Contemplation

Contemplation – Do Not Grow Old With The World

Contemplation – Do Not Grow Old With The World 940 788 SVDP USA

Both the Society and the church celebrate our long traditions and ancient texts; both the Gospels and the Rule govern our actions; we seek models in the Saints and Blesseds of our church and of our Vincentian family. But should this mean we must be set in all of our ways?

The question arises from time to time, as new servant leaders or new members suggest special works that our Councils and Conferences have never tried before. Certainly, new approaches or programs must remain within the limits set by our Rule, but often, we greet new ideas with resistance, for no other reason than that they are new.

Frédéric, who saw the Society grow from seven members to hundreds of Conferences around the world, celebrated the many innovations, especially those that served the particular needs of their localities. “I then favor innovations,” he wrote, explaining that “in human affairs, success is possible only by continual development, and that not to go forward is to fall back.” [Letter 80, to Pessonneaux, 1834]

Home visits will always remain the core work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. These visits are a spiritual practice before all else; serving Christ in the person of His poor, and offering them Christ’s love and hope. The home visit, along with the Conference meeting, is the rock on which we are built; our foundation, but not our limit. After all, “the Society constantly strives for renewal, adapting to changing world conditions.” [Rule, Part I, 1.6]

Even in the earliest days of the Society, special works such as apprenticeship programs and schools were established to help people move out of poverty, to address needs that were observed in the course of the friendships developed on home visits. The Society collaborated with other organizations in order to accomplish even more.

Among the many reasons to welcome new members is that they are often a source of new ideas, their “more ardent zeal, new ideas, and original insights prevent routine from setting in and the primitive fervor dying.” Conferences, Frédéric observed, have seasons, too, for “there is change in all human things.” [Letter 141 to Ballofet, 1837] His hope was that the Society, whose very foundation was unforeseen, would continue to prosper, and to be guided by providence.

The Society, like the church, is changing and unchanged, ever young; we are built on a rock, not set in stone. We don’t change for the sake of change alone, but to better fulfill God’s will, to love our neighbor, and to grow in holiness through our works.

“The religion of your forefathers,” Blessed Frédéric reminds us, “does not grow old with the world. Ever renewing itself, it keeps pace with progress, and it alone can lead to perfection.” [Baunard, 20]

Contemplate

Am I open to discerning God’s will, even when it means change from the familiar?

Recommended Reading

A New Century Dawns

Contemplation – There is Always Much Love Where There is Much Faith

Contemplation – There is Always Much Love Where There is Much Faith 940 788 SVDP USA

Given that our Rule [Part I, 2.2] reminds us that our “ideal is to help relieve suffering for love alone,” it seems fair to say that the heart of our Vincentian vocation lies in … our hearts. How can our human hearts be filled with enough love? The answer perhaps begins with the Greatest Commandment, which calls us first to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart…”

Our hearts lead us very powerfully, filled with our hopes and our dreams, our joys and our fears. Left to their own devices, our hearts can become distracted, our worries can keep us from serving God fully, even when we truly believe we are serving His will. It is because of this that we must first “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence do not rely.”

As important as acts of virtue are, they are not complete unless they are both interior and exterior. In other words, if we seek to act “for the love of God,” [Catechism, 1822] we must seek first the love of God within us. This means letting go of the troubles of the day, giving them all to God, in order to make room for His love.

In his letters to St. Louise, who often struggled with anxieties, St. Vincent urged her to find peace in her heart, reminding her that “He will reign in you if your heart is at peace. So, be at peace, Mademoiselle, and you will honor in a sovereign way the God of peace and love.” [CCD I:111]

In this he echoed St. Augustine, who taught that “our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.”

We are taught to love, to trust, and to rest our hearts in the Lord! He assures us that “when you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me…” What better way could there be to prepare to serve our neighbor than by giving our hearts first to God; by allowing His peace and His love to replace our desires and anxieties?

If we love God first and fully, if we love Him with all our hearts, they will be filled to overflowing with His love, and we will become His instruments to serve our neighbors in need.

“That is because,” Bl. Frédéric wrote, “the human heart easily allows itself to be captured by love and there is always much love where there is much faith.” [Letter 145, to Velay, 1837]

Contemplate

Do I sometimes let my own anxieties push God to the side?

