Traditional Catholic spirituality may reflect too much its priestly and celibate origins. Vicky Cosstick, a regular contributor, seeks out a more connected Lenten spirituality which will do justice to her lay state as mother and wife living in a very secular environment.
As I sit down to write this, the New Year has begun and the papers are full of ‘Time for a New You’ articles. The Independent’s ‘50 Best Ways to Improve Yourself’ (The Information, 8-14 January 2000) cover body, mind, taste, sports performance and soul. The ten for your soul are:
The Independent also recommends, in other categories, learning yoga and a body detox.
Now, if you’re stuck for what to do in Lent this year, this list isn’t a bad place to start - and, no, I don’t know what Hawaiian Huna is either. It actually tells us quite a lot about what people are actually thinking in this supposedly ‘secular’ and post-modern time in which we live, on the threshold of what a New Year’s article in the Irish Times confidently described as a post-Christian Millennium.
The secular world allows only rarely these days a privileged place to the institutions of religion. But it has not rejected the value of spirituality, the need to connect with the transcendent. As in cultures and societies the world over and throughout history, people still know that the time between the midwinter festival - celebrated in our society with an orgy of over-consumption of food, alcohol, spending, socialising and television - and the rebirth of spring, marked by the New Year, is properly spent hibernating and reflecting on what we need to change in our lives.
Of course The Independent and the mind-set it represents detaches its worthy bid to encourage readers to improve their souls from both the advantages and the demands that are made by a faith community. As Catholics, during Lent we traditionally give up sweets or alcohol, fast on Fridays, give money or service to the needy, and pray more. Compared to The Independent’s list, ours looks a little dull. During Lent as at other times, we need to think about how our faith is relating to what is going on in the world around us. So why not detox on Fridays instead?
Lay person’s spirituality
When the editor asked me for this article, he asked for ‘a lay person’s spirituality of Lent’. I am not quite sure what he meant by that. I do not incline to the pious or the rigorously observant. The only way I can respond is to say a little, admittedly very hesitantly, about how my understanding of Lent, and indeed of spirituality, has developed over the years. It would be rare and risky for a lay person to claim any sort of expertise here. But this I would assert and defend: I am sure that a Christian’s spirituality develops and emerges within the concrete, gritty, messy reality of his or her daily life. We share the gospel, a creed and a tradition which binds us together, but beneath that umbrella there are many possibilities and breathtaking diversity. A single person’s spirituality will in some ways be different from mine, a married, working, mother of a teenager. So will that of a religious sister, monk, or parish priest.
I value my lay state enormously - not for me the discipline of the cloister, the Divine Office or the routine of a parish priest’s life - but I have also studied theology, taught in a seminary and worked for years in close proximity to the clergy. My experience has taught me that priest, religious and lay have much to learn from one another, when we are truly listening. What we seek together is a spirituality for our times that is fresh and energising, within which each one of us can grow in discipleship and more closely image the divine in each one of us, one which devalues no one - the single, the elderly, the young or the stressed-out.
Not only do we seek a spirituality for ourselves, but one that will resonate with those at the margins and beyond the Church. In the past two years I have deliberately spent much time exploring non-religious ‘spaces’. I am increasingly convinced that the so-called secular world has, and continually expresses, in a myriad of ways, its need and its reaching out for God. Much of this expression is deeply authentic in its intention. We as a Church have often failed to respond; worse, we are sometimes smug. My explorations are helping me to deepen and clarify my Christian faith. And I see that for many people in Britain today, the Christian Church is as alien as Hawaiian Huna - indeed more so, because it often receives, indeed may invite, a hostile press.
Everyone has a spirituality
Michael Warren has said that everyone has a spirituality. (Faith, Culture and the Worshipping Community Paulist Press, 1989):
Prayer is an aspect of spirituality, indeed a key aspect, but one that emerges from a spirituality?
In a very real sense, one cannot not have a spirituality. Every human person as an embodied spirit is a being whose spirit has been shaped by commitments, choices, hopes, uses of time and so forth. The question can never be: Will we have a spirituality? But rather: What kind of spirituality will we have? (pp. 89-90).
A spirituality, Warren says, is what you stand for, good and bad. It can be summed up in what people would say and think about you, lying in your coffin at your funeral. We could also describe spirituality as the way, unique to each of us, that we choose to be connected to ourselves, to others, to the environment and world in which we live, and, in and through all of this, to God. Seen positively, spirituality is also our desire to be connected and integrated within ourselves and to that beyond ourselves. It is the desire to have body, mind, spirit and emotions working harmoniously, to be coherent. Every human being has this desire for connectedness, though clearly we differ radically in our awareness of it and its place in our lives.
