God Alone: A common vision
At the beginning of these reflections I said that the renewal of the Society is not in the first place a matter of individual con-version (cf. Ch. 1). It is a point on which there could be disagreement. I still hold that it is so. Even if all Marists made great progress in constant personal conversion, the Society could easily disintegrate and take off into different directions for lack of a common vision and the appropriation of a common mission. Perhaps this has happened to some extent.
Having said this the next step is to acknowledge that a “common vision” is nobody’s vision until it is in fact appropriated by each of us. And that does imply personal conversion and commitment. If the mission to Oceania, and to other mission fields, was in some aspects at least a matter of efficient spreading of re-sources, of planning and well thought out policies, the mission to the modern world is more directly a by-product of something else we seek for its own sake: intimate union with God in radical detachment from everything else.
The theme “God alone” provides the cloth on to which in our founding texts the other major Marist orientations are embroidered.
If you wish to serve God, you must see him alone, you must be independent of creatures… We should exist before God, as if there were none but he, seeing him alone, walking boldly by faith (FS, doc. 9, § 3).
Let creatures mean nothing to you, my son. Look to God alone (FS, doc. 26, § 3).
We should thank God for having sown our path with contradictions. That will teach us not to place any store by creatures, to look to God alone, to act for God alone (FS, doc. 39, § 8 )
That word “simplicity” says a lot. I understand by it not seeing anything but God, acting only for God, never having creatures in view, seeking even to blot out thought of creatures (FS, doc. 59, § 5).
In 1841 he was playing with the idea of founding a retreat house. Realizing that ordinary people are not able to fit into the rigours of a Carthusian or Trappist monastery, he saw an opportunity for the Society, namely to provide a place where people, especially Marists themselves, could spend “some time concerned solely with God.” (FS, doc. 41, § 4)
Let us have mortification of our desires, of the senses, of our thoughts, coupled with the right intention. Let us keep only God in sight (FS, doc. 102, § 9).
In the Sight of God
The “God alone” theme came to Colin from well known cur-rents in seventeenth and eighteenth century French spirituality (cf. OM 2, doc. 574, 1) but it is an integral part of his under-standing of Marist life. It is also the point at which Marist spirituality is most explicitly anchored in the Gospel.
The Second Vatican Council taught solemnly that “the final norm of the religious life is the following of Christ as it is put before us in the Gospel,” and that the Gospel therefore is “the supreme rule” of all religious (Perfectae Caritatis, n. 2). The Council expressed thereby what all religious as well as their Founders had always professed. “…basically the rules of all the Orders are similar, for they are founded on the Gospel.” (FS, doc. 98, § 8 )
The riches of the Gospel cannot all be lived to the full by everyone at the same time. They inspire people in different ways, in different priorities. For Saint Francis it was: “Go and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me.” (Mt 19:21) For Marists the priority lies in Jesus’ admonitions concerning the most important features of Jewish piety: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.
Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice… do not have it trumpeted before you… your almsgiving must be secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you… When you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place… When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father… will reward you (Mt 6:1-18 ).
Jean-Claude Colin saw the core of Marist life indeed in this context:
We must always remain hidden and unknown. Let us not be concerned with our honour. If we do good, we shall have merit in the sight of God (FS, doc. 152, § 1).
…let us have her [Mary's] spirit, let us do good “hidden and unknown in this world.” May the world not know of our works, but the eye of God will see them from heaven and we shall be rewarded for them (FS, doc. 116, § 8).
But I Say to You…
At the root of Jesus’ teaching lies his experience of God his Father. God is real, a real person to whom Jesus relates vividly and intimately. As Son of God, he is pure relatedness to the Father, as incarnated Son of God he still was pure relatedness to the Father, expressed in terms of human life and human experience. To one for whom relating to the Father was his very existence, the hypocrisy of pretending to pray while in fact one is attracting people’s attention was too much of a contradiction to tolerate. Fasting in order to be seen doing so, giving alms while looking over one’s shoulder to make sure one is seen, are things done by people for whom God is not a reality. If God is for real, then any pretence in his regard is an abomination. Then we cannot take outward observance of any law as a substitute for authenticity: “You have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit perjury, thou shalt not commit adultery… but I say to you!” Therefore we cannot stand before the altar and nurse a grudge against someone at the same time. It destroys the reality of God: he ceases to be real here and now for me. If God is real, then there can be no other motive, no other incentive, no other interest. His massive presence blots out everything else. We stand for God alone.
There is a very radical search for authenticity in the Gospel, dominating everything else. It strips away all sham and hypocrisy. It is relentless; it is the only point on which Jesus’ forbearance and compassion turns into intolerance.
However deeply our modern world is marked by sin, there is a remarkable affinity to the Gospel value of authenticity. All modern philosophies are, in one way or another, marked by a deep distaste for whatever is not truthful. Debunking is in the air; perhaps we have become too cynical, but we do share this loathing for make-believe.
