Vincentian Virtues, Yesterday and Today
by: Sister Alba Arreaga R., DC
[This presentation was given during the gathering of the Vincentian Family in Latin America, a gathering which took place in Guatemala from March 17-March 22].
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Humility
- 3 Simplicity
- 4 Charity
- 5 Mortification
- 6 Conclusions
- 7 A guide for further reflection
- 8 Bibliography
It is a great joy to share with you this morning and I underline the word “share” because I do not intend to give some definitive presentation on a theme that is well-known and that, on the level of the Vincentian Family, has been reflected upon and studied in gatherings similar to this one. I like to think of this conference as an outline, a draft, a brainstorming of ideas that is focused on a XXI century understanding of the virtues that characterize Vincentian spirituality.
Vincent de Paul considered simplicity, humility, gentleness, mortification and zeal as virtues that ought to characterize the Missionary. He viewed those virtues as the five smooth stones with which, even at the first assault, we will defeat the Goliath from hell in the name of the Lord of Armies and bring the Philistines, that is, sinners, under God’s rule (Common Rules XII:12). With regard to the Daughters of Charity, Vincent highlighted humility, simplicity and charity as their characteristic virtues: I repeat once again that the spirit of your Company consists in the love of Our Lord, love of persons who are poor, love of one another, humility and simplicity. If would be better if there were no longer any Daughters of Charity, if they didn’t have these virtues (CCD:IX:468).
As members of the Vincentian Family let us focus on the four virtues of humility, simplicity, gentleness and charity … and let us do this in accord with Vincent’s “little method”: the nature and the definition of each virtue, motives for practicing that virtue and the means that will enable us to practice that virtue.
Etymologically the word humility comes from the Latin humus meaning mud or fertile soil. The function of humus is to be hidden beneath the ground in order to give life to that which is above the ground, that is, in order to give life to the plants and to the trees that grow above the ground. Therefore, humility invites us to lower ourselves and to be hidden but to do this for the purpose of giving life.
For Vincent de Paul humility means that we recognize the fact that all good things come from God. On March 8, 1658 Vincent wrote to Firmin Get and stated: Let us no longer say: “I am the one who did this good work,” for anything good must be done in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ (CCD:VII:115-116). Later that same year, on October 15th, Vincent wrote to Jacques Pesnelle and stated: be very careful not to attribute any [good work] to yourself … you would be committing larceny and insulting God, who alone is the author of every good thing (CCD:VII:305).
Why is this virtue so important and so necessary for Vincent de Paul, for the Daughters of Charity, and for the members of the Vincentian Family? The answer: because humility is pleasing to God and because Jesus practiced that virtue and recommended the practice of that virtue. In light of that fact Vincent described Jesus as the source of humble love:
- In love Jesus lowered himself and became one of us;
- Jesus revealed humility in the way that his mother was chosen and in the circumstances that surrounded his birth;
- Jesus gave witness to humility throughout his life … when he healed people he almost always exhorted those individuals not to publicize what had occurred;
- Jesus gave witness to humility in the way that he interacted with people and with his apostles … perhaps the greatest sign of that humility was revealed during the celebration of the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his disciples;
- Jesus gave witness to humility when he stood before his accusers (the prophet described him as a lamb that was led to the slaughter) … only once did Jesus ask why he was being treated so cruelly.
Vincent frequently reflected on Jesus” humility and sought for ways to humble himself. We know that Vincent repented for being ashamed of his father who walked with a limp. His letters and his conferences reveal a great concern with regard to the virtue of humility. Let us listen to some of his words:
- Humility brings all the other virtues to the soul (CCD:XII:172);
- Regardless of how charitable people might be, if they are not humble, then they have no charity (CCD:XII:172);
- Charity is the paradise of communities and the soul of the virtues and it’s humility that attracts and preserves them (CCD:XI:1);
We can then ask: do people see us as humble people or arrogant?
