forming the adult Church

Candle 4Next week I begin teaching a ten week course, an introduction to Catholic ministry, which forms part of a year-long course offered by the Institute for Mission, an adult education centre in the Diocese of Parramatta. Remarkably, the course has seen over 400 participants undertake studies in spirituality, Scripture, theology and ministry since its inception and includes spiritual direction, companioning groups as well as plenary days.

My particular component of the course attempts to situate ministry within the broader context of baptismal mission and the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, explores the ministry of Jesus as given witness in the New Testament, overviews the development of ministry from the Constantinian area until the present day, surveys the theologies of the ordained priesthood, the diaconate and lay ministry, relates ministry to Eucharist, before concluding with issues in pastoral practice and spiritual discernment.

Over the years I have tried to ground the course as much as possible in the touchstones of the ressourcement movement, and so the participants are exposed to the writings of the Church Fathers, the Scriptural testimony of early Christian life, and are invited to delve into the meaning of the Eucharistic prayers, including a nod to Eastern anaphora recognised by the Catholic Church (the most obscure of which is that of Addai and Mari, an Assyrian prayer distinguished for the absence of an institution narrative. See here for extended analysis of its use and context).

The growth in opportunities for such theological formation of lay men and women since the Second Vatican Council has been tremendous, meeting as these opportunities do the greater baptismal consciousness that flowed from the Council’s reception, and extending the possibility of theological learning and reflection beyond the seminary and religious houses of formation.

Foundational documents in the area of adult faith education include conciliar documents such as Lumen Gentium (1962), Apostolicam Actuositatem (1965), Gravissimum Educationis (1965), and post-conciliar monuments including Catechesi Tradendae (1979), the General Catechetical Directory (1997), and the pastoral plan for adult formation authored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us (1999; available here). This last document offers as its model the Emmaus story as a paradigm of encounter and accompaniment on the road to faith in Jesus, in a way which aligns well with the pedagogy outlined by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.

5382043It is worthwhile noting that the greater opportunities for theological formation of the laity in the contemporary Church reflects, in part, a shift in ecclesiastical culture over the last half century, away from a climate in which ‘religiosity’ was often identified with obeying the will of a superior as opposed to religious practice being the way to obtain our happiness and fulfilment. As the Canadian theologian John Lamont points out of that authoritarian atmosphere, one which extended well in the 1950s, ‘If faith is a matter of obeying orders, then asking questions about Catholic belief is insubordinate’.[1]

This climate also affected theological learning in general, producing an anti-intellectualism because asking questions about the faith was seen as smacking of disobedience rather than looking for new knowledge and a way of approaching God. The second opposite effect was that among the people who did ask questions, which were first the priest-scholars before the laity, there was a certain attitude of rebelliousness (e.g. Hans Kung, Herbert McCabe OP) which has been unhelpful at times to genuine theological development and for freedom of inquiry in other corners of the Church.

Today the possibilities for the faith education of lay men and women are much wider than available to previous generations and a commitment to critical research, historical studies and an awareness of how culture and a globalised context can illumine the mysteries of faith has provided Catholics ordained and lay with a richer theological horizon against which they can make sense of faith, if we are disposed to making use of the resources available to us.

In today’s Church, our Catholic universities continue to serve as the primary venue for formal theological education of lay men and women. However, it is also the case that many laity do not enrol in such accredited courses and degrees for at least two reasons. One is the expense of such courses which can be prohibitive, especially for those without recourse to student loan schemes; the other is that the spectre of rigorous assessments can also discourage participation at this tertiary level, especially for adults who have not studied for some time, even decades, and yet still seek some form of theological input and learning.

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day held in our Diocese

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day (c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

Hence, diocesan centres of adult formation, and the occasional talks, retreats, lecture series and programs facilitated by them (Catholic Alpha, Life in the Spirit seminars, the Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted workshops come to mind) as well as opportunities provided by religious congregations, remain critical to the education and formation of Catholics for mission. Online courses and other new media also offer sources of spiritual nourishment and theological reflection for those stretched for time in a work-a-day world.

Sadly, even in these less formal and more accessible settings for adult faith education there has been a conspicuous decline in the number of people taking up such opportunities. The low participation numbers in many diocesan adult formation initiatives brings into question the ability of the Church (at least the Australian Church) to communicate and deepen its faith and prepare its people for discipleship and outreach now and into the future.

As noted in previous blogs, while homilies, parish bulletins and the liturgy itself are the primary forms of formation experienced in the parish, these are rarely sufficient in themselves for working out that relationship between the faith we have received and the contemporary culture in which we are called to live it. As Thomas Merton remarks, as Christians we do not choose between Christ and the world as if they were utterly opposed. We choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[2] However, this ‘catholic’ choice requires formation and discernment lest we choose one to the neglect of the other – either a self-enclosed identity incapable of speaking to the world in the light of the Gospel, or a generalised humanism without Christian substance.

