The God of Vincent de Paul
[This article appeared in Volume I of En tiempos de San Vicente de Paúl … y hoy, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca) Spain, 1997, p. 201-210. The above cited work was translated from the French by Martín Abaitua, CM (Au tempts de St. Vincent-de-Paul… et aujourd ‘hui), Animation Vicentienne, 16, Grande rue Saínt-Michel, Toulouse, France … this work is not attributed to any one author but it is stated in the Introduction that the articles were written by various authors].
Presentation of the theme
In the home of his parents the young Vincent was born and there he also received the light of faith … God was very much a part of life in the countryside. God was the Creator who ordered the days and the seasons. God was a Father who provided for his children and all living things depended on the Father. God was the Lord from whom all authority was derived (from the most Christian King to the lowest peon) … the Lord to whom all will have to render an account of their life.
It was this God to whom Vincent prayed after a tiring day and after eating his supper. It was this God for whom Sunday worship was reserved and it was this same God to whom the de Paul family prayed in their home … their home was the domestic church in the village where they lived. For a heart that was willing to listen, such as the heart of the youthful Vincent, everything spoke of God in the countryside where he kept watch over the flock.
This was the God about whom Vincent spoke during the time of his studies at the Franciscan school in Dax … and it was in the service of this God that Vincent would commit himself as he began his preparation for the priesthood. Vincent dedicated his life to God but at first this dedication was conditioned on being able to have security in the future and on obtaining material advantage … a just recompense for Vincent’s renunciation.
The theologians of this God bitterly disputed the themes of grace and mercy; those who conducted war justified their bloody battles by claiming to defend the name of God … God seemed to have separated himself from the concerns of the world and retired to the peace of his paradise.
This God seemed to have preserved a certain way of acting that was reflected in the Old Testament. God was the one who “guaranteed” the established order (at least this function was attributed to God). Those whom God had chosen to serve him had the impression that they had become members of a new tribe of Levi, members of a privileged tribe who claimed what they felt was their rightful place in a well structured society.
Nevertheless we are not certain that Vincent felt comfortable under the cold, watchful eye of the distant God of Bérulle … indeed Vincent’s anguish at that time leads us to that conclusion. Vincent still had to decide whether he would allow himself to be humiliated among the humble, stripped of everything in order to be with the poor, in order to gain access to the kingdom of God, in order to have the poor reveal to him the God of Jesus Christ.
On this path that led to the revelation of divine secrets, Vincent met the individual whom he affectionately called our blessed father, the bishop of Geneva. On this same path he would call the poor “lords” and “masters” thus recognizing the fact that the poor walk before us on this path and one day it will be the poor who judge us. Following those “lords and masters” Vincent was introduced to the person of the Son of God and discovered the true face of God, the loving face of the Father who is the God of Jesus Christ.
Just as no one can avoid breathing so also no one can avoid the love of the Father … God’s presence surrounds his children and no one is excluded from God’s loving embrace.
This loving presence is God’s providence. Vincent often reflected on God’s providence and entrusted his concerns to the same provident God. Vincent also affirmed his absolute trust in God’s protection. This was not a form of passive renunciation or some form of fatalism … indeed no one was more active that Vincent de Paul and no more than Vincent gave meaning to the words “help yourself and God will help you.” Vincent displayed much creativity and initiative in his activity … he did what had to be done and in all things he waited patiently for the loving providence of God to be revealed.
Vincent made the will of God a true religion and on one occasion stated that he could not do anything worthwhile (“All I do is spoil things!”). With the danger of being perceived as slow or indecisive, Vincent waited for some clear revelation of God’s will. In important matters, matters in which self-interest could cloud the decision making process (for example, accepting the property of Saint Lazare) Vincent waited for several revelations of God’s will and thus there would be no mistake with regard to what one had to do. Once God’s will was clearly known, nothing could detain Vincent from action (for example, despite the death and the catastrophes that his confreres encountered, he continued to send Missionaries to Madagascar).
The will of the Father led the Son of God to become poor, to become like those to whom he had been sent to proclaim the good news. The will of God was revealed to Vincent and thus he was led to dedicate his life to the service of the poor … he was led to become one with the poor. It is also the will of God that invites us to follow the path of Vincent de Paul and the path of Jesus Christ, invites us to follow the path that will allow us to know the secrets of the Father.
The God of Vincent de Paul
“Who is your God?” … how would Vincent de Paul have responded to that question? Certainly in the same way that the majority of the spiritual masters and the majority of believers would have. But after 1617 Vincent’s relationship with God was expressed by three phrases: the presence of God, Divine Providence, and the will of God. Those phrases allowed Vincent to speak about God as one who was near to people, one who was involved in the life of men and women, involved in the lived of the poor; one who intervened in events (like the events that occurred in Châtillon and Folleville).
