The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Spiritual Experience of Saint Vincent
by: Jean Pierre Renouard, C.M.
Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
M. Vincent lived. He acted. He did not create theories. With him, I hope that there is no longer any doubt, if you ever had any, that he was not about debating ideas but about action that reflected experience. All his work consisted of action, which means all our commitments (praying and living) are actions, as he liked to repeat as he would ruffle his hand through his hair. As a Congregation, we have an extraordinary opportunity: that of possessing the writings of his experiences, letters, discourses, notes rapidly taken down in secret by his attentive listeners who understood well that he was expressing an interior energy through what events or life impelled him to say or write. Better than a spiritual author, we have a witness. Today’s world greatly appreciates his witness.
When we ask the volumes of Coste to show us what Vincent had to say about the Blessed Virgin, we note that his thoughts were consistently in relationship to his spiritual experience. It seems to me that we can easily take them into account and benefit from them.
I offer to you:
• a few perspectives on the world that surrounded Saint Vincent,
• some significant facts about his Marian devotion,
• points relating to his understanding of the Marian mystery,
• and for us today?
I. Marian understanding at the time of saint Vincent
M. Vincent breathed the air of his times and we can but con¬gratulate him for it. The Catholic Church was experiencing a reform incorrectly called the Counter-Reformation. It had been through the Council of Trent and was in the post-Tridentine period in which spirituality was also evolving on a dogmatic level. Humanists were already favoring the Immaculate Conception. Based on the Council and perspectives on original sin, some theologians tried to reconcile universal redemption with the preservation of the Blessed Virgin from sin: Tolet, Suarez, Vasquez, Gilles de la Presentacion all took the position in favor of this, and in this spirit, there was already the desire to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Louis XIII made a request to the Pope regarding this matter in 1624: “… to proclaim that the feast under the title of the Immaculate Conception be solemnized for all Christians. This feast is already celebrated in our entire kingdom,” he concluded. The king was also supported by the Sorbonne (who taught it since 1495) and by the great reformers: Saint Thomas de Villeneuve, Saint Charles Borromeo, and Saint Francis de Sales who founded a brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception in Annecy. M. Duval acknowledged that if the doctrine was not part of faith, it is good that it be accepted by all.
And to crown it all, Louis XIII, by the authority of Richelieu, terror-struck by the invasion of the imperial forces that had reached Pontoise, announced the consecration of the kingdom to Mary. She was declared “special protectress” of the kingdom, and the people and the management of the kingdom were consecrated to her. On August 6, 1638, the king renewed his consecration with his right hand raised to the level of the elevated consecrated host. The king wanted a representation to be made of him kneeling at the feet of the Blessed Virgin above the altar of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. It was Louis XIV who would have this statue made, which is still in this same cathedral today. The event was significant and has influenced hearts until present times, since August 15 is a national holiday and Mary is considered the patroness of France. In spite of official renunciations by revolutions, we have a very strong devotion to Mary in France and many pilgrimages relate to this.
Neither are publications lacking: on the one hand, a school of theology developed under Cardinal de Berulle, Father Gibieuf, Father de Condren, J. J. Olier, Saint Jean Eudes. For them, Jesus lead to Mary (see the prayer: “0 Jesus living in Mary”), and on the other hand, it was claimed to more closely represent Saint Bernard. There was a more popular, more affective tendency, supported by the Jesuits and some Capuchins. The confraternities placed under the patronage of Mary were no longer taken into account!
At the same time, and to complete the idea, this contributed to a true promotion of women. It suffices to note Teresa of Avila, Ma¬dame Acarie, Madame de Sainte-Beuve, whose husband was a court bailiff; and who was cousin of Madame Acarie and worked with the installation of the Ursulines in France, Alix Leclerc (founder with Saint Pierre Fourrier of the Regular Canonesses of Saint Augustine), Jeanne de Chantal, Louise de Marillac, Angelique Arnauld, Marie Rousseau (who assisted M. Olier and endowed the foundation of a community for the instruction of young girls), Madame Guillon, and with the arrival of the Carmelites in 1604, an increase in the number of Ursulines. In this context of Christ the new Adam, came forth at his side Mary the new Eve.
II. Saint Vincent’s Marian devotion
Monsieur Vincent was attracted to this popular devotion. He never neglected to make several pilgrimages:
• at the beginning of his priesthood, in 1600, he celebrated his first Mass at Notre-Dame de Remoulle (Parish of Mezens) whose altar was moved to Notre-Dame de Grace (Buzet), not far from Toulouse, after the Revolution. (I call your attention to an interesting and timely note on the subject in the text: The Great Saint of the Great Century by Pierre Coste, I- 40 note 3).
