1. Introduction
  2. The "inner" structure of the Founder's soul
  3. The "interior" dimension of Oblate life
  4. Changes in our perception of the interior life

One would have to search long and hard through the writings of Eugene de Mazenod to find the actual expression “interior life”. It just simply was not part of his usual yet otherwise extensive vocabulary. Having scrutinized the twelve volumes of his published letters to the Oblates, his diaries and retreat notes, the present writer was able to find only two instances in which the Founder let fall from his pen the actual expression “interior life”, and this, not too surprisingly, in a letter to Father Tempier. [1]

The absence of any real, significant use of this venerable expression by the Founder (or for that matter, of the classic distinction between “the interior man” and “the exterior man” which belongs to the Christian vocabulary ever since the time of St. Paul) [2] is remarkable for several reasons. The expression was certainly utilized and well-known in his day. The word “interior”, used as an adjective or a noun, had already known an extraordinary success in seventeenth-century France and would remain a “household” word among spiritual writers well into the nineteenth century. What the authors understood as interior life could be summarized as follows: the more or less sustained attention that a person gives to the internal workings of grace along with his willing cooperation with that movement and to the development of divine life within it in an effort to detach oneself from created things and to draw closer to God. No matter how attentive a man may be to his interior life, that person still cannot avoid being influenced by his times and his milieu.

At Saint-Sulpice Seminary, moreover, where Eugene de Mazenod received his spiritual and intellectual formation and where the traditions of the French School were carried on with “deep reverence”, [3] one of the principle tenets of Sulpician spirituality was certainly that of fostering the “interior life”.

Disciple of Pierre de Bérulle through Charles de Condren, Father Olier had always considered devotion to the interior life of Jesus as the cornerstone of piety in his seminary. Even more than Pierre de Bérulle, he emphasized the practical consequences of this inner dimension of the spiritual life. To live the life of Christ, according to him, meant taking on the inner dispositions of Jesus Christ in their entirety, and not merely imitating some of his virtues. As Father Tronson would later put it, our soul is not a canvas on which one applies this or that color, this or that trait of Jesus, as a painter might do with a model in front of him; rather the soul is like a piece of cloth that must be plunged into a tub of dye until it becomes completely and thoroughly saturated with a new color. We know, too, that the Feast of the Interior Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which had been instituted by Father Olier and approved by Rome in 1664, was still honored and being celebrated at Saint-Sulpice during the seminary days of Eugene de Mazenod. Moreover, he speaks of it in a letter to his grandmother, Catherine Elizabeth Joannis. [4]What is, of course, curious in all this is that despite the very real influence that his Sulpician training had on him, an influence that would mark him throughout his entire life, the Founder seems always to have been reluctant to make explicit use of the expression “interior life”. Was this deliberate, and if so, what might have been his reasons? Or was it more the nature of an unconscious avoidance of an expression that did not “speak” to his heart, that somehow did not adequately capture and hence do full justice to the complex structure of his soul or his spiritual outlook? The answer, as we will attempt to show, lies in the singular way in which Saint Eugene experienced and came to perceive his own quest for holiness, his own mission in life. The originality, attractiveness, and dynamic nature of this very quest, as he himself lived and loved it, is where we must begin in order to fully appreciate the Founder’s view on personal interiority and the importance he attaches to it in the life of every Oblate.

The “inner” structure of the Founder’s soul

Firstly, it should be remembered that Eugene de Mazenod, by his own admission, was a practical man. Leflon says of him: “There was nothing of the speculative in Eugene de Mazenod and he remained a practical man throughout his life”. [5] It will come as no surprise to see that in his interior life as well as throughout his whole spiritual journey Eugene de Mazenod was a “hands on, practical man” both with regard to his interior life as well as in his apostolic work. Yet it is true that in his spiritual writings he often makes an explicit distinction between the end and the means to achieve this end: between the end of our mission, for example, “to revive the faith which is dying out among the poor”, [6] and the practical spiritual means to achieve this end, that is, the evangelical counsels, prayer and observance of the Rule. [7] But in his mind, it was the urgency and the intrinsic value of the end which contributed any importance and value the means might have. All the more is this true that the means he had in mind and that he set forth were precisely the same as those used by the Savior and the Apostles as the first to employ them. Whence his cry from the heart: “Could anything bring greater pleasure to bring us to imitate them! Jesus, our Founder, the Apostles, our forerunners, our first Fathers!” [8]

The Founder’s spirituality has obviously been influenced by his Sulpician formation with this constant introspection, with recollection and oraison in view of reviewing how one stands before God with the objective of making one’s soul more open to the will of God. But, for him, pure introspection, an exercise completely detached and having no reference to its external milieu, could not embrace the sum total of the interior life. For the Founder, these two were always wedded together.

