Issue 44.6 of the Review for Religious, November/December 1985.
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Ann Arbor, MI 48106. Current Conceptions of Religious Formation: An Analysis Martin O’Reilly, C E C. This article by Brother O’Reilly, Formation Director for his community in Liberia and Sierra Leone was originally prepared as a position paper undertaken in connection ,with the development of a novitiate program for West Africans seeking to join his community. Brothe,r may be addressed care of the Christian Brothers
P.O. Box 297
Monrovia, Liberia. It is difficult to name what’is a~tually done in religious formation. Although the enterprise has a recognizable history dating back at least to the time of St. Benedict, when we raise the question: What are we doing when we form others to be religious? there is little consensus about the nature of the activity. A more abstract question, .such as: What is Religious IJfe? might be more easily answered. But religious formation is not an ahistorical abstraction. - It is a practical activity. Men and women enter religious communities, and other men and women are "sent" to form them. Formation, as such, does not exist, there is only what people do, and want to do, in its name. This article will consist of a brief survey.of the principle approaches to religious formation current today, anda proposed tentative defintion of formation that gives equal weight to the past, present and future dimensions of a religious community. Although theory will not provide simplistic answers to such questions as: "When do we give the habit?" it does provide a basis for ascertaining whether one’s practices are consistent with one’s beliefs and for understanding how new insights and differing circumstances may modify existing practices. Perennialist Conception of Religious Formation The ."perennialist" position, exemplified by much of pre-Vatican II 1101 1~02 / Review for Religious, November-Dec.ember, 1985 religious formation, is based mainly on the authoritative position of the "formator" as the person entrusted with the task of instructing others in the perennial truths of religious life. The relationship of formator and those being "formed" is in the context of master and pupils. The person who is responsible for formation is very conscious of the expectations of those in higher authority that, certain permanent truths are being taught in a didac-tic manner. The principal model of instruction is that best described as "teaching." The starting point is usually the prescribed constitutions, the life of the founder or foundress, and the history of the congregation. The theoretical motivation for both formator and those being formed is in essence the same: he or she is to teach, and the novices are to learn. Of course, it is presumed that there are other factors operating, so that the novices’ personal understanding of being religious is complemented by their actual life in community. The duties of a good religious are empha-sized in various ways: by being reminded of their personal responsibility for coming to know and accept their call from God through frequent conferences
by being encouraged to be loyal to their formation group, and to be obedient at all times to those in authority. Besides regular prayer and Mass, numerous devotional exercises and retreat days ensure that a sense of piety is being fostered. It is quite natural that such an’approach to formation tends to emphasize the descriptive rather than the prescriptive elements of religious life. The value of much of its style and method is in its precision in indicating what has to be learned and understood about becoming a religious. But by the same token it is all too easy to produce a hothouse variety of religious who, vocation-wise, wither in the more temperate zones of regular and imperfect community life. Such an approach can fail to distinguish sufficiently between the precepts of the religious life and the vocational growth and development of those in formation, with the result that conformity is substituted for free response. This is not to say that the perennialist approach is altogether unsatisfac-tory. Many outstanding religious have come through such an initiation into religious life. For those who have come from devout Christian homes, such a formation style undoubtedly offers a security and an initial certainty that religious life is for them. But however beneficial such a model of formation may be for some, it can only be unrealistic in relation to those coming from a secularized background,,or who live in a situation where the Church herself is still very young. Essentialist Conception of Religious Formation The essentialist position, as represented by ReneCarpentier, holds that Current Conceptions of Religious Formation: An Analysis / 1103 the .religious life is "above all things a life, a Christian life, a life based on the Gospel and one with the Church."1 Carpentier’s work in Belgiumin the 1950s convinced him that the obligations of religious life seemed to be treated as ends in themselves. There was very little Good News about the religious life~ He therefore advocated a return to the