Thursday, May 23, 2024

Historical Commentary on the Constitutions of the Society of Mary

March 14, 2009 by  
Filed under The Spirit of the Society

The Spirit of the Society (Article X, DD 49-50)
After a series of detailed studies concerning the principal themes through which the Founder’s thought on the hidden life was expressed –Ignoti et quasi occulti, Mary at the Birth of the Church, Nazareth,– we now intend to resume the actual commentary on the Constitutions by dealing with the article De Societatis spiritu, for which those preliminary studies were expressly meant to prepare the ground.

Although there is no question, therefore, of undertaking an exhaustive enquiry into the spirit of the Society in the Founder’s thought, but merely concerning the article of the Constitutions which treats of that spirit, we shall nevertheless begin by presenting in this first chapter some general reflections which will enable us to, clarify both the object and method of the present study and the results to be hoped from it. A second chapter will analyse the literary structure of the text and investigate its sources. Chapters three, four and five will be devoted to a study of those sources. A sixth chapter will examine the composition of the present article, while a seventh and last will give a synthetic commentary on it. A final section will then bring together the conclusions of the study, in close connection with the preliminary considerations to which the reader is now asked to give his attention.

Chapter 1: Difficulties of approach to the Marist spirit
The usual response to anyone raising the question of the Marist spirit among Marists will often consist of remarks emphasizing the ineffable character of that spirit, which can hardly be understood except insofar as it is lived, and which seems to defy all attempt at definition. Father Founder himself was. the first to speak of it in this way, as we know from his secretaries in the Explanatory Note devoted to our De Societatis spiritu:

The spirit of Mary, Very Reverend Father Founder often said, is something very delicate and very profound, which can only be grasped by sustained meditation and prayer. Were it properly understood, it would be heaven on earth.

Without minimising the fundamental truth of considerations of this kind, of which every Marist is indeed convinced, nevertheless we think it more advisable here to bring out some other difficulties of a more technical order which may enable us to place the problem more precisely. For the Founder in fact, while underlining the difficulty of the undertaking, spoke, and spoke very often, of the spirit which should animate the Society. What he said and wrote concerning it remains as matter for our reflection, and if it is true that only prayer and life can enable us to grasp that spiritual reality from within, at the same time an attempt to understand it is indispensable to prevent, on this point as on all others, illusion, caprice or laziness from spawning undisturbed under the protective shade of the cloud of unknowing.

If, on the plane of intellectual reflection, the Marist spirit proves difficult to grasp, it is largely for reasons of method. It is sound to list those reasons here. Their recognition will allow us to orientate more effectively the study which follows and to resolve, when it has been completed, if not the mystery of a spiritual reality which will always defy words, at least certain ambiguities which hide the mystery from us and lessen the attraction which it could exercise on our lives.
Among those methodological difficulties, three especially seem worthy of consideration:

  • the ambiguity as to what is meant by “the spirit of a society”;
  • the extreme variety of ways in which Fr. Colin himself dealt with the complex reality of the Marist spirit;
  • the peculiar nature of tJ1e article De Societatis spiritu.

It will be the business of the present chapter to treat of each of these three obstacles lying in the path of a study of the Marist spirit. In doing this, we do not feel that we are merely yielding to the somewhat vain desire of emphasizing the difficult nature of our task. The reflections which follow are more than a negative criticism, and have for their purpose to clarify certain concepts and presuppositions, both linguistic and historical, on which the remainder of the work will closely depend.

1. The notion of “spirit of a society”

Semantic note
“Every day people argue as to what should be called Spirit: each one has his say; nobody attaches the same ideas to this word and everybody speaks without anybody understanding.” This disillusioned reflection which Helvetius placed at the beginning of his celebrated book in 1758, has lost nothing of its topicality in the twentieth century. The complexity of the term’s ramifications remains the despair of lexicographers and, apart from encyclopaedia articles, (6), so far discouraged, it seems, any overall semantic study. Moreover, even in such a restricted and particular use of the word as its application to an institution or society, there still reigns a lack of precision which everyday speech only too well shows up and of which it will not be useless to seek the origin.

The notion of a spirit proper to a religious or even to a civil society does, not seem to have appeared in European thought before the first third of the 17th century. It was unknown to the old orders and congregations, since the need to individualise the originality of a new foundation was hardly felt until the 12th century, with the coming of the mendicant orders. With the latter there came into being the idea of vita or vitae formula, that is to say, of a new style of life proper to the foundation and in which the spiritual element was intimately joined to the juridic.

Beginning with St. Ignatius, thanks to the determination of the ends of the institute, the individualisation of newly-founded congregations developed, the apostolate being henceforth conceived as an essential element of the foundations and breaking in upon what until then had been the sole end of the religious state, namely the perfection of Christian and evangelical  life.

The determination of a twofold end, personal sanctification and apostolate, however, was not sufficient to define what was most characteristic in the new institutes. The Jesuit constitutions themselves witness to a real effort to grasp and make still more precise the features proper to the order, without there ever appearing, however, the expression spiritus societatis, which was obviously not yet mature. But it was not long in making its appearance, since in 1618 St. Francis de Sales could devote the thirteenth of his Spiritual Talks to defining for the nuns of the Visitation the spirit of their rule and congregation.

This talk, which is perhaps the earliest reflection on this subject to come down to us, presupposes a question from the Visitation Sisters, which in turn presupposes that they were familiar with a manner of speech which was beginning to spread. The Bishop of Geneva lets this be seen from his very first words:

It is a very difficult question you ask: what is the spirit of your Rules and how are you to acquire it. Now, before speaking of that spirit, you must first learn what it means to have the spirit of a Rule; for normally we hear it said: such-and-such a religious has the true spirit of his Rule.

The remainder of the talk allows us to see almost taking place before our eyes the semantic evolution which the word spirit was undergoing. In order to find a biblical precedent for the doctrine he was about to develop, the founder of the Visitation began by pointing out, from a comparison between Luke 1:17 and 9:55, an opposition between the spirit of severity of Elias and the spirit of gentleness which was Christ’s. It is obvious that, for St. Francis de Sales, an expression like spirit of severity meant a severe manner of acting, a natural or acquired disposition to act more from severity than from gentleness. A century earlier, similar expressions, which had came into the French of the Middle Ages under the influence of biblical translations, were still much closer to the original Hebrew idiom. We know that expressions in which pneuma or spiritus is coupled with a genitive of virtue or vice are entirely foreign to the genius of the classical languages, and that they represent unmistakable Hebraisms, the genitive in these cases being used in place of the adjective, which is lacking in Hebrew. Spiritus humilitatis therefore originally meant no more than spiritus humilis ar humiliatus. Whatever the exact meaning given to such unusual expressions when they were repeated by the authors of the Middle Ages, it does seem that the existence of such a manner of speech, once it had passed into French, speeded up the evolution of the word spirit from an ontological to a dynamic sense. Let us explain. Like the heart or the soul, the spirit of man may be filled with humility or with the desire for revenge. But, although one never spoke of soul of vengeance or heart of humility, the fact that, following the example of the Bible, one could speak of the spirit of vengeance and the spirit of humility inclined one to consider the spirit as the active internal principle which allowed vengeance or humility to be transformed into habitual and lasting behaviour. To put our finger on the precise moment, circumstances and causes of this change of meaning would be a delicate task indeed. But it is certain, at any rate, that it had already taken place when St. Francis de Sales spoke.

