Saturday, May 13, 2023

A SPIRITUALITY OF MARRIAGE


MARRIAGE SPIRITUALITY
Rev. J. Ronald Knott

"Holy Orders and Matrimony are directed toward the salvation of others;
if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to
others that they do so."

Catechism of the Catholic Church
#1534

 

This quote from the Catechism reminds us that priests and married couples have more in common than one would first think. We both do what we do, not for our own benefit but for the benefit of others. Priests become priests to serve the People of God and men and women marry to serve their spouses and their children.  It is our service that will make priests and married couples holy.

Not only do we have similar missions of service, we both face similar dilemmas when it comes to everyday spirituality.

Most parish priests have a vocation to be “diocesan” or “secular” priests. “Diocesan” or “secular” priests like me, therefore, are not called to live in religious communities under solemn vows. Rather, we are called from the laity, to live among the laity, so as to serve the laity.

Even though diocesan priests’ have a vocation that calls them to live among the laity so as to serve the laity, many diocesan priests still do not have a spirituality that fits their way of life and are still not trusted to live among the laity. They are still trying to serve the laity with a quasi-monastic spirituality and from quasi-monastic rectories as the ideal.

Most writers on the subject of the spirituality of diocesan priests agree on two things: (1) a diocesan priest’s spirituality is eclectic and borrowed, an amalgam of quasi-monastic spiritualities, and (2) diocesan priests continue to search for a spirituality properly their own, a spirituality that fits the lifestyle of a diocesan priest. Not only are diocesan priests are still trying “to make do” with borrowed spiritualities, we are struggling “to make do” in quasi-monastic rectories. Those of us who have been given an exemption, know from experience that effective and productive ministry really emerges from being in constant touch with life as it is lived by those we serve. A “diocesan” or “secular” priest, we believe, should live among the laity so that our ministry to the laity will be more credible.

Married couples have also been trying to “make do” with a spirituality that is basically celibate or monastic. They have, no doubt sensed that most Christians in history have been married, but the spirituality written and taught by the Church is for those who could professionally dedicate themselves to most traditional spiritual practices. They have, no doubt, felt that because of their daily duties they could only practice a reduced form of the spiritual life. This has left many married couples with the belief that married life is somehow second-class. Like “diocesan” or “secular” priests, married people are still looking for a spirituality properly their own, one that fits their lifestyle.   

Even though we are not there yet, Vatican II set the groundwork for a marital spirituality. Vatican II broke from the idea of a two-tier Church when it comes to the idea that the spiritual life was the preserve or special competence of one group within the Church. Instead, it worked with the biblical idea that there is one People of God, and clearly stressed that there are no specialists when it comes to the life of faith; rather all the baptized are called equally to lead a life of holiness.

Until the Council, there was a divide between the sacred and the profane. At the Council, “The world,” the place where most Christians live and act became a “sacred place,” “a place of salvation.” Everyday life – personal, professional, social, political, cultural – became the place where Christian spirituality can be practiced and observed.  

In other words, we are all called to holiness through service of others even while using different methods.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, May 11, 2023

FINDING GOD IN "THIN PLACES"

       

The heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending on him.
Matthew 3:16

They say that our polluting ways have caused “holes” in the delicate ozone layer, which keeps us from being fried by the sun’s radiation. In the spiritual world, there are similar “holes” in the dense layer that veil our view of God. Instead of deadly rays from the sun, a little of God himself shines through.

The Irish call them “thin places,” places where the separation between heaven and earth, the sacred and the secular, seems especially porous. God leaks through more easily in these places, it is thought. Another way of saying it is that, in such places, people find the presence of God more easily. I, too, have been in such places where God seemed especially present.

Before she died at age 98, I used to fix a Mother’s Day brunch every year for an old friend who was not even kin to me. It was always a magic time, a time when I felt that I was actually mediating God’s love to someone who needed to feel it in a tangible way. On such occasions, it was obvious from her face that these simple gestures had great significance.

When I was on-call at the neonatal unit of Norton Hospital, I was called in the wee hours of the morning by the parents of a very sick child. When I got there, I found them asleep on the floor, face to face, holding one rosary between them, obviously exhausted from several nights of keeping vigil. They had fallen asleep praying for God’s help. I could feel the presence of God hovering over them.

