I have discovered over the years that a work of art can help to build, deepen, and interpret our collective identity. A practical illustration of this thought is exemplified in a work of art depicting Saint Vincent de Paul that hangs in the students' residence building, Ravasi Hall, at DePaul Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. This image of Saint Vincent was carved by a local liturgical artist, Chrisantus Momanyi. When I asked him to produce a panel of Vincent in an African setting, he told me that he knew very little of the saint and so I gave him a short biography of our Founder to supply him with some background. Several months later he came back to me with a proposed sketch of his idea for a wall hanging. He told me "I had this dream about Saint Vincent, and after I woke up, I developed this sketch." Chrisantus entitled his picture, "Saint Vincent on the Road of the Poor in Africa."
The artist begins this depiction with an African village. At the top of the panel coming out of the village is the winding road of the poor. Chrisantus believes that Vincent and all of us who follow him are on this winding road of the poor, and as we journey with him, "we meet all those are who forced to travel this path."
The first figure on the road is a refugee. Kenya alone has nearly a half million refugees living within its borders, and this number continues to grow daily. In early 2008, when the election upheavals took place, 600,000 more people became Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) (As defined by the International Committee of the Red Cross, IDPs "have not crossed an international frontier, but have, for whatever reason, fled their homes" [and] "are at risk or have been victims of persecution."). The number has been reduced since then, but thousands of Kenyans are still among the displaced. With Vincent we will meet these refugees on the road of the poor. In Vincent's time he spent years dealing with the refugees victimized because of the civil, political, and social unrest of the Fronde.
As the road continues to unwind, Vincent meets a man in chains, a prisoner. Kenya has a prison capacity of approximately 17,000, yet is now holding approximately 50,000 inmates. The man in chains can also be anyone spiritually, psychologically, or economically incarcerated. All of our students at DePaul Centre spend their first apostolic assignment working with prisoners in the remand prison in the industrial area of Nairobi. This is never an easy task for them, but in time they come to love the work, and they learn that the road to the poor is filled with these people. When we read Vincent's story, we admire his continuing care for those imprisoned, especially the galley convicts.
Finally, we meet Vincent himself on the road of the poor. He is feeding a poor, desperately sick man. He holds his head and gently feeds him. The artist, Chrisantus, portrayed him kneeling because as Vincent says: "The poor are your masters."
Next to DePaul Centre is the central house of the Daughters of Charity, Chanzo, where the Dream Center is located. Today the facility cares for over one thousand patients suffering from HIV/AIDS. We know of Vincent's continuing concern for the desperately ill, and how he sent the Confreres, the Daughters and the Ladies of Charity on mission to address what was an overwhelming problem of his times. That work continues today.
This was Chrisantus' interpretation. However, over the years that I lived with this image of Saint Vincent I began to interpret it another way. I think that the work could also be called "Saint Vincent on the Road to the Poor," as it depicts his autobiographical journey, and his personal and spiritual road to the poor.
The picture begins with Vincent's leaving the village of Pouy as a young boy. At home he was a shepherd who daily led his sheep and pigs to pasture. He was a Gascon of peasant stock whose father sold a yoke of oxen for his son's studies at the University of Toulouse. The intent was to put him on the road to success, and his father believed in this enterprise enough to sacrifice his oxen. Vincent was restless and ambitious, driven to succeed, and, at nineteen, he was ordained to the priesthood. But soon the road took an unexpected turn.
As the journey progresses, we see Vincent's own captivity in his mid-twenties. He detailed the experience of his Barbary captivity in a letter to Monsieur de Comet. On the one hand the letter conveyed a melodramatic adventure. On the other, what the true and exact details of these events were will never be known. What we can say is that it was an experience of either literal or figurative incarceration.
Ultimately, the road leads to Vincent's conversion to the poor. This was not the road he thought he was on when the journey began. As he traveled, he was moved in an entirely different direction. He initially wanted to achieve position and fortune and an early retirement. The road he was traveling, he thought, led away from the poor. However, the road the Lord put him on instead led circuitously to the poor.
Something further can be said about this image. Several years ago I read Bernard Pujo's Vincent de Paul: The Trailblazer, and I was struck by the title of Chapter three, "Odyssey on the Barbary Coast." Pujo constructs his narrative of Vincent's captivity in the context of the epic journey. In many ways Vincent's story is a variation of the hero's epic journey. The writings of Joseph Campbell on myth and the adventure of the epic hero, particularly in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, lays the foundation for examining Vincent's story, as illustrated by Chrisantus Momanyi, as a variation on the hero's journey. As his artwork portrays, it is a journey in three parts: departure; initiation; and return. (First published in 1949, Campbell's acclaimed work asserted the hero's journey was culturally universal, and follows a prescribed single, identifiable narrative pattern.) As Daniel M. Pink remarks in A Whole New Mind, "It is this structure that underlies Homer's Odyssey, the story of the Buddha, the legend of King Arthur, Huckleberry Finn... and just about every other epic tale."
