Louise de Marillac, a Theologian

From Vincentian Encyclopedia

[This article appearede in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1999, p. 231-243. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui). Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated that the articles were written by various authors].


Louise de Marillac and the Plan of God

Louise’s spirituality of following Christ was born from the eternal design of God. Louise built her Christology and theology on the eternal plan of God. In her opinion salvation consists of living in accord with the plan of God, namely, from all eternity God wants men and women to be united to the divine being.

In Louise’s life everything is focused on the love of God: the divine will has formulated an eternal plan with regard to creation … a plan that is accomplished in time and in accord with God’s providence.

During the first day of Louise’s retreat in 1657 she reflected on the greatness of God’s plan, on the creation of man and woman and on the action of recreation: I say that God’s power to possess me was, by the excellence of the divine plan in the creation of the human race, to be found in his close, eternal union with his creatures. He brought this about through the unique means that he possessed which was the Incarnation of his Word. As perfect man, the Son willed that human nature should participate in the divinity through his merit and through the close union of his nature with the Father (SWLM:817 [A.26]) .

On the third day of that same retreat Louise once again reflected on the plan of God-Trinity: God designed human nature for the perfection of union which his omnipotence wished to operate in it (SWLM:821 [A.26])[1].

Louise de Marillac contemplated the extraordinary action that occurred in eternity but an action that was accomplished in the history of the world: God, the almighty, the eternal, decided to come to earth as a man. For Louise this decision was central for humanity. The universe revolves around this reality and all people are caught up in the reality of this divine decision. Louise contemplated this unique event in the history of the world and entered into the heart of the persons who intervened in this event: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the woman who was necessary for the accomplishment of this mystery, Mary.

During her sixth and final prayer Louise once again contemplated God’s plan and highlighted God’s impatience in implementing it: O Holy Spirit, you alone can enlighten us concerning the greatness of this mystery which, if one can say such a thing, reveals the impatience of God seen in the promptness with which he carried out his design on human nature for the perfection of the union which his omnipotence wished to operate in it (SWLM:821 [A.26]).

Louise was delighted to be able to contemplate the love that exists in God and the love that God is. Such love is a gift that calls people to God. God gives of himself to all men and women … people do not choose God. As Louise mediated on the gospel of Saint John (12:28-34) she discovered that from all eternity the love of the Father engendered the Word and that the reciprocal love of the Father and the Son produced the Holy Spirit.

In calling to mind the principle of the spiritual life that Vincent shared with her, namely, God is love and wants us to go to him through love (CCD:I:81) [2], Louise came to certain conclusions that she applied to her own life and to the life of the Company of the Daughters of Charity. She took delight in contemplating each of the persons in the Trinity and in reflecting on their diversity and their profound union. Louise presented the life of the Trinity to the Sisters and wanted the Trinity to serve as a model for their community life. She invited the Daughters to respect the diversity that existed among them and to live in union with one another: always remember [to practice] forbearance and cordiality so as to honor the unity and the diversity of the persons of the Blessed Trinity (SWLM:289 [L.248]). Let us unite ourselves by means of a sincere communication of thoughts, words and actions. This time should be used to honor the true union of the three distinct Persons of the Blessed Trinity (SWLM:803 [M.69]).

God, who is love, desired to share his love with men and women. This union will never be perfect because of the separation between God and the human person. But if the human person cannot be God, then God can become a human person. The means established by God to bring about this union was the sacred humanity of the Son of God, the Incarnation. God wanted to find the seal of Jesus Christ on every soul.

The first man, Adam, with his own effort, wanted to be equal to God and rejected the gift of life that had been offered to him: our first father, Adam, wanted to perpetuate his life on earth, in opposition to the plans of God, by eating the forbidden fruit and that, instead of acquiring life, he met with death. So as to remedy this evil, the Son of God came in person as a pilgrim, his life being one unending pilgrimage. This should be the example for our lives (SWLM:777 [A.36]).

God, who is perfect love, could not reject sinful men and women. Through the Incarnation God united himself in love to the human person: As soon as human nature had sinned, the Creator, who wanted to repair this fault by a great act of pure love, ordered, in the council of his divinity, that one of the three Persons should become man. By so doing, he gave proof of deep, true humility (SWLM:700 [A.7]).

Louise referred to the loving union of the Word with humankind (SWLM:732 [A.21b]) For Louise the Incarnation is a sign of God’s great love for humanity: God never showed greater love for his creatures than when he resolved to become man (SWLM:700 [A.7]).

