Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 22
His Fortitude in Supporting Good and Opposing Evil, and His Patience in Bearing Afflictions and Pain
The great apostle Paul understood well the strength and courage needed to remain constant and faithful in the love of his divine Master. He showed this when he had defied all that was most terrible and fearsome in nature: "Who then will be able to separate us from the love of Jesus Christ? Will tribulation, suffering, hunger, nakedness, dangers, persecutions or the sword?" <Ftn: Rom 8:35.> It is characteristic of this virtue to despise all that men fear the most. As Saint Ambrose says, "Fortitude joins in this irreconcilable war against all the vices. It makes us unbowed in our efforts, without fear in the midst of dangers. It rejects ease and comfort, and makes us unyielding in the face of all the world's allurements." <Ftn: PL 16:74-75.>
Vincent de Paul always walked in the footsteps of this great apostle, whose name he was proud to bear. He became the perfect imitator of his virtues, particularly of this one, in which he excelled. Those who knew him best were well aware that neither promises, menaces, hopes, threats, nor calumnies could ever influence his firm resolve in the pursuit of good. He highly regarded everyone in authority over him. He paid great respect to their opinions, and he followed their wishes when he could do so with no harm to his conscience. When he saw that the interests of God, his service or his glory, were in question, or if he were being turned away from what God was asking of him, or if he were asked to do something contrary to the will of God, no consideration or persuasion could move him.
A virtuous priest wrote of him: "What constancy and fortitude he showed when it was a question of receiving affronts and injuries rather than agreeing to the least thing opposed to justice or right. While he served on the Council, he firmly opposed the designs of even the most powerful when they sought to obtain the goods of the Church or benefices by improper means, or for persons he deemed unqualified."
A highly placed magistrate of a sovereign court once met him on the street. He attempted to persuade him to do something in his personal interest which Monsieur Vincent did not believe to be right in the sight of God. He therefore excused himself as politely as he could, and could not be swayed, no matter how much he was urged. The judge became angry and spoke most unbecomingly to him, but Monsieur Vincent remained serene. He showed no emotion except to say, "Monsieur, I am convinced you try to do your duty as worthily as you possibly can. I must try to do the same in my position."
A highly placed lady once asked him to expedite the awarding of a benefice she had asked of the king for one of her sons. Feeling he could not in justice do this, Monsieur Vincent begged to be excused. This woman fell into a fit of anger. She told him she that knew how to get what she wanted in another way, and that she had been mistaken in giving him the honor of even asking him to help, and besides, he had no idea of the proper way to deal with ladies of quality. Monsieur Vincent had no other reply but to remain silent, suffering these abusive remarks rather than do anything he felt to be against his better judgment.
He acted the same way towards another lady who wished to involve him in a matter that he felt was unjust. He said in his usual modest way: "Madame, our rules and my conscience do not allow me to obey you in this. I therefore beseech you most humbly to excuse me." This lady, too, would not accept his refusal, and angrily heaped insults upon him, which he suffered with his usual patience and serenity.
He showed this same strength and fortitude in not allowing lay women to enter convents of religious of which he was the superior, when no legitimate reason existed for giving this permission. He even refused some princesses who strongly urged their requests. When they saw they were making no impression upon him, they were upset. They called him rude and uncivil, and made their feelings known publicly. Several retained their resentment against him up to the time of his death, but still he was not to be shaken, nor was he willing to do anything he thought of as unjust.
In these encounters and others, he was victorious over all considerations of human respect, which sometimes demanded the greatest courage of him. The following episode was one in which he surpassed himself. As was said in a previous chapter, <Ftn: Ch. 17.> he was always most grateful for everything done for him, and in appreciation he was disposed to do almost anything he could to express his grateful sentiments towards his benefactors. Among these, Monsieur le Bon, prior of the priory of Saint Lazare, was in the first rank, and Monsieur Vincent always recognized his special obligation of gratitude to him. He had the kindest and most deferential attitude towards the prior, but a situation arose in which he was obliged to refuse something that he earnestly requested.
An abbess from a noble family had been imprisoned for some scandalous behavior by order of the queen regent, following the advice of Monsieur Vincent. The prior of Saint Lazare, who owed the abbess some favors, was commissioned by her to secure her release. He set about doing this with all his power. This was ample since he held such influence over the mind of Monsieur Vincent in everything not contrary to the service of God. He asked and urged insistently that the abbess be released, pointing out that it could easily be done. Monsieur Vincent told him frankly that he could do this only by betraying his conscience, and therefore, begged most humbly to be excused.
