Saint Vincent as Spiritual Adviser

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

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Author: Thomas Davitt · Year of first publication: 1984 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission, no. 9.

Paper read to meeting of Spiritual Directors in Celbridge, 2 September 1982.


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It is unfortunate that no one who had Vincent as his spiritual adviser has left a journal or detailed notes of the advice which he received. Our knowledge of the sort of advice Vincent gave comes to us from his letters and conferences, from what he said after Repetition of Prayer, and from what others have said about it.

Abelly says that Vincent was very approachable, especially for those who had any sort of spiritual problem, and that he had been known to receive the same person as many as four times within an hour. One confrère gave Abelly a written account of his own experi­ence with Vincent:

Fr Vincent always gave me great support and treated me very kindly when I was going through a bad time. I used constantly go and intrude on him when he was getting ready to celebrate mass or say his breviary. And when I had received an answer I would leave, and then turn round and go back in again, repeat­ing this several times. This went on over a long period and I never heard him say a harsh word, rather quite the opposite. He always answered me with great kindness, never putting me off as he could justifiably have done since I was continu­ally imposing on him. Even when he had told me what to do, seeing I was still in doubt he took the trouble to write out for me in his own hand what he had said so that I would remember it better; for this reason he would get me to read it back to him out loud. Finally, no matter at what hour I went to him, and it was often very late, well on into the night, he always received me with the same goodness, listened to me and answered with a kindness and charity which I cannot explain (3.12.1).

In 1650 Vincent wrote to Sister Jeanne Lepeintre:

Spiritual direction is very useful; it is a source of advice when in difficulties, of help when discouraged, of safety when tempted and of strength when overwhelmed… (Ill 614).

panel1-4In the Common Rules he goes further than saying that spiritual direction is “very useful”; he says “one can hardly make progress in virtue without the help of a spiritual director”. But if direction is so important it is equally important that the director be someone who is capable of giving the help required, someone who will not “turn off” those looking for help. In the letter to Sister Jeanne Lepeintre Vincent added at the end of the passage quoted “…when the director is really charitable, prudent and experienced”. In 1657 he wrote to Louis Dupont who was dealing with someone who had an unspeci­fied problem:

You mustn’t put him off; instead, welcome him and treat him kindly and in that way give him confidence to come and see you and consult you. Show him that you want to help him, and this as your own idea; don’t mention that I wrote to you about it (VII 29).

Some years earlier Mark Cogley had asked Vincent how to deal with difficult confrères and was told:

…prudence must decide this; it is useful in some cases to see things from their point of view in order to be all things to all men as the Apostle says; in others it is good to take issue with them quietly and in a moderate way; and with others to oppose firmly their way of behaving (IV 90).

To Pierre Escart in 1643 (II 265) and to Guillaume Delattre in 1646 (II 584) he quoted Francis de Sales’ maxim that if a thing had a hundred ways of being viewed one should always choose the best. He also used this in a conference to the confrères in 1642 (XI 122). But if kindness doesn’t have its effect then firmness must be used, as he told Pierre de Beaumont, superior in Richelieu, in 1658 (VII 163). In the previous year there had been much dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the Director of the intern seminaire there, Honore Belart. The complaints were about the manner in which he treated the seminarists and the insulting language he used to them, even in the presence of others. Seminarists were leaving because of this, and other young men who had been thinking of entering the community changed their minds when they heard about Belart’s conduct. He also showed signs of jealousy if he thought other confrères were trespassing on what he considered to be his territory (VI385-388).

Around the same time Denis Laudin, superior in Le Mans, was given similar advice: kindness does not mean letting the confrère in question do and say what he likes (VII 226). And so, a few months later again, he told Etienne Bienvenu:

You’d like to have the advantages of our community life but not its problems and difficulties. That’s impossible. Every type of life in the world has its sweetnesses and bitternesses; both must be swallowed (VII 317).

The problem with many of these confrères was that they thought that they had the answers themselves, that they knew it all. In 1647 Vincent had warned Claude Dufour about the danger of thinking that his opinion was an inspiration (II 174). In 1652 he told Achille Le Vazeux:

The worst is, your make-up is such … that you think you yourself have sufficient light to see everything without seeking that of others (IV 437).

In a conference to the confrères in 1659 he spoke about God giving inspirations to certain people, but added that such people should discuss the matter with experienced men and seek advice (XII 150).

What he was warning against was really the danger of a person’s not having a real knowledge of himself. Honoré Bélart, the problem Director in Richelieu in 1657, was told:

If you say you’ve never noticed these faults in yourself, Father, it’s a sign that you don’t know yourself (VI 388).

