks, or in speaking to his own Company when he might not have prepared his remarks, he never said anything inconsiderate. When he thought of something unusual, he would often stop abruptly, as though recollecting himself, and considering before God if it would be expedient to say what he had in mind. He would then continue his talk, not according to the first inclination which came to him, but according to what he saw was most pleasing to God, and most conformable to the inspiration of his grace.
Sometimes a person would tell him something interesting or amusing but which he already knew. He would listen attentively, not giving any hint that he was always aware of what was being said. He did so as much to mortify that self-love that is quick to let others know we are already aware of what others have learned, as not to deprive the speaker of the satisfaction of relating something new.
On those occasions when he was blamed or even insulted, he restrained his tongue and imposed a rigorous silence upon himself. At those times nature moves us to justify ourselves to retaliate for an injury received. To imitate his divine Master he recollected himself, showing his strength in silence and patience, blessing in his heart him who cursed, and praying for the one who insulted him.
As head of his wide-spread congregation, he was responsible to see to all its needs. It often happened that he lacked what was necessary, to his constant concern. To add to his troubles, he would often receive news of serious losses to the belongings or farms of the Company. This would add to the burden he already carried, which normally would cause complaints and murmuring in the one responsible. In his case Monsieur Vincent would repress these first movements of impatience and so well mortify the feeling he may have had that he would remain admirably serene and in a spirit of thanksgiving for these serious and unforeseen accidents. He would say only, "God be blessed; God be blessed; we must submit to his good pleasure and accept what he is pleased to send us."
He showed how much he mortified his tongue and how well he controlled this member in the almost countless occasions when he could have spoken of his experiences in Tunis, and did not do so. It is natural to recount perils and accidents which one has survived, especially when these reflect on our ability or strength and tend to our praise. The marvelous truth is that in any situation in which he was, he was never heard to say a single word of his own captivity, or what he did or said to convert the one who held him in bondage, and who delivered him from the hands of the infidels.
Although he was obliged to speak often to his confreres about the Christian slaves held captive by the Moslems in Barbary to urge them to volunteer to go there, or to persons of means to contribute towards the relief and deliverance of the poor slaves, he never spoke of his own experiences or of what had happened to him there. This seemed to be because to do so would reflect favorably upon him and turn to his advantage. He willingly spoke of things humiliating to himself, but never of what directly or indirectly would tend to his own glorification. It is certain that he could not have achieved this mastery of his tongue if he had not first become the absolute master of his feelings and his interior movements by a constant practice of mortification. He regarded this virtue as being of such necessity, not only for perfection but for salvation itself, that he sometimes expressed it this way: "If a person already had one foot in heaven, but left off the practice of mortification for the time it takes to get the other foot there, he would be in danger of losing himself."
This is why he tried to inspire his confreres of the Company with a spirit of interior mortification. This is a stripping of all things and a detachment, a complete death, to the senses and the movements of nature, to all self-interest, to all self-love and self-seeking, to live only the life of the Spirit. He used to say: Hold firm, hold firm, against your own nature. If you give it an inch, it will take a mile. Hold it for certain that the measure of your advancement in the spiritual life depends on how much you progress in the virtue of mortification. It is particularly necessary for those who work for the salvation of souls. Preaching penance to others would be in vain, were we lacking in it ourselves, and did not let it appear in our actions and behavior. <Ftn: CED XI:70.>