August 6, 2017
I got my theological training from monks — who value community life above all — and then I was sent away to study Canon Law — which deals with the structures and dynamics of the Church’s communal existence.
These two items are to blame for my tendency to think and preach and write about things in terms of Church, rather than individual or personal. This is not a handicap, but it is a kind of tone-deafness that leaves the whole of the Christian tradition of personal spirituality off to one side.(There’s a story behind this admission, but I’ll save it for another time.)
It also leads me to pooh-pooh as some kind of charlatans — and mostly self-deceivers — those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, instead of attending to their serious critique of ‘religion’ as irrelevant to their lives or hostile to their thriving.
Sooooo … we’ll spend a few of these coming weeks dealing with just that side of Christian life.
We begin with a simple proposition: God loves us in all our uniqueness, with all our warts and wrinkles and all of our oddities and insanities. Were this not so, we would have ceased to exist a long time ago. The second proposition is that he loves us even when we are troubled, torn, frightened, hurting and guilt-ridden. Were this not so, etc.
The conditions of our individual lives do not change God and certainly do not indicate a change in him. But, just as a tone deaf individual may find it impossible to enjoy music, the particulars of my existence at a given moment may make it very difficult for me to believe in or care about or entrust myself to this unchanging Lover. What to do? This is the task of ascetical theology.
Don’t be put off by the word ascetical. It sounds like hard things and unbending routines. Actually, it just means things one does when doing what everyone else is doing seems senseless. It points to individual Christian living, with the accent on individual. Neither is it necessarily harsh or punitive; it can be very gradual and gentle — tempering the wind to the shorn lamb. But it can be very taxing for those who have excelled (or wish to excel) others in their acceptance of and responsiveness to the unchanging love of God.
The saints are the best examples of such ‘excellent’ individuals. There are even ‘schools’ of ascetical theology formed in admiration and emulation of such folk — think: Franciscans, Carmelites, Carthusians, etc., or around the demands of a life focused on a certain kind of work — think: teaching orders, hospital sisters, missionaries.
We will not have time — nor will I have the inclination — to examine each and every one of these in detail. Neither will we be able to work through all the specifics of each ‘school’s’ variations on the common themes. That’s a lifetime’s study. But we can and will be able to look at certain themes and trends that are common to them all. It is in this commonality that we common folk find our natural home.
Really and truly and commonly yours,