The start of a new year is still seen by some of us as an opportunity to make resolutions. We look over our lives, identify the less satisfactory aspects of our character or behaviour and decide to apply an extra bit of self-discipline in an effort to change them.
The number of people today who engage in such a practice is probably very small and of course it is not necessarily a religious exercise. But it occurred to me that for those of us who are believers in Christ there are perhaps some areas where, as another year begins, we could turn over a new leaf, individually and communally. As in all periods of history some features of church life today give rise to anxiety. But there are surely a few "reasons to be cheerful" as well.
Our vocation to holiness
The aim of new resolutions is improvement or renewal. I believe that every member of the Church could contribute to a general renewal by concentrating on their own personal spiritual life - their relationship with God and the cultivation of holiness.
As the Vatican II Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium declared, Christ preached holiness of life "to each and every one of his disciples without distinction" (art. 40). It is not the vocation of a small minority but of every baptised person. Indeed as Christians we would maintain that ultimately every human being is called to holiness, i.e. called to be united with God and imbued with the spirit of his love.
Lumen Gentium repeated this traditional teaching. The only reliable norm for judging the perfection of Christian life is love. When we are genuinely touched by God our self-seeking inclinations are gradually weakened and the pattern of Christ's love and self-emptying reaches into every area of our personality. We become united with God and, as St. Paul says, "anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (1 Cor. 6:17). Later in the same letter St. Paul states this insight negatively when he says, in a well-known passage: "If I could speak all the human and angelic tongues, but had no love, I would only be sounding brass or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1).
As these lines from St. Paul suggest we cannot produce the quality of holiness in ourselves. The Pharisees elicited very severe criticism from Jesus because of their spiritual pride: the conviction, unconscious perhaps, that they had reached a great height of moral rectitude by personal effort and discipline. In the history of Christian spirituality Pelagianism fell into a similar trap, overstressing human capabilities and underplaying the effects - and our need - for God's grace.
Such tendencies almost inevitably engender a spiritual arrogance and a harsh, condescending attitude towards others. They foster an outlook opposed to genuine holiness, which always expresses itself in the various dimensions of love: patience, forbearance, compassion, gentleness, humility, self-denial etc.
It is also a mistake to think of holiness as a static quality which we either possess or don't possess. A more accurate way of looking at things is to see holiness as a matter of lifelong pilgrimage - a journey involving ongoing conversion, deepening faith and gradual growth in the perfection of love. Holiness is the goal of Christian life and the reason for the Church's existence.
"The Holy Spirit has now left the building"
Without repeating everything I have written in previous articles it seems a pity to me that in our part of the Church at present so little attention is given to this fundamental vocation and so much energy expended on irrelevancies and secondary matters.
In the long history of the Church there have been many periods of renewal and reform when Christian faith is strong. At such times great movements of apostolic activity and pastoral care are initiated. But on the other hand there have also been periods of decadence when faith is at a low ebb and believers seem to lose their appetite for God. Christian moral life falls into decay and there is little by way of concern for others or practical activity to relieve suffering.
We need only reflect on the factors which disfigure the life of our parish communities today to see that we are not currently riding high on a wave of renewal. Our hallmark at present is a strange spiritual lethargy and hollowing-out, a tendency to accommodate to the values and standards of secular society - to adopt them eagerly, very often, on the pretext of a necessary modernising or updating. We seem to be satisfied with a rather shallow, minimalist approach to the spiritual life.
The triviality and childishness, the self-aggrandisement and power-mongering which mark the life of many parishes and parish groups testify to our lack of seriousness in the task of pursuing holiness and intimacy with God. We invest time and energy in all manner of personal hobby-horses but we neglect "the one thing necessary" (Lk 10:42).
Sadly, recent efforts to promote new forms of lay leadership in the Church have actually exacerbated these tendencies and it is by no means uncommon now to find that those who are most active in our parish communities are those with the least appetite for God and the greatest resistance to authentic spiritual renewal. Looking at the indicators of collapse in so many parishes - ugly, noisy liturgies, preoccupation with self-serving social activities, dominance of bumptious lay elites and an overarching disregard for transcendent realities - I think we are forced to conclude, in the words of a friend of mine, that "the Holy Spirit has now left the building"!
Fortunately there appear to be two movements at work in the contemporary Church. The first, already mentioned, is what we might call the managerial movement: all the official committees and commissions we read about in diocesan newspapers. Personally I believe that for all the sound and fury - and expense, very often - generated by these initiatives they will achieve very little of abiding value. They are more likely to leave a trail of disorientation and division in their wake.