On the contrary, whenever he would enter into prayer or spend long hours before the Blessed Sacrament as he so often did, it was always in the crowded company of everything that was happening to him and around him. There is a sense, indeed a very real sense, in which it can be said the Founder never prayed alone. As a man who was passionately in love with the Church, Eugene de Mazenod’s interior life and prayer – like his letters – were always filled and peopled with the dreams and concerns of his missionaries his diocese, his Pope, and of course, the poor, the “most abandoned”. None of these real people or these real concerns were ever left “out in the cold”, outside, that is, of his deep affectivity and prayerful interiority.

His prayer like his vision embraced the entire world! By frequently placing his soul in the presence of God, the Founder was always present and intimately united with the men and women he carried in his heart. Moreover, he states this most explicitly himself. For example, in a letter to Father Joseph Fabre, he wrote: “I was alone in my little chapel to celebrate such a great feast [February 17th]… and you comprehend that space did not at all separate us in that moment. In this centre, that is, our divine Saviour, we all found ourselves reunited. I did not see you, but I did hear you and felt your presence, and I rejoiced with you as though I were in Marseilles, which is more than 200 leagues distant from where I was”. [9]

It may well have been this very sense of spiritual solidarity with everything and everyone he loved so passionately that made him shy away from the expression “interior life”, at least in its more individualistic shades of meaning which the expression undoubtedly carried in his day. In the framework of his spiritual outlook the so-called “interior life” and the “exterior life” compenetrated each other to such an extent and to such a degree that it was virtually impossible for him to separate the two. This, to my mind, explains Eugene’s alleged conflict between a life of prayer and a life of apostolic service. [10] Magnanimity is not known for making limited or highly selective choices. And for someone as big-hearted and magnanimous as Saint Eugene was, the real dilemma must have been less a question of choosing one vocation over the other but more a matter of just now he might conjoin and embrace the best of both vocations. In this, as in so many other ways, he lived up to his own words: “Leave nothing undared”. He would let himself be inspire by spiritual writers and edified by the lives of great saints, but in the end – invariably – he knew that he had to follow his own “way”, his own inspirations.

A second consideration should also be borne in mind if we are to grasp the unique richness of Eugene de Mazenod’s understanding of personal interiority. Throughout his spiritual journey, the Founder was and always knew himself to be “his own man” – or, as we say today in our Constitutions and Rules, he always saw himself as “the principal agent of his own development” (C 48). If there is one principle he unswervingly believed in, for himself and for his Oblates, it was this one: we must never abandon or shirk our personal responsibility in the quest of saving others or sanctifying ourselves. He was never able to tolerate the abandoning or the neglect of one’s personal responsibility in the pursuit of perfection and of holiness. In this, he would have fully ascribed to the wisdom of an old Russian proverb: “Pray to God, but continue to row to the shore”. We see this confirmed time and time again in the Founder’s life. Two examples will suffice to illustrate our point.

The Founder’s Preface to the Constitutions, with its fifteen emphatic and unmitigated appeals to personal responsibilities (We must…; they must..”), bears this out. Without wishing to pre-empt the will of God or minimize the role of grace, the Founder never wavered in his basic conviction that in some mysterious yet real way we remain forever responsible for our personal sanctification and the salvation of others. This stands out clearly in Eugene de Mazenod’s numerous retreat resolutions, resolutions aimed at fostering his advancement in the spiritual life. They are noteworthy not only for their number, but also for the minute attention they pay to the details of concrete living.

This abiding sense of responsibility is also illustrated in the Founder’s intolerance of what he perceived as spiritual mediocrity or infidelity to the holy Rules. The harsh words with which he denounced harshly those who left or were tempted to leave the Congregation or the way he would reprimand and seriously take to task even the most trusted of his beloved Oblates, still surprise us today and leave us somewhat embarrassed. Yet to ascribe these “paternal outbursts” solely to his passionate nature or his tempérament Provençale would be to overlook the extent to which one’s faith convictions only rarely run counter to the personality and human make-up of an individual. Even though Saint Thomas was practically ignored in his seminary training, [11] it was as if Eugene de Mazenod sensed instinctively that grace really does “build on nature”. Just as the Founder could not bring himself to separate apostolic service and prayer, so too was he firmly convinced that there can be no inherent contradiction between “virtue” and “talent”, between “being faithful to God” and “being true to oneself”. This desire for authenticity would become a lifelong habit through the whole course of his spiritual journey. Even today, this is part and parcel of the mystery of each saint the Church dares to canonize.