The refusal greatly angered the prior, and he said, "Is this how you treat me, after I gave you this entire house? Is this how you thank me for all the good I have done for you, to help you and your Company?" Monsieur Vincent replied, "You have truly honored us and helped us greatly, and we certainly owe you the same duty as children do their father. Monsieur, please take all this back, since by your judgment we are so unworthy of your favors." At these words the prior fell silent and withdrew, greatly displeased. Nevertheless, several days later, he had become better informed than before about the scandalous conduct of this lady. He recognized the justice of the decision of Monsieur Vincent, and went to him. The prior fell to his knees before him, and Monsieur Vincent also knelt. The prior begged pardon for what he had said and asked him not to alter the penance prescribed for the abbess, seeing it was designed for her amendment, and that he had been wrong in seeking to have her set at liberty. This is how the firmness of Monsieur Vincent was rewarded, and how God showed his approval of his stand.
We shall not repeat here what was said elsewhere about his fortitude and constancy in supporting the various works he began, notwithstanding the almost insurmountable obstacles standing in their way. <Ftn: Book One, ch. 30.> These would have discouraged others whose zeal had urged them to begin these enterprises. We saw how he supported the project of the foundlings when the Ladies of Charity of Paris were on the verge of giving up on it because the expenses seemed beyond their means. Happily he succeeded in speaking in their assembly so effectively and so filled with the spirit of God that he rekindled their fervor. He made them hope against hope itself. They decided to continue this good work at whatever cost, and continue to support it up to now.
If this faithful servant of God showed such fortitude and constancy in supporting good and opposing evil, he also showed his patience when it pleased God to send him afflictions and crosses as assurances of his love. In the midst of the most violent tempests and severe storms of his times, this virtue of patience enabled him to preserve in his heart a calm and tranquility untroubled by any accident, however sad and discouraging. This same virtue by which he possessed his soul also made him master his feelings in the face of the pains, contradictions, and the crudest persecutions imaginable. It let him say not a word nor show the least trace of impatience or sign of a troubled spirit.
Once when he was on a trip in Brittany, he stopped in a small village at a poor little inn. He had no sooner closed his eyes in sleep after a hard day's travel than a group of peasants came to the inn to pass the night in revelry, in a place near his room. Several even came into his room, but he did not complain. On the contrary, the next day he expressed his satisfaction, thanking the innkeeper despite the noise of the previous evening, as if he had received the best treatment in the world. Besides, he distributed several beautiful Agnus Dei which he had been given a long time before. <Ftn: A devotional image of the Lamb of God, blessed by the pope, to which indulgences were attached.> The missionaries who accompanied him on this occasion, and who had looked after these objects, were surprised at this. He had never given any of them away in other places where he had been courteously received, where the children were well behaved, the servants efficient, and where he had taught catechism, but he did so to these poor people on this occasion. This led to the thought that Monsieur Vincent had done so because these people were truly poor, and had given him an opportunity to practice his patience.
On another occasion, he was cited to appear before a Councilor of the Grand'Chambre of the Parlement of Paris since the community of Saint Lazare was being sued because of the complaints of a certain person. <Ftn: The Grand'Chambre was the highest law court of the Parlement, handling cases, among others, of the peers, the nobility and the clergy.> This man had a violent temper, and acted on this occasion with no respect for the magistrate, nor did he respect the place where he was. He spoke insults and atrocious calumnies against the honor and reputation of Monsieur Vincent. For his part Monsieur Vincent showed no emotion except pity for the man for behaving this way in the presence of the judge. The attorney of the community was present for this hearing. He wanted to speak in defense of Monsieur Vincent, but he restrained the attorney and excused the actions of the man as best he could. This same lawyer, a good man, spoke admiringly of these events and of such patience, which to him seemed extraordinary, for he had seldom witnesses anything like it. Those who knew Monsieur Vincent better realized this was his usual way of acting. They had often seen him endure affronts, insults, and calumnies with much peace and humility.
Monsieur Vincent showed his great patience not only on these great occasions when the spirit is usually most in command of itself, but also in those more frequent encounters of everyday life, in the eager requests, the indiscreet demands, the impertinent replies, and the other failings against him personally, either by inferiors or by others. In these situations he was never seen to give the least sign of impatience, nor even to raise his voice. In fact, on these occasions he acted and spoke with even more gentleness and serenity than usual.
When losses which were sometimes great occurred to the temporal goods of the Congregation, he accepted them not only patiently but even joyfully. It was once said to him that what was most serious about a large loss suffered by the community of Saint Lazare was the loss of reputation of the Company, and the opportunity it provided for some to speak ill of him. Monsieur Vincent replied that, on the contrary, this would be a good thing, for it would give him an opportunity to practice patience.
