Praying With Vincent
We must love God, but let it be in the work of our bodies, in the sweat of our brows. For very often many acts of love for God, of kindness, of good will and other similar inclinations and interior practices of a tender heart, although good and very desirable, are yet very suspect when they do not lead to the practice of effective love.
There are many who, when outwardly recollected and interiorly filled with lofty thoughts of God, stop there; and when it comes to the point and they find themselves in a position to act, they stop short. Their over-excited imaginations flatter them; they rest content with the sweet conversations they have with God in prayer; they even talk about these like angels; but apart from that, when it is a matter of working for God, of suffering, of self-mortification, of instructing the poor, of going out to look for lost sheep, liking it when something is lacking, accepting illness or some other disfavor, alas! then there is no one left, they lack the courage. No, no, we must not deceive ourselves.
Now let us apply the lesson; especially since there are many in this world who give every appearance of virtue, and in fact are virtuous, but yet incline to the gentle, smooth path, rather than to a laborious and solid devotion. The Church is like a great harvest which needs laborers, but laborers who really work! Nothing is more in keeping with the Gospel than to heap up light and strength for the soul in prayer, reading and solitude, and then to go out and share this spiritual food with others. This is doing what our Lord did, and after him, his Apostles . . . That is what we must do, that is how we must show God by our works that we love him.
(Vincent de Paul, undated address to missionaries)
As I reflect on the virtues taught by Vincent – simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification, and zeal—
Where do I see evidence of these virtues in my life?
Where do I see their lack? What are my growing edges?
Do I allow myself to see the face of Christ in the poor? If not, what prevents me from doing so?
As I reflect on Vincent’s address above, what resonates with me? What do his words mean for me and how I live my life?
Presentation of Vincentian Spirituality
In a conference to priests of the Congregation of the Mission that he founded, St. Vincent de Paul said, “It is not enough to love God if my neighbor does not love Him. I must love my neighbor as the image of God and the object of His love, and do everything so that in their turn men love their Creator who knows and considers them as His brother, whom he has saved…. How can we give love to others, if we do not have it among us?
Let us look if it is so, not generally, but if each one has it within himself in due amount; because if love is not on fire in us, if we do not love each other as Jesus Christ loved us and if we do not act as he did, how can we hope to spread such love throughout the world?”
Life of Vincent
Vincent was born in the south of France in the middle of the 16th century to a poor peasant family. His father encouraged him to the priesthood – one of the ways families with multiple children could make ends meet. One biographer notes that “among his chief reasons for becoming a priest was to get an office in the Church from which he could obtain enough money to retire early, return home and provide for his family.”
But that changed. Not too far into his career, he was called to Paris to become chaplain to a wealthy family and tutor to their children. While on their estate, he heard the confession of a dying man, who told Vincent’s benefactor that he would have been damned without Vincent’s ministry. That caused the benefactor to urge Vincent to preach a sermon to the people. This awakened Vincent to the fact that the poor were not being evangelized or helped, and he felt called to a more pastoral ministry.
He thus became a parish priest. In August 1617, as he was preparing for Mass, he got news of the illness and destitution of an entire family in the parish. He preached on their need, and that afternoon people responded in overwhelming numbers, bringing the family food and supplies. It was from this humble beginning that Vincent began organizing aid for the poor.
During this period, Vincent experienced a twofold conversion. First he was being converted to the poor, who would become the center of his life. Second, he was being converted in his priesthood, no longer seeing it as a career, but as a personal relationship with Jesus. He continued in his work until his death in 1660.
Many of the rich, who for so long had been his benefactors and the focus of his “ministry” (if what he did in his early years of ordination can be called that) wondered “Why treat that common nobody on the ground as if he is somebody?” Here is Vincent’s answer:
I shouldn’t judge poor peasants, men or women, by their surface appearance, nor by their apparent mental capacities. And this is hard to do, since very frequently they scarcely seem to have the semblance or the intelligence of reasonable beings, so gross and so offensive are they. But, turn the coin, and you will see by the light of faith that the Son of God, Whose will it was to be poor, is represented to us by just these people. (XI Conference #19, p.32)
5 characteristic virtues taught by Vincent
Vincent’s relationship with God was deep. He understood the importance of prayer and of growing in intimacy with Christ. But prayer alone is not enough; our relationship with Christ must be manifest in who and what we are in the world.
