Saint Louise, Formator

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by: Gregorio Ado Tellechea, CM

(This article first appeared in Anales, Volume 119, Number 3, May-June 2011 and is posted here and has been translated with the permission of the editors of anales).

Education, yesterday and today

The first Sisters learned much from Saint Louise but they did not exhaust this well-spring of knowledge because today we can still learn from her. Saint Vincent said that it was not enough for us to see an apple on a tree but rather we should desire to savor it: For example, I see an apple on the tree, and even though I see it very clearly and find it very beautiful, I’m not holding it for all that, I’m not enjoying it, I don’t have it in my possession (CCD:IX:176). With the exception of the first communities of the Daughters of Charity, the apple on the tree has not even been seen until the twentieth century. Before that all our attention was focused on the tree of Saint Vincent and yet we know that the first Sisters saw Saint Louise’s presence as a great value. Yes, serious individuals were influenced by the same tendency and thus blinded to Louise’s role and influence. Yet there is no logic to the fact that the person who was most influential in giving birth and direction to the Company should have been relegated to the background.

Among the many characteristics that we could highlight with regard to Louise de Marillac, I am drawn to her ability to responsibly carry out the tasks that were entrusted to her. It would be advantageous to turn our eyes toward our origins because it is there that we can find an explanation for the customs and attitudes that have been passed on to us. But even more important is the light that all of this can provide us with as we continue to plan for the future … a task which, either consciously or unconsciously, we are always engaged in. I personally believe that we do plan for the future because I have never known the Company to approach planning with an attitude of “the future will take care of itself”. Quite the contrary, all of us are preparing for the future with all the mistakes and successes proper to our human condition. Something else that should be highlighted is the fact that we plan, in continuity or discontinuity, with our origins and with the demands of the present and the future moment.

The education that was given to us attempted to be complete and final. Thus with that formation we were expected to develop ourselves during the time of our existence here on earth (which in previous eras was shorter than at the present time). Since there were not many books nor were there many available resources, we were taught to develop our memory. For a long time there was the idea that it was important to provide one with a basic and general formation so that at some later time this could serve as a foundation for a more specialized formation. During the 1970’s electives were introduced into the educational curriculum and today they are seen as a normal part of even the first phase of education on the secondary level (grades 7-8-9). The greatest difference, however, is seen in the style of present day education, namely, in the fact that it is seen as provisional. In other words, this is not an education that is provided and accomplished once for all time but rather the person is formed and made aware of a series of abilities that remain open to further development. We could stay that students are formed with an intellectual constitution that can be adapted to many various situations in the future. In this way these students are able to further develop the abilities and skills that will be demanded of them in the ever changing situations of a society that moves at dizzying speeds. With this approach to education the focus has shifted from the amount of knowledge that one has now acquired to the ability that one has to acquire further knowledge in the future. As a result people are challenged to continue to learn throughout their life and challenged again to adapt themselves to new circumstances and realities. In the western world we live in the midst of continual change. Usually, these changes are not brusque yet in the past twelve years our reality has changed completely. Those who maintain the financial records of the community and its apostolic works are well aware of the changes that have occurred during the past ten years … and we see even more changes approaching. And even those these changes might appear to be final we know that there will never be an end to the changes.

Saint Louise has been presented to us as a committed woman, a woman of the Church, a spiritual woman, a theologian, etc. We cannot forget, however, that all during her life as a Daughter of Charity she was a formator. She was most passionate about this task and also had outstanding natural abilities in this area. In order to understand Louise’s contributions to formation and her approach to this profound and delicate task, we must apply some method to our study. We might ask if her formation was meant to be complete and final or on-going. It is also interesting to inquire about the scope of the formation that she provided, that is, was it global or was there emphasis on specific aspects, such as religious formation? I hope that as we come to understand Louise’s style of formation we will be encouraged to imitate her, not so much to act like her but rather to be inspired by her so that we can act in the way that our society requires.

Louise’s Formation

In the biographies about Louise little attention is given to the first forty years of her life. This was due in part to a lack of documentation. At the same time this was also due to the fact that for certain people the first part of Louise’s life did not appear to be very exemplary and did not appear to conform to the customs and habits of her era. Today, however, many of the prejudices of the past have been dismantled and we are in a better position to reflect on Louise’s origins and her childhood and youth. We could even say that her home environment was very modern. Her family situation, which at that time was viewed as being outside the established norms of the ancient regime, today would perhaps be seen as even conservative since family life has become very diversified in its forms. In fact today we find it difficult to define the “normal” family structure which at this time appears to be more flexible than in previous eras.

