Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Very Long Post on Very Important Matters

Chrys' post (Guest Post: Called and Gifted – Some initial thoughts) has generated some uncommonly thoughtful—and long!—comments that I would encourage people to read closely. Rare does one get this level of insightful conversation about lay spirituality. Add to this that the conversation is in an ecumenical key, and well, it is I think simply worth taking the time to read what has been written. You can find the comments here.

Thinking about what has been written reminds me that one of the difficulties in a conversation across traditions about the spiritual life is found not simply in the areas where we diverge or disagree. Often it is when we closest to each other that we face the most challenges. This, again to me at least, is understandable enough. The risk of communion, especially in its initially stages, is fusion—the loss of our own distinctiveness as either persons or communities.

One way of defending ourselves in these moments, a temptation that all the commentators have thankfully avoided, is to compare "our" best to "your" worst. (Or as I think to think of it in my less sober moments: "I'm eccentric," but "You're a nutter.") Another temptation, and this is by far the more common way of fleeing our responsibility to love and love responsibly, is to simply say we are all the same and denying our differences and (in so doing) and commonalities.

Jack is right when he say that "part of the challenge here is in the way one uses the word 'experience' and that that has less to do with the history of Western Christianity per se, as in the changes that occurred in the West." In my own graduate education we rather intentionally avoided the word "experience" because it is simply to subjectivistic. In place of experience we used the term event—one aspect certainly is what I think about what happens, but my thinking, my reflection on the event does not exhaust the meaning of an event—and it may even reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the event, i.e., I can be mistaken.

Put another way, while psychology is an important element of the spiritual life—and I will be speaking on what psychologists can tell us about the spiritual life at the January 2009 meeting of the Society of St John Chrysostom here in Youngstown—we can't equate the spiritual life with the psychological content of that life. This I think is simply to affirm both Jack's caution that we not "experience with emotions" and Chrys' concern with not falling prey to assuming that we not reduce to spiritual life to "the ecstatic experience itself."

In Christ, we are invited into a relationship with God the Father. Following St Paul, and as I mentioned at the Called & Gifted Workshop, the charisms represent the concrete content of that relationship. Sr Macrina's citation on he own blog ("A Vow of Conversation") of Zizioulas on the inter-relationship of Christology, Pneumatology and ecclesiology is germane here. Zizioulas writes that

The Spirit is not something that "animates" a Church which already somehow exists. The Spirit makes the Church be. Pneumatology does not refer to the well-being but to the very being of the Church. It is not about a dynamism which is added to the essence of the Church. It is the very essence of the Church. The Church is constituted in and through eschatology and communion. Pneumatology is an ontological category in ecclesiology. (Being as Communion, 132)

Sp too with us, the charisms are how we are brought simultaneously into a relationship with the Holy Trinity and with the Church. Clearly, there is—and must be—an experiential component in all of this. If personal experience was absent, if I had no experience of the Holy Trinity, I would not be in a relationship with God. And so, with Jack, I would say human "experience is vital to the life of a Christian and that it is the really fertile soil of the Christian life."

Our turn to human experience, as both Chrys and Jack argue in their own way, is not only fertile, it is fraught with real danger. We cannot, and must not reduce experience to emotions. But once we say, again as both Chrys and Jack do in their own way, that we must cultivate "(i) an openness to reality (and thus our encounter with it) and (ii) the act of judgment—of discerning the meaning of our encounters for our lives" we have left behind the merely experiential or subjective. Or, to borrow from Chrys, the Orthodox don't "denigrate experience—far from it. But there is a pervasive initial distrust of the thing itself, not just the emotions that may be involved, that I never saw in either Catholic or Protestant circles."

It is this last point by Chrys, where Sherry focuses her own comments.

I may be mistaken but Sherry seems to me to agree with Chrys' criticisms when she says in response to him that "It would be most inaccurate historically to believe that what characterizes common Catholic life now in the west has been the norm in the past." She continues later in her comments by saying:

I think it is important to realize that a large part of what you have encountered among Catholics today is post-modernity, not actual Catholic spiritual traditions. The working assumptions of post-modernity permeated the west in the 60's and entered the Catholic church in this country.

Our experience of having talked to many thousands about their spiritual experience is two-fold: the majority of American Catholics are not yet disciples of Jesus Christ, the vast majority are both universalist and Pelagian in their understanding of salvation, and many are essentially post-modern and New Age in their world view which is covered by a thin veneer of Catholic sacramental practice. I've summed this wide-spread but seldom articulated view of the faith this way:

We are all saved and we have all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn't be humble.

In other words, most of us have it reversed: a staggering presumption where humility and fear of the Lord is required and a complete lack of magnanimity where it is necessary.

Mindful of the failings I see around me in the Orthodox Church, I would suggest that pastorally, if not historically, a significant point of divergence between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches is the difference in each community's awareness (or lack thereof) of essential role of asceticism in the Christian life.

