Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – Louis-Marie Grignion at Saint Sulpice

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultMontfort was not the kind of present Providence usually sent the Sulpicians. When they received him they might have sung the Te Deuvi, but with a stress upon the “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy!” They thought the world of him and yet they were not sure of him. They ended by cold-shouldering him. Only when he was dead did a Sulpician, Father Grandet, hasten to write his biography. The Jesuits did not do so until the end of the eighteenth century (Father Picot de Cloriviere). There is no need now to prove that Montfort belongs by his devotion, his teaching, the conception of his priesthood, to the most authentic traditions of Saint Sulpice.

Father Letourneau and Monsignor Crosnier have already done so. And before them, Canon Blain, himself a pupil of the disciples of Father Olier, had emphasised the fundamental agreement between his friend and his masters, whilst deploring the sad results of their estrangement. It must be granted that the Sulpicians had every excuse for misunderstanding Grignion. He arrived in 1693 in Paris with the appearance of a tramp – patched breeches, a ragged jacket, a shapeless hat upon his head, a stick in his hand and a knapsack on his back, such as you often see upon the highway in Brittany. And the rain had had its will with these poor clothes, which smelt of the stable and the barn. What did he mean by coming like that?

Louis’s departure for the capital had been decided under favorable circumstances. A lady of the parish of Saint Sulpice, Mile de Montigny, who was in touch with the Grignions of la Bachelleraie through a law-suit which had come before the Parliament of Rennes, had offered to pay for the young man’s board at the seminary. Furnished with ten crowns and a second suit, Louis had been taken by his father and one of his brothers as far as the Cesson bridge, where he took leave of them and went his way alone, a brave pilgrim. His new coat went to the first beggar whom he met, his crowns to the next, and he changed clothes with the third. Then he knelt down on the stones and made a vow never to possess anything, to live upon Providence. He begged his bread, his night’s shelter, while the dogs barked at him and the country folk repulsed him, but he was happy, for he was one of the poor of Jesus.

Mile de Montigny was expecting a student, the son of a country gentleman, a pupil of the Jesuits. This stranger, who, before presenting himself to her, had spent the night in a stable, seemed very odd. She had to get him clothes and suitable necessities, and sent him, not to the seminary, but to a little community belonging to it, of which Father de la Barmondiere, a former pastor of Saint Sulpice, was the head. Some months later she gave up paying for the board of her protege; there was a famine and a particularly hard winter, and even the middle class were almost starving. But Father de la Barmondiere kept Louis Grignion: and the poor lad was able to lessen his benefactor’s expenses with the money he earned by watching by the dead.

In September, 1694, we find Louis-Marie writing to his uncle, Father des Viseulles: “Father de la Barmondiere, my director and superior, is dead and was buried last Sunday with the regret of the whole parish of Saint Sulpice and of all those who knew him. He lived and died a saint. He founded the seminary where I am, took me in for nothing and showed me much kindness. I do not know what will happen now, whether I shall stay or go. Whatever happens, I do not worry; I have a Father in Heaven Who will not fail me. He brought me here, and till now has made things possible, and will in His mercy continue to do so. Although I only deserve punishment for my sins, I do not cease to pray to God and to abandon myself to His Providence.” This wonderful calm disconcerted some. Grignion was reproached with taking his share of a sad loss too lightly. But the saint never looked back; he did not shed a tear. The Sulpicians showed that they valued him; the “little community of scholars” of Father Boucher took him in. They were miserably lodged. As to the cooking, which the students did in turn, it upset the hardiest. Louis-Marie fell seriously ill. Fie was taken to the infirmary where they bled him, and he made a recovery which fell little short of a miracle.

The gates of Saint Sulpice now opened wider. He was admitted to the Petit Seminaire of the Rue Ferou, which was run on the same lines as the Grand Seminaire close by: the price of the board was the only difference. The Sorbonne, for the majority of the Sulpician seminarists, remained the centre of theological studies, but not for Louis Grignion De Montfort. His superiors thought that his ways would shock that learned and solemn institution. It was all the better for the thought and the faith of the young man, for these developed in a free straightforward fashion, sheltered alike from Jansenism and Gallicanism. Alone in his cell he read with his enthusiastic intelligence the Fathers of the Church, the theologians of the Schools, the pious works of his time; those of Saint Francis de Sales, of Saint Jean Eudes, of Berulle, Olier, of the sainted Archdeacon of Evreux, Father Boudon. Saint Bernard was clearly one of his favorite authors. And thus on his own, with meditation and mortification, the preacher of the “divine Wisdom,” the apostle of the Blessed Virgin, the conqueror of souls, the founder of communities, became clear about his vocation and made himself worthy of it.

