Vincentian prayer

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoPrayerLeave a Comment

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Author: Javier Álvarez Murguía, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
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Introduction

It was with great interest that I prepared this reflection on “Vincentian Prayer” for the Sisters of the Asian Vincentian Institute. I think that I have gathered the most significant aspects of the life and teachings of Saint Vincent related to this topic, following the guide­lines suggested to me by your General Councilor, Sister Julma Neo.

Now I invite you to slowly read this reflection, being attentive to what parts attract your attention and asking yourself why. As you meditate on this reading, never lose sight of the perspective that Saint Vincent is a teacher of prayer, not only through his doctrine but above all by how he lived. Take time to read especially the many citations that I offer you from Saint Vincent, and through them, try to imagine and discover his experience of prayer. Finally, as you read this, continually ask yourself if the various aspects of prayer that you are discovering are valid for our time or not. Also ask yourself how Vincentian prayer should be today in the socio-cultural context of your country. Enjoy the journey!

Prayer experience of Vincent de Paul

There is nothing new in saying that Vincent de Paul was a man of prayer. Since the time of Abelly, this has been reaffirmed in various ways. Moreover, this is always one of the immediate conclu­sions of any reader who comes in contact with his letters and writings.

And rightly so, he has been given the title “teacher of prayer.”1 Throughout this presentation we will be examining his rich teachings, still applicable today. However, for prayer to be fundamentally an experiential theme, whose subject (the person that prays) is inevitably left taken up by God, it does not seem possible to be a teacher of prayer without first being a person who prays. Experience and doctrine are interrelated to the point that “in him, doctrine is nothing more than an expression and a product of experience, and is the concretization and verification of his doctrine.”2 Before Vincent reached this point in his life, we have to assume that his experience of prayer evolved in a logical rhythm with his own conversion process that began to unfold in the year 1617. The author Dodin assures us that beginning in this year, the center of gravity of his prayer shifted: he opened himself in a very unselfish way to the will of God; at the same time his prayer of intercession for poor persons became stronger and stronger until it surpassed those of his own interests.3

In the phase of his “creative maturity,” Vincent has left us very little spiritual reflections, to such an extent that we know very few details of his interior experiences. With regard to his prayer, there was nothing extraordinary to remark so that Abelly, an eyewitness of his life for thirty years, said of him, “We have not been able to discover exactly what form of prayer Monsieur Vincent used, whether the or­dinary or the extraordinary form. His humility always hid as much as it could the gifts he had received from God.”4 At times, an excessive sense of humility led him to think that his affairs would not have much interest to anyone. However, many converging data indirectly reveal to us his interior life. For example, Vincent repeated in different settings that “a Daughter of Charity cannot survive if she does not pray,” that “prayer is the soul of our souls, it is by prayer that vocation is pre­served, she will find her ministry too hard if she does not pray, she will become without strength, courage or virtue…,” that “prayer is a fountain of youth.”5 He even went so far as to assure that “a man of prayer is capable of everything”6 and that “the Congregation of the Mission will last as long as the exercise of mental prayer is faithfully carried out in it.”7 Someone who continually expresses himself in these terms, could he be existentially distant from prayer? Another fact: in his writings, Saint Vincent has transmitted to us a considerable number of prayers that he himself composed. It seems that he had not planned them ahead of time, but frequently, he would begin giving a conference on a certain subject and end with a prayer, or vice-versa.8 It does not seem possible to enter into such a natural and spontaneous form of prayer unless we are dealing with someone who is very advanced in his relationship with God. An expert in the history of French spirituality in the 17th century, Henri Bremond, affirms without a doubt that “if we do not first of all consider him to be a mystic, we would be portraying a Vincent de Paul that never existed.”9

Teachers and images in the prayer of Saint Vincent

Vincent was never secretive about the authors and the works that he turned to in his search for understanding and doctrine and to concretize his own way of understanding prayer. Moreover, these authors were masters of prayer. The most outstanding among them was Francis de Sales, the one who could be considered the most influential, perhaps due to his proximity to Vincent in time and place and his relationship with him. Saint Vincent frequently spoke of him and his guidance with great admiration.10 He particularly learned a great deal from his method of prayer. He recommended to his sons and daughters to read two of his most important works: An Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God. Through Francis de Sales he got to know and admire Saint Teresa of Avila. He especially learned from her the sense of fidelity, about which he frequently spoke to the Missioners and the Daughters of Charity. Although it does not seem very likely, neither do we have sufficient proof to discount the possibi­lity that Vincent had contact with the Teresian works. The Ignatian tradition also influenced and motivated Vincent. He took to heart the Ignatian advice given about mental prayer, put it into practice and taught it to others. Vincent’s Missioners were very familiar with the Manual of Meditations by Fr. Busee, S. J. and the Daughters of Charity used the Manual of Fr. Saint Jure. Luis de Granada insisted a great deal on the importance and prevalence of affectivity. This aspect was one that Saint Vincent integrated into his personal understanding of prayer. This author’s Treatise on Prayer, together with the Salesian works already mentioned, are among the books most particularly recommended by our Founder.

However, all of these influences did not convert Saint Vincent into a simple receiver that at most juxtaposed or amalgamated ten­dencies, points of view, methods and practical questions about how to pray. He knew how to situate himself personally and creatively and to integrate distinct doctrinal aspects until he succeeded in elaborating his own in a very personal way, demanding and yet flexible at the same time. It reflected his particular way of understanding prayer, above all when it came to helping the Daughters of Charity, many of whom were simple, illiterate young women, to reach the heights of prayer, to pray in whatever manner possible, a manner both simple and sublime.

On various occasions, Saint Vincent presented his own defi­nition of prayer very explicitly. During a repetition of prayer with the Missioners, Vincent said, “Mental prayer is a raising of the mind to God to present our needs to him and to implore his mercy and grace.”11 At another time, in very precise words, he noted that “Prayer is a sermon we preach to ourselves, to convince ourselves of the need we have to turn to God, to cooperate with His grace, to root out vices from our souls, and to replace them with virtues.”12

We can find at least two more definitions that we will not consider here because they do not contribute orientations that are distinct from or complementary to the previous two definitions. At most, they represent minor changes in the language, such as “conversation of the soul with God,”13 “a mutual communication in which God tells the soul…”14 The essential does not change at all.15

There are two elements that appear in these definitions of prayer: the first refers to the action of the one praying who must go outside of himself/herself in order to “elevate one’s spirit to God.” The term elevation has nothing to do with extraordinary phenomena that one can occasionally experience. It simply means an interior disposition that leads one to make his/her own faith in God alive and personal, until He is so near and dear to him/her that it becomes impossible to distinguish His presence from his/her own interior being. The second element makes concrete the benefit of prayer for the one that prays: asks God’s help to replace one’s vices with virtue, to praise the Lord and to discover God’s will for us.

The comparisons and images that Saint Vincent used to des­cribe prayer serve to complete our understanding of his thinking. Some of these come from spiritual theology and have been explained in more detail by the great masters of spirituality. In all we can count twenty-nine different ways of speaking about prayer: some that emphasize the necessity of prayer, some the meaning of prayer itself, others that assure the value of a dialogue with God. Here, let us look at some of the most significant ones: “Prayer is like nourishing water that gives life to the soul… we are like those poor gardens in which drought causes all the plants to die, unless the gardener’s care and hard work make provision for this. That is why you have the holy custom of mental prayer, which, like gentle dew, moistens your soul every morning by the grace it draws from God.”16

“Prayer… is the daily manna that comes down from heaven,”17 it is “food”18 for our soul… hence a Daughter of Charity who does not pray cannot continue in her mission “since it is in prayer that we find the strength to be sustained in the service of God and our neighbor.”19

Another powerful comparison is that of air. Vincent said to the Daughters of Charity in 1648: “In the name of God, do not miss it (prayer) at all, my Daughters, and grasp how important it is to pray well… for prayer is as necessary to preserve the life of the soul as air is for man, or water to keep a fish alive.”20

