Louise de Marillac, a Spiritual Woman

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[This article appeared in Volume II of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1999, p. 217-229. 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

Religious and political passions had devastated France with blood and fire. The shrewd mind of Henry IV, who was able to obtain concession from different groups, returned the nation to peace. After a long winter the spring flowers began to blossom everywhere … an explosion of new life. Beginning with the final years of the sixteenth century there was a spiritual flourishing of mysticism and action which gave rise to the “great century of souls” (a title often attributed to the seventeenth century). The wise and learned Monsieur Cotón, the king’s confessor and private counselor, had a great admiration for certain favorite individuals who were gifted with extraordinary mystical gifts … his sister, Madame D”Aix, Jeanne Marie Cotón, was one of those individuals. Monsieur Cotón maintained a profound spiritual friendship with a holy woman, Marie de Valence (1575-1648) who had a certain influence on King and his court. Monsieur Cotón wrote a short treatise called, The interior concern of a devout soul, and this work was distributed to those persons concerned about their perfection.

Monsieur Cotón frequented the house of Madame Acarie, a meeting place for all those persons concerned about the religious rebirth of France. Madame Acarie (Barbe Avrillot) was known for her extraordinary mystical gifts but this did not prevent her from caring for her family. Thanks to her practical genius she safeguarded the patrimony of her children which had been compromised by the extravagance of her husband who was exiled by King Henry IV. As a result of her influence the Discalced Carmelites were introduced into France and their ministry was facilitated by a member of her group, Michel de Marillac, who was also the keeper of the seals. Thanks to Madame Acarie and Michel de Marillac, the Ursulines were established in France (they were assisted by Mademoiselle Sainte-Beuve, a cousin of Madame Acarie).

The Acarie house was frequented by the young bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales. He was on occasion, the confessor of Madame Acarie. It was there that he met Monsieur Cotón who referred him to King Henry IV. Francis, in a more erudite manner than Monsieur Cotón, was writing his Introduction to a Devout Life, thus he was able to utilize a series of letters (letters that contained spiritual advice) that he had written to his cousin, Madam de Charmoisy. During those months he had in front of him the example of the great mystic, Madam Acarie, a woman of the world and a woman of action. Between 1604-1620, he helped one of those who had approached him for direction … he helped this individual find his way which led to the establishment of the Visitation Sisters where a very authentic form of mysticism was developed through service on behalf of the poor.

Louise was surrounded by a religious environment during her youth, an environment of fervor and action. We refer here to some examples.

Louise was educated in the Dominican convent of Poissy … a house of great devotion where her aunt resided. As a young girl Louise lived there and acquired a solid religious and practical education. It was there that Louise was attracted to the religious life. At the age of ten Louise was placed in a boarding house in Paris where she came to know the meaning of poverty. Her uncle, who was also a close friend of Madame Acarie, Michel de Marillac, took interest in the education of his niece, Louise. His own daughter, Velase, had just entered Carmel (some months before Madame Acarie had also entered Carmel). One of Madame Acarie’s children had become a Capuchin.

Louise was attracted to the religious life. Influenced by the years she had spent with the Dominicans she thought she might also be called to enter the Carmelites or the Ursulines (Michel de Marillac with Madame Acarie had been influential in the establishment of these religious groups of women in Paris and they might have written the superiors of the Orders concerning Louise’s interest). Louise thought it might be good to enter the Capuchin Order. The Daughters of the Passion (such is their name) had taken up residence in area of Saint-Honoré. Louise began to visit the convent there and adopted their penitential way of life. She asked to be admitted but the Provincial of the Capuchins denied her request (this denial was based on Louise’s frail health).

Louise allowed herself to be guided toward marriage. Her uncle, Michel, placed before her the example of Madame Acarie, a woman of world, a devout woman who at the same time was also mother to the poor. Francis de Sales would have placed before her the example of Madame de Chantal. Later, her spiritual director, Bishop Camus, a friend of Francis de Sales, would avoid doing this.

