For a long time, I have wanted to write this article. For many reasons, however, I have had a certain reticence about putting these thoughts on paper. What gives me most cause for hesitation is that my own doesn’t adequately reflect the values presented here. Nonetheless, I would like to share these ideas which have been inspired by the words of experts in the field of Vincentian studies and some of my own reflections.
This article is meant as a reflection on the renewal of Vincentian spirituality. It is not an historical study of the spirituality of Vincent de Paul. That work has already been done by more competent historians and students of spirituality. My concern is to relate key elements of the Vincentian tradition to contemporary concerns and approaches. For this reason, at times, I have emphasized points that Vincent never considered and in a manner quite different than his own. It seems to me that in terms of renewal, we have to being the spirit which animated Vincent’s life into line with the Twentieth Century. We cannot relive the Seventeenth Century. We can, however, revivify a spiritual tradition that began with a simple French priest in the age of the Counter-Reform. Structures and modes of living become obsolete, inneffectual and pass away. But a spirit lives on in the hearts of men and women, taking new form in each era. So, while in some cases, I am conscious of having departed from the particular expressions of our founder, I believe that these reflections are very faithful to his spirit.
Perhaps in the process of trying to transpose this spirituality, which is concretely rooted in the Seventeenth Century, into our own time, I have distorted the Vincentian vision. My goal, however, is not to have everyone agree with my thoughts. I view this work as an instrument for generating discussion and dialogue. My hope is that the article will stimulate members of the Double Family to study, think about, reflect on and pray over our spiritual tradition in a new light. If that happens, then this article has been successful.
Vincentian spirituality has become a safe topic. Almost all of the confreres and Daughters find it an interesting subject for workshops and personal reading. As important and as interesting as these exercises may be, they can reduce Vincentian spirituality to comfortable sterility. We can repeat the words of Vincent and study his life without ever being touched by the spirit which moved him to say and do certain things.
Yet Vincentian spirituality could have, indeed should have, an entirely different impact on our lives. It should challenge us to rethink our understanding of Jesus and his message. It should force us to examine our lifestyles, our expressions of piety, our response to the Gospel and our approach to ministry. Any attempt to embody the spirituality of Vincent de Paul today demands that we move beyond the status quo in many areas of our personal and community lives.
Three hundred years ago a small group of men and women gathered around St. Vincent de Paul because they wanted to share his vision and his manner of living the Gospel. That is what it meant to be a priest of the Mission or a Daughter of Charity in the Seventeenth Century. It mean Mat today as well. Vincentian spirituality, Vincent’s manner of responding to the evangelical message, stands at the heart of the Vincentian vocation in every age. The expression may be different, but fundamentally it’s the same faith vision which we seek to capture in the Twentieth Century.
A renewal and reappropriation of Vincentian spirituality should be a crucial concern for members of the Double Family. If we lose touch with our spiritual legacy, then to some extent we tease to be truly Vincentian. If, on the other hand, we so historicize this tradition, much like biblical fundamentalists, that we become irrelevant in the modern world, then we might as well not exist. We cannot, therefore, either abandon Vincentian spirituality, or lock ourselves completely into its primitive form. The task before us, individually and as a community, is to go back to our roots and to reinterpret them in light of our own position in history.
I. TWO BASIC FOCAL POINTS
A. JESUS CHRIST, THE EVANGELIZER OF THE POOR
Every Christian spirituality begins with an understanding of Christ. St. Vincent, under the influence of Pierre de Bérulle, had a Christology «from above». He viewed Jesus as the Word of God, who emptied himself of divine prerogatives to become man. Vincent, as so many other members of the French School of Spirituality, was deeply impressed by the mystery of the Incarnation. The idea that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son was a point of wonder and awe for him.
Vincent’s spirituality stands out from the other followers of Berulle because for him, the Son of God not only became a man, he became a poor man. He chose to be counted among the poor in order to enrich us by his poverty.
This theological foundation supports a vivid image of Jesus taken from the Gospel. The concrete picture of Jesus is that of the Fourth chapter of Luke. Here, Jesus stands up in the synagogue of Nazareth and declares himself sent to preach Good News to the poor. The Good News, quite simply, is that the Kingdom of God is for the poor. Salvation is at hand for them.
