Abelly: Book 3/Chapter 18
His Perfect Detachment from the Goods of This World, and His Love of Poverty
What a great virtue it is to despise the goods of earth! But how rare this virtue is, and how few practice it," says Saint Ambrose. <Ftn: PL 15.1:1299.> Few indeed have the courage to weed out of their hearts the unhappy covetousness which Holy Scripture calls the root of all evil. Few, too, can say with the holy apostle: Behold, Lord, we have left all to follow you and to serve you. <Ftn: Matt 19:27.> As the Sage says, "He is truly happy, who has not allowed his heart to run after gold and silver, and has not put his trust in riches nor in the goods of this world. Where is such a one that we may praise him, because he has done marvels in his lifetime." <Ftn: Sir 31:8.>
It will not take a long treatise to be persuaded of this virtuous disposition in the person of Monsieur Vincent. The whole story of his life and of his great and holy accomplishments provides ample evidence. No, we must not be surprised if we see that he possessed this virtue to an eminent degree since he had such a disregard for riches.
We will not repeat here what was already said in Book One, how this lover of the poverty of Jesus Christ imitated him on all occasions when it was a matter of his own interest or that of his Congregation. This was shown when the general of the galleys and his wife established a foundation for the support of religious works. He would not accept this for himself, but offered it first to various other communities, until he saw that this was a manifestation of the will of God for him. This too was the case when he was offered the house and priory of Saint Lazare, which he refused absolutely. He persisted in this for over a year, despite the pressure of the prior, who came to the College des Bons Enfants more than thirty times to talk to him about this. Only after taking the advice of wise and virtuous persons did Monsieur Vincent become convinced that God wished him to serve there.
These two examples alone suffice to show how his heart was detached from any love of riches or the things of this world, and how great was his love of poverty. Besides that, he showed this attitude in countless other situations. We could say without exaggeration that the most avaricious person would not seek opportunities to enrich himself with such ardor as Monsieur Vincent would to embrace and practice poverty. His words and actions showed his great love for this virtue.
He was heard to say on this topic that, although he still had reason to be concerned about his own financial position before he felt the call of God to the mission, he already felt within himself a desire to have nothing for himself and to live in community, beginning to put into practice his love for poverty at every opportunity.
He always selected for himself a room without a fireplace, even in his later years, that is until four or five years before his death. He was then persuaded by his community to accept another room because of his illnesses. Until his eightieth year, he lived in a tiny undecorated room. <Ftn: By modern reckoning, the saint died in his eightieth year. Abelly is following a flawed chronology.> It had no carpet, no other furniture but a simple uncovered wooden table, two poor chairs, and a wretched pallet and straw mattress covered with a blanket, and a pillow. Once, when he had a fever, a sort of tent was erected over his bed to protect him from drafts, but he would not agree to use it. He took from his room various pictures that one of the brothers of the house had put there. He kept only one, and said that having several was contrary to poverty. When the rooms were inspected, he wanted his to be visited like the others, to ensure that he had nothing superfluous.
In the room on the lower floor in which he received guests, a piece of material was hung at the door to protect the room from cold winds, but no sooner did he see this than he had it taken away. He took his meals in the refectory in the same spirit of poverty, saying within himself: "Ah, miserable man, you have not earned the bread you eat." <Ftn: CED XI:201.> When he could, he took as his own portion the scraps left by others.
His love of poverty clearly led him to love to be poorly fed and poorly clothed. He was pleased when he lacked something, in whatever necessity. He ordinarily wore a used cassock, well patched, and his underclothes too were poor and sometimes torn. A nobleman who visited him once noticed his worn cassock, patched at the elbows. He was so touched that he reported to his friends how greatly edified he was at the poverty and neatness of Monsieur Vincent.
When he went to the Louvre to speak to the queen, or as a member of the council, he always went in his usual garb. It was poor and out of style, and he never changed into something more elegant. Once, Cardinal Mazarin took him by his frayed cincture, and presented him to the group, saying with a smile, "Look how Monsieur Vincent comes dressed for the court, and look at the beautiful cincture he wears."