We should not be astonished if he was not filled with sadness at these unhappy events, for he spoke of being somewhat worried that God did not try the Company enough by afflictions. Once he spoke of this to the community:
Recently I have often paused to think that the Company is not suffering. Its works are succeeding, and we are enjoying a certain prosperity. Let us say it better, God is blessing it in every way, and it feels neither reverses nor disappointments. I began to wonder at all this, knowing well that God tries those who serve him and chastises those whom he loves: Quem enim diligit Dominus, castigat. <Ftn: Heb 12:6.> I remember it is reported that while Saint Ambrose was on a trip he went into a certain house where the owner told him he did not even know the meaning of the word affliction. At once this holy prelate, enlightened by heaven, understood that this house, untried by any adversity, was destined for ruin. "Let us leave," he said, "for the anger of God will fall upon this house." And so it happened. No sooner were they outside than a clap of thunder flattened it, and killed all who lived there.
On the other hand I see several congregations, particularly one of the greatest and holiest in the Church, being disturbed by trials. It is now very disturbed, and even at this moment is suffering a horrible persecution. I say to myself that this is how God deals with the saints, and how he would treat us if we ourselves were strong in virtue. Knowing our weaknesses, he supports us and feeds us on milk like little children. He makes everything we do succeed even if we have little to do with it. These considerations made me fear that we are not wholly agreeable to God nor worthy to suffer something for his love. He turns away any affliction from us which would test us as his true servants. Although we have had some shipwrecks when our missionaries set out for Madagascar, yet even then God looked after us. During the war in 1649 the soldiers caused us losses amounting to forty thousand livres, but this loss was not particular to us, for everyone felt the troubles of the times. Difficulties were everywhere, and we were treated just like everyone else.
Blessed be God, my brothers, for it has now pleased the adorable Providence of God to take away some of our property. <Ftn: The farm at Orsigny.> This is a major loss for the Company, very great indeed. We must adopt the sentiments of Job when he said: "God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." <Ftn: Job 1:21.> Do not look upon this as caused by human intervention. Rather, God has judged us, humbling us under the hand that strikes us, as David said, Obmutui, et non aperui os meum, quoniam tu fecisti. "I shall keep silence, Lord, for it is you who have done this." <Ftn: Ps 39:10.> Let us adore his justice, and realize that he has done this in his mercy. He has done so for our good: Bene omnia fecit, as Saint Mark says, "He has done all things well." <Ftn: Mark 7:37. CED XI:52-53.>
In these perfect and elevated sentiments Monsieur Vincent endured not only the loss of his temporal possessions, but also the death of persons dear to him. He must have felt their loss keenly. In his soul, he persisted in this attitude even when he lost one of the older priests of the Congregation. He had had a special confidence in him, and considered him a pillar of the Company. At the same time he was also in danger of losing another who was ill. He wrote to one of his friends: "By the grace of God, my heart is at peace in the thought that what happens is according to God's good pleasure. Sometimes I fear that my sins may have caused these losses, but even then I recognize God's holy will, which I accept with all my heart."
One of the priests complained once of the difficulties he had in directing a house of the Company. Monsieur Vincent said:
Alas, Monsieur, would you prefer to have nothing to suffer? Would it not be better to be possessed by the devil than to have no cross to bear? Yes, for then the devil could cause no harm to happen to the soul. If you had nothing to suffer, neither your soul or body would be conformed to Jesus Christ in his suffering. But this conformity is a sign of our predestination. Do not be surprised at your troubles, since the Son of God has chosen them for your salvation. <Ftn: CED V:196.>
He said to another person suffering in the cause of justice: "Is not your heart consoled to see that you have been found worthy before God to suffer in his service? Certainly you owe him special thanks, and you must ask him for the grace to make good use of these trials."
He once learned that an abbess was encountering many difficulties and opposition in her efforts to establish some sort of order in her abbey. He advised a priest to do what he could to encourage her in her efforts, and to tell her that the sufferings endured in creating any good work attract the graces needed to succeed in it.
Once, the devil raised up a storm against the missionaries to frustrate the success of a mission they were conducting. Monsieur Vincent wrote the superior:
Blessed be God for the troubles he has been pleased to send you. On this occasion we must honor those same experiences of the Son of God while he was on earth. Oh, Monsieur, how great these must have been! Hatred for him and his teachings was so great that he was forbidden to go to certain places, and finally was put to death. He warned his disciples of this when he said that they would be mocked, scorned, and maltreated, and that parents would be set against their children, and children would persecute their parents. We must profit from these situations and sufferings, Monsieur, as did the holy apostles, and from the opposition that we encounter in the service of God. Instead, we must rejoice when these things happen, and make the same good use of them as the apostles did of their sufferings, following the example of their leader, our Lord. If you do so, be assured that the very means which the devil uses to defeat you will turn to his destruction. You will cause heaven to rejoice, and all the good folk on earth who will see or hear of your way of acting. Even those who now oppose you will finally come to bless you, recognizing you as an assistant in their salvation.