I remember being called to anoint a young man who was dying from the complications of AIDS. It was back when AIDS was new on the scene and people were still reacting irrationally. His family, most of his friends and probably his insurance company had abandoned him, with the exception of one compassionate neighbor. The apartment was almost empty, except for a mattress on the floor.

When I arrived, he was filled with guilt, self-loathing and irritation at the church. He was both repulsed and attracted by the idea of a priest coming to see him. I talked to him about the Jesus I knew, the Jesus who welcomed, touched and ate with the marginalized.

At some point, I put my prayer book down and spoke from the heart. As I tried to comfort him with the “good news” that God loves all of us without condition — no ands, ifs or buts about it — I had a strong sense of Jesus speaking through me at that moment.

There are “thin places” everywhere, places where God seems to leak through more easily. Once we have been under one of these “thin places,” we do not need “proof” of the existence of God. We understand on some deep level that God’s love is shining on us all the time. 

 

FROM MY WEEKLY "FOR THE RECORD" COLUMN

October 11, 2007

Sunday, May 7, 2023

THE ONLY CONSTANT IN LIFE IS CHANGE

At that time as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained
against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
So the Twelve called the community together and said, "It is not right for us to neglect
the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men,
filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas
we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." The proposal
was acceptable to the whole community.
Acts 6: 1-7

Many times, when Catholics use the phrase "changes in the church," they assume that the only "changes" that have occurred happened in their lifetimes - probably at Vatican Council II back in 1962 to 1965! When we think that way, we reveal a glaring ignorance of church history. To talk about "changes in the church," you have to go all the way back to the changes agreed on at the Council of Jerusalem.

The Council of Jerusalem is generally dated to about 48 AD - roughly15 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. That meeting was called to debate whether or not male Gentiles who were converting to become followers of Jesus were required to be circumcised - that is to become Jews first! At the time, most followers of Jesus were Jews by birth. Even converts would have considered the early Christians as a sect within Judaism. According to scholars, Jewish Christians affirmed every aspect of the then contemporary Judaism with the addition of the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. The belief among them would have been that unless males had undergone Jewish circumcision, they could not be part of God's Chosen People. A meeting was called to decide whether circumcision for gentile converts was a requisite for community membership since certain individuals in the community were teaching that "unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Others disagreed, making it necessary for an official decision to be made.

There was another council, mentioned in today's first reading, about whether to consider another "major change in the church." This time it was about how to deal with the problems of the rapid growth of non-Jewish converts. Here is what it says in today's reading. "At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. So the Twelve called together the community of the disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table. Brothers, select from among you seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task, whereas we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal was acceptable to the whole community. They presented seven men to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them to serve as deacons.

Not counting these two church councils, there have been 21 ecumenical councils to deal with changes in the church. The phrase "changes in the church" is not something that we invented in our lifetimes. It is something that has been part of the church from the beginning. It's laughable to think that the church was "change resistant" before Vatican II and that we should go back there and stay there! As Vatican II reminded us, the church is "semper reformanda," "always in need of reform." 

What the first reading teaches us today is this - change is a fact of life and there would be no life without it, even for the church. Pope Francis said this recently: "Wanting to go back to the way things were in the past is not Christian. Looking back to find inspiration is good because “without roots we cannot progress,” he said. “But to go in reverse is to go back in order to have a form of defense, a safety measure that saves us from the risk of going forward, the Christian risk of carrying the faith, the Christian risk of journeying with Jesus Christ.”

The message in today's first reading comes at a good time. Changes are coming at us faster and faster, making some people in the church and in our country more and more nervous. Like our first reading today said, we are again in that place where “no little dissention and debate has arisen.” Today, we definitely need to know some facts about the process of change and how to handle those changes as they unwind.

In my estimation, the best scriptural story to explain what happens during a major cultural shifts, welcomed or not, is the story of the Exodus. The story of Exodus is the story of people being called to something new, setting out in excitement at first, being tempted in discouragement to back out of the process when things got tough, the decision to keep going and finally arriving at a new level of happiness and satisfaction. It would be worth it for you to read the whole story at length sometime.

