Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – The Grignion Family

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultHis name was Grignion and he came of good stock. In the archives his father, Jean Baptiste, is described as a “gentleman,” and we read of land which belonged to him as such. His mother, Jeanne Robert, was the daughter of a sheriff of Rennes.

Jean Baptiste Grignion de la Bachelleraie, with a family pew in the church of Bois-Marquer at Iffendic, and treasurer of the trustees of Saint Jean at Montfort, was a typical Breton country gentleman, with a good name, plenty of children and no money. “He comes of a good and numerous family, badly off,” we read in the letter which in 1701 Father Leschassier, Louis-Marie’s director, wrote to Bishop Girard of Poitiers. There were eighteen children in the course of twenty years. The death of the first-born at five months was to make Louis the eldest.

The Grignion family lived in the Rue de la Saulnerie, in a great two-storied house still to be seen. This was the street of the men of the law, solicitors, notaries and so on, a street which kept its own special character and ended in a wide shady walk, adjoining the town hall and the church. This corner of Montfort has not changed much since our hero’s childhood. Close by was the Crown Court, whither Jean Baptiste Grignion went in his capacity of lawyer, for he also bore the title: “Crown lawyer of Montfort and the Parliament of Brittany.”

But there was not much business doing and it would not have been possible for the family to depend upon his fees. They lived mainly on farm produce, milk, butter, eggs, rye bread. Mother Andre, who had the Bachelleraie farm, and who was Louis’s foster-mother, probably brought her master many a laden basket. The boy was accustomed to extreme frugality. He had not, like Saint Francis of Assisi, to part with wealth when the time came to espouse Poverty.

With so many family claims, his father was much worried by his comparative poverty. He would seem to have been eager for gain, anxious for profitable business, preoccupied sometimes with earthly matters at the expense of heavenly ones, to judge from the warning contained in one of his son’s letters of August, 1704. “My heavenly Father bids me beg my father not to touch pitch, for it will defile him; not to swallow earth, for it will choke him; not to inhale smoke, for it will stifle him.” The children of many a hard-up country gentleman, many a poverty- stricken woodcutter, would have seen nothing out of the way in the story of Tom Thumb, with its insufficient bread for parents and brood; the children must fend for themselves in the forest.

“From his youth up,” we find Father Leschassier saying of his disciple, “he was, so to speak, left to Providence, although he had a father and mother, and he was for nearly ten years in Paris without receiving any help at all from them.” And we shall see how Father De Montfort had to come to the help of one of his sisters, who without him would perhaps have died in the Paris streets.

Those were hard, primitive, patriarchal days. The father was the head, respected and feared. When he raised his voice, everyone trembled. We are reminded of another Breton family at the end of the following century, that of the Chateaubriands at the manor of Combourg. Jean Baptiste Grignion was subject to rages, his wife to depression and tears. “The usual worries of married life,” says Father de Cloriviere calmly; (he was to be one of the historians of Louis-Marie). And he adds that “this angelic boy,” from the time when he was four or five years old, was wont to console his mother “by words so full of unction and so beyond all natural knowledge that he could have, that it seemed as if the Spirit of God Himself gave them to him.”

As he grew older, he too was to suffer from his father’s violence. Father and son had similar natures: hot-blooded, athletic, hardy. One of Montfort’s fellow-workers in his missions in Lower Poitou and the Aunis, Father des Bastieres, tells us that the holy man “could easily hold upon his knees a full barrel,” and that one day he lifted a tombstone which two strong men could not raise from the ground.

Physical strength which knows no obstacle is wont to break what resists it. Montfort owned to des Bastieres “that he had far more difficulty in conquering his hasty temper than all his other passions together, and that if God had intended him for the world, he would have been the terror of his day.”

But by the grace of God, Montfort was to be hard only upon himself. His energy was used to gain absolute self- control. He seems to have won this difficult victory quickly and never lost the benefit of it. We see him in his youth, attacked by his angry father at the family meal. Exclamations, furious questions, sarcasm were lost upon the lofty virtue of his eldest son and this exasperated Jean Baptiste; such calm heated his temper. There seemed only one way to end such vexatious scenes … for the youth to leave the table without a word. He would take refuge with Blain, a good friend of his. “So you have had no dinner,” said the future canon, who was to understand saints so well, whether Jean Baptiste de la Salle, or Grignion De Montfort, to win their hearts and their confidence, but who personally had not much use for asceticism. He would want to order lunch for his guest, but Louis Grignion refused; fasting would calm his quivering nerves and atone in the eyes of God for his father’s unjust anger.

But he was not afraid of this anger if he thought the rights of Christian morality in danger. Never would any human considerations prevent Montfort from fighting for God. He would charge his adversary like a Knight of the Round Table, all alone though he might be, without fear of mockery, blame or derision. Once at Bois-Marquer the enemy was represented by a book with indecent illustrations which M. Grignion had in his library. The father saw nothing in them, for he had not his son’s strangely sensitive conscience. The latter was roused; such a book was like the devil in a Christian house, “seeking whom he may devour.” Louis seized it, tore it up and threw it in the fire. His friend Blain saw him just after this feat. Louis was not without fear of the consequences of his action, but he accepted them all as a penance, “satisfied” like another Polyeucte.

To give a true picture of the Grignion home, we must lay stress upon its disadvantages. We should not understand certain aspects of Father De Montfort’s character if we had not seen him in the simplicity, poverty and hardship of his childhood home. But we must not paint too dark a picture. Its shadows are human shadows; the light of a genuine faith shines among them’. These Bretons pray fervently, give alms, bring up their children as best they can. We shall find Louis-Marie writing to his mother: “I owe a great deal to you and to my father for having brought me into the world and taught me the fear of God and for helping me in countless ways.” Mme Grignion deserved all her son’s love; an austere love which became more and more supernatural as the heart of the priest grew in saintliness, purified at last in such a way that, as Montfort says, “there was nothing of flesh and blood in it.” This may sound hard; and still more so other passages from the same letter. “It is necessary, it is very good for you to be even destitute, if the contempt and desertion of all and death in life are the will of the great God.” And further on: “No one knows the secrets of which I speak [those of Wisdom and the Cross] or at least very few; you will know them in eternity, if you have the good fortune to be saved, for that, who knows? Therefore tremble and love the more.”

But the son here was the preacher who knew his audience well and that it could bear grim truth. He used to say: “Prepare for death which ever follows at your heels, suffer tribulation as a Christian should,” and he would add presently: “As indeed you do.” He had seen his mother’s admirable patience put to the test for many years. He commended her eternal salvation to Jesus and to Mary every day. He had little doubt of it. His admonitions were the repetition, the amplified echo of the lessons once received at the knees of the pious woman. He had been taught a straightforward, uncompromising faith.

All the same, this letter of August 28, 1704, of such psychological importance, where the Grignion family are concerned, remains from beginning to end a specimen of astonishing severity. His parents had certainly complained of the silence in which Louis-Marie wrapped himself. “You are forgetting us and your brothers and sisters. Do you think you owe us and them nothing? You are the eldest – instead of living like a homeless beggar, you should get some preferment in the Church which would enable you to help the younger ones and us, in our old age.” Such must have been in substance their reproach.

And the man who answered it was one who, vested with a special mission, had left all to follow Christ.

“Do not worry about my brothers and sisters. I have done for them what God has asked of me in the past, and now I have no temporal goods to make over to them, as I am the poorest of the poor. I commend them and all my family to the hands of Him who created them. Consider me as one who has left this world; I have nothing more to do with the family in which Our Lord placed me.”