Edition 13: May 2004 Holy Spirit Province

Two perspectives on different aspects of Formation

We present here two contrasting perspectives on formation by Mark McGlaughlin, the newly appointed Director of Formation for Holy Spirit Province, and by Br John Webb, the newly appointed Vocations Coordinator for South Australia.

Here's an executive summary of their arguments:

  • In his essay Mark laments feelings of negativity that some people have when it comes to formation. The challenge he suggests is in us being able to find a common vocabulary that is able to transcend different age ranges and the diversity of personal experience that people working in Edmund Rice Ministries bring to their particular work and mission.

  • Br John Webb’s reflection is focused in particular at the needs of young people engaged in Edmund Rice Camps as volunteers. He takes up some of the issues raised by Br Kevin Ryan in our last newsletter in his challenge to volunteers.

Mark McGlaughlin can be contacted on 0400 939 415 or m.mcglaughlin@bigpond.com. Br John Webb can be contacted on 0415 196 835 or webbcfc@picknowl.com.au.

Seeking a Formation Vocabulary ...by Mark McGlaughlin

As the newly appointed Director of Formation for the Holy Spirit Province I have spent much of the first three months in the position making contact with the different Edmund Rice ministries and groups in WA and SA. The opportunity to engage with people who feel some connection with the Christian Brothers, their work, or the spirit of their founder, has been a very stimulating, though somewhat challenging experience. My key role this year is to develop and implement a strategic plan that will best provide for the ongoing support of people who are part of the Edmund Rice Network via their work circumstances and/or their personal commitment to the contemporary Edmund Rice story. Hence a great deal of the conversation which has emerged so far has been very much of an explorative nature.

   A source of frustration...

This on-going dialogue can be a source of frustration for some, especially those who see it as re-visiting some of the issues that have been "on the table" for a number of years. Equally frustrating can be the extra pressure that such a conversation puts on the leaders of our ministries at a time when other bodies, sometimes at a National level, are also asking them to enter into dialogue about the future. So why is this conversation so important? Why can't I simply devise a series of easy to apply steps which ensure that this 'formation thing' happens into the future?'

The answers to these questions lie in the great diversity of conversation to which I have been party throughout these past three months. Whether it has been in meeting new teachers at PRT Induction days, exploring with longer serving staff their renewal process, listening to school leadership teams talk passionately about their school mission or in exploring with ER Camp leaders the significance of their contribution, the one thing missing from the conversations is a common formation vocabulary. Hence, perhaps the most important step in the evolution of the strategic plan is to develop a common language which we can all feel comfortable using in giving expression to the next chapter in the ER story. This starts by unpacking the concept of formation in order to allay any fears, suspicions or concerns that may surface when people are invited to be part of future "formation experiences"

So what do I mean when I use the term Formation? There are times when I sense that the term has negative connotations for people, especially those who associate it with a former experience of regulated and structured directives meant to mould an individual into a clearly defined product. There are others, perhaps mostly of the younger generation, who associate it with "religious stuff" and hence are suspicious of the motives of those involved in formation work. Against this backdrop, I would like to present a framework for de-constructing the concept of Formation with the hope that it provides a foundation for the development of some common understanding and accompanying openness to future conversation.

   Finding hope and heart against the odds

Recently I read a brief article in the Adelaide Advertiser (26/4/04) written by the Anglican chaplain to the Women's and Children' Hospital in Adelaide. The title chosen by the author, Joan Claring-Bould, was "Finding hope and heart against the odds", and it gave rise to her reflections on life as she encountered it within the hospital. I read the 350 word piece several times over breakfast and the more I read the article the more I could see that, quite unintentionally, Joan was naming for me some of the key elements of Formation and in doing so unlocking some of its mystery. With acknowledgement to Joan, and the Advertiser, I share here some of my reflections on her article.

In her introduction Joan explains that after her ordination as an Anglican minister, she spent a year as a student chaplain in a major teaching hospital in Canada. She goes on to say "Nothing could have prepared me better for the position I now hold….". Good formation clearly must involve some level of preparation for life's work and service. Edmund Rice didn't just fall into a life of dedication to the service of the poor. He had a long history of involvement with those on the margins of Waterford society, often using his business sense and standing to create opportunities for the disadvantaged of his time. In later years this formative experience would mean that he had the 'know how' to implement the 'what' of his vision.

Joan's next comment describes the personal impact of being part of an environment where pain and suffering are commonplace. She writes: "There is something enormously confronting about the suffering and, in particular, the death of babies and children….." I think formation has a lot to do with a person expanding their perspective of life. Experience tells me that when we are taken out of our comfort zone and confronted with challenges that require us to approach life differently, then we see the world through new eyes. Those of us who have experienced crisis in our lives know this all too well. No doubt after the death of his wife, Edmund Rice saw his world differently and, in confronting his own personal suffering, he became even more sensitive to the struggles of those around him. Often this comfort zone shift takes place without the individual having much control over forces operating to bring it about. But one should not discount the part that formal programs which provide us with new experiences, new cultural perspectives, or new associations with the disadvantaged, play in broadening our perspective of life. The opportunity to spend 10 days in the presence of the people of Zambia last year was for me a most powerful formation vehicle simply because, as Joan wrote, it was an enormously confronting experience.