But there is another movement taking place among men and women who value their membership of the Church primarily as a means of encountering God. This movement, quite separate from anything organised under official auspices, is gaining ground among Christians who have awakened to the simple fact that personal spiritual development is the essential foundation for all other activities, in their own lives and within the life of the Church.
This movement finds expression in different ways: in the growing appetite for monastic spirituality adapted to the lives of laypeople; in the small groups of oblates and "third orders" forming under the guidance of religious congregations, which often meet regularly in monasteries and religious houses for prayer and spiritual formation; in individuals who decide to withdraw from the barrenness of modern parish life to avail themselves of the riches of Christian mysticism through personal prayer and study.
Many religious orders have responded to this appetite by creating new lay branches and providing the means of spiritual advancement from the resources of their own distinct charism, from the Camaldolese hermits to much more missionary-minded congregations like the Augustinians and Salvatorians.
Some Catholic authors have written of a trend towards a new "lay monasticism": ordinary Christians striving to incorporate some of the ideals, values and disciplines of monastic spirituality into their lives in the world.
This includes retrieving such traditional practices as prayer and silence, regular reading of Scripture, Eucharistic devotion, fasting, simplicity in regard to money and possessions, some form of active service of the poor. At the bottom of this trend is a determination on the part of more and more people to discard the superficiality of modern church life and seek first the Kingdom instead.
Real Communion with God
The contrast between these two paths or movements is actually quite stark. Immersion in the organisational side of church life is for many people a substitute for a real encounter with God, a means of evading the costs of discipleship. They appear to have convinced themselves that as long as they are busy directing and planning various events they are entitled to dispense with the more basic components of Christian life such as prayer, conversion, imitation of Christ, the perfection of love.
The second group is motivated much more by a desire to experience real communion with God. They embrace the renunciation of self which this entails and actively seek growth in integrity and maturity. Their priority is to throw themselves open to the effects of God's grace and so deepen the spirit of his love in themselves. For this very reason they decline to participate in the fractious, egocentric battles which characterise so many church meetings and planning sessions.
We have just finished celebrating the feast of Christ's birth, the Incarnation of God's Word in human history. Central to the meaning of Christmas is the fact that God made himself present far away from the centres of political and religious power, Herod's court, the Temple, the capital city Jerusalem.
Bearing in mind God's habit of acting outside the control of his would-be managers, we might reflect that there is more to the life of the Church today than the decaying parish system and the dreary survival plans "implemented" by the bishops and their apparatchiks. As was the case with Jesus' birth, God's Spirit is present and active elsewhere - in the lively faith and practice of small groups which are springing up in all sorts of circumstances, far away from the centres of official activity.
The more this movement grows the more the conditions are created which will re-energise the whole Church. So if I had to suggest one New Year's resolution which Catholics might consider for 2005 it would be to recover this sense of their fundamental call to holiness and the perfection of love which God wills for all of us.
Some relevant books and resources:
Holiness for Beginners (formerly published as Sanctity in Other Words) Hubert Van Zeller O.S.B. Sophia Institute Press, ISBN 0918477549.
The Path of Life by Cyprian Smith O.S.B., Ampleforth Abbey/Gracewing, ISBN 0852443021.
"New Lay Monasticism, Schools of Conversion", www.cjd.org/paper/newmonas.html
"The Role of Monasticism of Today in the Re-evangelization of a Secularized World", users.skynet.be/scourmont/Armand/wri/crete-89.htm
"Oblate Rule of the Camaldolese Benedictine monks", www.camaldolese.com/rule.htm
In Britain a lay Benedictine group has recently been formed: www.laybenedictines.org
Inner Explorations, a website where "Christian mysticism, theology and metaphysics meet Eastern religions, Jungian psychology and a new sense of the earth":
Website of the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance: www.ocso.org. There are now groups of Cistercian laity, men and women who seek to share the Cistercian identity, charism and spirituality. See "The Participation of Lay Faithful in the Cistercian Family", users.skynet.be/scourmont/Armand/wri/cist_laity-eng.html
A concrete example is the group of Associates of the Iowa Cistercians, laypeople who, according to their Constitutions, "aspire to that interior quiet in which wisdom is born. Through humility and obedience they struggle against pride and sin. In simplicity and labour they seek solidarity with the poor. By hospitality they share the peace and hope which Christ has freely given". www.aicassociates.org