As a child growing up in London, before I would head out to school, my mother would often seek to entice us to finish up our breakfast by saying, “Eat up all of your breakfast before you leave. You’ll need energy for the day. It’s like a car; if you don’t give it petrol it can’t run.” Her words still give me pause for reflection these many years.
Where do we find sustenance for life?
In our time the importance of self-care is frequently emphasized. It makes sense. If you don’t take care of your body, mind, and spirit, how can they take care of you?
During their time, in their own way, both Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac embraced such seeds of wisdom. Because their ministry could certainly take a toll and came at a personal cost, these longtime, caring friends sometimes challenged each other and their communities to take a step back to replenish dwindling reserves. Indeed, as Vincent himself knew, “[I]t’s impossible for us to produce good results if we’re like dry land that yields only thistles.”1 After all, “no one can give what he [or she] does not have.”2
How will you replenish your reservoir this summer? As we combat a global pandemic, this question seems all the more poignant now in light of what has been, and continues to be, one of the most challenging periods in living history.
How are you being invited to nurture your mind, body, and spirit? And how will you recharge the spirit within yourself that invites all to flourish? The invitation awaits. How will you respond?
Today, both in public and private forums, bias is an unfortunate reality with which most of us are all too familiar. It may be the biases of others, who seem so easily to marginalize and discriminate, or our own prejudices that lead us to make easy judgments. Whether conscious or not, bias has often plagued humankind.
This was no different in seventeenth-century France. In fact, the era of Saint Vincent and Saint Louise was cruelly stained by explicit, state-sanctioned bias against those who were socio-economically poor. This was epitomized by the “War of the Great Confinement” which began in 1656 with a royal prohibition against all manner of public begging by the destitute poor.1 All forms of private almsgiving were also outlawed. Indeed, over the course of several years, more than five thousand poverty-stricken people were deprived of their freedom and forcibly contained in a series of institutions known as the General Hospital of Paris. Such actions were an explicit manifestation of sociocultural bias, enshrined in state policy and enforced by police and the judiciary.
Amidst such persecutory and punitive acts towards the poor, Vincent and Louise committed themselves to those whom French society had most abandoned and disenfranchised. Their ministry stood as humble testimony that another world was possible, a world in which the poor were honored and respected, not criminalized. In coming to know and love those whom society had shunned, Vincent and Louise were invited to stand in solidarity with those on the farthest margins. Their praxis testified to the inherent God-given dignity of all, but most especially to those who were poor. In seventeenth-century France, for some, this was a radical belief.
We may sometimes think that the lives of those who have gone before us are encased in history, with little to say about our current reality. However, I choose to believe this is not so. If you are reading this, may I invite you to pause for a moment and consider the following?
Are there still strong societal biases today that marginalize or alienate some individuals or groups of people? How might your values and beliefs compel you to act to expose and work against these biases in order to affirm the dignity of all? Are there ways in which, like Vincent and Louise before, you are being called today to make real with your hands what your heart longs to see?
In February 2021 my godmother passed away, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss. I had lost family members before, but never one quite as close to me. My godmother was the reason I survived my birth, my role model, and one of my biggest supporters. Her love carried me through my childhood and helped me grow because it was unconditional. Losing her has been one of the most painful things I have ever had to experience. When she first passed, it was difficult to picture a world without her and thinking of a life without her presence felt so painful. I didn’t know where to go from there. And at times, months later I still feel overwhelmed with grief and guilt. I felt guilty that I didn’t do enough to appreciate her when she was alive. I felt hopeless.
A number of things helped me process the grief I was feeling. I reached out to mentors, such as Karl Nass, and talked with them about my godmother. It was nice to lean on others for support and to feel like I had community to help me ease the pain. My friends also helped a lot; they wrote me cards, and my dear friend Gabby drew me a picture of my godmother. One of the things I found most helpful in processing my grief was very unexpected. Not too long after my loss, I attended a meeting in which there was a presentation on Saint Louise de Marillac. The presenters talked about the grief and loss she experienced.
