Friday, November 1, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - Gratitude's Abundance

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

To whom ought we to give ourselves if not to the One from whom we have received everything. … This thought and the gratitude we owe him for all his goodness to us ought to have 
frequently occupied our minds and touched our hearts during this year.
 -  St. John Baptist de La Salle[1]

Have you ever noticed that the most grateful people we know are those with little apparent reason for being so? Those who give, give, and give – like Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, and many silently busy unknown saints – have few material things. They do have great gratitude. Compared to those admired in popular culture – sports and movie stars, famous musicians and authors, online personalities, etc. – those with the least obvious advantages possess the greatest ones. Philip Yancey, who has interviewed a wide host of people, divides them into stars and servants. The stars, by and large, he found to be “as miserable a group of people as I have ever met …” But more significantly, “I was prepared to honor and admire the servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somehow in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the ‘peace that is not of this world.’” His experienced conclusion is aligned to what the Gospel proclaims: “The way up is down.”[2]
     Teachers are such servants, educating by word, example, and personality. Gospel seeds appear gently but directly, filtered by life experience, reflection, intentionality, and a genuine care for students. How, then, might gratitude be revealed within the focused, organized chaos of daily school life? What are the deeper challenges in education today to developing a real sense of gratitude? Where should we turn our attention in order to “teach” Gospel priorities?
     Young people are often energetic, curious, and given to spontaneous outbursts of well-intentioned leaps of purpose-filled activity, and popular expectations, whether in society or personal relationships, are not conducive to lengthy reflection or deep filters, especially when it comes to today’s economic drivers. “Successive echelons of youth mean a perpetual supply of unspoilt ‘virgin land’ ready for cultivation, without which even the simple reproduction of the capitalist economy, not to mention economic growth, would be all but unconceivable. Young people are thought of and paid attention to as ‘yet another market’ to be commodified and exploited.”[3] An economic juggernaut that is powered by personalized Facebook ads, clever social media and gaming advertising strategies, easily becomes a society where early Black Friday deals trump [intentional use] the genuine benefits of a convivial Thanksgiving meal with family and friends. While one might say with genuine gratitude that there are plenty of examples of young people who resist these and similar well-hidden societal forces, there is “a gathering volume of evidence casting ‘the problem of youth’ fairly and squarely as an issue of ‘drilling them into consumers’, and leaving all other youth-related issues on a side shelf, or effacing them altogether from the political, social and cultural agenda.”[4]
     This is a large part of the landscape of education today. It is the one within which the gratitude called for by the Gospel is much needed. How? “Isn't it true that gratitude springs up in our hearts more powerfully, more gloriously when what we receive is undeserved, when it is a miracle of divine and human love?” Turning the eyes of youth toward the miracle of divine and human love – in retreats, in personal encounters, in undeserved forgiveness, in just saying “hello” – is an immediate, real, and powerful agent for change. It is grounded in the conviction that God trusts us to be the love that created us. “How wonderful it would be if out of gratitude we lived in such a way as to give God joy, the joy of knowing that He has not created us in vain, that He does not believe in us in vain, that He has not put His trust in us in vain, that His love has been received, is now incarnate, not only in emotion, but in action!”[5]
     At the end of the magical video, Gratitude Revealed,[6] Br. David Steind-Rast, OSB, invites us to notice the blessings that we encounter each day: “I wish that you will open your heart to all these blessings, and let them flow through you, that everyone whom you will meet on this day will be blessed by you, just by your eyes, by your smile, by your touch, just by your presence. Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you.”
     Allow me to suggest that the capacity for gratitude itself is one of those blessings, and the more we notice its presence and exercise its agency for grace, the more we and others will find that God’s presence isn’t all that far away. In fact, we yet dwell within its silent, rich abundance.

PDF of this reflection is HERE.
[1] De La Salle, John Baptist, Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle, trans. Richard Arnandez, and Augustine Loes, eds. Augustine Loes and Francis Huether, (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1994), 384 (Med. 90.2).
[2] Yancey, Philip, I Was Just Wondering, (B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p.91.
[3] Bauman, Zygmunt, On Education-Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo, (Polity Press, Cambridge, UK) Pg. 55.
[4] Ibid., Pg. 56.
[5] Bloom, Anthony, Sermon on Gratitude,

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - The Synergizing Prerequisite for Genuine Education

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Example makes a much greater impression on the mind and the heart than words,especially for children ... They are led more readily to do  what they see done for them than what they hear told to them.  St. John Baptist de La Salle[1]

