The Beauty of a Higher Purpose

Virtue is so beautiful and amiable that they will be compelled to love it in you, if you practice it well.1

In the remarkable short letter from which this quote was taken, Vincent responds to news that several of the missionaries would be travelling on a ship with “some heretics.” After briefly expressing his distress at what they may have to “endure from them,” Vincent spends the rest of the letter reminding them that this is God’s plan. He encourages them to use their best manners and “be careful to avoid every sort of dispute and contention.”2 Vincent expresses hope that an example of beautiful character will be “helpful” to all.

Muslims are now entering into the final week of the observance of Ramadan. Ramadan is normally a month filled with fasting, prayer, and charity; it has been this year as well, although in all other ways it has been different with mosques closed and social activity curtailed by the pandemic. In a traditional saying of the Prophet Muhammad (which he sources to John the Baptist) it is said, “the similitude of the fasting person is that of someone who is carrying a sack-full of musk in a crowd of people—all of them marveling at its fragrance (although they can’t see what has created it).”3

The experience of long days of fasting and nights of sporadic sleep risks making one impatient or hard to be around. However, we find that when undertaken with intention and perseverance, a connection to a higher purpose along with increased gratitude and vulnerability reveals a beauty in the fasting person that is attractive to those around them even if they don’t know the source of it. Such a state also increases generosity that rains upon us all, even upon those who may be seen as heretics in a particular time or place.

During times of difficulty and anxiety like those we are living now, it is tempting to be less patient, less compassionate, more selfish, or even divisive with each other, particularly with those who hold differing worldviews.

What are some practices or exercises you can engage in to remain grounded in a sense of higher purpose? Is there a foundational belief or perspective which enables virtue to emanate from you, such that its beauty and fragrance is enjoyed by and helpful to all whom you encounter?

 


1) 3032, To Philippe Patte, In Nantes, [November or December 1659], CCD, 8:209.

2) Ibid.

3) Jami at-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Amthal (Chapter of Parables), Book 44, Hadith 3102. See: http://sunnah.com/urn/630960

 

Reflection by:

Abdul-Malik Ryan
Assistant Director and Muslim Chaplain
Religious Diversity and Pastoral Care
Division of Mission and Ministry

COVID-19: Some Wisdom from the Past. The Experience of St. Vincent de Paul

By Rev. Robert Maloney, C.M.


Listen to this post:

St. Vincent was no stranger to pandemics. On perhaps no other topic were his emotions so deeply stirred. Outbursts of the plague ravaged Europe frequently during his active years, taking the lives of many whom he loved. Marguerite Naseau, whose story he often told and whom he always regarded as the first Daughter of Charity, succumbed to the plague at 27, even before the Daughters were recognized juridically.(1) Lambert au Couteau—of whom Vincent once said “the loss of this man is like having me tear out one of my eyes or cut off one of my arms”(2) and whom he sent to establish the Congregation of the Mission in Poland—died serving the plague-stricken in Warsaw in 1653. Antoine Lucas, much admired not only by Vincent but also by other founders of religious communities at that time, died from the plague in Genoa in 1656.(3)

Tragedies piled up in Vincent’s life, especially in the 1650’s. He often spoke of “war, plague and famine” as the scourge of the poor. In addition, there were persecutions in Algiers, Tunis, Ireland, and the Hebrides. The Congregation of the Mission’s first martyr, Thaddeus Lye, a seminarian, gave his life in Limerick in 1652.(4) His persecutors crushed his skull and cut off his hands and feet in the presence of his mother. When in 1657, on top of hearing that three priests had died on their way to Madagascar, Vincent received news that six members of the house in Genoa had succumbed to the plague, he described himself as “overwhelmed with sorrow” and added that he “could not receive a greater blow without being completely crushed by it.”(5)

In his letters and conferences, Vincent mentioned the plague more than 300 times. He sent lengthy letters offering practical advice about helping plague victims to his friend, Alain de Solminihac, the Bishop of Cahors,(6) and to the superiors in Genoa(7) and Rome.(8) In his talks, he described the plague in France, Algiers, Tunis, Poland, and throughout Italy.

