Laity on Fire, Part I

Grinding wheat.

…Conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing… and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:3-4). It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems and in offering ourselves to God “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable” (Rom 12:1). At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude. Even now we are journeying towards the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all. — Laudato Si

That paragraph sent me into a lengthy lectio reflection on a subject dear to my theological heart: the earthly character of the lay vocation. Why? Because it reminds us that the Christian vision of salvation is not simply “of souls,” but of bodies that inextricably link us to a vast universe that “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19).

The below text was excerpted from an email I sent last year to a student who asked me about how the world-focused character of the lay vocation can truly be considered “spiritual.” The email was written in haste, is informal and untidy, but most of what I write — and my life! — is like that anyway.

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…You say, “it seems to me that the spiritual world is our real destiny, so a vocation that makes worldly stuff the focus just makes an obstacle to getting where we’re supposed to be putting our hearts’ focus — right? We’re aiming for heaven and not earth, aren’t we?”

…heaven, or “the new creation” as it’s called be St. Paul, isn’t simply a new and improved product God fashioned to supersede the old, obsolete version we screwed up. Rather, from the very beginning this “old” creation was destined to be fulfilled, perfected, transfigured, re-created in the Age to Come through us, priestly humanity created in Christ who came to make all things new (cf Ephesians 2:10; Revelation 21:5). And note, we say, “Behold, I make all things new,” and not, “Behold, I make all new things.” This is Jesus saying this, right? And those of us who are “in Christ” as His Body, and so what He does, we do with Him. If He makes all things new by His life, death and resurrection, we co-do. Our vocation as lay men and women — bound up tightly in temporal-worldly reality by God (Lumen Gentium 31) — is to consecrate this world to God by immersing ourselves in it like leaven kneaded into dough, by cultivating Eden according to the will of God, and by so doing to lift up the old creation into the new creation. Or as Gaudium et Spes 38 memorably says it, secular laity “make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs” (see also Gaudium et Spes 14). To so-love-the-world like God was really humanity’s orginal call in the beginning, but sin corrupted the process and made us not upward-offering priests but inward-turned idolaters. But God’s redeeming work in Jesus the Gardener (cf John 20:15), who reveals to us with His cross-plow the Way of cultivating creation aright, has restored to us our original vocation to co-create and co-redeem the garden of this world to ready it for the New Eden of Paradise (which btw in Greek, paradeisos,  means “garden”).

…The Catechism (1120) says, “The ordained ministry or ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood.” Why? Well, in part we can say that lay “baptismal priests,” whose vocation is to “make ready the material of the celestial realm” by their world-leavening lives, rely on the ministry of Ordained priests who gather up our sacrificial “materials” we hand them in the Eucharistic Offertory (as bread, wine and alms). Acting in the Person of Christ, the Ordained minister calls down the Sprit to consecrate our offerings and translate them into the immortal Kingdom (a Kingdom built on Christ’s risen Body). All earthly treasures gained for God’s glory and placed in service to man’s salvation are thus “stored up as treasure in heaven” where they will endure for all ages to give joy to all the saints and reveal the glory of God. This should transform our view of the world from a mere “testing ground” where we prove ourselves worthy or unworthy of an unworldly heaven into a theater of redemption where we “glorify God in our bodies” (Corinthians 6:20), “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) and so, by extension, bring salvation to the whole material creation as material creation is caught up in the human body’s redemption. All creation is depending on us “priests of nature” (as St. Maximus the Confessor calls us) for its salvation (read the whole Romans 8:18-23 this way). We humans were made to give all creation its liturgical voice, verbalizing its inscribed longing to praise the Creator and Redeemer for unending ages (cf. Daniel 3:57-88!). This freaking ridiculous! And it’s why I love so much Eucharistic Prayer IV’s preface:

Father…you are the one God living and true, existing before all ages and abiding for all eternity, dwelling in unapproachable light; yet you, who alone are good, the source of life, have made all that is, so that you might fill your creatures with blessings and bring joy to many of them by the glory of your light. And so, in your presence are countless hosts of Angels, who serve you day and night and, gazing upon the glory of your face, glorify you without ceasing. With them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy…

