Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – The Hermitage of the Vouvant Forest

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultThe preacher lives in the memory of the countryside. In the Vouvant Forest the pilgrims go in crowds to the grotto of Father De Montfort. There were 8000 of them when in 1873 the Bishop of Lugon celebrated Mass before a stone cross which had been erected on the level. Four years later, the number of pilgrims had risen to 30,000.

Saint Louis came there only in 1715, the year before his death. His first mission there was to Mervent, a picturesque little town overlooked by the ruins of a feudal castle, at the junction of the two little rivers, the Mere and the Vent, whose valleys are delightful. Later on he preached at Vouvant, and it was one of his very rare failures. The people had lost that enthusiasm for the House of God which had urged their ancestors to build a magnificent Roman gateway in pure Poitevin style, and except for this gateway the church was wretched. And the souls of its congregation were like it, dusty and dirty. Montfort had the church cleaned and heard a few confessions, but the majority answered him rudely and worked against him behind his back.

He had been more fortunate at Mervent. His love of nature, as well as his apostolic zeal, were satisfied there. In his leisure he went into the forest, which seen from the village above in all its boundless extent, made with its sombre shade an irrestible appeal. Nowadays it is a great park, with fine roads, winding up and down. And yet its undergrowth, its gorges and glades have not lost their mysterious charm. The morning silence there, broken only by an occasional bird’s song, is, in its bliss, a foretaste of eternity.

The saint thought to find here a solitude more complete than that of his former priory of Saint Lazare. Beyond a crag known as Pierre-Brune, there is a meadow on the banks of the Mere. And here the forest is displayed in all its magnificence. The meadow is, as it were, the arena of an amphitheatre, shut off from the river by a screen of poplars and ash trees. Soon the ground and the rocks rise to form a wall, to which cling oaks and chestnut trees. Almost at the top is to be seen the entrance to a grotto, reached by a steep path. This is the Rock of the Fauns. The grotto is small, measuring about twelve feet in circumference. A very clear stream flows near. What an ideal retreat for an anchorite I Nature charms and soothes at once.

Woods and hills,
A spring and streams,
A cave
Far from all human ills.

wrote Montfort, whose poetical descriptions have at any rate the merit of simplicity and exactness. The delight which the forest brought him touched the inmost springs of his being, attuned as they were to an innocent creation and only suffering when in contact with what was sinful in civilisation.

Leave me,
O troublous murmuring world,
Leave me, O world, to live in peace.

Have we here a forerunner of the Romanticists, a blameless Rousseau? Yes, in as far as romanticism sets us free from social hypocrisy and artificial pleasure. He was a compatriot of Chateaubriand and a cousin of Lamennais. Better still, he was a man whose nature had been purified, whose virginal soul was full of light and grace. His lineage is that of the prophets of Israel, of the Fathers of the desert, though he lived in 1715, and died at the beginning of the Regency, with the eighteenth century, and all its scepticism and refinement of licence, behind him. But his message was beyond the philosophers.

The senses had no share in his attitude towards the forest. He was nothing of a pantheist for all his keen feeling for the beauty of things. He understood their language, but it was to him the humble lesson of the lower creation, capable of instructing men because it obeys God. We may think his poetical vocabulary poor, but it was that of his time, and while adapted to psychological analysis, a poor brush for the description of the world around us. And Montfort, that he might be understood by the peasant, was determined to avoid in his verse anything far-fetched.

Wild Nature knows no guile,
With woods and rocks as masters –
Holy and learned.

The rocks preach constancy
And fruitfulness the woods. …
Water’s for purity.

To see these green leaves
Makes my heart leap . . . they fall
And death’s the lesson.

It does not bear comparison with Lamartine and Victor Hugo; compared to their music it is like the thin notes of a harpsichord with all their sincerity.

Nothing but sincerity could make the life of a hermit in the Vouvent Forest possible, and when Montfort decided to make a long retreat there, he showed to what heights of contemplation he could rise. It takes a marvellously pure and strong conscience to place oneself in a woodland solitude face to face with God.

Montfort had made his plans with his usual method. He asked the good folk of the neighborhood to clear the entrance to the grotto somewhat, and to supply a bed, a table, a stool and a candlestick, a regular prophet’s chamber. The water from the stream collected in a basin would quench his thirst, and public charity would give him bread.

Some additional work was found necessary. The north wind blew into the hermitage, and the Father’s willing workmen built a little wall as a screen, with stones taken from the rock, and opened up a path from the Fontenay road to Pierre Brune. As the hermit was also a missioner, now, as once at Saint Lazare, the crowds anxious for instruction and for pardon must not be kept away.

And they came! The rock overlooking the meadow was the pulpit. A cross was to be set up there and a chapel built.

But as at Pontchateau and Sallertaine, this primitive saint had reckoned without the authorities. He had indeed the approval of the Bishop of La Rochelle and had made a report of his plans to M. Fagon, deputy surveyor of rivers and forests. But he had not been regularly authorised to establish himself on Crown land, or to so much as remove a stone or a tree stump. In October, 1715, Charles Moriceau, “squire, seigneur de Cheusse, councillor and civil and criminal seneschal of the Crown, for the royal seat and estates of Fontenay le Comte, sub-delegate and special envoy, for the superintendence of the streams and forests of the said Fontenay,” at the request of Maitre Jean Delahaye, solicitor to the Crown for the said property, declared that this was a case of trespass and drew up a charge. He forbade the completion of the wall, “at least until Father De Montfort should have the royal permission. This was not done to annoy – the official was only carrying out his duty and did full justice to the intentions and character of the hermit. And as Montfort was in favor with the bishop, matters might probably have been arranged if not without some delay; but from October to December, 1715, the missioner went to preach at Vouvant, Saint Pompain and Villiers-en-Plaine. And he was to die in the course of the following year. The grotto, where after all he had been very little, remained a place of devotion for his followers. It might be styled the third of the places sacred to him, less accessible and less known than the Calvary of Pontchateau, less venerable than the tomb of Saint Laurent-sur-Sevre. The popular taste has not improved it; a semicircle of cheap benches, paper flowers, a poor little statue with a damaged right hand, rosaries upon the wrists, and a biretta on its head; above the rock another effigy. It is just a very humble reliquary without relics and very touching in any case, on account of its bareness, and the shadow in which it stands; the soul of Saint Louis clings to it. It bids the pilgrim kneel, and listen to the thoughts within him, whilst outside the song and scent of the forest is breathed forth into the sunlight.