I rarely comment on my own personal “spirituality” on this blog, if-for no other reason-my story is decidedly boring compared to that of many others. By “boring” I mean two things: First, my spiritual biography is utterly devoid of any supernatural interventions. My conversion to Catholicism was not prompted by locutions, visions or even the feeling of a divine presence. Similarly, as I’ll discuss below, I’m rather lousy when it comes to praying. The concept of a “personal relationship” strikes me as strange; the idea of mystical union makes sense theoretically but theory is not reality. At the end of the day, I simply have trouble praying. What comes naturally to others (or so they claim at least!) I struggle with.
The other, and interrelated, reason my spiritual journey is boring is that it has largely been a quiet, interior (if you will) intellectual journey. It has involved a number of ongoing conversations with many people over the years, but nothing along the lines of the various stories one finds in, say, Surprised by Truth (more of that anon). I am acutely aware of the dangers of this-a faith that is confined primarily to the intellect and that has some trouble stepping outside the mind into the rest of life. Not for nothing did Father Stephen Freeman’s post “Get Out of Your Mind” hit close to home!
I recently returned from my annual retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee, which I had (attempted) to use this year as an attempt to examine my spirituality a little more closely. In no particular order here are a few observations and reflections from this year’s retreat:
I have virtually no sense of the supernatural.
As noted above, I’ve never had an experience in my own life that I felt was definitively any kind of supernatural intervention, with two possible exceptions. The first was a dream I had over a decade ago from which I awoke unable to shake the impression I had just had a “real” conversation with my recently deceased grandmother; and the second I’ll discuss below. Otherwise I simply have nothing to add. I have no problem believing in miracles or the supernatural as such, but I cannot myself vouch for the existence of a dimension beyond this one.
This wouldn’t be much of an issue for me, were it not for the fact that I find myself often at a loss for words when talking to others. For example, someone I know was recently describing to me an experience she described as “spiritual warfare.” I listened politely, and with genuine interest, but I found I really had nothing to say in response. I mentioned this in a conversation with a priest-monk this weekend, who said simply “Trust me, spiritual warfare is real. Be grateful you do not know it firsthand.”
This priest also suggested that perhaps my “tone-deafness” to the supernatural was not something to be feared. Did not, he said, God become a human being in the Incarnation? The essence of Christianity is to rejoice in becoming fully human-not in striving to become an angel. I must confess, this was a point of view I had not considered-though I had heard it articulated before by Orthodox writer Clark Carlton. Carlton remarked that though the essence of the Christian path is theosis (e.g. divinization) it is more important that one concentrate first on being a good human before developing an interest in the supernatural:
Yes, we are all creatures with orders to become God, as St. Basil says, but to do that we must first come to terms with what it means to be a creature in the first place.
Speaking of the saints, Carlton wryly noted
It’s all too easy for us to get caught up in reading ascetical literature and thinking about things like clairvoyance or bi-location. Frankly, I think the last thing anyone would want is for me to be in more than one place at once. What we need to focus on is the cultivation of the natural virtues and feelings.
From another angle, Br. Anthony (my longtime, if somewhat informal, spiritual director) had told me that supernatural experiences tend to impose rather severe burdens on those who receive them and are not something one should seek out. Wisdom there.
[Incidentally, I also have found James Arraj’s reflections on the proliferation of Marian apparitions, exorcisms and visions since Vatican II in his excellent book The Church, the Council and the Unconscious to be worth reading-while I don’t find his Jungian lens helpful he nonetheless makes many valid points. In any case, that is a subject for another day).
My prayer life is rather…Spartan.
During my meetings at the Abbey I remarked that my own prayer life is rather thin. Indeed, I feel a certain resonance with the piety of the Christian East, which is considerably less ornate than its Western counterpart. Clark Carlton dryly observed that Orthodox piety is more like that of the Baptists than the Roman Catholics-the latter having, in his words, “the Immaculate Heart of this and the Sacred Heart of that.” Along those lines I have not found the devotional life of Roman Catholicism particularly enriching. In one particular respect I have a very hard time wrapping my arms around the practice of Eucharistic Adoration-which, I hasten to add, is not in the a la Richard McBrien sense of disdain for those who practice it, but simply the fact that it awakens nothing within me.
On the other hand, I have found great value in the use of icons, in particular the Christ of Sinai (Christ Pantocrator), which I will return to below. Even then, however, I find spontaneous prayer-by which I mean prayer from the heart-an exceedingly difficult thing in the absence of any kind of supernatural “hint” that God is there. I finished Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light not long ago, and I can relate quite easily to her sense of emptiness (albeit without having “begun with a bang”, so to speak). Rev. Rutledge has had some interesting thoughts on this:
With regard to Mother Teresa…she had not lost her faith. What she had lost was her youthful sense of the intimate presence of God. Those are two very different things. There is something important here for future generations of Christians. It is a mistake to encourage people to expect to feel God’s presence in their lives. Indeed, what we feel as the presence of God may be something else altogether. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wittily shows how the devil exploits expectations of high levels of religious feeling.