The dimensions were staggering. France alone lost almost a million people to the plague in the epidemic of 1628-31. In roughly the same period in Italy, 280,000 died. In 1654, 150,000 inhabitants of Naples succumbed. Algiers lost about 40,000 people in 1620-21, and again in 1654-57.

Genoa was among the hardest hit. Half the city died in 1657. The long list of members of the Vincentian Family who lost their lives there is touching.

As one might imagine, the Daughters of Charity and the Confraternities were on the front lines in ministering to those afflicted by the plague (not to mention their service to those whose lives were disrupted by war, famine, and political strife at the very same time). Some of what Vincent said to his priests, his brothers and his sisters, as well as to the lay women and men in the confraternities, is colored by the circumstances of the times and by the lack of the medical knowledge and resources that we have today. But much of what he said and how he reacted is quite relevant to members of the Vincentian Family as they confront COVID-19 today.

Here, let me highlight four points:

  1. As he struggled with painful emotions, Vincent remained convinced that, no matter what the circumstances, we must never abandon the poor. They are our “our portion” in life, he stated. He was firm in telling the members of his Family that, even in extremely difficult circumstances, we must be creative in finding ways to tend to the needs of the suffering. Vincent wrote to Alain de Solminihac, “The poor country people stricken with the plague are usually left abandoned and very short of food. It will be an action worthy of your piety, Excellency, to make provision for this by sending alms to all those places. See that they are put into the hands of good pastors, who will have bread, wine, and a little meat brought in for these poor people to pick up in the places and the times indicated for them… or to some good layperson of the parish who could do this. There is usually someone in each area capable of doing this act of charity, especially if they do not have to come into direct contact with the plague-stricken.”(9)
  2. Vincent’s evangelical interpretation of events came to the fore rapidly in such times of crisis. In December 1657, thinking of eleven members of his Family who had recently lost their lives, he wrote: “There are so many missionaries we now have in heaven. There is no room to doubt this, since they all gave their lives for charity, and there is no greater love than to give one’s life for the neighbor, as Our Lord has said and practiced. If, then, we have lost something on the one hand, we have gained something on the other, because God has been pleased to glorify our members of our Family, as we have good reason to believe, and the ashes of these apostolic men and women will be the seed of a large number of good missionaries. At least, these are the prayers I ask you to offer to God.”(10)
  3. In advising the members of his Family about how to serve in the midst of the plague, Vincent chose a middle ground. On the one hand, he urged them to stay near the plague-stricken and not abandon them; on the other hand, he encouraged the Family to observe the cautions that civil and ecclesiastical leaders were recommending. He told Etienne Blatiron, the superior in Genoa, “The only thing I recommend most earnestly and ardently to you is to take all reasonable precautions to preserve your health.”(11) Blatiron took numerous risks and died from the plague in 1657. Vincent wrote to Jean Martin, the superior in Turin, “I am concerned that you took only a short rest and went back to work so soon. In the name of Our Lord, please moderate what you do and get all the help you can.”(12) Martin lived on and served energetically until 1694.
  4. He expanded the definition of a martyr to include all who valiantly gave their lives for the poor, and he never ceased singing their praises. Speaking of the Daughters of Charity, he said, “A holy Father once said that anyone who gives himself or herself to God to serve their neighbor and willingly endures all the difficulties that they may encounter in this is a martyr. Did the martyrs suffer more than these Sisters… who give themselves to God (and) are sometimes with sick persons full of infection and sores and often noxious body fluids; sometimes with poor children for whom everything must be done; or with poor convicts loaded down with chains and afflictions… They’re far more worthy of praise than anything I could say to you. I’ve never seen anything like it. If we saw the spot where a martyr had been, we’d approach it only with respect and kiss it with great reverence. Look upon them as martyrs of Jesus Christ, since they serve their neighbor for love of Him.”(13)

