Last week on February 22, Christians celebrated Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of the Lenten season. Lent is the liturgical season of about forty days that leads to the celebration of Easter by millions of people throughout the world. For them, it is a time of preparing their minds and hearts to receive more fully and to remember again the transformative meaning and power of the Easter story, most notably that of the resurrection of the crucified Christ. This annual ritual of the Lenten season embodies the learned wisdom of the Christian community: humanity benefits from a regular time of “spiritual fine-tuning” to remember and return to what is most essential and to remain open to ongoing transformation.
The season of Lent is in many ways about remembering what we have forgotten and returning to what we already know, which becomes a transformative experience for many. The return to what we know most deeply about self, God, and life becomes a movement toward change, renewal, and a new way of being, doing, and relating. It is something that our entrenched habits may have prevented us from seeing or engaging in previously.
Surprisingly, I thought of the annual ritual practice of Lent during a recent seminar, “Charity, Justice and Systemic Change in the Vincentian Tradition,” led by Father John Rybolt, C.M. In this seminar, Father Rybolt spoke of the necessary relationship between systemic change and the change that must take place within and among people to make participation in systemic change possible. Always fascinated by the question of what makes positive change or transformation possible, I have come to believe there is something important in this insight about systemic change. It connects directly to the spiritual purpose of Lent – that is, the transformation of minds and hearts is necessary for the transformation of systems. They rise and fall with each other.
This insight is central to understanding the tenuous yet profound connection between Saint Vincent de Paul and what we now know of as “social justice,” which was an unknown concept in the minds of those in seventeenth-century France. While Vincent may not have known of the concept of social justice as we know it today, he seems to have clearly understood this fact: for lasting social transformation to occur, we must recognize the unavoidable relationship between the change in systems (economic, political, religious, social) and the change needed within and among persons. Systemic change requires intrapersonal and interpersonal change as well as a change in minds and hearts.
Vincent saw with the eyes of charity, or caritas, which can be translated most meaningfully as love. Vincent paid attention to people and to daily life and events. He recognized what was not right and responded to address the immediate needs of people, while also building new systems that would prove more effective in caring for them. He preached, taught, persuaded, and cajoled his contemporaries, often transforming minds and heart to become more open to encounter the suffering poor of his day. He encouraged the cultivation of habits (virtues) that led to active participation in working for the common good. That said, he did not work for the wholesale teardown of the existing system. He worked within existing systems, and then relationally among and for people, to make change and transformation possible.
- What is the way in which you believe you can contribute most effectively to the positive transformation of systems and people?
- What habits or ways of seeing, working, or relating get in the way of your ability to contribute more fruitfully to this transformation?
- What is the transformation that must take place in you for you to live more fully – perhaps beginning over these next 40 days!?
Reflection by: Mark Laboe, flection by: Mark Laboe, Assoc. VP, Mission and Ministry