Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What does a distinctively lay spirituality look like?

This is a question that I have been interested in for a while. Of course, there can be just about as many spiritualities as there are people, but the idea of distinctive spirituality for the lay state and mission is something that the Church needs and, as with all schools of spirituality, it is the Church's saints that articulate it. 

I have been reading The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day edited by Robert Ellsberg and have discovered in them a spirituality that bears reflection and possibly imitation for those of us who seek to live faithfully in the world. In late 1935 Dorothy wrote out a "rule" for 1936, which offers some fascinating insights. She pledged to go to Mass daily, make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, pray a portion of the Divine Office (the old morning office of Prime and Compline, which are most suitable for lay persons and families because of their brevity), pray the Rosary each day, to recollect midday for just few minutes, to do plenty of spiritual reading, "to practice the presence of God", make a daily examination of conscience, and "to be gentle and charitable in thought, word, and deed" (and that she certainly was!). This is a very simple rule and is accessible to people in all walks of life. It doesn't seek to imitate the life of a religious or remove her from the world, but takes the prayer and devotion of the Church right into the world in order to sanctify it. When we read what exercises she took on we must bear in mind her context: she was constantly surrounded and visited by the poor and destitute of New York who were often very far from the world of the institutional church. 

Perhaps this post will generate some discussion. What elements do lay spiritualities contain? What lay saints are you most drawn to? What is distinctively lay about their spirituality? How does our spirituality and spiritual practice as lay persons interact with the world we encounter when we leave the house in the morning? 

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"The Great Divorce" and the Challenge of Faith

Just a note to let you all know about a new essay of mine that's up today on Catholic Exchange entitled The Great Divorce and the Challenge of Faith (click on the title to go there).  It's a meditation on faith and our heavenly destiny, based on C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce with insights from Fr. Luigi Giussani's new book Is It Possible to Live This Way?

This sometimes happens when you read two books at the same time - ideas can collide in an amazing way!

Here's a taste: 
Fr. Giussani thus radically reorganizes the categories of the faith vs. reason debate. Since faith is the foundation of our knowledge about the world, faith is the most reasonable choice to make when evaluating the testimony of someone you know and trust — especially if the encounter is exceptional in some way. He continues: “From a rational point of view, it’s clear that if you become certain that another person knows what he or she is saying and doesn’t want to deceive, then logically you should trust, because if you don’t trust you go against yourself, against the judgment you formulated that that person knows what he or she says and doesn’t want to deceive you.”[v] For Lewis’ fellow bus travelers to the heavenly valley, faith is actually the most reasonable response to the extraordinary encounters they are having, but in denying and rejecting the new vision, the visitors are acting in a most tragically irrational, unreasonable way. The human bond of trust they had with their now Bright friend or loved one should have enabled them to trust the information they were receiving and to allow themselves to be led by that love and trust into the mountains. But alas — they could not overcome their pride, their bitterness, their greed — that is, their insistence that Heaven’s infinite glory conform to their finite conceptions. And they go against themselves.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

An Acceptable Time

We begin the "joyful season" of Lent today. That description usually sounds a little hollow in our ears, I suspect. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving usually don't make the top ten list of ways of expressing joy. Perhaps that in itself is evidence that our lives are a bit our of kilter.

When Jesus is asked by a scribe to name the greatest commandment (a serious question for the first century Jew who was encouraged to keep all the commandments with equal energy), Jesus replies,
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." Mt 22:37-40.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are practices meant to help us fulfill these two commandments. Our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves - to love and care for ourselves first, then our neighbor, and to place God last. Of course, the neighbor we tend to care for is the one who is like us, or who has demonstrated some love for us first. And while God's expectations of us are clear in the Scriptures, He doesn't seem to force them - or Himself - upon us from day to day.

Even the "give ups" we embrace at the beginning of Lent can really be self-centered. Some people give up chocolate or dessert (perhaps in the hope of losing a few stubborn Christmas-New Years pounds). Lent can become a time of "self-improvement" based on superficialities (less caffeine in my system, less time wasted in front of the TV). But Lent is a time of turning away from myself and back to God and neighbor, so why would I ask God for the grace to do that during Lent, only to return to my "normal" ways Easter Sunday?

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are intimately linked. In fasting, whether from food, a vice, or time-consuming activity, God invites me to deny myself in order to break the illusion that I my life is about myself. In fasting, God teaches me that my needs - which often are really wants - do not have to be filled in order for me to be content. Fasting also prepares a space in my life in which more prayer can take place. So in choosing your fast this year, ask yourself, "what activity has taken hold over my life in such a way that it is interfering in my relationship with God and/or my neighbor?"

