Fr. Tjeu van Knippenberg CM (荷兰蒂尔堡大学 Tilburg University The Netherlands)
Looking at Bishop Schraven’s daily life one would not immediately recognize a saint in him. He was a devoted person, but sometimes hard and inflexible in his relationship to others. What makes him special is the inward constant that makes him be present at the moment suprême. At the cost of his own life and his companions’ he stands up for the right of people to integrity. Then he is the unconditional defender of the weak.
Bishop Schraven was a Vincentian. Can we understand his life and works better taking his Vincentian spirituality as a starting point? The focus of spirituality lies there where what transcends a man and what is his deepest self meet, in Christian terms: where God and the soul meet. Spirituality realizes itself in the relationship between these poles. For Vincent spirituality is connected to the competence of placing yourself in a relationship with God. That is the power supply for the relationship with others, in particular with the weak and suppressed. How did bishop Schraven live this spirituality in his service to the Chinese people?
Short biography of the author
Tjeu van Knippenberg c.m. is a Vincentian, former professor of pastoral theology at different Dutch universities. Currently he works in post academic formation. He is initiator of the Vincent de Paul Center in Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
Anyone who wants to know Bishop Schraven at a profounder level must gain insight into the sources from which he lived and worked. One of these sources is Vincentian spirituality. How did this work in him? In order to find a provisional answer to that question I will proceed through the following sub-questions: What is spirituality? What is Vincentian spirituality? Which indicators tell us about the quality and operation of this spirituality in Bishop Schraven?
1. What is spirituality?
Today spirituality is a commonly used word in a whole range of divergent meanings. During a lecture the English poet Michael Symmons Roberts was asked about his spirituality. That question was followed by a long silence and finally he said that he thought the word needed a long period of rest to get back its strength . The hesitation in his answer has to do with the fact that spirituality is not a brief state of mind, but is related to the full range of human life experience. It is the breeding ground, the spiritual capital that people have at their disposal in their spatiotemporal condition and with which they confront the reality in which they live.
This also means that spirituality can get an interpretation completely its own through the different circumstances of the time and the space in which it takes shape. When I speak about Bishop Schraven’s spirituality, I am talking about the spirituality of someone who is a western catholic in the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Exactly at the boundary between these two centuries Frans Schraven leaves for China where he will expand his spiritual capital and employ it in the service of the Chinese people.
This spiritual capital is obtained and built in the space in which he lived: his own body, social relations, nature, the universe. It is also formed by the collective identity as it took shape around the last turn of the century in the Netherlands and in France. In this spatiotemporal situation Bishop Schraven tried to find the meaning of the context in which he lived: feelings of being at home and abroad, of esteem and hostility, of belonging and being excluded. Similarly he tried to find the meaning of the direction of his passage through time: how can continuity and change be reconciled, is there a plan or mere coincidence? In all this there was a great awareness of the mystery that lives in the spatiotemporal existence and that is the foundation of a continuously changing world. Religion has always found a way to feed spirituality; to live with reverence and devotion the personal and shared existence. It has offered rituals, customs and practices to enable us to be human.
From the religious awareness that was proper to Bishop Schraven we can, in the words of KeesWaaijman, define spirituality as ‘ the divine-human relational process’. The heart of somebody’s spirituality is situated in his relationship with God. That relation is embedded in the concrete spatiotemporal existence. It is not stagnant, is not a state, but an event. The relationship between God and man develops, and does so in a process of continuous transformation . According to the Biblical belief people have their origin in a divine transcendence. They stand in a relationship with this higher or more profound reality. If you look at the history of spirituality itwill be clear that the two poles between which the relationship occurs, God and man, do not always have the same meaning.
In the time and space of St Vincent, the seventeenth century in France, the word God played a self-evident role in the collective use of language. The belief in transcendence had not been fundamentally affected although there was a growing belief in man’s own capacities. The connection between God and man was rather unchallenged. However, the ‘how’ of this relationship was under heavy pressure in the battle between reformation and counter reformation. What value does a man have relative to God? What is the proportion of human good works and God’s grace? In present-day Western culture that has changed. It is not so much about modalities in the divine-human relationship, but the relationship itself contains a big question mark. Belief in what transcends us is minimal.
Something transcends us. We did not enter life through our own power, and also we have no control over the fact that we leave this life. Human life is encompassed by transcending events, birth and death. These events befall us. They transcend us and act like a frame around life. They enclose personal life and in the end we have no control over them. The beginning of our path of life escapes our personal control. Finally, so does its end. Our life story is embedded. We do not begin to tell it ourselves, nor do we finish telling it ourselves .
