THE WAY OF ST. VINCENT AND THE TAO OF CHINESE CULTURE: How to Preach the Spirit of St. Vincent in the Context of Chinese Culture

By Charles Pan, CM
[Paper presented in Mysore, February 2006]


More than three hundred years ago, the Vincentian missionaries crossed the Oceans and arrived in Mainland China for evangelization. Henceforth, many Vincentians from Europe and America following the way of St. Vincent de Paul advanced to Mainland China wave upon wave for evangelizing the poor. After 1949, all of the foreigner missionaries were expelled by the Chinese communist, and some of the local Chinese Vincentian took refuge in Europe, America, Asia and the other places of the world because of the communist occupation of China. In 1953, the Chinese Vincentians went to Taiwan and started to build the community of mission until now.

No matter if our mission is in Mainland China before 1948 or in Taiwan after 1953, we always exert to evangelize the poor and minister to the clergy according to the spirit of St. Vincent and the signs of times. We are called to pay attention to the contemporary needs of society, and then individually and in community to discern the Lord’s call to us for the present and future.

Now we have to face a new challenge of a new Vincentian dimension. In these years our missionary goal of bringing people into the Church has expanded to include an explicit Vincentian mission, namely, to form people in the charism of Saint Vincent de Paul. We see ourselves now called to create an expanded Vincentian community involving laymen and women and to bring the charism of Vincent to our society through and with these lay collaborators. Besides the charity which is the universal value, how can we preach and introduce the other dimensions of the spirit of St. Vincent to the people who live in the background of Chinese culture? And moreover, how can we inculturate the spirit of St. Vincent into the daily life of the people?

In 1986 Father Hugh O’Donnell had an opportunity to visit the Maison-Mère of Lazaristes in Paris to learn the spirit of St. Vincent from Father André Dodin, and Fr. Dodin responded to him that Vincent did not have a spirituality. As Father Dodin wrote in his classic work, “Vincent would have been surprised to hear anyone speak of his spiritual doctrine. Except for the small booklet, The Common Rules or Constitutions of the Congregation of the Mission, he was reluctant to publish his ideas and convictions. Even these Rules were not the result of his own individual effort according to his way of thinking, for they had evolved from the experience of his religious community. Like most founders, he wanted only to offer his Missionaries a summary of the gospels and point out to them a quick, simple and sure way to live them. Pascal wrote, ‘We were expecting to find an author, and we found a man.’[1] This statement reveals Vincent’s interiority in relation to history, circumstances and events.

When Father Hugh O’Donnell shared his experience of the door to this new aspect of knowing Vincent which was opened to him through confrontation, he said:

Vincent was a man of his times, the 17th century, and we understand him best when we understand the world he lived in. This is true. But he is also a man for our times, because his life and mission were focused on events. He had a complete trust in providence, which is revealed in events, people, and circumstances – history. André Dodin says Vincent did not have spirituality, he had a Way. The Way of Vincent is rooted not in a set of ideas, but in responding to events. His Way: first experience (because God is here); secondly, consideration of the events in the light of the Paschal Mystery and the Gospel; thirdly, action according to Gospel maxims. Vincent responded to the events of his times and we follow in his footsteps by responding to the events of our times, trusting likewise that we are led by providence.[2]

The inspiration from the insight of Father Dodin and the sharing of Father O’Donnell makes me reflect on the relationship between the Way of Vincent and the Tao of Chinese culture, since some of the ideas of Tao are comparable and compatible with the Way of Vincent, and can help the people who live in the background of Chinese Culture to understand well and accept easily the spirit of Vincent.

Dialogue is an essential way by which the Way of St. Vincent can be brought into a given culture.

The Meaning of Tao in Chinese Culture

Tao (pronounced in Chinese “Dow”) can be roughly translated into English as path, or the way. It is basically indefinable. It has to be experienced. It “refers to a power which envelops, surrounds, and flows through all things, living and non-living. The Tao regulates natural processes and nourishes balance in the Universe. It embodies the harmony of opposites (i.e. there would be no love without hate, no light without dark, no male without female.)”[3]

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The other way


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Taoism can also be called “the other way,” for during its entire history, it has coexisted alongside the Confucian tradition, which served as the ethical and religious basis of the institutions and arrangements of the Chinese empire. Taoism, while not radically subversive, offered a range of alternatives to the Confucian way of life and point of view. These alternatives, however, were not mutually exclusive. For the vast majority of Chinese, there was no question of choosing between Confucianism and Taoism. Except for a few straight-laced Confucians and a few pious Taoists, the Chinese man or woman practiced both — either at different phases of life or as different sides of personality and taste.[4]

The founder of Taoism is believed by many to be Lao-Tzu (老子, 604-531 B.C.), a contemporary of Confucius. He was searching for a way that would avoid the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts that disrupted society during his lifetime. The result was his book: Tao-teh-Ching (道德經). Others believe that he is a mythical character. Taoism started as a combination of psychology and philosophy but evolved into a religious faith in 440 C.E. when it was adopted as a state religion. At that time Lao-Tse became popularly venerated as a deity. Taoism, along with Buddhism and Confucianism, became one of the three great religions of Chinese.