A Roman Catholic Christian spirituality, then, is a particular way of being connected - for us, the only way. Within this way, each one of us has a particular journey to make, a particular way of being connected, a particular path to holiness. Our spirituality is the way we answer the question of what it means to be baptised, a question that is central to Lent and our preparation for Holy Week.
When I was working with the members of a newly nominated parish pastoral council recently, several said they felt they were not holy or religious enough for the task. Not for the first time in such a situation, I was saddened. For too long, the popular ideal of holiness has been rooted in celibacy and monasticism, or within the confines of the church building and attendance at the liturgy. We leave our lives at the door when we go into church, and we leave our religion at the door when we come out. Church teaching does not sanction this view, and the great document Christifideles laici aimed to break down the split between faith and life which successive popes have called ‘among the greatest errors of our age’ (Christifideles laici, John Paul II, 1987 n. 59).
The Pope has also said quite clearly that priests are not necessarily any holier than lay people. Their specific call to holiness is found in helping us to deepen the inherent holiness in our lives. Priests need lay people in order to become holy, and we need them to share with us their own experience and struggles, particularly in their attempts to pray (Pastores dabo vobis, John Paul II, 1992 n.17).
Lent has almost always been a very important time for me. I say almost always, because I confess there have been years when I have let it slip by on the nod. Each year is different for me, because the circumstances of each year are different. There have been some years when I have known that life itself was Lent. There was the year that my husband was out of work and my mother-in-law was dying. In another year my then nine-year-old son had a major hip operation. For the entire Lent, he was restricted to the ground floor of our house, incarcerated in plaster from chest to ankles, and I took a break from work to be with him. Each day I would kneel and wash him with a flannel and bowlful of water, including of course his feet. Reflection on the Last Supper and preparation for Holy Thursday became quite naturally the theme of my Lent that year - and the celebration of the Last Supper when it came a powerful moment.
In such circumstances, to have added penitential practices would have been excessive - and wise spiritual direction helped me to see that. There is a Catholic cliché that everyone ‘has his or her cross to bear’. It is true in the sense that each of us lives out the suffering of the cross in some way. It is less helpful if the cliché fails to allow that the way in which we experience the cross will change and deepen from year to year. Not only does each one of us live the cross in our lives, but we also live the resurrection. Our lives are full of little as well as great crosses and resurrections. Living them fully prepares us for our final, and the ultimate, experience of cross and resurrection.
The powerlessness of parents
A priest once said to me that he thought that those who were parents had a better insight into the mystery of the cross than celibates, because parents by definition experience powerlessness, something he thought was rarely experienced by priests and religious. The cross, he said, is about the powerlessness of God, who gives his only Son, and the powerlessness of Jesus, who experiences on the cross the absence of God. There is the powerlessness of Mary, who waits at the foot of the cross. During Lent we are on that journey with Mary from the annunciation and the nativity, joyful events inherently overshadowed by what lies ahead. No mother knows at the birth of her child what suffering will lie ahead, but suffering there will be.
There is one single book (apart from scripture) which has helped me integrate the experience of relationships and parenthood into my faith (Marcel Legaut, True Humanity: looking at our desire for material things, love and human solidarity, Paulist Press 1982). It was written by a French lay man, a family man who became a hermit in later life. Marcel Legaut takes for granted that the search for self, love, and the material life, parenthood, work, friendship and facing death, are the normal and usual context for faith and holiness. For Legaut, it is in our daily experiences of failing to live up to our own ideals that we become aware, like Jesus on the cross, of our powerlessness and the absence of God:
We who are sufficiently aware of ourselves soon discover our absence of being. We do so by measuring the distance that separates us from what we ought to be if we are in accordance with the promise of love when it is born? The demands made by parenthood are similar to those made by love, but they go further (p. 36). Legaut continues: The highest form of activity that any parent can find in this world is to work at faith. The husband’s faith in his wife, the wife’s faith in her husband and the parent’s faith in the child are all woven into a lasting fabric that goes beyond time yet is fashoned from material that passes (p. 48).
In Legaut’s terms, Lent gives me the chance each year to ‘measure the distance’ between my present reality and ‘the promise of love’, and, in Warren’s terms, to revisit the choices I make.
