Friday, April 4, 2008

Following God's Plan

Sorry for the long post, but what follows is the general idea of what we talked about last night at Theology on Tap, Cincinnati. There was a good crowd there, I'd say at least 50+. The series continues next week with David Endres, Ph.D., on Church History Mythbusters. (Dave is also a third year seminarian with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.) We tried to record the talk, but alas the recorder didn't pick up. Check for more info.

When you are in my position, really any priest or confidant, you often have folks who give you their life story and expect an immediate clarification, immediate direction as to what this means and where God is leading me in this life. Unfortunately, that is not often the case. From my own experience, I can give some advice, but it is ultimately God who gives the direction and leads us all to a true happiness. Tell my story.

So, as you can see, I didn't really struggle with the response. It helped that my pastor at the time warned me that if I left the diocese, he would see to it that I would never set foot in my home parish again. Very well, my discernment was over!

So, the question arises as to who to look toward for the general population, because the example of a priest or seminarian does not always ring true. The most public examples that I can find in the Church today is that of converts to the faith, because they had to do some serious discernment, especially those converts who have left positions as pastors in Protestant Churches and have given it all up to embrace Christ in the Catholic Church.

In reading stories of these converts, especially through the Coming Home Network, I found two primary aspects that helped them in discernment and following God's will: intellectual study and a deep and profound prayer life; using the two great gifts God has given us: faith and reason. Taking just one of these aspects without the other is handicapping the journey right from the start.

Examining each part in greater detail, let us look at the Intellectual aspect first. In order to know where God is leading us, we must first get to know God, and the faith that He founded. The fact remains, the Catholic Faith is an inherently 'knowable' faith, it is built upon a system of logic and can be examined from so many differing points of view that together give us a deeper, more profound experience of God. God gave us a brain, and he expects us to use it!
There also must be a prayer life, a sincere seeking of the direction that Christ gives to His disciples in this life. Our intellectual study requires that we be changed by this study, and this change only really happens through a deep and profound encounter with Christ in prayer.
Before we get into some of the nuts and bolts aspects of discernment, where we will revist these two topics, I have a few caveats. First, warnings of what happens if you only take one aspect of these two dimensions, and fail to integrate both aspects.

First, the intellectual pursuit is good, but again it needs to be formative as well. Looking at the Scriptures, we have the great example of the Rich Young Man in Luke's Gospel (Luke 18:18-25). He knew all the stuff:"I have kept all the Commandments from my youth;" but they were not formative: "He went away sad, for he had many possessions."

This points to the difference between Theology and Religious Studies. Theology is Faith seeking Understanding, as Anselm so wisely instructs. Theology begins on the knees, Religious Studies begins in a book, there is no personal connection, change dynamism in Religious Studies. Blah! This is why when a man begins seminary formation; he is encouraged, in a way, to bring his study to the chapel. Pope John Paul did most of his writing before the Blessed Sacrament, and it comes across in his writing, I think. So, in the beginning of our pursuit, we do not study about Jesus, we walk, we dialogue with him that He might change us. We do not take the study by itself.

On the contrary, though, we do not just have a prayer life that is unattached. There is a tendency today to say that I am a spiritual person, but I don't go to Church; I pray, but I don't need the Church to tell me how to do it. If you don't belong to a Church, how do you know that you are praying to the One True God, and not a figment of your imagination? (To put it rather bluntly.) There is also the communal aspect of our faith journey, that in the Christian context we are never on a journey alone, rather the community is there to support, challenge, nourish, admonish us when necessary. There has to be a vertical and a horizontal dimension to our practice of the faith, without both it is easy to lose the way.

For a good, well rounded Catholic, there should be the following six dimensions that need to be taken into account for vocational discernment:

1) Sacramental: have a good understanding of the historicity of the faith, how we got to the place we are 'hermeneutic of continuity,' also need to have a deep and profound love for the Sacraments, the way that God reveals Himself and guides us closer to Himself.

2) Spiritual: a prayer life, a life of conversation with God in which you are able to see His presence anywhere you go, well almost. A life of prayer is living a life in the mystery of God, and letting that mystery inform who you are and what you do.

3) Ecumenical: Even though there is a desire that we all be one, we must also have a sensitivity to where others are, both within the Church and our separated brethren.

4) Experiential: Being Catholic, especially, involves our five senses: we taste the Eucharist when we receive, we hear the Word of God proclaimed, we see the vestments, we touch the Holy Water, we smell the incense. There is also an emotional connection that keeps the pursuit of the faith from being just an intellectual study, but also a movement of the heart that draws us deeper into the mystery of the faith. This is a truly beautiful thing!