Having thus found a biblical precedent for the notion of spirit, the saint goes on to speak of the spirit proper to a rule or to a religious congregation:

All religious congregations and devotional gatherings have a general spirit common to them all, and each one has a particular spirit proper to itself. The general spirit is the aim which they all have to aspire to the perfection of charity; but the particular spirit of each is the means employed to reach that perfection, i.e. to arrive at union of the soul with God and with its neighbour for the love of God; as regards God, this is brought about by the union of our will with His, and as regards our neighbour, by gentleness, a virtue which is immediately dependent on charity.
We come now to the particular spirit: it is certainly very different in the various orders. Some are united to God and neighbour by contemplation, and for this they have great solitude, have as little contact with the world as possible and do not even speak to each other except at certain times; they also unite themselves to their neighbour through prayer, by praying to God for him. On the other hand, the particular spirit of others is also to unite themselves to God and neighbour, but by means of action, although of a spiritual nature. They unite themselves to God, but they do so by bringing their neighbour to Him by means of study, preaching, confessions, conferences and other pious activities; and in order to bring about his union of the neighbour with God all the better they have contact with the world. They do of course untie themselves with God through prayer, but their principal aim is what we have just described, namely to try and convert souls and lead them to union with God. Some have a hard and severe spirit, completely despising the world with all its vanities and sensuality, so that their example will lead men to the same contempt for the things of earth; and the roughness of their habit and way of life serves this purpose. Others have a different spirit, and it is very necessary to know the particular spirit of each religious congregation and pious association; and to discover this one must consider the purpose for which it was founded and the various means it employs for the attainment of its end. There is the general spirit common to all congregations, as we have said; but I am speaking here of the particular spirit proper to each, the spirit we ought to love so much that we are impelled to embrace with all our heart whatever we find in keeping with that aim.

It is no reflection on the spiritual genius of the Bishop of Geneva to underline the difficulty he experienced in trying to disentangle the notion of spirit from that of end or aim of the institute. We see here how much the word spirit remains attached to its intellectualistic meaning. In defining the general spirit as the aiming towards the perfection of charity, St Francis de Sales hardly departs from the Latin according to which mens already has the twofold meaning of spirit in the ontological sense and in the sense of intention. As for the particular spirit of each institute, it is what each one proposes to do to bring about union with God and neighbour. There again we are in the order of intention. At the present day one would ,have no ,difficulty in mentioning ten congregations which, although they have the same general and particular aims and the same fundamental means of attaining them, nevertheless differ very much in spirit. The text from St. Francis is interesting precisely because it gives us the birth, as it were, of the notion of spirit of a society, the moment when, although still dependent on the ideas in terms of which religious orders had until then been individualised, it was beginning to acquire an autonomy of its own. It had undoubtedly acquired this autonomy when, passing to the concrete case of the congregation of the Visitation, the Bishop of Geneva hit upon the biblical manner of speech studied above and said:

Now, to come in detail to the end for which our Congregation of the Visitation was founded, and thus the more easily to understand the particular spirit of the Visitation, I have always considered it to be a spirit of profound humility towards God and great gentleness towards one’s neighbour; so much so that insofar as there is less severity as regards the body, there must be all the more gentleness of heart.

In its concrete application to a congregation, therefore, the notion of spirit presents much more suppleness here than in the general theory, and in this text we come very close indeed to the modern meaning of the term. As far as the difficulty of the subject will allow, however, we must still try to discover the various ways in which this notion acquired the different shades of meaning which it has at present.

a. The spirit as a collection of characteristic features
Along one line of the word’s evolution, the spirit of a society appears, rather empirically, as the collection of all those features which characterise and enable us to individualise the society in question. Thus Voltaire tells us, in the large Encyclopaedia, that the term “spirit of a body, spirit of a society,” is used “to describe the customs, manner of thought, behaviour, and prejudices of a body.” According to this point of view, the spirit is revealed after an examination which separates the characteristic features of the body from those which it has in common with all other societies. In a similar manner, in the 18th century the name “spirit” of an author was given to a collection of selected passages from his works, in which judicious sorting presented the most characteristic pages of the writer in question. If we wish to know how it happened that the word spirit should come to mean a collection of characteristic elements, we must probably go back to the interpenetration of scientific and philosophical language which, on this point as on so many others, was such a feature of Renaissance thought. It is well known that in the physics, chemistry and medicine of the period, the name spirit was given to the most tenuous part of matter, to those invisible and intangible bodies in which life was thought to reside. In chemistry, especially, spirit was the subtle and volatile liquid produced by distillation and in which was concentrated all that was best in the distilled substance, all that gave it power. It seems that in a similar manner, on the plane of thought, spirit was spoken of as an intangible reality in which the originality of a work or of an institution was enshrined, and which explained the existence of characteristic features. Although this point of view is obviously far from including all the riches contained in the notion of spirit of a society, it is nevertheless extremely widespread and has heavily marked a whole manner of speech and thought still common.

b. Spirit as a principle of action
In restoring to its rightful place, both on the scientific and philosophical planes, the notion of spirit as a vital principle –a notion which, in fairly complex ways, was connected with certain aspects of the Stoic pneuma–, the Renaissance opened the door to another line of evolution of the word spirit, a line which is distinct from the previous one although they have inevitable points of contact.

The principle of physical life, spirit, by analogy in the moral order, came to mean a principle of action, inspiring and giving life to a complete pattern of behaviour. Here we no longer have an empirical point of view influenced by the natural sciences, but the more directly philosophical outlook which spontaneously goes to first causes. Instead of tending to become the end-product of a certain analysis, a collection of features, in this line of development the spirit of a society becomes, so to speak, more and more “spiritualised.” This idea of spirit as the directing principle of a pattern of human conduct is clear, for example, in the chapter entitled Spirit of the Institute in the rule of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, composed at the beginning of the 18th century. It is worth quoting the first paragraph of this text, which is one of the first, or perhaps even the very first De Societatis spiritu to be inserted into a religious rule:

What is most important, and what should be most attended to in a community, is that all its members should have the spirit proper to it. Let all the novices strive to acquire it, and let those who are professed take the greatest care to preserve and increase it in themselves; because it is that spirit which shou1d animate all their actions and he the driving force of their entire conduct; and those who have not acquired it, or have lost it, should be regarded and should regard themselves as dead members, since they are deprived of the life and grace of their state; and they must also convince themselves that it will be very difficult for them to remain in the grace of God.

