Monday Contemplation

Contemplation — A Seamless Garment

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In Blessed Rosalie’s time, every working-class family with three or more children was registered with the Bureau of Public Assistance; it was simply assumed that in the conditions of the times, they would not be able to support themselves. Work was often disrupted by revolutions which shut businesses down, or by epidemics that both shuttered businesses and ended lives. A man’s death could leave his widow and children in complete destitution.

In the midst of this, Rosalie and the Daughters of Charity worked both tirelessly and cheerfully to bring food, medical care, and more to the homes of the poor. Rosalie, it was said, would not leave those homes without having also helped with some housework.

Mentored in our earliest days by Rosalie and the Daughters, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul carries on this tradition, meeting and befriending our neighbors in their homes and seeking ways to provide for their needs. Also, like Rosalie, this can lead us beyond the Home Visit.

After all, if her husband had died, leaving her penniless, the widowed mother of Rosalie’s time would have to go outside the home and find work to support herself and her children, but then who would care for the children? The Daughters could have simply kept bringing more bread, but instead, Rosalie founded the Saint-Marcel Day Nursery to care for newborns while their mothers worked. She saw that this would do more than provide food, it would remove a barrier to their own self-sufficiency – a barrier over which the widows themselves had no control. The women even paid 15 of the 55 centimes that the childcare cost per day.

By respecting the dignity of the widows and the duty of people to work, and continuing to walk in friendship with the neighbor, Rosalie modeled for us both our Catholic Social Doctrine and our Vincentian vocation.

It is no wonder that the young men who founded the Society would follow this example, as well, creating an apprenticeship program for young men in Paris shortly after the very first Conference was founded. It was in the course of their Home Visits they saw a way to break the cycle of poverty among young men who had no fathers to guide them into a trade.

It turns out that “systemic change” is only a new phrase, not a new idea. After all, who would sew a new patch to an old cloak? All of our works grow naturally from the knowledge we gain by climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret. Systemic change may be beyond, but it is inseparable from the Home Visit, part of a seamless garment, rooted deeply in both our tradition and our Home Visit.

Contemplate

What barriers can I help to remove from the neighbor’s path?

Recommended Reading

Seeds of Hope

Contemplation — There Is Truly Nothing Better

Contemplation — There Is Truly Nothing Better 1080 1080 SVDP USA

What does it mean to serve in hope — serviens in spe, as our international logo says? Surely, when we visit a neighbor whose lights have been shut off, who faces eviction, whose cupboards are bare, we (and they) hope for relief from these needs. Thankfully, more often than not, we are able to provide the assistance that is needed. Sometimes, though, the needs are too great, or our resources too limited, and what then?

Thinking back on our own lives, we all can recall times that we narrowly escaped misfortune — the car wreck we walked away from that easily could have been fatal; the illness that was almost accidentally diagnosed before it became untreatable; the unemployment we weathered until finding a job that was better than the one we lost.

“God was with me!” we exclaim with joy. “He answered my prayers!” Surely He was and surely He did, and our joy is not misplaced! Yet when we think it through, we realize that God was also with the ones who don’t survive the crash or the illness, and the ones whose joblessness leads to destitution. He heard their prayers, He loves them equally, His great and universal plan of redemption is for them, too. It is, if we are to take the Savior’s words to heart, for them especially.

This knowledge of God’s special blessings on the poor can ironically make us hesitant at times to even try to offer the true hope, the eternal hope, through our gentleness and our prayers; to allow ourselves to be caught up in the tyranny of the moment, too; to become too discouraged when our own money runs short.

We can remind ourselves that our prayers are the most important part of our home visits, and say them even if only from a sense of habit or duty, but, Bl. Frederic once asked, “How do we preach resignation and courage to the unfortunate when we feel devoid of it ourselves?”