What should we do in order to cultivate humility
Vincent pointed out three methods:
- Ask God for this gift. If there is anything we should ask of God it’s our spirit, as I told you recently, because it’s the life of our soul (CCD:IX:476-477).
- One must understand that without spirit, without humility one is worthless. As long as charity, humility and simplicity exist among you, one may say, “The Company of Charity is still alive” (CCD:IX:467).
- Give importance to the virtue of humility. In the present context it could be said that the practice of humility results in a series of therapeutic effects. In the first place, it lessens our fear in coming to know ourselves and in confronting our dark side. At the same time, this virtue prevents us from sweeping our emotional conflicts under the carpet. Finally, humility gives us the strength to question ourselves and to identify the lies that can easily become part of our life.
As a result of the cultivation of humility we will soon find no need to justify ourselves when someone points out one of our defects. At the same time, we will become more motivated to develop our potential as human beings. As we integrate humility (honesty) into our lifestyle we will find relief in not having to hide behind some mask.
Humility is related to the acceptance of our defects, weaknesses and limitations. The paradox of humility is that when we reveal our humility, it becomes corrupted and disappears. The phrase in my humble opinion is nothing more than a form of disguised pride. The true practice of this virtue is not preached, but lived. One is never cognizant of the existence of this virtue in one’s life but others will recognize one as humble. That is the reason why humble persons so often walk in the midst of the world as unnoticed individuals.
When we give importance to humility we are then able to confront our pride which creates conflicts in our relationships with others because such pride prevents us from recognizing and correcting our errors. Such pride also prevents us from clothing ourselves in attitudes of openness and receptivity that in turn enable us to learn what we do not know. Pride is like a carpenter who specializes in building walls that protect us and makes us live life from a defensive position (Irene Orce).
It is true that our different qualities and aptitudes are part of our being and as such are gifts that we have received from God. There is nothing that has not been gifted to us: You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).
In light of that perspective it can be said that humility is also gratitude: In the New Testament, gratitude is the opposite side of the coin of humility … in the Magnificat Mary cries out in praise and thanksgiving for the many gifts that God had given her (Robert Maloney, CM., The Way of Vincent de Paul, New York, New City Press, p. 58-59).
Humility leads us to assume an attitude of service: the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).
Pope Francis has stated: Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort (Evangelii Gaudium, 10). He then went on to say that works of love directed to one’s neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the spirit (Evangelii Gaudium, #37).
- Humility allows us to be evangelized by the poor.
- If we want to evangelize there is no other path but that of humility (Pope Francis, homily of September 1, 2014).
- God wants our “littleness” and our awe because God is able to do wonderful things through the poverty of his servants: If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good (Evangelii Gaudium, #9).
- Conformity with the will of God and trust in providence are clear paths that have been pointed out to us by Vincent de Paul … paths that enable men and women to cultivate the virtue of humility.
As we continue to develop the virtue of humility it becomes easier for us to learn from the errors that we make, easier for us to understand that errors are necessary in order to continue to grow and evolve. Soon we will find it unnecessary to enter into heated discussions, unnecessary to impose our opinion and unnecessary to always be right. As a result of the cultivation of humility we become more willing to listen to a new point of view, even when such an opinion is contrary to our convictions. We also become more curious in exploring alternative manners of understanding life … alternatives that we never knew existed. As as inquire more and more about the reality in which we find ourselves, we come to discover our own ignorance and are able to glimpse, in a clearer manner, the path toward wisdom.
Some steps that should be taken in order to be humble or in order to begin to be humble
What follows is not intended to be a manual that will enable us to attain humility in an effortless manner. There are no roses without thorns. The following ideas, however, could be seen as a GPS system that will guide us along the right path.
- Endeavour to discover the good in every person. Every person has experienced things that we have not and therefore, in this regard we can be adventurers. Einstein, one of the great minds of the last century, stated: I have never known a person to be so ignorant that he/she did not have something to teach me.
- Praise other people. The more we refer to and speak about the good qualities of those persons who surround us, the easier it becomes to discover more virtues in them. Thus it becomes more difficult to fall into the trap of self-centeredness.
