Vincent and Louise(Davitt)
VINCENT AND LOUISE
by Thomas Davitt CM
- CIF Talks
Vincent and Louise both died in 1660, Louise in March and Vincent in September. Louise was ten years younger than he was. After her death Vincent said he had known her for thirty-eight years (X 716); for most of that time they lived almost across the road from each other. They met one another very frequently and sent each other many letters and notes. Obviously, therefore, each had an influence on the other. From what each of them wrote we can get some idea of how they influenced each other.
First of all, though, we need to recognize the differences between them, because these differences affected their relationship, and more or less formed areas within which each could influence the other. The obvious differences were the facts that he was a man and she a woman, he was ten years older than she was, he was a priest and she was a lay person, he was in fairly good health most of his life, she was in poor health most of hers.
But there is one other very important difference: she was from the nobility and he was from a rural farming background. Jean Calvet, at the end of his book on Louise which, incidentally, he calls "a portrait" rather than "a biography", brings out this difference in this way: when poor people met Louise their instinct was to kiss her hand, as she was a noblewoman. When they met Vincent they would be more likely to shake hands with him, as he was one of themselves. She was a well-educated, intelligent, Catholic woman and her intelligence, her education and her Catholicism led her to God, and her understanding of God led her to realise that she should help the poor. Vincent's intelligence, his character and temperament, his personal background and experience all led him to do something for the poor, and in that way he came to God. Louise moved from her knowledge of God to the poor, Vincent moved from his knowledge of the poor to God.
These differences between them need to be kept in mind when we read about them or read what they wrote to each other or what they said or wrote about each other.
Vincent said they had known each other thirty-eight years. That means they met for the first time in 1623. Mother Anne Catherine de Beaumont, prioress of the Visitation monastery in Paris, wrote to Louise in 1625, but the day and month are not known. Her letter was in reply to one from Louise, which has not survived. At the end of her letter Mother Catherine writes: "No, I have no news whatsoever of Fr Vincent" (Doc. 986). That is the earliest surviving reference to their knowing each other.
I said already that the exact date of their first meeting is not known, but we do have some information, which throws light on the circumstances in which they probably met. At some stage of her life Louise wrote an account of something she experienced in 1623; this account, in her own handwriting, has survived, but there is no indication as to when she wrote it (Ecrits, 3).
This document describes the final stage of a development of her understanding of her vocation in life, which had begun when her husband Antoine Le Gras fell seriously ill in the early 1620s. As a teenager she had made some sort of promise, to herself or to God, to become a nun. Her idea was to enter the Poor Clares but her confessor told her she was not physically robust enough to be a nun. She then opted for marriage. When her husband became ill she began to worry that it was a punishment from God on her for not having become a nun as she had promised. From this start her worry progressed to wondering whether she would have to abandon her sick husband and her son, who would have been nine or ten years old at the time, in order to keep the spirit of her promise. I think this point has often been misunderstood. She was deeply in love with her husband and very attached, perhaps too much so, to her son Michel. They lived in a fashionable part of Paris, had an upper-class lifestyle, all of which she liked. Her worry was that some confessor might tell her to leave all this so as to keep the spirit of her earlier promise.
Against that background we can understand her account of what she experienced in 1623. She starts by saying that in that year, on the feast of St Monica, (which at that time was 4 May and not 27 August as in the present calendar), "God gave me the grace to make a vow of widowhood if God were to call my husband". Remember, Monica was a widow with a troublesome son; Louise could easily relate to her in that way, particularly on her feastday. I used to think that it was rather odd for her to make a vow of widowhood while her husband was still alive. Such a fact would be decidedly odd if seen out of context. In Louise's circumstances at that time it can be understood very easily: her husband was seriously ill, and perhaps Louise realized the illness was terminal. She had her worry about her previous promise to become a nun. She saw that if her husband died and she did not re-marry she would be in some way keeping the spirit of her promise; remember, her confessor had told her she was not physically robust enough to be a nun. Remember, too, that she says God gave her the grace to make this vow of widowhood; that is the way she saw it. I think we can take it for granted that she discussed this with her director and made the vow with his approval; four days later, 8 May, he gave her and her husband permission to read the bible in French, a somewhat unusual permission at the time. It is hardly likely that four days before this she would have made a vow without his advice. Her director at the time was Jean-Pierre Camus, bishop of Belley; he was her father's second wife's nephew.