Our virtue of humility is a reminder that everything we have is from God, and everything we do is for His glory. That includes the comfort we may offer, because all comfort comes from God. We don’t ask His comfort on behalf of the neighbor, but together with the neighbor. We ask Him to wipe away our shared tears, to lift the burden not of bills, but of fear from both of us — from all of us.

This is the joy and the challenge of our vocation. It is also the reason that whenever we share our stories with each other, whether in correspondence or in the home visit reports during Conference meetings, our focus must first be on the true hope of salvation, and not, as Bl Frédéric explained in 1838, “statistical documents where success is defined in prideful numbers. We have to exchange ideas, inspiration perhaps, fears at times, and always hope. These … communications are like a form of circulation that brings the Society to life. There is truly nothing better.”

Contemplate

What inspiration, fear, and hope can I share with my fellow Vincentians?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

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: Falling Forward

Contemplation: Falling Forward 940 788 SVDP USA

There is a commonly used exercise in corporate training events called a “trust fall.” In it, one person stands with his back to the others, with arms crossed and eyes closed, then simply falls backward from a platform, trusting his team members to catch him. The point is not to overcome a fear of falling, but to build trust that you will be caught before crashing to the floor.

In a similar way, St. Vincent teaches us to “abandon all that we love to Him by abandoning ourselves to all that He wishes, with perfect confidence that everything will turn out for the best.” [CCD VIII:298] To abandon all that we love seems to be a very demanding call, but it is the same one to which Christ calls us.

As Vincentians, we are called to abandon ourselves to His will by hearing the cry of the poor whose calls often interrupt us, demanding that we abandon our plans for that evening, or our precious free day, or an activity we enjoy, in order to serve Christ in their persons.

Indeed, we are called to share not only our time, but our talents, our possessions, and ourselves. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] You might even say that we are called to share, to abandon, “all that we love” to God in the person of His poor. Sometimes, we pat ourselves on the back too quickly when we pay the bill, and sometimes we wallow in regret too deeply when our whole Conference treasury is not enough.

But the Home Visit is not a math problem – it is an encounter with Christ, and an opportunity to imitate Christ. We don’t know, before the visit, whether we have the means to meet the material needs that will be presented to us. All that we know is that Christ is calling, and we must answer – it is the call, and the will, of God. So, if we begin our works of charity with the understanding that we are doing God’s will, then we must accept that the outcome of those works also will be His will.

We serve not with resentment for what we have given up, nor with regret that we haven’t been given enough, but with the joy of knowing that we are serving Christ exactly as he asked us to do, with exactly the gifts we have been given to share.

We serve in hope not that the light bill will be paid, but in the hope of eternal union with Christ and with the neighbor, trusting that the gifts we have been given are enough. We serve in hope, we serve in faith, and we serve in love.

We don’t fall backward, but forward, our hearts and our eyes open, and our arms spread wide. Our whole vocation is a “trust exercise” – trust in Providence.

Contemplate

Do I sometimes place more trust in myself than in Divine Providence?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

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: The Best Way to Give Help

Contemplation: The Best Way to Give Help 940 788 SVDP USA

A central principle of Catholic social teaching, necessary for respect of human dignity and a properly ordered social life, is subsidiarity. [CSDC, 185-186] Naturally, the organization, governance, and traditions of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul reflect this important principle, too. [Rule, Part I, 3.9] How does subsidiarity guide the practice of our Vincentian works of charity?

Councils, the Rule explains, “exist to serve all the Conferences they coordinate.” [Rule, Part I, 3.6] In turn, the work of directly serving the neighbor, remains with the people closest to those served: the Conferences. Yet it is not the entire Conference, or only the officers, that go on home visits, it is the Members, in pairs, on home visit teams.

