Launch of Spirituality of Our Times

St. Patrick’s College, Thurles

27th January 2005

“Try to remember the time in September

When grass was green and grain was yellow…

Deep in December it’s nice to remember

The fire of September that made us mellow”.

These lines from the song, “Try to Remember”, in the musical The Fantasticks spring to mind as I come to launch a book, which gathers the rich fruits of the Summer School into a very worthy and instructive collection entitled, Spirituality for Our Times, edited by Dr. Joseph Putti, published by St. Patrick’s College. This deserves a double first since it is the first ever Summer School and the first ever book published by St. Patrick’s College.

This topic was chosen because of the growing interest in spirituality in recent years.  Books abound on this topic and, in religious bookshops, works on spirituality are the highest selling section.  No doubt, a minority seek spirituality as an alternative to religion, a decline in participation in organised religion has led to a growth in interest in spirituality which is a broader concept than religion and thus promises more freedom.

But, for the majority, there is a genuine search for meaning in life and for guidance in their desire for a relationship with the Divine.  They wish to connect with the Divine in their everyday experience.  Perhaps, people who are immersed in the quest for material things or for pleasure are finding that these do not bring happiness.  There is something missing.  There is a spiritual vacuum which they seek to fill.  There is a spiritual hunger they seek to satisfy; “Man cannot live on bread alone”. Even some multi-national companies have come to the conclusion that it pays them to provide courses in spirituality for their workers. When workers are content and happy they produce more since they see their work as worthwhile.

We had a practical example of this widespread interest in spirituality here at a G.A.A. gathering two weeks ago.  A one-day seminar on the subject of Spirituality and its link with Sport drew almost two hundred participants.  The overall reaction was very positive even though some expressed puzzlement when they first heard the title.

A sports journalist in a local paper reported that the title was “highfalutin” and may have put off some people from attending.  “But it needn’t have”, he said, “the four speakers mostly ignored it and delivered their own material in characteristic style”.  I didn’t think that was quite accurate because the speakers did stress things like team spirit, equality for women’s sport and the effects of bereavement on a team which lost two players through an accident and a sudden death.

Spirituality, as a topic, is a difficult one to pin down. It is a vague concept.  “Voguish and vague!” It means different things to different people.  Perhaps its vagueness accounts for its popularity.  It gives great individual scope.  We have had Celtic Spirituality, New Age Spirituality and the Little Way of St. Therése of Liseaux in recent years which have all attracted much interest.  There are meditation groups who seek to progress in Contemplative Spirituality and these involve many young people.  Another form is Applied Spirituality where people seek to relate to God in their everyday experience – seeking God in “the bits and pieces” of everyday life, as Patrick Kavanagh put it.

Then there is Feminist Spirituality and Masculine Spirituality to complement it. Masculine spirituality seeks “to rescue a healthy sense of maleness from the identification with patriarchy and the malignant effects of clerical spirituality” (Richard Rorh, OFM).

The males feel that the Church is feminised especially in its liturgy, its vestments etc.  It is too soft, too effeminate for them!  Masculine spirituality maintains that there is a masculine way of doing things which is qualitatively different from the feminine. There is a masculine way of feeling, a masculine way of being present that is different from and complementary to the feminine way of feeling, knowing, of being present.  Only in our relatedness do we fully mirror the image of God.  God created human kind in God’s image, male and female, God created them. A fertile field for another Summer School?

Then there is the ecological approach which sees God’s presence in his creation rather than seeing Him as separate and distant from it.  This error led to his stewards exploiting and misusing the environment to their hearts content down the centuries and especially in the last fifty or sixty years.

Another area of growing interest is that of Religious Art.  Sales are up on religious pictures and statues of a modern design.  These modern religious symbols are better suited to the new style homes than the more traditional variety.  Tastes are developing and becoming more sophisticated.

Chris Ryan has written a chapter in the book entitled Sacred Space.  “The arts of their very nature are orientated to the beauty of God which they attempt to portray in some way by the work of human hands…they achieve their purpose of redounding  to the glory of God as they are directed more exclusively to the aim of turning our minds towards God”. Chris Ryan’s chapter contains some beautiful pictures of religious art.

Therefore, the choice of the topic, Spirituality for Our Times, was a very appropriate, if somewhat difficult one for the Summer School.  I wonder how each of the fourteen lecturers reacted to their topic at first sight!  Only one, Jim Purcell, tells us; “When I first received this title Being Human, Being Spiritual, I was excited about the proposals of thinking through and then speaking on this topic”. He was as good as his word and gave a very thought provoking talk from his background in theology and psychotherapy.

My own initial feeling would have resulted from an experience I had as a student in Rome over forty years ago.  I came to do an oral examination on Augustine’s, De Civitae Dei – The City of God. I had prepared Book 10 very thoroughly – on sacrifice.  It was the only one I had done!  The examiner, a kindly Augustine friar, asked me “Quid vis?” What question do you wish to speak about?

“Book 10 on sacrifice” I said and I went on for five minutes.  The examiner looked pleased. “And finally”, he said “could you give me Augustine’s definition of sacrifice”. Unfortunately, I had completely overlooked his definition, a rather important aspect, and I lost marks. But ever since, the first thing I look for is a definition!