In 1649 a Visitation nun, Jeanne-Marguerite Chahu, was told to

Look into the depths of your soul in the sight of God… (III 461)

so that she could recognise what exactly her motivation was. The knowledge of our defects is necessary so that we can do something about remedying them, as he pointed out in a conference to the confrères in 1659 (XII 231). In 1638 in a letter to Bernard Codoing he says he prays that Codoing may be helped by God towards self-mastery (1501). In an undated conference referred to by Abelly he spelt out one aspect of self-mastery in the area of anger: it means trying to forsee the events and persons which could generate anger and to practise in advance overcoming one’s initial angry response to them (XI 66). There is no point in knowing our faults if we do not do anything about them, as he wrote to an unnamed confrère in 1647:

…we see many who, no matter how good their intention and how fine their resolutions, are nevertheless slow when it comes to putting these into practice, or when it comes to overcoming problems… (Ill 163).

In 1659 he wrote to a student confrère Jean de Fricourt:

…if you ask me therefore how it is that men are so different, some fervent and others lax, I answer that the former overcome their natural dislikes and that the latter don’t make sufficient effort to do so; the former are at peace because their heart is not divided, since they have given everything to God. The others are uneasy because wanting to love God they still won’t give up loving things other than God, and these things are the bodily comforts which make the soul reluctant to practise virtues. This gives birth to, and nourishes, laziness, the clerical vice (VIII 111).

Nearly twenty years earlier he had told Etienne Blatiron that there must be perseverance in the practice of virtues

…and the means for that, Father, is the constant recognition of the mercy and goodness of God towards us, together with the continual, or frequent, fear of rendering ourselves unworthy of them and of becoming slack about our little exercises, espe­cially prayer, the presence of God, examens, spiritual reading and the performance each day of some acts of charity, mortifi­cation, humility and simplicity (II 129).

Virtues are acquired slowly, by repeated acts. In 1655 he wrote to Pierre de Beaumont, who had been Director of the seminaire in Richelieu before becoming superior there:

About your idea of working hard to mortify the self-centred judgement and will of your seminarists I have this to say . . .; this cannot be done all at once but only by repeated acts. You must therefore be content with leading your seminarists towards it step by step, aiming at eventually reaching the goal after a long time because there is a long road to travel, except when it pleases God to dispense with the ordinary ways (V 436).

That progress is slow and gradual, in practical as well as in spiri­tual matters, is something to which Vincent refers very frequently, and he often links it with the fact that the Spirit of God works quietly while the activity of natural inclinations and the evil spirit lacks these qualities (IV 122, IV 576, VII 417).

In the list which he sent to Etienne Blatiron of things about which a person might become lax he put prayer first. On 13 August 1660, which was only six weeks before his death, Vincent wrote to Jacques Pesnelle, superior in Genoa:

Our rule which obliges us to make an hour’s prayer every day does not make an exception of days when we have a sleep. So, Father, on those days there must be a full hour just as if we had not taken a sleep; it is not right to take the extra sleep at the expense of the most important activity of the day. However, we have to adapt to circumstances. Sometimes we have things to do which cannot be put off and which cannot be reconciled with the hour’s prayer. Very well, we attend to them after having considered them in the sight of God and found them reasonable, because God does not ask of us anything contrary to reason. But since this does not happen every day, nor to everyone, it is better, generally speaking, to keep to the rule… The Prince de Conti… is admirable in his fidelity to prayer, doing two hours every day, one in the morning and one in the evening, and no matter what important business he has, and no matter who may be present, he never misses them. It’s true that he is not so attached to a precise time that he won’t start earlier or later according to circumstances (VIII368-9).

In a Circular Letter to all superiors dated 15 January 1650 Vincent links the falling-off in some community houses to the fact that some confrères were not getting up for prayer, and continues:

So much so, that not being at prayer with the others they were deprived of the advantages which come from praying together, and often enough they prayed only rarely, or not at all, on their own (III 353).

Further on in this letter he wrote:

…the grace of vocation is dependent on prayer (III 359).

Vincent generally recommended Francis de Sales’ method of prayer but he made it clear that no one was bound to follow that or any other particular method (IV 390, IX 50). For those who follow such a method he warns against the danger of thinking that the early part of the method, the “thoughts and considerations”, is actually prayer (IX 30). In 1656 Antoine Durand, a twenty-seven year old confrère, was appointed superior in the seminary in Agde and he kept some notes of what Vincent said to him when he was given the appointment, including this about prayer:

There is one important thing to which you must attend consci­entiously; you must give plenty of time to being open with our Lord in prayer (XI 344).

