Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 21
His Even Disposition
An even disposition is one of the surest marks, or better, one of the excellent fruits of mortification. Through mortification, a person acquires a mastery not only over exterior deportment but also over the interior movements of the soul. No matter what happens outside him, or what he feels within, nothing is able to disturb the person with this virtue. In the superior part of his soul he enjoys peace, and remains always in a quiet possession of himself. Whatever occurs, whether it be important business, or something someone might do or say, proves powerless to disturb his equanimity. The same serenity appears in his countenance, the same reserve in his actions and words, and no change occurs in the voice except in its tone. His heart, undisturbed in its peace, maintains the whole of his interior in a constant uniformity that is reflected in the exterior as well.
This small sketch, imperfect as it is, shows the state to which Monsieur Vincent had arrived, or rather to which he had been raised by the practice of all the virtues we have spoken of in the preceding chapters, especially mortification. This virtue seems to have won him a perfect control over all his passions. They seemed to have no influence over him, since his disposition remained ever the same. This was shown even in his face and in all his mannerisms.
The constancy and equanimity of spirit of Monsieur Vincent was remarkable, first in his style of life, always humble and marked by piety and charity. It was without episodes of youthful indiscretions, or laxity in the practice of virtue, even in the frailty of old age. He kept to this path in spiritual affairs, and he walked in the path of perfection in the footsteps of our Lord. He urged his confreres to remain faithful to the practice of the maxims of the Gospel and to the rules of their state in life. He himself was an outstanding exemplar of this in all places and at all times, in tribulations and in consolations, in health and in sickness, in great cold and in oppressive heat. He regarded everything as being the same in the sight of God. The same could be said of everything else he encountered in his life.
It was often remarked of him that, no matter how important and pressing the affairs he might be considering, when someone would interrupt him to speak with him, he would listen and respond with complete attention and a tranquil spirit. It seemed as though he had nothing else on his mind at the time. This, surely, was a mark of the calm with which his soul was possessed. This appeared also in the way in which he persevered in the various enterprises he took up, in service to the poor, the instruction of the people, or the reform of the clerical state. He never turned back from what he had begun. He never left off one project to begin another. Of all the works he undertook, he left none of them before the appropriate moment. Rather, he sustained and supported them to the end with an evenness of disposition and a marvelous constancy. He did so despite contradictions, reverses, and persecution, which seemed to have the result of steeling his courage rather than weakening his resolution. Even more admirable and rarer among mortals is that Monsieur Vincent preserved this evenness of disposition in each of the different responsibilities he held. For example, in the pervasive atmosphere of the court, scarcely any strong person remains uninfluenced. Yet, during his time as a counselor to Their Majesties, we find that the court did not affect Monsieur Vincent's spirit. He was as calm and reserved in the presence of an army of courtiers as he was among his own missionaries. He was as humble in conversation with the great as he was in speaking with the lowliest. During the several years that he was on the council, he omitted none of his usual practices of piety nor did he diminish the respect and affability he showed to everyone. A well-respected prelate who would visit him at Saint Lazare especially admired such a great humility in someone occupying such exalted and important responsibilities, and who besides was the superior general of a congregation and founder of several other companies. This prelate was led to say, "Monsieur Vincent is always Monsieur Vincent; that is, he is as humble, affable, and prompt to serve everyone as he was before being called to the court. He has falsified the proverb that says honors destroy virtue."
His composure was particularly apparent in the way he accepted the losses which he sometimes sustained of goods needed for the support of his Congregation and for the service of God. Several of his houses were supported by funds coming from royal enterprises, such as taxes, coach and carriage lines, and others as well. At times, news would reach him that these funds were being cut back by a quarter or a half, and sometimes even the whole yearly revenue would be stopped. During the wars, community farms were raided, horses and other animals stolen, and bad news would arrive of other losses or accidents. In all these situations his only words were: "God be blessed. We must submit to his will, and accept all it pleases him to send us." The greatest complaint ever heard from his lips was: "If God does not show us his mercy, perhaps we will have to hire ourselves out as assistants in the village parishes."