A God who is present
Vincent, especially during his conferences on the theme of prayer, reminded his listeners about the importance of placing themselves in the presence of God. Vincent himself engaged in this practice of placing himself in the presence of God in all his activities.
“…ten leagues, fifty leagues away…”
Another is to consider his presence everywhere, for he fills all things; and you teach the children in school that God is everywhere --- ten leagues, fifty leagues away. In a word, he's everywhere by his presence; he's here while I'm talking about this; furthermore, he's present in my head and in every part of my body. So, God is everywhere. What happiness for people, and especially for Christians, to find God wherever they may go! If I go to heaven, said David, he's there: if I descend into hell, he's there. Just as a bird, although it may twist and turn about, finds air everywhere, so wherever we may go, we find God, for he's not only in real things, but also in things of the spirit. That's what we say in the Office of Saint Denis, whose octave we're celebrating. God is a being who is present in all places. So then, that's the third way. And here's the fourth: God is not only everywhere but is found in a very special way in a good soul filled with his love. So, God is present in good souls like the Daughters of Charity and finds nothing more pleasing. You see, dear Sisters, there's nothing Our Lord loves more than good souls. He finds nothing more beautiful, either in heaven or on earth. He's pleased to dwell in them and to make his home there. He's in our midst (CCD:X:472).
“…Here and in other parts…”
So now, this is what we have to do: first of all, place ourselves in the presence of God, considering him either as he is in heaven, seated on the throne of his majesty, from where he looks on us and contemplates all things; or in his immensity, present everywhere, here and elsewhere, in the highest heavens and in the lowest part of the abyss, reading our hearts and penetrating even the most secret folds of our conscience; or in his presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar: “O Savior, here I am, a weak and miserable sinner, here I am at the foot of the altars on which you repose; O Savior, may I do nothing unworthy of this holy presence;” or, lastly, within ourselves, pervading us entirely and dwelling in the depth of our hearts. And are we going to ask ourselves if he’s there; who can doubt it? The pa-gans themselves said, Est Deus in nobis, sunt et commercia caeli in nos; de caelo spirtus ille venit. We don’t question ourselves on this truth. Tu autem in nobis es, Domine. Nothing is more certain. It’s very important to make this point clearly and to place ourselves firmly in the presence of God, for the very gist of meditation depends on it; once that’s done, the rest falls into place (CCD:XI:359)
“…This is even more true than the thought that we're all here present…”
Always begin all your prayers by an act of the presence of God; otherwise, an action will sometimes fail to be pleasing to him. You see, Sisters, even though we don't see God, faith teaches us that his holy presence is everywhere, and this is one of the means we should propose to ourselves --- I mean his presence in all places, permeating everything, even the very depths of our hearts. This is even more true than the thought that we're all here present because our eyes may deceive us, but the truth that God is everywhere will never deceive us. Another means of placing ourselves in the presence of God is to imagine ourselves before the Most Blessed Sacrament of the altar. It's there, dear Sisters, that we receive the most cherished testimonies of God's love. Let's love him dearly and remember that, when he was on earth, speaking of his Father and the Holy Spirit, he said, “If anyone loves me, we will come to him,” and souls will be guided by his holy Providence as a ship by its pilot (CCD:IX:4).
A Provident God
As seen in the previous reference, as Vincent placed himself in the presence of God this led him to a complete trust in Divine Providence. This trust was both the fruit of his experience as well as a tenet of his faith. As Vincent reflected on past events he discovered innumerable unexplainable interventions of God.
“…We must allow God to act…”
Good works are often spoiled by moving too quickly. We act according to our own inclinations, which bypass mind and reason, making us think that the good we see to be done is feasible and timely, which is not the case. We recognize this subsequently by our failure. The good which God desires is accomplished almost by itself, without our even thinking of it. That is how our Congregation came into being, that missions and retreats for the ordinands began, that the Company of the Daughters of Charity was formed, that the Ladies of Charity for the assistance of the poor at the Hôtel Dieu of Paris and the sick in the parishes were established. That is also how the care of the foundlings began and, in a word, how all the works for which we are now responsible came into existence. None of the above was deliberately undertaken by us, but God himself, who wanted to be served in such circumstances, brought them imperceptibly into being. If he made use of us, we had no idea, however, where that was leading. That is why we allow him to act, far from busying ourselves with the development of these works, any more than we did when they were just beginning. Monsieur, how I wish you would moderate your ardor and examine matters thoroughly before making any decision on them! Be acted upon rather than active. In this way, God will do through you alone what all men put together could not do without him (CCD:IV:128-129).