In that story, the People of God are trapped in slavery in Egypt. They get an opportunity to escape and go to a country of their own. At first, they were excited and filled with joy thinking that happiness would be theirs almost immediately. They did not realize that making a drastic change like that meant they had to personally change and that such a change would bring them great hardship for a while. In a desert for 40 years, the People of God lose patience and want to go back to their imagined "good old days" back in Egypt. Moses had to keep the vision of where they were going alive and keep prodding them to go forward.

The story teaches us that making a decision to change and setting out is always the easy part - whether its to go on a diet, to enter a treatment program or to change jobs. That is why so many people, undergoing difficult changes, often try to “go back to Egypt” when the “harshness of the desert” gets to be too much. Under the stress that comes with change, they start yearning for “the good old days” and start telling themselves that things weren't so bad "back then" compared to the stress they were going through right now. Many, during the hardships of change, begin to idealize their old life and forget about the problems they had "back then." 

That story is a template for all difficult changes we set out to make. (1) Take the example of an abused spouse who gets a chance to escape her abuser. At first, she is happy to be free at last, but once away from her abuser, having been stripped of her self-esteem by her abuser, she begins to get scared of what is ahead of her. She begins to ask herself, “What if I can’t make it? Where will I live? What if I end up living on the streets?" Some tough it out and rebuild their lives, but many return to their abusers because the fear of the unknown becomes scarier than abuse. They “return to the slavery of Egypt” so to speak. They go back to their abusers because, as bad as it was, it was not as scary as being "out there" on their own.

(2) Take the example of the person who is an addict. One day, they finally get up the courage to go to their first “recovery” meeting. They get excited about the possibility of a better life. At first, they like their recovery program. Then living a sober life gets to be too hard. It gets worse before it has a chance to get better. They seek relief by going back to alcohol, drugs or serial sexual encounters. They convince themselves that their old life may have been bad, but it was not as bad as trying to stay sober.

(3) Take the example of the changes in the church initiated at Vatican Council II. For many of us, the control exerted from the very top had become a version of slavery. For me and many of the people who went through it, Vatican Council II was like “leaving the slavery of Egypt.” Looking back, we were pretty na├»ve. It never crossed our minds that we would have to go through a “desert” and its many years of confusion and disappointment. Now some of our members want to “go back to Egypt.” They are idealizing the “good old days” and tell themselves that they were not that bad after all - in fact much better than the chaos that all the Vatican II changes have brought on! Others of us, refusing to turn back, are determined to get through the present chaos and push on! Pope Francis, our modern-day Moses, like the Moses of old, keeps telling us to "keep going forward and don’t look back!" Like the Moses of old who was cursed by the disgruntled people he led, Pope Francis is being cursed by those who want to “return to Egypt” and rebuild the old pre-Vatican II church! Pope Francis knows that if the Church is to survive, to grow and to nourish the faith of the next generation, it has to change and it has to adapt just as it always has in the past. If it doesn’t, it is doomed to become an inbred little cult that will shrink even more into irrelevance.

(4) Our country is going through a similar crisis. The country has been gradually changing for many years now. Most women, minorities and immigrants like the changes and the freedom that the past few years have brought. On the other hand, these changes are forcing others to give up their privileged positions of power and status. Those resisting these changes want to “return to Egypt,” “the way America used to be,” when things were “better!” Better for them, of course! As much as they try to keep our country from changing, they are fighting a losing battle. Women are not going to stand back and shut up! African Americans are not going back to Africa or return to their days of slavery. Immigrants are not about to give up their hopes to experience the “American dream.” Women will lead! Our country will continue to become browner. Immigrants will continue to arrive, one way or another. We are not "going back to Egypt," no matter how uncomfortable this "desert" gets! We need to listen to the Moses-types among us who encourage us to "remain calm and carry on" until we get to that "new day in America" that we are presently struggling to give birth to!

My friends, we are not going through the pain of dying! We are going through the pain of giving birth! Some of you here have given birth, and you have told me that when you were going through it, you thought you were going to die! Big changes are always like that - whether it is serious personal change, changes in our church or changes in our country! We are not dying. We are again giving birth to something new! When undergoing great change, we can often get confused about whether the pain we are feeling is the pain of dying or the pain of giving birth! In times like these, it is hard to know which is which!