In the chapel of the old St Lazare, twice or more a week, towards the end of morning prayer, St Vincent would gather his confrères around himself. He would then call upon them to share with the community the good thoughts and resolutions that God had given them during meditation1.
At each sharing he would invite three or four to speak. In spite of his heavy and crowded schedule he gave this exercise a priority, listening to their accounts with much interest and evident joy, rushing and interrupting none. This practice, which he did not limit to his community alone, came to be known as repetition of prayer. This exercise, an innovation of St Vincent, still in use in the not too distant past among priests of the Mission, Daughters of Charity and in some diocesan seminaries, consisted in the free but brief sharing of one’s thoughts and resolutions, had during meditation, for mutual edification (XII 9). At the end of prayer the superior would invite one or more or all present to share successively what thoughts came home to them during the prayer. Concluding, the superior would, summarising the thoughts of those who shared, share his own prayer.
When held at St Lazare, besides the confrères St Vincent would also sometimes invite to this prayer-experience the domestics, who spoke in their turn to the edification and joy of St Vincent who, at hearing what they had to say, always gave thanks to God who loves to communicate himself to the simple, as in the case of the domestic who shared the following:
Having considered that our Lord has recommended assistance to the poor I thought I ought to do something for them; but I, being poor myself and not able to give anything, I took the resolution of at least rendering them some little honour, to speak kindly to them when they speak to me and even to take off my hat in saluting them.
Even on his journeys, travelling with others, he would encourage his companions to share the inspirations which the Holy Spirit had given them. Following his encouragement some pious ladies shared their prayer with even their maidservants, to their spiritual advantage. “Blessed Sister Mary of the Incarnation” he noted “made use of this means to advance very far in perfection. She gave a careful account of her prayer to her maidservant” (IX 4).
To encourage the Daughters to do the same he would often tell them the experience of repetition of prayer among the priests and brothers and would cite the example of some pious women who had profited immensely from this exercise. Insisting on this, he said:
Take care to give an account of your prayer to one another as soon as possible after making it. You cannot imagine how useful this will be. Tell one another quite simply the thoughts which God has given you and, above all, carefully remember the resolutions you made at prayer… Oh yes, my daughters, you cannot imagine how greatly this practice will profit you, and the pleasure you will aive to God by acting in this way (IX 4).
With even greater urgency in the conference of 2 August 1640 he repeated his exhortation:
I beg you to be about this holy exercise to tell one another how you have spent the time at prayer and especially the resolutions you have taken, and you should do so quite simply (IX 38).
As if to make sure there was no doubt in their minds as to what he desired for them he returned to the need in charity to share as he gave them a conference on the good use of instruction:
And what should a Daughter of Charity do to whom God has given, during the prayer she made on the subject of a conference, some light to guide her in the practice of a virtue or to abandon some imperfections? Should she not reveal it to others? Is she to keep it concealed and for herself alone? Oh no, she should mention it humbly and ingenuously, knowing and feeling that it does not come from herself but from God, who gave it to her and who wishes her to share it with others as you all do with whatever you possess (IX 389-390).
This practice, as a community exercise, has its origin in the genius of St Vincent though we must acknowledge the possible influence of Madame Acarie and the Oratorians of St Philip Neri2. Vincent claimed:
The repetition of prayer was formerly a thing unheard of in the Church of God… We have reason to thank God for having given this grace to the Company and we can say that this practice had never been in use in any other community, if not in ours (XII9).
This repetition of prayer is different from the repetition of prayer as contained in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. Ignatian repetition consists in paying “attention to and dwelling especially on the points in which I experienced greater comfort or distress or some more marked spiritual effect”3. This is clearly individual while the Vincentian repetition is communitarian.
The climate and condition for this sharing is utter simplicity on the part of all who take part in it. This renders hearts open to each other. In the words of St Vincent: “Tell one another quite simply the thoughts which God has given you…” (IX 4). Anyone who takes the opportunity to make a display of his learning or to be other than his true self gets an immediate rebuke from him. It is a prayer-session to which each gives his full attention and interest. It is a fraternal sharing at the deepest level. Here no one is judged, but unconditionally accepted as a bearer of God’s word for the group. Sharing such as this creates a field of common experience and makes possible a convergent or complementary interpretation of experience which fosters a common goal rooted in shared understanding and meaning. Sharing fosters and presupposes fraternal love and an unconditional acceptance of each other and an awareness that God’s design is being worked out through all, even through their folly.
