In one of the last issues of the Petit Echo, 2017/01, the focus was on Spirituality. Introduced in a reflective and global way by Francis Barnes “… Spirituality is that desire to live more authentically, more responsibly, more fully the faith…a lifelong journey to grow in our relationship with God…based on the person of Jesus and his Gospel call to love…it is an addiction to living our life at the deepest level because all that is authentic lies deep within and our awakening to such authenticity in our awakening to life in Jesus Christ” (pps. 3-5). It is a vision that needs to be sourced more…and lived more, of course.
However, I did not understand John Itaru when he writes; “we are called to be men of prayer” (p.11) that’s true. But if prayer has “become the centre of gravity or the capital of my missionary life” (p.12) is this for him or is it for everybody? I do not understand the fear of Prosper Mbusa when he says, “If the candidate does not experience the importance and centrality of prayer in his Christian life as well as in his missionary vocation… (p.20), neither do I understand the “My first task as a missionary: Prayer” of the article of Pierre Petitfour (pp. 21-25) what does “first” mean in this case? It might mean that in the eyes of the Lord, his first task is his constant attention to sick people, who knows? I am more inclined towards the “secret” (p.26) of Joël Ouédraogo, when in a very poetic way says he listens “to the voice of God who is constantly whispering in our ears” (p.27) and when he joins prayer to activity and activity to prayer, “personal meditation helps us to discover God’s will in our pastoral activities and gives them direction” (p.28).
These confreres share with us what they do, “the life of their lives.” I thank them from the bottom of my heart and I admire their way of life totally at the service of others. At the same time, I am surprised at their singular attention on prayer in spiritual life. Life comes first, not prayer, even if prayer has its obvious place in a life of faith.
Maybe I have misunderstood, or that I express myself badly. I cannot understand why an issue dedicated to Spirituality (2) begins, after a broad overview on the subject, with five articles focussed on prayer. In the official magazine of the Society, is this the official vision of the Society, to reduce spirituality to prayer in the first place or to centre spirituality on prayer?
I had my suspicions already after the PEP Post Capitular Assembly where the booklet summarising the findings gave first place to Spirituality (p.4) and proposed, regarding this subject, 1) the writings of the Cardinal, 2) broaden prayer life, 3) have a spiritual guide, 4) organise common retreats and 5) days of recollections. Basta.
It pains me when one reduces our Spirituality or if one wishes our spiritual life to a life of prayer. Obviously, I cannot be ‘spiritual’ without praying, but I do not pray, certainly not me, from morning to night. Equally obviously, I need to be ‘spiritual’ from morning to night through my apostolic activities and my many contacts, through all that eats me up, stimulates me, everything that wells up from the deepest part of me and can and ought to communicate the Face of Jesus.
In the first place what the word spiritual invokes in me is not prayer but enthusiasm; to go out and meet people, to be close to those to whom I have been sent by the Bishop and/or the Society. However, it is also a personal choice. For example, at Kigali from 1971 to 1986 while working in the Cathedral Parish, I looked for work with the students of the College of Nursing, the non-denominational Collège Officiel and the French and Belgian schools which were basically non-Christian. From 1986 to 1998, while attached to the Parish of St.-Antoine in Bruxelles (located in the area around the Gare du Midi), I worked close to poor people in the adult catechumenate in a deprived pastoral milieu and at the Centre de Formation Cardijn focussing on a Theology from the Fourth World of Cardinal Cardijn (of YCW fame). Later on, as Parish Priest at Wezembeek, I visited elderly people in the Retirement Homes, which I called the ‘Reserves’ like those of the Indians in the USA. They were the voiceless, the out of sight, out of mind people, hardly respected at all.
In all this I never felt that I was carrying a burden. In fact, this task has carried me because of the feeling of being sent, of having received and being gifted with a life every second of the day and everything in my personal life that is positive, constructive and thriving. In the family, among the White Fathers, over the years, in situations where ties were forged, where the «red thread» of my existence emerged (a retreat in Kigali in 1985), where in 1972 I saw my prayer life differently.
I have to tell you, that while staying with the Benedictines at Kifugi, on the shores of Lake Kivu, I said to myself that ‘reciting’ the breviary on my own did not make sense because the very structure of the prayer presupposed the presence of others. So I decided to stop saying the breviary on my own. However, let’s be serious, Lambert, what about 1 hour of prayer everyday and that is what I do, (very often while walking around the fountain in a park close to me here in Brussels). Now I am aware that through prayer, the recollections and retreats on the one hand, and through the contacts, talking with people both believers and non-believers, on the other hand, as well as through the joys and sorrows, successes and failures, humiliations and praise, the Spirit lives in me, inspiring, guiding, and reminding me. The Sprit also gives me strength at the hard times of my life fully committed to my job right up to my 85th year and then a TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack). I always look for ways to speak to people in today’s language. I look for ways to offer them Good News, a faith that is not a combination of impossibilities. I look for ways to connect the events of their lives and the situations they observe to an attitude of ‘gratitude’ recognising that God has given them a gift or that he is calling them.