Vincent identified five virtues that are characteristic of his spirituality: simplicity, humility meekness, mortification and zeal. He says, “They are the five smooth stones by which we might conquer the evil Goliath.” While he describes them as “the five characteristic virtues of the Congregation of the Mission,” the order of priests he established, I think they have value for each of us. Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor is at the heart of Vincentian vision and spirituality, and the five virtues support us in our efforts to live out this vision and spirituality. So I want to say a little bit about each of the five and then a little bit about the primary element of Vincentian spirituality these five virtues support: seeing the face of Christ in the poor.
In a letter he wrote to Francois du Coudray, Vincent said that simplicity was the virtue he loved most, the one to which he paid most heed in all of his actions. On another occasion, he said that God gave him such a great esteem for simplicity that he called it his gospel.
Vincent understood simplicity in several ways. He once explained:
Jesus, the Lord, expects us to have the simplicity of a dove. This means giving a straightforward opinion about things in the way we honestly see them, without needless reservations. It also means doing things without any double-dealing or manipulation, our intention being focused solely on God. Each of us, then, should take care to behave always in this spirit of simplicity, remembering that God likes to deal with the simple, and that he conceals the secrets of heaven from the wise and prudent of this world and reveals them to little ones. But while Christ recommends the simplicity of a dove he tells us to have the prudence of a serpent as well. What he means is that we should speak and behave with discretion. We ought, therefore, to keep quiet about matters which should not be made known, especially if they are unsuitable or unlawful … In actual practice this virtue is about choosing the right way to do things.”
So simplicity on one level means simply speaking the truth. And speaking and witnessing to the truth are central Christian values. But it also means doing everything simply for the love of God and for no other end.
For Vincent, simplicity also means living what we might call an unadorned lifestyle. He warned against filling our rooms with superfluous furniture, pictures, large numbers of books and vain and useless things. Rather, we should use with great simplicity the things that have been given to us. Given Vincent’s commitment to the poor, it is not surprising that commitment to the service of the poor involves a commitment to a simple life-style.
Finally, for those proclaiming the Gospel (and that really means all of us, since we are all called to evangelization), simplicity affects how we preach God’s word.
Vincent referred to the “Little Method” of preaching virtue: help people understand the motive for living it, its nature and definition, and how they might put the virtue into practice. There is a very practical element to simplicity for him.
But we preach with more than our words. So simplicity also means living an integrated life. Living a life in accordance with what we claim our values to be. So if we
preach justice, we need to live justice. If we preach solidarity with the poor, we must live in solidarity with the poor. And so on.
We live in a society that prizes a lot of things that have to do with the self: self-reliance, self-confidence, self-expression, self-centeredness. We talk about my achievements, my talents, the things I have earned. We prize our ability to take care of ourselves, to run things according to our own vision and plan.
While humility is not a trait that is particularly prized in American society, it was an important virtue for St. Vincent, who attributed all of the graces he received to humility.
Humility is a misunderstood quality. Humility is not synonymous with shyness, reticence, bashfulness or lack of ambition.
Vincent properly understood humility as the recognition that all good comes from God. He wrote in one letter, “Let us no longer say: it is I who have done this good work; for every good thing ought to be done in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ …” In another letter he wrote, “Be very much on your guard against attributing anything to yourself. By doing so you would commit robbery and do injury to God, who alone is the author of every good thing.”
So humility is the virtue by which we acknowledge that God is the author of all good. That all I am and all I have is gift from our loving God. And that means that being humble means seeing ourselves clearly and recognizing our dependence on God.
For Vincent, practicing humility was part of following Jesus because humility is basic to gospel spirituality. Jesus said “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” And he preached in the Beatitudes that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit. And in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus tells us that God resists the proud; he raises up the humble. Vincent called humility “the virtue of Jesus Christ, the virtue of his holy mother, the virtue of the greatest of the saints, and finally it is the virtue of missionaries.”