Today, we face what, for most of us, is an unprecedented crisis, as we confront COVID-19. How might we deal with it in St. Vincent’s spirit? May I suggest three things:

  1. Volunteer service. The poor suffer most in crises like this. Often, they find themselves jobless. They need lodging, food, and other essential services. Our Family has a long history, from St. Vincent’s time to the present, in providing such necessities. One can only admire the doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, home visitors and others who continue to serve those currently suffering.
  2. Donations. The stock market and other economic indices have plunged dramatically in this period. Some take that as a signal to be wary about giving. But the needs of the poor are all the greater in times like this. Can we as a Family continue to be generous to the neediest?
  3. Prayer. Pope Francis and many other religious leaders are summoning us to pray for victims and for an end to the pandemic. Some beautiful prayers have been composed. Besides these, may I offer this suggestion from St. Vincent: “God himself tells us, ‘A short, fervent prayer pierces the clouds.’ (Sir 35:17) Those darts of love are very pleasing to God and, consequently, are highly recommended by the holy Fathers, who realized their importance. That’s what I urge you, my sisters and brothers.”(14)
Notations added and this text produced by the
DePaul University Vincentian Studies Institute.
March 31, 2020

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  1. Naseau’s death is mentioned in a notation to Letter 176, To Saint Louise, [Between 1634 and 1636], in Pierre Coste, C.M., Vincent de Paul: Correspondence, Conferences, Documents, and translated by Jacqueline Kilar, D.C., Marie Poole, D.C., et. al., 14 vols. (New York: New City Press, 1985–2014), 1:241, n. 2. Hereinafter cited as CCD. Online at: https://via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/25/
  2. Letter 419, To Saint Louise, In Angers, Parish, 17 January 1640, CCD, 2:10, n. 1. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian‌_ebooks/27/
  3. Letter 26, To Pope Urban VIII, CCD, 1:39, n. 4. Online at: https://via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/25/
  4. Letter 1473, To Lambert aux Couteaux, Superior, in Warsaw, 22 March [1652], CCD, 4:342. Online at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/vincentian_ebooks/29/
  5. See Letter 2352, To Jacques Chiroye, Superior, in Luçon, CCD, 6:440. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian‌_ebooks/31/
  6. See Letter 1572, To Alain de Solminihac, Bishop of Cahors, [November 1652], CCD, 4:500-503. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/29/
  7. See Letter 2111, To Étienne Blatiron, Superior, in Genoa, 28 July 1656, CCD, 6:52-53. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian‌_ebooks/31/
  8. See Letter 2122, To Edme Jolly, Superior, in Rome, 11 August 1656, CCD, 6:63. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian‌_ebooks/31/
  9. Letter 1572, To Alain de Solminihac, Bishop of Cahors, [November 1652], CCD, 4:502. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/29/
  10. See Letter 2483, To Dominique Lhuillier, in Crécy, Paris, 11 December 1657, CCD, 7:19. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian‌_ebooks/32/
  11. Letter 2174, To Étienne Blatiron, Supeior, in Genoa, 1 December 1656, CCD, 6:156. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian‌_ebooks/31/
  12. Letter 2184, To Jean Martin, Superior, in Turin, Paris, 29 December 1656, CCD, 6:172. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/‌vincentian‌_ebooks/31/
  13. See Conference 27, The Practice of Mutual Respect and Gentleness, 19 August 1646, CCD, 9:214. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/34/
  14. See Conference 5, Fidelity to Rising and Mental Prayer, 16 August 1640, CCD, 9:32. Online at: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌‌edu/‌vincentian_ebooks/34/

 

Meekness, the Charming Virtue

“How good you are, a God, my God, how good you are, since indeed in… (Saint) Francis de Sales, your creature, there is such great gentleness” (29, Deposition at the Process of Beatification of Francis de Sales, 17 April 1628, CCD, 13a:91.)

