St Vincent and Mental Prayer

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Aidan McGing, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1984 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.
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Unfortunately, although Vincent had read widely in the classics of prayer, and has been called “a master whose prudence and sagacity really amount to genius”1 he has left us no treatise on prayer. We do not possess even the conferences which he gave to the priests on this subject. We have to fill out the picture from four principal sources: some conferences to the Daughters, repetitions of prayer in St Lazare, fragments preserved by Abelly, and his correspondence. Let us note in passing that many of his remarks à propos were directed to students, seminarists and sisters still in formation. His rather humdrum dis­courses in these situations cannot represent the heights to which he personally soared.To begin with, he is certain that mental prayer is for all, whether priests, lay people or religious2. It is so important that the Congregation will last only as long as it continues in mental prayer3. He repeats continually that there are two things necessary for mental prayer, the first being mortification (perhaps we would say “self-discipline”, “simple life-style” etc., today). The era which had seen the heroism of the Conquistadores and took public torture for granted was bound to indulge in violent mortifications. Vincent was moderate for a man of his time, and his kindness to the sick in both communities was extraordi­nary. But he insists that self-denial is necessary for prayer, while prayer makes self-denial easy. His second pre-requisite is simplicity, or a total humility before God; it is God who gives the gift of prayer. We must work at it, but no learning, no extraordinary efforts on our part will force his hand (MP 52).

“Prayer” he says “is an elevation of the mind to God by which the soul detaches itself, as it were, from itself, so as to seek God in himself. It is a conversation of the soul with God, an intercourse of the spirit in which God teaches it in an interior way what it should know and do, in which the soul says to God what he himself teaches it to ask for4. In the concrete, we begin prayer by deliberately coming into God’s presence5.

He describes at length how the beginner should set about prayer. He must reflect with his understanding on what has been read, or on some mystery, and then seek to stir up his will to make “affections” to avoid evil and turn to God, etc6. Vincent is influenced here by the scholastic distinction between intellect and will; the modern beginner in prayer turns more easily to the pre-scholastic lectio divina, where he reads, ponders and raises his mind to God. Vincent is also eager to take different virtues for the subject of each prayer session; the modern beginner is instinctively personalist; he starts from the experience of the psalmist, from somebody else’s personal prayers, or from the figure of Christ in the gospels.

In his own cultural setting Vincent’s aim is to get the praying person to rise to “affections” towards God: in a word, to get the praying person beyond thinking about God (Christ) and to pray to him as a person who loves us. Modern experience shows that this is still the first great step forward in prayer, when the beginner, after reflecting, reading and hearing about the Lord actually speaks to him as a friend and not just as a giver of gifts and a saviour from tight corners. Vincent continu­ally returns to this point — long experience had taught him how much encouragement beginners need to take the step7.

At the same time one should pray for one’s needs, especially specific virtues8. One may look forward and ask oneself how God wants one to spend the day9. His instructions to beginners are very specific, and follow the method of St Francis de Sales, but for those more experi­enced he recommends the gospels and the psalms, in the manner of the lectio divina described above10.

Once the praying person is over the preliminary stages Vincent is very liberal. He accepts, for instance, that some will simply say the rosary quietly while others will read a book, raising their minds to God from time to time (MP 48). Even the advanced should be happy to waste time in God’s presence when nothing seems to be happening11.

In passing, let me quote a concrete instance of Vincent’s own way of praying, from his repetition of prayer on October 18, the Feast of St Luke, 1656. In this repetition he is deliberately teaching his hearers to pray, but the personal accent is unmistakable: “And yet above every­thing else there should be little reasoning but much prayer; much, very much, prayer. And after what I have just said (i.e. in reference to the day’s feast) we should raise our hearts to God and say to him ‘O Lord, send good workers to your Church, but may they be good. Send good missionaries to work hard in your vineyard, men, O my God, such as they ought to be, utterly detached from their own comfort and worldly goods. Let them even be few in number, provided they are good. O Lord, grant this favour to your Church. Give me all the dispositions you wish to see in your disciples, such as having no attachment to earthly goods’. And so on” (MP 202).

Provided that we do the will of God outside of prayer (“Let us love God, yes, but let us love him in the sweat of our brow”), Vincent taught that prayer “should grow more and more affective and such affec­tive acts should tend to grow more and more simple… Such a state of simple, loving attention, in which all the powers of the soul are concen­trated, would seem to be the ideal towards which he urges his hearers. Not indeed that the soul, according to him, is merely at rest there, but this state of simple, loving attention, is the source or fountainhead from which action will follow” (MP 46).