Many reasons have been advanced as regards the intention of St Vincent in promoting this “holy exercise”, as he used to refer to it. This is the case despite his clear statement on the matter. André Dodin asserted, based on his study of a number of texts of repetition of prayer, that St Vincent used the repetition of prayer as a means of governing his community and as a method of spiritual direction4. For some others it has been a way of dictating, and correcting errors, theological or otherwise, in a period of so many controversies.
However plausible these speculations may seem the truth must be sought in the testimony of the saint himself. It is hard to understand how these reasons explain his encouragement of devout ladies to use the method nor his invitation to domestics to attend these sessions. Usually domestics run no danger of theological heresy.
In the conference of 31 July 1634, the earliest of the extant conferences to the Daughters of Charity, during which he exhorted the sisters to tell one another their thoughts, he stated his intention in encouraging them to do so. It was a “means to advance very far in perfection” (IX 4).
In a conference to the priests of the Mission he said that it was one of the greatest ways of encouraging one another on the way to holiness. “The repetition of prayer” he said “is one of the most necessary means of mutually spurring each other to holiness” (XII 288).
Not only did their own sanctification call for such mutual sharing, they were obliged to do so in charity and in the knowledge that whatever they had to share was given them by God for the purpose of sharing with others. St Vincent’s intention is simple and clear. Spiritual sharing is for the growth of the individual, the group and for mutual encouragement. It is part of that total sharing with the companion which constitutes common life. Charity among them demands that they share these spiritual riches, humbly and ingenuously, knowing and feeling that they have come from God who wishes them to be so shared and to whom pleasure is given by so doing (IX 389-390).
St Vincent knew from his own experience the immense help to holiness which such sharing would bring to those who did so, as he said at a meeting of the Daughters’ Council:
I assure you I cannot express adequately the fruit that comes from it. When I am dry at prayer my hope is that I could receive some light from some good brother that had otherwise received some, and from that I drew profit. I expect this from the bounty of God and I am never disappointed. What great consolation I find in listening to these good brothers and to our sisters. When I hear any of these sharing anything I am so deeply touched that I do no know how to express it. I do not know whether others are like me, but so I am and this happens to me all the time they share something edifying in their repetition of prayer (XIII 666).
In a conference to the Daughters he said: “Oh, yes, my daughters, you cannot imagine how greatly this practice will profit you” (IX 4).
Experience seeks expression and grows through it. The sharing of an experience deepens and clarifies it. By sharing an experience we manifest openly our conviction and by so doing feel more committed to it. When resolutions are shared there is a feeling of greater commitment and urgency to be faithful to them. Therefore the sharing of one’s resolutions is a sure way of growing in virtue. St Vincent knew this. He knew that his Daughters, ignorant and poor, needed the support of one another. Repetition of prayer was an effective means of providing that support. This explains why from the very beginning he insisted on this sharing (IX 4).
Spiritual sharing deepens the awareness of the power of the Spirit operating in our life and a recognition that all our good thoughts and feelings have come from him. By so sharing one learns to turn one’s gaze away from the self to the power operating within. There grows in the individual the sense of the liberty of the children of God from which flows the courage to become true to one’s personal vocation.
Sharing at this depth demands courage. It is a risk taken in obedience to the gentle but compelling power of the Spirit in us. It fosters openness of spirit and the growth in acceptance of the other, not as a rival but as a brother with whom one can share all the gifts of life without losing by so doing.
Repetition is a means of interiorising values and events. The chosen people of God so often in Sacred Scripture gave several accounts of the same event. Their greatest prayer, the psalms, is full of repetition of the same sentiments and thoughts. The same is the case with the liturgy. In personal prayer, in the simple but powerful prayer of the rosary or the Jesus prayer, repetition serves the purpose of allowing time to let these sentiments descend, so to say, from the head to the heart.
