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Symposium on structures of animation for Marist spirituality

03/06/2010: General House - Photo gallery

The House of Spirituality at the Monastery of Avellanes (Spain), has organised a symposium on structures of animation for Marist spirituality. This event forms part of the programme for celebrating the 100 years of Marist presence in this house. Forty Brothers and Lay people from the five continents, representing 15 Provinces of the Institute, met from 17 to 21 May 2010 at the invitation of the Marist Province of L’Hermitage, supported by the Superior General and his Council and the Marist community resident in the house.

This symposium was a response to the insistent call of the last three General Chapters for growth in spirituality and conversion. The invitation was addressed to the whole Marist world to become aware of the actual situation in this area and to reflect together and discover ways of working together in the animation of Marist spirituality.

The meeting place was the house of Avellanes, a place of peace and tranquillity in beautiful surroundings where the vista is lost in distant horizons. Its cloisters resound with the presence of the many Brothers who spent their years of formation here. There are the cemetery, recently remodeled, with the remains of the Brothers who have preceded us, the Church, where the remains of a good group of martyred Brothers rest, the walkways and paths which recall the histories of so many persons who have worked so generously for God.

The methodology used in the symposium was ‘see-judge-act.’

During the “see” phase, the participants shared significant experiences which they had enjoyed in some places, such as the spiritual exercises in everyday life, the NUDO project of the Teresians, the IDEM (Itineraries of Marist Spirituality) of the Compostela Province and the experience of the Avellanes community. In the same way, an analysis was made of the existing Marist structures for the transmission of the spirituality to the men and women of the XXI century. It was confirmed that different structures exist in the Provinces for transmitting Marist spirituality, but that some offer occasional meetings without providing follow-up, without inspiring a process. Marist spirituality passes through the way of solidarity and mission. It requires communities to be authentic schools of prayer and spirituality. It needs solid structures and support in all provinces to animate spirituality.

The first part of the symposium closed with the paper of Fr. Ramon Prat: “Questions and hopes of our time: the luminous serenity.”

The “judge” phase opened with a paper by Asunción Codes, a Teresian Sister: “Pastoral criteria which have to be present to favor spirituality today”. In her talk, she insisted that it was necessary to educate in human interiority, to make the way or itinerary personal, to provide education about the new spaces or scenarios for experiencing God and contemplating Jesus. We have to be where Jesus is seen and heard, among the “friends of God, wounded by the same sickness”.

At the time for coming to ground in the “act”, various initiatives were proposed, such as creating a network of houses of Marist spirituality containing a community which provided hospitality and accompaniment for significant experiences and, at the same time, composed and disseminated material in the service of the Institute. Creating in each Province a “centre of Marist spirituality”, promoting a network of (houses... centres... teams..) of spirituality at the level of the whole Institute. The creation of a team-community of animation at the level of the Province. Encourage Marist spiritual exercises in everyday life. Propose itineraries of Marist spirituality, etc.

At the conclusion of the work, the two General Councillors present at the symposium, Josep Maria Soteras and Eugene Kabanguka, encouraged those present to continue along the way undertaken by this symposium with three challenges: Our spirituality is a spirituality with its own identity, with horizons and roots that invite us to a global vision, and tied to mission. And three courses of action: to welcome spirituality, since it forms part of what we are and do; invest time, money and persons to set up reference places, and to develop it together on the Web.

The closing Eucharist was celebrated in the church of Monasterio de Avellanes, full of history and life, dreams and challenges, Brothers and Laity, the families, children and young people who flock there on weekends in our day.



Wrapping up the Les Avellanes symposium
Three basic challenges and three ideas for action