This rapid sketch of the internal structure of the Founder’s soul enables us to draw one certain conclusion: in his innermost depths, the Founder saw no trace of dualism, no dichotomy between the two ways of life, the active and the contemplative. He seems to have always grasped their real unity. Throughout his life, Eugene de Mazenod would sing the praises of this profound compenetration of the “external” and the “internal” life. For example, in his meditations on the Rule during his annual retreat in 1831, he thanks the Saviour for “a happy blend of the active and the contemplative life of which Jesus Christ and the Apostles have set us an example […] and of which our Rules are but the development”. [12]

Especially in his spiritual writings, it is obvious that, even if he never used the expression as such, the Founder certainly had some very precise views on the interior life. Two things stand out with regard to the way he made himself a “practitioner” of the interior life. First of all, in his case, the interior life was an indispensable means of acquiring self-knowledge. Those who have achieved the love of God or those who want to achieve it must attain to self-knowledge and in order to achieve this, they must ask God for his enlightenment. From the time of his entry into the seminary and his whole life through, Eugene de Mazenod gave witness to an intense interior life in which he was making a sustained effort to see himself as God saw him. [13] The unusual knowledge he achieved of himself and the candor with which he presents himself in his retreat notes are an initial indication that Eugene possessed a rather outstanding interior life.

For Eugene de Mazenod, self-knowledge as well as the various kinds of divesting of self that he had to accept were only the first fruits of his interior life. The second was his experiential knowledge of God’s goodness in his regard. Self-knowledge with its attendant knowledge of his weaknesses, his inadequacies, things lacking in his training, led the Founder to a deeper gratitude to God for his goodness toward him. This two-fold knowledge – of self and of God’s goodness toward him – flows from gratitude. If we can point to any one outstanding trait that characterizes the Founder’s entire spiritual journey, it is truly that of his deeply felt gratitude for the free gift of God which goes before any work or merit on the part of man. It is only in silence and recollection, in the heart of our internal forum, that we truly learn to appreciate the free gift, “grace”, God’s prevenient love. That is what Eugene de Mazenod did. That explains why his writings read like a great hymn of thanksgiving.

Having sketched something of the basic structure of the Founder’s “inner” life, we can now turn to the way he expressly articulated the “interior” dimension of religious life for his Oblates.

The “interior” dimension of Oblate life

In Oblate life, we can distinguish three degrees of interiority. These must not be construed as separate or unrelated in the Founder’s thinking, but rather as three interdependent components of a single dynamic concept. It should be pointed out here that the sequential order in which we have chosen to expose these three levels of interiority is our own: we proceed from the more tangible level to the more mystical. No priority is herein intended or attributed to the Founder. In this section, moreover, we will let Bishop de Mazenod speak largely for himself, making only those observations that we think may prove helpful to the reader.


For Bishop de Mazenod, the most obvious yet indispensable kind of interiority, one that he felt ever so strongly about, was the Oblate community itself. Time and again he cautioned his missionaries not to over-work themselves in the mission field and urged them to return “at least for brief intervals” to their communities. He saw the community as a haven, a home, an “interior space” where his missionaries could relax, renew their strength, and rekindle their commitment – in short, an oasis where they might “recreate” their energy and look after their personal well-being. It was the well-being of the “whole” person that Bishop de Mazenod was thinking of and concerned about: their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being. And it was “in the interior of your house”, he felt, that these personal needs should be addressed and taken care of. Let us listen to him:

“It is more than enough during a mission to be entirely at the service of the people but within the precincts of our dwelling all needs must be cared for – whatever concerns the missionary personally must not be neglected”. [14]

“I am sorry that you are overloading yourself with work. I do not approve of this at all: it has the double disadvantage of exhausting your men and keeping them too long outside the house… In God’s name, let them return, let them return to their communities to renew themselves in the spirit of their vocation; otherwise it is the end of our missionaries, they will soon be nothing more than sounding cymbals”. [15]