In 1613 Louise married Antoine Le Gras and on the advice of her uncle, requested Bishop Jean-Pierre Camus to be her spiritual director. She cared for her family and house and at the same time reached out in order to provide for the poor. The illness of her husband, however, led her into a state of doubt and anxiety. Should she not have been a nun? Her uncle and Monsieur Camus counseled her very judiciously. The Bishop of Belley, who only occasionally came to Paris, counseled Louise to approach Monsieur Vincent, a friend of Francis de Sales and the superior of the Visitation Sisters.

On the Feast of Pentecost 1623 Louise was freed from her anguish and doubts. Her husband died after thirteen years of marriage. She overcame her sorrow and decided to consecrate herself to the Lord but at that time she was not sure how to do this.

Little by little Monsieur Vincent led her to a deeper commitment on behalf of the poor. First, she visited hospitals and then visited the Confraternities that had been organized by Vincent during the Missions that were given in Paris and the surrounding area. During one of these journeys to visit the Confraternities, the day of her marriage anniversary (February 5th, 1630), she made a resolution to commit herself to the Lord in mystical union and self-surrender, in order to serve the poor.

It could be said that the Lord had called her and molded her through several trials. This was done so that she would be prepared to give herself to the poor and establish a Company of women who would spend their whole life serving those men and women who are poor..

The movement of the Spirit

Above all Louise is a contemplative. Her communication with God constantly impels her to action and also allows her to discover the meaning of the events that occur.

In 1623 Louise endures a true dark night of the soul and suffers profound doubts. Slowly everything seemed to be falling apart and she wanted to flee and leave her infirm husband and her son. She began to doubt everything: the immortality of her soul and even the existence of God. Hoping to find peace Louise multiplied her fasts and vigils and prayers (E. Charpy, The life of Louise de Marillac, http://famvin.org/wiki/The_Life_of_Louise_de_Marillac). Her dark night reached its height on the feast of the Ascension, May 25th, 1623; her scrupulous temperament and her tendency to become nervous and anxious became allies with the temptations that now assaulted her faith in eternal life and even her faith in the very existence of God. It was in this way that the Lord proved and purified his servant who wanted to love God with the most pure love (P. Gonthier, Messages et Messagers, #202, p. 5).


Louise made a decision: she made a vow to remain a widow for the rest of her life. In her mind God should be the first one who is served. But she did not know how to serve God. In the midst of this difficult and anxious situation she is inspired by the Spirit. On Pentecost morning, when she was in the church of Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs, she was praying for calmness and was filled with an extraordinary mystical grace that she called “light”. On the Feast of Pentecost, during holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was instantly freed of all doubt (SWlM:1 [A.1]).

Unexpectedly and as a free gift, the light of the Spirit filled Louise. Like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, Louise experienced the living God who opened her eyes without any human assistance. Now she was sure of God’s existence and sure that God was instructing her. This mystical experience eliminated any doubt that she may have had.

God renewed her and freed her from the ideas that were tormenting her with regard “to making good her first vow”. To live in this moment of God’s love meant that Louise should continue to live with her husband and continue to be concerned about the education of her son. She is also convinced that later she will be able to profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a member of a community that is open to the world in order to serve the poor.

With regard to her director, the Spirit confirmed that God would give me one. Humanly speaking she felt repugnance toward the selection of Vincent, but spiritually, in a spirit of love, she acquiesced.

One thing is certain: Louise was open to the Spirit; she waited for the Spirit to move … thus a spiritual practice with unexpected consequences was now going to animate her life: attentive to the movement of the spirit.

February 4, 1630

One of the inspirations of the Spirit involved Louise’s encounter with Monsieur Vincent whom she had chosen as her spiritual director. Vincent, in order to utilize all of her gifts, asked Louise to collaborate with him and animate the members of the various Confraternities.

