Timothy Williams

Contemplation – The Best Way to Help

Contemplation – The Best Way to Help 940 788 SVDP USA

“In appearing again before you after the great events that have taken place,” Frédéric said in a classroom lecture in 1848, “I am happy to say that, looking back over six years of lectures, I do not recollect one word which I shall have to unsay today.” [Baunard, 261]

For a man of so many words, both written and spoken, to be able to say this is testament to our founder’s embodiment of the virtue of simplicity – frankness, integrity, genuineness. [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] Always saying in the first instance exactly what we mean relieves us of the need to “walk back” statements we have made.

In serving the neighbor, we should never avoid frankness; frankness builds trust. At the same time, we are called to act always with gentleness, and to judge the need, not the person. Vincentians “do not judge those they serve.” [Rule, Part I, 1.9]

Imagine a neighbor who just can’t seem to hold on to a job for very long, and constantly calls for more assistance. Would it be truly honest, truly simple, to say, “we can’t help you anymore”? After all, if the same neighbor were to call next year, having fallen a little short despite keeping a new job for a year, wouldn’t you need to “unsay” that statement in order to help again?

For that neighbor who can’t hold on to a job, we rarely know the reason, although we might suspect. But as St. Vincent reminds us, “Suspicions are often deceiving.” [CCD IV:85]  Rather than walk away, or make an accusation based on our suspicions, why not ask, “Why do you think you are having trouble keeping jobs, and how can I help?”

It is rarely true that we really can’t help, but it is often true that we are not sure how best to help. Rather than avoid this truth, perhaps simplicity and friendship call us to explain that we are struggling to find the best way to help. By being honest, we keep the door – and our hearts – open; we show our trust, and hope for trust in return.

The best way to help is not always financial, so we “should never forget that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.1] And there is no better way to offer our love than with simplicity.


How can I be more simple in talking to my neighbors in need?

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Contemplation – The Opposite of Selfless is Self

Contemplation – The Opposite of Selfless is Self 940 788 SVDP USA

The Rule informs us that the Vincentian virtue of selflessness is “dying to our ego with a life of self-sacrifice; members share their time, their possessions, their talents and themselves in a spirit of generosity.” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] To share generously is surely virtuous behavior, but as St. Vincent always emphasized, it is the internalization of virtue that is most important.

True selflessness is more than simply sharing. As St. Louise explained, in order for our service to be pleasing to God, it must proceed from a good heart, with no thought to our own pleasure in giving, or to our own reputations. Without this self-denial, “our actions are empty noise. In them there is only self-love; and such self-love banishes the pure love of God…” [Sp.Writings, 536]

Bl. Frédéric echoed this notion of self-love driving out God’s love. He explained that there are two kinds of pride: to be overly satisfied with ourselves, and to be consumed with our own shortcomings, even to the point that we fail to act because we believe ourselves inadequate. “Thus,” he wrote, “love grows weak and self-love hides beneath this trumped-up austerity of our regrets.” [160 to Lallier, 1837]

Recall that our Rule says that selflessness begins with “dying to our ego.” Ego is the Latin word for I. We die to ourselves. As the Apostle declared: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

The opposite of selfless, then, is not selfish, but self!

Our success, our money, our comfort, however great or small, are God’s gifts to us. As the story of the rich young man illustrates, it can be devastatingly difficult to give them away; so difficult, in fact, that even Christ’s disciples wondered how anybody could make it to heaven.

But beyond our possessions, our very selves are also God’s gift, and also are meant to be given away. Selflessness, as St. Louise expressed it, is to give “Him my full consent to operate in me by His power whatever He willed to see accomplished.” [Sp. Writing, 270]

Virtue begins with doing but ends with being. By emptying ourselves of self, we empty ourselves also of the doubts that can keep us from doing God’s will. We cannot will ourselves into heaven. We can only seek to make God’s will our own, and for God all things are possible.


What am I hanging onto? What am I keeping to myself?

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Contemplation – Behold, I Make All Things New

Contemplation – Behold, I Make All Things New 940 788 SVDP USA

Vincentians serve in hope! Not merely the hope of a paid light bill, but the hope of Christ’s promise, the hope of new life, and the hope of a church that “is ever renewing itself…” [Ozanam in Baunard, 20]

The neighbors we serve often lack hope – any kind of hope. Burdened with material needs, with worries for their children and for their future, it is difficult to offer eternal hope when, as Mahatma Ghandi once explained, “To them God can only appear as bread and butter.”

In our empathy for the neighbor, it can be all too easy for us at times to feel overwhelmed, burned out; to share the neighbor’s despair rather than the Savior’s hope. Our neighbor’s continuing struggles weigh us down, and we allow ourselves to forget the great power of love over even the greatest forms of deprivation.

