April 7, the death date for John Baptist de La Salle, set by the church community as the day for the memorial of this saint, often gets overlooked because it occurs in Lent or in Easter. We are now at the midpoint between the memorial of April 7 and the solemnity of May 15, the date he was declared patron saint of all teachers of youth. Most short bios, such as those that are found in books of saints and on websites, focus on his educational and catechetical vision, his founding of a community of men consecrated to God and educational service, his founding of the Christian Schools, and so on. His contribution to spirituality or prayer may not even merit a footnote.
This is unfortunate since our educational and evangelizing work draws its strength from our relationship with God. Cultivation of that relationship through spiritual practices, especially prayer, deepens this daily work and channels intense energy into the relationships that give human shape to the work. Among the many spiritual practices De La Salle outlined for the first communities is a method of prayer that hasn’t lost any of its relevance.
It is a method that accounts for something that hasn’t changed through the centuries, the challenge of being fully attentive. That is, fully attentive to the people and projects in front of us and fully attentive to God’s presence.
“Master,” said the disciple, “I saw someone who could fly.”
“So?” said the master, “A bird can fly.”
“Master,” said the disciple, “I saw someone who could live under water.”
“So?” said the master, “A fish can live under the water.”
“Master,” said the disciple, “I saw someone who, in the twinkling of an eye, could move from one town to another.”
“So?” said the master, “Satan can do that.”
“If you wish to find something truly extraordinary,” the master continued, “find someone who can be among people and keep their thoughts on God.”
This Sufi story (from the Islamic mystical tradition) draws attention to the challenge of maintaining simultaneous and deep attention to God’s presence within us and in projects and people outside of us. The good news is there is a path toward this elusive integration, and we find it in the Lasallian prayer tradition.
Interior prayer is generally 20-30 minutes of silence; it shares elements of meditation and contemplation as outlined by other traditions. It is a process of three movements that brings us through thoughts and affections and reflections to what De La Salle called “simple attention.” One way to speak of simple attention is to say that time slows to a gentle stop, thoughts and affections recede into the background, and we are fully present to the Presence.
Attention is the animating force in interior prayer. It is also the animating force in work and ministry. Interior prayer paves the way for an integration of these two attentions. De La Salle called this the “spirit of recollection,” and a fair translation for today would be mindfulness.
Mindfulness opens our eyes to God’s presence in everyone we encounter. When we are mindful, we move beyond an abstract sense that “God is everywhere” to a visceral sense that the Risen Jesus dwells in each of us. Seen this way, “Live Jesus in our hearts!” is a mindfulness prayer. It provides the connective tissue between the simple attention we practice in interior prayer and the attention we practice in our daily work and ministry.
At first blush, interior prayer may not appear to be connected to work and ministry. It may seem to be contemplative and solitary and apart from daily life and its concerns, something we do in private and for our one-on-one with God. That view would overlook the way that interior prayer refreshes our relationship with God and the way it changes our heart, the very heart we bring into our relationships with one another. De La Salle understood that interior prayer—a being-with, being-for, and being-in relationship with the source of Life in the depths of our being—is intimately related to the busyness and business of life.
We are a community of educators who are heirs to this treasure of spirituality and prayer. Perhaps these gems, interior prayer and mindfulness, have been hiding in plain sight! If so, may I encourage you to learn more about it and integrate it into your spiritual practice?
Here are some resources for further exploration:
From the General Councilor’s Reflection Page
By Brother Timothy Coldwell, FSC