One caveat: There is an enormous difference between humility and false humility. Humility means seeing myself as I am – no better and no worse. While Jesus warned his disciples against inflating themselves too much, he also warned his disciples against false humility, teaching that one does not light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but rather lets it shine before others.
We all remember the parable of the talents in Matthew. The message of that parable is to recognize our talents and to use them to the greater glory of God. We aren’t given a gift to bury it and give it back in its pristine state to God. We are given our gifts to use them for the life of the world.
Humility also lead us to gratitude. Knowing that all we have is gift from God, we live in a spirit of thanksgiving. This kind of gratitude characterizes the poor. Henri Nouwen write:
Many poor people live in such close relationship with the many rhythms of nature that all the goods that come to them are experienced as free gifts of God Children and friends, bread and wine, music and pictures, trees and flowers, water and life, a house, a room with just one bed, all are gifts to be grateful for and celebrated This basic sense I have come to know. I am always surrounded by words of thanks, “Thanks for your visit, your blessing, your sermon, your prayer, your gifts, your presence with us. ” Even the smallest and most necessary goods are a reason for gratitude. This all-pervading gratitude is the basis for celebration. The poor not only are grateful for life, they also celebrate life constantly.
Vincent encourages us to grow in humility by doing acts of humility daily, by confessing our faults openly, by excusing others for their faults, and by prayer.
Vincent spoke about meekness in his conferences to his confreres and in his letters, particularly his letters to Louise de Marillac, who co-founded with Vincent the Daughters of Charity. Meekness means a few things for Vincent.
First, meekness is the ability to appropriately handle anger. That might, in certain circumstances mean simply holding it without giving outward expression to it. Other times it might mean expressing that anger, albeit governed by love.
Vincent is a good example of appropriately handling anger. In the words of one commentator, “He himself was outraged at the plight of the sick and the hungry, so he established the Confraternities of Charity, the Ladies of Charity, the Vincentians, and the Daughters of Charity. Anger enabled him to react with vigor and creativity when confronted with the needs of the poor in his day. He also expressed anger directly when he perceived evil within his communities, but he learned to combat his anger with gentleness. He knew how to mix the bitter and the sweet, as he told Louise de Marillac. He sought to imitate Jesus, who was equally ‘gentle and firm.’
Related to that, meekness entails enduring offenses with forgiveness and courage.
Vincent preached, “Meekness makes us not only excuse the affronts and injustices we receive, but even inclines us to treat with gentleness those from whom we receive them, by means of kind words, and should they go so far as to abuse us and even strike us on the face, it makes us endure all for God. Such are the effects produced by this virtue. Yes, a servant of God who truly possesses it, when violent hands are laid upon him, offers to the divine goodness this rough treatment and remains in peace.”
Another important aspect of meekness is approachability, gentleness, affability, and serenity of countenance toward those who approach us. These are especially important qualities in ministries. People feel comfortable approaching those who are meek.
In his letters to Louise de Marillac, Vincent often spoke about meekness as combining gentleness and firmness. In one letter he wrote, “If the meekness of your spirit needs a drop of vinegar, borrow a little of it from the spirit of our Lord. Oh, Mademoiselle, how very well he knew how to find the bitter-sweet when it was necessary.” In a letter to one of the superiors of his order, he wrote, “Bear with him, therefore, Monsieur, but make him keep the rule as much as you can, according to the spirit of our Lord who is equally gentle and firm. If a man is not won over by meekness and patience, it will be difficult to win him over in any other way.”
As with the other virtues so important to him, the importance of meekness for Vincent derives from Jesus, who said the meek shall inherit the earth. St. Vincent believed this word of the Lord and won the hearts of the poor because his meekness developed as warmth, approachability, openness, deep respect for the person of others. Although he often said that he was irritable by nature, he asked God to change his heart: “Grant me a kindly and benign spirit…”
Mortification is not a pleasant word. When I think of it, I tend to think of the stories of those who wore hairshirts or walked around beating themselves.
Vincent understood mortification as subjecting our passions to reason. He saw each of us as possessing a lower part and a higher part: the lower part that makes us more like animals and the higher part tending toward God. Since the lower part wants to revolt against the higher, mortification is the virtue that keeps the lower portion in check.
We no longer tend to accept the clean-cut division of the human person into animal and rational with sin dominating the animal side.