The story begins with departure. The hero hears a call to leave home, and in Vincent's case, he dutifully responds, crosses the threshold and enters into a new world. Vincent departs Pouy as a young boy. He is urged by his family to make his way in the world, and to establish himself in an ecclesiastical career in order to help himself and the family. And so the journey begins.
As the journey unfolds, there is a period of initiation. The hero encounters many challenges: imprisonment, shipwreck, isolation, and even abandonment. The initiation phase can extend over a long period of time. During this, the hero is helped by many mentors. In the myth stories, the mentors give the hero a divine gift which transforms him, and he becomes at one with his new self. As in the epic narratives, Vincent's initiation extended over many years. His initiation begins with the lost years, 1605-07, which is a time of captivity or incarceration. What transpired during that time, we will never know. But something decisive and dramatic occurred. What followed the experience? He continued to wander. But as in all hero stories, he began to meet mentors. Some of the mentors were men: Pierre de Bérulle, Francis de Sales, André Duval, Charles de Condren, the Abbé de Saint-Cyran, as well as the Christians of Clichy. Other mentors were women: Madame de Gondi, Jane de Chantal, Louise de Marillac, even Anne of Austria. These men and women would turn his life in a different direction, and they were instrumental in leading him to the poor. They helped to transform Vincent. His identity as a priest, his understanding of the priesthood, his ambitions and his values, all began to evolve during these years of initiation.
Finally, the return occurs. When he fully returns to the world he left behind, the hero has changed. He is now not only one with the new world but with the old world of his past as well. The return in Chrisantus' work depicts Vincent kneeling before the poor. When the journey began, he intended to leave the world of poverty behind. Yet, on his return, it is that world, that of the impoverished, Vincent embraced. And one of the lessons learned was that the world of the affluent and powerful should be invited along the road of the poor, to help transform and alleviate their terrible, desperate conditions.
Vincent's ambition, his drive to succeed, was refocused into an ambition to liberate the poor from their degradation and enforced enslavement. On his return from the epic journey, he saw the poor as his masters. He, and we, their servant.
When I was in Dunstable last year, and I told a parishioner, John Sheridan, that I was going back to Africa, he said he was not surprised. He said a priest he knew in Cameroon had done the same. Why? Whats the attraction?
It's their placidness, serenity and happy-go-lucky nature. Maybe it comes from being poor. Around Holy Cross Parish in Thigio where I was for Christmas, the rains came but too late to save the crops. Now they have planted again and wait in hope. Their cheerfulness comes from their dependence on God. He knows what He is doing. Not easy to see meaning in it all, but the connection is there, the meaning is there, if you see things God's way.
When the Parish dinner for the children came around, there was a patient wait by all of them till their turn arrived to get their portion. Even when they could see that the food was dwindling, they still waited. Another day I was coming back from the village with my plastic covered loaf, when a small child ran up and demanded it. He was just about 2 years old. His hands were so small that I thought: "If I give him a few slices and his small hands will drop them in the muck, he will still eat it and maybe get sick." He had to get the plastic-covered loaf and it would not matter if he dropped it.
When you take that placid spirit to the Sunday Mass, you see why two hours is enjoyed by all. It's total involvement, from start to finish. The priest and altar servers are led in by the Dancers, to the accompaniment of the Choir, while the priest blesses all with Holy Water, to remind them of their Baptism. At the 'Glory to God', all wave to God and the Angels, while clapping their approval of God's ways. Then the Scripture is carried in by those Reading the Word, led again by the Dancers and Choir. The Book is passed to the Priest, who shows it to the People, before handing it back. Similarly the Collection is carried up in the same fashion, accompanied by their gifts of potatoes, eggs, cabbages, rice and I could go on but including also the Tithes.
When they join the Angels again for the singing of 'Holy Holy and Hosanna', heaven has to hear.
Jan Vanier said: "That celebration is a sign that beyond all the sufferings, purifications and deaths there is the eternal wedding feast, the great celebration of life with God. It is a sign that there is a personal meeting which will fulfill us, that our thirst for the infinite will be quenched and that the wound of our loneliness will be healed."
As a missionary, I am supposed to teach them to pray! They don't need instruction. They are an encouragement to me. God is real for them. True prayer involves becoming poor. Who will lift up the world to God and plead for mercy? When God looks down on us, what does He see worth saving? He sees His Son in the faces of those who continue to cry out in this valley of tears. St. Vincent learnt that without ever leaving France!
The original article "The Journey of and to the Poor" appeared in the Vincentian Heritage Journal, Volume 31, Issue 1
Follow this and additional works at: http://via.library.depaul.edu/vhj
More on the Congregation of the Mission in Kenya, and information on giving opportunities at: http://www.vincentian.org/give/kenya
Epilogue from Irish Vincentians http://www.vincentians.ie
Sound effects by http://www.freesfx.co.uk
Music by Kenyan gospel artist: Sammy Irungu. Song: Niwikite Magegania.