by Pat Collins C.M.
The word spirituality is notoriously difficult to define. Bernard McGinn, probably the leading writer on mysticism in English, says that without making an exhaustive search he turned up 35 different definitions of the term. Speaking for myself I like this Trinitarian description:
Spirituality is a way of living for God in Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The word spirituality can also be used to refer to three main areas.
Firstly, genuine spirituality involves religious experience. It enables a person or a group to go beyond thought and talk about God, to a have direct awareness of the One who is the beyond in the midst of our everyday lives. Conscious experience of this kind is what energizes spirituality giving it a sense of depth and meaning.
Secondly, the word can refer to spiritualities which have been developed throughout the history of the church. They may have been associated with the distinctive charism of a particular saint e.g. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, or Ignatius; or with a particular culture e.g. Celtic; or with a particular movement e.g. the Charismatic Renewal.
Thirdly, the word spiritual can refer to an academic study of the subject from different points of view e.g. scriptural, historical, psychological, phenomenological, liturgical etc.
Over the years I have heard the question asked is there such a thing as Vincentian Spirituality? Im convinced there is. It involves a distinctive kind of religious experience which is influenced by the charism we have inherited from Sts. Vincent and Louise.
I have no doubt that if any group of confreres or Daughters of Charity was asked to recount their religious experiences; many of them would talk about occasions when they encountered the living Lord in and through their service of the poor. While it is true that Vincentian Spirituality may not be as well known as some others, it is very real nevertheless. I was delighted to see that, The New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2005) includes an article on the subject by Fr. Myles Rearden C.M.
Needless to say, Vincentian spirituality, like any other, can be studied from an academic point of view. Journals such as Colloque, Vincentian Heritage and Vincentiana sometimes contain such studies. What are the distinctive characteristics of Vincentian spirituality?
There are two ways of answering this question. The first involves a literary study of such things as the writings and conferences of Sts Vincent and Louise, together with foundational documents such as our common rules and our post-Vatican II constitutions. The second approach would be more experiential. Believing that Vincentian spirituality animates the lives of the members of the Vincentian Family, it would devise a prayerful process of theological reflection which would enable members to recall religious experiences when they felt they were authentically Vincentian. If the replies were carefully studied, Im quite sure a consensus would emerge, one that would articulate the main characteristics of the spirituality that enlivens us. Such a process would not only edify those who had participated, it would also enable them to talk and write about Vincentian spirituality with greater clarity and conviction.
If I were asked to nominate three of the main characteristics of Vincentian spirituality Id spontaneously respond, compassion, friendship and prayer. Im quite sure that affective and effective compassion is our key characteristic. By affective compassion I mean, an ability to empathize emotionally with people who suffer as a result of material and/or spiritual poverty. By effective compassion I mean an ability to respond appropriately to those sufferings by means of such things as prayer, deeds of mercy and action for justice.
I also believe that Vincentian spirituality values non-possessive friendships which are characterised by mutual respect and warm affection. Talking to Daughters of Charity in 1658 St Vincent said: St Paul says that whoever abides in charity has fulfilled the law...It is a means of establishing a holy friendship among you and of living in perfect union, and in this way enabling you to make a paradise in this world.
I argued in an article in Vincentiana (Aug. 1998) that Vincent believed that our evangelization would only be effective to the extent that it was rooted in the experience of Gods friendship love as mediated by the members of the community.
Finally, at this stage in my life I believe that we have a distinctive Vincentian way of praying. It involves what modern spirituality refers to as praxis, namely, the belief that there is a reciprocal relationship between our prayer and our service of the poor. Our encounter with the Christ of compassion in our prayer, prepares us to contemplate the same Christ in the sufferings of the poor. Having done so, we reflect prayerfully on that experience and its implications. This transforming process prepares us to return with greater selflessness to renewed service of the poor.