Thursday, May 23, 2024

Marist Roots: Our Shared Vision of the Past

February 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured, Spirituality for Today

On October 2,1868, Father Jeantin wrote Father Colin: Father David and myself found the house at Lyon still quite disturbed over your discussion with Father General in the dining room. Some very quick and very strong words were heard, and some would conclude from this that Father Founder is a victim of his nerves and that it is impossible to come to an understanding with him  (OM. doc. 813: 6).

The discussion in question between Fr Colin and Fr Favre had taken place two months earlier and had been triggered by Fr Colin’s decision to set aside the rule written by Fr Favre and already approved (albeit provisionally) by the Holy See, and to return instead to the constitutions on which Fr Colin had worked since 1817 and which had themselves been set aside by Fr Favre in 1855.

David tells us (much later, in 1900) that, when the people present in the dining room realized what was taking place between Colin and Favre, they withdrew (OM, doc. 887,12). We won’t know, therefore, what was said during that exchange but we know enough about the period to say that the disagreement between Colin and Favre which surfaced on this and on several other occasions, was both deep and difficult to isolate because it reflected two basically divergent views of the Society of Mary.

Jeantin tried to put his finger on this divergence in a text which deserves to be quoted at length. Jeantin is explaining why Favre set out to write a rule different from that of Colin and, after quoting the reason given by Favre, he goes on to say:

Such were the avowed motives which led Father Favre and his council to work immediately on writing our rule.

I think, however, that ultimately there was another reason, not put forward but determining nonetheless, namely that they did not have a precise enough notion of Father Founder. More than that, they did not have a correct notion of the Society of Mary. Anyone who is in the least familiar with Father Founder knows that the destiny of the Society of Mary is that of a religious order properly so called. In this age of pride, of laxity, of materialism, of sensualism, of human and earthly progress, of religious indifference and even of impiety, the Society makes its appearance in order to react against all those nefarious tendencies through humility, modesty, mortification, simplicity and all the other virtues which made up Mary’s character and spirit. In Father Founder’s mind, the Society of Mary is to play a considerable and important, albeit hidden, role for the glory of God and the salvation of souls in these last times. Hence, the high and lofty idea he has of the sanctity which members of this Society are to have.

But Fr Favre did not share this view and had less lofty ideas and feelings about the destiny of the Society of Mary. He saw it as a congregation of pious association of priests who lived under a broad and easy rule, who gave missions, ran schools, did apostolic work within a limited scope and in a very unimportant capacity. Nor do I say this just on my own. I heard Father General himself talk about the Society of Mary in this way and blame Father Colin for having too high an idea of the Society and for wanting to found a “great religious order” (these are his own words) (NHC).

Colin’s view of the Society was more complex than Jeantin suggests, but it would be difficult to point up more clearly what vision is and how Colin had it and Favre did not.

As we look at Colin’s vision of reality and try to understand how it worked for him, a comparison may be of help. Artists have vision. How does it work for them? As I watched Flannery O’Connor reflect on her art in The Habit of Being and in Mystery and Manners, three factors seemed to have combined to give her writing its special power. One is the sureness with which she identified her gift as a writer; another is the ruthlessness with which she stripped her work of anything phony or pretentious; the third is her ability to learn from others.

O’Connor’s awareness of her gift is very clearheaded. She wrote to a friend: “Don’t think I write for purgation. I write because I write well” (Habit of Being, p.127). But she is also aware of the giver of the gift: “Ultimately, you write what you can, what God gives you” (p. 115). The challenge, then, is to work in the line of one’s gift.. There is a topic about which she comments: “I should keep my hands of it until I feel that what I can do with it will be right, which is to say, given” (p.117). What happens when the artist works in the line of his or her gift is that he or she strikes the solid rock of truth, an experience O’Connor refers to when she writes: “I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve written, and this because there is a good deal more in it than I understand myself’ (p.140).

