12 June 2017

On What Spirituality Really Means

[[Dear Sister Laurel,
       When you write about the inner work or "growth work" you have been engaged in, how important is it that you work with someone else? Doesn't this mean you are not living solitude? I was bothered by your saying you thought the Church had "implicitly commissioned" you to do this work. Could you say more about this? I am asking because I don't understand how some sort of pseudo-psychological work can be considered part of the hermit's life which is supposed to be a spiritual life and I really doubt the Church would support it much less commission it! Can you explain this?]]

Thanks for your questions. I don't know if you have misunderstood me but you have made it apparent that I have not been clear in recent posts and need to say a bit more to clarify. Thank you for that as well. I have answered similar questions in the posts, Followup Questions and Objections on Inner Work as well as Sources and Resources for Inner Work. I do recommend you look at those; they were written just a year ago and allowed me to outline how it was I saw this work as intrinsic to the life of a hermit. In those posts I discuss asceticism, the desert Fathers and Mothers, the importance and appropriateness of working with another, and several other topics. Without repeating everything there let me touch on a couple of topics raised by my last post and your questions which I may not have dealt with explicitly in those earlier posts.

The first issue I think is that I am called to a spiritual life but that that seems to you to disallow attention to psychological, emotional, and similar health or growth. My own understanding of spirituality does not cut those things out of the picture. Spirituality primarily has to do with the Life of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and where the Spirit is active nothing is (or should be!) untouched. A spiritual life is a life in which the Holy Spirit is allowed to act as she will; it is one where the person embraces this action, prepares for its continuation, and acts from it. It is one where the Holy Spirit is allowed to touch, heal, and empower every dimension of the person so that she grows in wholeness and/or holiness. In other words, spirituality is not merely about matters of my own spirit or soul, it is about what God's Spirit does with my whole Self.

When a client tells me about their spiritual lives they pay attention to where the Holy Spirit has been allowed to act, where she has been resisted or ignored, and just generally where the Holy Spirit seems to be moving in her/his life. When I work with my own director, especially in the PRH work we are doing together, we work through all those forms of woundedness which, over the years, have prevented the Life of God which resides deep within me to truly inform, empower, inspire, transfigure and transform my life. It may be that Spirit has been unable to adequately inform and move my will, or my intellect, or my sensibilities (including emotions. sensations, and feelings).

What I need to become is vulnerable to the Holy Spirit, vulnerable to Love-in-Act, and this vulnerability (from the L. root vulnus for "wound") only comes from working through my own woundedness and the scarring that has "hardened" my own heart! We all know people who can't feel their feelings, or those who are incapable of acting on what they know, or even those who are incapable of showing the curiosity, creativity, or critical power of their intellect. Whenever these things happen, and in whatever degree, it means a truncated, relatively impaired human life which is unable to respond adequately to the movement of the Spirit. Even when significant or deep healing is unnecessary we have to learn to respond fully, exhaustively.

Too often I hear about notions of spirituality which involve a limited dimension of the person (their spirit or soul) and leaves the rest as though it is uninvolved in spirituality. Thus, there are all kinds of dualism involved in these: the temporal vs the eternal, the bodily vs the spiritual, the spiritual vs the ordinary "profane" world, etc etc. But these notions are antithetical to genuine spirituality which begins with the Spirit of GOD -- not the spirit of the person per se -- and then attends to that in ways which allows the Holy Spirit to move where she will! The corollary to this kind of division is that only some parts of us and only some activities are seen as "spiritual" while others are not (e.g., praying is spiritual, playing in an orchestra supposedly is not, etc). 


Laura Risk (friend
 and renowned fiddler)
As part of this, we must remember that human beings are embodied Spirit, that our souls (the very breath of God which literally inspires our bodily existence) "builds our bodies around it". The soul, as Aquinas reminded us so well, is the form of the body and works towards this embodiment always and everywhere. (This, by the way, is one reason "heaven" will ultimately never be about disembodied souls; the soul yearns for embodiment, yearns for resurrection, and that is what we ultimately hope for!)  But the upshot of all this is a spiritual life cannot avoid attending and paying attention to the WHOLE of our lives. (And here I will note that the act of playing a violin can be one of the most prayerful acts in my entire life because it is a fairly sophisticated form of the Holy Spirit's embodiment. There are times, of course, it does not rise to that level, but the yearning to play and the empowered act of pouring myself into the instrument to produce music is the very definition of the Holy Spirit at work in me and in our world.)