• in 1623, he made a barefoot pilgrimage to Notre-Dame de Buglose where he celebrated the Eucharist for his family and friends in front of the statue found in the marshland in 1620, and where he blessed his loved ones before taking leave of them permanently.
• in 1633, he sent Louise de Marillac to Chartres in order for her to offer the newly-formed Company of the Daughters of Charity to Notre-Dame de Chartres in the crypt chapel.
• in 1639, he returned to Chartres along with Nicolas Pavillon to help him to accept his appointment as bishop of Alet.
His devotion was not limited to these pilgrimages:
• beginning in August 23, 1617, in erecting the Confraternity of Chatillon-les-Dombes, he invoked the Blessed Virgin Mary as protector of his first foundation for the laity:
“And because, when the Mother of God has been invoked and taken as patroness in important matters, everything can only go well and accrue to the glory of Jesus her Son, the Ladies take her for patroness and protector of the work, most humbly entreating her to take special care of it, as they also entreat Saint Martin and Saint Andrew, true examples of charity and patrons of Chatillon….”
This mention is always made in the introduction of all the Rules that we have in our possession.
• He also insisted that the Blessed Virgin be patroness of the Daughters of Charity. In the conference of December 8, 1658, in speaking of the virtues of Christ, he suggests in the form of a prayer:
“Since it is under the standard of thy perfection that the Company of Charity was established, if we have hitherto called thee our Mother, we now beseech thee to accept the offering which we make to thee of the Company in general and of each of its members in particular. And because thou dost permit us to call thee Mother and thou art the Mother of mercy, the channel through which all mercy flows, who didst obtain from God, as we may believe, the establishment of this Company, be pleased to take it under thy protection.”
• To his Missioners, he recommended a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the tenth chapter of the Common Rules (§ 4).
• To all, he advocated the carrying and recitation of the rosary, had them recite the Angelus, encouraged fasting on the eve of the feasts of Blessed Virgin, and himself celebrated the solemnities and used the antiphons for these feasts as prayers.
• We know that he had the habit of seeing Mary represented in Madame de Gondi, and that he recommended this practice to some people in his correspondence: to see God in a certain person and the Blessed Virgin Mary in another.
III. Points related to doctrine
In general, we can say that Vincent’s Marian devotion was based on several dogmatic perspectives borrowed from Berulle, and the way it was lived out came from popular piety. He harmonized these borrowed aspects and balanced his Marian piety by orienting them towards action that above all stimulated daily life and evangelization. At the core, he remained truly faithful to himself: it was necessary to act in accord with and assisted by Mary for the mission and for charity.
1. Saint Vincent presents the Blessed Virgin as “servant.”
a. She is first of all the one who loves Christ. She has been intimately connected to Him because of her divine motherhood. She has faithfully welcomed His words. Thus, Saint Vincent exhorts the Daughters of Charity to do as she did:
“Now, just imagine, dear Sisters, if the Blessed Virgin, who discussed and shared so much with God; to whom the sacred mysteries were revealed and who never lost sight of the presence of God; if, I say, with all these natural and supernatural lights, in which she certainly surpassed all other creatures, she still stored up carefully the sacred words of her Son, what should we not do to try to preserve in our hearts the eloquence of this sacred word!”
b. Mary received unto her the obedience of the Son of God and through this role, discovered in him and by him, the meaning of submission to the Divine will. This is why Mary is a model of submission to the will of God. She is the one who knew how to say “yes” to God. She is the one who always sought, even in the most dramatic situations, to submit herself to “God’s good pleasure:”
“Meanwhile, let us honor the Blessed Virgin’s acquiescence in God’s good pleasure regarding the death of her Son.”
c. She is part of the divine plan, with the soul of a poor one. She is par excellence the “modest” and “silent” Virgin, servant of God’s loving plan. She can be presented to the Daughters of Charity as the first servant of persons who are poor:
“What! to be established to honor the great charity of Jesus Christ, to have Him for your model and example, together with the Blessed Virgin, in everything you do. 0 my God, what happiness!”
d. She is above all the humble Virgin, a perfect choice for Jesus; she shares His spirit, which is love of the Father, respect, reverence and humility. She alone can obtain for us the graces to live humbly:
“If you feel that God calls you to hope for this grace [humility], harden not your heart, run to the Blessed Virgin, begging her to obtain from her Son the grace to share in her humility, which caused her to call herself the handmaid of the Lord, when she was chosen to be His Mother. What was it that caused God to regard the Virgin? She tells us herself: ‘It is my humility.’”