Prayer is our conscious, intentional turning towards our Creator. It acknowledges our Source and our End, and places Jesus and His Father and their mutual Love, the Holy Spirit, nearer the center of our life. Perhaps our best prayer might be to acknowledge our complete dependence upon God and to beg that knowing, loving and trusting Him might become our greatest desire. Perhaps in prayer, God may reveal to us the idols that we have worshipped instead of him; idols like wealth, security, power, our favorite sports team, beauty, etc.

The prophet Isaiah links fasting with our relationship to our neighbor:
Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Isaiah 58:5-7
Again, we see that almsgiving also focuses our attention away from ourselves. The "fast" Isaiah describes requires us to see the needs of the oppressed, the imprisoned, the hungry, naked, and homeless. It demands that we expand our understanding of "our own" beyond the narrow confines of family and friends.

How is Lent a "joyful season"? Perhaps that answer lies in actually praying, fasting, and giving alms. Maybe being less selfish and self-centered, maybe being more focused on a lived relationship with the God who loved us so much that He came to share our life, will be its own reward.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Christus pro nobis immolatus est

Catholic writer David Delaney has posted some of his thoughts here on Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist. This paragraph really struck me:

B16 does a very good job in showing how the entire Christian life is formed around, must be structured by, and is made possible through the Eucharist and the liturgy. The Mass is the one and only acceptable offering to God on the part of humanity. As such, Benedict recognizes that the accidents which surround and adorn the liturgy must accord with the liturgy’s nature. We therefore, must adorn the one Sacrifice that reconciles man with God with the very best that humanity has to offer. It is in light of this that he earnestly desires to reshape the way the average Catholic looks at and approaches the liturgy. Clearly he thinks that an important step in do so will come in replacing the mundane adornments with the sacred.

Just over ten years ago, when I first began to consider the claim of the Catholic Church to be The Church that Jesus Himself founded, this concept of “offering” or sacrifice in connection with Communion was a stumbling block to me. I had internalized a Protestant understanding of Hebrews 9-10, that Christ suffered for our sins “once for all”, and that any other religious action done by humans that called itself a sacrifice for sins was beyond the pale. In the midst of my prayer and thought about this, strangely enough, it was the memory of an old Star Trek episode that helped me understand the Eucharistic sacrifice. At that time (1996), I wrote the following in my journal:

If the Eucharist is a sacrifice, who is doing the offering of the sacrifice? Are we/the priests making the offering, or is Christ offering up Himself? If we are simply jumping through hoops in performing the ritual, we’re doing nothing more than offering fruit baskets at the mouth of the cave of Vaal (Star Trek original series, episode #38 – “The Apple”). If, however, Christ Himself does the transforming through the office of the priest and the proclamation of His Word, then He really is offering up Himself, which places us with Him in that “wrinkle in time”, which means it’s the real McCoy. (Sorry for the bad pun.)

In every Mass, Christ (the true celebrant of every Mass, with the priest standing in persona Christi) offers up Himself – a unbloody reiteration of His blood-soaked death by torture on the cross of Calvary. Time and space fold over; matter changes its essence; God gives Himself again into our hands to have His flesh torn and His blood poured out. This is our spiritual food and drink, our sustenance for our real life, the one we live in Him.

In the midst of how busy we all are with seminars, missions, Masses, choir rehearsals, classes, and retreats (and don’t forget the day job!) in preparation for Easter, I think it’s good to remember that God is the one whose will controls things, who directs our steps, who plots our course. Though we’re hard at “working out [our] salvation with fear and trembling”, let’s keep in mind that “it is God who works” in us, both to will and to act according to His design (Phil. 2:12-13). I believe He is pleased to see trust in our eyes when we look to Him, rather than the impatience that often (in my case, at least) meets His gaze.

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

"Dirty Secret" details

Then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the following observation in a forward to a book on the demonic titled "Renewal and the Powers of Darkness" published in 1983 by Cardinal Suenens. "What is the relation between personal experience and the common faith of the Church? Both factors are important: a dogmatic faith unsupported by personal experience remains empty; mere personal experience unrelated to the faith of the Church remains blind." I find that combination of dogmatic faith and personal experience to be crucial in my own developing faith. Let me explain a bit.

In a post titled, "A Dirty Little Secret", I asked people to describe what has helped deepen their faith. I thought it only fair to give my own testimony. Several events come to mind, beginning with a gradually deepening dogmatic faith that has recently been enlivened with personal experiences of God's power and love.