Existentialism was a search for authenticity. It valued an ethics of truthfulness over the search for “objective truth.” To act according to what you are was the ideal. Not to pretend to values or beliefs you did not fully share. Before that it was Freud who threw suspicion on many things in life that paraded as virtue and disguised less healthy dimensions of man. And in the last century it was Marx who ripped the mask off all ideologies that attempted to legitimize, or at least hide, the exploitation of the working classes.
Are not the seeds of the Word there? Is modern man seeking the absolute good, the good for its own sake, in unexpected ways here? If so, does the “God alone” theme which is the mainspring of Marist life, provide here the connecting link with the spiritual hunger of modern man? But in that case the central outlines of Marist spirituality, the ministry of mercy, the breaking up of clericalism, and the “hidden and unknown” must in turn not be mere “tactics.” They are the natural implication of a sincere and total relatedness to God, and God alone.
Citizens of the Secular City
The Marist founders were not citizens of the secular city they set out to evangelize. Faced by this strange new civilization they experienced a severe culture shock and as a consequence they could not describe that world except in dramatic language. Perhaps it was all that dramatizing that led people later on to discount this central aspect of the Marist mission.
Marists today often feel the same way. We do not see the modern world in the same light. We know there is a lot of good among people today, even if they are estranged from the Church, even if they have become quite irreligious. Most of us are, after all, born citizens of that secular city ourselves. And in any case, like good missionaries, we have learned that the first impressions of a strange civilization were due as much to culture shock as to proper understanding. Once the good missionary gets to know the local ways, he discovers all the good aspects of the local culture. He no longer just loves the people in some dutiful way: he begins to like them, he admires them.
Most Marists today feel quite at home in the secular city, and that is how it should be. As Pope John Paul II said, the evangelization of the modern world can be undertaken only by those who share the joys and the hope as well as the grief and the anguish of secular man.
This strength can at the same time be our weakness. The secular city can swallow us. We can like it so much that we be-come uncritical and take over all its values and meanings. In Shuzaku Endo’s novel Silence, the Japanese magistrate says to the apostate Jesuit missionary, “It was not me who broke your resistance. It was the swamp that is Japan.” The secularized world can be like such a swamp. We can sink away in its depth. In our attempt to bring the Gospel to the modern world, that world can take the Gospel out of our own hearts.
The Absence of God
Our modern world is honestly and sincerely profane. The religious reference is simply irrelevant, of no importance, of no use. There is no demand for this product on the market. The world does not celebrate the death of God, as Nietzsche imagined it would. His name does not refer to anything real. God is not so much dead as absent; and not absent as one who should be there. He is absent as a sort of misunderstanding that has fortunately been cleared up.
It was Bonhoeffer who said, “The specific religious experience of the modern world is to live before God the absence of God.” (quoted by R. Dumortier, France S.M., June 1985, p. 5) The absence of God is a fact in the lives of many of our con-temporaries. In our own lives as well He easily fades into a vague background: because we are part of this world. To adopt that absence and “live” it, before Him, is our vocation. That means to establish a vivid and intimate presence in the midst of that absence; to maintain that relationship in the silence of a world that goes on, again in Bonhoeffer’s words, “as if God did not exist;” to remain tuned in, with passionate intention and attention, to a wavelength that is silent in a narrow band between loud music and interesting news.
Here Colin is definitely our spiritual master where he speaks of God alone; of mortification of our desires, of the senses, of our thoughts coupled with the right intention. Not looking for inner consolations, for exciting ideas, one remains steadily turned towards Him, for His sake.
If you get nothing out of it, neither taste, nor enlightenment, nor consolations, well, … carry on just the same. Such a meditation is always of greater benefit than you think. Sometimes you will have been as dry as a bone, even for a long time: you will not have had the slightest en-lightening moment, and then, when the time arrives, you will speak well (FS, doc. 9, § 3).
This is what he meant by “walking boldly by faith,” a life of intimate union with God that easily overflows in effective witness of God’s presence in a world from which He seems to be increasingly absent.
We maintain the presence of God by shedding everything else. He will not share his presence. God is present in our lives to the extent that he alone is there. The religious who is committed to seek God does so in and through the vows: to live the detachment inherent in celibate chastity, in surrender to the community of what we earn and get, in letting someone else have the last word in arranging our lives.
In a Christian world, religious vows may have been powerful reminders of the ultimate values of life, of the reality of a future Kingdom that is not wholly of this world, “a visible proof to the world of the unfathomable mystery of Christ.” (Mutuae Relationes, n. 10)
To our secularized contemporaries life under religious vows is at best odd; it makes no sense. But to the religious himself, or herself, religious commitment is all the more meaningful: the daily crucial decision of how real God is in one’s life.