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Discernment in the words of women

· A conversation with Marie-Caroline Bustarret theologian and Assistant Editor of the spirituality journal “Christus” ·

Marie-Caroline Bustarret, married and the mother of four children, is a trilingual translator who also holds a diploma in business management. After working in a sales and purchasing department in the textile sector she took a course of theological studies leading to a doctorate at the Facultés Jésuites of the Centre Sèvres in Paris. She defended her thesis in June 2016. In her work she has sought to reflect on a spiritual theology of action based on the literary analysis of the correspondence of Mary of the Incarnation, the Ursuline of Tours who went to Canada as a missionary in the 17th century. Bustarret is currently assistant editor of Christus, the Ignatian journal on spirituality.

Mary of the Incarnation

How did you come to understand the importance of discernment in spiritual life?

When I met my husband who had grown up with the Jesuits, he suggested that I follow the projects in India together with the association Inde Espoir which has an Ignation spirituality. It was a way of testing me to see whether I was the right fiancée for him! It was in those circumstances that I had my first contact with the Jesuits. I met people who attached importance to real things. I immediately felt at ease with their way of living and expressing faith. Thus, on the occasion of our marriage, I added a clause to the contract: belonging to a Christian group, whatever it might be. We wasted no time in choosing one: the Christian Life Community. It was there that I discovered Ignatian spirituality; I learned a way of living faith in the simplest, most concrete and sometimes also most boring daily routine. In this way I realized that it was precisely here that I had to seek and find God in the little things of which daily life consists.

And how ever did you come to choose theology?

During the years in which we belonged to the Christian Life Community I conceived of the desire to deepen my knowledge of the question of faith through reason. In my family talking about faith and reading theological texts was our daily bread. At a certain point it seemed quite natural to me to come to grips with theological questions on my own. I wanted to be able to account for my faith and so it was that I presented myself at the Centre Sèvres, the Jesuits’ university in Paris. There I found and appreciated a teaching rooted in the spirituality which I had lived in a group in the Christian Life Community, that is to say a way of guiding (in this case intellectually) everyone’s personal self-questioning.

What role did discernment play in this process?

Henri Matisse “Reading Woman with Parasol” (1921)

In that period I did not consciously lay my decisions before the Lord so that I cannot say that I made all my decisions “with discernment”. Nevertheless I followed my small inner voice, I set myself to listen to a profound desire: to give my existence meaning, to order a family life as well as an active life, to go wherever I wanted to go, to do the things I found stimulating and which gave rise to a sense of peace within me…. Well, I realized later that the ability to find within oneself what gets one going is the foundation on which discernment is based. Discerning in faith means bringing the Lord into every slightest decision. It means finding out that lasting joy comes from him, whereas discomfort and despondency have nothing to do with him; it means opting for what gives more life, even if the decision, made carefully with reflection and discernment, does not prevent subsequent doubts. In my study years I was constantly assailed by insidious doubts: had I really made the right decision in stopping work to take up these studies? And I learned that it is necessary to say “yes” to the Lord ceaselessly. I stayed at the Centre Sèvres because I felt that this was the place where I ought to be, that it was “my place”.

Does Ignatian discernment concern only Jesuits? Is there a difference between the discernment of men and that of women?

In the course of my theological studies I gradually became interested in female spiritual figures. At the outset there was Teresa of Avila: it was from her that my desire to examine in depth the question of women’s faith was born. I then said clearly to myself that I wanted to do my doctoral thesis on a woman since I knew that this task would be a true and proper “encounter” with the author. I simply wanted to live spiritual intimacy with a woman. I felt that as women there would be an affinity in our worries and our ways of life, as well as in our manner of relating. I had realized that most of the theological books that I was reading were written by men. Of course, male theological thinking is powerful and extraordinary but it seemed to me that sometimes an anchorage in the flesh and in embodiment was missing. I remember a philosophy course on Heidegger which tackled the question of “existing for death” and while I was taking it I asked myself what about birth? What about the “yes to life” in this philosophical system? The professor to whom I had confided my question had answered me that in fact it was probably a blind spot.

Was this the opportunity for you to think of a discernment “in the feminine”?