She mentions that from Ascension Thursday, 25 May, till Pentecost, 4 June, she was in great desolation of spirit, for three reasons: she was still worried about whether she should leave her husband in order to be more free to serve God and others; she was worried that she was too attached to her director and, should he be absent for a lengthy period, she might have to find another; thirdly, she was worried because she had doubts about the immortality of the soul. She says that from Ascension to Pentecost all this caused her unbelievable worry.
Then, her account continues, on Pentecost Sunday, while in her parish church, Saint Nicolas-des-Champs, everything was clarified for her in an instant. She saw that of course she should remain with her husband, and that at a future date she would be in a position to take vows with other women in a small community, serving the neighbour but not enclosed. She admitted that she did not understand how this would be. She says she also realised she should stop worrying about her director and that God would put her in touch with another one. She continued, and I am now quoting: "whom he let me see, it seems, and I felt reluctance in accepting him; I agreed, however, and it seemed to me that this change-over was not to be for the moment" (Ecrits, 3).
This new director was Vincent. It is not clear what precisely she meant by saying that God in some way let her see Vincent. I very much doubt that it was any sort of a vision. I think what happened must have been something like this: From 1619 her uncle, Michel de Marillac, was writing letters of a spiritual nature to her. He was involved with Pierre de Bérulle and Madame Acarie in bringing the Carmelite nuns of the Teresian reform into France from Spain. Her director, Jean-Pierre Camus, was one of this group, and Vincent de Paul moved in that circle as well. She was also in contact with the Visitation nuns, and Vincent was their superior. She would have heard of him from some of these people, and since he lived in the same part of Paris as herself she almost certainly would have seen him, too. That would explain her repugnance towards taking him as her director. The noblewoman, directed up to this by her uncle and Camus, both from the nobility, would not take kindly to a rustic priest from the lower classes. Camus was ordained bishop in 1609, aged 26. He was a famous preacher and spent a lot of time in Paris till 1623, when he seems to have taken up residence in his diocese. He probably handed over direction of Louise to Vincent at that time, though Louise and himself kept in contact by letter.
I have already quoted from Mother Catherine de Beaumont's letter of 1625, where she says that she has no news of Vincent, obviously answering a question from Louise. Camus wrote to her on 26 July that year, and she obviously had asked him the same question. He replied:
Forgive me, my dear Sister, if I tell you that you are rather too attached to those who direct you and you lean on them too much. Here's Fr Vincent off the scene, and Mademoiselle Le Gras is all upset and disoriented
So, obviously by the middle of 1625 Louise had overcome her antipathy to being directed by a priest from a lower-class background, and Vincent was already her director.
Vincent's own inclination would have been not to take on the direction of this woman, nor of anyone else, as it would take him from his main work of preaching missions. I imagine that Camus, or some of his circle, would have discussed this with him and advised him to take her on for direction. We don't know exactly what happened, other than the fact that he did accept her.
In 1625 Vincent was 44 and Louise 34, so they were both quite experienced people. Louise's husband was still alive; he did not die till December that year. The letters which have survived from her uncle and from Bishop Camus to her show that she was already taking her religion and her spiritual life very seriously. In the letter already mentioned Camus says that he learns more from her than she does from him. Vincent by 1625 had come through all the difficulties of his early life and in November that year had moved into the Collège des Bons Enfants with some other priests to start the Congregation of the Mission in a formal way.
