Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – The Hymns of Father de Montfort

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultThe life of De Montfort’s disciples was to be a hymn, a psalm, a spiritual song, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians. Music and poetry help religion to raise and illumine the soul, to realise that aspiration, feeling and adoration, can be one. The liturgy fixes the language and melody of those songs which are essential. Beyond that, it is open to all to express their inward joy, their great love, in the rhythm and language that best suit their particular temperament and come most naturally to them.

The hymns of Father De Montfort have always been familiar to French ears and lips. They belong to the treasures of our childhood, arousing as they always do our religious feeling, our longing for Heaven, our meditation, our repentance. Doubtless Montfort’s name has been given to some that do not belong to him. The Fathers of the Company of Mary have published an edition in which such merely attributed hymns are noted. But whatever the doubts as to the authenticity of some of them, we shall always have: “Je mets ma confiance, Vierge en votre secours,” as well as “Vive Jesus, vive sa Croix!” and the invocation of the Holy Spirit before the sermon.

O Holy Spirit, enlighten us.
Come into our hearts
With the fire of Thy love.

Under the Terror, the Sisters of Wisdom repeated the “Je mets ma confiance” on the way to the guillotine, whilst the people of Nantes exclaimed that these “dear little Sisters ought to be spared; they sing so well.”

It must be granted that, throughout the eighteenth century, the spiritual heirs of Louis-Marie Grignion (beginning with Father Vatel) arranged his works according to their own ideas, and that this was not well done. During his lifetime Saint Louis had only a very small number of hymns printed. In 1711 at La Rochelle five little booklets formed together a whole of one hundred and twenty pages, and they did not show him at his best. He had thought more of their being useful than anything else; a rhymed catechism, didactic pieces on the Christian virtues. To these were added two or three mission hymns, four in honor of Our Blessed Lady and five in honor of the Sacred Heart.

Another collection was probably published at Niort in 1721 six years after his death. The most notable volume dates only from 1759. Its title was: “Mission hymns composed by Louis-Marie Grignion De Montfort, priest and missioner apostolic;” and it was published at Pontiers.

The reader may take it that almost all the collected pieces are his. Father Pauvert, the parish priest of Saint Jacques at Chatellerault, in his biography of “Venerable Louis-Marie Grignion De Montfort,” had studied this poetical work and commented upon it with much delicacy. The greater part was intended, he says, for people whose “language was colorless” and who had very little folk-lore: and so the songs and carols of Poitou and Aunis do not offer much. De Montfort was intentionally very simple and even material, with his audience ever in mind, though his own imagination was so powerful and so sublime. He knew just what his verse was worth.

“Not beautiful but good,” he says in the preface. Many of the hymns indeed have no more literature about them than the commandments of the Church in tetrameter. They were only for the better memorising of his teaching, and composed for the illiterate. For instance the one “For the opening of the mission.”

Waste not this blessed time . . .
‘Tis flying fast.
Waste not this blessed time
‘Tis so soon gone.

So the refrain and throughout the endless series of couplets, the important advice, simply given, is this:

Go to confession now,
Let there be no delay.
Thus you’ll avoid the crowd
Who’ll be there at the last.

There exists in the same style a hymn on the examination of conscience. It gives a telling picture of the particular failings of the Poitevin peasant; drinking, obscenity, immorality, and the meanness which haggles over the servants’ wages and puts off paying them.

But there is art, too, in such frank, minute and realistic observation. Montfort had the makings of a satirist, as we have said before. There is an “Apology” whose edge had been blunted by Father Vatel and which Pauvert restored, as telling as any classical satire:

Monsieur’s house is spick and span,
But not so church or altar,
The floor is cracked, the roof lacks tiles,
The crumbling walls are dirty.

Tarnished chalice, broken pyx,
Monstrance cheap and poor,
A damaged crucifix, an unlit lamp;
Dusty disorder everywhere.

Linen soiled and dingy plate,
Broken statues and dusty pictures,
In short, from font to sacristy
Is nought but base neglect.

We go at morn or even
Just for convenience sake
To hear a famous preacher.
But not for Christ. Oh no!

Turn your tearful eyes to where
A thoughtless dame in her brocade
And dainty shoes and well-dressed head
Comes to show off at church.

Often we see her spread her skirts
Here where God thrones upon His altar.

Though Montfort never cast curious eyes upon anyone, yet his hymn against luxury is a picturesque and precise document of feminine fashion between 1710 and 1715.

The ladies are decked
As for the stage,
In little high-laced boots
They mince along the street.

Behold their trains,
Their filmy linen,
Their various stuffs
In tiers of three and four.

The tall coiffure
And necklace rich.
The proud display
Of powdered hair.

Their frills and furbelows,
Gold fringe and braid,
And all the rest
That lacks a name.

Men love them so,
Have each of them
A lady fair
To wreck their lives.

There is talent in such a painting, but really to judge of the ease of his style, of the suppleness of his versification, we must go elsewhere; to those hymns adapted to popular airs, with the same line repeated two or three times in a verse. Montfort excels here. His hymn on Dancing is a famous example.

O fatal dance,
Who lurest human hearts
Though innocent thou seem’st,
Saints feared thee ever,
O fatal dance!

The darkest night
Does not suffice to hide
The ills thou causest,
Which bring a blush
To darkest night.

There’s sorrow
In the lot of saints
But joy to come,
While to the world
There’s sorrow.

O giddy dance,
The devil’s in it.
He’s here at home
In giddy dance.

Another striking example is a song about the universal transitoriness of all things. Its flowing rhythm expresses and makes us feel, even to anguish, the inexorable force which draws us towards death.

Beneath the sky
There’s nought but change,
A passing show;
As if on ice
Earth glides along,
Says as it falls
A passing show!

Eternity
Alone is not
A passing show.
Give grace her chance
For time is short,
Before our eyes,
The passing show.

And like a ship
It glides along,
The passing show.
No trace is left,
So honors pass
And wealth and place,
A passing show.

Charm of rhythm, exact detail, ironical and correct observation are to be found in the hymn written to the tune: “Passons la lande” (“Over the moor”) in which Montfort invites his followers to very early devotion. Before dawn they must leave the pleasant warmth of home and face the windswept moor and shiver all through a long sermon.

Of course it’s not convenient.
The devil shouts it; says the flesh:
Stay by the fire, stay in bed.
But let us seek out grace
Whate’er the weather,
Grace and the Holy Spirit.

The rustic audience had no fault to find with such improvised verse, and they found the words and the tune easy to remember. The thoughts were attached to familiar objects, came down to that earth from which they would fain raise their listeners.

For sinners too,
Alas! for them
A passing show.
For all is changed
At hour of death
Except its pangs,
A passing show.

The outdoor world and rustic nature play a large part in this popular poetry, and we realise how much Montfort loved it himself. We need only read his lines on the Mervent forest. He composed a dialogue between two shepherd girls, Genevieve and Sylvie, which towards 1860 Father Querard had often heard sung in Brittany and Poitou by the old folk; they knew it by heart, he said, and sang it in twos with quavering voices. Genevieve seated on the grass with her distaff is spinning happily. Sylvie restless and full of vain wishes wonders at her calm and gaiety.

What joy is yours
Mid so much pain?
No roof, no quilt,
Your dress but rags
To heat and cold
Alike exposed.

The world despises
Such poverty
And your employers
Are hard and cruel.

The devout girl reveals the secret of her joy.

In my heart
Jesus and Mary are.
No greater
Bliss could there be for me.

The book of the creation is the one in which God tells his story and Montfort interprets it for us at times with lyrical power.

As of late I wandered
Love discoursed to me;
I answered in my turn:
O divine Love!
For ever and how much
My love, I love you.

My heart that day
Within me burned
And all around
Spoke to me of my sacred love
And understood me.
And the refrain –
To love God more.

‘Twas in the song of birds,
The lilt of streams;
The breath of rain and wind
But fanned its flame,
Even the roads, they understood
What filled me.

I asked the woods and streams
Is He with you?
Seek Him for me, you little birds,
You faithful messengers.
And when you bring we word of Him,
My woes, they shall be ended.

Such lines take us far beyond the sphere of ordinary hymns. Montfort has given himself up entirely to his inspiration; he is ecstatic. Let those follow him who can. When he wrote for himself he recalls Saint John of the Cross.