No, I didn’t think of discernment in the feminine: I was living discernment in the feminine. In other words my way of making decisions was expressed in a life which was a woman’s life. I knew, for example, the feeling of being torn apart which women (and rarely men) often suffer: the difficulty of reconciling professional and family life. I don’t believe that any “discernment in the feminine” exists, it is only women or men, individual beings, who discern. Effectively, discernment concerns every person, a man or a woman, who wants to follow in Christ’s footsteps. My discernment is different from my husband’s not because he is a man but rather because he isn’t me! Discernment is nothing other than an instrument or means at the service of the individual person in his or her relationship with the Lord. An instrument has no sex and serves no purpose in itself. Its purpose is faithfulness to the Lord. Discernment does no more than modestly put itself at the service of all this. I would also like to add that, fortunately, discernment does not belong only to Ignatian spirituality but rather to every woman or man of good will. What is more properly Ignatian is perhaps the way in which things were formulated and formalized by St Ignatius… for the good of all.

How did you end up at “Christus”?

I was completing my thesis when the editor-in-chief of Christus was beginning his search for an assistant editor. He who was a man and a religious had realized that it would be wonderful to form a team with a woman, and what is more a lay woman! Indeed our collaboration has been very positive! Through my work on Christus I seek to serve the discernment of others.This journal was in fact founded by Maurice Giuliani, a Jesuit who wanted to help his contemporaries – men, women, priests, religious or lay people – to discern in order to find God in their own lives. My mission today makes a contribution to this.

What role does discernment play in guiding others?

St Ignatius of Loyola’s autograph

It is a central role because discernment helps one live one’s life in a manner that is consonant with the Lord and the guide is there to help the person make decisions in his or her life. The person guided or one might say “accompanied” is motivated by a desire and the guide helps him or her to clarify this desire so that it becomes increasingly oriented to God. The many decisions we take over time are an expression of the way in which we put (or do not put) the Lord at the centre of our lives. Guiding means placing ourselves humbly and discreetly at the service of a relationship between the person guided and the Lord. The guide is not there to exercise direction and even less power over the other person. Should this occur, this is no longer guidance as Ignatius intended it. The guide must share in God’s infinite discretion and delicacy.

Does a woman’s guidance differ from a man’s?

Let us remember that in France the number of women offering guidance is equal, if not larger, than the number of men. I sense that there is a difference in the way in which women and men guide others. However, I find it hard to say what it consists of since I have always been guided by women, but especially since the reality is far more complex than our attempts to pigeonhole everything. Yet when I talked about this with other friends, both men and women, who are guides and who animate retreats together, they told me that there was a difference and that perhaps it consisted of the manner of listening, of attention to the body, of small things and of concrete details. In women’s listening a more “motherly” trait might be expressed, but we must be careful with these generalizations. One thing is certain: we guide with what we are, with what we have within us that makes us what we are. Could we perhaps draw a parallel with the difference in the way in which a father and a mother care for their child?

What is the Jesuits’ opinion of women guides?

The spirit of the Jesuits whom I know and with whom I work is that of collaboration in a common mission, to which everyone contributes his or her own talents and charisms; our complementarity is a richness. Although it is true that Jesuits are aware of being ever fewer and of having to work with lay people and women, this is not what drives them to address these groups of people. They do so deliberately, because they know that it is a good and that the Church benefits from it. Thus they show that it is we together who constitute the Church.

And who is St Ignatius for you?

It was he who generated me to inner life. At his school I try to learn bit by bit to share the tastes of the Lord. 

Catherine Aubin

Marie-Caroline Bustarret

  A portrait of Marie-Caroline Bustarret

The July issue of the “Christus” journal

Marie-Caroline Bustarret is Assistant Editor of Christus, a quarterly journalpublished by the French Jesuits. Its subtitle is “Living the spiritual experience today”. The journal’s July issue was dedicated to female spirituality, with profound and innovative essays, the work of scholars of indisputable value: Veronique Margron, Agatha Zielinski, Anne Lecu, Dolores Alexandre, Patrick Goujon, Nathalie Sarthou-Lajus and Anne-Marie Pelletier. Between the texts are the most beautiful fragments by Catherine of Siena, Hadwijch of Antwerp, Simone Weil and Marie Noël.

The question that the editorial staff ask themselves is whether a specific feminine spirituality exists or whether it is not rather a matter of a common good which is also shared by women. The answers differ but they all contain active proposals of rediscovery and openness to female spiritual teaching which, Pelletier writes, “puts listening before speaking”, denouncing the self-centredness of a culture which is concerned with women only in order to speak in their place, thus condemning itself to barrenness. 




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 11, 2019