“…Daughters of Providence…”
Sisters, you should have such deep devotion to Divine Providence and such great love for and confidence in it that if Providence itself had not given you the beautiful name of Daughters of Charity --- which you must never change --- you should be called Daughters of Providence, for it is Providence that has brought you into being (CCD:IX:62).
“…Is there anything more clear…”
In the February 13th, 1646 conference Vincent reacted spontaneously to the account of an event that was described by one of the Sisters. Vincent reflected on this event in light of Providence: Having taken the trouble of coming to give the conference, M. Vincent asked what the topic was. When he was told, he questioned a Sister on it. After that, he wanted to be fully informed of the danger from which one of our Sisters had escaped three or four days ago, by a great grace of God. "Sister," he said to her what happened? I heard that a house collapsed. In what part of the city was it? Were you inside or outside? What day was it?" The Sister replied that, on the last day on which it was permitted to eat meat, she was taking a pot of soup to one of her poor persons. As she was going up the stairs, a poor water carrier in front of her cried out, "We're lost!" She was between the first and second floor, and no sooner had the poor man uttered these words than the house began to fall. Our poor Sister, terrified, crouched in the comer of one of the steps. The frightened neighbors ran at once for the Blessed Sacrament and Extreme Unction to be administered to those capable of receiving them. However, more than thirty-five or forty persons were piteously crushed beneath the ruins of the house, and only a child of ten or eleven years of age could be saved. When the spectators saw our poor Sister in what appeared to be inevitable danger of death, they shouted to her to jump into their arms. Ten or twelve of them prepared to rescue her. She fastened the soup pot to the end of a fair-sized pole for them; then, relying on God's mercy, she jumped into the cloaks they were holding out for her. Unable to say how she had been transported, she found herself, by God's special Providence, out of danger and, trembling all over, set off to serve the rest of her patients (CCD:IX:190-191).
Another interpretation of the same event: Another reason is God's very special protection over you. Isn't it wonderful, Sisters? You have a recent example of that in the case of your dear Sister. Doesn't that help us to see that God is pleased in a very special way with the service you render him in the person of the poor? Is anything more obvious? A brand new house collapses; forty people are crushed beneath its ruins; this poor Sister with her soup pot is huddled on a step that Providence expressly preserved to support her, and she emerges from the danger safe and sound. The angels bore her up; believe it, Sisters, for what indication is there that human beings did it? They certainly lent a hand to it, but the angels bore her up. Do you think, Sisters, that God allowed this new house to collapse, without some special purpose in mind? Do you think it caved in simply by chance when our Sister was present, and do you think that it was just good luck that she escaped without injury? Certainly not, Sisters; all that is miraculous. God had ordained it all to let your Company see the care he takes of it (CCD:IX:196).
The expression, “do not anticipate Providence” is viewed as significant with regard to Vincent’s activity and manner of thinking. Perhaps when Vincent spoke about “the times of grace” we could insert the phrase “signs of God”. Vincent remind M. Codoing (an impulsive missionary) about the need to cultivate a trust in Providence.
“…Grace has its moments…”
In the name of God, Monsieur, stop being concerned about things happening far away that are none of your business, and devote all your attention to domestic discipline. The rest will come in due time. Grace has its moments. Let us abandon ourselves to the Providence of God and be on our guard against anticipating it. If Our Lord is pleased to give me any consolation in our vocation, it is this: I think it seems to me that we have tried to .follow Divine Providence in all things and to put our feet only in the place it has marked out for us. Be also most cordial with everyone and spare nothing for the assistance of the sick members of the Company (CCD:II:499).
“…We have always tried to follow and not to anticipate Providence…”
And let us not be in too great a hurry for the extension of the Company nor for external appearances. The consolation Our Lord gives me is to believe that, by the grace of God, we have always tried to follow and not to anticipate Providence which knows how to conduct all things so wisely to the end Our Lord destines for them. In truth, Monsieur, I have never more clearly seen the vanity of acting contrary to this, nor the meaning of the words that God uproots the vine that he himself has not planted (CCD:II:502).
“…The works of God do not proceed in that way…”
Oh, no, Monsieur … nor should you move so fast! The works of God do not proceed in that way; they come about of themselves, and those he does not create soon perish. I have often told you this; your piety will please bear with it and rest assured that I have no greater consolation in the work of our vocation than to think that we have followed the order of holy Providence which requires time for generating its works. Let us proceed calmly in our expectations (CCD:II:514).
“…Let us wait patiently but let us act…”
Please continue, Monsieur, to petition for our affair, confident that it is the good pleasure of God, who sometimes allows contradictions to arise even among the saints and the angels, since the same things are not manifested to both. The success of similar pursuits is often the result of the patience and vigilance exercised in them. The Jesuits spent twenty years petitioning [for their1 consolidation under Gregory XV. The works of God have their moment; his Providence brings them about at that time and neither sooner nor later. The Son of God saw the loss of souls; yet, he did not advance the hour ordained for his coming. Let us wait patiently but let us act, and, so to speak, let us make haste slowly in the negotiation of one of the most important affairs the Congregation will ever have (CCD:V:400).
