Contemplation

Contemplation – Together Towards Holiness

Contemplation – Together Towards Holiness 940 788 SVDP USA

New friends are silver, they say, and old friends are gold. Maintaining our friendships during this long year of absence and isolation has been challenging.

As Blessed Frédéric Ozanam once explained, friendships, when we are separated, can be nourished via letters, which are a “truly an epistolary meeting where one always gains and never loses.” [Letter 142. 1837]

Surely our modern conference calls and videoconferences have served us as ably as the letters of another era, yet even in these modern days, “friendship being a harmony between souls…cannot subsist in a prolonged absence.” [Ibid]

As challenging as it is to maintain our friendships without meeting in person, it is nearly impossible to form new ones, as we are called to do with the neighbors we serve. On Home Visits, we learn not only from words and facial expressions, but from the full circumstances and surroundings; body language; interaction with others in the home; things we can only experience in person.

All friendships are strengthened by spending time together, whether sharing a meal, a conversation, a movie, or other recreation. But our Vincentian friendship is a special bond, whose “strongest tie… is charity… It is a fire that dies without being fed, and good works are the food of charity.” [Letter 82 1834]

This friendship is more than recreational, more than mere “silver or gold.” It is one of the Essential Elements of our vocation, formed, nourished, and strengthened at every Conference meeting and home visit.

Indeed, the first edition of the Rule in 1835 declared that “the unity of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul will be cited as a model of Christian friendship… which …will make of all our hearts one heart, of all our souls one soul…

It is through our friendship that we answer our calling to “journey together towards holiness.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] In our Conference meetings, where we gather together in His name; in prayer, where our voices joined; on our Home Visits, where we serve as He asked us to serve; there, as He promised, Christ will be in our midst.

As grateful as we are for technologies that have kept us connected during this time, one of the blessings we look forward to as we return to normalcy in coming weeks and months is the renewal of our living friendship. Vincentian friendship, like our relationship with God, is ultimately not intended to be a long-distance relationship.

Contemplate

When gathered with my Vincentian friends, do I look for Christ in our midst? Do I find Him?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Contemplation: Our Labor of Love

Contemplation: Our Labor of Love 940 788 SVDP USA

On the very first page of our Rule you will find a truly remarkable statement: “No work of charity is foreign to the Society.” [Rule, Pt. I, 1.3]

All modern communities thrive by specialization; farmers farm, builders build, writers write, and so on. Within the community of charitable and philanthropic organizations, there also tends to be specialization; shelters for the homeless, food pantries for the hungry, utility assistance, legal aid — the list, especially in this generous nation, is nearly endless.

Through specialization, each of us contributing what we are best able to contribute, more needs can be met overall, and this is obviously to the good!

But the Society of St Vincent de Paul not only lacks a specialty, it would seem that we explicitly dismiss specialization.

Or do we?

Vincentians are called, above all else, “to follow Christ through service to those in need and so bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love.” [Rule, Pt. I, 1.2]

Our service, our works, are the means towards growth in holiness; we’re called to see the face of Christ in those we serve, to fulfill His teaching, and to draw others to Christ through our example of charity.

And so, on our Home Visits, when we observe not only additional material needs, but ways in which we might help to alleviate the causes of the neighbor’s distress, we eagerly seek to do so, through our individual efforts, and through our many special works, from Thrift Stores to disaster relief; from tutoring to prison ministries.

None of these works stems from an ambition merely to provide greater amounts of material assistance, but from a commitment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, then, does have a specialty, but it is the charity, not the works.

We’re not, after all, the Society of Rent Assistance, or of Groceries; we are the Society of St Vincent de Paul, called by the example of our patron to “love God with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.”[CCD XI:32] Charity itself is not a work; charity is love. No work offered in love is foreign to us.

And if we truly seek to serve Christ, how can it be otherwise?

Contemplate
Do I serve my neighbor for love alone?

