The Lasallian Charism In Religious Life Today
Luke Salm, FSC
The topic assigned to this presentation is a
formidable one: The Lasallian Charism in Religious Life Today. It was a formidable
challenge for me to prepare this material. It will be a formidable challenge for you to
listen to it, or even read it later on.
Religious life today, as we all know, if full of uncertainty. About the only thing that
seems certain is that the religious life in structured religious institutes is not what it
used to be. It is probably just as true, if not quite so obvious, that this form of the
religious life has not yet become what it is going to be.
The watershed dividing the past from the present and the future was undoubtedly the Second
Vatican Council. If the Council is to blame for sweeping away many of the structures and
the certitudes of the past, the Council must also be credited with providing the direction
to follow for the future. This the Council has done in proposing that religious life be
renewed in the light of the Gospel, the signs of the times, and the charism of the
The last three general chapters of our Institute have addressed this threefold challenge
with courage and vision. The signs of the times have been prayerfully examined to try to
discern what the Lord is telling us in our failures and our success. The Gospel is
becoming once again our principal Rule as we strive for the conversion of ourselves and
our works to make more effective our mission of evangelization. Finally the person and the
vision of John Baptist de La Salle, his charism if you will, has come alive among us as a
bond of unity in our diversity and a source of hope in the uncertainty that lies before
The rediscovery and the reappropriation of the Lasallian charism is an ongoing process
that was set in motion even before Vatican Ii by the General Chapter of 1956. The decision
of that Chapter to set up a Lasallian research center at the generalate in Rome has
resulted in an unprecedented body of scholarly work on the life, the writings, the
achievements, and the vision of De La Salle.
By the time that Vatican II challenged the renewal Chapter of 1967 to renew our religious
life in the light of the charism of the Founder, the first fruits of that research were
already available. The inspiration and vitality that is evident in the documents produced
by that Chapter -- the Declaration, and the revised Rules and constitutions in particular
-- are due in great measure to the enthusiasm and the expertise of the Brothers engaged in
this fresh approach to Lasallian studies.
In the twenty years that have intervened since the 39th General Chapter, this process of
rediscovering the riches in our Lasallian heritage has intensified. Thus the 40th General
Chapter in 1976 made a serious effort to discern in the person of the Founder the sources
for the revitalization of the Institute. Our new Rule, definitively revised by the 41st
General Chapter in 1986 and now formally approved by church authority, consciously returns
to the thought and language of De L Salle: it is unmistakably a Lasallian Rule.
This movement back to the Founder seems to have captured the imagination of many Brothers
throughout the Institute, worldwide. New biographies of the Founder, as well as monographs
and studies on Lasallian themes, are being published in the various languages in use
throughout the Institute. In the United States there is the ten-year Lasallian
Publications Project that will eventually make available in English, much of it for the
first time, all of the founder's writings, all of the early biographies, as well as
translations of contemporary Lasallian studies done in other languages. The success of the
sessions of the Buttimer Institute these past two years attests to the fact that in this
country the Lasallian charism is alive and well.
The word Lasallian itself now enjoys a vogue it never had even a few years ago. We have
finally agreed on how to spell it. As the Brothers have come to appreciate better the
riches of the Lasallian inheritance, we have been motivated to share the wealth with our
lay colleagues in the schools and, indeed, with all those with whom we ar associated in
what is becoming known as the Lasallian family. It is amazing to see how enthusiastic our
lay associates have been as they are invited to share this Lasallian heritage with us. The
power of the life story of De La Salle to "turn them on" has been a revelation
and a challenge to those of us who have for too long taken the Founder for granted.
One very concrete result of this new appreciation of the Lasallian charism has been the
attempt in recent years to identify what is distinctive about our Lasallian schools. This
collaboration involving some 150 Brothers and lay teachers from our schools has resulted
in the impressive document entitled "Characteristics of Lasallian Schools."
It seems to me that the purpose of this presentation, and the whole session this morning,
is to begin to do something similar for the characteristics of Lasallian religious life.
This necessarily involves two stages: first of all, we have to be precise about what we
mean by the Lasallian charism; then, we can try to see how it applies to religious life
De La Salle does not himself use the word charism, at least not very often, and not
precisely in the sense intended by the Vatican Council. Perhaps the closest he comes to it
is his use of the word spirit. Thus he says in the rule:
That which is of the utmost importance, and to which the
greatest attention should be given in an Institute, is that all who compose it possess the
spirit peculiar to it; that the novices apply themselves to acquire it; and that those who
are already members make it their first care to preserve and increase it in themselves;
for it is this spirit that should animate all their actions, be the motive of their whole
conduct; and those who do not possess it and those who have lost it should be looked upon
as dead members ...
In this well-known passage, De La Salle is speaking of the
spirit of the Institute and its members, but I don't think it is stretching the point to
say that it is his own spirit or charism that is being communicated to the Brothers. With
this spirit, the Institute is charismatic, dynamic, alive; without it, it is dead.