Giving voice to every creature by lives that accord with God’s will for creation, and so praising and glorifying God on the stringed harp of natural and theological virtue. Every creature! Look outside, all around you. Our world is a Garden that God has entrusted to us and called us to cultivate and (like Abel) make an offering, growing righteous fruits that endure to eternal life (cf. John 6:27). Or maybe creation is a whole lot of “talents” God has entrusted to us to invest and gain interest on by lives of faithful stewardship (cf. Matthew 6:20). You see, the new creation is a collaborative project, a work of synergy between God and men together — all in Christ the God-Man — building up here and now together a Kingdom that is here and is to come at the end of the ages. Think of it through the lens of this popular medieval story:

Two men were hauling stones through a muddy medieval street. One was cursing and the other was singing. A traveler asked them what they were doing. The curser replied, “I’m trying to get this damned rock to roll through this damned mud!” The singer replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Christ’s lay faithful aren’t just stuck in the secular world pushing damn rocks, but are joyful celebrants of the secular liturgy building a Cathedral out of the raw materials of a sin-hardened earth which we plough, breaking up the hard clods, cultivating, planting, watering, tending, guarding, loving, caring for the innumerably precious goods of this world. Even allowing our own blood to be shed on the soil in self-sacrificing service to men to the praise and glory of God. This is the bread-baking, wine-pressing, poor-loving Eucharistic vocation of a laity, readying gifts for the Offertory of the Mass so the Ordained have something substantial to offer up for consecration. Gifts composed of lives well lived in holy and sacrificial service to God and neighbor and all creation. How differently we would see the Offertory if we believed this, and how we would fight over the privilege to “bring up the gifts” for Consecration. Lumen Gentium 34 says it perfectly:

For besides intimately linking them to His life and His mission, He also gives [the laity] a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.

When I discovered this in the 1990s, it revolutionized my view of worldly, secular, mundane, temporal realities…it all was suddenly shot through with eternal value. Gaudium et Spes 43:

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation … Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.

And the salvation of the whole of creation…

Too good to be true?


Here’s an excerpt from a talk I gave last Lent on God’s mercy.

Yesterday we looked a bit at the God revealed to us in the Scriptures, in Jesus. What beauty! It’s the beauty that converted the Roman Empire – and now over 2 billion people — to the faith of a tiny band of Galileans who claimed the supreme and only Creator of the whole cosmos was born of a lowly virgin; grew up as a simple carpenter in a town with a population of roughly 300 people; became an itinerant preacher at the age of 30; preached a Kingdom of love and reconciliation and mercy; gathered around him a band of followers made up of ex-fishermen, former tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers, the blind, deaf, mute, deformed and possessed – referred to as the “refuse of the Empire” – and then, after only three years of preaching and working miracles, he was executed for treason under Pontius Pilate. Hanging naked and bloodied on a cross, he forgave his enemies and granted a thief first dibs on Paradise. He died and was buried in a borrowed grave. And who would have thought any more of him? But the lifeless corpse of this dead Jew, Jesus of Nazareth — these seemingly intoxicated evangelizing Christians proclaimed! — had been exalted to the highest heavens and had reconciled all of creation to the eternal God. This man had been made, they said, King of an eternal Empire of truth and life, holiness and grace, justice, love, and peace; and all creation would one day bow at the mere mention of his Name.


But in a world largely devoid of hope, this crazed News seemed better than good. It seemed impossible. But impossible is exactly what Jews believe God specializes in, and we, the spiritual Semites who still bear this same beautiful and hope-filled Gospel today, should – Ite, missa est! — offer our own increasingly despairing world a reason to sigh with relief: “Behind this world of death, beneath this world of pain, within this world of violence, beyond this world of sin beats the Heart of a God-made-flesh who invites us all to Pass-over with him from death to life, from pain to joy, from violence to peace and from sin to eternal redemption.

Come, let us be on our way to go out to all the world and tell the Good News!

Lovely Orientation

Repost from 2012

When I read Chris Warner’s article on Eastern Christianity, I was captivated by this line…

The East complements the Western need to act upon the world with missionary zeal by being more singularly focused on the liturgical and interior spiritual life of Christianity than its Roman counterpart.

Immodest Thinking

The proclivity of the West to intellectually master, dissect, analyze and dominate everything often spills over into theology as a temptation to siphon God’s mystery of secrets that can only be had by the posture of humble receptivity we call faith. Theology, which is faith’s intelligent exploration of divine revelation, begins as an act of patient waiting wrapped in a reverent awe of the God who speaks only to those who listen in silent love. This posture of faith toward God’s mystery we call prayer. The desert Father Evagrius said as much when he said:

The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.