If some member of the house protested that he should have a new cape, or that his hat was too old, he would make fun of it: "Oh, my brother, it is all the king can do to have a collar that is not torn and a new hat to wear."
When he needed to warm himself in winter he would put only a little wood on the fire, out of consideration for wasting the goods of the house. He said that these belonged to God and to the poor, and that we were simply the dispensers of these goods and not the owners. He remarked that we must render an exact account to God for our use of things, and therefore we must use only what was absolutely necessary and nothing more.[Remarks from Chapter, Pemartin ed., Vol. 8, p. 629.]
Several times he began a trip with no money. He would be delighted at being forced by hunger to go to some poor peasant to ask for a piece of bread for the love of God. This happened to him particularly one day when he was returning fasting from Saint Germain to Paris.
The love he had for poverty was evidenced even in the church of Saint Lazare, for he wanted it to be seen even here. He had the decorations of the church, for the ordinary usage of the members of the community, made from the most ordinary things, except for the greater feasts. He thought the decorations of the church too elaborate for daily use. Also, he had the carpenters of the house fashion a railing separating a corner of the church of Saint Lazare into a chapel for the use of the community.
All this did not hinder him from being prodigal when it was a question of doing something for the glory of God or for the salvation of souls. In these cases he spared nothing. Money was of no significance for him. He even went deeply into debt when he found it necessary to do so for the interests of the service of God or for the spiritual good of the neighbor.
He strove to inculcate his own love of this virtue in the members of the entire Company. Speaking one day to his community, he said:
You ought to be aware, gentlemen, that this virtue of poverty is the foundation of the Congregation of the Mission. This person who now speaks to you, by the grace of God, has never asked for anything the Company now owns. If it should ever happen that a single step or a single word could bring it about that we would be established in the provinces and in the larger cities, and involved in various significant activities, I would not say that one word. I would hope that our Lord would give me the grace never to say it. This is my attitude, to leave all to the Providence of God. <Ftn: CED XI:78.>
He spoke once of his fear that the love of poverty might not continue to be honored in the community in some future day:
Alas, what would become of this Company if it were to become attached to the things of the world? What would become of it, if it were to allow entry to that covetousness which the apostle says is the root of all evil? Several great saints have said that poverty is the touchstone of religious orders. We are not true religious since it has not been found expedient for us to become such, and we are not even worthy of being such although we live in common. But we can say the same thing as they, that poverty is the touchstone of communities, especially our own. This is the virtue that detaches us from all the goods of the world to attach ourselves perfectly to God. O Savior, give us this virtue which attaches us inseparably to your service. With it, we shall wish for and seek only you and your greater glory. <Ftn: CED XI:223.>
Another time, moved by his love of poverty and his desire to see it flourish in his community, he spoke forcefully against the contrary spirit. He uttered three maledictions against those of the Company who allowed themselves to be guided by self-interest and the desire of amassing goods:
Woe, woe, gentlemen and my brothers, woe to the missionary who becomes attached to the perishable goods of this world. He will be trapped by them. He remains pierced by their thorns and captured in their bonds. Should this happen to the Company, what will happen then? How shall we live? "We have a thousand livres of income, we can live at our ease. Why go running about the villages and towns? Why work so hard? Let us leave these peasants to the care of their pastors. We should live in peace." This is how the spirit of laziness will follow the spirit of covetousness, being concerned only about protecting and increasing material things, and seeking personal satisfaction. We can then say goodbye to the missions, and to the Congregation of the Mission itself, for it shall cease to exist. You have only to read your history books to see countless examples of this. Wealth and an abundance of material things have caused the loss, not only of certain clergy, but of entire communities and orders, all for not remaining faithful to their primitive spirit of poverty. <Ftn: CED XI:79.>
One of his priests once spoke to Monsieur Vincent about the poverty of his house. The reply of Monsieur Vincent was, "What do you do, Monsieur, when you lack what is needed by your community? Do you have recourse to God?" "Yes, sometimes," replied the priest. "Ah well," Monsieur Vincent said, "you see how poverty makes us think of God and helps us to raise our hearts to him. If we had everything we needed, we would easily forget him. For this reason, I rejoice when I see that real and voluntary poverty is practiced in all our houses. There is a hidden grace in this poverty which we do not realize." The priest answered, "You take care of other poor people, all except your own." "I pray God to forgive you these words," said Monsieur Vincent. "I am well aware that you said this without thinking, but you must realize that we can never be richer than when we are like our Savior, Jesus Christ."