Saint Vincent also compared prayer with the function that the soul carries out for the body. “Prayer is to the soul what the soul is to the body. As a body without a soul is merely a corpse, so a soul without prayer is lifeless.”21 He also explained the excellence of prayer using other terms that are not as classic and well-known as the ones pre­viously mentioned, but which are no less expressive: “Mental prayer is the impregnable rampart which will protect the missionaries from all sorts of attacks. It is like a mystical arsenal, a tower of David, which will be the source of their arms….”22 Prayer is “the reservoir in which you will receive the instructions you will need to fulfill the duties on which you are now to enter,”23 as he advised the young Fr. Antoine Durand at the time of being named superior of the Seminary of Agde.24 It is a “source of joy” because to speak with God is infinitely more gratifying than to speak with the most famous persons imagin­able;25 it has a salutary and renewing effect to help one to follow the way of the Lord.26 In summary, through all of these comparisons, Saint Vincent leads us to conclude with him that “a man of prayer is capable of everything.”27 We can say with Saint Paul, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Giving attention to the preeminence of one or the other human faculty, Saint Vincent distinguished three ways of relating to God, all necessary and useful because they lead to the same goal. Although a progression can be established among them (and Saint Vincent proposes them thus), it seems, however, that no one can dispense with the more simple forms of prayer even if he or she has reached a higher level of communication with God.

Necessity of prayer

Prayer is necessary for many reasons. Let us hear them very clearly in Vincent’s own words:

1. The person as homo orans (person that prays). The definition of the human being is not based solely on our use of certain instru­ments or our ability to change the conditions of our lives. Thus, the definition of homo sapiens is insufficient. The human being is defined as homo orans in the sense that in adoring, praying, praising, listening and responding to God, the human person confirms the truth of his or her own existence.28 In other words, the person who does not engage in this exercise that is so human as well as so divine, contradicts the essence of his or her humanity that brings him/her to open himself/herself to the one who is the ultimate reason for his/her being. Thus, without prayer, a person does not come to the ultimate truth nor discover his or her name or history. Human existence is a gift. We are all called by the creative word of God, and this word is an invitation to live con­sciously in God’s presence. Responding to the call that life addresses to us, we can encounter, through listening and responding, the One who has given us a unique name and all that we are. It is only by turning to God, the origin and finality of our life, that we can understand our identity.

Only from this perspective can we maintain that “praying is natural,”29 almost instinctive. As happens with everything that is inscribed in nature, special knowledge or technique is not needed for human ability to flourish. It flows spontaneously. That is why children, women from the villages, the least and the most humble… are capable of praying.30 This does not mean that there is no need to form or improve this relational dimension between human beings and God, as we will see very soon. Vincent himself proposed a detailed method to bring to perfection that which one already finds in human nature.

2. The Christian grows through prayer. In prayer, the person becomes little by little more like Christ. Consequently, we can hold that the Christian who does not pray is not a Christian. If the Christian is reduced merely to a worker or servant in the Reign of God, prayer would not be an essential characteristic for anyone. It would be enough to simply comply with the requirements of the Reign. But it so happens that every Christian, by the mere fact of being so, has been called to be a “child of God” (1Jn. 3:1), “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), “friend of Christ” (Jn. 15:15). In no way can people have a familiar or loving relationship without intimate conversations. For all Christians, prayer thus becomes a matter of life or death. “We cannot persevere if we do not pray,” declared Saint Vincent with much conviction along this same line of thinking. This same idea is evident in C. 21b.

Saint Vincent reached the same conclusion in examining the life of Jesus Himself. In the Conference of May 31, 1648, he assured the Daughters of Charity that “Our Lord Himself was a man of the greatest prayer;”31 moreover, “His chief and constant exercise was prayer.”32 This is the most powerful reason to lead a life of prayer. In effect, the Savior of the world appears in the Gospels as a true person of prayer. From the moment He came into the world until He re­turned to His Father, His entire life consisted of prayer and intimate union with God (cf. Heb. 10:9; Lk. 23:34). Prayer accompanied important decisions and great events: His baptism (cf. Lk. 3:21), His selection of the twelve apostles (cf. Lk. 6:12), the confession of Peter (cf. Lk. 9:18), the transfiguration (cf. Lk. 9:28-29), at Gethsemani (cf. Mt. 26:36-44), on the cross (cf. Mt. 27:46), etc. Jesus’ prayer was in keeping with the tradition of His people, at determined hours of the day, in early morning, at sunset (cf. Mt. 14:21-23; Mk. 6:46-48). He was able to communicate with His Father in any location: desert, mountain, plain, alone or accompanied (cf. Mt. 1:35; 6:46; 4:1…).

Moreover, Jesus taught His disciples how to place themselves in communication with the God of heaven, teaching them the neces­sary conditions that should accompany this act of prayer: interiority, perseverance, faith and love (cf. Mt. 5:44; 7:7-11; Mk. 14:38; 11:25; Lk. 11:13). In the “Our Father” and in the parables, Jesus showed more concretely what Christian prayer should be like (cf. Lk. 11:1-4, 5-8; 18: 1-8; Mt. 7:7).

Since every Christian life consists of imitating and following Jesus in all aspects, prayer is one of the fundamentals without which one cannot be considered His disciple. In addition, it is precisely the basis that is necessary for all other aspects to grow.

3. Prayer is necessary to live our vocation of service of poor persons. Prayer has the ability to revitalize everything that it touches. Thus, in order to maintain our spiritual life (faith, hope and love) prayer must be as fully alive as possible. Our interior life grows when in the context of prayer we put these virtues in practice. In this sense, our specific vocation, with regard to the plan of life from these same theological virtues, is directly connected with prayer. To say it more simply, one’s vocation depends on prayer. “Everything comes from prayer” — Vincent assured his follower, and he continued more con­cretely: “perseverance in your vocation, the success of our works, avoiding sin, remaining in a state of charity, our salvation…”33

“Everything comes to us through prayer,” is the basis for a vocation that bears fruit and is full of hope. And as “nothing comes to us without prayer,” we have to conclude that the loss of a vocation is rooted in an absence of an ongoing communication with God. Vincent explicitly expressed it in many forms: those who pray sufficiently progress in their vocation of commitment to poor persons, those who pray little or badly, regress.34 Without doubt, those who faithfully persevere manifest a rich prayer life. Those who abandon their vocation assuredly had previously abandoned their life of prayer, causing them to become “persons who are dead to grace.”35 The Missioner whose preaching does not come from the fruits of his prayer will not succeed in moving the hearts that listen to him. On the contrary, for any Missioner who considers prayer a valuable instruction book for preach­ing, his word will much more easily call his listeners to question.36 Finally, progress in virtue and perfection depends on prayer, as well as the ability to take on the characteristics and sentiments of Jesus,37 the energy to carry out the service of poor persons38 and strength of soul39 Saint Vincent spoke from experience. He knew that the greatest danger for his sons and daughters were not the demands that came from the service of those who are poor, but the loss of meaning to which a life without prayer leads.

Since prayer is the guarantee for each and every vocation com­mitted to serving poor persons, that means that “the Congregation of the Mission will last as long as the exercise of mental prayer is faith­fully carried out in it.”40 This is also the way to guarantee the charism. In strong language, Vincent explained how prayer, on the one hand, maintains the Company in hope, and on the other hand, in the strength needed to dedicate oneself to spreading the Kingdom of God. He said the same thing about the Company of the Daughters of Charity.41 However, since both Companies are the result of the coming together of the members of the Companies, the two Companies will be praying to the extent that they are Missioners and Daughters of Charity. The voice of Vincent was very sure: “be most exact in making your prayer,”42 “prayer is as necessary to preserve the life of the soul as air is for man, or water to keep a fish alive,”43 “let us never leave it, and spend no time without being in prayer.”44 In all of this, service comes first. So then, in the case of conflict between prayer and service, it is clear: “leave prayer.” In the mind of Saint Vincent, this expression never means abandoning prayer, but postponing it.45

Forms of prayer according to Vincentian doctrine

The doctrine of Saint Vincent about prayer is not very original. It was based on the common doctrine of his times. His teachings enlighten the intellect and encourage the will to understand, appreciate and desire what the teachings propose. For those who are beginners, these teachings instill simple and clear ideas.