Classical Taoist philosophy was a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Lao-Tzu (老子) and his follower Zhuan-Tzu (莊子, 3rd century B.C.), living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism, developed the notion of the Tao as the origin of all creation and the force — unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations — that lies behind the functionings and changes of the natural world. They saw in Tao and nature the basis of a spiritual approach to living. This, they believed, was the answer to the burning issue of the day: what is the basis of a stable, unified, and enduring social order? The order and harmony of nature, they said, was far more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. Healthy human life could flourish only in accord with Tao — nature, simplicity, a free-and-easy approach to life. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei — lit. inaction or non-interference), action modeled on nature. Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise — learned and a moral paragon. Zhuan-Tzu’s sages were often artisans — butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.

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According to Lao-Tzu “the Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao. Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name. As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless: as ‘the Mother’ of all things, it is nameable. So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence: as always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects. These two flow from the same source, though differently named; And both are called mysteries. The Mystery of mysteries is the Door of all essence.”[5] He developed this idea of nucleus in his classic work, and proposed some points about Tao as ontological Being:

The Tao is the origin of all things and the universe. “There was Something undefined and yet complete in itself, born before Heaven-and-Earth. Silent and boundless, Standing alone without fail, it may be regarded as the Mother of the world. I do not know its name; I style it ‘Tao’.”[6] From this narration, notice should be taken of the features of source of Tao.

The Tao begets all things. The Tao is the mother of all things, thus it begets all things: “Tao gave birth to One, One gave birth to Two, Two gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to Three, Three gave birth to all the myriad things.”[7]

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Tao is the mother of all things


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The Tao is Being. Lao-Tzu asked: “Now what is the Tao?” And then he answered by himself: “It is Something elusive and evasive. Evasive and elusive! And yet It contains within Itself a Form. Elusive and evasive! And yet It contains within Itself a Substance. Shadowy and dim! And yet It contains within Itself a Core of Vitality. The Core of Vitality is very real; it contains within Itself an unfailing Sincerity. Throughout the ages Its Name has been preserved in order to recall the Beginning of all things.”[8] Words like “Form”, “Substance”, “Core of Vitality”, “unfailing Sincerity” obviously indicate the Being nature of the Tao, and “all things of the world are born from the Being.”[9]

The Tao is at the same time spiritual: “Look at it but you can not see it! Its name is Formless. Listen to it but you cannot hear it! Its name is Soundless. Grasp it but you cannot get it! Its name is Incorporeal. These three attributes are unfathomable; therefore they fuse into one. Its “under side” is not bright: its under side not dim. Continually the Unnameable moves on, until it returns beyond the realm of things. We call it the formless Form, the imageless Image. We call it the indefinable and unimaginable. Confront it and you do not see its back.” These words obviously indicate the spiritual nature of the Tao.[10]

The ontological Tao is the combination of the spiritual and the materialistic. Lao-Tzu got hold of the extremes of universal phenomena: the substantial Being and the Nothingness (the materialistic and the spiritual); and further, he unified these two extremes into the Tao.[11]

Even the concept of Tao is not identical with the Word of God, but their concept is similar, and since it is the primary revelation of God to Chinese people in Chinese Culture, the Gospel of St. John 1:1 in the protestant version of the Bible is translated as follows: “In the beginning was the Tao (the Word): the Tao (Word) was with God. He was with God in the beginning.” The “Word” is replaced with Tao. We also translate “homily” as “chiang tao” (講道), it means “to talk tao. It obviously indicates the influence of the Tao, and it can help the people who live in the background of Chinese Culture to grasp the concept of Christianity, and moreover, to understand the life and spirit of St. Vincent who is the follower of the Word, the Tao.

Lao-Tzu applied the Tao to the explanation of history, society and life, offering a system of views which later on, to a considerable degree, function as models on which the style of worldly affairs is fashioned.