FIRST CHALLENGE: finding our distinctive spirituality

When I arrived at the novitiate, the other novices and I too, were taken aback in seeing how the Brothers were proposing for our consideration a great number of contemporary spiritual experiences: Taizé, Focolari, the Charismatic Movement, Catholic Action, Cursillo, Better World Movement, Oasis, the Trossures School of Prayer, etc.  Those running the formation houses were inviting us  -  in fact were even sending us   -  to such places to offer us an exposure to  various  currents of spirituality.  Yes, the exper-iences were interesting; they were justified as a means of opening us to a wider view of the Church.  All the same, we novices were wondering: what about the Marist Brothers?  Don’t they have their own spirituality to offer to young people?
                We knew that there were Brothers who were troubled by the search for spiritual experiences outside our own milieu.  Such Brothers would often comment, “Why are we searching outside ourselves for something that is inside us?”
                Yet, when we would ask them to show us what “we hold within us,” we would come face to face with nineteenth century kinds of spirituality, very far removed from our novice sensibilities which reflected the contemporary world in which we were living.   At the same time, Marist researchers were making clear  that the characteristics associated with Champagnat were but commonplaces of his time and its forms of religious expression. 
                We began to think that perhaps we did not possess a spirituality of real significance, like the Franciscan spirituality, or the Ignatian, Carmelite-Theresian, Benedictine, etc.; that our spiritual destiny was to be attuned to the movements current in each age, as regards the Brothers’ spiritual life and their pastoral outreach.  Consequently, our Marist Brother spirituality appeared as something “empty,” without a proper content, or perhaps as “open,” meaning available and receptive, perfectly adaptable to the what each age offers by way of a prevailing spirituality.  One might speak, using psychological terms, of a spirituality that “fuses” with the spiritualities of each historical period. 
Even if the conclusion is rather clear, it leaves us little satisfied.  We continue to feel that something quite personal to ourselves lies in the spiritual experience that we have received from Champagnat and his first Brothers.  Even if we may feel a bit like “spiritual nomads,” yet we are neither anonymous nor lacking in spiritual character.  We know the elements that give us identity: a common origin and shared historical memories.  We are well aware that Champagnat did not leave us some fixed, written code, a text like Ignatius’ Exercises or Benedicts’s Rule or the writings of Saint Theresa, or John of the Cross or Saint Francis of Assisi.  All the same we do pick out very striking marks that give shape to a fresh spiritual profile.  It is original, and at the same time malleable, able to assume new forms in each new situation, providing the opening to new written formulas, ever new, never carved in marble.  The written formulas blossom through dialogue with the spiritual currents running through history.  As a result, Marist Brothers’ spirituality shows itself open to other spiritualities, to culture, to the movement of new spiritual currents etc.  The spirituality in question is not sufficient unto itself, a trait which reveals an attitude deeply Marian. 
We are describing a seemingly epochal change that gives us a splendid opportunity to mark out the distinctive traits with better clarity, separating them out from the forms and formulas that have now lost the punch that they contained in earlier times.  Here then you have the first challenge before the Institute: to express in a better way the traits that give shape to our spiritual profile as Marist Brothers; and then, developing the traits, to become better able to create formulas called for by each period of history. 

SECOND CHALLENGE:  a spirituality marked by rootedness and long range vision

While we’ve been at the present meeting, we’ve heard a lot about needing a global VISION, one that frames the portrait of Marist Brothers’ spirituality.  The portrait comes to us often enough in bits and pieces: various strokes that do not have clear boundaries; coming to us in snippets; not able to get beyond self-focus; one in which the Church frequently lies beyond range.   In such a context, the re-discovery of the ways in which Champagnat was member of the Society of Mary gives us a new chance to make our spirituality richer by seeing it as something to be integrated in a movement wider than ourselves who, as Marist Brothers, are just one of its fruits. 
One may reflect theologically, in a postconciliar manner about the notion of the Marian Church or “the Marian countenance of the Church” as reflected in Father Colin and his companions.  The notions echo back upon us today with unexpected force.   They give an ecclesial perspective to Marist spirituality.  At the very least, such a perspective is much better than those that have sometimes been suggested, like perspectives that issue from personal research or personal sensibilities.   The presence of lay people and their flair for the charism confirms that Marist Brothers’ spirituality was not as narrow as it used to appear.  
                This new ecclesial vision, the “Marian countenance,” sets before us a pathway of immense power by which to focus more dynamically those traits which, over the years, have shaped our Marist Brother spirituality.   To take on this countenance does not mean letting go of what we hold dear.  Rather, it will let us re-find, in a new light, what Champagnat contributed to the conjoined vision he share with the Society of Mary.  Such a way of looking at the issue manifests how the spiritual experiences sent down to us by Champagnat cannot be applied universally to all conditions of life, like the renowned spiritualities spoken of above.  No:  Champagnat’s spiritual experience ties directly to an educational apostolate which he and his Brothers took upon themselves together.  The spirituality gets life from the apostolic work, and the apostolic work gives live to the spirituality.  One may see, therefore, that what makes up this spiritual experiences:  an interest in the wellbeing of children and adolescents; a real concern for handing down the faith effectively to a new generation of believers; deep concern for education, particularly for those whose access to the means of education is minimal or non-existent.  Such qualities of the spiritual experience ought to be perceptible irrespective of the professional level at which we work or the kind of profession we exercise, the kind of work we do.  In their turn, all the aspects referred to above, set before us a practical and distinctive pathway for building   -  from the bottom up  -  the Church of a Marian Countenance.  In a setting like this we have a “pure state” Champagnat; little pleased with Big Ideas, he gives his projects wheels. 
Here arises our second challenge: to fashion a spirituality essentially linked to our education apostolate (and its roots) while being deeply caught up in building a Marian Church as ultimate goal.  The spirituality that we have to offer must not turn out to be something with no more vision than an individualistic landscape with its familiar limited set of relationships.  

