|JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
MARIE LOUISE OF JESUS
I. Biographical Profile: 1. Childhood and adolescence; 2. The meeting with Montfort; 3. The hospital in Poitiers; 4. A long wait; 5. The school at La Rochelle; 6. The institution of the Daughters of Wisdom; 7. The death of Montfort; 8. Foundation of the mother house; 9. The Montfort family at Saint- Laurent; 10. First foundations; 11. The development of the Institute; 12. The last years and death of the Foundress. II. Her Personality and Her Work: 1. The foundress; 2. The teacher. III. Her Writings. IV. Her Spiritual Journey: 1. Her search for Divine Wisdom; 2. Faith; 3. Humility; 4. Obedience; 5. Joy through the Cross; 6. The way of Mary. V. Marie Louise Speaks to us Today: 1. Her missionary spirit; 2. Her love of the poor.
I. BIOGRAPHICAL PROFILE
1. Childhood and adolescence
Marie Louise was born in Poitiers on May 7, 1684, and baptized the same day in the parish church of St. Etienne. Her parents, Julien Trichet and Françoise Lecocq, were deeply Christian. Marie Louise was the fourth child and third daughter of a family of eight.
The eldest, Jeanne, struck with paralysis at the age of thirteen, was cured three years later during a visit to Notre Dame des Ardilliers at Saumur. The second daughter, Elizabeth, a year older than Marie Louise and her inseparable companion, was known because of her extraordinary piety as "the angel of the family." The youngest, born after the death of two children in infancy, would later join the Congregation governed by her sister. Julien, the eldest son, who followed his father into the legal profession, was the only member of the family to marry. Alexis, a year younger than Marie Louise, was ordained priest in 1710. When the plague broke out in a prison camp, he volunteered to minister to the victims, contracted the disease, and died.
Her father held a distinguished post as magistrate at the Court of Justice of Poitiers. There was no lack of cases at the time, nor was there a lack of lawyers willing to defend them; not all of them, unfortunately, as honest as Monsieur Trichet, who refused to handle doubtful ones. Honesty does not always pay, and the family found itself living in reduced circumstances.
At the age of seven, Marie Louise was sent to the boarding school at Poitiers conducted by the Sisters of Ste. Jeanne de Lestonac; here she acquired the feminine and social accomplishments expected of a young person of quality in seventeenth-century France. In an atmosphere of simplicity and contemplation that was much to her taste, she gave free reign to her spiritual fervor, finding increasing inspiration in Mary. The product of an inner freedom, her faith, combined with love, was lived out daily.
We do not know just when the young girls thoughts turned towards the religious life, but more and more frequently she was to be found on the road leading to the hospital, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of her sister, with whom she attended Holy Mass daily in the cathedral. Together they would visit the poor in their homes as well as in the hospital.
2. The meeting with Montfort
In 1701, Father de Montfort went to Poitiers. He preached, heard confessions, and spent much time with the poor of the hospital, where he was to become chaplain. Returning from church, where she had listened to a sermon by Louis Marie, Elizabeth exclaimed to her sister, "That preacher is a saint."
Marie Louise had already decided to go to confession to this priest and perhaps confide to him her aspirations for the religious life. She entered the confessional. Scarcely had she begun to speak when the preacher interrupted her. "My child, who sent you to me?" "My sister," was the reply. "No, my child, it was not your sister but the Blessed Virgin who sent you to me." What prophetic words! From then on, the whole of Marie Louises life, though she did not know it then, was set to bring about Montforts idea: "A congregation of young women dedicated to Incarnate Wisdom, so as to confound the false wisdom of the world by the establishment of the folly of the Gospel among them."
She placed herself under the direction of this holy priest. After following a retreat preached by him, she became a frequent visitor to the small community of poor and infirm women founded by him, and of which he had become the chaplain. This, however, did not satisfy her aspiration for the contemplative life; she wished to enter a monastery. She sought his help, but this was not forthcoming, and during his absence she decided to enter the community of the Canonesses of St. Augustine at Chatellerault. She had no dowry, so she would have to be a lay Sister. This mattered little to her. But illness and a hint of Jansenism soon sent Madame Trichet to reclaim her daughter. On her return to Poitiers, she found Montfort. Her demands were renewed. "Shall I be a religious?" The response was unexpected but decisive: "Go and live at the hospital!"
3. The hospital in Poitiers
Poverty, corruption, and vandalism were rampant in Poitiers, as in most towns throughout the country. In Poitiers, capital of Poitou, a fine stone building had been erected: the General Hospital. Here were forcibly enclosed the towns beggars, cripples, drunksthe dregs of societya world into which Montfort the young chaplain was determined to introduce some order, piety, and, if possible, a little joy. The rule of life he proposed for the governors was rejected. The rules that he introduced to ameliorate the lot of the inmates were regarded with suspicion or hostility. All the hospital offered the inmates was a common room; one bed for two, sometimes three; black bread; an unappetizing stew; and a uniform of grey calico.1
"Go and live at the hospital" was the direction given to a young girl who had already experienced the monastery and whose only dream was to return, to a young lady from a distinguished family and of a high education. "Go to the hospital." In what position? There was no vacancy for a governor. "Take me as an inmate," was Marie Louises reply. "Go to the hospital." For how long? "Do not leave this place even if it should take ten years for the congregation to be established; God will be pleased and his design accomplished."