Within academic theological circles there is a tendency, in my experience, to view prayer a mere act of sentimental piety ultimately peripheral to the work of rigorous and critical thinking. To see a scholar thumbing her rosary beads before offering an erudite lecture entitled, say, “Theology in a post-Christian world,” would appear in the academy as a curiosity at best.

But for a Catholic theologian it must not be so. Theology is not a disinterested dissection of a corpse, but a *dangerous* encounter with the living and risen Christ. Dangerous because God’s Truth is not assimilated by us, but we by It. Prayer, therefore, is not only an act of emotive piety but, as Deacon Keating says so eloquently, is the suffering of the coming of Truth Himself into the mind.

In this sense, theology is fundamentally a liturgical act inasmuch as liturgy thrusts us into the thickets of God-made-flesh only to find ourselves caught up in a dialogue that eternally erupts in the fathomless heart of the Trinity. Theology is thinking in prayer.

Imagine what “thinking in prayer” must be like if we are talking about the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Imagine if this God were, as St. Catherine of Siena once boldly worded it, pazzo d’amore, “mad with love” for humanity. To speak worthily of such a God we must balance careful thinking and careless loving, detached reflection and total immersion. Here we can affirm that the sober architecture of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologica must be complemented by the inebriated gush of Dominican tertiary St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue with God the Father.

Such a praying “liturgical theology” functions in much the same way the late Benedictine theologian, Fr. Aidan Kavanaugh, described the liturgy:

The liturgy, like the feast, exists not to educate but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.


A professor from my graduate theology study years once shared a first-hand account of a lecture presented by the famous Dominican spiritual theologian Fr. Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange during the early 1960s in Rome. He said that the agèd Lagrange, who was otherwise in good health, walked up to the podium and began the opening prayer with the Latin word, Deus, “God.”

‘Deus…Deus…De-…’ Lagrange was unable to proceed any further, and had to leave the auditorium. “But,” my professor said, “it was clear to all who knew him that this was no stroke; that Fr. Réginald was seized, as he often was in his latter years, by a love for the God whose Name he could not speak without being drawn out of himself.”

As a saintly DRE once said to me after a lecture I gave on theology, “Thinking about God at this point in my life leaves me with little to say, but much to love.”


Divine Revelation

St. Francis of Assisi vision of the Crucified

In a terrific homily I heard recently, the homilist talked about God as a “revealing” God. I often take notes during homilies for later use, and I did that day. Later I took those notes into my prayer time, blended them with my own meditation and then transcribed it all into my journal. Here’s an excerpt…

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At the heart of Judaism and Christianity is a God who reveals himself. In fact, the whole of Sacred Scripture can be said to be a witness to God’s very lavish and highly elaborate plan to make himself known to human beings. But why? What’s underneath this scheme of self-disclosure in which God spares no expense? First, what is it that God reveals? You might say, in short, that God reveals to us who he is, who we are, who we were created to become, how we get there, why things are such a mess and what God is doing about that mess to ensure we can become what he made us to be. As you can see, divine revelation is really about deep and substantive matters, and at heart it’s really a relational affair. Second, what does saying “God is a self-revealing God” imply? Think first about your own choice to reveal yourself to someone else. Not just revealing trivial information about yourself, but your deepest inner self, your inner secrets. What does that choice imply? It implies that you love and feel loved by the recipient of your revelation, that you desire an intimacy of friendship with them, that you trust them. It implies that you enjoy their company and companionship. It also implies that you possess a hope that they will receive what you reveal in love, with interest and with reverence. And a hope that they will be willing to reciprocate by revealing themselves in equal measure to you. In this sense, self-revelation bears a remarkable vulnerability on the part of the revealer as their is always a risk of rejection, disinterest, non-reciprocation, etc.

I once worked with a severely disabled resident in an assisted care facility who would never speak to me. One day while I was helping her with her food, she said, “Thank you. That tastes good. It’s the one pleasure I have left.” I said, “You’re welcome. I’m so glad you spoke to me.” She responded, “I learned not to talk because it hurts too much to talk to people who are just doing their job. But you really seem to care.” I suddenly felt really uncomfortable inside as we had moved from a cold distance to a stunning intimacy in only a few words. I was amazed a few words could make you feel so close to someone. I also realized how painful communication can be for one who feels what they have to say is not really worth much to anyone, and so feels rejected.

