Voices Online Edition
Volume XVII, No. 3
A Living Spirituality in a Time of Crisis
by Mary Ellen Bork
The treasure of Catholic spirituality, one of the solutions to the present crisis in the Church, is also one of the Church's best kept secrets. During the last thirty years we have heard little of strong spiritual and moral teaching in our churches.
Some lay Catholics have busied themselves with experiments in new spiritual trends and religious controversies. But the real wisdom of Catholic spirituality and how it relates to our daily lives has not been passed on to young Catholics, many of whom are hungry to know more about God. Seventeen World Youth days are testimony to that. We have arrived at an unexpected time of testing -- terrorist attacks on our country and priestly scandals in our Church.
Now, when we most need spiritual strength, it is urgent to review the distinctive qualities of the treasure that is ours by Baptism into Christ in the Catholic Church. If we can make that treasure our own, we will live with more confidence, certainty and joy.
Life is Sacramental
Today there is a widespread interest in spirituality. Even non-believers are looking for "something more" and this dissatisfaction with the status quo is all to the good.
Serious Catholics want and need more teaching on the wisdom in their own tradition, so successfully lived by a long history of faithful people, religious and lay. The Catholic tradition offers a distinctive approach to life because it takes God's revelation about Himself seriously and sees life as a spiritual journey toward God, not embarked on alone, but in Christ with a community of believers.
At the moment we are living through a breach in the communion that binds us together. We could be tempted to discouragement and disaffection from the Church, or even worse, despair. We need to keep our focus on repairing the communion among us and not being side-tracked by politics and emotionalism.
Our own Catholic tradition has the resources to help us. Catholics believe that God has created the world and wishes to communicate through the ordinary stuff of everyday life. What you see is not all you get. There is much more to the world that we do not see. God created reality as a sacrament. If we are attentive to God's signs in the world and learn how to read them we can glimpse a greater reality. God's speaking through signs is a sacramental approach to reality. Our learning to pay attention to these signs is the stuff of our spiritual life.
Developing our spiritual life is the art of growing in faith, hope and love, the habits that enable us to read God's signs in the world. For those living in the midst of a hyper-secular culture, faith is something like x-ray vision, looking for signs of God in the world. When we talk about spiritual life, the focus is on God and not on ourselves. It is not a question of taking our own inner spiritual pulse. As Evelyn Underhill, the English Anglican mystic, wrote, "Any spiritual view which focuses attention on ourselves, and puts the human creature with its small ideas and adventures in the center foreground, is dangerous till we recognize its absurdity".
Rather our focus is the great spiritual landscape of God. God has many ways of getting our attention in order to rouse us to look at the larger reality. Experiences of beauty in music and art point toward transcendence. So, too, do acts of heroism such as those of the New York firemen on September 11. Another way God has of getting our attention is the mysterious desire to pray, which opens us to contact with the great spiritual reality that is God. God initiates the conversation we call prayer and longs for our response. Even the present crisis, seen with our x-ray, in a negative way, points out the need for reform and turning back to God.
Once God has our attention He wants to communicate His grace to us. Christ gave Himself to us using material signs of the seven sacraments. Through signs of bread and wine, oil, confession, and water, God communicates His infinite and transforming love for everything and everyone human. The sacramental approach is not just part of our Catholic liturgy but can help us draw together the material and the spiritual aspects of life into a unity. It is possible for everything to speak of God if we know how to read the signs.
Saint Paul tells us in Colossians 2:3 that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Pope John Paul has echoed Saint Paul from the first moment of his pontificate, focusing our attention on Christ as the source of our happiness and our life with the admonition, "Be not afraid".
The Christian life is possible even in the modern world. As George Weigel writes in his book The Truth of Catholicism, one of the central teachings of Vatican Council II was the proclamation that "Jesus, the Son of God come into the world, reveals the face of God and His love, and the full meaning of our humanity. The two go together. To know the Son is to know the Father; to know the Father and the Son is to know, ultimately, who we are" (7). The pope has labored to teach the world new depths of this great proclamation, exploring the transforming presence of Christ in history and in each individual person. Even in sickness and old age the pope speaks to the whole world the truth that Jesus reveals who God is and who we are.