Awareness of one’s gift, however, would not make an artist unless it were accompanied by the very demanding discipline described by O’Connor in the following words:

Maritain says that to produce a work of art requires the ‘constant attention of the purified mind, and the business of the purified mind in this case is to see that those elements of the personality (of the artist) that don’t bear on the subject at hand are excluded. Stories don’t bear on the subject at hand are exclude. Stories don’t lie when left to themselves. Everything has to be subordinate to a whole which is not you (p. 105).

Without the gift, there is no marble to carve; but without the merciless chiseling away of all that stands in the way, the statue will not emerge in the beauty of its truth. The gift determines the scope of the vision; the severity of the discipline measures the clarity with which the vision will stand out.

There is a third factor. O’Connor writes: “The act of writing is not complete in itself. It has its end in its audience” ( 458). The writer’s audience covers a wide range, from his editor to the most naive reader. Sally Fitzgerald writes that Flannery:

“was capable, at twenty-three, of flooring a patronizing publisher with one courteous but steely letter when he proposed to ‘work with her’ to’ change the direction of her first book,”causing the publisher to complain that, “she suffered from ‘hardening of the arteries of cooperative sense’ ” (Habit of Being, p. xi).

Such certainty about the direction in which she wanted to go did not, however, cut. her off from her audience. She was very responsive to any suggestion that could improve her writing and she was thrilled when she found someone who understood her stories p.90). Not being understood by the vast. majority was no cause for concern, but her writing struck a responsive chord in a sufficient number of people of all kinds to allow her to believe that she was not fooling herself.

Having those three ingredients in mind in our study of Colin will help us focus on key aspects of how vision worked for him and how it can work for us.

The first factor we isolated is the writer’s awareness of where his gift lies. One of the striking features of Colin is his certainty about the Society of Mary: the certainty that it is for him, the certainty that it will succeed, the certainty that it has a definite mission in the church.

Late in his life, Colin told Jeantin that the idea of something like the Society of Mary had been with him even before he came to the major seminary of Lyon. Colin added:

This idea was very useful to me. How often people tried to have me join this or that work. With this idea in mind, nothing of all that suited me. But as soon as Mr. Courveille manifested the project of a Society of Mary, I told myself: That suits you And I joined them  (OM. doc. 8I9:9).

From the very beginning, the match between Colin’s spiritual aspirations and the Marist project as put forth by Courveille gave Colin a sense of having at last found hone. This sense became so profound and pervasive that it filled Colin’s first six years as a priest in Cerdon with what he called “extreme sweetness” (OM, doc. 447):

At the beginning, he said, when I thought of the Society, for six years I experienced tangible comfort just at the thought of it; when I heard a piece of news, I glowed all over, my f ace lighted up (OM. doc. 519: 7).

Colin later described himself as having been, at that time, “filled interiorly with a strong confidence equivalent to a kind of certainty that the project came from God and that it would take shape in the long run” (OM. doc. 815). Colin’s first work on the constitutions came out of that certainty and Colin always viewed that work as not being under his control:

The impulse which led me to this work was less a voluntary, and freely chosen impulse than an inner impulse, I would say an almost irresistible one… (OM. doc. 816).

Colin’s sense that the Society of Mary was God’s work was, however, more than that global awareness. What Colin perceived as given had a content. They were words which defined the place and the mission of the Society in the church and the world.

The key text here is a declaration made by Colin at table on January 19,1848, just a month before the third French revolution ushered in the second Republic. The apocalyptic tone of Colin’s remarks reflects the political moment, but, but in a way which seems to emphasize the relevance of Mary’s words. Colin said:

Let us not look at what the societies that came before us have done. When a society begins, it is to fill a specific need. Yes, gentlemen (and here he used a solemn tone), I am pleased to repeat it here once again, these words: I have upheld the church at birth; I shall do so again at the end of time, were, in the very beginnings of the Society, what served us as a foundation and an encouragement. They were always before us. We worked in that direction, if I may so speak. True, the times in which we live are very bad; mankind is very sick. It will need powerful help at the end of time. The blessed Virgin will be the one to give it. Gentlemen, let us be glad to belong to her Society and to bear her name. (FS. doc. 152).