In telling of his own spiritual journey, Saint Vincent de Paul described being moved and transformed as a young man by his encounter and relationship with Francis de Sales — the Bishop of Geneva later recognized by the Catholic Church (in part through Vincent’s passionate testimony) as a Saint. Vincent, who was surely intellectually gifted and ambitious as a youth, expresses in the quote above his profound appreciation for Francis and the effect he had on him and others. De Sales instilled a deep appreciation in Vincent for how approachability and gentleness serve to open hearts. This, Vincent realized, is often more important and more transformative than the work our intellect does to win an argument.

DePaul University is a very large and multi-faceted institution. As important as mission statements or other proclamations of our mission may be, students, staff, and members of our community will only believe claims that “DePaul” cares about them if they feel the people they interact with here actually do. What a difference it makes if people feel that those around them are easily approachable because they radiate gentleness, joy, and authentic concern for others!

The virtue of meekness may be seen at times as a character trait or type of charisma with which some are blessed and others are not. However, Vincent believed that it could and must be cultivated, both in himself and in others whom he mentored and guided. Vincent saw himself as someone who was naturally prone to anger, and he had to learn how to channel that anger in healthy, productive ways. Our anger can sometimes be a great gift, for instance when prompted by the suffering and injustice we observe in the world around us. Yet, it must be focused in healthy ways, or else it may be wrongly directed at those around us, or in ways that do not lead to benefit.

Who are some people in your own experience who have this gift of approachability and gentleness? What are ways that we can cultivate the virtue of meekness, while remaining authentic in our relationships and having the necessary strength to encourage others to be the best versions of themselves?

 

Reflection by: Abdul-Malik Ryan, Assistant Director and Muslim Chaplain, Division of Mission and Ministry

 

 

Vincentian Candor 101

Is the world awash in duplicity?

When was the last time you heard the media report an incredulous story? Did you hear an inner voice say, “Now, I’ve heard it all!” Such occurrences seem more frequent these days than in the past.

The age of disputed questions did not end with Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century. The chicaneries of seventeenth-century France prompted Saint Vincent de Paul to exclaim, “The world is awash in duplicity.” (CCD, 10:58) The saint encouraged his collaborators to “have a candid heart and candid spirit.” (Ibid.) He instructed them how to engage appropriately in public discourse and civic rhetoric. They were “never to say anything contrary” to what they thought or to their principles. (CCD, 10:286)

Now, as does a toxin, polemical disputation permeates our national psyche. We are left to ask, What must be done? Perhaps Vincentian personalism is our answer. It promotes unity in diversity and emphasizes the common good of everyone. The Vincentian way is honest, forthright, and employs the art of conversation to speak respectfully and listen attentively with a “spirit of straightforwardness and simplicity,” and ultimately, integrity. (CCD, 34a:41)

 

Reflection by:

Betty Ann McNeil, D.C., Vincentian Scholar-in-Residence
Vincentian Studies Institute, Division of Mission and Ministry

Citation:
Conference 66, Secretiveness, CCD, 10:58; Conference 86, Uniformity, CCD, 10:286; Conference 34a, Simplicity with Crafty Persons, CCD, 34a:41.

Going Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Vincent de Paul did not mince words in challenging people who settled for a narrow outlook on life or who remained within a narrow circle of interlocutors. He questioned those “…who seek only to enjoy themselves…people who have only a narrow outlook, confining their perspective and plans to a certain circumference within which they shut themselves away, so to speak, in one spot; they don’t want to leave it, and if they’re shown something outside it and go near to have a look, they immediately go back to their center, like snails into their shells.”  

Surely, we are all guilty at times of maintaining a guarded disposition when it comes to our personal ideas and self-image, and perhaps we sometimes even resist people and experiences that might challenge our way of thinking. However, if we do not open ourselves up to experiences that challenge our thinking or move us beyond what is familiar, how will growth occur?