1. Vocal prayer. This consists of reciting prayer formulas. Vincent echoed the tradition in the history of the Church that had been pract­iced universally by all classes of Christians through the course of centuries. He frequently explained that each prayer formula that the Church kept in its patrimony was like a sure and easy way of access to God, a way that is valuable for everyone from children to saints. “With children… their little prayers are so pleasing to God that some theo­logians say He takes immense pleasure in them. A great man, the late Bishop of Geneva, held children in such veneration that when he saw them he would guide their hand and have himself blessed by them.”46

The dissociation between the mind, the heart and the lips would destroy this form of prayer because what was most essentially human would remain disconnected from God. God Himself had this judgement: “This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6). Our saint clearly affirmed that for this prayer to be valid, there needed to be a correspondence between one’s inner being and the lips of the prayer, that this would result in the attention needed.47 In this topic of vocal prayer we should mention ejaculatory prayer. In the history of spirituality, we need to go back to ancient times, when the first monks and nuns used this as a preferred form of prayer. Even Jesus Himself frequently made these brief prayers in the midst of his active life. Saint Vincent remarked on the etymology of the word (“iaculum” = arrow) to explain to the Sisters that these ejaculations are true arrows of love that “pierce the clouds.”48 This is the most essential, easiest and most accessible prayer for everyone. This may be why Vincent insistently recommended it to the Daughters of Charity.49 This can also facilitate a spirituality of integration that harmonizes prayer and work, contemplation and action in life.50

2. Mental prayer. This can be practiced in two ways, according to whether the intellect or the will/ desire is more prevalent. If the intellect is dominant, it is called “meditation.” If the will/ desire, it is called “contemplation.” Both forms are part of the ordinary life of prayer to which we are called. It does not follow that contemplation should be considered as an extraordinary form of prayer, but rather a natural fruit of prayer itself. It is normal for a Christian who remains faithful to a daily encounter with God to experience contemplative prayer at certain times.

a) Meditation. This form of prayer appeared in the 16th century. Since that time, it has acquired an extraordinary importance in the Church. In common language usage, the generic term “prayer” is often applied in a concrete way to meditation. This application can be seen in the writings of Saint Vincent, although ordinarily the context clarifies the meaning of the word.

In meditation, it is the intellect that is first used to draw near to God through understanding, whether by considering and personally assimilating some mystery of faith or some biblical scene, or by question­ing oneself about one’s own conduct in the light of the characteristics of being a Christian. There needs to be a point of departure for medi­tation, in other words, some theophanies (manifestations of God) that prepare us to encounter God. Sacred Scripture, theological reflection, the signs of the times, the world, poor persons, one’s own life and experiences are common places where the human mind can refer to in order to meditate.

However, the function of the human mind and memory have their limits, thus risking turning meditation into merely a study, destroy­ing the prayer aspect of it.51 The goal of the human capacity of reason is to activate the will-affect element. Both need to grow together in harmony. In any case, it is good that love predominates over the discourse of the mind. After all, the intellectual dimension can unfold perfectly through study or spiritual reading. In the mind of Saint Vincent, the purpose of discursive meditation is to inflame love, not to snuff it, in order to encourage a personal encounter with God, in order not be distracted in the presence of the Divine Persons. With a simple but precise example, we can understand the idea thus: one strikes the flint until sparks are created to light a fire. In the same way, reason serves us to inflame our will with love. Any other way would convert our prayer into a cold form of study.52 In a repetition of prayer in June 1657, Fr. Coglee, most likely with some embarrassment, confessed that his prayer was richer in feelings than in ideas. Saint Vincent, certainly to the surprise of those listening to him, broke out into praises for this Missioner, at the same time proposing this method to the entire Company because it was a way of “praying well.”53

Is meditation appropriate for everyone? Only “according to one’s ability,” said the great Spanish masters in the 16th century.54 Saint Vincent assured: “Everyone can make it, each according to his or her ability and the inspiration God gives.”55 It is possible that this opposition is more theoretical than real, if we take into account that Vincent addressed these words to the first Missioners and Daughters of Charity, who we suppose had a minimum of preparation and formation. Saint Teresa and Saint Ignatius, on the other hand, wrote for all followers of Jesus. Christian formation, which Vincent called “knowledge,” can always be useful when one knows how to apply it sufficiently, but it is not the essential element, because in the end, the most essential condition is love. In order to illustrate this idea, our Saint told the following story: “One day a Franciscan Brother said to Saint Bonaventure, ‘How fortunate you are, Father, to be so learned and to make your prayer so well! What a help that must be to you!’ ‘Brother,’ he replied, ‘to make our prayer well we do not need know­ledge; it’s enough to love God well. The poorest old woman and the most ignorant Brother, if they love God, make their meditation better than I do.”56

A lack of knowledge is not an obstacle to practicing meditative prayer, especially if one takes into account that precisely through prayer God communicates Himself to the one who prays giving him or her profound understanding. Vincent distinguished two ways of arriving at an understanding of God: study/human knowledge/reflection, and the other way is through the experience of God, or in Vincent’s own words, “simple acquired knowledge” and “infused knowledge.” Of the two, the most profound and complete is the experiential way. For this reason, he did not hesitate to affirm convincingly that “the theo­logian should be silent when a person of prayer is present.”57

b) Contemplation. The etymology of this word means to direct one’s gaze towards the temple where the divinity resides. In general, it can mean extending one’s gaze toward the great temple of the created world in which live those who are most beloved of God, the human family. In addition, it means centering one’s attention on the inner sanctuary of oneself in which God dwells as well. In any case, con­templation suggests something beyond words, reason and technique that leads to an encounter between God and the human person, a keen perception on the part of the one praying in order to discover and see God where others only see created realities, a special grace coming from God who freely gives this precious spiritual gift. In some ways contemplation is a goal, a point at which one arrives; however, as with everything having to do with spirituality, it is at the same time a new point of departure. This is how Saint Vincent expresses it: “The other type of prayer is called contemplation. In this the soul, in the presence of God, does nothing but receive what He gives. It does not act and, with no effort on the part of the soul, God Himself inspires it with everything it may be seeking, and much more.”58

From this description we can extract the two essential elements of contemplative prayer: direct action of God and the passivity (receptivity) of the human person. And in between both of them a rela­tionship of inverse proportion is established: the greater the divine intervention, the lesser the human activity, and vice-versa. From this perspective one can speak of gradations within this form of prayer, although Vincent does not speculate about them. As someone had written in reference to prayer, our defender of poor persons “was no surgeon in spiritual manners.”59 The direct action of God is concretized in a strengthening of the two essential powers in the human person: intelligence and will. A contemplative, therefore, understands the divine mysteries in a deeper sense, not by reason of knowledge, but by a more thorough understanding through experience; in its turn, prayer presupposes more means so that the will could advance more easily along the way of perfection.60 The passivity (receptivity) of the person means being experientially caught up in one’s own life of faith and love, to the point of perceiving it as the cause of one’s very existence. From a psychological perspective, this prayer seems easy, agreeable, authentic and rewarding. It is normal to experience this type of prayer from time to time, especially when one prepares adequately for this encounter with God.61

It is appropriate to clarify that this contemplation in the Vin­centian perspective is part of ordinary prayer, or in the language of Saint Teresa, part of active prayer. Vincent was familiar with and respected other more exalted forms of prayer, for example the Flemish mystical disciples of Harphius, Ruysbroek, etc., but he personally preferred a more simple route in order to be more secure.62 He under­stood human psychology well and was aware of the risks that could threaten one who seeks these elevated forms of prayer; risks that can be summed up as a personal seeking under the guise of mysticism.

For this reason, he dissuaded his sons and daughters from being attracted to excessive prayers. They are reflective mirrors, he said to the Missioners.63 In a time characterized by the “mystical invasions,” Saint Vincent was of the opinion that such experiences did not lead one to God’s will. He vehemently declared to the Daughters of Charity, “ecstasies… are more harmful than useful.”64 The basis of this thought for Vincent was simply that perfection did not consist of following a particular type of prayer, but rather in charity.65 Prayer is a means of access to God and a guarantee for charity. Along with his friend Francis de Sales, he preferred the tried and true path rather than one that was unknown and uncertain. In the end, the traditional ways of prayer offer great possibilities for communicating with God and keeping alive charity towards the neighbor.

