Monseigneur Landriot, Archbishop of Rheims, (Formerly Bishop of La Rochelle)
Translated from the French by Helena Lyons
Long out of print, this rare jewel is destined to become the favored spiritual guide for Catholic wives and mothers. Msgr. Landriot gave these conferences over 100 years ago, but they are as relevant to us today as the Gospels. This book is a guide for women who want to achieve sanctity in the home. Reading this book is the best thing you could do for your husband and children, as well as for yourself. This book was published to help women to raise and keep their families Catholic.
It is sometimes said that current English literature contains more than a fair proportion of exclusively imaginative works. The undersigned desires to offer, as a humble contribution in the opposite direction, the translation of a book which has done useful service in France, and which she hopes may not be without some practical utility among her own fair countrywomen. La Femme Forte, or, as translated, The Valiant Woman, by Monseigneur Landriot, now Archbishop of Rheims, is more especially addressed to married women, but is replete with useful lessons for the unmarried also. It is a common complaint that there are, among the married, women who entertain a notion that domestic life and attention to home duties are not the natural sphere of action for a wife; but, on the contrary, her business is to participate in the gaieties and frivolities of the world of pleasure. The lessons to be derived from the translation now offered to the public are: that womans proper sphere is her home; her chief happiness is to be found in the discharge of her domestic duties; that she has it in her power to diffuse light and culture, by the practice of virtues peculiarly belonging to the sex; and that on her, in great measure, rests the responsibility of training the rising generation, and materially affecting the happiness and prosperity of the country, by moulding the plastic character of its youth. The lessons here taught further show wherein lie the real rights and privileges of women; and, by doing so, serve to warn them against striving after objects more showy in appearance, but less noble in their aim.That so blessed a consummation may be effected, is the one wish of, THE TRANSLATOR
Ninth Discourse - Developing firmness with constancy The Valiant Woman is neither obstinate nor fickle.
She hath girded her loins with strength, and hath strengthened her arm. (Prov. 31:17)
MY CHILDREN,The valiant woman exercises her activity not only in the interior of her house, where she is the glory and joy of her husband, where she presides with praiseworthy zeal over all the labors of the domestics, but she also keeps her eyes open to every source of material prosperity for her family; in concert with her husband she examines and deliberates over the properties, the vineyards, the fields which are for sale, and purchases them in accordance with the opportunities of the moment, the circumstances and resources of her family, and the prospects, which the objects that have excited in her a legitimate desire of acquisition may present. She hath considered a field, and hath bought it: with the fruit of her hands she hath planted a vineyard. These last words point out with what care and persevering attention the mother of a family must devote herself to all the interests of her household, to the prudent amelioration of her property, to the reasonable and moderate augmentation of her income, and provision for her childrens future; but religion imposes upon her the obligation of doing nothing contrary to honor and probity, nor of seeking to found her fortune on the success of skilfully disguised frauds, which can only merit one name in the language of justice and honesty.
The words of Scripture seem to attach a special importance to country life and all outdoor field work. Therefore, have I recommended to you, as a healthful and practically wise measure, country walks, and the contemplation of those varied and admirable scenes of nature where we find peace, order, wisdom, and tranquil happiness; and on this occasion I cannot pass over silently the culture of flowers those excellent pencillings of the thoughts of the Divinity, those perfumed guests who speak to us so sweetly of virtue and our duties and who, even in the moment when they fall fading from their stalks, leave us a tender, yet melancholy, lesson on the fragility of human life. After having thus explained this text of Scripture, we raised our thoughts on high, and said that a woman was bound to make a provision for her family, not alone of bread and wine, but of all good things she might meet upon her way; and that she should amass with prudent carefulness treasures of spiritual benefits to pour them into her childrens minds.