THIRD CHALLENGE:  a spirituality (a) linked closely to apostolate and (b) carried out in various forms

                In l993, the administrators of a Catalan secondary school made a visit to Germany, Baden-Württemberg State:  a week of meetings and contacts with fellow professionals, visits to a few schools.  We had a fascinating encounter with the head of the State’s Catholic schools.  The speaker made clear that in Germany, the Catholic school gives up nothing in quality to other schools.  All schools keep up at the same, very high level!  No concerns arise about installing more labs, computers, sports facilities, and on and on.  Much more the issue is about: (1) how to get a lucid message out regarding the distinctiveness of the Catholic school (in fact, the speaker underscored that such distinctiveness does not even come with a heavy price tag); and (2) how the schools should benefit all students (and not only the believers who choose to follow the religion classes).   If all get the benefits, this is seen as an additional positive feature giving identity to the school.  What is this “additional positive feature”? 
The Catholic school must bring to light and mold the interiority and spirituality of the students, aspects that are not part of the cultural heritage of believers alone, but belong rather to the nature of the human person.   Such aspects are absolutely necessary for the proper development of good human qualities.  Not a mere “statement of intent,” the issue finds concrete expression in a program aimed at forming a sensibility to silence.  The first half-hour of class at every grade level begins in complete silence.  The teacher is available to the students who go on their own to the classrooms and use the time to pursue their own interests.  In the early primary classes, the habit of keeping silence is picked up via games; and, little by little the children get the knack of using the silent time to look back over what has been happening in their lives.  I found the practice ingenious!   All the teachers have committed themselves to the silence program, seeing it as of real significance independent of ideologies or faith considerations. 
The period of silence has turned into a “meeting place” for the entire school staff.  In fact, the practice has enhanced the practice of silence in their own lives.  It has become something that adds a beneficent quality to the entire educational setting, enriching the lives of all who engage in it.
                All know that the Marist Brothers’ school gives a quality education ideologically-free.  In fact, we come upon our former students across the whole political spectrum, even with political positions not yet in the seats of power.  Their common denominator is not a fixed ideological point of view nor a faith stance (offered by the school, but not imposed).  What the former students hold in common is the educational “quality” that we’ve been able to give them, fruit of teamwork among the whole school staff, neither solely the believers nor solely the Brothers.  Can we offer more?  I feel that we have already begun to create an FMS vision of spirituality that is universal, with the special dimension of getting beyond what usually keeps us apart, a way of putting us in synch with a wide range of people.  Simplicity, family spirit, a deep sense of community, the spirit of work: these are wide-ranging qualities that can get beyond a confessional point of view.  An FMS spirituality linked closely to everyday life appeals to many people, enriches the education field, and opens up fresh chances to make explicit the call to Catholic faith. 
                All the same, such an educational vision of our spirituality need not cancel out the traditional interpretation that joins Brothers to the state of religious consecration.  In fact, we can discover several ways of interpreting our spirituality that, rather than being conflicting, complement and enrich each other.  Only if we think of the interpretations as being in conflict, only if we overlook them: only then we will be losers. 
                One could point out as many as four interpretations.  The most basic one would be to make a kind of “deontological code” of our educational policies and practices, trying to give them a “seal” or “trademark,” that becomes recognizable in all those who work in the Marist Brothers’ mission.
In the preceding paragraphs, one may see a second perspective: to think of educational work as not merely a profession, but as a vocation; giving birth to an authentic “spirituality of the educator,” and involving the full personal life-project of the individual while developing the educational field as source of interiority, of personal growth, of humanization. 
                The third perspective sets out an FMS spiritual itinerary for all who find themselves attuned to Marian spirituality with an FMS quality; that is, rooted in apostolic work and committed to building a Church with a Marian countenance.                  
                The fourth perspective spins out an FMS spirituality as explicit expression of the Gospel, of heartfelt commitment to the Gospel with consequences in the public forum, in the choice made for a life in the service of the Marist Brothers’ mission.  The fourth perspective could take on new appearances to the degree that the lay vocation be envisioned as a new way of expressing FMS life.  Such a development, multifaceted and harmonious as it is, presents the third fundamental challenge we confront.   