- Do not hesitate to admit mistakes. It has been said that the most difficult words to pronounce in any language are: I made a mistake. Those individuals who refuse to utter those words will find themselves repeating the same mistakes over and over again and will ultimately become marginalized from others (only the human person will stumble over the same rock on more than one occasion).
- Be the first to seek reconciliation. If the words I made a mistake are the most difficult words to pronounce, then the second most difficult words have to be: forgive me. Those words destroy our pride and enable us to recognize our selfishness (thus killing two birds with the same stone). For this to happen, however, it is necessary that we, as well as others, admit the fact that we can be mistaken.
- Admit our limitations and needs. One side of human nature leads us to present ourselves as strong and self-sufficient … but this only makes our lives more difficult. We will always be better off when we reveal our humility by asking for and accepting help from other people.
- Serve others. Humility implies an attitude of service: If you want to be first, you must become the last of all and the servant of all (Mark 9:35). In John’s gospel Jesus taught this lesson to the disciples through a parable of action, namely, the washing of the feet of the disciples: Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me “teacher” and “master”, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do (John 13:13-15).
- Affirm God as the giver of all gifts and as the one who is ultimately responsible for all the good that we accomplish. It is important to open our eyes and to understand that we have nothing that gives us the right to glorify ourselves. Our natural qualities and the gifts derived from grace ought to stir up in us an attitude of gratitude in which we recognize the fact that God loves us and is responsible for all that we are and all that we have.
You will know that you are truly simple if you are not attached to your own ideas but accepting of those of others; if you are candid in your speech, and if your hearts are not thinking one thing while your lips say another (CCD:IX:68). According to Vincent simplicity is intimately united with humility and inseparable from prudence which for Vincent meant basing one’s opinion on gospel maxims: prudence and simplicity have the same goal which is to speak and act well (CCD:XII:146).
Simplicity means that we refer all things to God, or to say this in another manner, it means purity of intention. In this sense then simplicity involves doing everything for the love of God … period and that is our only motive.
Simplicity can be viewed as “right intention”, transparency, truthfulness, saying things as they are, speaking what one feels.
We should not confuse simplicity with foolishness. Foolish people say the first thing that comes to their mind; such persons do not reflect and quickly change their opinion when someone contradicts them. There is no virtue in foolishness which is in fact a lack of personality. On the other hand, simplicity can easily be harmonized with prudence, with personality, with conviction and gospel criteria … it can even be harmonized with a sense of humor. Simplicity not only means being truthful when we speak but it also means that we do not deceive people with our gestures, that is, we do not deceive people by the way that we greet them or listen to them, or smile. Simplicity means that we radiate trust in other people.
Allow me to develop these ideas which I consider to be most important for the members of the Vincentian Family who make a commitment to serve others.
- Simplicity in listening. Do we listen with the same intensity to those people who can teach us something, to those persons who are intelligent and to those persons who have told us the same story a hundred different times? The poor are people who have to listen to advice from countless people ... politicians, religious leaders, factory managers … all these persons speak to the poor on the radio and on television and through other means. The poor spend much of their life listening to others. When can the poor say something to others and actually be heard … almost never! Only sensitive people understand that these men and women need to speak and therefore they facilitate such conversations. As a result the poor begin to feel that they are valued, that their life is important and that someone is concerned about them. Yes, we need to listen to the elderly but we also need to listen to the infirm, to young people and to children.
- Simplicity in gesture. Simple persons are able to control their gestures and they are almost always pleasing to others.
- Simplicity in their gaze. Simple individuals are welcoming and calm in their gaze. Those who are not simple in this matter, without realizing it, often gaze with indifference and in a hurried and bored manner.
- Simple in silence. To be quiet so that others can speak is an act of charity and simplicity. To be quiet in order to make it known that we are not pleased by or in agreement with another is to cause harm to them. People who practice simplicity should never use silence as a means to harm another person.