The two sacraments we frequent most, Eucharist and Penance, encourage in us habits of faith that make for a mature spiritual life, that is, knowing the Father and the Son, and conforming our lives to that grace. Eucharistic spirituality encourages contemplation of the face of Christ, who alone can reveal to us our true selves. The Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving", is celebrated at Mass every day of the year, opening us to the redemptive action of Christ on a daily basis. Because of our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the reserved sacrament we have the practice of adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Many Catholics are returning to this contemplative practice realizing that an hour in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is a source of spiritual refreshment. In these moments we can quiet our restless souls and allow the greatness of God to envelop us. Or as Saint Paul says in II Corinthians, "We groan under our burden so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life"(11 Cor.5:2-5). Our incessant busyness gets put in perspective and we are refreshed by Life itself.
The much undervalued Sacrament of Penance is another powerful moment of contact with the mercy of Christ, a transforming moment that must be part of a serious life of faith. Confession frees us from preoccupation with our weaknesses and sins by facing them and seeking to amend our life, that is, to put it back together the way it should be, through grace. We turn to Christ for the light to know our sins and to see our truth and His truth. His truth enlightens our conscience and we see more clearly who we are and how we have fallen short of His call and His grace.
It is a moment of conversion, which as C. S. Lewis says in The Four Loves, is necessary and inexorable if we are going to heaven. We cannot enter into the resurrected state of heaven until we have known many conversions, turned back to God many times. One of the conditions God has laid down for heaven is "nothing can enter there which cannot become heavenly. 'Flesh and blood', mere nature, cannot inherit that Kingdom" (136). We can only go to heaven when we are conformed to Christ, who has prepared the way. Each opportunity to go to confession is an opportunity to become our true selves in Christ.
Many Catholics have become Congregationalists on this point. They simply do not go to confession because they do not see their sins as that bad and they are too pressed by their daily concerns to stop and think about their situation. A theological sense of sin has been replaced by a therapeutic notion of sin as weakness and sickness. We need good catechesis on personal sin and personal repentance. Without it we will not approach our merciful Father as often as we can and should. The rediscovery of confession will be a turning point for the Catholic community and the beginning of a new level of personal and communal spiritual growth.
Life is continual conversion
The sacraments of Eucharist and Penance are hinges of Catholic spiritual life that keep us rooted in God as we go about our professional and family lives. Contact with Christ inspires a continual conversion. In both his three-year preparation for the celebration of the new millennium and reflection afterward, the pope has talked about the need for a unified life, spirituality that is not "a part of life, but the whole of life guided by the Holy Spirit" (29 Ecclesia in America).
He sees life as permeated by spirituality, infused by prayer and contemplation of Christ. Our American approach to daily life is efficient and productive -- making lists, enumerating tasks, seeing how much we can get done in a day. We separate the workweek from the weekend, business and professional life from personal and family life. The centrifugal forces of life keep us going in many directions. The spiritual life is the place to draw the many threads together and weave them into a pattern. For example, praying over our many lists might put a new light on what should be first and what last.
In Ecclesia in America, published in 1999 after the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops, the pope speaks of Christian life as one of continual conversion. "The encounter with the living Jesus impels us to conversion" (26). "Conversion" comes from the Latin verb meaning to turn around, to transform. The New Testament uses the Greek word metanoia, which signifies a change of mentality. "It is not simply a matter of thinking differently in an intellectual sense, but of revising the reasons behind one's actions in the light of the Gospel" (26). If we think of our daily life as one of continuing conversion, we can begin to appreciate the dynamic and personal quality of life in the spirit. As we pay attention to the words of Scripture and through prayer allow the word to touch our hearts, the Holy Spirit leads us to follow the way of Christ, the way of self-giving love. The rhythm of life becomes one of prayer and action, reflection and self-giving love.
How important is reading Sacred Scripture to the process of conversion? Saint John Chrysostom, speaking to his flock in Antioch in 389 AD, reminded them that reading Scripture was more important for them than for the monks. Those who are in the world involved in many occupations need Scripture more because they do not have the calm atmosphere of the monastery but are besieged by many temptations. "We need the divine medicines to heal the wounds which we have received and to protect us from those which we have not yet received but will receive", he said. "We must thoroughly quench the darts of the devil and beat them off by continual reading of the divine Scriptures". Some things do not change.
The sacramental practices of the Catholic tradition can help us to keep turning back to heavenly things.
The Rosary can help us lift our eyes from the confusion of the moment to be in touch with the mysteries of the life of Christ and the grace that comes from them. Often we can see a pressing problem in a new light after saying the Rosary.