4. A long wait
Marie Louise obeyed. She left her family, and on February 2, 1703, she received from Montfort a religious habit and consecrated herself to God. For ten long years, the whole of her youth, she would live among the poor at their service, following alone the Rule rejected by the governors of the establishment. Gradually, the administration would confide to her financial and material responsibility; from 1708 she would substitute for the official bursar, until finally in 1711 she found herself in complete charge of the establishment. In the years of scarcity that were the sad characteristic of the end of the "Great Reign" and the beginning of the new century, and in the rigors of terrible winters that brought the poor and destitute in droves to the hospital, she carried out her functions with zeal and compassion. When the terrible epidemic of 1710 broke out, she found herself almost alone at the bedside of the sick, so great was the fear of contagion.
The years passed, with Montfort away on his missions in the west of France, letters at long intervals her only consolation.
In 1713, Montfort arrived at last at Poitiers. The conversations they had were long and fruitful; he gave her a companion, Catherine Brunet, chosen by her from among the governors. The long solitude was over.
5. The school at La Rochelle
In 1711, Montfort, with the approval of Monsignor de Champflour, bishop of La Rochelle, preached a mission there. During the course of the mission, the bishop confided to Montfort his great desire to build schools for the poor children of the diocese. Montfort, for his part, seeing the religious education of children as a fruitful outcome of the mission, was in full accord; the decision was taken to open two schools: one for boys and one for girls. For the latter, Montfort would enlist the help of the Daughters of Wisdom.
Marie Louise and Catherine Brunet, despite fierce opposition to their departure, left Poitiers for La Rochelle on March 23, 1715. A school was opened that in a short time would cater four hundred girls; a free school supported by the bishop and following the program and rules laid down by Montfort in his Rules for Charity Schools. It was so successful that it aroused the admiration of both the Jesuits and Bishop de Champflour himself. Not content with teaching academic subjects only, the school formed the pupils to good habits of discipline and piety. Marie Louise proved herself especially adept with adolescents, forming an association of thirty-three pupils in honor of the thirty-three years spent on earth by Jesus, Incarnate Wisdom. They followed a small rule of life drawn up by Marie Louise and approved by the bishop.
6. The Institution of the Daughters of Wisdom
Montfort withdrew from his missionary activities to spend time at the hermitage of St. Eloi at La Rochelle. While there, he put the finishing touches to the Rule of the Daughters of Wisdom. On August 22, 1715, Marie Louise and Catherine Brunet, together with the two ladies of La Rochelle who had joined them, Marie Valleau and Marie Régnier, made their religious profession at the hands of Montfort with the approbation of Bishop de Champflour. "Call yourselves," he said, "the Daughters of Wisdom, for the teaching of children and the care of the poor." And he added: "God wants Marie Trichet to be the superior." A community, a title, a Rule, a superior: the Institute was founded.
7. The death of Montfort
In the early days of May 1716, a messenger arrived with the sad news that Montfort had died while preaching a mission at St. Laurent-sur- Sèvre. Marie Louise, at thirty-two years of age, would, in the absence of a successor, assume the full responsibility for the foundation. Who was left after the death of the founder? A few priests, his missionary companions, who were not committed by vows; four Brothers with vows; three lay mission helpers, and, at La Rochelle, a female community that already had a structure, with a superior, three professed Sisters, and one novice. The numbers were negligible, but the numbers of Sisters especially would to grow rapidly. For the next three years, the school continued.
8. Foundation of the mother house
After the Sisters departure from Poitiers, the situation in the hospital went from bad to worse. In 1719, the administration decided to ask the Sisters to return. But knowing that from now on it was a question of an established Congregation, they offered Sister Trichet the opportunity to install her mother house and novitiate at the hospital. Consumed by the desire to develop the Institute confided to her by Montfort, Marie Louise accepted, and with Catherine (Sister of the Conception) and Marie-Anne (Sister of St Joseph) she returned to her home town.
The administrators, however, interested only in the hospital, included in the contract two clauses unacceptable to the foundress: the board would name the superior, and half of the novices dowry would accrue to the hospital. Not willing to compromise the autonomy of the Institute, Marie Louise refused. But then Providence intervened.
A chance meeting in the streets of Poitiers brought advice. Here, one day, the foundress met Jacques Goudeau, a pious layman, a disciple of Montfort. Before leaving for a mission, St. Louis Marie had confided to him the care of the sanctuary of Mary, Queen of All Hearts, at Montbernage. He suggested to Marie Louise that she contact Madame de Bouillé, a noble lady living in the neighborhood of Saint-Laurent: "She is in a position to help you," he said. For Marie Louise, this was a sudden and blinding revelation: Madame de Bouillé, a woman cured by Montfort; Saint-Laurent, the burial place of the founder. Was this not a sign from God?
The noble lady proved only too willing to help the daughters of the holy missionary. At first the dean of Saint-Laurent was well disposed to the proposed foundation. He called a meeting of the inhabitants; their act of agreement was registered at Mortagne on September 14, 1719.
One evening in June 1720, during the octave of Corpus Christi, Sister Marie Louise arrived at Saint-Laurent. Her first visit was to the tomb of her spiritual father, where she knelt in fervent prayer; then on to the "Maison Longue," the house purchased for her by Madame de Bouillé. She found it dilapidated, lacking the barest essentials. Here, in extreme poverty, the mother house of the congregation would function for several years. Bedding, clothing, and maintenance were nonexistent. Certain days would see the Sisters with only black bread for sustenance and, on one occasion, one egg for four Sisters.
Problems abounded, not least the opposition of the dean, M. Rougeau de la Jarrie, who had expected a kind of help for his parish that in their destitution the Sisters were unable to supply. One Sister gave classes to girls without asking fees; another visited the sick in their homes but had little to give them. And the community life, regulated by the bell that called the Sisters to prayers, seemed more conventual in style than was to the liking of the good priest. He had envisaged a parish team; the foundress, faithful to her mission, was set on establishing a novitiate.