It would be difficult to articulate more clearly and more forcefully how the words quoted by Colin acted as the guiding star by which the early Marists plotted the course of the Society. Beyond that, however, Colin is telling us here that the Society, its role, its mission, are not realities of his own making, but given realities: Mary defines what the Society of Mary is to do. The result is that the measure of Colin’s assurance about the future of the Society is not his confidence in himself but the saving will and power of God. Constant awareness of this will and power expressed in Mary’s upholding of the church was the foundation upon which the Society was built.

The second factor which it is important to isolate regarding Colin’s vision is the care with which Colin saw to it that his own views did not interfere with his vision. Dirty glasses can obscure the sky as effectively as clouds. To use a different image, the little I know about navigational devices would make me say that an effective one would have two characteristics: it. would be related to a fixed point of reference, like a star, with the emphasis being on fixedness or invariability, which is obtained by distance, and the second and complementary characteristic would be sensitiveness to the slightest change in the vessel’s direction, which is obtained by nearness.

Colin’s vision seems to work in a similar fashion: the single-mindedness with which he wants everything in the Society to be directed to the glory of God and the honor of Mary, that is to say to the salvation of all men and women, is equaled only by the ruthlessness with which he wants to allow the Holy Spirit to eradicate from his own heart and from the heart of all Marists whatever would distract them from that purpose. What Colin says greed, pride and self denial will illustrate my point.

As we read the remaining fragments of Colin’s earliest rule, we tend to be taken aback as we come upon the idea that the house of Our Lady should be equipped with three cells “for the confinement of the noxious ones” (Ant. textus, h,12), or that the superior or any of his councillors who should retain the spirit of greed for more than a quarter of an hour shall confess his fault before the whole council and say how long he persevered in that fault (h, 5).

Still, Colin’s point is simply that “no man can serve two masters” (Mt. 6, 24). As time went on, Colin did away with the cells and found less clock bound ways of fighting greed but he was just as adamant in insisting that greed is totally alien to Mary’s spirit.

Another danger to which Colin wanted Marists to be sensitive in the extreme was pride. Over the years, Colin built around the phrase Hidden and unknown in the world a very delicate and versatile instrument to help Marists deal with pride at all levels and in all situations. On the one hand, be poor, humble, modest, simple of heart, be free of vanity and ambition, that is, monitor your thoughts and feelings ; and keep your garden clean of all varieties of pride. On the other hand, and at the same time, be hard at work for the kingdom, use all the means at your disposal, be imaginative, creative, unafraid and unhampered. The greater the tension between your unassumingness and your imaginative zeal, the more you will do without noise, the less people will talk about you, the more you will be hidden and unknown, and that will be the test whether you are about the Father’s business and not your own. After a lifetime of using this formula, Colin marvelled at how rich and fruitful it had been: “When God speaks to a soul, he says many things in few words. This saying, for instance: Unknown and hidden in the world” (OM, doc. 819,122).

Colin saw Marists as called to build a new church. Such a mission can only be carried out by people for whom money and power mean nothing. At the end of his life, when he had his last chance to spell out for Marists what Mary’s society was about, he had not restricted his view of the Society’s mission, nor had he scaled down the demands he made on Marists for total unselfishness. On the contrary, while reaffirming that Marists must be totally alien to greed and pride, he sought out in Scripture the expressions which would most emphasize the depth and thoroughness with which Marists are to empty themselves of self: let them deny themselves totally and in everything; let them seek not their own interests but only those of Christ and Mary; let them look upon themselves as exiles and pilgrims on earth, as useless servants, as the scum of all (Const. n.50).

Colin’s vision for Marists works in two complementary ways: the first has to do with an awareness of being involved in something far larger than ourselves, something that encompasses all of space and all of time; the second is concerned with the embodiment of that awareness at the level of daily living, of the steps we take, the words we say. There is a third factor at work: the vital and ongoing contact with the church without which Colin’s vision would be nothing but the private world of a fanatic. Colin’s insistence to have his work criticized was constant; it can be illustrated by his wish to have the rule discussed by all, by his refusal to move without the assent of the local bishops and by his vow to submit the Marist plan to the Holy See.