October 13th will see the canonization of John Henry Newman here in Rome, where I am right now for a couple of months, starting in a new role that will place me here three times a year. Reading a recent book about Newman, I was struck by his fine integration of evangelization and education. Newman’s primary writing for the first half of his life was focused on his weekly “plain sermons,” masterfully bringing scripture to life.  He wrote, “In Scripture to preach is to do the work of an evangelist, is to teach, instruct, advise, encourage in all things pertaining to religion, in any way whatever. All education is a kind of preaching – all catechizing, all private conversation – all writing. In all things and all time a Christian minister is preaching in the scriptural sense of the word.”[2] But was this done just in the writing of heady sermons, sermons that had immense impact and enjoyed wide popularity? Or was there more at work here?

Clearly, there was more to it in the case of Newman and others. Besides being a lifelong hard-working pastor to those entrusted to his care, which included the poor and the weary from all walks of life, the character of his personality was also a significant factor. “While in their priestly offices and personal lives the Oxford leaders remained distrustful of display, the almost magnetic energy produced by so much passionate intensity held under control by a restraining simplicity of life was a source of powerful attraction. To many who gathered about them it made them appear to glow with an inner light.”[3] It was the witness of their lives that brought both credibility and substance to what they wrote, an evangelization of word and witness.

Pope Francis also recently addressed this topic, in the context of working with young people. “Young people have good will, but they can be easy prey to deception as well as impatient. It is necessary to be close to the young people, to give them space so that they can discern what is happening in their hearts. Formation considers ideas and feelings together. ... For example, we must help the youngest to recognize when they live in resignation, and therefore in stagnation, and also to recognize when they live a healthy restlessness. In short, we need spiritual discern­ment, accompaniment.”[4] This echoes De La Salle’s meditation on teachers as good shepherds, who know their sheep individually and are “able to understand their students and to discern the right way to guide them. … This guidance requires understanding and discern­ment of spirits, qualities you must frequently and earnestly ask of God.”[5] (Prayer is not an option here.)

Along with such discernment and accompaniment, the element of personal witness is the synergizing prerequisite for genuine evangelization. How we live shapes how we educate and gives substance to what we truly teach. Personal witness synergizes who we are for others; example outweighs words any day, especially among our students. Pope Francis nicely brings all these notions together for us by contrasting evangelizing and proselytizing: “Evangelization is essentially witness. Proselytizing is convincing, but it is all about membership and takes your freedom away. I believe that this distinction can be of great help. … The Church does not grow by proselytism, it grows by attraction, the attraction of witness. … Evangelizers never violate the conscience: they announce, sow and help to grow. They help. Whoever proselytizes, on the other hand, violates people’s conscience: this does not make them free, it makes them dependent.”[6]  The kind of education that sticks is much more like genuine evangelization.

Education’s synergetic grace through personal witness was best described by the great Jewish educator and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said, “Everything depends on the person who stands in the front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. He is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, he must have been there himself.  When asking himself:  Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? He must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople.  It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.”[7]

De La Salle, John Henry Newman, Pope Francis, and most teachers with some experience under their belts would agree. Wouldn’t you? And if so, doesn’t it make sense to pay attention to how we feed our spirit, pursue virtue, shape our habits, and set our priorities? Souls depend on it!

PDF of this reflection is HERE.
[1] De La Salle, John Baptist, Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle, trans. Richard Arnandez, and Augustine Loes, eds. Augustine Loes and Francis Huether, (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1994), 456 (Med. 202.3).
[2] Cummings, Owen, John Henry Newman and His Age, 153 (2019), cited from Murray, Newman the Oratorian, 37.
[3] Ibid., 30 (2019), cited from “Tracts for the Times I,” iv, cited in Borsch, “Ye Shall Be Holy,” 72.
[4][5] De La Salle, John Baptist, Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle, op. cit., 91 (Med. 33.1).
[6] Web page cited above in # 4.
[7] Heschel, Abraham Joshua, edited by Dresner, Samuel H., I Asked for Wonder (Crossroad, 1985), 62.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - The Dance of Grace & Faith

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash
Applying ourselves to the presence of God is a most useful practice; be faithful to it. 
– St. John Baptist de La Salle[1]

