Vincentian Spirituality

Yesterday morning I co-presented a retreat on the theme Loving Our Brothers and Sisters with Vincent and Ignatius as our Guides.  The retreat was sponsored by City House, a nonprofit entity whose core mission is to provide spiritual listening to people on the margins, including those experiencing poverty, imprisonment, homelessness and addiction.  Both Janice Andersen, my co-presenter, and I serve on City House’s Board of Directors.

The theme for the day emerges from the fact that City House’s work incorporates elements of both the Vincentian and Ignatian spiritual traditions.  We divided the day into two segments – one devoted to St. Vincent de Paul and Vincentian spirituality and the other devoted to St. Ignatius and Ignatian tradition. For each, I shared a little about the man and the spirituality that flowed from his work and then Janice shared from her own experience how the elements of the two spiritualities are reflected in her ministry. After each of the sets of talks, we gave the participants time to engage in individual prayer, followed by small group sharing and large group discussion.  We ended the day with a beautiful closing ritual Janice prepared.

I only recorded the first part of the day – my discussion of Vincent de Paul and on the five virtues that are characteristic of his spirituality: simplicity, humility, meekness, mortification and zeal.  You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 20:26.) A copy of the the handout we gave participants to reflect on is here.

P.S.  You can learn more about City House here.  As I’ve said before, any financial support you can give to support the ministry of City House would be greatly appreciated.  If you’ve benefitted from this podcast or any others of the many I’ve posted on this site, please consider a donation.

More Endo

A couple of weeks ago I shared some reactions to Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, the story of a Jesuit missionary in 17th Century Japan.  Let me now add to my recommendations of Endo’s work, his book of short stories (better described as spiritual narratives), The Final Martyrs.

For Endo, the short story form was a way to try out ideas and characters that would later take shape in a novels.  So while some authors settle on one genre or anohter, Endo believed that “the best way to give concrete embodiment” to his themes was to alternate between the writing of short stories and novels.

All of Endo’s characters reflect, in his words, “portions of myself.” And his stories contain many biographical elements – his early family life in Dalien, the impact of his parent’s fractious relationship and ultimate divorce, the life of a Japanese student studying abroad, the questions of religion so central to his being and writing.  The themes of exile and alienation are almost always present.

Endo’s characters often find themselves facing complex moral dilemmas. How his characters resolve those dilemmas often reminds us of our frail humanness.  In Life, the same boy who reaches out in kindness to a young soldier billeted in his families home for a few days (the soldier had been mistreated by his superiors and the boy tried to gift him with one of his most valuable treasures) allows the Manchurian houseboy who had treated him always with kindness and goodness to be wrongly punished for an act of theft the boy himself had committed.  In The Final Martyrs, reminding us of one of the characters in Silence, a weak man apostatizes but can’t completely give up his faith.

But his characters also remind us of the good we are capable of.  In The Box, a woman who had been treated badly by the military police during the war refuses to witness against them after the war, preferring instead to report that they had given her potatoes and milk when she and her father lacked food.  In A Sixty-year-old Man, the old man does not give in to his temptation toward a young girl willing to trade relationship with him for some clothes and music, remembering the painting of paradise the appeared in the dream of a character in a Dostoevsky novel.

Another good choice for some Lent reading (which I say recognizing that the end of Lent is closing in on us).

More Lent Reading: Sharing Sacred Space

I just finished reading Benoit Standaert’s book Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter.  Unlike some of the spiritual reading I am doing this Lent – reading that is not directly related to anything I am currently working on – this is a book I read in anticipation of teaching World Spiritualities at St. Catherine’s University during the upcoming J-term 2016. Leaving aside my motives for reading it, this is a wonderful book.

Early in the book, Standaert shares the “central intuition” that guided his efforts in writing L’Espace Jesus, only the third and last part of which appears translated here in Sharing Sacred Space.  He write

Any encounter with the great religions of the world is doomed to fail if its staring point is dogma as formulated and transmitted in a given culture, or if it is based on some historical expressions, which are also culturally conditioned.  If we want to provide a level playing field for all the participants, we have to come up with some other approach.  In order to make it possible for us to meet one another as equals, I have made use of the category of “spiritual space.”