She is able to obtain humility for us, and thus Saint Vincent has two very beautiful prayers to the Blessed Virgin asking for this.
2. Saint Vincent is attuned to the three mysteries involving Mary.
Saint Vincent sees in the Immaculate Conception, the Annunciation and the Visitation three realities in the life of the Blessed Virgin which connect with the Vincentian life of Daughters of Charity and members of the Congregation of the Mission. These three events mark the entire life of Mary. These three mysteries constantly come forth in his thoughts: “It is quite remarkable that these three mysteries would be the support, the letter and the spirit of the three fundamental approaches which characterize his advancement towards Christ and his life with God,” as Fr. Andre Dodin has emphasized.
a. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a concept that M. Vincent attests to without hesitation. Let us recall that in his time, the feast of the Immaculate Conception was already being celebrated. For him, the Immaculate Con-ception was the shining forth of a creature emptied of self where God could come and dwell and grace could stream forth abundantly. God was pleased by her transparency and looked with joy on her humility.
“God foresaw, therefore, that, since His Son had to take on human flesh through a woman, it was fitting that He take it through a woman worthy of receiving Him, a woman outstanding in grace, free of sin, filled with piety, and removed from all evil attachments. He brought before His eyes, then, all the women who were already living at that time and those who were to come and found none worthy of this great work except the Most Pure and Most Immaculate Virgin Mary”.
This mystery, this event (in the Vincentian understanding of event as a “place where God is revealed”) places in Saint Vincent’s spirit the idea of his first approach: being emptied of self. He affirms the necessity of the interior attitude that before God, humans must turn over themselves, and empty themselves of self in order to be filled with God. We add to this the idea of the continual need for conversion.
b. The Annunciation, a second approach for spiritual life: involves knowing how to offer oneself to God. This is the privilege of poor persons, in which\ according to Saint Vincent, “true religion is preserved.”
Mary gives herself to God without reserve, without hesitation because she has the soul of a poor person. As such, God can make of her “the beautiful gift of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.”
“When the angel went to salute the Blessed Virgin, he began by acknowledging that she was replenished with the graces of Heaven: Ave, gratia plena; thou art full of grace, thou art laden down with God’s favors. Ave, gratia plena. He recognized the fact then, and praised her as being full of grace. And then what did he do? He made her the beautiful gift of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The Holy Spirit, within her virginal womb formed a body. God created a soul, united it to this body. And immediately the Word united Himself to this soul and body by a wonderful union. And, in this manner, the Holy Spirit wrought the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation. Praise preceded sacrifice.”
We are called to offer ourselves to God the Father, in the example of Christ and His Mother. We know how Saint Vincent insisted upon it: “Let us give ourselves to God to serve Him.” His conference “On the Maxim, Seek First the Kingdom of God” of February 21, 1659 is particularly striking on this subject. To seek the Kingdom of God is “to aspire after what has been recommended to us, to labor unceasingly for the Kingdom of God…. Seek: seek, this implies care; this implies action.”
c) The Visitation, finally, the third mystery, suggests a third approach: it is necessary to give oneself to others through the service of charity and evangelization.
“Providence has permitted that the very first words of your Rule read as follows: ‘The Company of the Daughters of Charity is established to love and serve God, and to honor Our Lord their Patron and the Blessed Virgin.’ And how will you honor Him: Your Rule tells you, for it goes on to make known to you God’s plan in establishing your Company: ‘To serve the sick poor corporally by supplying them with all they need; and spiritually by seeing that they live and die in a good state….’ So, your intention in coming to the Charity should be to come here purely for the love and pleasure of God; and, as long as you remain in it, all your actions should tend to that same love.”
Mary gives herself to God and hurries to the home of Elizabeth. She goes to visit her “with the greatest gentleness, charity, and love.”
Our imitation of Christ the Servant and Mary the Servant will be perfect when we are “totally given to God for the service of persons who are poor.” That is the purpose of our vocation, the end of our Company. God wants us to give of ourselves and there are no other options to choose if we want to live in fidelity to Saint Vincent de Paul.
IV. For us today
The Blessed Virgin Mary is at the heart of Christian life. She gives us Jesus, and without her, the Incarnation would not have first been “the smile of God.” Father Zundel rightly said: “The greatest power in all of the world is a smile.”
Mary is at the heart of life and nothing else marks the Company more than rue du Bac. The Daughters of Charity are intimately connected to her and those who live in or come to visit the Motherhouse find this strong commitment there.