But, I think there is an aspect we can cull from this. At some level, what mortification entails is a lack of attachment, and a recognition that following Christ means dying to sin. Jesus said deny yourself and follow me.
Karl Rahner refers to this aspect of mortification as “functional asceticism.” We give up things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the gospel.
Given his commitment to the poor, mortification also means being faithful to our duties of serving the poor, and prefer them even when they conflict with other more pleasurable things.
Fr. Robert Maloney, a former Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission (the formal name of the Vincentians), has suggested some contemporary forms mortification might take. These include:
Being ready to respond to the needs of one’s community.
Being faithful to the duties of one’s state in life; preferring them when they conflict with more pleasurable things.
Working hard and using our time responsibly. Rising promptly in the morning to praise God. Being sparing in obtaining material possessions.
Being disciplined in eating and drinking and employing moderation in using media.
Being slow to ask for privileges. Withholding critical and divisive words.
Vincent loved, with a burning love and that is what zeal is: Zeal is love on fire. Vincent said, “If love of God is the fire, zeal is its flame. If love is the sun, then zeal is its ray….Let us beg God to enkindle in our hearts a desire to serve him.”
Zeal for Vincent involves a willingness to go anywhere to spread Christ’s message. It also entails a willingness to suffer and die for Christ. (We’ll talk about Ignatius in our next session, but when I read what Vincent says about zeal, it is a lot like the desire Ignatius hopes the Spiritual Exercises will bring us – a willingness to go anywhere with and for Christ – even to the cross.)
Zeal is also persevering, faithful love. It is love for a life, not love for a time.
Vincent said “Love is inventive, even to infinity.”
But there is also a warning here: excessive zeal can lead us to behavior that is harmful. What Vincent would label indiscreet zeal includes overwork, unnecessarily exposing ourselves and others to danger, being to rigorous and overbearing with people. Again, sounding a lot like Ignatius’ discernment of spirits, Vincent wrote to Louise de Marillac, “Be very careful to conserve it (your health) for the love of the Lord and his poor members and be careful not to do too much. It is a ruse of the devil by which he deceives good souls when he incites them to do more than they can in order that they might not be able to do anything.”
Primary element of Vincentian spirituality: Seeing the face of Christ in the Poor
These virtues promote and act in service of a primary element of Vincentian spirituality – seeing the face of Christ in the poor, allowing ourselves to evangelize and be evangelized by people who are on the margins.
One of the reasons Vincent stands out for me is that he embraces so fully Jesus’ teaching in the judgment passage in Matthew 25. You remember the passage – we are told that when the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goat, he will say to the sheep on his right:
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
And those on his left are told they are condemned because they did none of these things. Now, both groups are confused by this. Those on the right say – well and good, happy to be saved and all that, but, tell us Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink. And when did we see you a stranger, naked, sick, in prison, ‘cause we don’t remember doing any of those things. And the Son of Man responds: when you did it to the least of these brothers of Mine, you did it for me.
And to those on the left who say, wait a minute, we never saw you and refused you love or help, we never would have passed you by if we saw you in need, he says: when you did not do it for the least of these you did not do it to me.
The theologian Michael Himes makes much of this passage and it is pretty staggering when you actually think about it: What determines our judgment before God is not: did we belong to the right religion, were we Baptized, did we go to church or receive communion enough times, did we pray long enough, but rather, did we recognize and respond to the Lord in our fellow human beings. Did we respond to the needs of the least of our brothers and sisters?
Vincent did. He saw Christ in the poor by which I mean he recognized the inherent dignity of those with whom he came in contact and felt deeply the obligation to care for their means. Vincent taught to see Christ in the poor and suffering, so much so that the poor become our Lords and Masters and we their servants.
And Vincent understood that while caring for their material needs was essential, it was not sufficient. He was not merely a secular social services provider, but stressed the need to provide compassion and love to those he served. To not only see Christ in the poor, but to be Christ to them. So the primary role of those who carry a Vincentian charism is not to provide people with payment of bills, clothing or food, but to act out their faith by providing loving and compassionate interest in others. (The includes providing clothing, food, etc, but it is in loving those served where the contact with Christ emerges.)