The novices arrived, some of noble birth, others of humble origin; all were received with the same warmth. Marie Louise herself formed them with the greatest care in the religious life according to the Rule and spiritual doctrine of Louis Marie de Montfort. Silence, detachment from the world, poverty and mortification, prayer, a tender devotion to Mary, and an intense love of Jesus, Incarnate Wisdom, were taught more by her example than by word, gently in the joy of daily community living.
Madame de Bouillé, in her enthusiasm, wished to participate in this community life, but her two young childrens natural exuberance was a constant obstacle to what little calm was possible. Her strongly expressed views, far from being the same as those of the superior, were often more in line with those of the dean. It became necessary that she should depart.
In separating itself from its benefactress, the community was depriving itself of valuable resources. Providence, however, came to their aid. With the dowries provided by certain novices, land was acquired that produced a certain amount of revenue. This, too, however, brought new problems in the form of hostile neighbors, who denounced the Sisters to the authorities as landowners evading taxes. The case was dismissed. Many years later, during the great drought of 1739, Marie Louise won the gratitude and affection of both people and parish priest when, having shared with them her reserves of wheat, she negotiated and obtained for them large provisions of rice from the authorities.
9. The Montfort family at Saint-Laurent
Marie Louise also played a role in the establishment of the Company of Mary at Saint-Laurent.
There were two priests, Fathers Mulot and Vatel, and Brother Mathurin Rangeard, a lay Brother and faithful companion in their missions. When the superior of the Daughters of Wisdom founded her mother house, she recognized the need for a spiritual director, and who better than the priest designated by Montfort himself on his deathbed as his successor could fill this post? She requested and obtained permission from the bishop for R. Mulot to take up this duty and, at the same time, welcomed to Saint-Laurent M. Valois, who had joined the missionary group, all the while discerning and affirming the vocation of Brother Joseau, a faithful friend of the community. During a new mission at Saint-Laurent in 1721, the installation of the missionaries at the place of the tomb of their founder was decided. Thus, at the instigation of Marie Louise, Saint-Laurent became the place where the disciples of Montfort regrouped. In 1722, Montfort Fathers and Brothers gathered together in their new residence, elected their superior, and pronounced their vows in his presence.
They obtained from a nobleman, the Marquis de Magnanne, a relative of Madame de Bouillé, an ancient inn known as the "Green Oak," which served as residence during their breaks between missions. In 1723, the number of Sisters having increased to nine, their house, the "Maison Longue," proved inadequate, and a friendly exchange of residences took place between the two communities.
10. First foundations
Novices continued to arrive; the time had come to set up new foundations. Montfort had predicted, "There is a house at Rennes where you will go." A true prophecy: the first Sisters to leave the mother house were destined for Rennes, capital of Brittany. In 1724, the Daughters of Wisdom took possession of a charitable school founded by the Marquis de Magnanne. The following year found them once more at La Rochelle, this time in the hospital, facing an extremely painful situation.
When Marie Louise left La Rochelle in 1719, she left behind two Sisters from that town, Sister of the Incarnation (Marie Valois) and Sister of the Cross (Marie Regnier). The separation, intended to be temporary, became protracted and came close to developing into a full- blown schism. The two Sisters, ill advised by successive directors and colleagues, abandoned both the grey habit and the name of Daughters of Wisdom. While continuing to observe the Rule given by Montfort, they functioned as an autonomous Institute, even receiving postulants. In 1725, they numbered eight and were staffing the schools of Saint- Nicholas, Esnandes, and Chaillé, when their director, M. Bourgine, acting in the name of the hospital board, offered them the administration of the general hospital.
At this point, Marie Louise intervened. She left for La Rochelle, and by dint of gentle persuasion, she brought about a reconciliation. She personally negotiated the contract between the hospital and the congregation. Later, at the request of the parish and the population, she proceeded to the Ile de Ré to establish a new community, that of La Flotte.
The Sisters at this date numbered twenty-four, including aspirants dispersed throughout five establishments: Saint-Laurent, Rennes, La Rochelle, Esnandes and La Flotte-en-Ré.
11. The development of the Institute
The Institute continued to develop. From 1729 to 1759, the foundress established thirty new communities, charitable establishments where the Sisters taught children, visited the poor, and nursed the sick without any payment; their expenses being met by the parishioners or benefactors.
There were also houses of "Providence," where the Sisters lived with orphans, the aged, and the handicapped confided to their care. Here they existed from day to day on voluntary donations.
There were the general hospitals, like the one at La Rochelle, or at Niort, where administrators hired their services: places of misery and often of filth and disorder, where they were expected to introduce a modicum of peace and happiness.
In all her foundations, Marie Louise proved herself both spiritual and realisticrealistic in her negotiation of contracts on the material environment and spiritual in her overriding concern for the spiritual welfare of her religious. She personally installed them in each new residence, remaining with them from three weeks to three months, or even longer, according to the circumstances; at Oléron , for example, this meant three years. A Sister would be designated to govern the mother house when this happened.
Later on, when she could no longer accompany the Sisters in new foundations, she would delegate a wise and experienced Sister. She never accepted an establishment if the conditions were incompatible with the observance of the basic Rules of the Institute. As at Saint-Laurent she had steadfastly refused to yield to the demands of the parish priest and her benefactress Madame de Bouillé, so at Poitiers she refused the enclosure of the Sisters requested by the bishop. However strong may have been her own attraction for the contemplative life, she remained faithful to the direction of St. Louis de Montfort, the founder. To the suggestion that she should introduce in the Congregation perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, one half of the community being at prayer while the other was at work, her reply was, "That was not the intention of Father de Montfort." Rather, following the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, every Sister should be both Martha and Mary. This was indeed the specific role of Montforts idea in the evolution of religious life of the eighteenth century.
12. The last years and death of the foundress
Combining the purest of mental prayer with continual activity, Marie Louise lived through her long adulthood, right up to the onset of old age.
At the age of 66, she made a last, long, and arduous journey on horseback to all of her foundations; a visit that gave to her the pleasure of finding all the Sisters living faithfully to the original Rule, and to the Sisters the joy of a final encounter and a chance to listen to her final exhortations. She returned to the mother house, never to leave it again.
A last painful trial, coming from her own community, awaited her. A Sister, who remains anonymous, started a campaign against her, with the intention of replacing her as head of the community. The new Father General, recently appointed and inexperienced, gave credence to the calumnies leveled against the foundress, who accepted the humiliations and reproaches in silence while continuing to govern with gentleness and self-effacement. When, at the end of a year, justice was finally done, she treated the instigator with the utmost charity and consideration.
Then she suffered an accident: a fall that occasioned months of suffering patiently borne. This was followed by a final illness, which heralded her meeting with her Lord. Her last hours were interspersed with frequent and joyful "Alleluias." Her last words were, "My Lord and my God."
This was in 1759, on the same day (28 April), at the same time, and even in the same place as Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, whose faithful disciple she had always been, had died. Her body lies next to his in the basilica at Saint-Laurent.
II. HER PERSONALITY AND HER WORK
"What will become of this child?"the exasperated exclamation of Madame Trichet. "You are mistaken, my dear!" was the reply of Monsieur Trichet. "God will do great things through her." Her personality was ambiguous from the start: reserved, timid, discreet, with a deep-rooted humility, she seemed to be introverted. Yet her faith, her balance, and her tenacity marked her for great things. Her serenity would exasperate some of her Sisters. Her obstinacy in following her own idea in opposition to the parish priest of Saint-Laurent would astound him. In her last years, her adamant opposition to the construction of ostentatious buildings at the mother house would be attributed by her detractors in the community to a deterioration of her mental powers. Until recent years, the tendency was to leave her in the shade, albeit in the shade of Saint Louis Marie. It must, nevertheless, be remarked that the parish priest did retract his unfavorable judgment. "I recognize the devil played his part," he remarked. The Father General, misled by the campaign waged against her, repented of his misjudgment and wrote her biography, the most important document about her. In a circular written the day following her death, he extolled her virtues. To the Daughters of Wisdom he wrote: "You have lost a real daughter of Montfort, a mother, a foundress, a model, a living copy of the virtues of Jesus Incarnate Wisdom."2 Sr. Florence, her assistant for ten years, would affirm: "Her natural mind was capable of great things . . . . She had a foresightedness without equal, a mind that no detail escaped . . . . Her judgment and grasp of a situation were excellent."3 While not wishing to emulate the exaggerated eulogies of a certain style of hagiography, we must nevertheless recognize in Marie Louise not a speculative intelligence, but a sound judgment, a sense of reality, and a penetrating gift of discernment. She did not have extraordinary intuitions, but in them she showed balance and discretion. She did not dream of grand projects, but remained faithful to a demanding vocation, to the everyday calls on her energies, and was most effective in practical ways. Instead of a creative imagination, she showed, rather, a discretion and a wisdom that saved her always from excess and the lure of the spectacular, while her extraordinary energy helped her overcome trials and obstacles. Her strong fear of sin and her exalted understanding of obedience made her much more of a disciple than an innovator; yet, her care for human beings, allied with her gift of discernment, made her naturally a remarkable teacher. That is really what she was, as her tombstone, placed next to that of Montfort in the basilica in Saint-Laurent, says: "Marie Louise of Jesus, foundress of the first Daughters of Wisdom." The French word is Institutrice, one who founds, but also one who educates.
1. The foundress
On this point, we could ask two questions: What would Marie Louise have become without Montfort? And what would have become of Montforts dream without Marie Louise?
Without Montfort, what would Marie Louise have become? No doubt a holy religious, probably a nun, and eventually an excellent superior of a community. Her desire to be a religious was obvious, but she would probably never have dreamt, left to herself, of founding a Religious Institute.
In fact, after her ill-fated spell in the novitiate of the Augustinian Canonesses, she tried three times to enter an established community. This was during the ten years of solitude in Poitiers. The first time, on the advice of her director in the absence of Montfort, Father Carcault, she asked to join the Daughters of Charity. But Bishop de Champflour forbade it: "You want to be a Grey Sister? Are you not one already?" A little later, she wanted to join the Benedictines of Calvary. Father Carcault gave his consent, provided Montfort should agree. But Montfort was forthright: "Wait in patience and stay at the hospital." Marie Louise, however, as the waiting grew longer, tried a third time, with the Carmelites of Montierneuf. This time, it was the Abbess who refused. And so, Providence returned her to Father de Montfort. Her vocation was to be his disciple and a cooperator in his lifes work.
Marie Louise was first and foremost Montforts disciple by the way she lived. She followed fervently the spiritual path traced out for her by the saint in LEW. Perhaps this is the book which he sent to the first Daughters of Wisdom, saying to them: "Here is a book written for you." The desire for Wisdom, continual prayer, universal mortification, dependence on Mary: Marie Louise made all these means pointed out by Montfort her own way to salvation. She kept faithfully, from the time of her harsh novitiate in Poitiers until her death, the rule of life mapped out by the founder. She taught its spirit and practice to the religious placed under her guidance. She defended it against all the abuses and softening with which even holy priests would try to dilute it, priests like Father Vatel or the dean of Saint-Laurent; against the suggestions of Madame de Bouillé, or the requests of the bishop of Poitiers: "That is not what Father de Montfort wanted," was always her irrefutable argument.