Louise was born and educated in a family structure that was somewhat deficient for that time. Even though many have said the contrary yet it is true that everything does not have to be view as something that is difficult. In the first biographies there was little information about Louise’s infancy and childhood … it was as if she had not existed. Then in the 1970’s people began to speak about the early years of Louise’s life with much greater ease. In those years not only was her illegitimate birth revealed but authors attempted to identify specific feelings related to the experiences of those early years of her life but did so without providing a basis for their conclusions. The Privacy of Information Act protects the personal information of individuals as property that belongs to them. Therefore personal information should be guarded with the same care that we would give to money that was loaned to us. The law, however, does not include historical information because we can learn something from history. As a result we have to admit that there are some authors who have gone to an extreme when referring to Louise’s feelings of loneliness and abandonment during her infancy and childhood. It is true that in her writing she spoke about her experience of the way of the cross during an important part of her life. We could even add that she, like us, experienced the cross during the greater part of her life. Yet such an affirmation should not lead one to draw specific conclusions about Louise’s or our life. In fact, to attempt such conclusions would expose one to the possibility of serious error.

The previous commentary was necessary because if we begin with a negative vision of Louise’s childhood we will have to conclude that her formation was necessarily deficient. The information that we have with regard to Louise’s life leads us to conclude that she had a solid literary, religious and artistic formation. We all know and have had sufficient experience to affirm that in order to obtain a good intellectual formation one needs an environment in which basic needs are provided. If one is hungry or tired or in a situation where other basic needs are not satisfied, it becomes difficult to engage in intellectual pursuits. Judging from the fruits that were obtained we could conclude that Louise was in a good and favorable situation. Some experts in education state that the best students come from the middle class and that those individuals from the upper class have too many resources that they can utilize in satisfying their needs. As we have already mentioned, individuals from the lower class often have problems that prevent them from dedicating time to any matters that are not of immediate necessity. In the case of Louise de Marillac, we can conclude that she was provided with the circumstances that enabled her to receive a good education. We know that she never belonged to the upper class but she also did not lack those resources that enabled her to pursue an excellent formation.

Since we know more about the adult years of Louise we have to begin there in order to know something about the initial years of her life. With the information that we have, we are able to appreciate her courage which enabled her to confront so many different situations. I do not know if any of us can recall some moment in which fear prevented Louise from acting. We certainly know that she experienced doubts and depression, for example, when she returned from visiting the Confraternities in 1632. I would be inclined to think, however, that Louise tended to make well thought out decisions that ultimately enhanced her on-going development. In this regard she would be considered admirable. If we retrace this behavior to her infancy we see that she was very clear about the decisions regarding her education. Even though teachers are important in the educational process, nevertheless the students are primarily responsible for their education. At the monastery in Poissy Louise met magnificent teachers and it is possible that some members of her family helped her in some special manner, but it can be supposed that she was the primary protagonist of her education. It can also be supposed that a series of events coincided, events that were personal as well as environmental and these events led to the results that we are able to see and which we now value. Vincent himself wrote some phrases in Latin to Louise because he knew that she understood this language, for example, mulierem fortem quis inveniet? (who shall find a valiant woman?).

Perhaps in the years of her early adulthood we can see some pronounced signs of instability. It was at that time that Louise had to confront some complex and complicated situations: marriage, establishment of a family, becoming a widow, religious consecration. Despite the many difficulties she was able to rise above the different situations. In this she was certainly influenced by the good formation that she had received and the formation that she was able to maintain throughout this period, something that she would continue to do for the rest of her life. Even during those days that we might consider to be the most unstable period of her life, Louise was able to rely on the relationships that she had established with the great spiritual masters of that era … we could even say here that she had established relationships with the great spiritual masters of the world since the glorious era of the Spaniards was then in decline. If it were not for this attitude of searching she would not have known Vincent. Vincent did not seek out Louise, but rather he met her because she had been engaged in a tireless search. Her first reaction upon meeting Vincent was to reject him, but here we come to see another of Louise’s qualities. Despite her initial prejudice toward Vincent, she did not feel that her search was completed. At that level it is difficult to define the limits of human merit and divine grace. Just as the best elements came together in the monastery at Poissy to provide Louise with a solid formation, so too later in her life the necessary conditions were created so that the formation that she had received could now produce the best results. If Louise had not had a broad intellectual understanding of reality she might have thought that she could not continue to grow outside the walls of the monastery. She had been formed in the monastery and in her youth she felt that she was being called to become a member of the Capuchin community and it was in this environment that she imagined herself developing. The establishment of the Daughters of Charity appeared to be an ironic event because the young women who joined Louise would not live in monasteries, nor would they have walls or the cloister. Louise had to begin to learn anew ... in fact everything would be new in her life except her unshakeable faith and her admirable willingness to learn something new day after day.