If we can assume that what the Founder meant by spirit is what the Vatican Council meant
by charism, then the charism of De La Salle is easy enough to identify: it is, of course,
the spirit of faith that gives rise to a spirit of zeal. The Founder writes in the second
chapter of the Rule: "The spirit of this Institute is, first, a spirit of
faith." And again, "Secondly, the spirit of their Institute consists in an
ardent zeal for the instruction of children ... bringing them up in piety and in a truly
Christian spirit, that is, according to the rules and maxims of the Gospel."
In chapter three of the 1718 Rule, the word spirit occurs again when the founder writes:
"A true spirit of Community shall always be evident and preserved in this
Institute." It might seem at first glance that we have here three distinct uses of
the word spirit, three separate elements in the charism of De La Salle: faith, zeal, and
community. Closer examination, however, reveals that these three are simply different
manifestations of the one spirit of faith. In the thought of the founder, faith overflows
into zeal for the spread of the Gospel and is lived in a faith community. That is why both
the Declaration of 1967 and the new Rule of 1986 insist on the integration of these
essential constituents of the Lasallian vocation: consecration as an expression of faith,
apostolate as an expression of zeal, and community life.
All of this suggests that the clue to understanding the Lasallian charism is to be found
in the spirit of faith in all of its implications as De La Salle himself understood and
lived it. For him, the spirit of faith was the motivating force of his life. Faith has
many meanings: it can refer to belief in God or the acceptance of formulations of belief
in a particular religious tradition. More fundamentally, faith refers to an profound and
radical trust in God. It is this sense that De La Salle invokes most consistently when he
speaks of the spirit of faith.
De La Salle's faith awareness came less from his theological study, although that was a
factor in it, than from the experience of God in his own life. Little by little he became
aware that God was working in him and through him as persons and events led him from one
commitment to another. More and more he was led to trust in the divine action: first to
discern it, then to surrender to it in absolute trust.
In this view, every event in his life was imbued with a faith dimension. Years later he
would write in his memoir on the origins of the Institute these oft-quoted words:
"God, who guides all things with wisdom and serenity and whose way it is not to force
the inclination of persons willed to commit me entirely to the development of the schools.
He did this in a imperceptible way and over a long period of time so that one commitment
led to another in a way that I did not foresee in the beginning."
It is against the background of such experience of the action of God in his own life that
De La Salle could insist in his rule that the spirit of faith should induce the Brothers
"not to look upon anything but with the eyes of faith, not to do anything but in view
of God, and to attribute all to God."
De La Salle knew full well that, far from excluding all contradiction, doubt and
uncertainty, faith presupposes contradiction, doubt and uncertainty. Faith is not
something that is subject to empirical proof or verification. For this reason, it was the
spirit of faith that led De La Salle to abandon himself and his Institute completely into
the hands of divine Providence.
Consider this example, taken by the biographers most likely from De La Salle's own memoir
on the origins. In the face of a decision as to whether or not to use his personal fortune
to endow the schools, he addressed his Lord in these words:
My God, I do not know whether I should endow the schools or
not. It is not up to me to establish communities; I do not even know how they should be
established. You alone know this, and it is for you to do it in any way you please. I do
not know what you want. So I will not contribute in any way to endowing the schools. If
you endow the schools, they will be well endowed; if you do not they will be without
endowment. I beseech you to make your holy will known to me.
This radical attitude of faith in divine Providence remained
with De La Salle through his whole life. Here are two of his retreat resolutions that have
been preserved by his biographer, Canon Blain:
8) I shall always look upon the work of my salvation and the
foundation and government of our community as the work of God. Therefore I will abandon
the care of both to him in order to act only by his orders. I will consult him frequently
regarding all I must do for the one or the other. Often I will say to him the words of the
prophet Habacuc: Domine, opus tuum. Lord, the work is yours.
9) I should often consider myself as an instrument which is of not value except in the
hand of the divine worker. For this reason I should wait for indications of Providence
before acting; nevertheless, I must be careful to follow these signs once I perceive them.
These are some of the ways in which De La Salle understood
and experienced the spirit of faith. But faith is a theological, that is, a God directed
virtue. De La Salle knows this. He knew that for faith to have any reality the God to whom
it is directed must be a real, personal, concerned, appealing, leading, and loving God.
God was for De La Salle all of these things. To appreciate better the faith element in De
La Salle's charism, we have now to take a closer look at the god element.
God, in the mind and experience of De La Salle was no abstraction. God for him was the
triune God of Christian revelation. It was to the "Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit" that he consecrated himself by name to procure God's glory as far as
he was able and as God would require of him. This God he addressed dramatically in terms
of infinite majesty, worthy of adoration, before whom prostration was the only appropriate
De La Salle revered God as Father, working out the divine plan of salvation in the
concrete events of history, including his own and the history of the foundation of the
Institute. He adored and sought to know the will of God the Father, revealed most clearly
in God's Son, the Word incarnate, who took the form of a slave, becoming obedient unto
death. De La Salle saw his own vocation as a Founder, and the vocation of each of his
Brothers, as a participation in the mission of the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself, a
mission to bring the good news of salvation to all, especially the most disadvantaged. In
this sense he tells the Brothers that they are "ambassadors of God and ministers of
Brother Michael Sauvage has expressed as well as anyone how far ahead of his time was De
La Salle in his sensitivity to the action of the Holy Spirit. On this point he is worth
quoting at length:
Throughout the whole course of his path to conversion, John
Baptist was able to feel the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. It was that power which
engaged him in a new relation to God in the following of Jesus Christ; it was that power
that brought him to vow himself to announce the gospel to indigent youth and bound him to
an evangelical brotherhood of a new type.