“Plan all things wisely. Above all, always reserve time for study and for your personal sanctification in the interior of your house. That is indispensable”. [16]

“One must moreover be greatly attached to the house. He who only looks on it as a hotel where he only passes through would do no good therein”. [17]

In this way, the Oblate is able to venture out safely into the wide world of the apostolic ministry provided that his heart and his community are solidly bound together in an indivisible unity. This is at the origin of the following rule from the Founder’s pen: “As soon as the business which occasioned their journey has been taken care of, they will immediately return to their house, considering themselves happy to be able to rejoin the heart of their community which they should have regretted to leave”. [18]


If attachment to the community already marks an important dimension of Oblate interiority for the Founder, what actually take place there marks yet another. That is why he was so happy at l’Abbé Tempier’s decision to join his future society and why he looked upon it as “a present from heaven”. It was, he said, “the need we have of a priest who thinks as you do about the interior life of the community”. [19]

At this level of interiority what exactly did the Founder have in mind? What elements would he come to regard as the salient features of the of the “interior life” of his community, and thus for all his missionaries? In short, what would it take to have the Oblate community become what he would later call the “common center”, the “earthly paradise”, the “delicious rendezvous”?

It is our view that three essential elements combine to form Bishop de Mazenod’s idea of the “interior life” of the Oblate community:

a. “Among yourselves, charity, charity, charity….”. [20]

To his dying day, the Founder always advocated a “most tender, affectionate and sincere charity among ourselves”. In the thinking of the Founder, fraternal charity was another word for “interior life”, that is, a life regulated above all by the bonds of love between the members of the community, bonds that would “make our house an earthly paradise”. [21] His idea of charity was not a stoic or platonic type of affection, “an intellectual love devoid of all feeling, more appropriate to stoics than to true Christians”. [22] On the contrary, he had in mind something of the deep affection that characterized Jesus’ friendship with his disciples. To achieve a good grasp of what the Founder had in mind for his followers, we have to refer back to what he himself called “his immense capacity to love others”, a quality for which he always thanked God. In a letter from Rome, he explains:

“I cannot get used to living apart from the people I love. We will be so happy in heaven…although fully absorbed in God we will love our friends more than ever. Jesus loved man – some more than others – even though he had an intuitive vision of God. Here, then, is our model – with all due respect to those refined mystics who, in the name of perfection, would give us a different nature which would certainly not be as good as the one God has given us. [23]

b. “In the name of God, let us be saints”. [24]

To Leon Bloy we owe this thoughtful phrase: “There is only one sadness in life – not to be a saint”. [25] In many ways, however, Eugene de Mazenod anticipated it by several decades. The inner desire for perfection is another important element in the Founder’s notion of Oblate interiority. When it came to perfection, he would urge, “we must never say, “That is enough!’ [26] “How could you dream of accomplishing a mission like yours if you did not exert every effort to attain the perfection of your vocation?” [27] Or again: “They ought to live… in the perpetual desire of attaining the summit of perfection”. [28] Without such a lofty resolve, quickened and maintained in the secret depths of one’s heart, there could be no interior life to speak of, at least not in the Founder’s eyes. It should be noted moreover that Saint Eugene de Mazenod never conceived or thought of this desire for perfection in an individualistic or strictly “private” sense; on the contrary, it was always seen and willed in terms of apostolic service to the Church and zeal for the salvation of souls.

c. “Live always conformably to your holy Rules” [29]

The third dominant principle of Oblate interior life as Saint Eugene envisaged it, was fidelity to the Rule. “Read, meditate and observe your Rules”, he said, “and you will become true saints”. [30] “Let us therefore value these Rules as precious, let us ever keep them before our eyes, still more in our hearts; let us nourish our souls regularly with the principles contained in them, let us act, speak and think only in conformity with their spirit”. [31]

The Founder never separated the “letter” and the “spirit” of the Rules. For him, both were sacred: the two constituted a holy alliance, a “two-in-one-flesh” type of union, as it were, that was never meant to suffer separation or divorce.