There has been a lot of press over David Brook’s new book, The Second Mountain. In one section, he talks about how “grace” is, or becomes, a part of our lives. Grace, he says, is not the result of a rational process, but instead can only be a totally free gift from God. You can’t make grace happen. This is why: “We have this amazing ability to care about each other and to love each other and love God in ways that are beyond any normal requirement. So we’re just made that way. And it is a gracious universe that gave us this capacity, and it seems to me it didn’t have to be that way.” That’s well put. The next bit reminded me of a positive notion from the 17th century that emerged with Jansenism. He writes, “Faith and grace are not about losing agency. They are about strengthening and empowering agency while transforming it. When grace floods in, it gives us better things to desire and more power to desire them.”[2]
     In an article by Louis Dupré about Jansenism – a controversial movement during the time of St. John Baptist de La Salle – a surprisingly similar perspective is expressed. Beyond Jansenism’s general impact of conveying an “unqualified pessimism about human nature,” figures like Blaise Pascal also highlighted a “humble awareness of an unmerited union with God.” And this deep awareness is not, and cannot be, something that comes from reason alone. “Only from God himself (in faith) can one learn about a total, intrinsic redemption that sanctifies one’s attitudes and grants merit to one’s works. Yes the object of faith itself, the ‘mystery of Jesus,’ is such that it blinds some while enlightening others. Only with ‘eyes of faith’ … can we see the true reality of this mystery.”[3] Jansenism highlighted that it is only the grace of faith that provides the capacity to learn about God’s presence in Scripture, in nature, and in others. Pascal writes, “Those to whom God has given religious faith by moving their hearts are very fortunate, and feel quite legitimately convinced, but to those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reason, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation.”[4] In other words, faith and grace empower agency while transforming it.
     And what engages that dynamic in the lives of ordinary people? Do we just wait around until God decides to shower us with this grace? De La Salle provides a related insight in one of his meditations: “God gives two kinds of reward in this world to those who commit themselves untiringly to the work of the salvation of souls. First, he gives them an abundance of grace; second, he gives them a more extended ministry and a greater ability to procure the conversion of souls.”[5] In others words, it is in the pursuit of one’s vocation, in the doing of good and faithful things, that God’s dynamic is engaged and that the seeds of faith, however conceived, are watered. Like any relationship, one’s relationship with God is also cumulative, multi-layered, built up through activity and attention. There are no shortcuts in the spiritual journey.
     One of the best illustrations of this is provided in the novel Brothers Karamazov, when the Elder monk answers a genuine plea for guidance. “What will give me back my faith? … How can it be proved, how can one be convinced?” … [The elder answers] “By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving , the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.”[6] However, if it is pursued for the sake of honor or the admiration of others, it goes nowhere. Active love is tied to active faith when they are aligned with genuine humility and pursued with pure desire. This careful integration needs at least as much care and attention as whipping up a hollandaise.
     If grace, from God or from anywhere or anyone, is “unmerited love” lived out in daily life, then we are indeed inundated with invitations to jump into the deep ends of things. Thomas Merton: “For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. Yet, the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”[7]
PDF of this reflection is HERE.
[1] De La Salle, John Baptist, Interior Prayer. Translated by Richard Arnandez & Donald Mouton. Edited by Donald Mouton. (Landover, ML: Christian Brothers Conference) Pg. 51.
[2] Brooks, David. The Second Mountain. (Random House Publishing Group, 2019) Pg. 255.
[3] Dupré, Louis. Jansenism and Quietism article in Christian Spirituality: Post-Reformation and Modern. (New York: Crossroad, 1989) Pg. 127.
[4] Pascal, Blaise, Pensees. # 110.
[5] De La Salle, John Baptist, Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle, trans. Richard Arnandez, and Augustine Loes, eds. Augustine Loes and Francis Huether, (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1994), Pg. 467 (M207.1)
[6] Dostoevskly, Fyodor, Brothers Karamazov, Part 1, Book 2, Ch.4 – “A Lady of Little Faith
[7] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. (New Directions Publishing, 2007) Pg. 296.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - Our Encounters (Choose a verb) Our Vocation

Lewis University – New Installation – “The Encounter”

The remembrance of God’s presence will be a great advantage in helping you and in inspiring you to do all your actions well. [1]
St. John Baptist de La Salle - 

