Contemplation

Contemplation: Our Inheritance and Legacy

Contemplation: Our Inheritance and Legacy 940 788 SVDP USA

In studying our own genealogy, we first catalog the names and dates and places of our ancestors. Our understanding and our love for them truly comes alive, though, when we find photographs, objects they owned, and best of all, words that they wrote. In a similar way, the portraits, relics, and words of our Vincentian saints and blessed help us to understand and fulfill our place in our shared Vincentian Family.

A treasure trove of St. Vincent’s words is contained within the fourteen(+) volume Correspondence, Conferences, and Documents, from the mundane, such a real estate transactions, to the personal, revealed in letters that were intended originally only for one recipient, to the conferences in which he gave spiritual lessons to his followers. While Vincent himself did not want his conferences recorded, designated note-takers recorded them surreptitiously anyway, realizing that the words of this holy man would feed generations who succeeded them.

Coincidentally, we also see Christ admonishing people more than once in the gospels not to tell anybody of some of His particular words or works – yet there they are, written in the gospels.

Bl. Frédéric Ozanam’s words are collected for us (in English) in a volume called A Life in Letters, with translation of more of his work currently underway. It was Frédéric who said that we owe to our patron “a two-fold devotion… imitation and invocation.” He argued that we could escape our personal imperfections “appropriating the thoughts and virtues of the saint”. [Letter 175, to Lallier, 1838]

How, after all, do we truly imitate Vincent’s example without his words, his teaching, his very personality that is visible to us in the collections of his words? Vincent’s insights were meant not only for 17th Century France, but are, as Frédéric put it, “for all lands and for all time.” [Baunard, 275]

It has often been observed that the third generation of a wealthy family is the one that tends to squander that wealth; no longer appreciating the work that it took their ancestors to earn it, they no longer are inclined to work themselves.

“The poor,” St. Vincent taught, “are our inheritance.” [Gallican Church, Vol.2, 8] Through the words preserved for us, we receive from his spiritual estate our way of seeing, serving, and loving them, so that we will be better able to pass this along to future generations of our Vincentian Family.

Contemplate

How often do I pause to study the words of our Vincentian saints and blessed?

Recommended Reading

Frédéric Ozanam, A Life in Letters Letter 90

Contemplation — Saints Among Us

Contemplation — Saints Among Us 940 788 SVDP USA

After the death of St. Louise de Marillac, St. Vincent de Paul gathered the Daughters of Charity together for two conferences in remembrance of their “dear mother.” He asked them to share their memories of the virtues they had observed in St. Louise, and that they would choose to imitate.

Among the virtues they recalled was Louise’s love of poverty, her insistence that “We are the servants of the poor; therefore, we must be poorer than they are.” [CCD X:572] This was of a piece with her great humility, by which she felt called to perform the most menial of labor in the house before asking one of the Daughters to do it.

When a loved one dies, we are sometimes left to sort through their belongings, some of them long forgotten in a basement or attic, some kept close at hand until the end. While these things may remind us of memories, both happy and sad, it’s the memories we treasure most; the little bit of the spirit of our dear departed that we carry within ourselves.

In a similar way, it is not the material assistance that is most important for us to give to the neighbors we serve, but the gentleness that penetrates their hearts, the kindness and patience we offer, and the love that brings us to them.

For us to grow in holiness together, we should always try to see and imitate the holy example of our fellow Vincentians, not only after they have died, but while they are among us, praying with us, and serving Christ in the person of the poor. Who is the member in your Conference who has never once seemed impatient or angry with anybody? Who is the one who nearly weeps at every home visit report she gives? Who is the first to ask about your troubles, and offer his prayers for you?

Seek first the Kingdom, Christ teaches us. Neither our lives nor our Vincentian ministry are best measured by the sum total of the belongings we accumulate. St. Louise left behind almost no material possessions, but her example of virtue and holiness still lives, ready to be shared by all members of the Vincentian Family today. Through her intercession, may we share in her spirit of poverty, her great charity, and her selfless devotion to God.

These alone are enough.

Contemplate

Which of my fellow Vincentians can I grow in spirit by imitating?