The verse which follows will require two discourses. She hath girded her loins with strength, and hath strengthened her arm. What is strength? It may be defined as an energy of soul which enables us to bear calmly the trials and evils of life; which gives us courage to carry out our designs with unshaken firmness, and preserves in us a vigor of action which human obstacles cannot destroy. Saint Cyril styles it an untiring energy which enables the mind to act with all the vigor of youth.1 These different definitions are merely a commentary on the words of Scripture She hath girded her loins with strength, and hath strengthened her arm.
Firmness and strength of character are virtues which keep the middle path between the two opposite defects of obstinacy and weakness; and this is another proof of that important truth to which I have more than once called your attention. Virtue and vice are distinguished by the quantity of the dose: put the right quantity and you have a virtue; take away that quantity or exceed it and you have a vice. Listen to Saint Thomas, with his usual clearness and conciseness Obstinacy consists in keeping to ones own ideas and plans more than one ought; weakness, in not keeping to them enough; and firmness, in keeping to them as one ought.
Have you never met with people so infatuated with themselves that everything they say or do must be right? Everything they dream of must be done, otherwise the world will go to ruin. Once an idea has entered their brain, it takes such hold that there is no room for a contrary opinion. This idea has very often its ridiculous side; no matter, it has got an entrance into that brain, taken up all the disposable space, and the omnibus is full. Respectable and elegant travellers that is to say, just, true, and beautiful thoughts present themselves in vain; the places are all occupied, and none can now enter. If such minds, says Albert the Great, should take it into their heads to maintain that it is night while the sun is shining, do not try to prove the contrary to them; you will only lose your time. Obstinacy, as moralists remark, is a proof of a weak mind, or at all events, it indicates an excessive self-love and wounded vanity. It is sufficient for some people that they have once publicly enunciated an opinion for them never after to retract it; even though it has been said without quite meaning it, in a moment of unreflecting passion, no matter, that is only an additional reason for their adding to it, and yet though they are quite sensible of the unreasonableness of their persistence in it. It is a sad truth to acknowledge, but it is not the less a truth, that it is not good sense and truth which oftenest govern mens understanding, but their passions, and above all, their embittered passions; and this is so certain, that you may actually make men pass successively from one opinion to the contradictory one by attacking them on their weak point; and for this very reason, there is no more changeable character than an obstinate one. They are never so near altering their opinions as when most full of protestations of unswerving attachment to them. Wait a little while, and the new Proteus, so rigid and inflexible last night, will have already taken another form; the only thing that is essential is to let him have the satisfaction of believing that he alone, without any foreign influence, has wrought the metamorphosis. We need not be astonished at these changes; truth alone is fixed and stable, and obstinacy has no part in truth it keeps not within its prudent bounds.
There are other natures placed at the opposite extreme; such as weak characters wanting in consistency. Like a sponge, they take in succession the color of the different liquids into which you plunge them. Put a sponge into a liquor of a deep black tinge and it will become black; then throw it into red, from that to white, and it will take the most dissimilar tints one after another. It is an emblem of certain dispositions, which through weakness, inability to resist, and sometimes of set purpose, will embrace an idea you propose to them, and say yes and no to the same question, like the wind which veers from north to south. It would be a curious study to follow such people into the different salons where shades of thought of the most opposite dyes prevail, and hear them exclaim in one, I am a mouse, look at my feet; in another, I am a bird, look at my wings. It would also be curious to note how, in the same conversation, they will speak for and against, according to this influence or that fear; how, through a desire of tacking, or simply through weakness, this fault of multiform yet undefined shapes makes a man yield the instant he meets with opposition or resistance. In weakness there is always much indolence, which contents itself with anything, provided it is allowed to slumber in peace.