Like De La Salle himself, we keep coming back to that central, shimmering, pregnant insight about remembering God’s presence in all that we see, do, and pursue. Christ dwells in the midst of the daily tasks, encounters, decisions, and experiences that make up our day. Where else find the resurrected Christ, the Holy Spirit alive?[2] You can’t think your way to salvation.
This struck me most powerfully recently when I was reading a commencement address by Fred Buechner at a (non-Catholic) seminary. “Again and again Christ is present not where, as priests, you would be apt to look for him but precisely where you wouldn’t have thought to look for him in a thousand years. The great preacher, the sunset, the Mozart Requiem can leave you cold, but the child in the doorway, the rain on the roof, the half-remembered dream, can speak of him and for him with an eloquence that turns your knees to water.”[3] Nicely put! How many of us haven’t noticed, heard, said, or did something that, small though it was, made our world spin? De La Salle’s generous response during the brief encounter with Adrian Nyel at the door of the Sister of the Infant Jesus convent was such a pivotal moment, although even this wouldn’t have happened if a whole chain of other events hadn’t brought them both there at precisely that time, with precisely their personalities and interests, and with precisely their priorities and religious sensibilities. It was this unlikely providential mash-up, if you will, that resulted in an educational movement that was started by a lay man, established and shaped by a priest, and that is now carried out by Brothers and Partners from all backgrounds, vocations, and cultures. You just can’t make this stuff up! It brings to mind parallels to the overwhelming providential circumstances that led to our own blue planet’s physical existence.
“Astronomers disagree on just how rare life is in the universe, but Earth nonetheless boasts several features that make it ‘just right’ for life as we know it. The right ingredients: A planet needs liquid water, an energy source, and chemical building blocks like carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen for the life forms we're familiar with to thrive. The right crust: Gas giants and molten worlds need not apply. Luckily, Earth possesses the suitable distribution of elements to ensure a hot metallic core and a rocky mantle. The right temperature: The necessity for liquid water also means that planetary temperatures must permit the substance to retain its liquid form in some regions. The right moon: Our large moon ensures climate stability by minimizing changes in planetary tilt. If our planet didn't have a tilt, it wouldn't have seasons. Likewise, a severe tilt would result in extreme seasons. The right star: The sun provides Earth with the energy for life and is thankfully rather stable. [Earth lies in a habitable zone that allows water to remain a liquid – The Goldilocks Zone – and have a stable orbit because of the moon’s distance and size.] ... The right core: Earth's solid inner core and liquid outer core play crucial roles in protecting life from deadly solar radiation. Differences in temperature and composition in the two core regions drive this powerful dynamo, emitting Earth's protective electromagnetic field. The right neighbors: Jupiter shields Earth from constant stellar bombardment. Without the gas giant in the neighborhood, scientists predict that Earth would endure 10,000 times as many asteroid and comet strikes.”[4] And this list doesn’t even include things like breathable air, the variety of species, and our human brain.[5]
What does all that mean for us, as educators who value the complexity of God’s presence? Buechner says it best and echoes De La Salle. “God speaks into or out of the thick of our days. He speaks not just through the sounds we hear, of course, but through events in all their complexity and variety, though the harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint of all that happens. As to the meaning of what he says, there are times that we are apt to think we know. … To try to express in even the most insightful and theologically sophisticated terms the meaning of what God speaks through the events of our lives is as precarious a business as to try to express the meaning of the sound of rain on the roof or the spectacle of the setting sun. But I choose to believe that he speaks nonetheless, and the reason that his words are impossible to capture in human language is of course that they are ultimately always incarnate words. They are words fleshed out in the everydayness not less than in the crises of our experience.”[6]
May we each discover the active verb that ties our daily encounters to our life’s vocation.

[1] De La Salle, John Baptist, The Letters, Translation, intro., and commentary by Colman Molloy, FSC. Edited with additional commentary by Augustine Loes, FSC, (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1988), 20 (Letter 2).
[2] "Earnestly ask Jesus that all your work be energized by his Spirit and draw all its power from him." (Med 195.3)
[3] Buechner, Frederick. Buechner 101: Essays, Excerpts, Sermons and Friends, Kindle Edition, Location 309.
[5] For a really interesting overview of all this, see “One Strange Rock” (National Geographic). Available on Netflix.
[6] Buechner, Frederick. Buechner 101: Essays, Excerpts, Sermons and Friends, Kindle Edition, Location 354

Monday, July 1, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - Remaining in God's Presence

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

All you need and all God wants of you is that you remain in his presence. [1]
 - St. John Baptist de La Salle - 

