Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 19/Section 01
Continuation of the Same Topic
Concerning the exterior mortification of Monsieur Vincent, we can say truly that it equaled the interior, for he practiced it perfectly and almost without letup. He treated his body with great rigor until his extreme old age, even when quite sick. Besides the ordinary penances and mortifications which we will speak of shortly, he sought out all occasions when he could cause his body to suffer. We gave several examples in Book One, especially of his way of conducting himself during the trip he took in 1649, when he was more than seventy years of age. <Ftn: By modern reckoning, the saint was sixty-eight or sixty-nine.> The abstinences and vigils, the extreme cold, and all the other inconveniences he was exposed to, caused a serious illness which finally caught up with him in Richelieu. On this subject he used to say that we must practice mortification in every situation, even holding the body in a posture that would be uncomfortable, provided, of course, that modesty was observed. We should deprive our senses of what might give them satisfaction, and should accept willingly the weather and temperature, whatever they were. He practiced this himself, glad to find any occasion of mortification. It was often noticed that, during the coldest days of winter, his hands were exposed to the cold. In time they showed the effects of this, and the other parts of his body shared in this mortification, for he wore the same shoes and clothes in winter as he did in the warmer seasons.
During the trials and extreme misery in Lorraine brought about by the wars, he often said, "This is the time of penance, for God afflicts his people. Should not we priests be at the foot of the altar, weeping for their sins? This is our obligation, but beyond this, should we not deny ourselves something we are used to, to come to their aid?" During the three or four years of this conflict he had the community of Saint Lazare served only brown bread. This was just like the time of the siege of Corbie at the beginning of the war between the French and Spanish crowns. He cut out one of the courses that had been served, and never re-established it later. He said, "Is it not right that we should cut back in some way, to sympathize with and participate in the public sufferings?"
He rescued a young woman from the danger of losing her virtue, and he supported her for two years and was resolved to continue this help if necessary. He told her that he would do all he could to help, but she would have to be careful not to offend God. However, at the end of this time she was seduced by some evil-minded persons and left her asylum. When Monsieur Vincent was told that she had fallen miserably, he said, "It seems to me that we have done all we could to prevent this unhappy result. It remains only to pray to God, and to do penance for her. Her situation must exact its toll of me!"
The infirmarian of the house at Saint Lazare had said that Monsieur Vincent suffered frequent sicknesses from the very beginning of the Company, even after it was established at Saint Lazare. Twice a year he suffered from the quartan fever, but he asked for no remedies, nor did he leave off his usual work. <Ftn: A quartan fever is one which reoccurs approximately every seventy-two hours; here probably caused by malaria.> Even though his legs were inflamed, he continued to take his trips on foot, until he had to travel on horseback because of his afflictions.
Either because of illness or some other cause, he often experienced extreme drowsiness, but rather than take a little rest he used the occasion to mortify himself. He stood or took some other posture, or did other violence to himself, to prevent his falling asleep. It was remarked that he never shortened his vigils because of his advanced age. He always arose at the usual hour even though he may have been the last to get to bed. He was among the first at church in the mornings, and would remain kneeling on the bare ground during the time of mental prayer, not using a pad. Ordinarily he would spend more than three hours in the church each morning, for his mental prayer and for his mass, including the time for the preparation and thanksgiving after, even during the coldest part of the year.
Perhaps he did not have too much reason to love his bed, for he slept on a bare cot without mattress, without curtains, and in a room without a fire. He did so for almost his entire life, even in his more serious illnesses, except for the last three or four years when he had to move to a room with a fireplace because of his bad legs. He was unhappy at the curtain put around his bed, but continued as before to sleep on the cot.
He was such an enemy of his own body that the late Cardinal de la Rochefoucault once asked him to moderate his penances and austerities, to preserve his life for the good of the Church.
He observed the mortification of his senses almost continually and on every occasion. When he went into town or took a trip, instead of distracting himself with the view of the countryside or other interesting sights, he would ordinarily keep his eyes fixed on a crucifix he carried. Sometimes he kept them closed, to focus on God alone.
