Life of Saint Vincent de Paul: Chapter 2: Slavery

[Saint Vincent de Paul]
The pirates were bound for the port of Tunis, the largest city of Barbary. But the sight of the glittering white town with its background of mountains, set in the gorgeous coloring of the African landscape, brought no gleam of joy or comfort to the sad hearts of the prisoners. Before them lay a life of slavery which might be worse than death; there was small prospect that they would ever see their native land again.

To one faint hope, however, they clung desperately, as a drowning man clings to a straw. There was a French consul in Tunis whose business it was to look after the trade interests of his country, and it was just possible that he might use his influence to set them free.

The hope was short-lived. The pirates, expecting to make a good deal of money out of their prisoners, were equally aware of this fact, and their first act on landing was to post a notice that the captives they had for sale were Spaniards. Nothing was left to Vincent and his companions, who did not know a word of the language of the country, but to endure their cruel fate.

The Turks, having stripped their prisoners and clothed them in a kind of rough uniform, fastened chains round their necks and marched them through the town to the marketplace, where they were exhibited for sale much as cattle are at the present day. They were carefully inspected by the dealers, who looked at their teeth, felt their muscles, made them run and walk – with loads and without – to satisfy themselves that they were in good condition, and finally selected their victims. Vincent was bought by a fisherman who, finding that his new slave got hopelessly ill whenever they put out to sea, repented of his bargain and sold him to an alchemist.

In the West, as well as in the East, there were still men who believed in the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. By means of the still undiscovered Stone they hoped to change base metals into gold, while the equally undiscovered Elixir was to prolong life indefinitely, and to make old people young.

Vincent’s master was an enthusiast in his profession and kept ten or fifteen furnaces always burning in which to conduct his experiments. His slave, whose business it was to keep them alight, was kindly treated; the old man soon grew very fond of him and would harangue him by the hour on the subject of metals and essences. His great desire was that Vincent should become a Mohammedan like himself, a desire which, needless to say, remained unfulfilled, in spite of the large sums of money he promised if his slave would only oblige him in this matter.

The old alchemist, however, had a certain reputation in his own country. Having been sent for one day to the Sultan’s Court, he died on the way, leaving his slave to his nephew, who lost no time in getting rid of him.

Vincent’s next master was a Frenchman who had apostatized and was living as a Mohammedan on his farm in the mountains. This man had three wives, who were very kind to the poor captive – especially one of them, who, although herself a Mohammedan, was to be the cause of her husband’s conversion and Vincent’s release. She would go out to the fields where the Christian slave was working and bid him tell her about his country and his religion. His answers seemed to impress her greatly, and one day she asked him to sing her one of the hymns they sang in France in praise of their God.

The request brought tears to Vincent’s eyes. He thought of the Israelites captive in Babylon, and of their answer to a similar demand. With an aching heart he intoned the psalm, “By the waters of Babylon,” while the woman, strangely impressed by the plaintive chant, listened attentively and, when he had ended, begged for more.

The Salve Regina followed, and other songs of praise, after which she went home silent and thoughtful. That night she spoke to her husband. “I cannot understand,” she said, “why you have given up a religion which is so good and holy. Your Christian slave has been telling me of your Faith and of your God, and has sung songs in His praise. My heart was so full of joy while he sang that I do not believe I shall be so happy even in the paradise of my fathers.” Her husband, whose conscience was not quite dead within him, listened silent and abashed. “Ah,” she continued, “there is something wonderful in that religion!”

The woman’s words bore fruit. All day long, as her husband went about his business, the remembrance of his lost Faith was tugging at his heartstrings. Catching sight of Vincent digging in the fields, he went to him and bade him take courage. “At the first opportunity,” he said, “I will escape with you to France.”

It was nine long months before that opportunity came, for the Frenchman was in the Sultan’s service and was not able to leave the country. At last, however, the two men, escaping together in a small boat, succeeded in reaching Avignon, and Vincent was free once more.

Cardinal Montorio, the Pope’s legate, was deeply interested in the two fugitives, and a few days later reconciled the apostate, now deeply repentant, to the Church. The Cardinal, who shortly afterwards returned to Rome, took Vincent with him, showing him great kindness and introducing him to several people of importance. The opinion they formed of him is shown by the fact that he was chosen not long after to go on a secret mission to the court of Henry IV, King of France.

