In “Seeing Better” In the Vincentian Family Father Tom McKenna, CM asks what change goes on in anybody who steps inside Vincent’s circle? (Homily at a gathering of the Vincentian Family in Belleville, Illinois 2010).
Here’s a good 21st Century question for all of us in Vincent’s family who so frequently gather in Jesus’ name. What does standing under Vincent’s influence do to a person? What change goes on in anybody who steps inside his circle?
One good answer is this: you can see better. You begin to notice better, especially when coming under influences that would squeeze down your vision of how things really are. More to the point, you can do better at “seeing the poor.”
Being a member of Vincent’s family for many years, I’ve sensed that assistance over and over. But a particular time I felt it was after seeing the 1950’s movie Monsieur Vincent (not all of it being verifiable history.) One scene in it has kept coming back to me – Vincent on a boat with the galley slaves. As you know he was chaplain to the convicts who had been sentenced to row the French war ships.
The scene opens with Vincent sitting high up on the back deck of the galley, along with the French King and his court. They were out for a naval exercise of sorts. Seated below them were the prisoners – bench upon bench, chained to their oars, rowing for all they were worth, under the crack of a whip. The nobleman next to Vincent leans over and offers him a handkerchief filled with perfume. The man explains, “When they get to rowing, they begin to sweat. And there’s a terrible stench that comes back here. If you put this up to your nose, you won’t notice it – or even them.”
But Vincent notices. He doesn’t want not to notice. The opposite of screening out these suffering prisoners, he wants to see them. So different from the man at his side, he looks at them as the most important people on the ship. (And in the scene, Vincent jumps up and runs to take the place of a convict who has slumped over his oar.)
The point? What everybody else filters out, and tries hard not to notice, is for Vincent the most important action in that setting. These suffering ones, these low-lifes, these dregs of society – they are the key people. All of us here know the rest of the story, how Vincent more and more gives himself over to noticing and treating these no-accounts as the special ones, the beloved of God, his Lords and masters.
There’s one more thing we know about this “seeing better.” For Vincent, this noticing is a crucial piece of how we relate, not just to the poor but to God. How it is between ourselves and God is essentially conditioned by how it is between ourselves and these least of the brothers and sisters. Our seeing them and giving them respect deeply colors the quality of our following of Jesus. What is indeed a humanitarian concern is also revealed in Vincent’s eyes as a fully religious one.
Let’s now focus on another scene, one that follows this plot-line almost exactly. It’s the story in chapter 16 of Luke’s gospel about the rich man and Lazarus the beggar sitting at the rich man’s gate. It too is about seeing and about how this relates to our life with God.
In Luke’s very dramatic set-up, the poor man takes up a position right in the rich man’s path. He’s there at the gate the man has to pass through to get out his front door. The rich man has to step over Lazarus every day and likely has to do it more than once in that day.
And he doesn’t see Lazarus. He screens him out. He has that perfumed handkerchief over his nose and eyes. And as far as his relationship to God goes, that not-seeing is crucial. It makes all the difference. Not noticing, screening out Lazarus, has shut the rich man out from God’s presence.
This story too is not only humanitarian, but is deeply religious. How open-eyed one is to the poor has everything to do with one’s openness to God.
There are many directions in which to take these two stories, stories of Vincent and of Jesus, but here’s one. There’s tremendous pressure in our culture not to see – and being in Vincent’s family helps us greatly to keep on seeing.
Society hands us many of those heavily perfumed handkerchiefs. You know them: the poor as lazy, criminal, losers, elements to be triaged, people to be kept from the table because they’re undeserving – or simply because they don’t have enough clout to speak up for their place. There are very many screens, filters, ways of blocking out those convicts in the rows, those homeless ones at the gate. These filters can seem like weights, sitting on your eyelids, forcing them closed. And so the struggle always is: how to keep them from closing, how to pull away those perfumed handkerchiefs.
That’s where Vincent and his family come in. They help us “see better.” They bring a counter-pressure for keeping those eyes open. There is so much in the air that wants to narrow down our line of vision, close the doors of our perception. Being in Vincent’s circle is a wedge keeping that door open.
Our original question was what does standing under Vincent’s influence do? One persistent answer: it helps us to see better – see the special ones who are usually so invisible. And also, it helps us to see God in them. It’s a “solidarity in seeing” that membership in the Vincentian Family gives us. It’s the constant prod that membership in that family gives us to keep on seeing.
Time and again, we pray the Our Father. There’s one line in it we’d do well to mull over. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”; do on earth what you see being done in Heaven.
The two stories before us today are heavenly scenes. There’s Vincent noticing the poor convicts, and Jesus picturing for us how things really are in heaven; i.e. the poor person is near God and those who overlook this beggar are cut off from God. When we pray these words, we’re asking that we ourselves might work to construct that heavenly scene right here in the earthly scene — Thy will be done on earth as it is Heaven.
Because we all gather here under Vincent’s influence, we’re helped greatly to pray these words from a deeper place. May this conviction continue to flower into action on behalf of God’s special ones, the least of the brothers and sisters. May it continue to help us to “see them” in our midst.