Recommended Reading
Vincentian Meditationsespecially 23. The Vincentian Witness

Contemplation: God’s Gift, Wrapped in Humility

Contemplation: God’s Gift, Wrapped in Humility 940 788 SVDP USA

Have you ever seen somebody, puffed up with himself, stride into a room, clearly expecting to be the center of attention? Sometimes we hear people mutter, “He thinks he’s God’s gift to us…”

It’s a shame that this expression is used as a derisive commentary on personal vanity, because, when you think about it, aren’t we all “God’s gifts?” That seems like an easy thing to understand when we refer to a newborn infant as a “gift from God.”

You, too, are “God’s gift” to your brothers and sisters. So am I. This is not a validation of our vanity — quite the opposite! In vanity, we make ourselves the center. By contrast, as God’s gift, I am not for me, I am for you. God is the center. He carefully created us, wrapped us, and sent us.

To be God’s gift, then, is a call not to vanity, but to our Vincentian virtue of humility in which we accept that “all that God gives us is for others and that we can achieve nothing of eternal value without His grace.” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]

Following Christ’s call to serve Him in the person of His poor, Vincentians seek to share not only our time, our talents, and our possessions, but also ourselves in a spirit of generosity. [Ibid]

And in giving, we receive.

As Fr. Hugh O’Donnell explains in an article titled Apostolic Reflection, “God is present in each person and in the community.”

In other words, while each of us is a unique creature of God, all of us together, as a group, also are a unique instance of God’s grace. The group does not change when a new person enters — it becomes an entirely new group, enriched by receiving another gift from God.

The vain man sees himself not only as the gift, but as the giver; the one who should be thanked. We are called to offer God’s gift, wrapped in humility, seeking nothing in return. Miraculously, when we do so, this gift of love will be multiplied.

What a wonderful exchange of gifts; what a wonderful celebration!

For we truly are the gifts when God is the Life of the party.

Contemplate

Are there times I try to keep this gift to myself?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

Contemplation: From That Time on, How Could I Not Love Them?

Contemplation: From That Time on, How Could I Not Love Them? 940 788 SVDP USA

Vincentians are called to serve the hungry, the homeless, the poor — all those who are suffering or deprived. Doing this work can sometimes lead us to discouragement, because we see so many problems we cannot solve, and we know that today’s groceries won’t satisfy next month’s hunger.

And after all, who are we to try to ease the suffering of others when we are weighed down by burdens of our own?

Writing to his lifelong friend Ernest Falconnet, Bl. Frédéric once confided that many times he felt burdened by his own problems and worries, but then he went “into the dwelling of a poor person confided to my care. There, because so many unfortunates have more to complain about than I, I scolded myself for being discouraged.” [15 Days of Prayer, p.81]

The poor will always be with us, as surely as our own hunger will return each day. This is why our Rule reminds us, we “should never forget that giving love, talents, and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Pt. I, 3.14]

Our primary purpose is not the feeding, but the sharing, and in the end, whatever loaves and fishes we have to offer will be enough for God’s plan, if we share them for love alone. And as we comfort, we will in turn be comforted, just as the five loaves and two fish, shared by Christ’s disciples, returned to them as twelve baskets filled with food.

To invert the old saying, “there because of the grace of God go I.” There to the poor; there to the hungry; there to deprivation and to sadness; there to Him who beckons us; there to Him who comforts and redeems us, even as we, “weak Samaritans,” seek to offer comfort.

As Bl. Frédéric taught, the poor are “the messenger of God to us, sent to prove our justice and charity…” [O’Meara, p. 177]

How can we ever tire, or be discouraged, when what we offer is to Christ Himself? As Frédéric realized when those impoverished families lifted his spirit:

“From that time on, how could I not love them?”

Contemplate

In giving, do I keep my heart open to receiving?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat   More a novel than a biography, this is an inspirational story of Frédéric’s life.

Contemplation – Being That Kind of Person

Contemplation – Being That Kind of Person 940 788 SVDP USA

Why does it sometimes seem difficult to withhold judgment when we visit our neighbors in need?

In his famous essay “The Undeserving Poor,” [Serving in Hope, Module IV] the late Bishop Kenneth Untener explains how easy it is to serve a poor child, because they can’t help it if they’re poor, and they haven’t the ability to work their way out of it.