Is not spirituality immensely bigger, deeper, more penetrating than ‘prayer’ because it is a question of an incursion of feelings, of a spirit, a heart, even a complete taking over of the person by the Spirit of God? Is it not from deep down inside oneself that what Jesus lived at his Baptism and what the new-born Church lived at Pentecost, with the wind of the Spirit blowing where it will, not knowing where it is coming from or where it is going, comes the burning desire to speak and to transmit the Good News with the flair and drive of a believer.
Above all, is not spirituality, before ever being a human attitude, a pure gift of the self-communicating Spirit which incessantly thirsts for Life, yes, even an overflowing life. Spirituality means allowing the Spirit to take me over, to transform me and to make me a sounding board and letting me fill and, literally, spill over into others. Does not Spirituality mean in fact to be a missionary? As I wrote in my text ‘the missionary’ (Text written in 2009: Today, I am less sure about what is an authentic identity for a missionary) . Should not what is deepest within us be influenced by a vision which does not come from the Provincial (in such and such context) or from Rome but by a vision that comes to us from the people to whom we are sent, whom we are dealing with, a vision coming from the peripheries? What a conversion that would be?
I do not want to oversimplify things but we can agree that the Spirituality of St. Francis is not his prayer. The spirituality of St. Ignatius is not his prayer; the Spirituality of St. Theresa of Liseux is not her prayer. My spirituality is not to pray (maybe it is time at my age to spend more time at it) but to give myself (as hundreds of confreres are doing) to the needs of the people. It means committing myself to be present, to fight where it is necessary, and to console where it is opportune. For the benefit of the Church? No! For the advancement of the Kingdom of God? Yes! That is to say what I would unreservedly call the ‘Dream of God’ for humanity that is more filial and more fraternal.
So am I writing nonsense, or boasting? Not really, maybe I am expressing poorly my disagreement with what was written in P.E. 01. It is too important not to speak about it. The Society promotes two dense texts in the Capitular Acts on pages 19 and 20. As for the rest it is pitiful and hardly inspires at all. The time has come to set up the “small team” which the Chapter recommended “to study the matter and produce a booklet explaining the present day charism based on the core-values of spirituality, community and mission.” (Capitular Acts 1.1 p.20).
2. A more global approach
Up to now, I have been speaking about my own personal experience. I now add something which is more community orientated. On the eve of Lent 2017, we did a recollection with Madame Monique Foket, Emeritus Professor of Theology at Louvain la Neuve. In the morning session, we heard her exegesis on the three temptations of Jesus in the desert. At the afternoon session, there was an expose on “Spirituality is a relationship: it concerns the whole person” I come back to some of her points:
Christian identity implies a human being made up of many dimensions including feeling, reflecting and acting. There are other dimensions, but nothing can be said about them as they are outside of a possible analysis. This includes the whole theme of the subconscious, the unconscious, dreams and also events that are independent of myself. I break my leg going down some stairs, things happen and I cannot do anything. But any correct pedagogy, which reflects respect for Christian identity, will touch people in all these dimensions.
1st dimension: Feelings. It is important to feel that it is good to be a Christian. All five senses are involved and all feelings. But learning to feel «good» does not mean acting in an impulsive or even irrational way.
2nd dimension: Reflection: The dimension of reflection is what gives depth but it should be always open-ended because what I say now may be valid for now but it may not be valid in a year’s time or 20 years’ time. This ability to establish reference points on the one hand and openness on the other hand is a work of reason. Reflection means establishing some sort of baseline open to receiving new information and so open to the possibility of some alternative action or to realise that there is another way of looking at the problem.
3rd dimension: my own deep down conviction leading me to a transformation of myself. There is also an external element that involves how I act/react with others and how I can be at the service of all.
This aggregate is an anthropology that one finds among the mystics because they live in a relationship with God in all His dimensions. Each one of these dimensions has its own particular ‘night’ and involves our feelings, intelligence and actions. These ‘nights’ are a sort of emptying out and form part of our relationship with God (Cf. Forum Pedagogies, January 1999)
3. The AEFJN Approach:
See Echo 36 of the 6th May 2017, Reclaiming Christian Spirituality for Sustainable Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation, posted by Chika Onyejiuwa | May 5, 2017.
In conclusion, I would like to refer back to the first commandment: “you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with your entire mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12, 30). I understand this to mean that from your five senses and from your emotions, passing by your intelligence (and of your faith) you will commit yourself to action according to the zeal within you. You commit everything. To my surprise I also found these sentiments expressed in the words of Cardinal Cardijn: See Judge Act. And do not be surprised to find many echoes of this in the writings of Cardinal Lavigerie.
Fernand LAMBERT, M.Afr.