During her retreat of 1628, enlightened by the Spirit, Louise decided to consecrate herself (in the Confraternities) to the service of the poor, the suffering members of the Body of Christ.

On May 6th, 1629 Vincent had Louise undertake her first missionary journey to Montmirail. From that time forward Louise became a true advisor to the charities. As such she left for Saint-Cloud on February 5th, 1630: I left on the Feast of Saint Agatha, February 5, to go to Saint-Cloud. At the moment of Holy Communion, it seemed to me that Our Lord inspired me to receive him as the Spouse of my soul and that this Communion was a manner of espousal. I felt myself more closely united to Him by this consideration which was extraordinary for me. I also felt moved to leave everything to follow my Spouse; to look upon him as such in the future; and to bear with the difficulties I might encounter as part of the community of his goods. God permitting, I wanted to have a Mass celebrated on that day because it was the anniversary of my marriage. I abstained, however, wishing to perform an act of poverty and to depend solely upon God in the action I was about to undertake. I had not expressed my wish to my confessor who celebrated the Mass at which I received Holy Communion. However, as he came out on the altar, the thought came to him to celebrate it for me as an alms and to say the nuptial Mass (SWLM:705 [A.50].

Contemplative and spiritual, Louise, through the grace of God, enters into a mystical union. In the above account Louise does not use those words but we, like her, discover that reality.

As in every covenant, God takes the initiative and in the case of Louise, Christ became her spouse. On that day, (February 5th), the anniversary of her marriage to Antoine Le Gras, a spouse chosen by her family, Louise received from God “the Spouse of her soul” … for Louise this was a form of espousal. Communion with the Body of Christ sealed this union which obliges her to abandon everything else in order to follow the Spouse.

United to the Lord Jesus as spouse, Louise was called to live “as part of the community of His goods”. Louise, like Jesus, was crucified and therefore had to endure the difficulties of life. Like Jesus, Louise was consecrated to serve the members of the body of Christ. In this light she was able to read anew the gospel of Saint Matthew: Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me!

This grace of “mystical espousal” Louise receives and thus performed an act of poverty and expressed the fact that she wanted to depend solely upon God in the missionary action that she was about to undertake.

June 7, 1642

Some years after the foundation of the Company, Louise’s life was influenced by the Spirit whose presence was experienced in a seemingly insignificant event. It was Saturday, June 7th, 1642, the vigil of Pentecost, and the ceiling in one of the rooms in the Motherhouse collapsed. None of the Sisters was hurt. God permitted us to recognize his Divine Providence by remarkable events (SWLM:768 [A.75]).

When Louise suffered as a result of events that were affecting the Community, when she felt that Vincent was not concerned about the establishment of the Community nor interested in encouraging the Sisters, she was once again enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

The event concerning the collapse of the floor, which she interpreted in light of her faith and in light of her awareness of the presence of the Spirit of God, gave her the courage to overcome her fears (as occurred on the feast of Pentecost, 1623) and “she established this little family” on a solid foundation, thus responding to what God was asking of her.

Saint Louise, a spiritual woman

In light of the great spiritual depth of Saint Louise, the attentive reader might be surprised by the texts that we have chosen. The selections from Saint Louise’s writing were guided by the fact that we have focused on the following four aspects of her spirituality:

---a woman inspired by the Spirit

---a woman of prayer and a woman who participated in the sacraments

---a woman inspired by the love of God

--- a woman united to God’s providence

A woman inspired by the Spirit

“…On the feast of Pentecost…”

