St. Vincent’s Personal Profile
For many, Vincent de Paul has been equated with that lifeless statue high up on a pedestal. White, aloof, tough, and well decorated especially during the last week of September but is forgotten for the rest of the year. For some historians, he has become a product of a scholarly research, a hero of the 20th century. For the ordinary faithful, he has become as sentimental image, reminder of the glories of the past, object of nostalgia and nothing more. But for me and for you, who have kept Vincent very much alive in our heart, who is he?
A. Physical Profile.
According to the account of his first biographer, at the same time his friend and contemporary who has lived with him in St. Lazare – Louis Abelly:
“M. Vincent was of medium height and well-proportioned. His head was rather bald and large, but well made and in proportion to the rest of his body. The brow was broad and majestic, the countenance neither too fat nor too thin. His aspect was mild, his penetrating, his hearing acute, his bearing grave, his gravity benign, his countenance open and simple. He was most easy of access and of a marvelous kind and amiable disposition. He was of bilious and sanguine temperament and his health fairly strong and robust.”
He was not, therefore, a short man but of medium height. He may not be a “macho” but his bodily is well proportioned and is neither too fat nor too thin. It might be true that he had the distinguishable features of a Southerner (Dax, his birthplace, is in the south of France): large nose, long ears, strongly marked brows and powerful chin. But what makes him naturally attractive is more than his physical features: his open and simple countenance, his kind and amiable disposition. His penetrating eyes express both the fire and the gentleness in his person. This makes Vincent de Paul’s personality captivating. His person creates an impact.
He is also usually portrayed as an old man of frail health and is seemingly limping all the time. But this image is the Vincent two years before his death. Abelly says: “his health was fairly strong and robust.” If Vincent was a frail and sickly type, how could one explain the physical stamina he had which his numerous works in the height of his pastoral ministry demanded.
He was not exempt from illnesses, of course. When visiting confreres in the infirmary of St. Lazare, he encouraged them by alluding to his sickness: “Don’t be afraid, brother. I had that illness when I was young and was cured of it. I used to suffer from breathlessness and do so longer. I have also suffered from hernia and God has cured me of it. I had a violent attack of headache, lung and stomach troubles from which I have recovered. So just have a little patience”.
He suffered from what was then called “tertian fever” which he lovingly called my little fever – a fever lasting from two to three days or more. In 1615, he also developed a serious leg trouble, which he suffered to the end of his life. In 1658, his carriage broke down and his head struck the pavement with great violence. This caused a severe attack of fever and with all other complications led to his deathbed two years later.
Despite his physical frailties, his moral vigor remained intact. He was all the more mild and affable. He still attended to his numerous works. It was even during these moments that most of his conferences were done. His day was filled with pastoral concern from 4 o’clock in the morning to late in the evening. Here is a man, like the rest, but exceptionally enthusiastic for the work of the Lord.
What relevance is there to this inquiry? Knowing Vincent de Paul in his flesh and blood brings down the lifeless saint from the pedestal people have created for him. He is no mere woodwork or “escayola:” beautiful but unrealistic. He is human like the rest of us with characteristics both positive and negative. In a word, he is real.
To be real means to be on the same ground where I stand. This is where Vincent inspires us. When we find ourselves weak and exhausted after a day’s work we can see Vincent who consoles saying: “Don’t be afraid. I also was once tired and ill. You can make it. Just have a little patience. To know that your father feels with you is a healing process in itself.” The Vincent is real. He is very much alive.
B. Intellectual Profile
Many authors would like to portray Vincent de Paul as a man of action preoccupied with practical affairs and has contempt or at least, indifference for learning and intellectual endeavors. He is often misquoted as advising the students; “Intellectuals have much to fear, knowledge puffs up.” People wrongly conclude that Vincent was a busybody but did not really posses great intelligence. Was Vincent de Paul really anti-intellectual? What could be his IQ?