The quotation above is from one of the few letters that we have from the thousands that De La Salle wrote.  While it is only one sentence out of a long letter – and the letter’s tone is definitely 17th century French spirituality – it represents an invitation to dwell in the presence of God that pervades all aspects of Lasallian life. This is an ongoing, recurring theme in De La Salle’s writings and a deep current of his personal spiritual life. His enduring desire was to deepen the spiritual lives of his followers and of the students who attended his schools, so that they might come to realize God’s intimate involvement in their lives, as the one who “guides all things with wisdom and serenity . . . in an imperceptible way and over a long period of time.”[2]
Remembering the presence of God was one of the “interior supports of the Institute,” showing up throughout his writings: “Are you attentive to the holy presence of God?” (List of Topics for Self-Examination)[3], “What is meant by keeping our attention fixed on God? It is to think of the presence of God.” (Explanation of the Spirit of Our Institute)[4], “When you recite the Divine Office … apply yourself as much as you can to the meaning of the words … or simply to the presence of God.” (The Divine Office)[5], “They will be inspired to enter the classroom with profound respect, out of consideration for the presence of God.” (The Conduct of Schools)[6], “At each hour of the day, some short prayers will be said. These will help the teachers to recollect themselves and recall the presence of God; it will serve to accustom the students to think of God from time to time …” (The Conduct of Schools)[7], “When they [parents and teachers] wish to train children in practices pertaining to bodily care and simple modesty, they should carefully lead them to be motivated by the presence of God.  ...  Children should do these things out of respect for God in whose presence they are.” (Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility).[8]
Okay. So how might we go about this “presence of God” business intentionally? One answer De La Salle gives is interior prayer. In his book Explanation of the Method of Interior Prayer, he “defines exactly what he means by ‘interior’–the whole person in the depths of our being, the ‘heart’ in the biblical sense, where vital decisions are made and where there is real dialogue with God.”[9] It is that place of quiet depth and attention where room is made for the small still voice to be heard. It is where serenity and consciousness converge in silence. It is a mindfulness that is focused on the Spirit of Faith, “which should lead … [us] to look upon nothing except with the eyes of faith, to do nothing except in view of God, and to attribute all to God.”[10]
And why should this be something worthy of our attention today? One of the best answers came from Gery Short, a lay Lasallian partner for over thirty years and head of the SF/SFNO office of education for over twenty years – so his experience has been long, wide, and deep. When he accepted the John Johnston Award at the 2018 Huether Conference, he said:
 “We must commit ourselves to firmly establish the spirit of faith as a foundational and effective reality in each and every one of our works. We must ask, how do we make prayer and spirituality, the spirit of faith, the core of who we are and what we are about? How do we make prayer and spirituality real for ourselves as educators and our students in an authentic, understandable, and deeply significant way?”
This squarely hits the mark. How do we, can we, should we remain in God’s presence today? God’s presence shines out from countless undiscovered places in our lives and in the lives of others. We don’t have to put him there. We just have to figure out how to roll the stone away.

[1] De La Salle, John Baptist, The Letters, Translation, introduction, and commentary by Colman Molloy, FSC. Edited with additional commentary by Augustine Loes, FSC, (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1988), 233 (Letter 111).
[2] Blain, Jean-Baptiste. The Life of John Baptist de La Salle, Founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Translated by Richard Arnandez, FSC. (Romeoville, IL: Christian Brothers Conference, 1983). Vol. 1, Bk. 1, 60–­­61.
[3] De La Salle, John Baptist. Collection of Various Short Treatises. Translated by W.J. Battersby, FSC. Edited by Daniel Burke, FSC. (Romeoville, IL: Christian Brothers Conference, 1993), 16.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] Ibid., 56.
[6] De La Salle, John Baptist. Conduct of Christian Schools. Translated by F. de La Fontainerie and Richard Arnandez, FSC. Edited by William Mann, FSC. (Landover, MD: Lasallian Publications, 1996). 49.
[7] Ibid. 92.
[8] De La Salle, John Baptist. The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility. Translated by Richard Arnandez, FSC.  Edited by Gregory Wright, FSC. (Romeoville, IL: Lasallian Publications, 1990), 3–4.
[9] See the article by Maurice-August Hermans, FSC, and Michael Sauvage, FSC, in Spirituality in the Time of John Baptist de La Salle, edited by Robert Berger, FSC. (Landover, MD: Lasallian Publications, 1999), 207.
[10] De La Salle, John Baptist. The Rule of 1705: An English Translation. Translated by O'Gara, Eugene. (Moraga, CA: Buttimer Institute, 1989), 1.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - What Will You Do This Summer?

