Repost from 2012 with an addition
In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds his disciples, “without me you can do nothing.”
Nothing. That’s quite definite.
After 25 years of working within the Church Institutional, I have found one astounding fact to be consistently true: those who serve as lay or clerical “professionals” in the Church very often tell me that as the years go on they find that their spiritual lives suffer atrophy.
I gave thought to this recently. Two common threads usually emerge as I dig deeper into their thinking. First, familiarity with holy things can, as the proverb goes, breed contempt. Second, as they come to know well the human frailties and baggage of fellow ecclesial personnel, the sacred seems to unravel and mystery gets demystified. Now, certainly not all I have known over the years have suffered this decline — and those are the people I have found myself most attracted to in order to discover their “secret.” Drawing from their wisdom, let me suggest what I think is the key difference: staying close to Jesus in prayer.
So simple it seems simplistic.
Convincing those who “work for the Church,” who are nearest to the Hearth that burns in the heart of the Church, that because they do religious work they don’t need — or have time to — pray is no doubt one of the Tempter’s most subtle and successful strategies. Severed from the source of spiritual power, we are vulnerable to becoming bitter, cynical, angry, tepid, lost. To be charged with leading people into the Mystery of God, while not oneself being intimately in communion with that Mystery is a recipe for spiritual stress and burnout. While the prayer-less may muster the zeal to sputter vague phrases about their work being their prayer, in their more honest moments when they are not “on,” they admit that their spiritual lives have suffered, their prayer has weakened and their sense of purpose in ministry has atrophied to near paralysis. No time left for being alone with the Alone, no room in the Inn for Jesus to be born in them.
[Let me insert here part of an email I sent to a friend who asked me how I could retain my “wonder and awe” as a Catholic in a Church that seemed to be filled with so many bored and cynical people…
…Catholic means, as James Joyce wrote in Finnegan’s Wake, “Here comes everybody.” Truly! The Church allows within its pale a remarkable diversity of humanity, who embody the living Tradition more or less, in ways great and small, with various faces marked by the unique histories of each. It’s the scandal of particularity, the scandal of the Incarnation at work, where God manifests the fullness in the partial; purity in the midst of filth; truth in the midst of error; joy in the midst of horror; passion in the midst of apathy; revealing the Way amid bumbling disciples and ineffable Light to skeptical or hostile rabbinic colleagues. I think — as I gaze Janus-like at the grandeur and the banality, the awe and the boredom, the clarity and the murkiness, and so on — of the imminent framework of divine Revelation, and how utterly disappointing it is to my un-redeemed inner purist who wants it undiluted, or my inner zealot who wants it extreme, or my inner artist who wants great artwork and not kitsch…and of the imminent framework that is the Incarnation: the Manger, the Flight, the Ridicule, the Hatred, the Spittle, the Jeering, the Whipping, the Cross, the Burial, and all of that being Raised Up in His still-fresh Wounds…then I settle into not inquiry or interest or argument, but faith. And I walk, even as I fall and rise — fall and rise in the midst of my fellow inglorious co-religionists whose sheep-smell I share. I have canonized saints about me, those democratic dead whose collective voice from Paradise, looking back into history, plants in me hope that if such tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes and thieves, murderers and lustful men and women can permit grace to reconfigure them and raise them up among their sinful brethren to shine like the Sun, I can also consent thus again and again, and have hope along with those around me. In other words, the Incarnation does not permit me to be spiritual and not religious, because religion implicates me with that filthy, stinky, mediocre lot of flesh called humanity; while “spiritual” attempts the Gnostic rise above it all to contemplate the pure Forms that, though beautiful, are not real because Truth-Goodness-Beauty does not exist apart from the Cross. Saints were wholly fleshy spirits in earthen vessels, in a tired and weary world. But, as Hans Urs von Balthasar said so forcefully, “The saints are humble, that is to say, the mediocrity of the Church does not deter them from expressing once and for all their solidarity with her, knowing well that without her they could never find their way to God. To bypass Christ’s Church with the idea of making their way to God on their own initiative would never occur to them. They do battle with the mediocrity of Christ’s Church not by protesting but by enkindling and encouraging the better. The Church causes them pain, but they do not become embittered and stand aside to sulk. They form no dissident groups but cast their fire into the midst.” If I cling to this Mystery, I believe I will never lose wonder and awe. If I don’t, I’m lost.]
Stay in love
Just before we got married, my grandfather wrote a letter to Patti and me and said that one of the key secrets to their (at the time) 68 years of marital love was never to “lose the magnetism of that first moment when your eyes met, when you knew she was it; he was it. Keep that alive, and your bond will be unbreakable.”
Jesus said something similar in Revelation 2:4 to the Church of Ephesus: “I hold this against you: you have abandoned your early love.”
Those who are privileged to serve in the heart of the Church, in the midst of its humanity, must keep alive within the flame of God’s love for broken, fallen humanity; and always remember that each of us, as a recipient of divine mercy, must live out of that mercy (cf. Matthew 18:21-35).
These words of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J. capture the heart of what I’m after:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.