While it is not exactly historically documented, one of my favorite Vincentian stories is how Saint Louise de Marillac made one single decision that drastically preserved the way the Daughters of Charity lived their mission and which continues to prevail even today. A true lesson in perseverance. Holy perseverance. The relative norm for religious women during the seventeenth century was to be cloistered and out of the public eye. However, Saint Louise and her sisters lived a life that was very much a public ministry. They went about doing the practical business of God’s work when and where it was required, without a need to separate themselves from the poor. The story goes that Saint Louise was given a letter requiring the Daughters of Charity to become a cloistered order. Interestingly enough, that letter was never seen… It seems that our beloved and strategic Saint Louise “lost” the letter!
Ultimately, it was Saint Louise who had a clear vision for what the mission was meant to be. The hierarchical authorities at work might have much preferred the sisters busy but out of sight. Yet, quite frankly, Saint Louise simply knew better. We should take some notes from our foundress. How could the Daughters minister in hospitals or establish schools for young girls if they were not permitted to be out in the world? It is a tricky thing to heed authority sincerely, all the while knowing that sometimes no one sees the heart of our mission more clearly than we do. One of the ever-present buzzwords of our day is “systems.” We have an affinity for relegating our societal problems into indecipherably overpowering frameworks that no one person can dismantle alone. “Systems” is the word we use these days as a catchall for intricacies that keep people bound.
No one lives outside of these systems. We are all universally participants in one system or another: there’s simply no societal way around it. But we can actually turn the system on its axis if we work within it to create effective change in the small ways we each hold agency. We can enlist our systems in a fashion that facilitates the greatest good we can achieve; upholding the dignity of others. That’s precisely what Saint Louise did! She may have “lost” the letter, but she kept the mission vibrant.
Working within systems can be a taxing mess, yet often we are called to promote change with our very persistence. We must put our hope into action with steady progress toward what we can influence. While the tasks may be tedious and the hierarchy well-intended, we all have a letter to lose. May Saint Louise be a reminder to us that no one is exempt from systems, and may we draw solace from her words, “I hope that our good God will grant you holy perseverance.”1
1 L.19, To Monsieur L’Abbé de Vaux, 3 May 1640, Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, 28.
Written by: Azucena De La Torre, Ministry Coordinator, Division of Mission and Ministry