Recommended Reading

Praying with Vincent de Paul

Contemplation: Dove-like and Holy, Perfecting the Other Virtues

Contemplation: Dove-like and Holy, Perfecting the Other Virtues 940 788 SVDP USA

“Simplicity,” St. Vincent once said, “is the virtue I love most” [CCD I:265]  and our Rule lists it first among our five Essential Virtues. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] So what does the virtue of simplicity call upon us to do?

Simplicity, Vincent taught, is a virtue primarily concerned with God. In simplicity, we present ourselves, and our words, with absolutely no intent to mislead or evade; we are always straightforward. We do this, he said, for the love of God and for His greater glory, because God is Himself “pure act and a very simple being” and is “pleased with simple souls.” [CCD XII:246]

In serving the neighbor, it is especially important to act and to speak with simplicity. The world our neighbors must navigate has no shortage of false claims and promises, empty flattery and performative insults. As we seek to build relationships based on trust and friendship, then, we have to be very careful not to appear “wily, clever, [or] crafty.” [ibid]

There is something of a childlike nature in the virtue of simplicity. Indeed, St. Louise explained that it was Christ’s “simplicity and charity which led Him to come to us as a child so as to be more accessible to His creatures.” [Spiritual Writings, 718] Similarly, describing the childlike simplicity of one of his missioners, Vincent marveled that his “simplicity made him lovable and loved by everyone, but especially by God, who no doubt usually communicated with him in a special way, since cum simplicibus est sermocinatio ejus.(His discussion is with the simple.)” [CCD II:377]

Like all virtues, simplicity must be both external and internal. We seek, in our words and in our deeds, in our hearts and in our souls, the “simplicity of being” that Louise described, that allows God’s grace to act in us without obstacles. [Spiritual Writings, 818]

So, just as acting with simplicity means we do not deceive, and we do not exaggerate, it also means we must not be motivated by anything but the pure charity of our acts; we must do good only to do good, and because God wills it – never to simply make ourselves look good, or to gain favor.

Both Vincent and Louise used the image of a dove to describe the honesty, purity, and sincerity of the virtue of simplicity – the same symbol we use to represent the Holy Spirit. So perhaps when we open our Conference Meetings, asking the Holy Spirit to live within our lives, we might consider it a prayer for this virtue, that our simplicity may be like that of the missioner whom Vincent praised, “dove-like and holy, a simplicity that perfected his other virtues.” [CCD II:377]

Contemplate

Do I ever hide behind “it’s complicated” to explain away my failure to speak or to act directly?

Recommended Reading

‘Tis a Gift to be Simple

Contemplation: Inspirations of the Heart

Contemplation: Inspirations of the Heart 940 788 SVDP USA

The Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a beautiful spiritual document. Despite what its title may lead us to believe, it is not a set of detailed instructions, prescribing how we must act in all situations. Rather, it is a description of how we act, especially serving the neighbor, “in the Vincentian spirit.” [Rule, Part II, Statute 8] So, rather than ask, “what is the Rule telling me to do?” We should ask instead “does the Rule describe how I serve?”

The Apostle Paul explained that the new covenant is written on our hearts, not carved in stone. It is a “covenant not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” Paul was not, of course, rejecting Scripture, but explaining we can only fulfill God’s will by opening our hearts to the Spirit, and allowing God’s work to be done through us.

Blessed Frédéric made a similar point when his friend Léonce Curnier, who was starting a new Conference at Nimes, asked for advice on how the Paris Conferences operated.

In our works of charity, Frédéric wrote, “it is necessary to give yourself up to the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mind. Providence gives its own counsel through the circumstances around you, and the ideas it bestows on you. I believe you would do well to follow them freely and not tie yourselves down with rules and formulas.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

Rules and formulas are familiar to us, though! It can be comforting to know we can only do so much; our hands are tied; or we can’t help, because the bell rang.

But the more that we chisel in stone, the less we are guided by the spirit; the more we decide in advance, the less we hear the cry of the poor; the more we focus on calculations, the less we act for love alone. But how can I trust my own poor judgment?

St. Vincent taught that it is pleasing to God for us to “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. In the name of God, Monsieur, let us act in that way even though intelligence and human prudence tell us the contrary.” [CCD II:638]

No rule can tell us what to do on every home visit. But our Rule describes Vincentians as people who see the suffering Christ in the poor and are guided by the Holy Spirit. Vincentians serve in hope. [Rule, Part I, 1.2, 1.7-1.8]

Therefore, since we have such hope, we act very boldly.

Contemplate

Have I allowed prudence to make me too timid in serving the poor?

