Timothy Williams

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

Contemplation: Neighbors in Deed

Contemplation: Neighbors in Deed 940 788 SVDP USA

Although we do not mean it to, giving material assistance to people puts them at a disadvantage; they “owe” us something they likely will never repay. The fear of indebtedness often makes asking for help more difficult. Even when we are in very dire straits, we don’t want to impose, we don’t want to be burdens, and we don’t want to be indebted.

Yet on nearly every home visit, we meet a neighbor with a light bill, rent, or other need, and not enough money to pay for it. The math is simple; what else can we do?

“Help honors,” Blessed Frédéric taught, “when it may become mutual.” [O’Meara, 229] He went on to explain that this means offering not only material help, but a kind word, a handshake, some encouragement – all those things that we may one day need, as well.

As our Rule puts it, “Vincentians should never forget that giving love, talents and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14] Or, as Blessed Rosalie Rendu put it, “They will appreciate your kindness and your love more than all else you can bring them.” [Apostle in a Top Hat, 57]

How many times can we hear “you are the only ones who called me back” before we realize that this personal connection is the whole point?

In other words, a home visit is not a math problem. It is the beginning of a “relationship based on trust and friendship.” [Rule, Part I, 1.9] This is why we don’t visit “clients.” There is nothing mutual in a relationship with a client; it does not “honor.”

It is good to use the right words, but using the words is not enough. After all, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ did not ask us simply to call each other neighbors, but to be neighbors, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

To have a neighbor, you have to be a neighbor. To have a friend, you have to be a friend. To have a brother or sister, you have to be a brother or sister. Our brothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends don’t owe us a dime. They repay us fully with their handshakes, their prayers, and their friendship.

And for those things, we are all neighbors in need.

Contemplate

How can I become a better friend?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charityespecially 6. Home Visits in the Vincentian Tradition

Contemplation: The State in Which We Were Created

Contemplation: The State in Which We Were Created 940 788 SVDP USA

Our five Vincentian virtues come from St. Vincent’s five “Characteristic Virtues,” with one difference: what Vincent called mortification, we call selflessness. While the distinction between the two is not trivial, he also talked about the “spirit of mortification,” which is a good way for us to understand our call to selflessness. [CCD XII:249]

The word “mortification” comes from the Latin mortificāre, meaning “to put to death,” which is the same image our Rule uses, calling selflessness “dying to our ego with a life of self-sacrifice.” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] And isn’t this what Christ taught? “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Through mortification, we may physically separate ourselves from earthly needs, as with fasting during Lent. But the purpose of mortification is not physical; it is not exterior, but interior, “to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor.” [Benedict XVI, Lenten Message] Yes, we become hungry when we fast, but it is “dying to our ego” that we seek.

Indeed, our Catechism teaches that our call to conversion “does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.” [Catechism, 1430] While mortification is a means, you could say, selflessness is its end.

St. Louise de Marillac said that the importance of mortification was “the necessity of keeping our souls constantly in the state in which they were created.” [Spiritual Writings, 797] She went on to explain that while we are created in God’s image and likeness, we become “disfigured” when we allow our passions to overwhelm us. Those passions may be the food or treats that we give up for Lent, but more importantly they are the self-centered motivations that we sometimes allow to take over. The more we focus on ourselves, the less we are able to truly be friends to others.

Lack of the “spirit of selflessness,” Vincent taught, not only separates us from God, but from each other; so much so that “we can’t live – I repeat – we can’t live with one another if our interior and exterior senses aren’t mortified.” [CCD XII:249] The first Rule in 1835 echoed this idea, saying that without self-denial, understood as surrendering one’s own opinion, “no association is durable. The man who is in love with his own ideas will disdain the opinions of others…” [Rule, 1835, Introduction]

We die to our egos, to our selfishness, and to our will only to be filled with new life, to be filled with God! And when we share ourselves with the neighbor, we may truly share Him, also.

Contemplate

What part of myself do I allow to separate me from others?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation – The Light of the World

Contemplation – The Light of the World 940 788 SVDP USA

Have you ever noticed that in virtually every picture of St. Vincent de Paul, he is smiling? Just a small, gentle smile with a twinkle in his eye that reassures us, puts us at ease, and makes us smile, too. Wouldn’t a permanent smile like that be a great gift for all of us to share?

Vincentians take great pride in loving God “with the strength of our arms, and the sweat of our brows,” [CCD XI:32] but we should always remember that ours is a vocation of gentleness! We may indeed work up a sweat at times, and even get our hands dirty, but ours are ultimately works of love, not feats of strength. We are moved by a tireless desire to love not only affectively, but effectively.

