Friday, July 20, 2012
On the Alien World of Communal Spirituality
Catholicism is a communal religion - there is just no way around it. From having to actually belong to a particular parish, to being an active part of that parish, to even the exchange of peace (which is something I think "spirit of Vatican II" Catholics need to be reminded is not a full-length conversation about the week's events) are all things that are extremely alien to me.
But I think that really the communal side of spirituality and the individualistic side of it are really just two aspects of one kind of spirituality. Not everyone is called to be a living flame in the desert like St. Macarius or St. Anthony of Egypt; nor is everyone called to be a saint "in the world" like St. Frances Xavier Cabrini or St. Thomas More - but we are called to have a spiritual life, and this can include elements of both sides of the coin.
If I look at the issue objectively, it makes sense to take spiritual nourishment from both kinds of spirituality. Though the communal aspect of Catholicism is hard for me, I miss my Catholic friends and parish-mates when they are not around. Indeed, it is nice to belong to such a huge family, especially when I am an only child that comes from a broken one. It is enriching and I take comfort in it.
But when it comes to deeper spirituality, I always read the authors who speak of a "flight of the lone to the Alone"1. The great lamps of the desert, those early Christian monastics and hermits, speak volumes to me. The great mystical climb of St. John of the Cross, the experience of the Divine as espoused in Seraphim of Sarov's life, and the cataclysmic change that overtook St. Augustine at the moment of his conversion - these all have taught me about the great need of each individual person to encounter and experience and know the Divine, and this is often achieved in moments of great solitude, both inner and outer. It is not for nothing, I feel, that Emerson seems to speak of hearing the whispers of the Divine in the silence of the nature around him.
But all of the wisdom learned in solitude is for naught if the Christian soul cannot translate what he or she has learned into action - one, I am sure, can become a living flame of love; however, this living flame is not meant to be a flame unto itself. "Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house" (Matt 5:15).
Therefore, it is easy to see that whatever spirituality we find speaks the most to us and nourishes our spiritual life the most must translate into action. Even the most solitary and isolated of hermits are praying for souls, not just their own - there is still that notion of community. Perhaps I will simply have to re-learn what I learned, and embrace the family that is continually trying to embrace me.
We are, after all, a "communion of saints". And I guarantee that if no one was around to pray for or to love or to hold up in times of trouble, I would be one very sad and miserable little Catholic sitting alone under the yew tree.
1 - Plotinus, Enneads