How so? Hoc genus daemoniorum non eijcitur nisi in oratione et patientia ["This kind of demon you can drive out only by prayer and patience"]. <Ftn: Based on Mark 9:29.> Holy modesty and interior recollection as practiced in the Company may also be of help. It would be good to find out if you can what causes this aversion the people have for the missionaries, so we may avoid it in the future. We will do the very opposite, should it be appropriate. When you find out something, please let me know. <Ftn: CED I:226-27.>
He wrote to someone who complained about someone else:
I can well believe that the person you mentioned has given you trouble, and I am sorry he has acted the way he has. You must not take what he does as coming from him, but rather as a trial sent by God to try your patience. This virtue will grow in you in the measure that you are naturally sensitive, and you have given far less offense than you have received. Show yourself a true child of Jesus Christ, who did not meditate in vain on his sufferings. Show that you have learned to conquer yourself in putting up with those things that provoke you the most. <Ftn: CED IV:239-40.>
He wrote to another:
In short, Monsieur, we must go to God per infamiam et bonam famam ["spoken of well or ill"]. <Ftn: 2 Cor 6:8.> His divine bounty is merciful to us when he allows us to be blamed and to suffer public disgrace. I do not doubt that you have patiently accepted what has happened. If the glory of the world is nothing but smoke, the opposite is also true when it is accepted. I hope you will draw much good from this humiliation. May God give us the grace to do so, and send us many others, for by these trials we merit to be most pleasing to him. <Ftn: CED V:229-30.>
What confirmed Monsieur Vincent so strongly in this virtue of patience was his firm faith in two truths. First, even the worst ills which can happen to us come from God, for the prophet says: Non est malum in civitate, quod non fecerit Dominus ["If evil befalls a city, has not the Lord caused it?"] <Ftn: Amos 3:6.> And second, God will never permit us to afflicted or tried beyond our strength. He will help us by his grace to use our trials for our profit and advantage, as the apostle tells us: Fidelis Deus est, qui non patietur nos tentari supra id quod potestis, sed faciet etiam cum tentatione proventum, ut possitis sustinere ["Besides, God keeps his promise. He will not let you be tested beyond your strength. Along with the test he will give you a way out of it."] <Ftn: 1 Cor 10:13.> Convinced of these truths, he said:
The state of affliction and pain is not an evil state, but one in which God enables us to practice the virtue of patience and to learn compassion for others. Our Lord experienced these sufferings. He is a high priest who has compassion on our infirmities, and he wished to encourage us by his example to practice this virtue of patience. [He added that] one of the surest signs that God has great plans for a person is when he sends desolation upon desolation, pain upon pain. The best time for a soul to progress spiritually is the time of temptation and tribulation, for the way in which he receives these trials shows clearly what he will become. A single day of temptation enables us to acquire more merit than years of tranquility.
He said that "stagnant water, which has become putrid and infected with disease, is the image of a soul ever at peace. Souls tried by temptation are like rushing streams flowing over boulders and rocks. Their water is pure and refreshing." <Ftn: Abelly added to the preceding paragraph this fragment borrowed from a repetition of prayer of 1645 on temptations; CED XI:150.>
The extent of his virtue of patience gave him a special gift of communicating it to others, and to have them make good use of their sufferings. He wrote to a friend to console and strengthen her in her afflictions:
I sympathize with you in your pains, which have lasted for such a long time. This is a cross which extends to your spirit and your body, but it raises you above the earth, which I rejoice in. You should be consoled to see yourself treated as our Lord was treated, and honored with the same marks by which he showed us his love. His sufferings were both interior and exterior, and beyond all comparison with those of others. But why do you think he tests you as he does? For the same reason that he himself willed to suffer, to cleanse you of your sins, and to communicate his virtue to you, so that the name of his Father should be sanctified in you.
Remain in peace, then, and have confidence in his goodness. Never think in any other way. Be wary of your own feelings, and believe in what I say and in my knowledge of you, rather than in what you may think and feel. You have reason to rejoice in God, and to hope for everything from him because of our Lord who dwells in you. After his leading you to renounce yourself, I see nothing which should disturb you, not even sin. This is the only evil we should fear, for in the religious state you have embraced you do penance for the past, and for the future you have a great horror of everything which might displease God. <Ftn: CED VIII:314. The original text reads: ". . . you do penance for the past, and you hate it too much for the future. . . .">