At this point we can ask: are we people who attempt to be simple? We are if people trust us, if we serve by giving from our heart and not simply concerned about sharing material goods, if we are able to learn from the poor, if we are able to admit our mistakes, if we value people for who they are and what they do and thus affirm people and make them feel comfortable in our presence, if we do not become an obstacle to dialogue with inflexible positions and if we do not seek immediate gratification as a result of the things that we do.
Like sensitivity, simplicity is something that is inborn in a person and yet nevertheless, with effort and practice we can also achieve an acceptable level of simplicity. That means that we attempt to be open with other persons. We all need to be helped. If we have no difficulty in being open with God and thus able to overcome human respect, then we should also be able to seek assistance so that we can also overcome our defects of character, so that another person can point out our negative attitudes and in turn motivate us to be a better person.
Achieving an acceptable level of simplicity also means that even though we understand that people value intelligence, the ability to organize or to work or some other quality, nevertheless we should also understand that the majority of people prefer to enter into a relationship with people who are simple. We should therefore attempt to acquire this virtue with the same effort that we exert in order to obtain some professional degree or some skill that will enable us to serve in a better manner. More than any other quality, simplicity will enable us to be better persons and to serve in a better manner.
Vincent offered a series of motives so that his followers might practice simplicity: God communicates with those who are simple; God is simple (CCD:XI:40); everyone likes people are who simple (CCD:XII:142); true religion is found among those who are simple (CCD:XII:142).
Vincent referred to simplicity as the virtue that he most liked, as his gospel. In today’s world that virtue takes on the form of truthfulness.
- To speak the truth. Today simplicity takes on the same meaning that it had during the time of Vincent de Paul, namely, to say things as they are. That meaning is the foundation for trust and thus a foundation for human relationships. Truth equals fidelity … Jesus is the truth and is faithful to his promises: I will be with you until the end of time.
- To give witness to the truth. This aspect of simplicity is most important and it is also attractive to the modern world that admires those persons who live in accord with their convictions … persons whose words and deeds are one. Young people are attracted to those who real and genuine and transparent.
- • To see the truth. The search for the truth is an on-going process that demands attentive listening, feeling with another, reading and reserving time for on-going formation.
- To practice the truth. This means that we are sincere in living in accord with our beliefs, sincere in living in accord with what we require and demand of others.
- Simplicity of life. People who are truly simple live frugally and that in turn allows them to draw closer to people because they reveal their interior beauty. Simple persons are like stars that shine every brighter in the midst of darkness.
Some steps that should be taken in order to be simple or in order to begin to be simple
- Decrease in order to increase. The financial crisis, which everyone agrees is a crisis in values, demands a profound reflection on our lifestyle. We have to put aside competitiveness, exclusion, prestige and vanity in order to clothe ourselves in love of neighbor, mercy, compassion and solidarity. We have been fattened on “food” that has no gospel foundation and so we must shed some weight in order to pass through the doors of the Kingdom (Aquilino Bocos).
- Become healed of vanity. Pope Francis, during his first Mass as Pope, referred to the peacock as an example of vanity. From the front peacocks look beautiful but if one steps back and looks at them from behind one sees another reality. Those persons who give in to their vanity are actually hiding behind the doors of their misery. Such people are concerned about appearances and/or signs of esteem and/or honor … this is a serious illness that leads people to become inauthentic men and women.
- Integrity and honesty. Many of us are losing the art of living fully-human lives. For too long a time many people have been confusing us, pressuring us and convincing us to do things in order to obtain things that we really do not need. Such self-deception is a lack of honesty. In reality, honesty can be very difficult in the beginning, but in the long-run it is very freeing. It allows us to confront the truth about ourselves and the truth about our interior movements. It strips away the masks which make us pleasing to others and which make us acceptable to the world that surrounds us. As honesty becomes a part of our being we begin to feel relief because we no longer have to hide our true self … we are called to be persons, well-springs that provide life-giving water to others.