According to Abelly: “He had a great mind, well-balanced, circumspect, capable of great minds and not easily surprised. He did not enter lightly on the study of affairs but when he devoted himself seriously to them, he penetrated them to their very marrow. He went into all their details, great and small foresaw objections and results. Nevertheless, out of fear of self-deception, he did not immediately decide, if not compelled to do so, and he settled nothing until he had balanced the arguments for and against and was most willing to consult again with others. When he had to give his opinion, he developed the topic with such order and clarity as to astonish the most expert.”
When an author describes you in such words, you could not be a dumb ox. That could not mean only an average IQ. It takes one of real intelligence to have the capacity for analysis, synthesis, and foresight. But more than a logical presentation, Vincent had the capacity to captivate his audience. He had the power to persuade them and lead them to accept his convictions. Call it communication skills, call it charisma, and call it whatever you want. That was in Vincent de Paul.
No wonder even bishops and well-known theologians of the Sorbonne loved to attend the Tuesday conferences. They wanted to listen to Vincent speak. I could not imagine how the socialites (ladies of the court) of his times were led by Vincent to organize and go to the poor if Vincent was a dumb ox.
However, Vincent’s intelligence was down to earth. He vibrated with the masses. Though he may have read a lot of books, Vincent was not bookish. His primary teacher was the school of experience. He did a lot of consultations with experts of various fields, with priests of experience and even with lay brothers who were illiterate at that time. He was in touch with his people. he was resonating with the horizons of his times and of the poor. In a world of dogmatic deductive processes, Vincent dared to venture into consultative induction. When he says: “let us wait for the signs of Divine Providence”, he really meant “let us wait for lessons from real events and concrete life experience.”
What does that say to the Vincentians today? What does that tell me? It says that a Vincentian today is a well-informed person, a professional. In this information society where we find ourselves in, a Vincentian is a person who keep abreast with the latest news and technology. However, he/she is not a passive and naïve recipient. He/she is the one who analyzes and critically looks at events, things, and persons via the prism of the Christian tradition as Vincent did. Like Vincent, he/she is sensitive to the changing times and attu8ned to the calls of the Church and responsive to the spirit present in history.
But more than the above, the Vincentians should be those intellectual capacity is rooted in the grassroots and is geared towards them. There is an intellectual framework, which resonates, feels, cries, laughs, thinks with and for the toiling masses. It does not only mean keep abreast with the recent philosophical-theological treatises but also with the latest showbiz intrigue in town. It does not only mean knowing the technical economic analysis of the present world crisis but knowing also how and what the poor think about their situation. Their demands more than reading books and attending seminars, more than taking degrees and having letters appended to the end of the names. This mean real solidarity: living with them, singing their songs, playing their games, laughing at their jokes, feeling their joys and sadness and praying their prayers.
C. Psycho-Emotional Profile
This area is quite difficult to venture into. Even persons subjected to psychological examinations could not be fully described by psychometricians. There could some defects in the interpretative tools or the person himself/herself does not really show overt behaviors that fully determines the inner psychological constitution. No expert can really enter into the inner sanctuaries of a person.
1. Intra-Personal Dimensions
In that first quotation from Abelly, we see:
“He was most easy access and of a marvelous kind and wonderful disposition. He was of bilious and sanguine temperament.”
Medieval psychology believes that there are four humors (fluid material) in the human body and a person’s temperament in influenced by the predominance of any of these humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. That would give us four temperament types: sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic and choleric.
Vincent was of sanguine temperament characterized by amiability, cheerfulness, quickness and sociability. But Abelly describes him as “bilious.” He had some choleric tendencies: passion, irascibility and tenacity. Vincent could also be the man who is determined to make things happen. Sometimes he could push things a little too hard especially when his convinced of them. Many priests and brothers sent to the Madagascar mission died on shipwreck, disease, fatigue and climate. Not a few confreres objected to sending more missionaries but Vincent persisted.
His natural sociability captivated those around him but it was his persistence and determination that moved things towards the fulfillment of the kingdom in our midst. The work of his sons and daughters, the hardships that they underwent and the endurance of the missionaries speak much of the passionate tenacity of their founder: Vincent de Paul.
