A reflective look at DISCERNMENT in the life of JEANNE MARIE CHAVOIN
Sr. Marie de la Croix, S.M.
Life in communion
The early Christian community was a faith community, sharing a common belief in a resurrected Jesus, a loving Father and an empowering Spirit. So strong was this belief and the power it had to draw its members together in true communion that it be came a counter-cultural and prophetic force, able to attract new members from every class of people and race, holding them together in a life of mutual love and service.
Every religious community modelled on the early Church community is called to be a faith community with these and other similar characteristics. Is this a self-evident truth today? Do we in fact hear people saying about our communities ·see how these Christians love one another,' or words to that effect? Yet the first communities of the Church did not just receive this as a ready-made gift either. Saint Paul is frequently at pains to instruct, to form, to admonish and so gradually to build up an awareness of how the Spirit could be seized, understood, sifted out from the many diverse and often harmful influences that beset his growing communities, which were involved in a life-long process of conversion. The religious community that does nor recognize this and no longer consciously develops and shares its common Christian faith and its faith in its own particular gifted way of life for whatever reason, be it acquiescence to the pressures of work, for example, or unwillingness to change and renew itself, has in fact settled for mediocrity. And mediocrity radiates nothing of the inner life which inspires, enthuses and rejuvenates both the religious community and those for whom it lives.Mediocrity in fact spells death.
our Founders appear to have understood this very clearly. The ideal of 'one heart and one mind' which became for them a living and a lived reality was never taken for granted. Both Jeanne Marie Chavoin and Jean Claude Colin knew at what cost it was to be acquired. The ·work of Mary' could only be accomplished by mature individuals who consciously chose to revitalize themselves continuously at the source.(1) Thus prayer and fidelity to the spirit expressed in the Rule were fundamental necessities which in the mind of the Founders were essential for authentic marist life. Marists were called to think, judge, act and feel as Mary did, to breathe her spirit. Such a charter required a very profound sense of God's presence and Mary's in one's life. This was not something which could be acquired by sporadic acts of faith or occasional bursts of good intentions, nor or course does it depend on human effort alone. Fidelity to such a covenantal call requires the gift and practice of continual discernment in a process of conversion.
I believe that this lies at the very heart of all religious life: a faith community can only be so if it lives by and in the Spirit. For we are not a democracy which lives solely by parliamentary debate and majority vote which may or may not express true consensus. The unity which is the work of the Spirit is achieved by far more subtle methods since it searches the very depths of the human heart, presupposing self knowledge and the ability to sift with some objectivity and realism through the movements witl1in the heart. In this paper I would like to reflect on how this search for union with God in communal unity was understood and lived by Jeanne Marie Chavoin, in the hope that this brief and necessarily selective study may encourage us to take hold of our marist vocation with a deeper appreciation of what it could entail for our selves and for the life of the Church. For I believe it was in her life-long search for the will of God that ourFoundress learnt the meaning of corunum et anima una'(2) and transmitted this to the first group of women who were called to found the feminine branch of the society of Mary. In our efforts today to refound the congregation we have a solid tradition behind us which, if properly expressed in the living language of today and in the interaction of our daily life in common, can provide us with a firm base from which toexpand and explore future horizons of marist religious life in the prophetic terms that our times demand.
God's Will - a process of discernment
For Jeanne Marie discernment of spirits was expressed quite simply as doing God's will. If there is no direct evidence that she knew of the classical method of discernment as developed by Saint Ignatius, (though LeFranc's Sulpician training may have included some elements of this), it is nevertheless very clear that she lived a truly discerning life since the object of all discernment is to identify the presence or absence of the Spirit in given human activity.(3) From her earliest years Jeanne Marie prayed to know God's will. With very few books to guide and form her, experience and her robust and lively faith became the measuring rod. Almost intuitively and from an early age, she learned to develop a sense of God's presence in her life, a sense which was fostered by the practice of virtue, of ascetism (tempered by good sense and balance), of renouncement, pre-requisite conditions whichprepare the way through grace for attaining a state of union with God, as Maloney points out in Prayer of the Heart.(4) The formation she received from LeFranc through the Association of Divine Love taught her the meaning and art of meditation on the scriptures, fraternal correction and spiritual direction, all of which she practised for the rest of her life.(5) Throughout her life she sought the advice and help of spiritual directors. Monsignor Devie, for many years her kind friend and spiritual director at Belley was certainly of great assistance to her, though he often treated her with harshness and severity.(i).