The earliest surviving letter from Vincent to Louise is dated 30 October 1626 (I 25; ET 23). It is in reply to one she sent to him. There are some interesting points in it, illustrating their relationship at that early stage. It is written from a town about ninety miles from Paris, where he is giving a mission. He says that he did not tell her in advance that he was going away in case she would have worried about his absence. Obviously, in spite of what Bishop Camus had said the previous year, she still wanted her director to be always on hand. Vincent tells her that at times God has to be her director, a point the bishop had also made in the same letter. He recommends her to be humble, submissive, trusting and patient, waiting until God's will for her was clearer. This was only ten months after her husband's death and Vincent was simply not sure what to get her to do. For one thing, because of her apparent frailty, he was unsure of how much he could ask of her. She was a small, frail woman; I recall reading somewhere that she was only five feet tall. In 1647 Vincent wrote to the Superior in Genoa that humanly speaking he considered Louise dead for the previous ten years, because seeing her you'd think she had come out of her grave, so pale does she look, but he then goes on to illustrate what strength she actually has (III 256-7; ET 357). In 1639 he told her in a letter that he never saw such a possessive mother as herself, whilst in everything else she was hardly a woman at all (I 584; ET 576). I have already mentioned that earlier on a confessor had said she had not the health to live the life of a nun. In an undated "Rule for Life in the World" which she wrote, probably around this time, she allowed herself nine and a half to ten hours in bed each day.
The earliest surviving letter from her to him is from eight months later, June 1627. She is still worried because she never knows where he is going. Also because God seems slow in letting her know what he wants of her (Ecrits 7-8).
In an early letter, which cannot be dated more precisely than between 1626 and 1629, Vincent tells her:
- Leave it to me; I shall think enough about it for
- both of us (I 62; ET 54).
At that time that was the way he, and perhaps she also, thought. They would both soon change their minds on that.
Perhaps the most obvious thing Vincent learnt from Louise was that, within the limitations of her physical frailty and frequent periods of illness, there was quite a lot that she could do. He learnt that she would go against convention and do things that ladies of her rank in society would not normally do. When he saw the need for someone to go back to places where Confraternities of Charity had been established during missions, to see how they were getting on, he decided that Louise was the one to do it. This meant she had to travel, alone, by public coach, something quite unheard of before for a lady of her background.
When she visited the Confraternities she showed a talent for assessing what needed to be done and the organizational capacity for setting things right, as well as the financial ability for putting them on a good business footing. As Vincent came to realize what she could do he gave her more and more scope for doing it. This included seeing her point of view when it differed from his. For example, when he set up the Confraternities it was because he had seen the need to alleviate the material poverty of the people. When Louise made her rounds of them she was struck by their intellectual poverty and lack of education. So many young people, especially the girls, were unable to read. Louise saw this as their being deprived of one very important way of learning about God. Everywhere she could she set up programmes for teaching reading. Later on in Paris Vincent encouraged her in this and suggested she get some help from the Ursulines, the experts at the time in the education of girls.
Louise's discovery of what she could do, and Vincent's realization of this, developed gradually. In 1633, eight or nine years after they first met, they launched the Daughters of Charity. It was their joint idea. I don't think we can disentangle exactly what each contributed to the idea. It grew out of their exchange of views over the preceding years.
What we can do, though, is to look at some of the things that they said to each other in letters during that early period. We have more letters from Vincent to Louise than the other way round, but his letters to her often reveal what she must have written or said to him; the answers indicate the questions.
There was a period of ten years between their first meeting and the founding of the Daughters of Charity. They both had to get to know gradually what was possible. Louise tended to move too quickly, Vincent was more cautious. Much later in life he wrote to a confrere that people thought he moved too slowly, but he insisted that God reveals his will only gradually. The devil urges people to act in haste. In May 1630 he wrote to her, when she was away in Villepreux:
Blessed be God that you are feeling better and are acquiring a taste for working at the salvation of souls! But I am really afraid that you are doing too much... Be careful about this, I beg of you, Mademoiselle. Our Lord wants us to serve him with common sense, and the opposite is called indiscreet zeal (I 84: ET 79).