- Live with joy. A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like the most precious of the devil’s potions (Evangelii Gaudium, 83)
Love of God
We highlight the fact that Vincent de Paul was a mystic of charity. That expression enables us to view the love of God as the primary dynamic of so many other activities, for example, Vincent’s dedication to the many men and women in situations of misery, the institutions that he established to guarantee the fact that over the course of time his concern and attention would be focused on the poor who reveal in a special way God’s love.
In Vincentian spirituality, charity is oriented in two directions: in one’s relationship with God and in one’s relationship with others. Expressions such as give oneself to God (CCD:XII:262), to wear oneself out for God, to have happiness and strength only to consume them for God, is to do what Our Lord himself did, who exhausted himself for love of his Father (CCD:XIIIa:195) present us with a very concrete reality that enables us to understand why Vincent wanted us to be totally enveloped by God’s love.
Charity is to clothe ourselves in the sentiments of Christ, to clothe ourselves in his spirit and his actions. Love not only means that we are in union with Christ but that we are engaged in building up the kingdom of God. Mediating on virtues that we do not practice is more harmful than profitable to us (CCD:VII:378).
In Vincentian spirituality love of God involves affective and effective love. Vincent’s charity was nourished by the many different situations in which he found himself. Vincent set down the following principle: We have been chosen by God as instruments of his immense, paternal charity, which is intended to be established and to expand in souls (CCD:XII:214).
Love Christ in the person of the poor
Even though the Lord is the Son of God, the Christ of Vincent de Paul lives in the person of men and women who are poor and continues to suffer with them.
On February 13, 1646, Vincent told the Daughters of Charity: in serving persons who are poor, we serve Jesus Christ … and that is as true as that we are here (CCD:IX:199).
Love for the poor is not some feeling or altruistic philosophy or humanistic ethic. In today’s world the members of the Vincentian Family must respond to the question: what does it mean to make the gospel effective? It is from the perspective of the world in which we live that we must pose that question and respond to it… and we must realize that today’s world has very little to do with the world of yesterday.
It would become very boring to list all the changes that the world has experienced, changes that make today’s world so different from the world in which we grew up. Those changes have been so rapid and have had far reaching consequences that have resulted in multiple publications about the challenges that confront the present day church. Nevertheless, it is not clear that those reflections are understood by the members of the Vincentian Family and by the members of the Christian community. We have listened to and read different analyses of the present reality and different diagnostics … we agree with the depth of change that has been experienced and with the rapid pace of change, but we have not found a radical response.
We must affirm, however, that we should not put aside and forget about all those negative elements that characterize our society: a lack of incarnational spirituality, an increasing pluralism that leads to relativism, an individualistic and utilitarian culture, social exclusion, globalization, the power of the means of communication, the crisis of various religious systems and especially the deinstitutionalization of Catholicism, the appearance of new religious movements, consumerism, etc. All of these realities also have a positive element: a growing awareness of the present inequality and of the present lack of respect for the dignity of the human person, development of a science and technology that can humanize our life together, a growing sense of the need for solidarity, a growing awareness of the need to develop stronger bonds between peoples and nations, the need to develop paths that enhance the proclamation of our faith and thus create greater possibilities for tolerance and mutual acceptance.
In this regard Julio Lois has affirmed: the most decisive ethical problem that confronts humankind is the present day injustice with all its manifestations of inequality, poverty, marginalization and exclusion. This is not only a moral problem but also a theological problem. In one of their pastoral letters the bishops from the Basque Country stated: the great injustice that is so prevalent in the world is that which most hides the face of God. If we do not combat that situation and if we do not enter into solidarity with the victims of that situation then we collaborate in making God a hidden God.