The fruit of Jeanne Marie's constant desire to do God's will, and the searching of her own heart, was self-knowledge and inner freedom. Thus she was able to recognize that the various offers made to her to join this or that project of religious life, pressing though some of them may have been, were not suited to her deepest inclinations, nor did they express the will of God for her. During the long years of searching and waiting this knowledge grew in her. When the call to Cerdon finally came she recognized it unhesitatingly. Though the call and her response to it were to be followed by further years of waiting in apparent incertitude this in no way shook her conviction that her vocation lay here and that the Society of Mary would eventually take shape. The Cerdon years were in many ways a time of extraordinary grace and consolation, a confirmation of the rightness of her decision.(7)
Inevitably, once the project did begin to grow, there followed periods of intense suffering. In 1838 Jeanne Marie confided to Fr Mayet: ''There are times when one is tempted, crushed, when one cannot even turn to the Blessed Virgin, when one feels no trust in her.''(8) Again in 1346 darkness overwhelmed her. A letter from Fr LeFranc reveals the extreme depths of the suffering through which she must have been passing in or der to elicit such a reply from her former director.(9)Jeanne Marie was evidently very aware of the meaning and significance of the cross on which the self must be crucified.That it did not prevent her from making discerning choices would seem to be indicated by the tone and content of LeFranc's letter. It contains profound spiritual advice which he evidently knew her to be capable of accepting and acting upon. He was not dealing now with a novice of the spiritual life. She knew the cross as a source of purification and strength. This was perhaps a deeper experience of conversion which served to strengthen her convictions concerning the mission of her young congregation and the society of Mary. The few letters which remain of her correspondence with Fr Colin during this period indicate the depth of the convictions she held about the nature of her Congregation as well as the profound spirit of obedience and submission to the will of God mediated to her through him whom she regarded still as her superior. She accepts his bitter reproaches with child-like humility, offering to resign as Superior General if she has become an obstacle to unity.(10) That she could finally do so with freedom and even joy despite the pain involved, is evidenced in the accounts that have come down to us concerning the 1853 chapter.(11)
By their fruits you shall know them
Doing the work of Mary for which the Society was founded was doing God's will. The prayer, suffering, temptations, doubt and abandonment to God found their practical expression in service; for the conversion process takes the focus off self and fixes upon the relationship with God who is found in others.(12) As Lofink points out: 'The reign of God is in no way elusive and unattached: it is bound to a concrete people, the people of God ...'(13) Jeanne Marie's charity and kind ness had always been a strong characteristic. By preference she was drawn to the poor, the abandoned, the sick, whoever was in need. Had she been able to do so she would have sent her sisters into the rural areas where the needs were desperate and as far afield as the missions of Oceania.(14) It was not lack of courage or fear of taking risks which pre vented her, but the restrictions imposed on her by Colin.
Her greatest fear was to find her Congregation cut adrift from the Society without roots or Rule. In Colin she recognized the founder to whom was entrusted the task of transmitting the spirit of the Society through the Rule, for although she lived this spirit passionately and taught it to others, she knew herself to be incapable of such a task and indeed was con vinced that Colin had been chosen to do it by Mary herself.But without a Rule the Congregation lacked organization and could not act independently. To attempt to do so would have been to destroy its inner unity and the unity which bound it to the rest of the society of Mary.(15)
Union with God and with each other was the goal of the virile formation which she gave to the early members of the congregation.(16) By encouraging them to live a life of prayer, of child-like simplicity, of charity, poverty and work, by testing their virtue so that they could learn self-knowledge, she was aiding them to develop a sound spiritual life in the unity which characterized the Holy Family of Nazareth, their only model. Combined with a certain natural directness, at times brusqueness of manner, there was great kindness and sensitivity to the needs of others as well as insight into the movements of the heart:·you know that sometimes very little is needed to cause a certain uneasiness of conscience which means that we have not been faithful to grace ....'(17) This was not scrupulosity that she was encouraging but the practice of discernment in the movement of the spirits. Moreover each sister was expected to act with maturity and responsibility especially when it came to the care of the house and particularly the children. A sound professional formation was given to all those involved in teaching, and the natural abilities of each one carefully weighed with good judgement.