Thus the structure of the Founder’s notion of interiority for his Oblates is remarkable for its simplicity and, one might say, its “spiritual economy”: a) a deep, heartfelt love for one another, b) a sincere and lively desire for perfection, and c) a faith-filled observance of the Rules. With these, he felt, his missionaries would lack nothing of any significance “to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ and his Apostles”. [32]


Finally, at a third and even deeper level of interiority – one that lies at the heart of Saint Eugene de Mazenod’s life of faith and hence his spirituality – is what we have chosen to call (I think quite rightly) “mystical union”. Now the Founder was not a mystic in the generally accepted sense of the term, but a mystic he certainly was, albeit – once again – “in his own way”! It is to this more mystical side of the Founder’s life of faith that we now turn our attention, a dimension all the more remarkable since, as we have already indicated, he was a very practical, “down-to-earth” type of person, administratively as well as spiritually.

One must concede at the outset that this is an area of the Founder’s life that has not yet been explored or researched as thoroughly as one might wish. What we give here are but a few parameters within which such a study might be fruitfully conducted. In what follows, we take mysticism to mean “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence” (K. Rahner). [33]

It goes without saying that such an experience is already present in the tiniest acts of faith, hope and charity. That is why the simple act of hope is essentially a mystical act: it consists in a real possibility which transcends our present reality. Love of one’s neighbor and of the poor is also a mystical activity. In this case, one’s interior vision sees through external – sometimes repulsive – appearances, and “sees” the face of Christ in the poor individual. It is the Founder’s special manner of attaining an in-depth knowledge, purifying and reaching to the very heart of these theological virtues which reveal to us his spiritual journey. In this sense, mystical takes on the meaning of the Founder’s effort of total interiorization with the resulting transformation of his awareness, or even of the most profound depths of his innermost being, the ultimate mystery of his belonging to God in the service of the Church.

By drawing upon Evelyn Underhill’s profound insight with regard to mysticism, we can see how several of the traits characteristic of the mystic apply to Eugene de Mazenod. As far as the present author is concerned, mysticism is, above all, an activity, a labor to which one devotes one’s entire being in the hope of achieving an encounter with God, even at the risk of the transformation of one’s entire person. Such was the case for Eugene de Mazenod. His spirituality, a type of mysticism, is one of total commitment. He dedicates all his resources, his intellectual faculties as well as his physical and social existence to one sole end: to achieve an encounter with God in his inner life and in his daily life. Like many mystics, the Founder was often aware of the painful inadequacies of his effort to carry out this exalted project. He has the impression of always falling short of what he should be doing. In his constant effort to transform himself, in spite of some successes, his goal seems to ever lie beyond his grasp.

Evelyn Underhill stresses yet again another aspect common to mystics [34]: the fact that they, like the Founder, have an immense capacity to love. Only love can explain mysticism. The mystic always remains a great lover, someone who has fallen in love with an Ultimate, an absolute that is every bit as living as it is personal. Can one have any doubt that the Founder’s deeply lived experiences in prayer and oraison before the Lord were anything if not rooted in a passionate love? This is what he writes to one of his missionaries in Canada: “You could never love me with one hundredth of the love with which I love you. God, who destined me to be the father of a large family, has made me a sharer in the immensity of his love for men”. [35] And when he lets his heart speak, as it often does in his letters and his other writings, he does not need to carefully “select” his words; they flow spontaneously from within him as from a unique, mysterious internal abyss.

Genuine mystics also have this in common: they are particularly productive and fruitful – and that in the midst of a very intense apostolic service. Paradoxically, their intimate union with God is paralleled by a very keen sense of the mission and needs of the Church. The person who immediately comes to mind in this regard is the great mystic, Catherine of Siena and her incessant appeals for civil peace and the reform of her fourteenth century Church. We can think as well of Catherine of Genoa who constantly criss-crossed her native city seeking out poor people to help and sick individuals whom she would care for herself. There is also Mary of the Incarnation (Guyart) that exalted mystic who went searching for the Amerindians and set up a mission for them. Can we in any way doubt that Eugene de Mazenod has won his place among these great mystics for whom Mary and Martha’s personality was fused into one, for whom mystical union and apostolic activity became one as if solely by the grace of God? The bond between the interior commitment to God by faith and of bearing testimony to him as a missionary is one which is vital and organic, one that the Founder always understood very well.

But what really characterizes the mystic is the ability to see beneath external appearances, that is, the ability to see the invisible and to perceive as truly present that which transcends time and space. And was it not through the eyes and heart of his faith, that is, through his “spiritual senses”, that he was given to see hear and touch his missionaries from afar? And did he himself not value, trust, and try to communicate these mystical perceptions and insights which others seem not to have perceived so profoundly or clearly?

