Lectures in November reflected on 21st Century Masters of the Spiritual Life as proposed by Fr. Aidan Nichols. I have stressed in these the theology of hope and Peguy's insight that the basis of our hope (and therefore our prayerful yearning) is found in God: We hope in God and yearn for him because he hopes and yearns for us even more. Spiritual formation begins with an encounter with Christ that opens up an experience of God's love and hope for us. More recently we have been applying this concept to the various states of life in the Church. A state in life is a stable and committed way of life that does not easily changed and is sealed by some kind of consecration: matrimony, holy orders and religious consecration. Many of the faithful do not live in a state of life - but preparing for or living in a state of life is the normal means of growing in holiness for most of the mystical body.
Lay faithful whose spirituality has a secular character grow in holiness through ordering the good things of the world to God - helping to build a civilization of love. Engagement with the world and participation in human affairs and relationships are key to realizing this vocation. The work world, the political world, the culture all must be ordered to God. G.K. Chesterton provides a vision for this. Spouses order the greatest created good of this visible world to God through giving themselves to one another in nuptial friendship open to life and exclusive faithfulness to one another. Parents grow in holiness as the primary educators and catechists of their children when they impart not only the content of the faith and the truth about what it means to be human, but when they teach how to love, how to give oneself in service to God and through God to the world.
On the other hand, those consecrated by Holy Orders have a spirituality with an ecclesial and ministerial character. They grow in holiness by ordering the Church to Christ, the mystical body to the head. This is especially true of the bishop but analogously of the priest and the deacon. The priest, by faithfulness to his ministry and prayer, is a living icon of priesthood of Christ just as the deacon is a living icon of Christ the servant. The liturgical ministry is primary here in a manner it is not for any of the other faithful. Dom Marmion points in this direction. Although the liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life for all the faithful, liturgical ministry is a special means of holiness for the clergy.
Finally, those consecrated through poverty, chastity and obedience are a living image of the holiness of God for the Church. Their discipline of life in some sense separates them from the world and by adhering to this 'anachoresis', they signify by their lives the holiness God has called us all too. This is curious because anachoresis does not mean that they are disengaged from the plight of the world or indifferent to suffering. On the contrary, precisely because they have withdrawn from the fight and fury, flight and flurry of the visible world, they see the spiritual values at stake that those of us who are overly engaged in temporal affairs can easily lose sight of. Edith Stein and St. Therese are witnesses to this. By their love of wisdom and simplicity, they help the Church refocus its activities and keep its eye on the ball - the love of Christ.
As laity or clergy or religious, we are all called to the same holiness, but the means for each is different - not so much in kind as in degree. Engagement with the world or the ministry or separation from the world is something everyone is involved with in every state in life. But for the laity the note is on engagement, for the clergy ministry, and for religious separation. Despite this difference, when we consider the signs of the time, there is a special image or ideal that can be applied to each state of life that could help each one realize its vocation in a more compellling way for our contemporaries. This is the ideal of Nazareth, a favorite theme of contemplatives in the 20th Century, it may provide insight into how to live in the 21st Century. Below is an article I have been working on that seeks to apply this to priestly formation.
Reflection on Nazareth
As the Concrete Historical Ideal of the Seminary
We need a concrete historical ideal for a seminary that is biblically based and compelling for our post-modern era. Jacques Maritain once suggested that The Holy Roman Empire served as the unrealized but always sought after concrete historical ideal for culture and civilization in the Middle Ages. Similarly, the Modern Seminary, conceived after Trent, seems to have utilized a Medieval Monastic model. But in the post-modern era, is this ideal still compelling? The insights of mystics and the founders of new religious movements of the 20th Century point to a new ideal, one that recovers the biblical basis of monasticism while addressing the deep questions of young men at the beginning of the 21st Century.
