Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

31 October 2013

The Stuff of Saints, Part the Second

Before resuming my "summary" of Monday's Theology on Tap, I want to add a point from the first segment regarding one of the characteristics of this age of information: the obsolescence of books and the proliferation of websites. While I own hundreds of books, nowadays my intellectual, spiritual, and human formation rides in the vehicle of my Facebook news feed. The sidebar on the right side of my blog has two Catholic clearinghouses, New Advent and Big Pulpit. (I am happy to promote them because they are intrinsically good sources, and yes, because they occasionally promote my blog posts!) NA and BP and many other sites offer daily dozens of articles with sound teaching and guidance, entertainment, consolation, and challenge. On the web pages of most of these authors and organizations you will find the FB "like" and Twitter "follow" buttons that will subscribe you to their latest offerings.
A week or so before this gathering I asked the Diocesan Youth Ministry Coordinator what she as a young adult would like to hear about in a presentation on holiness. She mentioned the "Three Ways of the Spiritual Life"--to my mind, a worthy topic, though likely a new one for most of my audience--at least anyone who wasn't a theology major! A topic worth its own three-credit course, but one that I ended up giving about ten minutes. I will further summarize it in this post, while offering the original expositions of Dan Burke via the National Catholic Register.

Since medieval times, theologians have categorized spiritual progress into three stages: beginner, progressing, and perfect; also known as the three "ways": the purgative, illuminative, and unitive.

These ways are marked by

  • Deepening fidelity to Mass, Confession, and personal prayer, moving from vocal to mental to affective contemplative prayer;
  • Increasing detachment from sin, first mortal and soon venial, and even imperfections;
  • Increasing freedom from fear, suspicion, and whatever else may qualify as "drama";
  • Acceptance--even an embrace--of suffering, in order to identify most deeply with Christ and participate in His efforts in others' souls;
  • Experiences of God's presence likened to nuptial union.
Burke's articles present them in a more delineated manner, while my four-point summary aims at a continuum along which we may find ourselves at various points in various respects, and our weak discipline may cause us to lose and gain ground.

If we're still contending with serious sins and persistent, glaring imperfections...if we're happy to squeeze in a few minutes or seconds of distracted prayer between obligations...if the onset of a cold ticks us off for the rest of the day and sometimes makes us unbearable to ourselves, let alone our family and co-workers...we may wonder whether we're even on the on-ramp to the Purgative Way!

Fine: that's where we are, and the whole point of this talk was to emphasize that the Lord loves us wherever we are. The greater part of the spiritual life is becoming more receptive to the love of God. It's not about us needing to become squeaky clean for Jesus; the harder we apply our egos in that direction, the more ground we lose. "Could you be loved?" sang Bob Marley, himself no saint (although some may posit a kind of mysticism in him, more attributable to cannabis than anything else).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in an interview with a journalist (see? he wasn't the first to do this!), said that there are as many ways to God as there are people. While that doesn't make every way equally valid or effective, it reminds us that each soul must make that journey for herself...though never in isolation! Hence the doctrine of the Communion of Saints: the Church currently relishing the Presence of the Triune God, the Church slogging it out here on earth, the Church being purified of the dross of sin and attachment to sin--we're in this together! We cannot neglect the spiritual legacy of the canonized saints, the Church Fathers and Mothers of East and West, and the snippets of wisdom we can glean from websites, cubicle mates, children, grandparents, and recovering addicts.

Paragraphs 2725ff of the Catechism of the Catholic Church present a rich exposition of the Church's teaching on prayer. Some major points follow.

Prayer is:

  • “A friendly conversation with the God by whom we know we are loved.” (St. Teresa of Avila)
  • “A surge of the heart; a simple look turned toward heaven, a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” (St. Therese of Lisieux)
  • A realization of our poverty (“Man is a beggar before God”) in the presence of one who thirsts for us (cf. woman at well). God’s prior, consuming thirst for us meets ours for God
  • An engagement of the “heart,” biblically speaking, the seat of understanding, decision, and identity, known fully by the Spirit who “searches hearts” (cf. Rom 8:27)
  • The bulk of Sacred Scripture, especially the Psalms. All the heavy-hitters of the Bible engage God with alarming frankness, especially Moses, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus Himself.

Prayer is not:
  • An exercise in self-perfection
  • A merely mental or psychological exercise
  • An effort to attain a void ("nirvana")
  • Limited to the ritual words and phrases, as Jesus noted on one occasion (cf. Mt 5)
We are also well advised to avoid the worldly, production-oriented mentality that eschews prayer as a waste of time. Then again, it is a waste, but of the most beneficial sort! More often among praying persons there is the temptation to consider one's prayer wasted if it is riddled with distractions and dryness. These realities show us that intelligent, loving agents cannot depend on their feelings as a basis for acting or not acting.

Distraction purifies our prayer by becoming a constant invitation to return, gently but mindfully, to our Subject. Dryness reminds us to check our motives: we pray simply because God is, and because God is worthy of our love; we do not pray in order to glorify ourselves or even to "convince" God of our worth, or the worth of our petitions. By our perseverance we grow in the relationship that is faith. Things may not change, but we do--we gain the divine perspective on people and situations.

To be a saint in this or any century involves certain constant conditions rooted in divine and human nature, but the variables--human persons--all must enter the experiment of our own accord.

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