Methodology of Vicentian prayer

The request of the disciples of Jesus, “Teach us to pray” (Lk. 11: 19) opens all Christians to the possibility of this apprenticeship. But did we not just say that prayer is totally grace, a gift of the Spirit of Jesus who prays in us? What sense is there then in speaking of peda­gogy or a method of prayer? Why did Saint Vincent, after speaking of prayer as “alms” that fall upon us from heaven, then present prayer to us as a “path” to follow with all the indications for the prayer not to lose sight of the objective of having an encounter with God? Is prayer a divine gift or a human technique? With Saint Vincent, we need to believe that there is no contradiction between these two perspectives of prayer, but rather that they are complementary. In fact, prayer as a gift from God reminds us of the origin of all forms of life (prayer is one of them), but which is life in the form of a seed or a bud. It needs to be developed over time to “prepare the earth” so that “the seed” can bear fruit (cf. Mt. 13:1-9). This second idea relates to the one to whom God speaks, that is, the person. In this way, it is legitimate and necessary to speak of the apprenticeship of prayer and the personal requirements which lead the human being to respond to his or her own prayer life. Saint Vincent developed a complete pedagogy that is still valid for us today.

On various occasions, Saint Vincent presented Saint Teresa of Avila as a master teacher of the art of prayer, because she achieved “the gift of prayer so advanced, that since the time of the apostles, no one has reached such a high level.” Saint Teresa then summed up her entire doctrine and experience of prayer in something as simple as “a treatise of friendship” and “being alone with someone whom we know loves us.”66 This is the direction that Saint Vincent takes, adding the words of Saint Teresa: “And this is prayer, my daughters, this repre­sents spiritual matrimony, from which are always born works, works.”67 Prayer is friendship with God and works for the Kingdom of God. Ulti­mately, this is the double objective of all prayer. To follow up, Saint Vincent, offered concrete means to successfully attain this spiritual commitment. All of the methods that he presents are simple because he was convinced that, in the end, all are effective and worthwhile.

1. Series of easy methods of prayer

Under this title we gather the different concrete ways with which Vincent began to explain prayer to the first Daughters of Charity. These methods truly retain the freshness and validity that were surely present in his lifetime.

a) The method of the pious woman or the images. This consisted of contemplating specific feelings evoked from an image of Mary, at the same time making references to one’s own life. Today, this visual method applied to prayer is used quite frequently. We recall, for example, the quantity of PowerPoint productions that circulate in the internet with a spiritual message accompanied by images, sound and words. But let us listen to our own Vincent: “She (a pious woman) took a picture of the Blessed Virgin, and looking at the eyes she said: ‘0 amiable eyes!’… and she asked God to give her the grace of never offending Him by looks. ‘Lord, give me the modesty of Your holy Mother.’ Then she took a resolution to guard her eyes, and not allow them to wander about on useless things. At other times she meditated on the ears of the Blessed Virgin, and thought: ‘0 ears, how happy were you to have listened so attentively to the Word of God and the Commandments of your Son.’ Then she paused for a while, and con­sidered how she might do the same.”68

b) The method of the president or anticipating your day. Vin­cent learned from the simple Christian people. This form of prayer consisted in placing before the Lord all the works and situations that one expected to encounter. Since the meditation was a reflection of one’s own life, it could easily result in concrete resolutions. “A President… made his retreat with us about a year ago…. ‘Do you know, Monsieur, how I make my meditation? I foresee what I’ll have to do during the day and take my resolutions accordingly. I’ll go to the Courts of Justice; I’ll have to plead such and such a case; perhaps I’ll meet some person of rank who may, by his advice, try to corrupt me. With the help of God’s grace, I’ll be very much on my guard against that. Perhaps someone will offer me a present which I’d very much like to have; I won’t take it! If I feel inclined to rebuff somebody, I’ll speak to him kindly and graciously.”69

c) The method of reading with attention and calm. The goal of this method is none other than to offer suggestions to the one who prays in order to facilitate a dialogue with God. Saint Vincent explained it in the following way: “It is a good idea (speaking to the Daughters of Charity) for each of you to have a book, or that whoever reads should read sentence by sentence, then pause at the end of the first sentence for as long as necessary, then move on to the second and pause there, then to the third, and so on. Your prayer time will pass very easily. If you do not find anything to retain your attention in the first sentence, go on to the second, or to another.”70

d) The method of contemplating the Passion of Our Lord. “There is another very simple means, and that is to take the Passion of Our Lord as the subject of your prayer. There is not one of you who does not know all that took place during it, either from having heard it preached or from having meditated on it. The Passion of our Lord is such an excellent means of meditation, Sisters!… Saint Francis never had any other subject for mental prayer than our Lord’s Passion, and he recommended to all his dear spiritual children to make use of it constantly.”71

e) The method for those who are ill. When someone is in a state or physical condition that prevents intense meditative prayer, it is enough to place his or her condition before the Lord, seeking to maintain an awareness of His presence. This method consists in: “remaining peacefully in the presence of God, manifesting our needs to Him with no other mental effort, like a poor person who uncovers his sores and by this means is more effective in inciting passersby to do him some good than if he wore himself out trying to convince them of his need.”72

f) The method of reciting prayer formulas. Vocal prayer has always been recommended by all spiritual authors of all times, valid for all spiritual states. “If thoughts fail you, lift yourselves up to God by an aspiration. And if after that you have no thoughts, say the Pater and the Credo, and then begin again. If you still remain dry, say a decade of the rosary.”73

A complete and developed method of prayer. This is as simple as the other methods. This methodology reflects what was popular in his day, and although we can call it Vincentian, it is based however on the Salesian method, which in turn is attributed to Saint Bona-venture, Saint Bruno, Fr. Granada, Teresa of Avila and others. The method consists of Three Parts: preparation, meditation or body of the prayer, and conclusion. Let us examine it step by step.

a) Preparation. For prayer to be truly Spirit-filled, it should not be left to improvisation. Thus, this first phase is especially important for prayer to be truly fruitful.

Since prayer is an existential human act, it first of all requires that the prayer have adequate attitudes that facilitate this encounter with God. Among others, Vincent speaks of the virtue of humility, which gives the one who prays a fitting sense of being dependent on God.74 Only a humble person understands who God is, who he or she is and what relationship exists between the Creator and the creature. The publican in the Gospel (cf. Lk.18:3) had this attitude that allowed him to leave the temple justified.75 Mortification is another virtue required for prayer. Whoever aspires to follow the truths of faith and love of God needs to see himself/herself as free from the domination of creatures. For Saint Vincent, “I ask myself why this particular person or that one progresses so little in the holy exercise of meditation… this is that they are not dedicated enough to mortification…. When the most noted writers on the spiritual life write about the practice of mental prayer, they unanimously declare that the practice of mortifi­cation is absolutely necessary to progress in mental prayer. For a person to be well disposed for such prayer, one must not only mortify the eyes, tongue, ears, and the other external senses, but also the faculties of the soul: the understanding, memory, and will.”76

Silence and recollection make reflection possible, and con­sequently, a life of prayer. In silence the soul enjoys the needed peace, today more than ever, we can add, because there is much noisy distraction all around us when we are trying to follow the path that leads to God. Prayer is not possible without silence, Vincent insisted on another occasion.77

In addition to the virtues necessary for prayer, it is also impor­tant to prepare each meditation for it to bear the awaited fruit. This is why, from very early times Vincent established the practice, first with the Congregation of the Mission and later with the Daughters of Charity, of reading at the end of each day the points of the next day’s meditation. He also invited someone in the community to comment on what had been read in order to provoke some thoughts for meditation.78 From this time onward, Saint Vincent repeatedly insisted on what he called the “grand silence” which would last until after prayer the next morning. Our Founder knew that silence did not have great value in and of itself, but that it was the best aid for prayer. We can consider that during the silence of the night the seed of the Word can penetrate the depths of the heart. Moreover, it can pass from the conscious level of the person to his or her subconscious.

