Vincent’s experience of the beatitudes

by | Feb 21, 2012 | Vincentian Family

In this final excerpt from an article by Sister María Angeles Infante, DC, “St Vincent de Paul: A Man of the Gospel”, she focuses on how Vincent experienced the beatitudes.” As he explained the beatitudes as essential maxims of Jesus Christ, Vincent was in actuality speaking about realities that he was living.”

She writes… “The beatitudes are at the center of Jesus” preaching. They are also the very heart of the gospel. In the beatitudes Jesus gathered together the promises that had been made to the chosen people, promises made from the time of Abraham. These promises, however, were brought to perfection and instead of taking possession of some territorial land, people were (and are) encouraged to expand their horizons and focus on the kingdom of heaven. The text from the gospel of Matthew makes this very clear: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).The beatitudes reveal an order of happiness and grace, an order of beauty and peace that express the new order of the fullness of love that Christ has revealed to us in the gospel. In the beatitudes Jesus celebrates the joy of those who are poor and who are destined for the kingdom (Luke 6:20). Thus Vincent made the maxims of Jesus Christ the norm for his life. He spoke about this conviction in the conferences that he addressed to the Missionaries and the Daughters of Charity (CCD:X:112-126; XI:98-110).

Vincent found interior freedom, peace, happiness and security as he lived out the beatitudes. In 1642 he expressed these feelings when he wrote to M. Bernard Codoing, the superior in Rome and rejected his proposal to give missions on the lands of the Cardinals who were members of the Curia. He felt it was not in accord with the gospel to attempt to gain the favor of the Cardinals and therefore he rejected said proposal because it was not in accord with the spirit of the beatitudes: Rest assured that the maxims of Jesus Christ and the examples of His life are not misleading; they produce their fruit in due time. Anything not in conformity with them is vain and everything turns out badly for one who acts according to the contrary maxims. Such is my belief and such is my experience. In the name of God, Monsieur, hold that as infallible and keep yourself well hidden (CCD:II:316). Vincent expressed his delight at having been chosen to express the relevance of the beatitudes. In 1643 as he spoke about missionary zeal he expounded on a reality that he had been living and did this in the form of a question: Are not we very blessed, my dear confreres, to live authentically the vocation of Jesus Christ? For who lives better the way of life Jesus lived on earth than missionaries? (CCD:XI:121).

As he explained the beatitudes as essential maxims of Jesus Christ, Vincent was in actuality speaking about realities that he was living. The world says that the blessed are those who are wealthy and esteemed by others, those who are happy and lack nothing. The poor in spirit that Jesus referred to as blessed were those whose hearts were detached from wealth, who made good use of the things they possess, who did not engage in a frantic search for those things that they did not have and were resigned to the reality when they lost those things or when those things were taken from them. Vincent spoke in this way as he attributed all the good that he had done to God, including the establishment of the various works that he founded. As Vincent rejected honors he revealed his total detachment from praise and recognition. He lived his life totally detached from material goods and utilized said goods to assist the poor. Brother Louis Robineau provides us with numerous details that confirm what we have just stated [7].

Vincent was convinced that the meek relate to their brothers and sisters in a compassionate manner and bear with their neighbor’s defects and insults without complaint or resentment. In the March 28th, 1659 conference to the Missionaries Vincent expressed his convictions with regard to the virtue of meekness and the beatitude that refers to meekness. It should be remembered that Vincent referred to meekness as one of the five fundamental virtues that the Missionary must practice. Vincent also affirmed that the Missionaries, more than all other priests, ought to be filled with meekness because their vocation demands them to serve the most wretched members of society, those who are most forgotten in society. He pointed out that the practice of this virtue consists of several phases and the first phase has two stages. In the first stage the person represses spontaneous feelings of anger and makes every effort to remain calm and reasonable. The saint told his listeners that this is difficult, but it is possible to act in this way because even though the movement of nature proceeds that of grace, grace can nonetheless predominate. The second stage consists of expressing one’s anger in an appropriate manner. At times it might be very necessary to correct, to punish or to reprimand an individual, just as Jesus did with the disciples. In those situations the missionary ought to act, not because he has been overwhelmed with anger but rather because he has dominated his anger. Vincent affirmed that the meek are consistent and firm and able to judge situation correctly. On the other hand, those who are unable to control their anger and passion are generally inconsistent in their behavior.