The Jesus of St. Vincent had a special love for the dispossessed and the downtrodden. He spent his time mixing with those elements of society whom the ordinary rabbi avoided. It a was a scandal to his pious contemporaries that Jesus mingled with prostitutes, tax gatherers, the weak and the poor. He turned on its ear the popular notion that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. For Jesus, people had worth, not because they had wealth and power, but because they were children of his Father. Jesus proclaimed that «being», not «having», enabled one to enter the Kingdom of God.
St. Vincent saw clearly that Jesus did not only preach a beautiful message about an abstract kingdom. His words did not raise hopes and then allow them to be dashed. What he proclaimed by word, he concretely put into practive by his actions. He made the love of God a reality in the lives of the poor by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, raising the dead, treating sinners with compassion. The action which most demonstrated God’s love for the poor was the death of his Son on the cross. It is there that Jesus shows God’s solidarity with suffering and oppressed humanity. At the same time, he Cakes a hopeless situation and turns it into a sign of hope. The Paschal Mystery shows that God can and will act as Liberator in a situation filled with despair and evil to make it hope-filled, grave filled.
Vincent de Paul’ s life revolved around his relationship with Jesus, the evangelizer of the poor This was the person he carne to know and lave in his prayer and life’s situations. In the course of their interaction, Vincent came to see that his charism, the gift given him by the Spirit for the building up of the Church, was to make the love of God a reality in the lives of the poor. The love he experienced in his relationship with the Lord moved him to all of the great works he accomplished in his life. As such, his activity is more than philanthropy. It is a response to grave.
Present day Vincentian spirituality has to be centered on a particular image of Jesus— —that of the evangelizer of the poor. The choice of this image has wide ramifications on every aspect of our lives. It is in light of this image that we interpret the Gospel and historical realities.
This specific image of Jesus is not only a model to be imitated. It is the form in which we come to know him as a person. For members of the Double Family, spirituality involves a relationship with the poor Jesus. Vincentian spirituality stands or falls on the strength of that relationship.
B. THE POOR PERSON
If Jesus stands at the center of Vincentian spirituality, the poor person stands there beside him. Our founder experienced that he could not separate Jesus from the poor. In his own life, he only came to know Jesus, when he came to know the poor (7). Chatillon, Folleville, and his temptation against the faith were all events which helped him perceive that Jesus is discovered in the midst of the poor. They take on a virtually sacramental place in his spirituality.
Vincent’s view of the poor was not a romantic vision. Rather it was a faith vision. When he speaks of the poor, he means those who are on the economic and social fringes of his society. He does not make our distinction between economically and spiritually poor. The two states are one in his mind, because the former is the cause of the latter. Everyone is poor in some sense, yet he does not use this broad notion. If everyone is poor then no one is poor: The poor of whom Vincent speaks are the indigent, oppressed and starving people whom he met in the fields and city streets. He recognized that they presented a repulsive exterior. He strove, however, to look beyond the unpleasant faces, filthy bodies and angry expressions to the presence of Jesus within.
Since they are sacraments of Christ, there is no question of bringing Jesus to the poor. He is there already! Evangelization means making them aware of this presence. The proclamation of the Good News and the works of justice and charity are the means of making the love of God known to the poor. These are not two separate functions, but rather two means to the same end. Priests of the Mission, therefore not only preach the Gospel, they make it concrete in acts of justice and charity. The Daughters of Charity not only serve the physical needs of the poor, they proclaim the gospel as well.
The message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is for the poor. The Kingdom, God’s power which is love, comes to be when persons experience that love in historical situations. Wherever the poor are treated with justice and charity, wherever an oppressive situation is made more human, there is the presence of God. This is God acting to bring salvation by transforming the world.
The salvation promised in Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom involves the total person. As Fr. Bastiensen maintains, «The bodysoul division is not Vincentian», All Christian spirituality is geared to the building up of the Kingdom of God. Salvation, the wellbeing of the whole person, occurs in the action of Christians working to build God’s Kingdom of peace, justice and charity. The choice for God involves a choice for humanity. Vincentian spirituality further specifies this latter aspect in a choice for the poor. This can never be a selfrighteous turning of one’ s back on the rich. That would only lead to new forms of oppression. The option for the poor, however, means that our lives are directed to the total service of the poor, the most abandoned.
