Time to Clean Up ‘Lay Spirituality,’ Too

In the span of a mere nine weeks during late spring, the faithful are exposed to the most important elements of the faith.  On the post-Vatican II Roman liturgical calendar we find the institution of both the Eucharist and the priesthood on Holy Thursday, the humanity of Jesus on Good Friday, the Divinity of Jesus on Easter Sunday, the existence of the Holy Spirit and the gift of the Church at Pentecost, and the triune nature of God on the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity.

The reason it is important both to understand and to seriously reflect on the meaning of this spiritually-rich and theologically-intense time period is not merely because we need to be catechized (which we do) or that we need to be more obedient (which we do) or even that we need to live more virtuous lives (which we do).  We must reflect on the meaning of these weeks because they form the mystical center of our faith.  In other words, they contain everything we need to know God, to love Him and to return to Him in eternity.

The arc of these weeks shows us who God is, who man is and what is contained in the relationship between the two.  They explain in a whisper that from all eternity God loved us to the point of creation and continues to love us to the point of consummation.  These weeks softly speak the gentle encouragements of a God who tells us that there has never been a time when He didn’t love us and there will never be a time when He does not desire our eternal return to him.  In these weeks God also makes the thunderous demands of one who intends to cleanse us of our fallen nature by the power of bread, wine, water and oil.

Sadly, too many of the lay faithful doubt they have heard His whispers and tend to ignore His booming voice because they have been taught over a four decade or more span that their thoughts, feelings and day-to-day experiences are the valid conduit through which God will save them.  In other words, the trend among spiritual bureaucratic types in the Church has been to train lay narcissists fully convinced that “where they are” is simply enough.  The rationalization, of course, is that life of the layman is inherently noble with its struggles in and with spouses, children and work.

Certainly, marriage and family are estimable and laudable.  That goes without saying.  But at a time in history when technological advances have trained us to desire ever greater speed in all facets of life, when loans and credit cards have trained us to desire ever greater material goods, and when individualism has given way to voyeurism and exhibitionism, then we cannot allow the person in the pew to remain content with the ubiquity of a type of spirituality that is self-absorbed, therapeutic and minimalistic.

So, just as the Church has been working to clean up relativist theology and secularist liturgy, the time has come to clean up humanistic spirituality.

What I am proposing here is that all of those whose work somehow touches on spiritual formation (especially priests and religious) employ their charisms to the task of encouraging an understanding of and practices that can lead to legitimate, authentic and traditionally-understood mysticism.  The time has come to remind the lay faithful that “the perfection of man does not consist in that which assimilates him to the whole of creation, but that in which distinguishes him from the created order and assimilates him to his Creator” (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 114).

What I am talking about here is ridding seminaries, retreat centers and parishes of solipsistic spiritualities.  These are the programs of spiritual formation and direction that tend to utilize psychological paradigms rather than spiritual ones.  I am also proposing that we begin to scale down what I term “spiritual direction mills” that churn our so-called spiritual directors who have little or no directly contemplative experiences with God.

So, what I believe we need is a new breed of spirituality (which is, in fact, quite old) that directs the lay faithful to more fervently work toward union with God.  It’s just like what Pope John Paul II wrote in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (§60): “There is no doubt that spiritual formation ought to occupy a privileged place in a person’s life.  Everyone is called to grow continually in intimate union with Jesus Christ, in conformity to the Father’s will, in devotion to others in charity and justice.”

Instead of directing the lay faithful to focus almost exclusively on the “devotion to others in charity and justice” at the expense of the call “to grow continually in intimate union with Jesus Christ”, I propose that the time has come for the ordained (and/or those in professed vows) to lead the laity to that precipice where God is experienced in a type of mystical fullness.  It is equally time for the lay faithful to demand from themselves and their spiritual directors that theosis or union with God be the focal point of their spiritual life.  This is the only way we can guarantee that true charity and justice will reign in our lives here on earth.

One of God’s great gifts is that He grounds us in our creation and lifts us up toward His kingdom.  The experience of Him in between – in this life – is already awe-inspiring and life-changing.  That is why we must learn to live like it.  By His wisdom we can see the world as He sees it and by His love we can see our end in his heavenly kingdom.  We can see the beyond that has been inaugurated in this world and will be consummated in the next.  So now is the time for us to decide we are going to embrace a spirituality which – instead of merely enfolding ourselves in our humanity – awakens in us that which is divine.

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  • Cooky642

    Jesus said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23) If this isn’t our primary purpose or goal, what are we doing? Trying to make Jesus a liar? It seems to me that the justice and charity we show to our neighbors should be a RESULT of that indwelling, just as the loving actions of the woman who annointed His feet that we read about this week end are the result of God living His life in her. To put the cart before the horse by trying to “dwell” with God through our own attempts at justice and charity smacks of “earned” salvation.

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  • The purpose of this life here below, for every Christian, lay and ordained, professed or not, is to become a saint. If we haven’t pulled out all the stops in pursuit of that one goal, we’re doing something wrong. That’s something I’d like to hear preached in every homily and shouted from the rooftops: you have greatness inside you. Be not afraid, and “Come, follow me.”

  • noelfitz

    This is a very thought-provoking article, with serious condemnation of current Church practice. I would like a more detailed substantiation of the alleged criticisms of the Church.

    Does anyone know when we will get back the forum “Faith and Life”?