In December of the same year he wrote to her in Beauvais:
Blessed be God that you have arrived in good health! Oh! take great care to preserve it for the love of our Lord and his poor members and be careful not to do too much. It is a ruse of the devil, by which he deceives good people, to induce them to do more than they are able, so that they end up not being able to do anything. The spirit of God urges one gently to do the good that can be done reasonably, so that it may be done perseveringly and for a long time. Act, therefore, in this way, Mademoiselle, and you will be acting according to the spirit of God (I 96; ET 92).
A couple of years later, before the founding of the Daughters, he was on the same theme:
He who is faithful in a little, says our Lord, will be set over a greater work. Be faithful to this little and perhaps our Lord will have you do more (I 179; ET 181).
Some years after the foundation of the Daughters of Charity he still had to write to her:
In the name of God, Mademoiselle, let us go slowly (I 383; ET 374).
She tended to over-react to circumstances. Vincent tries to get her to overcome that, and in a very early letter puts it this way:
It has just rained very hard and is thundering dreadfully. Is the weather less beautiful for that? (I 71; ET 62).
In 1631, six years after her husband's death, two years before the foundation of the Daughters, a man was pestering her, claiming she had been promised to him in marriage. Vincent plays this down, pointing out that she was over-reacting:
I'm sorry your're in trouble! But so what! Since this is the order of Providence, what can be done about it? And what real damage are you afraid of from this? So here's a man who says you promised to marry him, which is not true. You are being falsely complained about. You are worrying about this, but for no reason. Are you afraid that people are talking about you? They may be, but you can take it for granted that that is one of the great ways of resembling the Son of God that you can have while on earth, and that you will achieve self-mastery by this which you would never have been able to do (I 142; ET 138).
The opening sentence in that passage, "I'm sorry you're in trouble" in French is "Que j'ai peine de votre peine" and there are many copies around of a poster of St Vincent with this under it. I think it is a bit unfair to use it out of context.
I have already mentioned that she was tempted to see her husband's illness as a punishment on her from God. This temptation recurred in many other circumstances, and Vincent always tried to get her out of that frame of mind. At Pentecost 1642 the ceiling of a room in the Sisters' mother-house collapsed, with Louise and the Sisters getting out just in time. Vincent, knowing Louise's propensity for seeing such happenings as punishment from God, wrote to her the following day to reassure her that it was not. He referred to Jesus' mention of the collapsing tower (Lk 13:4), though he gets the name wrong; he was often quite inaccurate when using scripture. The odd thing about this incident, though,is that Louise admits that she never thought of it as a punishment (Ecrits 761).
One of the things he had to learn from her was to be able to accept simple acts of kindness. Some of his letters show, I think, annoyance at things which she did or said to him out of sheer kindness. Something in his make-up seemed to resent being on the receiving end of acts of personal kindness. In May 1631 he wrote to her:
My slight indisposition is not my usual little fever but a sore leg caused by a kick from a horse, and a small tumour that had begun a week or so before that. It is so trifling that, were it not for a little tenderness it is causing, I would not fail to go into town. Thank you for your solicitude but please do not worry about it at all because it is nothing (I 110; ET 108).
A couple of years later he wrote:
I most humbly thank you for all the care and charity which you exercise towards me, for such good bread, your preserves, your apples, and for what I only now learned that you have just sent me. Oh! surely, Mademoiselle, that is too much! God knows with what pleasure I receive your gifts; yet also, ever in my mind is the fear that you are depriving yourself of necessities in order to practice charity in this way. In the name of God, do not do it any more (I 222; ET 220).
In both of these letters I think he shows a certain lack of appreciation of her good intentions. He thanks her for enquiring about his health in the first one, but spoils it a bit, it seems to me, by hinting that she is making a fuss about nothing. After all, a kick from a horse, plus a small tumour, plus the fact that the pain is such that he cannot go into town, do add up to something to worry about. In the second letter, why can he not just accept gratefully the bread, apples and jam, and not spoil it by telling her not to send any more? Obviously certain things about her simply annoyed him. In one case, around June 1642, he showed his annoyance in a very petty way. Louise wrote to him asking for answers to twenty individual questions. In her letter after each question she left a blank space so that he could write in his answer; in fact what he did was to write his answers anywhere except in the space she left (II 259; ET 290).