Louise’s story helped me answer the big question that lingered with me: “Where do I go from here?” Not only was I experiencing loss when I encountered Louise’s story, but I was (and still am) dealing with some difficult mental health issues. Louise’s story gives me hope that these difficult moments will one day lead me to where I am supposed to be, or my lumière moment as Louise experienced. I learned from Louise that moments of grief, loss, and pain don’t last forever. I hold this with me now as I struggle to manage my depression. There are days in which I can’t seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I feel this way, I remember everything Louise went through and how she persevered. Louise leaned on others for support, such as her counsellor Francis de Sales, in order to deal with the grief of losing her husband. She dealt with her depression by seeking support from others, and this is something I believe we can all learn from. There are times where we need others to navigate the difficulties of life, and there is power in doing so, as we hear in Louise’s story.
Some of the greatest people, such as Louise, are not the people who seem to have it all together. They are people who are vulnerable and open about their difficulties, because we all encounter difficulties in our lives. Louise’s vulnerability teaches us the power of sharing our story with others. Because Louise’s story has brought me hope and company in a time that feels dark and lonely, I am grateful that it is documented through her writing and that we can all learn from her resilience.
Written by: Gisselle Cervantes, DePaul Class of 2021
For the entire Louise Week Lineup including our daily events and 6-day virtual pilgrimage visit:
Here’s the thing. If you just “read” this about this powerful God-filled woman, Louise de Marillac of the seventeenth century, you’ll come away with a few tidbits of—what to call it— “interesting information.” Good enough. BUT… if you approach the life of Louise in a prayerful way, your interaction with her spirit just might inspire and enliven you to new ways of living your own life. Maybe not right away, but what you learn about her might sit like a pulsing little seed in your imagination, the part of you that’s always picturing how you want to live and who you hope to become.
That’s the thing about us as humans made in the image of God: we’re always capable of becoming more than we are. Another thing about us is that we are deeply relational beings. We’re wired to connect. For instance, I feel a special connection to the pansies I planted and to the birds that come to my feeder.
So much for flowers and birds… what about connecting with a saint like Louise de Marillac?
Here’s the big “Louise Spark” that enlivened me as I read about her in preparation to write this article. It was a real “Geez Louise” realization! A favorite expression I’ve had since I was a kid, I now feel happy to apply it to a real Louise in my life.
As I read about this great lady with her steadfast-trusting-God pioneering spirit, training and guiding the Daughters, I had what Louise called a “Lumière.” I realized that if she hadn’t actively collaborated with Vincent to birth a new form of religious life, one which combined prayer and service of others, I wouldn’t be a Sister of St. Joseph today. The Daughters of Charity burst into history in 1610, and right on their heels, my congregation came into being in 1650. Which—praise Jesus—set about teaching young women, eventually sending them across the Atlantic, and over the course of 300 years, to St. Joseph Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana… and, blessedly, to me.
Prior to the Daughters, being a nun meant a cloistered life, and I would have died on the vine being confined inside convent walls like that. I would have had a nervous breakdown and no doubt driven everybody else crazy too. I wanted to be a nun because I wanted to TEACH (really wanted to teach, couldn’t wait to teach). This was because the nuns in my high school were super teachers, alive with faith and humanness and infectious humor, who challenged me to think critically, to stand up and speak in a public setting, and to be curious as all-get-out about the world and people and how God moves throughout it all. My nuns lured me in. Attraction is the way the Holy Spirit works, never the prod of “do your duty” or, worse, “you better do this or you’re going to feel sooo guilty.” So, yes, I was lured, and at age 18 I threw in my lot with the Saint Joes and haven’t looked back.
Thank you, Louise and Vincent. You did the hard work of plowing the furrow, which prepared the soil for other apostolic orders to spring up.