Joan then reflects on her first impressions of those working at the hospital, describing her amazement at the level of "spirit of life and energy driving the staff". This immediately reinforced in me the belief that formation is something that acts on the inner being, infecting the heart and soul of who we are. I sometimes use the analogy of the soul acting as the engine room of our being. It is that which drives, inspires or ignites us to live our lives true to our real selves. Formation, be it accidental or planned, is the fuel that feeds this engine. As we grow in wisdom and years our need for this fuel doesn't diminish; in fact it may well increase. Hence formation has no time limit. Our need for it is only limited by the degree to which we allow the flame of our soul to dwindle.

Joan's next three paragraphs highlighted for me the importance of recognising life itself as a key component of ongoing formation. She writes poignantly of the "strength and encouragement that comes from sharing the joys, sorrows and insights that are part of daily life in a critical care hospital" and adds that "in spite of the reality of pain and distress that punctuate the day, the sounds of laughter and gurgles of contentment are never too far away". Clearly we can not separate formation from life itself, nor should we establish a dualistic notion of some of life being formative and some of it being just the ordinary. But most would agree that the bridge to the integration of formation with life experiences is via critical reflection. We know that Edmund's experiences made him a different man at fifty than he was at forty. But we also know that prayer and quiet reflection were the tools that enabled him to take from the bones of his life experiences the marrow that would nourish and energise him on his forward journey.

The second half of the article focuses on what the author sees as her role within this hospital setting. She recognises the plight of those who are 'the outsiders' -the parents and family members awaiting test results or surgery outcomes with little more to sustain them than mere hope. In this situation Joan articulates her privileged position saying:

"To accompany people in such circumstances is to tread with them on holy ground".

Formation then takes place when we have the courage to walk with others and be part of their story. This would be something that Edmund Rice Camp leaders know well. They, like Joan, have only a relatively short time with the young kids who come on camps, but the impact of their presence can be life changing for both parties. Our presence to others is sacred, as is their presence to us. The women who accompanied Jesus along the road to Golgatha were richer for the journey. Edmund Rice recognised this very same gift as he accompanied condemned men to the gallows. Last year as I walked amongst the beds of women dying from AIDS in a hospice in Zambia I knew that I could not do anything to change their fate. But my presence, my brief accompaniment in a small part of their journey to death, was life-giving for me. This was formation!

The "walking with" experience often reminds us of the fragility of our lives. Joan writes of her sense of feeling "disarmingly vulnerable in bringing to the families' plight nothing but myself and my unconquerable faith in God's love" I can't help feeling that an important element of formation is this notion of laying ourselves open, letting go of the things we try so badly to control and allowing God to work within us. Is this how Edmund Rice managed when his first helpers deserted him, or when disharmony threatened his vision? Our openness to formative experiences, or even the concept of formation itself, may well be restricted if we are always seeking to assert authority over the patterns of our lives. For it is in circumstances where people are stripped of this control, and therefore must operate purely from a heart set, does Claring-Bould claim to have witnessed life-changing transformations.

The final words of the article bring all that has come before it together for me. It reads:

"As a chaplain I attempt to provide a vocabulary which enables people to express and harness their spiritual awareness, in a context in which they can ask the big questions about the meaning of life and death."

This highlights the searching component of the formation experience. If we are merely doing all of our living in a vacuum of activity, then we are seriously impeding our growth to what Jesus names as his mission - "I have come that you may have life and have it to the full". Formation then must be about grasping windows of opportunity, both accidental and planned, that will enable us to come to know ourselves, and our place in the world, at a deeper level. It should empower us to explore that which lies at the very heart of our existence. We are engaged in such a journey of discovery when we are asking ourselves questions like:

  • What gives my life meaning and purpose?
  • What ignites my emotions and reactions to what I see or experience?
  • What energizes me in my work and in my daily routines?
  • What excites me in my relationships with other human beings?
  • What is Jesus' fullness of life calling me to?

In addressing such questions during their own period of initial formation, the men who are Christian Brothers today, found their answers irrevocably linked to Christ's model of servant leadership, as expressed through the inspiration and example they saw in the life, values and vision of Edmund Rice. The issue for all of us in 2004 is whether the formation vocabulary we develop to describe our ongoing journey of discovery draws from that same language which gives dynamic expression to both the Gospel story and the Edmund Rice story.