sources of religious life, viz. Christ, the Church, and the Scriptures. The biggest challenge offered by Carpentier to religious formators was for them to underpin their work with a genuine theology of religious life: ~It is not enough to show them the religious state as a life apart, closed in oh itself and "withdrawn from the world." It is to the religious life, within the Church, that our Lord’s words may be applied: "You are the light of the world." We must show its relationships with .the Church and the world, and with salvation and sanctificati6n of all men. We must have recourse to a "theol6gy" of~ the religious life,2 Advocates of the essentialist approach to formation work concentrate on imparting an understanding of religious life as a living out of the ¯ "essential" Christian ideals. The emphasis placed upon providing a gcriptu-ral and theological rationale for religious life gives an intellectual flavor to formation, and casts the formator in a "lecturer" role as opposed to the perennialist "master-pupil" approach. Because essentialist formators share the belief that religious formation is largely a matter of intellectual training, the interests and needs of those in formation are of limited value for determining the nature and content of the foniiation program. While essentialism gives a needed, firm intellectual underpinning to religious formation, it is largely an adult concept, which in turn requires a certain adult ability to view reality in a holistic fashion. Many in such a formation program, however, fail to see the relevance to their own lives of courses in Scripture, theology, church history and liturgy.’ The problem with this approach, as with the perennialist pathway, is that it is character-~ ized by what can be called a "pedagogy of. object" i.e., the models of learning it relies upon are almost exclusively concerned with handing on the.charism of religious life, which itself is taken as an unchanging and universally understood aim. Admittedly, the essentialist approach looks more towards the dynamic nature of the Christian life to provide the context for ~understanding the nature of the religiouS vocation, but it underplays the aspects of the "present" and "future" of society, the Church, religious life, and the persons themselves who are preparing for religious profession. Existential Conception of Religious Formation The keynote of the existential approach is basically its concern with the 804 / Review for Religious, November-December, 1985 subject io be formed in his or her actual life situation. The words which characterize this approach are sincerity, dynamic’, commitment
relevance, authenticity, choice,freedom, and experience. For those who look at for-mation. in this way, the key to .human and Christian living is the continuing choice of an "authentic" way of life. lnauthenticity means taking shelter behind the routines, the trivialities and the morally undemanding patterns of everyday life. ,To be authentic means to acknowledge basic moral chal-lenges, to be open to the ambiguities and contradictions of life, and to respond to them by committing oneself afresh to the values one perceives to be at the heart of a meaningful existence. Religious life, in the existentialist sense, is viewed and understood asan expression of the life of faith, and so must find its verification in real life. If it is not to be a dead faith, it must be acted out in deeds. For the existential-ist, it is the motivation, not the forms, of religious life that differentiates the religious vocation from that of others. In practice a formator schooled .in existentialist thinking will give prom-inence to discussion methods as the way of learning, and will emphasize the importance of the differences in the life situation of each candidate in his or her personal response to the call of religious life. A greater measure of freedom will be extended in various ways to those being formed, and the view will be encouraged that both formator and those in formation are engaged in a common enterprise of discerning the personal and social significance of the vowed life. Constitutions and histories of the congrega-tion will have only a limited role in an approach such as this. They may serve as reference or guideline, but hardly as a starting point. Emphasis therefore will tend to be much more on a diversity of sources--literature, films, music and newspapers--indeed all the sources of. information encountered in ordinary.living. There will be a fundamental sense in which it is important not to be specific about particular means of being a religious, because what is being described arises from the life-situations of those concerned. Without doubt the existen.tiai approach makes being involved in reli-gious formation a very creative and personally satisfying experience. Con-cern for the giftedness and insights of those entering religious life had rarely been present in the previous history of religious formation. Sadly these insights had been largely subordinated to the immediate needs and interests of the congregation, and formation was more often than not more a training or domesticating than a forming. The existential pathway, on the contrary, asks the formator to believe that he or she is living and praying with people who are alread3