First of all, when I was an undergrad at Michigan Tech, a Baptist friend of mine asked if he and another friend of his could talk to me one evening. I said, "Sure!" and was surprised to find that the conversation was to be about the errors of Catholicism. I remember being told that I worshipped a round piece of bread that represented the Egyptian sun god, Ra. That was news to me! Of course, I knew they were wrong about that ridiculous claim and other statements they'd made, but I also knew I wanted to know more about my faith, so I went and talked to a local priest. I came away from that conversation with an awareness that there was a rich intellectual component to my faith that I did not know. At that time it was enough that I knew it was there. I didn't feel a desire to really study it myself.

Then, when I was in graduate school, I was confronted by the worst poverty and greatest wealth I'd ever encountered in the U.S. separated, basically, by a highway. I was perplexed that such disparity could exist in what I had always taken to be a Christian nation. It raised disturbing questions for me that got me thinking about what I was doing with my life. I began to ask if perhaps I shouldn't try to do something to change things. Surprisingly (at least to me), that eventually led me to consider priesthood.

I was blessed with a great seminary education at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology (www.dspt.edu). My faith was not deconstructed, and what I learned of the scriptures using the historical-critical methods approved by Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu only deepened my appreciation for Revelation. I came away with an even greater appreciation for the Magisterium, and a confidence in the Church's intellectual and spiritual riches. But my experience of a relationship with Jesus as expressed in a conscious daily choice to follow him lagged behind my intellectual development.

Most recently, my faith has been deepened through the work of the Institute. Learning about charisms, hearing stories about them, seeing them at work in the lives of others (and even occasionally in my own) has led me to believe that God is intimately involved in our daily lives, and that consciously cooperating with His power and will for the benefit of others is possible.

Finally, I have been inspired and evangelized by the transformative power of God at work in "Adam," (see my post, "Totalitarian Faith Enfleshed"), and that has awakened within me a desire for a more personal love relationship with Jesus. I would say my intellectual faith, which at times was fairly empty in terms of relationality, is being filled by a more personal experience of God's love for me which has generated moments of great consolation and joy, and increased my desire to know Him in the Scriptures, sacraments, and Christian community.


I Have a Dirty Secret

Amy Wellborn's "Open Book" blog has an interesting post on "Reverts", that is, Catholics who left the Church, then returned (click on the title of this post to go there). The "dirty secret" is a journey of faith (and doubt or disinterest or disdain or disillusionment, etc.) that, believe it or not, everyone seems to have. We Catholics seldom ask for permission of one another to talk about that journey, which is why I'm jokingly calling it a dirty secret. There are quite a few stories of reversion there, but I'd like to make a few observations about what I've seen on that thread. However, I encourage you to go see for yourself!

OBSERVATION A: There are some patterns regarding why people left that emerge:
1) poor catechesis in Catholic schools, including catechesists with disdain for anything smacking of the pre-Vatican II Church (Catholic school education really takes a beating, I'm afraid)
2) little or no catechesis - Christmas/Easter nominal Catholic households;
3) "falling away" after marrying a non-Catholic
4) It seems that these folks had no relationship with Christ on anything but an intellectual level. This is not explicitly mentioned on any post, as far as I could tell, but every reason for falling away seems to focus on some intellectual defect of faith. Even those who mentioned prayer, spoke of it as a kind of ritual in their "pre-falling away days."

Virtually all of the comments indirectly point out the importance of parents sharing their faith with their children. I don't mean just sending them to Catholic school. In fact, many of the comments indicate that was the beginning of the end of their faith. Rather, parents need to talk about why they believe what they do. They need to talk about their relationship with Christ, the relationship between Christ and the Church (local and universal), and how that relationship effects their decisions. Many of those who "fell away" had parents who were nominal Catholics who probably couldn't do that, because that relationship wasn't there.

OBSERVATION B: There are some people who seem to speak of "unintentional disciples". For example,

"There should also be a "tweener" category: between convert/revert and life long Catholics. A category for those who never left the Church (hence, never converted or reverted in that sense), but weren't really conscious of being Catholic in a deliberate way (hence, not exactly the witness of saints). Sort of auto-pilot Catholics, who one day for whatever reason, shut off the auto-pilot and start flying manual."


"I'm not a convert, because I am a cradle Catholic, but I never totally made a concious decision to LEAVE...it never mattered at all. Period. Being Catholic was inconsequential to anything else in my life."

This is why our blog is called "Intentional Disciples." Faith that justifies is conscious, i.e., intellectual assent to truth and informed by love in such a way as to issue forth in "good works." A well-formed faith transforms our life with God's grace.