I’m still teaching, sometimes in classrooms, like when I come to DePaul, but also to audiences around the world about human rights. This is what has led me to entrust my archives to you here at DePaul, and to visit with you for a week of sharing each year. It is the Christ-like spirit of the Vincentians that brought me to you and keeps me coming. I love the pictures and quotes of Louise and Vincent that are all over campus. Their spirit permeates every nook and cranny and, hopefully, these few words as well.
Geez Louise! Thank you.
A postscript from Sr. Helen
Check out my collection at: Sr. Helen Prejean Papers or visit Special Collections on the third floor of the library, open again in August 2021. Two wonderful women stand ready to assist you: Jamie Nelson and Morgen MacIntosh Hodgetts. Phone: 773-325-2167.
– On the 361st anniversary of Louise de Marillac’s death, 15 March 1660 –
God, who created “every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it… saw that it was good.”(1) Our Creator also sowed seeds of the mission in the hearts of Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and their associates.(2) Those seeds of hope developed into the Vincentian Family which fulfils the Vincentian mission around the globe. In their conferences and writings, Vincent and Louise frequently referred to grains and seeds, particularly the mustard seed. Most religious traditions embody “seeds of the Word.”(3) In seventeenth-century France, Christians understood the allegorical use of the mustard seed as the “word of God” in the Parable of The Sower in Sacred Scripture.(4)
Raised in the rural marshlands of the Landes district of Gascony, not far from the Pyrenees, young Vincent de Paul learned to work the land and care for flocks of sheep. Before he left the farm at fifteen to attend school in Dax, Vincent probably helped his family plant hard-shell seeds of millet. When “cooked in a pot and poured into a dish,” this nutritious staple resembles fluffy mashed potatoes.(5) Memories of rural life remained vivid to Vincent, especially when he spoke from experience and referred to the “Good country folk…[who] sow their seed and then wait for God to bless their harvest.”(6)
After moving to Paris, Vincent shifted from an agrarian focus to priestly service. He realized that relationships and events are like seeds. Each contains covert energy. Through his relationship with the Gondi family, Vincent discovered a spiritual poverty among the peasants residing on the family estates. When learning of their situation, Mme. de Gondi asked “What must be done?” This good woman planted the first seed of the mission. Her query and Vincent’s zeal produced the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentian Priests and Brothers) in France in 1625. The first mission preached by Vincent at Folleville in 1617, “has always been considered as the seed for all the others to follow.”(7)
Months later at Châtillon, after visiting the home of a family where illness prevailed, Vincent grasped both their need of assistance and the full extent of material poverty. His awareness became a root for creativity and practicality to grow into action as organized charity.(8) At Vincent’s invitation, women of the town “joined forces to take their turn to assist the sick poor,” thus forming the first Confraternity of Charity. This seedling would develop branches, initially in Paris. Soon, pastors replicated this model throughout France.(9)
In 1623, another event in Paris embedded seeds of hope deep within a distressed wife and mother seeking interior peace. Louise de Marillac had an extraordinary experience of light (or lumière), which freed her from anxiety and doubts. Inner peace permeated the core of her being. Aware that she would “live in a small community” and “help her neighbor,” Louise “did not understand” how that would be possible since “there was to be much coming and going.”(10) As a widow several years later, Louise began to assist with Vincent de Paul’s charitable works. Recognizing her potential, in 1629 Vincent sent Louise to Montmirail as his deputy. This was the first of many supervisory visits to the Confraternities of Charity.
Marguerite Naseau, a woman from the countryside, learned that volunteers were caring for sick and impoverished people through the Confraternities of Charity in Paris. She heard Vincent preaching and shared her desire to render such charitable services.(11) Perceiving that this encounter held a seed of great value, Vincent sent Marguerite to Louise de Marillac, now his collaborator. Louise formed the women who desired to commit themselves to be servants of the sick poor, and Marguerite became the first Servant of the Sick Poor. Together, Marguerite, Louise, Vincent, and the first sisters planted the seeds of mission, which developed into the Company of the Daughters of Charity in 1633. The Ladies of Charity of the Hôtel-Dieu was the next foundation established in Paris in 1634.