Louise had provided a valuable service when she tended to the needs that arose in the midst of the Confraternities. In the beginning her help consisted of material assistance, that is, financial contributions as well as providing fabric for sewing and tailoring. The Vincentian approach was visible even in those early years … a deliberate approach in carrying out the different activities but an approach that did not look backwards. Thus just as the apostles were formed in following Jesus Christ, so also Louise began to learn the Vincentian way. In the beginning there was just alms and some different works … there was no other plan until Providence indicated something different. Then, when the will of God was revealed one had to give everything … including oneself. The poor were not satisfied with just charitable works and so these charitable activities became an opportunity for total commitment.

If the preparation of the Apostles continued for four years, then Louise’s preparation was one year longer. Vincent became Louise’s spiritual director in 1625 and on May 6, 1629 he sent her forth on the apostolic mission of animating the Confraternities of Charity. The task that Vincent entrusted to her was that of coordinating and encouraging the Confraternities. Louise was still very impetuous in her activity, so much so that Vincent continually recommended that she approach her work with greater calmness. In this first phase of collaboration with the Confraternities as well as during the years when she dedicated all her time to this mission, she took on the attitude of one who was learning. She was a woman who was almost forty years old and she was learning. We are especially interested in this attitude of Louise, an attitude that is very characteristic of the style of our Founders, and yet it is a characteristic that easily goes unnoticed.

Louise revealed her creativity while she was learning how to establish and animate the Confraternities. We could even say that she was overly creative. Vincent did not reproach her but rather praised her as she made specific decisions. She not only fulfilled the task that was entrusted to her but in reality exceeded all of Vincent’s expectations when he sent her forth on mission. It could be said that the formation of young girls in the towns and villages where the Confraternities were present was a unique contribution to the ministry that must surely be accredited to Louise. In all the places where she traveled she was concerned about the formation of the young girls. It should be remembered that at that time even many young boys never received an education. Louise was so dedicated to that task that at some given moment her zeal got the better of her. Vincent was understanding and counseled her: It is very difficult, Mademoiselle, to do any good without conflict. And because we must relieve other people's distress as far as it is in our power, I think that you would be performing an action agreeable to God by visiting the Pastor and apologizing for having spoken without his knowledge to the sisters of the Charity and the girls. Tell him that you thought you could act in Villepreux just as you did in Saint-Cloud and elsewhere (CCD:I:75).

There is no doubt that her involvement in the education of the young girls was most impressive. This ministry has been continued to the present time and it should be noted that the Daughters of Charity have dedicated themselves to this task in almost all the places where they are missioned … they have cared for the children, the boys and girls, of these areas. Louise herself was wholly dedicated and very creative in carrying out this ministry. Twenty years later, in the council meeting of October 30th, 1647, she defended a co-educational approach until the children were eight years old. It was Vincent who opposed this approach because he felt this was contrary to civil law and believed the Daughters of Charity ought to be the first ones to abide by the law. Most probably there were other reasons for being opposed to this approach.

During those four years when Louise dedicated her time to supporting the Confraternities, there was an on-going exchange of letters between Vincent and herself. We have at our disposal what amounts to about two letters per month or twenty letters a year. We can easily imagine that a letter was written each week as Vincent and Louise received each other’s letters and then responded. On several occasions Vincent showed a disproportionate interest in receiving first hand news about all that Louise was doing. This is an interesting detail. The beginning of the Confraternities in Chatillon was not begun as the result of something that Vincent had direct knowledge about. Rather, others communicated this information to him. Once he had been given this information he was a master in organizing and then resolving the problem. It might appear that he was not concerned about certain problems and it might even appear that he was indifferent to some situations. Yet he spoke quite naturally when referring to the removal of the bodies of there persons who died from the plague in a house near to that of Louise. The fact that he was given information caused him to become concerned … perhaps because he felt that he was able to resolve the problem once he became aware of it. In this sense we can understand that he was not concerned about the problems that might arise in the midst of the Confraternities. Yet once he received information about a problem he felt he was able to resolve the situation. Thus we see that he wrote Rules for the distinct groups and these were adapted to the individual parishes where the Confraternity was established.