Dialogue between the practical guide of Tao to worldly affairs and the Way of Vincent

1. Origin


The concept of Tao originated from the agrarian society. The lifestyle of agriculture and nature teach the peasantry how to conduct oneself in life.[12] Vincent’s background of peasant household also helped him very much in many aspects in his future mission and life. For instance, in 1643, encouraging the Sister of Charity to be economical, he said:

In so many places bread is rarely eaten. In the Limousin province and elsewhere bread made of chestnuts is eaten as a rule. In my own part of the country a small grain called millet is the usual food. It is cooked over the fire in a pot and then, at mealtimes, is turned out into a dish; the members of family sit round it and take their food from it and afterwards go out to their work.” The description of the life of the peasant reveals the reverence and tenderness, and with these emotions, Vincent showed that happiness is by no means incompatible with poverty.[13]

Vincent was influenced much by his background of family of a farmer, above all, peasant mothering. As Fr. Dodin depicted in his classic work Vincent De Paul and Charity a beautiful picture:

As a child, Vincent saw in the face of the peasant woman who was his mother an ineffable love. It was from this woman that he received inspiration to ground his future work in a radical and passionate love for poor people and those in need.[14]

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2. Wu-wei (inaction or non-interference, 無為)


For Lao-Tzu, the idea of inaction does not mean doing nothing at all but doing things as naturally as possible, that is, to obey and follow the Tao:

Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other. Difficult and easy complement each other. Long and short exhibit each other. High and low set measure to each other. Voice and sound harmonize each other. Back and front follow each other. Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado, and spreads his teaching without talking.[15]

For Vincent, Jesus is his model; his evangelical obedience is based on the example of Jesus. Jesus’ obedience becomes the motivating force as Vincent attempts to live it. Vincent’s obedience to the Father’s will enable him to rise above his limitation. We can find Vincent’s Wu-wei in his prayer:

Your pleasure, O Savior, your food, your drink, was to do the will of your Father. We are your children, and we throw ourselves in your arms, in the hope of imitating your life. Grant us this grace. Since we have no strength of ourselves, we ask this strength of you. Yes, we expect this strength from you. So we lift up our voices with confidence and with a great desire to follow you. If it is pleasing to you, grant, Lord, this spirit to the Congregation so that it may labor and render itself more agreeable in your eyes. In this way the Little Company will live your life and, with Saint Paul, we will all able to say, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.[16]

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3. Simplicity (單純)


For Lao-Tzu, after all of the study of Tao, there should only be this conclusion of simplicity: To be Tao itself.[17] He said:

I try my best to be in an extreme emptiness of mind; I try to keep myself in a state of stillness. From the vigorous growth of all things I perceive the way they move in endless cycles. All things, full of vitality, finally return to their own roots. Returning to roots means stillness, also means a return to destiny. A return to destiny is known as the law of eternity. To understand the law is known as enlightening. He, who is ignorant of the law, if acting rashly, will be in great trouble. But he who knows the law is tolerant; and the tolerance leads to impartiality; impartiality to thoroughness; thoroughness to nature; nature to the Tao; the Tao to eternity. Thus he will not be endangered all his life.[18]

Those who follow Tao reduce everything in complexity until they reach the final irreducible conclusion: You are Tao. For Vincent, the simplicity is to say what he thinks and to say things clearly and finally, to focus our intention solely on God.

Jesus, the Lord, expects us to have the simplicity of a dove. This means giving a straightforward opinion about things in the way we honestly see them, without needless reservations. It also means doing things without any double-dealing or manipulation, our intention being focused solely on God. Each of us, then, should take care to behave always in this spirit of simplicity, remembering that God likes to deal with the simple, and prudent of this world and reveals them to little ones.[19]

Lao-Tzu and Vincent have different approaches, but they contribute to the same end.

4. Keep being weak (處柔)


Another thought frequently repeated in Tao-teh-Ching of Lao-Tzu is that supple conquers the strong. The supplest in the world can go through the hardest in the world:

Nothing in the world is suppler than water, yet nothing is more powerful than water in attacking the hard and strong. Why? Because nothing can take its place. Everyone in the world knows that the weak is more powerful than the strong, that the supple is more rigid than the hard, yet no one so far can put the knowledge into practice.[20]

Here, “supple” does not mean “weak”, but “humble”. Saint Vincent reflected on the humility of Jesus and saw the humility of the Lord as something that characterized his whole life. In his conference on humility, he mentioned that Jesus left us the crucifix as a testament of his humility, and the power of this virtue of our Savior:

O my Savior, what love for this virtue. Why have you delivered yourself up to these extreme humiliations? Ah! It is because you knew the excellence of this virtue, and the malice of the sin opposed to it, which not only increase the guilt of other sins, but vitiates works in themselves not evil, and even those that are good, even the most holy of works.[21]


Yes, the extreme malice of sins can only be conquered by the emptiness of mind[22] and the extreme humiliation.