That the modern seminary drew its inspiration from medieval monasticism but this ideal has become idealized: awareness of human nuances and supernatural subtleties once realized in that loving communion have fallen out of collective consciousness because the ideal does not have a living concrete expression, or, at the very least, such expressions are very rare today. Thus, the ‘medieval monk’ is used as a ‘straw man’ to belittle contemplation as opposed to pastoral charity or else reduce apostolic effort as a servile activism. Ironically, the genius of medieval monasticism is found in its ability to constantly combine in ever renewing ways prayer and work, contemplation and apostolate. In true monasticism, contemplation is not opposed to pastoral charity, any more than work could oppose prayer. Rather, as in every authentic expression of Christianity, in the monastic community the liturgy is dynamically woven into an industrious tapestry of life through which the splendor of God’s plan shines forth in a host of holy friendships, in staggering cultural achievements, and in countless acts of love hidden in the ordinary stuff of life.But it is precisely because we no longer see monasticism in this way that the Medieval Monastery is not able to provide a compelling ideal.
The mystics of our time, like the medieval monks, promote the idea that Christians, and priests in particular, must be both contemplative and apostolic. To express this ideal, they tend to refer to the image of Nazareth, the home where Jesus grew into manhood. Their observations suggest that Nazareth may provide a better concrete historical ideal, a more compelling reference point for inspiring Christian formation in general, and diocesan clergy for the 3rd Millennium specifically.
If Nazareth is to inspire christian formation, before it can be applied as an ideal, the reality it conveys needs to be contemplated. But how do you contemplate something hidden? For, indeed, Nazareth is a hidden mystery, accessible only by faith, faith informed by friendship love of God, faith for the sake of God. Therefore, contemplation of Nazareth begins with an act of faith: an ascent of the mind to ineffable realities and a loving leap into the mystery of Christ himself.
If the contemplation of Nazareth begins with a prayer, a petition of the heart, mystics have associated this petition with consecration to Jesus through Mary. That is because consecration, as a petition, appeals to the Heart of Christ who holds and is held in the heart of Mary. Since Christ has given himself over to his Church completely, his memories, the memories of his mother that also belong to him, are a gift for those who ask. As a gift, these memories, especially the memories of Nazareth, should be seen as part of the inexhaustible riches of Christ in the heart of the Church. The experience of mystics suggests that petitionary character of consecration potentially impetrates access to this gift. .
When pondered in faith, Nazareth as a glimpse of Christ before his public ministry is both the place where he is first loved, humanly formed, and divinely forming and loving others. When contemplated as the first place where Jesus was known and loved, Nazareth opens up the possibility of a more profound intimacy with Christ. As a place where Jesus formed Mary (and Joseph), and was formed by them, Nazareth also reveals stages of growth in hope filled living faith as well as a principle for integrating a communion of Christian love with preparation for a sacrificial mission.
Nazareth as a place of profound intimacy with Christ is a key insight of Catherine de Hueck Doherty and Bl. Charles de Foucauld. For both of them, the contemplative outlook that Nazareth evokes inspired their desire to seek to serve Christ not in great deeds but hidden, ordinary ones. Catherine emphasized loving attention to small details of ordinary life and Charles understood this principally in terms of embracing the obscurity of a life of silence in the actual city of Nazareth itself. But for both of these mystics, loving Christ in ordinary activities and loving Christ in prayer were two sides of the same coin.
Catherine understood that, like Mary in Nazareth, we realize the joy of living with Christ by serving him in the ordinary things of life. She used this insight to form her staff to see sorting buttons, preparing meals and folding laundry in terms of serving Christ. She used this insight to exhort the staff to do everything for love of Christ. In this way, everything becomes a prayer, an expression of love.
Charles saw (at first for himself while actually living in Nazareth, and then for the new community he dreamed of forming while he lived with muslims in deserts of Morrocco) that the Lord calls those he loves for periods of loving contemplation in their life so that they can become radically dependant on the providence of God the Father. Learning to love the Lord in this sort of hidden contemplative life, one is prepared for radical apostolic endeavors because he has learned to surrender completely to the loving will of the Father. Nazareth for those who want to follow Christ is the place where surrender to the Father’s will begins, where it is learned, just as Christ learned.
