...I have been following [a] course in spirituality, just six Wed evenings, and finding it very interesting. I only wish these things had been available when I was young. I'm full of questions, but I don't like to keep interrupting the lecturer, who is a very kind and patient man actually. My question is a bit confused. I really want to know how my own mother’s kind of religion fits in with all this new spirituality. She had a prayer-book that was bursting at the seams with novenas and pictures and mortuary cards. She wouldn't know what to make of this course, but it’s the same religion isn't it? She was a better Christian than I'll ever be, but she never heard of St John of the cross or meditation or contemplative prayer and she wouldn't know how to spell theology. Do you know what I'm asking? It’s playing on my mind a lot. Is there some way to link up with the older ways....
Thanks a lot,
Dear Kay, it’s good to hear that you are enjoying the course. And it’s good to hear that you are full of questions. It wouldn't be much of a course if it didn't fill you with questions. A good question is already the greater part of the answer. And your present question suggested something to me that I hadn't thought of before.
Yes, it’s the same religion; the style is a bit different. It’s not the first time in the history of the Church that there is change – even bewildering change. Imagine that we are at sea (that doesn't take a lot of effort today!); there’s a storm, and our boat is now on the crest of a wave, and now in the hollow. It’s the same sea and the same boat, but we think that there was never a storm like this – that the sea was always dead calm before. (It’s strange how often you meet or read people who make that very assumption.) It is when we are in a storm that we lose our sense of direction. We need a map and a compass.
Your question suggested a map to me. Interpreting a little, you mentioned three ways: the way of meditation, the way of theology, and the way of devotion. It doesn't take a lot of ingenuity to connect this with the Trinity. What follows is just an orientation; it’s not about strict divisions. Theologians used to talk (still do, some of them) about “appropriation” in the Trinity. (That may look like an English word, but like a lot of Catholic religious terms, it’s just a semi-translation from Latin; a more exact word would be ‘attribution’.) Everything God does for us is done by all three Persons together, but we ‘attribute’ some activities to one or other Person: for example, we attribute sanctification to the Holy Spirit. This is about us, not about God. Just about any way we pray is the right way, because God makes up our deficiencies.
- You can connect the way of meditation with the Father, who “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). In Roublev’s famous icon of the Trinity (look for it in Google images if you don't have it), the figure of the Father (usually said to be the one on the left) is dressed in ethereal colours, refined almost out of existence, nearly invisible. When people talk about meditation or contemplative prayer they discourage the use of imagination, because God is beyond images; and they always urge silence, because God is beyond words. So a Christian can relate meditation to the Father.
- Jesus is the Word of God. We could say he is the theology of God – because in Greek, logos means ‘word’, and theos means ‘God’, so ‘theou logos’ (from which we get the word ‘theology’), means ‘the word of God.’ To study theology is to try to give some intelligible shape to the mystery of God, so that we are not forever reduced to silence and darkness. Of course the one who does this in the first place is Jesus, and it is in him, as St Paul said, that “we have access to God” (Eph 3:12). Theology is like the Incarnation continued: you are trying to ‘incarnate’ the Word in human words. It has to go much further than words, of course; it has to enter your life and become flesh in you. The Word becomes flesh in Jesus, and then, through his grace, in you.
- Then there’s the way of devotion. You can ‘appropriate’ or attribute this to the Holy Spirit. People are generally more aware of the Holy Spirit now than they were, say, fifty years ago. There was the immense wave of prayer set off by the Charismatic movement. This rising wave reached everywhere (except the ivory towers of some theologians). Suddenly people felt free to express what was in them, all their feelings and emotions and inspirations.... It would even overflow into the body, and people would raise their arms and dance and sing. It also gave people permission to hug one another outside of weddings and funerals. The wave has lost some altitude now, but that's how everything is in this world of change. Many groups who were originally very vocal have become much quieter now and have almost turned into meditation groups. No need to think of this as either loss or gain; it’s just the way things move. Things generally go by wave-movements. All the stages are valid ways of Christian prayer. Your mother’s way of devotion, along with her hold-all prayer book, was as truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, no doubt, as any other way of prayer.
Your mother found her way of prayer, Kay, and she passed the faith on to you. In you it is beginning to change a little in form, but that's to be expected. Physically you are not an exact replica of your mother; neither are you spiritually an exact replica. Any change in you – physically or spiritually – is not a rejection of her. All ways are good, and in the immensity of God – Father, Son and Spirit – we are all embraced and included.