Louise de Marillac placed more emphasis on the eternal decision of God than on its actualization. It seems that she reflected on Saint Paul’s idea (cf., Colossians 1:15-18) where he refers to the Incarnation as an event that would have happened even if humankind had not sinned because according to God’s plan, Christ ought to be the firstborn of all creation. She had certainly heard this idea expressed by the Capuchins in Saint-Honoré where she frequented and where she had hoped to consecrate herself to God as a religious. She had taken this doctrine as her own.

Louise realized that God wanted humankind to come to an understanding of this love, wanted to share with humankind all the richness that was actualized in the life of the Trinity: What love, what a unique gesture on the part of God, to make known his omnipotence in this unequaled way! He willed his creatures to be so closely united to their Creator that they would be one with him in matters related to them (SWLM:817 [A.26])..

After the Incarnation, men and women were obliged to cooperate with grace in order to carry out in their daily life God’s plan. A failure to collaborate with God’s plan means that people have placed themselves in a position of opposition to God … this position leads to confusion and infidelity.

The fact that God wanted to become a human person led Louise to the discovery of God’s greatness and beauty: You promise us that your Father will love us and that you both will come and abide with us if we love you. O power of love! (SWLM:829 [A27]).

God became man so that men and women would be able to share in the divine life. Faith is an acceptance of this unheard of gift of our becoming divine … this gift that became possible because of Jesus Christ. Men and women are invited to enter freely into the paschal experience of Christ. The grace of God, the God of love, always respects the free decisions of the human person. On various occasions Louise highlighted the fact that free will enables people to bring about their own damnation (SWLM:784 [A.14]) … thus God allows men and women to choose what they want to do: to either unite themselves to God or to reject God. Louise marveled at the ways in which people could exercise their freedom: Oh, what wonders are seen in heaven in souls that have given themselves to God in the only way possible, which is by means of the gift of their free wills which they make use of exclusively as belonging to him! (SWLM:817 [A.26]).

The mystery of the Incarnation is accomplished in three phases: first, the decision of the Word to become incarnated and the choosing of Mary to be the mother of God … all of this being done in accord with God’s plan; second, the proclamation of this plan to humankind (Adam and Eve) who had just sinned … the promise; third, the fulfillment of the promise in time … Jesus becomes man and Mary is his mother.

Louise placed Mary at the very center of God’s loving plan with regard to humankind: I gaze upon you today, most pure Virgin Mother of grace, since it was you who not only provided the matter for the formation of the sacred body of your Son, at a time when you were not as yet actually a mother, but by bringing him into the world, you have become both Mother of God and Mother of the man (SWLM:775 [A.14b]).

Louise admired the manner in which Mary responded to God’s plan: May your beautiful soul be forever triumphant, elect among millions, because of your faithful accomplishment of the designs of God (SWLM:695 [A.4]).

In the biblical sense of the word Mary is “the handmaid”. As Mary accepted the role of being the indispensable link so that the Incarnation of the second person of the divine Trinity might become a reality, she committed herself (through the total sacrifice of herself) to participate in the saving mission of her Son.

For Louise de Marillac the eternal plan of God is the starting point for her Marian doctrine. Like all the spiritual authors of the seventeenth century, in particular, Saint Vincent de Paul, the reason for all of Mary’s prerogatives is found in her divine maternity. Mary possessed all the heroic virtues; she was immaculate and the mother of grace because she was chosen by God … when Mary accepted God’s calling she was filled with all these gifts.

For Louise the Eucharist is a summary, a recapitulation, the very height of God’s love, of God’s loving plan: Nevertheless, this did not satisfy his great love for us. He desired an inseparable union of divine nature with human nature. He accomplished this after the Incarnation by the admirable institution of the most holy sacrament of the altar in which the fullness of the divinity dwells continually in the second person of the most Blessed Trinity (SWLM:784 [A.14]).

Louise had great devotion to this sacrament of love, to this gift of God to humankind. Her thanksgiving after communion allowed her to speak to God about her love and joy in living a life united to the life of the Trinity: The time following the reception of Holy Communion must be marked by a continuation of similar sentiments and acts. We must remain attentive to the divine presence and express our gratitude, sometimes to the Godhead, sometimes to each person separately, according to his attributes. We should rejoice in contemplating this admirable invention and the loving union by which God, seeing himself in us, makes us, once again, like unto him. This he does by communicating not only his grace but himself. He thus effectively bestows upon us the merits of his life and death, thereby giving us the capacity to live in him as he lives in us (SWLM:823 [M.72]).

