PILGRIMAGE: Rue de Sèvres, Paris—Putting Faith Into Action by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

From: Pilgrim Road

Number 95, rue de Sèvres, is a charming rabbit warren of buildings.  Since 1817 it has been the mother house of Les Pères de la Mission (the Vincentians), founded in 1625 by Saint Vincent de Paul.  The order has since spread around the world, bringing the Good News to the poor.  Vincentians of all ages come and go in the hallways, speaking French, Spanish, English, or any of a number of other languages.  Many are here for ongoing refresher courses in the theology of their order.

Vincent was born in 1581 into a peasant family in a village of southwestern France.  As a young priest, he arrived in Paris and became chaplain to the rich and influential Gondi family.  Then one day he was called to the bedside of a dying peasant.  There he came face-to-face with the horrid reality of the squalor and misery of the French peasants.  He began to organize help for the poor and the sick, and to preach the message of God’s love to the simple folk on the Gondi estates.  From this point, his life would never be the same.

The mother house’s unremarkable grey façade hides some pleasant secrets from the passing pedestrian.  Many of the rooms have recently been renovated, and the spacious garden area offers the opportunity for a quiet stroll among flowers and trees.  At one end of the building is the sober church built in 1827.  Above the high altar is a beautiful silver casket containing the remains of the saint, transferred from Notre Dame de Paris in 1830.

Vincent enlisted the help of pious women in his struggle against the poverty and suffering of the peasants, and his work soon expanded beyond the Gondi estate to reach the poor in the entire countryside and then eventually in the cities as well.  In 1633, with Louise de Marillac, Vincent founded the Daughters of Charity.  He and Louise composed a Rule and gave conferences as the sisters became more and more invaluable collaborators with him in helping orphans, the sick, and the hungry.

In a hallway not far from the reception desk hangs a large map of the city of Paris.  Small red dots are sprinkled evenly over its entire surface.  Reading the legend at the bottom I see that each dot marks a place in Paris that was somehow touched by Saint Vincent during his life: an orphanage founded, starving people fed, a hospital staffed with sisters, a retreat preached, a school begun.  There are dozens of these dots, each one telling a story of charity, of boundless energy, of commitment to spreading God’s love on Earth.

Vincent de Paul was not a profound thinker; he had no great original insights.  Yet few people have ever accomplished as much with their lives.  His success was due to his great natural abilities, of course, and to a staggering capacity for work.  But as I stare at the old map, I begin to understand the secret of Vincent’s success: these dots are actually the fallout of Vincent’s spiritual life.  I can hear him insisting in one of his conferences, “You must start by establishing the Kingdom of God in yourself first, and only then in other people.”  I hear him echoing Saint Benedict’s emphasis on the importance of the interior life over externals when he says to the members of his religious communities, “You have to aim at the interior life, and if you’re missing that, you’re missing everything.”  Vincent, like Benedict, was always aware of God’s constant presence when trying to help the poor, when agonizing over a difficult decision, or when suffering from the slanderous accusations of jealous enemies.

His intense prayer life had a surprising result: instead of becoming a visionary lost in the clouds of contemplation, he became a man of deeds.

Vincent believed in the “indispensable priority of action.”  He didn’t move from principles to practice or from insight to deeds; he simply began with love.  This is the key to understanding his tremendous ability to get things done.

I find myself full of religious thoughts, pious ideas, and abstract principles that need to be applied.  But of course much of this spiritual theorizing never finds its way into practice, and never changes my way of living.  Vincent’s formula was simple: Start with love.  Love is both a guiding principle and an action.

Vincent’s great works for the poor were not his reason for existing – God was.  He didn’t go around giving his life to the poor – he gave it to God.  Because Vincent de Paul knew he was loved by God, he could love God in return, and could cover this map of Paris with all these lovely dots.

The gospel calls us to a life of love.  Each of us, whatever our state in life, is expected to leave a bunch of red dots sprinkled across the map of our own life, marking places where our love has made a difference, made God’s love real for others.  I start to wonder what my own map looks like.

I hear a door open at the other end of the long corridor and see my Vincentian friends coming down the hall to greet me.  I turn away from the map with a quick prayer to Saint Vincent that I might, like him, leave a little bit of divine fallout on the map when I die.

Reflection

Lent is traditionally a time for growing closer to God through acts of charity toward others, especially those in need.  How do you live out Vincent’s simple formula, “Start with love,” in your life?

Imagine a map of the region where you are living, or where you lived for a long time.  Would there be a lot of red dots on it marking places where you were Christ for others through your kind deeds, gentle words, and loving actions?  Would there be a section where there are few red dots, or even none?

The traditional practices of fasting and almsgiving always go together.  Think of someone or some group of people who could benefit from your charity during this Lent; make a Lenten resolution to be of help to them.

Sacred Scripture (Isaiah 58:5-8)

Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry; sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Wisdom of the Desert

A monk once posed this question to an elder: “There are two brothers, one of whom remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance.  The other one takes care of the sick.  Which one’s work is more pleasing to God?”  The elder replied: “If that brother who fasts six days at a time were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick.”

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