As Christians, we are called to perfection, which we seek to attain through formation. We are formed in mind, body, and spirit in a lifelong process of attaining the fullness of our humanity, revealed to us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the Society, we recognize four different dimensions of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual, and ministerial. These four overlap with each other, of course, but the one that can be easiest to neglect is our intellectual formation.
Intellectual formation encompasses training and skills development, such as poverty research and servant leadership training, but at its core, intellectual formation has to do with our efforts to understand our faith traditions and our church’s teachings. We do this through reading our Rule, Holy Scripture, and the writings of our own saints and founders, just as they did before us, but above all to focus on the life and words of Jesus as our model for a life of holiness.
Indeed, one of the books held dear by Vincent, Louise, and Frédéric was The Imitation of Christ written by Thomas à Kempis in the 1420s. St. Vincent recommended the use of this book in personal retreats, suggesting taking short readings from it and “stopping to reflect a short time on each sentence.” [CCD I:373] In offering spiritual direction to one of the priests of the mission, he advised him especially to “read Chapter XV of the third book of the Imitation of Christ. You will see there that not every desire, however good, is always from the Holy Spirit and that you are far from the indifference or resignation that it teaches.” [CCD VI:146] Much of this letter, and other writings of Vincent, reflects the thoughts of Kempis.
For her part, St. Louise considered the Imitation, along with St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life and their Rule to be “the books necessary for the Daughters of Charity” which should be read monthly. [SWLM, L.383]
And in the early days of the Society, the Imitation remained a central text for study and reflection in conference meetings, and for personal reflection. As he noted once, he “had taken the precaution of reading a certain chapter in the Imitation” in order to guard against putting too much stock in compliments, even from greatly respected people; to remind him of his humility. [Baunard, 87] In 1838, the conference began reading, “in place of the Imitation, the Life of St. Vincent de Paul, so as to better imbue ourselves with his examples and traditions.” [Letter 175, to Lallier, 1838]
Today we have, in addition to Vincent, the life and words of Bl. Frédéric to read and to imitate, but even 600 years after they were written, the words of Thomas à Kempis have as much to offer us as they had for Vincent, Louise, and Frédéric. “Let it be our most earnest study,” wrote Kempis, “to dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ.” [Imitation, I, I, 1]
What great Christian books can I incorporate into my intellectual formation?