In 1830, the Marist aspirants in the diocese of Lyon felt that they had to form a group of priests distinct from Champagnat and the Marist teaching brothers and to begin to live under the Marist rule. A rule existed, of course, written by Colin, and they, asked Colin to let them to have extracts from it. On November 24, Colin wrote Champagnat:

The more I think about it, the more objections I see to making a summary of the rule for you. And here is the reason: it would be necessary that it be read an discussed by all of us together, so as to avoid serious difficulties later on. See if that is not sound (OM. doc. 222: 4)

Colin stood by this principle until the end of his life, and he always considered that the general chapter had to accept the rule before it could become the rule.

Marists are one level of church. Local bishops are another, and the first point on which Colin disagreed with Courveille was on how to relate to them. Courveille would willingly have gone ahead without them. Colin refused to do anything without their approval (OM. doc. 425, 8; 467). At times this could be very trying for the bishops: Colin would do nothing without their approval but he would give them no rest until he got it. One must be careful not to caricature a relationship which was complex, but that was one aspect of it: Colin was convinced that the Society had no future without the full support of the bishops. Of course, he would not change the nature of the Society to please them: when Bishop Devie tried to change the Society into a diocesan group, Colin told him he would rather abandon the plan altogether (OM. doc. 752: 31). At the same time, he made it part of the very nature of the Society that it should relate to bishops in such a way that they would “love it, care for it, protect it and regard it as if it were their own” (Const. 1872, n. 13).

Perhaps as early as 1818, Colin had vowed to work for the Society until the Marist plan, with all its branches, had been presented to the Holy See (OM. doc. 544,12). It took him fifteen years to fulfill his vow, but when he went to Rome, in 1833, it was “to make sure he was acting according to God’s design in pursuing this work” (OM. doc.752, 38). For Colin and the early Marists, making sure that they were working according to God’s design was always a primary concern. Inner certainty, based on graces received in prayer, was a solid foundation for this assurance, but it could only be valid for the one who had experienced those graces.

The conscious and heroic efforts to strip himself of all selfish and purely human views also contributed to his confident feeling that he was not pursuing his own will, but once again he was the sole witness of those efforts. The only safeguard against illusion lay in communion with the church, and ultimately, since the undertaking concerned the universal church, it needed the approval of the only authority which extended over the whole church. As we know, the Holy See disapproved the Marist project when Colin presented it in 1833. As we know also, the story did not end there, although that is where we are going to end it now.

We need to conclude. The question I tried to answer was: what did Colin do that gave his vision such power? Of course, the question in our minds is: what can we do to allow his vision to be a power for us?

Recognize our gift. Much has been given us. Not only our talents and our skills. They are many and varied. But also all. the Marist living that has gone on before us and that goes on still. Marist tradition. Colin. Through all that, a mission in the church. God’s gift to us is Mary’s words to Courveille as Colin heard them: “I have upheld the church at birth; I shall do so again at the end of time “. We may cringe at the thought of the Society being founded on those words, but unless we can deal with that reality we shall walk past our gift without recognizing it.

The second, and simultaneous step: self denial. The word has a really bad press, but it is at the heart of the gospel. Love is a far more attractive word, but it means the same thing: the ability to forget myself to think of you. This is the daily, severe discipline of actual selfless service, without which love is an empty word. Colin is a good master in the apprenticeship of that discipline: he is patient, unsentimental and keenly aware that the Spirit of Jesus does that work in us.

Thirdly and finally: keep in touch with the church. She will not be creative in our place, nor can we count on her to define our mission as Marists nor to equip us for that mission. But nothing of what we do has any meaning unless it be in the humble and selfless service of the body of Christ. What Mary wants to do through us is to comfort the church, to uphold her, to be for her what she was at the beginning. If we do our work well, Peter’s words will be true now as they were then:
You must realize that these men are not drunk, as you seem to think. It is only nine in the morning: No, it is what Joel the prophet spoke of: It shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out a portion of my spirit on all mankind : Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams (Act 2:15-17).

Gaston Lessard sm.

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