In his study of the spiritual life of Bishop de Mazenod, Father Joseph Pielorz tells us that, already as a seminarian, Eugene was drawn to the great mystery called “the Communion of the Saints”. [36] Here is an initial indication that he was given to see beyond what appeared on the surface. “The militant Church forms but a single whole with the Church triumphant”. [37] But it was – and indeed would always remain – the Church around him, the Church “here on earth”, that captured his heart and fired his religious imagination. It was this Church, the Church “incarnate”, that would always occupy center stage in both his dreams and moments of highest consciousness. An early indication of this is his great trust in the prayers of those pious souls whom he knew personally. In a December 3, 1808 letter to his mother, he wrote: “You have no idea how powerful are the prayers of the just. I have received more graces through their intercessory prayers than through the prayers of the saints, who already enjoy the glory to which we all aspire”. [38]

Yet it was in his more mature years, as Founder and Bishop, that this notion of mystical union became more intense in Eugene de Mazenod’s interior life. We can see it especially in his moments of solitude when he was alone, absorbed in prayer and oraison before the Blessed Sacrament and separated geographically from those with whom he so ardently yearned to be reunited. In those privileged moments the thought of his missionaries, dear to his heart, were not for him a distraction to be rejected. On the contrary, they served to intensify his sense of mystical union. There, perhaps more so than at other times, he experienced the “real” presence of those he loved so dearly. It was not the purely physical presence of his Oblates in prayer that captured the Founder’s attention, but rather their mutual mystical sharing in his dialogue with God. Often, in his letters to his Oblates, he would describe his mystical encounters. We give below but a few examples:

“You could not believe how much I think in the presence of God of our dear Red River missionaries. I have only one way of drawing near to them and that is in front of the Blessed Sacrament, where I seem to see you and to touch you. And you for your part must often be in his presence. It is there that we meet each other in that living center which serves as our means of communication”. [39]

“Oh no! Distance only separates bodies; the spirit and the heart leap over it easily”. [40]

“The only means of bridging the distances is to be together at the same moment in the presence of the Lord. It is like finding each other side by side so to speak. We do not see each other, but we hear each other, we are conscious of each other, we become united in the same centre”. [41]

“I must say that it happens sometimes when I find myself in the presence of Jesus Christ that I experience a kind of illusion. It seems to me that you are adoring him and praying at the same times as I and with him being as present to you as to me, we feel as if we were close to one another, although not able to see each other. There is something very true in this idea. I revert to it constantly and cannot describe the good and the consolation I derive from this. Try to do the same and you will experience it as I do”. [42]

“The only thing that I do recommend to you is not to neglect your holy Rule… We raise the same prayers to heaven, we are inspired by the same feelings. You are present to us just as if we could see you. […]” [43]

Changes in our perception of the “interior life”

As we have already pointed out, today and yesterday as well, our interior life does not nor did it ever exist in a vacuum separated from the time and space in which we live. It is continually conditioned and nourished by the “signs of the times” such as major changes in the history of the world and of the Church. There is no call here to dwell on all the historic – even paradigmatic – changes that have taken place. Suffice it here not to forget this dimension of the issue when we talk about interior life today. Father Fernand Jetté expressed it well: “During the ten years that I have been Superior General, I have become more and more aware of the depth and extent of the change affecting the world and together with it the Church and ourselves. We are living a transition period that penetrates to the very depths of our being. […] We feel that the change is profound even radical: a new world is being born and so is a new Church and a new man […].” [44]

Times have certainly changed a great deal. The same can be said of our faith life and life in the Spirit and in the way we try to practice the interior life today. That means that the interior life must be conceived as a journeying, an asceticism, as progress being made along a well-marked road. From all time, the interior journey has, in fact, been presented as a road, a method, the following of a pathway. That is why, today and as it has been in the past, we can speak of the practice of the interior life.