The sacramental aspect of the poor, and our call to make the love of God present in their lives, places them at the heart of Vincentian spirituality. It demands that we be with the poor in order to find God and to proclaim his presence. This is why Vincent could say to the seminary professors that they should feel very uncomfortable because they were not working directly in the midst of the poor. A concern for the salvation of the poor may remove us from the direct presence of the poor. That should always make us feel uncomfortable, because it is in them that we preeminently meet God. Each member of the Double Family has to use his or her gifts for the best possible service of the poor. That may mean we have to leave the poor to conscienticize others. Such activity, while fitting in with Vincentian practice, should only be undertaken with much discernment and recurring evaluation.
II. AN ACTIVE THRUST
The exploration of the two primary focal points, the poor Jesus and the poor person, leads us to reflect on the basic attitude which flows from them. Any spirituality is going to be shaped by its starting point, and that of Vincent de Paul is no exception. Since his reflection centered on the mission of Christ to evangelize the poor, our founder’s spirituality is characterized by an active, rather than a passive thrust. It is a spirituality for mission. The mission is not entirely our own. It is the mission of Christ which gives impetus to Vincentian spirituality. No true Christian spirituality can be either totally active (Pelagianism) or totally passive (Quietism). It is really a matter of emphasis. Vincent’s approach to the life of the spirit clearly stands in the line of the active spiritualities.
The adherents of Bérulle taught that the Christian life is an attempt to reflect on the states of Christ’ s life and to imitate his attitudes. In Vincent’s mind, the preeminent disposition of Christ was charity. The Word entered the world to reveal the immense love of the Father. His mission was to proclaim the Good News of the advent of God’s Kingdom. The life of the Incarnate Word is characterized by love of the Father and charity towards the neighbor. Union with God is expressed by simultaneous union with people.
Vincent’s reflection on the life of the Lord and his own experience showed him that charity towards the neighbor brought union with God. Actually, love of God could not be separated from love of the neighbor. It is not love God and then the neighbor. It is love God in the neighbor. This love can never remain in the heart. It has to be expressed in action. Therefore, the Vincentian manner of living a Christian lifestyle consists in continuing the mission of Christ. In this way we glorify the Father as Jesus did, by proclaiming the Kingdom, by making God’s love real in the lives of poor people.
One definition of spirituality is: «the expression of a dialectic growth from the inauthentic to the authentic». Keeping this definition in mind, anyone familiar with the events of St. Vincent’s life can understand why he proposes an active spirituality for his sons and daughters. As a newly ordained priest, his life was characterized by mediocrity and self-seeking. In deciding to dedicate his life to serving the poor, and even more so by really doing that, his life took a new direction. He found himself on the path to holiness, to union with God and relationship with Jesus.
Personal experience and reflection moved Vincent to an active spirituality. A life of charitable activity was the way he suggested that his Double Family come to holiness. In his own words, « The best way of assuring our own eternal happiness is to live and die in the service of the poor, in the arms of Providence and to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ».
One of the tasks we have yet to undertake is to develop forms of spirituality that are conducive to an active life. Up until the present we have used a framework more reflective of monasticism than activity. There is a need to seek common spiritual exercises that will fit in with and foster a life of mission, There is, however, a problem of going to extremes in this. Activity not rooted in prayer becomes meaningless. Monastic modes of prayer can hinder our availability for serving the poor. A question that needs further study is, how do we integrate the two, given our primary attitude of an active spirituality?
A. SPIRITUALITY IN THE WORLD
It is with regard to approaching the world that Vincent de Paul was most like his friend St. Francis de Sales. Both men reacted against any notion that holiness is flight from the world. Neither shared the popular ideal of holiness which necessitated a life behind the walls of a convent.
Vincent’s approach to the world is clearly seen in the conference of August 24, 1659, where he says to the Daughters:
«Having only for a convent the houses of the sick and that in which the Superioress resides, for a cell a hired room, for a chapel the parish church, for a cloister the streets of the city, for an enclosure obedience, with an obligation to go nowhere but to the houses of the sick or places that are necessary to serve them, for a grill the fear of God, for a veil holy modesty… for all of these considerations, they should have as much or more virtue than if they had made their profession in a religious order».
This is not simply stirring rhetoric. It was his profound belief that the Daughters of Charity and priests of the Mission could only live a life of holiness while immersed in the world. That is why he worked constantly against anyone or anything that threatened to take them out of it.
Once again this point flowed from his perception of Jesus and his own personal experience. Jesus carne into the world with a mission to establish the Reign of God. God’s rule is not an abstract ideal. It comes about when people choose to change their fundamental approach to others. Jesus called people to move away from inhuman ways of relating. Jesus’ mission was to open people to the possibility of living a life of peace, iustice and charity.
