September 21, 2023
Saint John Baptist de la Salle

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Introduction. What was the secret of this priest from Reims that explains the perduring success his Institute has had, a success without precedent in history? We trace the writings of de la Salle to find out what his inspirational life says to us today.
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Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay


Development of the Text

History of the Text
Among all the writings of John Baptist de La Salle, Meditations for the Time of Retreat has had an unhappy history. His other works have enjoyed from the beginning a much greater popularity. Those dealing with the professional functions of the Brothers were the most frequently published: Les Règles de la Bienséance, Conduite des Écoles chrétiennes, Devoirs d’un Chrétien envers Dieu, Instructions et Prières. Similarly those dealing with the ascetical principles of the Brother’s life had many editions: Les Règles communes, L’Explication de la Méthode d’Oraison, and Recueil. All these writings undoubtedly made a profound impression on the minds of the Brothers. However, it must be recognized that very often a fundamentalist understanding predominated in the interpretation and the reading of these publications, although there is no question that such an approach did not prevent an element of creativity in the history of the Institute, clearly demonstrated in the well-known variety of educational projects developed by the Brothers. This creativity, it must be admitted, was occasionally impeded by a fidelity to the letter of the text, with its limited perspectives. There was also a focus on the practical and the more observable elements of the writings and an emphasis on precise compliance, which often resulted in a loss of relevance to contemporary needs.

Meditations for Sundays and Feasts, however, even though the book was used almost daily and was frequently cited in the official circulars of the Institute, suffered from the routine or superficial method in which the meditations were employed. They served very often to illustrate only the spiritual thought of the present moment. The fate of Meditations for the Time of Retreat was even worse. Although reedited several times and prescribed by the Rule to be read during the annual retreat, these meditations somehow remained in the dark for most Brothers. It is a fact that there is no reference to these meditations in any General Chapter from 1717 to 1901, that is, from the Chapter just before the death of the Founder up to and including the one held in 1901. Similarly, except for one volume of circulars during the generalate of Brother Joseph (1884–1897), any reference to these meditations in the official circulars of the Institute is extremely rare. Somehow, despite the great attachment of the Brothers to all the writings of De La Salle, Meditations for the Time of Retreat has been hardly known.

Several recent publications have led to a change of attitude regarding Lasallian studies. First there was the doctoral dissertation of
Brother Michel Sauvage, Catéchèse et Laïcat (Paris: Ligel, 1962). Without overlooking the other writings of De La Salle, this dissertation focuses on Meditations for the Time of Retreat as central to Lasallian thought. Brother Michel’s very systematic study of the New Testament citations in these meditations furthered a rediscovery of the depth of meaning in this work of the Founder. Another very thorough study, that of Brother Luis Varela, also throws considerable new light on the role of Holy Scripture in Lasallian spirituality (Biblia y Espiritualidad en San J. B. de La Salle, Salamanca: Sinite, 1966).

Through such studies Meditations for the Time of Retreat was rediscovered. The 1966–1967 General Chapter made several references to it; more significantly, these references, especially in Declaration on the Brother in the World Today, inspired the general determination of the Chapter to have the Brothers of today understand and live the charism of De La Salle. Both this understanding by the Chapter and Meditations for the Time of Retreat are the focus of this writer’s doctoral dissertation, L’Itinéraire Évangélique de Saint J. B. de La Salle et le recours à l’ Écriture dans ses Méditations pour les Temps de la Retraite
(Cahiers lasalliens 45 and 46, 1974).

The rediscovery of these meditations coincides with the effort to rediscover the original spirit of the Founder, the task attempted by the 39th General Chapter of the Institute in response to the call of Vatican Council II for the renewal of the religious life. The Council declared that true renewal must be a return to “the original sources of all Christian life and to the original inspiration behind a given community . . . under the influence of the Holy Spirit” (Perfectae Caritatis, 2).

This renewal is not carried out by some kind of fidelity to the past or to a collection of citations from the writings of the Founder. It is, instead, the fidelity of a community of men seeking to hear the call of the Holy Spirit in the needs of the world and of the Church in their own times and seeking to discern the gifts of the Spirit to use them to give witness, in turn, to the good news of the kingdom of God in today’s world.

A constant tradition in the Institute and a critical analysis of internal evidence leave no doubt about the authenticity and the content of these meditations. The precise date of composition has not been definitively established, but Brother Michel Sauvage has shown that De La Salle made use of a translation of the New Testament that was not available prior to 1707. There is also evidence that these meditations were composed toward the end of his life. They are the work of a mature person speaking of what he has lived through “after long experience,” as is expressly stated in the introduction to the first edition.

Sources of the Text

The literary sources of Meditations for the Time of Retreat have not been systematically studied. It is certain, nonetheless, that De La Salle was influenced by the concerns, the ideas, and the experiences of people of his time who were engaged in the reform of schools, especially those who were involved in the training of teachers.

Despite evidence of some limited literary influences, the amount of scriptural citations in the meditations and the altogether personal way in which Holy Scripture is cited encourage us to affirm that Holy Scripture, especially the writings of Saint Paul, is the principal source of Meditations for the Time of Retreat. The citations of Saint Paul are, in fact, so literal that “we must presume that the Founder worked with a New Testament constantly at hand and copied out certain passages directly” (Brother Michel Sauvage, Cahiers lasalliens 1:36–37).

Among the publications during the time of the Founder, one has often been proposed as a possible source because of its structure and content: Meditations, by Father Giry, written especially for the Sisters of the Charitable Schools of the Holy Infant Jesus for the time of their retreat and published in 1696 in Paris. The influence of this work of Giry on Meditations for the Time of Retreat is clear, but his citations from Saint Paul have a meaning that is entirely different from what is characteristic of De La Salle’s use of Saint Paul.

There are sixteen meditations in the work by De La Salle, two for each day of the eight-day annual retreat. They present a synthesis of thought, and their style is conditioned by language that is often rigorous in its simplicity. There is nothing of the pious homily in these meditations. Their plain and direct manner has led Brother Michel Sauvage to state:
Their language is even austere; their style, without any effort at grace. Yet in studying them, it becomes clear that they present a very coherent doctrine, well thought out over a long period of time, each word carefully chosen to carry its full weight, so that analysis is difficult and synthesis practically impossible.

(Catéchèse et Laïcat, 558–59)

It could be said that De La Salle has finally come to understand, perhaps fully and all at once, the direction that God has given to his life; God goes before him, calls him, and urges him on. Because the meditations form a work that is tightly structured, it would be a mistake to read them as an historical treatise or as a theological synthesis. The book is simply a collection of meditations, and it is for the time of retreat.

The annual retreat is a special time of the year when the Brothers consider their life in its entirety in order to get a better grasp of its meaning and its orientation before God. At this special time, the focus in the mind of De La Salle is on the work of the Brothers, that is, on everything that makes up the substance of their day-to-day existence. His purpose is not to provide some examination of conscience on their duties as teachers but rather to discover their spiritual, charismatic identity in the roots of their calling, which is the ultimate purpose of their life.

The main force and focus of the meditations is God, the living God, who calls, who chooses, who sends on mission. It is the God of mystery, whose saving love for everyone has been realized in Jesus Christ and is revealed visibly in the Church by an ecclesial ministry through men who are sent, like the angels, with a special charismatic gift. This gift is put to work in humble actions that must wait in patience for their full achievement. De La Salle constantly appeals to the Brothers; he continually addresses them in the second personal pronoun, you. This appeal is aimed at a dialogue, not with him but with the living God. When this happens, a Brother realizes that the story of his own life has meaning only in relation to the one great plan of God’s saving action for all humanity.


“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
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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.

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