When Christian faith is not deepened through reflection on faith, it becomes difficult to live out that life commitment in both an integral and world-engaging manner. It is true, as Pope Francis has pointed out, that we do not need theological degrees to be Christian but it also the case that ignorance of our faith is not a virtue. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century, of those who do not bother to pursue an understanding of the riches of their own calling as Christians, ‘They demand bare faith alone – as if they wanted to harvest grapes right away without putting any work into the vine’ (Chapter IX, Stromata).

In a more contemporary key, the English theologian, Nicholas Lash, describes well the stagnancy in our midst in his 2002 Prideaux Lectures at the University of Exeter,

I never cease to be astonished by the number of devout and highly educated Christians, experts on their own ‘turf’ as teachers, doctors, engineers, accountants, or whatever; regular readers of the broadsheet press . . .  occasional visitors to the theatre who usually read at least one of the novels on the Booker short-list; and who nevertheless, from one year to the next, never take up a serious work of Christian theology and probably suppose The Tablet to be something that you get from Boots the chemist (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, 4-5).

SB048On his part, Lash attributes the decline in adult formation to the ‘systematic failure of the Christian churches to understand themselves as schools of Christian wisdom: as richly endowed projects of lifelong education’ (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence, 5).

There is much truth to this. As we have noted, our parishes do not largely understand themselves in this way, as ‘schools’, and therefore depend too heavily on the ability of our people to make sense of their faith and give an account of their hope unaided, without the support of a community of kindred learners who sit at the feet of the kerygma and tease out together the implications for life in this world.

As Richard Lennan of Boston College has written, ‘A secure faith . . . does not merely tolerate questions and thought, but affirms their capacity to act as vehicles for an ever-deeper engagement with the God revealed in history’.[3] Without doubt, we need to grow the opportunities for adult faith education but we must first grow the appetite and desire of our people for such formation, so that they can fully realise their own vocation and make use of the gifts and capacities called forth in them.

To conclude, the tradition of the Church upholds that the ‘catechesis of adults must be regarded as a preferential option’, and that this ‘can bear fruit only within the overall pastoral plan of the local Church communities’. [4]  To form our adults to be constructive participants in the life and mission of these communities, we need to place adult faith education once again at the heart of our intent and pastoral practice. Without such a focus, lay Catholics will lack the confidence to bear witness to the Gospel in a complex world and so the mission of the Church will be impaired on account of the undeveloped faith of the majority.


References:

[1] John Lamont, ‘Why the Second Vatican Council was a Good Thing and is More Important than Ever’, New Oxford Review (July/August 2005), 35. You can read the text on this blog.

[2] Cunningham, Lawrence, ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 387.

[3] Richard Lennan, ‘”Looking into the Sun”: Faith, Culture, and the Task of Theology in the Contemporary Church’, Australasian Catholic Record 84/4 (2007): 467.

[4] COINCAT, Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community: Some Principles and Guidelines, 29; available here. Accessed 30 September, 2014.

 

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solitude with thomas merton

Thomas-Merton2In Christian tradition, classic texts are those which occupy a privileged place in the community’s memory, response to and reception of the Gospel. They are committed texts with a specific ‘take’ on revelation and invite the reader to engage with this same commitment in the context of their own personal understanding and experience of faith. Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation is such a text and I’ve been revisiting it over these past few days here in Japan. It was among the first Christian texts that I ever read and remains a touchstone in the tradition.

For those new to his work and person, Merton was one of the great spiritual masters of the twentieth century, an American who came to Catholic faith in his twenties. Not long after, Merton entered a Cistercian monastery, Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, and then, almost by accident, penned a best-selling autobiography Seven Storey Mountain which brought him into a limelight he could not have anticipated and did not seek out (Merton would reflect, “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real”).

Merton would go on to assume the role of novice master for his Order, publish widely on prayer, contemplation, monasticism and social issues, and became a prolific correspondent with intellectual and spiritual luminaries within the Church and beyond it. He died in Bangkok on the 10th December, 1968, at the age of 53, electrocuted by a faulty fan while attending a monastic conference. His body was flown home with those of dead U.S. servicemen.

Published in 1962, New Seeds of Contemplation is the coalescence of Merton’s ever-maturing reflection on the contemplative experience of God as the realisation and ground of identity. Commenting on previous drafts of the work, Merton would remark,

When the book was first written, the author had no experience in confronting the needs and problems of other men (sic). The book was written in a kind of isolation… the author’s solitude has been modified by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics of his monastic community; with the loneliness of people outside any monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church. (New Seeds, ix-x)

New-Seeds-of-Contemplation-9780811217248In New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton gives voice to themes that he elaborated and refined throughout his life’s work, particularly the identity of the ‘true self’ hidden in God and the profundity and need of solitude.

