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
.." 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
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
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
- 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.
Director of Formation
Holy Spirit Province