Jesus immersed himself in the world to transform it. He recognized that sin and the structures it engendered enslaved humankind. He sought to overcome this situation with words and works that held out the possibility of something different. He realized that if he was to touch people personally with his message, he could only do so by being involved in situations where sin and suffering existed. In the process, he exposed himself to temptation and death. Anything less, however, would have rendered the Kingdom devoid of meaning and his mission fruitless.
Continuing the mission of Jesus must be more than doing pious practices. It is even more than relating passages from the Gospels. The mission before us is to touch people’s lives with the gift of love. It is to make people aware of the power of Christ’s Spirit to liberate them from all forms of sin and oppression. We only continue the mission of Christ when we get involved in the lives of the poor; when we reach out to them in their pain, when we try to meet their needs. That cannot happen if we separate ourselves from the poor. The biggest danger of distorting the Vincentian vision today, comes not from ecclesiastical authorities who seek to close us up behind monastery walls. The biggest danger is that the attitudes and structures we ourselves have developed in the Double Family will keep us away from the poor.
The human person in the world is a social, economic and political being. We are not immune from participation in these aspects of life. The Kingdom does not exist outside these structures, but within them. Our goal is to make them more human. In some way we have to take part in the work of transforming the structures which oppress the poor. Our Vincentian tradition has been strong on avoiding especially political involvement. The voice of the Church and ¿he cry of the poor, however, speak more loudly in our present situation than does even words of St. Vincent. He himself was willing to get politically involved for the sake of the poor, even though he counsels otherwise.
1. THE VOWS
Our understanding of the role of the vows is inspired by St. Vincent’s. Clearly neither the first Daughters or confreres took them. Vincent introduced them as a means of stability in service of the poor. Thus he consistently maintained that they are not the same vows that religious make. They are essentially neither acts of asceticism nor the primary means of our own sanctification. For Vincent, the vows are linked to the apostolate, to our mission. They gear us to participation in the mission of Christ in the world— to build up the Kingdom of God, to preach Good News to the poor. They are our personal commitment to making the values of the gospel present in the world.
The vow of service to the poor stands as the cornerstone which supports and defines the other three vows. It is a personal promise to place the evangelization of the poor at the core of our lives. In light of this, service of the poor can never be for us a peripheral concern or one task among others. By this vow we commit ourselves to following Christ Jesus by participation in his mission to the poor. We have pledged ourselves to bringing about the presence of the Kingdom for them. The ramifications of this vow can be immense and even threatening, because it involves taking concrete steps necessary to be for and with the poor. It demands more than an intellectual assent. It demands a conversion of heart and a corresponding lifestyle.
Chastity has to be viewed in light of service of the poor. A celibate existence is not sexual athleticism or a negation of human ways of loving. It is the acceptance of a call to embody evangelical charity in a non- genital manner. Gospel charity, however, is only expressed in human ways of loving. This implies a real warmth and caring for people. The poor will only experience the love of God if we truly love them in a genuine human manner.
Celibacy is embraced for the sake of the Kingdom. It signifies that life for the kingdom involves a new approach to human interaction. It expresses that fellowship is not based on ties of blood, marriage, physical desirability or economic compatibility. It is a love gratuitously given. It is not a choice to love an anonymous mass of humanity. Rather the vow challenges us to introduce love and justice into our relationships with the poor we serve and the people with whom we live. It moves us to find concrete, human ways of making the love of God present in the lives of the poor.
The vow of poverty makes our service of the poor both possible and credible. Essentially evangelical poverty is inner detachment, but it cannot be separated from its exterior manifestation. Poverty of Spirit calls us to center our lives on the Kingdom, or rather on its Lords, not on possessions. Without a poor lifestyle, poverty of spirit borders on the meaningless. Vincent recognized that without a commitment to poverty service of the poor would be lost to other concerns.
Jesus did not proclaim the Kingdom from a position above the poor. He became one with them, even to the point of having nowhere to lay his head. Poverty is a manifestation of our solidarity with the poor Christ and the poor person. This demands, however, more than a pseudopoverty which covers up a middle-class existence with pious phrases. A middle-class lifestyle will not make us one with the poor. We cannot proclaim a Kingdom of justice for the poor if our lifestyle contributes to the situation of injustice. The vow of poverty then is a commitment to make our use of material goods consistent with our call to serve the poor.
