For Vincent de Paul, simplicity, humility, and charity constitute the spirit of the Daughters of Charity (SV IX, 594-95).
The word spirit, of course, means life. These three virtues are so important that without them a Daughter of Charity is “dead.” Even if she is a dogged worker on behalf of the poor, even if she is a tireless organizer of service programs—if she lacks these three virtues, Saint Vincent would say, she is not a Daughter of Charity.
I will divide this chapter into three parts: 1) a brief study of simplicity as understood by Saint Vincent; 2) a description of a horizon-shift that has taken place in theology and spirituality between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries and that affects our way of viewing simplicity today; 3) an attempt at retrieving simplicity in contemporary forms.
Simplicity as Understood by Saint Vincent
For Saint Vincent, simplicity1 is first of all, speaking the truth (CR 4; XII, 172). It is saying things as they are (SV 1, 144), without concealing or hiding anything (SV I, 284; V, 464). He expresses this in a letter to Francois du Coudray on November 6, 1634:
You know that your own kind heart has given me, thanks be to God, full liberty to speak to you with the utmost confidence, without any concealment or disguise; and it seems to me that up to the present you have recognized that fact in all my dealings with you. My God! Am Ito fall into the misfortune of being forced to do or to say in my dealings with you anything contrary to holy simplicity? Oh! Sir! May God preserve me from doing so in regard to anything whatsoever! It is the virtue I love most, the one to which in all my actions I pay most heed, so it seems to me; and if it were lawful to say so, the one, I may say, in which I have, by God’s mercy, made some progress. (SV I, 284)
The heart must not think one thing while the mouth says another (SV IX, 81; IX, 605; XII, 172). Missionaries and Daughters of Charity must avoid all duplicity, dissimulation, cunning, and double meaning (SV II, 340; IX, 81).
For myself, I don’t know, but God gives me such a great esteem for simplicity that I call it my gospel. I have a particular devotion and consolation in saying things as they are. (SV IX, 606)
Simplicity also consists in referring things to God alone (CR II, 4), or purity of intention (SV XII, 172). In this sense simplicity is doing everything for love of God and for no other end (SV XII, 174; XII, 302; II, 315). It entails avoiding “human respect” (SV II, 340), or doing things merely to look good in the eyes of others.
Simplicity involves an unadorned lifestyle. We fail against simplicity, Saint Vincent tells us, when our rooms are filled with superfluous furniture, pictures, large numbers of books, and vain and useless things (SV XII, 175). We must use with great simplicity the things that have been given to us (SV IX, 607).
Simplicity also entails explaining the gospel by familiar comparisons (SV XI, 50). When he speaks to the Daughters of Charity, he uses the Little Method that was employed in the Congregation of the Mission at that time (CR XII, 5). Preaching about a virtue, for example, he might present:
- motives for living it,
- its nature or definition, and
- means for putting it into practice. (SV XI, 260)
e. In Saint Vincent’s mind, simplicity is very closely linked with humility (SV I, 144) and it is inseparable from prudence (CR H, 5), which for him means always basing one’s judgment on the evangelical maxims or on the judgments of Jesus Christ (SV XII, 169, 176) Both prudence and simplicity tend toward the same goal: to speak and to act well (SV XII, 176).
A Significant Horizon Shift
Perspective makes a huge difference2. Much depends on where we stand. My view of Paris is altogether different from the top of the. Eiffel Tower than it is from the bottom of a metro station. It is the same with theology and spirituality. Our horizons change from one era to another, and they affect our way of seeing God and seeing the world.
Horizon shifts, whether we react to them favorably or unfavorably, necessarily have an impact on the way we see all reality. They bring with them gains and losses, as we interpret life, people, truth and events from a changed historical perspective. Practices that seemed apt in one era may seem quaint in another, because our way of viewing them has changed quite dramatically. So it is with the three virtues that constitute the spirit of the Daughters of Charity. Putting this in traditional language, we might say that the challenge is to find the substance of each of the virtues, to put aside those concrete (“accidental”) forms that are no longer appropriate for mediating that substance in the modern world, and to find contemporary forms which will embody it more readily.
Of course, not all practices of a previous era are irrelevant today; in fact, many that Saint Vincent suggested are still suitable means for expressing the values he sought. Yet just as many languages cease to exist as a living word capable of communicating meaning, so also some of the practices that were once suitable vehicles for expressing values in Saint Vincent’s time are no longer capable of doing so now. In those cases, the challenge is to find or create new forms that will do the job.