The end of that paragraph was written from a standpoint of spiritual theology to which we shall shortly return. Let us simply point out that this idea of spirit as principle of action could easily be fitted into the general framework of Thomistic moral theology, according to which virtue is the internal principle of good actions. Thus, definition of the spirit of a society by means of a certain number of virtues became quite common, all the more so as the way had already been prepared by the expressions of biblical flavour mentioned above in connection with the text of St. Francis de Sales. In this frame of thought, expressions like spirit of humility, spirit of faith took on a very full meaning which they were far from having previously. Thus we read in the rule of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, immediately after the text quoted above:

The spirit of this Institute is first of all a spirit of Faith, which should lead its members never to look at anything except through the eyes of Faith….

Virtue here really becomes the constitutive element of the spirit and the internal principle of the actions performed by the members of the institute with a view to realizing their particular aim. This is the frame of thought willingly adopted by religious theologians writing about the spirit of their congregation, and especially by Fr. Jeantin, who was responsible for turning the Marist tradition in this direction.

c. The spirit of a society and the Holy Spirit
The notion of spirit of a religious society could not be explained, however, without reference to what would seem to be its deepest and most original source, namely Christian theology of the Holy Spirit.

It is well known that, while revealing the personality of the Holy Spirit in a manner both extremely rich and with fine shades of meaning, the New Testament preserves considerable flexibility in its, use of the word pneuma, even when it has God or Christ for complement. When, in the 17th century, under the influence of Berulle and his disciples, there was a rediscovery of Pauline mysticism and the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian life –and this took place at a time when, under the influence of other causes, the word spirit was evolving towards a vital and dynamic sense–, this polyvalence of the word gave rise to a host of spiritual developments which are directly to our purpose. Numerous examples are to be found in the excellent study by Louis Cognet devoted to this aspect of the spirituality of the 17th century. Take the following text of Berulle, for example, written in 1625:

The spirit of Jesus living and subsisting in the Divinity and by the Divinity itself, the spirit of Jesus personally united to the Divinity wishes to have us live and subsist in him, wishes to come to us and detach us from created things, wishes to take up his abode in us and live in us, wishes to produce in us and through us the effects of his life on earth.

This spirit of Jesus, for Berulle, is none other than the Holy Spirit, but it has nevertheless a psychological content which we discover when we meditate on the interior dispositions which moved Jesus in the accomplishment of the different mysteries of his life. In the writings of St. John Eudes, one of Berulle’s disciples, this psychological transposition of the Pauline data is still further accentuated:

As the members are animated by the spirit of their head and live by its life, so also we should be animated by the spirit of Jesus, live by his life, walk in his footsteps, take on his sentiments and inclinations, perform all our actions with the dispositions and intentions with which he performed his, in a word, we should continue the life, religion and devotion which were his here on earth.

In such a frame of thought, a society of men grouped together to reproduce one of the fundamental states of the Incarnate Word, namely his priesthood, could have no other spirit but that of Jesus. This is explained by Berulle’s Opusoulum 191, entitled Spirit of the Congregation of the Oratory of Jesus:

It seems that the same God who in our day has restored in many religious families the spirit and fervour of their first institution, also wishes to give the same grace and favour to the state of Priesthood, which is the first, the most essential and most necessary to his Church, and to revive in it the state of perfection which is proper to it according to its early traditions and first institution. And it is for the purpose of accepting this grace from heaven, of receiving this Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ, our High Priest, in order to live and work under his guidance, and preserve it for posterity, that we have come together in this place and in this manner of life just beginning. [… ]

As a consequence of this thought and this truth, all of us are bound by the obligation and spirit of this institution to have a special honour and .love for Jesus Christ, henceforth living as Hosts immolated to his service, just as he deigned to be the Host immolated to God the Father for us; leaving ourselves completely in his hands, as organs of his spirit and instruments of his grace, as he himself in his humanity is the instrument personally joined to the divinity.

Such a viewpoint, it will readily be agreed, leaves far behind the empirical approach which would define the spirit of a society as a mere collection of its customs and prejudices. It even goes much more deeply than the simple philosophical concept of spirit as an internal principle of action constituted of one or more virtues. In short, a society of Christians can have no other Spirit but the spirit of Christ, which is identified with the Holy Spirit, principle of all sanctification. Even if one admits, and Berulle himself admits it expressly, that each congregation can live more particularly one of the component parts of that spirit of Jesus, a particular virtue, it nevertheless remains true that in every case the life-giving principle is not the virtue but the Holy Spirit living in Jesus and in each of the members of the institute and leading them to that special form of imitation of Christ which the Holy Spirit himself “inspired” in their founder. We have seen how St. John Baptist de la Salle, in making the connection in his rule for the Brothers quoted above between keeping the spirit and remaining in grace, combined the Berullian idea and the more directly philosophical concept of spirit as a principle of movement and of life. A still more notable example of the De Societatis spiritu viewed in this theological and biblical light is to be had in the Constitutions of the Sisters of Charitable Instruction, or Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus., drawn up in the 18th century. As it is not widely known, we cannot resist the temptation to quote at least the first paragraph:

It is a great consolation for all those whom God has called to this holy Institute to think that the spirit of God is in a very special manner its Author and Founder, as though it were part of the evangelical ministry; and that it is he himself who, through the lawful superiors, sends those who enter it to instruct and teach the poor. ‘I1hus the principal spirit which should animate them in relation to such a holy and excellent ministry is a spirit of zeal; but it should be zeal accompanied by all the qualities which will make it agreeable to God and useful for the salvation of souls.

Finally, it was from the same fundamental point of view that those texts were written in which the spirit of a society is coupled with the spirit of Mary. But this last point, of whose importance for the remainder of our study we already have an inkling, deserves special treatment.

d. Spirit of a society and spirit of Mary
Since St. Luke’s gospel places on the lips of Our Lady the words Et exsultavit spiritus meus, the expression spiritus Mariae has been used from the time of the early patristic commentaries. St. Ambrose’s beautiful commentary on the first verse of the Magnificat is well known: “Sit in singulis Mariae anima, ut magnificet Dominum; sit in singulis spiritus Mariae, ut exsultet in Deo”. It is obvious, however, that the word spiritus is here taken in the ontological sense as the equivalent of anima, and it would be a real anachronism to see in this text the concept of a Marian spirit constituting the animating principle of conduct for the follower of Mary.

Berulle was again the first, it seems, who, in direct relation with his mysticism of the Holy Spirit, spoke of the spirit of Mary in a manner which definitely goes beyond the ontological meaning of the term. Chapter 28 of his Life of Jesus is particularly clear in this regard. Drawing a parallel between the relations of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with Mary, the founder of the Oratory wrote:

He is united to the Holy Spirit by origin, being His principle in eternity, and He is united to the Blessed Virgin because He produces and infuses into her spirit a spirit which is the life of her life, the soul of her soul. [. . . ] As He is born, lives and produces in His Father an uncreated love which is the third person of the Blessed Trinity, in the same way coming to birth and living in His mother He produces in her a spirit, a love which is indeed created, but which after His own has not and never will have an equal.