Sin and atonement
If we explore the notion of sin, we very quickly come to the Old Testament notion of atonement, meaning at-one-ment. Atonement is the act of restoring a disordered or sinful relationship between God and humanity. Our goal as a Christian community is to be at one among ourselves, with other Christians and other faiths, for the world to be at one. Our Christian hope for such a world is expressed in the vision of the Kingdom of ‘truth and life, holiness and grace, justice, love and peace’ (Preface for the Feast of Christ the King). Just as the world is in parts disconnected from God’s plan, so are we. Each of us is in some ways connected and in other ways disconnected from God’s dream or plan for us. We aim to be at one with ourselves and in our relationships. This process of at-one-ment goes on throughout our lives. It is our journey of faith (General Directory for Catechesis, 1997, n. 55):
Faith involves a change of life, a ‘metanoia’, that is a profound transformation of mind and heart; it causes the believer to live that conversion. This transformation of life manifests itself at all levels of the Christian’s existence: in his interior life of adoration and acceptance of the divine will, in his action, participation in the mission of the Church, in his married and family life; in his professional life; in fulfilling economic and social responsibilities.
Faith and conversion arise from the ‘heart’, that is, they arise from the depth of the human person and they involve all that he is. By meeting Jesus Christ and by adhering to him the human being sees all of his deepest aspirations completely fulfilled. He finds what he had always been seeking and he finds it superabundantly.
The question for me each Lent becomes then, where am I in that journey of faith and discipleship? In what way, this year, in my life today, do I need to be reconciled? What behaviours and attitudes am I carrying which inhibit my at-one-ment with God, the world and in my relationships? In what ways do I collude with the destructive and sinful forces and structures in our world? In atoning for my sin, I take some deliberate and conscious steps towards reconnecting, or deepening my connectedness.
Lent has three aspects. In prayer I express the personal. I reflect on my own disconnectedness and need for atonement. I fast. I choose to deprive myself of some material pleasure, or let go of some behaviour which comes between me and God, which inhibits my connectedness to God, to others, to the world. In almsgiving I acknowledge the material and the communal. I am part of a human community that is divided between rich and poor, between oppressor and oppressed. In almsgiving or ‘good works’ I try to do something to redress the balance.
Modern life offers endless possibilities for celebrating Lent. If I have money, I give some of it away. If I have time, I give some of that away. Perhaps I need to work on one of my relationships. Perhaps it is time to covenant to a different charity, perhaps it is time to make a new volunteer commitment. Perhaps I should take on the hassle of moving my cheque or savings account into a more ethical bank. Perhaps it is time to make a lifestyle change or clear out the cupboards and give everything to the local hospice shop. Lent is about spring cleaning, after all. We could reflect alone or in a group on the scriptures for Lent. We could turn off the television.
Yet it seems to me, reflecting on the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, that the challenge lies not just in the threefold way in which Jesus invites us to express that desire for connectedness, but in the ‘secret’ nature of it. He is asking that we go beyond mere observance and obligation, into behaviour which will be invisible to those around me but recognised by God. It is clear to me now - and I think the secular mind-set sees it clearly too - that it is possible to be an observing, or religious, Christian, without having a coherent or connected spirituality. What leaps out of the Ash Wednesday Gospel is to see Lent as being about deepening our spirituality rather than about carrying out a religious observance.
Pray in secret
So, surely, it must be with prayer. The invitation is to go into your room, shut the door and pray in secret. Perhaps in this area of the Christian life more than any other, lay people need affirmation of their experience and struggles. There was the year when I decided to try to inhabit the Divine Office during Lent. It didn’t last long! Too, too many words.
Prayer for me is now primarily about awareness. It is standing at my sink, looking out of the kitchen window, being frozen for a moment of deep peace, or, indeed, seeking the source of some unexplained anxiety. It is walking in the country with a friend. It is sitting on a bench by a lake in Donegal near a small pyramid of stones with the silhouette of the mountains ahead of me. It is sitting reading in the same room as my husband. Above all it is silence - and, indeed, the precious times when I can shut the door and sit for an hour with a candle and the Lord’s Prayer for a mantra. In such silence I name each distraction as a gift and let it float away like a bubble, knowing that it will look different when I revisit it. Above all, perhaps, prayer for me is simply the struggle to find the time and silence:
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
(Mean Time (Anvil 1993), Poems on the Underground 9th Edn.)
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