Vincent frequently related meekness with respect (CCD:I:83; VII:605-606; VIII:262-263; IX:206ff). He told the Daughters of Charity that there could be no charity without meekness and mutual respect. Vincent also exhorted Robert de Sergis to treat the servants with meekness, cordiality and profound respect (CCD:I:343-345). He then stated: I think that only gentle souls receive the gift of discernment; for since anger is a passion that troubles reason, it has to be the contrary virtue that imparts discernment (CCD:XII:157). Throughout his life Vincent spoke about this beatitude in his teachings but his words were based on his own lived experience (CCD:XI:304-307).

Vincent explained that those who weep are blessed. They are blessed because they endure the tribulations that afflict them as a result of their sinfulness, the tribulations that afflict them as a result of the evil that they have done and the scandal they have given, the tribulations that afflict them as a result of being very distant from heaven and being in danger of not entering heaven. Vincent had suffered quietly when he was accused of theft … imitating Jesus he endured calumny and persecution and decided to be silent and not offer excuses (CCD:XI:53-56). As an adult he was afflicted by the sins of his youth [8] and experienced the sins of the world as an offense against God and therefore he tried to remedy this situation by instructing people through the preaching of missions. Vincent was weighed down by his own sins as well as the sins of the clergy. This reality motivated him to engage in ministry that would lead to the reform of the clergy. Vincent was pained by the desecrations and outrages committed against religion and requested that acts of reparations be made in the villages of Clamart, Châtillon and Limetz and also asked the Missionaries to process to these churches in order to make amends for the desecrations that were committed during the first war of the Fronde [9].

Near the end of his life Vincent felt that he was far from being allowed to enter heaven and as he prepared for his death he asked forgiveness of everyone, especially his benefactors. A year before his death he wrote to M. de Gondi, the former general of the galley slaves: My declining state of health and a slight fever I had cause me to take this precaution in your regard, My Lord, in the uncertainty of what is to come. I would like to prostrate myself in spirit at your feet to ask your pardon for the displeasure I have given you by my boorishness and to thank you most humbly, as I now do, for your charitable forbearance in my regard and the innumerable favors our little Congregation and I in particular have received from your kindness. Rest assured, my Lord, that, if God is pleased to continue to grant me the power to pray to Him, I will use it in this world and in the next for you and your family, desiring to be, in time and eternity (CCD:VII:452).

Vincent felt that those who desired to grow in divine grace and in the performance of good works were those who were hungry and thirsty for justice. This hunger and thirst for justice is very noticeable in the person of Vincent de Paul. His works of charity and his various foundations sprang up from this hunger and thirst for justice. The most radical expressions of this hunger and thirst were his missionary zeal and his burning desire to seek the glory of God and the spread of the kingdom in everything that he did. Abelly states that it is impossible to grasp all the things that Vincent did in order to make God’s justice and holiness shine forth in the Church: It seemed his merciful Providence wished to use the missions to accomplish the ends which brought about the incarnation of his Son, and which were foretold by the prophet: “to banish iniquity, destroy and exterminate sin, and reestablish sanctity and justice” (Abelly II:28).

Vincent recognized that he lived his life by making the search for the kingdom of God a priority and wanted his confreres to live in the same manner. He revealed his ardor and zeal to the Missionaries when he spoke to them about the search for the kingdom of God: [To] seek first the kingdom of God … seems to me that this says many things. It means putting ourselves in the state of always aspiring to what is recommended to us, working constantly for the kingdom of God and not remaining in a cowardly state, with set ideas, and being attentive to our interior life and to keeping it well regulated, but not giving attention to the exterior for our own enjoyment. “Seek, seek” implies care and action … Oh you pitiful man! You have such an obligation to lead an interior life, and here you are, in the state of falling and relapsing! May God forgive me for this! … Let us strive to make ourselves interior men so that Jesus Christ may reign in us; let us strive after this and not remain in a languishing, dissipated state, a worldly, profane state that causes us to busy ourselves with things the senses present, without reflecting on the Creator who made them, not making our meditation in order to extricate ourselves from worldly things, or not seeking the Sovereign Good … Let us seek the glory of God, the reign of Jesus Christ (CCD:XII:111).

