The National Catholic Review
Allan Figueroa Deck
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Pablo and Dolores García were the fourth couple to approach me after the parish mission to ask where they could find a copy of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises in Spanish. I had to explain that the little manual was not meant to be read like a normal book, but rather was to be used as a guide by the one accompanying another on a retreat. Then came the next question: How can we make the Spiritual Exercises? From what I knew about the Garcías and others who approached me that night, it would not make much sense to tell them to go to a retreat house. The average cost of a weekend retreat is about $180 (almost double that for a couple), and hardly any are conducted in Spanish. The four families who asked me about pursuing the practice of prayer, as we had encouraged it during the parish mission, have to work on weekends and have young children who need supervision. Merely pointing them in the direction of the retreat house was little help.

 

This experience of mine exemplifies the challenge involved in taking Christian spirituality to immigrant groups, working-class people and young families in today’s United States. Since its inception seven years ago, the staff at the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, Calif., has been trying to bring Ignatian spirituality out into the community, particularly to Spanish-speaking and other immigrant groups. For almost 50 years, the California Jesuits had a residential retreat house in Azusa. In 1994 it was closed and a new retreat model was established. Unlike the residential retreat house, L.I.S goes out to the people instead of waiting for the people to come to it. In addition to using other languages besides English, a frequent necessity in today’s multicultural church, L.I.S. tries to respond specifically to the needs of people like the Garcías.

These new communities, which are quickly transforming the face of the Catholic Church in the United States, demand imagination and creative thinking on the part of those who are trying to provide them with opportunities for spiritual development. The institutional models that were once highly successful may no longer be adequate or financially feasible. A new model is now needed, one that takes into account social class as well as cultural, economic and gender issues. It is necessary to rethink the how, what and where of the ministry of spirituality.

The key concept here is access. For instance, services can be provided in more than one place. Many retreat houses already offer their facilities to outside groups, especially on weekdays. Parishes and diocesan pastoral centers are also useful venues. This requires a team that is comfortable with traveling about. Why not begin, for example, with a half day of prayer at a parish? The theme of prayer can be introduced and simple new prayer methods proposed and demonstrated right there. The half day can be divided into brief periods of input, silent prayer with the Scriptures and, if time allows, simple faith-sharing in small groups. The same format can be expanded for a full day or arranged for a weekday evening session. Instead of taking the relatively giant step of a weekend retreat, people are thus offered small, incremental steps that they can afford in terms of time, money and location.

Rethinking the how and what of spiritual ministry consequently requires imagination and a shift in mental framework. This is not only a practical necessity but also something that flows from a more inclusive understanding of the Christian spiritual journey. Traditionally experts in the area of spirituality have stressed the importance of formal retreats, silence, spiritual direction, journaling and spiritual reading. No one can dispute the importance of these activities. Yet one may ask whether they are broad enough, especially today when the church is asking all the faithful to respond to their baptismal call with a serious commitment to service in the church and the world. One implication of today’s “age of the laity” is that spiritual development becomes an essential element in the formation of every Christian. While considerable progress has been made in the development of spirituality among growing numbers, there is still an aura of exclusivity attached to the world of spirituality.

The prevailing model of the spiritual journey is questionable, because it sometimes appears to exclude or downplay simple practices that people may already be doing—practices like the daily Rosary and other devotions that fall short of a retreat experience. Even more questionable is the tendency of middle-class spirituality to propose an often isolated, individualistic route that does not link one to community or church. This too often comes across as a solitary pursuit available to some but not others.

One of the simpler spiritual practices often overlooked these days, for instance, is spiritual conversation. I have noticed how Latino people move in that direction with considerable ease, while formally educated and secularized Euro-Americans are often uncomfortable discussing spiritual or religious topics outside prescribed times like Sunday mornings. The people’s orientation to spiritual conversation and small-group sharing tends not to be sufficiently recognized as a practice that can and should be linked to spiritual growth.

Individual spiritual direction itself is sometimes given exaggerated importance. More people might benefit a great deal from a spiritual director. But as a practical matter, it seems that more people would benefit from the opportunity to practice faith-sharing in small groups. Christian Life Communities have pioneered a useful approach for keeping faith-sharing groups focused on the fruit of biblically based personal prayer. An emphasis on such faith-sharing might also work against the growing individualism of U.S. culture, while the stress on spiritual direction could unwittingly play into that individualistic tendency. In an ideal world the optimum would be participation in both personal spiritual direction and small faith-sharing groups.