In his article on Vincent in The All Hallows Annual for 1959­ 61 William Purcell refers to the difficulty of finding a neat phrase to express accurately the French avoir grande communication. A dictionary of 17th century usage shows that the verb from which the noun derives meant to reveal one’s thoughts, very much in the sense in which the English word “communication” is, or at least used to be, used in spiritual direction. The context makes it clear that Vincent envisaged this communication with our Lord as being two-way. This would be in line with a remark in a conference to the Daughters in May 1648 that in prayer we get to know ourselves (IX 417).

He also warned the Daughters that prayer was not just a matter of thoughts nor was it a time for preparing for the day’s work (IX 30) and he warned the confrères that it was not to be a time for prepar­ing something to say in case they were called for reptition (XI 253). On 17 June 1657, after Repetition of Prayer, he repeated four or five times “God be praised!” because Mark Cogley had said that at prayer he spent very little time on thoughts and most of the time on affections. Vincent praised him very much for this and said that that is the way to pray (XI 401). Almost exactly two years earlier, after he had called a student for repetition, he had remarked that the students generally gave too much time to thoughts and too little to affections, and added:

Reasoning is all very well but it is by no means enough; some­thing more is needed; the will must come into play and not just the intellect, since all our thinking is profitless if we do not move on to the affections (XI 183).

Later on he gave as an example of what he meant: acts of faith, hope, charity, humility, thanksgiving, adoration, dependence, and finally asking pardon. “Excite” and “inflame” are two verbs which he often used in the context of affective prayer.

But for Vincent prayer does not stop even there. There must be a further step, as he said after Repetition on one occasion:

Some people have lovely thoughts and fine feelings but they don’t relate them to themselves and don’t make sufficient reflection about their interior state (XI90).

The corrective to this mistake is to make a practical link between one’s prayer and one’s daily life. Unless this practical link is made Vincent would not regard it as genuine prayer, and that is why he can say that the resolutions formed at prayer are its most important element:

The main effect of prayer is a genuine determination, a strong determination, a firmly-based self-convincing determination to get oneself to carry out what one has resolved, foreseeing difficulties in order to overcome them (XI 87; cf also XI 406-7, XI90, XI301, IX 30).

But here again he adds a warning about the danger of over-relying on our own strength to carry out the resolutions, since only with the help of God can this be done. Most failures stem from this mistake (XI88). To prepare ourselves to receive the necessary help in the future we should constantly remember and thank God for what he has given in the past (XI256,407).

In a conference to the Daughters on 31 May 1648 Vincent explained about mental prayer, and then continued:

The other sort of prayer is called contemplation. It is when the soul, in the presence of God, does not do anything except receive what he gives it. It is without any activity and God himself inspires it, without any effort on its part, with whatever it could want to obtain, and much more.

And he went on to say that no doubt some of them had experi­enced this at retreats (IX 420).

In a letter to Antoine Portail in April 1638 he wrote:

May it please God’s goodness … to give us a share in the eternal idea which he has of himself… (1 475).

All quotations so far have been taken from different letters, con­ferences and repetitions, mainly directed to confrères; they were all extracts taken from larger overall contexts. Not many of Vincent’s letters were “letters of direction”, but the following one is entirely on one point on which the addressee had consulted him. The letter is in volume II pp 15-17 but Coste has censored it and omitted five passages from it. In a footnote he says he felt obliged to do this. This is all the more remarkable since towards the end of the previous volume he had complained that someone else had thoroughly oblit­erated forty lines in a letter which Vincent had written to Jeanne de Chantal: “It is profoundly regrettable, let us say it again, that someone went to so much trouble to prevent our knowing what one saint wrote to another” (1574, n. 1). The orginal letter is in Turin and when I was there during the summer I took the opportunity of obtaining a photocopy. It is addressed to Jacques Tholard, a confrère in the seminary in Annecy. He was ordained, at the age of 241/2, on 17 December 1639 and the letter from Vincent is dated 1 February 1640, seven weeks later. This means that he had only just started his priestly ministry when he wrote to Vincent. His problem was that he had experienced seminal emissions when hearing confessions. As far as I know this is the first time that this letter has appeared in print in its entirety in any language. In it Vincent, as in some other letters, used a sort of dialogue style; he framed objections which the addressee might make and then answered them. For clarity in reading, these objections have been printed between inverted commas:

I received your letter with a pleasure so deeply felt that I cannot put it in words, and the sole reason for this is that it was a letter from Fr Tholard whom my heart loves more than I can say. But I must admit that there was equal sorrow in reading what you say about your cross to which Providence has nailed you, not in order to ruin you as you fear, but so that, as in St Paul, virtus tua in infirmitate perficiatur. Since the grace God gave him at the height of his temptations was sufficient for him you also have reason to hope for the same sufficiency in the grace he gives you, and which is apparent in the purity of intention which you have when you begin hearing confes­sions, in the fear you have of offending God while hearing them, in the remorse you feel when the violence of the tempta­tion having removed your freedom causes nature to give in, vacando rei licitae, and finally in the constant determination you have of preferring to die rather than voluntarily do wrong; all this makes it clear that these happenings are not volun­tary, and therefore not culpable. As you know, sin is such a voluntary thing that if the will has not been involved there is no sin at all in actions in which materially there may seem to be, and that’s why the masters of the spiritual life judge to be non-sinful these happenings which occur during confessions, and nowadays they do not wish people to confess them, and in this connection I know a holy priest who never, or rarely, confesses that he falls into these weaknesses; and although that is the case he confesses them only in his annual confes­sion, and in that he accuses himself not of the substance of the matter but of not sufficiently detesting the pleasure which his miserable carcase takes in it, and of the fear that perhaps his will in some way contributed to the action. And if you believe me, Father, you’ll never confess them except at the same time and in the same way that he does, and he’s one of the best and most fervent priests I know on earth; what’s more, he’s known to be such by everyone.

“Yes, but it’s not the same thing; perhaps he has some indication by which he knows that he had no freedom when he was carried away by the violence of nature; but as for me, I’m not in that position, for it seems to me that I could prevent it”. No, Father, don’t believe it, because neither this movement nor its effect depend in any way on your will; in the agitation of nature it could not prevent them; as a result, the thing is no more voluntary in your case than in his, or in anybody else’s.

“Yes, but I could get up and leave, until this agitation has passed, or at least not ask the questions which bring it on”. I answer that if it happened to you in other places or other activities to which you are not obliged or to which are indif­ferent then you would have to leave the place and the activity at the first stirrings of this feeling. But since it happens to you in a holy and godly activity to which nowadays every priest is obliged, you are not allowed to give up the action or to omit the questions which are necessary for salvation just because of this feeling or because of the emission which usually follows it; because these are actions and questions which concern the salvation of the neighbour and your own vocation.

“Yes, but wouldn’t it be better if I completely gave up hearing confessions?” Jesus, no way! God has called you to the vocation in which you are; he has given you blessings in it; he has preserved you; in this way you have greatly extended the empire of God and saved many souls, and you will continue to do all this in the future, I hope, with more grace and success.

And Jesus, Father, how could you repair the displeasure and the damage you’d do to God’s glory and the souls he has ransomed with his precious blood if you give up what you are doing? Remember, Father, you can pick roses only among thorns, and heroic acts of virtue can be performed only in weakness. St Paul didn’t give up God’s work just because he was tempted, and one does not abandon Christianity because in it one experiences great and horrible temptations; and we are not allowed to take our own lives just because they are lived out in the concupiscence of the flesh and that of the eyes, and the pride of life.

“Yes, but I could stifle this feeling or its effect”. In view of the violence of the feelings you would not be able to prevent its effect without danger to your life; one of our brothers died of this and we have another at the moment running the same risk. That’s why the masters of the spiritual life forbid doing oneself violence in such cases and they advocate allowing this weakness to take its course as a natural discharge and continue hearing confessions without worrying about it.

It would be a good idea for you to pass over these matters as lightly as possible. That’s the first bit of advice usually given, and that one shouldn’t worry when one feels too much attracted.

The second is to try not to look at the faces, and the other parts of the body, of the other sex which lead to the tempta­tion. And when the opposite happens, rest assured, Father that this is because you haven’t freedom and because the will is weakend by the violence of the temptation, and don’t worry about it if it seems to you that this is not the case.

That, Father, is what I have to say to you in God’s sight and in the light of doctrine and the teaching of the saints.

Don’t worry about what you tell me your confessors say to you about this matter; they haven’t enough insight and are not sufficiently experienced in this matter. Confess only in the way I have told you. I offer to answer to God for you, and I am, in the love of our Lord.

Your very humble servant,

Vincent de Paul

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