Today is the Feast of Saint John of the Cross. Well, actually yesterday was his feast day but for Discalced Carmelites the Solemnity was transferred until today so as not to interfere with an Advent Sunday. I say this because I spent a good chunk of the day with a community of Discalced Carmelite Nuns and it lets me pick up on the theme of the need for an evangelical renewal of Religious Life and in particular on where I left off: namely my observation that the pieties of the past are not enough to sustain Religious in a genuinely evangelical life and what is needed is a substantive spirituality. I mentioned in the my previous posting that many Religious today are either spiritually and psychologically burned out for the lack of a proper formation in the past or, at the other end of the spectrum, are being formed in and for spiritually and psychologically unhealthy systems. Both the dying communities of the pre-Conciliar Church and the unhealthy communities of what might be called the Conciliar Reaction have this in common: they feed their members spiritual pabulum that is sufficient for beginners in the spiritual life but they have not given them (the old groups) or do not give them (the new groups) the tools of an authentic spiritual life suited for self-realizing (that is to say self-realizing under grace) Christian discipleship.
Some years ago I had in class a woman who had been a cloistered Dominican Nun for over twenty-five years. In our conversation she told me that for those twenty-five years her spiritual life consisted in daily Mass, the Divine Office in choir, her participation in the monastery work of a perpetual rosary before the Blessed Sacrament (where she spent approximately 2 hours a day and said about ten rosaries.) She was told that there was no need for mental prayer beyond that that could be accommodated by her obligatory rosaries and that there was no time for Lectio Divina. In other words, her entire prayer life was active prayer, either liturgical or devotional. She had matured more in the spiritual life, she told me, under a Cistercian Spiritual Director in the three years since leaving the monastery than she had in her 25 years inside the cloister. And “if this is what happens to the green wood, what will happen to the dry?”
For many communities founded in the 19th century a typical prayer life was Mass, the rosary, and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary along with assorted litanies and devotional prayers. Sisters and Brothers and even priests were told that meditation or mental prayer was unnecessary and even that it was dangerous. Many of the newer communities are little better. The Little Office has been replaced by parts of the Divine Office but there is still either no training in mental prayer or inadequate time given to it. People are encouraged in some communities to fill their meditation time with devotional prayers.
Piety is a good thing but it is not spirituality. “Piety” comes from the Latin word pietas which means the duties that one has towards ones parents, mentors, elders, and God. In the context of religion, piety is what we do, led by grace, for God. It is our taking responsibility (always by grace) for our relationship with God. We initiate and sustain the relationship. Spirituality, on the other hand, is the relationship that God, in his grace, works in us. God takes the initiative and sustains (with our response) the relationship. In piety, we are the principal active agent; in spirituality God is the initiator. It is the difference between active and receptive prayer. For the heart that is bent on searching for God, whether a Religious or a priest or a lay person, piety, in and of itself, is a dead-end path. Piety can lead one to genuine spirituality and indeed most great spiritual journeys begin in piety. But they must mature and the soul must yield the reins of the spiritual life to God.
Today watching the Carmelite nuns prayerfully sitting in their choir or going about their roles in the liturgy, or greeting their guests, or sharing their celebratory dinner with nuns from several other communities, I was struck by the grace—on both the natural and supernatural meanings of that word—with which they live. There was nothing artificial about how they did things, nothing “nunny.” A low note of celebration pervaded the prayer and a constant tone of prayer pervaded the celebration. One could see a certain depth of meaning, an integration of all the diverse facets of life, that is too often missing in both the spiritual fuss-budgeting of some of the newer communities and the tired cynicism of the established groups.