Fr. Tom McKenna: Praying with St. Vincent

This is an excerpt from a presentation given by Fr. Tom McKenna during the First International Gathering of the Advisors for the Vincentian Marian Youth Association (Paris, July 15-20, 2014). To read the full presentation published on famvin.org, click here.

I. Introduction: “Being Invited Into the Conversation”

Let me begin this session on Prayer by asking you to place yourself on one of the chairs that is pulled up to the table at The Last Supper of Jesus. You are three seats over from Jesus and you notice that he’s getting still, as if preparing himself to stand up and say something. And he does get up. Everybody stops talking, realizing he’s going to speak to them. He starts with what we know as His Last Discourse, telling you and the others on this night before he dies all the things that are closest to his heart. (Jn. c 14-17) […]

Notice what is happening here. Jesus is talking with His Father, and when he finishes, he draws you into the same conversation. What he’s doing is widening the circle, so to speak; he’s asking you to come inside it. You’re no longer standing off to the side and listening in; you’re now “in” the conversation, a part of it. You’ve become a part of this exchange that is always going on between the Father and Son.

Your “inclusion” in this conversation is prayer at its deepest. The prayer of the Christian is at its most profound level his or her entering into this intimate back-and-forth between Father and Son. It is, in a manner or speaking, the believer’s praying the prayer the Trinity is praying. […]

And Jesus is saying he wants us to be right there in the middle of it: “Father, I want them to be where we are, You in Me and I in You and all of us in this circle together.” […]

What I want to do for this session is invite one more – special – person into the circle of this conversation. And of course, that’s Vincent. I want to let his life’s experience “get into the conversation,” step into this exchange of life and love going back and forth between all the participants, between all the people sitting around that table.

And so let us do just that: picture ourselves around that table with Vincent sitting next to us. And like anyone else there we open ourselves up to, we allow his attitudes, outlooks, wisdoms and practices to bounce up against our own experiences – and hopefully to shape them. […]

2. “Inside the Conversation” With Vincent: (8 Contributions)

The first one is how Vincent would be regarding the character and nature of the main actor in the circle, so to speak, and that is God’s own Self. […] Vincent’s core sense of who God is brings this question to us: inside my circle of prayer, do I sense the warmth and closeness of a parent? Do I experience myself being taken into the arms and onto the lap of a mothering and fathering God?.

A second trait Vincent would bring into this discourse is a high sensitivity to what God wants done, and then going out and doing it. The more technical phrase for this attitude is “seeking and doing the Will of God.” On the edge of many decisions he was about to make, Vincent would so often step back from the issue to ask the question in prayer, “Is this really the course God wants?” But once Vincent came to awareness that some particular move was indeed what God wanted, he would wait no further but would go into action. […]

[Thirdly, a] crucial presence in Vincent’s “conversation” is, of course, that of his Lord, Jesus Christ. Early in his spiritual journey, Vincent took the advice of a director who proposed that he look upon Jesus as the one who most perfectly goes about adoring His Father. […] But as Vincent progressed, that loving worship took on an additional outward directed tone, and that is “being sent.” Vincent became attracted to the scene in the synagogue near the beginning of Luke’s gospel where Jesus stands up and, in the vocabulary of the prophet Isaiah, states why he’s come and what he wants to do. Jesus claims he’s being sent, being missioned by and from the Trinity to proclaim liberty to prisoners and good news to the poor. This gospel event is a key for unlocking Vincent’s distinctive appreciation of Jesus Christ. It explains the high energy that marked not only his many years of evangelical activity, but it is also what made him so insistent that his followers also jump on this sending energy of the Missionary Christ.

[A fourth contribution is] when we are “inside that circle of conversation with Vincent,” there’s another quality that can flood the space if we let it. And that is trust, trust that God will provide, will take care, will move things along for the best. We call this belief in the “Providence of God.” In the life of many believers, trust is a hard thing to come by, especially when things are not going well and worries are clouding the horizon. Over his lifetime, Vincent’s prayer grew more and more trusting. He deepened in his conviction that God was guiding everything. And so Vincent could both lean back on that guidance, and let it lead him forward. […] To a person who’s fretting over not having enough resources to help feed the poor, he says, “Don’t worry yourself overmuch…Grace, God’s presence, has its moments. Let’s give ourselves over to the providence of God and be very careful not to run ahead of it.” […]

[The fifth contribution has] once described the Trinitarian conversation as an energy field. The person praying inside it feels – at least at some level — the force and dynamism coming from the Father and going back to the Father. Inclusion in it is anything but static. Vincent felt this energy; it was what impelled him – or better, sent him out — to bring the good news. […]

[Sixth,] in any number of places in the gospels, Jesus speaks about seeing. Not only does he give sight to blind people, but he often talks about a kind of blindness that afflicts those who can see. His paradoxical way of saying this: “They see without seeing.” When these so-called sighted people look out at their world, they miss many things. For them to break through their short-sightedness, something would have to extend their range of vision to let them see farther and deeper. Isn’t that “extending” exactly what happens to the disciples around that Last Supper table. When they get “taken into the conversation,” their eyes are opened to catch sight (even if only a little bit) of what is really happening between Jesus and His Abba. They are just beginning to see a little further. And they are seeing not only through their own eyes but also through God’s. And for the rest of their lives that vision (of the way things really are) grows ever more acute. […] Vincent’s prayer led him more and more to see as God sees, and that is into the heart of things. It let Vincent’s eyes penetrate down to the core of people (especially poor people), which indeed is the precise spot where they are loved by God.

[Seven:] With all this talk about being taken inside the Trinitarian conversation, you could get the impression that the main thing a believer does is sit still and silent, then gaze into God, as it were, and do little else. Anyone reading St. Vincent would soon feel his impatience with such an attitude. Though he thought “listening into the conversation” was essential, he also believed it absolutely necessary to put what he was hearing there into action. […] “So very often, this resting in the presence of God, (these outpourings of affection for him, all these good feelings toward the Lord and toward everyone else), though good and to be desired, are suspect if they do not express themselves in a practical love which has real world effects.” (Praying with Vincent P. 67) […]  For Vincent, prayer leads to action and action leads back to prayer. […]

[Eighth:] If there’s one word to catch the flavor of Vincent’s way of sharing “in the conversation,” it would be this one: balance. […] “If at the time for prayer in the morning, you have to bring medicine to your patients, do it peacefully … Give yourself over to God’s wishes, offer up what you are about to do, join your intention with the prayer that is being made back at home, and go about your task with a clear conscience. If when you return you are free to spend a little time at prayer, all well and good. But you must not worry yourself or think you have failed to keep the rule if you omit that prayer time. It is not lost when you leave it for a good reason. And if there ever was a good reason, it is service of the poor. To leave God for God, that is, to leave one work of God to do another of greater obligation, is not to leave God.” (Praying with Vincent P. 115) […]

3. Conclusion

Clearly there are many ways to approach Vincent’s wisdom on prayer. We’ve taken one that brings him into the praying that went on at The Last Supper, that open and inclusive interchange which brought the disciples into Jesus own heart as he offered himself to the Father for our sakes. For sure, Vincent is one of those participants in that ever renewed event. May we, in our prayer around that table, come to know more of the depth of his contribution into this saving conversation.

 

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