Monday, July 07, 2008

Spiritual Direction and Stories

First, an update from yesterday. An anonymous reader asked about my claim that we can "grow out of" spiritual direction. In fact, the claim is not mine, but that of Blessed Columba Marmion. I had also qualified what I wrote by saying that this was part of the Benedictine tradition. There are other, more recent spiritualities in which spiritual direction plays a major, ongoing part. However, given the fact that good spiritual directors are rare, I would not want to place on the lay faithful a burden that cannot be carried, namely to suggest that authentic discernment cannot take place except in the context of spiritual direction. In the monastic tradition, particularly today in the Carthusian tradition, the emphasis is on the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is a gift to all the baptized, and not merely the religious. This may sound risky to say in public in an age when people too uncritically accept their own authority, but I also, I hope, reasonably clear in saying that our consciences needs formation. It is not so much a matter of 'trusting your feelings' as it is developing a sense and taste for the things of God, so that we almost naturally choose the Godly course.

On to another comment:

Amator Catholicarum said...

"I would be interested in a discussion of how this tension between
conversion and epistemological continuity manifests itself in many Catholics. It
seems that many of them do not seek for the continuity within the context of the
faith, but rather their own lives. That is to say, the result is that the
conversion becomes an isolated part of their lives, but does not convert the
whole person."
It would perhaps be presumptuous of me to attempt to speak of Catholic experience as a whole in this area. I believe that religion in general today tends toward personal and compartmentalized expression, and so we might naturally simply read only our life story in order to find God's presence. The two major correctives for this problem are the liturgy and Scripture. Catholics who regularly attend Mass and other paraliturgical devotions (attendance at the Divine Office is still pretty rare) tend to pick up a sense of being part of a much larger story, the story of the whole of creation and its redemption through the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Catholics probably lag behind Protestants in terms of filling out this sense of the cosmic story by attention to Scripture. In either path, God will eventually touch every part of our lives, if we are listening.

What I am putting forward here perhaps needs a summary, in order to remind readers entering in mid-conversation what exactly is on the table. I have been claiming that A. MacIntyre's idea of an 'epistemological crisis' (a crisis in understanding the world and one's place in it) can illuminate the Christian understanding of conversion. In fact, Scripture and the liturgy should provoke ongoing 'crises' of understanding, such that faith continually moves us to a deeper change of heart and a deeper sense of God's dominion and love, and a profounder determination to give the whole of our lives to God as a gift. A part of this involves the challenge to understand our own lives as falling in the midst of the cosmic story and thus requiring public confession and witness of some kind (just as, say, living in post 9/11 America requires us to take responsibility for political debates about security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so forth, whether we feel like it or not). The Church's story should open us up more and more to concern for the whole Church and the whole creation.

In terms of our own lives prior to conversion, we can learn to see them in Biblical/liturgical terms (where we might be inclined toward psychological or sociological terms). Thus, instead of finding that Jesus Christ has allowed me to actualize my full potential in life--this understood as doing the things that I really want to do--we instead are persuaded that we are like the Israelites in the desert, being rescued by God, and yet complaining about what we had to give up. Or we see ourselves like David, blessed and yet pronee to the worst sorts of sins of pride and self-will. We see that God treats us in ways similar to the Biblical persons, with corrections, warnings, and such, but ultimately with knowledge of Him and communion with all that is good in creation.

We can take a cue from St. Augustine, who definitely read his own life in a Biblical sense in order to narrate his conversion, but from there, he went on to reading the Bible. He concludes Confessions with a three-chapter incomplete commentary on Genesis. Many have puzzled over this, but perhaps this is just St. Augustine's way of indicating that our personal narratives, important as they are to each of us, are best understood within the cosmic story.

3 comments:

Maria said...

Participation in an ongoing epistemological crisis would seem to be a cause of destabilization of self; but it is freeing instead of enslaving. I was thinking, while walking with the anonymous crowd moving together separately from work toward the train station in the Loop today, what is this that I'm doing? Going home. And that idea of valuing, evaluating, discernment-and conversion, continuous conversion and how sometimes it takes you places you don't expect and don't want to go. But freeing of the self, freedom from this false self that seems to do nothing but creat separation from the Divine, is important and worthy. I feel so humble in the face of it.

Mr. Potato said...

You made a good point about Catholics lagging behind Protestants in knowledge of the Bible. This is the unanswered request of the Vatican Council.

Your comment on those who come to see themselves more clearly and as part of a larger story by going to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, praying and participating in devotions reminds me of a conversion story.

There is a woman I know who had a terrible crisis when she was young. She was from a very wealthy family. She felt empty and her life lacked direction. Sin and selfishness ruled her life.

On a whim she went to work with Mother Teresa's nuns on the West Side of Chicago. She knew that her father would forbid it because of the dangerous neighborhood so she hid it from him. Instead of taking a cab (which would be safe) she rode the bus every day.

She worked at menial labor serving the poor and prayed with the Sisters of Charity. She could have gotten an high paying job with one phone call but she knew that it wouldn't solve the problem that darkened her intellect and shrouded her heart in sorrow. She didn't know if it would work but somehow, she thought, these sisters could teach her the way to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Light.

Later when I met her she said that it changed her life. By giving herself completely to those with nothing she was filled up. She learned to pray. She learned humility. She lived the narrative of His life: For, she lived in Him through prayer and the sacraments.

She discovered her vocation was not in religious life but in having a family. Within a year of starting this adventure she found a great Catholic man and married him. They have a very large family.

I think that this might be an example of an epistemological crisis and how faith, hope and love resolved it. What she didn't realize until much later was that He was there even in the emptiness.

The Archer of the Forest said...

I have to admit I am a bit skeptical of "spiritual direction." They tried very hard to get me into spiritual direction when I was in seminary and the ordination process. I tried for years, and tried various spiritual directors, but I never felt like I got much out it.

I have found it more helpful for me to have the sacramental element, if I am going to get anything out of it. So, I go to a Father Confessor on a regular basis that knows me well. We talk quite a bit about things usually discussed in "spiritual direction" amongst usual confession stuff. I have found that to be much more helpful.

I am now a bit more skeptical of "spiritual direction" because in my mind it begs the question of whether the church has failed in raising up quality Father Confessors and people have to search elsewhere for direction.

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