Photo by Cristina Cerda on Unsplash

I do not like to make the first move in any endeavor. … I leave it to Divine Providence to make the first move and then I am satisfied. When it is clear that I am acting only under the direction of Providence, I have nothing to reproach myself with. When I make the first move, it is only I myself who am active, so I don't expect to see much good result; neither does God usually give the action his special blessing. [1]
 - St. John Baptist de La Salle - 

De La Salle’s life sparkled with a radical adherence to Divine Providence – the conviction that God speaks to us through people, circumstances, events, and requests that arise in the course of our daily affairs; not fate, luck, happenstance, or coincidence, but God’s invitations to move in a certain direction, do a certain thing, respond in a certain way. It’s like the gaze of a young child towards its parent, acutely conscious of the many ways concern, direction, interest, and care are communicated non-verbally. It is the language of loving attention, of contemplation.
Yet there is another piece that might be easily overlooked; i.e., he knew that you actually have to do something in order to learn something; you actually have to act in order to move forward. One of the striking things about De La Salle is that he acted, he responded. He did not just think “Oh, boy. I better do something about this sometime.” Instead, he listened carefully, prayed deeply, thought fervently, consulted widely, concluded courageously, and acted confidently.
This combination of radical trust and conscious action–of faith and zeal if you will–is worth paying attention to vis-à-vis our contemporary engagement with the Christian tradition. A few years ago, America magazine had a book review that disagreed with the book’s substance but also admitted that the thing the author got right was “… his steady insistence that in order to be Christians today–to bear the name of Christ in truth as well as in title–we must relearn two things: practices and disciplines. … [W]hen it comes to the question of how we build Christian persons, how we become Christians in habit as well as in mind, ‘what we think does not matter as much as what we do–and how faithfully we do it.’ [2] The shivering importance of this emphasis on practices can be better seen when we notice that we are, all of us, being formed by the things we do every day. As the philosopher Will Durant put it in his one-line-synthesis of Aristotle: ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’ And what do we do every day? We check our phones; we watch our televisions; we drive our cars. We perform these ‘cultural liturgies,’ as James K.A. Smith names them, by rote. They sink so deeply into us that they become muscle memory. It is these repeated actions that shape our habits, our habits that shape our character, our characters that shape our tastes, and our tastes that shape ourselves.”[3]
It is a long quotation, but every word speaks to our capacity to be aware of God’s Providence. Can the language of mutual loving attention with God survive amidst the habits that are our second nature? Do we have any habits that resonate with God or God’s life in our midst? God’s providential care warrants a cultivated capacity to habitually engage that presence. But this is not very easy today. According to another author, “the convergence of two major trends in our own time calls for a new assessment of the barriers of faith. … These two major trends are (1) the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist reflection and meditation, and (2) the growth of secularism, defined as a state in which theism is seen as one of the many visible choices for human fullness and satisfaction, and in which the transcendent feels less and less plausible.” [4] His proposed solution is the title of his book.
De La Salle’s combination of praying and doing, trusting and acting, faith and zeal, was just as difficult in his own time as it is today. Unfortunately, you can’t just think your way to salvation. If we live in a time where our attention is structured by largely unconscious habits introduced and shaped by popular culture, then it makes sense to 1) be aware of that dynamic in our lives, 2) find opportunities to step behind and beyond such habits, and 3) include at least a few practices and disciplines that resonate with our faith-informed convictions. Without such plain and simple measures, Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation” remain society’s default norm.
So what will you do this summer?

[1] De La Salle, John Baptist. The Letters. Translated by Colman Molloy, FSC. Edited by Colman Molloy and Augustine Loes. Romeoville, IL: Lasallian Publications, 1988. Pg. 75
[2] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Sentinel, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018. Pg. 52.
[3] Gilger, Patrick. America Magazine.  April 17, 2017. “Navigating the Benedict Option” Pg. 20.
[4] Noble, Alan. Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. InterVarsity Press, 2018. Pg. 2

Friday, May 3, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - Why Lasallian Education Endures

Be convinced that, provided you are willing, you can do more with the help of God’s grace than you imagine."
-  St. John Baptist de La Salle -