The establishment of the Confraternities in Paris involved an added difficulty, one perhaps that was unexpected, yet one that both Vincent and Louise had to deal with from their different perspectives. Vincent had firsthand knowledge about the rural areas. When Louise proposed some solution to a specific problem, Vincent routinely dissuaded her, helping her to understand that if people had to pay for services that were provided, no one would be willing to freely offer those services at a later time … thus the work of the Confraternities would come to an end. In this regard Vincent felt very confident in his advice. But when considering the establishment of the Confraternities in Paris, it was Louise who had more knowledge about the thinking and the behavior of the women and it was Vincent who did not understand the lifestyle or the mentality of the Parisian women. He used the French word salmigondis to express their fondness for wanting something special with regard to their own group and not wanting to have contact with other groups (CCD:I:95). It seems that Louise had learned well from her varied experiences with the different groups and was in a position to support the establishment of the Confraternities in Paris. She began in her own parish, Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet and this was followed by the establishment of the Confraternities in many other parishes.

Sister and model among the Daughters of Charity

We can allow ourself to be led along by force of habit and thus continue to view the Daughters of Charity as a prolongation of the Ladies of Charity. We could even think that Louise repeated with the Sisters the experience that she had acquired when animating the Confraternities. Yet very soon we would become aware of the fact that we are speaking about very distinct realities. The new task that Vincent entrusted to Louise appears to be more delicate than the first one. With the Confraternities Louise participated in their meetings and resolved problems that naturally arose. Now, however, with regard to the formation of women who desired to become members of the Daughters of Charity, she was dealing directly with the life of a group of young women. From the beginning Louise understood that this was a delicate commitment. She certainly spoke with her director about the difficulties that she encountered. Even though we do not know Vincent’s response we are able to imagine his words in light of his conversation with another formator who felt incapable of accomplishing such a task. Vincent stated: Sister, on your own, you could never do it; you have neither the ability nor the insight, but Our Lord Jesus Christ will act in you; He Himself will be your ability and your insight. Make yourself a good, prayerful Sister, and Our Lord will teach you everything you'll have to know (CCD:XIIIb:302). Louise was present during this conversation and could probably recognize those words as having been spoken to her at some earlier time.

From the account that we have just referred to it can be seen that the formation that Louise provided was primarily spiritual formation. This was Vincent’s expressed desire and he cautioned Louise to be careful about speaking at length with these women not because of their inability to listen but because of Louise’s own physical condition. Vincent committed himself to support Louise’s work, but he was not the primary formator. Rather his task consisted of supporting the work of the superior of that “unique” Confraternity of Charity.

We ought to consider that situation as something unique or original because there are no precedents or examples which would help us understand all of this. We are dealing with an Association that was completely new, an Association in which people who had never been formed, were now to be provided with an extensive formation. According to the customs of that era, young women of means entered a convent or monastery and there they became involved in a process of formation which was often referred to as the novitiate. Those women who did not have the financial resources were admitted as lay Sisters and they engaged in lower forms of service and therefore did not need any formation. It was sufficient that those women were good individuals. Thus there arose the situation in which the position of some servant in a monastery became vacant and the Prioress offered this position to a Daughter of Charity. Louise had to explain to the Prioress that just as she (the Prioress) and the other Sisters at the monastery viewed their vocation as one of prayer, so the Daughters of Charity understood their vocation to be that of serving the poor. Thus formation became the primary ministry of Louise and yet there were no examples or books or other resources to guide her in this ministry. Rather Louise had to rely on her own resources.

Before even beginning the task of formation one could easily be discouraged because it appeared that the foundation for such a formation was lacking. Nevertheless, Louise dedicated herself to this task in the same way that she had committed herself to the education of the young girls in the different town and villages and was able to obtain fruits that no one had hoped for or imagined. The formation that she provided was primarily spiritual and was focused on the importance of serving the poor, the virtues that was expected of every good Christian, and the behavior that was to guide their relationships with the other Sisters as well as with the women whom they would serve. Louise dealt with all these matters and included lessons and advice with regard to the lifestyle that they were expected to live in the house. Said formation was done with the most rudimentary means. The Sisters struggled in the beginning to understand Vincent’s conferences and so on the advice of Louise another method was employed, one that was better adapted to the Sisters … the method of dialogue (question and answer) which enabled Vincent to speak on the level of the Sisters who were in front of him.