As a Catholic priest and man of action, Vincent de Paul proclaimed the word of God like seeds sown in the hearts of his listeners awaiting their moment of grace.(12) For persons in need, Vincent was generous and practical. His benevolence included “money, food, clothing, medicine, tools, seed for sowing, and other necessities to sustain life.”(13) A master of dialogue and diplomacy, Vincent responded to the grace of the moment, believing that God speaks through events, encounters, persons, and sometimes grains of millet.(14)
Elizabeth Seton used the image of sowing “the little mustard seed” in reference to her own Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.(15) She reminded the women that “Every good work…we do is a grain of seed for eternal life.”(16) In a meditation comparing heaven to a mustard seed, Louise de Marillac wrote, “I am “well aware that this seed contains great strength within itself, both in its capacity to multiply and in the quality it gives to everything that is seasoned with it.”(17) Her deep desire was that the “seed may grow to its full perfection.”(18) Vincent would have certainly affirmed the important role of each person in collaborating to plant and nurture seeds of the mission to flourish.
Believe me, there is nothing like being faithful and persevering for the greater good once we have committed ourselves. May we be faithful to the mission of DePaul University in following the “way of wisdom.”(19) Let us be persons of integrity who honor the dignity and humanity of everyone, and let us embrace our responsibilities to one another and the common good. The result will be that we shall grow in virtue and God’s grace as the tiny grain of mustard seed grows into a large shrub over time.(20) I pray that the DePaul University community collaborates to transform society—to eliminate racism and eradicate oppression—so that mutual respect, justice, compassion, and peace may prevail for all people.
How familiar am I with the energy of seeds? Their potential? What seeds have I planted? Nurtured? Harvested?
How sensitive am I to inner prompts that invite me to reflect on and recognize the veiled wisdom in unplanned events and providential encounters?
What helps me realize that an event or comment contains a powerful seed of hope or truth? How do I acknowledge its presence? How willing am I to respond by taking practical action?
As a member of the DePaul University community, what seeds would I like to plant? Seeds of hope? Seeds of equity? Seeds of respect? How could I nurture the growth of more seeds of the mission?
View the Seeds of the Mission Campaign Postscript
1) Genesis 1:11-12.
2) Louis Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God, Vols. 1-3 (Vincentian Studies Institute, 1993), 2:31. See: https://via.library.depaul.edu/abelly_english/4
3) Ad Gentes, §15. See: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651207_ad-gentes_en.html
4) Luke 8:11.
5) Cooked millet has a fluffy texture and slightly nutty flavor. See Conference 13, Imitating the Virtues of Village Girls, 25 January 1643, CCD, 9:70. At: https://via.library.depaul.edu/coste_en/
6) Ibid., 73-4.
7) Abelly, Life, 1:61.
8) Conference 23, Maxims of Saint Vincent, “Order in the Service of Charity,” CCD, 12:383.
9) Document 1248, Foundation of the Charity in Châtlllon-Les-Dombes, 23 August 1617, CCD, 13b:3.
10) A2, Light, in Louise Sullivan, Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac (New York: New City Press, 1991), 1. At: https://via.library.depaul.edu/ldm/11/
11) Conference 24, Love of Vocation and Assistance to the Poor, 13 February 1646, CCD, 9: 194; Conference 12, The Virtues of Marguerite Naseau, [July 1642], CCD, 9:64-6.
12) Abelly, Life, 2:99.
13) Cf. Ibid., 1:204.
14) Letter 704, To Bernard Codoing, 16 March 1644, CCD, 2:499.
15) 7.117, Elizabeth Ann Seton to Antonio Filicchi, 16 September 1817, in Regina Bechtle, S.C., and Judith Metz, S.C., eds., Ellin M. Kelly, mss. ed., Elizabeth Bayley Seton Collected Writings, 3 vols. (New City Press: New York, 2000-2006), 2:508. See: https://via.library.depaul.edu/seton_lcd/
16) 10.2, Red Leather Notebook, Maxims, Ibid., 3a:488.