Your new Constitutions have made the choice to distribute Marian references throughout different articles:
• under the protection of Mary (C. 15)
• formation (C. 52c)
• model and teacher of the spiritual life (C. 23)
• assurance of her intercession (C. 28b, 29d)
• Marian character of the Company (C. 26)
In completing this discussion, I would like to insist once again on the three points which, according to the school of Saint Vincent, can sum up our love for Mary. It seems to me, in fact, that in the purest Vincentian tradition and the principles about which we have just been speaking, Mary is for us:
• Mother of saying “yes,”
• Mother of the Visitation,
• Mother of openness.
Through this prism, you can transpose the teachings of the Gospel and the Church which permeate our Christian and consecrated lives.
1. Our Lady of “Yes”
This is the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation. Mary wishes to be servant and nothing other than a servant. She invites you to place yourself in a state of offering because it is about offering yourself to God. Moreover, Mary gives herself to God without reserve or resistance because she has the soul of a poor person. God is also able to make her “the beautiful gift of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.”
You have yourself to offer to God the Father, after the example of Christ and his Mother. We know how much Saint Vincent insisted: “Let us give ourselves to God to do His work.”
His conference, “On the Maxim, Seek First the Kingdom of God” of February 21, 1659 is particularly striking on this subject:
“It is said then: we must seek the Kingdom of God. We must seek. This is but one word. Yet it seems to me to say much. It means that we should place ourselves in such a state as always to aspire after what has been recommended to us, to labor unceasingly for the Kingdom of God, and not remain in a languishing and inactive state. It means we should attend to our interior, that it may be well regulated, and not stand trifling with the exterior. Seek: seek, this implies care; this implies action.”
Our gift to God places the accent on perseverance and fidelity through every trial. “To give oneself to God” implies basic human virtues: tenacity, persistence, endurance with spiritual efforts. We cannot look back. Difficult but inviting are the words of Jesus (Lk. 9: 62): “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The young Virgin of the Annunciation is the same one who, reaching a mature age, has her heart pierced with sorrow, along with her Son, at the foot of the cross.
Do you have the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, and are you still ready to labor in the fields of the Father? To say: yes, I will continue? It is a question at the basis of everything!
2. Our Lady of the Visitation
Reread this text of Luke 1:39-45 with which you are so familiar, and you will see Mary, totally given to the other. It is because she is totally given to God that she can and wants to give herself to others. Mary gives herself to God and runs to the home of Elizabeth. She goes towards her cousin, “with the greatest gentleness, charity and love.”
You cannot shirk this offering of your life to the other, regard¬less of your age, your service or your condition. You are in a “state of charity” like Mary. Your offering is what gives dynamism to your consecrated life, and I would like to insist here on your gift through vows. They give strength and vigor once again to your baptismal commitment. They express the radicality of your choice. They commit you “to follow Christ.” They place you in the logic of the Gospels. They give meaning and strength to your service.
Where are you in this movement of love towards others, put¬ting aside the goods of this world, freed from the slavery to passions and open to be available with the freedom that Mary offered herself?
Where are you with this Visitation which takes you out of yourself to be for the other?
3. Our Lady of Openness
The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin was affirmed without hesitation by Saint Vincent de Paul as we have previously seen. Recall that in his times, the feast of the Immaculate Conception was already formally accepted by the Church.
For Saint Vincent, “the Immaculate Conception established in Mary the creation before the time of sin, a creature emptied of self where God could come and dwell and where grace could operate in its fullness. God looked with kindness on her humility and her perfect openness.”
Simply stated, this mystery — this event in the sense of a “place of revelation” — implanted in Saint Vincent’s mind the need for a healthy process: renunciation of self. He sees how indispensable this interior attitude is: before God, humans are only misery and sin. They need to ceaselessly empty themselves of themselves in order to let themselves be filled by God. For Mary lived through God. We can say that, emptied of self, she is full of God, “full of grace…,” “Mother of Love’s Beauty,” in the words of the poet Paul Claudel. She is the icon of God because she is completely held in the Divine embrace. I find no better way of invoking her than as “The Virgin of Openness,” “totally open to the Spirit” and to the Word which left indelible marks on her heart. In addition, she who gives birth to the Word submits herself to the Word with joy that transfigures her entire being.
Is it inappropriate that you ask her to help you become like her?
To become, in turn, icons of God, reflecting God’s presence for your brothers and sisters, for all the humble and simple ones, for all the poor people of this world, and also for those who are rich and powerful, making of your lives a real witness of the Gospel. It is a marvelous challenge for each one of you to place yourself in harmony with God to spread God’s spirit everywhere. To become religion that is seen. The beauty of Mary calls us even to the point of our exterior being: does your face reflect God who dwells in you? Always remember that a kind and pleasant face speaks of the goodness and beauty of God. Your brothers and sisters seek the face of God in you. If you are influenced by Mary, shining with the light of God, you will communicate the image of Christ to all your sisters and brothers. God will be born in them through your love. And joy will dwell in all hearts, those who give and those who receive.
