Saint Vincent and Discernment

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Padraig Regan, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1985 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.

(Revised version of paper read to Vincentian Study Group, 2 April 1984)

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1. Discernment

Within the entire span of religious consciousness and commitment there is a central conviction that God himself can and does direct our lives. A key exercise of the spiritual life is to experience God’s direc­tion or, as we say, to know God’s will for us. This is called discernment. Many of us, even in our teens, first underwent this process when we felt the call of God and responded, painfully or joyfully, by joining the Congregation.

The experience of Elijah is a model of discernment. On Mount Horeb he did not find God in either the storm, the fire or the earth­quake, elements classically associated in the bible with divine epiphany. Instead, he found God in the still, gentle, breeze, an unlikely manifesta­tion of God’s presence (I Kgs 19:9).

Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism (Mt 3: 16-17). Matthew refers us to the prophecy of Isaiah who foresaw in the Messiah a discerner of the things of God:

And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and power,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of Yahweh.
He does not judge by appearances,
he gives no verdict on hearsay
(Is 11: 2-3).

St Paul warns us against trusting every spirit and he advises us to test them all. For he is aware that Satan can, and does, disguise himself as an angel of light to lead us away from God (I Cor 11:11-15).

Emphasis on the need for discernment continues through the Christian tradition. Among the fathers in the East were The Shepherd of Hennas, Origen, Anthony of the Desert, Cyril of Jerusalem; and in the West St Augustine, Cassian and St Gregory the Great. Thus, The Shepherd of Hermas:

How, then, … shall I know their workings, seeing that both angels dwell in me? Here, saith he, the angel of righteousness is delicate and bashful and gentle and tranquil. When, then, this one enters the heart, forthwith he speaketh to thee of righteousness, of purity, of holiness and of contentment, of every righteous deed … When all these things enter into the heart, know that the angel of righ­teousness is with thee.

Now, see the works of the angel of wickedness also. First of all, he is quick-tempered and bitter and senseless, and his works are evil, overthrowing the servants of God … Whenever a fit of angry temper or bitterness comes upon thee, know that he is in thee.’

The tradition is carried onwards by spiritual writers like St Bernard, John Gerson and Denis the Carthusian; also by theologians like Richard of St Victor, St Thomas Aquinas, Henry of Friemar, St Catherine of Siena. We imbibed the tradition in the seminaire while reading the Imitation of Christ, Bk 3, ch 54 (Of the different motions of nature and grace) and ch 55 (Of the corruption of nature and the efficacy of divine grace).

At the end of the middle ages the tradition on discernment was re­stated in a fresh and precise form by St Ignatius of Loyola. One writer makes the point that Ignatius, recently converted from an unspiritual life, was unaware of the tradition so that his Rules for Discernment were re-inforcing and confirmatory of existing teaching of which he was quite innocent. Ignatius fashioned his rules for the needs of a counter-Reformation apostolic spirituality. There are three stages in his discernment process:

  1. First Week Discernment: simple judgement on the moral Tightness or wrongness of a decision or action;
  2. Second Week Discernment: more sensitive discernment of possible evil masquerading as good; our affectivity is important at this stage;
  3. Thinking with the Church (objective element which distin­guished Ignatius’ discernment from Luther’s); discernment is not confirmed by God until it is confirmed by the Church.1

I shall conclude this section with an attempted definition of discern­ment: Discernment involves choosing the way of the light of Christ instead of the darkness of the evil one, and living with the consequences of this choice. Or, more familiarly, knowing God’s will and doing it. Shorthand: allowing God to direct my life.

2. St Vincent and discernment

Our interest is in St Vincent and how he takes up the scriptural, patristic and medieval practice of discerning God’s will. Vincent did not write, either systematically or autobiographically, about discernment. He was a mystic of action. His spirituality is expressed with actions rather than with words. In the Common Rules, the only work he wrote for publication, he summarises the principles of his spirituality for the benefit of his Congregation. There he advises us that we should always hold to the principle of using “divine means for divine ends” (CR II, 5). This was no mere theory. We find in Vincent’s life occasions when he lays aside his customary protests of diffidence and ignorance in favour of a high degree of conviction and determination. And his effectiveness is not to be traced to any self-will but to his willingness to be the file in the hands of the divine tradesman. If we accept Ignatius’ scheme for discernment as outlined above we will find that Vincent’s discernment process follows along similar lines. As he discerns the will of God for himself and for those he directs we can see in operation those three stages: judgement about the Tightness or wrongness of a decision, awareness of the subtle deceptions of the evil spirit which present as good and holy what in reality is neither, and his ever-sensitive attention to the mind of the Church. Three events from his life may serve to illus­trate Vincent’s exercise of discernment.