When the word of God is shared it brings about common understanding which constitutes Christian community. Perfect listening to God’s word is not an individual but a community affair. The word of God will not penetrate the whole community unless there are ways of sharing insights on it. It is one of the curious features of religious communities that one notable area of sharing in which members fall short is communication about the very reason for their being together. They find it difficult to talk about the Father, about Jesus and about the Holy Spirit.
In sharing, the individual confesses and acknowledges the greatness of God. It affords mutual edification. It is the school from which new-comers and the inexperienced learn to form themselves in the art of praying. It is one thing to be told how to pray and another to enter into the prayer-experience of somebody more experienced. In sharing of prayer the teacher becomes not a signpost that points out the way without going with the traveller but a guide who takes the traveller by the hand and goes with him.
Jesus, asked by the disciples to teach them how to pray, did so by sharing his own prayer with them and so introduced them into his own experience of God as Father (Lk 11:1). Let those who genuinely seek to help others in the great art of prayer borrow a leaf from this. Methods will hold their place but nothing will ever substitute for your sharing of your own spiritual experience with those you long to help.
It leads to union of hearts for in the prayer of the other we recognise ourselves, our doubts, our struggles and our joys. At the centre from which the prayer proceeds we are all one, marked by the same weakness and strength. In shared prayer people are led to accept one another at an ever deeper level of conviction and compassion.
Spiritual sharing must be part of that sharing which is expressed in the vow of poverty for the building of a fraternal community. If common ownership of property applies only to material goods it would indeed be limited. It must lead to a community of spiritual goods, both joys and sorrows. One way of achieving this is through the repetition of prayer. “Oh no” said St Vincent “she should mention it humbly and ingenuously, knowing and feeling that it does not come from herself but from God, who gave it to her and who wishes her to share it with others, as all do with whatever you possess” (IX 390).
Friendship is sharing. What is shared determines the nature of the friendship. Religious community is above all else a spiritual association. If this ideal is ever going to be realised there must be a greater spiritual sharing. This may be one of the reasons why the attempts and experiments to create true religious communities in our time have constantly met with failure. There is little spiritual sharing. Community cannot be built on ideals; it is built on a shared vision of the heart.
Through the sharing of prayer the personal prayer acquires a community dimension. There is a common awareness of a common weakness and strength. This leads to greater understanding, sympathy and love for one another. A community that shares prayer shares one heart.
Aiming at this St Vincent in one of the earliest conferences to the Daughters of Charity, just gathered to form an apostolic community, insisted very much on the sharing of prayer (IX 4). Community can be built only on a common-shared-experience of God. It was at Sinai that the People of God became a people. It was their common experience of God that formed them into a people. When that experience was forgotten disintegration set in. To keep their unity and preserve their very existence as a people that experience continued to be re-lived and re-told.
Prayer-sharing is not the discovery of the 1960s. St Vincent was promoting it in the seventeenth century in his communities and among his associates. He knew, though he did not use our terminology, that a religious community was charismatic, a community living in the Spirit, called and given a particular gift and mission for the Body of Christ, the Church. This was the way he conceived the Daughters of Charity and his priests. To be and to do that they needed a community prayer that had a prayer-sharing dimension. Would that we accept this insight of St Vincent bequeathed to his double family for their personal and community growth in holiness, for fraternal charity and for a more perfect realisation of their charismatic mission in the Church. What is now widely practised as shared prayer “was formerly a thing unheard of in the Church of God… We have reason to thank God for having given the grace to the Company and we can say that this practice had never been in use in any other community, if not in ours” (XII 9). Repetition of prayer belongs to our heritage.
- Maynard: Virtues and Spiritual Doctrine of St Vincent de Paul, translated by a Priest of the Mission, Alagara 1877, p 54.
- Ponnelle & Bordet: Saint Philippe Neri et la société romaine de son temps, Paris 1930,p124.
- St Ignatius of Loyola: The Spiritual Exercises, translated by Thomas Corbishley SJ, Wheathampstead, 1974.
- Dodin: En prière avec Monsieur Vincent, Paris 1950, p 72.