The Joys of Being Catholic

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from Renovation of the Heart
Dallas Willard

Genuine transformation of the whole person into the goodness and power seen in Jesus and his "Abba" Father--the only transformation adequate to the human self--remains the necessary goal of human life. But it lies beyond the reach of programs of inner transformation that draw merely on the human spirit--even when the human spirit is itself treated as ultimately divine.

The reality of all this is currently veiled from view by the very low level of spiritual life seen in Christianity as now placed before the general public. That low level explains why there are at present so many psychologies and spiritualities contesting the field--often led or dominated by ex-Christians who have abandoned recognized forms of Christianity as hopeless or even harmful.

Recently, however, a widespread and intense interest in spiritual formation, under that very name, has arisen among many groups of Christians and their leaders. Why is that? It is mainly due to a realization--confirmed now by many thorough and careful studies, as well as overwhelming anecdotal evidence--that, in its current and recent public forms, Christianity has not been imparting effectual answers to the vital questions of human existence. At least not to wide ranges of self-identifying Christians, and obviously not to nonChristians. And spiritual formation has now presented itself as a hopeful possibility for responding to the crying, unmet need of the human soul. The hope springs once again for a response to the need that is both deeply rooted in Christian traditions and powerfully relevant to circumstances of contemporary life.

Recently Tom (of Disputations) remarked on the difficult transformation facing third Order Dominicans as they moved from being prayer groups to becoming formed and really part of the Order. The same is true for the Carmelites, and perhaps for many secular Orders. Attention has been focused upon spiritual formation of candidates for reception and profession into these orders. And while spiritual formation includes prayer, it also goes beyond vocal prayer to encourage the candidate to transform his or her inner life.

Catholicism may be one of the few places where there is an identifiably Christian spirituality still present and, in some places, vibrant. A tour through any local evangelical Christian bookstore will show the truth of Mr. Willardís thesis above. Almost to a one the books on the shelves are religious varieties of "self-help books." Being a better husband, serving better, being a better father, mother, teen. And almost none of the advice that is given within these books really focused on following God's will. There is a lot of talk about prayer and awareness and petitions and action and any number of other topics related to getting closer to God, but very little substantive advice about how to do so. And this has been the trend for a long time. Everyone flocks to the Rick Warrens of the world because there is at least the hint of approaching God and surrendering to His divine will. But even there, the surrender is subdued to any number of other actions we must take. For a faith that professes "Sola Fides" there sure seems to be a lot of helter-skelter running about in Protestant Christianity. And I don't fault the Protestants of today as such--when you have been cut off from the streams of tradition that feed a vibrant spirituality you are going to end up with a very works-centered "spirituality." Warren's spirituality seem to be expressed by the number of people who he knocks upside the head with the Gospel story (though admittedly, he is much more gentle than that.) When you refuse the living water of sacred tradition, you will be stuck with the still water of what people can contrive to be spirituality.

The joy of being Catholic is that while there are still a large number within our own faith stricken by the paralysis that afflicts some of the Protestant Churches, there are nevertheless rich streams of devotional and divine literature that feed a healthy spirituality. (And so too even in the Protestant faith, if only they would look closer to the roots rather than to the tips of the branches--Quakers, Shakers, and Anglican divines have tremendous things to say to those who are not chronological chauvinists.) But God has especially blessed the Catholic Church by preserving her ancient traditions and encouraging newer, wonderful writers who lay bare those traditions and build upon them. While we have any number of ancient Saints whose writings support the foundations of the Church and the base of Catholic Spirituality, so too we have many modern writers who translate those documents into living realities for us today. St. Thér&egave;se moved St. John of the Cross from sixteenth century Spain into the 20th century. Thomas Merton explores Cistercian Spirituality for Modern readers. Vanier, Vann, Goodier, Healy, Merton, Day, Nouwen, and many, many others add immeasurably to the wealth of the Catholic Church and her deep spirituality. The list of writers could go on and on--Balthasar, Rahner, Knox, Claudel, etc. What we learn from them is nothing new, but it puts a modern face on what is ancient beyond time.

Catholic Spirituality is alive and well. What is a shame is that so few turn to face it and take any notice of it. Too often we are dragged off-course into the most recent irritations and outright scandals we face.

One of the great things that Ross King's book on Michelangelo did was to reveal the fact that there really hasn't been a "golden age" for the Church. They are all equally Golden and equally lead. In every age there are those who pay attention and follow the eternal and those who follow the promptings of their own minds. We are embroiled in the crisis of the day--as well we should beóthat we fail to see some of the wonderful things that are taking place around us, even in the small world of St. Blogs. We must be ever mindful of how blessed we are. On NPR (of all places) the other day they had a short spot featuring the usual "Demise of the Pope" stuff popular in current media. One of the speakers there said that Pope John Paul has provided us with food for thought for many, many years to come--even if there were nothing else to consider during the entire time of his pontificate. And of course there is. Every soul that pays attention and responds to God leaves a mark on the world. Sometimes that mark is in the form of literature, sometimes in the form of action. Either way the marks can be read, interpreted, and followed into the House of the Lord.

So despite the alarums and excursions of the present day, the spirituality of the Holy Catholic Church is intact. It is there for anyone who really wishes to lead a life of holiness. The bottom line--there is no excuse. It is only our own laziness that stands between each of us and the sanctity and spiritual heights God wishes us to attain. He wishes this for us not for our own good, but for the good of all, because if each attain his or her appointed place, the world becomes more Christlike and the Body becomes a living, breathing, resurrected Christ transforming the world into His image.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 8, 2005 8:18 AM.

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