As we know, all of Louise’s life was inspired by the light of Pentecost. Therefore we must place the beginnings of her desire to live some form of consecrated life … we must place this in the hands of the Spirit … more precisely with the revelation that occurred on Pentecost 1623. She had been living for some time with many strong doubts, doubts about the way in which she should live her life, doubts with regard to a spiritual director, doubts about her faith. All of these matters were clarified on that June morning as she prayed in the church of Saint-Nicholas-des-Champs: On the Feast of Pentecost, during holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was instantly freed of all doubt. I was advised that I should remain with my husband and that a time would come when I would be in a position to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that I would be in a small community where others would do the same. I then understood that I would be in a place where I could help my neighbor but I did not understand how this would be possible since there was to be much coming and going. I was also assured that I should remain at peace concerning my director; that God would give me one whom He seemed to show me. It was repugnant to me to accept him; nevertheless, I acquiesced. It seemed to me that I did not yet have to make this change. My third doubt was removed by the inner assurance I felt that it was God who was teaching me these things and that, believing there is a God, I should not doubt the rest (SWLM:1 [A.2]).

“…To recognize his Divine Providence through events…”

Nine years later the Community was miraculously preserved when the ceiling collapsed in the common room at the Motherhouse. This event occurred on the evening before the feast of Pentecost (June, 1642). Louise saw this as a clear revelation of God and she wrote: The day and the season when God permitted us to recognize his Divine Providence by the remarkable events surrounding the fall of our ceiling reminded me once again of my profound interior conversion at that time when his goodness gave me light and understanding concerning the great anxieties and difficulties which I was then experiencing. I then thought that our entire family should have great devotion to the Feast of Pentecost and total dependence on Divine Providence. However, this should be manifested in a very particular way (SWLM:768 [A;75]).

“…Eternal light…”

Louise prayed to the Spirit and we have preserved for us this magnificent prayer (1657) which could be said to be a summary of her spiritual life: O Eternal Light, lift my blindness! O Perfect Unity, create in me simplicity of being! Humble my heart to receive your graces. May the power to love which you have placed in my soul no longer stop at the disorder of my self-sufficiency which, in reality, is but powerlessness and an obstacle to the pure love which I must have as a result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (SWLM:818 [A.26]).

A woman of prayer and a woman who participated in the sacraments

There is no doubt that Louise was a woman of prayer. Her notes reveal her as a woman who was alive to God, a woman who spent many hours in front of the tabernacle. She referred to this in her little rule which was written in 1653: Immediately after rising, I shall meditate for an hour or at least three quarters of an hour on a subject taken either from the Gospels or the Epistles to which I shall add a reading from the life of the saint of the day so as to be instructed by a practical example (SWLM:689 [A.1]).

“…They shall make it without fail…”

Her spirit of prayer is very obvious in the advise that she gave to the Sisters who were missioned to Montreuil: En route, they shall be as exact as possible in the practice of their Rule. If they cannot make their morning meditation before leaving, they shall make it without fail while in the coach. Before leaving their bedroom, they shall make an act of adoration. In the evening they shall make their examen while kneeling … After leaving the coach, before thinking about eating, they shall go to the nearest church to adore God in the Blessed Sacrament (SWLM:771 [A.85]).

“…Let us glance interiorly toward God…”

We refer here to a text that further reveals her spirit of prayer, prayer that was intimately connected with life: When pleasant things happen to us or when our undertakings succeed as we wish them to, before abandoning ourselves to the joy of the moment, let us glance interiorly toward God and thank him for his mercy since it is his love alone which affords us this consolation. Therefore, let us accept it in this light by an act of love. We must strive to use all the things that strike our senses as means to raise our minds to God. We should consider them as coming from his all-powerful hand or we should reflect on His design in creating them, which is almost always for the benefit of the human race so that it will be grateful to him (SWLM:826 [M.73]).

“…The excellence of the sacraments…”

We find the same sentiments present in Louise when participating in the sacraments. She wanted the Director of the Seminary to be vigilant in forming the Sisters in this matter: At two o'clock, after the Community reading, the Seminary Directress shall go with the new sisters to their designated place and shall instruct them on the excellence of the Sacraments, teaching the sisters that it is through the merit of the Blood of Jesus Christ that the benefits of the sacraments are bestowed upon us (SWLM:759 [A.91b]).