Mark McGlaughlin
Director of Formation
Holy Spirit Province


Another view on formation ...by John Webb

When I was recently asked to write an article for this Newsletter, outlining what formation is, I thought immediately of the recent letter from Kevin Ryan, the Province Leader of the Christian Brothers in SA and WA. In his reflections on his experience of Edmund Rice Camps, Kevin opens up quite a number of issues associated with this thing we call formation. I will return to Kevin's letter shortly, but firstly, let's explore the meaning of the word 'formation'.

Often formation is best understood when it is used with another word such as 'spiritual' or 'character'. A definition of character or spiritual formation is easier to articulate than 'formation' on its own. Character formation is obviously growth in character and implies the development of strength of character. Spiritual formation similarly is a development of the inner person in relation to the non material, maybe in relation to God or to our higher selves. These definitions suggest that the essential thing about formation is that it involves some form of growth or development.

Kevin's letter throws further light on what formation is. In the early part of his letter where he outlines what the Edmund Rice Camps achieve for the kids who attend, Kevin says:

Over many years I have seen Edmund Rice Camps make a huge contribution to the growth of children and young people in both their sense of self worth and in the skills they have. I believe that "campers" get a sense that their world is, or can be, a better place as a result of the trust-filled relationships they form in ER Camp activities. This gives them power to do better things.

He is commenting here on the nature of the changes that happen to the young people as a result of their encounter with trustworthy young adults who give time to make the camps what they are. This growth and development that happens to these children as they experience the camps, is an example of formation.

Later in his letter, Kevin encourages all involved in the Edmund Rice Camps movement to embrace formation in a more conscious way. He believes that it is essential that some, 'a core group' as he calls them, need to go deeper in reflection. Such people, he claims, are those who are:

  • Prepared to come to know themselves as people and to develop their gifts and skills, to recognise and work on areas of weakness, and to take risks.

  • Able to explore and come to know at a deeper level who Edmund Rice was, what he did, how this is and could be better expressed today in the camps and elsewhere, and what motivated him.

  • Open to the fact that getting to know Edmund's motivation will lead to getting to know his spirituality, his relationship with God and how he got to know God through the faces and lives of the poor kids of Waterford, Ireland.

  • Able then to complete the circle and return to explore themselves again in relation to their own motivations, spirituality, relationship with God.

Opening ourselves to this journey of 'growth and self discovery', with all the risks and challenges that such a journey provides, is essentially the core of the formation process.

Central to such formation is reflection on experience (Kevin refers to the importance of reflection several times in his letter). It has been said that the 'unreflected life is a wasted life'. This is because those who go through life in a hurry, rushing from experience to experience without reflecting, have little chance to discover the meaning behind the experience and so the experience does not lead to change. Those who take the time to reflect on the meaning of what is happening to themselves and in the world around them are those who are open to growth. Those who are dedicated to their own growth and development (formation) find time and space to reflect on their experiences. In many cases, this reflection shared with others generates a new dimension and has an even deeper effect, opening the group to deeper awareness and to new levels of understanding.

Formation is also involved with the deep longings of our hearts. It has been claimed that three of the deepest desires in us are:

  1. the desire to grow spiritually,
  2. the desire to make a difference in this world, and
  3. the desire to belong.

For you, the young adults who generously give your time for the kids, the Edmund Rice Camps satisfy to some extent all three of these heart longings. The candle sharing and other reflection time actively encourages you to recognise what is going on in yourselves as you do the work for the kids and show them love and support. This reflection can be a powerful spiritual experience especially if we take the time to discover the inner source (Spirit) which drives our action. The second heart longing is present as you make a difference to the lives of the kids for whom you give your time so generously. The third heart longing is obviously present amongst you; there is a remarkable sense of community and belonging amongst the Edmund rice Camp leaders. As we become more aware of what is happening in us in these three areas (spirituality, making the world better and creating community) growth and development follows and this is formation happening.

Formation then is the consciously chosen movement into the inner growth and development of who we are at the core of our being. It is essentially a process of reflection on our experience and the meaning of what we do in the context of the world in which we do it. It opens up to us the question of why we do what we do. It challenges us to appreciate our action as having a 'soul' or inner engine room which motivates, drives, energises and sparks our endeavours. In the context of the Edmund Rice Camp movement, it involves reflecting on how we can bring the spirit of Edmund's values and passion to reality in our contemporary world in order that we do make a difference to this world in which we live.

My role in this (with Michael Coughlin and Mark McGlaughlin) is to help to facilitate this formation. We intend to provide some formation experiences during the year to which Edmund Rice volunteers will be invited. Michael, Mark or I are also available to spend time with anyone who wants to further explore this area of formation individually.

If you wish to discuss the information in this article or Kevin's letter, or if you have ideas about what we could do in formation, or if you just want to chat, please do not hesitate to contact me on 0415 196 835 or webbcfc@picknowl.com.au.

(Br) John Webb
Vocations Coordinator SA


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