(a) Vincent’s temptation2

It would be interesting to have a study of this significant happen­ing in Vincent’s spiritual development. In his taking on himself of the burden of the doctor of the Sorbonne we have a hint of the future Vincent, the director of souls, drawing to himself the cloven hoofprints of the spirit of evil marking men’s minds and hearts with anger, resis­tance and unbelief. The director is tempted to crumble beneath the weight, to allow evil to swamp his spirit, to indulge feelings of futility and hopelessness or, as we would say today, to burn-out. And we see how Vincent, slowly, painfully and persistently propels himself towards the light, senses rather than sees God’s light in the ambient darkness, and ends by finding his life’s vocation in this apparently endless night of evil. Vincent chooses the way of light in preference to the way of darkness.

(b) Vincent’s founding the Congregation

Vincent was reluctant to found a religious community. But once he arrived at the conviction that this was God’s will, and that God’s will was his will, the reluctance vanished and was replaced by single-minded determination. In order to arrive at this conclusion Vincent submitted himself on three different occasions to discern the will of God.

The first occasion, to judge the Tightness of the project, was during a retreat he made in the Carthusian abbey of Valprofonde. There his Carthusian director dispelled his misgivings about himself and his project. He told him a story about a bishop of the patristic Church who was having difficulties over the acceptability of women for the sacra­ment of baptism:

He begged God often to set him free from these temptations; but as God did not hear his prayer he finally lost his patience and decided to retire to the desert. There God showed him three crowns, each one more costly than the other, which he had prepared for him if he should persevere. But he told him that he would receive only the smallest since he did not have confidence that he would preserve him from failing in this trial. . . (II, 107).

This anecdote — concluded Vincent, who told it to one of his con­frères who was continually oppressed by scruples — “caused to vanish a temptation very similar to what I was then suffering in the exercise of my vocation”3.

The second occasion, to cope with the more subtle difficulty of dis­tinguishing the real from the apparent will of God, was during a second retreat, this time at Soissons:

at the outset of the project concerning the Mission during that continual preoccupation of my spirit, as I distrusted it but did not know whether it proceeded from nature or from the evil spirit, I made a retreat at Soissons expressly for the purpose that God might desire to take away from me the spirit of pleasure and haste which I was feeling about this matter, and God deigned to hear me to such an extent that in his mercy he removed from me this pleasure and haste, and allowed me to move into the opposite dis­positions (II, 246-247).

We notice how Vincent was becoming attuned to the Spirit of God rather than to any other spirit. He was reaching a state of indifference over the matter. He desired:

… to remain in this practice of not finishing or undertaking anything while there remain in me these ardours of hope in the prospect of great benefits (II, 247).

The third occasion, confirmation by God through the authority of the Church, was the expressed view of his spiritual director, André Duval:

In his efforts to submit himself totally to the will of God, Vincent … had learned that that will, even though well manifested by the interior movements of grace, becomes clearer still by way of the commands of one’s superiors. At Soissons he had reached perfect indifference of spirit (freedom). He saw there a sign of the supernatural character of the proposed foundation. He wanted something more: an indication that it was positively willed by God (confirmation). So he brought the matter to his spiritual director Fr André Duval. Vincent poured out the whole story of himself, the missions, their success, the graces bestowed by God. Then he awaited the response of his director. It was brief but illuminating: “The servant who knows his master’s will and does not do it will be given many blows”. Scarcely had he heard these words than he felt in his heart a powerful explosion of grace. It was the divine command he was seeking. He doubted no more. God was calling him to offer himself completely, with all those who would follow him, to the mission of evangelisation of the poor4.

Once more in the Common Rules we can see Vincent’s own spiritual experience made available to his community:

Experience teaches that the surest and safest remedy in such cases (where the evil spirit disguises himself as an angel of light to mislead us) is to reveal the trouble as soon as possible to those who have been appointed for this purpose. Each one, then, if he finds himself beset by thoughts suspected of illusion, or by any serious trouble or temptation, should reveal it as soon as possible to the Superior, or the Director appointed for this purpose, in order that a suitable remedy may be applied (CRII, 16).

Let us now summarise the elements or stages of discernment used by Vincent in deciding to found the Congregation of the Mission:

(i) The project was manifestly a good one;

(ii) Vincent was free of harsh, hasty and harassed feelings, leaving him with a healthy indifference and free to be moved by God’s spirit;

(iii) The project was submitted to his director and it accorded with an authoritative voice of the Church.