Whatever resources our Conference has, however great or small, we offer freely and generously. And when we offer food to the neighbor who can only see God as bread, remember that Christ offers Himself to us as bread. All of the material assistance we give is foremost a sign of Christ’s love. In that love, we welcome the neighbor into communion with us, and with the God who sent us.

It is for love alone that we continue, through home visits, through special works, and through systemic change programs, to walk with people out of poverty. It is for love alone that we can say, “this relationship does not end when we pay the bill this week. You matter.”

There is never a need to be frustrated, or to wonder why the land will never lack for needy persons. As St. Vincent taught, it is through our humble devotion to God and our charity toward the neighbor that they might see the beauty and holiness of our faith. [CCD VIII:208] The needs we seek to alleviate may be of this earth, but the hope we bring is not.

We gather on our home visits in His name, and He, as He promised, is there. He is there in the suffering of the neighbor, and He is there also in the prayer and in the hope that we offer, wiping away all tears, saying “Behold, I make all things new.”


How can I better share hope?

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Contemplation – To Give and Receive with Joy

Contemplation – To Give and Receive with Joy 940 788 SVDP USA

There is an old saying about gift-giving, that “it is the thought that counts.” In a similar way, the assistance, or gifts, that we offer to the neighbor must be more than “appeals from below,” but instead gifts of true love, of putting the needs of another before our own.

As so often is the case, Blessed Frédéric offers us a wonderful example. On New Year’s Day of 1852, Frédéric was unable to relax and enjoy the day with his family, unable even to eat the candies his beloved daughter Marie offered him. He couldn’t stop thinking of the young family that had sold their chest of drawers, the young mother’s treasured family heirloom, so that they could pay other bills.

When he told his wife Amélie of his desire to bring them the chest as a gift, she reminded him that the husband, suffering some health issues, might not be able to work in coming weeks, and it would be more practical to give them the money that would have purchased the chest in smaller amount in coming weeks.

Although he first agreed that this was indeed practical, he remained unconsoled, explaining to Amélie that even a fraction of what they’d spent on their own amusement and gifts could have brought true joy to that poor family. She agreed, and urged him to go.

Frédéric left his home, purchased the family’s chest, and along with a porter he’d brought with him, delivered it to them. When he returned home, all sadness had left him; his face was glowing with his own joy.

When we make our home visits, we often help the neighbor to prioritize needs, so that we can care for the most urgent of them first. Like Frédéric, sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the most urgent needs are not always material; that when we are refreshed by joy and by love, our burdens become lighter.

We are called to form relationships based on trust and friendship with the neighbors we serve; not coldly assess the books, but to seek their good, even before our own. In doing so, we will receive in joy exactly what we give.

It is truly better to give than to receive, and better still to be a cheerful giver. With joy we will drink the waters of salvation!


How can I bring not just assistance, but joy to the neighbor?

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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!


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

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Contemplation – Trust to God for the Rest

Contemplation – Trust to God for the Rest 940 788 SVDP USA

If we truly trust in providence, truly abandon ourselves to the will of God, does that mean we are called to simply let things happen? On the contrary, Frédéric taught, our “detachment from the world must not be turned into discouragement about our duties… We must think as if we were to quit the earth tomorrow, and we must work as if we were never to leave it.” [Baunard, 423]

God expresses His will to us through His word in the Scriptures. For Vincentians, there are several specific teachings that stand out, not least of which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In the story, Christ recounts the mercy shown by a passing Samaritan to the victim of a robbery and assault. Importantly, he concludes by telling us to “go and do likewise.”

He does not say “wait for my signal,” or “stay tuned for further instructions,” but “go and do likewise.”

Go. Act. Do.

Similarly, he tells us that our corporal works of mercy – feeding, clothing, and comforting those in need – will be judged as if done to Himself.

Feed. Clothe. Be merciful.

In neither instance does Christ demand that we achieve a particular earthly end. As St. Vincent said, “God does not consider the outcome of the good work undertaken but the charity that accompanied it.” [CCD I:205] And charity, the Catechism says, is to love our neighbor as ourselves not for the sake of paying the bill, or preparing the meal, but for the love of God. [CCC, 1822]

When Veronica wiped the face of Jesus, He still was nailed to the cross, in accordance with God’s will. But Veronica did all the good she could do, with mercy and with love.