They are not the ones that are difficult to serve – it’s the ones who seem to be the cause of their own problems; the ones we help up only to see them fall again. You know – those kind of people.

In his biography of Sister Stanislaus Malone, Nun with a Gun, biographer Eddie Doherty recounts the story of Sister Helen, an older nun who once told an alcoholic to leave and not come back, saying “it would be a waste” of time and resources to keep helping him when he would only start drinking again.

The man left, but not before reminding her that she did not know the temptations he had faced.

After he left, Sister Helen sobbed at her own failure of charity, saying, “What right had I to assume he would succumb again to the evils of drink? How many battles has he won? Nobody knows. I think only of the battles he has lost – and the battles I myself have won.”

It is easy to remember that time we beat temptation, or pulled ourselves out of difficulties by our bootstraps, and to let it color our judgment of the failures of others. We forgive and forget our own failures of will or of virtue, because deep inside we understand that our failures don’t define us; that however our own stumbles may be seen by others, we are “not that kind of person.”

It was because of this human fallibility that St. Vincent taught that we should “get in the habit of judging events and persons, always and in all circumstances, for the good. If an action has a hundred facets to it…always look at its best side… even though intelligence and human prudence tell us the contrary.” [CCD XI:638]

Perhaps this is part of Christ’s meaning when he commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” [Mt 22:39] Love is offering not only our assistance, but our understanding, our patience, and the benefit of the doubt.

Because we are all made in His image, and we are all “that kind of person.”

Contemplate

How can I better “see the good” in all circumstances?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Meditation II – especially 10. Expecting and Seeing

Contemplation – The Joy of Communion

Contemplation – The Joy of Communion 940 788 SVDP USA

Our journey towards holiness will be more fruitful, our Rule says, if it includes “devotion to the Eucharist” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] which “plays a major role in Vincentian spirituality.” [Manual, p.65] The Eucharist unifies us and sends us forth.

The spiritual dimension of our Vincentian Formation teaches us that our pathway is a shared one, that we are meant to grow in holiness together as members of a community of faith.

Bl. Frédéric once said that although they might not be with him, when he received Communion he was “in close touch with my friends, all united to the same Saviour.” [Baunard, 381] After his mother’s death, he said that he believed that when the Savior visited, his mother “follow[ed] him into my poor heart.” [Baunard, 158]

In this, he echoed St. Louise, who reminds us that “Holy Communion with the Body of Jesus Christ causes us truly to participate in the joy of the Communion of Saints in Paradise.” [Spiritual Writings, A.15]

The Eucharist, which takes its name from the Greek word for giving thanks, is a gift we receive because Christ’s love is “inventive to infinity.” [SVdP, CCD XI:131] Having received Him, we must thank God “by our desire to honor Him in all the actions of our lives.” [St. Louise, Spiritual Writings, A.15]

Following Mass, filled with the “power of conviction,” [Baunard, 342] Bl. Frédéric always visited the poor of his Conference on his walk home. As his biographer Monsignor Baunard put it, he “returned to Our Lord, in the person of His suffering poor, the visit which he had just received from Him in the Holy Eucharist.” [Baunard, 209]

And so, having taken the Body of Christ into our own, we see that Jesus brings “not only Himself … but also all the merits of His mysteries.” [Spiritual Writings, M.8B]

Sending Louise on a mission, Vincent advised her to go to Communion on the day of her departure, so that Christ may “bless your journey, giving you His spirit and the grace to act in this same spirit, and to bear your troubles in the way He bore His.” [CCD I:65]

This sacrament is central to our Vincentian Vocation for the same reason it is the church’s “foundation and wellspring.” [Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 5] Through the Eucharist we are united not only with Christ, but with our entire human community; we are fortified, strengthened, and called to serve them as He served us. Our service to the poor is the expression of our devotion to the Eucharist.

Contemplate
How can I give thanks for the Eucharist in my Vincentian service?
Recommended Reading

Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Encyclical Letter of Pope Saint John Paul II

Contemplation – Our Unlimited Resources

Contemplation – Our Unlimited Resources 940 788 SVDP USA

In the course of its 188 years, many have marveled at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s great freedom of action, seeking always to help those in need in the best way possible. As our Rule says, “No work of charity is foreign to the Society.” [Rule, Part I, 1.3] There is only one explanation for this: love.

