The Value of Gratitude

From VincentWiki

by: Sister Carmen Urrizburu, DC

[This article first appeared in Vicencianismo y Nuevos Valores, XXXVI Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorail CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, p. 369-400].


I have been invited to offer a reflection on the value of gratitude and will base my thoughts on a letter written by Louise de Marillac. This letter will serve as a vehicle which we will use for our journey that will lead us to a reflection on our own experience of gratitude … which is turn will guide us to certain conclusions that will enable us to grow. We have a place and a space and the time in which we can reflect on and enjoy observing our experience of gratitude. During this time of reflection it would be good if each one of us would decide to look into the depths of our being in order to be able to discover there some facets of our grateful selves. We are going to reflect on this precious value so that our rightful image might be restored. Let us open the doors and the windows of our life in order to discover and accept and rejoice for a while in the company of Louise de Marillac.

A letter of gratitude

The text that will serve as our source of inspiration is a letter of gratitude (SWLM:22-23 [L.14]). In the first place we will take time to familiarize ourselves with this letter: the background, the persons who are involved, its content. Therefore I invite you to go back in time and let us place ourselves in the environment in which this letter was written. We do this in order to understand, as best as we can, what is said in the letter, how it is said and why it is said. Let us do this in parts.

The person to whom the letter is addressed

The letter is addressed to the Abbé de Vaux who was a member of the Lasnier family and was baptized with the name Guido or Guy. When this letter was written he was one of the most distinguished ecclesiastics in Anjou. He lived at his residence and was friendly and educated. He was thirty-seven years old and was committed to living a Christian life and dedicated to serving the pastoral needs of the people in Angers. He wanted to live his priesthood in an authentic manner. He was fervent, committed and also simple yet elegant, a man of good taste and yet a man of great virtue.

His journey in life had followed a winding path. He opted for an ecclesiastical career and aspired to various benefits that would reinforce certain concepts that he had about his own dignity and that would also enable him to obtain money and power. For a long time his only ambition was to satisfy his vanity and his passion for hunting and other worldly amusements. In his search for glory he was appointed on February 29th, 1627 [1] to the Abbey Saint-Etienne de Vaux in Saintonge and the following year he was named vicar-general of Angers, then Canon of Notre-Dame de Paris. But he continued to live a life centered on himself … a narrow vision of life that was focused on avoiding boredom and therefore involvement in frivolity and mediocrity.

One day in 1632 something unexpected happened. Like many other persons he was moved by curiosity to see the strange events that were taking place in the convent of the Ursulines in Loudom. He went there to visit them and asked if he could see and speak with one of the nuns. He was very surprised when one of the Sisters began to speak about his intimate life and referred to certain faults which he had never spoken about to anyone.

This event had a profound influence on him and those who knew him were able to observe him becoming a different person. In the French Church the retreats that Vincent de Paul had organized in Paris, in Saint-Lazare … these retreats became famous. The objective of these retreats was to contribute to the reform of the clergy by helping the priests live a life that was in accord with the gospel. Thus in 1635 the Abbé de Vaux met Vincent de Paul and this relationship grounded his conversion. As a new man he became concerned about more important things and established new relationships. He became friends with Jean-Jacques Olier and with Baron Renty. He also came to know Jeanne-Françoise Frémiot Chantal and helped her establish a convent of the Visitation Sisters in Angers. He also became concerned about the reorganization of the diocesan seminary and encouraged the participation of the priests in the conferences that he had established there in Angers.

When this letter was written Guido Lasnier had just said farewell to a woman whom he greatly esteemed, one with whom he had a spiritual affinity and in this relationship there was a mutual admiration. Because of this friendship he had offered her his house and honored her with an incredible hospitality (CCD:I:599-601,603-604). He had been attentive to her needs and when she departed he expressed his affection with another act of generosity, namely, he lent her his carriage and his driver and footman for the return trip to Paris and he remained committed to help and to sustain and to accompany the Daughters of Charity who had begun to minister to the poor in the Hospital Saint-Jean in the city of Angers.

The place

The sun was about to set when the carriage stopped at the entrance of the inn. The driver stepped down to open the door. The passengers, two women who were accompanied by a footman, would spend the night at this place and continue their journey the following day. One of these women, who responded to the name Jeanne, was concerned with helping a young boy carry the trunk and the other baggage inside. The other woman, attentive and smiling when she was called “Mademoiselle”, signed her name Louise de Marillac [2]. They had left Angers in the morning and had arrived in the small town of Saint-Martin-de-la-Place. The innkeeper accompanied them to their rooms where they could leave their things and offered them something hot to drink in order to warm them from the cold and from the weariness of the long trip. But they had already decided to leave before it got any later and asked if there were any poor sick persons in the town. They went first to the parish church where they prayed before the Blessed Sacrament. They prolonged this time by visiting someone who was ill and only then returned to the inn to eat and rest [3]. The driver and the footman who accompanied them were attending to the horses and the carriage, making sure that everything was ready for their departure the following day. When Louise and Jeanne went to their room, even though they were tired, they prayed for the Sisters who remained behind in Angers. And with the road now behind her reassuring her of the miles that she had traveled, Louise wanted to relax and she began to recall the different sentiments that had accompanied her during this trip. She felt a great kindness and tenderness toward the Sisters and was filled with admiration and kindness toward the individual who had been most helpful to her during her stay in Angers. She felt that in the silence of the night she should allow these sentiments to resound in her interior, sentiments that invaded her as fervent prayers that she raised up calmly and peacefully to the Lord.