under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The chief problem ~vith this approach to formation arises from the fact Current Conceptions of Religious Formation: An Analysis / 805 that the breadth of it provides no clue as to the kinds of experiences that properly should be provided by a formation community. The implication is that., since each candidate’s experience of life is unique, each one must have his or her own formation program. Faith and well-meaning, however, are insufficient to fill the vacuum created by the abandonment of a well-de-fined initiation process. It was Dewey who said that when personal fulfill-ment is severed from intellectual activity, "freedom of self-expression turns into something that might better be called ’self-exposure’.’’3 Furthermore, when too much emphasis is placed on the "inner search for meaning" of those in formation, the past heritage of a religious congregation can easily be forgotten, and responsibility for ’the future ignored
hence the shared vision that binds a group together can also become lost. ° Socialization Conception of Religious Formation The title of this approach may seem odd, for there has always been a strong community basis to formation in the sense that those being formed have lived, worked and played together in preparation for the time when they would join the wider community of the congregation. Indeed one of the important prerequisites for profession was "suitability for community life." But here the .term "socialization" is being used in a special sense, that of a planned, intensive~group experience involving both professed and nonprofessed members. The rationale behind,this approach is that "what-ever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual." Quite simply a novice or one in formation can only say "I am a religious" because we are a :religious family. Ira founding charism is most present in the lived reality of a religious community, then’it is within a community that formation must happen. "Community-centered formation" is not .the same as ’’formation within a community." The former consists of a group of professed religious and prospective members open to the challenge of living and growing together
the latter is more often thannot a convenient arrangement for housing those in formation within a regular community, with perhaps one or two helping the formator in’his ministry. The difference between the two con-cepts is that with the first one the formation of new members is a community "event," whereas With the other, formation is a "territory" clearly demar-cated from the ordinary life of the community. The core group of the formative community is made up of religious who are prepared to share their own personal and collective story of faith
to witness in an open way, to the meaning of their congregation’s charism
to support those in initial formation in a bro.therly manner and to pray 1106 / Review for Religious, November-December, 1985 with and for them. The neophytes in turn are invited to "come and see" the charism and mission of the group by sharing in the common life, prayer and work of the community. This "shared praxis" approach supposes less of the presence o1: the person responsible for formation as the sole authority, and more of his presence as guide~in a fraternal network of relations~ This role of the formator means that often the work of formation will remain open-ended, ¯ that is, it is not pushed through to a predetermined conclusion for the sake of a conclusion. Whilst the main emphasis, as with the existential approach, i~ experiential rather than instructional in any formal sense, the open-community situation makes it more likely that the whole aspect .of religious life is approached in a multidimensional way. Close living, with professed religious aff?rds opportunities for the experiencing of the living charism of a congregation that no "single-parent" type. of situation consisting of one formator and the formation group can possibly provide. Conversely, having new members live with professed religious can add life and vitality to the local community, and can challenge the older brethren to look anew at the values that underpin their lives. Such an approach to formation may be successful with mature candi-dates, but it can be a wholly different story with the younger or more immature types. When formation is expected to arise from the dynamic interaction of a community, things can go badly wrong if a good number of the group are incapable, either because of upbringing or inclination, of accepting their responsibility for and accountability to others~ Not to believe that there, will be a need for "tough love" at .times, and a good d~al of personal coachingof members in the art of living together as a religious family, is to assume too romantic a view of human nature. Finally, when everyone is theoretically responsible for the formation of new members, it can quickly become the practice that no one is responsible, and people are left to hope that the newer members "get the hang of religious life" in time--a sort of formation by osmosis! 