Where might you begin to grow outside of your own “shell” or comfort zone and open yourself to different perspectives and new relationships in the coming week? In higher education, we speak often of “silos.” How, then, might you make a connection this week with someone outside of your own silo?

—–

Citation: 195, “Purpose of the Congregation of the Mission,” 6 December 1658, CCD, 12:81.

Reflection by: Mark Laboe, Associate Vice President, Mission and Ministry

 


You’re invited to a day of reflection, renewal and community… 

A Day with Vincent

Thursday, December 5th, 2019 from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm

Cenacle Retreat and Conference Center, 513 W. Fullerton in Lincoln Park.  

A Day with Vincent is an opportunity for DePaul staff and faculty to enrich your spirituality, strengthen your community, reconnect with your calling and deepen your understanding of our Vincentian mission.  The day is free of charge and meals will be provided. Participants will be back to campus by 4:30 pm with transportation provided as needed.  

Now in it’s 12th year, A Day with Vincent helps participants find time and space within their busy lives to reflect deeply on Vincentian spirituality and mission while enabling them to engage with colleagues from across the university. Led by professional staff from the Division of Mission and Ministry and attended through the years by over 700 DePaul faculty and staff, the program is welcoming and supportive to those of all religious, spiritual and philosophical backgrounds and starting points. 

In the quiet of December, as the academic quarter and calendar year draw to a close and the holidays approach, we hope you’ll join us for this opportunity to grow both personally and professionally, individually and communally. 

WEBLINK FOR REGISTRATION:  http://go.depaul.edu/daywithvincent

Dignity and the Death Penalty

by Fadya Salem

image10

 

The Journal for Social Justice, University Ministry, and the Center for Public Interest Law had the honor and privilege of hosting Sister Helen Prejean for a roundtable discussion with students, faculty, and alumni in April.

Sister Helen, Nobel Peace Prize Finalist and New York Times bestselling author of the academy award winning movie, Dead Man Walking, is an anti-death penalty advocate who has served as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates.

As a law student, I was eager to join the discussion with Sister Helen. After having studied wrongful convictions in an undergraduate course, I came to law school with the desire to advocate for those who have wrongfully fallen victim to the criminal justice system. I learned from Sister Helen the importance of not only fighting for the people we believe are innocent, but to advocate for the rights of those who have done something wrong, because they too should still be treated with dignity.

My religion, like some others, teaches that there are certain acts that are punishable by death. I sought to participate in this discussion in hopes to reconcile my religion’s views with my moral belief that the death penalty is wrong. I was moved by Sister Helen’s discussion on Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whom she spoke on behalf of during his trial, and her insistence that, although his actions caused three people’s death, he still has human dignity.

Sister Helen began her anti-death penalty advocacy while living in the St. Thomas housing project in inner-city New Orleans.  It was there that she became aware of the harrowing connection between poverty and oppression and prison.  While in St. Thomas, she became pen pals with a Louisiana death row inmate.

The roundtable conversation began with Sister Helen describing her first experience as a spiritual advisor for a death-row inmate.  She described it as a “secret ritual” that much of the rest of the world renounces.  This experience became the subject of her first book, Dead Man Walking.  The book was published in 1993, a time when 80% of Americans supported the death penalty.

Despite the large number of death penalty supporters, Sister Helen knew the story needed to be told.  She finds that many people who support the death penalty do not know much about the process and what it entails.  She works tirelessly to resist the death penalty and educate the public as a lecturer and writer.

When asked how she chooses inmates to work with, Sister Helen said it is a decision that she can’t explain. She has been a spiritual advisor to five death-row inmates, visiting with them from throughout their time in prison and to their execution.  She also counsels the families of murder victims as the founder of “Survive,” a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans.

A powerful point in the conversation came when Sister Helen pushed the group to think about how we treat a human with dignity.  With the firm belief that “everyone is better than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” she reminded attendees that, despite their actions, people in jail are still human, which is the same value that St. Vincent advocated in his work.

