The Strength of Weakness

Remember, Monsieur that roses are not gathered except in the midst of thorns and that heroic acts of virtue are accomplished only in weakness.[1]

The life experience of Xavier le Pichon, one of the world’s leading geophysicists, has convinced him that care for the weakest among us is what makes us truly human. In essence, le Pinchon maintains that weaknesses, imperfections, and faults are integral to facilitating the evolution of a system or a society. He says: “A system which is too perfect is too rigid because it does not see a need to evolve.”[2]

We find ourselves at a moment in history when our day-to-day reality seems to be evolving by the nanosecond. When aren’t we in a state of flux these days? As we seek to outsmart the pandemic, barely a day goes by without a new advisory directing us to adopt a different behavior Today masks are mandatory, tomorrow, they are not. The day after, masks are highly recommended, then deemed unnecessary, until, of course, the sun comes up to illuminate the wisdom of yet another new day. Booster advisories, social distancing alerts, vaccination updates, the list continues. The ground on which we stand is forever changing at the pervasive ping of a phone or the tenacious twitter of a tweet. The “new normal,” if such a thing even exists, may be the simple reality that we have become a people adrift. The constant shifting of the terrain threatens our equilibrium and unsettles our very core.

During his life, Vincent de Paul weathered a long period of upheaval and turmoil. What seeds of wisdom might his life experience offer us?

Vincent’s approach, as we see reflected in his penned advisory, was to acknowledge that the existence of thorns is necessary for roses to flourish. The lifeblood of the two are interdependent, thus, both are needed for the rosebush to thrive. Yet, Vincent did not stop here. Similar to his countryman, le Pinchon, Vincent suggests that it is the very existence of weakness that creates the fertile ground in which “heroic acts of virtue” must occur. Perhaps, to frame this in more contemporary terms, experiences of weakness and fragility, as hard as they may be to navigate, offer us a unique invitation to demonstrate acts of compassion, love and justice. Indeed, they call us to right relationship and invite us to develop our own humanity.

Vincent developed this wisdom not through a naïve sentimentalized view of the world, but while living through the tumultuous period of the Thirty Years War, and the civil war known as the Fronde. He certainly knew what it was to battle uncertainty and endure upheaval. Moreover, through his experience of caring for those who were poor, he understood firsthand the colossal weight of human need and the complexity of social problems. Yet, in the midst of navigating such rocky terrain, Vincent came to believe that love is always inventive to infinity.[3]

So, today, as we find ourselves barraged by ever-changing news advisories, I invite you to pause and recall a single moment, during the course of the pandemic, in which you felt most fully alive.  What role did weakness play in this moment? What may the unsettled ground of today be trying to teach you as you address the questions of tomorrow?

Reflection by:  Siobhan O’Donoghue, Ph.D., Director, Faculty and Staff Engagement, Division of Mission and Ministry


[1] Vincent de Paul, CCD 2:21-22. Written to Jacques Tholard, In Annecy, 1 February 1640.

[2] Le Pinchon, Xavier.  “Ecce Homo (Behold Community)”.

[3] Vincent de Paul, CCD 11:131. Exhortation to a dying brother.