According to Merton’s spiritual itinerary, the discovery of authenticity in Christ begins not with an awareness of what lies at the end of the road but with a recognition of the obstacles that block its very beginnings. He describes the fundamental obstacle to maturity as the dominance of the ‘false self’, also described in New Seeds as the “the smoke self”, “the empirical ego” or the “routine self” which takes itself seriously but does not even exist (New Seeds, 38, 281, 16).

This illusory self is the product of our own pride and self-determination, for unlike animals and trees which give glory to God in being themselves, we are at liberty to be real or to be unreal, “We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face” (New Seeds, 32). Layered with selfish desire and defensive mechanisms, we can be imprisoned within fictions of our own making:

I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. (New Seeds, 34-35).

This propensity to construct and find assurance in superficialities includes the caricature of the ‘good Catholic’ and a heroic sense of spiritual achievement. In this critique, Merton was ever conscious of the ability of the false self to appropriate even religion or ‘spirituality’ as a secret means of control and separateness.

mertonMoving to the discovery of the true self, Merton identifies solitude as the pathway to true identity. As theologian David Ranson underlines, Merton would maintain that within each one of us is a solitary dimension, a dimension not to be afraid of or done away with but entered into for this is the monastic ‘cell’ in which God is most deeply encountered. There is a need for this solitude in our lives, not as a rejection of others or the world, but as a school in which we learn to be ourselves before God. Only then can we embrace and relate to others clear of the selfishness, need for possession and validation which characterises our insecure times. It is solitude that is the doorway to the contemplative experience in which God discovers Himself alone in us, not crowded out by idols on which our hearts have become set.

What is more, the experience of authentic solitude is for Merton fundamentally Trinitarian, for God “infinitely transcends every shadow of selfishness… He is at once infinite solitude (one nature) and perfect society (Three Persons). One Infinite Love in three subsistent relations” (New Seeds, 68). By this Trinitarian focus, Merton implies that the true solitary is not an individual, imprisoned in a dream of separateness, but a person deeply related to others.

Contemplative solitude, then, is not our own, and leads the pilgrim beyond all limitation and division: “He has advanced beyond all horizons. There are no directions in which he can travel. This is a country whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (New Seeds, 81). Even the monk or hermit does not enter into solitude for his own purposes but in relationship to and for the good of others, for the Church and the world in which he remains embedded, inseparable and even necessary.

In the depths of solitude, often experienced in prayer, the movement toward authenticity comes by way of a self-emptying or kenosis: “a man cannot enter into the deepest centre of himself and pass through that centre into God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love” (New Seeds, 64). This selflessness, however, is only possible to the extent to which we are enjoined to Christ as it is he who first gave himself for humanity and makes that kind of self-giving love possible, “I become a ‘new man’ and this new man, spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself… This spiritual union of my being with Christ in one ‘new man’ is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Christ” (New Seeds, 158).

candleMerton concludes that as long as there is an “I” aware of itself and its contemplation, an “I” that can possess a certain “degree of spirituality” then we have not yet passed into the fullness of contemplation, the fullness of Christian life itself (New Seeds, 292). Ultimately, the mature Christian has no psychological individuality or even self-conscious biography; all the shadows of self-assertion end at an interior death which, paradoxically, and in the light of the paschal mystery, emerges as the very beginning of a real, authentic life.

We can see that there is little sentimentalism in Merton’s writing and much challenge. In texts such as New Seeds of Contemplation we hear a robust call to purify our desires and to meet head on the ‘spiritual deaths’ that lower the ego and allow the emergence of the true self to take place. In this respect, the Christian life unfolds as ‘revolutionary’ though not in the sense of accelerated progress or an aggressive, suprahuman evolution. As Merton affirms,

… the burden of Christ’s Cross, that is Christ’s humility and poverty and obedience and renunciation… this is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self. (New Seeds, 144).

Merton reminds the Christian that the gift of faith is not an escape or an evasion but a project of deepening integration in our identity in Christ, one which carries with it a greater responsibility for the world and not less.

shibuyaOur life in Christ is not any more abstract or comfortable than life as we now know it, nor is it found in the sublime stories, private or collective, we tell about ourselves. The inheritance we receive from the writings of Merton is the decisive possibility of freedom and authenticity in faith, being who we have been made to be. It is an existential summons to unlock ourselves from the inside, from the imprisonment of our own private illusions and the masks that operate, as it were, ‘behind the Gospel’s back’. The path back to ourselves begins with an interior solitude that can be found even among the exterior noise and din that fills the world. Writing from Tokyo, a city of fourteen million, among the machines, lights, and appeals of the salesman, this pilgrimage seems more important than ever.