"She looked upon herself," says Pauvert, one of the biographers of Saint Louis Marie, "as a compliant worker putting into effect the plan of the master. If she had thought for a moment that the idea was her own, she would never have had the courage to fight all the obstacles that the nascent project was to encounter. She would have left it alone, believing that she had dreamed the impossible. But her burning faith in the holiness of the priest whose virtues she had seen gave her a trust in his promise and enabled her to hope beyond all hope." She was indeed, then, the disciple, to the point of heroism, of the one from whom, from her earliest youth, she had received teaching, example, and formation. That is why we could not imagine Marie Louise without Montfort.
On the other hand, what would have happened to Montforts ideas for his foundations without Marie Louise? What would the beginnings of the Daughters of Wisdom have been like without her feminine influence, at once gentle and discreet? Certainly Montfort is a saint and a genius. His apostolic success was astonishing, the conversions he obtained extraordinary. And yet, according to his own words, he was like "a ball in a game of tennis," always on the move, always the object of opposition. He initiated great plans without always seeing them bear fruit. RW, which he had dreamed of since 1702, would not be officially approved until 1715, by the bishop of La Rochelle. RM was only put together little by little, during his successive meetings with the seminary of the Holy Spirit in Paris in 1703 and 1713. It is true that the texts of these two are very precise, their spirituality is solidly based, and they bore much fruit; their harvest would be very great. Yet, it was not he who would gather in this harvest.
It was thanks to Marie Louise and the Marquis de Magnanne that the male disciples of Montfort found themselves gathered around the tomb of their founder. It was thanks to her that the Congregation of the Daughters of Wisdom got well started. This was not only because his death prevented the founder from completing his work but perhaps also because he himself, with his passionate temperament, was not really the right person to establish on a firm foundation a female Congregation. Pauvert was not mistaken when, while attributing to Montfort "the creative idea," recognizing in Marie Louise "the admirable instrument of its realization."4
Montfort reflected on, composed, and edited RW. But it was Marie Louise who founded the mother house, opened the novitiate, formed the first Sisters, established communities, and governed the Institute for more than forty years. Even during the lifetime of Montfort, we can see the discreet influence of Marie Louise on the definitive edition of the Rule. Several corrections in the manuscript give this impression, and we know that among other suggestions, she gave it as her opinion that a superior general appointed for life would present serious difficulties. "Montfort gave in to her advice." On the other hand, she gave very careful attention to the least little details, a tendency that would be accentuated in the Constitutions of 1760, which were drawn up under her guidance and control. Her femininity allowed her to escape a certain rigor and strangeness.5 In codifying a certain number of customs, it seems that she gave a more monastic style to the Institute.
2. The teacher
More remarkable than her aptitude for governing was her extraordinary talent as a teacher. We find her at both La Rochelle and Rennes establishing, or reestablishing, discipline in large schools with a large enrollment. Her gift of discernment was employed in the formation of elite groups formed from among the older students.
The hospitals also profited by her talents. Not content with just ministering to the physical needs of patients, she and her Sisters always tried to introduce a modicum of peace, joy, and piety into the establishment. Documents from the hospital of Château dOléron, where Marie Louise stayed for nearly three years, testify that "never have the sick been better cared for, recovered more rapidly, or been more devout."6
Not unexpectedly, it was in the formation of the first Daughters of Wisdom that her gifts as educator were most evident. Relying always on the Holy Spirit, she nevertheless employed all her own personal gifts and intuitions, permeated with gentleness and goodness. The program was well balanced, with periods allocated to work, prayer, instruction, and relaxation. Temperaments also were taken into account. An admonition to her successor states: "Novices should be treated like fragile plants, but recently transplanted."
She knew how, following the advice of Montfort, to employ sterner measures, especially with the proud. When, however, necessity did require that she reprimand, "this was done only in private, in her own room or that of the recalcitrant novice whom she always sought out. Her speech on such occasions was so persuasive and gentle that it was impossible not to conform."7
She had a horror of duplicity. A novice pretending to fast while concealing bread beneath her mattress was promptly dismissed. At the same time, her reply to the singular penances of another novice that frightened her Sisters was, "Let her be; she has her reasons."
III. HER WRITINGS
There are few remaining writings of Marie Louise: thirty letters in all, her "Spiritual Oratory,"8 her "Spiritual Testament" (Besnard, Marie- Louise, 325), a ruling concerning the religious habit, and the Constitutions drawn up in collaboration with other Daughters of Wisdom. We find her signature also on receipts, account sheets, administrative documents, and a few contracts: signs of a woman engaged in apostolic action as well as spiritual combat. Fifty pages of "Memoirs," written under obedience to her Director, Father General Audubon, are unfortunately lost. We know she wrote of the early days of the Congregation, from 1701 to 1720, but above all she spoke of Montfort. It would have indeed been interesting to hear her own account of her relationship with her spiritual father, her first companions, her life at the hospital of Poitiers, and her apostolate at La Rochelle. For all this, we must refer to her biographer, who used the "Memoirs" for his book.
Little remains of her personal correspondence, especially of letters written in her own hand, only seven of which are among the twenty-nine quoted by Father Besnard, in whose possession they evidently remained. So few letters were preserved, yet we know from her own testimony that she kept a regular correspondence with the communities and with her own nieces and nephews. In the communities the messages were no doubt retained for a while, while some of the actual letters were confided to Father Besnard, who was diligently collecting all relevant material on the life of the foundress in preparation for a biography. The remainder disappeared during the troubled times of the Revolution, when the Sisters were expelled and the mother house pillaged and set on fire. Regarding the family letters, there is mention in the Trichet family documents of a family legacy of letters that were evidently distributed among them; of these, however, only three remain in the possession of a descendant of her brother. Her business letters have completely disappeared, as have, with few exceptions, her letters of spiritual direction. We have the text of three letters written by her to Father Croissant near the end of her life, in which she outlines her personal plan of perfection. She must have given him permission to communicate these to her Father General, as they appear in her biography; we do not possess the originals.
Her family letters reveal a warm affection for her family, especially for her brother Julien, who remained close to his parents in Poitiers. At the time of her fathers death, Marie Louise was in La Rochelle. She longed to be able to come to her mother and surround her with love and care, but duty prevented her, prompting her to ask her brother to take her place in doing "what little services she could render." Knowing her mothers means of livelihood to be reduced, she requested her brother to draw up a contract by which she renounced her right to any future inheritance, thus enabling him to provide her mother with a small supplement. In her letter of May 23, 1725, on the occasion of her mothers death, she expresses all her grief and affection. "Only God could have kept me from her, and it was not the least of my sacrifices. I cannot say more; my grief is too great."
Her tactful approach is seen in her correspondence with her Sisters. There is no authoritarianism here but, rather, a gentleness that anticipates all, and advice filled with tenderness and piety. She shares in their joys and difficulties, always in a spirit of faith. To a Sister provoked by an administrator she writes: "He is sent by God to try you." To a sick Sister: "Long live Jesus, long live his Cross! If we were really transformed by Divine Love, we should not complain of our illnesses." To another confiding her anxieties: "The Institutes founded by Father de Montfort are the work of God, and He is deeply concerned for their future and well-being. He will never abandon us if we are faithful to Him." These are the words of a woman of faith. But there are also the words of a mother: "Send me news of yourself. Were it only a few words, it would give me pleasure." To the community at the Château dOléron: "The affection I have for you is enhanced by the knowledge that I am also your mother in Christ."
To the superiors in the communities she constantly recommends obedience and humility; obedience to the hierarchy, humility in their relationships with the Sisters. To a superior complaining of her problems with a difficult Sister, she writes: "Have patience. Dont tell me you have been patient for a long time. Where would we be, you and I, if God tired of our infidelities?" Advising a Sister to break off from a too human friendship, she says: "I suggest you make a half hours meditation at the feet of Christ and listen to what he has to say to you."
IV. HER SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
1. Her search for divine Wisdom
"Jesus Christ Eternal Wisdom must be the end of all your desires. Desire Him, seek Him, for He is that precious pearl for the acquisition of which you must sell all you possess." Montfort adds: "Whoever wishes to find this precious treasure of Wisdom should . . . search for him early and, if possible, while still young; purely and spiritually as a chaste young man seeks a bride; unceasingly, to the very end, until he has found him." (LEW 54) A perfect account of the spiritual journey of Marie Louise. From her youth at the school of Montfort, she desired and sought Divine Wisdom, single mindedly, with complete renunciation of her own will, constantly and courageously with an ardor that increased with age.
On the occasion of her first meeting with Montfort at seventeen years of age, she was already committed to consecrating herself to God in the religious life. Montfort introduced her to the contemplation of Jesus Eternal Wisdom and the mysterious ways of the Incarnation and the Cross. He led her to leave her family and enter the hospital in the company of a group of poor women of whom he had formed a community named "Wisdom," placing her under the authority of a blind woman, saying: "Mademoiselle Trichet must learn to obey." He led her to heroic mortification in keeping with her aspirations, certain of which appear in our day to be exaggerated. Carrying malodorous linen at arms length, she was ordered to carry it on her shoulders and to kiss the floor in the hospital yard. Following the guidance of her director, she gave herself to meditation and sought delight in a life "hidden, poor, and abandoned," the program inscribed on the large cross hung on the wall of the Daughters of Wisdom mother house. (see the article on the Cross).
The original Rule and especially the spiritual "counsels" added by Montfort are all imbued with the same principles, spelling out in detail the austere rules of the Cross of Poitiers. This Rule Marie Louise received, transmitted, and taught. She was formed by it; she embraced the spirit, not just the letter, and lived it as a means of acquiring the Divine Union to which Jesus called her. Thus, she was the first to live the charismatic vocation of a Daughter of Wisdom.
Humility, reserve, discretion, in short an apostolic simplicity, have made of Marie Louise a difficult subject for biographers seeking to penetrate below the exterior. Her life, actions, and certain of her writings reveal her as a woman of great faith and courage, a religious inflamed with the love of Christ, a faithful slave of Mary, and a missionary of her time. The Church, in proclaiming her Blessed in 1993, placed its seal on the heroism of her virtue.
A woman of faith and courage: such was Marie Louise of Jesus during the twelve years spent in the service of the poor in Poitiers, in the education of the young at La Rochelle, and especially in the formation of the first Daughters of Wisdom. Her faith sustained her through the trials of the first foundations, through solitude, poverty, and contradictions. Her meditation was, her biographer assures us, based on pure faith; she made it well, "humbling herself and becoming lost in the presence of God." Her constant admonition to her Sisters was: "Have faith. . . . We have not enough faith. . . . Let us renew our faith." Her repeated warning was against a sentimental piety that sought spiritual consolation: "Let us nourish our souls with the truths of faith without aspiring to visions or other extraordinary means that may lead us away from pure faith. Pure faith is the sure way to avoid falling prey to illusions."9
Her faith in the Eucharist was particularly strong. She received Communion daily and then spent half an hour in thanksgiving. While never allowing herself more time in chapel than the Rule allowed, she took every opportunity of prolonging her prayer. When passing the door of the chapel or sacristy, she would whisper a prayer. She was observed on occasion shedding tears of joy before the Blessed Sacrament. Her journeys were all marked by a visit to the chapel to adore the Blessed Sacrament, as was each departure.
Her union with God was continual, insofar as her occupations allowed. Besnard says that she managed "never to leave the center of her heart, where she had made herself a sort of interior cell." Unlike Montfort, she had no hermitage, but she prayed constantly in her "Spiritual Oratory."
Faith was the guiding light of her action as of her prayer. She sought nothing but Gods will. In her youth she had sought it with a sort of anxiety, witness her several attempts to enter various convents; in later life she sought it in obedience, especially when it appeared obscure: obedience to the bishop, to her director, to the Father General. To a young novice who confessed, "Really I dont understand what living by the Spirit means," she replied, "You have followed your own inclination and done your own will up till now; a spirit of faith teaches us to live only for God, to seek always his good pleasure. But we can only do this by submitting always to his Divine Will. It follows, then, that animated with a lively faith, our will is always in accord with what God allows should happen to us or asks of us through our superiors." Marie Louise practiced to the end of her life faithful obedience to the will of God manifested through her superiors and through events. A few days before her death, she asked a Sister to sing for her some verses of a hymn to Divine Providence by Father Surin: "Blessed Will of God / You are my sole delight / in heaven or on earth."
Love of God is synonymous with a hatred of sin. Marie Louise had a deep horror and fear of sin, together with an awareness of her own sinfulness. This was what gave rise to her humility, which was certainly not any lack of firmness of mind but, rather, a clear vision of her own nothingness before God, a conviction of the gratuity of all the graces received, and a repeated affirmation of her unworthiness: "I was placed here [in the post of superior general] for my sins, and because of my sins they leave me here." Towards the end of her life, victim of a campaign against her, unjustly accused by her Sisters, suspected and humiliated by her superior general, she remained calm and gentle, saying: "I am not upset; I deserve worse than that for my sins." We find in her life gestures of humility that may appear exaggerated, but are found also in the lives of the saints: kneeling at the door of the refectory, a cord about her neck, soliciting the prayers of her Sisters; prostrating herself before one or another of her Sisters, begging them to place their foot on her neck to humiliate her "as she deserved." Her real humility, however, was manifested in her everyday conduct, her gentle affability towards her Sisters, the respect she afforded them, her readiness to assume the most menial tasks, her preference for the company of the poor. Sr. Florence tells us of her readiness to give up her own opinion for that of others when neither principle nor the truth was at stake.
Following the example of Montfort, Marie Louise practiced the virtues of poverty and obedience to an heroic degree. Yet where Montforts predilection would seem to have been for poverty, hers was undoubtedly for obedience, as shown on numerous occasions. When Father Vatel, chaplain to the mother house and spiritual director of the community, requested that the rising time of 4 a.m. be changed to 5 a.m., causing consternation to herself and the Sisters, her reply revealed her spirit of obedience: "Real mortification is to found in perfect obedience."
She was a perfect example of the universal mortification prescribed by Montfort in LEW and into which she had been initiated in her early years. Frugal at meals, she never ate in between. She sought no comforts during her long and arduous journeys, nor relief from the hard work of moving to new foundations. Frozen in winter in an unheated chapel, she avoided the fire when entering the community. Corporal penance also had its place. The discipline, spiked bracelets, and prayers with arms extended were all means of renunciation and of opening her soul to divine grace. These were means that she also permitted to Sisters whom she considered capable of practicing them. They were considered the supporting pillars of her "Spiritual Oratory," where she communed with God. The principal support, however, was obedience resting on the sure foundation of humility.
Three letters written towards the end of her life to Father Croissant, her spiritual director, show us the lengths to which her passion for obedience drove her. They can be dated to approximately the end of 1756 or the beginning of 1757, for, commenting on them, Father Besnard tells us: "God, who brings light out of darkness, enabled Marie Louise of Jesus to draw from her persecutions an ever-increasing desire to resemble Jesus Christ crucified." During her great time of trial, she had asked her director to assign her a superior whom she would obey as God Himself, naming as the person she envisaged "the one whom she would find to be most repugnant to her own refined nature, someone who would be brusque, bizarre, anxious, and scrupulous . . . the most likely to make her suffer." Such a request is understandable only in light of the spirit that animated it. "I wish," she declared, "with Gods grace to destroy all that which within me is displeasing to Him that I may have the joy of having God alone reign in my heart." "Destroy," for her, meant total transformation, not annihilation; total purification and Consecration of her will. Renunciation was not the only aspect of her resolution; there was also "joy": joy in "God alone." She found her joy in total and intimate union with God. Obedience did not come easily to her, as from a passive nature. She herself tells of the obstacles in the practice of it, speaking of "combat," "resistance," "the revolts of self love"; but "if nature rebels, I shall try not to listen."10
5. Joy through the Cross
To her director she once more declares her desire to be "a victim, of silence, obedience, of exterior and interior crosses." The word victim must be understood in its true sense as expounded by Father Besnard: "A state of perfect negation, fruit of her consuming desire to have Jesus reign supreme in her heart. There could be no divided loyalty; she was completely transformed in Christ." Far from being morbid, she affirmed her intense joy: "I cannot describe the consolation I receive from the Divine Jesus."
In April 21, 1759, a chill, followed by a high fever, gave her a presentiment that her death was close. From then on her thoughts were all on her approaching meeting with her Lord. After a fervent reception of the Viaticum, she blessed her Sisters with a small statue of the Blessed Virgin, the gift of St Louis Marie, dictated her "Spiritual Testament," and sank into semi-consciousness, murmuring from time to time a prayer to the Blessed Virgin or an Alleluia. Wishing to ascertain if she were still conscious, a Sister asked, "What does that mean? Alleluia?" The reply was prompt and clear: "That means Rejoice in the Lord!"11
6. The way of Mary
"I do not believe," wrote Montfort, "that anyone can acquire intimate union with our Lord and perfect fidelity to the Holy Spirit without a very close union with the most Blessed Virgin and an absolute dependence on her support" (TD 43). That union and dependence Marie Louise practiced in the highest degree.