Placing responsibility for the Home Visit with the National Council obviously would not be better for the neighbor, not only because that Council is remote, but because, as the Catechism explains, certain organizations “correspond more directly to the nature of man”. [CCC, 1882] Personally connecting with our neighbors, forming “relationships based on trust and friendship”, makes us more responsive to their needs, and better able to serve them. [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

For the Conference, subsidiarity in service of the neighbor is expressed not only by the organization of home visit teams, but by our assumption that the Members who made the Home Visit have “special insight into the best way to give help.” [Manual, 24] We don’t seek to replace that insight with arbitrary, pre-set guidelines. In other words, subsidiarity calls us to give ourselves up to “the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mindnot [tying ourselves] down with rules and formulas.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]

The Catechism explains that subsidiarity means “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it…” [Catechism, 1883] In respect of this, we often illustrate the Society’s hierarchy by flipping it over, with the International Council General on the bottom, with other Councils, then Conferences, then members above, and the neighbor at the very top of our “org chart.”

The neighbor then, the least among us, is the “lowest order” of the Society’s organization, yet also is for us Christ himself. The principle of subsidiarity is our constant reminder that the last shall be first.

Contemplate

How does humility help me to respect subsidiarity – and vice versa?

Recommended Reading

The Manual, especially Bl. Giuseppe Toniolo, pp 90-91

Contemplation: Thy Will Be Done

Contemplation: Thy Will Be Done 940 788 SVDP USA

We often use the word “discernment” simply as a synonym for decision-making, with an added sense of prayerful consideration. While this captures part of the meaning, discernment could also be considered the opposite of decision-making. When we discern, we seek not our best option between two choices, but true insight into God’s will in the situation. But how can we do that?

A friend of mine once asked a fellow Vincentian who was explaining the constraints of his Conference guidelines, “Is that how you will explain it to St. Peter?”

Discernment, he was suggesting, isn’t so much the actual decision, but the process by which we arrive at it. In this, he echoed St. Ignatius of Loyola, who argued in the Spiritual Exercises that to make the best choice, we should always “consider what procedure and norm of action I would wish to have followed in making the present choice if I were at the moment of death.”

In other words, while the decision itself is important, how we go about making it is even more important. Recall St. Vincent’s teaching that “God does not consider the outcome of the good work undertaken but the charity that accompanied it.” [CCD I:205] How, then, can I share the love of God (charity)? How can I do God’s will, not mine? In this way, all choices become a single choice; a choice by which we are called to live our whole lives.

Father Hugh O’Donnell’s definition of Vincentian Discernment cuts to the heart of it: “Discernment is a prayer-filled process through which each of us can discover the difference between what is my will and what is God’s Will.”

At the heart of it, discernment is meant to lead us to the discovery of God’s plan – for us, for our lives, and for our Vincentian organizations. To help us, we often follow the process that Fr. O’Donnell explained, which begins with what St. Vincent called “unrestricted readiness.”

In unrestricted readiness, we set aside our anxieties about whether we are right, how we will convince others, or even about how things will turn out. Instead, we enter into discernment with both our minds and our hearts wide open to accepting God’s will.

Simple decision-making is about closing off all choices but one. Discernment is about opening ourselves to the one true choice.

Contemplate

Do I sometimes let my own biases or pride blind me to God’s will for me and for my Conference?

Recommended Reading

Vincentian Discernment and Apostolic Reflection by Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, CM

Contemplation: A Conference in Heaven

Contemplation: A Conference in Heaven 940 788 SVDP USA

The Society is united by our three Essential Elements of spirituality, service, and friendship. [Rule, Part III, Statute 1] Frédéric once remarked that perhaps friendship was “the reason that in Paris we wished to found our little Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and it is also for this reason perhaps that heaven has seen fit to bless it.” [142, to Curnier, 1837] Like the Communion of Saints, bound together in baptism and in Christ, our Vincentian friendship, bound by charity and friendship, remains unbroken by death.

The very first Rule explained that the Society’s unity “will be cited as a model of Christian friendship, of a friendship stronger than death, for we will often remember in our prayers to God the brothers who have been taken from us.” [Introduction, Rule, 1835] We continue to honor this tradition, praying at every Conference meeting for our departed Vincentian Brothers and Sisters.

