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What is Marist Spirituality

February 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Justin Taylor

We often speak of Marist spirituality: but what is it?

First, let us be clear that a spirituality is not a theology, nor is it a vision, a charism or one or more inspiring ideas, or even a spirit (cf. Craig Larkin, ‘Mary in the Church: The Basis of Marist Spirituality’, Rome, 1979, pp. 10-15, who distinguishes charism, spirit and spirituality). I think that sometimes we Marists tend to call ‘Marist spirituality’ what is really something else. In particular, the great Colinian themes – Mary in the earliest Church and at the end of time, etc. – do not, in my view, constitute a spirituality, at least not by themselves, even if they are part of our identity.

1. What is a Spirituality?
What then is a spirituality? Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote in an influential article (‘The Gospel as Norm and Test of All Spirituality in the Church’, Concilium, 1965), that every authentic spirituality – including non-Christian – comprises three elements: there is first the movement of the human spirit towards the absolute Spirit; the second element consists in selfless service; finally there is a certain passivity, which is really a higher activity, in which the human spirit allows itself to be moved by the divine Spirit. These three elements, he continues, were proclaimed in the Bible and fulfilled in the Person and teaching of Jesus Christ. In the last analysis, they ‘are interiorized in the loving attitude of Jesus towards his Father in the Holy Spirit’. Next these three components are realized in the Church, of which the Virgin Mary is the prototype. The various spiritualities, which appear in the history of the Church, are only particular applications of the one spirituality of the Gospel. The individuals or communities that are identified with a particular spirituality will emphasize one aspect of Gospel spirituality – like Poverty for St Francis of Assisi – and make it the dynamic centre of life and action; but, if the spirituality is authentic, this privileged centre will be only a reference point for living the whole of the Gospel.

So we are asking how Jean-Claude. Colin – for we are speaking here in particular of the spirituality of one branch of the Society of Mary – proposes to his followers to live the Gospel in self-transcendence, in selfless service and in surrender to God’s spirit, that is to say, to make our own the loving attitude of Jesus towards his Father in the Holy Spirit? Where is the dynamic centre of life and action in reference to which Marists are called to live the whole Gospel?

2. Is there a Marist Spirituality?
But is there really a distinctly Marist spirituality? The question needs to be asked. For not every founder or foundress gave their followers a proper spirituality, as Ignatius gave his (see Larkin, p. 9). Many new foundations are placed squarely within an existing spiritual tradition, Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan, or what have you. In other cases, the founder simply assumes what you might call the current spirituality, without seeking to add anything except may be a particular devotional practice. The question also needs to be asked because, in a survey of Marists conducted in association with the Fourth International Colloquium on Marist History and Spirituality, few seem to have regarded Fr Colin as a ‘spiritual teacher’, even though elements of his spiritual teaching emerged as enormously significant for many participants (Kevin Duffy and others, ‘The Spiritual Teaching of Father Colin: A Survey of Attitudes in the Society of Mary’, FN 4/3,1999, pp. 313-325). This might at least suggest that Marists do not clearly recognise their Founder as having bequeathed a coherent spirituality to the Society. Instead they tend to look to St Ignatius, St Francis de Sales, St John of the Cross, or St Therese of Lisieux as their principal guides in the spiritual life.

On the other hand, Jean-Claude Colin’s vision of the Society of Mary was in many ways original. Craig Larkin (pp. 53-74) has shown that his central intuition was to see Mary, and so the Marist, in relationship to the Church, the world and to contemporary people – a relationship that is aptly summed up in the ‘hidden and unknown’. This intuition was new and distinctive, and was not simply the current way of looking at Mary or the Church. It implies a new and distinctive spirituality. We want to know what are the spiritual resources that underwrite it, what are the spiritual forces that enable the beautiful ideal to become a reality. How can we Marists share in Mary’s relationship to the Church? Or again, how do we – frail and self-centred as we are – become ‘instruments of divine mercy’? Where for us Marists are the ‘springs of living waters’? And who will show us the path that leads to life? Can we look to Jean-Claude Colin, or must we find another guide?