The date

The cold winter had taken hold but the time during which the sun appeared was minute by minute shortening the length of the night. Thursday, the 24th of February 1640 was about to come to an end. The two women had arrived in Angers on December 5th of the previous year. Almost three months had passed! They had not planned to stay that long in Angers but the meetings with the Administrators of the hospital and the establishment of relationships and meeting with other distinguished persons in the city … all of this took time. Louise had also become ill during her stay there. At the same time Louise had to draw up a contract and wrote several reports to clarify the manner in which the Daughters of Charity would minister at the hospital. Also during her time in Angers Louise established a Confraternity of Charity. Now she was finally able to travel back to Paris where she was awaited impatiently. Before going to sleep that night she asked Jeanne to help her remove some writing paper from the trunk. Louise then placed some ink on a table, took a sheet a paper, picked up her pen and began to pour out on that sheet of paper her sentiments of gratitude.

The content of the letter

To Monsieur l’Abbé de Vaux at Angers,

From Saint Martin, February 14, 1640


1. Your Charity has once again added to my already heavy debt of gratitude to you by depriving yourself of your footman to furnish this comfort for me. I had thought of thanking you for this and for all the other benefits I have received from you.

2. However, I must avow, Monsieur, that expressions of gratitude for the benefits bestowed on me by persons such as yourself, whom I greatly esteem, seem so beyond the requirements of politeness that I rarely express them. This is what renders me speechless, Monsieur, at a time when I am particularly obliged to give proof of my gratitude to you.

3. Please forgive me, for I am so foolish that I behave the same way with God, whose innumerable gifts to me inspire within me more admiration than thanksgiving.

4. Accept my silence then, Monsieur, because I cannot act otherwise. Allow me to tell you, however, that I have never been more indebted to anyone than I am to you. Thus I remain, Monsieur, your very humble daughter and most obedient servant. (SWLM:22-23 [L.14]).

We are dealing with a thank you letter that was written from the perspective of a relationship of respect, affection and mutual admiration. The letter is composed of one paragraph which contains four sentences. Let us look at how the text expresses the interior dynamic of gratitude in the person who writes this letter.

1] The relationship between the two persons is reflected in the first sentence. One of these persons is Guido Lasnier, Abbé de Vaux; the other person is Louise de Marillac. The attitude of Abbé de Vaux had been one of great generosity. He had been attentive to Louise and touched her with his kind gestures and words. He offered her his house and placed at her service whatever she needed. He had made her feel comfortable and facilitated the matters that had to be done while she was in Angers. All of this was done with a naturalness and a simplicity, with a sense of mutual reciprocity so that Louise realized that Abbé de Vaux was greatly solicitous toward her [4]. The letter does not list all these kind actions but simply identifies them as benefaits, that is, as benefits. We know that when she arrived in Angers with the Daughters of Charity who would remain at the hospital, she stayed in the Abbé de Vaux’s house. It is most probable that she met members of his family since from that time on she maintained an affectionate relationship with his sister [5]. He introduced Louise to the Administrators of the hospital and facilitated her meeting with other individuals (we do not know if she was able to greet the bishop of Angers). He also introduced her to the Visitation Sisters and Louise extended to them Vincent’s greetings. He guided her in all those matters concerning the establishment of the Daughters in the hospital. When she became ill, he provided her with a doctor and medicine and care that enabled her to recover her health. We can suppose that there were many other gestures of kindness that Guido had shown to Louise during her stay in Angers which led her to refer to a heavy debt of gratitude. Yet what had filled Louise with admiration was his gesture of providing her with his carriage and footman for her return to Paris. The footman, being a servant, was a confidant of Guido and, dressed in his distinctive uniform, his primary task was to accompany his master on foot, on horse or in the coach. Louise felt greatly relieved to be able to travel in this manner during the month of February when it was cold and the roads were very muddy. This provided Louise with a certain comfort and gave her the security of knowing that she and Jeanne were well accompanied.

We also see that Louise is attentive to the movements of her heart and listens to her heart, to those interior movements. She feels profoundly touched by the graciousness and kindness of M. Lasnier. When she looks inwardly she discovers that the gestures of this friend have created within her this marvelous feeling of gratitude. Thus, Louise had thought of thanking you for this and … it was as though there appeared in her interior an urgency to express her gratitude … and therefore she allows these words of gratitude to flow from the depths of her heart.

2] In the second sentence of the letter, Louise, the person who is the beneficiary of Abbé de Vaux’s kind behavior, wants to continue to express herself. She reflects and reveals to us the interior movements of her spirit. She enables us to understand the affective expressions of the feeling of gratitude. She says that in this situation, as in many others, she finds it impossible to express herself. It is as though she were paralyzed and speechless. When someone whom she admires and esteems treats her in a friendly and kindly manner, she becomes aware of her own fragility and littleness. This is what renders her speechless and unable to express her sentiments of gratitude. Louise perceives a notable disproportion between the wonderful blessings that she has received and her own ability to give thanks. Even though she felt an interior urgency to say thank you, she is unable to express what she feels. We are able to observe that Louise has a great ability for self-reflection and is able to distinguish her affectivity, that is, her feelings, from gratitude which flows from these feelings and make her courteous and also enriches her affectivity.

3] Louise continues to reveal something about herself in the third sentence of this letter. She understands that she has a great ability to stand in awe and she appreciates the beauty and the goodness that surround her … it is as though she is in a state of ecstasy before all of this. She also states that she is limited in her ability to respond to so many gifts and favors, to so many graces and to so much goodness and generosity. This occurs even in her relationship with God whom she perceives as being involved in her life … she experiences herself as touched and loved and saved by God. Yet before God and his gifts, that is, his grace, Louise stands in awe: God’s innumerable gifts to me inspire within me more admiration than thanksgiving. Therefore in light of the fact that she considers this a lack of consideration for another, which could also be interpreted as discourteous or disrespectful, she feels a need to ask for forgiveness and even refers to herself as acting foolishly.