Believing that each of the great religious traditions exists in a specific spiritual space, Standaert’s starting point is the concept of “Jesus space.”  By starting there, he believes it will be “possible to move beyond the confrontational impasse that is created when we limit ourselves to dogmatic comparisons or historical reconstructions.”  His discussion proceeds from the premise that “Christians do not have a monopoly on the meaning and richness contained in and radiating out from Jesus space.”

In successive chapters of Sharing Sacred Space, Standaert addresses the encounters between Jesus and Judaism, Jesus and Islam, Jesus and Buddhism and Jesus and Unbelief.  In them one finds, not a treatise on the different faith traditions, but the fruits of his reflection on the relationship of each to Jesus and Christianity.

There is much I could write about the various chapters, but I will limit myself to observing how helpful I found his discussion, in the chapter on Jesus and Judaism, of the major trajectories of Jewish belief from the times of Herod the Great and the beginnings of the Christian movement to the present.  Standaert is absolutely right (and my buddy Rabbi Norman Stein has made the same point) that “for many Christians Jewish history ends with the death of Jesus on Golgotha” and “they know absolutely nothing about the growth and spiritual development of the Jewish people after that.”  How can we possibly engage in meaningful dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters if that is the case?

I’ve talked before here and elsewhere on the importance of interreligious dialogue.  This book is an importantone for those wishing for that dialogue to bear fruit.

The Singing Wilderness

Yesterday was the final session of the Heroes and Heroism undergraduate honors seminar I taught this J-term. The three hours were devoted to presentations by each of the nine students on the final papers they wrote for me.

Their assignment was to write a paper on a public figure other than one of those we discussed in class that met the definition of heroism the student developed based on our class discussion. I also asked their paper to also include discussion of a non-public figure or a fictional character who met their definition.

Reflecting the students’ different majors and interests, we had a presentation on a broad range of heroes that included, among others, two Roosevelts (Teddy and Eleanor), Fr. Damion Molokai, Emma Watson, George Bailey (from It’s a Wonderful Life), and Hazel (from Watership Down).

One of the heroes presented by one student was someone I was not familiar with, Sigurd Olson, who, as it turns out, is a beloved nature writer and was an influential conservationist who played an important role in preserving a number of national parks and wilderness areas, including the Boundary Waters areas in the northern part of Minnesota, where I have enjoyed hiking and kayaking.

Olson was a deeply spiritual person who understood that we need, in the words of his son, places away from the ordinary distractions of everyday life where we can be quiet and listen – to listen not so much to the leaves and the birds but to “the real.”

Here is a short video of Olson that my student showed as part of her presentation. It resonated deeply with me; perhaps it will with you as well.

Being. Not Wanting, Having or Doing

The other day my friend Richard Burbach posted a wonderful poem by Edwina Gately, titled Let Your God Love you. The poem reads

Be still.
Alone.
Empty
Before your God
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God
Look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Quiet.
Still.
Be.
Let your God –
Love you.

I was reminded when I read it of something Evelyn Underhill wrote in The Spiritual Life:

We mostly spend [life] conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have and to Do. Craving, clutching and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual, even on the religious plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of the spiritual life.

The essence of the spiritual life is Being. Such a simple statement, yet one we have to be reminded of over and over again.

Be.

Spiritual and Religious

As I plan for my upcoming Camino, I’ve been checking in periodically on a Camino forum, which has much useful information from people who have already been in pilgrimage. The other day, I noticed a question on the forum that asked how those who had already done the Camino would define the difference between a spiritual or a religious experience on the Camino. The question resulted in many people sharing their understanding of the difference between spiritual and religious.

Given the rise of the increasing numbers of people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” I was interested in how different people distinguish between spirituality and religion.

One person wrote,

A religous experience would be one that brings you to feel closer to God.
A spiritual experience would be one that makes you grow as a person.