If all of this is true with regard to the Church and to her evangelizing mission, then it is all the more certain with regard to ourselves as members of the Vincentian Family and with regard to our mission in the world. Ultimately it is our service of Christ in the poor that determines our charism … it is the evangelization of the poor that defines our ministry. Therefore, it is our commitment to justice that become the inescapable path to make the gospel effective. Reaching out to those who are poor and struggling with them for the cause of their redemption is the best way to affirm the reality of God’s presence in our midst. Working with the poor in order to transform their life from a gospel perspective is the most eloquent manner to proclaim the Good News of Christ and to open future paths for the Church. Vincent stated: We can say that coming to evangelize the poor does not simply mean to teach them the mysteries necessary for their salvation, but also to do what was foretold and prefigured by the prophets to make the Gospel effective (CCD:XII:75).
Pope Francis has pointed out that charity that does not change the situation of the poor isn't enough (Pope Francis, Message to the Jesuit Refugee Service, September 12, 2013). It's not enough to give a sandwich if it isn't accompanied by the possibility of learning to stand on one's own feet … true mercy, which God gives and teaches us, calls for justice, for a way in which the poor can find a way out of poverty. It calls for … a situation in which no one [is] in need of a soup kitchen, of a homeless shelter, of legal assistance to have his right to live and to work recognized, to be a whole person (Pope Francis, Message to the Jesuit Refugee Service, September 12, 2013).
At the same time the Pope stated: The poor are also privileged teachers of our knowledge of God; their fragility and simplicity will unmask our egoisms, our false securities, our pretenses of self-sufficiency, and guide us to the experience of the closeness and tenderness of God, to receive His love in our life, His mercy of a Father who with discretion and patient trust, takes care of us, of all of us (Pope Francis, Message to the Jesuit Refugee Service, September 12, 2013).
There is an urgent demand to serve, to accompany and to advocate on behalf of those who are poor. The Pope explained that to serve means to welcome people who arrive here with care; it means to bend down to one in need and to extend your hand to him, without reservations, without fear, with tenderness and understanding, as Jesus bent down to wash the feet of the Apostles. To serve means to work alongside the neediest, first of all to establish a close human relationship with them, based on solidarity (Pope Francis, Message to the Jesuit Refugee Service, September 12, 2013).
The Pope encouraged his listeners to establish a sense of solidarity as they accompany those who are poor: Solidarity, this word elicits fear in the developed world. They try not to say it. It's almost a dirty word for them. But it's our word! To serve means to recognize and welcome the demands for justice, for hope, and to seek ways together, a concrete path of liberation (Pope Francis, Message to the Jesuit Refugee Service, September 12, 2013).
Over these years, Centro Astalli has been on a journey. In the beginning, it offered initial reception services: a soup kitchen, a place to sleep, legal aid. Then it learned to accompany persons in their search for employment and social inclusion. And later, it organized cultural activities so as to contribute to the growth of a culture of welcome, a culture of coming together in solidarity, beginning with the protection of human rights (Pope Francis, Message to the Jesuit Refugee Service, September 12, 2013).
To defend means to be on the side of the weakest. How many times we raise our voice to defend our rights, but how many times we are indifferent to the rights of others! How many times we don't know or do not wish to give voice to those who – like you – have suffered and suffer, those who have seen their rights trampled upon, those who have experienced so much violence that even their desire to have justice has been suffocated! (Pope Francis, Message to the Jesuit Refugee Service, September 12, 2013).
When we speak about making the gospel effective, what are the implications of those words for the Vincentian Family?
- An understanding of and a commitment to the present reality;
- personal growth in faith;
- development of an incarnational spirituality;
- determined collaboration among all so that we make visible the reality that we are a Church that reaches out to others.
We know that for Vincent Our Lord Jesus Christ is the true model and that great invisible portrait on whom we must fashion all our actions (CCD:XI:210). Therefore, we must understand mortification from the perspective of Vincent’s life and the perspective of following Jesus. Vincent understood mortification as a demand of charity rather than a mere means that leads people to perfection. Mortification is sharing in and participating in the suffering of those who are poor.