After this, his place in literature is assured. This religious bard echoed at times the poets of the Renaissance. Elsewhere he reminds us of Lamartine.

When Night spread her dark veil
I think of death and his mourning
And seem to see in the starlight
The pale casket candles.

Death in his poetry has all the horror of the charnel-house. We are reminded how as a young seminarian he had watched by the dead for a pittance – he knew their sad secret.

The hymns on Purgatory, Hell, the Last Judgment, are those of a Breton, ever haunted by the problem of the hereafter, and giving full rein to his imagination.

Hark to the sad voices,
The sighs of those who’re gone.

is like the opening of one of those chants sung at wakes in Brittany.

And the hymn on the Last Judgment translates the inscription engraved over the gateway of a Campo Santo: Surgite Mortui; venite in judicium.

The dread trump I hear,
It cries: Arise, ye Dead!

The poet does not hesitate to evoke the damned. Misers, libertines, dancers, drunkards, avengers, slanderers, swearers, the sacrilegious, they are all there in turn and proclaim their misery.

The seer could only express what he saw in a drama quite mediaeval in conception and form. There are five hundred and nine lines. The scene is the judgment-seat of God, and the speakers the Blessed Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, a guardian angel and the devil. The souls from Purgatory come to describe their sufferings. One rejected soul is refused admission to Heaven until Our Blessed Lady, touched by the prayers of a chorus of children and of the poor, intercedes in his favor. Then at a signal from God, the Angel hastens to deliver the soul.

This excursion on the part of Grignion De Montfort into dramatic literature is interesting and significant. It certainly belongs to his apostolic work. But it seems to have been the only one. Lyrics were his specialty, and he reaches the height of his art in his hymns to the love of God. We have seen him seeking his Creator in the paths of the forest, looking for him with the birds, rekindling his flame in the wind on the moor. But to express this love in its most magnificent and striking terms, God, the Eternal Wisdom, must be addressed in person. His only ambition and aim, his sole right to exist, Grignion saw in the possession of that eternal wisdom which formed the human soul in its pristine splendor, and continues to enlighten every man that comes into the world, to communicate itself to the just and to live in them in the most intimate way. This was the Wisdom engendered by the Father, the Principle of all existence, the Word, incarnate in Jesus Christ. This statement of his teaching is best given in the spontaneous and ardent lines which follow:

O Wisdom, come! It is my poor request,
By the blood of my sweet Jesus,
By the womb of Blessed Mary;
I shall not confounded be.

Why tarriest thou then so long a time?
By day and night I seek Thee still;
Desire of my soul, O come!
Come, for in love I languish here.

Ope, my Beloved, then, to him who knocks,
To Thee he is no stranger.
His is a heart swayed by true love,
Its only resting-place with Thee.

And if to Thee I never may belong,
Let me at least beseech Thee,
Leave me at least the sweet sorrow
Of seeking ne’er to find.

Virgin, faithful, pure, God’s chosen Mother,
Fill me with something of thy faith;
That way will Wisdom come to me
And all attendant treasures.

Come, then, O Wisdom, through the faith of Mary!

Montfort never wrote more touching lines than these, but his slightest effort bears the mark of his soul upon it, and never failed, sung as it was by him or one of the Brothers, to stir the consciences of his listeners. His own sanctified presence and his conviction gave the words a strange power.

And in this way the Prior of Saint Pompain was won as he listened to Brother Jacques. He was a worthy man who had invited Grignion De Montfort to preach a mission to his flock. But for himself, he preferred good living to theology, and made all arrangements for his own comfort. One day when he was sitting in his stall, he heard the voice of Brother Jacques, as it came, deep and insistent, from the back of the church. It was a hymn to the tune of “Audi benigne Conditor”:

My sins have lost me God;
How my heart grieves for this!
Must I then so besmirched,
Behold an angry God?

The cry: “J’ai perdu Dieu!” overwhelmed the Prior, and an immediate and lasting conversion followed. Father Mulot of Saint Pompain, the elder brother of Father De Montfort’s helper and successor, gave the missioners of the Company of Mary sure support, and became their very constant friend.