The Rule of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a beautiful spiritual document. Despite what its title may lead us to believe, it is not a set of detailed instructions, prescribing how we must act in all situations. Rather, it is a description of how we act, especially serving the neighbor, “in the Vincentian spirit.” [Rule, Part II, Statute 8] So, rather than ask, “what is the Rule telling me to do?” We should ask instead “does the Rule describe how I serve?”
The Apostle Paul explained that the new covenant is written on our hearts, not carved in stone. It is a “covenant not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” Paul was not, of course, rejecting Scripture, but explaining we can only fulfill God’s will by opening our hearts to the Spirit, and allowing God’s work to be done through us.
Blessed Frédéric made a similar point when his friend Léonce Curnier, who was starting a new Conference at Nimes, asked for advice on how the Paris Conferences operated.
In our works of charity, Frédéric wrote, “it is necessary to give yourself up to the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mind. Providence gives its own counsel through the circumstances around you, and the ideas it bestows on you. I believe you would do well to follow them freely and not tie yourselves down with rules and formulas.” [Letter 82, to Curnier, 1834]
Rules and formulas are familiar to us, though! It can be comforting to know we can only do so much; our hands are tied; or we can’t help, because the bell rang.
But the more that we chisel in stone, the less we are guided by the spirit; the more we decide in advance, the less we hear the cry of the poor; the more we focus on calculations, the less we act for love alone. But how can I trust my own poor judgment?
St. Vincent taught that it is pleasing to God for us 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. In the name of God, Monsieur, let us act in that way even though intelligence and human prudence tell us the contrary.” [CCD II:638]
No rule can tell us what to do on every home visit. But our Rule describes Vincentians as people who see the suffering Christ in the poor and are guided by the Holy Spirit. Vincentians serve in hope. [Rule, Part I, 1.2, 1.7-1.8]
Have I allowed prudence to make me too timid in serving the poor?
The Rule (especially Part I)