Between obstinacy and weakness, the virtue of firmness takes the middle course, keeping to its ideas, projects, and resolutions, but only as much as should be done. When a firm character has once well examined and weighed its purpose before God; when it has consulted those whom providence has given it for its natural counselors; when it has taken all the precautions which Christian prudence suggests, then it goes straight to its end, and suffers nothing to stop it: neither the observations of men, nor the injustice of public opinion, nor the voice of the passions. Like the war-horse of Job He smelleth the battle afar off, and he saith, let us go! Firmness does not however exclude suppleness and docility of mind, and a readiness to admit new ideas which may perfect the old; for such is human weakness, and such the ignorance of our nature, that the finest minds cannot afford to remain fixed and immovable in one opinion to the point of refusing to entertain others which might circumscribe, limit, extend, or modify those they had already conceived. True firmness, says Fénelon, is gentle, humble, and tranquil. An angry, imperious, disquieted firmness is not worthy of being employed in the work of God.1 When firmness possesses these conditions; when it is calm, peaceful, and guided by the Spirit of God, it is never excessive, it never pushes men or things to extremes; it knows how to compassionate and sympathize; it is like a finely tempered steel spring; it has all the strength and elasticity of skilfully prepared metal. It is strong, because founded on the true and the divine; it is ductile, because it is penetrated with humility; it is intelligent, because it is diffident of itself, and knows how to reverse its decisions when they have not been wisely matured.
I hear you raising a grave objection, and saying You are not removing the difficulty: Obstinacy is a defect which makes us hold to our own ideas and projects more than we ought; weakness gives them up without good reasons; firmness, on the contrary, is a quality which makes us maintain our own opinions as far as we ought to do; but where are we to find this precise point which Saint Thomas calls, as we ought to do? I acknowledge, my children, I should greatly rejoice could I discover for you some instrument wherewith you could measure these things exactly, and which would serve as an indication how best to blend a firm adhesion to the truth with a prudent diffidence of ones self; a disposition to stop, advance, or draw back, according to the opportuneness of events and the rules of true wisdom. There are such instruments for accurately mixing so many spoonfuls of oil, so many of vinegar, so many grains of salt. Unfortunately, in the moral order there exist no such instruments so precise and mathematically accurate; and therein lies the best answer to those narrow minds who would have everything conducted with absolute precision, and decisions laid down on the most rigid lines. As we advance in life, we become more and more suspicious of such a way of conducting or of cutting short all questions.
Let me briefly point out the precautions which prudence suggests. Have you reflected seriously before adopting such an idea, or following such a course? Have you consulted the persons in whom you ought to place confidence? Have you not that inflexibility which even in the path of good is a defect? Does not firmness degenerate in you into a kind of faith in your personal infallibility, which would spoil the best cause? Can you reconsider your opinion when you hear the warnings of wisdom and the testimony of competent persons? Another very essential question are you calm when you are weighing a point? How does your pulse beat? Are you not somewhat excited? Agitation is undoubtedly not always a proof that we are in the wrong, but it shows we need time for reflection; it should induce us to wait awhile, to sleep a night, nay, many nights, on our project. Above all, examine well whether your pretended firmness does not arise from wounded self-love, rancor, or bitterness; and this may be easily recognized by a certain tone of abruptness, by restlessness, and an effervescence of temper, which seems to seek occasions of breaking forth, like pent up lava. The strength which one draws from rancor and irritation, says Madame Swetchine, is never aught but weakness.1 Is not this your case? Do you not feel in all your faculties that irritable rigidity, that bronze-like tenacity, which cannot yield, and which refuses all flexibility of movement? If it be so, suspect your firmness a little; for, says Fénelon, true firmness is gentle, humble, and tranquil. The firmness which is marked by roughness, haughtiness, and disquietude is not worthy of being employed in the work of God. Humble yourself, says again the great Archbishop, but let it be without weakness.
Can it be said that, after having taken all these precautions, you will not sometimes commit an error in their application? Alas! my children, error is the lot of human nature; God alone is impeccable. You will undoubtedly still make mistakes; you will err, sometimes on the side of weakness, sometimes on that of obstinacy; but your errors at least will not be very dangerous, because you will have the power of recognizing them. God, who so loves us, will give you, when necessary, sufficient light to discover them; a wise diffidence of yourself will facilitate the entrance of divine wisdom into your souls, and you will have firmness enough to retrace your steps, and walk in the direction pointed out by the grace of God.