There is no way of changing our basic temperament and personality and pattern it with another. But we could redirect some of our tendencies and compulsions toward integration. Natural for a choleric temperament is a proneness to anger and high temper. Vincent had overcome these. His contemporaries described him as the meekest man in France of his time second to Francis de Sales. Vincent also showed us how to harness our basic giftedness as persons for the service of the kingdom. Here is a man who was given 10 talents and earned ten more.
Another important quality of Vincent is his sensitivity: the capacity to enter into the feelings of persons. We call this empathy. He was able to enter into the hearts of the religious and clergy of his times, into the feelings of the ladies of the court. Moreover, he identified himself with the sufferings and loneliness of the poor. He did not only express this in words. His whole person radiated this openness and sensitivity. Abelly described him with the following words: “Although his presence inspired great respect, yet this respect, instead of closing opened men’s hearts. And there was no one who inspired others with more confidence than he in manifesting their most secret thoughts and those weaknesses which are more difficult to reveal.”
Vincent was also seemingly afflicted with neurotic guilt complex. This could be our first impression when we hear him constantly describe himself as a “poor wretched man full of pride and haughtiness, a booby, a fourth form scholar laden with abomination.” He was considered a “a little odd” on this point even by his contemporaries. Remarking once to a brother who shared in the community “repetition of prayer” how he was edified by the witness he observed in the founder’s person, St Vincent said: “Brother, we have custom here of never praising anyone in his presence. I am indeed a wonder, but a wonder worse than the demon. And I deserved to be lower in hell than he is. I am not exaggerating when I say this.”
In the context of the old Vincent de Paul, this for us is either an exaggeration or a neurotic disorder. However, we can understand him if we are to place him in the horizons of the 17th century. Church was then fighting against Jansenism whose focus was on sin and the negative dimension of the whole-created reality. However, Vincent was a balanced personality. If he was too slow to acknowledge human capacity, it was because he realized how much we have to rely on God in our lives. “If there is anything good in us and in our mode of life, it is of God and it is for him to manifest it if he judges it expedient.” This is a sign of a personality who has realized his basic giftedness at the same time his real limitations. A realization that it is God who does the best in us and that left to ourselves we can do nothing.
2. Interpersonal Dimensions
Vincent was a man who had the admirable quality of sociability. People found joy in relating with him. And related with them deeply as well. His person commanded respect but instead of closing, open men’s hearts leading them to confidence and openness of even the person’s deepest secrets. He was a friend to all: men and women. What is most noticeable, however, is his charisma for women.
There was Madame de Gondi who could not live a single life without his guidance. Together with her were the ladies of the court and even the two great and holy women - foundresses of religious orders: Jane Frances de Chantal and Louise de Marillac. They were all his friends and collaborator. His friendship was not possessive of persons but one, which freed them for the service of others. We see all these women captivated by the vision of the man in their center that inspired them to work for that same vision. Noble friendships!
Vincent de Paul makes me examine my relationships. I am a person who could not live without friends. They are important part of my life. God’s greatest gift to me. Vincent has led me to ask why I am blessed with them. Do I keep them for myself or do I share with them a vision, which frees us for the many others? Do I keep them to merely answer a need or are need they present in my life because we share a love so inspiring that it goes out and diffuses itself? Painful questions that I have to keep asking if Vincent de Paul is to be real in my life.
There is one other dimension most central to the man Vincent is so important that it will take another article or even a library of books for it to be discussed alone. It is so central that it serves as the integrating factor of all the dimensions mentioned above. Without it, the rest of his person crumbles. There could have been no St. Vincent de Paul: his personal profile, Vincent de Paul the saint.
Without his humanity, he could not have been a saint. But without his holiness, he could not have been the man we have described above. However, in the end, this is still the naked truth: his holiness is found in his faithful and real to his humanity. He was fully human that God was also fully alive in him.