Another suggested that

Religious [is an] action , experience, or motivation that is related in some way to a particular faith, be it Christian, Muslim, Jew,…[and] Spiritual – An action, experience or motivation that is metaphysical and about the spirit world, not of a particular faith tradition.

A third opined that

A Religion is an organisation of like-minded worshippers, engaging in various activities organised around the commonality of their beliefs. A Spirituality is any mystical sense of either transcendental or immanent direct connection between the soul or spirit and either the presence of a sublimated reality or manifestatioons of a higher (or different) plane of existence. All religions include a Spirituality, but not every Spirituality is religious.

The second and third say largely the same thing and have some truth to them. The first strikes me as not helpful, as I would argue that any religious experience that brings one closer to God also helps one grow as a person and that, by definition a spiritual experience brings one closer to God (although the person experiencing it may not use the term “God”).

Do others think of the terms in differnt ways?

Help Through the Desert

When I talk about Growing in Love and Wisdom, I often start by talking a bit about my own faith journey thought Buddhism and back to Catholicism (the subject of another book I’m in the final stages of editing).

In telling people about my abandonment of Catholicism at the age of seventeen, I share that when I told my high school chaplain of my decision, his response was “Well, Sue, you’ve entered the desert. And all you can go is keep on walking until you reach the other side.” I add that I didn’t really find that advice all that helpful and walked out of the chaplain’s office feeling very alone. (He did add something like “Go with God,” but having just told him I didn’t believe in God, that didn’t do much for me.)

At a recent book talk, someone referred to that comment, asking what advice I would give someone in that circumstance. Essentially, from where I stand now, what would I have said to someone like my seventeen year-old self?

At various times, I have thought about what I wished someone had said to me at the time. I might have benefited had someone suggested that I read Thomas Merton’s Seven-Story Mountain (which I found extremely helpful when I read it years later during my difficult transition from Buddhism back to Catholicism), or even Augustine’s Confessions. By those I mean: Something that would have clued me into the struggles of faith other thinking, questioning people had undergone. Something that, if nothing else, would have let me know I wasn’t alone and that it was OK to experience what I was experiencing.

I would have also benefited had the chaplain offered to be available if I needed someone to talk to, or recommended someone else I might have talked to. Even if I never took him up on it, the invitation would have meant something.

Of course we live in a different world now than in 1974 when I had the conversation I did with my high school chaplain. I suspect he had never read Thomas Merton (and maybe not even Augustine’s Confessions) and so could not have made that recommendation. And he may not have had any recommendations for people I might have talked to.

It is much easier today to walk with people like my seventeen year-old self and I feel privileged whenever a young person struggling along their faith journey comes to speak with me. And I pray that something in my own experience can be a source of guidance and strength to them.

Spiritual Direction and the Call to Greater Union with God

As someone who is both a spiritual director and one who has been receiving spiritual direction for many years, I read with interest Daniel Burke’s Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, sent to me by The Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

Burke and I share the conviction that spiritual direction is an important tool for helping us deepen our relationship with God. As I have told people who have asked me, I think anyone who is a regular pray-er, anyone who is committed to a life of discipleship and to deepening their life with God can benefit from direction. And I share Burke’s passion for sharing with others that which I have benefitted from.

I also agree with Burke both about the need to choose a spiritual director carefully and about the lack of knowledge/awareness many people have about what spiritual direction is. Thus, I think a book like this, that seeks to bring understanding of spiritual direction to a wider audience has great potential value. Having said that, there are several respects in which Burke and I part company.

The book begins with a chapter defining what spiritual direction is and what it is not. His description of what spiritual direction is correctly identifies that there are three parties to the spiritual direction relationship – the director, directee, and God, and that the central aim of direction is “to help guide the directee to purposely, consistently and substantively grow in their relationship with God and neighbor.” And I think some of the distinctions Burke draws are important, such as the distinction between spiritual direction and psychological counseling and the difference between spiritual direction and confession.

