I want to follow up on yesterday’s posting and the subject of the lack of spirituality and direction for the spiritual journey in our parishes today. Are people even aware of our rich Catholic tradition of prayer? A priest friend of mine told me that a “super-Catholic” parishioner of his complained that he never spoke about spirituality in his homilies. He claimed that all he spoke of was spirituality. The problem was two very different understandings of spirituality. “Agnes of God” (his pet nickname for this particular lady) meant that he should talk more about saying the rosary and doing holy hours. She arrived at church every morning at 7 am (an hour and a half before the morning Mass) to say the Stations of the Cross (“In Agnes’ religion, Jesus always ends up in the tomb, even on Easter morning,” Father noted), say her rosary, and work her way through a pile of novena pamphlets. After Mass she would remain to lead fellow parishioners in a second rosary. All this is well and good, he pointed out, but it constitutes “piety” rather than “spirituality.” When the parish priest spoke to her about various other forms of prayer that wefre being offered in the parish, forms such as Lectio Divina she was uninterested, or Christian Meditation, she dismissed it as “Christian Buddhism”. This limited understanding of prayer is not only common among the laity. I have a cousin who is an up and coming prelate and was on the Vatican appointed team that “investigated” American seminaries about eight years ago. He told me that when they visited a Carmelite monastery where the young friars were studying for the priesthood he and other team members were surprised to find that there were no scheduled holy hours as in diocesan seminaries, that visits to the Blessed Sacrament were not actively encouraged by the formation team, and that the rosary was never said in common. When these and other suggestions for change were made, the formation team was adamant that there would be no such additions to the community schedule. The friars celebrated the Liturgy of the Hours in common every day, had daily Mass together, and were required to do two hours of meditation in their “cells.” In addition they met once a week for “lectio divina” in common. While individuals were free to pursue other forms of prayer and encouraged in private piety, there would be no change to the common schedule. Within a month of the visit, the team received a letter from the Carmelite headquarters in Rome informing them that the Order stood behind the formation team. Carmelite Spirituality is, they were informed., very “bare bones” and the Order resisted innovations that would dilute their tradition by adding “foreign” elements to the spirituality that had guided Carmelites for eight centuries. The traditional spirituality which guided Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, is “to meditate night and day on the Law of the Lord” and “to keep vigil in prayer” in their individual cells as the Rule of their Order has called them to do for eight centuries.
A similar story comes from a friend of mine who is a priest of the Ukrainian Rite. A century and more ago when Eastern Rite Catholics were immigrating to America, many “Latin” customs were introduced into the Rite such as Stations of the Cross, the rosary, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in order to make these Eastern Rite Christians look more “Catholic,” as if Catholic meant “Roman.” . But now there is a strong effort to purge the Eastern Rites of these Western practices and restore the traditional devotions and prayer-life of the East.
For those whose spiritual life is comprised only of pious exercises, the abandonment or absence of these devotions makes it appear that there is no spirituality when in fact various Churches or Monastic communities are returning to the more ancient forms of prayer that are properly theirs. Does this mean that there should be no room for piety? By no means. We all begin the spiritual journey with pious prayers and most of us still revert to the pieties of our youth at times of stress or distraction and we still find not only comfort but grace in traditional devotions. But we also know that “active” prayer or “vocal prayer” is the initial steps of a spiritual journey that takes us deeper and deeper into the heart of God. For those who are willing to let go of their attachments to active prayer forms and trust God to lead them, there is a possibility of moving into the “Prayer of Quiet” and then beyond into the deeper forms of contemplative prayer. One does not then abandon devotional or active prayer, but one does become less dependent on it.
As one matures in prayer one becomes more and more conformed to the will of God and the fruits of this spiritual maturing can be recognized. These fruits are not visions and extraordinary gifts. While grace may sometimes be manifested in such phenomena, extraordinary occurances are no sure assurance of spiritual maturity. Indeed, as John of the Cross warns us such “gifts” can offer greater peril to the soul than grace as these gifts are not necessarily from God. In fact, according to Teresa of Avila, speaking of such things as visions or locutions, as Father Haley was inclined to do, is one of the signs that these visions are not from God but are manifestations of a lack of humility. The only true sign of authentic spiritual maturity is the conversion of the human heart to God and in particular the increase of charity. As the soul journeys further and further in God, it becomes more and more like God. The soul learns to see the world through the eyes of God and the fruits of this are most clearly a depth of wisdom and of compassion that reflects the divine attributes. I wonder how such a soul would have handled the dilemma that Marcel Guarnizo faced when Barbara Johnson stood before him for communion at her mother’s funeral. Somehow, neither compassion nor wisdom come to mind.