JESUS LIVING IN MARY: HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
I. Montforts Quest for Wisdom Along His Spiritual and Missionary Path: 1. Context of his formation; 2. Testimony of the letters; 3. The Love of Eternal Wisdom; 4. The hymns and the sermons; 5. Ten years silence? 6. Foundation of a community of Wisdom. II. Wisdom According to Montfort: 1. Toward a definition; 2. Christ Wisdom; 3. Evangelical and missionary Wisdom; 4. Paradoxical Wisdom of the Cross; 5. Mary and Wisdom. III. Montfort Among the Pedagogues of Wisdom: 1. Montfort Wisdom and Augustinian Wisdom; 2. Montfort Wisdom and Franciscan Wisdom. IV. Relevance of Montfort Wisdom.
The contemplation of Christ as Wisdom and a perception of the spiritual life as the quest for genuine Wisdom, figure among the most singular traits of the spiritual journey and the work of Louis Marie de Montfort. Over and above the various influences we can discover under the pen of the author of LEW, one fact remains incontestable: Montfort establishes himself as one of the rare Christian authors to make Christ as Wisdom the cornerstone of his spirituality and his key to biblical sapiential thought, with the O.T. Book of Wisdom the fundamental source of this inspiration. While we may not isolate Montfort from his century and his predecessors, neither may we deny the extreme originality of his vision of Wisdom.1
I. MONTFORTS QUEST FOR WISDOM ALONG HIS SPIRITUAL AND MISSIONARY PATH
1. Context of his formation
Young Grignion de Montforts spiritual route can be established by a study both of the sources and of the testimony of the biographers who have addressed the question. For the period of his philosophical and theological training before his ordination to the priesthood, we may refer to De Fiores detailed study, which includes an examination of Louis Maries spiritual formation.2 But even with such a fine study in hand, it remains extremely difficult in fact, impossible to determine the triggering element that would have induced Montfort, while he was still in his formation, to define his spirituality in terms of a quest for Wisdom3 or incited him to draw his inspiration directly from the biblical Wisdom literature. True, it is possible to see in the references he makes to the work of Saint-Jure in N, 392ff., a prime factor sensitizing Montfort to the Wisdom theme and impelling him as well to read and utilize the sapiential books.4 But that would be all that we could say, and the treatment Montfort accorded the sapiential books of the Bible would far surpass, in extent as well as depth, the work of the authors of the French school of spirituality. Among the immediate influences on Montfort, however, we ought not neglect the contribution of Father Descartes, his spiritual director at the College of St. Thomas in Rennes. LEW contains accents akin to those found in Father Decartes two works, Le Palais de lamour divin (Palace of Divine Love) and Les divers emplois de lamour divin (The Manifold Uses of Divine Love); Montforts vocabulary, however, is not only more innovative but decidedly more sapiential.
2. Testimony of the letters
The situation is different, however, for the period dating from his ordination to the priesthood in 1700 to his death in 1716. And in the front rank we must point to the letters, which probably furnish the first references to the use of the term wisdom in Montforts works. They also testify to a very marked evolution in Montforts spiritual and missionary journey.
Of the thirty-four letters that have been preserved, nearly one-third (L 14-17, 20, 28-30, 33-34) address the Wisdom theme in one way or another. A mere examination of the chronology of the letters in question immediately shows a powerful concentration on the topic at the two poles of Montforts ministry that is, around the years 1703-04 and 1715-16. Thus it is said that the Wisdom theme becomes strikingly dormant in the missionarys career, as his correspondence remains silent on the subject for a good ten years.5
The first mention that we can date with certitude is from the spring of 1703 (L 15). It appears as a variant in the formula of salutation used by Montfort in the preceding letters. To his usual greeting, May the perfect love of God reign in our hearts, Montfort adds, with divine Wisdom. It should not be forgotten that this letter is the first to be addressed to Marie Louise Trichet, who not only would become a religious, as Montfort predicts to her in the conclusion of his letter, but would be his most faithful disciple and, finally, his partner in the foundation of the community of the Daughters of Wisdom.
We should also emphasize another happy coincidence. Montforts last letter, written shortly before the missionarys death in 1716, is addressed to this same Marie Louise Trichet, now Mother Marie Louise of Jesus. Here the Wisdom theme plays a role at center stage, since Montfort invites Marie Louise to interpret and to experience the trials that she is undergoing with her young community in the context of the mystery of Divine Wisdom: I worship the justice and love with which divine Wisdom is treating his little flock, allowing you to live in cramped quarters here on earth so that later you may find spacious dwellings in his divine heart which was pierced for you to enter. How pleasant and safe is this sacred refuge for a soul truly possessing Wisdom! . . .If you truly seek to be a disciple of divine Wisdom and one chosen among so many, then this unkind treatment you are suffering, the contempt, the poverty, the restrictions, all these should be pleasing to you since they are the price you have to pay to obtain Wisdom and true freedom and become partakers of the divinity of the heart of Jesus crucified (L 34).
Consequently, Montfort asks her to found our community of the Daughters of Wisdom, not on quicksands of gold and silver, but on the Wisdom of the Cross of Calvary (L 34).
Montforts letter to his mother, written in August 1704, so characteristic of the young priests evangelical radicalism, furnishes an important key for an understanding of the manner in which he experienced what might be called the mysticism of his priestly celibacy. We read: In my new family the one I belong to now I have chosen to be wedded to Wisdom and the Cross for in these I find every good, both earthly and heavenly. So precious are these possessions that, if they were but known, Montfort would be the envy of the richest and most powerful kings on earth (L 20).
We cannot escape the parallel between these lines and the highly original commentary that Montfort makes on Wis 8:16: Whenever I go into my house, says Solomon, even though I am alone, I will take my rest with Wisdom because Wisdoms company is always pleasing, Wisdoms companionship is never tedious but always satisfying and joyful (LEW 98). The words even though I am alone are not part of the biblical text but are an expression of Montforts personal interpretation.
3. The Love of Eternal Wisdom
Inasmuch as LEW is the subject of another article in the present Hand- book, we shall here investigate only the significance of this work in Montforts experience of the quest for Wisdom.