Apostolic exigencies and individual differences make a life of indigency impractical for most members of the Double Family. There is a need, however, to make our lives more simple. It is easy to fall into the trap of justifying the accumulation of goods or the development of a consumer mentality. The vow of poverty should move us to re-evaluate our common and individual lifestyles in light of a commitment to serve the poor.
The last vow commits us to a life of obedience in apostolic service. The guiding model for this vow is Jesus who was obedient even unto death. Jesus’ life was characterized by an abandonment of his own desires so that the will of his Father might be done. His Father’s will, quite simply, was that the love of God be manifested to the world in his Son. Thus we see a total dedication in the life of Jesus to preaching the Good News. Jesus’ obedience was a commitment to his mission in the world.
Obedience is primarily bound up with the Vincentian task of continuing Christ’s mission to the poor. In essence it is obedience to Christ who was granted authority by his Father. Therefore, Vincent is quite correct when he says, « Jesus Christ is the Rule of the Mission». Obedience for members of the Double Family basically comes down to obedience to the call to preach the gospel to the poor.
Difficulty crises when we attempt to transfer obedience to God’s will in specific historical situations. It is not always clear what action will most manifest God’s love in particular circumstances. A process of dialogue between members of the community, the Church, the poor and society is indicated in this situation. The notion of obedience is much broader than following the commands of superiors or the prescriptions of the rule. To say that superiors are not the sole bearers of God’s will is not equivalent to saying that they have no place in the community. Their role is to take responsibility for the discernment of and the carrying out of God’s will. They have responsibility for providing good arder so that a Community can be attentive to God’s will.
There is a need in the Double Family for models of authority which will promote personal growth and freedom, and at the same time provide effective service of the poor. Subjects have a co-responsibility for the discerment of God’s will and its concrete application in the apostolate. In light of this, authority has an obligation to listen to the members of the community and to provide structures where this can happen. At the same time, subjects have to recognize that as members of a larger community, they have a responsibility to cooperate in order to allow for good order. They also have to be open to the Spirit speaking through the community at large.
Immersion in the world for the sake of the Gospel calls for a life of simplicity. That is why St. Vincent could say, « It is the virtue which I love the most».
Traditionally we have focused on only a minor aspect of this virtue. We equate simplicity with saying what one thinks. Honesty in speech, however, is an expression of simplicity, rather than its essence. Simplicity is single-hearted devotion to the Kingdom of God and its justice. The primary focus of what we do and say must be guided by a desire to see the Kingdom of God take root in the lives of the poor. That is why the poor of heart are blessed. Everything they say and do is inspired by the Kingdom.
The great temptation facing us is to let other factors become the motivating force in our lives. Involvement in political, economic and social life in the world places us in a position where secondary concerns can replace the Kingdom at the core of our lives. Desire for political power, the amassing of wealth, good reputation, gaining influential friends are realities we have to deal with as individuals and as a community. Even seemingly religious concerns, such as attracting vocations, can pull our hearts away from a more fundamental concern. To miss this point is to forget the reality of sin in our lives and its presence in the structures around us. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Vincent de Paul’s own ministry was that he was constantly handling large sums of money, and mingling with influential political and religious leaders, yet he never sought his own advancement or that of his two communities. His primary concern was preaching the Good News to the poor. We see no guile in his words or actions, because his heart was solely occupied by Jesus and the poor.
Simplicity means more than an absence of self-seeking. In a positive sense, it calls us to a zealous concern for justice. It means protesting and acting against injustice and uncharitableness wherever they exist. It requires that we become the voice of the voiceless and those on the margins of society. Simplicity requires that we not stand idly by while people suffer. Such actions are not going to win us many friends, except perhaps among the poor. Action on behalf of justice may cause us personal pain. At least that was the experience of Jesus and St. Vincent. Such action, however, will make the Kingdom of God present in concrete situations.
B. ATTENTIVENESS TO THE ACTION OF GOD
Vincentian spirituality falls within the category of the active spiritualities. This means that growth in holiness develops in the context of relationships. It evolves through interaction with people and events. Thus, one encounters the Lord by being actively engaged with the poor and the events which shape their lives.