While I have great respect for the spiritual and ascetical tradition of the Catholic Church, for all practical purposes that tradition is no longer part of the awareness of most Catholics. While I do not wish to speak for the whole Orthodox Church, this lack of physical asceticism among most Catholics is a very worrisome thing for me. While the work of St Francis de Sales, for example, has much to recommend it, shifting the focus from physical asceticism . . . [to] spiritual, imaginative, and emotional detachment and serene attachment to the will of God" is I think precisely the turn to the psychological that Chrys is criticizing.

Sr Macrina offers me some insight into where the difference between Catholic and Orthodox spirituality when she writes

that there are various factors responsible for the falling apart of the ascetical tradition in the West and, while cultural factors of the last few decades have played a role, the roots go much deeper. These include the loss of the body's role as bearer of meaning, a juridically orientated understanding of salvation, the divorce between "mysticism" and ecclesial life and an increasingly institutional understanding of the Church, and probably many others. In any case, I have the impression that the penitential practices of the last few centuries had lost their connection with transformation and theosis, leading to a reaction that has made asceticism a dirty word in many Catholic circles.

Sr Macrina's observations brings to mind something from Chrys' original post:

the Orthodox starts with a firm understanding of ascetical practice as a foundational element of discipleship. The priority given to this practice is directly tied to the purpose of discipleship and the goal of salvation: theosis. Since this understanding tends to be absent, forgotten, misunderstood or diminished in the West, it can be difficult for Catholics and Protestants to understand. Many western Christians simply move from conversion to mission with only a vague notion as to the ultimate purpose or meaning of the Christian life.

While the Orthodox Church have preserved a living awareness of asceticism for all, where we have fallen down on the job is on making the connection between asceticism and discipleship in our parishes. Yes, we (the Orthodox fast), but we do not always see the connection between fasting and discipleship.

One of the reasons that I invited Sherry and Fr Mike to my parish is because, while their program arose out of a different set of pastoral concerns, it nevertheless speaks to a critical lack in the pastoral life of both our Churches: the call of the laity. Yes, I think that Catholic laypeople (as well as clergy and religious) would do well to return to the ascetical tradition that fell by the wayside in the Catholic Church some years ago (on this see After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests, by The Linacre Institute). I also think, however, that the renewed interest in lay spiritual formation among Catholics is something that the Orthodox can, and should, adapt to our own circumstances. There is a great deal Orthodox can learn from Catholics about lay spiritual formation.

In addition to the work of Sherry's own group, the Catherine of Siena Institute, there is the work of Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation as well as the work of the current head of CL, Fr. Julian Carron. And if I may be permitted to put in a plug for my own doctoral work, I think what I learned from the late Fr Adrian van Kaam and the faculty at Duquesne University's Institute of Formative Spirituality, is also of undeniable value.

Looking over the conversation here, it seems to me that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches share significant areas of pastoral concern. As a personal matter, I do not think that either Church risks compromising its own ecclesiological claims for herself by acknowledge this and seeking to learn from the other.

But for this to work, and without reference to those who I have referenced in this essay, we must approach each other in a spirit of openness and gratitude, without defensiveness or polemics. As I said at the beginning, given our common challenges we will find this most challenging precisely because of our similarity to each other.

Again, thank you to everyone who posted. I look forward to further conversations with you all.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Cultivating Gratitude & Thanksgiving

I tell my spiritual children, and anyone else who will listen, that we must cultivate in our hearts a spirit of gratitude, of thanksgiving to God for the whole of our life. We are surrounded daily with what, to me as a child anyway, would have been unbelievable riches and technological wonders. How easy it is to take all this for granted rather than, as I think we should, stand in awe at the genius of the human person.

And why should we not see our own genius? We are all of us created in the image of God. And we are all of called by Christ to restore in ourselves by His grace and our own efforts, His likeness.

King David writes in the Psalm 8 about the majesty of God, His creation and the human person:

Psalm 8
O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.

You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen—
Even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air,
And the fish of the sea
That pass through the paths of the seas.

O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth!
Commenting on this Psalm, St John Chrysostom says, "Taking full account of such marvelous care and such wonderful providence on God's part, and the arrangement he put in place for the salvation of the human race, King David is struck with complete wonder and amazement as to why on earth God considered them worthy of attention."

The saint then continues by asking us to consider that "after all, that all the visible things" are for our sake. It is for us that "the design implemented from the time of Adam up" to the coming of Christ was put in place. All things from God are given to us, for us: "paradise, commandments, punishments, miracles, retribution, kindness after the Law." And of course for us and our salvation, "the Son became Man."

And after all this what "could anyone say of the future [we] are intended to enjoy?"

But we lose all this if we are not able to cultivate in ourselves gratitude and thanksgiving for all that God has given us, things great and small, spiritual and material, eternal and temporal. To that end, I offer for consideration a brief video of the comic Louis CK on Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

h/t: Benedict Seraphim

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