A significant shift which has taken place between Saint Vincent’s time and ours is that change has come to find a greater place in our expectations. People today are willing to accept fewer absolutes. They question absolute prohibitions which were formerly accepted. They emphasize that changing circumstances make one case different from another.
Another has been increasing pluralism. Contemporary thinkers recognize the value of different cultures, philosophies, and theologies. The inductive scientific method emphasizes the search for truth, whereas formerly a more philosophical method emphasized the possession of truth. An obvious sign of this in ecclesial matters is the ecumenical movement.
This way of viewing truth also has implications in regard to the virtue of simplicity.
In some ways simplicity is not difficult to retrieve today. The virtue which Saint Vincent loved most, his “gospel,” so to speak, still appeals. In a contemporary context described above, it can take many forms, some of which are suggested below.
a. Speaking the truth. Simplicity today, as in Saint Vincent’s time, means saying things as they are.
Truth is a keystone concept. Truth is the foundation of trust, which is the basis of all human relations; falsehood, on the other hand, violates trust and makes genuine human relationships impossible.
But experience proves that it is very difficult to let our yes mean yes and our no mean no, as Jesus puts it (Mt 5:37; cf. Jas 5:12; 2 Car 1:17-20). It is precisely because Jesus speaks the truth that his enemies give him no credence (in 8:44). Ultimately, he dies for the truth.
On the other hand, as Saint Vincent reminds us, there is a great attractiveness about those who speak the truth. We sense spontaneously that they have nothing to conceal, that they have no hidden agendas. They are truly free. Consequently, it is easy to relate to them.
Yet speaking the truth with consistency is an extremely difficult discipline. We are tempted to blur the truth when our own convenience is at stake or when the truth is embarrassing to us personally. It is also difficult to be true to one’s word, one’s promises, one’s commitments. When we make a statement in the present, it is either true or false right then and there. When we make a commitment for the future, however, it is true only to the extent that we keep it true. Truth, in this sense, is fidelity. It is in this sense especially that Jesus is true to us. He promises to be, and is with us always, even to the end. It is in this same sense that we are called to be true to vows, to friendships, to our concrete commitments to serve.
Speaking the truth is especially important in the relationship we call “spiritual direction.” We choose a “soul friend” so that, with his or her help, we might grow in the Lord’s life and in discerning those things which promote his kingdom. It is imperative, therefore, that this relationship be characterized by free self-disclosure and by the avoidance of “hidden corners” in our lives. No one is an island. We need others to mirror back to us what is happening or not happening in our journey toward the Lord. The quality of such relationships in spiritual direction will depend largely upon the simplicity with which we disclose ourselves.
b. Witnessing to the truth. This understanding of simplicity is most relevant. People spontaneously admire those who live out what they believe and say. A very comprehensive survey in regard to priests and ministers has disclosed that the quality people most seek in ministers is genuineness, authenticity3.
In an era when so many young people have lost confidence in civil and religious authorities because of corruption and proved duplicity (e.g., the political scandals in Italy, Spain, France, England, the United States, and so many other countries), those whose lives match their words speak more powerfully than ever. Speaking and witnessing to the truth are central Christian values, especially in John’s gospel. Jesus is the truth (in 4:6). The person who acts in the truth comes into the light (Jn 3:21). When the Spirit comes, he will guide us to all truth (in 16:13). It is the truth that sets us free (in 8:32). The reason why Jesus has come is to testify to the truth (in 18:37). Anyone who is of the truth hears his voice (Jn 18:37).
This type of simplicity is also extremely attractive in the modern world. Young people love those who are “real,” “genuine.” These are contemporary names for simplicity.
c. Seeking the truth. Being “real” or genuine today, as is evident from the horizon-shift described above, may often demand our admission that we are groping to find the truth, that we are uncertain as to the truth, or that there are complementary truths_ This is all the more necessary in a world where it is not longer possible to have universal knowledge.
We are conscious today of being wayfarers. Life is a journey, an ongoing process. So it is also with the quest for truth. We grasp the truth gradually. It is not captured in a single insight. Our verbal attempts at expressing it are always limited, perfectible. Nor is it possessed once for all. It is constructed bit by bit. The deeper we descend into the well, the deeper we know the well to be. So we must be dedicated to seeking, pursuing, finding the truth. This virtue, which Bernard Haring calls “dedication to the truth,” takes the form of listening well, meeting and discussing with others, reading, ongoing education.
d. Being in the truth. This is what we might traditionally call simplicity of intention, purity of heart, referring all things to God. It is single-minded devotion to the Lord and his kingdom. In this sense, when the simple person labors, he labors because he loves God and he loves his people. He does not labor in order to be placed in high positions. Nor does he labor because admiration or money may come his way if he takes on extra work. When a simple person recognizes that his motives are mixed, he talks them out and seeks the aid of another to help him discern why he is really doing things. He knows that it is impossible always to have a single intention, but he seeks to make love of God and service of the neighbor the dominant motive in everything. Jesus groped to know his Father’s will and struggled with contrary desires as he resolved to do it; the simple person today will necessarily engage in and work through a similar struggle.