This prayer of simple attention, interspersed naturally with distrac­tions, is already moving towards wordless infused contemplation. But contemplation is a free gift of God which nobody can force from him. To try too hard at prayer, and to try to achieve success prematurely by sheer willpower makes no sense, and can even be dangerous12. It is worth remembering this at present when many authors are propos­ing new ways into prayer, incorporating insights from psychology and Eastern mysticism. Those writers would be the first to say that the exer­cises they offer can at most dispose us to let God act in us.

Nevertheless, Vincent is extraordinarily optimistic about the number of those who will receive this gift. Listen to him speaking to the Daughters on May 31, 1648: “In (contemplation) the soul in the presence of God does nothing else but receive from him what he bestows. She is without actions, and God himself inspires her, without any effort on the soul’s part, with all she can desire, and with far more. Have you ever, my dear sisters, experienced this sort of prayer? I am sure you have, and in your retreats you have often been astonished that without doing anything on your part, God himself has filled your soul and granted you knowledge you never had before” (MP 146-147). In a word, he assumes that the Daughters will normally be given infused contemplation. When later in the same conference he asserts that learning is a barrier to this contemplation I feel he is indulging in some rhetorical exaggeration in order to reassure his audience, some of whom had not yet learned to read. He does not see “learning” as a barrier against the priests reaching the same sort of prayer. Speaking to them in a repetition of prayer on August 4, 1655, he said: “God, when he wishes to communicate himself, does so without effort, in an affective way, altogether suave, gentle and loving13. Let us therefore frequently ask him for the gift of prayer, and let us do so with great confidence, and let us be certain that in the end he will grant it to us out of boundless mercy, for he never refuses to give ear to a humble and confident prayer. If he does not grant it immediately, he will do so later on…; when God in his goodness bestows his grace on a soul, what seemed to be so hard becomes so easy, that just precisely where it experienced the greatest difficulty it now experiences delight. The soul is rightly and completely astonished at this unexpected change in itself… But there must be no forcing, no attempt to form distinct words in one’s interior”14.

Here we see a new side of Vincent, a saint who presumes that his followers will go beyond discursive prayer and be given infused and wordless prayer. This wordless (“apophatic”) prayer has a long history, beginning with St Paul: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rm 8:26). The tradi­tion proceeds right down to the present day through, for instance, St Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, St Bonaventure (see the second reading on his feast, July 15), The Cloud of Unknowing, St Teresa of Avila, etc., etc. William Johnston has written a lot to make it known in our own day. Although it is strictly a gift, perhaps every generation has to redis­cover it all over again.

I cannot say what human authors and traditions have influenced Vincent most, but his obiter dicta lead me to believe that he was par­ticularly influenced by St Francis de Sales and, perhaps surprisingly, by St Teresa of Avila, whom he echoes (I believe) repeatedly. It is hardly an accident that he tells the Daughters: “…since the Apostles, no one has ever reached the height of St Teresa (in prayer). How do you know, my daughters, but that God wishes to make St Teresas of you?”15

Still, nobody can get far in prayer without persevering daily in it, fol­lowing the advice of Christ16. But he warned of the difficulties in prayer, the deserts to be crossed which, if we are trying to do God’s will, are proofs rather of progress than of failure. They are stepping stones to contemplation. So he approved of the priest who spends a lot of time praying and yet can only say “My God, I am here in your presence to do your will. It is enough that you see me”17.

And so, if one can do no more, one can stay quietly in the presence of God, showing him one’s needs, as a beggar in those days showed his sores to the passers-by as a better way of getting alms than by impor­tuning them18. Vincent assumes that this felt absence of God, provided we are trying to do his will, is always for our good, as it helps us to pray for God’s glory (see the first half of the Our Father!) rather than for our own satisfaction19; and in the end it leads to an even greater knowledge and love of God, with the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit20.

