1.2. Ask for the grace to pray well
We can reach out to God because God has first reached out to us (1 John 4:10), revealing his saving love, calling us to participate in his life and instilling in us a desire to encounter him as the ultimate meaning of who we are. Therefore, prayer is a gift that should be lived. From that perspective, Vincent recommended that we should ask for the grace to pray well and should do so with the certainty that we cannot have a good thought without the grace of God (CCD:X:473).
Here we are speaking about disposing ourselves to prayer, allowing our minds and hearts to move toward God and placing ourselves confidently and willingly in the hands of God. We ask for divine assistance and open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, “our internal teacher” with a traditional prayer or similar words. The following words, which Vincent prayed during a conference to the members of the Congregation, would be most appropriate: O Savior, you know what my heart wants to say; it turns to you, fountain of mercy; you see its desires; they tend only to you, they aspire only to you, they want only you. Let us say to him often, “teach us to pray”; give us, Lord this gift of meditation; teach us yourself how we should pray. This is what we ask of him today and every day with confidence — great confidence — in his goodness (CCD:XI:208-209).
In this same line of thought, Vincent counseled the Sisters to invoke the intercession of the Blessed Mother, of one’s patron saint, and/or guardian angel as a stimulus to prayer (CCD:IX:335; X:473). Faith assures us that we participate in the communion of saints. On an anthropological level, no one is an island and that is even more true on a spiritual level: We are always surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith (Hebrews 12:1), men and women who preceded us in serving the Lord and who inspire us to focus our gaze on our faith.
1.3 Recall or select a theme
After prayerfully reading a biblical text or reflecting on a mystery or virtue or Christian maxim, select a theme for meditation: “After having asked Our Lord to give you the grace to learn how to pray well, apply yourselves interiorly to the points that are read, as we have said. O Savior, give me the grace of entering into this holy practice. Sisters, if you make your prayer well, what will you not receive from God as a result (CCD:X:461)?
Special attention should be given to the humanity of Christ, that is, his life, his mission and his teachings (CCD:XII:113; X:575). Allowing oneself to be surprised and inspired by Jesus’ words and example. Vincent told the Sisters: recall the mysteries of the life and passion of Our Lord so that you can take one now, and another at some other time, as topics for your prayer (CCD:X:457). Vincent was particularly fond of meditating on the gospel that the Church proposed for liturgical celebrations, especially the gospel proposed for feast days: on feast days it would be well for you to meditate on the gospels that are read at that time (CCD:IX:27). In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis renewed the Ignatian invitation to engage in a loving contemplation of the Gospel as a presupposition to all missionary activity: The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us. But if this is to come about, we need to recover a contemplative spirit which can help us to realize ever anew that we have been entrusted with a treasure which makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life. There is nothing more precious which we can give to others (Evangelii Gaudium, #264).
Among the values and attitudes that were lived and communicated by Jesus, some are particularly significant for our Vincentian spirituality, such as, radical following of Jesus (Mark 8:27-35; Matthew 8:18-27), communion with the Father (John 8:25-29, 15:9-16), passion for the Kingdom and the call to conversion (Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 13:18-23), confidence in Providence (Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 11:1-4), compassionate and effective charity (Mark 6:30-44; Luke 10:25-37), preferential option for the poor (Matthew 25:31-40; Luke 4:14-21), commitment to freedom (Luke 10-28-31; John 10:14-18); love of the truth (Mark 12:28-34; John 8:25-32); seat of justice (Mark 2:1-12; John 8:1-11), availability to serve (Mark 10:35-45; Luke 7:11-17), zeal for the mission (Matthew 9:35-38; Luke 9:1-6); formation of disciples (Mark 3:13-19; Luke 10:1-11), humility and simplicity (Luke 9:46-48; 17:7-10); gentleness and firmness (Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 11:28-30), joy and gratitude (Matthew 11:25-27; Luke 1:46-56), openness to the spirit (John 7:37-39; 14:15-26), the cross and resurrection (Mark 10:32-34; Luke 24:13-35).