For Louise de Marillac, the plan of God effected everything: her life and all of creation and also her plan with regard to the establishment of the Company of the Daughters of Charity (established for the glory of God and the good of those who are poor), the spirit and the charism of the Company, the material and spiritual services provided by the Sisters and the leadership of the Company by the superior general of the Congregation of the Mission. The design of God unfolds itself in each Sister and in all the details of their life. Following her director and superior, Louise affirmed that since all eternity God had a plan with regard to the Daughters of Charity.

The Sisters should never forget this and ought to accept the eternal plan of God … they ought to love it and ought to collaborate with God so that this plan is accomplished in them.

Saint Louise, a theologian

To introduce Saint Louise as a theologian is neither an abuse of our language nor is it easy to fully uncover this idea and embrace it. Louise read the Scriptures and was formed in biblical interpretation and also formed by various spiritual authors. She was willing to continue her formation by reading and meditation and as a result she had a clear and profound vision of God’s plan. She contemplated God and the ways in which God was revealed.

God is love

“…To experience the love of God…”

During her retreat of 1628 Louise stood in awe at the reality of God’s love. She approached this wonderful mystery: God loves us and has only one desire, namely, to dwell with us and thus allow himself to be loved by us: The knowledge of the love that God has for us in creating our souls so that they could be entirely possessed by him, rejoice in him and glorify him, is a greater motive for loving him than all the benefits of creation. However, we must also venerate this grace in others. That is why I must honor and love them and strive to help them to attain their eternal salvation so that they may reach the goal for which they were created (SWLM:698 [A.70]).

“…God is charity…”

The person who does not love does not know God, for God is charity. The cause of love is esteem for the good in the thing loved. Since God is most perfect in the unity of his essence, he is love in the eternity of this essence by the knowledge he has of his own perfection (SWLM:710 [A.29]).

The sources of love, the Trinity

“…The perfect union of three in one…”

Louise liked to meditate on the love that is so characteristic of God … this love is a gift and also implies an acceptance of the three persons in God: the Trinity. I reflected that the person of the Holy Spirit is in the divine essence. I saw the Spirit as the perfect bond among the three persons in the unity of the Trinity. I recalled the glory which the Church so frequently renders to this unity at the end of the psalms. Then, I spent a long while considering this truth: that the Godhead can be truly honored only by his own eternal glory. I saw that one of the effects of the Holy Spirit in God is union (SWLM819 [A.26]).

“…The intrinsic love of God … toward humanity…”

We see that the mystery of the Trinity had a great impact on Louise and she spoke spontaneously (in the form of prayer) about her convictions: the intrinsic love of God who, in the unity of his essence, engendered his Word from all eternity by his omniscience; and the work of the Holy Spirit in producing their reciprocal love, which love is the Holy Spirit. The love of God for mankind willed that the Son should take human flesh because his delight is to be among his creatures. By becoming like them, he could bear witness to the fact that God has loved them from all eternity. This he did throughout his human life upon earth. Therefore, let us love this love and we will thereby grasp its endlessness since it depends in no way on us. Let us often recall all the actions of the life of our Beloved so that we may imitate them. Not content with the love that he bears for all chosen souls, he wishes to have some very cherished ones raised up by the purity of his love (SWLM:828-829 [A.27]).

“…A mutual love…”

The blessed Trinity, lived and contemplated in this manner, is the foundation of community life … the community of the Congregation of the Mission as well as that of the Daughters of Charity: they shall honor the Blessed Trinity by great union among themselves. This union shall be neither constrained nor forced but always maintained by gentle necessity which cordiality transforms into mutual affection. By a communication of the Holy Spirit, they shall enter into a holy relationship with the Son of God who, by personally detaching himself, as it were, from his Father, willed to take our flesh for the salvation of the human race. Likewise, they shall be completely detached from anything that could prevent them from working toward this same end, for the glory of God(SWLM:696-697 [A.38]).

“…Like the three Divine Persons…”

They shall remember that true Daughters of Charity must be united in order to fulfill God's expectations. Because our corrupted nature has deprived us of this perfection, and since sin separates us from our unity which is God, following the example of the Blessed Trinity, we must have but one heart and act with one mind as do the three divine persons. We must do this in such a way that, when the Sister in charge of the sick requests the help of her Sister, the Sister who instructs the children shall readily comply (SWLM:771 [A.85]).

The witness of love

“…God has never shown such great love…”

Louise also meditated on the mystery of the Incarnation … the bond of love, par excellence, between God and humankind. For Louise this mystery was the revelation of God’s great love for men and women: God never showed greater love for his creatures than when he resolved to become man since all the graces that he subsequently bestowed on us depend on this initial act. This teaches me that we must have a great and special love for our enemies and do all in our power to procure their salvation (SWLM:700 [A.7]).

