Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 13
The Son of God proclaimed the truth that he who praises himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted. <Ftn: Matt 23:12.> God's providence allows us to see this truth verified every day. It also lets us recognize what a great doctor of the Church has said that nothing makes us more agreeable in the eyes of God and so acceptable to others, as when a person joins a saintly and virtuous life to feelings of sincere humility.
This was exemplified in the person of Monsieur Vincent, who was exalted by the great things God did in him and by him, and by his evident humility. The more profoundly he abased himself before God, the more he was raised up, and the more graces he received for himself and all his holy enterprises.
It is true that after his death it was said of him, as indeed it was said during his life, that his true character was not well known. He was admittedly a humble man. Yet the common opinion never regarded his humility as the main disposition which attracted the graces with which he was inundated, and which were the foundation and root of all the great works he did. Those who judged him most favorably felt that his zeal was the main source of his works, and his prudence happily guided them to a successful conclusion. While these two virtues were indeed highly developed in him and contributed much to his success, we must recognize that his profound humility drew down the plenitude of lights and graces which caused his works to prosper. To speak of this in a better way, we could say that his zeal led him to humble himself at every turn, and his prudence consisted in simply following the maxims and examples of the Son of God and the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. He kept himself in the disposition of heart of considering himself incapable of doing any good, and being without any virtue and strength. In this sentiment he often repeated within himself this lesson of humility he had learned from his divine master, saying in his heart, "I am a worm and no man, creeping upon the earth, not knowing where I am going, but seeking only to hide myself in you, O my God, who are my all in all. I am a poor blind man unable to take a single step in the way of goodness unless you extend your hand of mercy to guide me."
These were the sentiments of Vincent de Paul. He followed the example of his patron, the apostle Paul, and found no better occasion of correspondence and cooperation with the designs of God than when he was stricken to the ground in profound abasement. He closed his eyes to all human considerations, abandoned himself to the designs of his divine master, said in his heart, like this great apostle, "Lord, what would you have me do?" <Ftn: Acts 9:6.> In this spirit of dependence, he never undertook an enterprise of his own accord. He waited instead for divine Providence to show the work to be undertaken, either by the orders of those he regarded as his superiors, by the advice and persuasion of those he recognized as virtuous persons, or lastly by the contemporary conditions and needs that manifested the will of God to him, which he always followed but never anticipated.
When he spoke of the greatest of his works, the founding of his own Congregation, he always openly said that God alone called those received into the Company. He had never said a word to attract anyone. He stated he had not become a missionary through personal choice, but had been drawn in solely by God's will, hardly aware of what was happening. God alone was the author of any good accomplished in the missions, in all the activities of the missionaries, and in all the good works they were connected with. All this was done without his having planned it, and not knowing where God was leading him.
To speak in greater detail of the humility of this great servant of God is difficult because of his constant effort to keep this virtue hidden not only from others but even from himself. Nevertheless, we shall attempt to trace its main features, drawn from what we have seen and known of him, heard from his own lips or taken from the recollections of persons of great piety.
We have already said that although God wished to use Monsieur Vincent for great things, he himself thought of himself as being unsuited for even the least of these. Even more, he thought himself more likely to tear down rather than to build up. He recognized himself as a child of Adam, and therefore mistrusted himself as one attracted to evil as a result of the fall of our first parents. For this reason he had formed a great mistrust of himself. He avoided honors and praise like the plague. He never justified himself when he was accused, and by preference took the part of the accuser, even when he was the innocent party. He condemned the least faults in himself with greater exactitude than some others did with the greatest of their sins. He judged his slightest lapses of understanding or memory as though they were serious failures. Because of this attitude he did not push himself into any undertaking, no matter what, and was more pleased to see God working good through others than through himself.
In this same spirit he tried to hide, as much as he could, his special graces received from God. He would have revealed none but those he could not conceal without lacking in charity for his neighbor, or made necessary by some other obligation. He had a habitual attitude of concealing his gifts and activities and all he had undertaken for the good of others. He did this to such an extent that even members of his own Congregation knew only a fraction of the good works he had been involved with, and how many spiritual and corporal works of charity he had performed for all sorts of persons. Many of his confreres were astonished to read in this present work things they had never before known.