The loss of the farm spoken of in Chapter Eighteen gives us the opportunity to appreciate his evenness of disposition, for when the news was brought to him of this, the first words he said were, "Blessed be God." He repeated them five or six times, then went to the church to pray before the blessed sacrament. What shows his composure even more in this same loss is that he made no effort to reclaim it, even after eight of the most distinguished lawyers of the Parlement of Paris, who had been consulted on the matter, all agreed that the house of Saint Lazare had every right to the property in question.
Another episode which shows his composure was the way he received news of the sinking of the vessel sent out to Madagascar by the late Marshal de la Meilleraye. It carried several missionaries, together with sufficient clothes, furniture, and books to support them for several years. The missionaries were saved by the grace of God, but everything else perished. Despite these losses, his spirit was not shaken, nor did he lessen his resolve to support this great and important enterprise. On the contrary, it seemed that his courage was strengthened, for he sent another group of missionaries to the island, even larger than the group which had been shipwrecked. <Ftn: The shipwreck of November 2, 1656, off the port city of Nantes.>
He evidenced this same evenness of disposition on the occasion of the loss of some valued confreres of the Congregation who succumbed to their labors in the service of God. When he received news of their deaths, he at first was visibly affected. He soon regained his composure, however, and he turned his mind to God, accepting with his usual equanimity this expression the good pleasure of the divine Majesty. <Ftn: See CED XI:372.>
This is what he wrote on one occasion to one of his priests:
Are you aware of the heavy losses we have suffered? Oh, Monsieur, how great they are! Not only because of the number involved, ten or eleven, but because of the quality of those we have lost. They were all priests, and were among the best workers of our Company. They all died serving their neighbor in saintly and unusual circumstances. Of these, six fell victim to the plague in Genoa while serving those stricken, not to mention a brother who also died. The others gave up their earthly lives to bring eternal life to the inhabitants of the Hebrides and Madagascar. No doubt all these missionaries are now in heaven, since they were motivated by charity. Jesus Christ himself said no one has greater love than he who gives his life for the neighbor. May God be glorified, Monsieur, for the glory with which he has rewarded our brethren, as we believe, and may his holy will be the source of peace and calm for our saddened hearts. I do not speak of the sorrow with which we have received the sad reports which almost all came at the same time. I could not express the depths of my sorrow. You who love the Company so tenderly know for yourself that we could hardly receive any worse news without being overwhelmed. <Ftn: CED VI:8-9.>
These were his sentiments of regret at the deaths of his dear sons. Those who noticed his tender and calm tranquility say that it was admirable, and the source of much edification.
The even disposition of this man of God was shown on another occasion when great sorrow and great joy followed one another in rapid succession, but only those he told through necessity were aware of anything unusual happening. Towards the end of 1659 he sent four priests and a brother to the missions of Madagascar. Arriving at Nantes, these missionaries found that the ship would leave from La Rochelle. Some traveled there by sea, others by land. Monsieur [Nicolas] Etienne, the superior, wanted to go by sea, and took the brother with him to look after some baggage they were taking to Madagascar. The ship on which they were traveling was buffeted for twelve or fifteen days, constantly in danger of capsizing. As it was, it had lost its mast, sails, and provisions, until finally the report reached Monsieur Vincent that it had sunk between Nantes and La Rochelle. Shortly after, this sad news was confirmed by two young men who had survived the sinking by escaping in a small boat when the ship ran aground on a sandbar. When they reached La Rochelle they reported that they had seen the ship founder. One of the two wrote to his mother, Madame Sauve, at Paris, and she in turn sent the letter to Monsieur Vincent. <Ftn: See CED VIII:217-19.>
He had good reason to regret more than any other thing that could have happened, this loss of the superior of the group going to Madagascar. It caused him great sorrow. Far from giving way to regrets, over this bad fortune or showing any other signs of sorrow, he even concealed this accident from the community. He gave strict orders to the three persons aware of the tragedy not to speak to anyone else about it. He wanted time to prepare his community for this sad news, as he did in lesser matters. This would allow the spirit of resignation to gain ascendancy over the natural movements of disordered nature in face of the trials of this life. He hoped to inculcate the same evenness of disposition in his confreres as he himself had.
