Saint Louis de Montfort, His Life and Work – True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin

cover of the ebook 'Saint Louis de Montfort: His Life and Work', by Georges RigaultFather De Montfort’s Christianity, for all its austerity, is not dread and repellent, as has been supposed. To really know it, we must study his celebrated treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which since its first publication in 1842 has gone through one hundred and thirty editions. Montfort, as the apostle of the Rosary, the founder of guilds in honor of Our Lady, the preacher of formulas of consecration to her, of that manner of Christian life known as “the slavery of Jesus in Mary,” “the Secret of Mary,” is of the lineage of Saint Bernard, Saint Dominic and Saint Bonaventure. He gave the impulse to the great movement of modern piety towards the Mother of God, the universal mediatrix. The way of perfection which he teaches is short and easy like the “little way” of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus. Both would raise to heroism the feeble Christians that we are by a kind of continuous and almost insensible ascent.

But let us repeat that the whole eighteenth century prepared the way for Montfort’s work on behalf of Our Blessed Lady. The Hail Mary was the rallying cry of the Catholic army in that counter-offensive which followed the Lutheran and Calvinist invasions. Every preacher affirmed it. Not one orthodox theologian from Saint Francis de Sales to Bossuet but proclaimed the overwhelming importance of the Blessed Virgin in the scheme of individual salvation, in the plan of Redemption. Every true mystic makes it his task to determine the rights of the Mother of God.

Charles Flachaire in his book, Devotion to the Virgin in Catholic Literature, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, showed how the Jesuits, those pioneers of the Counter-reformation, revived and strengthened the old, popular and mediaeval affection for Our Blessed Lady. Thus Louis XIII placed his kingdom under Mary’s protection. Berulle, Gibieuf, Saint Jean Eudes, and even, with certain reserves and demurs, the school of Port Royal, developed, defined, enriched its doctrinal system, and the piety which found in it its weapons and its justification.

Montfort is inspired by the Jesuits, the Oratorians, the Sulpicians and Father Eudes. His teachers at Saint Thomas School had encouraged the impulses of his Breton heart. His pilgrimages to Notre Dame des Ardilliers reveal him as the disciple of Berulle who had established in that church in Saumur a famous guild, under the direction of the priests of the Oratory. He learnt to know the theology of Father Eudes and the cult of the Sacred Heart of Mary through Father Leuduger. His Bouquet en faveur des peuples de la campagne contains a consecration to the service of the Blessed Virgin in the spirit of Saint Jean Eudes. The followers of Berulle, the Sulpicians and Grignion De Montfort have much likeness in vocabulary.

Montfort’s idea of the mould was suggested by Father Tronson’s Jesus Living in Mary. The passage is: “Through his life in her, Jesus gave her His features to such an extent that she became a mould of God Himself; ‘forma Dei,’ as Saint Augustine has it. It is not difficult to form a beautiful statue if you have the mould.”

In Father Olier’s Pensees Choisies there is a no less significant passage. “Those who speak of the devotion to Mary as of one which is pleasing to Our Lord, have not, I think, said all. They have looked at Jesus and Mary; but they must look at Him in Mary, the result of His love and His pleasure. In her He lives as in a source of graces for His Church.”

Father Letourneau, the priest of Saint Sulpice, joyfully enshrines these two quotations in his encomium upon Saint Louis-Marie De Montfort in the year 1916 on the second centenary of the great missioner. In the third volume of the Literary History of Religious Feeling in France, M. Bremond produces no less speaking proofs. It is the Sulpician prayer: “O Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in Thy servant,” and he calls it the rallying-cry of this school. Cardinal de Berulle reminds us that the grace of the Incarnation “does not show us the Son of God alone, but the Son of God with His Mother; does not unite us to the Son of God alone, but to the Son of God and His Mother together.

“The essence of the Virgin is to be lost in the interior and spiritual life of Jesus even to becoming as it were a capacity of His, filled with Him.” “When we speak of you, Mary, we speak of Jesus. . . . And even as the divine persons only exist mutually in the Blessed Trinity, you too, O holy Virgin, at once divine and human, divine in grace and human in nature, only exist in grace through your relation to Jesus.”

The devotion to the Word Incarnate cannot be separated from devotion to the Virgin Mother. They form two aspects of one doctrine, or rather its definite statement from beginning to end. Grignion pondered it all his life, preached upon it and formulated it clearly in his Love of the Divine Wisdom.

“Once we have Mary with us, we soon have, through her, divine Wisdom. Of all the ways of reaching Our Lord, Mary is the surest, the easiest, the shortest, the holiest.” This means, this mediation, is defined elsewhere in the same book: “It is the will of God that since He gave His Son to Mary, we should receive everything through her hands, and no heavenly gift comes down to earth save through this channel; of her fulness have we all received.”