Thus the unifying principle of all the spiritual teaching of De La Salle is to be found in
his teaching on the Holy Spirit. For De La Salle, it is the Spirit who leads him to an
ever more profound knowledge of the mystery of the living God who saves. It is the Spirit
that gives him his special charism, causing him to open himself to that personal love that
speaks to him in his inmost depths. It is the Spirit that gives stability by entering the
heart and providing the stimulus for the exodus of going out of oneself.
For De La Salle, it is the Spirit who leads the Brothers as it had led him to see the most
urgent heads of young people. It is the Spirit who sends the Brothers to these youngsters
with the enthusiasm, the hope, and the power to enter into combat against the injustice of
the world so that it might be possible for these lads who had been so far from salvation
to have access to the promise and the covenant with God in Jesus Christ and in the Church.
I have dwelt at some length on De La Salle's approach to the
awesome and divine mystery of the triune Godhead. Otherwise we might miss the reality of
God in whom John Baptist placed his radical faith and to whom he consecrated the totality
of his being. It is important also that we invest the name God with some concrete meaning
as we come to speak of the presence of God and union with God in mental prayer.
Once we identify the Lasallian charism with the spirit of faith, some attention must be
given to these two means that the Founder suggests to his Brothers to live the spirit of
faith. The practice of the presence of God and meditative prayer are thus an integral part
of the Lasallian charism.
De La Salle himself lived in the presence of God. He was conscious of the presence of God
in each new physical space where he happened to find himself. Not surprisingly he was
attentive to the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and afterwards
reserved in the tabernacle. He saw God present in events and in persons, especially in the
persons of the poor and in his Brothers. Above all, he was conscious of the presence of
God in the very depths of his own being as, for example, when he made this resolution for
himself: "I will unite my actions to those of Our Lord at least twenty times a day
and try to have views and intentions conformable to his." Or again, "When my
Brothers come to me for advice, I will ask Our Lord to give it to them."
This became an important element in the Lasallian heritage. His treatise on the method of
mental prayer suggests to the Brothers six different ways to concentrate on the presence
of God. In the rule he prescribed that the presence of God be renewed at stated times
during the day: on entering a room, at the noon examen, at the hourly and half-hourly
prayers in the classroom, before retiring at night. The Brothers are urged to see God in
the persons of the pupils they teach, in their encounters with one another, and especially
in the person and the commands of the superiors.
Living continually in the presence of God, De La Salle found the source of his inner
strength and apostolic zeal in the practice of formal meditative prayer. He could engage
in it for hours at a time, late into the night or in the wee hours before the rising bell.
In another of his retreat resolutions, he determined to arrange his schedule while
travelling in such a way as to be able to make three hours of prayer each day, at least
while he was on the road.
For the Brothers, De La Salle uses the strongest possible language to insist on the
importance of formal and prolonged meditative prayer. He writes in the Rule: "The
Brothers of this Institute should have a great love for the holy exercise of mental
prayer, and they should look upon it as the first and principal of their daily exercises,
and one which is the most capable of drawing down the blessing of God on all the
others." He gave this abstract principle concrete form by prescribing a full half
hour of such prayer in community, morning and evening.
De La Salle did not come to prayer empty handed, as it were. He had behind him a
traditional but solid theological formation that enabled him to penetrate to the divine
reality in his contemplation of the Christian mysteries. He had a particularly strong
background in Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers, as we know from the record of the
courses he took at the Sorbonne in Paris and the School of Theology at the University of
De La Salle had an extensive library of spiritual books which he kept with him all his
life. It was only just before his death that he ceded his collection to Brother Barthelemy
for the Institute. Source studies of his spiritual writings show how thoroughly the
founder read and understood the spiritual classics -- St. Ignatius, St. Tersa, Francis de
Sales, Olier and Tronson -- as well as a great many of the important spiritual writers of
It is not surprising then that De La Salle urged his Brothers to nourish their prayer and
their union with God from the same sources: the New Testament, first of all, the lives of
the saints, as well as catechetical and spiritual writings adapted to their abilities and
the stage of their spiritual progress. A half-hour period was prescribed each day for both
spiritual reading and doctrinal study, called the study of catechism to stress its
So much for the spirit of faith as the core of the Lasallian charism: a spirit penetrated
with radical faith in the providence of God; consecrated to the one, true, real and triune
God; sensitive to the presence of that God; faithful to the practice of mental prayer;
nurtured by doctrinal study and spiritual reading.