Wordsworth once described how his early enthusiasms faded as he grew older:

The things which I have seen, I now can see no more…
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth…
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

(Ode on Intimations of Immortality)

With Vincent it was different. He had seen the misery which 17th century France had to offer: civil wars, agrarian unrest, street fighting in Paris, invasion, disease and famine. And yet, right to the end of his life, the glory had not departed. Why? Because he prayed. Listen to him speaking on Whit Sunday 1648: “The holy Fathers when they speak of prayer do so triumphantly: they say it is a fountain of youth in which the soul grows young. Philosophers say that amongst the secrets of nature there is a fountain, which they call the fountain of youth, from which if old men drink, they will grow young. However that may be, we know that there are mineral springs beneficial to the health. But prayer rejuve­nates the soul far more truly than the fountain of youth the philosophers speak of rejuvenates the body. In prayer, your soul, weakened by bad habits, grows quite vigorous; in prayer it recovers the vision it lost when it went blind; ears formerly deaf to the voice of God are open to holy inspirations, and the heart receives new strength, is animated with a courage it never felt before”21.

We sometimes speak of first fervour as if in later life we must turn away from God. It need not be so. The Constitutions of 1980 ask us to pursue the end of the Congregation more and more all through life “in continual conversion to Christ” (§116). This is the sort of spiritual youth which Vincent promised to those who pray, and which he retained both fresh and mature in his own life to the end.

To end on a personal note: as the person who first suggested at a pro­vincial assembly that we should reduce our time of prayer from an hour to half an hour I owe it to the Province to make amends and ask for the hour again. There are strange and pervasive influences in every social group, through which the grace of God either works or is blocked. In our case, the more we try to pray the easier it is for all to pray.

Vincent became involved in the crises of many religious communi­ties22. He saw repeatedly what had gone wrong and what should be put right, so he spoke neither as a visionary nor a theorist when he said “The Congregation of the Mission will last as long as the exercise of prayer is faithfully practised in it” (XII 83, quoting Abelly).

  1. Tanquerey: The Spiritual Life, Tournai and New York, 1950, p xliii.
  2. Most of the texts of St Vincent quoted in this article are from those collected by Fr Joseph Leonard CM in his book St Vincent de Paul and Mental Prayer, London 1925. Details of the quotations will be given in these notes, as well as page refer­ences to Leonard. References to this book for other than direct quotations from St Vincent will be indicated in the body of the text by the letters MP plus the page number. This first reference is MP 37.
  3. Abelly: Vie du Vénérable Serviteur de Dieu, Vincent de Paul, livre III, ch. VII.
  4. Conference to DCs, 31 May 1648; MP 35.
  5. Conference to DCs, 31 July 1634; MP 71-73.
  6. Conference to DCs, 31 May 1648; MP 36.
  7. Repetition of Prayer, 27 May 1655; MP 185ff.
  8. Conference to CM, 29 August 1659; MP 36-37. (It should be noted that Leonard gives the incorrect date, and translates the imperfect text, from the old Pemartin edition of the Conference).
  9. Conference to DCs, 2 August 1640; MP 100.
  10. Conference to CM, 14 February 1659; MP 43-44.
  11. Conference to DCs, 15 October 1641; MP 113.
  12. Repetition of Prayer, 4 August 1655; MP 189-192.
  13. “…d’une manière sensible, toute suave, douce, amoureuse”; the phrase is untrans­latable, and reflects the depth of Vincent’s own experience. Sensible in French refers to a perception through the emotions; in biblical language Vincent is saying that God touches the heart, man in his inmost citadel. The saint has left far behind him the methods of prayer based on scholastic psychology which he had proposed to beginners.
  14. MP 193-194; Vincent was more optimistic about the gift of contemplation than St John of the Cross. The latter wrote: “At this time, God… begins to communicate himself through pure spirit by an act of simple contemplation in which there is no succession of thought… (he) does not bring to contemplation all those who purposely exercise themselves in the way of the spirit, or even half. Why? He best knows”. (The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk 1, ch 9, nn 8-9; Kavanagh- Rodriguez translation). Vincent must have observed the gifts of the Spirit being freely given in the first years of both communities.
  15. Conference to the DCs, 31 May 1648; MP 149.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Conference to DCs, 22 January 1645; MP 120.
  18. Letter 1504, 21 May 1652, to a CM priest; MP 175.
  19. Conference to DCs, 3 June 1653; MP 179. See also letter of 16 June 1656 (No. 2082) to a CM student in Genoa, MP 201.
  20. Letter 1759,10 July 1654, to a CM priest in Agde, MP 182. See also Repetition of Prayer 11 April 1655, MP 183.
  21. Conference to DCs, 31 May 1648; MP 144-145.
  22. Cf Coste: The Life and Works of St Vincent de Paul, Leonard translation, vol. 2 pp 237-254.

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