In 1933, on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Society’s founding, an editorial in The Tablet, a Catholic newspaper in Brooklyn, observed that “The Society is great because it follows in the footsteps of Our Lord and Savior… He was not interested in ‘cases’ or ‘clients,’ but in men, women, and children.”

We are called to form relationships with those in need, to understand them as we would a brother or sister. Like brothers or sisters, like neighbors, like friends, we always want to do what is best for a person we value and love. Because of this, the members who made the visit are assumed by their fellow Vincentians “to have a special insight into the best way to give help.” [Manual, p. 27]

Ours is not the “The organized charity, scrimped and iced, In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ,” from John Boyle O’Reilly’s poem. Rather, with Bl. Frédéric, we believe that “in such a work it is necessary to give yourself up to the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mind.” [Letter 82, To Curnier, 1834]

The poor are accustomed to standing in line, taking a number, or filling out a form to try to “qualify” for the assistance they desperately need. They are reduced to numbers in the eyes of many agencies. To many in their communities, they are invisible. To us, they are “the sacred images of that God whom we do not see, and not knowing how to love Him otherwise shall we not love Him in [their] persons?” [Letter 137, to Janmot, 1837]

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is not an agency; our help does not come with strings attached, because while agencies’ resources are limited, ours are not. Our funds belong to the poor already, so we “never adopt the attitude that the money is [ours,] or that the recipients have to prove that they deserve it.” [Manual, p. 26]

More importantly, the resource we share on every single visit, is ourselves. But the ultimate reason that no work of charity is foreign to us is that the greatest resource we have, is one that multiplies as it is shared: love.

Contemplate: Are there times that I “budget” my love?

Recommended Reading: The Spirituality of the Home Visit – Read, but also keep your own journal!

Contemplation – A Harmony Between Souls

Contemplation – A Harmony Between Souls 940 788 SVDP USA

Friendship is one of the Essential Elements of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Certainly, it is easier to work together when we all get along, but the friendship we are called to is of a very special character. This friendship is sacred, Bl. Frédéric wrote, it is “a harmony between souls.” [Letter 142, 1837]

St. Vincent loved to remind his followers that Christ treated his Apostles as his friends, teaching that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends. For Vincent, then, we can have no better friend than God! Therefore, “must we not love all that He loves and, for love of Him, consider our neighbor as our friend!” [CCD XI:39]

God created us to live in community, and just as the Holy Trinity shows us that the Divine life is a shared life, so our pathway to it is also shared. We are formed as Christians through our relationships with others. Our call to friendship, then, is an essential part of our call to holiness.

If this seems difficult at times, if there is tension between us, it is forbearance, Vincent said, that is “the bond of friendship that unites hearts in sentiment and action, not only among themselves but in Our Lord, in such a way that they enjoy great peace.” [CCD VI:51]

Serving each other as friends in Christ, we should take special joy in sharing each other’s burdens. Bl. Rosalie, replying to a request for a great favor from a friend, gladly agreed to help him, saying, “I cannot tell you how you please me in giving me the opportunity to do something for your interests. Always act this way with me, without any hesitation. It is the proof of friendship that I hope for.” [Sullivan, 237]

It is charity, the love of God, that connects us in friendship with each other and with those we serve. Charity, Bl. Frédéric said, is the strongest tie – the principle of a true friendship. Yet charity “is a fire that dies without being fed, and good works are the food of charity.” [Letter 82, 1834]

You may have observed that you grow closer to your friends when you share a meal, or go to a movie, or have them over for a cookout. Through these acts that we share, our lives intertwine; our bonds become stronger.

But if purely human acts have this power,” Frédéric explained, “moral acts have it even more, and if two or three come together to do good, their union will be perfect. Thus, at least, He assures us who says in the Gospel: ‘Truly, when you are gathered together in my name, I will be in your midst.‘” [Letter 142, 1837]

Contemplate: To have a friend, you have to be a friend. How can I be a better friend?