Yet as a realist, who had his feet firmly planted on the ground, Vincent believed that this virtue was inscribed in nature and in the world as it is: May it please God to grant us the grace of becoming like a good wine grower who carries a knife in his pocket, with which he cuts off anything he finds harmful to his vine! And because it buds more than he wishes and constantly produces useless shoots, he always has his knife ready and often keeps it in his hand to cut off anything superfluous as soon as he notices it, so that the strength of the sap from the vine stock may rise fully to the shoots that are to bear the fruit. That’s how we have to constantly use the knife of mortification to cut off the evil output of corrupt nature, which never tires of growing branches of its corruption so that they might prevent Jesus Christ, who is compared to the stock of the vine and who compares us to the vine shoots, from having us bear abundant fruit by the practice of the holy virtues. The man who always prunes his vines is a good wine grower, and we, too, will be good disciples if we constantly mortify our senses, work to subdue our passions, to submit our judgment, and to control our will, doing all that in the ways we’ve mentioned. Then we’ll have the consolation of saying, “I divest myself of the old Adam and do all I can to clothe myself with the new.” Courage, brothers, courage! When God, who is the master of this vineyard, has removed from our souls whatever is useless and evil, he’ll cause us to live in Our Lord, like branches that bear fruit, in order to bear even more. We’ll have a little difficulty in the beginning, but he’ll grant us the grace of overcoming one thing, then another --- today an impulse to anger, tomorrow a repugnance to obedience. Courage! Pleasure follows pain, and the greater difficulty the faithful find in self-renunciation, the greater joy they have in mortifying themselves, and their reward is great in proportion to the work entailed (CCD:XII:184-185).
Today we could translate Vincent’s thought as a call to austerity
Austerity has little in common with poverty and even less with misery. Those are words that have been given a certain meaning and it has become difficult to restore the original meaning to those words.
Nature is ruled by the law of thrift and conservation and not by the law of excess. Only by adapting more simple habits can we begin to feel ourselves at one with the movement of life and nature. We should attempt to recover austerity as a principle that never dies. We know that Mother Theresa could not support the caprice of seven billion persons … hopefully someday soon we will give others the same opportunity that we have had but this will mean that we will have to live with less in order to live better.
During some of the most critical moments for the Allies engaged in the Second World War, an individual named Simone Weil, who worked in the offices of the French Resistance that were located in London, imposed on herself an extreme form of solidarity. She decided to eat the same quantity of food that was provided to those members of Resistance living in occupied France. It was a strong sense of solidarity that led this extraordinary woman to embrace such an incredible form of austerity. The decline in her health that was the result of that austerity was surely related to her early death from tuberculosis. Mahatma Gandhi nourished his skeletal body with simple food, with food that was commonly eaten by the poor people. He never contemplated any form of excess.
Austerity is a most transforming and most demanding word. Genuine austerity comes from within and is not imposed from outside. Austerity is that virtue that invites us to detach ourselves from all things. Such detachment enables us to experience freedom which rises up from the depths of our being. Austerity compels us to gather together in solidarity with one another as a human family. In that way we become intimately related with those persons who are hungry and living in misery, with those persons whose basic human needs are unmet. We need to embrace austerity freely so that some balance can be established in the economic and social areas of human life. In fact it is only through austerity that we will be able to draw closer to our brothers and sisters in need.
Austerity is not only a demanding form of solidarity that allows us to relate with those persons most in need but it is also a virtue that allows us to return to our state as spiritual persons who are thus not so dependent on material goods. The planet and humankind are grateful for self-imposed austerity.
Learning to live in a more austere manner, with fewer things, means that we also learn how to fill ourselves with “the infinite good” that dwells within us. An authentic awareness of the universe is revealed in those persons who have learned how to live without countless superficial things and services, without the need for excessive comfort. While the acquisition of some new material good might seem to bring us some form of happiness, we will soon discover that we have become enslaved to a world of consumerism. To live with less does not mean, however, that we live in misery, but rather that we live in greater solidarity with those who suffer and more in harmony with our spiritual nature. The search for happiness does not mean we become like those who “have more” … in fact, it means the opposite; it means that we voluntarily draw closer to those who lack even the most essential goods in order to live.