OBSERVATION C: There are some interesting examples of what could be cultural Catholicism. This post was from a female religious, and I choose to believe there's a lot more to her faith than this:

"I've had the grace to be Catholic my whole life. It had a lot to do with my Irish grandmother's fierce clinging on to the faith because of the effects of Britain's persecution of the Irish Catholics."

OBSERVATION D: Many people who wrote comments came back to the Church because of the Mass, but more seemed to come back because of intellectual reasons. In some ways this doesn't surprise me, since people who read blogs might tend to be more intellectually inclined, and many of them spoke of leaving for intellectual reasons. The following beautiful anecdote stood out to me because it was more of a personal experience of the presence of God. What was fascinating, however, was that the writer felt it necessary to somehow apologize for her subjective experience!

"I was reading C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" alone in my room one night, and ... there's really no other way to put this ... I had an experience of God. I felt God's presence in the room with me. I felt that His eyes were on me. I didn't hear voices or anything like that. I just felt His presence in a way I never had before and never have since. A Psalm 139 kind of experience.

Reading back over that last paragraph, I know this is the kind of thing that makes non-believers, and maybe even believers, think "hallucination, send this woman to a shrink." I would have said so myself to anyone who described such a thing to me. I can only say it was the most real thing I've ever experienced.

I can't say how anyone else views my story, but here is what I see: God saved me with what He had to work with. I had a wonderful mother who never stopped praying for me, and who, together with my sister, ended up living with me and being a model of faith. I had a habit of reading romance novels and just happened to pick up one that would stir my desire for a relationship with God. I was a bit of an Anglophile, and here was the English master of Christian apologetics ready to hand. Rationalism was initially a stumbling block to my faith, and God pulled me over with a unique experience of grace."

I believe experiences like this are not as rare as one might think from reading this thread on "Open Book."

OBSERVATION E: While some Catholics who have commented on Intentional Disciples seem to take offense at the idea that Catholics might speak about their faith, apparently a good number are willing to write about their faith journey at great length. Certainly my experience as an interviewer of people who have gone through a Called and Gifted workshop has shown me that Catholics are often quite willing to share their stories - and all of those stories are beautiful in one way or another.

Which leads me to invite you to share a "dirty secret" here. If you will, would you describe what has made a big difference in your life of faith?

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Spiritual Disciplines - part 4


One of the fundamental human freedoms we have is the ability to put our minds where we want.
Every student who has daydreamed through a tedious class knows this.
Into the space made by fasting, silence and solitude we can introduce a fourth spiritual discipline, the memorization of Scripture.
St. Dominic, the founder of the Order to which I belong, was known to have carried the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistles of St. Paul with him where ever he went, and so well had he studied them, he had memorized nearly every passage.

We don't have to memorize huge swaths of chapters (though it wouldn't hurt), but what's to prevent us from memorizing simple phrases and sentences that we can keep before our mind each day?
Joshua 1:8 says that we should "meditate on the law of the Lord day and night, so that we may act in accordance with all that is written in it."
If fasting opens a space in our life for another's will to be done, then memorizing Scripture will make that Other's will more concrete.

It would seem that memorizing some passages of scripture is important, because whatever we study forms our mind, and our mind, in turn forms our life.
I'm a big college sports fan, and I have to be careful not to go overboard.
I know that's happening when I begin memorizing statistics of my favorite team (Go Ducks!).
What information do you seek out regularly? Statistics from the stock market? The latest celebrity gossip in People? How do the facts and soundbites you immerse yourself in shape you?

Our soul is re-formed as we meditate and chew over even a sentence of God's word during our day.
That meditation can become a dialogue between us and God throughout the day, and just as we grow in love as we grow in knowledge of someone, we grow in love of God as we submerge ourself in His word.
Just as we long to hear the voice of someone we love, we can begin to long to hear the voice of God in scripture.

As our projects mount, as our labors and tasks surround us, as our entertainment and doodling while away the time, we may forget the upshot of our lives.
It is to love and evoke love, no matter where we may be, from classroom to the workplace, the kitchen table, the nursing home.
It is to receive with an open heart the gift of Christ's once-and-for-all redemptive act.
Moreover, it is to refocus our lives so that Christ is at the center – for we cannot love as we are commanded by Christ without Christ's help.

If heaven is seeing God face-to-face and abiding in his presence eternally, shouldn't we seek him in this life?
If we have little or no interest in God on a daily basis, what makes us think that we're fit for heaven?
Do we think heaven is simply a reward for being good?
Could any of us ever be good enough to earn eternal happiness?
We do not earn salvation.
It's not a reward for being good, nor is it a reward for not being too bad.
The saints are those who long to see God in this life, who are channels of God's love for others, who lay down their life in acts of service to others, who make God an integral part of their daily experience.
They are consecrated; set apart by God's grace and their own free will to do what he asks of them.
When the saint dies, heaven is the fulfillment of what they lived on earth.

So what are your future plans?
What do they include?
Is heaven in your future?
It's not automatic, you know.
If we don't want to spend time with God in our lifetime, in prayer, reflection, reading of scripture, reaching out to him in the distressing disguise of the people around us, what makes us think we want to spend eternity with him?

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Spiritual Disciplines - part 3


I have to admit I hate to fast.

I blame my childhood hypoactive thyroid, which caused my weight to balloon and led my pediatrician to put me on a diet.
As a third-grader I thought it was a rather generous allotment of calories – 500 for just one day – until I realized four glasses of milk would take care of my daily caloric needs!

But I see a real value and need for it in my life today.
Contemporary society is filled with advertising: on buses, in newspapers, magazines, movies, TV, radio.
And it's all about generating desire in us.
The power of advertising is seen all around us.
New homes are more than twice as large as our parents' or grandparents' homes were – and they likely had more children!
There's a growing epidemic of obesity not only in our country, but now in China, too, which has begun to take on more of the trappings of capitalism (including advertising).
Some people literally killed to get the new Playstation that was released this fall.

The spiritual discipline of fasting retrains us away from dependence upon the satisfaction of our desires and makes the Kingdom of God a vital factor in our daily life.
Fasting is an application of the cross, which, in simplest terms, means not doing or getting what I want. If undertaken in the proper spirit, which is the desire to be more open to what God wants, it can create a space within me that actually hungers to do that will, instead of my own.

Our need for fasting can be seen in the amount of anger in our life.
Anger is often a response to the frustration of our will, sometimes simply in the frustration of our expectations.
It doesn't make much difference to a broken soul if what is willed is trivial, as the phenomenon of road rage demonstrates.

Fasting frees us from having to have what we want.
We can learn to be calm and serene even when we are deprived.
The Christian experience of fasting has shown that this calm in the face of deprivation will extend to beyond food to other areas of our life.
Like TV, sex, the need to control, to shop, to buy, to surf the net, (shudder) to blog…

Fasting can loosen the ties I have to doing my will and open me to the possibility of doing God's will.
Perhaps the ability of Jesus to fast allowed him to say, "Doing the will of him who sent me and bringing his work to completion is my food." (John 4:34)

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Spiritual Disciplines

How many of you are planning on watching the NFL playoff games?
How many of you are married or planning to get married?
How many of you are planning to have kids?
How many of you are planning to own a house or condo?
How many of you are planning your next vacation?
How many of you are planning your retirement?
How many of you are planning to die?


I mean, actually making plans?

How does one "plan" to die?
Is there more to plan than making a will, checking out a gravesite or columbarium, figuring out who gets durable power of attorney, and picking out readings and music for your funeral?

Do you wake up in the morning thinking, "Well, this could be the day I die"?
Maybe if you have a big math test or a presentation to make to the boss you might reflect on that for consolation, but otherwise, unless you're old and/or in terrible health, I bet you don't.

I don't, at least.

But it wouldn't be a particularly bad idea, and, in fact, night prayer or compline ends with a sobering thought, "May the Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death."

When we truly plan for something, we take action.
So, if you're serious about watching the Chargers take on the Patriots, you clear your schedule, prepare your munchies, and put on your game-day shirt.
How do we plan for death, judgment, and, one Hopes, heaven?
Well, if heaven is eternal life in the presence of God, how can I expect to be prepared for that if I'm not living in God's presence in time?

Look at it this way – you didn't meet and marry your spouse on the same day – at least not if you were sober.
You got to know him or her over time. Your life slowly changed.
It began to revolve more and more around this particular person until you knew you didn't want to live without him or her.
It's really no different with our relationship with God, which is why some spiritual writers and saints refer to Jesus as their divine spouse.

So how do we come close to God in this life?
There are some traditional responses, like prayer, receiving the sacraments, participating in the life of the Christian community as it exists in the parish. All the things that people mentioned in response to Sherry's question, "What nourishes your relationship with Christ?"
But there are a couple of other traditional practices that I'd like to add to that list.

But to find out what I'm thinking, you'll have to come back tomorrow!

(ooooh, a serial blog!!!)