By Sr. Charlotte Raftery
May 9 is the Feast Day of Saint Louise de Marillac
For what am I zealous? When in my life have I felt most energized…most alive? What are ways I can nourish my zeal? What dampens my zeal? As we reflect on the zeal which energized Louise de Marillac, what might be our prayer? Louise’s zeal for service of the outcasts of society found its source in her abandonment to the Spirit of God and to promoting the reign of God by helping to promote a more just society.
This Easter Season may be a time to recall the Pentecost experience of Louise in which she was freed by the Holy Spirit from self-recrimination and feelings of depression. It was the year 1623. This spiritual awakening for Louise came at a time in her life when she desperately needed to understand the meaning and direction of her life. Her husband had died after a long illness. The awakening gave Louise confidence to know that when a decision was to be made or a crisis confronted, she could rely on the Spirit to help her discern God’s will. It engendered a passion to alleviate the suffering of God’s poor. It inspired the zeal that throughout her life gave Louise the energy to reach out tirelessly to inspire her companions, her collaborators, and the people she served. Believing in the Resurrection, Louise was able to live joyfully, in spite of the many difficult challenges.
What might be considered another dramatic intervention of the Holy Spirit in Louise’s life happened when she found it necessary to transfer her spiritual direction to the country priest, Vincent de Paul. Initially neither she nor Vincent was happy with this arrangement. As the wife of Monsieur Le Gras, secretary to the Queen, Mother of the King of France, Louise had been used to a director from a different strata of Church society. Vincent, for his part, was extremely occupied with the needs of the Confraternities he had started and was not interested in being spiritual director for this widow.
Gradually Vincent came to recognize Louise’s gifts. In 1629 Vincent asked her to accompany him on a trip to Montmirail to open a new Confraternity of Charity. Significantly Vincent asked Louise if her heart was telling her that this was the right decision for her. From the beginning what we have come to know as Vincentian discernment was incorporated into this Spirit-filled relationship. Through their relationship Louise learned to trust God and to trust herself. Vincent became more able to incorporate dramatically innovative ways of serving the poor. Most innovative was Louise’s idea of inviting peasant women into her home. Louise’s zeal led her to create a new way of living in community by taking vows annually. This differed radically from the cloistered life of religious who came from wealthy families, and whose dowries supported the monasteries. Louise formed the Daughters into a supportive community that enabled them to go out to serve among the outcasts of society.
Louise zealously pursued the glory of God. Her zeal gave her the energy, often in spite of illness, to travel throughout France encouraging the Daughters of Charity and the Ladies of Charity to serve the poor with respect and compassion. She set up new Confraternities , reorganized and revivified others. She traveled on horseback, by boat, by coach and on foot. In each mission she visited Louise supported people’s energy, confidence and enthusiasm. She tried to settle misunderstandings and make practical decisions. Louise was teacher, social worker, nurse, spiritual director, manager, and was skilled in influencing people of wealth and influence to support the mission to the poor.
As we prepare for Pentecost, we pray that the zeal which enlivened Louise and Vincent in the seventeenth century, and Elizabeth Ann Seton in the nineteenth century, may enliven and inspire our outreach to the poor of the twenty first century.