4] The fourth sentence was written in order to give a name to the uncomfortable situation in which Louise found herself when all of this occurred. As Louise encountered goodness and kindness, these produced in her a certain amazement and awe and therefore silence is her only response. Silence allowed her to come in contact with the movement of her heart and made astonishment and admiration and the acceptance of her smallness … made all of this possible. The confidence that was shared as a result of this friendship made Louise feel that Abbé de Vaux would understand her situation and that he would gladly accept her silence. In this sentence of her letter there is great depth to Louise’s gratitude and it appears that she has never been more indebted to anyone else. We are able to understand Louise’s attraction to this value of gratitude as well as the fact that she is prompted to act in light of these events that had a profound impact on her.

The person who wrote the letter

Louise de Marillac, a woman who was forty-eight year old in August 1639 … she had been a widow for fifteen years and had a son who was twenty-six. She usually lived in Paris in the Marais district (when she was married). After the death of her husband she rented a house in the district of Saint-Victor. Since 1636, however, she lived in La Chapelle, an area near Paris. She did not live alone but formed a Christian community with a small group of Daughters of Charity, servants of the poor. She also motivated noble women (Ladies of Charity) to serve the poor … these women admired Louise’s lifestyle. At the same time she formed simple but joyful country women who wanted to give their life to God by serving God in the poor … thus these women committed themselves to share their goods and time, their talents … all that they had and were … they shared all these with those persons who were poor. They committed themselves to teach all whom they encountered, rich and poor alike … to teach them how to live well. They were not unnoticed in the district where they lived … they were seen traveling through the streets of Paris and along the roads that brought them to the towns and villages around Paris where they attempted to make the Kingdom of God present.

Louise traveled to Angers to complete a project that had been initiated by Madame Goussault [6], recently deceased. This project involved the establishment of a community of the Daughters of Charity to serve the poor at the hospital Saint-Jean. Louise arrived in that city on December 5th, 1639 and was unfamiliar with the city and also was unsure how many Sisters would be needed to provide for the poor. There was a rumor that the people had been afflicted with the plague (CCD:I:591-595) and so there was the danger of contamination. That news, however, did not dissuade her from making this trip, one that she felt impelled to undertake. Indeed, she was motivated by love and by the urgency to serve Christ in the poor and by the joy of being able to proclaim the Good News to them. Therefore upon their arrival the Sisters, with admirable zeal and with great generosity, began to care for the infirm (who were contagious) at the hospital [7].

In Angers, Louise, despite becoming ill on more than one occasion, was involved in a great deal of activity. With great ease she conversed with the Administrators at the hospital and competently dealt with each of the matters relative to the ministry of the Daughters of Charity. She found sufficient energy to engage in this arduous work and was able to overcome the inconveniences that the intense cold created for her. In her letters to Vincent de Paul, Louise shared the various steps that she took and in this way she felt accompanied by him as she made decisions about important matters. This also made her feel valued and supported in her assessments and opinions [8]. She had been able to act with autonomy and had to smile when she read the following words that Vincent had written to her: your prudence will act as it judges best (CCD:I:596). She had also received much guidance and assistance from Abbé de Vaux. By the middle of December she began to understand the needs at the hospital and she was able to provide a preliminary outline of the ministry of the Sisters. She realized that the Sisters who had traveled with her were not sufficient in number to provide for all the needs and she requested Paris to send, as soon as possible, three more Sisters to Angers [9].

On February 1st at the hospital and in the presence of the Administrators and the six Daughters of Charity [10] who were to remain there in order to minister to the poor, the contract was signed and thus the Daughters of Charity were officially established in Angers (CCD:XIIIb:108-114). This would always be remembered as an important event for the Company. Louise signed the contract as Directress of the poor Daughters of Charity, under the authority of the Superior General of the Company of the Priests of the Mission, Director of the above-mentioned young women (CCD:II:2, 11). This act signaled a significant change for “the little Company”. Up until then it had been the Ladies who took the lead in important matters. With the signing of the contract at Angers this new born Company, which little by little had been detaching itself from the Charities with regard to its daily service and internal order, took its first steps as it acted in an autonomous manner in dealing with matters proper to the Institute. Nevertheless, the Daughters would maintain an effective relationship of collaboration with the Confraternity of the Ladies of Charity. In this document it is clear that the Daughters of Charity are quite distinct from the Ladies of Charity.

Still there was something important that had to be done. From the time of her arrival in Angers Louise had maintained contact with some of the distinguished women there. These women had sought out Louise because they wanted to talk with her. They were interested in the new project that the Ladies of Charity in Paris had initiated. Some time ago, when Madame Goussault and some others had visited Angers, the women because aware of this project and were interested in this matter because they wanted to do something similar. Louise, through her words and through the joy that was reflected in her eyes when she spoke to these women, captivated them in a way that they were not even aware of. Promptly and enthusiastically they came together when Louise asked them to engage in a serious work. During the final days of her stay in Angers Louise met with these women to make them aware of their role in the church as well as their role in Angers. She also motivated them to live a more authentic and fervent Christian life, supported them in their commitment of service on behalf of the poor and established the Confraternity of Charity (CCD:II:25-26). During this time Louise shared her life with the women and proposed that they engage in some charitable activity … it was as though Louise’s enthusiasm and faith and convictions and zeal had become contagious.