The most substantial food for the interior man has always been found in an intense use of sacred texts which permitted him to attain knowledge of himself on a deeper level and a sense of his calling in life. This is as true today as it was in the time of the Founder. A spiritual awakening takes place when the soul bears the brunt of the shock of Sacred Scriptures – be it the Word of God either in the Bible, in our Constitutions and Rules or in history and the signs of the times: vox temporum, vox Dei. The reading of such sacred texts as an essential nourishment for the interior man leads inevitably to prayer: “When we pray, we speak to God, but when we read, it is God who speaks to us”. [45]

Obviously, today we read the Bible differently than it was read and interpreted in the time of the Founder. We can benefit from the entire biblical and liturgical renewal as well as a much more nuanced and subtle hermeneutics and theology than we previously enjoyed. Naturally, all of this has its impact on our interior vision, and as a result, on our subjective way of viewing today the practice of the interior life. In the plethora of ascetical practices and devotions to which our new Rule invites us, there is less rigidity and more flexibility, spontaneity and room for personal creativity. Article 46 of our Constitutions, for example, invites us to follow Jesus Christ “in an always creative fidelity”. The shifting of a number of major emphases and points of view with regard to the interior life notwithstanding, there exists between our new Constitutions and the old, a real, fundamental continuity with regard to the interior life of Oblates. To make us aware just how deep and substantive this is, especially in what concerns our faith life and prayer, we cannot do better than read Father Fernand Jetté’s work, O.M.I. The Apostolic Man: A commentary on the 1982 edition of the Oblate Constitutions and Rules (see especially p. 186-219). In what follows, we want to point out certain new contributions the 1982 Rule has made to the interior life of Oblates.


First of all, the Rule puts a much greater and more explicit emphasis than before on the lived theological virtues. As Father Jetté has often stated: “Our new Constitutions insist on living the theological virtues. In doing so they take a real step forward from the old ones”. [46] The reason for this is obvious today, even if it has not always been as well understood. Consecration in the religious life can no longer be seen or defined without reference to its being rooted in Baptism and consequently in our dignity as Christians.

It was not a case of our former Constitutions being silent on this topic. We do indeed read in our 1928 Rule: “We ought especially to meditate on the theological virtues, and on the virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the members of our Society must labour to acquire, and to show forth in their life and conduct”. (Art. 254) This is an echo of the 1818 Constitutions where Father de Mazenod wrote: “They will especially meditate on the theological virtues and on the life and virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ […].” [47] And yet, if the theological virtues are mentioned, it is only in passing, and so to speak, as one of many edifying topics on which one could meditate with great benefit.

On the other hand, our new Constitutions give the theological virtues a much more central and dynamic role in our religious life. “We are pilgrims, walking with Jesus in faith, hope and love” (C 31). “Growing in faith, hope and love, we commit ourselves to be a leaven of the Beatitudes at the heart of the world” (C 11). Father Jetté’s enlightening commentary merits being quoted more at length: “Like the lay Christian, the religious is called to enter into a relationship with God, to live God’s life and to grow in that same life. This life is expressed through the practice of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Generally speaking, these virtues are little mentioned in the Constitutions of religious and often not much more in the formation of religious. There is a simple reason for this: these virtues are not specific to the consecrated life, whereas the evangelical counsels are. And yet everything in the religious life from fidelity to vows to the least observance, is oriented to growth and development in the life of the theological virtues”. [48]


Our old Constitutions and Rules, even the earliest editions, envisaged the interior life as a private, sequestered sort of undertaking, a life that had to be “immersed” in the protective womb of strict silence and solitude in order to develop and flourish. Today we are somewhat amazed at the extent to which the former Rule stressed the point of “strict silence” in the community, which was to be observed “from evening prayer till after the religious exercises of the next morning; and also during the three hours which follow the afternoon recreation”, [49] and how it was “absolutely forbidden to break silence at those times, without the Superior’s permission”. [50] Add to this if you will, article 252 which stipulated: “It is not permitted to speak in the church, the choir, the sacristy, the kitchen, and the refectory, or the corridors, unless when necessary, and then only in a whisper”. [51]

The picture that emerges is clear! In former times, there was an understandable conviction that progress in the interior life would be assured in proportion to how we prevented the world from disturbing our meditation and contemplation. Accordingly, “continual recollection” presupposed solitude, withdrawal, and silence. The world had to be quiet so that God might begin to speak. It was, one might say, “praying with closed eyes”.

There can be no doubt that such a form of prayer still retains much validity for us today, especially since the world presses in on us with an ever greater immediacy and pervasiveness. Yet the Oblate of today has a new challenge: he must also learn to pray with “open eyes”. Thus our new Rule would not have us turn our backs on the world for the duration of our prayer thus leaving the world, so to speak, completely “outside”. Rather, as we have seen, the Founder never totally excluded the world from his oraison. Rather our new Constitutions broaden the scope and possibilities of prayer by encouraging us to believe that “each act in life is an occasion for personal encounter with the Lord who through us gives himself to others and through others gives himself to us” (C 31). And the article continues: “While maintaining within ourselves an atmosphere of silence and inner peace, we seek his presence in the hearts of the people and in the events of daily life”. And so it is that, even totally absorbed in ministry, the interior man maintains a private area of his innermost life, a zone where the tumult of the world falls silent before the sound of God’s voice.