The experience of these two mystics is validated by the theological reflections on this same reality by Father Philippe. He develops these ideas by considering Nazareth as a place of progressive surrender to the will of God. First he considers Nazareth after the sojourn from Egypt as a place where the sanctification of ordinary work and prayer began to be realized. After the finding of Jesus in the temple, Mary ponders the mystery of the Father in a new way that evokes a deeper surrender. The value of her humble working the household is even more obscured by the service to the Father in worship (ministry) that Christ must be about in the temple. Finally, there is the death of Joseph, a loss that occasions an even more radical and total surrender to the loving providence of the Father.
Pastores Dabo Vobis and the Program of Priestly Formation provide a picture of the seminary formation not inconsistent with what mystics attempted to present with their reflections on Nazareth. Placing the relationships in priestly formation on the matrix of the communion of love in the Trinity is the best way to prepare men to give themselves in the ministry. At least, Gaudiem et Spes, 24 seems to validate this insight:
"The Lord Jesus, when praying to the Father that they may be one . . . even as we are one has opened up new horizons closed to human reason by implying that there is a certain parallel between the union existing among the divine persons and the union of he sons of God in truth and love. It follows, then, that if man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere gift of giving himself."
This passage asserts that the Trinity as a communion of love is the standard, pattern and the source of power by which all relationships should be established and measured. When this principle is applied to priestly formation, it clarifies for us that the identity of each seminarian can only be revealed in communion of love of the Church. Formators and peers ought to serve as the visible and concrete sign of this communio in the here and now for the men entrusted to them for formation. But how do we know whether these relationships have been properly ordered, conformed to the communion of life of the Trinity, a real participation in the communio of the Church? The link is the eternal plan of the Father, the divine design. Unstated and assumed but worthy of mention is the fact that a formation design that orders the mutual relations in priestly formation in the right way, according to the plan of God, makes this visible and concrete sign of the Church more compelling and effective.
Relationships: the Context for Formation
If effective priestly formation is to advance, it is important to clarify who the chief agents of spiritual formation are and how their complementary roles work together. It is also important to identify objective and measurable criteria for each of these agents so that their effectiveness can be seen. Again, the task here is to discern the divine design, the Father’s plan for spiritual formation. We must ask, “How does the Father desire to order those being formed in relationship to their formators and their tasks?”
The list of formators should be considered in its broadest sense. It is important to note that the PPF and PDV already offer a broad description of these when it comes to addressing overall formation in all its aspects. Unfortunately, there is a tendency in many institutions to take a narrow view of the scope of spiritual formation in terms of its criteria and agents. Such a view inhibits a more dynamic implementation of Pastores Dabo Vobis. By building on and expanding the material on the agents of spiritual formation contained in PPF and PDV, a future Spiritual Formation Design will provide an invaluable resource to bishops and other formators.
Identity for Mission
Standing between the men God entrusts to us to become priests and their ability to answer this call is not only immaturity but deep wounded-ness. We must not assume that fit candidates for the seminary are those who have it all together. The men who come to seminary should be assumed to be broken and very in need of healing. Prevalent and widespread abuse of the the Internet and other media are simply symptoms of the deep, profound wounds to be healed. Often times disobedience or lack of docility are brought up as major formation problems. But aren’t timidity and lack of initiative even worse problems in formation? And what about matters of intimacy, chastity and friendship? What kind of obedience or docility is it when men do not know how to act like men, when they do not know what it is to be fathers, when they are not able to be present to one another?
When it comes to addressing the wounds, we have made frequent recourse to psychological counseling. The healing they need is not merely psychological (although it might include that). It is the healing of salvation that transforms wounds into intercession and compassion for others, especially for enemies and those who hurt us (see CCC 2843). Therefore, we should not place too much confidence in psychological resources. They will help to some extent. But spiritual healing requires spiritual means.