Flexible and insistent on the use of the proposed method, Vincent suggested that when and where it was possible, the points to be considered during the time of meditation should be read aloud, thus facilitating the process of meditation. This was most important in light of the fact that some of the Sisters were unable to read and had little experience with spiritual matters: a Sister should be appointed to say aloud, after the points of the next morning’s meditation have been read, what is to be done to make the reading more understandable (CCD:X:474)
Vincent, inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, reminded his followers that at the initial stage of meditation, the imagination can help one to pray well (CCD:IX:3-4). Thus, as our Founder emphasized, we are dealing with an additional resource (useful but not indispensable to meditation) which relies on understanding and the will and is illuminated by faith. Some examples: (a) when placing oneself in the presence of God, one might imagine being with Moses in the Tent of Meeting where God spoke to him face to face, as one speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11) … one might also imagine being a guest, eating with the Blessed Trinity (as suggested in the famous icon of Andrei Rublev who depicted the scene narrated in Genesis 18:1-15); (b) when asking for the grace to pray well, one might imagine reclining on Jesus’ chest like the beloved disciple at the time of the Last Supper (John 13:22) or imagine sitting at Jesus’ feet, like Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who allowed herself to be formed by the words of the Master (Luke 10:39) or imagine being part of that group who gathered around Jesus in order to listen to his teaching (Mark 2:2); (c) at the time of choosing a theme, one might imagine being one of the persons described in the scene that one has chosen for meditation. All of this is intended to help one avoid distractions and focus during the time of prayer.
Vincent even suggested that the Daughters might contemplate the images on holy cards: It would also be well for you to keep handy some pictures of the mysteries on which you meditate. While looking at them, think, “What is that? What does that mean?” And in that way your mind will be opened (CCD:IX:335). It should also be mentioned that Vincent spoke about the practice of a woman (Saint Jane Frances de Chantal) who contemplated the image of the Blessed Mother and was thus, able to make resolutions: For a long time, a lady I knew had the practice in all her meditations of contemplating a picture of the Blessed Virgin. First, she would look at her eyes and then say in her own mind, “O beautiful eyes, how pure you are! You never did anything but glorify God. What purity is apparent in your holy eyes! How different from mine, by which I have so often offended my God! I don’t want to give them so much liberty any longer but, on the contrary, I will accustom them to modesty” (CCD:IX:26-27). When speaking about those unable to read, in addition to contemplating images, the Founder suggested that they would do well to meditate on the gospels that are read on feast days … Vincent stated: I have known people who could neither read nor write, yet made their prayer perfectly well (CCD:IX:27). Vincent also stated that when meditating on the passion, they could focus their eyes on the crucifix (CCD:IX:28).
With his admirable sense of practicality, Vincent continually recommended reading a chapter of the New Testament on a daily basis. When he spoke to the members of the Congregation, he stated:
We have to have great devotion to being faithful to reading a chapter of the New Testament and, in the beginning, to produce acts of adoration, adoring the word of God and his truth: of entering into the sentiments with which Our Lord pronounced them, and consenting to these truths; of resolving to put these same truths into practice. For example. I will read, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ and will resolve and give myself to God to practice this truth on such and such an occasion. Likewise, when I read, ‘Blessed are the meek,’ I will give myself to God to practice gentleness. Above all, we have to be careful not to read by way of study, saying, ‘This passage will help me with a certain sermon,’ but read simply for our own growth. We must not be discouraged if, alter reading something several times for one month, two months, or six months, we are not moved by it. It will happen that one time we will have a little glimmer of light, another day a greater one, and an even greater one when we need it. One word alone is capable of converting us (CCD:XI:102). There is no doubt that Vincentian spirituality, in its very origin, is profoundly rooted in the fertile and solid ground of the Word of God.
Fr. Vinicius Teixeira Ribeiro, CM
Province of Rio