We do not know when or where she made her Consecration to Jesus through Mary as taught by St. Louis de Montfort but that she did make it we are left in no doubt. In his letters to her, Montfort employs quite naturally and often the term "Slavery." In her exhortations to her Sisters, Marie Louise declares, "Your real Superior is Mary; I am but her servant." Father Besnard writes that he would not speak of her devotion to Mary "were it but the everyday devotion of ordinary Christians" but "she became transformed, lost in Mary." She could only have arrived at that, he adds, "through the example and direction of Montfort." Through Mary, he says, "she acted and spoke, gave commands and gave thanks. Through her she received communion, considering herself unworthy to receive Christ. She offered him Marys preparation and through Marys thanksgiving she made her own." The life and mysteries of Mary were her daily meditation as she recited her Rosary. It was she who introduced the hourly Hail Mary into the community, and she loved to repeat: "Everything in the house belongs to Mary; for this reason we must spoil nothing and keep everything in order." Confronted with problems, she would turn to Mary: "Good Mother, you only need to make this your business. They are your daughters; take care of them for me."
V. MARIE LOUISE SPEAKS TO US TODAY
1. Her missionary spirit
Marie Louise Trichet was given the task of governing a new type of Apostolic Institute, and this at a time when female religious had scarcely begun to venture outside their cloister. Her contemplative nature served to animate her mission. Consumed with a desire to love God more and more, "she was distressed," it was said, "by the fact the He was not loved by others." Like Montfort, she longed to go to "barbarous lands" or "to the poor women and girls of the rural areas of the country to speak of God and lead people to His love." Unable to do either, she would, together with her Sisters, pursue this aim where Providence had placed her, with the children, the poor, the sick in the hospitals and in their homes, the soldiers and sailors of Oléron, the Penitents of Poitiers, and the "converts" of Montbernage. In 1743, her dream of sending Sisters to Canada was about to be realized when it had to be abandoned for lack of finance. Unable to participate in the missionary labors of the Montfort Missionaries (Company of Mary), she addressed fervent prayers to God for vocations for the Company, and that He would bless their apostolate.
2. Her love of the poor
She was above all the missionary of the poor. Her predilection for the poor predated her entrance into the hospital, where she took them to her heart, dressed their wounds, washed their dirty linen; no service was too small. As bursar, her administration was wise and just. One severe winter, with the supplies exhausted, being approached by some beggars in rags, she was heard to murmur: "I wish I were cloth, so that I might clothe them." The famine of 1739 found her, having depleted the supplies of the mother house, begging the authorities to come to the relief of the hungry population of the district.
Practicing, as she had learnt from Montfort, abandonment to Divine Providence, she admitted all to the novitiate, poor and rich alike, daughters of nobles or daughters of peasants. She would quote Montfort: "God will always bless the house which helps the poor." She remembered them still on her death-bed, calling one of her benefactors and begging her to continue her care of the poor of the parish. Her option for the poor assured her of a place with the saints both of her own time and the present.
The cardinals responsible for examining her life for the cause of beatification recognized this. "The Servant of God," they wrote, "offers an example of how to work for the development of the whole human person in a spirit of sacrifice, looking for no reward, ever open to read the signs of the times with a serene and humble spirit."12
After lengthy investigations by teams of experts into her life and writings, Marie Louise Trichet, the first disciple of St. Louis Marie de Montfort, was beatified on May 16, 1993.
Notes: (1) A heroic decision, which Montfort himself had not foreseen or suggested. (2) Charles Besnard, Circulaire aux Filles de la Sagesse, April 29, 1759, recorded in La vie la soeur Marie Louise de Jesus, première superieure des filles de la sagesse, (The Life of Sister Marie Louise of Jesus, First Superior of the Daughters of Wisdom), Center International Montfortain, Rome, 331. (3) Sr. Florence, 98. (4)Pauvert, Vie du vénérable Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, Oudin,Poitiers 1875, 150-151. (5) Constitutions, subtitled "Explication de la Règle des Filles de la Sagesse, instituées par Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, missionaire apostolique, pour leur servir de Constitutions (Explanation of the Rule of the Daughters of Wisdom, Founded by Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, Apostolic Missionary, for Their Constitutions)." The editing of this document was finished in 1760 and the manuscript was signed in a chapter assembly on May 20, 1768. The original is in Rome. A copy kept in the archives of the mother house is 400 pages long. (6) Besnard, Marie-Louise, 230. (7) Ibid., 376. (8) For her "Spiritual Oratory," cf. ibid., 280. This concerns a retreat resolution. Marie Louise prays to Jesus to help her build, within herself, a place where he may live. She gives details, in a very imaginative way, of the virtues that will be used in the construction: obedience, detachment, love of suffering, and prudence, which will be the pillars of the building; then piety, vigilance, gentleness, etc. (9) AGFS: "Constitutions des Filles de la Sagesse," chap. 3. (10) Lettres de Marie-Louise de Jésus, Scuola tipografica Pio XI, Rome 1981. (11) Besnard, Marie-Louise, 360. (12) Decree on the heroism of her virtues. (13) Sacra Congregatio pro causis sanctorum. Beatificationis et canonizotionis servae Dei Mariae Ludovicae a Jesu (in saeculo: Mariae Ludovicae Trichet) confundatricis Filiarum a Sapientia ( 1759). Positio super virtutibus ex officio concinnata, Rome 1986.
Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
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