(c) Vincent: the discerning director

Vincent, experienced in discerning and doing God’s good pleasure in his own life, was now ready and able to direct others in this same exercise. Fr Claude Dufour, rector of the seminary of Saintes, was a conscientious but austere man who wished to leave the Congregation in order to live a life more in conformity with his inclinations. He submit­ted his plan to Vincent’s direction; here is what Vincent told him:

It is the part of the (devil’s) cleverness to tempt most good people to greater perfection, so that he may make them abandon the post where God wishes them to be (III, 166).

That was 31 March 1647, and the following month, 23 April, he con­tinues to warn Fr Dufour:

(The devil’s design) is to withdraw you from where God has placed you, under pretext of the greater security of your salvation, in order that the saving of your soul may be put in greater danger.

And he mentions that one hundred Jesuits in the city of Paris alone have fallen for this ruse; (even in Vincent’s time at least a hundred of Ignatius’ sons were not observing his Rules for Discernment):

In the name of God stand fast in the state in which God has placed you (III, 173).

Vincent is prepared, if the need arises, to give Fr Dufour another appointment in order to keep him in the Congregation.

In 1648 Vincent was writing again to Fr Dufour, who had complained about the number of unnecessary rules in the Congregation. Vincent complimented him on his life and work in the community and explained the necessity of rules in every group. He goes on:

This makes me think that the little repugnance that you felt is the work of the evil spirit who wishes to annoy you in the beauti­ful road along which you are travelling. I beseech you, Sir, not to listen to him; for if two or three rules are displeasing to you because they are superfluous in your regard, another may like them because they suit him. The children of our Lord walk gladly in his ways; they have confidence in him and so, when they fall, they rise again; and if, instead of stopping to grumble about the stone they have tripped over, they humble themselves at their fall, this helps them to advance with great strides in his love. I hope for this from you, Sir, who are by his mercy entirely his, and who breathe only his holy will… And though it seems to you that you would more willingly carry out the duties of this holy religious state than those of our little institute, you would doubtless be therein deceived, as many others were who left their true vocation to enter on a different way of life in which they found less satis­faction. Why? Because the difficulties they thought to fly from were not in what they had left, but in their own imagination… (III 346-347).

Right or wrong (leaving the community); the affectivity experienced (irritation, annoyance, which the evil spirit brings); and the authority of the Church (rules of Church or community): These are the ingredients of discernment of spirits handed on by the Christian community and invoked, and applied, by Vincent.

3. Irish Vincentians and discernment now

Our community is living through a period of upheaval and change in the Church and in the world. Doubts and difficulties within ourselves are experienced in the context of social disorder, violence and unjust poverty in the world around us. A choice to join, or stay with, the com­munity can be an ambivalent one at present. For it may be an option to go along an easy, unreformed, unchanged, undirected drift powered by a familiar past and without any chosen future; or it may be a conscious corporate choice to assume responsibility for the spiritual and apostolic future of this province. At provincial gatherings, when we set about deciding our future, we say all the right things. We tell ourselves, for example, that we must pray for discernment of God’s will. Do we trans­late this laudable sentiment into any recognisable process of prayerful discernment? Do we love what Vincent loved, do we practise what he taught us by his actions:

(i) to discern the evidently right decisions for our future;

(ii) to experience interior peace with the corporate decisions we take, and with the carrying out of them;

(iii) to arrive at these decisions because they clearly conform to the thinking of the Church today?

The tradition and practice of discernment are available to our Irish Province as we plan our future in response to Church and commu­nity demands (contained in Evangelii nuntiandi and in the Superior General’s letter following the Bogotá meeting of Provincials). We must consider ourselves bound to follow St Vincent’s principles and practice of discernment:

… to use divine means for divine ends. We shall think and judge about matters according to the mind and judgement of Christ, never according to the standards of the world (CRII, 5).

So, a critical question facing our province is the following: in our decision-making for apostolic mission which is the more likely to influ­ence us, the mind and attitude of contemporary business management whose terminology and values are centred on measurable material success, or the Spirit of Jesus Christ heeded through a process of Christian discernment, whose terminology and values are centred on the cross, consecration and oblation of self? I believe that at present we are inclined to listen first to the former. If so, our province is neglecting its Christian and Vincentian heritage.

  1. Cited in Cowan & Futrell: The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, 1981, pp 154-155.
  2. I am indebted to Fr Eamonn Flanagan CM for much of the material in this section and for his translation of pp 166ff of Roman: San Vicente de Paúl, I, Biografía, Madrid, 1981.
  3. (On the recipient of this letter see COLLOQUE No. 9, pp 212ff. Ed.)
  4. Roman, op cit, pp 167-168.

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