Louis was able to leave behind in Angers a community of six Daughters of Charity to serve the infirm at the hospital and a Confraternity of the Ladies of Charity who would support the ministry of the Daughters. The Sisters would offer the people the example of living the gospel in a new way, namely, by an unselfish commitment to those men and women who were most poor. Thus Louise joyfully began her journey home to Paris and was satisfied with what had been accomplished. She was pondering the fact that soon she would have to send three more Sisters there and she realized that these additional Sisters would make this new community very large. Furthermore even though she had signed the contract at the hospital, the Administrators were unable to put aside their own insecurity which resulted from the presence of the Sisters. The administrators experienced a certain discomfort and feared that their position in the hospital might be endangered. The contract still needed the signature of the notary public in order to become a public instrument. But Louise did not want to delay any further her departure from Angers [11].

In Paris the Sisters impatiently, yet lovingly, awaited Louise’s return. The letters that she received during those two and a half months expressed such sentiments: Oh! how necessary your presence is here, not only for the Sisters, who are doing well enough, but also for the general affairs of the Charity! (CCD:II:8). Oh! how welcome you shall be and how eagerly you are awaited (CCD:II:25). We are awaiting you with the affection known to Our Lord. You will come just in time for the business concerning the galley-slaves (CCD:II:35).

Among the matters for the Confraternity was that of the abandoned children, some of whom had been cared for by the Daughters of Charity since 1938. On January 12th Vincent de Paul communicated to them that during an assembly, which was attended by the Princesse de Condé (Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency) and the Duchesse d’Aiguillon (Marie de Vignerod de Pontcourlay), the Ladies had decided to take charge of all the abandoned children in Paris. Vincent told Louise: You may well suppose, Mademoiselle, that you were not forgotten at the meeting (CCD:II:8). From the moment that Louise received the letter she doubled the intensity of her prayer and she opened herself to the inspirations of the Spirit. With all her gifts and talents and abilities Louise offered herself to God and as a result was able to organize the women who, in accord with God’s will, cared for the children. Here then we find the secret to Louise’s incredible creativity: her openness to the Spirit, her humility in being willing to serve as an instrument of God’s hands. Louise was asked: where will we put these children? She responded: in our house in La Chapelle and in any other place that we should find.

The question of the galley slaves was another matter that had to be dealt with when she returned to Paris. While Louise was in Angers, Vincent was notified that M. Cornuel, a wealthy financier, had bequeathed an annual sum of 6,000 livres for ministry on behalf of the convicts. Vincent wanted to consult with Louise about the best way to utilize these funds. Louise was excited by this news because perhaps this provided her with a solution that would enable some of the Daughters of Charity to dedicate all their time to the galley slaves … this fund would provide sufficient means to attend to these individuals in the best possible way: She thought to herself: this is one of the most difficult and dangerous ministries that the Daughters are engaged in.

Louise knew that when she arrived in Paris she would see poor people everywhere … that reality created a heaviness in her heart. In the area near her house there was a refugee camp filled with people who had fled from the war torn areas … a long and unjust war that had been carefully planned on a political and diplomatic level. The Sisters had gone out of their way to care for the women, and especially the young women and the children whom they tried to place in the homes of the wealthy. The faces of these refugees reflected their pain and fear, their helplessness and hunger. The Missionaries frequently visited these men and women and provided them with food, with words of comfort and encouragement and sought to draw them closer to God. It was important for these people to feel accepted, accompanied and loved. It was even more important that they discover that God had not abandoned them but cared about them and has a great love for them. How good if a mission were to be preached to these people! Since October Louise and all the members of her house had been thinking of how to help these people (CCD:I:541, note #14 and I:542, note #19).

Louise’s son was also waiting for her. During this time he had been concerned about her and her health and he offered to travel to Angers to look for her or to go to Chartres and wait for her there. It seems that during her absence from Paris her son had done well and Louise thinks that perhaps her concerns of recent months have been resolved. Her son had confronted the dilemma of deciding between theology and law, between the priesthood and a civil career when he finished his studies in the liberal arts … he opted for the priesthood. He entered the seminary of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet and according to Vincent his temperament seems more inclined to that than to the world (CCD:I:548). He was dedicated to his studies but had a relationship with a young libertine, perhaps the Comte de Mauny, who had a negative influence on him and got his mind all confused about the matter, which in turn revived his little aversions for the Saint-Nicholas community (CCD:I:548-549). Vincent spoke with him and sought the assistance of Michel’s uncle, a Carthusian, Hilarion Rebours. Finally Michel presented himself for the prescribed examination for ordination (CCD:I:573, note #2). On more than one occasion Vincent had told Louise: If you were a strong woman, you would lay aside your little distractions and maternal affections and you would strengthen your body and mind at the sight of so many opportunities of doing good (CCD:I:547-548). She had made an effort to do this especially since her concerns with regard to her son had consumed much of her energy and also caused her much suffering. How would she find her son when she arrived?