“…O admirable love! O hidden secret...”

As soon as our first parent had sinned, the goodness of God took pity on human nature and promised to repair the fault by the Incarnation of his Word. This promise was so powerful that, although it did not completely abolish sin because of the freedom which God has given to man, it changed its effect, making it personal. This promise meant that the whole nature could no longer participate in the fault of an individual because the person of God was now part of it. Moreover, its effect was immediate for us since, from the instant it was made, the divine plan was accomplished in the mind of God. O admirable love! O hidden secret! What did you want to do, O my God, when you created man since you were not unaware of his weakness? However, the events had to be as they were, O my Master, to make us understand the effects of your great love (SWLM:800 [A.13b]).

“…The Word should become flesh…”

My mind recalled the thought that I had had: that the design of the Blessed Trinity from the creation of man was that the Word should become flesh so that human nature might attain the excellence of being that God willed to give to man by the eternal union that he willed between himself and his creature, the most admirable state of his exterior operations. My meditation was more reflective than reasoning. I felt a great attraction for the holy humanity of Our Lord and I desired to honor and imitate it insofar as I was able in the person of the poor and of all my neighbors. I had read somewhere that he had taught us charity to make up for our powerlessness to render any service to his person. This touched my heart very particularly and very intimately (SWLM:820 [A.26]).

“…To love abjection since God is to be found there…”

At the same time the Incarnation is the school of perfection and humility: To love abjection since God is to be found there. Jesus teaches us this by His birth. He wanted us to know that this abjection filled heaven with astonishment and gave glory to the Father. However, I must unite my miserable, weak self-abnegation to his glorious abjection (SWLM:703 [A.9]).

“…Let us desire to be like him…”

Each time that Louise received communion she was mindful of the fact that the Eucharist prolonged the effects of the Incarnation. On one occasion she spoke about her thoughts with regard to both the Incarnation and the Eucharist: The other reason that we have for giving ourselves to God to communicate worthily is the gratitude we should have for the great love which he reveals by giving himself to us in Holy Communion. We can only do so by testifying a reciprocal love of Our Lord, by desiring with all our heart to receive him since he wishes with all his heart to give himself to us. His love appeared to me to be all the greater from the fact that, his Incarnation having sufficed for our redemption, it would seem as if he gives himself to us in Holy Communion solely for our sanctification, not merely by the application of the merits of his Incarnation and death, but also by the communication which his goodness desires to make to us of all the actions of his life, and to establish us in the practice of his virtues, desiring to make us like unto himself by his love (SWLM:779 [A.71]).

“…His presence is like air without which the soul is lifeless…”

The Son of God took a human body in the womb of the Blessed Virgin in a state of innocence more perfect than that of the first man. This action was sufficient to satisfy divine justice for the disobedience of our first parents and to reveal to us the truth of the plan of God expressed in the words, "My delight is to be with the children of men.” Nevertheless, this did not satisfy his great love for us. He desired an inseparable union of divine nature with human nature. He accomplished this after the Incarnation by the admirable institution of the most holy sacrament of the altar in which the fullness of the divinity dwells continually in the second person of the most Blessed Trinity. This union is a means for uniting the Creator to his creature. However, all do not participate in this mystery because free will enables man to bring about his own damnation by following his evil inclinations and the temptations of the devil, or to earn his salvation by grace which applies to him the merits of the Son of God. We have reason to believe that the assurance which Our Lord gave us that he would always be with us was designed to sanctify souls by means of this continual, albeit invisible, presence and by the application of the merits of his actions to those of his creatures. Our Lord does this either by asking pardon of his Father so as to wash away the sins which we have committed in opposition to the virtues which he himself practiced, or by rendering the virtuous deeds which men accomplish by the power of his grace pleasing to God by uniting them to his meritorious actions. It seemed to me that it is in this way that the holy humanity of Our Lord is continually present to us. He is among us by the application of his merits and by the sanctification of souls. His presence is like air without which the soul is lifeless. It is thus that I see the redemption of men in the Incarnation and their sanctification by means of this union of man with God in the person of his Son and by this continual presence, whereby His merits are applied to each soul joined to the personal union of a God to man. All of nature is thereby honored since it causes God to see his image in all mankind, if it has not been disfigured by the refusal of the application of the merits of his Son which sin alone can effect. This thought came to me after a long period during which I prayed for a great love for the humanity of Our Lord as a means for moving me to practice his virtues especially gentleness, humility, forbearance and love of my neighbor in order to overcome the sins which I so often commit against them (SWLM:784-785 [A.14]).