But if we can still err while taking all these precautions, what shall we say of those obstinate beings who follow their own notions only, who believe only in themselves, who are so completely wedded to one idea under the pretext of being true, that they end by falling into the most deplorable exaggerations? They do not reflect that it is possible to err even when carrying out a just and right persuasion, because in the intellectual world many ideas intersect, complete, and perfect each other, so that exclusiveness is a very bad system, and may lead to an abyss, even though ones hobby be in itself a good one. What are we to say of those little minds, those small vessels, so imbued with the one liquor they hold, that they cannot conceive the existence of a more generous or finer wine than the one they contain? And therefore nothing finds entrance into them, because they are so full of themselves and of belief in their own merit. What are we to think of those abrupt characters, all acute angles, who mistake obstinacy for firmness, who dignify their ridiculous self-opinionatedness with the title of respect for ones self and ones dignity, and who would think themselves disgraced by an acknowledgment of having been in the wrong? Dispositions of such a sort resemble untamed horses, which, harnessed for the first time to a carriage, rush violently on, heeding neither rein nor guiding voice, and reach the foot of a mountain after having dashed everything to pieces, and perhaps endangered the lives of those who were so imprudent as to confide themselves to their care. Natures so constituted bring misfortune on their families and on society. They crush and destroy everything both in men and affairs, and there are some things which once crushed never recover. They alienate hearts and minds; and very often that state of suffering which weighs so heavy on families and social relations has no other source than that stupid obstinacy which knows not how to yield.
But how much sweeter, how much more Christian would life be, on the contrary, if all characters resembled the springs of well made carriages, which are strong enough to bear the heaviest burdens, yet yield so flexibly that one does not perceive the roughness of the road, but reposes as tranquilly as on a couch of down. Such are the characters formed in the school of the Gospel. They are strong to bear up against and resist every shock, and in order the better to withstand them, they often yield; yield with mingled force and gentleness: with force, because they are proof against the most violent shocks, and have hardly yielded when they spring back on themselves and resume their place; yet all this is done with so much softness and smoothness, that the traveller can sleep in peace. May you, my children, resemble in your homes those strong yet flexible springs! May all your family, husband, children, and servants, find repose in you! Your part in this world is to be the springs of your household; be therefore strong, perfectly smooth, and, above all, well oiled. The coach will then roll tranquilly on, with occasional jolts it is true, for such are inevitable in this world; but those very jolts will only show how perfect are the springs. At the moment of the shock you will bend noiselessly, yield without an effort, and the shock once passed, resume quietly your ordinary place. Your husband, though he may be of a difficult temper, will end by admiring what he did not always comprehend, and in some moment or other of expansion and candor he will say, in speaking of you What an excellent spring my house possesses! How flexible! How gracefully elastic! and at the same time how well tempered is its strength, which can yield to me while resisting, and resist me while yielding! I should be truly unreasonable were I to complain! If, on the contrary, you persist in being a rigid and immovable spring, the shock, which must infallibly come, will surely break the iron, scatter the coach, and, unless the accident remain a secret, which rarely comes to pass, you will furnish conversation, and probably amusement, for the public at your expense.