Praying always involves changing our lives. And the more our lives change, the more we have to find new ways of praying. The Founder certainly understood this: “If we knew how to pray better”, he said, “we would have more courage”. [52] Today, the Rule gives us more latitude in our way of praying: “New forms of personal and community prayer can help Oblates encounter the Lord; they will welcome them with discernment and accept the challenges they present” (R 20) [R 38a in CCRR 2000]. This is important because we are more sensitive today to the fact that God does not repeat himself, that he always comes up with something new, that each person is unique and therefore unique in his own particular needs and gifts. The 1972 General Chapter had already stressed this important point in its message to the Oblates: “There can be no growth unless there is respect for one’s uniqueness, unless one is free to respond to his personal graces and charism”. [53] There is nothing new in this idea. Some centuries ago, Saint Francis de Sales had already stated it with characteristic simplicity: “I want to praise my Creator with the face he has given me”. We do, indeed, find this in the Founder’s life in his constant search for authenticity in his personal life, a quality which always remains a source of edification for all the men and women who know him well. As a result, our Oblate spirituality invites us, especially by our ability to listen, to be sensitive to people as individuals. Listening to others with sensitivity and in an attentive manner constitutes one more way of having “a pure heart”, “the heart of a poor man”. With this interior disposition of more attentive listening, our availability to others becomes, in turn, “an occasion for personal encounter with the Lord” (C 31).


We should have no illusions: the will of God has always been a source of continual discernment and the object of an indefatigable spiritual quest. This was true in the Founder’s time; it is also true today. Yet in today’s world – the only world in which we really “live and move and have our being” – the discernment of God’s will and presence appears to us more complex, more problematic. In this important discernment process, we no longer feel comfortable with what we perceive as “easy” answers, “pre-emptive” solutions, or “authoritative” dictates. In short, we do not readily accept what has been called “premature foreclosure” in the interior realm. Ambiguity, we have come to realize, is not something that can be completely overcome or eliminated, either from the human condition or from the experience of faith itself. [54]

The free and unsolicited initiatives that God constantly takes in our regard are always fraught with a profound ambiguity. In spite of this threatening aspect, the ambiguity of faith harbors a remarkable grace: it invites us to plumb the farthest reaches of our inner depths, and there in the vulnerability of a “dark night” to abandon ourselves more completely to the God of mystery. In any case, Saint Paul had already warned us: “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). An Oblate spirituality that would eliminate or prematurely exclude ambiguity would, in contemporary eyes, be suspect and offer little to make it attractive.

For the Oblate, to accept ambiguity in his life does not imply always knowing what to do in his life, in the journey of his existence towards interiority. That is why it is necessary more than ever that he seek the advice of seasoned individuals, men equipped to interpret for him the call of God in his life. No doubt, an awareness of his vocation always retains the character of a personal discovery, but it is even more that of being surprised on the road and seized by God. The role of the spiritual guide is that of introducing one to this mystery. The man seeking the interior dimension needs a guide, someone to journey with him, a spiritual master. And in choosing this individual, the important thing is to choose someone who has experienced “the vertigo of the Absolute” and who in the course of his own journey of interiority has already had an experience of God and his Spirit. In short, the one who takes on the responsibility of guide in the matter of the interior journey should be a mystagogue who knows how to initiate others into the mysteries, especially that great mystery which was at the centre of the Founder’s life, “the indispensable necessity of imitating Jesus Christ”. [55]

It is obvious that our way of seeing and practicing the interior life has undergone an evolution. Nevertheless, who can doubt the fact that, if Eugene de Mazenod was alive today, he would endorse wholeheartedly the emphases of our day? In our interior life as well as in our apostolic zeal, he would tell us that “we should leave nothing undared”. Because, in the last analysis, Eugene de Mazenod’s interior life was always lived in function of his mission to the poor. In an inspired moment, the 1986 Chapter defined the Oblate as “a person completely available to others, having the innermost disposition of Mary”. [56]