St. Vincent was able to discover God present in the poor and in situations because God is active in the world. The Lord moves within history, revealing himself and his power to liberate from evil those who are attentive. Vincent’s path to holiness started when he became attentive to God acting in the happenings of his life. Vincent’s spirituality was prophetic in this sense; he pointed to the action of God in places and persons normally overlooked.
At first sight, it can be disconcerting to see that prevalent themes in the conferences of our founder were passive virtues. He spoke often of the need to be attentive to Providence and the will of God. Yet his presentation of these passive virtues does not contradict his active spirituality. Vincentian activity is never mere exterior action. It is always a response to grace, God’s self-communication in history. In order to be truly cooperative with grace there is a need to be attentive to its presence. Vincentian spirituality then contains an element of passivity. But it is a receptivity tied to action.
For St. Vincent de Paul, the two terms, Providence and the will of God, are closely linked. Providence flows from the will of God. Providence is a manner of speaking about God’s active concern for humanity. He is so concerned about the welfare of his creatures that he penetrates their history, making it salvation history. God’s presence is always salvific, because he always acts to save humankind from the domination of sin and evil. Creation and the Redemption are the two great acts of Providence, but these are ongoing realities. They come to us in countless, ordinary ways.
Jesus’ mission in the world was not to do his own will, but that of his Father. He became the definitive sign of God’s salvific activity, the locus of Providence, because he was entirely open to and receptive of God’s will. People encounter God in Jesus Christ because he was the faithful servant who completely cooperated in the mission of God.
Vincent de Paul made it a point to be attentive to God’s will because he saw himself as continuing the mission of Jesus. He considered this receptivity essential to an apostolic life. Since he saw himself as a cooperator, rather than an initiator, Vincent was always careful not to rush Providence. He waited for God to manifest his designs in people and events, especially the most pressing needs of the poor. He could be strikingly innovative since his concern was to allow God to act, not to maintain institutions. From 1617 on, Vincent consistently went against his own inclinations and preferences when the will of God pointed another way.
Attentiveness to Providence and the will of God have remained a part of Vincentian spirituality in our century. We have to be open, as Vincent was, to God speaking and acting in history. This involves a strong recognition that we are doing God’s work, not our own. So we should feel free to move to new things, to be innovative, if that is the way he wishes us to go. God’s will for us in the last century may have been that we do certain works. These works may or may not be his will for us in the present. One criterion for re-evaluating our activity must be the real needs of the poor. We have to ask ourselves, Are we going out to the most abandoned or are we making them come to us? Are we meeting their needs or maintaining our own security?
We are called to be instruments of Providence. God means to touch people’s lives through us. Salvation comes to the poor when we preach the Good News to them. In order to do this effectively we must discern the will of God for us today. The poor of today are similar to the poor of Vincent’s time, but not identical. The specific action for their liberation and salvation will differ since the situations differ. Attentiveness to God’s will means that we become aware of people’s need for salvation. Only in this way can we truly cooperate with God’s will to save people from sin and oppression.
St. Vincent described prayer as an intimate conversation between the soul and God. In other words, prayer is an encounter between persons. It is there that we discover and are drawn into the presence of Father, Son and Spirit, who dwell at the core of our being. The primary place for members of the Double Family to encounter God is in the poor. In order to do this, however, we have to be attentive to his presence in our own lives. If we never take the time to be conscious of the Lord at the center of our lives, we will never find him in others.
Prayer is never a solitary encounter between us and God. It is not an escape from the world and its problems. Prayer and an apostolic life have to be integrated. We bring the world with us into prayer, and prayer propels us out into the world. Holiness is essentially a life of charity: love of God, love of the neighbor. Prayer should inflame our hearts with a love for God, whom we meet in intimate conversation. Since we cannot love God abstractly, we are moved to share this love in concrete situations with our sisters and brothers.
Prayer effects a transformation in our lives. Jesus was the personification of the Kingdom because he stood in relationship to his Father. His whole life and mission reflected that relationship. In choosing to follow Jesus Christ and live for the Kingdom, a person simultaneously opens himself to the salvific power of God. The choice for the Kingdom is a recognition that we ourselves are incapable of establishing peace justice and charity due to the presence of evil and sin in our lives. Only by opening ourselves to the active presence of the Lord can we too be- come personifications of the Kingdom.