In the seventeenth century, and certainly from the eighteenth century onwards, the slow process of the ‘disenchantment of the world’ begins, which goes hand in hand with the broad secularisation movement. Ferry calls that process the humanisation of the divine. On the other hand, parallel with this, we see a deification of the human, in Ferry’s eyes a form of compensation .
In order to gain a proper insight into Vincentian spirituality I will discuss briefly the concept of spirituality as such. The focus of spirituality is where there is contact between what transcends a human being and what is essentially properto him. Between God and the human quintessence, between the Eternal and the now, between the Present and the here, between I AM and I am. Someone’s spirituality can be read from the shape which the relationship between these poles takes, the way in which the divine-human relational process occurs.
What transcends us and what is the hidden core of our existence are closely related. A human being is formed by that relationship. From it he thinks, feels and acts. In Jesus this comes to light in an extraordinary way: he calls God ‘abba’, literally papa, a relationship of reverence and proximity. Therein lies the orientation for his doings. In that sense I would like to define spirituality as a relational process that develops in the lived relation with Him who transcends us.
2. What is Vincentian Spirituality?
What is specific about Vincent de Paul’s spirituality? In other words: how does he give shape to the relationship with God? What is his breeding ground – what is the spiritual capital he works with – and how is this breeding ground itself fertilised? The breeding ground of Vincent’s spirituality lies in the awareness that God is actively present in this world, in events and in people. Vincent expresses this knowledge as a guide for attitude and behaviour in the expression he likes to use ‘côtoyer la Providence’, sailing along the coastline of Providence, following Providence step by step.
This spirituality is fed and strengthened by meditation and practising charity. Meditation enables a person to become more and more conscious of the presence of God. When you pray, says Vincent, then be like the horse that the rider ties to the bracket when he is going to have a drink in the pub. The presence stays on. He learnt that from Francis de Sales, in a personal friendship and through his ‘Introduction à la vie dévote’. His meditations begin with ‘Place yourself in the presence of God’. You need not bring God closer to yourself, but yourself closer to God.
In Vincent’s spirituality there is a bond between passive and active. Living in God’s presence is accompanied by love of God ‘with a sweaty face and in the strength of your arms’. His message is: ‘That you must empty yourself of yourself in order to clothe yourself with Christ, that you must step out of yourself and must give yourself through concrete commitment because love, if it is to be real, is both affective ànd effective. ‘ (C XI, 351) .
Affection and effect, background and foreground, spiritual capital and its fruits belong together. Vincent’s spirituality is awakened in his relationship with other people, particularly in relationship with people who have been pushed to the brink. That is the place to meet God. There your relationship with God is awakened and there it stays alive. The relationship with God is not abstract, but is connected to the relationship with the other and with yourself. That relationship pattern is interactive. ‘When you are praying and a sick person calls you, then go to that sick person’. Vincent calls it leaving God for God’s sake, for serving the sick ‘c’est faire oraison’(CIX, 326).
Vincent’s spirituality developed into a transformation process. Until his mid-thirties he considered the spiritual capital that he had gained through origin, study, ordination and prudence as an insurance for a prosperous and esteemed life. That changed. I want to sketch this change on the basis of two events that deeply affect the quality of his faith, his hope and his love.
In 1617 we see a turn. Two central events will profoundly affect Vincent’s spiritual process and result in two themes which will play a leading role in his life and work: mission and caritas, that is to say: hope, and love fed by faith. In Gannes he is called to the bedside of a dying peasant. This man appears to be full of fear, guilty as he feels about the life that he has led. Vincent is deeply impressed. He sees the man’s face which deeply affects him. In the face of this vulnerable man he sees the face of Christ. He discusses with mrs De Gondi an action which will expand far beyond Gannes: the general confession. He preaches about it in Folleville on January 25 . He has seen themisery of ignorance, of coercion and submission and wants to liberate people to what they are: children of God. The concept of mission becomes concrete for Vincent. Mission is to do with development. Vincent to the Daughters of Charity: ‘because in the past the congregation was not what it is now, one may assume that it is not yet what it will be when God has led it to where he wants it’.
The second decisive experience also concerns poverty, but is of a different nature. In Châtillon les Dombes, on a Sunday just before mass, he receives a message about a poor family where the father and breadwinner has died. On that same Sunday, August 20, he preaches about it, apparently with such persuasion that already in the afternoon a procession of people sets out with goods for the family concerned. His response: ‘There is much love here, but it is badly organised.’ Caritas becomes concrete for Vincent.