5) Prophetic: An important aspect for the faith is that we speak for those who have no voice, and this is where the social justice dimension of the faith comes in. Mother Theresa is the great example here, that her deep love for Christ spurred her outwards to recognize His presence in the poorest of the poor. One of the aspects that gives Catholics the greatest regard is that we serve without counting the cost. We do not expect those whom we minister to convert, we give without condition.

6) Community Driven: When I was in the seminary, there was a documentary filmed at our place. What struck the producer, who was at the time nominally Catholic, was that she always remembered that when Catholics got together, there was food and beer. We socialize, we are part of a family who supports and gives life to one another, each in their own way.
These six aspects should be constitutive of a Catholic’s life. Of course, at times certain things come to the fore, and I would argue the sacramental and spiritual dimensions are of the most important; but we should at least be aware of the other dimensions as well.

Ok, so on to the nuts and bolts aspects of what to do to help discern where God might be leading you. Again, this is not hard and fast, these are my thoughts, with a fair amount of unabashed plagiarism as well! I’ve fit them into three categories: prayer, study, and self awareness.

First, Prayer: if discernment is about listening to God’s direction in our lives, prayer is the format for the conversation that happens between me and God. Importantly, especially in the Catholic tradition, prayer is not just between me and God, as there also has to be the communal dimension as well. Again, simple steps to help find that direction:

1) Mass, Sunday Mass is non-negotiable, but Daily Mass is a great idea, as there is a broader use of Scripture, and we hear an ongoing series from the Scripture, both in the First Readings and in the Gospels. Especially during the Easter season, we hear the very beginnings of the life of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles. In these stories, we hear an echo of our own story and response to God’s invitation and action in our life.

2) Adoration: In adoration, we confront Jesus in the most profound way. We are drawn out of our selves and are confronted by Jesus as Other. I think one of the dangers of just praying in a private room, or without Christ truly present is that we can inadvertently morph Him into something He is not, our imagination and disordered natures can take over. By praying before Christ in the Sacrament, He is the one in charge and guiding and directing. It is more like have a conversation with a real person (because He is!) and not just a conversation in our own head. (plus, my own vocation was fostered before the Blessed Sacrament, and tomorrow, before a wedding rehearsal, the couple arranged to have a Holy Hour, what a great way to start a life together!)

3) Rosary: Who knows Jesus better than the woman who carried Him in her womb? The rosary is a meditation on the Scriptures, on the Life of Christ, through the eyes of His Blessed Mother, whom He also gave as our mother! She is also a model and guide for purity, she is the first disciple, conceiving of Jesus in her heart before she conceived of Him in her womb. As we see at the Wedding in Cana, all she does is point us closer to her Son, and gives us the model to follow Him: “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

4) Scripture: Lectio Divina is a wonderful practice of praying with the Scripture to let the Word of God speak to you in your life in the present day. The wonderful thing about Scripture is that it remains profoundly relevant to our lives today because it is TRUTH! As St. Jerome so wonderfully put it, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ! To have Him speak to us, we read the whole breadth of Scripture, Old and New Testaments.

Prayer is obviously important, but the study of the Faith is vital, because we are all called to be witnesses of Christ in the world, but how to get started? I’ve tried reading the Catechism and it is too dry. Well, finally, there are some great ways that the Universal Catechism is starting to be applied and translated into great catechetical materials. A few examples:

1) The Didache Series of textbooks from Midwest Theological Forum: These were designed as high school level textbooks, and are actually now the prescribed texts for the Diocese of Covington’s high school religious education program. They are serious, but high quality and engaging, and have these four basic categories:
a. Basic Catechesis: this first volume is a great outlining of the basic tenets of the faith. In here, you will find an exploration of the Ten Commandments, the Five Tenets of the Faith, the Seven Sacraments, introductions to the great saints, among other things. If you want to put the faith into a logic system, this is a great place to start.
b. Scripture: Reading the Scriptures are great, but it is sometimes difficult to understand. This second volume was written primarily by Scott Hahn and gives a good walk through not only of the Scriptures themselves, but also provides the background of what is happening in the text and the history of the texts themselves, how did they come to be passed down to us and what about the different variations.
c. History: In a recent visit to Rome, the Historicity of the Faith came alive, again. There is something very comforting to me to know that I do not have to develop my own approach to the Scriptures, to Christ, to the moral life, these have all been done for me. It also says something that this institution that we call the Church has survived for two thousand years with a bunch of idiots bungling their way through it!
d. Moral Theology: To come to know Christ, but not put this relationship into practice is useless. The last volume covers all the areas of the Church’s moral teaching, explaining the source of each teaching from Scripture and papal teaching, and also giving good examples of how it applies in life today.