Recommended Reading

Let’s listen to a song this week: These Alone Are Enough

Contemplation — Working for God’s Sake

Contemplation — Working for God’s Sake 940 788 SVDP USA

Studying the words of our Vincentian predecessors helps to remind us of the challenges we share, and the spirituality, traditions, and friendship that bind us to them and to the poor. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some members of the Society in the United States began to adopt a term for home visitors: the friendly visitor, a term that captures what our Rule now calls establishing “relationships based on trust and friendship” with the neighbor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

The Proceedings of the National Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, held in Boston in June of 1911, contains numerous accounts of the importance of this personal and spiritual connection which remains at the heart of our Vincentian vocation.

In a talk about our works of love, Fr. Hugh Monaghan of Baltimore explained the importance of each member committing at least an hour a week to the work of visiting families, bringing gentleness, patience, and perseverance to those visits, so that the family may “realize that there is someone interested in them, someone who does care when things go wrong, someone who makes their joys and sorrows his own.” [Proceedings, p.77]

What greater gift could we bring than to reassure our neighbor not only that while we are there, they are the most important people in the world to us, but that when we leave, their troubles are also our own? If it takes one month, or six, or even ten years to make a difference in a neighbor’s life through our friendship, Fr. Hugh said, we will have “accomplished a work of charity greater, by far, than could be represented by any amount of money.” [Ibid, p.77]

It was in this spirit of friendship and mercy, also, that James Dougherty of New York explained our obligation to get to know the neighbor ourselves, not to rely upon, or contribute to shared databases (“card catalogs”) to determine a neighbor’s worthiness for assistance. Pointing out that our mandate to perform works of corporal mercy does not include any “conditions as to the character of the needy,” Daugherty went on to explain that many in need would “rather die than expose their condition,” which obliges us, in respect of their dignity, not to share their names and stories. [Ibid, p.119]

We cannot understand Christ’s reminder that the poor always will be with us apart from his admonition that our treatment of the poor will be judged as if done to Christ Himself. How we serve the poor is not a measure of our efficiency, but a measure of our love and of our faith.

Today, as in 1911, “we are apt to allow ourselves to get into a rut and forget the spiritual side of the work,” but to be friendly visitors is to “bear the fact constantly in mind that we are working for God’s sake. Do this and note the effects in our work among the poor.” [Proceedings, P. 118]

Contemplate

Do I always seek to make the neighbor’s joys and sorrows my own?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Contemplation — Our True Friend

Contemplation — Our True Friend 940 788 SVDP USA

When we think back to the times in our lives when we have needed some help, or advice, or a shoulder to cry on, those are the times we learned who our true friends were. If we were blessed already to know who our true friends were, those are the ones we called to help, to advise, or to offer their shoulder.

Of course, we know there are certain things you can ask only of a friend – when you are in an embarrassing predicament, your true friend is the one who will not only help, but will do so without laughing (at least not until you can both laugh about it later).

Blessed Rosalie once wrote back to a friend who had asked her for a favor so she could thank him for the request, 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]

And isn’t this how we react to requests from our friends, too? We might not say the words, but inside we are proud and grateful to be the ones who are trusted to help, and to share the burden. We also share our friends’ secrets; the troubles they will only confide in their closest friends. Bl. Frédéric wrote about home visits, explaining that when we visit the neighbor, “we share the lonely secret of his lonely heart and troubled mind”. Just like any good friend, we listen and we keep those secrets, without being asked.

Our Rule calls us to “form relationships based on trust and friendship” with the neighbors we serve. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] The neighbors who have called us, who have asked us for help, even though it may have been embarrassing for them to do so, have taken the first step of friendship. By confiding in us their stories, their secrets, and their struggles, they have treated us not only as friends, but as true friends; the closest of friends.

There are times when our Conferences may be short on money and may not be able to offer the material help that the neighbor needs, but that is never a reason not to visit. If we truly believe that “giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money” [Rule, Part I, 3.14] then our treasuries are always full!

The friendship we share with each other, we are bound to share also with the neighbor, welcoming them into our community of faith. After all, our true friends are the ones who ask for help.

Contemplate

Have I inadvertently withheld my friendship from a neighbor, focusing too much on the “transaction?”