His fellow-students, who had doubted his knowledge, left off teasing him after a controversy in which he triumphed brilliantly. His undoubted piety influenced them greatly, and with the permission of his superiors he enrolled them in his association of the “slaves of Jesus in Mary.” Jean Baptiste Blain, the comrade of his boyhood, came to Saint Sulpice at Louis’s pressing invitation: “Leave thy father’s house and go into a land which I will show thee.” He founded his association after reading Father Boudon’s book, and Father Tronson himself, the superior-general of Saint Sulpice, gave it strictly theological constitutions.

A great admiration for his masters guided the Breton seminarist in all his ways. It was mainly of them that he was thinking when he thanked God for having allowed him to know the holiest men of his time. Father Jacques Bauhin, for the last two years of his life, had been Louis- Marie Grignion’s director. He was a Calvinist convert who had become a notable Sulpician. Twenty-five years earlier, when preparing for the priesthood, he had taught the secret of holiness to Jean Baptiste de la Salle. Towards 1695 Father Tronson pointed him out to Bossuet as a model of obedience “such as had belonged to the best days of the Church.” He had died to himself, practised the severest penance and the severest discretion. He had made of the gentle and delicate Canon of Rheims a spiritual athlete. The rugged, eager nature of Montfort did not recoil before humiliation, renunciation, penance. Fie even delighted in them, and bore without flinching with hair shirts, chains, disciplines. All his life he was to expiate the sins of others in his own blood. During his missions he kept with him a certain Brother Nicolas, whose business it was to beat him, and who was only allowed to be with him on that condition. These beatings preceded his sermons. As the missioner humorously declared: “The cock never crows so clearly as after a beating.”

This was not the language of Saint Sulpice. And if his directors had read this passage from a letter to Uncle Allain, in which he compares himself to “a snail in its shell, which as long as it is hidden in it, seems to be something, but when it comes out is but a snail,” they would have wished his humility to express itself more suitably.

Louis Grignion had the imaginative eye, the temperament of a painter and sculptor; all the pictures in his brain are in high relief. He puts them into action with extraordinary energy. If he meets a poor wretch covered with sores, with twisted limbs, he sees in him the Son of Man, bearing our miseries, bowed beneath our shame. And he throws himself at the feet of the poor wretch. He goes through the streets of Paris with his eyes half closed, looking neither at buildings nor people, his only greetings for statues of Our Lady, which he never misses. But his ears cannot so easily isolate themselves from the outer world. One day he hears a street singer; the song is licentious, coarse. What a long vista of temptations, mortal sins, eternal condemnations – a thick cloud, a black smoke which must be cleared away. We are reminded of the boy who destroyed his father’s bad book, but he has a little more tact now. Though he only lives upon alms, he buys up all the copies he can of the evil song and tears them up in front of the singer.

He lived in a contemplation so profound and so interior, that it made him forget or neglect the ordinary customs of society, and prevented him from giving his actions the normal rhythm of the world. He was “singular” without intending it, as he was to own one day to Father Blain. We shall see him later on, motionless, in the most profound recollection, “upon a malodorous dung-heap.” He walked the streets and roads bareheaded, “out of respect for the presence of God,” and his contemporaries were more shocked than we can imagine that he should tuck his hat under his arm. When he entered a house, before greeting his host, he would kneel down on the threshold and recite the liturgical prayer: “Visit, we beseech Thee, O Lord, this habitation.” If he accompanied a friend to the house of another whom he did not know personally, he would wait in prayer at the door or on the first step of the staircase. His manners abashed even his intimate friends. Once when Blain came to see him, Grignion left him after the first words of greeting, brusquely, without a word. Was he angry with him? Louis was too charitable for that. Besides, there had been a smile upon his face. As a matter of fact he never meant to hurt his friend; but it was his intention to deprive himself of the pleasure of a pleasant conversation!