A new model of the spiritual journey will affirm the immense importance of liturgical prayer, especially the Eucharist, and simple ways to pray using popular devotional prayer forms. An expanded, more inclusive model of the spiritual journey will also stress the need to open people up to more mental prayer, especially biblically based prayer in the spirit of lectio divina. Even many educated Catholics are unfamiliar with basic prayer forms. People need practical demonstrations of meditation, the various kinds of contemplation and the so-called examination of consciousness. They need to be encouraged to pray every day, if only a little, in a manner that appeals to them. They also need to realize how fundamental the habit of daily prayer is for the spiritual journey and how it opens up new possibilities for discernment in their everyday lives. St. Ignatius often used the term “discrete love” to refer to action motivated by love of God and neighbor. Today we rightly include social action on behalf of the poor and marginalized—charity, advocacy and empowerment—as fundamental expressions of the spiritual life flowing from one’s intimacy with God. Unfortunately, however, the fundamental social orientation of authentic Christian spirituality often comes across as an afterthought, if it appears at all.

The lack of a sufficiently expansive model of the spiritual life is related to the professionalization that takes place in the ministry. Professionals understandably desire to define as well as control their areas of expertise. There will always be a need for highly qualified people in the field of spirituality. More priests, religious and lay persons than ever before have achieved high levels of competency as retreat and spiritual directors. Yet pastoral sensitivity and an orientation toward spirituality consistent with the church’s mission to evangelize require that professionals in the field avoid becoming too much like gatekeepers. St. Ignatius, for instance, always insisted that the Holy Spirit is the true director in matters related to the spiritual journey. And the Holy Spirit has the disconcerting tendency to “blow where it wills.”

Ordinary Christians with gifts in spiritual leadership but without certification need to be empowered to use those gifts. This means that lay spiritual formation programs with strong mentoring components are needed. A key element here is the multiplication of spiritual agents through training programs that are not primarily academic or focused narrowly on the formation of spiritual directors. It is now becoming more common to allow relative beginners—with some supervision—to be companions to others who are making the Spiritual Exercises. This is one way in which growing numbers of people who deeply desire to make them can be accommodated.

Several years ago, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Jesuits, referred to the need to share the gift of the Spiritual Exercises more widely in view of the church’s emphasis on the evangelization of cultures and the option for the poor. He reminded Jesuits and their many lay partners in spiritual ministries of St. Ignatius’ flexibility in making what he himself had experienced praying at Manresa as accessible as possible to people of diverse educational and social backgrounds. Father Kolvenbach referred to such efforts as evangelizing exercises. More, not fewer, lay spiritual leaders must be identified, formed and empowered to serve. For that to happen, we need a more expansive model of the spiritual journey, and a wider range of formation opportunities that stress prayer and the spiritual life as gifts accessible to all.

After my first meeting with the Garcías, I encouraged them to participate in a small faith-sharing group organized at their parish during Lent. The gift of daily mental prayer was a revelation for them, as was the realization that other working-class and immigrant families also shared a deep desire to go beyond the basic spirituality of Mexico’s rich popular Catholicism. They then applied to participate in one of L.I.S.’s two three-year formation programs, the one given in Spanish. By the second year the Garcías began to do supervised field work, to offer conferences on prayer at local parishes, community organizations and for apostolic movements like the charismatic renewal. During that year, they and their cohort made the Spiritual Exercises over a period of nine months. Some of their spiritual companions during this unique, life-changing experience were graduates of a previous formation cycle.

Seven other Latinos like the Garcías became L.I.S. associates during this period. It is rather uncommon to find Latinos or, for that matter, other laymen and women like them in explicit roles of spiritual leadership. The L.I.S. staff was therefore especially gratified to see living examples of spiritual leadership now exercised by married couples, workers, youth and single adults. The Garcías are not only satisfying their own deep thirst for God; they are now empowered to help others like themselves.

Unless and until the world of spirituality opens up more to the tremendous generosity and gifts of people like the Garcías, the treasures of Christian spirituality—whether of the Ignatian variety or of any other—will remain largely unknown and untapped. Spirituality can no longer be the domain of priests, religious and a limited circle of predominantly middle-class lay persons. These treasures must engage the reality and insights of women, diverse races, social classes and non-Western cultures. Re-imagining the model of how the spiritual life unfolds, its constitutive practices, moments and outcomes, is a vital first step in this crucial process.

Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., director of the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, Calif., is currently visiting scholar at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.