12on¢lusion Whether religious formators choose to define formation as the handing on of the perennial truths of their congregations" story or.as a radical ,living of the Christian life, as an inner search for ,meaning or as an intensive group experience, they are providing only a partial description of the term "formation.’2 Conversely, if we conceive of formation as all those growth experiences, under the auspices of a religious congregation, that ~contribute to the deepening awareness of what it means to be a religious, the definition is so broad that it fails to indicate how a planned formation program Current Conceptions of Religious Formation: An Analysis / 1~07 differs from an informal spontaneous arrangement where prospective. members learn directly from living in a religious community. If a definition of initial religious formation is to convey the full meaning of the term, it should be comprehensive while, at the same time, be sufficiently specific so that its key interacting elements are clearly conveyed. Taking these considerations into account, the following tentative defini-tion of religious formation is proposed: The planned and guided learning experience of religious life with intended learning outcomes, formulated through the systematic reconstruction of knowledge and experience, under the auspices of personnel suited to the task of aiding and evaluating a candidate’s continuous growth in personal, social and spiritual competence. This definition regards religious life, and the ways of becoming a reli-gious, as dynamic. The formation process must account not only for the known dimensigns of a founding charism, but also for emergent under-standings. Consequently, religious formation is not concerned merely with transmitting the cumulative tradition of a religious congregation but also with the present dimension of a religious charism in relation to the life’ experience of those seeking membership. Moreover, this definition recog-nizes that the future possibilities for the development of a charismatic religious community resides with those in formation today. NOTES ~l_zfe in the Oty of God. London: Burng & Oates, 1959, p. xi. 21bid, p. xii. 3John Dewey, How We Think, rev~ ed~, Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company, 1933, ’p, 278. Even Discipline Has Its Season: Thomas Merton and Formation Today Thomas M. King
S.J. Father King has done extensive study and writing on Thomas Merlon. He is an Associate Professor of Theology at Georgetown University where he resides. The mailing address is: Jesuit Community
Georgetown University
Washington. DC 20057. Before he entered the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani, Thomas Mer-ton wrote part of a novel that concerned a young man considering the priesthood. Like Merton himself, the young man played amateur jazz and had been leading a somewhat dissipated life. He saw his present life as remote "from the kind of discipline and perfection for a priest." As the young man thought about the priesthood, it was the word discipline that occurred again and again. Discipline appealed to him. At the same time as he worked on the novel, Merton wrote an unpublished essay that compared the lay and the priestly life. The priests were considered the lucky ones: "For them, from now on, everything is definite, is settled for them." In writing The Seven Storey Mountain he told of thi.nking about the monastery before he entered it: it was seen as a place of "much discomfort and no pleasures ..... I used to love books and study, but God will want me to die to all of that." He told of pursuing his novitiate with such enthusiasm that he made a nuisance out of himself by urging his novice director to reduce his portion of butter and cheese to be the same as the other monks’, and he wanted permission to attend all the sessions of monastic prayer. By these permissions he wanted to lose himself in common life. He wrote a vivid statement of the Cistercian life that appealed to him: When a man becomes a Cistercian, he is stripped not only of his clothes, or 808 Thomas Merton and Formation Today / 1109 part of his skin, but of his whole body and most of his spirit as well. And it is not finished ~hat first day: far from it! The whole Cistercian life is an evisceration, a gutting and a scouring of the human soul. Merton had felt drawn to the monastery when he had visited there eight months before he had entered. Then he had seen a postulant take his ~place among the novices and he observed: "The waters had closed over his head and he was submer~ged in the community." The postulant was dressed like the other monks and was lost in the "anonymity" of the choir. Merton claimed that those who stayed in the monastery were those who simply followed the Common Rule, a Rule wherein each monk was "absolutely lost, ignored." This was the ideal he was seeking in the monastic life. Merton wanted to live a life of self-sacrifice. For years he had lived according to the urgings of his appetites only to find he was a confused victim of his own "self-contradictory hungers." The nature of these hungers were evident to him in many ways