As an aid in growing in this type of simplicity it is helpful to survey the competing values in our lives from time to time. Comfort, power, popularity, and financial security can subtly compete with love of God and love of neighbor. Sometimes these secondary motives will coincide with purer motives (as when the people whom we serve admire us and give us lots of positive feedback). But when they conflict, are we willing to sacrifice?
e. Practicing the truth (in love). This means performing works of justice and charity, making the truth come alive creatively in the world. It means bringing the truth to completion in deed. It means making our word become flesh, giving the gospels concrete life-form. The truth cannot just be verbal; it must be lived. Commitments to do the works of justice cannot just be spoken; they must be kept, day in and day out. The gospels cannot just be preached; they must be practiced in love.
Simplicity, from this point of view, means that when we preach justice we must also live justice. When we preach solidarity with the poor, we must also live in solidarity with the poor. When we exhort others to a simple life-style, we must live simply ourselves. When we say that we are celibate, we must live as celibates. When we proclaim the ways of peace-making, we must act as peace-makers.
f. Integration. Simplicity in this sense means personal wholeness, the ability to bring together in a unified way the varied aspects of one’s life: labor, prayer, community, solitude, leisure. Young people speak of “having it together.” Formation literature today often stresses integration as the goal of the whole formation process.
Martin Buber tells a striking story that illustrates the importance of integration:
A hasid of the Rabbi of Lublin once fasted from one Sabbath to the next. On Friday afternoon he began to suffer such cruel thirst that he thought he would die. He saw a well, went up to it, and prepared to drink. But instantly he realized that because of one brief hour he had still to endure, he was about to destroy the work of the entire week. He did not drink and went away from the well. Then he was touched by a feeling of pride for having passed this difficult test. When he became aware of it, he said to himself, “Better I go and drink than let my heart fall prey to pride.” He went back to the well, but just as he was going to bend down to draw water, he noticed that his thirst had disappeared. When the Sabbath had begun, he entered his teacher’s house. “Patchwork!” the rabbi called to him, as he crossed the threshold4.
The truly simple person arrives at “being a united soul.” His life is no longer “patchwork,” but is “all of a piece.” Love of God and love of neighbor come together in a single whole.
g. Simplicity of life. As in Saint Vincent’s time, simplicity today also has implications in regard to life-style. Some contemporary writers even prefer to use the terminology “simplicity of life” to “poverty” when speaking of the content of our vow. Regardless of the terminology, our commitment to community for the service of the poor necessarily involves a commitment to a simple life-style, in which we share, at least in some ways, in the experience of those in need.
But such simplicity of life must not be confused, as sometimes happens, with drabness or lack of beauty (or worse, with lack of cleanliness!). On the contrary, simplicity implies beauty and enhances it. Simplicity is one of the characteristics of genuine art. Masterpieces of painting, sculpture, design, and music, even when quite complex, maintain a radical simplicity that lies at the heart of their beauty. Consequently, it is important to foster a sense of “the beautiful” in our lives. Especially the places and the forms of our prayer (singing, methods of reciting the psalms, images, etc.), while simple, should be “something beautiful for God.”
- For some interesting information on this same subject, as well as further bibliography, the reader may wish to consult: J.-P. Renouard, “L’Esprit de Is Congregation: Les Vertus Fondamentales,” Vtncentiana XXVIII (1984) 599-615; cf. also T. Davin, “The Five Characteristic Virtues,” Colloque XIV (Autumn 1986) 109-120; A. Orcajo, El Seguimiento de Jesús según Vicente de Paúl (Caracas, 1988) 174-228. Cf. also Christian Sens, “Comme Pretre Missionaire”, in Monsieur Vincent, Témoin de L’Evangile (Toulouse, 1990) 133-151. esp. 140f.
- For a treatment of the nature and int porialice of horizon-shifts, cf. my articles entitled “Five Characteristic Virtues: Yesterday and Today,” Vincentiana XXIX (1985)226-54; “The Four Vincentian Vows: Yesterday and Today,” Vincentiana XXXIV (1990) 230-397.
- Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Readiness for Minisrry (Vandalic, 1975-76).
- Martin Buber, “Resolution,” in The Way of Man According to the Teaching of the Hasidism 21.