I recall a discussion in my criminal law course about different methods of executions, when a fellow student asked, “If they killed someone, why do we care how we treat them?” For many people, the death penalty is such an abstract phenomenon that may be difficult to conceptualize. Sister Helen adamantly believes that if people knew what happens at executions, there would not be as many supporters.

Sister Helen described the important role lawyers play in anti-death penalty work: Lawyers are critical in framing the story told about inmates and furthering the idea that they are better than their crimes. For death-row inmates, lawyers and advocates are often times the only human dignity they have left. It is the passion for human dignity that keeps Sister Helen moving forward in her fight against the death penalty.

Fadya Salem just completed her first year of law school at DePaul.  A Chicago native, she is an alum of the University of Illinois and hopes someday to practice law within the public interest arena.   

An earlier version of this piece was published online by the Center for Public Interest Law at DePaul University in May.

Happy Birthday, Vincent!

On April 24th, the DePaul community will celebrate the birthday of St. Vincent de Paul, for whom DePaul is named.  Vincent founded the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) and, with St. Louise de Marillac, the Daughters of Charity. 

Above all,
Vincent,
I appreciate
what I have come to know of
as your “simplicity,”
that virtue which
you said you desired most.
I translate this quality
for myself
as integrity,
transparency,
or consistency in character.
And, what makes me love
this quality
about you
is when I can imagine you
in your day
talking,
relating with,
loving,
advising,
and appreciating
all people just the same,
whether they were
the richest of the nobles,
the poor galley slaves,
or the most needy people
on the streets of Paris.

I respect the fact that
you did not seem
to try too hard
for the well-to-do
or for those who would bring you benefit,
nor too little
for the poor and the outcast.
To all
you spoke your truth
and brought your best intentions and care.
You were yourself, and
they were to you
all God’s children,
gifts unto themselves,
potential bearers of Providence.
And so, it became your mission,
to see the other side of the scarred coin,
and to become
a humble servant to all
who needed your care.
You did what you could do
and invited others
by name
to do the same.
You did not waste time
nor energy
on that which was illusory.
You took steady, forward steps
with what was given or revealed to you
and towards what was possible.

Simplicity,
that virtue you admired most,
is the one I love most in you,
and the one I most desire in myself,
for I believe
(as I imagine you did as well)
that as we become more fully
who we truly are –
authentically, humbly –
the more often and more clearly
we reflect
Jesus,
Emmanuel,
God-with-us,
and the more
we allow
the care that
our God
desires to bestow
on all people
to be born
in us.

Mark Laboe serves as DePaul’s Associate Vice President for University Ministry.  He wrote this poem in 2014 in honor of Vincent’s birthday and shares it again this week to commemorate Vincent’s upcoming birthday.
VinnyBDay2015

 

Interested in celebrating Vincent’s birthday with the DePaul community?  Join the Office of Mission and Values on Friday, April 24th at 2:30pm as they hold a celebration for St. Vincent’s birthday in Catholic Campus Ministry (Suite 104 of the Lincoln Park Student Center).

 

17th Century “Photographs”

It isn’t possible to look at photographs of 17th century France, but the closest we can come are the engravings of Abraham Bosse (1604-76). He was a master engraver of all sorts of subjects, including portraiture. For us, the most interesting will probably be his scenes of ordinary life, with particular emphasis on the depictions of the poor. He showed artisans at work, too, [see the engraving on the bakery below] and his scenes of schoolrooms—one for boys, another for girls—are nearly photographic.
His scenes of the Corporal Works of Mercy include the often-reproduced view of wealthy pious persons visiting a prison. The prisoner with a wide metal collar around his neck attached by a chain to the wall is astonishing. So is the scene of a wife beating her husband with a ring of heavy keys. At one side of the same engraving a young girl also is striking a boy, certainly in imitation of the family scene being enacted, and at the other side, a hen is pecking fiercely on a rooster. Bosse must have had a sense of humor.
He engraved another series of single individuals, showing off the details of their clothing. This is certainly as good as this gets.