for example, he was compulsively attending movies. Yet he would no sooner be in the theater than he .would despise the stupidity of the film
but soon he would again be at the movies. In deciding which religious group he would join, he told of wanting "a Rule that was almost entirely aimed at detaching me from the world." He was pleased to describe his entry into Gethsemani as "nothing less than a civil and moral death." He soon esteemed the other monks around him, for they had abandoned "all preoccupation with themselves and their own ideas and judgments and opinions and desires," they .had put their "whole life in the hands of another" through obedience: "The greatest of the vows is obedience." The .monk was said to be significant not because of what he does. but because of what he is: a monk: The religious habit itself was said to have the grace of a sacramental. Merton exalted in his community life and saw most people outside of monasteries as hopelessly confused. When he looked at the luggage he had brought with him, he reflected that he could no longer believe in himself as a layman. These .general themes are familiar to readers of The Seven Storey Mountain, though some of the passages remain unpublished (they can be seen at the Merton Study Center in Bellarmine College, Louisville, Ky.). The picture he gave of monastic life was demanding and severe, yet the surprising thing was the number of people who found what he described had a fascinating appeal. In the ten-year period after the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Gethsemani received approximately two thou-sand postulants! The number seems to say something about what people were looking for in joining "religious life." Many, of course, did not stay. With the passage,of time Merton’s monastic euphoria underwent 1110 / Review for Religious, November-December, 1985 considerable change. He came to fight against the anonymity he had desired. He spoke’of monks "left with a husk of outward forms and no inner vocation." Though he had idealized entering the monastery as a form of death, he would come to ask, "Does our monastic life become so artificial and contrived that itis no longer really a life?" He had judged obedience to be the great monastic virtue
but later he would object that "doing what you are told.., substitutes for life itself." He was no longer enthralled by the anonymity of the choir: "The choir is the scene of much depersonaliza-tion andanguish." He protested that monastic life should not be a "total abdication .of all human worth and identity." He even claimed that the whole concept of discipline in the life of prayer did not arise until the fifteenth century! He wrote an amusing caricature of monks who believe they are better than those in the world
the world was no longer seen as simply a place of error and sin. In his early writing he had affirmed that a monk’s worth was in "being a monk." But he later said that he himself did not "comfortably wear the label of monk?’ He wanted to be "a non-monk even, a non-layman, a non-categorized man, a plain simple man." "My hermit life is expressly a lay life." He told of a personal policy of"not appearing as a monk, a priest, a cleric," and said with some satisfaction, "I am a tramp." His biographer, Monica Furlong, explains, "It was as if he had abandoned all interest in the persona of the monk." The change in Merton reflected a change that was general in religious life. Religious discipline generally became less evident and many religious tried to.avoid a special identity in either manners or dress. Novices were often integrated directly into communities of formed religious, and obe-dience was no longer seen as a way of inner liberation--it was just a matter of convenience or greater efficiency of organization. Most religious would say the changes had been for the better. But recently while writing several articles on Merton, I came to believe that the more relaxed monastic life that is generally found today would in no way satisfy the Merton who entered "the monastery in 1941. At the time he entered he had different needs, needs which did not last indefinitely. Yet the general relaxation was a change that he had helped bring about. Like many others who entered the religious life in the fifties, I had been inspired by Merton’s enthusiastic account of religious life. I had. been less dissipated, but I felt a similar need "to get hold of myself" and work through my "self-contradictory hungers." I entered a Jesuit novitiate where discipline was strict. Devotions, times~ to sleep, to eat and to recreate were regulated by a bell with little room for individual inclinations. Clothing, haircuts, readings and friendships were allowed little opportunity to develop accord- Thomas Merton and Formation Today ing to one’s own taste~ Religious life was a way of freeing one from one’s own tastes. One could wonder if that is still seen as a value--yet that was a major" reason that the noviceship took so long. In those days other Jesuits were not even to visit the novitiate "lest they disedify the novices." We believed that we were following "the more perfect way." 1 think that way of living would be frustrating for me now--but that does not mean it was not what I needed then. It was. There are seasons in one’s life. Recently I was assigned to spend two years working with Jesuit novices. Meals remain scheduled, but the daily order was mostly gone. Dress is casual, betamax movies are regularly shown, beer is generally available and groups go out for:pizza. It is a more ordinary kind of life than I had known as a novice--and appears much like the life of those "in the world" or the life of longtime Jesuits. But should it be so? In working with the novices I decided much of the happiness of my own novitiate was not. present, My happiness .was perhaps naive--not unlike the happiness Merton had found among the Trappists..Like Merton I, too, had to resolve some contradictory hungers and deal with a confu-sion of undigested ideas. The exterior discipline provided support for my own efforts io control immediate appetites. I would not agree today with ma.ny of the ideals that made up the "more perfect way," but it gave me a clear look at myself and something to strive for. And in striving for a difficult goal I knew satisfaction--by being unconcerned with satisfaction. I knew better my appetite for God byignoring my other appetites. .I have visited other novitiates and talked with others in formation and I do not know if what had been valuable for me is still available. In recently doing some serious study with the texts of Merton, I came to understand something about, myself. Merton had become severe in judging the struc-tures of religious life that once he had found necessary and supportive. In the 60s I and other religious went through the samechange.. But now I have come to argue there are seasons in one’s life. There is a time when discipline is needed and a time when it should be relaxed. And this difference gives rise to a significant difficulty when novices early in formation are integrated into communities of formed religious. Perhaps the difference of seasons can be seen in the two sets of Rules for Discernment of Spirits offered by St. Ignatius. One set is for the First Week and the other is for the Second Week. Thus, they are put in terms of a temporal sequence, in terms of seasons. In the Rules for the First Week-- and Ignatius seems to believe that many people do not pass beyond this week--one judges one’s interior movements (spirits) by a somewhat demanding objective standard. One is to shape one’s life according to the commandments and the Gospel ideal and, therefore, it is according to these I~1~ / Review for Religious, November-December, 1985 Rules that one accepts the interior movements that ~support the defined ideal and.rejects the movements that do not. At the .end of the First Week (inthe kingdom meditation) one makes a radical dedication of oneself to God. In this meditation one is expected to make a deliberate choice to willingly bear all poverty~ trials and humiliations for the Lord’s sake. It is a frightening expectation
but it is only after one has made such a prayer, that one is to use the Rules for the Second Week. To contrast the difference between the two sets of Rules:~ in the first set one conforms oneself to an objective standard
one tries to overcome one’s feelings (movements) by judging objectiVely which feelings are appropriate. Then, in the Rules for the Second Week, one listens to one’s feelings (one’s consolations and desolations) in 6rder to learn from them what one is to do. One learns from the feelings only after distancing oneselffrom them and only after instructing them. Thus, at different times during the Exercises, very different norms are appropriate for dealing with "feelings." Having given hundreds of directed retreats, I have sensed that Rules for the First Week are often given only brief consideration or ignored. Much of the reason is that there is considerable ambiguity about the ethical questions that once had been so clear. Yet if one has not been through a considerable discipline of moods and appetites and begins using the Rules of the Second Week, one begins taking disordered moods and trivial appetites as messages from heaven. Thereby one becomes hopelessly confused--most people "in the world" know better than to do this. Ignatius took his own moods seriously and proposed a method of listening to consolations and desola-tions- but he would use this method only after he had disciplined them. 1 have done a fair amount of spiritual direction, and with it 1 have come to believe that many directees--by no means all--need less "spiritual life" and more objective conformity to demands of the Gospel. Any professional identity (doctor, athlete, musician, and so forth) requires an extended season wherein one conforms to an objective discipline. Senior doctors can follow their "hunches," while young interns generally should not. Mozart has recently become known as a highly spontaneous composer. There is some truth in this understanding, but Mozart became that way only after following a disciplined training that was brutal in its drmands.,l do not recommend brutal training for either musi