According to psychology, the last images, the last thoughts and feel­ings of the day are automatically converted into “matter for further elaboration of the first order” by the subconscious. What would Saint Vincent say today to his sons and daughters living in a society of mass media where it has become common to go to sleep with the “late show on television” and to awaken with “the first news report on the radio”? With a keen psychological sense, the intention of Vincent in his day was that the morning meditation would occur within a continued line, without brusque interruptions.79 We should interpret in the same way the practice of rising promptly and joyfully: “… the grace of prayer depends on rising;”80 offering to God our first thoughts: “… everything you do during the day will derive its strength from this first offering made to God;”81 the moment of adoration of God: “After you have risen, adore the majesty of God;”82 ending with thanksgiving for the night that has passed and a brief offering of the day.83

The immediate preparation for prayer is especially centered on being aware of “the presence of God.”84 We can think of it as sit­uating ourselves before someone with whom we are going to speak. Here is where the prayer calls into play the virtues of faith, hope and love. Saint Vincent suggests different means for doing this: to consider the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist,85 to understand that God dwells within each one of us through the mystery of the indwelling Trinity86 to be aware of the omnipresence and Pro­vidence of God in the world,87 to consider Christ in heaven continually being concerned for each of us.88 All of these are valid means, but the most important is to revive a sense of God’s presence. The quality of our prayer depends on this awareness.

b) Meditation or the body of the prayer: from considerations/ meditation to engagement/resolutions. In this part, the mind begins to develop a reflective discourse related to the theme proposed. Saint Vincent suggested as themes everything relating to the life of the Missioner or the Daughter of Charity, although the most important part of any prayer was for it to produce or to activate a relationship between the one praying and the Lord. The themes are only means to reach this objective.

Vincent distinguished two classes of meditation themes: “sen­sory and abstract.” Among the “sensory” themes, the majority of which refer to the deeds and sayings of Jesus, Vincent incites and uses the imagination to reproduce all the details and circumstances in order to interiorize as much as possible the person, the work and the message of Jesus. On the other hand, when the themes are more abstract, (for example, virtues, evangelical counsels, etc.) it is the intellect that must open the way for meditation. In this case, it is not useful to approach the theme with one’s imagination. In other words, there is a need to respect the means of access to each theme, according to its type.89

Meditation, however, is far from being just a cold and method­ical reflection. It is more like a framework for reflection, for the affections and the resolutions. Reflection is not the purpose of meditation, as if meditation were a time for study. Rather reflection should be in relation to one’s affections. Discursive meditation is to inflame love, not to extinguish it. To give more importance to reflection than is due to it is, according to Saint Vincent, a useless endeavor like “continuing to strike the flint after the candle is already lit.”90 The will-affect element is what causes us to be grateful, to feel our dependence on God and to praise God.91

The commitment or in the language of Saint Vincent, “resolu­tions” is the most important moment of prayer. It all leads to this: if our reflection is in function of love expressed for God, it should end with something concrete because “meditated virtues not put into practice are more harmful than useful.”92 Saint Vincent could not conceive of a meditation without a good resolution to accomplish, even if he had been unfaithful to previous ones: “We should never cease to make new resolutions in each meditation, just as we do not cease eating even if there seems to be no benefit from it.”93 It is important to insist on resolutions taken in prayer until these proposed objectives have been accomplished.94 But these resolutions should not be made hastily. Saint Vincent, once again showing his profound understanding of human psychology, offers the following suggestions: resolutions should not remain on the abstract realm, but must be concrete, the more concrete the better, so that they be operational and effective. During a repetition of prayer, Saint Vincent gave great praise to a priest and two clerical seminarians because during their prayer they had dwelt on their shortcomings in detail. Along the same line, he asked Fr. Delespiney, the director of the seminary, to preserve this practice always because “that is how mental prayer should be made, and to do otherwise is not true mental prayer.”95 Moreover, it is appropriate that the resolutions deal only with the immediate: the day that is beginning, daily obligations, carrying out the Rules. And so that no one would have any doubt, Saint Vincent developed for the Daughters of Charity a whole list of possible resolutions, such as how to be sensitive to each and every Sister in the community, to console poor people, to speak to them as their masters, to bear criticisms as well as possible, etc.96 Finally, it is necessary to prevent or minimize possible obstacles that hinder the accomplishment of resolutions.97

c) Conclusion of prayer. Meditation should finish with thanks­giving to God for this great gift, “the most excellent of graces that God can bestow.” If prayer is grace, gratitude should flow forth as a requirement of the virtue of justice.98 Moreover, we must be aware that “gratitude is a disposition for fresh grace.”99 Another sign of gratitude, love and recognition of the greatness of God in the face of human poverty is the practice of offering to God our resolutions taken in prayer as well as asking God for the help needed to persevere in these resolutions.100 Prayer concludes as it began: with a direct reference to God, the origin, meaning and reason for all. It cannot be done any other way.

Repetition of prayer: sharing of prayer and school of prayer

Repetition of prayer consists in sharing aloud one’s meditation previously made interiorly. This practice is more or less the equivalent of what is now known as “sharing of prayer” that is carried out today in various Christian groups. We can affirm that Saint Vincent was the one who originally established this practice with his sons and daughters, although he was inspired by Madame Acariem who, ac­cording to our Saint, already practiced this exercise with her servant Andree La Voix.101 It seems that during her stay in Rome, according to the same testimony, she was not satisfied with the conferences given in the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri, and so they practiced this prayer form to encourage one another.102 It is on these precedents that Saint Vincent would base this practice that, as we will later see, would come to serve as a real “school of prayer” for the two Companies. Vincent’s originality with regard to this repetition of prayer was in giving it its own form and incorporating it into a habitual prayer practice in Vincentian spirituality. “We have reason to thank God for having given this grace to the Company, and we can say that it is a practice which has never been in vogue in any community save our own,”103 he assured the Missioners, inviting them to give thanks to God for having bestowed on them such grace.104

Throughout his entire life, Vincent must have presided over 3500 to 4000 repetitions of prayer, although we only possess 50 texts of them (between 1642 and 1655) which record the details of this exercise to which the Founder of the Charity was so devoted. Two or three times a week, at the end of meditation, Vincent would invite the community, which was spread out all over the old church in Saint Lazare, to gather around him.105 In a climate of spontaneity and simplicity, favorable to opening their souls, Vincent would ask one or two brothers about the content of their prayer. He would listen patiently to their reflections, sometimes of minimal value, but which were edifying by the simplicity and generosity that they showed.106 After this, one of the priests would share his thoughts and Vincent would conclude the activity with a short exhortation, based on the meditation of the day or on the ideas expressed, the faults observed or on external events.

With this practice we can see that Vincent had a double object­ive in mind: first of all to share prayer in order to animate one another on the journey of Christian perfection. In those moments, prayer became a spiritual experience that was very personal and not always to be shared with others. It was necessary to open the doors of the prayers to enable them to communicate their interior treasures. The value of shared prayer extends even to the foundation of community life, helping to strengthen it. Vincent was well aware that repetition of prayer was a valid way of building the Church, and as a consequence, of creating community.107 Secondly, we can consider repetition of prayer as a form of public school for prayer. There is no better way to avoid mistakes and to know in a more concrete way how to pray than to make one’s prayer aloud. With this “model” Saint Vincent tried to teach the Daughters of Charity and the Missioners how to prayer and to help them perfect their prayer. More concretely, in the many repe­titions of prayer, Vincent constantly recalled such important themes as: the practical method of meditating well requires considering the objective of the meditation, which should be the focus from the begin­ning.108 Choosing a text from Sacred Scripture and reflecting on it interiorly was very effective.109 The best prayer is not a proliferation of reasoning but one that is effective, that ends with concretizing itself through practical resolutions for life.110 Life events, even if they are minor ones, when looked at as coming from God, are useful for learning important Christian lessons. The Missioners should reflect on the broad themes of Christian life. Like Jesus, teacher of prayer for his disciples, so was Vincent for his disciples. Without a doubt, we can confirm that many Missioners and Daughters of Charity in the time of Saint Vincent and afterwards, learned the Vincentian spirit in this magnificent school of the repetition of prayer.