An interview – or rather several interviews – with a reigning monarch would have been considered in those days as a first-rate chance for anyone who had a spark of ambition. Nothing would have been easier than to put in a plea for a benefice or a bishopric; but Vincent, who was both humble and unselfish, had no thought of his own advancement. His only desire was to get his business over and to leave the Court as quickly as possible.

The question of how he was to live remaining still unanswered, he took a room in a house near one of the largest hospitals in Paris and devoted himself to the service of the sick and dying. But even the rent of the little room was more than he could afford to pay, and he was glad to share it with a companion. This was a judge from his own part of the country who was in Paris on account of a lawsuit and who, not being overburdened with money, offered to share the lodging and the rent.

It was at this time that Vincent met Father – afterwards Cardinal – de Berulle, one of the most holy and learned priests of his time, who was occupied at that moment in founding the French Congregation of the Oratory, destined to do such good work for the clergy of France. De Berulle was quick to recognize holiness and merit, and he and Vincent soon became fast friends.

But it did not seem to be God’s will that our hero should prosper in Paris; he fell ill, and one day while he was lying in bed waiting for some medicine which had been ordered, his companion went out, leaving the cupboard in which he kept his money unlocked. The chemist’s assistant, arriving shortly afterwards with the medicine and opening the cupboard to get a glass for the patient, caught sight of the purse, slipped it into his pocket, and made off.

No sooner had the judge returned than he went to the cupboard and discovered the theft. Turning furiously on the sick man, he accused him of having stolen his property and overwhelmed him with insults and abuse. Vincent, unmoved by his threats, only answered gently that he had seen nothing of the money and did not know what had become of it; but his companion, refusing to listen to reason, rushed out and accused him to the police. This led to nothing, as neither witness nor proof could be brought forward by the judge, who, furious at the failure of his accusation, went about Paris denouncing Vincent as a thief. So determined was he to ruin the poor priest whose room he had shared that he obtained an introduction to Father de Berulle for the express purpose of making Vincent’s guilt known to him. As for the latter, he bore the affront in silence, making no attempt to justify himself beyond his first declaration that he was innocent. “God knows the truth,” he would reply to all accusations.

The true thief was only discovered six months later. The chemist’s assistant had fallen ill and was lying at the point of death at a hospital, when, repenting of his crime, he sent to implore forgiveness of the man he had robbed. The judge, stricken with remorse, wrote at once to Vincent, offering to come and ask his pardon on his knees for the wrong he had done him.

Vincent was then living at the Oratory with Father de Berulle, who had never doubted his innocence. He hastened to assure his old roommate that he desired no such apology and begged him to say no more about the matter. Such was his treatment of the man who had done him so grievous an injury.

It was during these years that Vincent de Paul had another strange experience in which he showed heroic courage and steadfastness. He made the acquaintance of a learned doctor of the Sorbonne who was so tormented with doubts against the Faith that his reason was in danger. This man confided his distress to Vincent, who explained to him that a temptation to doubt does not constitute unbelief, and that as long as his will remained firm he was safe. It happens, however, that such temptations often cloud the reason, and Vincent’s labors to restore the man’s peace of mind were in vain.

The priest, deeply moved at the sight of a soul in such danger, besought God for help, offering himself to bear the temptation in the doctor’s place. It was the inspiration of a saint, and the prayer was granted. The man was instantly delivered from his doubts, which took possession of Vincent himself. The trial was long and painful. For several years this humble and fervent soul endured the agony of an incessant temptation to unbelief. But Vincent knew how to resist this most subtle snare of the Evil One, and, although the anguish was continual, his will never wavered.

Copying out the Credo on a small sheet of parchment, he placed it over his heart, and his only answer to the fearful doubts that harassed him was to lay his hand upon it as he made his act of Faith. To prevent himself from dwelling on such thoughts, he devoted himself more than ever to works of charity, spending himself in the service of the sick and poor and comforting others when he himself was often in greater need of comfort.

One day when the temptation was almost more than he could bear and he felt himself on the point of yielding, he made a vow to consecrate himself to Jesus Christ in the person of His poor. As he made the promise the temptation vanished, and forever. His faith henceforward was a faith that had been tried and had conquered; strong and firm as such a faith must be, it held him ready for all that God might send.