Today, with the message of rue du Bac, your devotion to the Blessed Virgin is reinforced.
1. First of all, have a clear understanding of the mystery of Mary. Refer to the conciliar doctrine on this subject. The essence of the Church’s teachings on the mystery of Mary is found in the last chapter of the Constitution on the Church. Mary is linked to the mystery of the Church because she is completely connected to Christ and His works. She is never to be disassociated from the Church, and care should be taken to never say anything that the Church does not say about her.
2. I advise you to be careful about deviations in language and thought that can only hurt theology. Here, above all else, we need a healthy theology, in particular in relation to apparitions of Mary. Since you have had the distinguished privilege of having many authentic apparitions in your Company, it is important to be careful to avoid any exaggeration or novelties not recognized by the Church.
Note well that Mary is “model and teacher of the spiritual life.” It is important to let yourself be permeated with Mary’s attitudes: availability, purity, humility, listening to the Word, adherence to the will of God, contemplation of the mystery of God made man, yes to the work of God’s Divine Son, prayer and intercession for the Church.
Live intensely the mystery of Mary as well with the three distinguishing supports that I mention again:
• the Immaculate Conception,
• the Annunciation,
• the Visitation.
A deep interior life must be nourished by repeated meditation on these mysteries which, in every way, will lead us toward the mystery of the Trinity:
• to the Father who is the source,
• to the Son who is the principal actor in these mysteries,
• to the Spirit who is the author of them.
3. Insist finally on the exemplary role of “Mary the servant.” She is the perfect model of gift, since she exists only for her Son and for His mission, that is, for all humanity. She teaches us how to give our lives completely for others, our sisters and brothers who are poor, freely and without counting the cost.
Above all she teaches us how to give our life and all that we are for the least of all. The Magnificat is the cry of poor persons… it is especially the hope of poor persons. A Sister worthy of the name must be able to make her own this hymn of thanksgiving and speak it in truth, for having verified it in herself and with others.
It is about joining in the spirit of Psalm 130 that you love most of all! I like to contemplate Mary as servant in recalling how my own mother and her friends served others throughout their entire lives: they were always available and faithful to the task at hand, sparing no efforts, happy to be of service, from sunrise to sunset, always on the alert, teaching me in that way that all of our life is nothing but a long and marvelous Advent in which we prepare for the eternal wedding feast. There is no other feast to better prepare for, and it requires a great deal of the sweat of our brows to make the wine of the New Alliance.
Invariably, Monsieur Vincent leads us to poor persons. Whether we start by his life, his spiritual experience or his personal relationship with the Mother of God, he shows us the principal axis: the service and evangelization of persons who are poor.
Far from being systematized, the “Marian thoughts” of Saint Vincent are nonetheless unified around the essential of our lives: “Christ, Servant and Missionary.”
1. Coste XIIIa, Document 119, p. 478.
2. Coste 1, Letter 147, p. 211.
3. Coste XIIIb, Document 124a, p. 3.
4. Cf. Op. cit., pp. 5, 45, 48-49, 51, 54, 61, etc.
5. Coste X, Conference 107, p. 500.
6. Coste IX, Conference 5, pp. 31-32; Conference 21, p. 175 and Coste X, Conference 107, p. 498.
7. Coste X, Conference 102, p. 454.
8. Op. cit., Conference 88, p. 311.
9. Coste VII, Letter 2611, p. 202.
10. Coste IX, Conference 1, p. 5.
12. Op. cit., Conference 2, p. 14; Coste X, Conference 81, p. 219; Conference 103, p. 461.
13. Coste VII, Letter 2761, p. 437.
14. Coste IX, Conference 13, p. 72.
15. Op. cit., Conference 31, p. 268.
16. Coste X, Conference 70, p. 92.
17. Op. cit., Conference 98, pp. 430-431.
19. Coste XIIIa, Document 16, p. 40.
20. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 125, p. 198.
21. Op. cit., Conference 213, p. 698.
23. Coste VII, Letter 2869, p. 610.
24. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 198, p. 472.
25. Coste IX, Conference 3, p. 18.
26. Op. cit., Conference 26, p. 204.
27. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 213, p. 698.
28. Coste II, Letter 448, p. 64.
29. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 198, p. 472.
30. Coste IX, Conference 26, p. 204.