Some characteristics of Vicentian prayer in our time and in our World

1. Vincentian prayer must always be oriented towards the needy. Like all prayer, Vincentian prayer is personal, but oriented towards the community and the needy. If the social dimension is inherent in all Christian prayer, with greater reason is it in Vincentian prayer. For this reason, we can be suspicious of prayer that does not end in making a commitment to those who are poor. I call your attention to the person who best understood the spirituality of Saint Vincent—Louise de Marillac; her prayers frequently ended with some commitments in favor of the neighbor. There are countless passages, but I cannot resist recalling the following three moments in her prayer life: when she went through her first mystical night and experienced the purification needed to be able to serve the poor. Another important moment took place when she went on mission to visit the Confrater­nities of Charity. This was the time she received a mystical betrothal. She wrote the following: “Throughout my trip, I seemed to be acting without any contribution on my part; and I was greatly consoled by the thought that God wished that, despite my unworthiness, I should help my neighbor to know Him.”111 When the ceiling fell in the place where they were meeting, but saving her, Saint Vincent and others of the nobility, came to the conclusion that they should be faithful to God to serve poor persons. At the end of her life, when she made her famous retreat about the Holy Spirit, in one of her prayers one senses she was a contemplative: “I felt a great attraction for the holy humanity of Our Lord and I desired to honor and imitate it insofar as I was able in the person of the poor and of all my neighbors”.112

The Vincentian Family should be on guard against the tempt­ation of seeking after a prayer that is “intimist” (closed in on oneself without making commitments) and “quietist” (seeking refuge in prayer). The secular environment, the difficulties inherent in the mission, etc…. all can make it easy for us to fall into this danger. However, as we have seen through the course of this presentation, such a type of prayer would no longer be Vincentian. Saint Vincent himself alerted us to this possible danger: “After I have gone away, there shall come… false brethren… men who have only a narrow outlook, who confine their views and designs to a fixed circumference within which they shut themselves up as in a point; they are unwilling to leave it, and if they are shown something outside it and draw near to consider it, at once, they withdraw to their center, like snails into their shells.”113

2. Vincentian prayer must be Christo-centric. This point goes along with Vincent’s doctrine. Certainly, the Jesus that prays is always spoken about by those who speak about prayer. In our case, Saint Vincent always presented Jesus as accomplishing the mission of charity for which He was sent. If one sees Jesus praying in private or in public, in the following acts one finds Him curing the sick, feeding the hungry, consoling the suffering and preaching to the crowds. If one finds Him retiring from the crowds, wrapped in silence glorifying His Father, soon after one finds Him in the midst of the people, seeking after the lost sheep. If one contemplates Jesus celebrating the Passover banquet with His disciples, at the same time one sees Him taking up a towel and washing the feet of His friends, saying to them: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14).

There is no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth taught, through His word and example, to go to prayer, but to stay in prayer adoring the will of God and loving this will that wants a total commitment to the evangelization and service of those who are poor. If we see Saint Vincent examining himself with regard to these virtues, it is because these virtues are necessary for the exercise of the mission. Thus, Saint Vincent reviewed in prayer each of these virtues and found them shining forth in Jesus the Evangelizer. Through a personal review in the light of Christ who is simple, humble and charitable, Vincent would at times express his gratitude and at other times ask pardon. “When God gives a person light or grace or a good thought in one’s mental prayer, it should immediately be put to good use by applying it to one’s own particular state in life. One’s own faults must be considered, confessed, and acknowledged before God and even before the entire community….”114

In our world we remark the need for the experience God. Stresses of life and the weakness of faith in many people have made it even more necessary that they feel the presence of God. This observation is even more urgent, especially in young people. Now we know that many people in need of God become involved in lay or religious prayer with an eastern flavor such as transcendental medi­tation, yoga, Zen or New Age. In the face of all these meditation forms that can have as objective to submerge the person in a state of nirvana, the Vincentians can offer a prayer form that leads one to a configuration with the person of Christ.

3. Vincentian prayer must lead to experiences of God. Keeping in mind that the God of poor persons is the same God we experience within ourselves, the first way of praying during our service is to encounter God within us, not in a merely theoretical way or as an object, but as an experience of the personal presence of the other in the depths of our being. It is important to emphasize the personal presence of God, because there are currents of philosophy and psychology that promote a more impersonal God. To discover God within a person is “to never cease praying” as Saint Vincent frequently repeated. On the contrary, this is precisely the form of prayer that we need to give to the world where we live and work today.

It is difficult to think of God during our service; however, that is what Saint Vincent and Saint Louise wanted the Daughters of Charity to do. Saint Louise, in her prayer, felt the need to frequently direct her attention to the presence of God that she never left in order to remain in God’s presence even when she was not thinking about it. She recommended to the first Sisters: “If you place yourselves often in the presence of God, His goodness will not fail to advise you on all that He asks of you.”115 Many current theologians have the same idea. As an example, Luis Briones proposed the following theory: “It is possible and realistic to remain in God (or to live out of and within an encounter with God) in a habitual way in the everyday experience of one’s life.”116

With all we have said up to this point, we do not pretend to say that Saint Vincent believed that the experience of the presence of God has to be uninterrupted and continuous. That is impossible. What he expects of us, at the least, is to lead a life guided by the awareness of doing good for God. Subjectively, every moment of our life is lived in God; at times we are aware of this and at other times we know it through our intentions and dispositions.

In order to perceive the presence of God within us we need to be very aware of the meaning of the service confided to us. From this typically Vincentian perspective, praying consists of recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit in poor persons and experiencing, in God, that the poor is a person, and relating with him/her as such. Thus, poor persons become a “wake-up call” for a Vincentian in prayer, reminding him or her that the most excellent place where God is found is in those who are poor. It is in our relationships where contact occurs between persons, and if we realize that the Spirit of Jesus in­vites us to relationships that are open, communicative and supportive, uniting us to all through love, then we are praying. This is unceasing prayer: listening to the Holy Spirit who impels us to break down walls of anonymity, mass production, isolation and lack of communication of poor people. It all depends on us: if we are aware of helping others in order to encourage the Spirit of the Father, we are praying. On the other hand, we are not praying if our help is simply reflex, mechanical. The correction that Saint Louise added to the Rule that Saint Vincent had written for the Sisters of the parishes is worrying: “To this article should be added… the Sisters must take care to encourage the sick to receive the sacraments, doing their utmost to help them prepare themselves well for this. The Sisters must also procure consolation for the sick when they are in true need of it, respecting them and speaking to them gently and humbly, never thinking that the poor owe them anything for these services.”117

4. Vincentian prayer must lead to being “contemplatives in action.” In other words, recognizing God in prayer prepares us to recognize God in poor persons. Let us explore this Vincentian aspect more profoundly.

Henry Bremond described Saint Vincent as a “mystic in action.” Guiseppe L. Coluccia used almost identical terms in his work, Vincentian Spirituality, Spirituality of Action. Current spirituality, for its part, speaks of “horizontal mystics” and “contemplatives in action.” Certainly, all of these expressions refer to the same way of integrating two elements of spiritual life that at first sight appear contradictory: prayer and action.