This last text clearly shows (if there is some need to prove this) that for Vincent trust in Providence is not passive or some form of resignation.
The will of God
With regard to the three themes of presence, providence and the will of God, Vincent seemed to have preferred the third, that is, the will of God … this seemed, to Vincent, to express God’s nearness, the manner in which God becomes incarnated today, that which provokes people to act. will in all our actions is even better; for the latter embraces the former. The practice of the presence of God is very good, but I think that adopting the practice of doing God’s (CCD:XI:287).
“…God leads him in everything and by everything…”
Notice the holy dispositions in which he lives, and the blessings which accompany all he does. He is committed to God, to him alone, and God leads him in everything and by everything. He could say with the prophet: Tenuisti manum dexteram meam, et in voluntate rua deduxisti me ["With your counsel you guide me, and in the end you will receive me in glory”]. God holds him, so to speak, by his right hand, and he accepts this divine guidance with complete submission. For tomorrow, the following week, the whole year, and his entire life, you will see him living in peace and tranquility, and in an uninterrupted movement toward God. Everywhere he spreads in the souls of his neighbor the happy spirit with which he himself is filled. If you compare him with those who follow their own inclinations you will see how filled with light he is, how fruitful in his work. He makes notable progress, and all his words have strength and energy. God blesses all his undertakings and accomplishes by his grace the designs God has for him. The advice he gives to others and all his actions give great edification. On the other hand, when we look at those attached to their own inclinations and pleasure, their thoughts are worldly, their words those of slaves, and their works lifeless. All this comes from their being attached to creatures. These allow nature to influence their souls, while grace acts in those who raise their hearts to God and aspire only to accomplish his will (Abelly III:47).
“…Perfection does not consist in ecstasies…”
Perfection does not consist in ecstasies but in doing the will of God … Now, who will be the most perfect of all human beings? It will be the one whose will is most in conformity with that of God, with the result that perfection consists in uniting our will so closely to that of God that, strictly speaking, his and ours are only one and the same will and non-will, and the more someone excels on this point, the more perfect he’ll be. For I ask you, please, Messieurs, what did Our Lord say to that man in the Gospel to whom He wanted to teach the way to attain perfection? “If you wish to come after me,” he told him, “renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Now, I ask you, Messieurs, who renounces himself more than the person who never does his own will but always that of God? And who mortifies himself more? And if, on the other hand, it’s said in Holy Scripture that the person who remains faithful to God is made one spirit with him, who remains more faithful to God, I ask you, than the man who never does anything but the will of the same God, and never his own, who wills and desires nothing but what God wills or doesn’t will? I ask you, my dear confreres, if you know anyone who is more faithful to God and, consequently, more united to God than that person. If that’s how it is, that no one ever renounces himself and follows Our Lord more perfectly than the man whose will is totally conformed to God’s will, and who clings more faithfully to the same God than the one who wills only what he wills or doesn’t will, we must, of necessity, conclude that no man is so perfectly united to God and becomes one spirit with him than the person who does what I just said. O Messieurs! O Brothers! If we were to ponder that well, what a means of acquiring a great treasury of grace we’d see in this life (CCD:XI:285, 286-287).
“…My Savior, this is your practice…”
The example of Our Lord is our third reason. It was his practice to do always the will of his Father in everything, and he said that’s why he came on earth --- not to do his own will, but the will of his Father. O Savior! O Goodness! What a contrast, what depth you give to the practice of your virtues! You are the King of Glory, yet you come into the world only to do the will of the one who sent you. You know, brothers, how dear this sacred affection was to the heart of Our Lord. My food, he said, is to do the will of the one who sent me. What nourishes, delights, and strengthens me is to do the will of my Father. Since this is the case, Messieurs, shouldn’t we consider ourselves blessed to have entered a Company that makes special profession of practicing what the Son of God practiced? Shouldn’t we often lift our hearts to him to know the height, the depth, and the breadth of this practice, which leads to God and fills us with him, which encompasses all good things and helps us to give up the bad ones. My food is to do the will of the one who sent me. O my Savior, that s what you did!
Questions for reflection and dialogue
A] Our experience of God: •In what ways does my knowledge of God depend on my past, my origins, my cultural and ecclesial situation?
•Who is the God of my belief?
B] A God present and active … a provident God … a God who goes before us •How do I read and/or reread events?
•What do I learn about God in this process?
C] To do the will of God in all things •Using specific examples as a starting point … How do I look for God’s will?
•What criteria do I use to discover God’s will?
Translated: Charles T. Plock, CM