JESUS LIVING IN MARY: HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
I. Montfort in His Time: 1. Health situation in the seventeenth century; 2. Montforts experience of illness; 3. Montfort and the sick. II. Montforts Teaching. III. The Suffering Patient Today: 1. A presence to the sick; 2. Illness, suffering, and the spiritual life; 3. Pastoral service to the sick and dying.
I. Montfort in His Time
1. Health situation in the seventeenth century
Life was precarious for most of the population in seventeenth-century France. Precisely those cataclysms that, for long centuries, people had prayed to avert pestilence, famine, war now burst over their heads.1 The plague itself had receded and disappeared after 1650, but it raged on in the minds of the people. They thought they saw it everywhere. La peste, pestilence, plague, was the term used at the time for diphtheria, typhoid, smallpox, typhus, and purple fever in other words, any severe epidemic. Epidemics were brief but most deadly. Even today, in Brittanyat Plourin, for example one finds votive chapels erected precisely to ward off the plague. Hippocratic medicine was helpless in the face of diseases of this kind, except for the ones called chaleurs and fièvres (heats and fevers). The presence and availability of the medieval hospital with its medical equipment had grown by leaps and bounds in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.2 The years 1693-94, 1698, and 1709-10 figure among the seven years of the century in which the death rate peaked. Brittany was very much affected in 1673-75.3 Montfort was born in 1673. Wars regularly added their own quota of misery to that of famine, epidemics, destruction, massacres, and fires.
2. Montforts experience of illness
Endowed with a robust constitution, Montfort never had any great interest in his health. He ate little, slept on a thin pallet or even the bare floor, often took the discipline, and walked throughout the countryside of northwestern France, in addition to his pilgrimage on foot to Rome. His preaching activity can only be called exhausting. Yet throughout all this, his health appears to have been strong enough to continue a highly demanding ministry.
On at least two occasions, there was fear for his life. The first was when he was twenty-one years of age and living in Father Bouchers community in Paris. In this instance he was transported to the Hôtel-Dieu and subjected to repeated bloodletting, which ultimately exhausted his already enfeebled body. Here he acquired a personal, deep- seated knowledge of solitude and abandonment amidst an energetic struggle with illness and death. Once he began to recuperate, his recovery was rapid. His early biographers admired his patience, gentleness, and acceptance of the will of God.4
In the fall of the year 1713, at the age of forty, during a mission that Montfort preaching at Mauzé, he was suddenly hit by most violent pains. He went on with his mission, concluded it, then went to the La Rochelle hospital, to remain there for two months. A severe fever, caused by a rather large abscess, raged unabated, and he was subjected to frequent probings and to delicate operations with the means available at the time, all of which he bore with strength and courage. He would ask the physicians not to go easy with him, and it is said that he would murmur during the procedures, Long live Jesus! Long live his cross! Is it not altogether just that he be loved? In the face of ninety- nine-to-one odds, Montfort lived.
Biographers also indicate a dangerous scare in 1708, at Chevrolière: violent colics and a constant high fever, due to his constant preaching of parish missions. Again he pulled out of the illness in spite of the blood-letting cures of the physicians. In 1711, in the course of the La Rochelle mission, Calvinists poisoned his soup. Although he survived, he would ever after feel weakened and feeble.5
Worn out with his labors, Montfort died at the age of forty-three. Stricken with an apparent pleurisy in the midst of a mission that he had been unwilling to interrupt, he asked to celebrate the Sacrament of confession and to receive Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction,6 and his life was over.
3. Montfort and the sick
The General Hospitals of Montforts time were the poorhouses; more places of refuge for the poor and outcast than for the sick. Extreme poverty is the fertile soil of illness; it was Louis Maries apostolate to the poor that brought him into the apostolate to the sick. At Poitiers, sharing the life of the poor of the Hospital, Montfort became deeply interested in the welfare of the sick poor. He not only ministered to them spiritually but he also cared for the sick physically, making their beds, washing their clothing, and cleaning the wards and bathrooms and assisting in their medical care. When someone with a contagious disease was thrown out into the street, Montfort would have the poor person carried back in and would care for him himself, secluding him from the others lest they might be infected, then would assist the victim in a happy death.7
Montfort, by vocation a member of the first estate, the clergy, by blood a member of the bourgeoisie, through friendship tied in with some members of the nobility, was by evangelical choice one with the absolute destitute, sharing their life and serving them first with the Word and, to the extent possible, with food and care. His attitude is clearly revealed in the oft-repeated incident at Dinan in 1706, when he came upon a leper, all covered with ulcers, lying in the street. He lifted him upon his shoulders and carried him to the missioners house, where, in response to his knocking, the cry came, Whos there? In reply, Montfort called out, Open up to Jesus Christ! then entered, laid the leper in his own bed, and cared for him as best he could.8
For Saint Louis Marie, the poorand in a special way the sick poorare unique sacraments of Christ. He was able to minister to the most difficult cases because he truly saw in them the suffering Jesus. His respect for the handicapped was based on his belief that they were chosen by God to be special manifestations of the Cross. His words and actions, he hoped, would help them understand their dignity and accept their Cross even joyfully.