If we refer to the life experiences of Saint Vincent, there are authors, as those we have mentioned throughout this presentation, who with great certainty present Saint Vincent as a true mystic or contemplative, not because he was the subject of extraordinary pheno­mena such as revelations, ecstasies or visions,118 but rather because God’s grace was present in him to such a great extent that his life and works seem to be filled with God. The great activity that he developed was nothing but a consequence, impelled by love, flowing from God. It is anti-mystical only when it is opposed to exaggerations, spiritual narcissism and purely sentimental, wordy or intellectualized ways of drawing someone to God. Contrary to this, Vincent proposes a real life submerged in contemplation and oriented towards the real world, where mysticism harmonizes as much with prayer as with action, two aspects that in reality should not be overly distinguished. A spiritual life that is closed in on one’s personal struggles, without noticing the “clamor of those who are poor” is lacking its seal of authenticity because “it is not enough for me to love God if my neighbor does not love God.” The spirituality of Saint Vincent integrates. In it, there is a marvelous confluence of heaven and earth, being sons/ daughters and being brothers/sisters, ascetic and mystic, contemplation and action. As it has been said, “Vincent never could have become so active without having previously been so passive, so receptive and docile to the will of God, in other words, such a true mystic.”119 The mystic lets himself/herself be impelled by the Will of God, which always ends indicating the way that leads to poor persons. Without this grounding with the poor, the mystic has no value and neither has the action. Vincent forcefully affirms it: “Perfection does not consist in ecstasies, but in doing God’s will.’120

In this respect, the theologian Gustavo Gutierrez proposed that the definitive question to which every school of spirituality must respond is that of reconciling presence in the world and presence before God. How can these two concepts be joined together in order to overcome this duality?121 As we have seen, experientially Vincent answered this question through his integrated life. Now it remains for us to study his doctrinal response which, as we have said previously, is in perfect harmony with his life-response. There is no other way. What Vincentian doctrine contains the formula “be contemplatives in prayer” and its correlative, “be apostolic in prayer”? Let us examine each part:

a) First of all, we can consider the objective convergence bet­ween prayer and action, insofar as both relate to the building up of the Reign of God. The first relates directly to the person, but in no way is limited by it, because the Vincentian prayer has to make the world the objective of his/her intercessions and petitions. Simply as an example we can cite the request that Saint Vincent made to the Mis­sioners in the repetition of prayer of June 13, 1655: “I recommend to the prayers of the Company the kingdom of Poland, which is in a state of the utmost terror on account of the great number of enemies by which it is being attacked. The glory of God is here concerned….”122 In its turn, apostolic activity seeks the building up of the Kingdom of God in the world, but Saint Vincent does not forget that in this intent, those who most benefit are the Missioners or the Daughters of Charity themselves.123

b) Secondly, these two expressions suggest to us the necessary complementarity between action and prayer, based on the idea that there are not two experiences of God—the experience in prayer and that in action. They are only one but in two moments that appear distinct only for human persons but not for God. The decree Perfectae Caritatis encourages the members of all religious congregations to integrate contemplation and apostolic love.124 The complementarity lies in the fact that authentic Vincentian prayer leads to apostolic action. For Saint Vincent, the encounter with God is always converted into a commitment to poor persons who are the object of God’s love, humanly expressed, concretized in action, as we have previously noted in this presentation. In turn, apostolic action leads to and ends up in prayer because in this same prayer is where the Vincentian recalls and cultivates the deep meaning of his or her activity. It is in prayer that the Missioner and Daughter of Charity continually renew their faith and their commitment to those who are poor, at the same time growing in sensitivity in order to be more in touch with the presence of the Spirit in the world and in those who are poor.

Saint Vincent presents this complementarity amazingly well: “Everything that is good comes through prayer; perseverance in your vocation, the success of our works, avoiding sin, remaining in a state of charity, our salvation…”125 he assured the Missioners. And in the same line, he insisted to the Daughters of Charity that service of poor persons must end in prayer. This is where the needs of all those who are poor are confided to the Lord.126 In the Vincentian spirituality it would be difficult for prayer to be disincamated from the world and poverty. As the Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission state, the Missioners “should find a unique experience of prayer in… the events of life.”127 Saint Vincent expresses the same idea: “There is nothing more in keeping with the Gospel than, on the one hand, to gather up light and strength for the soul in prayer, spiritual reading, and solitude, and then to go forth and dispense this spiritual good to men. This is to join the office of Martha and Mary. This is to imitate the dove, that half digests its food and then with its beak places the remainder in the mouth of its young to feed them.”128

c) Finally, “to be contemplatives in action” is closely connected to the heart of Vincentian spirituality. Vincent succeeded in bringing together these two extremes so well that he included contemplation in the normal activity of service. “A Sister will go ten times a day to visit the sick, and ten times a day she will find God there.”129 The current Constitutions of the Daughters of Charity end with the same con­clusion: “The Sisters find Christ and contemplate Him in the heart and life of those who are poor…. Through faith they see Christ in those who are poor, and they see those who are poor in Christ” (C. 10). As long as events, life, poor persons, etc…. do not become matter for contemplation, that is to say, as long as one does not learn to see God in all of them, to hear His voice and feel within oneself God’s passion for all the victims of injustice in the world, one can not be sure whether God is real and or just simply an idea.