Our primary purpose is to “journey together towards holiness… perfect union with Christ…” [Rule, Part 1, 2.2] so we have good reason to hope that our departed Vincentians continue to pray for us, as well!

Indeed, while trying to establish a new Conference in Siena shortly before his own death, Frédéric wrote to the pastor, telling him of the many Conferences that had been established around the world, adding also that “we have certainly one in Heaven, for more than a thousand of our Brothers have, during the twenty years of our existence, gone to the better life.” [Baunard, 394]

We should never forget that one of the corporal works of mercy, alongside feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor, is to bury the dead. When our fellow Vincentians depart this earth, we should always offer comfort to their families, while also celebrating their entrance into “the better life.” Our Vincentian Celebrations book includes several ceremonies to help plan these occasions.

We serve in hope! Not merely the hope for material comforts, but the eternal hope that we may be united with Christ and with each other in heaven. And so, we pray with and for each other, including, always, the departed. As confident as Blessed Frédéric’s assurance of a Conference in heaven may have been, he asked his fellow Vincentians, in a will written on his 40th birthday, not to cease in their prayers for his own salvation, saying:

“Do not allow yourselves to be stopped by those who will say to you, he is in Heaven. Pray always for him who loves you dearly, for him who has greatly sinned. If I am assured of these prayers, I quit this earth with less fear. I hope firmly that we are not being separated, and that I may remain with you until you will come to me.” [Baunard, 386-7]

May we honor our founder with our own unceasing prayers for all our Vincentian brothers and sisters!

Contemplate

Do I pray regularly for departed Vincentians, and ask their prayers for me?

Recommended Reading

Book of the Sick

Contemplation: The Holy Joy of Your Heart

Contemplation: The Holy Joy of Your Heart 940 788 SVDP USA

In our dedication and zeal, we sometimes feel as if we cannot rest as long as there are neighbors in need of our help. As laudable as this sentiment may seem, in practice it serves neither ourselves or the neighbor if we do not pause for both mental and physical rest.

Writing to a missioner who had labored without rest for many weeks, St. Vincent urged him to slow down: “Have you somewhat moderated your excessive fervor? I beg you, in the name of Our Lord, to do so.” [CCD II:27] Of another priest, whom Vincent believed may have literally worked himself to death, he remarked, “In short, his zeal made him do more than he was able.” [CCD II:375]

Of course, St. Vincent was not afraid of hard work! After all, it was he who said we must “love God…with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.” [CCD XI:32] Yet we also must be mindful that “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The harder we work ourselves without respite, the less able we will be to continue the work. And so, advising St. Louise not to feel guilty about her own exhaustion, Vincent once went so far as to tell her, “I am ordering you, moreover, to procure for yourself the holy joy of your heart by all the relaxation you can possibly take…” [CCD I:145]

There is always more work to be done, but there is only one of you. We prepare to follow God’s will by resting our hearts in His peace and love, filling ourselves to overflowing so that we may share that love with the neighbor. We must also reserve and recover our physical strength through rest, knowing that “There is no act of charity that … permits us to do more than we reasonably can.” [CCD II:68]

In a sense, pushing ourselves to do more than we reasonably can could be seen as an act of vanity; believing ourselves so indispensable that our efforts cannot be spared. But trusting in providence doesn’t mean only that the money or materials resources we need will be provided, it is trusting that God has called enough people to do His work, as well.

When you think about it, when we insist on carrying too much of the load ourselves, we can even rob others of the opportunity to serve more fully!

Our Rule reminds us that work in our Conferences comes “only after fulfilling the family and professional duties.” [Rule, Part I, 2.6] Certainly among those personal duties is care for our own well-being, including rest and relaxation.

Caring for ourselves is not just for ourselves. As Vincent once reminded Louise, “Increase your strength; you need it, or, in any case, the public does.” [CCD I:392]

Contemplate

How can I better share God’s love by sharing God’s work?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity

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

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