Recommended Reading

The Rule (especially Part I)

Contemplation: Damascus, Emmaus, and the Vincentian Pathway

Contemplation: Damascus, Emmaus, and the Vincentian Pathway 940 788 SVDP USA

One of the central tenets of our Vincentian spirituality is our call to see the face of Christ in those we serve. It seems so simple, and yet at times we lose our focus and lose sight of Him during our Home Visits. It is easy to allow ourselves to think ahead to the “solution” before we even learn the problem. We let tomorrow blind us to the present.

But we are called to be present – to be both here and now for the neighbors we serve. Listening is not thinking ahead to our own answer, but listening as if to Christ Himself, looking in His eyes and hearing His voice.

On the very day of Christ’s resurrection, two of His followers walked along the road to Emmaus, discussing all that had happened, including the account of the empty tomb, when “Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”

Christ was right there with them, in the flesh, and they could not recognize His face. They looked but couldn’t see. They walked and listened but did not recognize Him until He broke the bread with them at supper that evening! In speaking about Christ behind them, they were blinded to Christ before them.

This was not the only time the apostles lost sight of Christ’s face. As Bl. Frédéric pointed out, “The fault of many Christians is to hope little…. They are apostles in the boat during the storm: they forget that the Savior is in the midst of them.” [Ramson, Put Your Hands into Hers, 14] Like the apostles in the boat, we also sometimes allow our “troubles of the day” to overwhelm our senses, and to blind us to the true hope – the hope in which we are called to serve.

Saul of Tarsus, feared oppressor of the early Christians, was converted with great drama on the road to Damascus. Struck blind by a flash of great light, he did not see Christ’s face that day, but heard His voice. Only after three days was his sight restored, as he became Paul, Christ’s apostle, who would later teach, “at present, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face…

Our moments of conversion tend to be less dramatic than Paul’s, but we, too, are on a journey. Ours may not be the road to Damascus, or even to Emmaus, but Christ awaits us along our Vincentian pathway. We will see Him when we act with patience, when we follow St. Vincent’s admonition to “not tread on the heels of Providence…

He may not always seem obvious, and we may see Him only indistinctly, but we are called to see and to serve Him, even if we have to squint a little, and even if we have to slow down.

Contemplate

Have I looked past Him, or through Him in my hurry to be someplace else?

Recommended Reading

Praying with Vincent de Paulespecially 3. Jesus Christ, the Center

Contemplation: According To How We Use It

Contemplation: According To How We Use It 940 788 SVDP USA

Formation is not a single thing we do; it is a lifelong process of becoming. In all that we read, in all that we contemplate, in all those we meet, and in all that we do, we are being formed. We can allow ourselves to be formed passively – consuming the pop culture, feeding our appetites – or we can form ourselves deliberately, with a specific end in mind.

In other words, as Blessed Frédéric once wrote, “Life is despicable if we consider it according to how we use it, but not if we recognize how we could use it, if we consider it as the most perfect work of the Creator…” [Letter 136, to Lallier, 1836]

Aristotle proposed that we become by doing: if you want to become a builder, you build. By extension, he argued, if you wish to become virtuous, you do virtuous things; you practice the virtues. [Nichomachean Ethics] St. Vincent echoed this idea when he taught that “the will has to act, and not just the understanding; for all our reasons are fruitless if we don’t go on to [actions.]” [CCD XI:175]

And so, from our earliest days, following the guidance of our families and churches, we learn through our actions how to be better. Our actions form us, and they can form us for better or worse, and this is the core of what we call the Human Dimension of Formation. As Vincentians, we choose our actions more deliberately, more specifically. We choose to serve our neighbors, exactly as Christ asks us to do. If it is really that simple, why does it take a lifetime?

It would be wonderfully easy if our Christian formation could be completed with a single home visit, wouldn’t it? It also would be wonderfully easy if a single trip to the gym would make us fit and slender for life! Simple, it turns out, does not always mean easy. After all, even a clearly marked path may be narrow, or steep.

Each time we serve the neighbor and do so for love alone, we seek to do His will. Our actions bring us closer to God, a little bit at a time. Our actions form us, and transform us, but not all at once.

The Lord tells us, in the Book of Leviticus, to be holy, for He is holy. Christ tells us, in the Gospel of Matthew, to be perfect, just as the Father is perfect. The word “holy” comes from the Old English hāl, meaning “whole” or “complete.” The word “perfect” comes from the Latin perficere, meaning “to complete.”