A priest of the Mission accepted a gift given to the Congregation of the Mission by a priest of great piety for the establishment of a new house of the Congregation. Monsieur Vincent wrote to him as follows: "These gifts are all the greater because they were totally unexpected and unmerited on our part. You have acted according to the good pleasure of God, and following our rule of allowing the Providence of God to show the way, without doing anything of ourselves to bring this about. This is the way all our houses were begun, and it should ever be the way the Company responds." <Ftn: CED VI:8-9.>
Writing one day on this same subject to the superior of one of his houses, he said: The proposal that you make to me of seeking the priory which you mention is contrary to the maxim and usage that exists among us of not seeking any property or establishment directly or indirectly. Providence alone has called us to all those foundations that we have, by means of the very same persons who had the property rights. And if the Company trusts me in this, it will keep itself inviolably in this wise manner of acting. <Ftn: CED V:120.>
Another of his priests wrote to ask if he should accept two benefices which he had been offered in his native region, with the thought of having them come into the use of the Company. He thanked his confrere as follows:
I thank you, especially since your intention is solely to assure that God would be honored and the people helped more than ever before. This shows your zeal, which God always rewards. But in answer to your request, Monsieur, we ought never to seek other resources for the Company than those which it shall please God to send us independently of anything we do. We should not anticipate Providence, and I beg you to hold to this. <Ftn: CED VII:178-79.>
His perfect detachment from material things was never seen better than when the queen regent called him to the Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs. As a member, he had a say in the awarding of all the benefices in France normally at the disposition of the king. He never asked anything for his own Company nor for his relatives, no matter how greatly they were in need, nor for his friends as tokens of his friendship. On the contrary, it was known that, if some relatives asked him for a benefice, he would do nothing. He preferred that they stay in their state as peasants and gain their bread by the sweat of their brows. This was not for lack of affection for them, but from a totally disinterested attitude which is rarely or never seen. He was liberal and generous towards others, but so modest and reserved towards his own that even his best friends were astonished. Also, he was heard to say, when called to this position at court, that he had taken a firm resolution before God never to take advantage of his position to favor any of his relatives. Neither would he advance the interests of his Congregation. He held to this so completely that, if we were to judge by worldly standards, his Congregation certainly lost more than it gained. <Ftn: This was the testimony given by the chancellor Michel Le Tellier. See Book Two, ch. 13.>
While Monsieur Vincent was on the Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs, one of the leading magistrates of the kingdom, a man of great authority, asked, through a priest of the Congregation of the Mission, that an abbey be given to one of his sons who did not have the requisite qualities. This gentleman promised that, if the abbey were given, he would see to it that the house of Saint Lazare would regain some lands and revenues that had been lost. He was well informed of how to bring this about, with no involvement of the priests of the Congregation in this issue. Monsieur Vincent was urged to seize the opportunity while he was in office, since this was a common practice with several other orders, which the priest named. When Monsieur Vincent received this proposal, he responded: "Not for all the goods of the world would I do anything against God or my conscience. The Company will never fail because of poverty. Rather, if poverty should fail, I fear that the Company will perish."
Monsieur Vincent would not ask anything for his Congregation, any more than he would for his relatives and friends. When some even tried to take from the Company what rightfully belonged to it, he showed himself so indifferent that even the judges were astonished. They could not help saying that surely Monsieur Vincent must be a man from another world, since he was so little attached to things of this one. When the possession of the priory of Saint Lazare was called into question, he was of a mind to allow it to be taken by the other community that sought it, rather than defend his rights in court. <Ftn: Book One, ch. 22.> However, when he took counsel of a great servant of God, it was pointed out to him that it was a question of the service of God and not simply his own particular interest, and that he should defend himself in the courts. He followed this advice, but retained a personal disposition of indifference to keep the property or lose it, just as the court would decide.
