De La Salle
is usually associated with an approach to education which, depending on the background or the bias of the interpreters, is considered to be either realistic or utopian, popular or elitist, innovative or traditional, liberating or oppressive.
Perhaps the most outstanding illustration of the truth of this observation is that the Abbe Bremond's monumental literary history of French religious thought does not speak at all of De La Salle
name is nowhere mentioned in the eleven volumes of this standard reference work.
Nevertheless, the Founder of the Brothers
does merit some attention even though he
does not represent any particular stage in the development of French spirituality.It is true that he
authored many pedagogical and catechetical works that for more than two centuries had an astonishing success in print.There were 24 editions of the Conduct of Schools up until 1903; 125 editions or reprintings of the Rules of Christian Politeness between 1703 and 1853; and 270 printings of the Duties of a Christian between 1703 and 1928.But he
also produced a number of spiritual treatises: the Rule of the Brothers; an assortment of short excerpts on different aspects of the spiritual life which were brought together in one volume that he
called the Collection; three series of Meditations, including 77 for Sundays and feasts in the temporal cycle, 109 for the feasts of saints, and 16 meditations for the time of the annual retreat.All of these meditations relate to the spiritual demands and the significance of the educational activity of the Brothers
, for which De La Salle
did not hesitate to use the term ministry.Finally, he
wrote a treatise on mental prayer which was published under the title An Explanation of the Method of Mental Prayer, based on the instructions he
had given to the Brothers
However, and this will be the second introductory point, those who have only recently become interested in studying the spiritual doctrine of De La Salle
have been much taken up with the question of his
...De La Salle
composed practically all of his
spiritual writings for this little band of schoolteachers who had cast their lot with him and who, under his
direction, were little by little becoming a new kind of religious community.He
wrote for them in the sense that it was they to whom he
spiritual works.Very many of his
meditations are formulated in the second person plural.The fact that he
wrote for such a restricted audience no doubt explains for the most part why the spirituality of De La Salle
did not become more widely known.
But one can recognize in the development of the spiritual teaching of De La Salle
a four- fold invitation: 1) to consider the concrete teaching situation; 2) to contemplate the element of mystery involved within it; 3) to make a renewed commitment to transform the present reality; 4) to be open to the transcendent and freely given Ultimate, i.e., to the reality of God.A word on each of these invitations in turn, quoting or paraphrasing the language of the Founder himself.
The third invitation of De La Salle
to his Brothers
is to make a renewed and a concrete commitment to their day to day existence in the classroom and in the community.
Finally, just as the spiritual teaching of De La Salle
challenges the Brothers
to be rooted more and more solidly into the reality of his
everyday life, at the same time it calls him inexorably to clarify the meaning of that life, not by running away from it, but by living it deeply in its dimension of mystery.De La Salle
thus calls the Brother to open himself in prayers of adoration and thanksgiving, of supplication and confidence.He
invites the Brother to open himself in hope, to begin anew every morning with a wholly new gift of himself - in spite of the hard choices and disappointments, lack of progress and insurmountable obstacles.He
invites the Brother to open himself in full confidence by abandoning himself to God.His
should be the attitude of the unprofitable servant who, having given totally of himself, yet realizes that his
work is the work of God and that the seed that has been sown will come to fruition in silence and apparent futility.
In this sense one can say that the source of the spirituality of De La Salle
is the lived experience of God, but an experience that is reexamined, relocated and redirected in the context of the history of salvation.And that is the history of salvation that is being accomplished here and now in every aspect of the ministry of the Brothers
, the history of salvation in its living source who is Jesus Christ, the Christ of the Gospel, the Christ who is living today through his
Spirit.An important aspect of De La Salle's meditations on the saints is his
sense of the salvation that is worked out in history together with that eschatological expectation that forms an integral part of the Christian commitment, Christian prayer, and the Christian Eucharist.For De La Salle
, the God who lives in this history is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it is to this God that his
method of mental prayer invites the Brother to be open.The meditations of the Founder continually remind the Brother of his
commitment and the need to enter into this internal and transcendent dialogue with the living God who calls, transforms, satisfies, and makes thirsty again for more.
At first glance, De La Salle
seems not to have referred very often to his
own personal spiritual experiences.His
language, in fact, seems to be rather impersonal and it scarcely conveys the reality of his
own relationship with God.At the time they were writing, his
earliest biographers had occasion to complain about this reticence.
To be more precise, De La Salle
himself refers to that decisive spiritual experience which he
went through when he
was just about thirty years old.The whole direction of his
life was completely reoriented in a most unexpected manner through a combination of circumstances that were entirely unforeseen.
For this purpose, it will be necessary to evoke the decisive spiritual experience which De La Salle
went through between 1679 and 1684, an experience in which he
became in a very real sense a Founder.
...De La Salle
had put his
experience and his
influence at the service of this project.He
continued thereafter to be involved in the early and hesitant efforts of the schoolmasters recruited by Nyel.At Christmas in 1679, he
had hired with his
own money a house for them where they could live together.De La Salle
was thus concerned enough to give these men a little of his
time, a little money, and to show a little interest.But his
work of charity remained external to himself personally.For the rest, he
himself continued to lead a comfortable life, following the routines of his
university studies, managing his
financial affairs, and being faithful to his
duties as a canon which were relatively few but financially quite rewarding.
This began at the family table of De La Salle; it would soon touch the very depths of his
This, then, was the world in which De La Salle
lived, a world where the possession of money, the influence of power, the resources of culture, the networks of relationships and circles of influence all gave stability and security.
If all this is true, why then did De La Salle
let himself become involved with these men from such a different social world?And why did he
take the risk of bringing them right into his
own family?At this point we have to recall another feature of the personality of this canon of Reims.He
belonged to his
own social world, it is true, and he
was part of it to the point where he
accepted its prejudices.But also, from the time he
was very young, he
let himself be drawn by the living God.As a mere child, he
had already heard the call of God.Although he
was the oldest in the family, he
very early on committed himself to the usual procedures leading to the priesthood.He
undertook to prepare himself seriously to become a priest, first at the Seminary of Saint Sulpice
in Paris and then, after the death of his
parents, at the University of Reims
placed himself under the spiritual direction of Nicolas Roland while he
continued to pursue his
theological studies all the way to the doctorate.
Unlike many of his
contemporaries, and this is the way his
biographers put it, he
did not go to the altar to "live off the fat of the land."The love of prayer which he
demonstrated from infancy and his
attraction to the interior life are signs that his
vocation was authentic.He
was always open to the invitations of the Lord and was disposed to fulfill the will of God whenever it was made clear to him.
At Saint Sulpice, and later under the direction of Roland, he
had been formed by the spirituality and the missionary fervor of the vigorous Churc