Louise was a woman who was constantly developing herself. She did not live a conventional lifestyle. Socially she would be considered an upper-middle class woman but there was something special about her that made her attractive to others. Meeting her produced a certain humility and fascination. The noble women sought after her, wanted her to be present during their meetings, asked her for advice and wanted to be able to call her “friend”. At the same time Louise was frequently in the company of simple and poor people who admired her and expressed to her their kindness and gratitude. Just being in her presence and on meeting her for the first time one became aware of the fact that she possessed certain personal qualities that prevented one from classifying her as a member of some specific class of people. Her secret is found in an attitude which became rooted in her personality, an attitude of self-abandonment and trust that allowed her to live her life totally committed to God in order to serve him in those persons who are poor. Through experience Louise came to realize that it is good to trust in God. The center of her life was the search involved in discovering the will of God. Her primary concern was to lay the ground work for an alternative society to that in which she lived, to that which created so much suffering and poverty. She was careful about her interior life and sought to deepen her introspection. She radiated a mixture of goodness and firmness, love and fragility. She gained greater control of herself. Each day she renewed her decision to cultivate those attitudes that would allow her to live those virtues which would make her vocation a path of fullness and wholeness. She decided to be joyful even though this meant that she had to lessen a bit that somewhat serious disposition which nature had bestowed on her and which grace is tempering (CCD:I:492). Yes, Louise was a woman who lived her life from the perspective of the Spirit and grace.

Gratitude: the fruit of a heart that accepts life

A significant experience began to have an impact on Louise. On a certain day, about twelve years before, she wrote the following words in her notebook as she reflected on what she had experienced in her personal prayer: I desired no longer to subsist of myself. After having been continuously sustained by the grace of God, it seemed to me that all that I am is but grace. I implored God to draw these graces to Himself and thus I would be totally His (SWLM:702-703 [A.9]). The ease with which she expressed her gratitude and the fact that her gratitude flowed so simply and freely from the depths of her being were the result of this lived experience.

Louise de Marillac, like each one of us, had been educated in the practice of good manners. From the time that she was a little girl she had learned to express her gratitude for the favors that she received and in a friendly tone said thank you to those persons from whom she had received gifts or praise or who had showed her some kindness. But at this specific time in her existential journey she came to a new understanding of herself and everything that surrounded her. This profound experience marks a “before” and “after” with regard to certain aspects of her personality, especially her attitude of gratitude. We can say that it was at this time that the value of gratitude became firmly rooted in her life. From this time forward she would feel impelled by this fundamental belief, by this firm conviction that would guide her behavior and become the source of satisfaction and wholeness. We can say that this experience, this significant discovery, this new way of understanding … this enabled her to live her life in a more profound manner. She was not only able to give thanks for her education but was able to be grateful. In her everyday behavior she courteously thanked people but not with words that she had learned to say by rote. Now those words which she used to express her gratitude sprang from a grateful heart and were filled with life. The feeling of gratitude was authentic, spontaneous and all-encompassing. Louise felt the desire to give thanks; the value of gratitude, active in her interior, urged her to be grateful for life and to be grateful for everything.

Gratitude and a grateful existence

Intellectually we all know that life, above all else, is a gift and grace ... it is something that we have not decided and therefore life is not the result of our effort or our ingenuity. We are convinced that we have been created and therefore, our creator sustains us and provides for us throughout our life. Yet not everyone holds this conviction as a significant discovery and/or lived experience. When I say “discovery” I mean a finding, an encounter, a revelation of something that was hidden and secret, something that was unknown. Generally, the more important and more beautiful aspects of life are “revealed” to us. There comes a time when the veil, which maintained these things hidden from our awareness, is removed and these things are then revealed to us. Those who are attentive to these movements can then engage in an encounter with these “new realities”. To discover something demands that we have an attitude of curious seeking, an active disposition to accept what happens, the necessary vigilance so that said encounter is an encounter with the truth, an encounter with meaning and with the essence of existence … an encounter with the truth of life as an incarnated existence in its transient and eternal condition. That “something” needs sustained attention.

It is not the same, however, “to know with one’s head” and “to know with one’s heart”. When we intuit something with the heart, all being is affected by what is now known. We take on a new attitude with regard to life; we act in a different way; we relate to life in a different manner as a result of this new discovery. Louise discovered that her life was not dependent on her own efforts and this reality made her ever more grateful. Among the various positions that we can take with regard to life there are two that will not help us to be grateful persons. I take an idea from Martín Velasco [12] that will help us to understand the root of the value of gratitude.

One of these positions is that of the person who desperately insists on not being him/herself. This happens to those persons who live superficially and who live on a level in which they give little importance to self-reflection. These individuals also find it difficult to enter into a relationship with the transcendent reality and with others, including all created being. Such individuals have not come “to know” the richness of their own possibilities, gifts and characteristics … the richness of nature and grace … the richness they they received at the time of creation. They have not “experienced” the tremendous opportunities and gifts that have been presented to them throughout their life. Perhaps these individuals are not in possession of themselves and instead base their lives on external factors. Therefore they are envious of others and want to be like others. Their decisions do not arise from the depth of their being but rather they decide because of factors outside of themselves, for example, the environment that surrounds them, authority, what is politically correct at the moment … they imitate the behavior of others and do not live according to some interior movement. They are always concerned because they compare themselves and find themselves lacking the qualities, the values and the possibilities of others. They admire others and want to be like them and never seem to be able to recognize their own potential. As they live life there is little space to affirm reality as it is, little space to affirm what they have received, little space for gratitude. At the same time, however, there is ample space for comparison, and negative criticism and complaints and pessimism. They feel as though they owe nothing to anyone and because they are always running from themselves they are “unaware” of all that they have received. Those persons who never come to know themselves, who never “discover themselves”, who are unable to rejoice in their blessedness and mystery, who are not thankful when receiving … such individuals will find it difficult to be grateful persons.