Why is it that this particular educational vision and approach–what we call Lasallian education–has stood the test of time, going strong 340 years down the line. What is it about this unique educational movement that has allowed it, has driven it, to adapt to so many places and contexts, taking on a variety of education-related works, and persisting through so many challenges and difficulties? Here are what might be called five transformative operational dimensions of our Lasallian network and charism. Others exist, and you may (and should) highlight your own. But these for me seem to be some of the key aspects that have helped ensure its ongoing vitality.[1]
  • De La Salle Himself. John Baptist de La Salle’s personality and approach shape the DNA of this apostolate, this charism. His spirit and story imbue our educational vision, approach, and execution. He was a dedicated, hard worker who persisted in what he set out to do, with a solid faith life, genuine humility, a streak of stubbornness, and natural leadership abilities. He “was content to lead the teachers by the hand, so to speak, to let them see from their own experience and from his exhortations and example what was the best course to follow.”[2] He allowed his trust in God’s presence in and through others to guide the future of the work that they shared.
  • Focus on Education. We do one thing, and we work very hard to do it well. The focus of those in the Lasallian world is on education, writ large. This is meant both literally and figuratively. Our apostolate is education, education, and education. AND such education is not confined to the classroom, to lessons and tests, or only to knowledge and skills. Education for us is a sacred project, a holy endeavor, a privileged encounter. If it deals with teaching and learning, education, schools and services for kids and families, we want to be part of it. Education is our primary vocation, and we are more than content with that reality. It fills our lives and vocations very well.
  • Self-Adjusting, Adaptable, & Relevant. Lasallian education is essentially experience-driven, using what might be called a “monitor and adjust” process for ensuring success. The early Brothers worked together so that the best methodologies for the time were being used, creating new ones when required. They paid attention to what students really needed in their specific context and worked hard to provide it; e.g., teaching navigation and seamanship courses at the school in Calais; teaching ledgers and invoices to inner-city students and life-skills to those working students attending the Sunday school. The “franchise binder” called The Conduct of Christian Schools, was a practical school manual, built over 40 years and constantly revised and updated via a collaborative, experience-driven methodology. It went through 23 editions over 250 years.
  • Community & Association. “The decisive innovation of the Founder is that education is conducted within the context of community.”[3] De La Salle came to see that trained, dedicated, faith-led teachers in community were the transformative driver. He insisted that “union in community is a precious gem, [and] if we lose this, we lose everything.”[4] This community thing is not just a nice-to-have for us. In defining themselves as brothers to one another and older brothers to the young people confided to them by God, they stated both their identity and their mission. The engine for effective Lasallian education, from the very beginning, was a genuine, living, educational community. Lasallian education revolves around what Lasallian scholar Leon Lauraire calls a “pedagogy of fraternity,”[5] and association is a focused expression of community.
  • A Spirit of Faith & Zeal. De La Salle became involved in the work of educating the young in order “to make the loving and saving presence of Christ a visible and active reality” [6] in the lives of those God confides to our care. He came to see that his teachers were to “preach” an alternative way of life, living the Gospel for and with their students.  The addition he made to the Brothers Rule just before he died identified Faith & Zeal as the primary Spirit of the Institute, and “those who do not possess it and those who have lost it, should be looked upon as dead members.”[7]

A PDF of this reflection is HERE.
1] This reflection is based on a longer talk delivered at APLEC 2019 (Asia Pacific Lasallian Educator’s Conference), held this past April 14-17  in Melbourne, Australia. []
[2] Aroz, Leon, Yves Poutet, and Jean Pungier. Beginnings: De La Salle and his Brothers, trans. by Luke Salm, (Romeoville, IL: Christian Brothers Conference, 1980), Pg. 23.
[3] Attributed to Br. Robert Schieler, FSC, Superior General.
[4] De La Salle, John Baptist. Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle. (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1994), Pg. 386. [Med. 91.2]
[5] Lauraire, Leon, FSC. "A Pedagogy of Fraternity." AXIS: Journal of Lasallian Higher Education 7, no. 3 (2016).
[6] Johnson, John. “1998 - Look to the Future,” in The Pastoral Letters (1986-2000). (Napa, CA: Lasallian Resource Center, 2016) Pg. 401.
[7] Brothers of the Christian Schools, The Rule of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. (Rome, Italy: Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, 2015), 11-12. This entire short section of the Rule is worth reading and sharing.
[1] De La Salle, John Baptist. Reflections on Their State and Employment That the Brothers Should Make from Time to Time, Especially During Retreat, “Regarding the Use of Time,” # 10, in Collection of Various Short Treatises.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Lasallian Reflection - Simplicity Isn't So Simple

The more you act with simplicity in regard to what is to be observed, the more the practice of it will become easy for you.
-  St. John Baptist de La Salle [1]