Although he never wrote a spiritual treatise, not even the Doctrine spirituelle that bears his name, Fr Colin has left us a fairly substantial corpus of spiritual teachings, to be found in the various redactions of the Rule, in letters, including his circular letters to the Society and letters of spiritual direction, and in his conversations and informal talks recorded by Fr Mayet. As we read this material, it would be misleading to think that we should look only for elements that are unique to Colin. Any attempt to construct a synthesis of those alone would in fact give a quite distorted view of his spirituality. For the personal thought of even an original thinker consists not only of those ideas that are unique to him, but also – and even more – of those that he shares with others. In the case of Jean-Claude Colin, his spirituality is largely that of a certain religious and spiritual culture, which he shares. Nevertheless, he has left a version of this common spirituality that is sufficiently personal to deserve to be called Colinian and so Marist.

3. The Sources of Colinian Spirituality
How did Jean-Claude Colin learn to share in ‘the loving attitude of Jesus Christ towards his Father in the Holy Spirit’?

Yves Krumenacker is a contemporary specialist in the history of French spirituality, who teaches at the University of Lyons. Writing about France in the aftermath of the Revolution, he finds that there was no longer a spirituality that is properly Ignatian, and even less one that could be called Oratorian or Sulpician. Instead, the ex-Jesuit networks and the seminaries handed on a spirituality in which the main currents of the pre-revolutionary period met and mingled (L’école française de spiritualité. Des mystiques, des fondateurs, des courants et leurs interprétes, Paris, Cerf, pp. 558-567). In this mix, the Sulpician current, which remained the dominant one in the seminaries, contributed the key concepts and characteristic vocabulary of what has been called the ‘French School’ of spirituality; memories of the Jesuit tradition centred around models of missionary zeal, both for the renewal of Christian life within the country and for the missions apud infideles or ad gentes as we might now prefer to say.

a) Jesuit
Jean-Claude Colin and his companions in the seminary of Saint-Iréneé at Lyons certainly underwent these influences. Jesuit memories provided the figures of Francis Regis and Francis Xavier as the great models of missionary zeal in France and overseas. The young Colin would have come across quotations from Jesuit sources, some of which entered the Rule he was to compose at Cerdon; thus the phrase in quavis mundi plaga, reflecting the spirit of universal mission, which occurs already in the “letter sent to Pope Pius VII in 1822 (‘… in quavis mundi plaga ad quam nos mittere volet Sedes Apostolica’.) It is in fact a quotation from the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus (pars III, c. II, litt. G, et Regulae eorum qui in missionibus versantur §2). Coste notes that the quotation does not imply that the signatories of the letter to the Holy Father were directly acquainted with the Ignatian Constitutions (OM, t. I, p. 264 and footnotes). From the same early period, perhaps, Colin also got the idea of the Jesuits as, in some respects, counter-models, of how not to go about certain things.

The most substantial Jesuit influence on his early formation was The Practice of Christian Perfection, by Alonso Rodriguez, which he rated so highly that he could tell his novice-scholastics at Belley in 1844: ‘By the end of your theology, know Rodriguez as it were by heart’ (FS 79,7). There he learned an ascetical discipline drawn from the great tradition, beginning with the Desert Fathers. We will see that Colin’s spiritual formation contained influences, including Jesuit, that opened up other avenues than those laid out by Rodriguez; nevertheless, this writer was central to the pedagogy that our Founder prescribed for Marists.

Similarly, Fr Colin could tell the young student priests in 1848:

‘I want you to know inside out St Ignatius’ method of mental prayer, with all its acts. I should like to test you on it myself. This should be the one taught in all our novitiates and houses. It must be the same everywhere. It will be in the Rule.’ He added: ‘I prefer St Ignatius’ method of meditation because it is the one most suited to our understanding. I believe God himself revealed it to him’ (FS 165, 2-3).

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