“…An extraordinary thirst…”

We add here her own personal experience which she wrote about in 1660: On the Feast of Saint Genevieve, in 1660, as I was receiving Holy Communion, I felt, upon seeing the Sacred Host, an extraordinary thirst which had its origin in the belief that Jesus wanted to give himself to me in the simplicity of his divine infancy. When I was receiving him and for a long time afterward, my mind was filled by an interior communication which led me to understand that Jesus was bringing not only himself to me but also all the merits of his mysteries. This communication lasted all day. It was not a forced, interior preoccupation. It was rather a presence or a recurrent recollection … I felt that I was being warned that, since Jesus had given himself entirely to me, laden with the merits of all these mysteries, I must make use of this occasion to participate in his submission to humiliations. One means to attain this end is to be found in the fact that, without any cause in me, I appear to others as having received some graces from God. This both humbles me and gives me courage. No desires, no resolutions. The grace of my God will accomplish in me whatever he wills (SWLM:833-834 [M.8b]).

A woman inspired by the love of God

“…May all be filled with a great love…”

Above all else she wanted the Sisters to be filled with a great love for God. In June 1642 she wrote to Sister Madeleine Mongert and stated: Be very courageous then in the distrust you must have for yourself. I say the same thing to all our dear sisters. I desire all of them to be filled with a great love which will immerse them so sweetly in God and so charitably in the service of the poor that their hearts will no longer have place for so many thoughts which endanger their perseverance. Courage then, my dear Sisters. Seek only to please God by faithfully observing his commandments and evangelical counsels because the goodness of God has deigned to call us to this. This should lead us to observe our Rules exactly but also cheerfully and diligently. Serve your masters with great gentleness. Be very respectful to the administrators and greatly honor the clergy (SWLM:75 [L.441]).

“…The sweetness … of his holy love…”

This love for God ought to create joy even in time of difficulty. Louise wrote to Sister Marguerite Chétif: I trust, my dear Sister, that Our Lord has let you taste the sweetness reserved for souls filled with his love amidst the sufferings and anguish of this life. If such is not the case and you are still standing on Calvary, rest assured that Jesus crucified is pleased to see you retire there and to know that you have enough courage to want to remain there as he did for love of you. You may be certain that you will emerge from there gloriously (SWLM:570 [L.545b]).

“…By the tip of our souls…”

If we are assailed by temptations and trials, we become completely dejected, imagining ourselves to be in a deplorable state. And truly, this would be our condition if we did not cling to God by the tip of our souls, saying to him, from the depths of our hearts, "My God, do whatever you will … we must perform all our actions purely and simply for the love of God (SWLM:575 [L.546]).

“…For the love of God..”

When writing to the Sisters who were experiencing difficulties in Angers and Ussel, Louise stated that God would give them strength if they ministered from a perspective of pure love: We must strive to acquire spiritual balance and inner peace in all the circumstances that may arise. This seems very difficult … A third means to preserve peace in the midst of our little trials is to recall that God knows our present state, and that if we love him for himself and strive to do his holy will, the very things that now sadden us will in truth be a source of great consolation for us one day (SWLM:379 [L.405].

“…Labor for the pure love of God…”

The more difficult a place is for service, either because of poverty or for other reasons, the more we must rely on assistance from heaven when we are striving to labor for the pure love of God, which I sincerely hope is your intention (SWLM610 [L.592]). “…Oh, what an excellent way of life…”

