There is simply no preacher of the Word who has the stature in English literature that Jaques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) has in French. Although he is best known for his funeral orations and some of his polemical works, IMHO his best works are his devotional books such as Elevations on the Mysteries and the magnificent Meditations on the Gospel and, when it comes to sermons, the Sermon on the Profession of Mlle. de la Vallière is the best. But some background is in order.
Louise de la Vallière (1644-1710) was a French duchess who ended up as King Louis’ XIV mistress. Never entirely enthusiastic on the project, her attempts to get out of the relationship were a struggle. Her first attempt to enter a convent ended when she was forcibly returned to Court. She finally was able to make her escape into religious life as a Carmelite nun. That transition, both spiritually and politically, was facilitated by Bossuet himself, who had been tutor to the Crown Prince and a renowned preacher at Court. Her final profession to the religious life took place on 4 June 1675 (325 years ago this month,) at the Carmelite convent. Bossuet had the task of preaching the sermon for this event, which the Queen (“Madame”) attended, probably to make sure it took place.
As presented on this blog, the sermon is divided into three parts:
Bossuet’s task was, to put it mildly, delicate. He could have taken what we would call the “tabloid” option, detailing the sordid aspects of the affair. But he instead chose to turn his listeners thoughts upward, so that de la Vallière’s journey would be profitable for more than just her. In doing so he produced a memorable oration.
The Sermon on the Profession of Mlle. de la Vallière is, in my estimation, the highest and best expression of the transformation of life in Jesus Christ that exists in Roman Catholicism. The sermon was preached on the Tuesday after Pentecost, which allowed him to refer again and again to the Holy Spirit. His Augustinian emphasis serves him well in this case, and his conclusion is an “altar call” in both the Evangelical and Catholic sense of the phrase. His eloquence–which I struggle to bring out in this translation–is stunning, which is why the French continue to read him even when they do not share his orthodox Catholicism. The only thing that disappoints is his typically Catholic equation of the religious life with a real walk with God, but given the circumstances of the situation the conclusion was probably the best that one could expect.
One interesting trompe d’oreille (aural illusion) that Bossuet engages in throughout the sermon concerns the word “soul.” In both French and Latin, the word for soul is feminine, and thus in the original he refers to the soul as “she.” He takes advantage of this: is he referring to the soul in general, de la Valliére in particular, or both? I’ve followed his example; it sounds odd to Anglophone ears to start with, but the alternative spoilt an important aspect of the sermon.
My French text for this is Bossuet: Sermons, Philippe Sellier, ed. Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1975.
“…et dixit qui sedebat in throno: ecce nova facio omnia. And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. (Revelation 21:5)
Without a doubt it will be a great spectacle when he who sits on the throne, from whence arises the whole universe, and to whom it costs no more to do than say, because he does whatever he pleases by his word alone, will at the end of time decree from the height of this throne that he will renew all things. At the same time we will see all nature changed to make a new world appear for the elect. To prepare us for these surprising innovations of the future age, he works secretly by his Holy Spirit in our hearts to change them, to renew them, and to stir them to their core. He inspires them to previously unknown desires. This change is neither less new nor less admirable. And certainly, Christians, there is nothing more wonderful than these changes. What have we seen, and what do we see? What was our state then and what is our state now? I do not need to elaborate, these things speak enough for themselves.
Madame, here is a subject worthy of the presence eyes of a pious queen. Because of your station in life you have a considerable part of the grander things of this world. Your Majesty however did not come here to bring worldly vanities into solitude: your humility calls you to take part in the humbling aspects of religious life. In coming here, it is fitting that you take part in ceremonies which one learns to disparage. Therefore look favourably with us these great changes from the hand of God. There is nothing here of what was before; on the outside everything is different. On the inside it is even more transformed; and I, to celebrate these holy novelties, break a silence of several years. I hear a voice that the flesh does not know.
So, therefore, since everything is new in this pious ceremony, O God, give me again the new style of the Holy Spirit, who begins to make his almighty power felt in the mouths of the apostles. May I preach like a St. Peter the glory of Jesus Christ crucified, that I may show an ungrateful world how he still crucifies wickedness every day. In turn may I crucify the world. May I erase all of the habits and glory that I buried, that I be buried with Jesus Christ. Finally may I see that everything is dead, and only Jesus Christ lives.
My Sisters, ask for me this grace. The listeners become the preachers, and God gives by his ministers teachings suitable for holy provisions to those who listen. Therefore make, by your prayers, the discourse which must instruct you, and obtain for me the light of the Holy Spirit through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin: Ave Maria.
We should not be curious to know in detail the marvellous innovations of the age to come. As God made them without us, we should entrust ourselves to his power and wisdom. But it is not the same with the holy innovations that work at the bottom of our hearts. It is written, “And I will give you a new heart,” (Ezekiel 36:26) and “…make to yourselves a new heart…” (Ezekiel 18:31). The new heart given to us is also the one we need to make. As we should gravitate in that direction with the motion of our wills, it is necessary that this motion be preceded by knowledge.
Therefore let us consider, Christians, what is this newness of hearts, and what is the state from whence the Holy Spirit draws us. What is older than love itself, and what is newer than being one’s own persecutor? But he who persecutes himself must have seen something he loves more than himself, so that there are two loves which motivate everything. St. Augustine explains it by these words: Amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui. (City of God, Book XIV, Chapter 28) One is the “love of self, even to the contempt of God.” This is what makes the old life and the life of the world. The other is “the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” This is what makes the new life of Christianity, and that is brought to its perfection in the religious life. These two opposite loves will be the whole subject of this address.
But be careful, gentlemen, that we must observe more than ever the precept given to us in Ecclesiasticus: “A man of sense will praise,” he said, “every wise word he shall hear, and will apply it to himself.” (Sir. 21:18) He does not look right and left to find someone to apply it to. He applies it to himself, and profits. My Sister, one of the things I have to say is that you will sort out what pertains specifically to you. Do the same, Christians; follow with me the love of self in all its excesses, and see how far it has conquered you by its dangerous pleasures. Consider then a soul which, after having strayed, begins to retrace its steps. Little by little it abandons all which it loved. At last leaving all behind, it only gives its all to God. Follow all the steps it takes to come back to him, and see if you have made any progress in this direction: this is what you have to consider. Let us delve into the depths of our subject; I do not want to keep you long in suspense.