Meditations for the Time of Retreat – Introduction – Content of the Meditations
Content of the Meditations
Recent studies have shown us the framework for reading Meditations for the Time of Retreat: a Brother hears in the meditations an echo of his own life. In this introduction we will see that these meditations are, first, inseparable from the way of life that De La Salle chose under the influence of the Gospel, his own story; second, a call to the Brother to express his own life, his story; third, a celebration of the mystery of God’s love. Finally, these meditations throw the light of the Scriptures on the way of life of the Brothers in radical relation to the work of God visible in action, in history.
THE LIFE STORY OF JOHN BAPTIST DE LA SALLE
We cannot appreciate Meditations for the Time of Retreat unless we have an understanding of the interplay of the Gospel and the events of the life of De La Salle, the full human and Christian dimensions of the course he chose to follow, and the direction and quality he gave to his life in the light of his relationship with God. Only when we see the language of the meditations, in spite of its limitations, in the context of the life he lived can we begin to appreciate the rich meaning they had for him and that he intended to convey to the Brothers.
For this we must avoid any oversimplifying of the events of the Founder’s life. Instead, we must enter into his itinerary and read the facts of his life in the light of certain autobiographical documents to grasp in his own language how he understood these facts (cf. Cahiers lasalliens, 45:77–89). We let De La Salle speak for himself and tell his own story.
A complete historical biography of De La Salle, written according to this method, would be of monumental proportions; therefore, in this introduction we restrict ourselves to four events in his life: vocation, commitment, growth, and conflict. These events are at the heart of the critical decisions that De La Salle made in favor of the teachers and the Christian Schools.
In these four key events, we can discover the convergence of previous events in his life: his doubts and hesitations, the turning
point in his resolution of the conflicting issues, and the interaction between John Baptist and his Brothers, on the one hand, and with the institutions and the civil and ecclesiastical authorities he had to confront, on the other. In each case we see an option that takes shape, is affirmed, and becomes an action.
These events are not studied as four isolated, unhistorical moments but as indicators of the powerful currents in the history of a
person, presented in accord with the profound significance of the Paschal mystery, the Resurrection of Jesus.
Through specific acts De La Salle made the decision to accept God’s call to work for the Christian Schools. All his biographers cite, with more or less accuracy, a memoir written by the Founder about the first years of his new Community. This autobiographical document helps us understand God’s call and De La Salle’s response.
De La Salle made a precise and irrevocable commitment to a project that he recognized and accepted in the light of the Gospel. He
vowed all his powers to the work of establishing and consolidating the Society of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Two documents help us understand better the Gospel significance of these acts: Memorandum on the Habit, written to defend the garb, the existence, and the autonomy of the Community, and the Formula of Vows of 1691 and 1694, which shows us beyond any doubt the Paschal dimension of the commitments through which he lived and which he affirmed, celebrated, and organized in a project that responded to the needs of the world.
De La Salle then undertook to extend and to consolidate the work of the Christian Schools (the third event), which he understood
as the work of God. In this we can understand how he realized his charism in its fullness, a gift of the Spirit that he had clearly seen in the beginning (the first event) and that led him to organize a Community for a mission (the second event). The document that helps us understand the profound meaning of the acts of the third event is De La Salle’s Rules That I Have Imposed on Myself.
There were conflicts that impelled the Founder to let go of his authority over the Institute and to decide, first, on a period of absence and then on a total surrender of the role of Superior, all in order to guarantee the consolidation of the work without him. There were tensions and problems provoked within the Community of the Brothers by both external and internal causes. The Christian Schools were not organized within the framework of the educational structures of the time, and certain people were proposing different forms of government for the Community. The ultimate consolidation of this work of God was not through constant victories toward a grand triumph at the end of De La Salle’s life. Rather, what began in a radical incarnation,
he learned, was destined to lead him to a total emptying of self (kenosis). The document that helps us interpret this experience is the letter of the Brothers, written to him on April 1, 1714, asking him to return from the South of France to resume his role as Superior. While not an autobiographical statement, it must have touched the heart of his experience profoundly at that time, for it led him to return to the government of the Community more determined than ever to achieve total self-effacement before his death in order to confirm the consolidation of the body of the Society.