17) A.37, “Heaven Compared to a Mustard Seed,” in Sullivan, Spiritual Writings, 803.
19) Proverbs 4:11.
20) Conference 162, Repetition of Prayer, 19 November 1656, CCD, 11:346.
Reflection by: Betty Ann McNeil, D.C., Vincentian Scholar-in-Residence, Division of Mission and Ministry
“My heart is still overflowing with joy on account of the understanding which, I believe, our good God has given me of the words, “God is my God” … Therefore, I cannot help communicating with you this evening to ask you to assist me to profit from this excess of joy…”1
The ups and downs of the election season and the continued uncertainty that lingers regarding the state of our nation and a public health crisis make evident to us that unless we want to ride an emotional rollercoaster, we need to find a deeper, steadier, and more sustainable source of joy.
As quoted above from a letter to Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac found a source for such resilient joy in the ongoing presence of her God. From her Christian imagination and faith, she spoke with confidence of a belief that even in moments of loss and hardship, there is always the possibility of new life and resurrected hope. This way of making meaning offered her the possibility of a resilient joy that sustained her generative life of service and charity.2
What about you? Where do you seek and find a joy that is not dependent on the daily fluctuations of your external environment, such as the post-election results or COVID numbers, or the inevitably temperamental nature of human emotions and thoughts?
As I have aged, I’ve come to realize that much of the quality of my life is about learning how to live with loss. Whether the loss of a loved one to death, the loss of an idealistic dream or well-designed plan, the loss of a favorite sports team, or even the loss of my hair, losses can sting and leave us flustered, sad, angry, and off-balance. Furthermore, there is often a tendency to turn that hurt or sadness inward on ourselves in the form of self-critique or self-loathing, or outward onto others with blame and judgment. Handling loss like this does not lead to the kind of meaningful joy that Louise speaks of and we desire. Such joy will only come with a willingness to accept what we cannot change or control, to accept reality as it is, even if we would rather it be different.
Staring reality in the face, might we find joy simply in knowing that we can begin again from where we now are? Life offers us an infinite number of opportunities to begin again and ultimately reach our goals. There is joy to be found in re-discovering our freedom and creativity, in finding new ways to shine a light amidst darkness, and in being generative despite uncertainty or difficulty.
I suspect that this is what Louise de Marillac discovered, that with God’s help, the human spirit is resilient and will always rise again.
2) For more on the overflowing joy and generativity of Louise’s life, see: Vie Thorgren, “‘God is My God’: The Generative Integrity of Louise de Marillac,” Vincentian Heritage 12:2 (1991), 201-18. Available at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/vhj/vol12/iss2/7
Reflection by: Mark Laboe, Associate VP, Division of Mission and Ministry
Join us this coming Wednesday!
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Noon to 1 pm
The DePaul community is invited to join the College of Communication and the Division of Mission & Ministry for a lunchtime workshop devoted to gratitude practices. Research indicates that cultivating a sense of gratitude in our lives protects us from stress and depression and increases resiliency. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this is the perfect time to come learn some new approaches to feeling and expressing gratitude. Click here to register for Gratitude Workshop.
The Vincentian Studies Institute is extremely pleased to promote the publication of our colleague and fellow board member’s new work. Dr. Brejon de Lavergnée is a Professor of History and the Dennis H. Holtschneider Chair of Vincentian Studies at DePaul University.
“The Daughters of Charity are today the largest community of Catholic women, with 15,000 sisters in about 100 countries. They devote their lives to serving the poorest in hospitals, schools, and care centers for homeless or migrants, as well as working to promote social justice. Until now, however, the history of the Daughters of Charity has been almost wholly neglected. The opening of their central archives, combined with access to many public and private archives, has finally allowed this to be remedied.