Although not lacking in wit, memory or eloquence, he preferred to keep silence. He would only open his lips to speak of things divine. His comrades complained of it. Did not human nature need relaxation? And the daily recreation was not meant to be a meditation aloud or a sermon in dialogue. Reproved by his superiors, Grignion promised to amend. In what way this was done, we are told by Father Picot de la Cloriviere; the anecdote is particularly entertaining as related by this holy Jesuit: “Fearing to fail in obedience Louis Grignion set to work to store his memory with anecdotes and amusing stories, to be related afterwards at recreation; he even made a little collection of them. But all his efforts were useless; anything of this kind lost its effect on his lips. . . . His imagination, otherwise so brilliant and generous, could lend no charm to this kind of discourse. And we could hardly help smiling when we heard him relate in his pious way things which in themselves were very funny.”

Practical jokes too were played upon him: even amongst the seminarists there were those who could not resist giving a push or a cuff to Louis Grignion, when they saw his bent head and downcast eyes, “only to make him raise his head.” And they did not know whether to admire or to mock, when they knew that their comrade had cut his stockings from heel to toe, so that his feet might suffer the immediate contact of the shoe.

The attitude of Father Leschassier and Father Brenier was different.

The heads of Saint Sulpice were not amused. They watched their pupil with perplexity and anxiety. True, he was punctual, methodical, obedient; he worked hard, he was good at theology. In company with Father de Flamanville, he had, as catechist to the parish, given some remarkable lessons. His piety was angelic, and this they could only approve; in the church of Saint Sulpice he loved to deck the chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which was his office, and to give to the ceremonies which took place there the happiest order, harmony and magnificence. He drew up a little manual about this which was approved. One year he was thought worthy to represent the seminary at the feet of Our Lady of Chartres. He made this pilgrimage with Father Bardon, pausing on the way to preach to the peasants who were getting in their harvest. He spent a whole day in making acts of thanksgiving in the crypt.

His habit of greeting every event with a “Blessed be God!” was also an echo of Saint Sulpice. This ejaculatory prayer was equally familiar to Father de la Salle, another son of Father Olier, a son whom the children of this same father often caused to suffer, but of whose virtue they never doubted.

To everything, I say
Blessed be God!
Let it be what it may,
Blessed be God!

If it is all to lose,
Blessed be God!
Nor my career to choose,
Blessed be God!

Let the world call me clever,
Blessed be God!
Or useless ever,
Blessed be God!

Let Heaven smile or frown,
Blessed be God!
The Father judge or crown,
Blessed be God!

There was no harm in the young Breton rhyming his prayers or writing hymns about dogma and morality, and the sermons of his teachers, which first had been carefully analysed. A Sulpician might, without lack of suitability, amuse himself in this way. But why must his conduct be so strange? Why these manners and ways which only caused ridicule and compromised priestly dignity? Why these impulsive gestures, this too eager speech? Was it not perhaps the mark of a false mysticism founded on pride, excessive individualism, something perhaps fundamentally wrong? The only thing would be to test this student severely, and thus either reveal his sanctity, or unmask his hypocrisy, show up his want of balance.

At the request of Father Leschassier, who had become Louis Grignion’s confessor, Father Brenier, the superior of the Petit Seminaire, consented to take the patient in hand. A regular psychological inquisition followed. Constant severities, reprimands in public, unfavorable interpretations of all he said and did – nothing was neglected that could force an avowal, draw a cry for mercy from the most innocent pride. Such a system, applied to a less heroic soul, would doubtless have produced terrible results, but the Sulpicians felt that they had to do with an extraordinary case. This alone can explain their ruthless proceedings. According to Father de Cloriviere: “M. Grignion’s pious air was only affectation, his conversation was beneath contempt; his silence, stupidity; his meditations, illusion; his zeal, the result of his temperament; his acts of gentleness and humility but means to attract the esteem of others.”