Now I think of Jesus, the Father’s eternal Word. He is the supreme expression of God’s desire and choice to fully reveal himself to the human race. I think more, the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s encounter with and response to humanity’s (and my) catastrophic rejection of his self-revelation. I ache. Every time I watch The Passion of the Christ, the scene where the nails are being brutally hammered into his hands always tears me apart — as the pain shoots through his body, he cries out like a child, “Abba! Abba!” I can hear in that moment an unfathomably tender and pained cry that emerges from the silent depths of the life-giving Trinity whose essence is utterly innocent and guileless love — a love mocked and spat on in that very moment. But even there as he suffers this rejection he thinks of us, as he continues: “Abba, forgive them; forgive them…” It’s devastatingly beautiful and terrifying to reflect on — the response of the Omnipotent God to this mortal rejection by his creatures is unremitting forgiveness, mercy and undefended vulnerability. His response is to pour out on us without measure the Holy Spirit. Qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur.

I think also of the words of Jesus to St. Margaret Mary in 1673 as he revealed his Sacred Heart to her in a series of visions:

Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify its love; and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for me in this Sacrament of Love.

Here I think now of the gift and invitation to prayer, which is fundamentally a response to God’s revelation. What an unspeakable privilege we have to each become a loving, reverent, reciprocating recipient of God’s vulnerable and selfless self-disclosure. When we read the Scripture and encounter this long and mind-blowing history of God’s attempts to converse with men “face to face” in friendship, to enter into intimate union, we can — in faith — experience this whole history as being for me (cf. Galatians 2:20). When I ask for a sign of love, the biblical narrative and the Sacraments all shout out to me: “It was all for you, it is all for you!” The whole long, meandering and painful history of God pursuing humanity ends with me, with my “yes” or my “no.” How will I respond?

I think I will try to follow Colleen Nixon’s Marian lead:

What’s a Saint?

Repost 2012

When I gave an “adult education” talk not long ago at a parish in New Orleans, I asked the participants to write out for me the definition of a saint before I gave them my own.

Whence the Saint?

I read through them all, and immediately noticed a pattern. While they all offered beautiful and accurate descriptions of virtuous behavior, not a single one mentioned that holiness has anything to do with God.

Now, I am not saying that they would not have brought in a more God-centered view if I had posed the question differently, but it speaks to what I believe is a pervasive view of Christian life among Catholics: that being a nice/good person is holiness, that holiness is what we do, and that heaven is what we get for what we do.

The rest of the night I affirmed their lovely and noble insights, but attempted to re-plant their insights into the Heart of Christ where all of the best of human striving is “caught up into divine love,” as Vatican II says it. I talked of sin, grace, sacraments, virtue and prayer, and argued that falling headlong into Christ is God’s way to God. And that means having a personal relationship with Him is for Catholics a sine qua non. I used stories of saints — especially St. Augustine– who found their vices healed, their virtues kindled and discovered profound meaning in life by loving Jesus. I shared this famous excerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Even after all that, their faces seemed puzzled at my high emphasis on the need for Catholics to cultivate a relationship with Jesus. One said, “This sounds kinda Protestant,” and another said, “I’ve worked in Church ministries for 20 years and it’s just never occurred to me to have a relationship or friendship with Jesus.”

I was flummoxed. Then I decided to recount the story of an RCIA Candidate I knew in Florida back in the late 1990s — and that finally elicited from one of them an “aha” moment.

This RCIA seeker, from a Protestant background, had been struggling with a number of core Church teachings (e.g. contraception, Marian doctrine). I would spend lots of time with her outside the RCIA evenings dishing out the best rational apologetics I knew. Sometimes for a full hour afterward. She was smart! I was convinced I could argue her into the profession of faith.

But I was humbled to the dust one evening when she pulled me aside after class to share with me a profound experience of Jesus she had had that week while she was driving in her car, and just cried out in frustration: “Jesus, I just don’t get it! If you want me to be Catholic you have to help me out here.”  She said, “Suddenly I felt His overwhelming presence in the car, a presence of unimaginably tender love … as soon as I found myself in love with Christ, everything suddenly made sense. But I am not exactly sure why.’

I thought to myself, “Oh, yes, Jesus. Right. Good point.”

At once I recalled a comment the late, great Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown had made in a lecture I heard him give in Burlington, Vermont back in 1990. He said:

Christianity, unlike any other religion, stands or falls on one central conviction: to be saved, you must love the Founder who first loved you…only when Christianity has prioritized this conviction has it flourished.

Years later I shared this comment with a non-Christian colleague at Florida State. He said, “Hmm. Well, you’re a Christian. You got Christ in your name. Seems self-evident to me.”

I’m just slow.