Recommended Reading: Antoine Frédéric Ozanam especially Chapter 7, ‘Friendship’

Contemplation – One Heart and One Soul

Contemplation – One Heart and One Soul 940 788 SVDP USA

The Rule tells us that “All decisions are made by consensus after the necessary prayer, reflection and consultation.” [Rule Part I, 3.10] And that, “In rare circumstances, if consensus cannot be reached the decision may be put to a vote.” [Part III, Statute 16] Doesn’t that just drag things out? Isn’t it faster to vote?

These are the wrong questions! Our goal isn’t to reach the fastest decision, but to reach the right decision; the one that is aligned with God’s will.

The process of reaching consensus, then, is a concrete instance of discernment.

The foundation of consensus in our Conferences is for each of us to let go of our egos, “surrendering our own opinion,” as our original 1835 Rule put it, “without which surrender, no association is durable.”

This concept of surrender, of emptying ourselves, occurs throughout the Scriptures, and is a result of our Vincentian virtue of humility, which St. Vincent taught “causes us to empty ourselves of self so that God alone may be manifest, to whom glory may be given.” [CCD XII, 247] Even Christ “emptied himself” to better fulfill the Father’s will! [Ph 2: 6-8]

There is an old joke that voting is like two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. In a similar way, consensus is like a group of friends deciding where to go for dinner. We would never make our friend with the fish allergy go for seafood, and it is obviously better to skip the pizza if another friend just had that for lunch.

When we keep our friendship foremost, our consensus on a dinner destination becomes obvious. Our differing needs and opinions don’t block the road, they light the path.

Just so, in our Conferences, with the bond of our Vincentian friendship enabling us to listen and speak openly, the group’s wisdom and insights will soon distill, revealing to us God’s will in the form of our consensus. Rather than vote fellow members off the island, we all remain in the same boat.

St. Louise often advised that “following the example of the Blessed Trinity, we must have but one heart and act with one mind as do the three divine Persons.” [Correspondence, p.771, 1647]

The Divine life, in the example of the Holy Trinity, is a shared life, and our pathway to it also is shared; in service, in spirituality, in friendship, and in consensus.

Cor unum, et anima una!

Contemplate

When have I let my own strong opinions shut down other voices in my Conference?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love – especially “Listening to God’s Word

Contemplation – The Smallness of Our Alms

Contemplation – The Smallness of Our Alms 940 788 SVDP USA

At times it can be frustrating to think that the assistance we give to a neighbor in need will not only be insufficient to lift them from poverty, but may not be enough even to get them through the next week.

The efficient and plentiful distribution of goods and services isn’t our primary purpose, though. As the original edition of The Rule in 1835 explained, “we must never be ashamed of the smallness of our alms.” Rather, for each neighbor we assist, it is “our tender interest – our very manner, [that gives] to our alms a value which they do not possess in themselves.”

Our primary purpose since the beginning has been to grow in holiness, and our secondary purpose to bring our neighbors closer to God. Our service, in the form of the Home Visit, is the primary means towards both of those purposes.

No work of charity should be regarded as foreign to the Society,” that 1835 Rule continues, “although its special object is to visit poor families.”

It is only through this special ministry of person-to-person service that “our tender interest” attaches to “the smallness of our alms.” What may appear small to the wealthy, is large in the eyes of the poor. More importantly, it is when we serve those in need personally, following the example and teaching of Christ, that we may also bring Christ to those in need.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [MT 18:20]

Mahatma Ghandi once said, that “there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” The bread we offer, the bill we pay, the prayer we offer, can be the light of God when offered for love alone. It can begin to relieve the greatest poverty – the feeling that one is forgotten, or unworthy.

Our offerings to the poor, Christ assures us, will be received as if given to Himself. Our service to the poor is not about demanding a result, but about offering Christ’s love, and ours, in a spirit of selflessness and humility. It is about giving, not achieving.

Our charity would be less meritorious, and might expose us to vainglory, if we saw it always crowned with success.” [The Rule, 1835, as reprinted 1906, Superior Council, NY]

Contemplate: What result do I seek in my Home Visits?

Recommended Reading: The Rule, Part I

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