  1. Notice the title of this work: A. D’Agnel, Saint Vincent de Paul, Maitre d’oraison, 20 ed. P. Tequi (Paris, 1929). (Saint Vincent de Paul: Teacher of Prayer).
  2. Cf. A. Dodin, La ()radon del Sefior Vicente, ‘Anales de la Congregation de la MisiOn” 86 (1978), p. 664.
  3. Cf. Ibid.. p. 652.
  4. L. Abelly, The Life of the Venerable Servant of God. III, C. VII, p. 40.
  5. Coste IX, Conference 37, pp. 327-328.
  6. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 51, p. 77.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Cf. Coste III, p. 241, 258; Coste IX, pp. 976-995, 921-922, 265-272; Coste XI, pp. 695, 684, 270, 782, 512-513, 485-486, 662 (Spanish).
  9. H. Bremond, Histoire Litteraire du Sentiment Religieux en France, A. Colin (Paris, 1967), vol. III. p. 219.
  10. Francis de Sales, in turn, spoke of his indebtedness to Saint Bonaventure, Saint Bruno, Fr. Granada, Saint Teresa of Avila and other Spanish spiritual guides.
  11. Abelly, Ch. 7, Sec. 1, p. 45.
  12. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 52, p. 77.
  13. Cf. Coste IX, Conference 37, p. 329.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Note the similarities between the Vincentian expressions and certain classical definitions. Saint Gregory Nisen: “Prayer is a conversation or conference with God” Saint John Chrysostom: “To pray is to talk with God” Saint Augustine: “Prayer is the mind’s conversation with God with pious and humble affection. “Saint John Damascene: “Prayer is the elevation of the mind to God, a petition to God for what is appropriate.” Saint Bonaventu re: “Prayer is the pious affection of the mind directed towards God to praise him and to ask for what will lead to eternal salvation.” Cf. A. Royo Marin, Teologia de la Perfection Cristiana,” BAC (Madrid, 1955), pp. 584-585. We can consider others. Saint John Climace: “Prayer is a familiar conversation united to God” Cf. J. Rivera Y J.M. lraburu, Espiritualidad Catolka (Madrid: Cete, 1982), p. 732.
  16. Coste IX, Conference 36, p. 316. This comparison calls to mind Saint Teresa, in the comparison of prayer to watering a garden and forms of prayer as the four ways of drawing water from a well. CI Santa Teresa, Life, Ch. XL Saint Francis de Sales also compared prayer to life-giving water that revives and creates blooms on the plants that are our holy desires. CI Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 2nd part, Ch. I.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Op. cit., Conference 37, p. 322.
  19. Ibid., Prayer as nourishment, as manna, has been developed by various spiritual authors. For example, Saint Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, VI, Ch. IV: “Prayer i s like an infinitely delicious manna, a sweetness for those who benefit from it.” See also Luis de Granada, De la °radon y meditation, parte I, c. I.
  20. Coste X, Conference 105, p. 484.
  21. Op. cit., Conference 103, p. 459.
  22. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 51, p. 77.
  23. Op. cit., Conference 153, pp. 324-325.
  24. Ibid., p. 323.
  25. Cf. Coste IX, Conference 15, p. 94.
  26. Cf. Op. cit., Conference 37, p. 327 and Conference 105, p. 468.
  27. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 51, p. 77.
  28. Cf. B. Haring, Oracion, en Nuevo Dittionario de Espiritualidad, Paulinas (Madrid, 1983), pp. 1015-1020.
  29. Coste IX, Conference 37, p. 330.
  30. Cf. Ibid., pp. 330-333.
  31. Ibid., p. 326.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Coste XL p. 285 (Spanish ed.).
  34. Cf. Ibid.. p. 282 (Spanish ed.).
  35. Cf. Coste X, Conference 105, p. 468.
  36. Cf. Coste VII, Letter 2591, p. 171.
  37. Cf. Coste IX, Conference 37, p. 326.
  38. Cf. Ibid., p. 327.
  39. Cf. Ibid.
  40. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 51, p. 77.
  41. Cf. Coste X, Conference 105, p. 468.
  42. Ibid., p. 470.
  43. Ibid., p. 484.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Cf. Coste X, Conference 99, p. 435; Conference 100, p. 445.
  46. Coste IX, Conference 37, p. 330.
  47. Cf. Ibid., Saint Teresa greatly appreciated vocal prayer but insisted extraordinarily on attention. Cf. Moradas del Castillo interior, I, 1,7; Camino de Perfection, C6dice del Escorial, 37, 1.
  48. Coste IX, Conference 5, p. 32.
  49. Coste X, Conference 114, p. 538.
  50. This Vincentian doctrine is based on Saint Francis de Sales. It cannot be more highly appreciated: “Prayer of ejaculations is not difficult, and can be alternated with all our activities and occupations that involve us. It can make up for what is lacking in all our other prayers, but the lack of all other prayers cannot be replaced by any other means.” Introduction, 2nd part, ch. 13.
  51. Cf. Coste XI, p. 245 (Spanish ed.).
  52. Cf. Op. cit., pp. 405-406 (Spanish ed.).
  53. Cf. Op. cit., pp. 373-374. (Spanish ed.).
  54. For example, Cf. S. Ignacio, Constitutions de los Colegios nn 14-15; Santa Teresa, Camino de Petfeccion. C6dice del Escorial, c. XVII.
  55. Coste IX, Conference 37, p. 330.
  56. Op. cit., Conference 4, p. 27.
  57. Op. cit., Conference 37, p. 332.
  58. Ibid., p. 330.
  59. A. Orcajo, El segultniento de Jestis Segzin can Vicente, ed. La Milagrosa (Madrid, 1990), p. 81.
  60. Abelly, Ch. 7, Section 1.
  61. Cf. Coste IX, Conference 37, pp. 330-331.
  62. Cf. L Abelly, o.c., III, p. 55.
  63. Ibid., pp. 80-81.
  64. Coste IX, Conference 4, p. 26.
  65. Cf. Ibid.
  66. Santa Teresa, Libro de la Vida, c. VIII.
  67. Id., Moradas, IV, p. 6.
  68. Coste X, Conference 103, p. 462; Cf. Coste IX, Conference 4, pp. 26-27.
  69. Coste IX, Conference 4, p. 25.
  70. Op. cit., Conference 37, pp. 335-336.
  71. Op. cit., Conference 21, p. 172.
  72. Coste IV, Letter 1504, p. 385.
  73. Coste X, Conference 102, p. 458.
  74. Various modern authors agree with the reflection offered by Saint Vincent. Humility is necessary for prayer, and at the same time, prayer contributes to a growth in this same virtue because it allows the Christian to have a deep experience of his or her radical dependence on God. Cf. J. Rivera-J.M. Iraburu, o.c., 735.
  75. Cf. Coste IX, 778 (Spanish ed.).
  76. Abelly, Chapter 7, Section 1, p. 48.
  77. Coste XI, pp. 463465 (Spanish ed.).
  78. Ibid., p. 467 (Spanish ed.).
  79. Cf. Coste IX, p. 3, 18, 165 (Spanish ed.).
  80. Coste III, Letter 1176, p. 532.
  81. Coste IX, Conference 1, p. 3.
  82. Ibid.
  83. Ibid.
  84. Saint Vincent also owes this practice to Saint Francis de Sales. The Bishop of Geneva insisted greatly on this aspect of prayer due to the fact that he directed lay people, who in order to overcome their daily concerns, had to seek to surround themselves with prayer. Cf. Ch. A. Bernard, Meditacion en Nuevo Diccionario de Espiritualidad, Paulinas (Madrid, 1983), p. 904.
  85. Cf. IX, pp. 28, 240, 462 (Spanish ed.).
  86. Cf. Ibid., pp. 28, 463 (Spanish ed.).
  87. Cf. Ibid., pp. 462-463 (Spanish ed.).
  88. Cf. Ibid., p. 462 (Spanish ed.).
  89. Cf. Coste XI, pp. 240-241; 779-780 (Spanish ed.).
  90. Cf. Ibid., pp. 180-181 (Spanish ed.).
  91. Cf. Coste IX, pp. 81, 97, 173, 178; 1132 (Spanish ed.).
  92. AbeIly I, Ch. 19; Cf. VII, p. 311.
  93. Coste XI, p. 781 (Spanish ed.).
  94. Cf. Coste IX, pp. 6-7 (Spanish ed.).
  95. Ibid., p. 287 (Spanish ed.); Cf. Coste II, p. 217.
  96. Cf. Coste IX, p. 27 (Spanish ed.).
  97. Cf. Coste XI, pp. 622-623 (Spanish ed.).
  98. Cf. Coste IX, pp. 1135-1136 (Spanish ed.).
  99. Coste XI, p. 247 (Spanish ed.).
  100. Cf. Coste IX, p. 1135 (Spanish ed.).
  101. Also known as Barbara Avrillot, she joined the new foundation of reformed Carmelites in France. She was well-known for her virtues. As a religious, she took the name of Maria de la Encarnacion.
  102. Cf. Coste IX, p. 20 (Spanish ed.).
  103. Cf. Coste XI, pp. 279-283 (Spanish ed.).
  104. Cf. Ibid., p. 664 (Spanish ed.).
  105. Cf. Ibid., pp. 202, 309, 314, 349 (Spanish ed.).
  106. Cf. Coste IX, pp. 203, 387, 708, 873; Coste X, p. 794 (Spanish ed.).
  107. Cf. Coste XI, pp. 279-283, 664; Coste X, p. 794 (Spanish ed.).
  108. Cf. Op. cit., pp. 420-421, 374. (Spanish ed.).
  109. Cf. Op. cit., p. 194. (Spanish ed.).
  110. Cf. Ibid., pp. 245-246, 421, 374, 287 (Spanish ed.).
  111. SW A. 50, pp. 704-705.
  112. SW, A. 26, p. 820.
  113. Coste XI, pp. 610, 612 (Spanish ed.).
  114. AbeIly III, Ch. 7, Sec. 1, p. 48.
  115. SW, Letter 193, p. 219.
  116. L. Briones, ¿Dónde está Dios?. ed. Verbo Divino (Estella, 1998), pp. 147-148.
  117. SW A. 91, p. 741.
  118. Other than the vision of the three globes at the time of the death of Jane de Chantal, which occurred on December 13, 1641, there are no other known extraordinary pheno­mena. Thus, we note Vincent’s rejection of extraordinary sensory phenomena occurring in the setting of prayer. He said of them that they “are more harmful than useful” (IX, 26). Perhaps this is why he was never considered among the French mystics of the 17th century.
  119. V. de Dios, Vicente de Paul. Biograffa y Espiritualidad, ed. Claveria (Mexico, 1991), p. 58.
  120. Coste XI, p. 300 (Spanish ed.).
  121. Cf. G. Gutierrez, Reber en su propio pozo, ed. Sigueme (Salamanca, 1984), p. 28.
  122. Coste XI, pp. 186-187; Cf. Coste XI, p. 381 (Spanish ed.).
  123. Cf. Coste IX, Conference 24, p. 199.
  124. Cf. Perfectae Caritatis, n. 5.
  125. Coste XI, p. 285 (Spanish ed.).
  126. Cf. Coste IX, p. 1147; Coste XI, pp. 186, 381 (Spanish ed.).
  127. Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission, n. 44.
  128. Coste XI, p. 50 (Spanish ed.).
  129. Coste IX, Conference 24, p. 199.

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