For those of you who have been to Disneyland – and not just for a quickie visit, but for that multiday, multipass, parkhopper sort of visit – you will relate to my recent experience of its focused frenetic fabrication of fun. It reminded me of an insight from many years ago, when another Brother and I spent some time in Orlando, birdwatching and going to the Disney parks there. One day we quietly watched birds while ambling through Sanibel Island, the next we rushed hither and yon from one nice artificial experience to the next. I have to say that I enjoyed it all. But I also have to admit that what I remember, what took root inside, and what I hold most dear today, are the bird-watching days. There is a depth and richness in the complex simplicity of nature that finally and easily outweighs the simple complexity of theme parks. Chesterton wrote, “Men rush toward complexity; but yearn for simplicity. [2]  And for education, “the chief object of education should be to restore simplicity. If you like to put it so, the chief object of education is not to learn things; nay, the chief object of education is to unlearn things.[3]
     John Baptist de La Salle and his early followers knew this well. Some things have to be learned and others things have to be unlearned if genuine education is to occur, and this is especially true in the development of new teachers. In the early Lasallian operational handbook, The Conduct of Christian Schools (1720), there is an extensive appendix dedicated simply to the training of new teachers. These are the opening lines: “This section on the training of teachers comprises two parts: (1) making new teachers lose the traits they have but should not have; and (2) making them acquire those traits that they lack, and which are very necessary for them.” [4] (Notice that unlearning comes first.) Among the fifteen listed traits that must be unlearned are talking too much, impatience, undue familiarity, and partiality. For each, a full description of the trait is followed by how it may be corrected, with specific suggestions. The ten traits that must be acquired include professionalism, prudence, winning manners, and decisiveness. Each one likewise is fully described and includes suggestions as to how to acquire it.
     This approach could easily be applied to ourselves. As Lent continues, are there things that we should unlearn, habits that we might uninhabit, thoughts or actions or tendencies that deserve our attention? Likewise – and after starting to dismantle some of those less helpful traits – are there habits we might cultivate, and thoughts or actions or tendencies that deserve to be developed, or at least started? Just thinking about it all reminds me of walking down a crowded Main Street at Disneyland. Where to start? What to pay attention to? Which shop to enter and browse? It doesn’t seem to be a simple process.
    De La Salle’s quote about simplicity may be helpful here. What would it meant to “act with simplicity” when addressing personal areas that deserve our attention? For me, the experience at Sanibel Island is a simplicity touchstone. What brings you simplicity, peace, and a quiet settledness of spirit? Where are important things allowed to have a voice, to poke out of the chaos of daily life and breathe? Such places of simplicity – which today require intentionality and effort – allow the little things to emerge, allow the birds to be heard and seen. A short, daily evening reflection about lessons learned that day has been the practice of religious orders for centuries. Today, even successful CEOs have discovered its benefits,[5] backed up by a Harvard study that those who do so were 23% more successful than those who didn’t.[6]
    Finally, simplicity requires breadth, and today it is not the practical that deserves our most focused attention. Our souls are like nature, bearing a simplicity that is profoundly complex, and demanding a wider reach. Finally, “it is a fundamental point of view, a philosophy or religion which is needed, and not any change in habit or social routine. The things we need most for immediate practical purposes are all abstractions. We need a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society . . . Desire and danger make every one simple. ‘Take no thought what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed. . . . But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’ Those amazing words are not only extraordinarily good, practical politics; they are also superlatively good hygiene. The one supreme way of making all those processes go right, the processes of health, and strength, and grace, and beauty . . . is to think about something else.”[7]
     As Lent moves towards Holy Week, perhaps it is worthwhile to think about something else, something more like Sanibel Island than like Disneyland. Simplicity does not require a parade.

A PDF of this reflection is HERE.
[1] De La Salle, John Baptist, Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle, trans. Richard Arnandez, and Augustine Loes, eds. Augustine Loes and Francis Huether, (Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1994), 262 (Med. 142.3)
[2] Chesteron, G.K., The Complete Works (2014). Chapter X – The Moral Of Stevenson
[3] Chesteron, G.K.,  All Things Considered (1908).
[4] De La Salle, John Baptist. Conduct of Christian Schools. Translated by Richard Arnandez and William Mann. Edited by Richard Arnandez and William Mann. Moraga, CA: Buttimer Institute of Lasallian Studies, 1989. Pg. 255, ff.
[7] Chesteron, G.K., Heretics. (1906)