For Vincent the merciful are those who love their sisters and brother for love of God and who are compassionate in alleviating their spiritual and corporal needs … they attempt to provide for these needs according to their ability and their state of life and also do this with an affective and effective love. All of Vincent’s life and works are an expression of this mercy. Brother Louis Robineau refers to Vincent’s mercy and compassion toward the poor and mentions some details that are omitted by his other biographers, including Abelly. He tells us that in 1649 Vincent was motivated by mercy to search out the poor and then distributed alms to two thousand people, frequently using his own money; Vincent would kiss the feet of the poor because they represented the person of Jesus Christ; he would also remove his hat when speaking with them. Vincent had a woman who was living on the streets and whose legs were covered with ulcers brought to the Hotel Dieu; he had two elderly women ride in his coach with him; he had the infirm whom he met on the street and an injured child brought to the hospital [10]. Vincent is the good Samaritan who does not pass by on the other side of the road but notices the poor. He is moved with compassion and weeps with those who weep and suffers with those who suffer. Vincent spoke from his heart when he stated: To be a Christian and to see our brother suffering without weeping with him, without being sick with him! That is to be lacking in charity; it is being a caricature of a Christian; it is inhuman; it is to be worse than animals(XXD:XII:222).

Abelly and Brother Robineau refer to another dimension of Vincent’s mercy, namely, his ability to forgive. Vincent was convinced that people, who were unable to forgive another person, were lacking in mercy. Abelly refers to a specific event: Once Monsieur Vincent became aware that the superior of a well-known religious order in Paris was disturbed by the way he had handled a certain business matter. At once he went to see the superior, threw himself at his feet, and asked pardon for any offense he had given. Unfortunately the superior received Monsieur Vincent with coldness, and despite his efforts to conciliate the superior, he put Monsieur Vincent off with offensive words, and he had to leave. Yet he was happy to have had the opportunity to suffer rebuff for the love of his Master (Abelly:III:158). Some months later Vincent sent a brother to the same individual to request some articles for a liturgical celebration. The superior responded in a positive manner and stated that Vincent was guided by the Holy Spirit and that there were no traces of resentment in him. Brother Robineau also points out that Vincent had a young man, who had been unsuccessful in his vocation and who had become a thief and sought refuge in the house of the minister, Drelincourt … Vincent had this individual set free. Vincent prayed for and had others pray for an individual who had insulted him and calumniated him [11]. These and other similar events prove that Vincent lived the beatitude of mercy.

Purity of heart, in the thinking of Jesus and Vincent de Paul, is more than some particular virtue because it encompasses all the virtues and makes them true virtues. According to the gospel that which makes an action pure or impure — whether this action be one of alms giving, fasting or prayer — is the intention. In other words is an action done to please God or to makes one’s self appear to be holy and righteous in the eyes of others (Matthew 6:2-6)? Here we are speaking about transparency or purity of intention as one seeks the glory of God and nothing else. It was in this light that Vincent spoke about his love for the virtue of simplicity: As for myself, I do not know, but God has given me such a high esteem of simplicity that I call it my Gospel. I have special devotion and consolation in saying things as they are (CCD:IX:476). Because he was involved in a search for truth and the glory of God, Vincent felt that he was an instrument in the hands of divine Providence and thus, he allowed himself to be led by Providence: I have a particular devotion to following the adorable Providence of God step by step. And my only consolation is that I think Our Lord alone has carried on and is constantly carrying on the business of the Little Company (CCD:II:237). In the Bible hypocrisy is the sin that is most forcefully denounced by God and equally denounced by Vincent de Paul. Hypocritical people place God on a lower level than created human beings. For Vincent when people cultivate appearances over the heart they are giving more importance to the human being than they are giving to God. Vincent was convinced that men see the appearances but the Lord looks into the heart (1 Samuel 16:7)