Along the same lines M. Olier developed some considerations of less theological sureness, over which there is no need to delay. With the Flemish mystic, Mary of St. Theresa, the spirit of Mary, clearly distinguished from that of Jesus, became a true animating principle of Christian life. In spite of its disconcerting daring, the following passage deserves to be quoted:

I am not sure if I understand myself correctly. But it seems that through the habit of thus possessing this lovable Mother in heart and affection, our spirit is directed, lived so to speak and possessed by the spirit of Mary, in acting as in being acted upon; it seems that the spirit of Mary does every. thing through me, just as previously the spirit of Jesus seemed to direct and to be the life of my soul which, for a time, seemed to be possessed by him. Then the spirit of Jesus did everything through me; and under his guidance and action I was as it were carried along, passive. I had within me an experimental knowledge of the life of Jesus, and it was made manifest in me.

It is almost in the same way that the spirit of Mary now seems to live in us, commanding the movements of the faculties of the soul, moving and impelling them either to act or not to act, in order to make them live in God in a new manner, in a manner not experienced until now. Mary thus appears as our life, or as a mild atmosphere giving life, an atmosphere in which and by means of which we breathe a life in God in a manner more noble and more elevated than ever before.

Through the Vita mariformis of the Carmelite Michael of St. Augustine, director of Mary of St. Theresa, St. Grignion de Montfort seems to have known the bold features of this mystical union with Mary. His Treatise on True Devotion at any rate, in treating of the necessity for every Christian to allow himself to be led by the spirit of Mary, has considerations almost as strong, although theologically more fully elaborated and nearer to the Berullian point of view:

We must do our actions through Mary; that is to say, we must obey her in all things, and in all things conduct ourselves by her spirit, which is the Holy Spirit of God. Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God: Qui Spiritu Dei aguntur, ii sunt filii Dei. Those who are led by the spirit of Mary are the children of Mary, and consequently the children of God, as we have shown; and among so many clients of the Blessed Virgin none are true or faithful but those who are led by her spirit I have said that the spirit of Mary was the Spirit of God, because she was never led by her own spirit, but always by the Spirit of God, who has rendered Himself so completely master of her, that He has become her own proper spirit. It is on this account that St. Ambrose says: Sit in singulis, etc … “Let the soul of Mary be in each of us to magnify the Lord, and the spirit of Mary be in each of us to rejoice in God.” A soul is happy indeed, when like the good Jesuit lay brother Alphonsus Rodriguez, who died in the odour of sanctity, it is completely possessed and ruled by the spirit of Mary, a spirit meek and strong, zealous and prudent, humble and courageous, pure and fruitful!

This text combines an unassailable spiritual theology with a practical aim which links up with developments already current in the 17th century defining spirit in terms of a certain number of virtues. It is clear that the spirituality of imitation of Mary is given, in this idea of being led by Mary’s spirit, a simplification and .depth which mark a definite and irreversible progress on the much more material and fragmentary imitation of preceding centuries. Long before the Treatise on True Devotion was discovered and published, this idea had become current in Christian spirituality. We find it, for example, in the very first chapter of Fr. de Rouville’s Imitation of the Blessed Virgin, published in 1778:

If you love me, you say to us with even more truth than the Apostle, imitate me as I have imitated Jesus. If you are my children, clothe yourselves with the spirit of your Mother. The spirit of the children of Mary ought to be, like that of their Mother, a spirit of charity, a spirit of peace, a spirit of mortification, a spirit of fear and love of God.

The moralising standpoint, in this text as in the remainder of the work, clearly takes precedence over the theological aspect of Mary’s fidelity to the Holy Spirit. The spirit of Mary already tends to be viewed in the purely natural sense as the combination of those virtues which directed and inspired her conduct. Ultimately, when the spirit of Mary became equated with a certain number of virtues, all interest was soon concentrated on the virtues in question and Mary was forgotten. Some presentations of the Marist spirit have not avoided this danger, and this is a “further reason why we should try to clarify the Founder’s thought on the point.

Before his time the idea of defining the spirit of a religious society by the spirit of Mary was not as common as it might have been. Take for example a manual published at Lyons in 1700 for Marian congregations of the laity, the second chapter of which bears the title: What is the Spirit of the Congregation? It gives us an excellent commentary on the formula of consecration used by the members. The idea of belonging to Mary, mother, mistress and patroness is clearly expressed, but it is typical that there is no explicit mention of the spirit of Mary, even when affirming a special maternity on Mary’s part towards those who consecrate themselves to her.
St. Grignion de Montfort, who, as we have seen, so clearly linked together the maternity of Mary and the spirit of Mary, did not have occasion to apply this doctrine explicitly to the Company of Mary which he founded, and its Constitutions contain nothing on the Marian spirit of his society. Even the prayer which serves as a preface to the Constitutions makes no mention of the equation we should have expected: spirit of the congregation = spirit of Mary. The Plan of the Society of Mary of Bernard Daries speaks of the spirit of that society a number of times, but without mentioning the spirit of Mary. Thus: “The spirit of the Society of Mary is expressed in the following words of St. Paul…” (Gal. 5:22); or again: “The spirit of the Church should be the model for the spirit of the Society of Mary”. Fr. Chaminade, on the other hand, is as explicit as can be from the very beginning of his society:

Although all the religious orders have a common spirit, nevertheless each order has a spirit proper to itself: this spirit is an effect of divine inspiration and it is adapted in a way to the circumstances and needs of each century.

We are convinced that it is God himself who has inspired the foundation of the Institute of Mary, and if we consider the period in which he established it and the aim he intended it to have, we shall discover what great things He had in mind…

Now, God who has chosen us from among so many others for this work, has given us, children of Mary, the spirit which suits us, and that spirit is the interior spirit.

Where do we find the model of this spirit? Our model is the august Mary, who lived only for God, and who bore God always within her, with perfect submission to his wishes. The spirit of the Institute is the spirit of Mary, and this explains everything; if you are children of Mary, imitate Mary.

Fr.Chaminade is clearly dependent here on the great masters of the French school, connecting the spirit of the Institute with God himself, who inspired Mary and inspires us to act like her. The standpoint of spiritual theology has clear ascendency here over the philosophical view of spirit considered as a principle of action constituted by a certain number of fundamental dispositions. Mary herself is kept to the fore in this approach. For Fr. Chaminade, as for Berulle and Grignion de Montfort, there can be no question of living Mary’s spirit by analysing the virtues believed to constitute that spirit and then trying to put them into practice with hardly any further reference to Mary herself. Spiritual tradition prior to Fr. Colin’s time rather draws our attention to the action of the Holy Spirit in Mary, pointing to the personal manner in which she allowed herself to be guided by him; her habitual union with the Divine Persons in fact produced in her a manner of thinking and acting which was completely her own while it had its source in God. The sodalist or the “devoted client,” the member of a society of Mary lives by the spirit of the Blessed Virgin by allowing himself, like her, to be guided by the spirit of God and by taking his inspiration from the dispositions produced in her by that spirit. This presupposes a personal union with Mary which makes possible and preserves the alliance set up between Our Lady and the person who consecrates himself to her. In the measure in which the different members of the congregation live by this union and spiritual conformity, the spirit of their association can be called the spirit of Mary, and not by the mere fact that they practise the moral virtues which the Blessed Virgin is found to have practised. At least this is the spiritual atmosphere in which the spirit of a society became identified with the spirit of Mary. It is useful to call attention to this before taking up our study of Fr. Colin.