With regard to the virtues that characterize the Vincentian Family we should experience a sense of gratitude for those gifts that Vincent and Louise have called us to live anew. Let us respond to that invitation to interpret their dream in light of the present reality.
If Vincent and Louise were present among us what language would they use to encourage us in the cultivation of humility, simplicity, charity, mortification and zeal … to encourage us in the cultivation of those virtues in the midst of a world that is obsessed with “the now moment”, with the super-fast, with an absolute trust in technology and science, in efficiency and competency? What are the contributions that our Vincentian service can offer to our contemporaries?
There is a story about a young man, the son of a baseball star, and the events surrounding his first season. He was not living up the expectations and feared that he would be cut from the team. When he was put into the lineup as a pinch hitter, his first swing was a strike and so also was his second swing. The manager asked for time and spoke to the batter. When the game resumed the young man hit the next pitch out of the stadium … that was a decisive moment. From that time on every game was a success. As his teammates began to witness this change they asked him what had caused this turn around in his game. It was then that the young man explained to the other members of the team that the manger had seen his father many times at batting practice and had observed the way his father played … he told me: I can see that you have your father’s genes … you have the arms of your father.
We have the genes of Vincent and Louise; we have their heart and their spirit. Fidelity demands that we be prophets of charity in the midst of today’s world, that we develop charitable networks among all the various branches of the Vincentian Family … networks that are attentive to the reality of those who are poor, networks that enable us to be creative and bold as we respond to those different realities and thus enable us to reveal the perennial newness of the Vincentian charism. Louise stated: Please continue to serve our dear masters with great gentleness, respect and cordiality, always seeing God in them (SWLM:421 [L.361]).
A guide for further reflection
- How do we, as members of the Vincentian Family, live the virtues that characterize the charism that we have inherited from Vincent and Louise?
- What is the greatest challenge that today’s reality presents to us as we attempt to serve the poor? Why? What steps can we take in order to confront that challenge?
- What are your hopes with regard to:
- --- commitment as a member of the Vincentian Family?
- --- the meaning of community as understood by your branch of the Vincentian Family?
- --- the way in which the charism of Vincent and Louise is currently lived in the midst of the world?
- From the perspective of the virtues that characterize our charism, what contribution can we make to the process of evangelization?
All references to the writings of Vincent de Paul are taken from: VINCENT DE PAUL, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, translators: Helen Marie Law, DC (Vol. 1), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 1-14), James King, CM (Vol. 1-2), Francis Germovnik, CM (Vol. 1-8, 13a-13b [Latin]), Esther Cavanagh, DC (Vol. 2), Ann Mary Dougherty, DC (Vol. 12); Evelyne Franc, DC (Vol. 13a-13b), Thomas Davitt, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Glennon E. Figge, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), John G. Nugent, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]), Andrew Spellman, CM (Vol. 13a-13b [Latin]); edited: Jacqueline Kilar, DC (Vol. 1-2), Marie Poole, DC (Vol. 2-14), Julia Denton, DC [editor-in-chief] (Vol. 3-10, 13a-13b), Paule Freeburg, DC (Vol. 3), Mirian Hamway, DC (Vol. 3), Elinor Hartman, DC (Vol. 4-10, 13a-13b), Ellen Van Zandt, DC (Vol. 9-13b), Ann Mary Dougherty (Vol. 11, 12 and 14); annotated: John W. Carven, CM (Vol. 1-14); New City Press, Brooklyn and Hyde Park, 1985-2014. (Translator’s Note: Not all of the citations to this work have been cited because on serval occasions gave no citation or gave an incorrect citation or utilized a translation of the text that made it difficult to identify the reference).
All reference to the writings of Louise de Marillac are taken from: LOUISE DE MARILLAC, Spiritual Writings of Louise de Marillac, Edited and Translated from the French by Sister Louise Sullivan, DC, New City Press, Brooklyn, New York, 1991.
All Scripture references are taken from the New American Bible for Catholics.
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM