Contemplation

Contemplation — Only Visiting

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When we think back on our experiences visiting the homes of our neighbors, we are justly proud of the many times that we “solved the problem,” often with a little money, or some food; sometimes with advice and encouragement. We may not always change the lives of the poor, but we can often check off one problem from the list, and share in their happiness at that. But this is not always the case.

Sometimes it seems that there is nothing we can do; the problem is too big, or the situation too complex; we don’t have money, or the expertise, or it’s just…too much. Often, we know this before we even schedule the visit. So why do we go?

St. Vincent taught about affective love and effective love. Effective love is not emotional, it is active. It is an act of will, to provide for another – to give them the things that they need. This is the love we think about when we commit ourselves to serving for love alone. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] So what happens when “effectiveness” is off the table?

Think, for example, of the neighbors we visit who have no homes, who live on the streets or in the parks, and who suffer from all of the health and wellness problems that often accompany long-term homelessness. In severe weather, we may sometimes be able to offer a shelter that will prevent death. We may be able to provide clean clothes and some food, and then…we send them off again.

Effective love, though, does not come at the expense of affective love. When we sit with the suffering, perhaps especially those who are suffering what we can barely comprehend much less alleviate, we may sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed with emotion. We try to choke it back, certain that we can be more comforting if we can remain more placid. But affective love, Vincent taught, “proceeds from the heart” making us “continually aware of the presence of God”. [CCD IX:372]

It is in your silent tear that you share the burdens and the pain of the neighbor. For so much of their lives, these suffering people are unseen by so many who avert their eyes when walking past. When we see them clearly enough to shed a tear, they know that tear is “an act of love, causing people to enter one another’s hearts and to feel what they feel”. [CCD XII:221] We share both God’s love and our own.

Ours is a ministry of doing, but it is first and always a ministry of loving presence. Just as Christ shared in our suffering, that we might suffer no more, we share the neighbor’s burdens that they might know the promise of His kingdom, where He will wipe every tear from our eyes.

After all, this world is not our home. We are only visiting.

Contemplate

Do I fully open my heart to both tears and joy with the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Meditations II

Contemplation — Spiritual and Religious

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Perhaps you have friends who say “I am spiritual, but not religious.” For Vincentians, our spirituality is not only religious, it is our very special and specific way of living our Catholic faith.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that there are many and varied spiritualities that have been developed throughout history, and that “the personal charism of some witnesses to God’s love for men has been handed on… so that their followers may have a share in this spirit.” [CCC, 2684] For us, that “refraction of the one pure light of the Holy Spirit” is the charism of St. Vincent de Paul.

Unlike many well-known saints, Vincent never wrote a treatise about his spirituality; there is no Vincentian Summa Theologica, Introduction to the Devout Life, or Spiritual Exercises for us to study. We can learn a great deal by reading the words he spoke in conferences and letters, but more importantly, we learn through his example, his actions, passed down to us through more than 400 years of Vincentian Family tradition, and especially through our primary founder, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.

It seems only right that our spirituality is learned first through action. After all, as Vincent once said, we must “love God…with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows”. [CCD XI:32] Two hundred years later, Frédéric would found the Society by declaring “Let us go to the poor!” [Baunard, 65]

Ours a spirituality of action, of doing, of serving. At the same time, we pray “both at the individual and community level” with our own lives “characterized by prayer, meditation on the Holy Scriptures and other inspirational texts and devotion to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary”. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] Our prayers always include reflection on our service, reminding us, as Frédéric put it, that “visiting the poor should be the means and not the end of our association.” [Letter 182, to Lallier, 1838]

We trust in Divine Providence, in the love and the abundance of God. We do not worry about running out of resources – everything that is given to us belongs to the poor already, and “members should never adopt the attitude that the money is theirs, or that the recipients have to prove that they deserve it”. [Manual, 23] We trust, with Frédéric, that to do works of charity, “it is never necessary to worry about financial resources, they always come.” [Letter 121, to his mother, 1836]

Finally, and most importantly, we see, we serve, and we love Jesus Christ in the person of the neighbor whom we serve. As St Vincent taught, “you go into poor homes, but you find God there.” [CCD IX:199] As Frédéric taught, the poor “are for us 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, 1836]

Through these actions, we grow closer to Christ. This is our spirituality. This is our religion.

Contemplate

How often do I share my Vincentian spirituality with other Catholics?

Recommended Reading

The Manual (especially 3.2, Vincentian Spirituality)

Contemplation — To Boldly Go

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The bold, five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to seek out new life and new civilizations” on “strange new worlds.” Vincentians, though constrained to our same old world, and not limited to a mere five years, are similarly called “to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten” in our mission of charity. [Rule, Part I, 1.5]

Our hands are full, it may seem, just answering the calls for help that arrive unannounced; our treasuries may strain to meet the needs presented to us. So why would we go around trying to find more? After all, don’t our neighbors find us, just as we receive donations, through God’s providence? Of course! But recall that trust in Providence is not a mandate to be merely passive. As Blessed Frédéric once wrote, “Providence does not need us for the execution of its merciful designs, but we, we need it and it promises us its assistance only on the condition of our efforts.” [Letter 135, to Bailly, 1836]

What greater or more important effort could we offer but to seek out those in need – especially the forgotten? After all, as both Moses and Jesus remind us, the land will never lack for needy persons and the poor will always be with us. The most needy may be forgotten by their neighbors and by society, but they are not forgotten by God, their Creator. It is exactly that message, that hope, that we are called to share on our home visits.

It is our respect for the dignity of every person that should motivate us to seek them, to find them, and to share God’s love in the form of bread, in the form of help, and most importantly in the form of our presence and love. We can never let the fear of a depleted treasury stop us from seeking out those most in need, because we know that “giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

God does provide. He provides generously and lovingly. It is the will of God that our neighbors in need call us, and the will of God that enables us to help them. But as St. Louise reminds us, we must “never take the attitude of merely getting the task done.” [SWLM, A.85] We are not the Society of Bill Payments, we are the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, following the example of our Patron, as he in turn imitated Christ.

We are called to see the face of Christ. He is out there; not on a strange new world, but perhaps on a park bench, perhaps in a darkened apartment, perhaps in a hospital or prison. The world may have forgotten Him, but we hear His cry, and seek Him, unafraid.

Contemplate

Where can I go to find Christ, and how can I serve Him best?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: The Heart of the Matter

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There are times when the demands of serving the neighbor can weigh heavily on us, sometimes because there are so many calls to answer, and sometimes because our efforts often seem to be in vain; the poor remain poor, the struggling continue to struggle. We are called to serve in hope, but how do we raise our own spirits? How do we return to what Bl. Frédéric called “the rays of charity which at the beginning came sometimes to illuminate and warm our souls”? [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835]

Our own physical rest and health, of course, is not only for our own benefit. As St. Vincent once explained to St. Louise in telling her to get some rest, “Increase your strength; you need it, or, in any case, the public does.” [CCD I:392] And as our Rule reminds us, “Vincentians are available for work in the Conferences only after fulfilling the family and professional duties.” [Rule, Part I, 2.6]

Resting our bodies is often enough to restore our energy, but not necessarily our zeal when we feel weighed down by the feeling that our work is not accomplishing enough; when the neighbor continues to struggle, no matter how much we help. It is at these times that it becomes most important to reflect deeply upon the nature of our works, and the purpose of our Society.

We are not the Society of Rental Assistance or Food Pantries. We serve in hope not only of offering some material relief, we serve in the hope of eternal life in Christ, and we visit the neighbor to share that hope through our friendship, our prayer, and our love.

In the history and traditions of the Society, and of the whole Vincentian Family, our visits have been not only to the poor in their homes, but to hospitals and prisons. As Chaplain of the Galleys, St. Vincent de Paul brought prayer, and hope, and the love of God to thousands of prisoners without freeing a single one. For the rest of his life, he could hardly speak about the galley prisoners without weeping.

The emotional burden we carry with us from sharing our neighbor’s suffering is part of our expression of love, and we can take great solace in knowing that we truly lighten their burdens by sharing them. And just as we share the neighbor’s burden, we pray that the neighbor may share our hope. We visit to show them that God has not forgotten them; that they too may share in the hope of everlasting life.

Knowing this hope in our own hearts, serving in His name and for His sake, may our hearts not be burned out, but on fire, and our souls “in a continuous state of joy and happiness”. [SWLM, A.14b]

Contemplate

Do I always seek first to offer the suffering of the neighbor to God, and the love of God to the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

The Spirituality of the Home Visit

Contemplation — A Simple Aspiration

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We celebrate the great vision of our primary founder, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam who, along with six others, started that first Conference which has since grown to literally encircle the world, as he had envisioned. [Rule, Part I, 2.4] Lest we confuse vision with ambition, though, Frédéric’s oft-stated goals for himself and the Society were simply to become better, and to do a little good. On its face, this may seem to be a contradiction. After all, how does one reconcile a vision of charity and justice sweeping across France and the world, restoring the church, and making the world better with the humble personal aspiration simply to do a little good, or to become better?

In Frédéric’s estimation, the Society’s rapid growth was not the work of its members, least of all himself, but had grown so rapidly only through Divine Providence, through which it also had “been allowed to do a little good”. [Letter 141, to Ballofet, 1837] He understood, exactly as St Vincent had repeatedly taught, that any success we may have, or that our Society may have, is entirely the work of God, not ourselves. Indeed, the whole point of the work is not the earthly result, but our own growth in holiness; our “becoming better.”

While their works, as Frédéric hoped, may indeed “[erase] little by little the old divisions of political parties” and “make it a moral country”, it won’t because of a grand strategy, but because the members seek “to become better themselves in order to make others happier”. [Letter 290, to Amélie, 1841]

Remember, we seek “to help relieve suffering for love alone, without thinking of any reward or advantage for [ourselves]”. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] If the world changes, it changes – that’s up to God. We’re called to serve selflessly, to “do all the good we can, and trust to God for the rest.” [Baunard, 81] To become better, then, is not a matter of earning accolades; it is something we do for others, and for God.

Indeed, as Frédéric once advised his friend Ernest Falconnet, “it would be a thousand times better to languish in obscurity for half a century, edifying others with a spirit of resignation and doing some little good, than to be intoxicated for a few brief months with worldly pleasure”. [Baunard, 349]

Ours is “a vocation for every moment of our lives”. [Rule, Part I, 2.6] We seek to do a little good, to become better, because, as Frédéric wrote, as “a Christian, a believer in God, in humanity, in country, in family, never forget that your life belongs to them, not to yourself”. [Baunard, 349]

It may seem a simple aspiration, to become better, but simple does not necessarily mean easy. We grow in holiness together, each of us and all of us, seeking to fulfill God’s will by doing a little good, and there can be no greater aspiration than that.

Contemplate

How can I become better, and do a little good, today?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

Contemplation — At the Top of the Stairs

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The little Society of St. Vincent de Paul is alive and growing,” wrote Bl. Frédéric, “the extraordinary needs of this winter have reinvigorated the activity of our almsgiving.” [Letter 224, to Lallier, 1840] This was, he said, the way in which they strove to keep the fire of Christian brotherhood burning. But for this seven-year-old Society, “almsgiving” had already expanded to include the kind of works we now describe as “systemic change”.

Frédéric went on to explain that a “great many of our members have volunteered to help young ex-prisoners, and the excellent La Perrière is engaged in establishing preventive assistance.” [Ibid] Not content only to serve the needs of those already hungry and in poverty, the Conference at Lyon was working to help ex-prisoners make their way back into society and setting up other programs to help people avoid poverty in the first place. This only makes sense – as the old saying goes, we fight poverty, not the poor. So why would Vincentians not try to head it off at the pass?

Such approaches do not contradict our mission of person-to-person service, of seeing and serving Christ in the poor whom we visit. On the contrary, it is our home visits that give us the insights necessary to determine what sort of programs are most needed in our own communities. That is why the Rule explains that the “Society should work not only with individuals in need but also with families and communities.” [Rule, Part I, 7.9] Special Works and Systemic Change are, and have always been, the natural outgrowth of the home visit, and the regular practice of the Society. [Manual, p. 5]

Social scientists may do their studies, and offer insights in their publications, but it is as true today as it was in Frédéric’s time that “knowledge of social well-being and of reform is to be learned, not from books, nor from the public platform, but in climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret, sitting by his bed side, feeling the same cold that pierces him, sharing the secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind.” [Baunard, 279] We are called not to simply drop the groceries at the top of those stairs and walk away, but to gain from our neighbors the knowledge Frédéric described, and put it to use beyond the home visit.

There is no act of charity that is not accompanied by justice,” St. Vincent wrote, “or that permits us to do more than we reasonably can.” [CCD II:68] Charity and justice go together in our church’s teaching, our Patron’s spirituality, and our founder’s example.

Justice places its demands on each of us and all of us, not just the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. And while justice and charity are inextricably bound together, Vincentians remain especially committed to solve those problems that we understand uniquely through the eyes of our neighbors, always “[making] charity accomplish what justice alone cannot do.” [Letter 136, to Lallier, 1836]

Contemplate

My Conference serves many individual needs. Can I add them up to a wider problem we can address?

Recommended Reading

Seeds of Hope

Contemplation — Pray, Pray Again

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In advising a young priest who was departing to become the Superior of the Agde Seminary, Vincent offered guidance that was both deeply spiritual and profoundly practical – advice that remains pertinent to those in servant leadership in the Society today. [CCD XI:310-316]

He urges the new leader to focus on imitation of Christ, discernment of God’s will, and especially on the virtue of humility. Indeed, it is Christ’s humility that Vincent holds forth as an example to imitate. Christ, as leader of His disciples did not “lord it over them”, despite, in fact, being the Lord! He taught us that he had come not to be served, but to serve.

Vincent contrasts this very basic tenet with those who that you have to “make it clear you are Superior.” Instead, he emphasizes that the superior should live just like the others, and always seek God’s will in prayer and meditation, rather than rely on his own personal judgment. Observers should not be able to tell by watching how we live, which is the leader.

Again and again, he comes back to humility, and to imitation of Christ’s humility: The superior does not take personal satisfaction in the works or successes of the company, instead always attributing them to God. He does not offer his words of advice or make decisions without recourse to prayer and meditation to God. He asks God to tell him the needs of the others and to guide him in serving them.

No matter how dedicated we may feel that we are in our prayer lives, Vincent’s words here remind us how much more room there is for prayer and meditation – and how very practical this advice is. For those times when, even subconsciously, we think “this problem is not important enough to bring to God,” Vincent reminds us, echoing the Sermon on the Mount, that God counts even the hairs on our head. Not to bring our “little things” to Him more regularly is, in a sense, to deny the great humility of God’s incarnation in Christ; it is to elevate our own judgment in place of God’s.

As servant leaders, we should marvel each day that Providence led us to this place and to this role and pray that we are giving back to heaven all that we have been given. Perhaps this, from St. Vincent, should be one of our daily prayers:

Lord, what have I done to have such a ministry? What works of mine correspond to the responsibility being placed on my shoulders? Ah, my God, I’ll spoil everything if You yourself don’t guide all my words and works!”

Contemplate

How often do I pray for God’s guidance in all of my decisions and all of my works?

Recommended Reading

Praying with Vincent de Paul

Contemplation — A Persevering Fidelity

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As Vincentians, our primary purpose is our own growth in holiness. Achieving this is very closely tied to another core tenet of our spirituality, which is that our “ideal is to help relieve suffering for love alone, without thinking of any reward or advantage for [ourselves].” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] It only stands to reason that our ideal is also the greatest commandment, Christ’s express will that we love the neighbor as ourselves, for the love of God.

Saint Vincent de Paul once explained to the priests of the mission that in order to do this, we must make our intentions clear at the start. He suggested this prayer, which members of the Society might also consider offering before each home visit: “My God, I’m going to do this for love of You; for love of You I’m going to stop doing this thing in order to do something else.” [CCD XI:284]

Making this good intention, he said, is much like saying the words of the sacrament of Baptism – it isn’t the water that baptizes the child. Water is only matter; the prayer is the form. In a similar way, our charitable works, by themselves, are only matter if not expressly offered for the love of God alone.

There are many temptations that can distract us from this. Vincent described five vices that act contrary to our virtues: “(1) mere human prudence; (2) the desire for publicity; (3) always wanting everyone to give in to us and see things our way; (4) the pursuit of self-gratification in everything; (5) attaching no great importance to either God’s honor or the salvation of others.” [CCD XII:254]

So, for example, although we owe an accounting of our works to our donors, we can sometimes get too caught up in the narrative of our great successes, and even begin to see our works as achievements, forgetting “that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

Fr. Corpus Delgado, C.M., in a conference on St. Louise de Marillac, shared this great insight from her example: “To follow Jesus the Crucified Lord is to learn little by little that success is not one of the names of God, and that in our vocation and in our service, we are not asked for percentages of effectiveness but a persevering fidelity.” [CEME, Salamanca, 2010]

The home visit isn’t about the light bill, or the rent, or the groceries. If it were, we could leave those things at the doorstep. It’s about the love of God and the neighbor, which perhaps can’t be measured or reported but is exactly the thing that can lead to our growth in holiness, so that it is no longer we who love, but Christ who loves through us. [Rule, Part I, 2.1]

Contemplate

Do I make my intention clear to God before each work of charity?