Let me share with you Matt Maher’s musical setting of that great Augustine’s prayer:

In Summary…

This icon, when I posted it in 2013, was by itself (with no commentary) a complete daily Blog post titled, In Summary. The day after I posted it, I received an email from a long time friend. His reaction so moved me that I asked if I could post his email anonymously. I felt his reaction demonstrated eloquently the very point I was trying to make: the image of Jesus crucified surpasses all of my words, because it is truth, goodness and beauty perfectly fused into the one “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

Here’s what my friend’s email said:

My dear friend!

I habitually open your blog when I feel hungry for inspiration in the morning. This morning I am preparing for a hard meeting amid a series of other difficulties that have made me cry out to God, “Basta! Enough!” out of dryness.

When I saw your simple post of the cross this morning my raw reaction was to let out an an expletive.

Then I started laughing. Then I started crying.

Ave crux, spes unica! Hail the cross, our only hope!

Keep teaching me from afar!

His email brought to mind the Peruvian St. Rose of Lima’s impassioned proclamation of the word of the Cross. She taught me through her words that the Cross is not only to be the supreme beauty that informs our contemplative gaze, but is to become the beauty that informs our whole existence. Here are her words, taken from the Divine Office for her Feast Day:

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: “Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.”
When I heard these words, a strong force came upon me and seemed to place me in the middle of a street, so that I might say in a loud voice to people of every age, sex and status: “Hear, O people; hear, O nations. I am warning you about the commandment of Christ by using words that came from his own lips: We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions. We must heap trouble upon trouble to attain a deep participation in the divine nature, the glory of the sons of God and perfect happiness of soul.”

That same force strongly urged me to proclaim the beauty of divine grace. It pressed me so that my breath came slow and forced me to sweat and pant. I felt as if my soul could no longer be kept in the prison of the body, but that it had burst its chains and was free and alone and was going very swiftly through the whole world saying:

“If only mortals would learn how great it is to possess divine grace, how beautiful, how noble, how precious. How many riches it hides within itself, how many joys and delights! Without doubt they would devote all their care and concern to winning for themselves pains and afflictions. All men throughout the world would seek trouble, infirmities and torments, instead of good fortune, in order to attain the unfathomable treasure of grace. This is the reward and the final gain of patience. No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.”

Spiritual Virtuosos

“Wisdom and her three daughters: Faith, Hope, Charity” Icon by Karp Zolotaryov, c. 1685.

As I’ve read and re-read the Pope’s new encyclical, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the role played by the virtuous life in developing an authentic vision for the right stewardship of creation. No matter how convincing are the arguments for moral principles, without virtuous people to incarnate them no lasting difference can be made in the world. Only when we possess the virtues — which are really various facets of charity, the “soul of the virtues” — are we able to rightly relate rightly to neighbor, self, all of creation and God. Hence virtues, which are habitual and firm dispositions to do the good, are a big deal in Christianity.

The pope notes throughout Chapter Six that at the heart of an authentic spirituality stands the life of virtue. So often in (post)modernity, spirituality is equated with subjective states of consciousness or self-centered notions of personal fulfillment. Such a spirituality gives rise to a god who is really the self, writ-large as an all-affirming deity blessing my preferences and canonizing my worldview. The God of Israel, on the other hand, judges all such gods to be idols and calls idolaters to repentance and reform, i.e. to the life of virtue based on the Law. For Christianity, what especially distinguishes authentic spirituality are the “hard” virtues that Christ evinces in their perfect form; virtues such as prudence, justice, charity, temperance, mercy, chastity, obedience and fortitude in the face of suffering. The truly “spiritual” are the truly virtuous, and the surest measure of spiritual growth is not the heightened experience of a refined or ecstatic consciousness, but the increased ability to freely forgive harm done to you or cheerfully give alms to the undeserving.

St. Teresa of Avila, in describing the different states of active and passive prayer in The Way of Perfection as different means of gathering water, argues that the real purpose of prayer is to grow the virtues: “The water [the graces of prayer] is for the flowers [the virtues].” Union with God, she contends, is not some ethereal union or rarefied state, but rather natural and theological virtues in sync with God’s will and attributes. We are in union with God when our justice harmonizes with His Justice, our charity with His Charity, our patience with His Patience, our mercy with His Mercy, our purity with His Purity, our generosity with His Generosity, et cetera ad infinitum.

So, the Pope says, if you want to be spiritual, be virtuous. And if you want to be virtuous, work with and pray for grace. Let me let the Pope speak for himself…

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.

We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers. (#222-224, 226)