Once, going from one part of the house at Saint Lazare to another, he noticed some fireworks in the air, part of a public celebration of the city of Paris. His only response was to turn away, saying, "God be blessed."
He was never known to pick a flower, nor to keep one near him for its odor. On the other hand, when he went some place where there were foul odors, as in the hospital or in homes of the sick poor, his spirit of mortification rejoiced at the opportunity for self-denial.
Just as he used his tongue only to praise God, recommend virtue, combat vice, instruct, edify, or console the neighbor, so too he used his hearing only to attend to what excited one to the good, turning away from all else. As much as he could, he avoided hearing useless things, or listening to whatever might delight the ear but contribute nothing to the nourishment of the soul.
He was so mortified in his sense of taste that he never let it be known what sort of food was most acceptable to him. He seemed almost to regret having to take his meals. He did so only out of necessity, politely eating what was set before him in view of God and with much modesty. His example so influenced his confreres that several visitors of various ranks, who had been invited to the refectory, were much edified at the spirit of recollection, the great modesty and reserve, in what normally would be thought of as an occasion of dissipation.
He never left the table without having mortified himself in something, either in eating or drinking, just as he recommended to others. He was so little concerned at what he took for his nourishment that once, when he returned late from the city, and the cook had already retired, he was given by mistake two raw eggs with the mistaken notion that they had been cooked. He took them, seemingly not noticing their condition, and certainly did not complain or send them back to be cooked. This would never have been known if the following day the cook had not asked the brother who had remained to attend Monsieur Vincent if he had cooked the two eggs he had left for him. He responded that he had not, thinking they had already been prepared.
In his latter years he was urged to take some bouillon in the mornings. Once one of the priests was earnestly appealing to him to accept what he was presenting. "You tempt me, Monsieur. Is it not the demon who leads you to persuade me to feed this miserable body and this wretched carcass? Is it right to do so? May God pardon you for this."
After this time, however, he agreed to take each morning a certain bouillon made especially for him, not made with meat but with a bitter wild chicory and some oats, but without fat, butter, or oil. In a word, he paid so little attention to what he ate that it happened several times during the evening that he fainted from lack of food. On these occasions he was brought a bit of hard bread, because he wanted nothing else but what would meet his immediate need.
He hid the other austerities of exterior mortification as much as he could, but it was known that he was rigorous in the treatment of his body. The brother who tended him in his sickness found in his room hairshirts, bracelets and belts studded with copper points. <Ftn: Brother Louis Robineau.> He kept them all hidden, but used them often. Each day upon rising he used the discipline. One of the Company with the room next to his, separated by thin walls, reported that he had done this for twelve years or so.
Besides this routine discipline, he used others on special occasions, as for example, when some disorder was reported to him about one of the houses of the Congregation. Because of this he used the discipline twice each night over the space of eight days. Only then did he work to remedy the situation, which fortunately was successfully resolved. Later he told a friend in confidence that he did this penance because his sins were the cause of the evil that had arisen. Therefore it was only right that he should be the one to do the penance for it.
We shall finish this chapter with his thoughts on the cross and mortification, expressed in a talk to his community: Our Lord so loved the state of affliction and of suffering that he wished to experience it. He became man to be able to suffer. All the saints embraced this same state, and those who had not received sicknesses from the Lord imposed afflictions upon themselves to punish themselves. As Saint Paul said of himself: Castigo corpus meum, et in servitutem redigo: I chastise my body and bring it into subjection. <Ftn: 1 Cor 9:7.> This too is what we must do, we who are in perfect health. We must chastise ourselves and afflict ourselves because of the sins we have committed and the sins of the whole world against his divine Majesty. But what do you think? Man is so wretched and miserable that not only does he not chastise himself, he even complains of the maladies and afflictions which it has pleased God to send him, although these are for his own good. <Ftn: CED XII:30.>