But his gentleness was not belied. His humility accepted the most wounding insults; through all these trials the suspected seminarian showed a calm face, an even temper, an unfailing docility. They had to admit his virtue which could only come from God. “God has given him many graces to which he has corresponded faithfully,” Father Leschassier was to write in 1701. They saw Father de la Chetardie, who had been pastor of the parish since 1696 and was a man of note and clear judgment, rise before Louis Grignion and make him a deep bow every time the young man entered the sacristy. The presence of this student at the Petit Seminaire of the Rue Ferou was an honor and a blessing for its professors. Oh! if he could only be holy in a more normal fashion! If he could only conform to the ordinary rules, be prudent, discreet, solemn, polite even to excess, reserved, even a little stilted, in his language and attitude; in a word, answer outwardly to the ideal of a Sulpician ecclesiastic – then he would indeed be a priest after Our Lord’s own heart and a recruit for the company of Father Olierl Henceforth, the desire of Father Leschassier, of Father Brenier, of Father de la Chetardie, was to keep this strange Breton among them, but to strip him of his strangeness. They would take their time over it and would not urge their pupil to take Orders in a hurry. He was very hardworking, zealous in helping and teaching the poor, but he was quite inexperienced. He was striving after perfection with admirable courage, but by paths so special and so abrupt that he disconcerted many and was not likely to be an example. For a long time yet he would need a guide, if not for the spiritual life, at least for daily realities, on this earth where we are destined to walk. When one day he was to ask leave to go to Canada, where the Sulpicians for half a century had been doing wonderful work, Father Leschassier was to answer, with the suggestion of a smile, that he would lose himself in the forest while he looked for savages.

It was not possible to reshape Montfort. He was as God made him. He had in common with Saint Sulpice and to a superior degree, virtue, learning, talent. Father Olier, Father Tronson, Father Bauhin and the rest might call him their spiritual brother, but he could only rise to his full stature by leaving them. He could only accomplish his mission and develop his sanctity in an independence, in a solitude, in an uncertainty, where all that was strange in his manners and temperament would become normal. Montfort was to bear his witness in words and sufferings, to carry his rosary through town and country, his stick surmounted by the cross, with his striking face that could never be forgotten – the great aquiline nose, the wide mouth, the fiery glance in the long oval face. He was physically indefatigable and had a powerful voice. His triumph was to be won at the cost of insult, misunderstanding, persecution. He had the make-up of an apostle and a martyr, the double gifts of conqueror and organiser. This his masters had not foreseen. When after having scanned and searched and pierced this soul they came upon rock, they gave it up. And they were wise. But unfortunately a too human resentment remained. He who works not for himself but for the society of which he is a member, for his country, for his community, sometimes gives free play to feelings which he would check and condemn if his personal interest were at stake. A disappointed hope translates itself into bitter words, discourteous hostile gestures. We can no longer suffer the presence of the one whom we had wished to attach to ourselves for good. And we lend a willing ear to remarks which belittle and distort him.

Father Leschassier was to grow impatient with the faithfulness of Louis Grignion, to bid him at last go, that he need no longer have the care of his conscience. And when Jean Baptiste Blain was to tell him later on of the heroic and wonderful life of Father De Montfort, the Sulpician made an answer beneath whose sincere humility there lingered a prejudice: “You see I do not know a saint when I see one.” And so Saint Sulpice did not think it well to give Father Grandet, Montfort’s first biographer, the correspondence of the sainted missioner and his director. Only one letter was to figure in the proceedings for beatification. And it was only in 1861 that Father Querard, a diligent and persistent enquirer, procured a copy of the whole.

Father Brenier and Father de la Chetardie showed no hesitation or consideration when the time came to break off relations. Once Grignion had left them, it was enough for them to hear the complaints and criticisms of his first foes, the priests of Nantes and Poitiers, tainted more or less by Jansenism. They forgot the obedience and the piety of the former seminarist; they only remembered his eccentricities. Father Brenier at Angers in 1702, Father de la Chetardie at Issy in 1703, refused to receive him. He was counting on their moral and material assistance. They drove him away without a word or a bit of bread. At Angers, Grignion had a moment of terrible bitterness. “Is this how they receive a priest?” The following year, he had so much got the better of nature, was so near to his Saviour in His agony, that his farewell to Saint Sulpice was made in a great calm.