Embodiment, quite obviously, involves our whole selves. That means the psychological or emotional as well as the physical. It especially means paying attention to anything that stands in the way of the Holy Spirit's activity in our lives. During Advent we hear the admonition to "make straight the paths of the Lord!" We are to make our lives ready in ways which allow the Spirit of God to fill the valleys and level the mountains. And now during Pentecost we cry out in both supplication and great joy, "Come Holy Spirit! Enkindle the hearts (the deepest core) of the faithful (those who trust you, those you will set afire with your love!)" In all of this the Scriptures affirm that we seek and are sought by the God who wills we allow the Holy Spirit (the Life and Love of God) to inspire every part of our being: body, mind, heart, spirit, sensibilities, emotions, ordinary and extraordinary dimensions of our lives. Everything is meant to be shot through with the power and love of the Spirit of God. When I speak of  everything being potentially sacramental this is part of what I mean. With the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost God affirms actively and effectively that NOTHING will be left untouched, unembraced, unloved, unreconciled or not wholly taken up into the very life of God himself.

The work I have been doing with my director is meant to allow the Holy Spirit to move freely within and through me --- as She is meant to do. It is meant to allow me to be the person in whom that Sprit lives and moves freely, a person who is whole, coherent, and holy --- a person in other words, who is truly inspired by the Spirit and who "holds together" in Christ and the love he and His Father share -- just as we are each called to do. For that reason we work through everything that stands in the way of that. We work through woundedness, both old and more recent, allowing love to heal these. We work through memories, allow for the experience and expression of emotions, and at every point reappropriate these from the perspective of God's unceasing presence and love --- as these are present not only in my hermitage, but in my deep Self and in my director as well. (It is the role of my director to mediate God's love in all of this and this means this love's critical, attentive, challenging, consoling and empowering character!) There is literally no part of my life that goes untouched in all of this. If spirituality means a praxis which leads to holiness then this is how it must be. After all, God has been at work during the whole of my life and in this work we [[lay it all out and trace the hand of God that somehow ordered all things. . .]]

On Being Commissioned to do this Work:

My consecration and commission by the Church has charged me with living my Rule, canon 603, and solitary eremitical life in the Church's name. She has given me permission to turn from other things including active or apostolic religious life, family life, and any number of other things to live with, from and for God alone in the silence of solitude. She has provided me the freedom to turn from the world's definitions of success, etc, and has allowed me the space and time to attend to God in all the ways God calls me to. This means I do not have to justify my life in the same terms most of those I know have to do.
But, the Church has also prayed that God would bring to completion in me what was begun on that day of consecration. When she granted me the cowl she prayed that I would carry out the ministry of prayer she had entrusted to me. Both of these mean the Church expects and prays that I would fully allow God to be God within and through me in my contemplative solitary eremitical life. I am free to do whatever is necessary to allow this to happen and become the truth of my life. I am free, in other words, to "put on Christ" and to do so as a diocesan hermit --- to allow my mind and heart to be remade in his image by the Spirit. I am obligated in the same way.

This means I am responsible for doing whatever I can to fulfill this obligation. I am responsible for working toward my own conversion in the power of God. My director and I decided together on the kind and degree of work we would undertake because while entirely complementary, it also goes beyond the usual work or commitment of spiritual direction --- though now it is entirely integrated into spiritual direction in our work together. What must be clear is that the aim of our work together is everything I have described throughout this post. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to work in and through me as exhaustively as possible. Both of us are committed to God and to allowing God full reign in our lives and the lives of those we touch. Both of us are consecrated by God through the mediation of the Church for this purpose. Both of us are committed to holiness --- to the life occasioned and brought to fullness by the Holy Spirit. That is what spiritual life is about and I think when you ask questions about the wisdom or prudence of this work for a hermit it is important that you consider we both act with all of this in mind.

Addendum: sorry, I missed a couple of questions, so briefly: the work I have spoken of requires the assistance of another who is trained to accompany persons in this way. The majority of the work is done on one's own but meetings with the accompanist are absolutely essential and often critical since part of healing often requires speaking one's truth to another who will really hear this. (Being heard in this way is a complex dynamic of love, trust, and acceptance, but it also means trusting, accepting, and expressing one's own truth in a way which might not have been possible before.) To summarize, this kind of work must be done with another person, a person who knows how to listen deeply, to respond compassionately, and to speak the words of truth and love which can cut through our personal "deafness" and incapacity to empower a full and loving response to God and to those whom God holds as precious.  It is especially important to remember that the work we are doing together (and with the grace of God!) increases my already-established capacity for healthy solitude. It does not detract from this.