This same thing happened with the house of the Holy Spirit in the city of Toul. He was on the verge of leaving it and recalling the missionaries from there. He would have done this but for the advice of a person of virtue and standing which he followed, rather than his own inclination. <Ftn: Book One, ch. 46.>
On another occasion when he felt he had to recall his missionaries from a certain diocese, he instructed the superior how he should act in leaving the town where he was.
After giving an account to the vicars general of all the goods which they have given for your use, and which you are now returning to them, you must take leave of them graciously. Leave without a single word of complaint, and with expressions of being at ease in leaving the locality. You must pray that God bless the town and the diocese. I beg you above all not to say anything from the pulpit or elsewhere which would show any resentment. Ask the blessing of these gentlemen upon yourself and the whole community. Ask their blessing for me, who desire to prostrate myself in spirit at their feet along with you.
Although the resolution had been taken to leave this town, God did not allow this to come about. Things changed to such a degree that this house has remained to this day.
He was equally detached from concern about the houses of the Daughters of Charity of which Congregation he was the founder, as he was about those of his own Company. He had sent these women to the villages, towns, and hamlets where they had been asked for, to serve the sick of the parishes and hospitals, even when the condition was attached that they could be sent back at any time the administrators wished. This was something almost unheard of, and yet Monsieur Vincent accepted it without question. For example, he heard that the administrators of the hospital of the city of Nantes were thinking of sending away the Daughters of Charity in favor of the Religious Hospitalers. He wrote immediately, telling the authorities that he had heard much good of these Sisters Hospitalers, and if they wanted them at Nantes they should send back the Daughters of Charity, and that this could be done without difficulty. After writing this letter he sent it unsealed to Mademoiselle le Gras, superior of the Daughters of Charity, for her information and to ask her to raise no difficulty about this withdrawal. "This was the way our Lord was treated while he was on earth. The spirit of Christianity demands that we enter into the sentiments of the neighbor, and God's glory will come from our doing so if we allow it to happen." <Ftn: Dodin, Supplément, 171; this is cited from the second edition of Abelly, with many textual differences from that given here.>
He said more to the person who brought the letter and message to Mademoiselle le Gras. He told him that one day one of the two Daughters of Charity who served the sick poor in one of the leading parishes of Paris, which he named, decided to marry, with the blessing of the pastor upon her promising to continue her service to the poor, just as she had done before as a Daughter. Without further ado, the pastor sent the other away to Mademoiselle le Gras. Monsieur Vincent advised her not to complain, but to adore and bless God for his action. He assured her that all would work out for the best. This is what happened, for the new bride did not find in her marriage the same graces she had previously enjoyed, and soon left the service of the sick. The pastor was obliged to seek out Monsieur Vincent to ask for two other Daughters of Charity. He sent them, and then said these beautiful words: "How much good can be accomplished if we are ready! If the Providence of God finds us responsive to his direction, things will succeed to his greater glory, the one thing we should aspire to."
Monsieur Vincent's detachment from exterior things and love of poverty appeared to an astonishing degree in a lawsuit regarding a farm which had been given to the community of Saint Lazare in return for a lifetime guarantee of income to the donor. <Ftn: The farm at Orsigny, lost in 1658.> Monsieur Vincent had accepted it only at the strong insistence of the benefactor. Some time after several improvements had been made to the farm, the community of Saint Lazare was deprived of title to the farm, and with no recompense for all its improvements, amounting in all to some fifty thousand livres.
Monsieur Vincent announced this loss to the community. He told them that, soon after the decree of expulsion was handed down, a judge came to persuade him to appeal the order. He then commented: O my God, we must be careful not to do so. You, yourself, O Lord, pronounced this decree, and it shall remain irrevocable. We shall sacrifice this property to your divine Majesty. Gentlemen and my brothers, please let it be a sacrifice of praise. Let us thank this sovereign judge of the living and the dead for having visited us with tribulation. Let us give him thanks that he has not only withdrawn our attachment to earthly goods, but has taken away what we owned, and has given us the grace to accept this purification. I would like to believe that we all rejoice at this privation of a temporal good, for our Lord said in the Apocalypse Ego, quos amo, castigo ["Whomever is dear to me I reprove and chastise"]. <Ftn: Rev 3:19.> Should we not love these trials as a mark of his affection? It is not enough to love them, we must rejoice. O my God, who will give us this grace? You are the source of all joy, and other than you there is no true joy. We ask you, therefore, for this grace. Yes, gentlemen, let us rejoice since it seems God has found us worthy to suffer this loss.
How is it possible to rejoice in sufferings, since they are by nature so unpleasant and we flee from them? It is like us when we take medicine which we know may be bitter, and even the best of them disturb us, but yet we take them, and why? Because we are hoping to be saved from an illness, or we seek a cure of one we already have. In the same way, afflictions which may be disagreeable to an individual or to the whole Company contribute to the welfare of a soul or a congregation. God purifies us with them like gold in the fire. Our Lord in the Garden of Olives suffered his agony and on the cross his terrible sufferings, to such an extent that he seemed bereft of all human help and even abandoned by his Father. But even in this extremity, he rejoiced in fulfilling the will of his Father. Even though it was so painful, he preferred it to all the pleasures of the world. His Father's will was his food and his delight. My brothers, it ought to be our happiness too, to see his will accomplished in us by the humiliations, losses and troubles which arise. Saint Paul says: Aspicientes, in auctorem fidei, et consummatorem Jesum, qui proposito, sibi gaudio, sustinuit crucem, confusione contempta ["Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who inspires and perfects our faith. For the sake of the joy which lay before him he endured the cross, heedless of its shame"]. <Ftn: Heb 12:3.> The first Christians had the same sentiments, for the same apostle tells us: Rapinam bonorum vestrorum cum gaudio suscepistis ["You joyfully assented to the confiscation of your goods"]. <Ftn: Heb 10:34.> Why should we not rejoice with them today in the loss of our property?
O my brothers, how pleased God must be to see us gathered here to speak about this, and to arouse this joy in ourselves. On the one hand we are made a spectacle to the world in the opprobrium and shame of this decree. In some way it labels us as unjust holders of the belongings of others: Spectaculum facti sumus mundo, et angelis, et hominibus, opprobriis et tribulationibus spectaculum facti ["We have become a spectacle to the universe, to angels and men alike"]. <Ftn: 1 Cor 4:9.> On the other hand, Omne gaudium existimate, fratres mei, cum in tentationes varias incideritis ["My brothers, count it pure joy when you are involved in every sort of trial"]. <Ftn: James 1:2.> We must be convinced, my brothers, that our joy has come when we see ourselves fallen into various temptations and tribulations, judging that we have gained much more than we have lost. God has taken this farm from us, together with the satisfaction of owning it and the pleasure of going there on occasion. This innocent recreation, appealing to our senses, is a poisonous venom, a sharp blade, or a fire that burns and destroys. We have been saved from all that, by the mercy of God. By being more in need we have been thrown more completely on the Providence of God, and we have had to abandon ourselves completely to him for the necessities of life and for the grace of salvation. May it please God that this loss of temporal things be recompensed by an increase of confidence in his Providence, abandonment to his direction, a greater detachment from the things of earth, and a greater renunciation of our own selves. O my God! O my brothers! How happy should we be. I dare to hope from his paternal bounty, which does all for the best, that he will give us this grace.
What then are the fruits we should draw from this situation? The first is to offer to God all that remains of our goods and consolations, of body and of spirit. We must offer ourselves so completely, both individually and as a community, that he may dispose of us and of all we have according to his most holy will. We must be ready to leave all, to embrace inconveniences, abuses, and whatever afflictions might arise, and thus follow Jesus Christ in his poverty, humility, and patience.
The second effect is never to protest, no matter how right we may be. If we have to defend ourselves, let it be only after trying by all possible means to come to terms with our adversary, assuming our rights are clear and evident, for whoever trusts in human judgment is often deceived. We should practice the counsel of our Lord who said that we should also give our shirt to the one who demands our coat. <Ftn: Matt 5:40.> May God give the Company the grace to put this into practice. Let us hope that, if the Company is faithful in establishing this usage and firm in never departing from it, God will bless it, and that if anyone robs it on one side, God will give it back on the other. <Ftn: CED XII:52-57.>
Many persons of great piety, experienced in these matters, had advised Monsieur Vincent both before and after the decree concerning the farm had been issued. They suggested that he file an appeal and assured him that the judgment would almost certainly be favorable to him. The best they could get him to do was to consult in private a lawyer of the court who had been present for the original discussion of the case. After this consultation, he wrote the following letter to the late Monsieur des Bordes, Auditor of the Chamber of Accounts of Paris. <Ftn: This court had jurisdiction over some financial matters as well as the registration of contracts.> He was a longtime friend of his Company, and an honest and intelligent man. He also thought that an appeal should be made. This letter was written on December 22, 1658:
Monsieur, we have sent our papers to Monsieur N. [Cousturier.] He has looked over them carefully, and believes that our appeal would be well received. He wishes to plead our case, and promises that he will be successful. Although a thrifty man, he will take nothing for his services. He has even said that if we were to lose, he would recompense us in full for our loss.
We have not been able to decide to follow this advice,
- (1) because the large number of lawyers we consulted together and separately before the decree all assured us of our secure rights, and there was nothing to fear. We consulted Messieurs Defita and [Jean-Marie] Lhoste, who looked into the matter exhaustively, the first because he was to represent us, and the second for having prepared our documents. <Ftn: The saint often turned to these two lawyers for advice.> Both told us, as did Monsieur N. [Cousturier], that we were on secure ground. And yet, the court decided against us, as though we had stolen it. Opinions are so diverse, it is always dangerous to rely on the judgment of men.
- )2) One of our practices during a mission is to reconcile differences among the people. We must fear that if we appeal, a procedure used by all charlatans, God will withdraw his grace from us in working for reconciliations among the people.
- (3) We would give much scandal, after such a solemn decree, by attempting to overturn it. We would be blamed for being too attached to material things, a reproach often made against priests. We would cause gossip in the palace, do harm to other communities, and scandalize our friends.
Lastly, Monsieur, to tell you the truth, I am filled with anxiety, as you can imagine, about going against the advice of our Lord, that those who follow him should not go to court to sue. If we have already done so, it was because in conscience I could not leave something legitimately given to the community, of which I am but the administrator, without doing all in my power to preserve it. Now that this obligation has been removed by a sovereign decree which has nullified my efforts, I think, Monsieur, we must leave it at that.
Monsieur, as you are so filled with Christian maxims, please consider all these reasons, and allow us to accept things as they are. <Ftn: CED VII:404-05.> This is how this true servant of God showed his entire detachment from the things of this world. He accepted the great loss of his property, and argued to convince his Company and his friends to accept the decision of the court, even though he was assured that he could easily win back the lost property by engaging the lawyer who was so sure that he could win the appeal. This man wanted to take on the case and argue it alone, guaranteeing that he would pay all costs, even paying for the property if he were not successful in reversing the decree against the missionaries. It could be said that only Monsieur Vincent was capable of refusing this offer. He gave as his reason for refusing to appeal that the judges were honorable men, and that if they had given such a faulty judgment he could not help thinking that God's Providence had so willed it, and he could do nothing better than to accept his holy will.
The Procurator of Parlement, since deceased, who was involved with the affairs of the house at Saint Lazare, left a document in which he showed his admiration for such disinterestedness. He added that he had long admired the behavior of Monsieur Vincent in all other business matters of which he had knowledge. Monsieur Vincent always conducted himself without pressure or passion, either when acting in his own name as superior, or for the Congregation, no matter how much right he had on his side or how faulty the positions of his adversaries. On the contrary, no matter what advantage he had in court sentences or decrees, he was ever ready for compromise. He recalled several instances in which he had not carried out several judgments given in his favor which involved large sums. He gave as his reason that it would have caused the ruin of certain families. He delayed so long in carrying out these decrees, for fear of harming his opponents, that effectively he did nothing for his own advantage.