Vincentian Spirituality - Pat Collins, C.M.
The word spirituality is notoriously difficult to define. Bernard Mc Ginn, probably the leading writer on mysticism in English, says that without making an exhaustive search, he turned up 35 different definitions of the term. One Trinitarian description says that spirituality is a way of living for God in Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The word spirituality can also be used in three specific and interrelated ways.
• Firstly, genuine spirituality involves religious experience. It enables a person or a group to go beyond thought and talk about God, to a have direct awareness of the One who is paradoxically the Beyond in the midst of our everyday lives. Conscious experience of this kind is what energizes our lives giving them a sense of depth and meaning.
• Secondly, the word can refer to spiritualities which have been developed throughout the history of the church. They may have been associated with the distinctive charisms of particular saints e.g. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, or Ignatius; or with a particular culture e.g. Celtic; or with a particular movement e.g. the Charismatic Renewal.
• Thirdly, the word spirituality can refer to an academic study of the subject from different points of view e.g. scriptural, historical, psychological, phenomenological, liturgical etc.
Over the years the question has been repeatedly asked, is there such a thing as Vincentian Spirituality? Surely there is. It involves a distinctive kind of religious experience which is influenced by the charism we have inherited from St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac and Bl. Frederick Ozanam. I have no doubt that if any group of Vincentians, Daughters of Charity or members of the Vincent de Paul Society was asked to recount their most significant religious experiences, many of them would talk about occasions when they encountered the living Lord in and through their service of the poor. While it is true that Vincentian Spirituality may not be as well known as some others, it is a very real nevertheless. Fr. Myles Riordan, C.M., has written an article on the subject in The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, and David Williams, a member of the Vincent de Paul Society in Britain, has written a handbook on Vincentian spirituality entitled, The Mind and Heart of a Vincentian. Needless to say, Vincentian spirituality, like any other form, can be studied from an academic point of view. Journals such as Colloque, Vincentian Heritage and Vincentiana contain such studies.
What are the distinctive characteristics of Vincentian spirituality? There are two ways of answering this question.
• The first involves a literary study of such things as the writings and conferences of St. Vincent. St. Louise and Bl. Frederick, together with foundational documents such as common rules and post-Vatican II constitutions.
• The second approach is more experiential. Believing that Vincentian spirituality animates the lives of the members of the Vincentian Family, prayerful processes of theological reflection can be devised which enable members to recall religious experiences when they felt they were authentically Vincentian. When the replies are carefully studied, a consensus can emerge, one that articulates the main characteristics of the spirituality that enlivens the followers of Sts. Vincent and Louise. Such a process can not only edify those who participate in it, it can also enable them to talk and write about Vincentian spirituality, as it is lived, with greater clarity and conviction.
If asked to nominate the three main characteristics of their lived spirituality, many members of the Vincentian family would probably say that they were compassion, friendship and prayer.
1. Affective and effective compassion is the key Vincentian characteristic. Affective compassion is an ability to empathize emotionally with people who suffer as a result of material and/or spiritual poverty. Effective compassion is an ability to respond appropriately to those sufferings by means of such things as intercessory prayer, deeds of mercy and action for justice. As St. Vincent once said, where compassion is concerned, “let the hand be conformed to the heart.”
2. Vincentian spirituality values non-possessive friendships which are characterized by mutual respect and cordial affection. Talking to Daughters of Charity in 1658 St Vincent said: “St Paul says that whoever abides in charity has fulfilled the law...It is a means of establishing a holy friendship among you and of living in perfect union, and in this way enabling you to make a paradise in this world.” I argued in an article in Vincentiana (Aug. 1998) that Vincent believed that Vincentian evangelization would only be effective to the extent that it was rooted in the experience of God’s friendship love as mediated by the members of the Christian community.
3. Finally, through their encounter with the Christ of gentleness and compassion in prayer, and the Christian community, Vincentians are prepared to encounter and assist the same Christ in the poor. Having done so they reflect on that experience and its implications, e.g. how to cope with their own inner poverty (Cf. 2 Cor 1:3-5). While Scripture plays a pivotal role in all Christian prayer, Vincentian spirituality maintains that the contemplation of Christ, in the ways described already, provides an experiential key that helps to unlock the true, and normative meaning of the Biblical texts. This process of transformation (Cf. 2 Cor 3:18) prepares members of the Vincentian Family to return to renewed service of their “lords the poor,” to use St Vincent’s graphic phrase.