I am sorry that I haven’t posted in a few days but the combination of an impending Christmas and a wicked winter head cold has conspired to keep me from doing only the bare necessities and then heading for life under the covers. I do want to tie up this matter of an evangelical renewal of Religious Life and then move onto topics old (Church of England) and new (Pope Francis’ remarks to the Curia and his role in the shift of American policy towards Cuba.)
Perhaps spending so much time on the renewal of Religious Life strikes readers as an undue amount of time and energy spent on a topic of concern to a small—and increasingly elderly—audience. But I think that the renewal of Religious Life is crucial for the Renewal of our entire Catholic Church for several reasons.
1. Religious Life represents a facet of the Church that is both institutional and charismatic and could well model ways in which the institutional aspects of the Church could be renewed and reformed in radically fresh and innovative ways.
2. Religious, while having ties to the clerical institution and even having ordained among the members of their communities, are essentially part of a lay movement in the Church and can pioneer paths of spiritual revival for all of us in the Church
3. The great spiritual traditions of the Catholic Church—Ignatian, Carmelite, Benedictine, Franciscan, Salesian, are in the custody of the Religious and Religious provide the resources for a process of spiritual maturation. How much is the new energy and vision which Pope Francis brings to the Church rooted in his Jesuit spirituality?
4. Religious communities have the luxury of being spiritual laboratories where new models of community, prayer, apostolate and evangelical lifestyle can be explored and developed.
According to the schema we have been working on in looking at what an evangelical renewal of Religious Life looks like, the penultimate key to an evangelical renewal of Religious Life is a friendship with Christ rooted in a life of deep personal prayer. To a certain extent I have covered this in the two previous postings—the one on an immersion in the scriptures and the other as a life that draws on the riches of our Catholic Sacramental and Liturgical heritage. But perhaps there is a need to explicitly unpack the idea of personal prayer beyond what was said under those two topics, though I stand firm in my claim that all Christian spirituality is essentially a Scriptural spirituality as one cannot be sure of the authenticity of one’s encounter with God except as we encounter God in his Word.
I want to go back to my quote from Sister Joan Chittester: “The only reason to come to Religious Life is to find God.” I agree with her that the search for God is the very Raison d'être for religious life. Indeed, as I believe that the Religious Life is actually the model or what I earlier referred to as the pace-setter for all Christian life, I believe that as we mature in the faith, the search for God becomes the primary characteristic of human life.
Now when I talk about prayer, at this state I am referring to contemplative prayer. Devotional prayers and pieties have their place and even as we mature in the spiritual life they continue to have a place. But as we mature in the spiritual life we also learn that there is a world of unsurpassable intimacy with God that opens up to us as we learn to let the devotions slide into the background of our prayer and let God take us by the hand and lead us to ever deeper and more secret places in our own soul where God communicates God’s Self to us in a solitary silence.
Such prayer, if authentic, is not an exercise in spiritual self-pleasuring. To the contrary, like all maturing, the spiritual journey requires that we strip ourselves of so much of our religious childishness and come to the maturity that God’s Spirit awakens in us—a transformative maturity in which we wordlessly learn that we are here for purposes great than our own personal agenda. Like Christ himself we undergo that kenosis, that self-emptying that allows us to be refashioned in Christ, so that Christ may live in us, so that we may participate in his divinity even as he has shared in our human nature.
This transformation is a life long process. It can’t be rushed. For most of us it is years before we come to even see the journey ahead much less to make significant progress on the road. But it takes long and solitary time with God in Christ and we must make that time a priority.
I am not sure that I see this spirituality in many of the new communities that are emerging in the Church in an attempt to re-invent religious life. I see devotional prayer. I see a certain amount of liturgical prayer, or at times a liturgical formulaicism. (By formulaicism I mean a focusing on precise formulas and rituals that often reduces the actual prayer to somewhat of a minimal amount). On the other hand, I continue to be saddened by how any focus on genuine contemplative prayer seems to have been bypassed in some of the long-established communities. I have heard too many Sisters from the various Apostolic Communities told that they should go off to the Carmelites or the Trappistines if they “want to pray.”
I believe that it is the baptismal call of all Christians to grow in contemplative prayer. Karl Rahner’s famous dictum that the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will cease to be anything at all is spot on. Among the ravages of a post-Christian culture, it will only be being rooted in an intense personal friendship with Christ that can give a compass to our existence. As in so many ways, I believe that Religious need to pioneer the way.