This love of God is intimately connected with doing the will of God (this was another point that was stressed by Vincent de Paul). The following letter that was addressed to Sister Marguerite Chétif, who was waiting for a boat to travel to Poland, is very expressive in this line of thought. The letter begins with an invitation to live in a spirit of joy: With all my heart I wish you the joy and interior consolation of a soul that is lovingly submissive to the most holy will of God, as I believe you are in the depth of your being. I admire the guidance of Divine Providence in your life, my dear Sister, and because of it, I believe that God, in his divine love, desires you to love him uniquely, entirely and unselfishly and to have no other concern or even satisfaction except those which pertain to him and to your neighbor. Oh, what an excellent way of life, hard on nature but sweet and easy for souls enlightened by eternal truths and by the awareness of the joy to be found in pleasing God and in allowing him full mastery over their wills! This, it seems to me, my dear Sister, is the road that God wills you to travel to reach him, however difficult it may appear. Enter upon it, then, whole-heartedly as you would a vessel that will carry you where you must go. I am certain that Our Lord will always be with you as he was with his Apostles, during his lifetime, granting them graces and preserving them (SWLM:480-481 [L.448].

“…My Jesus, grant me this grace…”

During the year 1632 Louise revealed her convictions with regard to this matter: O Holy Will of my God! How reasonable it is that you should be completely fulfilled! You were the meat of the Son of God upon earth. Therefore, you are the nourishment which will sustain within my soul the life received from God. But what are you in the life of grace? You are grace itself which sanctifies souls ... Thus, no more self-will! May your will alone be the rule of my life! Grant me this grace, O my Jesus, for the love which you have for me and through the intercession of your Holy Mother who loved so perfectly all the effects of your loving will. I beg this grace of you with all my heart and I give myself entirely to you, imploring your goodness to overlook any contrary dispositions still to be found in me. I pray that the force of your love, by its gentle power, may compel the acquiescence of any of my senses which may continue to oppose you (SWLM:713 [A.15]).

A woman united to God’s Providence

“…Honor Divine Providence…”

Like Saint Vincent, Louise was united to God’s providence. Despite their reciprocal influence on one another, there were, however, some differences between these two friends when discussing this matter. On a personal level Louise learned to live her life in accord with the designs of Providence. Thus when changing her residence she wrote: To go to my new home with the motive of honoring Divine Providence which is leading me there. To place myself in the disposition to do all that this same Providence will permit to be accomplished there (SWLM:713 [A.15]).

“…Dependence on Providence…”

Louise also realized that her resolutions in prayer had to be in accord with what God was asking of her: The recollection of the Apostles shall be an example for me to keep myself interiorly recollected by great and total dependence on the Providence of God. Thus, closely united to God, I shall await the time when he shall be pleased to reveal what he is asking of me SWLM:716 [A.5]). “…The pact that we all made together…”

It was easy to move from the personal level to the community level in this matter. She spoke about this to the Sisters, especially those Sisters who found themselves in difficult and painful situations such as the Sisters in Angers (1639), Le Mans and Nantes (1646): I leave you so that you may conform yourselves entirely to the most holy will of God by the pact that we all made together never to complain about the guidance of Divine Providence, but to abandon ourselves entirely to it. Let all of us take this journey itself as an exercise in the practice of this promise which we have renewed so many times (SWLM:153 [L.144]).

“…Only through his goodness…”

We have great reason to praise God for all he does through you and for having entrusted this matter to you by his Providence. It is only through his goodness that plans are made and carried out. If Providence does not will that we be there, then our sisters in Angers will receive some relief (SWLM:150 [L.140]). “…The same Divine Providence…”

Reflecting on the guidance of this establishment, I have great reason to say, in truth, that it has been Divine Providence alone at work. Going there, I had no knowledge of what there was to do. I can say that I saw what was being done only when it was completed. In encounters where I could have met with obstacles, the same Divine Providence provided, totally unexpectedly, persons who could help me (SWLM:178 [L.159]).

Questions for reflection and sharing

May all be filled with a great love for God!

1] With regard to my experience of God: what can I say about this matter? How do I respond to Jesus’ question: And you, who do you say I am?

2] How can we begin to share our spiritual experiences either in community or in some small reflection group?

3] What place does contemplative prayer have in my ministry? How does my ministry nourish my prayer?

4] Saint Louise lived her experiences in communion with the Eucharist. How is the Eucharist then communion for us?

Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM