The Final Years of Louise de Marillac
by: Sister Maria Angeles Infante, DC
(This article was originally published in Anales, Volume 119, No.4, July-August, 2011)
- 1 Introduction: accept old age as a blessing
- 2 Saint Louise accepted ailments and concerns calmly
- 3 Separation accepted with a spirit of faith
- 4 Waiting for sister death
Introduction: accept old age as a blessing
Throughout this presentation we are going to reflect on Louise’s experience of aging, a process that presents each one of us with a project for our own life. We will focus on the years 1655-1660, a time when Louise was 65-69 years old and was considered very old. It is important to remember that in 1655 a very important event occurred in Louise’s life and the life of the Company of the Daughters of Charity: the approval of the Company by Cardinal de Retz, the archbishop of Paris who was in Rome and was received by the Congregation of the Mission. January 18, 1655 was the exact day on which the Cardinal signed the document (CCD:CIIIb:144-147). On August 8 of the same year the act of approval was read to the sisters, who then signed the document.
With said approval, the Company of the Daughters of Charity received juridical status in the Church in the manner that Louise, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had planned for, namely, the Company was established as a society of apostolic life. Like the elderly Simeon, Louise could now exclaim: Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation (Luke 2:29-30). Even though this event marked the beginning of Louise’s final years on earth, there are three things which we should be attentive to when we reflect on those final year and the years that immediately preceded them:
---On the one hand, Louise experienced the cross in many different ways: physical fatigue, an increasing number of ailments, frequent illnesses and what was even more overwhelming for her, the moral trials that the sisters experienced and the consolidation of the Company in the spirit that God had given to it.
---On the other hand, we note the strength of her spirit of faith which accompanied her clear understanding of events and her feelings, at times, of confusion and abandonment by God … feeling as though God had abandoned her as well as the Company (SWLM:677-678 [L.655], 683-684 [L.25]).
---Lastly, Louise was involved in some very noteworthy activities on an organizational level as well as the level of spiritual formation, direction and accompaniment and vocational discernment, interviews, visits and correspondence. All of this activity was the result of her incredible ability to work and the spiritual energy that she received from the Holy Spirit, which in turn led her to love God, the sisters and the poor in an active manner.
It is true that during the difficulties and trials of those later years, Louise was able to rely on the human and spiritual support of Vincent. In fact, they both knew that they could rely on one another regardless of the situation. In 1657 Louise wrote the following words: Truly the needs of the Company are pressing us somewhat to meet and to speak to you. It seems to me that my mind is completely preoccupied; it is so weak. Its only strength and peace, after that which comes from God, is to be by His love, my Most Honored Father, your very humble and most obedient servant (SWLM:553 [L528]).
Centered on God and inspired by the Holy Spirit, Louise confronted the events of that stage of her life as continual divine blessings ... the blessings of a holy life. The approval of the Company was lived as a blessing … so too the revision and the explanation of the Rules to the sisters, the new establishments of service for the poor, the illnesses and ailments of old age, her spiritual testament and her departure from this world. Everything was blessing and grace:
- the blessing of fidelity to the Rules...
- the blessing of belonging to God and the Company...
- the blessing of the experience of God’s love, lived and communicated in service to the poor and the formation of the sisters...
- the blessing of the example or witness of life of the many holy sisters, such as Sister Barbe Angiboust...
- the blessing of the hand of God in daily events...
- the blessing of the heritage and the continuation of the charism that Sister Marguerite Chétif, Louise’s successor...
- the blessing of being and experiencing herself as continuing the charity of Jesus Christ as understood in the motto of the Company.
Saint Louise accepted ailments and concerns calmly
At the same time that Louise felt that there was much more to be done she also felt and experienced that she was aging, that she was afflicted by more frequent ailments and that death was approaching. Between April and May 1665 she was near death. So serious was her illness that she felt it propitious to speak with Vincent about a successor. Through dialogue and common discernment both felt that Sister Marguerite Chétif should be the next person to take responsibility for the leadership of the Company. At the end of May Louise felt better and once again began to write. The sisters in Angers were the first sisters to whom she wrote: Your recent letters … arrived just in time to cure me completely of a serious illness that I have had for the past month. You must believe, my dear Sisters, that nothing gives me greater joy than to learn about each one of you, about your healthy and about your interior dispositions. I will write to you about this when I have regained my strength (SWLM:507 [L.468]).
After Louise’s experience of the above mentioned illness she accepted peacefully the many ailments that afflicted her while taking the necessary remedies in order to preserve her health until the time that God would call her. In a letter that was written on January 4, 1660, a short time before her death, she expressed the following to Vincent: Permit me to greet your Charity very humbly at the beginning of this new year, and at the same time, to ask for your blessing to help me to be faithful to God for as long as it pleases His goodness to leave me on earth (SWLM:670 [L.649]). After recommending some remedies to him, she added: Because I am well acquainted with this remedy, I dare to suggest it … I would truly like to know how you really are. It seem to be that Our Lord has placed me in the disposition to bear everything with relative peace (SWLM:670-671 [L.649]).
Even though Louise continued to be concerned about many things, nevertheless peace and calmness became a part of her life during the final years of her existence.
Concern for Monsieur Vincent’s health
For some time, and actually, up to the end of their life, Vincent de Paul and Mademoiselle le Gras confided in one another their health problems and possible remedies, but they never complained about their illnesses. They communicated to one another about these matters as a way of venting their feelings. Louise’s letter to Vincent, written when she was sixty-four and dated November 14, 1655 is an expression of her maternal concern for her elderly spiritual father who was seventy-four. It is encouraging to see that these individuals were concerned for one another, especially during an era when blood-letting was seen as a universal remedy. Louise felt that blood-letting had weakened Vincent and therefore, other remedies had to be sought: Permit me to tell you that it is absolutely essential that your leg not be out of an elevated position for a quarter of an hour nor be exposed to the heat of the fire; if it gets cold, your must warm it with a warm cloth placed over the pant leg. If you think it appropriate, my Most Honored Father, try a little of this soothing ointment … The blood-lettings have weakened your body, as has the disease; and when you place your foot on the ground, the heat and fluids rush there as the weakest spot in your body. I wish you would not drink so many glasses of water so as to let your intestinal tract calm down and be refreshed … Every day I drink a cup of tea; it does me a lot of good by improving my appetite and making me stronger (SWLM:492 [L.462]).
Louise’s concern for Vincent's health flowed from her love and her desire to have him continue to direct the Company. She encouraged him and occasionally pressured him. As a result of their true and deep friendship, she expressed her concerns throughout her life, but did so in a free and loving manner. On December 31, 1658, at the end of the year, she wrote: Permit me to ask if your leg is any better and if we can soon hope for a cure. The last hours of the year are at hand. I throw myself at your feet to beg your Charity to obtain mercy for me as I await that hour when God will call me to render an account of my life. It is for that moment alone that I implore your charity because my constant infidelities and lack of mortification so frequently lead me to offend Our Lord (SWLM:625 [L.605]).
Her medical advice and recommendations were on-going: For the love of God, allow me to ask for news of your health. Is the swelling in your legs increasing? Are you in less pain? Do you have any trace of fever? With the openness of a daughter toward her Most Honored Father, I cannot refrain from saying that I believe that it is absolutely essential for you to be purged thoroughly but gently (SWLM:670 [L.649]). She shared her concern with the sisters. In October, 1655, she wrote to Sister Barbe Angiboust who was in Bernay: Our Most Honored Father is having trouble with his legs and Monsieur Portail is away on a short journey. I am sure that you will remember to pray that God will take care of them (SWLM:486 [L.454], 669-670 [L.648], 670-671 [L.649], 673-674 [L.651], 674-675 [L.652], 675-676 [L.653], 678-679 [L.656]).
Spiritual security of the Company
Despite her ailments, Louise continued to be concerned about the spiritual welfare of the Company. She was particularly concerned about the need for mortification, tolerance and condescension (SWLM:797 [A.67]), about the closed, secretive and arrogant attitude of some of the sisters which could ultimately destroy the proper spirit of the Company … this reality led her to recommend that the sisters have recourse to the Holy Spirit (SWLM:798-799 [A.65]). Another concern was the good organization of the Motherhouse which she felt would provide a point of reference to the other local communities. Therefore, Louise wrote a specific Rule for the Motherhouse (SWLM:805-810 [A.92]). She also expressed her desire that the sisters would be supernaturally motivated with regard to their ministry assignments and that they would give great attention to the development of their spiritual life (SWLM:509-510 [L.479], 510-511 [L.439]. 512-513 [L.485]). Louise continued to teach and to form the sisters in methods and attitudes that would enable them to serve the poor in a better way … she encouraged the sisters to become more aware of the circumstances and the conditions under which they were serving (SWLM:813-814 [A.66], 746-749 [A.88]). In addition to the concerns that have been mentioned, Louise was equally concerned about vocational discernment with regard to the young women who were presented to her for formation … she was concerned that these candidates would become good servants. She was convinced that she was unable to admit all the young women who requested admission into the Company … indeed, it was necessary to become involved in the process of vocational discernment and Louis was fully convinced of this need (SWLM:500-510 [L.471], 513-514 [L.486]).
Louise requested Vincent to continue to work for the spiritual consolidation of the Company. On January 1, 1659 she expressed her concern in the following manner: It seems to me that something still remains to be done for the spiritual strengthening of the Company. If your Charity would allow me to send a memorandum about this, I would do so even if I must blush for shame because of it. All of our sisters are anxiously awaiting the honor of seeing you. Offer us to God in the way that He wishes (SWLM:625 [L.605]). Louise relied on Vincent’s presence and trusted his doctrine was necessary and at the same time she knew that as she aged she was presented with the opportunity to deepen her internalization of the essential elements of her vocation. In the postscript of the letter Louise spoke about her health: My ailments prevented me from finishing this letter yesterday. I am beginning the year with great weakness and suffering of mind and of body. For this and for all my needs I ask you, your Charity, for your holy blessing. I ask it as well for the entire Company (SWLM:625 [L.605]).
At the same time Louise expected the sisters to communicate with their director in order to receive assistance and counsel when they found themselves in the midst of difficulties. At the end of 1659 she knew that Vincent was confined to his room and was unable to leave Saint-Lazare because his legs could no longer support his body. She also knew that there were sisters who did not write Vincent, including Sister Anne Hardemont, who was about to begin ministry in Ussel and who was passing through a crisis. Louise encouraged her: It has perhaps been quite a while, my dear Sister, since you have written to our dear Father. He has less time than ever. Although he cannot leave Saint-Lazare, because of problems with his legs, he is nonetheless weighed down with business. I believe that he would be comforted if you wrote to him about your situation. He could then answer you because he perhaps no longer recalls what you told him (SWLM:661 [L.642]).
Physical and spiritual health of her son and other members of her family
In 1655 Louise was tormented by the deafness of her son which caused her to become very concerned. She requested prayers for her son's cure: I most humbly beg your Charity to allow me to recommend my son to your prayers which he needs to obtain from Our Lord, by the merits of the injuries and insults He suffered during His human life, the cure of his deafness, if this is not contrary to the perfect will of God (SWLM:487 [L.456]). She trusted in Vincent's intercessory prayer but she also knew that the gospel affirmed that one’s prayer would be heard if two or more persons were in agreement and therefore praying for the same intention. As a result Louise spoke with some other holy people: Good Brother Fiacre promised … that he would begin a novena to the Blessed Virgin for him tomorrow on the Feast of Saint Denis. It occurred to me, my Most Honored Father, to ask your permission to receive Holy Communion daily and to perform some other good action during this time, provided my hardness of heart does not prevent me from doing so (SWLM:487 [L.456]).
At the same time she was concerned for the spiritual health of her biological family. She feared that she might offend God. Therefore she requested Monsieur Vincent’s prayers: I most humbly beg your Charity to allow me to recommend my son to your prayers which he needs to obtain from Our Lord … the grace which would enable him to make the firm resolution not to allow God to be offended in his little family (SWLM:487 [L.456]).
Health of the Sisters and her attitude with regard to illness
Louise de Marillac took a particular interest in the infirm sisters, but in the midst of her maternal concern she wanted the sisters who were ill to be attended to according to the demands of their vocation and not in an overly fastidious manner. In November 1656 Louise carefully reviewed the text of the Common Rules, detailing and correcting what her experience had led her to realize needed to be stated with greater specificity. There were sisters who were too meticulous in caring for themselves and demanded things that were not available to the poor. She carefully reviewed the articles of the Rules that referred to the attention that the Company should provide to the infirm sisters … and she changed these articles.
In her letter of November 29, 1657, Louise communicated the details of her work to the director, Monsieur Antoine Portail: Article number 15, (Vincent explained these articles in his conference of November 11, 1657, CCD:X:272-275) whether it be changed or expanded, is essential, if you judge it appropriate: “The Sister Servants must notify the Superioress of the needs arising from the illness of their sisters before subjecting them to remedies.” Some act in this way, but others provide remedies as the end of the article foresees. She continued to write: I failed to mention, Monsieur, that Article 13 stands more in need of reins than of spurs because, as soon as a sister becomes ill, she must be served chicken and veal and be settled in bed like a lady. When the sisters have superfluities such as these or when they have them to arrange their rooms, they claim that the Ladies want them. Assuredly, the Ladies would be satisfied with neatness and cleanliness (SWLM:529-530 [L.638]) (Vincent commented on this in his conference of December 14, 1656 CCD:X:194-195).
Louise shared her thoughts with Monsieur Portail and expressed her surprise at the caprice of some of the sisters during their illness: You will perhaps be as astonished as I was to learn that one of our sisters made a bathrobe, or had it made, and that her sick companion was wearing it yesterday when she got up. This happened at Saint-Merry. That is a simple thing, it is true, but many a young noblewoman or woman of the merchant class in Paris does not possess one. Moreover, Monsieur, such a thing has far-reaching consequences (SWLM:530 [L. 638]). That and other similar situations led to the revision of article 13 of the Rules. After said revision, Vincent explained the new article to the sisters in the conference of November 11, 1657: The fifteenth article of your Rules deals with the duty of sick Sisters. It states that they should not show any impatience or complain when they are not always treated as they would like, reflecting that they do not know what they need as well as the physician and the nurses do etc. Ah! Sisters, to be treated as they would like! What can a sick person want? One of the effects of illness is to have a distaste for everything. The only thing to be said on this is that they must obey the physician in all that concerns their treatment. Here is how a person’s virtue may be well known (CCD:X:277).
In the same conference Vincent added: The Daughters of Charity must not order any remedies for themselves without consulting Mlle Le Gras. Why? Because experience has shown that one thing that does the greatest damage to one’s health is taking too much medicine, especially for young and middle-aged people (CCD:X:278). That was an important time in the life of the Company. Even though Vincent and Louise did not print the Rules of the Daughters of Charity, however, after these revisions they were concerned about making the copies of this rule presentable for the sisters. Louise made this very clear in the postscript of the letter that she sent to Monsieur Portail: Since you will take the trouble to have this book (of Rules) re-copied, you would do us a great service, Monsieur, if you had it folded again, so that it will be thicker and stronger when covered with parchment and will also be more durable in the house (SWLM:530 [L.638], this book is preserved in the Archives of the Motherhouse).
When the sisters delayed in writing to her, Louise became concerned about the lack of news and she was particularly concerned about the health of the sisters. Beginning in 1655 she began to feel with greater intensity the aches of aging but she also had more time to write. She knew that her memory could begin to fail her and she also understood that is was necessary for her to exercise her mind. She did this by writing. She expressed this in the November 5, 1655 letter that she wrote to Sister Cécile Angiboust and the other sisters in Angers: Please send my greetings to all our dear sisters, especially to our sick sister. Tell them that I urge them all to write to me. Ask them to do so one after another so that I can answer them and thus impress their names and their personalities on my mind. I beg them to pray for me and I am for the whole dear Company, in the love of Our Lord (SWLM:490-491 [L.460]).
When the sisters arrived in Barnay (sisters led by Sister Barbe Angiboust who was the sister servant) the change of climate, the work and initial difficulties led to two of the sisters becoming ill. After congratulating them for the good news that they had communicated to her, Louise expressed her concern for their health: I gather that God has bestowed many blessings on the foundation of the Confraternity of Charity. May He be forever blessed! Please let me know the state of your health and that of our sister, Laurence Dobois. Also tell me if you have many pupils and sick to serve and if the older girls give you much help with catechism on feast days (SWLM:462 [L.421]).
In August, 1656, Louise wrote to Barbe Angiboust, one of the sisters in whom she had great trust. Sister Barbe was in Bernay which was relatively near to the community of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont where there were three sisters. She asked for news about the infirm sisters: I am still quite worried about our sisters of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont because of Sister Claude’s persistent illness. If you have learned anything about them, I beg you, my dear Sister, to let me know. Also give me news of Sister Laurence whom I cordially greet (SWLM:521 [L.493]).
Louise is not simply concerned about the sisters during their time of illness but she also inquired about the spiritual dispositions that they were living as true Daughters of Charity. Given her own limitations and frailty, she had experience in conforming herself to Jesus Christ on the cross. She did not speak about or wrote about these realities as some theory … rather she writes about her lived experience. Louise stated in a letter that she wrote to Sister Élisabeth Martin: Our good God is truly making you a participant in His sufferings by permitting you to be seriously ill. Monsieur Gauthier took the trouble to inform me about your condition. I beg His goodness to give you the consolations that He usually gives to souls He wishes to sanctify in this way. Two thing can greatly assist us in this: the first is the love with which we must honor the suffering of the Son of God and the second is the thought we must frequently have that this life is short, and that well-accepted sufferings leads us happily to eternity. Let us love suffering then, my dear Sister, and let us make strong resolutions to desire as much of it as the will of God wants us to experience. Rest assured that it is a sign of God’s love for you since it is through this that He makes you somewhat like His Son. Suffer then, in His same spirit, through submission to all that God wills of you, and use every means given to you to recover your health. I urge Sister Anne to take excellent care of you --- something I am sure she is already doing. However, I hope she is doing so in a spirit of perfect charity and with a sense of duty. I know, my dear Sister, that she loves and honors you. Because of that, I am very confident that she will fail in nothing you wish of her. However, I also urge you to ask her with great confidence for all the help you need. If you feel afflicted by all the submission to which your illness reduces you, you must in that as well, my dear Sisters, discover and love the will of God. I beg Him with all my heart to give you the perfection of His holy love (SWLM:251 [L.88]).
Separation accepted with a spirit of faith
The passing of the years brought about separation from dearly loved friends. Two of these friends were Sister Barbe Angeboust (December 27, 1658) and Monsieur Antoine Portail (February 14, 1660). At the same time Louise also experienced the departure of some sisters from the Company and this caused her great suffering. Together with these sufferings she also felt misunderstood by some beloved sisters such as Anne Hordamont and Marguerite Chétif. Divine Providence was preparing her for the definitive passage to the house of the Father, a time that she felt was close at hand. In January, 1659, she wrote to Sister Andrée Meréchal in Liancourt and said: Enclosed in your baptismal certificate which the sisters at Nantes sent to me. If you discover that you are older than you thought, remember that death is equally surprising and is coming sooner than we expect (SWLM:626 [L.606]).
Louise had an active hope as she contemplated death. She saw death approaching, but saw it as a door that was opening gently in order to allow her to be able to enter into the joy of the infinite mercy of God, in order to be led to the fullness of salvation, the fullness of eternal happiness. This slow approach toward the goal did not prevent her from continuing through her letters her work of on-going vocational encouragement, did not prevent her living in total accord with the will of God or utilizing what little strength she had in the formation, vocational encouragement and organization of the Company. At the same time Divine Providence was separating her from and striping her of every perceptible effect.
The death of Sister Barbara Angiboust, a difficult blow
The death of faithful companions on the journey was one of the times when friendship was revealed in all its tenderness, thus becoming a powerful affect that enabled Louise to overcome the painful sorrow that she experienced as a result of being separated from a loved one. Barbe was one of the first and one of the oldest sisters in the Company and had made herself available for whatever ministries were entrusted to her. She had the complete trust of the Founders and was filled with the gospel spirit. She had entered the Company on July 1, 1634 and had served in more than twelve different missions (always in difficult places) and exercised different roles of responsibility in her ministry among the galley slaves, abandoned children, far distant and complex missions, school children and all those others situations that Divine Providence placed in her path. Her death occurred in Chateadum on December 27, 1658 and left a great emptiness in the heart of the Founder. Barbe was a woman whose heart was on fire with zeal. On more than one occasion Louise had to tell her to be prudent in her approach to the apostolate. A proof of their relationship of mutual trust is the forty-nine letters that Louise wrote to her.
With deep feeling Louise communicated the news to the Company: I am quite apprehensive about sharing this news with you, my dear Sister, but I must tell you that it has pleased Our Lord to call our dear Sister Barbe Angiboust to Himself. She died on the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist, at 7:00am, after having practiced to the end all the virtues that you recognized in her (SWLM:629 [L.608]).
The death of Monsieur Antoine Portail, an immediate call
From 1642 Monsieur Portail had collaborated with Louise as director of the Company. Louise and the sisters held him in great esteem. Even though they had different points of view with regard to the vows, nevertheless his advice and sound judgment, his loyalty and charity made him a discreet and steady collaborator. He was a missionary who was deeply loved by Louise. At the beginning of February, 1660 he became ill at the same time that Louise’s illness became more serious. They both received Viaticum and the sacrament of the sick on the same day, but he died before her on February 14th. They had been friends for almost twenty years and during all those years he accompanied Louise in the government of the Company. Vincent spoke about his death in the following manner: God has been pleased to take from us good M. Portail. He died on Saturday, the fourteenth of this month. It was the ninth day of his illness, which began with a sort of lethargy that developed into a constant fever and other complications. Throughout it, his mind and speech remained quite clear. He had always been apprehensive about death but, on seeing it approach, he faced it with peace and resignation (CCD:VIII:288, 294, 300). Meanwhile, Louise, fully conscious, prepared for her definitive encounter with God.
Detachment for the mission: designation of a successor
Through the years Louise became aware of the charitable and effective ministry that the women of the Confraternities did in the parishes and among the people of Paris. Louise was convinced that those women were the salvation of poor people. But experience and her dealings with the sisters and above all, her clear conviction of having understood God’s design for the Company led her to the belief that her successor ought to be a Daughter of Charity who had experience and lived a virtuous life. She communicated this secretly to Vincent and suggested the name of Sister Marguerite Chétif. Sister Marguerite knew the Company well, had experience in leadership, and manifested an attitude that revealed her possessing the spirit of the Company.
In his conference of August 27, 1660, Vincent communicated this news to the Daughters: During one of her illnesses --- not the last one because, as you know, I did not have the happiness of seeing her then, but the previous one. I said to her. “Mademoiselle, have you decided on any of your Sisters to replace you?” She thought now about this one, now about that one, and finally she said to me, “Monsieur, since you have chosen me by Divine Providence, it seems to me that for the first time it is advisable that this not be done by a majority of votes, but that you should name her --- just this once. As for me, I think Sister Marguerite Chétif would be very suitable … so then Sister Marguerite Chétif shall be Superioress (CCD:X:594).
Waiting for sister death
We know that Louise’s health was always fragile. Vincent recognized this fact and spoke about this matter. Nicolás Bobillón, Louise’s first biographer, states that for an extended period of time Louise experienced serious ailments. In 1647 Vincent wrote to Monsieur Blatiron, superior in Genoa, and stated: In this you are almost like Mademoiselle Le Gras, whom I consider as dead, according to nature, for ten yea-rs now. To see her, one would say she has just stepped out of the tomb because her body is so frail and her face so pale. However, God knows the strength of spirit she possesses. Not so long ago she made a journey of one hundred leagues. Were it not for her frequent illnesses and her respect for obedience, she would often be going in every direction to visit her Daughters and work with them, although the only life she has is the one she receive from grace (CCD:III:257). Frequent low-grade fevers obliged Louise to cease her activity and visit doctors who prescribed purges and blood-letting which were the common remedies of that era. Her energy always enabled her to recover. Vincent saw a very special grace of God at work in Louise, a grace that flowed from the fact that the sisters and the poor still needed Louise. Beginning in 1652 Louise’s relapses were more frequent.
The ailments continue and are accepted as something natural and part of the cross
In her letters Louise speaks to us about her serious illness of 1656. Nicolás Gobillón also affirmed that in 1656 she was near death and said to Vincent that if this is the key to leaving this world soon, then I really need to learn how to prepare for it. I await this from your charity so that I will not be shipwrecked as I enter the home port of my voyage (CCD:V:461). To the surprise of everyone, she recovered and renewed her activity at the end of the year.
Writing on June 10, 1656 to Sister Françoise Ménager she described the dispositions of her heart: It did not please the divine goodness to remove me from the face of the earth, although I have deserved it for a long time. We must await submissively the order of Divine Providence. We must always be in that state, open to accept the death of a loved one, our own death or any other painful event so that God, in the exercise of His divine will, will never have reason to complain that we have not followed his order (SWLM:507 [L.478]).
Preparation for the definitive encounter with the Lord
Louise’s retreat notes of 1657, notes written a few days before the celebration of the feast of Pentecost, are a clear expression of her spiritual dispositions and her constant desire to receive whole-heartedly the Holy Spirit, the source of love and strength: to live for as long as it please You, but with Your life which is one of total love (SWLM:819 [A.26]). She proposed maintaining the necessary vigilance in order to overcome the temptations that must be confronted and in order to make fruitful the gifts of the Holy Spirit, gifts that were received at the time of baptism. She was encouraged in the practice of meekness, humility, tolerance and love of neighbor and this enabled her to reveal the love of our Lord Jesus Christ for humankind. She experienced herself as an active member of the Church and the Company, as a member of the mystical body of Christ in which the Holy Spirit creates unity and enables people to give witness with their lives, not be bearing witness to the doctrine of the church but by the perfect actions of true Christians (SWLM:820-821 [A.26]). She asked God for the gift of detachment from all creatures and even from the Divine Presence so that she would only act by the power of His love (SWLM:818 [A.26]). These dispositions were cultivated each day by her deep devotion to the Eucharist (SWLM:821-823 [M.72]).
Final illness and death
Gobillón describes for us in detail the events that surrounded her death. On February 4th, 1660 Louise became seriously ill. Her left arm was considerably swollen and she had a high fever. During the next eight days her situation worsened and she received Viaticum and the sacrament of the sick … every means was used to request God’s intervention for a cure … she was surrounded by her family and by all the sisters of the Motherhouse. Louise received the sacrament of sick with great calmness. During the celebration of the sacrament she blessed her son and his family: I pray the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, by the power God has given fathers and mothers to bless their children, to bless you, detach you from all earthly things and unite you to himself … to live like good Christians (Joseph Dirvin, Louise de Marillac, Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1970, p. 384).
Then looking at the sisters who accompanied her she recommended that they love their vocation and continue to be faithful in their service to the poor. Many prayers were offered for her health. The relics of Saint Charles and Saint Francis de Sales were placed on her arm. She appeared to get better … the swelling in her arm and her fever diminished. This continued for three weeks. Then on March 9th Louise’s arm appeared to be gangrenous. Louise understood the seriousness of her situation and asked for Viaticum. She prepared to receive God and spoke to the sisters about the greatness of the Eucharist. On the Morning of March 13th, the pastor of Saint-Laurent brought her the Body of Christ. After a lengthy act of thanksgiving, Louise addressed the sisters who were present: My dear Sisters, I continue to ask God for His blessings for you and pray that He will grant you the grace to persevere in your vocation in order to serve Him in the manner he asks of you. Take good care of the service of the poor. Above all, live together in great union and cordiality, loving one another in imitation of the union and life of Our Lord. Pray earnestly to the Blessed Virgin, that she may be your only Mother (SWLM:835).
These words were received by the sisters as her spiritual testament. Louise de Marillac had briefly reaffirmed that which had always been essential for the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Gobillon added: she gave signs of perfect contrition and accepted her illness as an expression of God’s justice toward her. She said that God was acting justly and mercifully. She showed that she was wholly detached from the world and that she had a burning desire to be united with God. Finally, she maintained a calmness of mind, a gentleness, a patience and was submissive to God and practiced the virtues that had been a part of her life, especially during moments of trial (Nicolás Gobillon, Vida de la Señorita Le Gras, libro IV, cap. V. Ed. Española CEME, pp. 188 y ss.). Now she experienced one of the greatest trials that God sent her during her illness: being deprived of Vincent’s assistance. At that time Vincent was also seriously ill and unable to visit Louise. She asked him to send her some written words of consolation but Vincent did not feel that is was right to grant her this grace … he sent one of the Missionaries who was told to communicate the following message to her: you go before me but I hope to see you very soon in heaven.
On March 13th Louise’s illness became more serious and this situation continued until March 15th … she rested in the Lord and handed over her soul on Monday of Passion Week, at 8:30am … she was sixty-eight years old. The pastor of Saint-Laurient who accompanied her during her final hours gave this testimony concerning her virtue: “such a beautiful soul that brought to the Lord the grace of her baptism” (Nicolás Gobillon, Vida de la Señorita Le Gras, libro IV, cap. V. Ed. Española CEME, pp. 188 y ss.).
Louise de Marillac accepted old age as a special blessing from God. She taught us how to journey along this path with peace, a path that involved engaging in activity to the degree that is possible, vigilance over ones senses, exercising the mind, trust, surrender, detachment from creatures and a constant desire to receive whole-heartedly the Holy Spirit, source of love and strength: to live for as long as it please You, but with Your life which is one of total love (SWLM:819 [A.26]).
This article appeared in Anales volume 119, #3 (July-August 2011) and was translated by Charles T. Plock, CM with permission from the editors of Anales.