In recent decades, partly as a reaction against late 60s activism in the church, there has been a tremendous increase in teaching about “spirituality,” somewhat to the dismay of those (like me) who do not feel at all “spiritual” according to the prescribed modes and have never felt the presence of God. This current enthusiasm for spiritual exercises and disciplines mirrors the practice of the church of the first centuries, but — and this is crucial — it does not mirror the New Testament church. There is nothing in the New Testament about “spiritual journeys” or “faith journeys.” Prayer and fasting are indeed called for by our Lord, but not as a means of personal development. Jesus himself withdrew often, but this can be interpreted as his own uniquely Messianic, eschatological warfare. Paul does not recommend such a practice when writing to his churches, and the Epistles in general say remarkably little about such “spiritual” withdrawal. It is hard to imagine any of the apostles keeping a “spiritual journal.” Far more central to the New Testament is the work of evangelism and the stance of “watchfulness”—both of which suggest an alertly outward-looking, world-observing stance in which the Christian community discerns the signs of the times, rather than focusing inward on personal spiritual growth.
As many have noted, Mother Teresa’s life is an illustration of James’ saying, “By my works I will show you my faith” (2:18). The fact that some deserved criticism can be, and has been, brought to bear against her works does not weigh against the pertinence of the verse for her case. She did not allow her inner struggle to cause her to cease her work. In that sense she seems not only more human but also more heroic.
If Teresa had been a child of the Reformation…she might not have suffered so much. In the Scriptures there is an “objectivity” about faith (the Church Fathers knew this too, but it is clearer in the Reformers). Faith is not a feeling. I can honestly say that I have never “felt” the presence of God. What I have relied upon all my life is the truth and trustworthiness of God’s Word. Our lives as Christians are wholly dependent on the grace that comes to us from outside ourselves, not on our own religious proficiency. This central insight of the Reformation needs to be relearned every day; the motto semper reformanda always being reformed) refers to the power of the Word of God perpetually to overtake our mistakes and correct them.
I can, of course, relate to Rev. Rutledge on the mistaken emphasis on personal spirituality today, and like her I cannot say that I have “felt the presence of God.” That being said, unlike her this does drives me towards Catholicism rather than away from it. Most significantly I need the structured prayers of the Mass, the sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours (always the highlight of my retreats at the Abbey) and, yes, the devotions (I do sometimes pray the Rosary). The structure of Catholic prayer is no vice; without it I’m not sure I could pray at all. I am not exaggerating when I say they are an essential part of my faith. And, unlike Rev. Rutledge, God’s Word by itself is NOT enough for me; I believe a far stronger ‘objectivity’ is found in the truth and trustworthiness of the Church. I don’t, by the way, see that as exclusive with a commitment to ongoing reformation-but then again, neither did Avery Dulles.
Contemplative prayer terrifies me.
What, then, about contemplative prayer? David Bentley Hart, in his delightful castigations of the New Atheists, has repeatedly remarked that if one really wishes to find the Living God then one should seek Him where is to be found. In Christian tradition (as in several others as Hart has noted) that is the pathway of contemplative prayer. Here, I must confess, my sense is not one of frustration but rather terror. Not long ago, while praying the Rosary, I experienced for the first time what I can only describe as an empty mind. The prayer had apparently done its job and vacated the mind. And it was absolutely terrifying. It lasted no more than a few seconds, but the experience was so utterly foreign I couldn’t shake it for quite a while.
While at the Abbey I spent a little time praying before a large icon of the Christ of Sinai, Rosary in hand. Rather than praying the Rosary, however, I was reciting the Jesus prayer (there is that Eastern bent I described). Again, my mind began to go dark. And staring into the famously asymmetrical eyes of the icon I was again overcome by a sense of terror. Indeed, for a few moments, I could have sworn the eyes of the icon were actually moving, that the outstretched hand of the icon disappeared before a moment. I was more than a little rattled by the experience.
This was my second “maybe supernatural” experience and the following day I was far from convinced it was anything of the kind. The room was dimly lit and I was tired, which-coupled with the exceptional uniqueness of the icon-could very easily make for an optical illusion. Even so, I still couldn’t shake the fact that the experience generated was not the sense of peace one reads about in most contemporary books today-but one of terror. I described this to the priest I was meeting with, who (I was actually relieved to hear) immediately concurred that my reaction is the right one.