If you ever wondered what kind of world Monsieur Vincent lived in, one access point is offered by these marvelous engravings. Bosse left more than 1,600 of them.

The Vincentian collection at DePaul recently purchased the book, whose cover is shown here. It is the catalogue of an exhibition dating from 2004.

It would be interesting to know more about his works.

There were, of course, other engravers and painters in his period, but many of them date from the time of Louis XIV. In this case, they represent the styles in vogue at least at the beginning of his reign. With Bosse, we are mainly shown the styles of Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria, who became regent for Louis XIV until his formal accession to the throne in 1661.

Vincent’s knife

In Vincent’s time, people normally had their own eating utensils. To pick up and eat their food, many used their fingers, which they would clean with a cloth and/or bread. As to the utensils, normally a knife and spoon—forks were a new import from Italy, often used only in upper-class settings—these were also cleaned at the table by the eater and wrapped up in a cloth to await their next use. This was a custom preserved in some religious communities, notably the Daughters of Charity in certain parts of the world.
The knife pictured above is in the Vincentian Museum in the mother house in Paris. It consists of a wooden sheath, on the left, with the metal knife, on the right. The sheath has metal pieces fitted into it at each end to hold the wood in place.
The mystery about this item is the carving on the sheath, which covers at least two sides. I have not been able to locate anyone who knows anything about this. What do the individual symbols mean, if anything? Who carved them and why? Where did the sheath come from? Why did Vincent de Paul have this item? What is its age? How different was it from those that others used? Was it a gift to him from someone, let’s say a sailor, coming back from a lengthy ocean voyage, maybe from Madagascar? Are the figures alphabetic or just symbolic? Some symbols are repeated, and there may be divisions between groups of symbols (if I am interpreting the vertical dots correctly); does this have any relevance?
Let’s put out this item for examination. There has to be someone who could start researchers in the right direction. Is it you?

I sometimes wonder whether the author Dan Brown could concoct a mystery story featuring this knife, leading scientists and detectives on a wild chase across continents.

Myth Deconstruction: Vincent accused of theft

In his biography of Vincent de Paul, Louis Abelly introduced a number of hagiographic myths that continue to haunt Vincentian studies.  For example, Abelly took a conference in which Vincent had related the story of someone he knew who was once falsely accused of theft, and applied it to the saint himself.  Abelly says that the truth of this incident “became known only after his (Vincent’s death), through the testimony of Monsieur de Saint Martin, canon of Dax…”  According to Abelly’s account (found in Chapter five of his biography), the judge from Sore who had been incensed by Vincent’s denial of the theft: “knew that Monsieur Vincent was in the habit of consulting Father [Pierre] de Berulle….The judge took the occasion one day to find Monsieur Vincent in Father de Berulle’s company, together with several other distinguised guests.  He publicly berated Monsieur Vincent, calling him a thief and formally serving a writ upon him, requiring him under threat of excommunication to testify before an ecclesiastical court.  The man of God showed no resentment at this affront, took no great pains to justify himself, but said calmly ‘God knows the truth.'”  In his biography Pierre Coste, C.M., largely repeats Abelly’s account and interpretation with only minor changes.

 

Contrast the above story with this fact:  On April 17, 1628 Vincent de Paul gave sworn testimony in the beatification process of Francis de Sales.  As he began his testimony Vincent said: “I know that perjury in all cases, but especially in those of canonizations such as this one, is a very serious mortal sin, which, by the grace of God, I never want to commit.” A few statements later Vincent says: “Never, by the grace of God, have I been accused of any crimes, nor been investigated, nor brought before any judge; nor have I, by name been denounced publicly or excommunicated.” (Coste, CCD, Volume 13b, 80-81).

 

This evidence again points to the ongoing importance of the careful deconstruction of Abelly’s enduring myths to uncover the Vincent of history.