2) Internet Resources
a. The Didache can still seem unwieldy for some, but there are some great resources available on the internet. A friend of mine from Virginia runs ‘Catholic Bible Boot Camp’ where they went through the Scripture edition of the didache and recorded their discussion on each chapter and posted them on podomatic. They are now going through the introductory text, and it is good because you get a chance to listen in on their discussion, and, I think, even email questions in ahead of time. (I have to check on that section, tho.)
b. Catholic Blog Awards and the Catholic Blog Directory are great ways to connect with things going on in the Church that we do not hear about otherwise. Sites like Whispers in the Loggia, Charlotte was Both, Ten Reasons, among others, provide commentary on things and also give recommendations on what to look out for.

3) Catholic Publishers and Bookstores
a. Ignatius Press is the premier Catholic publisher today, providing both contemporary resources and literary classics.

4) Coming Home Network
a. This network provides assistance to especially Protestant ministers who are ‘Coming Home’ to the fullness of the Faith. Their stories are an inspiration to me, and to many others.

5) Literary Classics
a. The Oxford Movement provided an outlet and support for some of the greatest Catholic spiritual writers and apologists of all time. CS Lewis is perhaps the most accessible, but also the Catholic Mythological underpinnings of JRR Tolkien. This year is the 100 anniversary of the publication of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which is just as relevant today as ever.
With all the resources available today, there really is no excuse to not knowing the faith, and using that knowledge to respond to God’s invitation.

The third aspect, which takes into account the previous two, is perhaps something that does not get as much play, but can be just as important: self awareness.

What I mean by this is the recognition of the gifts and talents that God has given to you, and then also how He is asking you to share those gifts and talents with the Church and the world. Certainly, there are gifts that can be used in multiple ways, and a variety of gifts can be shared, but there are certain guidelines or so.

For example, if you are terrified of speaking in front of people, even though this can be overcome, the diocesan priesthood may not be the best option. If you can’t stand kids, think that they’re little carpet urchins, or something, perhaps married life isn’t the best option.

Finally, the biggest thing is a response, and again I see this as being multi-faceted.

1) Virtue: The basic response for any Christian to God’s invitation is to live a life of virtue, to live a life of striving for holiness. It is in striving for holiness that we are molded to become more like Christ, and are His witnesses in the world.

2) Action: There’s the old joke: God help me win the lottery! “Buy a ticket first!” The main thing I counsel in this area is to not get too caught up in the end of the journey, but rather to just ask for the next step. If we trust that God has what is best in mind for us, he will not lead us astray but will lead us to what will ultimately make us the happiest. In a sense, we can get paralyzed by trying to find the final destination, making those first initial steps can lead us to that final destination.


uncle jim said...

i took a summer course some years ago [don't recall the specific course] but a segment focused on discernment [as well as a lot of material from the Didache]. the ONE thing i came away with and remember and share with anyone who asks is "I cannot discern the outcome - only the next step."

that has been worth the world to me.

great post on the ToT subject matter.

Adoro te Devote said...

Great post, must have been a wonderful talk...wish I'd been there.

Did you get a lot of good questions from those who attended?

Did you manage to recruit or bring out of hiding any potential priests or religious? :-)

Adrienne said...

Great post. I will be using it to enhance my RCIA teaching. Our new class starts Monday night. Unlike most parishes we go for a whole year and teach both, what I call, head and heart.

Anonymous said...

I was at TOT and heard your talk. It was excellent by the way=) You talked about the fact that here in Cincinnati you can attend a Catholic Mass pretty much anytime, so there is no excuse. Yes, I know this is mostly true... but since you may not be aware... and I think our Archdiocese should be... that for Health Care Workings (nurses, doctors, etc.) who work 12hr day shifts, it is almost impossible to get to mass, most importantly on Sundays. When the Catholic colleges aren't in session, there is no late Sunday evening mass. I just wanted to inform you of this in hopes that something could be done. I hold the Mass very close to my heart and I am disappointed to think that on my upcoming 12hr weekend shifts, I won't be able to get to mass. Most 12hr shifts are from 7am-7:30pm... but that's banking on the fact that you get out in time... you may be able to get to an 8pm mass, but its quite a rush (especially if you don’t get out of work till 8pm!). Again, thanks so much for the interesting and uplifting talk!

Father Schnippel said...


That's what's needed in RCIA: head and heart. The head stuff should be automatic, and the heart stuff does rely on grace, but we have to help give the opportunity.


Hmmm... something to think about for sure...