In her dealings with others she displayed the same deep respect for the person so that good relations were established and workers paid promptly even when she had to beg for the money her self.(18)
Union with God and mission
Two years after her resignation we find her setting out again with all the youthful joy and vigour of the Cerdon days to make her last and in many ways most important foundation at Jarnosse, putting herself once again and at the end of her life into a position of vulnerability and hardship in the ser vice of God's people.(19) Here, freed at least in the beginnings from the semi-enclosure, she and her sisters lived in solidarity with the poor whom they served. And again it is her sense of doing God's will which sustains her in the midst of extreme difficulties: ·what consoles us is the thought that God wills it, because if we had asked to come here and to build we would be discouraged .... If we took only a human view of things in this new foundation we would be very un fortunate .... No, we must rise to the source which is Divine Providence.'(20) It was a source which had constantly in spired and never abandoned her. This permeates all the letters she wrote from Jarnosse with their frequent references to abandonment to Divine Providence and submission to God's will. There is also great love and kindness for others, concern for the health of this one or the worries of another. Nowhere does she complain despite her infirmities and the enormous problems of building without resources, though she acknowledges both with simplicity. The process of conversion had brought her to a state of tranquility which was far from being passive. There is wisdom and detachment, for example, in her decision not to attend the Chapter of 1858, as well as the more obvious factor of ill-health.
There is an extraordinary coherence about Jeanne Marie's life. To the very end she remained clear-sighted about the nature and spirit of the Congregation. Faced with a subtle tendency to mitigate the original spirit which had animated it in its earlier years, she never deviated from that early model lived at Cerdon and in the first years in Belley. In her last testament to the Congregation she re-affirmed its special mis sion, its unique spirit, and the need to live always in unity and according to Mary's intentions.(21) such single minded and life-long adherence to a vision is undoubtedly the special charism of a foundress, but its retention and growth could only be due to the fidelity with which she pursued her ideals in her prayer and daily life. such fidelity is a sign of hope realized, the Kingdom come.
For the Marist sister, to do the work of Mary is to live her life, to make the mystery of her presence in the Church a source of daily inspiration.(22) Mary is present in the church as the perfect disciple, the one acclaimed so by Jesus because she did the will of God. As I have attempted to show Jeanne Marie Chavoin sought nothing else throughout her long life. She becomes for us today a great example of the disciple who lives a discerning life, responding as fully as she was able to-the radicality of the call to holiness,(23) lived in a specifically marian way. The Christian and marist vocation demands nothing less of those who would follow her.
We are in the process of regenerating our Congregation through pastoral planning. But scholars who have studied the rebirthing of religious congregations recognize that it begins in the hearts of individuals. It occurs only when a sizeable group of the members returns without compromise
to a strong desire for a deeper experience of God and closer following of Christ, poor, chaste and obedient; (conversion through discernment).
to re-appropriation of the founding charism; and
to apostolic changes which correspond to the needs of the times and which are in line with the Founder's charism.(24) (Parenthesis mine)
If we would enter fully into the renewing and refounding of our congregation we must learn to shake off the subtle shack les of our past history with its fears and its memories of hurt which may spring from our upbringing, our early formation or from painful experiences of government. We must have the courage to enter the darkness of our own hearts where conversion takes place. There, in solidarity with all men and women can we learn the meaning of compassion, of mercy, of forgive ness for ourselves and for others. By opening ourselves courageously to the presence of the divine, by admitting and accepting our own weakness and sinfulness and by learning to sift through our own emotions and feelings, we learn to hope and can experience the healing touch of the Spirit. In our strong tradition, never lost, of prayer and contemplation we already have the basis. But we must avoid complacency and a certain-distrust of the psychological process involved. It is important to recognize that, like Christians of every age, God calls us and brings us to deeper conversion in and through ordinary life experiences, especially in our relationships.(25) Our mission flows not from the old hierarchical model of religious life with its implicit superiority, not from such a place of difference, strength or even love of God, but from a place of sameness, of being one with others, of mercy and com passion, the basis of true respect.(26) In our Mission statement we claim to be women of faith and prayer, open to God's word in the Scriptures, in people and events. We also commit ourselves to on-going renewal and the rejection of self complacency.(27) Without true discernment can we live up to these and our other commitments in the face of our dwindling number and resources? The pastoral planning will be effective, I believe, only to the extent that we live as a faith community, one in heart and mind, practising to the best of our ability both individual and communal discernment. our Constitutions urge us to this: 'Together sisters and superiors will seek the will of God in common openness to the Holy Spirit ... in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, each one wishing to collaborate actively and responsibly as a member of the Congregation.'(28)
In his circular letter Discernment, Brother Charles Howard states: ·communal discernment possesses great potential for building communities by making a group more God-ce11tered, more marial in spirit, and more person-centered.'(29) I would go further and maintain that without communal discernment we do not have full communion with each other. There will forever be an essential element missing from our decisions making them more likely to be the result of purely human factors which may or may not reflect the activity of the Spirit among us. If we are personally unfree we become subject to the domination of the strongest, the most articulate, the more aggressive or to emotional blackmail. If, however, as individuals we are ac customed to personal reflection on the action of the Spirit in our lives, then communal discernment becomes relatively easier, as Brother Charles goes on to point out.(30) More over, as members of a Congregation our personal decision making (e.g. for ministry) can never be a purely personal mat ter. Individualism in this matter as in others leads to alienation which is contrary to the spirit of communion. In giving myself, my words to another, I receive myself, discover my identity within the group and contribute to the life of the group.(31)
Our times demand conversion of hearts into the one heart and one mind of Christ. In our marist tradition and most especially in the life of our Foundress who modelled her life on· Mary, we have the key.
Numbers in RMJ and CMJ refer to Documents.
1. CMJ 86.2, 90.3; RMJ 107.2; ES 132.6-7, and many others.
2. Cf. RMJ 108.3
3. A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed Gordon s. Wakefield, p. 115. This brief article gives a-good sum mary of the main elements of the discernment of spirits.
4. Prayer of the Heart, George A. Maloney, SJ, p.151.
5. RMJ 99.3, 7.
6. CMJ 127, 129, 241; RMJ 129, 138, 241.41, also Index under301.43.
7. 8. 9. 10. 11. CMJ 93.3 , 9 4 . 4, 95.18, 96.1.
12. Cf. Ignatian Exercises and conversion, David L. Fleming.
13. Quoted by E. Keel in Book of Texts for the study of Marist Spirituality.
14. CMJ 154 footnote 3; 39.
15. see especially CMJ 40, 91.
16. RMJ 138
17. CMJ 90.3
·18. see especially Jarnosse letters CMJ 77-92
19. RMJ 272.16
20. CMJ 78.3
21 . CMJ p. 310
22. constitutions 1986, Art. 4.
23. Lumen Gentium, 40-41.
24. Circular Letter 'Mary Mother of our Hope,' John Jago, p.23
25. conversion as a Human Experience, Paul V. Robb, SJ p.14
26. Ibid p.38
27. Mission statement, General Chapter, 1989.
28. Constitutions, art. 30.
29. Discernment, Rome July 30, 1988, p. 127.
31. See Reflexions apropos de l'accompagnement spirituel, Vie consacree, 1988, no. 6, p. 363.
Cassiers, Francoise RSCJ, Reflexions apropos de l'accompagnement spirituel, Vie Consacree, 1988.
Connolly, William J. SJ, Experiences of Darkness in Directed Retreats, Review for Religious, 33, no.3, May 1974
Dubay, Thomas SM Authenticity, A Biblical Theology of Dis cernment, Dimension Books, 1977
Ducharne, Alfred, SJ Spiritual Discernment and Community Deliberation, CRC 1974
Fleming, David L. SJ Ignatian Exercises and conversion, Review for Religious, May-June, 1989
Howard, Charles,.FMS Discernment, 1988
Jago, John, SM Mary Mother of our Hope, 1986
Keel, Edwin SM 1. A Book of Texts for the study of Marist Spirituality, Marist Center of Studies, Rome, 19892. Breakthrough, Rome 1986.
Maloney, George A. SJ Prayer of the Heart, Ave Maria Press, 1981.
Robb, Paul V. SJ Conversion as a Human Experience, studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Vol XIV, no. 3, May, 1982
Correspondence of Mother st. Joseph (1786-1858), Historical committees of the Marist Fathers and Sisters, Rome, 1966.
Recollections of Mother st. Joseph (1786-1853), Historical Committees of the Harist Fathers and Sisters, Rome, 1974
Index Mother st. Joseph, Historical Committees of the Marist Fathers and Sisters, Rome, 1977.
A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, edited by Gordon S. Wakefield, SCH Press, Ltd. 3rd Impression 1986.