5. The perfect goodness is like water (上善若水)


In the conference of Vincent, he talked about the virtue of meekness. He said:

None are more consistent and firm in doing good than those who are meek and gracious. While, on the contrary, those who allow themselves to give in to anger and the passions of the irascible appetite are usually very inconsistent, because they act only by fits and starts. They are like torrents, which are strong and impetuous in full flood, but which dry up immediately afterwards. By contrast rivers, representing that which is gentle and gracious, flow on noiselessly, tranquilly and unfailingly.[23]

This exquisite explanation on meekness finds an echo in Lao-Tzu’s heart. In his Classic work, he said:

The perfect goodness is like water. Water approaches all things instead of contending with them. It prefers to dwell where no one would like to stay; hence it comes close to the Tao. A man of perfect goodness chooses a low place to dwell as water, he has a heart as deep as water, he offers friendship as tender as water, he speaks as sincerely as water, he rules a state as orderly as water.[24]

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6. Charity(遠愛)


Tao fundamentally assumes that an inner cultivation of character can lead to an outer resonance: the charity.[25] This is an important distinction. The charity became Vincent’s earthly ministry and the most eminent Way for reaching God, Tao Himself.




As such we reflect on the Way of Vincent through some dialogues with Tao. This is the first time that we try to understand the spirit of Vincent starting from the ideas set out by Lao-Tzu in a book on Tao and examine to what extant the Way of Vincent has adapted to Chinese culture. We hope that it could continue to do so, and expect that we can help the laity whom we serve to learn and to walk in the way of Vincent.


[1] A. Dodin, Vincent De Paul and Charity: A Contemporary Portrait of His Life and Apostolic Spirit, New York: New City Press, 1993, 48.

[2] CIF of the session of 2005 autumn.

[3] Our Beliefs, Western Reform Taoism at:

[4] Cf. Taoism, or the Way, Judith A. Berling for the Asia Society’s Focus on Asian Studies, Vol. II, No. 1, Asian Religions, 9-11, Fall 1982. Copyright AskAsia, 1996.

[5] Lao-Tzu, Tao-teh-Ching, Chapter 1, New York: St. John University Press, 1961, 3.

[6] Cf. Ibid., Chapter 25, 35.

[7] Cf. Ibid., Chapter 42, 61.

[8] Cf. Ibid., Chapter 21, 29.

[9] Cf. Ibid., Chapter 40, 59.

[10] Cf. Ibid., Chapter 14, 17-19.

[11] For Lao-Tzu, the Nothingness is the special form of substantial Being while the Being is the special form of the Nothingness. Similarly, mind is the special form of matter while matter is the special form of mind. There is neither the absolute Being nor the absolute Nothingness. The Nothingness exists in the Being just as the Being exists in the Nothingness. The Being and the Nothingness exists in opposition as well as they permeate each other. Cf. Lao-tzu, Gu Zhengkun, tr., Lao Zi: The Book of Tao and The, Beijing: Peking University Press, 1955, 30.

[12] Cf. 滕守堯, “道與中國文化” (Tao and Chinese Culture), Taipei:揚志文化, 1996, 4.

[13] Cf. Jean Calvet, Saint Vincent de paul, London: Burns Oates, 1952, 12.

[14] A., Dodin, Vincent De Paul and Charity: A Contemporary Portrait of His Life and Apostolic Spirit, 16.

[15] Lao-Tzu, Tao-teh-Ching, Chapter 2, 5.

[16] On conformity to the will of God, conference of March 7, 1659, O.C., 11:456-57, C.E.D., 12:164-65. This prayer is adopted in: M. P. Flores and A. Orcajo, The Way of Saint Vincent is our Way, Philadelphia: Congregation of Mission, 1995, 308.

[17] Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao: Daily Meditation, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992, 341.

[18] Lao-Tzu, Gu Zhengkun, tr., Lao Zi: The Book of Tao and The, Chapter 16, 103-104.

[19] Common Rules, II, 4:109.

[20] Lao-Tzu, Gu Zhengkun, tr., Lao Zi: The Book of Tao and The, Chapter 78, 299.

[21] On humility, conference of March 7, 1659, O.C., 11:456-57, C.E.D., 12:164-65. This prayer is adopted in: M. P. Flores and A. Orcajo, The Way of Saint Vincent is our Way, Philadelphia: Congregation of Mission, 1995, 308.

[22] Lao-Tzu, Gu Zhengkun, tr., Lao Zi: The Book of Tao and The, Chapter 16, 103.

[23] On meekness, Ibid., 91.

[24] Lao-Tzu, Gu Zhengkun, tr., Lao Zi: The Book of Tao and The, Chapter 8, 77.

[25] Cf. 滕守堯, “道與中國文化” (Tao and Chinese Culture), Taipei:揚志文化, 1996, 58-69, 124.


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