Recommended Reading

The Manual

Contemplation — Close Enough

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There’s an old joke, when a task is incomplete or incorrect, that “it’s close enough for government work!” There is no comparable joke for charitable works, because we have the highest standard possible: we are called to do God’s will as best we can discern it. How can we best help this family? What is the best decision for the Conference? Through prayer and discussion, we come to a consensus that we hope reflects God’s will.

It is true that to begin works of charity, offered for love alone, requires very little discernment because Jesus very specifically told us His will that we should love the neighbor, and serve the least among us! Yet we know that in the course of these works, as we walk our Vincentian pathway, we encounter more questions along the way. We are never really done with seeking God’s will.

Our prayers, individually and together, draw us closer to Him. We offer praise and thanks, and place our needs before Him, but, as Jesus prayed, “not as I will, but as you will.” We seek His will in the answers to our prayers. In our Vincentian friendship, we seek to be of one mind and one heart, “following the example of the blessed Trinity.” [SWLM, 771] We seek to do His will by imitation.

The Society’s primary purpose is our own growth in holiness, towards “perfect union with Christ”. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] That isn’t limited to the works of the Conference, because ours is a “vocation for every moment of our lives”. [Rule, Part I, 2.6]. Both as Vincentians and as Catholics, we are called to discern God’s will for the spiritual journey through our lives.

In between all our talking and doing, we must also stop to listen, to try to hear that tiny whisper in the storm. We must look back upon the events and people in our lives and “re-read” those moments that changed us. We may accept a loss or misfortune as God’s will, but that is only one step. Placing ourselves silently in God’s presence, we also look back to see where that misfortune led us – something we could only know by looking back.

Little by little we move closer to knowing and doing His will and doing it fully. It isn’t the gist of God, it’s the will of God. If that seems very specific, that’s only because it is. God’s will is for each of us, very specifically, because He loves each of us very individually.

To seek and to do His will is nothing more than to love Him back, and when we truly love Him, we are close enough for charitable work.

Contemplate

Consider a moment of conversion in your life. How did it change your heart, and your path?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire – Apostolic Reflection with Rosalie Rendu

Contemplation — On Our Way

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One of the central activities of the Conferences and Councils of the Society is formation. Because we often use this word as a synonym for “training” we can begin to think of it as an isolated event, something to check off on a list when we join the Society or enter into specific positions. But formation is not a single event – it is a lifelong journey of becoming…of becoming what?

As Vincentians, we have chosen a specific way of being Catholic, and this way, this vocation, forms us. The Foundation Document on Vincentian Formation, adopted by the Society more than twenty years ago, suggests four different dimensions of formation, closely mirroring the areas outlined in Pastores dabo vobis, an apostolic exhortation on the formation of priests.

Our human formation, the basis for all formation, begins with our actions, which are shaped by our virtues. We become by doing, we build habits of virtue in order to become virtuous. For Vincentians, these include the Cardinal Virtues, the Theological Virtues, and our Vincentian Virtues.

Our spiritual formation has to do with the transcendent aspect of our nature; the aspect in which we are truly made in God’s image. Our spiritual formation reminds us that we are created to live in community. The model of the Holy Trinity reminds us that the eternal life is a shared life, and that our path to it is also shared. As Vincentians, we pray and reflect together often. Our spiritual reflections and prayers in each Conference meeting are a vital part of our ongoing formation. Our individual prayers, retreats, Mass – and prayers shared with the neighbor are all part of our spiritual formation. We journey together towards holiness. [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

Our training falls within our intellectual formation. The efforts we make to learn the practical aspects of our vocation, to learn about poverty, and about specific works and programs. But our intellectual formation also demands that we take the time to read about our heritage, the words and deeds of our saints and blessed, as well as to devote time to personal study of Holy Scripture.

Finally, ministerial formation comes from a commitment to our vocation as mission, accepting our service as a means to our growth, and remaining open to all ways to serve, including servant leadership.

Our particular way of being Catholic, our particular process of becoming, is our Vincentian vocation. We follow, in every part of our lives, our Vincentian pathway towards becoming what Christ calls us to be, “perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Contemplate

In what way was I formed today? How did I grow closer to holiness?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

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