It is easier to use an uplifting language, to fulfill certain positive precepts and to reject certain pleasures, than to be deeply filled with the evangelical spirit, to keep it in the depths of the soul to ennoble it, purify it and improve it; in the end: to reproduce it in your works, leaving in them the seal of sweetness and goodness. Many prayers can be murmured by word of mouth, and yet not have that impulse that elevates us to heaven, nor that piety abandoned to the maternal guidance of Providence, without murmuring for the present, without concern for the future. A tender love for God, an active goodness towards human beings, a just and uncompromising awareness of self, those are the elements of a truly Christian existence, and you will soon realize all that I lack of that triple relationship.
Frederic Ozanam, Letter to Amélie Soulacroix, May 1, 1841.
- Amélie Soulacroix is the future wife of Frederic. At the time of this letter, Frederic lived in Paris, and was an substitute professor in the chair of Foreign Literature at La Sorbonne, while his fiancee (since the the end of 1840) was still in Lyon. The correspondence between the couple is very abundant in this period. Although we might expect the typical correspondence of lovers —so it is, too!— in Frederic’s letters addressed to Amélie we also find very interesting descriptions of his daily life, as well as reflections on faith and life. Faith and life: two dimensions that are intimately united and we can not disconnect. Faith that gives meaning to life, and life where personal and community faith develops.
- Frederic was undeniably a pious person. He attended Mass daily; he received communion frequently (something unusual at his time); he often visited his spiritual adviser; he dedicated the first moment of each morning to read the Bible and to pray. But the piety of Frederic was rooted in the reality that he lived, he was not a “prude,” a person —whom we may easily identify— centered on spiritual aspects that have little to do with life and, with the appearance of elevated, all they may possibly do is to separate us from the true faith in Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor.
- This paragraph of Frederic is dense and has many tinges worth pondering. He tells us that it is easier to use uplifting language, to obey precepts and mortify oneself (“reject certain pleasures”), than to live life immersed in the authentic evangelical spirit, manifesting it in works that have “the seal of sweetness and goodness.” It is a qualitative leap: doing certain practices does not make us better Christians. It is striking what Frederic tells us: “many prayers can be murmured by word of mouth, and yet not have that impulse that elevates us to heaven” nor the true piety that “surrenders to Providence,” which surrenders to the will of God with full and complete confidence, “without murmuring for the present, without concern for the future.”
- Frederic points out three aspects for a “truly Christian existence”:
- “A tender love for God”: a full, surrendered, entrusted love to a merciful Father.
- “An active goodness towards human beings”: faith without works, says the apostle, is a dead faith (Cf. James 2:14-26). The Christian faith is not centered on personal salvation, isolated from the reality that surrounds us. On the contrary, it is intimately linked to loving others and working for them to live a life worthy. There are many texts in the Bible that show us this; let us remember the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the account of the “final judgment” (Matthew 25:31-46), and many others…
- “A just and uncompromising awareness of self”: we are the first ones to take care of ourselves and model our existence according to the evangelical spirit. We are personally responsible for being, day by day, better followers of Jesus Christ.
- In our time, unfortunately, we see many people and many messages that go in the opposite direction of what Frederic tells us here. I will say something that may be shocking: “acts of piety” are important, but the centrality of our faith lies in that “evangelical spirit” Ozanam speaks of. I will give an example: going to Mass every Sunday does not make us followers of Jesus. It is precisely the other way round: we are followers of Jesus and, therefore, we need to celebrate our faith, to lead our lives to prayer. Need, not obligation. Love, not rules.
- We might end up being, as the apostle Paul tells us, a metal that only makes noise (see 1 Corinthians 13). God, who is Love, is the centrality of our faith, and Christian love manifests itself in going out to meet the suffering brother. Any act or manifestation of our faith that does not take this aspect into account will simply be “smoke of straws”: much smoke, little content.
Questions for dialogue:
- What is my reflection on Frederic’s words? How do they brighten my life? In what aspects should I improve?
- Where is my life of faith centered? Do I just remain in the fulfillment of some acts more or less pious?
- Of the three dimensions of Christian existence noted by Frederic, what should I improve?
- How do we, Vincentians, express our commitment to our neighbor? Is it in line with what Frederic tells us in this text?
- Do we use the mass media to proclaim the mercy of a God who became one of us, denouncing injustice and putting ourselves on the side of the impoverished, or are we only dedicated to sharing more or less pious stamps, images and sentences?
Javier F. Chento