In prayer, God seeks to liberate us from sin and its effects. There he speaks to us the challenge to change our lives. There he offers us affirmation and love. Most importantly, it is there that he himself acts to help us grow to be truly his children. If we seek to make the Kingdom present for the poor, it must be present in ourselves first. Sin is the root cause of poverty and of oppression. If we want to help liberate the poor, we must let God act to liberate us. Prayer alerts us to the need to change ourselves. It is also the place where this transformation begins. The closer we get to God in prayer, the more clearly we see our own weakness. At the same time, however, we experience his action to heal us.
When we encounter God in prayer, we become more aware of his will for us. He speaks to us of our role in making salvation present for the poor. He points out the needs of the poor that we should be meeting. In prayer we become aware of the activity of the Lord in the situations of life. It makes us more able to see and discern the presence of God in the poor. The familiarity we establish with the Lord in prayer carries over into the ordinary routine of life. It can never be separate from the rest of life. It is a special part of our lives— a time to be with the Lord. In reality, he is ever present. Prayer makes us more perceptive of this.
The Eucharist played a large part in the spirituality of St. Vincent. In this meal the salvific presence of Christ is definitively, though symbolically, manifested. The presence of the Lord is most profoundly and effectively experienced in the Eucharistic elements and assembly.
This symbolic sharing of the Body and Blood of the Lord is also a symbol of what we are called to be as Christians. It calls us to be the Body of the Lord, his presence in the world, beyond the sanctuary. Life must be a living Liturgy. If we share food and drink around an altar, then we must give food and drink to the poor. If we offer peace to each other in the aisles of the Church, then we must work for peace in the world. If our liturgical actions proclaim us the People of God, dedicated to charity and justice, then this must be reflected in our lifestyles. If there is no correspondence between Liturgy and lile, then the Eucharist becomes an empty sign.
St. Vincent practiced humility to such an extent that some people thought he was a bit odd. Even his sons and daughters can find his expression of humility strange. If his example of humility is dated, however, its meaning remains significant. It is a gospel value which takes different forms, but retains a core meaning which is necessary for Christian living.
Humility is recognition of our own situation before God. It is the honest realization that we are no better or worse than the rest of men and women. A humble person is one who knows he/she has been saved by the grace of God and not by his/her own power. In light of this, the humble person is not concerned about self-advancement. The person for whom humility is a lived value does not get so caught up in personal concerns that others and their needs are forgotten. In recognizing a great debt of gratitude to the Lord for all that one is, the humble person feels no need to push himself above others.
Humility is the virtue of those who are attentive to the Lord and his will. Humble people receive their support from God and not their own devices. They understand that their talents are God-given gifts meant to be used in service. They look to the Lord’s will in order to know how to use them in cooperation with his plans. Only humble people can be open to this dimension of life. They are able to listen to the voice of God, because they are not so full of their own thoughts that they are closed to those of others.
Service of the poor depends on humility. It is the virtue of servants. We can never call the poor our lords and masters, and really mean it, if we are not humble. Humility is truth, and the truth is that the poor are sons and daughters of God as we are. They share the same human dignity that we ourselves do. Our work is to help them appreciate their dignity as human persons and their relationship to God.
This recognition of our solidarity with the poor flows from humility. If humility makes us open to the needs of the poor, it also moves us to see that those needs are met. It enables us to identify the structures and attitudes within society which are the cause of their oppression. Humility enables us to stand with the poor and against the common stereotypes. It enables us to stand up in a society that views the poor as essentially worthless and declare that they have value by their very humanity.
Vincentian spirituality has its roots in one man’s encounter with God. Any renewal requires some historical investigation into that encounter. We do not seek simply to retell the story of St. Vincent’s road to holiness. Rather, since God reveals himself in history, we look beyond the surface of the story to find the patterns of their interaction. In looking to the past, we became more aware of how the patterns occur today for us. We seek the meaning behind the events of Vincent’s life in order to enlighten our visage in this period of history. In other words, we hope « to see things as they are in God, not as they appear».
This article has described the spirituality of a mature man, a saint. Vincent de Paul became a holy man through a long process of development. It would be unrealistic for us to think that we can recapture this same spiritual lifestyle overnight. Failure to live up to these ideals should be neither a cause for despair or settling for mediocrity. The important thing is that we each begin or continue the process of trying to realize the ideals.
Vincentian spirituality is more a lifestyle in which to be engaged than it is a subject to be studied. In the final analysis, a true renewal will result only through the lives of good men and women who are willing to seek God in the service of the poor.