The challenge of lay spirituality


Too often spirituality has been associated too closely with 'churchy' activities. Donna Orsuto, who is Director of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas Institute in Rome, shows here how the 'major challenge for lay people is to recognise God in the midst of the world, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday activities'.

In a palazzo perched on Piazza Navona in the heart of historic Rome, I live with a group of lay women and men who are studying theology at various pontifical universities. Though neighbours are puzzled by the comings and goings in this palazzo - one was convinced it was a 'secret CIA operation' and others have dubbed it a 'nest of Jesuits' - the fact is that the best description is quite simply that it is a laboratory for lay spirituality. The location itself speaks eloquently of the type of experimentation and reflection which this life together engenders.

Piazza Navona is an apt setting for budding lay theologians because from its earliest times it symbolised the challenge of life in the midst of the world. Constructed in the first century as the Emperor Domitian's stadium for circus games, it has always remained a gathering place for the Romans. In the nineteenth century it was often flooded for water sports, and even today it hosts such diverse events as fashion shows, political rallies, and a month-long Christmas fair.

An image, a challenge

Even on an ordinary day, Piazza Navona conjures up images of life. It symbolises life in all its diversity: day and night, the piazza is filled with people of all sorts. In the sun-drenched afternoons it summons children kicking footballs, elderly ladies sitting on the benches sharing the gossip of the day, tourists eating Italian ice cream and gawking at the architectural treasures, beggars and gypsies hoping to relieve the tourists of their excess cash. At night, the piazza embraces troubadours, clowns, yuppies and youth, palm readers, artists, and even, would you believe, fire eaters! Piazza Navona symbolises life: life in all of its diversity, in all of its paradox, the good, the bad and the indifferent, nevertheless life in the midst of the world.

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I often walk through the Piazza quite unaware of Bernini's fountain of four rivers, the fountain with its living waters constantly flowing, day and night. Sometimes, the noise of people drowns out the sound of that living water. At other times, the interior chaos in my own heart blocks out the refreshing sound. Occasionally, especially in the early hours of' the morning, I am aware that the only sound I hear is that of the fountain: I can hear clearly. All the interior and exterior noise has died down and I marvel how the fountain is always flowing and yet so often I am unaware of it. Piazza Navona represents in many ways the challenge of lay spirituality: to live in the midst of the world, with all of its ambiguity and tensions, the good and the bad and indifferent, but aware that in the centre of it all, the fountain is flowing, the life-giving water of the Spirit is at work to energise, to bring meaning, to all that is happening around one. In order to 'hear' the fountain in the midst of the myriad of activities, in order to live an authentic lay spirituality, it is necessary to have a sense of vocation, an appreciation of the Incarnation, an experience of communion, and a call to mission.

Vocation as mystery and gift

Like many of the lay theology students with whom I live and whose path of study I too followed as a young student, I am still often asked if I ever thought I had a vocation. When I look puzzled and ask for an explanation, the reply is, 'You know what I mean, have you ever felt called to religious life? Do you have a vocation?' I suspect that sometimes underlying the question is a suspicion that I have somehow not responded fully to God's call; a suspicion that I have not discovered my true identity as a Christian. Underlying the question is also a dangerously narrow notion of vocation.

Vocation is much broader than a status or function that I have in the Church, of belonging to a particular religious congregation, of embracing a particular way of life. It goes much deeper, to the core of who I am as a person before God. Quite simply, it encompasses the unique God-given meaning of my life. 1 For this reason, I always respond by saying that in fact I do have a vocation. I feel in the depths of my heart that God has called me to live out my baptismal vocation, my Christian vocation, in a way that is both personal and unique. This vocation embraces all that I am and all that I do. I accept it as both mystery and gift.

At the same time, I respond to this sense of personal vocation as a lay person - in my case, specifically, as a single person. I have embraced this way of life after much prayerful discernment. As I see it, simply responding to my baptismal vocation is not a second-rate choice, but rather an authentic way of trying to follow Christ without compromise.

This call to discipleship is rooted in scripture and it is meant for every Christian. Too often we have applied key scriptural texts (Mt 4: l8-22: Mk 1:16-20; Jn 1:38-50; Lk 5:1-11) to vocations to the ministerial priesthood and religious file. Yet a careful examination of discipleship passages in the New Testament, especially the so-called 'hard sayings of Jesus', reveals that often these were directed to the crowds and not to an elite group.

Discipleship is the underlying factor in the Christian vocation in general. In light of the Second Vatican Council and the new Code of Canon Law, Keith J. Egan persuasively argues that a spirituality of discipleship is also the most appropriate way of speaking specifically of lay spirituality in the post-Vatican II era:

The basic identification is what is said . . . about union with Christ through baptism of all the people of God. Before all else, this union. conformity, configuration with Christ is the religious identity of the faithful (canon 849). This identity and 'true equality' of all the Christian faithful' by means of 'their rebirth in Christ' (canon 208) calls for a spirituality that is primordial and fundamental, not derivative. That spirituality, I believe, is what is historically and ecclesially the first and most fundamental of all Christian spiritualities, discipleship. The first form of Christian life was the following of the historical Jesus. Several subsequent generations of believers followed Jesus in the variety of ways described in the Christian Scriptures. Discipleship is a name and an image for all of these earlier forms of life.2

This call to discipleship is extended to every baptised person without exception. Discipleship is none other than our response to the call to holiness, to the perfection of love. Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter Veritatis splendor accentuates this theme:

This vocation to perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals. The invitation 'go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor', and the promise, 'you will have treasure in heaven', are meant for everyone, because they bring out the full meaning of the commandment of love for neighbour, just as the invitation which follows, 'Come, follow me', is the new, specific form of the commandment of love of God. 3

The story of the rich young man (Mk 10: 17-31; Mt 19:16-30; Lk 18:18-30) is one text which has been most often applied to a small minority in the Church, namely those who have embraced the priesthood or religious life. Matthew's version of this scene has had a particular influence on the birth of monasticism and religious life. Its interpretation through history has also contributed to an understanding of the two ways: the way of the commandments and the way of perfection.

Diverse ways

Speaking about discipleship is easier than living it. The same fundamental discipleship questions apply to every Christian. How do I acknowledge the centrality of Jesus in my life? Do I strive towards an unconditional love of my neighbour? Am I free with regard to possessions? Do I share what I have with the poor? 4 Without a doubt, there are diverse ways of living out this call depending upon circumstances. For those called to consecrated life. discipleship is lived out specifically through following Christ by becoming 'eschatological symbols', through embracing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. 5 Those called to ordained ministry are configured to Christ as head and shepherd and thus their specific way of living out their discipleship is intimately intertwined with their apostolic ministry.6 For the laity, the specific though not exclusive way that they live out their vocation to discipleship in the midst of the world is by seeking the kingdom of God in temporal affairs. 7 The point is that the implications of gospel radicalism apply also to the lay person.

An incarnational spirituality

A major challenge for lay people is to recognise God in the midst of the world, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday activities. Too often spirituality has been associated almost exclusively with 'churchy' activities. Though the gathering of the community in prayer and liturgy is one vital dimension of Christian spirituality, it does not embrace the entire reality. The fact is that God is constantly coming to us right in the midst of our daily activities. The Incarnation reveals that God has broken through all barriers and comes to dwell with us. In his sermon for the feast of the Annunciation, Aelred of Rievaulx, a twelfth century monk, beautifully captures the practical significance of the Incarnation:

But today Emmanuel, today God is with us in our nature, with us in his grace; with us in our weakness; with us in his goodness; with us in our misery, with us in his mercy. God is with us through love, with his kindness . . . O Emmanuel, O God with us. 8

Not simply a striking and soothing sentimental saying, this passage takes us to the heart of gospel living. Just a few days ago, I received a letter from a friend of mine, a young lay woman who works as a nurse's aid in an Alzheimer's unit. She described how she discovered the mystery of the Incarnation in her work, commenting that anyone could do what she does each day: wake people up in the morning, toilet and wash them, take them to the dining room and serve them their meals, pray with them, take them to chapel, distribute Communion, toilet them again, redirect them, play a game or work a puzzle with them, straighten their rooms, make beds, shower and bathe them, change diapers, give a shave, talk with them, listen to them, offer encouragement and hope, undress them, wash them again, turn down the bed covers, lift people into bed, and turn off the lights at night. She admitted:

My work isn't complicated - anybody could do it - but I doubt that many would bump into the wonder of it all - until recently, I hadn't . . . at least not consciously. Recently, I stumbled into something big and affirming and transcendent . . . My job is simple - lacking in status and prestige - but I'm beginning to feel as though I've been let in on a secret . . . and I know where the treasure is.

A couple of days ago, our kitchen porter, Jack, an older middle-aged man with bushy white eyebrows and sky blue eyes set in a swarthy face, asked me why I was always smiling. I didn't know that I did. He asked me what was the 'joke' - I didn't know how to answer him, but he got me thinking . . . I'm living it! I've been initiated into the league of God's fools.

To explain that would he like trying to explain a joke . . . the words take away the punch, but sometimes I feel like I'm living the gospel straight on, without wrapping it in the idols of our culture . . . I honestly believe that I've encountered a bit of the mystery of the Incarnation . . . and the agony of the crucifixion, the terror of death and the believability of the Resurrection in my work. . . When I really think hard about it. the only thing that I really want in this life is to know God . . . in my everyday circumstances . . . and to somehow share God in my time and place.

Whether sitting at a desk. teaching in a classroom, working in a factory, taking care of the sick or nursing an ageing parent, the Incarnation means that we can live the gospel 'straight on'. Baptism does indeed initiate us into the 'league of God's fools'. We have been plunged into the Paschal mystery. Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses in poetic form the far-reaching implications of this for Christian living:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is,
since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond. 9

A spirituality of communion

A lay spirituality flourishes when lived in a spirit of communion - communion with God and with others in the Church. God is Trinity and the relationship of love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit hints at the structure of the Christian vocation to communion. In a world plagued by alienation and isolation, the Christian message is counter-cultural: we are called to be interdependent, mutually serving one another, drawing out the gifts of one another. In short, we are called to a life of communion.

Dorothy Day, the twentieth-century social activist, in the postscript of her book, The Long Loneliness, captures both the alienation which characterises contemporary society and her simple attempt to form an alternative community - a community which at times failed, but which was a personal response to the prevalent isolation which she and others felt:

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying 'We need bread'. We could not say 'Go be thou filled'. If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded . . .

It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened. I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children . . . the most significant thing about the Catholic worker is poverty, some say. The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more

But the final word is love. At times it has been . . a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love each other we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have seen that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. 10

Not all of us are called to follow in the path of Dorothy Day, but all of us are invited to contribute to creating and nurturing a sense of communion in the Church. The greatest challenge today facing the Church is to create Christian community - in the parish, in small base communities, or in extending our family and communities to include those who are marginalised. The Church will be family or home for others only to the extent that all her members - laity, religious and priests - actively seek to witness to a communion which has its roots in the Trinity. This has a direct effect on lay spirituality: without an experience of communions lay people will be unable to live out their vocation in an authentic way.

Called to mission

In order to foster an authentic lay spirituality, I am convinced that we need to develop not only a sense of vocation, a deeper understanding of the Incarnation, an experience of communion, but also a sense of mission. In his apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici, on the vocation and mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the world, Pope John Paul II insists that each lay person, by virtue of baptism, is called to share in the mission of Christ. There are no exceptions. This call concerns not only clergy and religious, but each baptised person (paras 1, 2). All of us are called to participate in Christ's mission to illumine the world (Lumen gentium 1).

In trying to bring out the practical implications of this mission I would like to conclude with an image by revisiting Piazza Navona, but this time on an autumn evening this past October. We were a rather unusual group of people processing out of S. Agnese church into Piazza Navona with candles lit. Lay theology students from ten different countries, women and men from Rome and beyond, religious women and men representing different orders, numerous priests, a few bishops and even a cardinal. The ages spanned from nine to ninety-one. The tenth anniversary celebration of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, the so-called 'laboratory for lay spirituality', occasioned this gathering of women and men of different age groups, vocations and cultures. The candles had been lit from the paschal candle brought from the local parish, S. Lorenzo in Damaso. We gathered in Piazza Navona together as a sign that we are called to be Christ's light in the midst of the world. We had never carried candles through Piazza Navona before. And in fact, the local shopkeepers, tourists, gypsies and neighbours were surprised to see this strange procession. There are times, though, when we need a sign to remind ourselves that we are called to rekindle the gift which has been given through baptism.

That we live in a world where darkness exists is a given. One only has to bump into the drug addicts shooting up in side alleys leading to Piazza Navona or glance at the headlines at the local news-stand which speak of war, famine, domestic violence and so many other evils to confirm this reality. One only has to look at the anguished face of the elderly woman sitting alone on a bench or at the suffering of a sick child. As Christians, the challenge is to ask ourselves how we should respond. A Hasidic tale hints at a possible response:

The pupils of a Hasidic rabbi approached their spiritual leader with a complaint about the prevalence of evil in the world. Intent upon driving out the forces of darkness, they requested the rabbi to counsel them. The rabbi then advised his followers to take sticks and to beat vigorously at the darkness. . . When this likewise failed, he counselled them to go down again into the cellar and to protest against the darkness by shouting at it. When this, too, failed, he said, '. . . let each of you meet the challenge of darkness by lighting a candle'. The disciples descended to the cellar and kindled their lights. They looked, and behold! The darkness had been driven out. 11

I believe that in so far as we live out our baptismal call, laity together with clergy and religious, we will bring light to a troubled world. Every candle is important. Each of us has a unique contribution to make to this task. We will fulfil our mission only by coming to understand our personal vocation, by rekindling a sense of communion (perhaps by even helping to create alternative communities), and finally, by not only believing in, but living the Incarnation in the midst of the world.

1. For further development of this theme, see Herbert Alphonso SJ, The Personal Vocation: transformation in depth through the Spiritual Exercises, Rome, 1996.
2. K.Egan, 'The Call of the Laity to a Spirituality of Discipleship', in The Jurist 47 (1987), pp. 73 - 74
3. John Paul II Veritatis splendor, Vatican City, 1993, 18.
4. Thaddee Matura, Gospel Radicalism, the hard sayings of Jesus, Maryknoll, 1984. Original title Le Radicalisme evangelique, Paris, 1978, p. 187
5. See Lumen gentium chapter 5; John Paul II, Vita consecrata, Vatican City, 1996.
6. Cf. Presbyterorum ordinis 2; John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, Vatican, 1992, 21.
7. Cf. Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spez. Also John Paul II, Christifideles laici, Vatican City, 1988, esp. chapter 1.
8. Aelred of Rievaulx, Sermones Inediti. B. Aelredi Abbatis Rievallensis, ed. C.H. Talbot, Rome, 1952, p. 91.
9. Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'That nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection', Poems and Prose, ed. W.H. Gardner, Harmondsworth 1973, p.66.
10. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. An autobiography, San Francisco, 1981, p.285 - 286.
11. William Silverman, Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values, revised edition (Union of American Hebrew Congregations), p.55 as quoted in Paul J. Wharton, Stories and Parables for Teachers and Preachers, New York, 1986, p.30.

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