This distinction was made by St. Francis de Sales, who profoundly influenced Vincent. Affective love, Vincent taught, comes from the heart; it helps us to feel God’s presence, and fills us with warmth and affection. Love is effective, though, when we provide for the needs of others because of the love of God; when we serve, one might even say, for love alone. [Rule, Part I, 2.2]

Effective love, then, is an act of will; to will, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, the good of another. [Summa,II-II, Q27, A2] That sounds like work! But even as we do the work, the deep, abiding love of God that warms our hearts should shine through us in gentleness and kindness. Deeply inspired by St. Francis de Sales’ example of gentleness, Vincent testified for the cause of his beatification, saying that “his abundant, gentle goodness overflowed on those who enjoyed his conversation because of the example of his devotion.” [CCD XIIIa:91]

Gentleness, like all the virtues, must be both internal and external. When we are filled with the spirit and love of God, Vincent explained, we can hardly help but smile. In turn, we will offer our hearts with our “smiling face and cheerful disposition.” [CCD XII:156]

When we smile, it is sometimes said that we are “beaming,” or that our faces “light up.” And why shouldn’t they? We serve in hope, and our smiles are a visible sign of the hope and love that we bring with us. Perhaps this is part of the light Christ taught us not to hide under a bushel, but to shine before others.

Vincentians love God with the strength of our arms, but loving our neighbor begins with a smile, and we can smile without even breaking a sweat!

Contemplate

Does the love of God within me shine outwardly through my smile?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Contemplation: Our Call to Servant Leadership

Contemplation: Our Call to Servant Leadership 940 788 SVDP USA

When we think of leaders, we are acculturated to envision military commanders, heads of state, celebrity CEOs, and the like; dynamic, charismatic, larger than life. Leaders, we are taught, are “large and in charge.” It is difficult, then, for most of us to believe that we can be that person; that we are called to leadership. But if you are a Vincentian, you are called.

Rather than the province of kings and generals, ours is a special type of leadership, modeled for us by Christ Himself. Most memorably, in the Gospel of John, Christ washed the feet of the disciples, afterwards explaining: “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

In a passage that was a favorite of St. Vincent’s, Christ further explained the role of a leader, saying, “let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.”

A Vincentian servant leader, such as a Conference President, is not called to be the boss or the commander. Rather than making all the decisions, Presidents fulfill the decisions of the Conference members.

In 1651, one of Vincent’s confrere superiors wrote to him, complaining of the men in his care, even going so far as to complain that he “preferred to direct animals rather than men.” In reply, Vincent explained that this approach “is true of those who want everything to give way to them, nothing to oppose them, everything to go their way, people to obey them without comment or delay, and, in a manner of speaking, to be adored.”

But that, Vincent explained, is not our way. He reminded the missioner that leaders should “consider themselves the servants of others, who govern in the light of how Our Lord governed.” [CCDIV:181-182]

Christ could have come to us as a king, a warrior, or a man of wealth. Instead, as Frédéric pointed out, he “was hidden for thirty years in the workshop of a carpenter.” [Complete Works, Lecture 24, quoted by Gregory] He “did not come to be served but to serve…” [Matthew 20:28]

In the Society, the person does not seek the office, the office seeks the person. [Manual, 35] Servant leaders are called less to be something, than to do something; we are called not to be “large and in charge,” but instead, to be small, and for all.

Contemplate

Am I called right now to servant leadership? To be an officer, committee chair, or something else?

Recommended Reading

Characteristics of a Vincentian Servant Leader

Contemplation: More Ancient and Therefore More Sacred

Contemplation: More Ancient and Therefore More Sacred 940 788 SVDP USA

Our Rule calls us to be a “voice for the voiceless,” helping the poor and disadvantaged to speak for themselves, but also, when necessary, speaking on their behalf. [Rule, Part I, 7.5] But where do we begin? To whom do we speak? And who are we to presume to speak for anybody?

Blessed Frédéric once pointed out that “the knowledge of social well-being and of reform is to be learned, not from books, nor from the public platform, but in climbing the stairs to the poor man’s garret…” [Baunard, 279] It is through the relationships we form on our Home Visits that we gain an understanding of poverty that cannot be learned by all the academic study in the world. It is this knowledge, and this spirit of friendship with our neighbors in need that gives us our voice.

Like many Vincentians, I think, one of the most eye-opening things I learned when I first began doing Home Visits was how much poverty there was right in my own neighborhood. In most communities, there is no shortage of people willing to help, but there are many people who are quite convinced that poverty is a problem that exists primarily in far-off places; not in their own city, town, or suburb.

What a service we can do simply to let our own communities know that their neighbors are in need. Imagine the outpouring that might happen if people only knew how many were hungry, how many were being evicted, or how many were sitting in the dark after the power had been shut off.

This knowledge we have gained is not our secret to keep, but our sacred trust to fulfill.

Advocacy by Vincentians is not partisan in any sense. Indeed, Frédéric once described the Society as “a community of faith and works erasing little by little the old divisions of political parties…” [Letter 290, to Amelie, 1841] As members, the Rule stated in 1835, we should “abstain from being inflamed by political leanings which array parties in opposition, and from starting among themselves those irritating questions which divide mankind. Our Society is all charity: politics are wholly foreign to it.”

No community, no government, no political party can even begin to solve problems that they do not understand. Among other groups, dedication to the poor may be fleeting, and may change with times or fashions.

We will always remain dedicated, and we will always be a voice for the voiceless, because we believe, with Blessed Frédéric, that this cause is “more ancient and, therefore, more sacred.” [Baunard, 301]

Contemplate

What do my friends and neighbors know about the needs in their communities?

Recommended Reading

Voice of the Poor Guide

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