In spite of their brevity and schematic treatment, the preceding pages will no doubt have helped the reader to realize that, when the Founder in his turn came to speak of the spirit of his congregation, he could not draw on a clear and precise notion of what the spirit of a society meant. The common expressions at the time would lead him to describe that spirit either as a collection of features characteristic of the Society’s conduct from the beginning, or as a driving principle of Marist action, which in practice would take the form of a certain number of virtues. On the other hand, another current of spirituality of which he could not have been ignorant would lead him to speak of a religious spirit only in reference, at least implicitly, to the Holy Ghost. Should he wish, for the sake of simplicity, to define the spirit of the Society as the spirit of Mary, he was still not free from ambiguity, since the spirit of Mary could be understood in the sense given to it by a spiritual tradition with a theological and mystical basis, or in the more superficial and natural sense which was beginning to find its way into devotional speech. To these sources of ambiguity there was unfortunately to be added the extreme plasticity of his own manner of expression and of his way of thinking, which was averse to any systematisation. It is this new type of difficulty we must deal with now.

2. Approaches to the Marist spirit in Fr. Colin
References to the spirit of the Society are so frequent in the sayings and writings of Fr. Founder, and occur in so many different contexts and circumstances, that a special study of what it meant for him would call for a preliminary search through all the sources which give us his thought. Such research, as we know, has not yet been carried out, since Fr. Colin’s voluminous correspondence has never been analysed systematically. That is why we made it clear at the beginning of this article that our intention was not to treat of the Founder’s entire doctrine on the Marist spirit.

However, the analytical index of Fr. Mayet’s Memoirs, which is by far the principal source for every work on Fr. Colin, enables us to get a fair grasp of the way in which the latter spoke of the spirit of the Society and to uncover the main lines of his approach to the problem. It is to this summary investigation that we now turn our attention, so that we may see more clearly the detailed study of the De Societatis spiritu in its proper perspective.

a. Spirit and “march” of the Society
A first interesting indication is provided by comparing two notions closely connected in Fr. Colin’s mind, namely spirit and march of the Society. The word “march” (marche), in the metaphorical sense in which the Founder used it, is hardly used at all now, but in the 18th century reference was commonly made to the “march” of a century, of a man, even of a book or a style. In this archaic sense, “march” is synonymous with line of conduct, action and behaviour. In Fr. Colin’s writings it occurs along with “spirit” in one of the very first texts containing this latter word. From 1824 Fr. Colin had been against the idea of the Society’s beginning in both the diocese of Belley and in that of Lyons at the same time, “because,” he said, “it would be too difficult for the two houses to acquire the same spirit in so short a time” In 1832, when a house was about to be founded at Valbenoite corresponding to that of Belley, he wrote to the confreres in the diocese of Lyons that he would have no hesitation in going to spend some time with them “to he1p establish in Valbenoite the same march, the same spirit as at Belley”. Here the two words seem to he very close, almost synonymous. We get the same impression from a letter written to Monsignor de Pins exactly a year letter, from which the following is an extract:
The Society of Mary will have many points of resemblance to the Company of Jesus, but it will differ from it in its march. The Company of Jesus is, in a way, outside the control of the episcopate; it is independent. The Society of Mary, in its government will march in accord with the bishops and in a spirit of union with them. […] The spirit of the Society therefore will be a spirit of union and of good relations with the bishops.

If one can march in a certain spirit, it is because there is a real affinity between march and spirit, and yet one feels that the spirit should precede the march and help to give it direction. Some texts written by Fr. Colin in Rome towards the end of that same year 1833 throw an interesting light on this point. Compare, for example, the conclusion of the Summarium: “Haec sunt spiritus, finis et regimen Societatis,” with the following sentence in a memorandum written for Cardinal Castracane a few weeks later: “It is this framework, this general plan, with the aim, the spirit and the march of the Society which We now submit to the Holy See.” The parallel between the two texts is clear, and shows that “march” is the equivalent of the Latin regimen, or government, but taken in a wide sense to include both the administration and the general orientation given to the Society, its line of conduct. But spirit means more. Fr. Colin has just given a first approximate description of it in the Summarium and recommended it to superiors: “Hunc spiritum in se enutriat et in aliis gignat.” Spirit therefore is a living, interior reality, more fundamental than the march. It is the essential, which cannot he interfered with: “I have recast the rule in order to give it another turn, without changing anything in the spirit,” the Founder wrote at that time, still referring to the Summarium. The real distinction between spirit and march, however, does not appear clearly until later, when he made his second journey to Rome in 1842. It was then that Fr. Colin made the well-known statement: “We must follow the march of the Jesuits, but let Marists have the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul.” We are not going to delay over these words here, as we have already had occasion to comment on them at length in a previous article, but we should like to point out the progress in the Founder’s thought. In 1833 the march of the Society was to be different from that of the Jesuits. In 1842, on the other hand, the march was so distinct from the spirit that the latter could be borrowed from one quarter and the former from another. According to the commentary of Fr. Mayet, who was in a position to understand the shades of meaning in the Founder’s expressions, it is clear that march included not only the government, but the exercise of apostolic activity, the principle of universality of ministry. It is the phrase so often repeated: “All that the Jesuits have done, the Society can do too.” But combined with this identity of precise objectives, there is a difference in the manner of acting: “The Society of Mary should carry out these tasks in a manner different from that of the Jesuits, with the spirit of its vocation, with the spirit of Mary.” This last reflection, in spite of its apparent superficiality, is fairly revealing. In it we see the Founder’s thought shift from what is most extrinsic in action, namely the type of work undertaken, to the idea of vocation arid to the one who is the source of that vocation, namely Mary. It was through the word spirit that the transition was effected, and nothing can illustrate better the plasticity of this word.