He even (gently) slapped the currently fashionable practice of “Centering Prayer” as effectively missing the point on contemplation, given how many people today talk about getting “20 minutes of CP in a day and whatnot” (paraphrased). I have defended Fr. Thomas Keating on this blog in the past, and while I am still inclined to believe that his intentions were legitimate the Centering Prayer movement has little in common with my true contemplation. True contemplation, my advisor explained, is given, one cannot summon it. Rev. Rutledge would be proud-as would James Arraj, who has gently critiqued Fr. Keating on the same grounds.
On a final note, my advisor observed that the human mind is not made to be empty, hence why I had experienced such disorientation. I was reminded of how in the Christian East the practice of Hesycha requires a significant amount of preparation, and can, indeed, be dangerous to the unitiated. My advisor remarked this in part because it may open one up to demonic influence, but could also, less dramatically but equally seriously, drive one crazy.
Catholicism is both liberation and a burden.
My final point is that Catholicism offers both a powerful sense of liberation and great comfort; and yet at the same time imposes new burdens. As I have written before, having crossed the Tiber I cannot think go back to looking at things the way I did before. I am not able to blithely dismiss or ignore those parts of the faith that I find challenging, frustrating or just downright incomprehensible (and there are still plenty of those). I have been reminded of the expression (of Spider-Man fame) “With great power comes great responsibility.” I haven’t exactly been given great power (there is no bi-location for me in the immediate future), so perhaps I can restate it this way: “For those who have been given the mind to understand, much is expected.” My Grandfather also described me as having a “spiritual sense” that was unusual for my generation. I’m not sure that it is necessarily unusual (if it is it is hardly confined to my generation), nor am I spiritual in the sense most people would recognize as I have been ranting about here (if anything it is like annoying hunger pangs I can’t easily quench).
All that said I believe my Grandfather saw something I now understand acutely: I am not the kind of person who accepts lightly what I am told, nor can I function well with the superficial spirituality that has characterized our age. To the former point I once thought this made a “free-thinker” and as such my writings attracted throngs of people who were equally repelled by pat answers. Yet, the latter point eventually became clear to me: A spirituality that amounted to little more than my own free-thoughts wasn’t worth the paper it wasn’t printed on (blogging). My faith was no bigger than own exceedingly limited imagination. I learned quickly there is no spiritual nourishment in such an approach.
And so, my boring, nondescript, interior-intellectual journey eventually took me where I thought it never would-across the Tiber. Today I find myself having to face head-on those parts of the Church I would rather ignore-be it teachings on subjects like homosexuality and contraception that confuse me as it does most people today, or simply trying to find a place in the Church where I belong. I mean this literally-last weekend I attended the first-ever “Men’s Conference” in the Rochester Diocese, which featured Tim Staples, Hector Molina and Danny Abramowicz as guest speakers.
To say that I felt out of place at the conference would be an understatement. While I readily grant that the Church in the United States has had an issue with “masculine spirituality” in recent years the hyper-masculine approach of the conference (which combined a very evangelical zeal with sports metaphors) left me wanting (at one point in “protest” I walked out and bought a book by Edith Stein from one of the vendors). Tim Staples remarked that as a youth minister his strategy had always been to pursue the “alpha-males” in youth groups and thus reel in everyone else (a strategy that would have left me in the outer darkness). If this is to be what characterizes the Catholicism of men of my generation I will be more isolated in the Church than I was outside it (my conversion to Catholicism horrified more than a few people who had adored my writing when I was a “free-thinker”, which left me without much of a network coming in).
Lest this sound like excessive lamenting, I conclude by emphasizing I in no way regret my decision to enter the Church, much less being as idiosyncratic as I am. If anything, writing has become much more fun, more stimulating, more enriching (OK you get the picture) now that I am working things out in the light of the Magisterium. There is, paradoxically, more freedom in the folds of Rome than outside. This was pointed out to me by my priest advisor over the weekend and as I was walking back to the reatreathouse I realized “By God, he’s right!” The reason, of course, is that freedom of thought is more than mental auto-eroticism (a topic I’ll explore more in the near future).
In any case, I conclude with a little parable told by Annie Dillard. A missionary and an Eskimo are engaged in conversation. Eskimo: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell? Missionary: No. Eskimo: Then why did you tell me?
Avoiding, for now, the soteriological implications of that little parable (Karl Rahner eat your heart out) I will say I had been thinking the same thing while at the Abbey. I realize now, that though there is a heightened call to responsibility that comes with the “awareness” I’ve been blessed/cursed with (I prefer that saying I’m more “spiritual”, the whole point of this post is that I’m anything but) it is not the end of the story. The awareness and responsibility brings with it a sense of great freedom that can only be described as exhilarating. That the journey that is the Way, the Truth and the Life should not always be easy but sometimes scary is to be expected. Even so, I can already tell the journey is worth it and I am grateful that I have been called to make it.