Another position is seen in those persons who desperately insist on living by the strength of their own efforts. Even though at some time in their life these individuals have heard it said that they were created by God, that someone has gifted them with life, that someone accompanies them with a continual presence, that their lives are mutually interconnected with others and with the environment that surrounds them, nevertheless, their present life seems to move along paths totally disconnected from this reality. In fact they live rooted in a different conviction: they feel as though their life depends on them and that they are in complete control of themselves and their options. They view others as an obstacle to their plans and in the events of daily life they see the face of misfortune and disaster. Closed up within their small world of conceit and selfishness they view their present situation and plan their future and do so with nothing more than their imagination, their plans and their expectations … with no other support than their own strength of will. They find it difficult to affirm the gifts of life. They feel lonely and overwhelmed by a general sense of fear. They are proud of themselves and their conquests and are unable to discover the free gifts of God, of nature, and of the persons who surround them. Living in this manner perhaps they will never be able to become grateful persons because they feel that everything is owed to them. Therefore, as time passes, they become further convinced that they have nothing and no one to be grateful for … but only themselves.

Louise de Marillac was able to place herself in a different position. She discovered that her existence was something to be grateful for … and this conviction was not the result of an easy life. This conviction was the result of becoming aware of this reality (in the silence of her heart) through the enlightenment of love. As she reflected on her life Louise realized that she had been continuously sustained by the grace of God. She realized that Someone, in a mysterious but real way, freely (though no merits of her own) brought her into existence … Someone, through love and with love, accompanied her every step. This Someone had been at her side throughout all the events of her life, had filled her with mercy and kindness which in turn gave her new energy that enabled her to act with creativity and ingenuity. This new energy filled Louise with a love that knew no limitations, a love that gave strength to her weakness, created new possibilities for her littleness, relieved her weariness and allowed her to overcome all the small and large difficulties. This discovery enabled her to live in a different way and also enabled her to say that it seemed to me that all that I am is but grace. Everything that had occurred, all the experiences that she had lived, all the abilities and qualities and defects that she possessed … all of these seemed to be related to this Someone who desired her well-being, who lovingly provided for her and continuously sustained her. This corresponded to her “image of God” which formed part of her essence and also was in accord with her awareness of being a “beloved daughter” of the Father as well as with her experience of being forgiven and saved. None of the experiences that marked her existence, neither the most pleasant nor the most painful, were unnoticed by the One who had given her life. God, who had created her in love and who had continuously been with her and in her, was committed to seeing her move forward despire the resistances that she encountered in herself, in her family, and in the social and religious situation in which she found herself.

Louise realized that she had to collaborate with God in her search for meaning and in her desire to do good. She could not rely on her own efforts. Slowly she realized that God had always been at her side and had given her strength. In fact, Louise’s very life, all that she was, her personal history, her plan for life, all her being was grace. With all her heart she was grateful and implored God to draw those graces to himself. She viewed herself as one who had received … thus she was a creature. She felt that she was cared for, accompanied, gifted and loved … she felt grateful and therefore she was able to give heartfelt thanks.

Gratitude and a grateful surprise

In order to continue enriching our reflection on the value of gratitude we will turn to G.K. Chesterton and his idea of grateful astonishment. Astonishment supposes a great admiration and is closely related to gratitude. Creation oozes gratitude, a gratitude that produces astonishment and gratefulness in those who rejoice in life. In the depths of those persons who feel thankful there exists a flash or an outburst of surprise at one’s own existence. It is possible for this world to not exist and the fact that it exists in the way that it does is absolutely marvelous. In light of this fact we can accept things gratefully and not as something that is owed to us. Indeed creation is impregnated with gratitude and proceeds from free love, the origin and the source of our life.

There is a fundamental horizon for grateful astonishment and, as we shall see, it is the very fact that we exist with our proper identity. In the time that is given us to live out our life it seems as though we have two eyes that allow us to see that which is outside of ourselves, the exterior, physical and material aspects of those realities beyond ourselves. Yet at the same time we have much difficulty in looking inwardly at ourselves. Nevertheless the inward movement awaits our careful attention in order to reveal to us the great treasure that we are. Freely created in love we are able to be thankful for life which is filled with possibilities. Gifted with the incredible possibility of being in full possession of ourselves we can then be thankful for the power to become what we are, the power to dream about some utopia and the power to be able to rely on grace that will spur us forward toward said utopia. Aware of being part of God’s plan we are able to rejoice and able to be grateful for the freedom that we have received. In the depths of each person there is a mystery, a “spark”, a “divine spark” that constitutes us “as the image of God”; an image that is a gift and a promise of fullness, that continually invites us to transform our “likeness” to God and that allows us to establish an intimate and loving relationship with God that transcends us and fills us with grace. As the image of God we are given an irrevocable dignity and therefore we do not hesitate to accept our weaknesses and short-comings because it is in this manner that we are restored and blessed. Louise de Marillac was able to contemplate her our identity and she rejoiced in said identity and was encouraged by the desire to know God and know herself (SWLM:826 [M.73]) … and in this endeavor she was grateful.