Trust in providence, then, begins with doing God’s will as best we can discern it, and then trusting that the outcome also will be His will. In other words, we should not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. “The will of God,” Blessed Frédéric writes, “is fulfilled from day to day.” [Baunard, 81]

If we confined ourselves to doing only those things whose outcomes we can assure, how limited our charity would be! We would become quickly overwhelmed into inaction, realizing that the poor will always be with us. But Christ, too, is with us always! We are called to hear Him in the cry of the poor; in them, to see His suffering.

Let us, then, as Frédéric taught, “do all the good we can, and trust to God for the rest.” [Baunard, 81]


Have I ever hesitated to help, because “they’ll only need more help tomorrow?”

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Contemplation – Our Participation In The Divine Light

Contemplation – Our Participation In The Divine Light 940 788 SVDP USA

It is perhaps the central irony of our Vincentian vocation that while our “ideal is to help relieve suffering for love alone, without thinking of any reward or advantage for [ourselves]” it is also true that we do this for ourselves, as a necessary step towards our growth in holiness. [Rule, Part I, 2.2] So how do we reconcile what seems to be both self-serving and selfless at the same time?

Saint Louise de Marillac offers some insights on charity and the mystery of the incarnation that may help us to understand how, in serving the neighbor, we serve our own souls.

God, Louise explains, chose to come into this world in a form that was not at all “consistent with His grandeur.” He didn’t even come as the greatest of men, but as a poor man. Everything he did as man, she writes, was beneath Him.

He came as humbly as can be imagined,” she tells us, “so that we might be more free to approach Him.” [Sp. Writings, 700]

God’s incarnation in Christ is an invitation! He wants to know us and wants us to know Him. The God of Moses was so great in His glory that nobody could see Him and live. The poor carpenter of Nazareth is our brother, our neighbor, our friend…and still our God.

As Louise often reflected, God created our souls only so that we may be joined with Him. Making it possible for us to know Him was a supreme act of humility. In serving the poor, then, we must exhibit this virtue of humility, commensurate with Christ’s own humility. They are, for us the sacred images of God, and “how shall we not love Him in [their] persons?” [Letter137, to Janmot, 1837]

How can we do anything then, but to offer our time, our talents, our possessions, and ourselves? [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] How can we help but serve? Indeed, Louise teaches, “the person who does not love does not know God, for God is Charity. The cause of love is esteem for the good in the thing loved.” [Sp. Writing, 710]

In serving with humility and in selflessness, in serving for love alone, we not only do as God asked us to do, we do as Christ Himself did.

This practice of charity is so powerful that it gives us the knowledge of God… the greater our charity the greater our participation in this divine light which will inflame us with the fire of Holy Love for all eternity.” [Sp. Writing, 711]


How can I better seek to imitate Christ in my service?

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Contemplation – The Measure By Which We Measure

Contemplation – The Measure By Which We Measure 940 788 SVDP USA

In serving the neighbor, we are reminded by the Rule [Part I, 1.9] that we do not judge them, but seek instead to understand them as we would a brother or sister. This echoes Christ’s admonition that “as you judge, so will you be judged,” which he offers in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, shortly before explaining that what we ask will be given to us. These two teachings together may be a good way to think about our home visits.

What does it mean to understand somebody as we would a brother or sister? Surely, our brothers and sisters are capable of the same sort of mistakes as anybody else; sometimes they even bring their problems on themselves. We don’t judge them because we already know them deeply – we are born of the same parents; we grew up with them; we love them. Whatever sort of people they are, we know that we are the same sort of people.

When our brother asks us for bread, we won’t hand him a stone. We won’t give our sister a snake if she asks for a fish. So, when a neighbor places his needs before us, how should we receive them? We listen to them and respect their wishes, “for we are all created in God’s image. In the poor, [we] see the suffering Christ.” [Rule, Part I, 1.8]

“But I’ve heard this story a hundred times before!” we are sometimes tempted to think. Bishop Robert Barron often explains that in prayer we are not going to change God’s mind, or tell Him anything He doesn’t already know. Indeed, God knows what we need before we ask him! Still, we place our needs before God in prayer. God wants us to do this; He tells us to do this.

In a similar way, our neighbors place their needs before us; they humble themselves in seeking our mercy and compassion. Unlike God, we really don’t know what they need before they ask. We only know that our neighbor, our brother, our sister, our friend is suffering, and that we have asked him to come to us.

It takes both love and humility to see not only our brothers and sisters, but Christ Himself in the neighbor. Love reminds us to humbly regard others as more important than ourselves. Humility reminds us “that all that God gives us is for others …” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]  And Christ reminds us, over and over and over again, that as we give, so shall we receive.

We’ve heard it a hundred times.


How can I better open my heart to the cry of the poor?

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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]


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

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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]


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

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A New Century Dawns

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