While the letters of 1703 and 1704 were written during a period called by Perouas the time of crises,6 the treatise LEW stands out somewhat as the resolution of a crisis. Not that Montfort claims to have reached the end of the evangelical adventure or believes himself sheltered from the storm. Here we need only consider his protestations of humility and avowals of incompetence and ignorance (LEW 7; cf. LEW 1). But the exposition of the topic is at once magisterial and serene. The composition is a powerful synthesis of biblical Wisdom and a treatise on the Christian life, situated in a comprehensive view of salvation history. It is the Incarnation that sets the tone for the entire book. Creation, however, is not neglected, and while we may regret the fact that, in keeping with the theology of his time, Montfort does not stress the mystery of the Resurrection, we find sublime pages in LEW on the Love that saves by the victorious Cross.
LEW is a work of the saints youth; it is also a masterpiece. It situates his Christological perspective, from which, as starting point, Montfort views his spiritual experience and apostolate. It already enunciates, in very condensed terms, the great themes of his preaching and writings: the mystery of the Incarnation, the demands of a Wisdom inspired by the Gospel, the foolishness of the Cross, and the unique place of Mary in the mystery of salvation.
4. The hymns and the sermons
Montforts hymns are of undeniable catechetical interest and, by virtue of their popular character, afford us a better perception of the teaching addressed by Montfort to the public at large. Of the 164 hymns that have come down to us, only 5 bear explicitly on Wisdom (H 78; H 103; H 124-26), while Hymns 19 and 102, which are manifestly parallel and devoted to the Triumph of the Cross, contain numerous sapiential echoes. Indeed, they present the Cross in terms unmistakably reminiscent of LEW, chap. 14. Just as Wisdom is a mystery that surpasses understanding, so also is the Cross: The Cross is a mystery / profound, here below. / Without brightest light, / unknowable it remains. / Who can comprehend it? / A lofty mind alone. / Yet grasp it we must / if we would be saved (H 19:1).
Stanzas 10-11 of the same hymn apply to Jesus the spousal language of pseudo-Solomon (Wis 8) in order to speak of Jesus quest for Wisdom: So fair He found it, / He made it His crown, / and companion everlasting: / bride of His heart! / From tenderest childhood, / His heart would sigh / sigh for the presence / of this Cross He loved. / Yea, from His youth, / He sought [it], / and with mighty stride! (H 19:10-11).
The hymns finale focuses on the acquisition of Wisdom today. After all, Wisdom seeks disciples still: Wisdom everlasting / seeks, yet today, / a heart that will be faithful / and worthy of this gift (H 19:25).
The last strophes (28-31) then present, in terms very much akin to the biblical discourse on Wisdom, the Cross as that treasure par excellence that is to be sought at the cost of all else besides and fills the human heart to overflowing: I take thee for my life, / my pleasure, my honor, / for my single beloved, / my unique beatitude (H 19:29).
As for the hymns explicitly consecrated to Wisdom, these fall first and foremost under the sign of prayer. Except for the first stanzas of Hymn 125, which take the form of an exhortation, all is ardent supplication and dialogue with God. Hymn 78, for example, brief as it is, is a fine paraphrase of the prayer in Wis 9 that asks for Wisdom, and Montfort adds a Marian note in the second and last strophe.
Hymn 103 is surely the most important of those that Montfort devotes to Wisdom. First, we observe the wealth of Christological titles (divine Wisdom, Son of God, beauty supreme, Word equal to His Father, Light of Light, God become a human being, immortal Spouse, and so on), along with the intensity bestowed on the note of supplication with the recurrence of the refrain, Come dwell in me! The hymn reaches its climax in a declaration of the greatest assurance of being heard: I would walk in Thy footsteps: / come dwell in me! / Behold the grace of graces: / come dwell in me! / With Thee I walk in gladness, / to the Cross and to the skies! / Jesus, Child of Mary, / come dwell in me! / She it is who prays within me: / come dwell in me! / Thou, in my exile, / be my every bounty. Amen (H 103:28-29).
Hymns 124-26 form a unified canticle on the Wisdom theme. While shorter than Hymn 103, they are no less compact. There is the very beautiful and classical Hymn 124, which opens with the words O Wisdom, come, behold, a poor one begs and continues in ardent accents: I seek thee night and day! / Come, my soul desires thee, / come, for I am faint with love (H 124:2).
Here we find the actual words of the Beloved of the Song of Songs. The same thrusts recur in Hymn 126: O divine Wisdom, / I love thee with a burning fire! / Thou art my mistress, / I thy lover! / Thee alone below / I seek and love. / Beholding thy charms / I am beside myself! (H 126:1)
As for the sermons, we find none on Wisdom. There is only S 9 (GA 562- 566), entitled, On the Love and Gentleness of Jesus, which recalls the sapiential themes. We find the same divisions as in LEW, chap. 10 (The Captivating Beauty and the Inexpressible Gentleness of Incarnate Wisdom). The theology is the same in both cases, and it scarcely comes as a surprise that we see Montfort concluding his second point with a reference to Jesus as Wisdom: Behold that Eternal Wisdom who, to captivate our hearts and to take away our sins, has gathered into his person all that is meek (LS 120). Do we have here a sermon from the beginning of the missionarys career, before the appearance of the Wisdom theme in his work? Or on the contrary, would this be a sermon from the period when the theme was so strikingly dormant in the saints work? At all events, judging solely from LS, it appears that Montfort did not preach on the subject of Wisdom as such.
5. Ten years silence?
In addition to this notable absence of the Wisdom theme in Montforts popular preaching, a great deal of attention has been called in recent years to its near disappearance during the zenith of the Breton priests missionary career, 1704-14.7 Only the last two years of Montforts life see the reappearance of the theme with some force: in his last letters, which are usually addressed to the Daughters of Wisdom.
The period from 1704 to 1714 is surely the most productive from the literary viewpoint, since it is in this period that SM, PM, SR, FC, RM, RW, and TD were composed. Indeed, other thematic topics and other perspectives emerge here, and the Wisdom theme appears only now and then. When it does appear, it assumes a certain importance. A brief survey of the works concerned will enable us to form a better idea of the place of Wisdom in them.
SM contains only one reference to Wisdom. This work, which, in the light of Gods free choice, defends the crucial importance of devotion to Mary, following the order established by [Gods] divine wisdom (SM 23). Otherwise no appeal is made here to the acquisition of Wisdom as one of the fruits to be sought by this devotion, nor do we find in the closing prayer to Jesus (SM 66) the Christological title Wisdom.
Neither does PM contain more than a single reference to Wisdom (PM 22), and it not a direct one, as it is a quotation in Latin of Lk 21:15 about the assistance that Jesus will give to the word of his Apostles in the midst of persecutions. The same verse of Scripture will be taken up once more and commented on at length in RM 59-60.
In SR, we discover two references, one of them ambiguous (SR 142) and the other expressing a clear meaning (SR 146). The first is a citation of Jas 1:6 on the importance of asking for Wisdom in prayer; but here it seems that Montfort refers to Wisdom only secondarily, the better to illustrate the importance of praying with faith and with the certitude of being heard. The accent is not on the acquisition of Wisdom. The second occurrence, on the other hand, leaves no doubt: So, dear members of the Confraternity, persevere in asking God for all your needs, both spiritual and material, through the holy Rosary; especially should you pray for divine Wisdom, which is an infinite treasure [Wis 7:14], and there can be no possible doubt that you will receive it sooner or later, provided you do not give up and do not lose courage in the middle of your journey. You still have a great way to go, Grandis enim tibi restat via, [1 Kings 19:7] (SR 146).
Given the highly popular character of SR and the practices that Montfort expounds there, we may have here one of the missing links that help us appreciate the importance of Wisdom in the missionarys preaching and activity.
FC, which is actually a further development of LEW, chap. 13, 14, and 16, contains three allusions to wisdom. The first (FC 17) consists of a very brief reference to the worldly-wise, of whom Montfort has already drawn an anything but flattering portrait in LEW 75-83. The second (FC 18) sees in the Cross assigned to each person a particular choice on the part of Divine Wisdom. The third is much more important. Here Montfort develops the fourth of the fourteen rules that he addresses to those of his disciples who choose to suffer and carry our cross in the footsteps of Christ (FC 41). We note that in this passage Montfort once again transfers to the Cross a vocabulary he has used apropos of Wisdom (the words underlined in our quotation): You may, and should, pray for the wisdom of the cross, that knowledge of the truth which we experience within ourselves and which by the light of faith deepens our knowledge of the most hidden mysteries, including that of the cross. But this is obtained only by much labor, great humiliations and fervent prayer. If you stand in need of this strengthening spirit [Ps 50:14] which enables us to carry the heaviest crosses courageously; of this gracious and consoling spirit [Lk 11:13], which enables us, in the higher part of the soul, to take delight in things that are bitter and repulsive; of this sound and upright spirit [Ps 50:12] which seeks God alone; of this science of the cross which embraces all things; in short, of this inexhaustible treasure by which those who make good use of it win Gods friendship [cf. Wis 7:14]if you stand in need of such, pray for wisdom, ask for it continually and fervently, without wavering [cf. Jas 1:5, 6] or fear of not obtaining it, and it will be yours. Then you will clearly understand from your own experience how it is possible to desire, seek and find joy in the cross (FC 45).
TD, which most commentators date to 1712, is, of course, Montforts best known work, and it remains one of the great classics of Marian theology and spirituality. The strongly Christocentric nature of Montforts argumentation in this work has always been acknowledged. It is no less certain that the foundations of his argumentation had already been laid in the final chapter of LEW, in which he sets forth the greatest means of all, and the most wonderful of all secrets for obtaining and preserving divine Wisdom: a loving and genuine devotion to the Blessed Virgin (LEW 203). Now, what of the theme of Wisdom in TD, this other masterpiece of Montforts? While it is not dominant, it may be more present, and more important, than we might have suspected.
The book contains at least fifteen references to Wisdomitself an impressive fact. Of that number, no less than six (TD 18, 80, 139 twice, 168, 240) make of it a Christological title and refer us to the person of Christ and his incarnation, while another two refer more generally to Wisdom in God (TD 175, 272). Thus, more than half of these references confirm the character of the theological vision of Montfort, for whom the mystery of God and Christ translates in terms of Wisdom.
Furthermore, we should cite TD 240-41, where Montfort argues on the basis of a sapiential text, Sir 6, whose echoes resound in the NT itself (Mt 11:28-30): Dear friend, break the chains of sin and of sinners, of the world and the worldly, of the devil and his satellites. Cast their yoke of death far from us [Dirumpamus vincula eorum et projiciamus a nobis jugum ipsorum (Ps. 2:3)]. To use the words of the Holy Spirit let us put our feet into his glorious shackles and our neck into his chains [Injice pedem tuum in compedes illius, et in torques illius collum tuum (Sir 6:25)]. Let us bow down our shoulders in submission to the yoke of Wisdom incarnate, Jesus Christ, and let us not be upset by the burden of his chains [Subjice humerum tuum et porta illam, et ne accedieris vinculis ejus (Sir 6:25)]. Notice how before saying these words the Holy Spirit prepares us to accept his serious advice, Hearken, my son, he says, receive a counsel of understanding and do not spurn this counsel of mine [Audi, fili, et accipe consilium intellectus, et ne abjicias consilium meum (Sir 6:24)]. Allow me here, my dear friend, to join the Holy Spirit in giving you the same counsel. These chains are the chains of salvation [Vincula illius alligatura salutis (Sir 6:31)] (TD 240-41).
On four occasions, Montfort alludes to the Wisdom of Mary (TD 4, 108, 156, 217). This gift is hers because of her proximity to Jesus, source of all Wisdom; it has been granted to her in order to be shared with us as we await the plenitude of the mystery of Christ: It is in the bosom of Mary that people who are young grow mature in enlightenment, in holiness, in experience and in wisdom, and in a short time reach the fullness of the age of Christ [cf. Eph 4:13] (TD 156; see also TD 214, 217).
True, the allusions are scattered, but the fact remains that they can be comprehended only in the light of the magisterial exposition that Montfort had made on Wisdom less than ten years before, when he wrote LEW, and they suffice to show that nothing of this basic theme has been retracted.
When he wrote RM, which seems to have been essentially complete by June 1713,8 Montfort was obviously interested only in the missionary dimension of Wisdom, whether on the attitude to be taken in the practice of the Sacrament of PenanceThey must not be either too strict or too lax in imposing penances or granting absolution but must hold to the golden mean of wisdom and truth (RM 59)or, especially, on his missionaries primary activity, preaching: The preaching of Gods word is the most far-reaching, the most effective and also the most difficult ministry of all. The missionaries will, therefore, study and pray unceasingly that they may obtain from God the gift of wisdom so necessary to a true preacher for knowing and relishing the truth and getting others to relish it. It is the easiest thing in the world to be a fashionable preacher. It is a difficult but sublime thing to be able to preach with the inspiration of an apostle, to speak like the wise man, ex sententia (with true understanding [Wis. 7:14]) or, as Jesus Christ says, ex abundantia cordis (from the fullness of ones heart [Mt 12:34]), to have received from God as a reward for ones labors and prayers, a tongue, a mouth and a wisdom which the enemies of truth cannot withstand: mercedem linguam . . . os et sapientiam cui non poterunt resistere omnes adversarii vestri [Lk 21:15] (RM 60).
Once more, Montfort comments upon what he had sketched in LEW in describing the marvelous effects of Wisdom. Thus, RM 60-61 must be read as a direct expansion of LEW 97.
There remains, finally, RW, whose text was in broad circulation from 1715 onward; it probably was written by Montfort that same year. This text contains some ten references to Wisdom, of which three invoke only the commonplace sense of the terms wise or wisdom. Among the remaining more meaningful uses, three especially stand out. The first is the finest possible definition of the communitys raison dêtre: The interior aim of the Congregation of the Daughters of Wisdom is the acquisition of Divine Wisdom (RW 1). But the second is no less important, as it presents, in the chapter on obedience, the example to be followed or model to be imitated, Wisdom Incarnate: Holy obedience, practiced with all possible perfection, is the special virtue that should characterize the Daughters of Wisdom. Just as divine Wisdom, who reigned in the heavens, came down to earth to obey from the first moment of his incarnation to his death, so, following his example, his daughters have left the world to subject their mind and will to the yoke of obedience (RW 46).
Finally, the third of the more important occurrences of the term wisdom demonstrates the objectively theological character of the Wisdom recommended by Montfort to his daughters. He insists on the bonds between Wisdom and faith: As faith is the foundation of all religion, so is it the basis of all wisdom and perfection; hence faith, the daily bread of the Daughters of Wisdom, is the motivating force of all their thoughts, words and actions (RW 202).
Montfort does not omit recommending the concrete deeds of a Wisdom to be lived in day-to-day affairs: Wisdom in conversations (RW 250), the Wisdom of silence (RW 175), as well as Wisdom in the exercise of authority (RW 294).
6. Foundation of a community of Wisdom
Montforts quest for Wisdom constituted one of the major stages of his own spiritual journey. This fact alone renders it worthy of consideration. But it is not a matter of an experience confined to the saints personal pilgrimage. Quite the contrary, it overflows into his missionary career, and it has the great merit of having produced disciples. The biographer Picot de Clorivière, reporting the crosses Montfort had to bear at the Poitiers Hospital, makes no effort to conceal his admiration for the great things that Montforts project of establishing a congregation of Wisdom would entail: But the Lord placed wickedness in the service of the great things His servant was to do for His glory. This is how I must describe the establishment of a Congregation that, one day, would produce great fruits and render to the faithful of countless places the most important services, under the beautiful name of Daughters of Wisdom. 9
Montfort, the initiator of the project, managed in short order to find an exceptional disciple, capable of uniting in the same passionate search and of carrying its project to term. Very early, indeed from the moment of his first allusion to Wisdom (L 15), Montfort had not the least hesitation in sharing his desire for Wisdom with a young woman of Poitiers, Marie Louise Trichet, and in leading her upon an evangelical adventure in which Wisdom would play such a decisive role. The young priest relied on the fervent prayers of this new disciple and associate in order to obtain the treasure of Wisdom: I will never cease asking for this boundless treasure and I firmly believe that I shall obtain it even were angels, men and demons to deny it to me. I believe strongly in the efficacy of your prayers, in the loving kindness of our God, in the protection of the Blessed Virgin, our good Mother; I believe too that the needs of the poor are too urgent and the promises of God too explicit for me to be making a mistake in seeking Wisdom. For even if the possession of divine Wisdom were impossible, according to the ordinary workings of divine grace, which is not the case, it would become possible because of the insistence with which we ask for it. Is it not an unchangeable truth that everything is possible to him who believes? Another thing that makes me say that I shall possess Wisdom is the fact that I have encountered and still encounter so much persecution night and day. So, my dear daughter, I ask you to enlist some good souls among your friends into a campaign of prayer especially from now until Pentecost, and to pray together for an hour on Mondays from one to two oclock. I will be praying at the same time. Write and send me their names (L 15).
And so Montfort is not alone. Louise Trichet and some good souls among her friends are invited to enlist in the campaign. Nor will they delay to do so. A few months later, Montfort could write to his Dear Daughter: I feel that you are still asking God that by crosses, humiliations and poverty I may acquire divine Wisdom. Be brave, my dear daughter, be brave. I am grateful to you; I feel the effects of your prayers (L 16).
Not that he did not beg, in concluding this letter, as well as in his next to Louise Trichet, a continuation of the prayers. With Montfort, then, the personal quest for Wisdom penetrated the marrow of his bones.
To the discourse on Wisdom, which was particularly intense in the first years of his ministry, now, after the fashion of the biblical prophets, Montfort joined the language of symbolic acts. Besides the solemn and significant symbol of the name of the new group, Daughters of Wisdom, Montfort would posit three acts that, over a period of a dozen years, marked the first steps of the new association, which later became a religious Congregation. The first two stand in intimate connection: the formation of the very first association of Wisdom, and the ideal of life that Montfort inculcated in that association by bestowing on it what is ordinarily referred to as the Wisdom Cross of Poitiers. Besnard describes these two actions of Montfort: Following the example of Jesus Christ, Eternal Wisdom, he chooses the most base and abject objects in the eyes of the world. He gathers together on the grounds of the Hospital the poorest of the poor: eighteen to twenty sick ladies, all covered with ulcers anything but favored by nature, but virtuous and pleasing in the eyes of the Lord. Faithful servant that he is of the Head of his household, he gathers in the blind, the lame, to be seated at the festive board. He seeks out a suitable place for the implementation of his plan. It will become the cradle of his community. He gathers them all together in a room apart, separated from the wards of the Hospital. He calls this place Wisdom. He places a superior in charge. But what a superior! A poor, sick girl like any of the rest of them, but the simplest, most prudent, most pious, and most obedient. He places in the middle of the room a great cross, which is a piece of foolishness according to the world but which is the Wisdom of Jesus Christ. He wants them to be called by the lovely name Daughters of Wisdom.10
The third and last of the symbolic acts occurred only at the close of Montforts missionary career, when he gave to Marie Louise of Jesus and her companions a gift of a statue of Our Lady of Wisdom. The deed is all the more significant for the fact that Montfort seemed to be quite attached to this statue, taking it with him on his missionary journeys. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how Wisdom was represented through this mysterious statue, but its very existence and the testimony we have from Marie Louise of Jesus about it are a further indication of the importance of the spirituality of Wisdom throughout Montforts missionary career. We know the fact through Besnards writings: She always made her treasure and consolation this mysterious statue of Wisdom that the servant of God had given her. She has told us, time upon time, its history. Father de Montfort sent it to us, she said, from Nantes to La Rochelle around the year 1715, when we were setting up charity schools there. I send you, my dear daughters, he stated, Wisdom along with the messenger (meaning that he was always united with Wisdom). We have simply set it on a table, and we pray before it often, always begging for Wisdom. Father de Montfort had a particular devotion to this figure, which represents Wisdom as Solomon depicts it in the Book that bears his name.11
The saints last letters, composed in 1715 and 1716, likewise furnish insights on the Wisdom community that Montfort wished to found: The day for the establishment of the Daughters of Wisdom has at last arrived (L 28). Among the recommendations he addresses to the new community, the fourth leaves no doubt whatever about the name and the kind of mission he wishes to entrust to it: Call yourselves the Community of the Daughters of Wisdom for the education of children and the care of the poor (L 29). Identity and mission are in strict association here: the spirituality of Wisdom has a properly evangelical, missionary dimension.
That the spirituality of Wisdom should emblazon the standard of a religious congregation is a unique fact in the history of the institutes of consecrated or apostolic life. This unique character is all the more astonishing in view of the countless institutes, male and female, bearing the names of titles of Christ or aspects of his mission: Sacred Heart, Precious Blood, Blessed Sacrament, Holy Cross, Good Shepherd, Christ the King, and so on.12
II. WISDOM ACCORDING TO MONTFORT
1. Toward a definition
Just as with the biblical notion of Wisdom, Montforts understanding of the term is far from being univocal and spans a multitude of meanings. Dayet himself recognized this fact: The word Wisdom in Montfort, as in Saint Paul and traditional terminology, presents more than one meaning.13 There is no doubt, however, about the primary meaning of the term wisdom in Montfort: Under the appellation Wisdom, Montfort intends to designate especially the Son of God, generated by the Father from all eternity, who became a human being in the womb of the Virgin MaryJesus Christ, Wisdom at once Eternal and Incarnate.14 Then, secondarily, Montfort intended by Wisdom the created qualities so magnificently accompanying [Jesus] presence in the soul either actually, or striving to be, holy.15
The complexity of the notion of Wisdom in Montfort has also been brought out by Le Texier16 in some fragmentary, incomplete notes. He introduces distinctions that come very close to Montforts language, it is true, but he also appeals to the authority of Thomas Aquinas, whom he frequently cites. Aware of the subtleties of certain distinctions in Montfort, Le Texier actually speaks of a certain confusion generated by a continual shift from essential Wisdom to a Wisdom that is personal by appropriation.17 While the foundations of the distinctions established by Le Texier may be open to question and while the word confusion may well translate the malaise of the interpreter rather than the data of the text, we must acknowledge with him the equivocal character of the term in Montfort, as well as a number of sudden transitions from one meaning to the other in Montforts work.
The distinction proposed by De Fiores appears more apt. He speaks of Wisdom as a person, that is, Jesus Christ, and of Wisdom as a gift, that is, Jesus Christs communication to human beings.18 Such a distinction has the twofold merit of emphasizing the basically Christological distinction of the notion of Wisdom in Montfort along with its functional or economic dimension, according to which Wisdom appears in a context of covenant in salvation history.
Montforts view of Wisdom, then, is both fragmentedhe himself gives a number of distinctions or quasi-definitionsand centered, for he refers everything to the mystery of Christ Wisdom, essentially a mystery of covenant and salvation for humanity.
In LEW, chap. 1, Montfort first proposes a definition based on etymology. In the general sense of the term wisdom means a delectable knowledge [sapida sapientia]a taste for God and his truth (LEW 13). We note, furthermore, the importance accorded in this first chapter to the vocabulary of cognition (see the article Love of Eternal Wisdom in this Handbook). Wisdom, in Montfort, is bound up with knowledge. But at the same time, Montfort defines very clearly the context of his quest by the addition of the adjective delectable (savoreuse). The knowledge in question here is not a theoretical, abstract, cold knowledge but a knowledge that one can taste and that enables one, as it were, to come alive. Here, too, the vocabulary is revealing: in LEW especially, but also in the Hymns, Montfort speaks a great deal of tasting, loving, cherishing, treasure, sweetness, pleasure, delight, etc. The etymological definition, then, permits him to introduce and, in a sense, justify the type of discourse he proposes on the topic of Wisdom.
But more than etymology is at play here. Montfort also proposes distinctions of a more philosophical character, which he draws, this time, from his scholastic training: There are several kinds of wisdom. First: true and false wisdom. True wisdom is a taste for truth without falsehood or deception. False wisdom is a taste for falsehood disguised as truth. This false wisdom is the wisdom or the prudence of the world, which the Holy Spirit divides into three classes: earthly, sensual, and diabolical [Jas 3:15]. True wisdom may be divided into natural and supernatural wisdom. Natural wisdom is the knowledge, in an outstanding degree, of natural things in their principles. Supernatural wisdom is knowledge of supernatural and divine things in their origin. This supernatural wisdom is divided into substantial or uncreated Wisdom and accidental or created wisdom. Accidental or created wisdom is the communication that uncreated Wisdom makes of himself to mankind. In other words, it is the gift of wisdom. Substantial or uncreated Wisdom is the Son of God, the second person of the most Blessed Trinity. In other words, it is Eternal Wisdom in eternity or Jesus Christ in time (LEW 13).
Several distinctions are drawn here. First, between true and false wisdom, which calls for judgment and interpretation on the part of the reader. We also find two more essentialistic distinctions: first, between natural wisdom and supernatural Wisdoma distinction that would not easily hold in light of recent studies on biblical Wisdom and in light of the theological and biblical renewal of Vatican II. Finally, we have a distinction between accidental, created, wisdom and substantial, uncreated Wisdomwhich has lost none of its validity today and would only call for a bit of rethinking of its formulation, primarily for accidental wisdom.
In addition to these essentialistic definitions, Montfort likewise has a tendency to define Wisdom in an inductive fashionthat is, by way of a detailed description of the effects produced by Wisdom in those who seek it: a spirit of discernment (LEW 92), knowledge that instills life (LEW 93-94), capacity for communication and prophetic witness (LEW 95-97), a relish for everything that comes from God (LEW 98), gifts of the Spirit (LEW 99), apostolic daring and strength in trial (LEW 100). Here Montfort appeals to his own experience and sense of observation. In doing so, he harks back to biblical tradition, for which Wisdom always gives in superabundance, in incalculable richness: He [Wisdom] entered the soul of the servant of God and withstood fearsome kings with signs and wonders (Wisdom 10:16) (LEW 90).
Indeed, it is from the Bible, even more than from etymology and philosophy, that Montfort borrows the essentials of his definition of Wisdom. On the one hand, he quotes and comments on the main texts of the OT on personified WisdomProv 8, Sir 24, Jas 6-8 (cf. LEW 16-17, 20-30, 65-68)just as he does with their application by the NT writers to the person of Jesus (LEW 16-19). He devotes an entire chapter to Wis 7-8 (LEW 52-62), which describes in a beautiful way the excellence of Eternal Wisdom (LEW 52). At the same time, when he attempts to define the gift of Wisdom, it is again from Jas 7-8, complemented by Wis 10-11, in order to show the countless effects Eternal Wisdom produces in souls (LEW 91; see also all of LEW, chap. 8). The NT figures importantly in this chapter as well, as Montfort has drawn from it the distinction between earthly, sensual, and diabolical Wisdom (LEW 13, quoting Jas 3:15), which will serve as the basis of chapter 7, Choice of true Wisdom (LEW 74-89).
Montforts understanding of Wisdom is extremely rich in connotations, (etymological, philosophical, experiential, biblical, and, of course, theological). Moreover, there are three fundamental lines of Montforts theology of Wisdom.
2. Christ Wisdom
The great originality of Montforts views on Wisdom resides first and foremost in his Christological reading of the biblical texts on Wisdom. It is here that he reveals what J. Hémery calls St. Louis Maries charismhis particular view of faith in Christ known as the Wisdom of God, come among human beings in order to reveal to them the fullness of the Fathers design of love and teach them, true master of Wisdom that he is, by example and word, the way to beatitude.19
While the OT abundantly illustrates the varied meanings of the word wisdom, reflection on this theme leads us to shift questions in another direction. From What is wisdom, we have come to the question Who is wisdom (cf. Job 28, Prov 8, Sir 24, Wis 6-8). For Montfort, it is evident that this is the great question. And for him, the answer is the same as for Paul (1 Cor 15-20) and John (Jn 1:1-18): Wisdom is Jesus Christ, creative Word and Word of God become flesh. In LEW, we find more than forty instances where Montfort designates Christ as Wisdom, mostly in terms of Eternal Wisdom and incarnate Wisdom, thus referring to the mystery of his origin in God and to his presence among us in the Incarnation. From the very beginning of LEW, Wisdoms identification with Jesus Christ is strongly emphasized: So often were these last words [Mt 19:24; cf. Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25] repeated by divine Wisdom while on earth (LEW 6). And again, Why is Jesus, the adorable, eternal and incarnate Wisdom loved so little . . . ? (LEW 8). The identification becomes even more explicit as Montfort sets Johns Prologue in relationship with the major OT texts on Wisdom in God (Wis 7:25-26, Prov 8:23-24): He is the substantial and eternal idea of divine beauty which was shown to St. John the Evangelist . . . when he exclaimed, In the beginning was the Wordthe Son of God, or Eternal Wisdomand the Word was in God and the Word was God. . . . This is the Eternal Wisdom of which Solomon often speaks in his books when he says that Wisdom was created (LEW 17-18; cf. Jn 1:1).
The books title, it is true, carries no explicit reference to the Incarnation, but the structure Montfort proposes and the development of his reflection invite us to read that title in a Christological sense: Following the example of this great man [Solomon], I am going, in my simple way, to portray Eternal Wisdom before, during and after his Incarnation (LEW 7). The identification is explicit once more in the enunciation of his project: Substantial or uncreated Wisdom is the Son of God, the second person of the most Blessed Trinity. In other words, it is Eternal Wisdom in eternity or Jesus Christ in time. It is precisely about this Eternal Wisdom that we are going to speak (LEW 13).
Biblical Wisdom is not the whole of Scripture, any more than the title Wisdom is the whole of NT Christology. But both OT and Christological Wisdom afford us a better grasp of the great unity between salvation history and the loving presence of God in the works of creation. Through his Christian rereading of OT Wisdom, then, Montfort helps us to a better understanding of the unity between both Testaments as the unity between the first and the new covenants.
3. Evangelical and missionary Wisdom
The Wisdom Montfort proposes is none other than the Wisdom of the Gospel. To paraphrase a turn of thought most dear to him, we might even say that for him Wisdom is the Gospel and the Gospel is Wisdom. This identification emerges in his very project for LEW: he devotes an entire chapter to the principal utterances of Wisdom Incarnate which we must believe and practice if we are to be saved (LEW, chap. 12 [LEW 133- 53]). This sampling does not represent Montforts entire structure where Wisdom is concerned. As he himself intimates, it is only an abridgment. But it is also a way of referring directly to the Gospel, which Saint Louis Marie perceives both as prophetical (in oracles) and as sapiential (in oracles precisely of Wisdom). Beyond any doubt, it is from the Gospel that Montfort invites Christians to draw all of their Wisdom.