To conclude these first remarks on the terms spirit and march so willingly used together by Fr. Colin up to 1842, we may say that at the beginning the Founder did not have a clearly worked out concept of spirit. He seems to have begun with the idea of a confused and global reality: in order that there he a Society of Mary, it was not sufficient that there should he communities of Marist aspirants in Lyons, Belley or elsewhere; those communities should think, act and behave in the same way and in a manner in keeping with their vocation. The words march and spirit together were to express what would formally guarantee that uniformity. Spirit therefore has a rather neutral sense here, namely the sense it commonly had since the beginning of the 18th century, when the two notions converged of spirit as a collection of characteristic features and spirit as an internal principle of action. With time, greater distinction was made between a whole structure of Marist activity (government, general policy, selection of apostolic aims) and a more interior reality which animated that activity and clarified its exercise. This latter reality is the spirit, which, in the last analysis, cannot he properly grasped except by going hack to the idea of vocation, to the original inspiration received from God and from the Blessed Virgin. In this way Fr. Colin spontaneously joined a spiritual tradition whose profoundly mystical origin we have studied above, hut which he grasped on the more ordinary and simple level to which it had descended by the beginning of the 19th century. At least these are the conclusions to which we are provisionally led by this first investigation based on the notions of spirit and march. Fr. Colin himself will help us to go further, thanks to a number of texts in which he directly treats of the notion of spirit.

b. Reflections on the notion of spirit
During the winter of 1842 Fr. Founder added to the Constitutions a paragraph in which he attempted to describe ex professo the constitutive elements of the Marist spirit, a text of prime importance which we shall have occasion to study at length later. The composition of this text probably led him to ask himself more explicitly what was meant by the spirit of a society. At any rate, from that date onwards he was often to reflect aloud on the subject, and it will not he without interest to delay a little here over two of the texts in which his reflections were set down by Fr. Mayet.

On the 24th September 1842, at the general retreat, Fr. Colin, who had only recently returned from Rome, said to his confreres:

Gentlemen, we must study the spirit of the Society more and more. I feel, alas that unless we renew ourselves our treasure will leak away. We are so wretched! our poor humanity drags us down! we must continually repair it and set ourselves going again as one does with a watch to make it go. Yes, without attention, without generosity, the spirit of our Society would soon be lost. And what is that Spirit? Great simplicity, great prudence. Gentlemen, every body has its way of acting, its spirit; we too must have our own, since we are a body. What is good in itself, what is good for others because they have adopted it, is not good for us. Let us keep our own spirit. Oh! if we are not careful, the fervour and spirit of our early days will soon die out.

In seeing one Marist one should be able to see all the others. Let every superior see to it that the primitive spirit is preserved in his house. He is the one responsible; let him pay attention to it.

In this text, in which the word spirit occurs no less than seven times, two main ideas seem to he mingled. On the one hand, the necessity for the Society to have a common manner of conduct which would characterise Marists at a first glance, and be proper to them. There is here a kind of natural reaction revealing the need felt by every human association to affirm its autonomy, its personality, its unity. In this direction, the spirit tends to become particular, to become an esprit de corps. Such a reaction is rather rare in the case of Fr. Founder, for whom the first consequence of living the spirit of the Society was to make the Marist hidden and unknown. But then we have the fact that, without any attempt at singularity, or insistence on what is proper to himself, the Marist quickly acquires a “manner” which distinguishes him, even if only by his care to practise discretion and self-effacement, a feature which is not so common. He cannot reject that manner, that spirit, and this is one of the two things Fr. Colin intended to bring out here.
The second idea, certainly still more important, is that what must be avoided at all costs in the Society is laxity, the loss of that generosity which marked the early days. In this case, spirit is no longer linked with manner, but with fervour. One must be faithful to the original inspiration if one is to avoid falling back into a lukewarm and superficial life. It is no longer a question of the Society’s unity in face of others, but of its own faithfulness to itself. Essentially the spirit is no longer that which characterises, but that which animates, the original breath without which life withers. Thus we find closely mingled here in the same reflection those two main lines along which we saw the notion of spirit of a society develop, and it was necessary to realise this in order to avoid reducing Fr. Colin’s thought to only one of the two aspects, mentioned.

Still more interesting is Fr. Colin’s impromptu digression at the beginning of a retreat conference on the missions apud fideles in 1845:

Gentlemen, this short exercise has been set aside to give you some advice on the missions. We have nothing new to tell you, but it is useful to repeat what has already been said, to preserve the spirit of the Society. Otherwise each one seeks to put his own spirit into it; and that interferes with the harmony and puts us on a false path. A society is like an individual. Each individual has his own genius, his own character, his own temper of spirit, a certain breadth of judgment. Well, then, to expect an individual not to follow his own spirit, his own character, is to expect the impossible. It is God who has given him that spirit, that character. He has to make the best of it and not worry about the rest. A society too has its own spirit. Who gave it to it? If that spirit is enshrined in the rule, it is obvious that it is God who gave it to it. Well, then, we shall not do any good except by following that spirit. If we do not follow it, we may make noise and win the esteem of men, but we shall not do all the good that God expects of us.

The parallel made here by Fr. Colin between the spirit of an individual and the spirit of a society has obviously only an analogical value. However, we must try to go more deeply into it. The first term of the parallel is the character factor on which every man must build his spiritual life, accepting at the outset this first gift of God by which he is so profoundly conditioned. The second term is the spirit of a society given by God in a rule and conditioning that society to such an extent that any activity outside that spirit is doomed to sterility. The notion implicitly present behind these two terms seems to be that of vocation. In both cases it is a question of living up to what God expects and to what He has indicated to the individual or to the society from their birth by making them as they are. Theologically, the direct intervention of God to determine the essential characteristics of a society is certainly not quite as sure as His intervention in the creation of the individual soul, but this is not the place to delay over a discussion of the opinions put forward on this subject by theologians of the religious life. To keep to Fr. Colin’s thought, and in particular to what he meant by the spirit of a society, we have to note that he connects it here with an original inspiration coming from on high. This gives to the society a basic character to which it will have to adapt itself, namely a certain limit and at the same time a dynamic principle of action, just like the individual character which both sets the limits to a man and is the source of his activity. Here we are on a much deeper level than that of a mere external “type;” and we are at the point of convergence of the two lines of the word’s, evolution – “spirit” as vital principle and “spirit” as the fruit of divine inspiration.

The idea expressed here according to which the Society will do good only by following its spirit seems to have been dear to the Founder, an idea to which he often returned during his general ate. Thus: “Nothing of good will be done except insofar as it is done in the spirit of the Society;” or again: “I have noticed that those who have the Marist spirit succeed even with little talent, while those who do not have it, even when they have talents, accomplish nothing.” In 1849 Fr. Colin returned even more explicitly to the analogy of the human body and soul:

Gentlemen, a society should have its spirit. The spirit of a society is like the soul which animates the body; if the spirit is good, everything goes well. The spirit of the Society of Mary is essentially a spirit of modesty. Our very name alone indicates it. It should be a spirit of charity, of humility, of modesty.