Together with the spiritual and Christian formation, Louise also had to give them a basic human formation. Their ministry and their interactions with the people demanded this. In the beginning the Sisters were rejected in the Hotel-Dieu of Paris because their service was deemed to be qualitatively inferior. Very soon, however, their presence was requested because it was seen that the Sisters served the sick poor and the women in the best possible manner. Their formation was intended not only to assist them in dealing with people outside the Company but a good education and good manners were most important in order to foster good relationships among the Sisters since it was never imagined that a Sister would live alone but that there would always be a minimum of two Sisters accompanying one another. Without a disciplined and mortified human formation, which the Founders insisted upon, the first formation would never have been surpassed, a level in which one Sister would strike another and speak in the brusque language of the peasants. After this initial effort there was still much work that had to be done. In fact the more delicate work of Louise was done during a second phase in which she focused on the proper characteristics of a good Daughter of Charity. From what we know of the activity of the Daughters in the different places where they were sent, we are able to see that the Sisters received a good formation. In dealing with the Sisters Louise had to refine her methodology and rise above her own proper inclinations. She made a decision to establish a close relationship with the individual Sister who appeared to be most rude or who appeared to be more difficult to deal with. Thus later on when some problem would arise in the community Louise was able to calmly and prudently offer not just theoretical advice but also practical suggestions. She had stated that in spiritual matters one must have more patience than in the other areas of life since it is clear that we cannot begin to dismiss and send home all those women who displease us.

No small number of women were formed and on different occasions more than thirty Sisters were in formation at the same time. In addition to the personal effort that was needed to accomplish this task, there was a need for numerous financial resources. It seems that throughout the years formation never had to be curtailed because of a lack of these resources. On the one hand, the Sisters received income from some land that was owned by the King of France and the King of Navarra. The Sisters were also able to rely on income from a stagecoach line that traveled between Paris and Rouen. At the same time the Ladies of Charity offered contributions. Vincent himself said that he knew of no Congregation of religious women in Paris who enjoyed such a sound financial situation as the Daughters of Charity. The Sisters did not have to sell their possessions in order to maintain the convent and in fact they were able to build a house on a piece of property that consisted of more than two hectares … and were able to do this without incurring any debt. It is true that the formation program was partly the result of good administration and the fact that resources were available that provided for the maintenance of the Sisters during the different phases of formation. Vincent had told Louise that if the young women needed training to become good teachers then they should be sent to the Ursuline Sisters who had a convent in Paris. The Daughters learned how to prepare medications, the process of blood-letting and other techniques that were necessary in order to care for the sick poor. In all these matters, however, an austere lifestyle was observed because all their possessions were viewed as the patrimony of the poor.

As a formator Louise taught much more through the example of her life than through her words. In fact it was Louise’s example that was appreciated and valued by the Sisters. This fact, however, involved a great effort on the part of Louise. Louise herself said that there were days when it was difficult to just smile and so on those days she would participate in recreation with the sisters and laugh more heartily than on other days. She wanted to live with and be one more Daughter of Charity who provided a living witness through her daily activity. Her pains and aches, however, did not allow this to happen. She attempted to dress like the Daughters of Charity but soon she had to return to her former way of dressing because her body could not adapt to this new style. At the same time Louise had difficult rising in the morning with the other Sisters and at other times she was on verge of becoming ill as a result of eating certain foods. In these areas she allowed herself to be formed and guided by her director who advised her to rest and to walk … both of which were seen as good medicine. On different occasions both she and Vincent took advantage of the opportunity to visit one of the Confraternities or a rural parish in order to breathe some fresh air and rest.

Louise left no financial debt to her successors but she did leave them with a responsibility toward all the Daughters, a responsibility to be their formator.

Conclusion • The importance of a basic academic formation, especially during the early years of one’s life. No one should be deprived of this formation because of financial, social or religious reasons. • Formation should always be provided because there might be some areas where this was lacking or might have been totally lacking during the time of one’s infancy and youth. This was in fact the situation of many of the first Daughters who lacked the most elementary formation. • Religious and spiritual formation is most important. If a person is lacking formation in this area, it will be obvious in all the other areas of one’s life. Some of the Sisters who had a basic academic formation and on-going religious formation were able to achieve high levels of intellectual development as well as able to develop good interpersonal relationships. • The Founders were always concerned about providing a basic academic formation to all those who would serve the poor. This became more important for those persons who would dedicate themselves more intensely to this ministry. • One must always be in a state of learning those activities that are necessary for one’s ministry, even though one might think that she/he is not prepared for said ministry. As one becomes more involved in ministry, one opens oneself to further knowledge. As said by many good educators: the problem is not with people who do not know but rather with people who do not want to know. • As the formator of the Daughters of Charity, Louise stands out as an individual who taught more through the example of her life than through her words, who taught through her patience, through her ability to correct individual Sisters and through her discretion in dealing with all those who became a part of her life.

Translated by Charles T. Plock, CM