Christ is the light and the life; He is perfect; He is complete. The rest of us continue in our formation, our lifelong process of becoming.

Contemplate

How was I formed today? What drew me closer to God?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Formation, A Foundation Document

Contemplation – We Do Not Have Two Lives

Contemplation – We Do Not Have Two Lives 940 788 SVDP USA

We understand our Vincentian vocation to be a lay vocation, not religious or clerical. Yet the laity are called to much more than charitable works and attending Mass on Sundays. Indeed, in Apostolicam Actuositatum, Pope Saint Paul VI said that as “sharers in the role of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, the laity have their work cut out for them…” That sounds like a very tall order, but to learn how we may fulfill this calling, we need look no farther than the example of Blessed Frédéric Ozanam.

Frédéric lived his faith in every part of his life. He felt God’s presence in friendship, writing to his mother that it “makes one love more than ever a religion that makes all its children equal and gathers together the great and the small who… inspire you with so much love for humanity.” [Letter 55, to his mother, 1833] He saw and served Christ in his friends.

Advising his friend on marriage, he explained that “in your wife you will first love God, whose admirable and precious work she is, and then humanity, that race of Adam whose pure and lovable daughter she is.” [Letter 107, to Curnier, 1835] In his faithful devotion as husband and father, Frédéric saw and served Christ in his wife and daughter.

For most of his adult life, Frédéric was a college professor, where he believed he and his Catholic colleagues should strive “to fulfill our vocation as professors in a Christian manner and to serve God in serving wholesome teaching…” [Letter 516 to Foisset, 1843] He never shied from defending the truth, yet in doing so, he never offended anybody. Frédéric saw and served Christ in his profession.

As a proud Frenchman, Frédéric served in the National Guard during the 1848 revolution and ran for a seat in the legislature that same year. Through his newspaper, L’Ère Nouvelle, he offered commentary on social issues of his time, always seeking to mediate social tensions, and to remind his fellow citizens of their obligations to one another. Indeed, he once went so far as to say that this was “the possible usefulness of our Society of St. Vincent de Paul.” [Letter 137 to Janmot, 1837] Frédéric saw and served Christ in his fellow citizens.

Frédéric anticipated Pope Saint John Paul II’s teaching that for the laity there “cannot be two parallel lives,” one spiritual and one secular. [Christifidelis Laici, 59] He even explained it using similar words:

We do not have two lives, one to seek the truth, the other to practice it,” he wrote. [Letter 1143, to Hommais, 1852] “It requires so little to be an excellent Christian, all you need is an act of the will.”

More importantly, he lived his faith in all the parts of his life: in work, in family, in friendship, and in charity. He is for us, and for all Catholics, a role model of the Apostolate of the Laity.

Contemplate

In what parts of my life can I better see and serve Christ??

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Meditations (especially 4. How Do We Define Ourselves?)

Contemplation – Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You

Contemplation – Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You 940 788 SVDP USA

“Come Holy Spirit, live within our lives,” we pray to open every Conference meeting, asking to be strengthened by the first fruit of the Holy Spirit: love. But let us also pray for the second fruit: joy!

Love sometimes means doing things we do not want to do, putting the needs of another before our own. For Vincentians, this is often begins with an interruption – we’d like to finish our meal, enjoy the weekend, or just relax and watch television, but the poor are calling. We don’t begrudge the poor their needs, of course, but we can sometimes adopt an unfortunate mindset; a grim sense of duty, a commitment to do the work, no matter how difficult or even unpleasant it may be at times.

After all, St. Vincent calls us to love God “with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow.” It sounds like hard work, this whole love business! We know that it’s worth it, but who smiles while plowing the field?

We do!

Reflecting on the grace of God above both the splendors and hardships of earth, St. Louise once asked, “Why are our souls not in a continuous state of joy and happiness?” [Sp. Wr., p. 774] As Robert Barron, Bishop of Los Angeles, sometimes explains, God’s love exists only in the form of a gift; once we receive it, we give it away, only for it to be replenished. So for every act of charity, for every gift of love, it is we who are receiving. Why would we not be filled with joy?

The Lord loves a cheerful giver. Blessed Frédéric advised his brother Charles to “bring a joyful dedication to the works” of the Society. [Letter 314 to Charles Ozanam, 1841] We serve not out of duty, not for reward, but for love alone, so that we may “draw nearer to Christ, serving Him in the poor and one another.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

This is the truth that ultimately should bring us such joy that we can hardly contain it: we are in the presence of the living Christ! It is in giving that we receive, and in giving to the One whom we adore that we are filled with joy.

