St Vincent de Paul - Meekness and Mortification

Meekness for St Vincent goes a lot further than being some namby bamby, submissive person but it does require a great deal of effort , more for some than others!

He first speaks of Meekness when it is combined with strength, in order to handle anger– this involves either by suppressing it or by learning to express it, with a fair sprinkling of Love!

Meekness, for St Vincent,  also involves, approachability, Gentleness, affability and serenity of countenance towards those who approach us or whom we come into contact with!

Meekness can also involve enduring offences with a spirit of Forgiveness and courage too! He says we ‘should treat gently those who do injury to us!’ A big ask isn’t it!

‘Meekness’, he says, ‘makes us not only excuse the affronts and injustices we receive, but can incline us to treat with gentleness  those from whom we receive them, by kind words and should they go so far as to abuse us and even strike us….. It makes us endure all for God.’ Sounds good in theory! And yes, says St Vincent, ’Such are the effects produced by this virtue.’

He delves deeper—’Yes, a servant of God who truly possesses it, when violent hands are laid on him, offers to the divine goodness this rough treatment and remains at peace!’ Think 17th century France –musketeer country— one might just freak out the assailant! 

To possess the virtue of meekness there must always be respect for ‘the person’ ,whoever they might be or whatever they do. However for him and his fellow members of the Community of the Mission, this may involve combining gentleness with firmness!

Offering advice to one of his spiritual followers to whom he regularly wrote letters of instruction ,he says ‘If the meekness of your spirit needs a drop of vinegar, borrow a little of it from the Spirit of Our Lord!’  In all things we are to hold Our Lord’s example before us—He who is ‘eternal meekness’ in his dealings with us!

Meekness might be a virtue we struggle to attain for ourselves but for St Vincent ‘ There are no persons more constant and firm in doing good than those who are meek and gracious.’

While on the contrary ‘those who allow themselves to yield to anger and to passions of the irascible appetite are usually more inconstant, because they only act by fits and starts—they are like torrents which are strong and impetuous only when in full flood but which dry up immediately afterwards, while rivers, which represent the meek and gracious, flow on noiselessly, tranquilly and unfailingly.’  Ring any bells, sounding familiar like someone we know  already (the torrent) or may be the person we would like to become (the river)!

To the ‘Daughters of charity’ he wrote where they live in respect and meekness, it is paradise; it is Hell when they do not!’

A missionary needs meekness if he is able to endure the  roughness of poor people! ( imagine us saying that today!)          St Vincent suggests that there are many ways of acquiring meekness –You need to work at it, he says!  Before speaking or deciding or acting, the angry person should hold his tongue and cool down! We should refrain from invective, reproach and rough words! We should not speak too loudly, but modestly and gently and we should ask for pardon readily.

We should learn like St Augustine (of Hippo) when to tolerate evil rather than abolish all evil practices ( it sounds like we sometimes need to turn a blind eye in our dealings with others and work with people as they are!)

St Vincent constantly warns against anger—he could get really angry when he perceived evil, either within his communities or when confronted by the needs of the poor! He learnt to combine anger with gentleness. He outlines the destructive nature of anger which can result in violence, and repressed, it can result in resentment, sarcasm, cynicism, bitterness and depression..

He also reminds us that Jesus got thoroughly ‘frustrated’ with the Apostles—yes when he was young ‘he was choleric in temperament, easily angered and very moody, long dark periods, but he changed, becoming the most gentle and most approachable of guys! This gave me quite a lot of food for thought personally and thinking about this virtue of meekness ( in bed) in a wider context– I also reflected that we live in a world where  there is a lot of anger and frustration and resentment out there—international, national, communal and personal relationships seem to me so often to be about the pursuit of power and domination, whether it be Trump’s posturing with North Korea or the abuse of men like Weinstein, or a whole host of other examples we can think of nearer home –the virtue of meekness reminds me and you, and all Christian people, that there is another way, a way that would make for a much better safer and secure world for everyone!

Now Mortification!

Mortification is obviously to do with the Flesh, our bodies!

Mortification basically involves denial of the exterior senses,- sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing—we are not talking 50 Shades of Grey here!

St Vincent  does however give us a number of examples of where we should be careful! To ‘the daughters of charity’, he tells them they should only look at men if this is necessary or useful ( what about the brothers!) They should also learn to endure bad smells ( again think 17th century France) especially when you are visiting the sick poor. The sisters should mortify taste by not eating

Between meals and eat food which is NOT pleasing to them—more cabbage and less cake!

They should not LISTEN to gossip and they should not touch their neighbour nor allow themselves to be touched!!

St Vincent explains that mortification also involves denial of the interior senses– our understanding, our memory and our will– we shouldn’t want to know all sorts of curious things and not conjure up pleasing memories from the past –romances and even the love of our parents– ultimately seeking to come to a state of complete indifference, desiring only to do the will of God ( I guess this is all seeming a bit too much for us)

Mortification also entails denial of the passion of the soul—indeed all passion should be subject to reason. We have a lower and a higher part (or nature would be a better word) the lower part. Makes us like an animal and the higher part tends us towards God– the lower is always wanting to revolt against the higher!

Mortification involves us seeking to be indifferent or detached from earthly things and earthly passions– it is St Vincent realises a continual struggle and the struggle never gets easier as time goes on!

He cites the example of Our Lord and the Saints- ‘Let us never lose sight of the mortification of Our Lord seeing that, to follow him, we are obligated to mortify ourselves after his example. Let us model our affections upon his, that his footsteps may be the guide of ours in the way of perfection. The Saints are Saints because they walk in his footsteps, renounce themselves and mortify themselves in all things.’

In the long run mortification involves some degree of suffering but it helps prayer and it is a form of satisfaction for sin –St Vincent says ‘if we do not continually work to get better we will get worse there can be no standing still’ mortification is important if we are to make progress in the spiritual life. However as St Vincent reminds us, it is a virtue acquired little by little through repeated acts, ’don’t’, he concludes, ‘make it a burden for yourselves’, if you are being missionary!

The kind of mortification that was practised by St Vincent and 17th century religious is not very popular today especially all the acts of denial, why shouldn’t we stop to smell a flower or call to mind the  memory of some happy event in the past -  and yet we know that Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’ if we are to follow him.

I read somewhere the other day that mortification today should always be for the sake of something or for someone else; good things should be given up not because we think they are bad but because we want something better  -if for example we give up material possessions, it should be because we want to share them with the poor and show our solidarity with them. In Lent we  should all be asking ourselves  what are the central values in our lives—how often do we shun our sense of Christian duty for the pursuit of more pleasurable things? We live in a Society where all the time the adverts encourage us to have more, to get something bigger and better. May be we should develop a more simple life style for ourselves-  Lent gives us the opportunity to practice some denial of course –the usual –chocolate, sweets, alcohol etc– for some of us as Cardinal Vincent Nicholls suggests in ‘Walk with Me’ we should reduce the use of social media –Twitter, Facebook and Instagram –certainly the way some people are glued to their mobile phone this might not be a bad idea –he also says we could refrain from saying unkind or hurtful words , or may be try to stop walking round with a glum look on our face –or becoming bitter and twisted like some of those religious from a former age.

Mortification could mean seeking to spend more time with those who are less pleasing to us rather than just those we like!

I think all  mortification, all denial should have a positive motive  rather than a form of self flagellation—I’m not sure whether St Vincent would agree with me –but as a missionary virtue, making ourselves wretched for the sake of it will not bring us closer to Jesus neither will it bring others closer to Him!