Grace before meals can be a few seconds of transcendence when the family turns their minds and hearts in gratitude to God. Examining our conscience before going to bed is another moment of turning back to God in openness and humility and loosening the hold that the world has on us each day.
As the pope says, spirituality is the goal of conversion. The habits of faith, attending to the signs of God in the world, of listening, repenting, of abiding in His presence bring the promised peace and sense of steadiness and meaning. As God says in Isaiah, "Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life" (Is. 55: 3).
Attending to God changes the tenor of our lives. C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves speaks of the direction of the spiritual change that God desires to see in us. We will become more human as we become more like Christ. Christ transformed and fulfilled human life in the Incarnation. Our life in Christ is an echo of the Incarnation in which God became man. God became man "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God" (134). As we live our faith our natural loves are taken up into, and made the tuned and obedient instrument of Love Himself.
This stupendous truth has implications for our daily life. Nothing is too trivial to be transformed. As Lewis says, "A game, a joke, a drink together, idle chat, a walk, the act of Venus (sexual love in marriage) -- all these can be modes in which we forgive or accept forgiveness, in which we console or are reconciled, in which we 'seek not our own'. Thus in our very instincts, appetites and recreations, Love has prepared for Himself 'a body'" (134). The transformation and purification of our love prepares us for Heaven and makes us capable of living in communion with others right now.
"Spirituality of Communion"
Conversion leads us to desire communion with God and with each other. In Novo Millennio Ineuente, the pope's reflection on the Jubilee year, he writes that "communion is the fruit and demonstration of that love which springs from the heart of the eternal Father and is poured out upon us through the Spirit which Jesus gives us" (42). A living spirituality will lead members of the Church to witness to communion and to teach others where to find it. "To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning if we wish to be faithful to God's plan and respond to the world's deepest yearnings" (43).
His concern is that without a real communion the Church will have no soul and its activities will be "masks" of communion and not the real thing. These words were written before the scandals of 2002 that have disrupted the communion of the Church in America. There is new urgency to his desire that communion should be cultivated in all the structures of the Church's life, that is, the "relations between bishops, priests and deacons, between pastors and the entire people of God, between clergy and religious, between associations and ecclesial movements" (44).
Had there been more communion and communication between bishops and priests in certain dioceses, the abuses and their aftermath may not have happened. Real renewal requires that bishops be evangelists and teachers - and energetically support and encourage authentic teaching in their dioceses as well as live in a spirit of communion.
The laity need to have bishops who will be spiritual leaders. Father Richard Neuhaus reflected in First Things that the bishops in Dallas may have complicated matters by focusing on damage control rather than seeking an evangelical solution. The words "zero tolerance" and "one strike" do not reflect a Gospel attitude or a "spirituality of communion". They reflect a desire to avoid scandal so as to "put it behind us". The result may be a greater scandal, especially for those "whose chief concern is for the integrity of the Church's faith and life". Even the appointment of a national committee to see that the bishops are accountable can be read as a sign that the bishops do not trust their own abilities to lead the Church down a more spiritual path.
As responsible Catholics we must try to foster true communion. This means putting on the mind of Christ instead of just thinking politically. It means thinking of our brothers and sisters as members of the body of Christ. It means sharing in their joys and sufferings, seeing what is positive in them. It means making room for others in a spirit of welcoming love. Those who are spiritually alive will be led to see many opportunities for communion by the Holy Spirit. As Cardinal Ratzinger has said, Christians today will be like many small islands of sanity and love in the midst of a culture that has lost its way.
One of the best ways to explore a deeper spiritual life is to pray with a small group on a regular basis. Fifteen years ago several friends and I formed such a group. We read spiritual classics and Scripture once a month and pray together. The group is a little community of faith, an oasis -- a constant reminder of our need to read, reflect, and pray.
Spiritual renewal among the laity is a great source of hope for the Church. Pope John Paul II has laid a theological groundwork for it. Part of that renewal is knowing the riches of our tradition, making it our own, and living it.
We need to encourage our bishops to draw on that treasure of Catholic tradition to encourage a living spirituality in the Church, and to preach about it. Then we may experience the promise God made to Ezekiel: "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord" (Ez 37: 4-6).
Mary Ellen Bork, a member of the Voices editorial board, is a writer and lecturer on issues affecting Catholic life. Mrs. Bork has Master's degrees in English and Theology, and taught religion for many years as a Sacred Heart nun. She is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. Mrs. Bork is a member of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Campaign for America, and serves on several other boards, including the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life, and is past president of the Thomas More Society.
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