The affirmation that every society should have its spirit, a vitalist concept of this spirit, the tendency to make it consist of one or more virtues but with the intention of connecting it with Mary, whose name we bear; practically all the reflections suggested to Fr. Colin by the notion of spirit of the Society and already mentioned above are to be found here in these few lines. We feel here both the natural richness of his thought and how little effort he has made to organise that richness systematically. We shall find a confirmation of the same fact in the extreme variety of the points of reference chosen by Fr. Founder to define the Marist spirit.

c. Points of reference
What we have said so far sufficiently shows the lack of precision in the notion of the spirit of a society both before Fr. Colin and in the Founder’s own mind, so that we are not surprised that the latter, like Fr. Chaninade too, for example, should have sought to define the spirit of his congregation by taking successively different standpoints, or different points of reference in terms of which to define that spirit. (58) Without trying to exaggerate points of difference by bringing out the various shades of meaning in each text, but rather by grouping together as far as possible the texts which have the same basic approach, we find that Fr. Colin spoke of the Marist spirit in reference to the Blessed Virgin, to other religious congregations, to a certain social attitude, to a large number of moral virtues, and finally, towards the end of his generate, to a symbolic mystery: Nazareth. A word on each of these points of reference will suffice here, since the majority of them will be dealt with in the course of our study.

The reference to Mary is undoubtedly the most fundamental. It is often expressed very explicitly in brief statements. Thus: “The spirit of the Society is the spirit of the Blessed Virgin;” “The spirit of the Society is different; we should behave like our Mother;'” “How much would I fear that such a spirit should be ours! We are the children of the Blessed Virgin; let us not speak like that.” There is no point in multiplying examples. It is no harm, however, to point out at this stage that Fr. Founder practically never explicitly connected the spirit of Mary with the spirit of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, as we have seen was done many times before him by the writers of the French school and even by Fr. Chaminade. In this sense it is true to say that for Fr. Colin the expression had a narrower range and was not so directly mystical as in the case of those authors. But that does not mean to say that it was merely a pious synonym for the spirit of humility or of modesty. The spirit of Marists should he the spirit of Mary because of the special relationship existing between the Blessed Virgin and Marists, a relationship established, from Mary’s side, by a gratuitous choice, by the gift of her name, and from the side of the Marist, by his acknowledgment of her as mother, model and superior. Since these ideas are the very framework of n. 49 of our De Societatis spiritu, there is no need to delay over them here. We wall see, in its proper place, that what underlies the connection between spirit of Mary and spirit of the Marist, is the traditional spirituality of consecration to Mary lived on the level of an entire religious congregation. From this point of view, the relationship between Mary and her Society is much more fundamental than the virtues: which reproduce that conformity on the moral plane, and so the notion of spirit of Mary preserves all its personal cohesion.

As for considering the Marist spirit in reference to that of other religious congregations, there is little to be said here. The congregations in question can practically be reduced to the Jesuits, whose manner we can adopt without taking their spirit, and the sons of St, Vincent de Paul, whose spirit suited Fr. Founder most. We can only refer the reader to what has been said above on this subject, and to the article of the Acta S.M. already quoted.

Very frequently, too, Fr. Founder, without referring to the example of a particular congregation or to an individual virtue, described the spirit of the Society in terms of a certain manner of conduct to be adopted towards the bishops, towards the civil government and in social relations generally. We can only pick out a few quotations at random here: “I bid you, gentlemen, not to spread outwardly; such is the spirit of the Society; we would only suffer loss as a result;” “Oh! gentlemen, that is not the spirit of the Society; we are not called, like some religious orders, to fight against the government;” “Well! who would want to have the college of Belley in our condition and circumstances? Only the Society; only the Marist Fathers. That is our spirit;” “Should these ceremonies be carried out with great publicity and expense? No, that is not in keeping with the spirit of the Society.” It is obvious that such a manner of speaking, examples of which could be multiplied, already presupposes on the part of the speaker a clear knowledge of what is meant by the spirit of the Society, in the light of which he passes judgment on the various situations which arise. But it is equally clear that these various applications of the term help to clarify and enrich the meaning of that spirit, not only for his hearers but also for the speaker himself. The role played by concrete experience of Marist life, particularly in the field of social relations, is thus shown to be a very important one in the progressive definition of the Marist spirit by Fr. Founder during his life. The composition of the article De Societatis spiritu will bring this home to us.

From a statistical point of view, it is obvious that Fr. Founder tried most frequently to describe the Marist spirit by means of lists of virtues. The first catalogue (humility, abnegation and devotedness) goes back to 1836, and one of the last as well as one of the longest is to be found in our De Societatis spiritu. As for the years between, we can only mention the list in n. 1 of the Constitutions, that of the 1838 retreat, that which served as the basis for a letter to the missionaries on the 1st November 1840, and that of the 1854 retreat, without counting numerous other texts in which Fr. Colin improvised shorter lists. To say that the Founder never repeated the same enumeration twice would probably be an exaggeration, and even the law of probability would lead us to conclude that he must have hit on the same combinations more than once. But the fact is that he never felt the need to find an official and definitive formula, for the simple reason that what he had before his mind when he spoke of the spirit of the Society, was both the person of Mary and the type of conduct expected of a Marist in such and such a situation, while the gamut of virtues enabled him to strike a different chord on each occasion within the same scale.

As for the global definition of the Marist spirit in terms of the symbolic. mystery of Nazareth, there is no need to recall here what has already been said in a recent article with regard to its meaning and limits. It will be sufficient to note that it was still another and most enlightening attempt to introduce a certain unity into the complex reality of the Marist spirit.

Having thus dipped rapidly into the documents prior to 1836, the Memoirs of Fr. Mayet, and Fr. Colin’s early letters, we see how the Founder preserved complete freedom in his approach to the Marist spirit. Not only did he not set out with a clearly defined notion of what the spirit of a society meant, but his rare reflections on the subject contain a mixture of fairly different lines of thought, and in order to express what he meant he had recourse to widely different points of reference. All this lets us see fairly clearly how complicated it would be to study the Marist spirit in all the texts in which Fr. Colin spoke of it. But has the Founder himself not solved this difficulty for us? Has he not taken care, before his death, to condense for us in a single article his last thought on the Marist spirit? Does this written text, to which the Latin tongue has communicated its exactness and sobriety, not contain the clear-cut analysis which is lacking elsewhere? What is really in question here is the nature and import of our De Societatis spiritu. Even less than those other questions, this one cannot be avoided here.

3. Nature of the “De Societatis spiritu”
No one would dream of doubting the fact that article X of the introduction to our Constitutions represents the basic text for a study of the Marist spirit, and is Fr. Founder’s spiritual testament on the subject. These titles explain and fully justify the special place of honour which this text has always enjoyed in the Society. And yet, even before its appearance in the printed volume of the Constitutions in 1870, this article was the object of a severe and formidable criticism which has not been without echo in later times.

Fr. Maitrepierre, one-time novice-master of the Society of Mary, he who, in the words of Blessed Eymard, “founded the Society spiritually” (73) and whom the General Chapter of 1866 had elected to the general administration as spiritual minister, received in the autumn of 1868 a copy of the Constitutions which Fr. Colin had just finished by touching up, with the help of his secretaries, his “old manuscript” of 1842. An incisive, sometimes merciless, but always clear-sighted censor, the good Father, while praising the substance of the Constitutions, applied himself to pointing out the repetitions, and superlatives in the text and expressed the wish that many passages should be simplified and brought into harmony with each other. When he came to the De Societatis spiritu, he allowed himself to be carried away by his wit, and we cannot do better than reproduce his text, the very irony of which is not without interest for a proper exposition of the problem:

The spirit of the Society consists principally in those things enumerated in this article. But how many are there?