The image of God’s love: the human person

“…The excellence of the human person…”

God wanted to be one like us … this reality led Louise to discover the greatness of the human person. God became a human person so that men and women might share in the divine life. We are also certain that you want us to love you. Both your old and your new law command us to do so. You promise us that Your Father will love us and that you both will come and abide with us if we love you. O power of love! O admirable treasure hidden in the depths of the soul! O excellence of the creature who knows you! All mankind would take delight in it. Love is the gauge of a glorious eternity of souls called to heaven since, if it is alive in the soul, God will come and make His abode there. O Pure Love, how I love you! Since you are as strong as death, separate me from all that is contrary to you (SWLM:829 [A.27])..

“…The excellence of the free human person…”

Louise also recalled that the true greatness of men and women is their freedom, their ability to say “yes” or “no” to God: Considering myself as belonging to God because he is God and because he created me, which are the two foundations of his proprietorship over me, I saw that I belonged to him also because he preserves me. This preservation is the support of my being and a sort of continuous creation. I then asked myself what I intended to do so as to give myself to him. I saw that his power to possess me was, by the excellence of the divine plan in the creation of the human race, to be found in his close, eternal union with his creatures. He brought this about through the unique means that he possessed which was the Incarnation of his Word. As perfect man, the Son willed that human nature should participate in the divinity through his merit and through the close union of his nature with the Father. Oh, what wonders are seen in heaven in souls that have given themselves to God in the only way possible, which is by means of the gift of their free wills which they make use of exclusively as belonging to him! (SWLM:817 [A.26]).

The success of love: Mary

“…O Mother of the Law of grace…”

Finally, Louise placed the Virgin Mary at the center of God’s plan for humanity. Without her nothing would have been possible and therefore she merits the title “mother of grace”. Mary is a model for those men and women who today want to place themselves at the service of God’s plan. You are the Mother of the Law of Grace because you are the Mother of Grace incarnate. It seems to me that I have never looked upon you as such. If the people of Israel held Moses in such high esteem because they had received the revelation of the will of God through him, what love and service must I not render to you for having brought the God of the Law of Grace into this world. I shall manifest my gratitude to you by the praise I offer, by my zeal in helping others to recognize your greatness, and by renewed devotion and trust in your powerful intercession with God. Help me, I implore you, most Holy Virgin, to put such appropriate resolutions into practice (SWLM:775 [A.14b]).

“…May all creatures pay homage to your greatness…”

May all creatures pay homage to your greatness and look upon you as the sure means for reaching God. May they love you above all other pure creatures and render you the glory you deserve as the beloved Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son and worthy Spouse of the Holy Spirit (SWLM:696 [A.4]).

“…I congratulated Mary on her excellent dignity…”

On August 15, 1659, during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at which I was to receive Holy Communion, I reflected on the greatness of the Blessed Virgin as Mother of the Son of God who desired to honor her to such a degree that we may say that she participated in some way in all the mysteries of his life and that she contributed to his humanity by her virginal blood and milk. Considering her in this light, I congratulated Mary on her excellent dignity which unites her to her Son in the perpetual sacrifice of the Cross, reenacted and offered on our altars (SWLM:831 [M.5b]).

“…Immaculate…”

Her conception which God made immaculate in anticipation of the merits of the life of her Son (SWLM:815 [A.32]).

Questions for reflection and sharing

1] When we speak about or listen to others speak about God’s plan, what do we understand to be the meaning of those words … what is God’s plan?

2] The eternal plan of God and our freedom: do we passively submit ourselves to God’s plan or do we joyfully collaborate with this plan?

3] Mary: can she serve as a model, an image and a symbol for women today?

4] When we meditate on the Sacred Scriptures how can we discover and live today in accord with God’s plan?

5] God needs men and women: how do we collaborate with God and thus make real God’s plan?

Footnotes

[1] Select Writing of Louise de Marillac, Edited and Translated from the French by Sister, Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1991, p. 817 [Future references to this work will use the initials SWLM followed by the page number, followed by the letter number, or the number given to her written thoughts, for example, SWLM:817 [A.26]].

[2] Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, Edited by Sister Jacqueline Kilar, DC, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York 1985-2010, Vol. I, p. 81 [Future references to this work will use the initials CCD, followed by the volume number, followed by the page number, for example CCD:I:81].

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM