A Pilgrimage to Ars

statue of Saint John Mary Vianney, sculptor unknown, Saint John Marie Vianney Retreat House, Norzagaray, Bulacan, Philippines; swiped off the flickr account of dcfdelacruzI went to Lyons for the express purpose of visiting the tomb of the Curé of Ars; for I knew the village of Ars was not very far from that city, though I had but a vague idea as to where it was situated or how it was to be reached. I trusted, however, to obtaining all needful information from the people at the hotel where I was to pass the night; and I was not mistaken in my expectations; but I must confess, to my sorrow, that I felt for a moment a very English sort of shamefacedness about making the inquiry. Put to the waiter of an English hotel, such a question would simply have produced a stare of astonishment or a smile of pity. A visit to the tomb of the Duke of Wellington at St. Paul’s, or a descent into kingly vaults for the wise purpose of beholding Prince Albert’s coffin, with its wreaths of flowers laid there by royal and loving hands these things he would have sympathized with and understood. But a pilgrimage to the last resting-place of a man who, even admitting he were at that moment a saint in heaven, had been but a simple parish-priest upon earth, would have been a proceeding utterly beyond his capacity to comprehend, and he would undoubtedly have pronounced it either an act of insanity or one of superstition, or something partaking of the nature of the two. I forgot, for a moment, that I was in a Catholic country, and inquired my way to Ars with an uncomfortable expectation of a sneering answer in return. Once, however, that the question was fairly put, there was nothing left for me but to be ashamed of my own misgivings.

“Madame wished to visit the tomb of the sainted Curé? – mais oui. It was the easiest thing in the world. Only an hour’s railway from Lyons to Villefranche; and an omnibus at the latter station, which had been established for the express purpose of accommodating the pilgrims, who still flocked to Ars from every quarter of the Catholic world.”

I listened, and my way seemed suddenly to become smooth before me. Later on in the evening, I found that the housemaid of the hotel had been there often; and two or three times at least during the lifetime of the Curé. I asked her for what purpose she had gone there; whether to be cured of bodily ailments or to consult him on spiritual matters? “For neither one nor the other,” she answered, with great simplicity; “but she had had a great grief, and her mother had taken her to him to be comforted.” There was something to me singularly lovely in this answer, and in the insight which it gave me into the nature of that mission, so human, and yet so divine, which the Curé had accomplished in his lifetime. God had placed him there, like another John the Baptist, to announce penance to the world. He preached to thousands – he converted thousands – he penetrated into the hidden consciences of thousands, and laid his finger, as if by intuition, upon the hidden sore that kept the soul from God. Men, great by wealth and station, came to him and laid their burden of sin and misery at his feet. Men, greater still by intellect, and prouder and more difficult of conversion (as sins of the intellect ever make men), left his presence simple, loving, and believing as little children. For these he had lightning glances and words of fire; these by turns he reprimanded, exhorted, and encouraged; but when the weak and sorrowful of God’s flock came to him, he paused in his apostolic task to weep over them and console them. And so it was with Jesus. The great and wealthy of the earth came to him for relief, and he never refused their prayers; but how many instances do we find in the gospel of the gift of health bestowed, unasked and unexpected, upon some poor wanderer by the wayside, or the yet greater boon of comfort given to some poor suffering heart, for no other reason that we know of than that it suffered and had need of comfort! The cripple by the pool of Bethsaida received his cure at the very moment when he was heartsick with hope deferred at finding no man to carry him down to the waters; and the widow of Nain found her son suddenly restored to life because, as the gospel expressly tells us, he was “the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.”

The heart of the Curé of Ars seems to have been only less tender than that of his divine Master; and in the midst of the sublime occupation of converting souls to God, he never disdained the humble task of healing the stricken spirit, and leading it to peace and joy.

“My husband died suddenly,” the young woman went on to say, in answer to my further questions; “and from affluence I found myself at once reduced to poverty. I was stunned by the blow; but my mother took me to the cure; and almost before he had said a word, I felt not only consoled, but satisfied with the lot which God had assigned me.” And so indeed she must have been. When I saw her, she was still poor, and earning her bread by the worst of all servitude, the daily and nightly servitude of a crowded inn; but gentle, placid, and smiling, as became one who had seen and been comforted by a saint. She evidently felt that she had been permitted to approach very near to God in the person of God’s servant, and every word she uttered was so full of love and confidence in the sainted curé that it increased (if that were possible) my desire to kneel at his tomb, since the happiness of approaching his living person had been denied me.

The next morning I set off for Villefranche. It is on the direct line to Paris, and at about an hour’s railroad journey from Lyons. When I reached it, I found three omnibuses waiting at the station, and I believe they were all there for the sole purpose of conveying pilgrims to Ars. One of the conductors tried every mode of persuasion – and there are not a few in the vocabulary of a Frenchman – to inveigle me into his omnibus. “I should be at Ars in half an hour, and could return at two, three, four o’clock – in short, at any hour of the night or day that might please me best.” It was with some difficulty I resisted the torrent of eloquence he poured out upon me; but, in the first place, I felt that he was promising what he himself would have called “the impossible,” since a public conveyance must necessarily regulate its movements by the wishes of the majority of its passengers; and in the next, I had a very strong desire to be alone in body as well as in mind during the few hours that I was to spend at Ars.

At last I found an omnibus destined solely for visitors to Villefranche itself, and the conductor promised that he would provide me a private carriage to Ars if I would consent to drive first to his hotel. Cabaret he might have called it with perfect truth, for cabaret it was, and nothing more – a regular French specimen of the article, with a great public kitchen, where half the workmen of the town assembled for their meals, and a small cupboard sort of closet opening into it for the accommodation of more aristocratic guests. Into this, bon gré, mal gré, they wished to thrust me, but I violently repelled the threatened honor, and with some difficulty carrying my point, succeeded in being permitted to remain in the larger and cooler space of the open kitchen until my promised vehicle should appear. It came at last, a sort of half-cab, half-gig, without a hood, but with a curiously contrived harness of loose ropes, and looking altogether dangerously likely to come to pieces on the road. Luckily, I am not naturally nervous in such matters, and, consoling myself with the thought that if we did get into grief the “bon curé” was bound to come to my assistance, seeing I had incurred it solely for the sake of visiting his tomb, I was soon settled as comfortably as circumstances would permit, and we set off at a brisk pace.

The country around Villefranche is truly neither pretty nor picturesque; and though we were not really an hour on the road, the drive seemed tedious. Our Jehu also, as it turned out, had never been at Ars before; so that he had not only to stop more than once to inquire the way, but actually contrived at the very last to miss it. He soon discovered the mistake, however, and retracing his steps, a very few minutes brought us to the spot where the saint had lived forty years, and where he now sleeps in death. His house stands beside the church, but a little in the rear, so it does not immediately catch the eye; and the church, where his real life was spent, is separated from the road by a small enclosure, railed off, and approached by a few steps. We looked around for some person to conduct us, but there was no one to be seen; so, after a moment’s hesitation, we ascended the steps and entered the church. If you wish to know what kind of church it is, I cannot tell you. I do not know, in fact, whether it is Greek or Gothic, or of no particular architecture at all; I do not know even if it is in good taste or in bad taste. The soul was so filled with a sense of the presence of the dead saint that it left no room for the outer sense to take note of the accidents amid which he had lived. There are two or three small chapels – a Lady chapel, one dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and another to St. John the Baptist. There is also the chapel of St. Philomena, with a large lifelike image of the “bonne petite sainte” to whom he loved to attribute every miracle charity compelled him to perform; and there is the confessional, where for forty years he worked far greater wonders on the soul than any of the more obvious ones he accomplished on the body. All, or most of all, this I saw in a vague sort of way, as one who saw not; but the whole church was filled with such an aroma of holiness, there was such a sense of the actual presence of the man who had converted it into a very tabernacle in the wilderness – a true Holy of Holies, where, in the midst of infidel France, God had descended and conversed almost visibly with his people – that I had neither the will nor the power to condescend to particulars, and examine it in detail.

My one thought as I entered the church was, to go and pray upon his tomb; but in the first moment of doubt and confusion I could not remember, if indeed I had been told, the exact spot where he was buried. The chapel of St. Philomena was the first to attract my notice, and feeling that I could not be far wrong while keeping close to his dear little patroness, I knelt down there to collect my ideas.

The stillness of the church made itself felt. There were indeed many persons praying in it, but they prayed in that profound silence which spoke to the heart, and penetrated it in a way no words could have ever done.

I was thirsting, however, to approach the tomb of the saint, and at last ventured to whisper the question to a person near me. She pointed to a large black slab nearly in the centre of the church, and told me that he lay beneath it. Yes, he was there, in the very midst of his people, not far from the chapel of St. Philomena, and opposite to the altar whence he had so many thousands of times distributed the bread of life to the famishing souls who, like the multitude of old, had come into the desert, and needed to be fed ere they departed to their homes. Yes, he was there; and with a strange mingling of joy and sorrow in the thought I went and knelt down beside him.

Had I gone to Ars but a few years before, I might have found him in his living person; might have thrown myself at his feet, and poured out my whole soul before him. Now I knelt indeed beside him, but beside his body only, and the soul that would have addressed itself to mine was far away in the bosom of its God. Humanly speaking, the difference seemed against me, and yet, in a more spiritual point of view, it might perhaps be said to be in my favor.

The graces which he obtained for mortals here he obtained by more than mortal suffering and endurance – by tears, by fastings, and nightly and daily impetrations; – now, with his head resting, like another St. John, on the bosom of his divine Lord, surely he has but to wish in order to draw down whole fountains of love and tenderness on his weeping flock below. And certainly it would seem so; for however numerous the miracles accomplished in his lifetime, they have been multiplied beyond all power of calculation since his death.

Later on in the day, when the present curé showed me a room nearly half full of crutches and other mementos of cures wrought – “These are only the ones left there during his lifetime,” he observed, in a tone which told at once how much more numerous were those which cure had made useless to their owners since his death.

I had not been many minutes kneeling before his tomb, when the lady who had pointed it out to me asked if I would like to see the house which he had inhabited in his lifetime. On my answering gladly in the affirmative, she made me follow her through a side-door and across a sort of court to the house inhabited by the present curé. This house had never been the abode of M. Vianney, but had been allotted to the priests who assisted him in his missions. The one which he actually inhabited is now a sort of sanctuary, where every relic and recollection of him is carefully preserved for the veneration of the faithful. We were shown into a sort of salle à manger, sufficiently poor to make us feel we were in the habitation of men brought up in the school of a saint, and almost immediately afterward the present curé entered. He had been for many years the zealous assistant of the late curé; and, in trying to give me an idea of the influx of strangers into Ars, he told me that, while M. Vianney spent habitually from fifteen to seventeen hours in the confessional, he and his brother priest were usually occupied at least twelve hours out of the twenty-four in a similar manner. Even this was probably barely sufficient for the wants of the mission, for the number of strangers who came annually to Ars during the latter years of the curé’s life was reckoned at about 80,000, and few, if any, of these went away without having made a general confession, either to M. Vianney himself, or, if that were not possible, to one or other of the assisting clergy.

It was pleasant to talk with one who had been living in constant communication with a saint; and I felt as if something of the spirit of M. Vianney himself had taken possession of the good and gentle man with whom I was conversing. Among other things, he told me that the devout wish of the saint had of late years been the erection of a new church to St. Philomena; and he gave me a fac-simile of his handwriting in which he had promised to pray especially for any one aiding him in the work. The surest way, therefore, I should imagine, to interest him in our necessities – now that he is in heaven – would be to aid in the undertaking which he had in mind and heart while yet dwelling on earth. Even in his lifetime there had been a lottery got up for raising funds; and as money is still coming in from all quarters, his wish will doubtless soon be accomplished. I saw a very handsome altar which has been already presented, and which has been put aside in one of the rooms of the curé until the church, for which it is intended, shall have been completed. M. le curé showed me one or two small photographs, which had been taken without his knowledge during the lifetime of the saint; and also a little carved image, which he said was a wonderful likeness, and far better than any of the portraits. Afterward he pointed out another photograph, as large as life, and suspended against the wall, which had been procured after death. It was calm and holy, as the face of a saint in death should be, and I liked it still better in its placid peace than the smile of the living photograph. Even the smile seemed to tell of tears. You know that he who smiles is still doing battle – cheerfully and successfully indeed, but still doing battle with the enemies of his soul; while the grave calmness of the dead face tells you at once that all is over – the fight is fought, the crown is won; eternity has set its seal on the good works of time, and all is safe for ever.

I could have looked at that photograph a long time, and said my prayers before it – it seemed to repose in such an atmosphere of sanctity and peace – but the hours were passing quickly, and there was still much to see and hear concerning the dead saint. I took leave, therefore, of the good priest who had been my cicerone so far, and sought the old housekeeper, who was in readiness to show me the house where M. Vianney had lived. We crossed a sort of court, which led us to a door opposite the church. When this was opened, I found myself in a sort of half-garden, half-yard, in the centre of which the old house was standing.

It is hard to put upon paper the feelings with which a spot the habitation of a saint just dead is visited. The spirit of love and charity and peace which animated the living man still seems brooding over the spot where his life was passed, and you feel intensely that the true beauty of the Lord’s house was here, and that this has been the place where his glory hath delighted to dwell. The first room I entered was one in which the crutches left there by invalids had been deposited. It was a sight to see. The crutches were piled as close as they could be against the wall, and yet the room was almost half full. The persons who used those crutches must have been carried hither, lame and suffering, and helpless as young children; and they walked away strong men and cured. Truly “the lame walk and the blind see;” and the Lord hath visited his people in the person of his servant.

My next visit was made to the salle à manger, where M. Vianney had always taken the one scanty meal which was his sole support during his twenty-four hours of almost unbroken labor. It was poverty in very deed – poverty plain, unvarnished, and unadorned – such poverty as an Irish cabin might have rivalled, but could scarcely have surpassed. The walls were bare and whitewashed; the roof was merely raftered; and the floor, which had once been paved with large round stones, such as are used for the pavement of a street, was broken here and there into deep holes by the removal of the stones. During his forty years’ residence at Ars, M. Vianney had probably never spent a single sou upon any article which could contribute to his own comfort or convenience; and this room bore witness to the fact. How, indeed, should he buy anything for himself, who gave even that which was given to him away, until his best friends grew well-nigh weary of bestowing presents, which they felt would pass almost at the same instant out of his own possession into the hands of any one whom he fancied to be in greater want of them than he was? I stood in that bare and desolate apartment, and felt as if earth and heaven in their widest extremes, their most startling contrasts, were there in type and reality before me. All that earth has of poor and miserable and unsightly was present to the eyes of the body; all that heaven has of bright and beautiful and glorious was just as present, just as visible, to the vision of the soul. It was the very reverse of the fable of the fairy treasures, which vanish into dust when tested by reality. All that you saw was dust and ashes, but dust and ashes which, tried by the touchstone of eternity, would, you knew, prove brighter than the brightest gold, fairer than the fairest silver that earth ever yielded to set in the diadem of her kings! My reflections were cut short by the entrance of one of the priests, who invited us to come up stairs and inspect the vestments which had belonged to the late curé, and which were kept, I think, apart from those in ordinary use in the church. There was a great quantity of them, and they were all in curious contrast with everything else we had seen belonging to M. Vianney. Nothing too good for God; nothing too mean and miserable for himself – that had been the motto of his life; and the worm-eaten furniture of the dining-room, the gold and velvet of the embroidered vestments, alike bore witness to the fidelity with which he had acted on it. The vestments were more than handsome – some of them were magnificent. One set I remember in particular which was very beautiful. It had been given, with canopy for the blessed sacrament and banners for processions, by the present Marquis D’Ars, the chief of that beloved family, who, after the death of Mdlle. D’Ars, became M. Vianney’s most efficient aid in all his works of charity. The priest who showed them to us, and who had also been one of the late curé’s missionaries, told us that M. Vianney was absolutely enchanted with joy when the vestments arrived, and that he instantly organized an expedition to Lyons in order to express his gratitude at the altar of Notre Dame de Fourrière. The whole parish attended on this occasion. They went down the river in boats provided for the purpose, and with banners flying and music playing, marched in solemn procession through the streets of Lyons, and up the steep sides of Fourrière, until they reached the church of Notre Dame. There the whole multitude fell on their knees, and M. Vianney himself prayed, no doubt long and earnestly, before the miraculous image of Our Lady, seeking through her intercession to obtain some especial favor for the man who, out of his own abundance, had brought gifts of gold and silver to the altar of his God.

I asked the priest for some information about the granary which was said to have been miraculously filled with corn. He told me he had been at Ars at the time, and that there could be no doubt that the granary had been quite empty the night before. It was, I think, a time of scarcity, and the grain had been set aside for the use of the poor. M. Vianney went to bed miserable at the failure of his supplies; but when he visited the granary again early the next morning, he found it full. It was at the top of his own house, I believe, and was kept, of course, carefully locked. Nobody knew how it had been filled, or by whom. In fact, it seemed absolutely impossible that any one could have carted the quantity of grain needed for the purpose and carried it up stairs without being detected in the act. The priest made no comment on the matter; indeed, he seemed anything but inclined to enlarge upon it, though he made no secret of his own opinion as to the miraculous nature of the occurrence. As soon as he had answered my inquiries, he led us to the room which had been the holy curé’s own personal apartment. It was, as well as I can remember, the one over the dining-room. No apostle ever lived and died in an abode more entirely destitute of all human riches. It was kept exactly in the same state in which it had been during his lifetime – a few poor-looking books still on the small book-shelf, a wooden table and a chair, and the little bed in the corner, smoothed and laid down, as if only waiting his return from the confessional for the few short hours he gave to slumber – if, indeed, he did give them; for no one ever penetrated into the mystery of those hours, or knew how much of the time set apart apparently for his own repose was dedicated to God, or employed in supplicating God’s mercies on his creatures.

The history of that room was the history of the saint. A book-shelf filled with works of piety and devotion; a stove, left doubtless because it had been originally built into the room, but left without use or purpose (for who ever heard of his indulging in a fire?); a table and a chair – that was all; but it was enough, and more than enough, to fill the mind with thought, and to crowd all the memories of that holy life into the few short moments that I knelt there. How often had he come back to that poor apartment, his body exhausted by fasting, and cramped by long confinement in the confessional, and his heart steeped (nay, drowned, as he himself most eloquently expressed it) in bitterness and sorrow by the long histories of sins to which he had been compelled to listen – sins committed against that God whom he loved far more tenderly than he loved himself! How often, in the silence and darkness of the night, has he poured forth his soul, now in tender commiseration over Jesus crucified by shiners, now over the sinners by whom Jesus had been crucified! How often has he (perhaps) called on God to remove him from a world where God was so offended; and yet, moved by the charity of his tender human heart, has besought, almost in the same breath, for the conversion of those sinners whose deeds he was deploring – the cure of their diseases and the removal or consolation of their sorrows! Like a mother who, finding her children at discord, now prays to one to pardon, now to another to submit and be reconciled, so was that loving, pitying heart ever as it were in contradiction with itself – weeping still with Jesus, and yet still pleading for his foes.

The mere action of such thoughts upon the human frame would make continued life a marvel; but when to this long history of mental woe we add the hardships of his material life – the fifteen or seventeen hours passed in the confessional, in heat and cold, in winter as in summer; the one scanty meal taken at mid-day; the four hours of sleep, robbed often and often of half their number for the sake of quiet prayer – when we think of these things, there is surely more of miracle in this life of forty years’ duration than in the mere fact that it won miracles at last from heaven, and that God, seeing how faithfully this his servant did his will here on earth, complied in turn with his, and granted his desires.

No one, I think, can visit that spot, or hear the history of that life, as it is told by those who knew him as it were but yesterday, without an increase of love, an accession of faith, a more vivid sense of the presence of God in the midst of his creatures, and a more real comprehension of the extent and meaning of those words, “the communion of saints,” which every one repeats in the creed, and yet which few take sufficiently to their heart of hearts to make it really a portion of their spiritual being – a means of working out their own salvation by constant and loving communication with those who have attained to it already. Thousands will seek the living saint for the eloquence of his words, the sublimity, of his counsels, the unction of his consolations; but, once departed out of this life, who visits him in his tomb? who turns to him for aid? who lift their eyes to heaven, to ask for his assistance thence, with the same undoubting confidence with which they would have sought it had he been still in the flesh beside them? In one sense of the word, many; and yet few indeed compared to the number of those to whom “the communion of saints” is an article of faith, or ought at least to be so, in something more than the mere service of the lip. It was amid some such thoughts as these that I left the town of Ars, grieved indeed that I had not seen the holy curé in his lifetime, and yet feeling that, if I had but faith enough, I was in reality rather a gainer than a loser by his death. He who would have prayed for me on earth would now pray for me in heaven. He who would have dived into my conscience and brought its hidden sins to light, would obtain wisdom and grace for another to put his finger on the sore spot and give it healing. He who would perhaps have cured me of my bodily infirmities, could do so (if it were for the good of my soul) not less efficiently now that he was resting on the heart of his divine Lord. God had granted his prayers while he was yet upon earth – a saint indeed, and yet liable at any moment to fall into sin – would he refuse to hear him now that he had received him into his kingdom, and so rendered him for ever incapable of offending? I hoped not, I felt not; and in this certainty I went on my way rejoicing, feeling that it was well for this sinful world that it had yet one more advocate at the throne of its future Judge, and well especially for France that, in this our nineteenth century, she had given a saint to God who would have been the glory of the first. For truly the arm of the Lord is not shortened. What he has done before, he can do again; and, therefore, we need not wonder if the miracles of the Apostles are still renewed at the tomb of this simple and unlettered, priest, who taught their doctrines for forty years in the unknown and far-off village of which Providence had made him pastor.

– text taken from the article A Pilgrimage to Ars, author not listed, Catholic World magazine, April 1865