Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – The Journey to Rouen

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultWe must touch briefly upon a curious interlude which extended from June to November, 1714. During all that time, Father De Montfort was absent from the scene of his missions. He came back to Brittany and went as far as Normandy. He may have longed to see his home again, but this fatiguing expedition which he meant to make on foot, as always, had another and a special purpose. He was going to Rouen to see his friend Jean Baptiste Blain.

This old schoolfellow of the days in Rennes and fellow-student at Saint Sulpice had had an honorable and easy career. Already in his youth he had been given a canonry in the pleasant town of Noyon where the chapter were so well provided for. His bishop, Bishop d’Aubigny, having become Archbishop of Rouen through the favor of Mme de Maintenon, a distant relation of his, sent for him there in 1710. He became canon of its cathedral and had various other ecclesiastical functions, such as inspector of the seminaries, parish priest of Saint Patrick, superior of the Out-Sisters of Saint Francis and, during the absence of Father de la Salle, superior of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Everywhere he played his part well and was tactful and devoted. His advice could be trusted and his influence used. It was to him that Grignion meant to show his plan for the Company of Mary. The sermons which the traveller preached on his way were his means of paying his way and, above all, a spontaneous gesture on the part of his zeal. They would ask him who he was, and he would answer: “A poor priest, roaming the world in the hope of winning some poor soul for God.”

But as long as he was in the dioceses of Nantes and Rennes he had to hold his peace. The bishops had taken no fresh steps, but he was wise to act as he did. He was able to see what his Nantes charities were doing and at Rennes he converted M. Dorville, sub-delegate to the High Steward.

On the eve of the Assumption, 1714, he reached Avranches. As it was late he waited for the next morning to go to the bishop’s palace for leave to say Mass and offer his services. “The only service he can do my diocese is to leave it as soon as possible.” Such was the bishop’s answer. Here was a great feast and no faculty for saying Mass! Louis- Marie hired a horse and rode to Villedieu-les-Poeles, the nearest parish of the diocese of Coutances. The parish priest reluctantly gave him leave to use the altar and then invited him to preach.

It was in this diocese that he made his longest stay; a young curate of Saint Lo, Father Le Francois, knew him by repute. He made himself responsible for him, and took him to the chaplain of the hospital, who asked the mis- sioner to give a retreat to the poor. The retreat grew into a mission for the whole town. As usual someone made mischief with the bishop and there was a temporary interruption. But matters were resumed and all ended well. And leaving a cross on the hill-top, the wanderer started for Rouen.

The details of his conversations with Father Blain are to be found in the written recollections which the latter kept and which have been so useful to biographers. The prudent canon did not hesitate to speak his mind. He himself was to live comfortably till 1751, and the premature old age which marked the face of this man of forty years touched him strangely. He did not, after ten years, at once recognize his visitor. It was not only the result of the attempt to poison him at La Rochelle; his chance meals, his long fasts, his forced marches, his hard bed or no bed at all – all that had been too much for him. And this man who was so hard upon himself was dreaming of disciples and founding a community. Well, let him take life a little less hard!

Father De Montfort took from his knapsack the New Testament. Father Blain surely would not criticise the teaching of Our Lord. Was not His life and that of His apostles, poor, mortified, founded on abandonment to divine Providence?

Blain, faced by such evident sanctity, did not dare to draw the line between precept and counsel. He thought it best to answer by criticising this man’s singularity.

“If I am different from other people,” answered Montfort, “it is much against my intention. I do not seek to be so. But if my singularity brings me humiliation, so much the better! It is God’s way of confounding my pride.” He added rather wittily, that “if the apostles had not wished to be thought original, they would never have left the Upper Room.” The canon yielded at last. He could not struggle against this impetuous genius, but he did understand and admire him. The more he looked at De Montfort, the more he was struck by something divine in his voice, his face, his gestures, his words. He was not the only one to feel a deep impression, a mingled sense of respect, amazement, and superhuman joy, a foretaste of bliss, when face to face with Louis-Marie Grignion. He took the holy missioner to a training college for teachers and asked him to say something to these girls. They gazed at him during his speech and Montfort, who noticed it, lost no time in telling them that a priest must not be stared at.

The two friends bade farewell to each other after two days. The wanderer’s visit seemed to have had no other result save to increase their mutual affection. That had been worth-while, but from a supernatural point of view there was more. The prayers if not the counsel of a very priestly soul had been won and would ceaselessly take their part in the distant work according to the mysterious workings of the Communion of Saints. God would not forget and would reward all these steps taken for his glory.

Montfort’s return to the South was very gradual, and it would be difficult to trace his exact route. Blain speaks of a barge on the Seine, a Noah’s ark full of little pigs, calves and poultry, and rather rough country folk; Montfort on his knees in the midst of them all; and if he could not make the animals keep quiet, he persuaded the people after three attempts to recite the Rosary and to listen to him till they landed.

He might have been seen prostrated on the high road adoring God for all His mute creation, pressed against that Breton soil, longing to give it something of his spirit, that it too might send up a prayer of its own. And Brother Nicolas, who had been sent on in advance that he might not disturb this strange meditation, turned and waited very still for the end of it.

At the gates of Nantes the passers-by saw two poor wanderers, who while inspiring compassion were ridiculous too. The elder, haggard and perspiring, was supporting the younger with one arm and in the other held a heavy bundle. The younger man, who seemed exhausted, had taken off his habit which the other was good-naturedly carrying. This was the way in which Brother Nicolas and Father De Montfort returned from Normandy. The Brother looked very woebegone, and was much ashamed of their appearance. He whispered to Montfort: “But, my dear Father, what will people say?” Saint Louis did not worry. He was only concerned with whether they were acting as Christ would have done in a similar situation. And he calmly answered: “My dear son, what will our good Jesus say?”

The few days spent in the diocese of Nantes were used for carrying out an old plan, to convey to his chapel of the Hospital for Incurables the statues taken down at Pont-chateau. And he went off to the friend’s house where they had been stored. It was a great business to get them to the chapel; partly by road and partly by water in a barge on the Loire, but at last they were erected – to wait for better times.

Before recrossing the Loire there was a final act of charity for Grignion to accomplish in Brittany. M. Dorville needed him and his advice, and so in the early autumn Rennes saw him once more. But it made little difference to the place. At that moment, Dorville was the only one who was to profit by this visit. The people of Rennes were given up to frivolity and Montfort was too strict to suit them, and they hoped the bishop would not give him faculties. They were to regret it all later on, and Louis-Marie wept over the town he loved. He seemed to glimpse those flames which were soon, in December, 1720, to consume eight hundred and fifty houses in the great fire of that date.

And he bequeathed to the town of his youth and his vocation an ironical, satirical farewell with flashes of prophetic menace.

Farewell, Rennes, Rennes,
I grieve for you.
Your woes are all to come
And you are lost!
Unless you break those chains
You cherish so.

Themselves to please,
To drink and dance,
To play, is all their care.
Parent and child,
Each goes his own sweet way
And what’s the harm?

Beneath those smiles
What sadness lies!
What lack of modesty
‘Neath a fair show!
How oft a borrowed coat
Is worn by pride.

And in the church
They talk and laugh
Who should know better.
The libertine,
The pagan, crowding out
Rare piety.

Your answer is
To him who blames:
God will be merciful –
He is so good;
Nor ever turns away. . . .
And all must err.

Farewell, Rennes, Rennes,
I grieve for you!