Allentown Synod Outline Question #4: Does prayer, Mass, the Sacraments, and other Church celebrations inspire and guide your life with the Church? Why or why not?
In addressing this question in the Synod sharing sessions, I am making the presumption that participants would most likely address the circumstances of their own parishes, since most of us attend Mass at the same locale and, unless you worship weekly in a monastery or a campus ministry center at a university staffed by a religious order, you generally have the same one or two priests leading the Eucharist and the other sacraments almost exclusively. Let me begin by stating unequivocally that no parish in the world can, by itself, meet the personal needs of everyone seeking to develop a personal relationship with God, or a “personal spirituality” as we say today. Spirituality is one’s “internalized religious identity and structured way of approaching divine love.” It is the foundation of why we even go to the trouble of belonging to any religion. It is faith penetrating the heart of the psyche.
This statement should hardly come as a shock, nor is it an indictment of the parish system, as parishes certainly do their part in the formation and maintenance of their members as spiritual beings. The parish is the building block of the Church, the Body of Christ. But if we look back in history, we can see how the Church has encouraged its members to special acts of piety and devotion outside of regular parish life. Very early in the Church’s history the idea of “pilgrimage” took hold—a once-in-a-lifetime venture that mixed the virtue of courage with the holiness of the place visited and left a lasting spiritual/psychological impression upon the pilgrim. As you read this in 2022, thousands of Catholics and persons of all faiths are walking “the Camino de Santiago” or the way to St. James, an 800-kilometer journey to the burial site of the apostle in northwest Spain. This pilgrimage is powerfully portrayed in the film, “The Way.” Such spiritual journeys take us far beyond the daily life of our local churches and curve the trajectories of our life with God.
In 1998 my future wife and I were filing our paperwork with our beloved old Irish pastor to get married later that year. With something of a chuckle, he told us we did not have to attend the diocesan pre-Cana classes “with the kids.” We were both 50 and had belonged to religious orders in our younger years, she the Dominicans and I the Franciscans. Instead, he suggested this: “Why don’t you take a few days off and make a private retreat with the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey outside of Charleston, South Carolina?” Our pastor himself was a devoted retreatant and benefactor of the Mepkin monastery.
Making retreat with the monks for any period leaves you a different person, and Margaret and I became regular annual participants up to the Covid crisis. Retreatants can share as little or as much of the life of the Trappists as they wish on retreat. For me at first in 1998, I was both discomfited and inspired. Discomfited, because I was and am quite independent—and somewhat undisciplined. The idea of living the strict life and the clock of the monks—they retire at 8 PM and rise at 2:30 AM for the Office of Readings/Liturgy of the Hours—was more than I could take, so I slept in till 5:30 AM and joined the community for breakfast. [Margaret took to the schedule nicely; her problem was the silence, LOL.] On the other hand, there was a holy productivity and simplicity of life that I found irresistible. The monk-author Father Thomas Merton had been a Trappist in Kentucky before his 1968 death, and I had a bookcase full of his biographies, journals, letters, and spiritual books I had acquired over the years but read at best superficially or immaturely. At Mepkin, though, the thought nagged at me: what am I doing in my life that is more urgent than reflecting upon the wonder of God that these monks do with such obvious inner peace?
I should add here that the sacred rites of the Church at Mepkin and other monasteries—notably the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Eucharist –are celebrated with what the Vatican II documents call “a noble simplicity” that lifts the heart. Because the life of a monk is centered around a constant purposeful exchange with God, the Mass does not need to be cluttered with bells and whistles—or multiple renderings of the “Ave Maria,” has happens too often in my church. In parishes, the Sunday Mass is usually the sum and summit of most of our praying for the week, as well as “the village bulletin board.” When you remove these encumbrances, as religious communities do, Mass is brief, simple, and purposeful, and yet one leaves with a profound impact from what has just happened.
I will never be a monk, obviously. But the richness of the monastic ideal of Christian simplicity and fraternity is available to all Catholics to arrange one’s spirit and life, through the lived experiences of communities like Mepkin Abbey and particularly through the riches now available in multiple media, particularly from the pen of arguably the greatest spiritual author of our time, Thomas Merton [1915-1968]. During Covid, Mepkin Abbey developed an ingenious on-line Zoom program for its retreat alumni to read Merton and other mystics and discuss the material monthly. Currently my wife and I are reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation with five other Mepkin alumni from Florida.