I do not, however, share Burke’s view that it is “sub-optimal” to have a spiritual director who is not a priest. While he recognizes that spiritual direction is not “the exclusive territory of priests and religious,” his ideal is a spiritual director that can also serve as confessor. I have seen this bias in others, knowing some people who believe that a priest, regardless of how little training in providing spiritual direction is superior to any lay person, regardless of how much training they have received. I do not share Burke’s view that the training in moral and dogmatic theology provides a sufficient basis for providing spiritual direction.

Given my training in Ignatian spirituality, I also don’t draw the sharp distinction I read Burke as drawing between the spiritual life of the directee and other aspects of their lives. While I agree that the “specific focus of spiritual direction is the spiritual life of the directee,” Ignatius’ emphasis on finding God in all things means there is virtually nothing that is completely divorced from our spiritual lives. Thus, unlike Burke, I think there is very little “elements, activities and interests that are peripheral” to the spiritual life.”

I had similarly mixed reactions to his chapters on finding a spiritual director and entering into a spiritual direction relationship. I think the most important criteria for a director is that the director himself or herself has experience in the spiritual life – that the director has a lived spirituality and is not someone who simply talks about faith and spirituality. (And I agree that there is an enormous difference between quoting from saints like Teresa of Avila and understanding their spirituality.) For me, a director’s view on “a few hot-button issues” are less important than they are for Burke. My job as a director is not to convince a directee of my theology – it is to help them grow in their relationship to God; the same is true regarding my relationship with my own director.

In his chapter on first meetings, I don’t disagree with a lot of what he suggests by way of preparing to meet with one’s director. However, I was taken aback by his claim that it is hard to get an appointment with a potential director. He asserts that director’s don’t make it easy to get an appointment as a means of gauging an interested directee’s seriousness and constancy. That may be Burke’s practice as a director. It is certainly not mine and it has not bene the practice with anyone from whom I have sought direction over the years – priest, religious or lay. When someone interested in direction calls me asking if I am available to take on a new directee, I have a phone conversation with them to determine if it makes sense for us to meet and then meet with the person. It may take some weeks for that meeting to occur given my schedule, but never would I either delay getting back to someone or do anything else to make it difficult for a person to see me.

The book contains a useful chapter on spiritual self-evaluation and of identification of “root” sins, useful not only for those seeking spiritual direction. A later chapter discusses stages of development of the spiritual life. While good, I wonder how useful some of it is for the primary audience of the book – i.e., those not yet in direction.

In all, there is much I thought beneficial in the book, but also a number of things that cause me hesitation about it.

A Christian Faith Enriched By Buddhism

“A Christian Faith Enriched by Buddhism.” That is the title of the blog post I wrote for Huffington Post, which which had asked me to explain in 700-800 words how Buddhism has enriched my Christian faith.

Yikes – that question occupies an entire chapter in the manuscript I have just completed on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism. The task of distilling what I expressed in 13-15 manuscript pages into a shot essay was not simple. But I think I managed, with some success to at least convey something of both how necessary Buddhism was to my ability to return to Chrsitianity and the ways in which it has influenced my spirituality.

You can judge for yourself how successful I was by reading the whole piece, which was posted by Huff Post yesterday. You can find it here.

Avoiding the “Godparent Trap”

This is one of those times when a lot of couple I know are either expecting or just had a baby. So I thought it would be worthwhile to share some thoughts from one of my Jesuit buddies.

In a piece in his parish bulletin the was prompted by an episode of a TV show dealing with a couple struggling with the issue of the spritual upbringing of the child they were preparing to welcome into the world, Fr. Joe Costantino wrote:

Who can offer the best spiritual guidance is surely a most appropriate consideration in selecting godparents (and in the case of the Sacrament of Confirmation, a sponsor). Who really can authentically offer such true and important spiritual guidance? All too often though there is a “godparent trap.” The choice is sometimes simply to follow the path of least resistance and select a relative or friend, a person you may feel simply obligated to choose. Those selected are often very fine people, but are they spiritual? Are they persons of faith with a sense of the supernatural and God? Are they a part of an active faith community? Do they put their spirituality into charitable actions? Often these questions are regrettably not part of the equation.

Thanks to Joe for the good questions for reflection on an important issue.