FIRST IDEA FOR ACTION:   open the doors wide and give a warm welcome to spirituality

Spirituality will stop being merely a complement, an appendix or a footnote to the degree that we learn how to join it to apostolate, to our daily work, to the Institute’s raison d’être.  Present day interest in spirituality is not merely a passing fancy; it pertains to the very heart of what we are and what we do.  
Here we find a first slant about the work we carry out in our Provinces.  I sum it up by the words, “spirituality is not a leisure time activity.”
Let’s learn from our recent history.  Solidarity has always been a feature at the very heart of apostolate.  However, to the degree that the Institute had to deal with new challenges coming to it (new contexts, new demands for quality, new education laws), all our energy was taken up with assuring the future of our schools, sacrificing ever so slowly the solidarity dimension to mention only one.  A time came when solidarity was put into our free time: after you take care of your school obligations, you can give yourself over to some social action work, some solidarity effort:  on the weekend, with apostolic groups, during the vacation, when you make your retreat.  Gradually, however, we have come to see that this dimension is not an option, not on the margin, but in fact at the heart of our FMS mission.  
Such a post-Conciliar awareness, caused a sense of solidarity to grow in the Provinces, including a new point of view about structures.  If solidarity was a must in the FMS mission, it could not be left to the Brothers’ free time or to special Province projects.  If time, money and personnel were a must for our educational mission, then it was necessary for our solidarity activities to become visible in a structural way, that they be given time, money and personnel.  The very structure of our Province apostolates had to highlight this double aspect of the FMS mission.  Gradually we realized that Education and Solidarity were not in competition, that in fact they enrich each other. 
If the future of the FMS mission rests solely upon two legs, it will fall to the ground.   We are not simply an educational multinational, a solidarity multinational of the type one may find in today’s world, self-referring entities without other values.  Spirituality makes the third leg of the table to hold up the structure and give it stability and meaning.  With spirituality the FMS mission moves towards a certain fullness.  So necessary is spirituality that it cannot be put merely into our free-time space.  It demands an investment in resources; that is resources of time, money, personnel, a presence at the various Province structures and levels.  Province works must reflect this threefold dimension of our mission, of our way of carrying out our work, of being what we are.  As Brothers, along with lay people who are committed to the FMS mission, we need resources that will sustain the meaning of what we are doing, what we are experiencing, just as we give such Province resources over to realize our educational apostolate and our solidarity efforts.  The future of the Marist Brothers rests upon three essential pillars, essential and indispensable: education, solidarity, spirituality. 

SECOND IDEA FOR ACTION: setting up some paradigms or “reference points”