Recommended Reading

Mystic Of Charity

Contemplation — Experts In Their Own Situation

Contemplation — Experts In Their Own Situation 940 788 SVDP USA

To “offer humble advice” is a natural part of the home visit. [Manual, 2.1] Bl. Frédéric even listed “good advice” among the things we offer to the poor that we may ourselves one day stand in need of, rendering our help mutual, and therefore honorable. [O’Meara, 229]

Yet, at the same time, we are cautioned to “not be quick to advise” and to offer advice only when it is “wanted and appropriate.” Above all, we must never make our assistance dependent upon the neighbor taking our advice. [Conference President Handbook, 35]

To offer advice humbly is to acknowledge that we do not necessarily know what’s best; that ours is only an opinion based on our own experience. In the course of building “relationships based on trust and friendship” [Rule, Part I, 1.9] we will learn more about the neighbor’s experience, but they will always remain the experts on their own situation.

Advice between friends is always better received than advice from a stranger. Yet even between friends, advice must be given humbly. As Frédéric once described his own advice it in a letter to a friend, “they are not counsels, for I am not capable of counseling anyone; they are reflections I have had, and I pass them on to you for you to do whatever you wish.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

The poor, like any other friend, are free to do whatever they wish with our advice, and that can’t be a condition for continued assistance. After all, what if they took our advice and it turned out badly for them? To offer advice humbly is to accept that this is entirely possible, and that it is therefore just as reasonable to reject our advice as to take it.

Frédéric once described the poor as “beaten souls, who always receive us the same way, always with the same reserve at the end of a year as on the first day, who are very careful not to contradict a single thing we say, but who for all that change none of their ways.” He went on to explain that this is one of the very reasons that we choose to assist them, even though “we could go to others who would listen and understand!” [Letter 107, to Curnier, 1835]

We sometimes talk about the poor becoming “dependent” on our assistance, but we should also be mindful that they can just as easily become dependent on our advice, particularly if we demand that they follow our advice as a condition of our assistance.

The poor are and always will be the experts in their own situations. Advice offered humbly is not an expression of expertise, but of love and encouragement as neighbors develop their own solutions, while we walk alongside them as friends.

Contemplate

Do I sometimes become impatient with neighbors who do not take my advice?

Recommended Reading

Serving in Hope, Module VII

Contemplation — Independent of My Will

Contemplation — Independent of My Will 940 788 SVDP USA

St. Vincent taught that we are called to submit entirely to God’s will; indeed, to make His will our own. Even when we seek to discern the best way to help each neighbor, we are called to fulfill God’s will – to make our feeble human judgment His instrument in that particular circumstance.

Sometimes it is easy to know His will, because He stated it explicitly: go and do likewise, I have given you a model to follow, serve the least of us, turn the other cheek, do unto others, etc. We can further learn God’s will by the example and words of our Vincentian Saints and Blesseds.

But ours is a “vocation for every part of our lives”. [Rule, Part I, 2.6] How can we know His will when it seems less obvious? Are we in the right place? Are we in the right jobs? As a young man, Blessed Frédéric asked himself such questions, wondering whether “exterior circumstances” might be a sign of God’s will that he should not ignore, for “a crowd of circumstances independent of my will assail me, pursue me, turn me aside from the path I have laid out for myself.” [Letter 67, to Falconnet, 1834]

There is a short answer, of course: prayer. In prayer we place our needs before God, we ask for Him to make His will known to us. Yet prayer itself requires first that we trust in Divine Providence, that we are willing to accept that “He knows what is good for us better than we do, what He sends us is best, even if it is disagreeable to nature and contrary to our wishes,” as St. Vincent once explained. [CCD VII:255]

St. Vincent taught that we should accept everything that happens in this world, good and bad, “because God wills it, since He sends it … peace of mind will be one of the many great benefits that will result from [this].” [CCD VI:493] Our doubts are removed, in other words, when we choose to remove them, to face life with what Vincent often called “holy indifference”, letting the day’s own troubles be enough.

It is easy to confuse seeking God’s will with seeing the future, rather than “go[ing] in simplicity where merciful Providence leads us, content to see the stone on which we should step without wanting to discover all at once and completely the windings of the road.” [Letter 136, to Lallier, 1836]

Our lives are often better understood in reverse, like the early chapters of a mystery novel whose clues we understand only when going back to re-read them after we begin to surmise the conclusion. Despite his youthful doubts, Frédéric would later write that he had become “more than ever convinced of my vocation, a conviction reinforced by all the events of recent years.” [A Heart with Much Love to Give, 144]

The certainty that we are where God wills us to be is perhaps less important than the comfort of knowing that it cannot be otherwise, which enables us to trust that “you are serving God very effectively where you are. If it does not seem so to you, all the better.” [CCD IV:364]

Contemplate

Am I uncertain of God’s will, or am I distracted by my own will?