When this healing (a healing in the sense of salvation) is not afforded men, many of them are not able to deal adequately with a fear of rejection. This screws up their discernment and openness to progress. They are so afraid of rejection that a culture of love and healing is not possible in the seminary. Fear of rejection can only be healed through encouragement and prayer: praying over and with men, men praying over and with each other.
Nazareth symbolizes a household of healing, encouragement and prayer. If there was ever admonishment (My child, why have you done this?), it was came in the context of love and prayer. Such a context can dispose seminarians to imitate the Lord in Nazareth: Jesus "went down with them" and "lived under their authority" (Luke 2:51). The way Madonna House addresses this is in Chambers of Her Heart, a book on their “presem” program, is compelling. It proposes that the seminary needs to be an experience of Nazareth: a home of love and prayer where obedience can be learned just as Christ first began to learn obedience by what he suffered (see Heb. 5:7-8).
Teaching, Practicing and Evaluating:
There is a prevailing assumption that human formation precedes spiritual formation. While grace builds on nature, it is also true that nature is healed and perfected by grace. Therefore, human and spiritual formation do not precede each other but go hand in hand. As one is healed spiritually, he becomes more capable of human maturity. As one grows in human maturity, he becomes more open to grace.
But this insight is lost today. It must be said that emphasis is placed on human formation above and beyond spiritual formation. Human formation is believed to be an area for the external forum. In human formation, clinical psychology offers something that at least appears objective and measurable. (ie. Does he exhibit avoidant behavior? Does he disassociate? To what degree is he narcistic? etc.) With objective benchmarks and flags to watch for, human formation is easy to understand and to apply.
Spiritual formation is reduced to the internal forum. Consigned to the realm of spiritual direction, judgments concerning someone’s spiritual growth appear to be subjective and the criteria for spiritual progress undefined. In spiritual formation the sorry state of spiritual theology has not arrived at agreed upon and objective criteria. This does not mean spiritual criteria do not exist (in fact, they are abundant in tradition), but that important work in this area is yet to be done.
With only vaguely discerned criteria, explaining to an individual seminarian specifically what to work on spiritually and how to measure his progress is a tentative enterprise. This is only compounded when spiritual directors adopt a model of spiritual direction that does not aid spiritual formation. When a spiritual director views his primary role as giving feedback (or worse, airing his own problems) rather than as part of a total formation team whose goal is to form a priest, he is not directing with the end in mind. Further, the obscurity around criteria and the presumption that spirituality is a matter strictly for the internal forum limits spiritual growth as a real consideration in evaluation of readiness for ordination.
Since the criteria provided by clinical psychology provide human formation with clearer objective criteria, we cannot be too critical of the tendency of formators to see these as more reliable than criteria used in spiritual formation, and thus, to focus on human maturity in determining whether someone is ready for ordination. But the result is that a spiritually immature individual can be recommended for ordination simply because he has some acceptable good human virtues, obeys the rules and externally demonstrates some sort of docility. Is it possible for someone to exhibit all these measurable behaviors and still not be ready for the ministry?
The results of not addressing spiritual formation in a systematic way have had a devastating effect on priestly formation. Men are able to get through six to seven years of formation without really having been formed in a priestly spirituality. Consequently, the value of contemplation, Liturgy of the Hours, and popular piety are not appreciated by many in the ministry. Instead, many priests today are privy to a superficial activism in the ministry which distracts them from greater intimacy with the Lord. This in turn undermines the discipline of simplicity, obedience and celibacy in priestly life. For without intimacy with the Lord, why should such discipline be embraced?