He seems to have got over that sort of pettiness and learnt to accept her as she was and not show annoyance at her foibles. And she, for her part, learnt to put up with his annoying characteristics too. He was hard to pin down when she wanted to see him; he was usually late for conferences to the Daughters, or did not turn up at all. But they still could, on occasion, try to score off each other.
In 1655, twenty-two years after the foundation of the Daughters, there were 143 Sisters and a more organized structure was needed for running the community. A Mother General's Council was formally inaugurated on 8 September 1655, and at the meeting Vincent spoke about Louise as follows:
[The superioress] is the soul which animates the members of the whole company. She is the living rule who must be the model of what the others should do, teaching them as much by her good example as by her words. Well, that will be enough about Mademoiselle's office. There is no need to go any further since by God's grace she does, and always has done, what a good superioress should... Up till now Mademoiselle has conducted affairs well by God's grace, and so well that I don't know a religious house of women in Paris in the condition in which you find yourselves... You have certainly not had a superioress who let the house go by default... No, I tell you, I don't know the like in Paris, and it is due, after God, to the good management of Mademoiselle.
Two things need to be said about that extract. First, I think it certainly expresses what Vincent thought of Louise by 1655. He had learnt what she was capable of doing, and he had let her do it and encouraged her in it. Second, he obviously knew it would embarrass her in front of the Sisters, and he enjoyed her discomfiture. This is a sign, I think, of the excellent relationship they had developed by that time. At the point where I stopped the quotation Louise interrupted Vincent and, using his own tactics, neatly turned the tables on him:
You know well, Father, and our Sisters also, that if anything has been done it has been by the orders Your Charity has given me (XIII 693ff).
It was because they had learnt to appreciate and value each other so highly that they could enjoy making little jokes at each other's expense.
In 1646 she wrote to Antoine Portail. She knew he was going to Gascony, Vincent's native area, and she wanted him to find out all he could about Vincent "the person most dear to us in all the world" (Ecrits 161).
In 1650 Louise wrote to Sr Jeanne Lepeintre:
For you know that one word of advice from him is worth a hundred words from others (Ecrits 332).
Those two quotations show clearly what Louise had simply come to believe.
In 1656 she wrote to another sister, in connection with retreats:
...I have praised God many times for the graces he granted you, to help you forget yourself and mortify your desire for self-satisfaction, which in your case is under the appearance of striving for great holiness. We are greatly fooling ourselves if we think ourselves capable of this, and still more so if we think we can reach such holiness by our own efforts and by watching closely the slightest movement or disposition of our soul.
Once a year is quite enough to delve into this kind of research, duly mistrusting ourselves and recognising our weakness. It's useless, even dangerous, to be forever giving ourselves hell in order to peel ourselves, and giving an account of all our thoughts. I'm passing on to you what I was told in the past (Ecrits 518-9).
The various points with which she deals in that letter are all faults which she herself had had in her earlier years, and I think we can take it for granted that what she is passing on, which she says she was told in the past,is what Vincent had taught her. I think this is borne out by the fact that she uses that rather unusual expression "peeling ourselves". Vincent, at his first conference to the Sisters since her death, on 3 July 1660, in speaking of Louise said that Louise "peeled herself" in telling her sins. It looks like an expression which Vincent used to describe her practice, and which he probably advised her against, and then she in turn passed on this advice as something she was told in the past.
She died on 15 March 1660. I thought it would be interesting to see what Vincent might have written about her in letters immediately after that date. I was surprised at how little I found. On the following day he wrote to the Sister Servant in Richelieu:
It has pleased God to take Fr Portail about a month ago, and Mademoiselle Le Gras yesterday. First of all, this news will surprise you. I hope that seeing God's good pleasure in it you will accept it, and act like our Sisters here, who have edified everyone by the peace and union they have shown in the face of these events. Do that, then, my dear Sister, and pray for the two deceased... she will be buried tomorrow in St Laurent beside our dear departed Sisters, and with only the same ceremonies as at the funerals of each of them (VIII 270).