                We are all aware that theology draws life from “paradigms” or “shared sacred places” that base the theological enterprise: the Biblical word and tradition.  Along with the Biblical word and tradition, a new paradigm is striving to open a path for itself: reality itself, as the par excellence place of the Divine Presence and source of inspiration for theological reflection.   Our FMS tradition too draws life from several “paradigms” weighted with great symbolic, emotional and inspirational meaning: our places of origin: Rosey, Lavalla, the Hermitage.        
Following along the same line, we have observed during these days the need to set up some paradigms or “reference points” in order to develop spirituality at the Province level.  Such “reference points” go beyond the long familiar mechanism of a committee or a Province team, even if the fomer do not replace the latter.  Almost always a Province team stresses efficiency in performing its tasks; its goal is a strictly functional one.  Nowadays we see clearly that we need something more.  We have to take the step that will allow us to get to a higher level in developing our FMS spirituality.  The common denominator which obtains for all the “reference points” is the building up of a sphere in which life and apostolate can be shared.  As such spheres come into existence they may well have different appearances, different forms, corresponding to the nature of a given Province.  We would, however, recognize for Brothers and laity, the need to have reliable “reference points” and spaces of encounter to guide and assist the formation of the four perspectives of FMS spirituality mentioned above. 
Sometimes we speak about houses of spirituality, and sometimes of communities or extended fraternities, of support groups that have concentric circle of membership and participation.  In the con-figuration of such places, what counts most of all is that the “point of reference” be a life-giving place, offering approaches to life and spirituality.  A mistake would be if such places became merely a simply physical house, anonymous, developing activities that come from outside itself.  Of course, I do not speak here only of the group or community that takes care of the administration or maintenance of physical spaces.   
                We are all conscious that many of our Provinces possess certain types of resources like houses, properties, structures.   We know too that history gave honor to such places and that they have then been left empty.  On the other hand we recognize in today’s world the thirst, the hunger for interiority.  How can we set up a conversation between our resources so as to give new answers to the contemporary needs?  After rebuilding and remodeling the structures  -  the first activity required  -  we then must begin to consider the search for interiority that exists in the modern world.  Life can dry up if it is not given the means for growth. It is not enough to free up our resources if they do not serve as bearers of life.  There you have the second idea for action. 


THIRD IDEA FOR ACTION:  the future with .NET

Information technology has made the expression “.net” very familiar.   We find it everywhere in today’s world,  Today, it is hardly possible to develop simply by staying in one’s own backyard. 
Nowadays what counts most often is to establish relations, to offer mutual support, to form groups, to build up a network at the service of spirituality, a network of welcoming, through which one can make sense of the various aspects of life that may appear so bewildering.  We are already familiar with the experience through a few local projects that have been created for spirituality.  Often enough, however, they depend upon people who are very charismatic; and when the charismatic type departs because of sickness, staff changes, problems, etc., the project dissipates.  A network can provide support when the charismatic person is no longer present.  The rational for networks and their advantages are evident. 
                All the same the hesitation arises when we being to discuss the manner of setting up the network.  Should it have its base in Rome, with the Rome suggestion of authority?  Is it better that the network remains closer to home, looking on its own initiative for connections among Provinces?   The answers to such questions must bring together, so it seems, the good points contained in each way of envisaging the issue while avoiding potential mistakes.   The present Symposium which we are attending is an example: one Province took the initiative of sending an open invitation to those who might want to pool their reflections and to search for greater light upon the direction that has been taken in some Provinces of the Institute.  From Rome, representatives were also present on the same footing as everyone else, searching with everyone, trying to listen to what has been learned so far, just as the other representatives are doing with a view towards action.
                We think that Rome should not impose anything, and we are sure that it will not set up any detours on the road ahead.  Rome will rather encourage the creation of relations, precisely because such relations help out the smallest and the weakest, the Administrative Units that lack resources or that are having problems to get into contact with those who are essentially autonomous and have no need of anyone.  Yet even the latter become better off because they set up relationship and interactions with those who are small, those who average.  Even for those who feel self sufficient, relations with others ever proves to be an enlightening stimulus: to avoid the negatives of being self-satisfyingly complacent, a situation that brings death through success. 

CONCLUSION

                On our first day together here at the Symposium we read the parable of the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which when it has grown, is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree  (Mark 4:31-32 and par.).  During these days together, we have lived out the parable in our own small way.  Yet, we who place our trust in the Gospel know that it is not size that counts.  What counts is things of value which often have modest origins.  In our hands we hold the seed of the future.  Let us become the “good soil” so that in our Provinces the seed may grow up and bear rich fruit for the Church and for the world.  May our Savior and his Mother be with us on the journey into the future.  
Brother Josep M. Soteras
Les Avellanes, May 21, 2010
 Symposium on Support Structures for FMS Spirituality
Closing discourse on the occasion of the Marist Brothers’ centenary at Les Avellanes

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