Before concluding this first discourse on firmness, I must say one word on a defect which is most opposed to it, which troubles our whole lives, and makes of our existence one perpetual, ever-flowing tide, agitated by violent winds; I mean susceptibility. This is a subject which is perhaps not sufficiently treated in books, and on which I particularly desire to dwell for a few moments; for this defect or infirmity, whichever it may be, is often the sole cause of the unhappiness of life. What, then, is susceptibility? It is difficult to define an airy sylph, to calculate the direction of the winds at sea, the caprices of the imagination, or the dreams of a man in fever, but it is still more difficult to define susceptibility, or to account for its various metamorphoses. Susceptibility is derived from a Latin word signifying a faculty of receiving impressions. Have you ever remarked persons suffering from rheumatism? They dread the slightest currents of air, and unfortunately for them everything is a current of air the least breeze, the slightest noise, all jars on their nerves and makes them ill. Susceptibility is a species of rheumatism in our moral nature: everything fatigues these poor invalids; everything wounds them; everything becomes a current of air to give them fever. Go to the right, and they are hurt; to the left, and they are dreadfully offended. The slightest act, the most inoffensive words, assume gigantic proportions in their eyes. If you are chatting merrily, it must be of them you are speaking; if you keep silence, you are gloomy and out of sorts about something they have done; if you smile, you must be laughing at them; if you are grave, you have some pique against them; if through natural absence of mind, or some preoccupation, you appear to maintain a reserved silence towards them, though in quite an unimportant matter, or perhaps unintentionally, these invalids maintain that you have entirely forgotten them, and set aside the most sacred duties of affection. It is in vain that the truest and most sincere devotion lies in your inmost heart for them, of which they have many times had proof; nothing can cure that weary brain of its rash suspicions. What can I tell you to do? It is as impossible to satisfy such people as to know for certain the course of the equinoctial gales: with the best will in the world, you have only to resign yourselves to bear the outbursts of their ill-humor and discontent.
Susceptibility indicates great weakness of mind and character, or else a very large amount of self-love, and occasionally both these defects united. Strong minds are not susceptible; they are of too vigorous a mold to let themselves be affected by those manifold petty trifles, those countless grains of sand, which form, as it were, the sum of human life. A susceptible mind is always unhappy; it is as impressionable as a sensitive plant, and agitated by every passing breath of wind; and even with every possible precaution, life on this earth is so constituted, that there must always exist slight currents of air in the atmosphere of souls, and often violent shocks to overwhelm those vacillating characters, which have no more consistency than the leaves of the forest. I might address the words of Saint Chrysostom to those who are so easily affected by every little thing, and say: It is not the nature of things, it is the weakness of your own minds which occasions your pain.1 No, it is not the nature of things, it is not that person who is the cause of your grief; she never even thought about you; but an unfortunate notion got into your head, and cannot be got out again; therein is the sole cause of your unhappiness. No, it is not your friend who is so truly attached to you, whom you ought to accuse, it is the buzzing of your own brain, it is the power of your own imagination to create these phantoms. I grant you that these phantoms actually do exist, but the grand manufactory for their production is to be found in your own head; it is there you must apply the remedy. And even if there should really be some flies floating around you in the air, are we to pay attention to flies in this world? Do we fight with every insect that buzzes about us? That would give us too much to do, besides being trouble lost. A pagan philosopher has given us the sagest counsels on this subiect The noblest manner of forgiving, says Seneca, is to ignore the wrong done. Credulity does much harm; and very often it is best not even to listen to it, for in some things it is better to be deceived than to be suspicious. You must banish from your mind every conjecture, every suspicion, every source of unjust anger. Such a person saluted me coldly, such another behaved impolitely to me; this one rudely interrupted the sentence I had begun, that other did not invite me to his entertainment, while the countenance of some one else seemed ungracious towards me. Pretexts for suspicion are never wanting: let us look more simply at things, and judge them more kindly.2 The same philosopher tells us of a Sybarite of his time who complained of a bruise he had received from sleeping on crumbled roseleaves.1 There are many people in this world to whom nothing that could insure happiness seems wanting, but their own susceptibility is an obstacle interposing itself at every moment between them and external objects; they resemble not a little Senecas fastidious gentleman; everything wearies them, even rose-leaves, if they have often slept on them.