I find it extraordinary that on the day after her death, writing to a Sister Servant, he said only that.
The first letter to a confrere after her death was on the 19th, to the superior in Warsaw. He ends the letter with the news:
It has pleased God to take Mademoiselle Le Gras. I want you to prepare them [the Daughters of Charity] for this sad news and to help them to bear the sorrow of this loss. I recommend the soul of the deceased to your prayers... (VIII 273).
Again, I find it strange that that was all he wrote.
On the 20th he wrote to a Sister in Nantes and mentioned that he had broken the news to her in an earlier letter, which we no longer have. On the 14th he wrote to the Superior in Tréguier and did not mention her death at all.
On the 27th he wrote to the Superior in Toul:
Mademoiselle Le Gras died on the 15th of this month. I recommend her soul to your prayers, although perhaps she does not need such help, for we have good reason to believe that she is now enjoying the glory promised to those who serve God and the poor in the way she did (VIII 275).
On the same day he wrote to a Sister, and referred to the fact that he had mentioned the death in a previous letter, which we no longer have. After the 27th he no longer refers to her death in any letters.
I find it rather strange that his references to her death are so brief and that, apart from saying in one letter that she probably does not need prayers, he gives no expression to his own feelings, and makes no comment on her achievements.
It was the custom for Vincent and the Daughters to have a conference or two on the virtues of a deceased Sister. Because of Vincent's own illness the conferences on Louise did not take place till the 3rd and 24th of July. The accounts of these two meetings are taken up mainly with what various Sisters said about Louise, with only a few comments interjected by Vincent. A lot of what he did say is, unfortunately, not straightforward reminiscing about her or commenting on what she was like, but merely a taking-off point for instructing the Sisters about something. We have to remember, of course, that we are relying on notes taken by someone for whom that aspect of the meeting might well have been the most important. In the report of the meeting on 3 July there is one fairly long passage in which Vincent speaks of Louise. To me it seems to be aimed too much at instructing the Sisters:
There's no need to be surprised if, through human weakness, she sometimes fell into some little impatience; the saints tell us that there is nobody without imperfections. We see this in what happened to St Paul, to St Peter. God allows this in order to draw his glory from it. Anyway, what seems a fault in our eyes often is not, as we see in our Lord himself. It's said he was angry when he chased the sellers from the temple. Far from being a fault this was an act of piety and zeal for God's glory. So, there are things which seem to be faults but which are virtues. So there seemed sometimes to be some little lack of patience in Mademoiselle Le Gras. That was nothing, and I'd find it very difficult to see any sin in it. She was always firm...
I was reflecting a while ago in the presence of God and saying: "Lord, you want us to speak about your servant", for it's the work of his hands; and I asked myself: "What did you see during the thirty-eight years you knew her? What did you see in her?" I remembered some little speck of imperfection, but never mortal sins. The least sign of sexual feeling was insupportable to her. She was a soul pure in everything, pure in her youth, in her marriage, in her widowhood.
She used to peel herself in telling her sins, with all her imaginations. She confessed with great clarity. I never saw anyone accuse herself with such purity. She wept in such a way that it was very hard to calm her down.
Then come more contributions from Sisters, until something one of them says starts Vincent off again:
You're right, Sister; that's what I've already said. It was hard to find any fault in Mademoiselle Le Gras; it's not that she hadn't any, no, but they were so small you didn't notice them. (X 715-6, 720).
I must admit I find all that very disappointing. Vincent admits that he was reflecting, in the presence of God, on what he should say about Louise, and yet he gave out only a few pious platitudes to edify the Sisters. He said far more, and was far more interesting, about deceased confreres. However, in the second conference on 24 July, when they were talking about a replacement for her, he twice referred to her as a saint (X 734-5).