St. Teresa, the Mystics, and the Parish: Something New is Stirring

We celebrated the feast of St. Teresa (Oct. 15th) with a weekend retreat for lay deacons.  They wanted to hear about her Interior Castle, a description of the phases we pass through when we get serious about developing a life of prayer—becoming a disciple of Christ. So, we began by recognizing that we all need a new approach to our faith and how we express it.  The Word became flesh.  A living person.  For Carmel there is a seed, a fire-wound at the deepest centre of the person where something happens.  A work of God unfolds.  If all goes well and the person of faith deepens and responds to a beckoning from within, then the soul will begin to experience—even taste– the very delights of God.

Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel that “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you…but you will see me because I live, you will also live.  On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” 14.18-20 This person, Jesus, will make his presence known in us through his Holy Spirit. All this has to do with living a life of prayer.  Teresa felt so strongly about the power of prayer that she thought to give up on prayer is to give up on living.  When one is living a life of prayer then the soul is allowing itself to be transformed, changed, opened to being transfigured and created anew by what God is doing within.

At the closing meal the deacons each told us the story of their vocation.  Each one admitted how supportive his wife is to the venture.  They asked us whether we knew the “hot item” book, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, by Fr. James Mallon, and they left a copy.

Having worked in parish life my curiosity was tweaked. Mallon quotes Pope Francis at his best in every chapter, and you might say that his vision is based on inspiration from the Latin American bishops in whose study for Apareceda revealed some interesting facts.  The reasons the churches were losing their members to other sects were that: 1) they had never experienced a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that was profound and intense; 2) they had not experienced meaningful community life where people are accepted and feel valued and engaged; 3) they missed Biblical and doctrinal formation that brings about spiritual, personal and community growth and brings people to maturity; 4) they wanted missionary commitment that moves Church members from the pews to go out and meet those on the periphery.

He describes the model parish he and his 18 hired lay assistants plus 90 heads of ministries have envisioned and begun to create for about 2,000 plus parishioners in Halifax, Nova Scotia.   Fr. James is really trying to tackle the problem of stagnant Catholic parishes in most of the Western world. I have no doubt these ideas if enfleshed would enliven parishes.

This is the part of Divine Renovation that most rings true to me.  Faith is a call to holiness. Jesus said, go out, make disciples, baptize, and teach, but we have failed to make disciples.  Pope Benedict XVI taught that a disciple has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit and thus the experience of the Father.  This lived communion with Christ and the Trinity is at the heart of the Catholic mystical tradition.

Pope Francis says that through the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ the disciple then goes out to become one who ministers and serve all the others.  They migrate further out and out to be sure that others have a personal encounter with Christ, experience meaningful community, are formed in the mysteries of the Gospel and the ways of spiritual growth.

Although Mallon has high praise for the Alpha program as well as for the Charismatic’s enthusiasm for the Holy Spirit, I miss a sense of appreciation for mature formation, formation in the mystical tradition. That’s short-changing our people. I love James Mallon’s discussion on enthusiasm as the response to the presence of the Holy spirit in us, ‘en theo’.    He quotes Pope Francis saying, “How I long to…stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervour, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love, and attraction: …no words will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts.” God’s Spirit speaks to our spirit.

Perhaps John of the Cross has an inkling of why there are so few disciples.  In the Spiritual Canticle, John of the Cross reminds us that we carry within usa “sketch” of Christ the Beloved, and that we are sick until this sketch is complete.

“The reason for this,” John of the Cross writes, “is that love of God is the soul’s health, and the soul does not have full health until love is complete. Sickness is nothing but the lack of health, and when the soul has not even a single degree of love she is dead. But when she possesses some degrees of love of God, no matter how few, she is then alive, yet very weak and infirm because of her little love. In the measure that love increases she will be healthier, and when love is perfect she will have full health.“ Spir. Cant. 11:11

St. Columbanus well knew what we most need when he prays: “We beseech you, that we may know the thing we love, since we pray for nothing other than yourself to be given to us… Inspire our hearts, I beg you, O our Jesus, with that breath of your Spirit and wound our souls with your love, that the soul of each one of us may be able to say in truth, ‘Show me him whom my soul has loved, for by love am I wounded.’”  And St. Columbanus well understood Jesus’ words about needing the Spirit and truth and grace to stick with it.  He calls the source of all life and Spirit the fountain. “O Lord you are that fountain ever and again to be desired, though ever and again to be imbibed. Ever give us, Lord Christ, this water, that it may be in us too a fountain of water that lives and springs up to eternal life…”  He knew we only catch glimpses of this One who allures us. So, we need to pray for the grace of light and wisdom and burning knowledge, as well as perseverance.

We have riches to draw from!  In classrooms, in preparing for the sacraments, in prayer groups, in youth groups, in our daily life of prayer. The Holy Spirit is indeed felt enthusiasm at times.  Ideally our whole life emanates from the depths of our prayer as did these musings attributed to St. Columba.

       That I might bless the Lord

       Who conserves all—

Heaven with its countless bright orders,

Land, strand and flood,

That I might search the books all

That would be good for any soul;

At times kneeling to beloved Heaven

At times psalm-singing;

At times contemplating the King of Heaven,

Holy the Chief;

At times at work without compulsion,

This would be delightful;

At times picking kelp from the rocks

At times fishing

At times giving food to the poor

At times in a carcair (solitary cell).

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