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Notre Dame du Laus

The rosary of the surgeon Récamier

Surgeon and professor at the Collège de France, Joseph Récamier (1774-1852) was for 40 years chief physician at the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris. His heroic devotion and the unexpected cures he achieved during the cholera epidemic of 1832, earned him universal prestige. As a medical student, Dr. Jules Massé had the privilege of knowing him. He recounts:

Among the intimate friends of the illustrious professor was one of those elite men who seem to be sent by Providence to demonstrate all the amiability of Religion: he was a former senior cavalry officer, a man with a great name, with beautiful manners, the Count of Malet, who had embraced the priesthood only rather late, and joined to the deepest piety all the amenity and grace of the great world.

My father, also a former soldier, was so closely connected with Count Malet that every day, at the same time, he would spend one or two hours with him. This daily meeting was carried out with military punctuality, and seemed to have become for both of them a necessity, an obligation.

One evening my father proposed that I accompany him.

“Father Malet is a little unwell, he said to me; it is very likely that M. Récamier will visit him, and it will be an opportunity for you to make his acquaintance.”

It goes without saying that I accepted, but, on entering the venerable clergyman’s house, my heart leapt with anxiety, and I felt all my movements embarrassed, so great were my apprehension and my timidity.

Récamier had not yet arrived near his patient; I had time to settle my spirits and to reassure myself. Besides, he was so good, this excellent priest! he was so affable, so benevolent! A majestic scar, the result of a great sword blow, divided the whole face of the noble veteran. He had the bearing of a warrior and the gait of a great lord! But his look was so encouraging, his speech so gracious, that after a quarter of an hour I was as comfortable in his house as in my father’s.

Suddenly the door opened, and the valet announced: “Mr. Doctor Récamier!” At this name, I felt as if I had been punched in the chest, an unexpected cloud passed before my eyes. The doctor entered with vivacity and advanced towards the master of the house with an affectionate eagerness; then he returned to us with courtesy the greeting which we had addressed to him by politeness. We talked. Of course, I did not have to meddle with the conversation; but, sitting on the edge of my chair, a little hidden in the shade and making a kind of rampart of my hat, I examined with all my eyes, I listened with all my ears.

As much Récamier had formerly seemed to me hard and severe, as much he appeared there gracious and good; as much his books had made me believe him abstract and difficult to understand, as much his conversation showed him clear and luminous.

The scene ended with an episode that I want to mention.

Récamier was already rising for the farewell greeting, when, making a gesture of remembrance, he put his hat back on the table, replaced his cane next to it, and, plunging his hand into one of the pockets of his pants:

“Peste! he cried, I was about to forget a very serious matter!

– What is it? asked the ecclesiastic.

– Something has occurred to me, Father!

– Ah, bah!

– A misfortune that only you can repair.

– Let’s see?

– It is matter of a fracture that you will be able to repair perfectly, of a small operation that I beg you to perform.”

And, while saying this, the illustrious professor, taking his hand out of his pocket, triumphantly showed …. guess what? A rosary!

I must admit that I was stunned. He, the great Récamier, the illustrious professor, in charge of teaching not only at the School of Medicine, but also at the Collège de France; he, the doctor of the great, the lords, the princes, even the kings; he, whose reputation was European, would say his rosary like a first communicant, like a seminarian, like a woman! For there was no pretension in this worthy man; he practiced devoutly, even sanctimoniously, and if he recited, it was with a charming bonhomie and with an exquisite simplicity.

“Dame! I say my rosary, he said, turning back to us with a smile on his face. When I am worried about a patient, when I am at the end of my resources, when I find medicine powerless and therapy ineffective, I turn to Him who knows how to heal everything. Only, I put some diplomacy into it, and as, carried away by my occupations, I don’t have the time to intercede for very long, I take the Blessed Virgin as an intermediary when I go to my patients’ homes, and I say one or two decades of the rosary to Her. Nothing could be easier, you understand? I sit quietly in my car, I slip my hand into my pocket, and then… I enter into conversation. The rosary is my interpreter: now, as I have recourse to this interpreter quite often, he is tired, he is sick, and that is why I beg the Father to examine him, to give him a consultation, to operate on him if necessary, in a word, to cure him.”

My father approved with two or three words, I applauded with simple bows; Count de Malet took the mutilated rosary, promised to restore it promptly to good condition, and Mr. Récamier left us.

In the evening, when I went to bed, my head and heart were full of the visit made: I could not help thinking of the silly jokes of a great number of people who find the rosary good at most for devotees, and who would believe they were derogating from their dignity by reciting a certain number of Hail Marys several times in succession.

“My friend,” Récamier said to me later in that colourful, picturesque, eccentric language with which he was familiar, “the rosary is a bell, each Hail Mary is a summons, or, if you like it better, a well-stamped petition. You see a lot of flycatchers arriving every day in Paris to intercede with the authorities, to implore the powerful and the rich. Now, to be admitted to the Tuileries, one needs protections, requests for audience, friends in high places; to be introduced into a ministry, one needs numerous steps and the benevolence (difficult to obtain) of the employees, of the entourage, sometimes even of the concierges and of the office boys. To speak to the Blessed Virgin, nothing could be simpler: one pulls the bell, that is to say, one takes one’s rosary; quickly the door is opened, one presents one’s petition, and the Blessed Virgin is so kind that, unless there are particular reasons, the prayer is immediately answered.”

(Father Huguet)

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