Mission is meant to strengthen the affect; caritas is the effective expression of it. Affection is connected with effectivity. Similarly mercy is connected with justice. If you do something for a poor person, you do not practice mercy, but justice. The core of this view lies in Vincent’s spirituality which originates from the authentic quintessence which is proper to everyone individually and which essentially connects people. To a confrere: ‘Sir, may God soften our hearts to these people in need and make us aware of the fact that through our help we only do justice and not mercy.’ (CVII, 98). And: ‘There is only love if it is accompanied by justice’ (CII, 54).
3. Indicators of Vincentian Spirituality in Bishop Schraven
Christian and particularly Vincentian spirituality manifests itself in forms of faith, hope and love. You can catch it in the way in which and the extent to which these theological virtues are present and shaped. How do we see this in the life of Bishop Schraven?
Bishop Schraven’s spirituality is indisputably founded in his faith. He lives in the presence of God who is among us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. To this he testifies in the beginning of all his letters: ‘The mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us forever’, just as at the end: ‘I remain in the holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary.’ These pronouncements are the framework within which questions, statements, thoughts and plans are embedded. His faith stands for a basic trust that lives in him. Life is not survival; human life means partaking of divine life. Everything that happens he sees in the perspective of eternity. That trust is the basis of an attitude of equanimity; he has the charisma of the long term and a great endurance. More than once he reports that, whatever happens to you, you can find strength through the certainty that heavenly life is better than earthly life. January 24 1903: ‘the more sacrifices we bring here on earth, the greater will be our reward in Heaven.’ God is close every day. On March 6 1906 he seems to speak about what will happen to him more than thirty years later.
‘You see, if any moment you can get a bullet in your body or get your head chopped off then you had better be prepared to die at any moment, and then you are not afraid anymore.’ Bishop Schraven accepts his concretely finite life in all its fragmentation as embedded in the Eternal.
Hope is a sensor and guide in his passage through time. That hope does not provide him with a blueprint for the future, but it does give him a strong feeling of direction in all processes of change that occur on his path through life. He experiences a major development in his passage from Europe to China. Thus he writes in a letter dated February 9 1902: ‘I have become a pastor: imagine a pastor of hardly 28 years of age, who speaksonly a bit of Chinese and is, of course, anything but informed about all Chinese customs’. He has the mentality of someone who is on the road. With St Vincent he follows the trail of Providence. That is his point of orientation. On February 23 1934 he writes to his brother Henri: ‘Keep your head up and especially trust in God: sooner or later there will be a solution even if now the future seems so hopeless. Praying and working is all we can do and He who takes care of birds and plants will certainly not forget us.’ Time and again he looks from the perspective of the final reality to the changeable reality of his path through life.
His way of life shows that for Bishop Schraven the essence of human beings is kinship – being brothers and sisters. The foundation of that essence is love. St Vincent taught him: ’Love is the mistress. So one must do what she commands’(C X, 595). The preference of this love is for the poor. A sign of that we find in a letter dated March 4 1921 to Henri and family about a visit to the pope and the journey to Europe it involves: ‘… anyhow, before I undertake the journey to Europe, the famine here must have ended and all must have been well arranged and well on its way’. This attitude of solidarity appears to be present even in his last known letter to the generalate of the Vincentians in Paris dated September 17 1937. In it he writes: ‘In China it is always the same: it’s always the poor peasants who pay the bill’. (In this case because of the poor harvest and the damage to their country by the many trenches). To him love is not just mercy, but it is closely connected to justice. This love is his mistress.
How can we summarize the character of his Vincentian spirituality? In a letter dated July 24 1898 to his mother he speaks about suffering: ‘Our life here on earth is a continuing struggle and unless we are full of trust in God life is unbearable ….’ Further on he reflects: ‘But why always speak of suffering on such a joyful day? (his mother’s nameday) Yes mother, I do not know where that comes from: I simply write what is in my heart. Pausing for half an hour to find all sorts of beautiful words which are only half believed, I don’t like that.’ This seems to be a statement which is crucial for his factual spirituality. It testifies to a certain form of holiness. In some, holiness is a matter of growth. In others it manifests itself in the answer that they give in an extreme situation. In Schraven and companions faith, hope and love come together at the moment that matters. When defenceless women were threatened, they showed themselves unconditional defenders of the weak. Their spirituality is founded in their relationship to God. There they find the strength to stand up for the oppressed and the weak in their service to the Chinese people.