Recommended Reading

Amélie Ozanam, A Heart with Much Love to Give

Contemplation — A Very Mysterious, Excellent Way

Contemplation — A Very Mysterious, Excellent Way 940 788 SVDP USA

During its first two decades, within the short lifetime of Bl. Frédéric, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul expanded rapidly, with Conferences established across France, throughout Europe, and even around the globe in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Only four years after the founding, Frédéric remarked that “our little Society of St. Vincent de Paul has grown large enough to be considered a providential fact”. [Letter 160, to Lallier, 1837]

It would be a natural human instinct to take great pride in this growth, to shout out to the world about how great the Society had become! Frédéric instead advised that, rather than take pride in this, we should “seek to develop the spirit of humility. Grass grows rapidly, but it does not cease on that account to be insignificant; it does not say because it covers much ground, I am the oak.” [Baunard, 396]

In a similar way, we should avoid developing pride in the annual reports of our Conferences and Councils. We are of course required by tax laws and by basic accountability to our benefactors to offer such reports, and as the old Texas saying goes, “it ain’t bragging if you can do it.” This may be true for worldly accomplishments, but the virtue of humility reminds us “that we can achieve nothing of eternal value without His grace.” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]

We can no more take personal credit or pride from the numbers in our reports than a child can take pride in eating the meal his parents have provided. Humility calls us to accept our gifts with gratitude, with love, and with joy.

All our gifts, the ones we receive and the ones we give, are from God. Even the very founding, organization, and growth of the Society is from God alone. As St. Vincent explained to the Daughters of Charity in 1648, “‘There can be no doubt whatever that it was God who established you. It wasn’t [Louise]; she didn’t think of it. As for me, alas! it never occurred to me… it’s God himself who has brought you together in a very mysterious, excellent way…” [CCD IX:358]

As we assemble our reports and share them with our parishes and benefactors, we should always do so with “gratitude for having been chosen, frail and weak as we are, as instruments of so great an enterprise. It especially remains for us to render ourselves worthy.” [Letter 205, to Athaud, 1837]

After all, to say that the Society is “providential” is precisely to say that it is not our doing.

Contemplate

Do I know, deep in my heart, that all my works of charity are works of God alone?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation — Unique and Unrepeatable

Contemplation — Unique and Unrepeatable 940 788 SVDP USA

Vincentians “do not judge those they serve.” [Rule, Part I, 1.9] This simple admonition is readily accepted by members of the Society, given that all Christians are called to stop judging. But human nature being as it is, it can be difficult to practice non-judgmentalism when we find ourselves in a circumstance which seems to call for judgment.

Everyone,” C.S. Lewis once said, “says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” [Mere Christianity] In a similar way, being non-judgmental sounds quite good in theory, but then we encounter the neighbor who has blown every penny of his tax refund on a vacation, and now needs help with rent; the neighbor who has bought food for his five dogs but needs our help to feed the kids; or the neighbor who paid the cable bill and now can’t pay for electricity.

“What were they thinking?” we ask ourselves, allowing ourselves in that moment to believe that we know best. More often than not, though, the measure by which we measure is merely ourselves, our own experiences and circumstances. It becomes easy to assign blame when we lose sight of the different experiences and circumstances that shape each of us, as if the person with one leg should be expected to keep pace with the sprinter, or the person with no hope to make plans for the future.

Our Manual explains that our “nonjudgmental attitude excludes assigning guilt or responsibility for a person’s needs or problems.” [Manual, 62] As Blessed Rosalie also taught, we must “love those who are poor, don’t blame them too much…It is with such words that we dispense ourselves from the very strict obligation of charity.” [Sullivan, 211]

The astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said that “If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” In this witty saying, he captures the similar truth that on one home visit (or many) we cannot fully know each neighbor’s “whole story.” We cannot know all of the obstacles they have faced, nor all the victories they have won.

On our home visits, we are called to judge the need, not the person, always with a view towards helping in the best way possible. The only way to do this is, as St. Vincent reminds us, is 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… even though intelligence and human prudence tell us the contrary.” [CCD II:638]

Each of us is created in God’s image, unique and unrepeatable, formed throughout our lives by the people that surround us. May it be our love, not our judgment that helps form our neighbors – and ourselves.