There are several rich spiritualities from the Church’s history. Besides Benedict, there are the Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian, Carmelite, Redemptorist, and Servite [Mary] spiritualities, to name the most prominent. The common denominator of all of them is the movement toward an intimate personal union with God through meditation, imagination, contrition, and action. Spirituality is our “divine identity” if you will. Where our trains go off the track is with the habitual idea that the structured parish life constitutes the spiritual identity. When you believe this long enough, the monotony of ritual and habit gradually saps whatever religious animation has endured over the years. Spiritual directors in modern times have put it this way: “If your goal is to keep your plane at a level altitude, it will start to crash.” If we are not on a soulful growth trajectory, we will lose the little that we have. A parish alone cannot keep you afloat, but it can be the gateway to a profound religious life that is lived and breathed 24/7.
As a gateway to spirituality there are many things a parish can do to help its members. The first thing I would recommend is honesty. It would be refreshing to hear from the pulpit that the Sunday sermon alone is not enough to fuel the soul. The homily can be part of a parishioner’s spiritual growth if the listener is familiar with the Bible as a whole, not simply the tiny excerpts read on Sunday; and, if the listener opens one’s heart to God in a daily meditative process. The same is true regarding reception of Holy Communion. It is true that we receive the real Christ in the consecrated bread. But how powerful is that moment if we know next to nothing about who it is we are receiving?
It is important for a parish to emphasize the concept of “the domestic church.” That is, in the best of all worlds our home is where most of “the spiritual action” is. We have been woefully deficient over the years in catechizing home prayer. Interestingly, Vatican II recommended the idea of encouraging the laity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s daily prayer, notably Lauds and Vespers [Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer]. It has been sixty years since that recommendation, and I am not aware of any serious effort in this direction.
The bigger question is: just what is prayer? In 2021 Father James Martin, S.J., rode to The New York Times bestseller list with his brilliant Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. This is the best introductory book on prayer I have seen in my lifetime. Among other things, the author discusses the religious experience of children, which unpacked for me spontaneous religious occurrences in my early youth. Pope Francis took special notice of this book and its author. It amazes me that in my own parish, for example, this work has never been mentioned from the pulpit or recommended for purchase. It is frustrating, week after week, to hear exhortations that “we need to pray” but never the concrete instruction. “Saying prayers” is different from meditating, which builds a psychological grounding on the reality of God and keeps us going through thick and thin.
Pastors must avoid the temptation of believing that their own spiritualities, developed in their own contexts, are automatically the default destinations of all their parishioners. Each parishioner is as different as a snowflake. I have long thought that pastors should invite guest preachers or exchange pulpits from time to time on Sundays to expand the parish horizon of spiritual understanding. Another good example is the Sacrament of Penance. Each of us sins in our way, from our human make-up, and needs an insightful confessor who, over time, can come to understand what religious input is best suited to our temperaments to help us grow from sin into grace, Any validly ministering priest can absolve sin, to be sure, but if you talk to any honest priest, he will admit that many of the confessions he hears are repeats, many times the same person going through the same motions for years. This is discouraging for the penitent, who has never been encouraged to take his or her penitential insight to deeper places. This also explains why the numbers of confessions are miniscule as compared to years ago.
Many years ago, when my parents were still alive, the three of us took a week to fish in northern Canada. In the best of angling tradition, one night by the full moon we made a sizeable dent in a new bottle of Canadian Club. In vino veritas, my father stated—at the age of 60 or thereabouts--that he was getting nothing out of his bi-weekly confession and went to confession only because my mother made him go. My ma started to scold him. But I sided with my father, as I was by then a parish pastor, and I knew as a confessor I was offering my regular penitents a bunch of “sweet nothings.” Today it is a mystery to me why I didn’t just slip my own penitents a copy of The Imitation of Christ and invite them to reflect on a chapter before their next confession. My dad was such a good man; he carried many crosses raising five very different children in post-War America. How much comfort he might have received with the concrete experience of Christ in his corner. In my own early seminary years, The Imitation had been the one worthwhile spiritual input that kept me going.
A critical issue that every Catholic ought to be worrying about is the shrinking number of religious orders and qualified spiritual directors in the United States. It is encouraging to see more lay persons enter college and graduate studies in this field of ministry. Spiritual direction is a true theological discipline, involving both a solid immersion in theology and religious tradition as well as an understanding of human nature. “Grace builds on nature, and nature builds on grace.” But unlike the days when members of religious orders cultivated their spiritual traditions through their parishes, schools, and universities, “spirituality ministers” and “spiritual directors” will need financial backing for their training at reputable Catholic universities as well as living wages to raise families once in the field.
There is more to be said on this subject, so give me a few days.
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