The beatitude of the peacemakers refers to those individuals who are at peace with their sisters and brothers, at peace with themselves, and who attempt to make peace with their enemies. During the wars that afflicted France in the middle of the seventeenth century, Vincent was actively involved in this situation as a peace maker. Vincent was a first hand witness to the plunder and violence and saw the pain that the war inflicted on those who were poor. In 1640, during the civil strife in Lorraine, Vincent met with Cardinal Richelieu, knelt before him and begged for peace. Richelieu rejected Vincent’s request and stated that peace did not solely depend on him. In 1649, during the civil war, Vincent quietly left Paris, crossed the battle lines and forged an overflowing river in order to see the Queen (it should be remembered that Vincent was almost seventy years old). He asked the Queen to remove Mazarin from office because he considered him to be responsible for the war. He also spoke directly with Mazarin. Again his pleas were rejected and Mazarin wrote in his private diary that Vincent was his enemy.

Vincent encouraged the members of the Congregation of the Mission to attempt to heal broken relationships. One of the objectives of the missions was reconciliation (Common Rules, XI:8). In fact the Missionaries often spoke to Vincent about their success in settling quarrels. From his letters it is clear that Vincent attempted to mediate disputes between members of the Congregation, the Daughters of Charity and other persons whom he counseled. He insisted on the need for interior peace which he felt was necessary in order to make good judgments. Near the end of his life he wrote: I think that only gentle souls receive the gift of discernment; for since anger is a passion that troubles reason, it has to be the contrary virtue that imparts discernment(CCD:XII:157). Vincent’s words were consistent with the way he lived his life. Abelly tells us that many people considered Vincent to be the most peaceful and meekest man of his era.

Vincent experienced the last beatitude in his very flesh and bone. People endure persecution for the sake of justice and patiently suffer ridicule, rejection and persecution because of the faith and love that Jesus Christ has shared with them through his Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Vincent was ridiculed and persecuted during the time of his captivity and again in Mâcon when he organized the Confraternity of Charity to assist beggars. Vincent spoke about this situation: When I first began the Confraternity of Charity in Macon, people made fun of me. They said I could never bring it off. Tears of joy greeted its establishment. When I was about to leave, the authorities of the town were prepared to do me such honor that I was obliged to leave secretly to avoid their congratulations. This is one of the better of these Confraternities of Charity(Abelly I:88).

Vincent experienced opposition and persecution from some members of the Oratory who opposed him and the efforts that were being made in Rome to obtain approval of the Congregation of the Mission; some priests opposed him when he was offered Saint-Lazare; Cardinal Mazarin removed him from the Council of Conscience … during the Fronde Vincent experienced setbacks and persecution but his attitude was always one of forgiveness: During the war in 1649 the soldiers caused us losses amounting to forty thousand livres, but this loss was not particular to us, for everyone felt the troubles of the times. Difficulties were everywhere, and we were treated just like everyone else. Blessed be God, my brothers, for it has now pleased the adorable Providence of God to take away some of our property. This is a major loss for the Company, very great indeed. We must adopt the sentiments of Job when he said: “God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Abelly III:285). Vincent defended the rights of the Congregation and the rights of the poor and he requested his lawyers to not use offensive language but to be respectful of everyone.

Throughout this presentation we have seen that Vincent de Paul was a man of the gospel and wanted his followers to be the same, that is, men and women who root their lives in the gospel. We conclude with a beautiful prayer in which Vincent expressed his desire concerning those who were called to continue the mission of Jesus: O Savior! O my good Savior, may it please Your Divine Goodness to keep the Mission free of that spirit of laziness and of seeking its own comforts , and give it an ardent zeal for your glory, which will make it accept everything joyfully and never refuse an opportunity to serve You! We are made for that; and a Missioner — a true Missioner, a man of God, a man who has the Spirit of God — must find everything good and indifferent; he accepts everything, he can do anything; for even greater reason, a Company or a Congregation, animated and led by the Spirit of God, can do everything … if we can do nothing of ourselves, we can do everything with God. Yes, the Mission can do anything because we have in us the seeds of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ (CCD:XI:191, 193).

(This article first appeared in La experiencia espiritual de San Vicente de Paúl, XXXV Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, [The spiritual experience of Saint Vincent de Paul, XXXV Vincentian Studies Week], Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2010)


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