Contemplate

Are there things that sometimes cause me to jump to a quick judgment of the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire: Apostolic Reflection with Rosalie Rendu

Contemplation — Our Few Visible Hours

Contemplation — Our Few Visible Hours 940 788 SVDP USA

Vincentians,” our Rule reminds us, “should never forget that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14] Yet, faced with the overwhelming needs that some of our neighbors present to us, we sometimes ask ourselves how this can possibly be. How can my time, my limited talents, my simple words of compassion, possibly ease these great burdens?

Consider these words, written in appreciation of a Vincentian who was dedicated to visiting the homeless in his community – in parking lots, in food lines – meeting them where they were. Because of his attention to their words, their persons, she said, “We get to breathe different when he’s around because we know he cares. [He is] a sign of relief for the few visible hours we have. Our gratitude for him taking the time with us gives hope to a lot of us who have no one to depend on. Some stand straighter with more confidence and willingness to take on the challenges of the day or sometimes the week.”

No work of charity is foreign to the Society. That is because, as important as they are, utilities, rent, and even food are only the works, not the charity. Our presence and our love will always be more important than our works because our presence and our love are the reason for the works.

We are created as social beings. We can’t live or develop our own potential without our relationships with others, because our relationships with other people are representative of our relationship with God. [CSDC, 110] The material deprivations of poverty and homelessness can be relieved, and should be relieved, but our “passion for the full flourishing and eternal happiness of every person” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] calls on us to offer our hearts along with the bread.

Our ministry is person-to-person, equal-to-equal, an encounter, not a transaction, because “something of the glory of God shines on the face of every person”. [CSDC, 144] That glory shines, if we choose to see it, not only during those precious “few visible hours” of the lonely, the suffering, or the deprived, but in every precious, visible hour that all of us share together on this earth.

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Give a man your heart, you invite him to the feast.

Contemplate

How can I better form relationships based on trust and friendship with the neighbor?

Recommended Reading

The Rule, Part I, 1.1 – 1.12

Contemplation — Let Us Go To the Poor

Contemplation — Let Us Go To the Poor 940 788 SVDP USA

After a year of debate with the Saint-Simonians in the Conference of History, defending the Catholic faith, Frédéric Ozanam and his friends were confronted with this challenge: “Even you, who pride yourself on your Catholicity, what are you doing to show the vitality and efficacy, to prove the truth of your faith?” [Baunard, 64]

It was a challenge Frédéric took to heart; it affected him deeply. After all, he said to his friends, having spent an entire year in vigorous debate, proclaiming the truth, defending the church; for all the educated arguments, for all the passion, “have we made one single conquest for Jesus Christ?” [Ibid, 65]

The Society was not founded to answer a challenge to feed or clothe or go to the poor. That was the answer to the challenge. The challenge was to prove the truth of our faith. Ozanam, man of letters, academic, brilliant speaker and debater, realized that words alone were not enough to do this, that we must act.

Today, we continue the timeless tradition of the home visit, responding to calls for help from our neighbors in need. But is there even more we could do – not just to alleviate suffering, but to prove the truth of our faith?

In so many of our communities, we see the homeless – asleep on a bench, huddling in a doorway, zealously guarding their few possessions. Are they the ones, in need and forgotten, that our Rule directs us to “seek out and find”? [Rule, Part I, 1.5] Do we hold ourselves back at times because we fear our outreach will be unwelcome, since we know we cannot alleviate all of their needs?

We are created to live in community. The greatest need of all people is to be part of a community, and there is none greater than the community of Christian faith. Whatever material offering we may have for the homeless, there is nothing greater we can give than our hearts, our friendship, a simple smile, and a greeting. All people are buoyed by human connections, but especially those who are most often treated as invisible.

It is we who are first evangelized by our encounter with Christ in the person of the poor. And it is we who are challenged to imitate Christ in this encounter; to prove the truth of our faith, just as Frédéric and his friends were once challenged to do. It was not, and is not easy, but the best proof of our faith remains unchanged: “We must do what is most agreeable to God. Therefore, we must do what Our Lord Jesus Christ did when preaching the Gospel. Let us go to the poor.” [Baunard, 65]

Contemplate

Where can I go to “seek out and find” the poor??

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

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