Pierre-Bienvenu Noailles: A Happy Seminarian

The 8 February is the anniversary of the death of our Founder, Pierre Bienvenu Noailles.  This is an important occasion for us and an opportunity for us to take some time to study a life which continues to bear fruit today.  In this year of the priest, we highlight and value in a special way, our Founder’s priestly vocation lived faithfully throughout his life - a life that was immensely rich.  Pierre Bienvenu Noailles was a happy seminarian, a happy priest and throughout his life he often gave evidence of this deep happiness. 

Here on this web site, in the part set aside for our Founder, you will find plenty of information about his life journey; in this article we will concentrate on his personal notes, texts that he wrote during his days at the Seminary.  In spite of the dated written style that is proper to his time, we can easily follow the journey of a person who allowed himself to be guided by grace. 

Pierre-Bienvenu discovered the absoluteness of God, the depth of love that destroys all illusions.  From then on he could do nothing else but live for God Alone.

 « When the Lord looks with mercy on great sinners, the Lord sets them free from the fetters of sin...dissipates all the shadows that surround them.  And lest the sight of their lowliness and the memory of their past sins should discourage them, God whispers to them in the depths of their hearts: “Do not fear; you are weak, but I am the strong God and those whom I protect are invincible; you are little among human beings, but God alone is great and after God those who serve God.

On the contrary, happy are those who take refuge in the heart of Jesus and who allow themselves to be directed by this Divine Master; these have discovered the way, the truth and the life {...} How can we complain of the fatigues of the journey when we are travelling with a God who carries the burdens of those who follow and who extends a hand to help them to walk? 

[…] 0h! How happy are those who dwell in you!  Those who meditate day and night in the depths of your adorable heart!  Loving Jesus, from this day forward, lead me to that peaceful retreat; there I will learn all that I need to know, all that I need to teach, and all that I need to feel”.  (Notes from Issy 1817 – S4, 183-189)

During his seminary days, Pierre Bienvenu took the time to look back trustingly on his past life and to live the present in all its intensity.  He knew himself to be loved, pardoned and led by God and he experienced the happiness of receiving and desiring this divine gift.  
« Yes, my God, happy are those who understand what it is to love you; alas, I did not know it for a very long time, and yet what benefits I have received from you!  O my adorable Jesus who could measure the extent of your love?

[…]Take this heart since you want it; I give it to you; make of it what you will; inflame it with your love; may it burn; may it no longer breathe except for you.  Be my Father, my Mother, my Friend; be all for me.  I renounce everything.  I no longer want anything or anyone but you, my Beloved; in joys, in afflictions, in life and at death, I will think only of you.  I will no longer seek anything but your love; all my happiness, all my occupation on this earth will be to meditate on the love you have shown me. » (Issy 1817)

His personal notes demonstrate how he persevered along this path of grace.  During his retreat in 1818, he writes:
« O my God, it is not those who have most knowledge and talents, nor those who have undertaken many mortifications and other great deeds who will receive the greatest recompense, but rather those who have loved, who have always done your will, and who are detached from all that is not you.  Grant that I my acquire these three virtues: love, submission to your will and self-abnegation.  »

The call to the diaconate marked a decisive step for Pierre Bienvenu.  It was an official response to the call of the Church.  Free from all doubt, he expresses joy and gratitude in December 1818, three days after his ordination to the diaconate: 
« I have had to overcome obstacles and make sacrifices in order to obey this Adorable Saviour.  It would have been beyond my own powers, but my Good Master did everything for me.  He broke my bonds; he led me to this holy house.  Full of weakness and ignorance, but beginning however to understand what it meant to be a priest, I hesitated at the door of the sanctuary.  But again, my good Master stretched out a hand to encourage me to go to him, just as a son is drawn into the arms of the tenderest of fathers. »

With total availability, the young deacon looks confidently towards the future:
« So Lord, I abandon myself to you and to Mary.  Guide me in all my studies and in the practice of the virtues that you wish me to practise.  When I have to leave this holy house, receive me again into your arms; carry me either to the ends of the earth or lead me back to the place where I was born; place me in the depths of countryside or in the heart of the town, in ministry or in retirement; it matters little, O God provided Jesus and Mary are always with me.

Pierre Bienvenu Noailles’ personal notes enable us to grasp the fullness of the grace he received at Saint-Sulpice.  This is confirmed by his fellow students and his teachers at the Seminary:  M. Hamon said of him: “He was among the most fervent; his joy was to speak of God”.  (Quoted in ‘Mémoires des Contemporaines’). 

His family also spoke of him, especially Amand, his brother who was also a priest:  “The letters that he wrote to me and which I regret not having kept, exuded holiness and fervour.  ‘My dear brother’, he used to say to me, ‘let us be holy seminarians so as to be holy priests one day’”. 

This beautiful text of Meister Johannes Eckhart, a mystic of the middle ages, can help us imagine the experience of God of this young seminarian who wished to live only for God Alone:

“Like the fire and the wood, 

 God’s plan is to give God’s self completely to us,

Like the fire that engulfs the wood and becomes one with the wood.

At first the wood is a different element, separate from the fire.

Some time needs to pass before the fire begins to gently warm the wood; then the warmth increases until smoke and sparks appear...because the wood is separate, different.The more the wood heats up, the greater the calm; the more the wood is assimilated into the fire, the more peaceful it becomes until finally it becomes consumed by the flame and becomes one with the fire.  In order for the wood to be transformed into fire, all dissimilarities must disappear.”      

 (Jean Vernette – Parables for Today.) 

Article based on Dossier 2: Pierre-Bienvenu Noailles – A Path to Holiness.