This volume, the fruit of several years’ work, covers the history of the Company from its foundation by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac as a confraternity of young women to the suppression of the order during the French Revolution. The study, at the juncture of women’s history and religious history, shows how much the Daughters of Charity contributed to the emergence of a new and ambiguous status in post-Tridentine society: neither cloistered nuns nor married women, but “seculars.” The Company has certainly offered a framework that enabled many resolute women to lead lives out of the ordinary, taking young peasant women to the royal court, intrepid hearts to Poland, and, more generally, generous souls to the “martyrdom of charity” among the poor and the ill.”
The DePaul University Vincentian Studies Institute is pleased to announce the publication of our newest peer-reviewed e-book edition of Vincentian Heritage (Volume 35, Number 2).
Of note, this edition includes a significant new translation, never before published, of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s testimony on the virtuous life of Vincent de Paul. The document, at one time thought lost, follows after those prepared for the canonization process and offers insight from a man who knew the saint during his life. The book also advances our new design and features the following articles:
“Pa, Ma, and Fa: Private Lives of Nineteenth-Century American Vincentians,” by John E. Rybolt, C.M., Ph.D.
“Bishop John Timon, C.M., Sisters of Charity Hospital, and the Cholera Epidemic of 1849,” by Dennis Castillo, Ph.D.
“Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Vision of Ecological Community. Based on Elizabeth Bayley Seton: Collected Writings, Volume Two,” by Sung-Hae Kim, S.C.
“BOSSUET: Testimony Concerning the Life and the Eminent Virtues of Monsieur Vincent de Paul (1702),” Translation and additional annotation by Edward R. Udovic, C.M., Ph.D.
In many ways, we are living in uncertain times. As a country, some people are anxious and uncertain about when the results of this year’s presidential and congressional races will be known. As a university, many of us are entering our eighth month of working from home as a result of the pandemic with no idea how much longer this may last. As individuals, some of us may also be facing other personal challenges with uncertain outcomes.
What can we do when we are faced with all this uncertainty?
Consider Louise de Marillac, who turned to her faith. Reflecting during a retreat, she wrote, “I must accept this uncertainty as well as my inability clearly to perceive at this time the path which God wishes me to follow in His service.”1 When faced with challenges, Louise realized that she could not always see where and when those challenges would end, and how she could overcome them. As a Catholic-Christian in seventeenth-century France, she put her faith and trust in God, who she believed to have planned a path for her life. She accepted that she could only do so much, and she believed God would take care of the rest.
What lessons can you take away from Louise’s approach to uncertain times? How might you translate her wisdom to your own life and belief system? When thinking about the uncertainty of life right now, who can you trust or believe in that will help you on your journey, wherever it may lead?
Louise de Marillac once noted that “hunger and thirst are two urgent needs of nature, especially in strong bodies… If our souls are healthy, they should have the same urges, not as passions, but as desires for justice.”1 Louise was suggesting that in the same way our bodies need food and water to be healthy, our souls are only healthy when we are living in and working towards a just society. More specifically, this desire for justice is an ongoing, long-term pursuit. The need is not just a quick “passion” or trend, but something at the core of who we are as human beings.
Yet, as strong as our internal conviction to create a just society may be, none of us can do it alone. It takes a community working together for the sake of a common mission to create systemic change. Our personal desire for justice will only be effective if we use it to support and collaborate with others, and in turn lean on them to support us. It is in “this spirit of support and adaptation […] we would regard the interest of others as our own! And with the strong sustaining the weak, everything would go better.”2
How are you nourishing your soul’s desire for justice? How are you supporting and collaborating with others in your community to create change? How can your community support you?
1) A.30, (Meditation on the Hunger and Thirst for Justice), Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, 733.
2) 1910, To Étienne Blatiron, Superior, In Genoa, September 1655, CCD, 5:423.
Michael Van Dorpe, Program Manager for Faculty and Staff Engagement, Mission & Ministry