Not content to hide the good he had done, he took every occasion to abase himself, to lessen himself in the esteem of others as far as he was able, imitating the humility of the Son of God. Although he was the splendor of the glory of his Father and the image of God's substance, he submitted to the opprobrium of men and to being treated like an outcast by the people. He spoke willingly of those things likely to draw down the contempt of others upon himself. He fled with horror from anything that might directly or indirectly tend to his honor or praise. When he went to Paris, he never called himself de Paul, lest this usage give the impression he belonged to some notable family. He called himself simply Monsieur Vincent, his baptismal name, as one would say Monsieur Pierre or Monsieur Jacques. Also, although he had a licentiate in theology, <Ftn: Actually, a licentiate in canon law. CED XIII:60.> he spoke of himself as a simple secondary school student. It was remarked about him that he tried on all occasions to appear to be mean and contemptible, and to pass as a nobody. When some issue would arise in which he would be blamed, he accepted the blame willingly and with such a joy that it was as though he had stumbled upon a treasure.
He referred to his Congregation as the "little, the very little, (or) the wretched Company." He never wanted his confreres to conduct missions in the large cities but only in the villages, especially the tiniest of them, to evangelize and instruct the poor peasants, for this duty was the least respected in the public eye. He wanted his Company to be regarded as the least and last of all the orders. Being obliged once to send some representatives from the house of Saint Lazare to a general meeting of the city, one of the recommendations he gave to the priest, one of the leading priests of his community, and to his companion representing Saint Lazare was that they must insist on taking the last place of all the clergy present. <Ftn: The priest was Lambert aux Couteaux. His companion was Brother Louis Robineau, who composed the memoirs which Abelly used.>
He would not allow anyone to say anything in praise of the Congregation. He always referred to it as "the poor and wretched Company", and said that he asked nothing of God for it, so much as the gift of humility. One day, speaking to his community, he said:
- "Is it not a strange thing that the members of the Company, the Peters, Johns, and Jameses, should flee honors and love rejection, but the Company and community should, they say, enjoy the esteem and honor of everybody? I must ask you, how can it be that Peter, John, and James truly and sincerely loved and sought to be badly regarded, and yet the Company which is composed of these same people should seek to be respected and honored? We must surely see that the two things are incompatible. Therefore all the missionaries should be glad, not only when they experience some occasion of rejection and disrespect for themselves, but also when the entire Congregation is so judged. This would be a sign that they are truly humble. <Ftn: CED XI:60.>"
His humility was so sincere that it could be read on his face, in his eyes, and in the posture of his body. He thus made it obvious that his humility and abasements came from the depths of his heart, where this virtue was so deeply engraved. He believed he had no right to the use of any creatures, even those necessary to conserve life or necessary to advance God's glory, much less those which were simply useful. In this sentiment he asked nothing for himself, but rather was always ready to deprive himself of everything. We are not at all surprised to hear that he refused the ecclesiastical dignities offered him, knowing that he considered himself unworthy of the least things.
Although his humility was as we have just spoken, he could still be constant and generous when it was a question of sustaining the interests of God or of his Church. On these occasions he showed that humility (as was so well taught by the Angelic Doctor) is not contrary to magnanimity, but rather that this virtue is perfected by humility. <Ftn: Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 129, a. 3; and q. 161, a. 2.> Humility gives magnanimity a solid base, being solely dependent upon God and yet possessed of a just mean not going beyond what it should, and having no tie to vanity.
One day, he told his community that humility is compatible with generosity and courage. He used as proof the example of Saint Louis, whose humility led him to serve the poor with his own hands. He would go into the hospitals to seek out the most repulsive of the sick and wounded to serve them in person. Yet he was one of the most generous and valiant kings ever to bear the crown of France, as was shown in the important victories he won over the Albigensians and in the two trips he made to the holy land to battle the infidels. From this he drew the lesson that we must ask of God a generosity founded upon humility. <Ftn: CED XI:301.>