Contemporaries attest that Saint Louis-Marie was favored by visions of the Blessed Virgin. Children, country folk, saw him in conversation with “a beautiful Lady,” white and shining. He never said anything about it. But he certainly enjoyed an interior presence, at once intellectual and of the senses, a foretaste of celestial contemplation. It is to this that he alludes in the four lines:

Graven in glory
I bear her within me,
In Faith’s dim twilight
‘Tis hard to see.

To write a treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, to announce the coming development of this devotion, to uncover and define the part of Mary in human redemption, in the destiny of every Christian, there could not have been a theologian better prepared than Grignion De Montfort. He set to work eagerly in his hermitage of Saint Eloi. “If I thought that my poor blood could help to carry the truths that I write in my dear Mother’s honor to the hearts of men, I would use it instead of ink to form the letters!”

But he foretold that the little book would not come to light for a long time. The eighteenth century would not learn his lesson. The devil had failed to destroy the writer, but he could bury the precious manuscripts in darkness and in the depths of a chest. They were only discovered one hundred and twenty-six years after the death of Saint Louis in a house in Saint Laurent-sur-Sevre. There could be no doubt as to their authenticity, and the Bishop of Lugon authorised their publication in 1842. The original manuscript was sent to Rome to be examined for purposes of his canonization.

There is a strongly prophetic note at the beginning of the work. “Grignion seems to see the end of the world in sight,” says F. Faber, “and proclaims that he brings from God the message of greater honor, more extended knowledge and more ardent love for Mary. He speaks too of the close connection which she will have with the Second Coming of her Son.” “She was so little to the fore at His first coming,” remarks the holy author, and he gives the following reason: “Man was then very ignorant and unenlightened as to the person of the Son and he would have left the Son for the Mother, to whom he would have given the wrong kind of affection.”

The Holy Spirit will reveal her by the lips of these Apostles of the latter days: they will be intrepid souls, afire with love, purified by tribulation, “Saints who will surpass in holiness most of the rest, bearing the blood-stained standard of the Cross, the crucifix in one hand, the rosary in the other, and in their hearts the sacred names of Jesus and Mary.” By the orders of the Most High, “Mary will cause them to extend His empire over that of the impious, the idolatrous, the Mohammedan. When? God only knows. But our waiting will not be passive; we shall prepare the way for the reign of the Blessed Virgin.”

From Saint Bernard and Saint Bonaventure, Father De Monfort borrows his most striking phrases, his most persuasive statements, to win souls, to rally the predestinate – “Following her, thou shalt not go out of thy way; imploring her, thou shalt not despair; thinking of her, thou shalt not err; protected by her, thou shalt not fear; held by her, thou shalt not fall; guided by her, thou shalt not weary; under her auspices, thou shalt gain Heaven. Her hand is strong; she prevents Christ from punishing, the devil from harming, virtue from taking flight, merit from perishing, grace from escaping.”

These statements are found both in True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin and in The Secret of Mary, which is a summary of it for the use of the faithful. “The Secret is the universal mediation of the Blessed Virgin. To go to Jesus, we must go to Mary; she is our mediatrix of intercession; to reach the eternal Father we must go to Jesus, our mediator of redemption.”

A soul will then give to all its acts of virtue their supernatural fullness if they are consecrated to the Virgin “through love and without reserve.” And this is the “slavery” put forward by De Montfort: to leave to Mary the merit of our efforts, our sufferings, our obedience. She will dispose of them according to her good pleasure. But in the end, this absolute stripping of ourselves will be our gain. Mary will make the least of our sacrifices agreeable to God, it will be the old story of the poor peasant whose gift was presented to the king by the queen in a dish of gold.

Such a comparison went home to the hearts of his simple hearers. They could understand, too, when in the style of Saint Francis de Sales he called the Blessed Virgin “the sweets of the Cross;” the love of Mary would be like “the sugar in which green nuts, candied, can be eaten without putting our poor teeth on edge.” In other words, Montfort would tell us that “the slavery of Jesus in Mary takes from us any scruple or servile fear of the spirit, which would, left to itself, be cramped, captive, confused.”

We must let the holy soul of Mary act within us, speak to her Son, especially in the Eucharist. We shall then more easily accept our darkness, our sadness and our dryness. In spite of them we shall be able to offer Our Lord, in a dwelling where He will find His Mother, a welcome which He will not refuse.

The following is a characteristic passage:

I am about to speak still more openly, predestinate – do not entrust the gold of your charity, the silver of your purity, the waters of heavenly grace, the wine of your merits and virtues to a torn sack, an old and broken chest, a ruined vessel such as you are; or the thieves will rob you, that is, the devils, who night and day are on the watch for the best time to do it; and your ill-love of self, your self-confidence and self-will will spoil all the best that God has given you. Pour into Mary’s lap all your treasures, graces and virtues. She is a vessel of the spirit, of honor, of devotion beyond compare. Since even God in His own person and with all His perfection dwelt in this vessel, it became utterly spiritual and the spiritual abode of the souls which have most of this quality. It became honorable, for it was the throne of honor for the greatest princes of eternity. It became ‘of devotion beyond compare’ and the most wonderful dwelling-place of gentleness, grace and virtue that even the divine mind ever dreamed; rich, too, like a house of gold, strong as the tower of David and pure as ivory.”

These souls to whom Montfort speaks are far enough from carnal dullness to be able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, “who having espoused Mary, continues to produce in her daily, in her and by her, the predestinate.” Mary “who even brought forth a God, will not be able to remain idle in a faithful soul.”

And it is here that our author comments upon Saint Augustine’s phrase: Si formant Die te appellant, digna existis. “Mary is the great mould of God. … He who is cast in this divine mould is soon formed and moulded in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ in him. With little effort and in a short time he will become divine, since he is cast in the same mould which formed a God.” Those directors and devotees who would claim “to form Jesus Christ in themselves and others without recourse to the Virgin Mother, are like ‘sculptors who trusting to their own talent, industry and art, hammer and chisel ceaselessly a hard stone or a piece of ill-polished wood, thinking to give it the image of Jesus Christ. They risk failure through want of knowledge and experience, with regard to their subject, or through a slip which spoils the whole thing. But for those who embrace this secret of grace which I would present to them, they are like artificers who having found the beautiful mould of Mary, in which Jesus was naturally and divinely formed, without relying on their own efforts but only on the perfection of the mould, cast themselves in Mary that they may become copies of Jesus Christ.’ A beautiful comparison, truly, but who will understand it? Let it be you, my dear brother. But remember that to be cast in this mould we must first destroy the old Adam, that the new one may be produced in Mary.”

Finally, the following lines complete this theology, with Mary as its centre. “You never think of Mary without Mary in your place thinking of God. You never praise or honor Mary but she praises and honors God. Mary only lives in relation to God of Whom she is the echo, which only says and repeats God. If you say ‘Mary,’ she says ‘God.’ Saint Elisabeth praised Mary and called her Blessed because she had believed; Mary’s answer was to sing the ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum.’ ”

Holy souls find in Father De Montfort’s work the theme of their meditations on the Blessed Virgin and the very expressions of their prayers and the joys of their ecstasies. Take Brother Mutin, a humble Belgian monk, whose process of canonization is going on at Rome; he’ had studied the True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin and would discuss it at the recreations of his community in the garden at Malonne. After the model of Louis-Marie Grignion, he had made himself the “slave” and apostle of the Blessed Virgin. The recitation of the Hail Mary kept his spirit of obedience, his heroic humility, ever fresh. He took a constant delight in the Rosary. And the definition which he gave to the angelic salutation in order to recommend its frequent use, he had borrowed from his favorite author: “It is the most perfect compliment that you can pay to Mary, because it is the one that the Almighty entrusted to an Archangel for her, that He might win her heart.”

When in 1904 Pope Pius X composed the Encyclical for the Jubilee of the Immaculate Conception, he re-read Saint Louis-Marie’s book and the impression made was solemn and lasting.

In 1925, Cardinal Merrier, in order to obtain the proclamation of the dogma of the universal Meditation of Mary and the canonization of Louis Grignion, drew up a prayer which is an admirable summary of the French missioner’s teaching. Every pilgrim to Saint Laurent-sur-Sevre can read and make his own a page whose ardent supplication rises from the most profound mystical contemplation. We close this chapter with it. Without it, it would indeed be incomplete.

“O Lord Jesus, Wisdom eternal and incarnate, conceived by the operations of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Blessed Mary, grant, we beseech Thee, that enlightened by the same Spirit, Thy Holy Church may define and proclaim as a dogma, to the glory of the Father, the universal Mediation of the Virgin Mother. In this intention, we offer Thee our sacrifices, our prayers and our works.

“Like another Saint John, Montfort entered into the deepest secrets of Thy Incarnation, Thy Cross, the sanctification of souls, and realised that since the beginning Mary was always associated with Thee in Thy work, as the universal Mediatrix of all graces, and the true Queen and Mistress of all hearts. Hers it is to defeat the devil, and to bring to Heaven her true children, for she is the road God wishes us to take if we would return to Him.

“And so we are drawn towards that same loving home where Thou Thyself didst live and where it is Thy will that we should live. Montfort taught ‘the simple perfect way’ of the slavery of love which yields us up body and soul, as little children, to all the maternal and mediatory influences of Mary, so that through her, Thou mayest be formed in us, O Jesus, according to all the extent of Thy love, that we may live in Thee and as Thou didst, for the Father.”