Whilst walking before my cottage by the sea-shore, I have sometimes remarked a fact from which I have drawn the following moral deduction The blackbirds and other timid songsters on seeing me advance, though with the most pacific intentions, and without even thinking of them, give vent to a loud cry of terror, and fly off wildly into the bushes; one would really say they suspected me of the most hostile intentions. But the cause of their fright is in their own imagination, and their safest plan would be to make no noise, but remain quiet on their branch while I pass; then I should not be even aware of their presence, and they would be most effectually protected by silent repose. Is not this a faithful portrait of susceptible characters? You are walking tranquilly in the paths of life, when suddenly, without any apparent reason, they scream out loudly; one would think you had declared war to the knife against them, which you most certainly have not the slightest idea of doing. All the commotion is in their own imagination. Susceptibility, my children, may spring from the nerves, the constitution, a diseased imagination. What a number of sensitive people are to be found in this world! The best counsel I can give them is, to cast aside half, and even sometimes three quarters, of their own impressions, or still better, reject them altogether; then only will they arrive at the truth. I would also wish them to possess a sincerely devoted friend, in whom they could have perfect confidence, and to whom they could confide all their wounded feelings; but on this one condition, of permitting the most entire frankness to their friend, and showing him a child-like submission.
Susceptibility, as we have already said, springs also very often from self-love; and even where other causes exist, self-love and wounded vanity are ordinarily the chief components in the mixture.
There are some natures so imbued with vanity that they imagine all the world must be thinking of them. This is an instinct of self-love, an unhappy idea which everywhere pursues them; if they are overlooked for a single instant, all the obligations of politeness are thrown aside. Woe to you if you are so imprudent as to neglect offering up some grains of incense at their shrine, or perhaps even the censer full! Woe to you if a word of criticism, though kindly meant, escape you; or if at some soirée you omit, by some involuntary forgetfulness, to present them with that bouquet of falsehoods, which is styled compliments, you are sure to draw on yourself a flood of rancor and bitterness, or at least to have stored up against you a provision of suppressed anger which will not fail to explode on an early opportunity.
Humility, my children, is not only a great virtue, it is also a source of good sense, peace, and happiness. The humble-minded must be happy. What profound peace we enjoy when we can do without creatures, their lying words, and their deceitful praises! How happy we are when we can, if needful, place ourselves under the feet of others to be trampled at will, without feeling hurt! Nature cannot understand this language; nevertheless, it is the language of faith, and reason, and of true happiness. Whether we like it or not, we must often resign ourselves to being trodden under foot in this world. Whether we like it or not, evil tongues, treachery, calumny, and injurious proceedings will make of us a carpet on which others will tread with malicious pleasure. We may undergo this fate without anger or serious annoyance; it is perfectly reconcilable with the dignity of a Christian and the nobility of resignation; and there is even true grandeur in lifting ourselves up again, and saying with that emperor I do not even feel myself hurt. Indifference to a number of earthly things is the secret of a Christians science and the principal cause of the serenity of a just soul.
One word more of counsel, and I have done. If you live with susceptible characters, treat them with gentle kindness blended with firmness. Be compassionate, but fear not to make them sometimes touch with their own hands the windmills they mistake for armed warriors coming to attack them. If a horse be shy, you lead him up to the very spot of his imagined peril, and cure him by letting him see how chimerical his fears are. But as there are things which cannot be wholly cured in this world, you must cultivate patience and forbearance, and avoid as much as possible what may cause them agitation. There are people whose heads are bad, whose brains are somewhat weak; and Saint Augustine remarked long ago The weaker a mind, the more easily it is offended.1 Charity wills that we have pity on such people, and not knowingly expose them to difficulties, which, although in reality only grains of sand, take in their imagination the form of lofty mountains. I do not say you will altogether avoid paining them; that would be a standing miracle, and I only ask what is possible and feasible. Therefore, if you live with such characters, be provided with a waterproof mantle, for you will need it in moments of unexpected torrents.
I trust, my children, that these first observations may have somewhat enlightened you and prepared you to comprehend the virtue of strength, for it is one of the most valuable qualities women can possess. Much more remains to be developed; I reserve it for our next meeting, when, it may be, you will come to understand what a sublime doctrine and practical teaching is contained in the praise the Scripture bestows on the valiant woman She hath girded her loins with strength, and hath strengthened her arm.
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