And the Lord loves a cheerful giver!

Contemplate

How can I let go of cares and smile?

Recommended Reading

‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple

Contemplation: Through the Glass

Contemplation: Through the Glass 940 788 SVDP USA

Our Rule calls us to “seek out the poor,” [Rule, Part I, 1.5] but why should we need to seek them out? Aren’t they looking for us?

Vincentians know that it is difficult to ask for help. With gentleness, we often reassure our neighbors in need that we are glad they have called us, and glad that we can help. We also know that material assistance is not the most important thing we can offer, and not the most important thing that anybody needs.

The suffering of poverty is much deeper than lack of food or shelter. Imagine yourself in poverty, walking down the street, on your way to a job that might just cover your bills, but can’t possibly cover anything more. A thousand other people are there with you on the sidewalk, none of them knowing what you are going through. Glancing through the glass as you pass a café, you see the smiling faces drinking $8.00 coffee that you know you can’t afford, and you begin to feel that maybe the coffee just isn’t for you. But it isn’t just the $8.00 price tag – it is the growing feeling that the community that surrounds you, filled with comforts and leisure that seem so out of reach, is a community that simply does not include you.

We are created to live in community – all of us, and each of us. When material poverty leads us to believe we are not only deprived but forgotten, that is true poverty; poverty in spirit.

We seek out the poor not because they are difficult to find. They are right there, on the other side of the glass, seeing us with our coffee, and believing we don’t see them. We seek them not because they need us, but because we need them; because we have been promised by our Savior that whatsoever we do to the least among us He will receive as if done for Himself.

With a cup of coffee, a warm embrace, and a prayer of hope, we welcome the poor into community; not seeking any reward for ourselves, but because we can see them, and they “are for us the sacred images of that God whom we do not see…” [Letter 137, to Janmot, 1836]

We should need no special urging to seek out the poor. From inside our warm café, we need only to see through the glass, and then face to face, the one we have been seeking all along.

Contemplate

Are my eyes open to His presence?

Recommended Reading

The Spirituality of the Home Visit

Contemplation: Chopping the Wood

Contemplation: Chopping the Wood 940 788 SVDP USA

Trust in providence is central to our Vincentian vocation. This means more than simply trusting that “everything will be okay.” It means trusting that if we do His will, the outcome will also be His will, whether we understand it completely or not.

In our Conferences, doing His will means we gather together in His name, we serve Christ in the person of His poor, we love the neighbor as ourselves, we treat him with mercy, and we are generous with our time, our talents, our possessions, and ourselves. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]  It may seem frustrating, at times, when it seems that our help…doesn’t help. But what is the outcome we seek?

St. Vincent taught that “God does not consider the outcome of the good work undertaken but the charity that accompanied it.” [CCD I:205] Charity, the love of God, is our purpose. The true outcome we seek is the full flourishing and eternal happiness of all persons, [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] which we know is not in our control!

Just as Christ wept for God’s mercy to deliver Him from the agony of the cross but submitted to the Father’s will, Frédéric Ozanam wrote down his own lament on his fortieth birthday. Bedridden with the illness that would take his life a few short months later, he poured out his wishes to “grow old alongside my wife, and to complete my daughter’s education.” Still, he said, “I am coming if you call me, and I have no right to complain.” [Book of the Sick, Prayer from Pisa]

Trust in providence is most important exactly when it is most difficult. Frédéric expressed during his own suffering, that it might become “a source of merits and blessings,” bringing with it “those inexpressible consolations which go hand in hand with [God’s] real presence.” [Ibid]

Ours is a ministry of presence; not only our physical presence, as true friends with those in need, but our presence as a sign from a loving God, who sent us to the neighbors to sit with them, to listen to them, to pray with them, and help in any way that we can. We bring what material assistance we can, but we seek most importantly to bring some part of God’s “inexpressible consolation.”

Trust in providence is not passive; it is actively doing God’s will – tirelessly, devotedly, and for love alone. To paraphrase an old Frank Clark “Country Parson” saying, “Trust in providence is what makes you feel the warmth of the hearth while you’re outside chopping the wood.”

So perhaps, if we are to “to bring this divine fire, this fire of love” as St. Vincent calls us to do,[CCD XI:264] we’d best keep chopping the wood.

Contemplate

Do I tire too easily while chopping the wood?

Recommended Reading

The Book of the Sick, by Frédéric Ozanam

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