  1. humility;
  2. abnegation;
  3. intimate union with God;
  4. the most ardent charity towards one’s neighbour;
  5. flight from the spirit of world;
  6. emptying oneself of all cupidity;
  7. lack of all self-seeking;
  8. profound abnegation
  9. seeking only the interests of Jesus and Mary;
  10. considering ourselves exiles and travellers on earth;
  11. considering ourselves useless servants;
  12. the sweepings of the earth;
  13. disinterestedness;
  14. avoiding display;
  15. ostentation;
  16. fleeing all human consideration;
  17. love to be unknown;
  18. love to be subject to all;
  19. not to be deceitful;
  20. or sly;
  21. to show great poverty everywhere;
  22. great humility;
  23. great modesty;
  24. great simplicity;
  25. leave aside the ambition of the world;
  26. vanity;
  27. love solitude;
  28. and silence;
  29. practise the hidden virtues;
  30. give oneself to the works of zeal;
  31. love to be ignored;
  32. love the hidden life.

What an ideal for the Marist! What a phenomenal religious! And yet all of that is needed if the Society is to remain in existence; this spirit of 32 points is the bulwark against the Society’s enemies; it is the pivot without which the Society cannot move or even turn: Societatis cardinem et firmamentum. Thus the Marist worthy of the name would indeed be a superlative religious.

However, we can lower the standard a little if we consider the points of resemblance in many of these ideas. Do we not find, in fact, certain similarities in the ideas contained in the following expressions:

  1. abnegation, and
  2. again abnegation, and
  3. considering ourselves the sweepings of the earth by abnegation, and
  4. making ourselves subject to all by abnegation and
  5. humility, and
  6. again humility, and
  7. modesty which includes humility or is included in humility, and
  8. simplicity, which very much resembles humility, and
  9. avoidance of ostentation through humility, and
  10. having so selves useless servants through humility, and
  11. avoidance of display through humility, and
  12. avoidance of ostentation through humility, and
  13. having so much humility that we flee from the esteem of men, and
  14. fleeing from vanity in order to preserve humility, and
  15. having enough humility not to give way to ambition and
  16. to practise the hidden virtues, and
  17. to love solitude, that is to say the hidden life, and
  18. silence, again in the desire for the hidden life, and
  19. amantes nesciri, love of the hidden life, and
  20. esse ignoti, love of the hidden life, and
  21. esse occulti, once more love of the hidden life.

These 21 ideas thus refer to three main ones, and even then is there not a certain resemblance even among these three: abnegation, humility, hidden life? Do we find clear-cut shades of meaning here? There is no article so deceptive as this. One reads it with a certain edifying satisfaction, and yet, how it pales at the first probing of a most superficial study, of a simple analytical exposition (74).

This brilliant display of verbal fireworks at least has the merit of bringing out, during the time we spend enjoying it, two aspects of the De Societatis spiritu which a simple pious study would not always notice, but which are nevertheless undeniable:

  1. the author of this article of the Constitutions endeavoured to set down side by side a great number of phrases without thinking, intending, or being able to correct them afterwards in order to eliminate certain repetitions and doublets;
  2. if the article was intended as an attempt at a rational analysis of the Marist spirit, it is certainly a failure, since no real attempt is made in it to give to the whole a solid logical structure nor to bring out the elements common to so many features set down side by side.

But was our De Societatis spiritu intended to be an attempt at an analysis of the Marist spirit, as Fr. Maitrepierre implicitly supposed? We can understand how the former novice-master, commenting on this text with the impeccable logic which characterised his courses of spirituality, should have amused himself by reducing from thirty-two to three the virtues which constitute our Spirit. Several of his successors. must have felt the same temptation, and there will be those among them perhaps who feel a certain secret satisfaction in hearing one of the most venerable of the early Marists voice aloud what they were thinking to themselves. But who would dare to hold that, had Fr. Founder himself wished to reduce the fundamental Marist virtues to three, he would not have been able to do it here as he had done so often during his generalate, then grouping around these three virtues the ‘particular features he wanted to mention? The article, therefore, must have been written from a completely different standpoint, and history alone can enable us to discover what that standpoint was. When, by whom, from what sources was the text composed which we read today? The answer to these questions is not of mere archeological interest. In hearing the testimony of the documents on the subject, the reader will he made aware of the highly composite nature of our De Societatis spiritu. Repetitions, doublets, juxtapositions will then he seen in their true light, not as the negligence of an author who was hurried or careless of logic, hut as an indication of the infinite respect with which Fr. David gathered from the lips or the writings of Fr. Colin those elements which he would have thought it sacrilege to touch, being satisfied merely to set all those gems in one mount. Besides, each of those elements has its own history, which generally begins at the time of the origins, and in more than one case goes back even to the inspirations of Cerdon. In retracing that history we shall discover where Fr. Founder drew his fundamental intuitions. By following the literary sources of a text we shall thus be brought to the spiritual sources of a line of thought. Then we shall probably understand the true nature of our De Societatis spiritu and the importance it can have for us today. More than just the analysis of an idea, it recalls for us some of the great spiritual experiences through which Fr. Founder caught a glimpse of what Marist life was meant to be, and the unskillful but moving catalogue of the particular features which, through contact with experience, gave concrete shape to those original intuitions. Article X of the Constitutions is the garnering, in the evening of life, of a harvest gleaned through long years in an exceptionally fruitful field. Let us not complain that the sheaves are too many, nor do not let us be scandalised if, under its exceptional burden, the cart should lurch a little. It is to this granary that succeeding generations of Marists will come seeking grain for their daily bread’. Rather let us thank God that, undeterred by Fr. Maitrepierre’s too ready wit, Fr. Colin did not cut down his text to three virtues, but preserved its riches of experience and life. The De Societatis spiritu thus remains the ideal text for those who wish to discover in its original source, as also in its progressive enrichment, the inspiration from which our Society was born and which alone can keep it alive spiritually.

Should the reader, at this preliminary stage of our study, intend to keep his independence of judgment with regard to what he may feel is subjective in this presentation of the De Societatis spiritu, we can only encourage him in his reservations. The literary and historical analyses which follow will, we believe, satisfy the need for precise and objective norms which the present chapter can hardly have failed to create in his mind as it uncovered the shifting sands of the territory through which we must now advance. It is at the end of this patient work of historical reconnaissance that he will see, we hope, as the author of these lines has seen, the true structure of article X of our Constitutions, and the amazingly profound manner in which it brings us back to the spiritual sources of our Marist life.

Source: Jean Coste, SM. THE SPIRIT OF THE SOCIETY, Historical Commentary on the Constitutions of the Marist Fathers nn. 49 – 50. Rome, 1963 pp. 445 – 491.

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