That the Gospel is the principal source of Wisdom for him is illustrated also by his well-known response to his friend Blain in their celebrated exchange in 1714. To the objections raised by his friend to his seemingly strange conduct, Saint Louis Marie responded that his behavior was dictated by the Wisdom of the Gospel.20
Since, however, the Wisdom theme in Montfort is less known than his Marian teaching and since Wisdom does not figure in his sermon outlines, it might be objected that Wisdom had no deep impact on his missionary career, even though it was embedded in his personal experience. But the truth is quite the contrary, and it is again the conversation with Blain that best illustrates the repercussions of evangelical Wisdom on the life of the missionary: He added that there were different kinds of wisdom, just as there are different degreesthat the wisdom guiding a community person in his or her conduct was not the same as the wisdom of a missionary and apostolic personthat the former was not a matter of new undertakings; . . . that it was not the same with missionaries and apostolic persons, for whom there is always something new to be undertaken, some holy work to be established or defended; that it was impossible not to get them talked about and get everyone in agreement; that, finally, if Wisdom was not to be put to work doing new things for God and undertaking something for His glory, for fear of what people might say, then the Apostles had been wrong to leave Jerusalem.21
It is the Missionary Apostolic who speaks here, and quite obviously his conception of Wisdom has nothing to do with calculated prudence. The Wisdom that instills Montforts life is a Wisdom that thrusts him to undertake things, to leave Jerusalem, like the Apostles of times gone by, in order to do new things for God. It is not surprising, then, to see him recommend to his religious community of men that they esteem the gift of Wisdom as being of the highest utility for ensuring success in their preaching (RM 60).
4. Paradoxical Wisdom of the Cross
Montforts celebrated maxim Wisdom is the Cross and the Cross is Wisdom (LEW 180) admirably expresses how closely connected these two realities are in his thought. LEW, chap. 14, The Triumph of Eternal Wisdom in and by the Cross, is profoundly influenced by Pauline thought (1 Cor 1-2). Like the Apostle, Montfort bows in wonder before the paradoxical paths of Divine Wisdom: How remote and how different are the thoughts and the ways of eternal Wisdom from those of even the wisest of men (LEW 167), he cries, and again with Paul: O the depths of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How amazing is his choice and how sublime and incomprehensible are his ways! But how inexpressible his love for that cross! (LEW 168; cf. Rom 11:33).
The roots of Montforts sapiential theology are broader than its Pauline origins. That theology is inscribed in the larger framework of a biblical theology in which the mystery of God is perceived under the sign of what a great contemporary theologian, François Varillon, has called the humility of God and the suffering of God, or what Morinay, for his part, calls the weakness of God. Do you think that Jesus, now that he is triumphant and glorious, is any the less loving and condescending? On the contrary, his glory, as it were, perfects his kindness. He wishes to appear forgiving rather than majestic, to show the riches of his mercy rather than the gold of his glory (LEW 127).
In Montfort, the identification of the Cross with Wisdom is evidenced in Hymns 19 and 102, which manifestly borrow from the vocabulary of Wisdom in order to speak of the mystery of the Cross: In this princess / we truly find / grace, wisdom, / and divinity . . . / God found irresistible / her beauty so rare: / the cross has descended him / into our humanity! (H 102:9-10).
The importance attributed by Montfort to the Cross is altogether justified. Here, for the NT writers, is the supreme, decisive deed by which Incarnate Wisdom accomplished the worlds salvation: Jesus knew that his hour had come and he must leave this world and go to the Father. He had always loved his own who were in the world, and now he was to show the full extent of his love (Jn 13:1). Montfort lacks an explicit theology of the Resurrection. He does not, however, entertain the least doubt that Golgotha alone is not the Cross. The Cross is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18). To use his own words, he speaks of the triumph of the cross: By it has Jesus Christ / thrown hell into chains, / laid low the rebel, / and conquered the universe (H 19:6).
Here is the Cross in all its glory, and Montforts gaze is ever upon Christs victory and the judgment of salvation that flows from it: that victory will have the cross carried in triumph by the Angels, and will sing to it canticles of gladness. It will follow this cross, which will stand high on the brightest-shining cloud that has ever been, and it will judge the world with it and by it (LEW 184). From His youth did he it follow, / with giant stride. / Of tenderness and love he died / in its arms. / I desire a baptism, / once he cried / the cross I so love, / the object of my love! (H 19:11).
Here, then, is a theology of the Cross that could very well be included in current theological perspectives, provided certain expressions were updated and certain of his Christological premises reexamined, notably those bearing on the consciousness of Christ (LEW 169-70 and H 19:10 not being without their difficulties for todays understanding of the implications of Jesus humanity). Apart from these reservations, Montforts discourse on the Cross remains altogether pertinent and rich in theological and spiritual insights.
5. Mary and Wisdom
Our concern here is only how Montforts Marian thought is integrated into his teachings on Wisdom.
First of all, a concrete fact: Montfort carried with him on his missions a wooden statuette, apparently carved by himself, and christened by him Our Lady of Wisdom. Preserved and treasured at the Generalate of the Daughters of Wisdom, it is a Madonna and Child; the Child is holding the world in his hand and has a playful expression on his face, reminding one of the Wisdom taking delight in mankind (cf. Prov 8:22-31). Mary is not presented alone but, rather, in her relationship with Wisdom Incarnate.
Montforts teaching on Wisdom preceded and, in a way, framed his Marian teaching. While his devotion to Mary can be traced back very far in his spiritual pilgrimage, it is no less certain that as a spiritual author, Montfort has first given us a developed Christology. His Marian doctrine flows from that Christology and is understandable only in its light. It is not to be wondered at, then, that he should have devoted the first sixteen chapters of LEW to establishing his vision of Wisdom before furnishing us, in the seventeenth and last chapter, with his Marian doctrine.22
For Montfort, Marys connections with Wisdom are manifold. But here again our saint begins with the mystery of Christ. If Mary is capable of guiding us in the quest for Wisdom, it is by reason of her proximity to Him who is not only the source of Wisdom but who is very Wisdom in person, Jesus Christ. In a rather bold phrase, Montfort says of Mary: She became the mother, mistress and throne of divine Wisdom (LEW 203). She becamesuggesting the underlying reality of the economy of salvation. It is by virtue not of some necessity but of Gods good pleasure and Marys free response that she has become what she is in salvation history.
For Montfort, it cannot be a question of Marys being able to have some precedence or superiority vis-à-vis the Divine Wisdom: Mary is also mistress of divine Wisdom. Not that she is above him who is truly God, or even equal to him. To think or say such a thing would be blasphemous. But because the Son of God, Eternal Wisdom, by making himself entirely subject to her as his Mother, gave her a maternal and natural authority over himself which surpasses our understanding. He not only gave her this power while he lived on earth but still gives it now in heaven, because glory does not destroy nature but makes it more perfect (LEW 205). And again: If it is true to say that Mary is, in a sense, mistress of Wisdom incarnate, what control must she have over all the graces and gifts of God, and what freedom must she enjoy in giving them to whom she chooses (LEW 207).
As for the expression Throne of Wisdom (Sedes Sapientiae) and its Marian application, this figure had already seen a long history of liturgical usage, even before being popularized by the Litany of Loretto: Prov 8 and Sir 24 have been used in the Roman liturgy for the feasts of the Blessed Virgin ever since the seventh century.23 In other words, Montfort has not given us any innovations on this point. Nor indeed should we be surprised to see him invoking, on this subject, the witness of the Fathers of the Church. In the following text we observe the abundance of synonyms for the word dwellingthese, as well, inspired by the famous text of Sir 24: Moreover, Mary is the royal throne of Eternal Wisdom. . . . That is why the Fathers of the Church call her the tabernacle of the divinity, the place of rest and contentment of the Blessed Trinity, the throne of God, the city of God, the altar of God, the temple of God, the world of God and the paradise of God. All these titles are most correct with regard to the different wonders which the most high God has worked in Mary (LEW 208).
Quite evidently, the liturgical and Montfort exegeses are accommodation and make no claim to convey the first meaning of the texts of Prov 8 and Sir 24, whose reference is to Wisdom in God. In fact, even from the viewpoint of a Christian rereading, it is Christ, and not Mary, who accomplishes what is said of Wisdom. But the liturgical and the Montfort intuition remain correct, precisely inasmuch as it is in Mary that Jesus Christ Wisdom became incarnate. Mary, in our humanity, is the dwelling place, the tabernacle, the place of rest of Jesus Christ, Gods Wisdom.
III. MONTFORT AMONG THE PEDAGOGUES OF WISDOM
The question of Montforts sources has been the subject of numerous studies by the commentators, and it has long been established that by virtue both of his extensive reading and of his docility to his teachers during his theological and spiritual training, Montfort was mightily influenced by the theology of his time, especially by the French school of spirituality. Here we may refer to the commentators Lhoumeau, Plessis, Poupon, Catta, and Perouas, among others. As for the more specific case of the sources for LEW, Father Huré remains an excellent reference,24 and that study can be complemented by more recent ones.25 For the biblical sources, Gilberts study is the best and most complete.26
We must, however, attempt to bridge a little gap here. What of LEW and two sources that antedate the productions of the French school: Augustine, and the Franciscan Wisdom tradition?
1. Montfort Wisdom and Augustinian Wisdom
A certain number of commentators on the Montfort corpus appeal to the great Augustine for a grounding of the Montfort notion of Wisdom. Father Huré, indeed, in his Introduction historique, reserves Augustine the lions share, according him some twenty pages out of about eighty. The monumental accomplishments of the Doctor of Hippo have much to offer, it is true, on the subject of Wisdom: Key word in the language of the philosophers, [wisdom] is a key word, as well, in the theological language of Saint Augustine.27 Besides, Augustine was one of the first great commentatorsand one of the rare ones coming before the Middle Agesto deal with Wis: he cites that book at least 760 times, commenting on some 150 verses, or roughly the number (140) cited by Montfort in LEW alone. It would be interesting to compare the commentaries of the two authors in order to see both their convergences and divergences.
On the other hand, we must not forget that in large part, Augustine understands wisdom in the philosophical sense,28 while Montfort appears rather reticent when it comes to philosophical wisdom (LEW 84-88). Besides, while Montfort cites Augustine in LEW 30, 107, 213, Augustines influence remains diffuse. Montfort generally shares an Augustinian view of the human being and salvation. But this is all that we can say, and it is unclear to what extent Montfort may depend on specific texts of Augustine that deal with Wis.
2. Montfort Wisdom and Franciscan Wisdom
A less thoroughly explored avenue is that of the parallels between Montforts Wisdom and the Franciscan Wisdom tradition. Audusseau has studied them in some noteswhose non-exhaustive, provisional character he acknowledgesbearing mainly on texts of Angelo of Foligno, Bonaventure, and, finally, Francis of Assisi.29 It is regrettable that this author did not return to the subject later so as to solidify his argumentation and the parallels. But the fact remains that his conclusions show profound affinities between Montforts texts and the Franciscan texts and demonstrate that, indeed, there is a tradition of Christian Wisdom. The search remains to be pursued and refined, especially about Montforts ties with Francis of Assisi, Angelo of Foligno, Raymond Lull, and Bonaventure, all of whom are cited in LEW or other works of Montfort.30
IV. RELEVANCE OF MONTFORT WISDOM
It would scarcely be an easy task to popularize Montforts discourse on WisdomMontfort himself not having completely taken up the challenge of a like enterprise!but there can be no doubt that his vision of Wisdom might respond to more than one felt need crying out in the hearts of Christians today.
First of all, in his teaching on Wisdom, Montfort is far from expressing a mere marginal, or peripheral, devotion. His devotion goes to the essential: it is centered on Christ. And the Christ Montfort proposes for our contemplation and imitation is not just any Christ, of vague or indeterminate delineation. The Christ Montfort proposes is none other than Christ as Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom, whose stamp creation has borne since its originsprecisely the element of coherence and cohesion in the whole created universe. This Christ is Gods dwelling place among human beings, and Love crucifiedthe supreme manifestation of Gods love for human kind.
In the second place, the Montfort Wisdom has the great merit of sending us back to the Bible itself. In these times of a biblical renewal, no more appropriate undertaking could be imagined. So much remains to be rediscoveredespecially in the Wisdom writings themselves, so long misunderstood by Christians, which offer a unique outlook on the mutual relationship between God and the world and on the deep meaning of human realities.
Finally, at a moment when so many cults and new religious groups (some even calling themselves wisdom or sophia) propose esoteric spiritualities that so often go in tandem with gnostic tendencies (proposing a salvation that would be obtained by virtue of the mere possession of certain knowledge), Montforts teaching also has the great merit of clearly revealing the radical evangelical demands of a Wisdom that must necessarily be lived, a Wisdom that is acquired only by way of a personal appropriation of Jesus paschal mystery.
J. P. Prévost
Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
Provided courtesy of the Montfort Fathers © All Rights Reserved.
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