Another horizon is presented to us in the flow of “gifts” and “small miracles” that occur in our daily life. We live in the midst of a “give me” culture. In fact people can be so demanding that they give us the impression of never receiving that which is sufficient and others are always responsible for the fact that things are not going well. At times the eyes with which we look at our surroundings, our personal life, our community, our society, … our eyes distort these realities. We are so surrounded by goods and things and opportunities and persons and warnings and rights … we are accustomed to things as they are and are convinced that this is how things should be … but our judgment has been impaired. In fact we have become so accustomed to these things that it is impossible for us to be astonished and equally impossible to be thankful. But there is a new way to look at things, an interior perspective, a perspective of gratitude that allows us to be thankful for each new day and thankful for everything that the new day brings. The enlightenment of our interior enables us to view our exterior surroundings as they are and we are no longer trapped by the deception of appearances. Louise de Marillac, on the authority of her own existence, tells us today that we should reflect on life and be thankful (Cf. SWLM:826 [M.14]). For Louise the life of every person is marked by situations and events that affect the way in which things are perceived. Some of us are grateful because these events occur according to our desires. Spontaneously we abandon ourselves to the joy of the moment. But if we accustom ourselves to reflect on these events inwardly, we come to understand that Someone, our God, affords us this consolation out of pure love …this results from the fact that we are thankful and able to respond with love. Frequently we find ourselves involved in other situations that are “painful to the senses”, unintelligible at times, hurtful, even absurd. If we find ourselves rooted in superficiality, in mundane realities, in sentimentality then we will react to these situations with rejection and evasion and complaints and protest. The movement inward, however, a movement that is especially sensitive to the inspirations of God, will help us to discover in these events and situations an invitation to growth, a possibility to know ourselves in a more profound manner, an opportunity for personal maturing, a sign that will help us correct our faults. Indeed, these events, when viewed from the perspective of our relationship with God and from the perspective of love, are a special invitation that calls us to understand that God is committed to us in overcoming pain and evil and sin and therefore, through love we can participate in Christ’s sufferings. In either case Louise de Marillac understood that we have to reveal ourselves as grateful individuals. When we are grateful we are able to live with greater integrity which in turn enables us “to be mindful” of all that we have received. Gratitude widens our horizon and gladdens our heart. Everything that happens has a meaning/purpose. Our life is not some form of perfect existence because the presence of evil overshadows and often veils the meaning/purpose of events. Yet we have the ability to contemplate life, to contemplate that which we call good and evil, that which helps us and that which prejudices us, that which makes us rejoice and that which causes us to suffer, that which fosters our well-being and that which leads to death … we can abandon ourselves to the loving embrace of the One who has opted for our existence, an existence of love and joy and freedom. In light of all of this our response is one of grateful astonishment.

The people who surround us are part of another horizon of gratitude. We tend to be selective. Many times we can be thankful for the occasional favor from a stranger while at the same time we do not give any importance to the countless expressions of kindness that we receive day in and day out from those with whom we live and from so many other individuals whose work and skill and creativity and resourcefulness provide us incredible benefits. We so often view these services as normal and we assume that they do not require our gratitude. Perhaps we feel that we are entitled to these services but this presumption robs daily life of its happiness. Our narcissism leads us to distinguish among those persons to whom we should express our gratitude … first, there are friends, then others whom we love and still others who remain in the circle of insignificance and these individuals never receive an expression of gratitude. Yet the mere fact that these individuals exist is sufficient motive for gratitude. If we were to be attentive to all the good that is part of our life and therefore if we were to realize the countless number of people who were needed in order to make this good possible … this awareness would create in us an attitude of grateful astonishment and at the same time we would be filled with joy. Even though many of these events occur at a distance that might be far removed from us, we, nevertheless, have many opportunities to express our grateful astonishment. As we express our gratitude from the depths of our being and as we do this as a result of our awareness of all the things that have been freely bestowed on us, we in turn foster a positive attitude and increase our joy and kindness and, finally, we leave footprints of kindness and goodness in the world.

Gratitude and its constellation of values, virtues, feelings and attitudes

There is a saying in Spanish that it is only right and proper to be grateful. As we reflect on the process of human and spiritual development and as we also reflect on the concept of fidelity to one’s vocation in life we can say that gratitude gives nobility and purpose to those individuals who are thankful. As the value of gratitude becomes more rooted in individuals, the doors to a fuller, richer and more abundant life are opened. Where there is gratitude one will find many other values and virtues and attitudes that enrich men and women and lead them to a greater degree of maturity and also foster their proper dignity.

Grateful people love life, rejoice in the fact of being alive, accept life as a grace and enjoy life as a gift. They have a good relationship with reality and view reality as a friend. They know how to enjoy the present moment and do not demand more. They accept those things that are most difficult and lovingly embrace painful events.

Grateful people are enthusiastic about the gift of their vocation. They are humbled by the invitation to serve Christ in the person of the poor and they show their gratitude for this invitation by their wholehearted commitment, love and kindness. They are enriched as a result of their personal encounter with those persons who are poor and they consider these encounters as a gift; they spare no effort and feel as though they are filled with joy.

Grateful people are humble and they know that they live by grace and that the source and foundation of all of this is not found in themselves but rather they recognize that they need others in order to subsist. They are not conceited because they understand that even though they place all their energy into their undertakings that which they need in order to live they receive from the One who is Other and from others.

Grateful people are friendly and cordial. When gratitude finds a place in their heart it becomes impossible for these individuals to not express their thanks to everyone and to do so with a friendly gesture. A smile is clearly their companion on their journey through life.

Grateful people are generous. When they feel grateful they discover their impulse to express their gratitude. To the degree that surprise and admiration are greater, their generosity increases because they cannot easily find a way to respond to the goodness they have received.

Grateful people live in solidarity with others and are not satisfied with rejoicing alone in the gifts that the Spirit has bestowed on people throughout the world. They contemplate the earth as a gift of God, the creator, who in turn has given them the earth to make it produce fruit and to share it with all other people,

Grateful people are happy and rejoice in who they are and in what they have. Someone has said that the joy that is awakened in our heart as a result of the blessings that we receive is called gratitude. To receive something without having merited such a gift is beyond our comprehension and provokes happiness.

Grateful people rejoice in friendship, rejoice in the give and take of friendship and in sharing the joy of gratitude. They rejoice in thinking about others in order to provide for their welfare, knowing that others are thinking about and concerned for them … all of this is the origin of good and fruitful friendships.