Principles at Work in Teaching, Practicing and Evaluating
A communion of love patterned in some manner after the Trinity should provide the basis for formation, especially spiritual formation. The ordering of formators among themselves, their complementary duties and their relationships to those they form should conform to the divine design of the Father, the pattern the communion of love in the Trinity. This sounds so theologically abstract until we direct our attention to where this was first realized, namely, Nazareth. It is more than the work of pious imagination to assert that the Holy Family is where our Lord was formed by Mary and Joseph. It derives from the logic of revealed truth that this is where the Son of God first learned to do and teach all the things that he does and teaches in his public ministry. Great mystics and founders of communities of the 20th Century have grasped this insight. It is an insight for our time.
This place of the “hidden mysteries” as the Catechism calls them (see 531-534) provides a model for the overall formation, and especially for ordering and discerning the spiritual formation of men for the priesthood. Catherine of Madonna House and Charles de Foucauld both focus on the importance of Nazareth in their own spiritualities. For both, Nazareth is a place where the duty of the moment is learned and practiced, and through this where hidden intimacy with the Lord is found.
Jesus learned to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked at home with Mary and Joseph. The Holy Family entails an invitation to journey into a greater love in a hidden way where there is no room for fear of rejection but instead a culture of trust. The Holy Family is also a place where true masculine values are learned: those of perseverance in unappreciated hard work, taking initiative, courage in the face of evil, gentle compassion for the down trod, fighting for what is just, generously accepting responsibility, using authority wisely, and providing for others.
Formators need to look to the love shared by the Holy Family as a model for how they perform their work, as a standard to discern the seminary culture. Not only formators, but also seminarians need to be able to contemplate this model with their formators. There is a need in formation for spiritual paternity and maternity to be exercised and received in the lives of those being formed. Rather than a clinical or institutional model that envisions formation as something done to someone, a family model speaks of the forbearance and commitment to deal with someone as they are.
The family model means blessing, instructing and admonishing with the model of Nazareth as a school of love. This model extends to praying with, for and over one another for healing and encouragement among formation faculty, among seminarians and between seminarians and formation staff. As stated earlier, formators need to be in touch with the wounds their men bear. This means that they more deeply commit themselves to submitting to God their own wounds and even allowing their own weaknesses to be used by God to instruct seminarians, like a father might wisely do with his son in family life.
Establishing Nazareth as a model for formation in this way will require a greater vulnerability, something like the vulnerability parents and children share with one another in families. When we had strong families, this was not necessary. Today, however, some of the lessons of a truly Catholic family life need to be learned over. Seminaries and other places of formation need to be attentive and open to this.
Again, Madonna House has adopted this under the direction of Venerable Catherine Doherty de Heuck. As explained in Chambers of her Heart, the whole life of the seminary community becomes formative when it is ordered to the divine plan and when seminarians are taught faithfulness to the duty of the moment. The kitchen is not a place where we “help the cooks” but rather a where we learn to feed the hungry, the laundry where we clothe the naked, et cetera.
My point is that the image of Nazareth offers a vision for a formation in a culture of love that speaks to the principles at work in teaching, practicing and evaluating the subcommittee needs to develop. Looking at how Charles de Foucauld and Catherine Doherty de Hueck used this image in forming their communities spiritually in the 20th Century offers a good standard for us as we discern a design for spiritual formation.
 Cardinal Berulle introduced the practice and theological understanding of Consecration to Jesus through Mary in an attempt to help contemplatives realize a deeper conversion. St. Louis de Montefort developed the theological basis for this practice. In the 20th Century, the usefulness of this practice for a deeply apostolic life was promoted by Maximillian Kolbe and Catherine de Hueck Doherty.
 Simply put, this means that anyone who humbly asks to love Christ more and serve the Church has the possibility of seeing Nazareth with the eyes of Jesus and Mary. If anyone has any qualms that such a method is not sophisticated enough, then they would also have problems with both the Ignatian and Franciscan traditions whose ways of prayer are both founded on the notion that a graced filled imagination can allow us to see salvation history through the eyes of those who participated in it. I do not have the space to provide the detailed analysis required to illustrate this assertion but invite a review of the observations of Maximilian Kolbe, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and John Paul II on this point