MEDITATIONS FOR THE TIME OF RETEAT: A CALL
Meditations for the Time of Retreat is a call to the Brothers to express their own personal word, their own history. These meditations are, in fact, all written in the second person, something that is not always the case with the meditations written for Sundays and feasts. They are addressed in a very special way to the Brothers, to each of the Brothers in the Community. The communitarian perspective is hardly evident at first sight, but the absence of the term community is only apparent. De La Salle is speaking to each of his sons, insofar as he is a part of this group of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, of this Institute, of
these men associated to give themselves freely to the establishment of Christian Schools in the service of the young who are most neglected. Furthermore, the words of De La Salle are announced in an active Community assembled for its annual retreat. If it is true that the Founder presumes this communitarian reality, it remains, nonetheless, true that his challenge is addressed to each of the Brothers personally, for the Community exists only in the measure that each of its members has been taken over by God, is realizing his responsibility for the salvation of the young, and turns, then, in prayer to God, who calls him, sends him, supports him, and judges him.
Meditations for the Time of Retreat does not provide the Brothers with an historical summary of the origins and the formation of the Institute. It does not give the Brothers a summary of their identity in the Church or of the purpose of their ministry. It does not seek merely to build up the Brother’s ego. If these meditations do succeed in making the Brothers more aware of the dignity and the value of their work, it is not because they provide any recipes for carrying out that work effectively.
These meditations go to the heart of the life of the Brothers by inviting them to consider, in the spirit of faith and zeal, the lived experience of their Institute, the experience of God discovered in their own day-to-day relations with students. When De La Salle invites the Brothers to consider their work in the Christian Schools, he is not engaging them in considerations that are historical, theological, or pedagogical. He is not urging the Brothers with abstract reasons derived from theological or pedagogical theories, nor even from the Bible. Rather, he invites the Brothers to deepen their understanding, through contemplation and prayer, of the purpose of their being Brothers, not what they are living for but for whom they exist as Brothers. The Founder is helping them both to study the substance of their daily experience in the educational service they provide and to see the Gospel dimensions of this service and of all that it demands.
At the same time that he is focusing a Brother’s attention on the concrete details of his life, helping him understand better that his way of life with his students constitutes the center of his religious experience, De La Salle invites the Brother to break through space and time, and he reveals to him the mystery of God at the very heart of this way of life. This opening to the transcendent mystery, far from diminishing the concrete dimensions of the Brother’s existence, allows him to see with new eyes the fullness of his being—the presence of God, where God’s work is visible and effective on behalf of the children of the poor. In doing all this, De La Salle is not plunging the Brother into mere introspection, a closing in on himself. Rather, the Founder is placing the Brother at the heart of the wonderful things of God within his own existence, announcing to him what the Lord is telling him today.
“What was the secret of this priest from Reims that explains the perduring success his Institute has had, a success without precedent in history?” In many ways I would suggest the secret of this success is the fact that today, the problems de la Salle faced are no less evident today.
What he found was a truth about how to reach children who clearly needed to be reached. Saint John Baptist de la Salle allowed his heart to be moved by the plight of those poor children who had no opportunity. And in allowing his heart to be moved by the plight of the poor, he was open to hear the voice of God.
This introduction shows why the ground-breaking work may not have been recognized in the Church. As might be typical of those who go quietly about their work, there was not always the need or desire to tout their mission or even their founder.
But the insights of Saint John Baptist de la Salle not only provide a way of holiness for him, but also for us. Hopefully in reading about his insights you will find your own faith and ministry inspired.
Questions to Ponder
If three hundred years after your death, what do you think your legacy would be?
In what ways as a teacher or minister do you find yourself participating in the call of God to you?
Today, who is it you find needs to be provided opportunities that currently do not seem to have any?
The Friar Book Club
The Friar Book Club is a growing collection of works that are designed to be read and listened to, as long as copyright is not an issue. We are currently working on the Confessions of Saint Augustine, have meditated on The Reed of God, and now are diving into the Meditations for the Time of Retreat. The long-term goal is to provide audio and text to be studied and thought about and prayed over. Let us pray for each other to grow in holiness.