At Nantes, Montfort encouraged the foundation of a hospice for incurables that is, paupers who were physically unable to beg their bread. He supported those in charge and gave them advice in their undertaking.9 At the same time, he lent his support to a convalescent establishment. His foundation of the Daughters of Wisdom is in itself an indication of his deep concern for the poor, especially the sick poor, since the care of the handicapped and the sick is among their exterior aims (cf. H 149; RW 1).
Superstition attributed many a sickness to sorcery and the devil. Montfort struggled with this mentality, instructing the people as best he could.10
II. Montforts Teaching
For Montfort, illness is one of lifes crosses which the Christian must carry (L 13; H 46). We find the word illness on the famous Wisdom Cross at Poitiers. By his life, Montfort shows us that we must struggle with disease and seek to heal it. At the same time, he describes the human beings gravest maladies as a preparation for death.
A readiness to accept ones terminal illness figures among the proximate dispositions for meeting the Lord: Suffer sickness patiently, for God sends it to us. It can withdraw us from exile. It enables us to expiate our sins, and bravely to accept our death at its hands (HD 5).
Hymn 46 summarizes the essentials of Montforts teaching about sickness. On stage come three characters: the Sick Person, the Devil, and the Friend of God. The Sick Person focuses on his affliction (colic, gout, fever, toothache, asthma, or sciatica). He suffers, he burns with fever. He is like a poor beast, overwhelmed with pain to the point of death and not knowing what to do. A very saint would waver. And the Sick Person reflects: What misfortune! What a mournful lot! I would rather die than be permanently ill! What have I done to the Lord? (H 146:10). This miserable patient feels neglected by all those around him, even by his physician, and he plots vengeance. The Devil drives the Sick Person to discouragement, rebellion, and blasphemy: Look! Everyones leaving you alone / Like a sick dog. / No one gives you / any help or support . . . How I pity your misery! / Cold soup, stale bread / a piece of bad meat, / Theyre making a fool of you, thats for sure! . . . Keep far from your door / the Father confessor / His presence only brings / Fear and pain (H 46:11, 22, 32). The Friend of God naturally takes the opposite tack from that of the Devil in order to assist the sick person to suffer well. His words meant to be comforting and seem a little strong to contemporary ears: God scourges us as a Father; He chastises us to test us; He gives us grace at every moment; suffering is better than hell. Gaze upon Jesus crucified: does he not suffer more than we? Suffering wins us an eternal reward; one day of sickness is of more value than excellent work throughout a whole year; at the end comes victory. After each strophe, the refrain nails the Sick Persons Cross to the Cross of Christ: Cross of Calvary, / So quickly passing and so dear!
The last two strophes are a prayer placed on the lips of the Sick Person. He adores, he accepts, he asks Gods help: My God, I adore You / In your decisions; / If you strike again / Powerfully help me. . . . In your Blood I drown / My sins and my troubles, And I embrace with joy / Any new suffering you may send (H 46:37, 38).
The hymn so well describes the situation of the sick person overwhelmed with unbearable suffering. The teaching of the Friend of God, however, is doubtless more appropriate for the healthy than for the sick; this short skit was meant to be acted out not in the presence of the ill but of those who are well so that they may prepare for the inevitable day when sickness envelops them.
Hymns 145, to Our Lady of All Patience, and 159, to Our Lady of All Consolation, emphasize Marys motherly role with the poor sufferer. Montfort names her the remedy of the incurably ill in both hymns and health of poor sinners. He invites the sufferer to pray to her.
Not only because of the culture of his day but more so because of his theology of the Cross, Montfort sees suffering and sickness as a healthy punishment for sin and a privilege of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. He does not hesitate to accept the medication that the medical profession was able to supply in his day; his trust in God, however, is apparently far deeper than his trust in doctors, or, better still, whatever medicine is able to accomplish is but the loving hand of God reaching out to heal.
III. The Suffering Patient Today
Montfort spirituality has always included a special concern for the sick. The teachings and examples of Father de Montfort and Mother Marie Louise call forth a loving union with all those who share in the Cross of Christ. What is asked for is not only a union of prayer but a practical, supportive presence, to the extent possible. The sick are, in so many ways, the poor who need to experience Gods loving care through the love shown by the members of the Body of Christ.
Montfort spirituality also gives strength in ones own suffering. Saint Louis Maries profound teaching on the Cross, his constant reminders of the love of Jesus and Mary for all, and his beautiful doctrine on Providence and the ultimate victorious outcome of all things in Christ Jesus are thoughts to be thoroughly learned well before serious illness strikes. As an aid to this apostolate to the sick, we close with a few remarks on this ministry.
1. A presence to the sick
Many feel awkward in the presence of the seriously ill. Perhaps this is especially felt by those who have not as yet experienced a brush with death. Yet the seriously ill person has to experience loving presence, especially of loved ones.
Being present to persons stricken with disability means taking them as they are sick or hurt and trying to help them live in their new situation. It means trying to understand them without judging them or even attempting to put ourselves in their place, since each person is unique and singular. It means accepting their reactions, their questions, their silence. It means not running away despite the sense of confusion and sometimes helplessness that they so often awaken in us. It means being there, and being glad to be there, taking them seriously with discernment being true, credible, being a vessel of hope, even when an attitude of defiance, persecution, or revenge is manifested. It means not simply shrugging off a request for euthanasia but perceiving the immense distress it implies and the cry for help it conveys.
One who is present to the sick has need of balance, courage, love, openness, humility, sincerity, and quite often a sense of humor. His or her role is to be reassuring and to offer a sense of security, telling the sick person the truth that he or she can bear, distinguishing moral from psychological guilt (actual guilt from mere guilt feelings), responding to spiritual need, facilitating the elucidation of anguished questions and the positive element of life, helping the suffer to reject any useless or wicked suffering rebelliousness, resentment, false notions of God.
Love and compassion will respect the solitude and sense of dispossession of self that opens the way to God, Who is the Utterly Other especially when medicine can no longer do anything, so that now the sick person is no longer the object of care but only the subject of love.
2. Illness, suffering, and the spiritual life
A time of illness can be a time of rebellion and blasphemy, or one of hope, love, and grace. Suffering without love is unlivable. The sick person is sometimes reduced to a cry, a supplication often without a response. The Passion narratives and many of the psalms begin to take on new meaning. Faith does not suppress the senseless aspect of certain sufferings. God seems absent when they supervene. The presence and compassion of those around may restore courage. After all, God is present in the very experience of absence. In Jesus, God bestows on each one of us the opportunity to face our own suffering and to cooperate with the divine enterprise that is the salvation of the world. Christ identifies with the sick person: I was sick and you visited me (Mt 25:36).
Illness has the character of a test. It also has an educational value for those able to consider it from the standpoint of the reign of God. In discovering, thanks to faith, the redemptive suffering of Christ, human beings also discover their own sufferings there. Thanks to faith, they find those sufferings enriched with a new content and a new meaning.
3. Pastoral service to the sick and dying
Christians seek to promote a pastoral ministry of health, one calculated to keep account of the dignity and the rights of the patient. The Church reminds physicians of their duties, which include respect for life in all its forms, respect for the freedom of patients to choose their conditions of existence in function of their own hierarchy of values.11
If the saints of the miraculous cures are no longer as much in vogue as in years gone by, pilgrimages (to Lourdes, for example) continue to offer the gravely ill the opportunity to express their cry to Mary, Health of the Sick, to feel accepted and respected in their dignity, to take their place as members of a people sensitized to the Gospel of suffering a community of persons who pray with them and for them. They discover their usefulness at work in the Church and weave new bonds. They find serenity and go their way with more love, faith, and hope; for they have accepted and offered their life of suffering for a filling up in their flesh of what is lacking to the Passion of Christ for his Body that is the Church (Col 1:24).
The Church further asks for the protection, at the moment of death, of the dignity of the human person and the Christian conception of life against an abusive technicity or therapeutic relentlessness. Indeed, some have begun to speak of a right to death not the right to put oneself to death, or to have oneself put to death as one wishes (euthanasia), but the right to die in human and Christian dignity, in all serenity and in the presence of other, genuinely caring, respectful persons.12
Notes: (1) R. Mandrou, La France au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle (France in the 17 and 18th Centuries), Presses universitaires de France, Paris 1970, 91. (2) Ibid., 93. When the General Hospital of Paris was founded in 1656, with the intention of endowing it with capital as a necessary establishmenteven after the creations of St. Vincent de Paulthe move was so well received that in the following years, the monarchy recommended its imitation in all of the cities of the kingdom (ibid.). (3) Cf. H. Méthivier, Lancien Régime (The Ancien Régime), Presses universitaires de France, Paris 1971, 66, 69. (4) Besnard II, 37-38. (5) Besnard I, 166, 232. (6) Besnard II, 156-58. (7) Besnard I, 71-72 (8) Ibid., 15 (9) Besnard I, 194-95; Besnard II, 22; L 33. (10) Besnard II, 97-101. (11) F. J. Paul-Cavallier, Mourir vivant (Dying Alive), Mediaspaul, Paris 1990, 23. (12) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Déclaration sur leuthanasie (Declaration on Euthanasia), in Documentation Catholique, no. 1790, July 20, 1980, 699.
Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
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