Grateful people are confident. Gratitude has shown these individuals the path of confidence as they discover goodness in their surroundings and become aware of the fact that they will not be found lacking in anything that they need.

Grateful people are creative. They easily enter into productive situations and little by little they allow the life that God has given them to transform themselves and their surroundings.

Grateful people are bold because they know that when they engage in some act to promote life, in some action that is in accord with God’s plan for the world, they will never lack what is needed to move forward.

Grateful people are able to find beauty and harmony in their surroundings. They sing in their heart a song to life giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father (Ephesians 5:20).

To live as grateful people

The value of gratitude is educational. To grow in gratitude is a question of practice or, as Louise de Marillac liked to say, it is a question of entering into the practice of gratitude. Therefore, if we want to be grateful, we have to live in a state of thankfulness.

It is good to live in this state of thankfulness. Gratitude can provide us with a lifestyle that is poor, joyful, vital, simple, humble, and communal … one that allows us to live in solidarity with others and also allows us to live on a daily basis with an attitude of admiration that produces thankfulness [13].

To live in a state of thankfulness is more than saying thank you when someone acts kindly toward us. It means that we foster and develop an attentive and positive perspective toward everything that exists. It means that we awaken within ourselves the perspective of God with regard to life, the perspective that enables us “to see” everything around us and enables us “to say” that everything is good (cf. Genesis 1:31).

To live in a state of thankfulness is to reflect on oneself and accept oneself as a free gift of God and thus fearlessly we are able to collaborate with God in fulfilling the plan that God has established for us [14].

To live in a state of thankfulness is to be at ease as one expresses praise and blessing. It means that we develop a positive appreciation of people and things and events [15].

To live in a state of thankfulness is to walk through life with the certainty of knowing that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).


[1] Translator’s Note: This date is impossible since the 29th of February implies a leap year and 1627 was not a leap year.

[2] Louise accompanied the Sisters who would remain in Angers ministering to the infirm in the hospital. She was also accompanied by Jeanne Lepeintre who would accompany her on the return trip to Paris (CCD:596, note 5).

[3] This was a custom of Louise de Marillac and the first Daughters of Charity, namely, during their travels they would visit the parish churchwhen they arrived at a given town and they would also visit those who were ill (SWLM:172 [L.159]).

[4] This is an expression that Vincent de Paul utilized when he thanked Guy Lasnier de Vaux for his kindness toward Louise, CCD:I:604.

[5] Madame de la Bruneti?re-Gesté, sister of Monsieur l’abbé de Vaux … amiable relations existed between the de Marillac and de Plessis families: the wife of Michel de Marillac (Barbe de la Forterie) was a native of Le Maine; cf. SWLM:38 [L.107, footnote #2].

[6] 1n 1613 Genevieve Fayet had married Antoine Goussault, Seigneur de Souvigny, Councillor of the King and President of the Chambre des Comptes of Paris. Five children were born of the marriage. Widowed in 1631, she dedicated herself untiringly to works of charity. She was the first to have the idea of an association of ladies for the relief of the sick at the Hôtel-Dieu and was the first superioress of the group. It was thanks to her that the Daughters of Charity were called to the Hospital of Angers. She died on September 20th, 1639, in the exercise of charity. See also, Benito Martínez, Empeñada en un paraíso para los pobres, Editorial CEME, Salamanca, 1985, p. 114. CCD:I:469.

[7] Benito Martínez, op.cit., p. 114; CCD:IX:34-35.

[8] CCD:I:500-601, II:1-3,8-16,23-27.

[9] We cannot be certain about the number or the names of the Sisters who went to Angers. It is most probable that Louise brought with her: Élisabeth Martin, Cécile Angiboust, and Marguerite François (who probably died from the plague). The day before the vigil of the Nativity the following Sisters left Paris and traveled to Angers: Élisabeth Turgis, Clémencia Ferre and Barbe Toussaint. Then in March 1640 the following Sisters were sent to Angers: Madeleine Mongert, Genevi?ve Caillou and Marie-Marthe Trumeau. See also, CCD:I:602-603; II:12-14.

[10] The following Daughters of Charity were present on February 1st: Élisabeth Martin, DC, Cécile Angiboust, DC, Élisabeth Turgis, DC, Clémencia Ferré, DC, Barbe Toussaint, DC. In the contract we find the statement that there were eight Daughters of Charity in the community of Angers when this document became a public instrument on March 18, 1641.

[11] A year would pass before Louise received the signed documents. See also SWLM:27 [L.19]; SWLM:35 [L.103]; SWLM:37 [L.106]; SWLM:39 [L.108]. See also La Compañia de las Hijas de la Caridad en sus orígenes. Documentos, Editorial CEME, 2003, D.280 and D.327.

[12] Martín Velasco, J., La Experiencia Cristiana de Dios, Editorial Trota, Madrid, 1995, pp. 39-40. Here the author does not speak about gratitude but refers to unbelief … he does, however, illustrate the point of this reflection.

[13] Matthew 6:19-34. Perhaps the whole text could be summarized with this last verse: Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.

[14] Cf., Psalm 22 and Psalm 118:6-7: The Lord is with me; I am not afraid; what can mortals do against me? The Lord is with me as my helper; I shall look in triumph on my foes.

[15] There are various texts that invite us to live in this way. Numbers 6:23-26: This is how you will bless the Israelites. Say to them: The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace! 1 Peter 3:8-9: Finally, all of you, be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble. Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing.

Translated by: Charles T. Plock, CM