He immediately spoke to another priest in private, and asked him to take the place of the one presumably dead. While the priest was at table, and Monsieur Vincent was writing a letter to the other priests still at La Rochelle to inform them of their new superior, a packet of letters was brought in. It contained two that appeared to be in the hand of Monsieur Etienne whom he believed already dead. He opened the letters to confirm by the signatures that they were indeed from him, one sent from Bayonne and the other from Bordeaux. They told him that the ship in question had arrived at Saint Jean de Luz totally ruined, but that they had miraculously saved themselves. He and the brother with him were hastening to La Rochelle to arrive there before the ship sailed to Madagascar. <Ftn: Another departure of the missionaries was organized and took place January 25, 1660. This is the departure which Abelly places at the end of 1659. The ship on which these missionaries sailed was also wrecked off the Cape of Good Hope.>
Only God can know the consolation which this loving father received from these letters. He read them in the presence of his assistant and secretary, who were both aware of the matter. They now saw him pass suddenly from one extreme to the other, from a state of desolation to one of joy, yet with no external sign of any change either in his spirit or in his features. He simply thanked God, praised him and blessed him, in life as in death.
This is the way the will of God appealed to him, under whatever guise it assumed. He tried, in a multitude of ways, to teach his confreres, and in fact prescribed a rule on this point both for himself and for them, "Concerning all the things that befall us, such as afflictions or consolations, whether corporal or spiritual, we must receive them all equally as coming from the paternal hand of our Lord." <Ftn: Common Rules, 2,3.>
In this spirit, in 1660, seven months before his death, he accepted the separation by death of his close companion, Monsieur Portail. He expressed his feelings in a letter to one of his priests:
It has pleased God to call Monsieur Portail from us on the fourth of this month. He lived in fear of dying, but as death approached he accepted it with peace and resignation. He told me on several of my visits to him that he retained no trace of his previous fear. He died as he lived. He made good use of his sufferings in the practice of virtue, and had the desire of immolating himself in imitation of our Lord to accomplish the will of God. He was one of the two who first worked on the missions, and always contributed to the other undertakings of the Company to which he so generously gave of himself. We would have lost much in his passing were it not that God always works for the good, and we find our happiness even in what appears to be great evils. We must hope that this devoted servant of God will be more helpful to us in heaven than he was on earth. At the time of his death Mademoiselle le Gras was also very ill. We were convinced she was going to die before him, but God preserved us from this double sorrow. <Ftn: CED VIII:248-49.>
We should remark that this double sorrow happened a month later, in the deaths of Mademoiselle le Gras, and a friend whom he esteemed, honored and loved deeply, Father de Chandenier. We are well aware Monsieur Vincent felt these losses keenly, but even so he never lost his tranquility of spirit or allowed any change to appear on his countenance.
He was able to bear with composure the loss of material things, and of persons most helpful for his Congregation, and even his own honor, his health, and his very life.
He was so self-possessed that when sharp words, injuries or calumny were used against him, as sometimes happened, he showed no agitation, but replied in his customary way with no trace of bitterness. This reaction on his part was particularly appreciated by some of those present on these occasions, who found themselves angered even though these remarks were not addressed to them.
One day during the second battle for Paris, returning from the city to Saint Lazare, he was arrested by the townspeople at the gate of the city. He had to dismount, then was insulted, and even threatened with death. He answered with his usual courtesy and moderation, unswayed by their threats. He was allowed to pass, and subsequently he solicited a pass from the Duke d'Orleans, which was readily accorded, allowing him to come and go freely.
He was in serious physical danger several times, particularly during a visit to Brittany. Twice he was in danger of drowning, and once in danger of assassination, but no change was seen in his disposition or even in his features.
No matter what pains he endured in his sicknesses, or how long certain annoyances lasted, or what reverses his projects experienced, he was never seen to appear to be disturbed or worried. He remained in a profound sense of peace and in an undisturbed frame of mind. The mildness of his speech and the serenity of his features testified to this. Some mistakenly believed that he had personally never suffered much, or even that he was insensitive. Yet he had only to be seen shortly before his death, so afflicted with various ills that he was watching himself dying, as he expressed it, but still with no discernible change in his exterior demeanor except for weakness and a gradual wasting away. He remained as always, seated in his chair, fully clothed, tending to the affairs of the community as was his custom. His spirit changed even less than his body, and remained calm and tranquil until the last moment. We can even entertain the doubt whether anyone's composure was ever more entire, more complete, more tested, or more consistent than that of this great servant of God.