So, I began this book looking for the definition of spirituality.  So, how many of the contributors to Spirituality for Our Times attempt to define their subject?  Only one, Patricia Donnellan, in her title, “Out of the Depths I have Cried”.  She quotes Sandra Schneider, who defines spirituality as it is used today as follows:

“The experience of consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence towards the ultimate value one perceives.  Its essential elements are conscious effort, the goal of life integration, through self-transcendence, and the finalisation of the project by ultimate value”.

If you can follow this you are up to the speed of this game! In fairness, Mary Malone also included the core of this definition in a footnote to her contribution on Exploring Women’s’ Christian Spirituality. Another definition by Denis Robinson, C.S.S.p, goes as follows: “Christian spirituality is primarily concerned with the awareness and response to the invitation to enter into a personal and communal relationship with the Triune God who is experienced as actively and intimately present within us and all creation”.

The other twelve contributors obviously followed Thomas à Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ when he said, “I would rather feel compunction than know its definition”. But I certainly would not accuse our contributors as the sports journalist did the speakers at the Sports Seminar, of “ignoring the topic and then delivering their material in characteristic style”.

What they certainly did not ignore was the second part of the title, the “for our times” part.  They are all experts on different aspects of the cultural, social, political and religious influences of our day.  Not only that, they are adept at discerning “the signs of the times”, a phrase found in Matthew (16,4). The term is also used to great effect in Vatican II as Donal Dorr tells us. In his chapter, Reading the Signs of the Times: Justice Local and Global, he says “When we speak of signs of the times we are suggesting that God is sending us a message through historic events”.

The reader of Evangelisation in 21st Century Ireland – Personal Thoughts on a Hopeful Spirituality and Strategy will find a very full and insightful survey of life in the Ireland and beyond especially since the arrival of the Celtic Tiger in the mid nineteen-nineties.  Martin Kennedy has first hand knowledge of the local Church and the charming variety of God’s people at parish and diocesan level.  Martin knows our people, young and old, he knows what works and what does not with each group.  On the whole, he is optimistic for the future.

Michael Ryan adds a life-time of teaching at second and third level to give a detailed account of the attitudes and values of our young adults in his chapter Understanding and Relating to the Culture of the Young in Ireland Today.  The young show little interest in politics, only Sinn Féin has any attraction for them. He examines youth suicide and speculates on its possible causes.  He describes the pressures which modern life places on the young who are now serious consumers and part-time workers to finance their leisure activities.  But remember, he tells us that the young people did not create the world they live in.  He quotes Fintan O’Toole, “The signposts on the road from Kidsville to Ballygrownup have been stolen or twisted”. Surely adults would not stoop to such vandalism!”.

Ger Godley, who is Director of Kerry Youth Services, says that “spirituality is an idea whose time has come”. But he fears that spirituality may become “voguish and vague” as Michael Paul Gallagher puts it.  Gerard is seeking an integrated spirituality for the young.  He wishes to avoid divisions between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the human.  His approach is a holistic one which responds not only to the spiritual needs but also to the personal and social needs of the young.

Mick Devine describes addiction as, “a spiritual illness” and he takes us through four stages in the development of full-blown dependency to mood altering substances, alcohol or drugs.  This is a fine piece. It is down-to-earth and clear.  The addict is seeking a state of bliss through taking short cuts with drugs and alcohol.  If the disease is a spiritual one then the cure must be also be a spiritual one.  The twelve steps of A.A. is a good example of a spiritual path which leads to sobriety and contentment.  It is a longer and more difficult path than the chemical short-cut.

While youth are given extensive treatment, the elderly are not forgotten. In Catherine McCann’s chapter The Spiritual Dimension of Ageing, she claims that, apart from palliative care, the spiritual dimension which is an essential element in becoming fully human has held a Cinderella place.  While it is missing, it is not always consciously missed and this leads to restlessness, apathy, sadness, a sense of uselessness, purposelessness in the old person.  The continuing spiritual growth of the ageing can not be presumed or taken for granted.

Catherine McCann states that within the last two decades, it has become acceptable to use the word, spirituality, although haziness about its meaning abounds. But, while the word, “spirituality” has re-emerged as acceptable, the term “religion” has dwindled in favour.  Joseph Putti discusses this in his chapter, A Spiritual Vision for a Materialistic Society.

Mary Malone’s comprehensive chapter, The God of Women and the Women of God, accuses the Catholic Church and indeed all the Christian Churches of producing mountains of teaching about women’s spirituality and mountains of prescriptions addressed to women about the place of God in their lives and the kind of life they should lead. “In the whole history of Christian spirituality, there is not one simple official teaching from the mouth of a woman”. “But”, she says, “Women have been making up ground in recent times”.  The Church has presented three women Doctors of the Church, namely, Teresa of Avila; Catherine of Siena and Therèse of Liseaux – excellent models except that they and the majority of women saints were unmarried.  “As yet”, Mary Malone continues, “there is not one single example, even today, of a married woman who has been canonised, and thus offered as a public example of women’s spirituality, specifically as wife and mother”. This is a lacuna, certainly, and one which I believe Pope John Paul II has been trying to remedy. If my memory serves me, a married couple were canonised some months ago.

Mary Malone has a very interesting section on women mystics.   They are “unique”, she says, “because we have access to their spirituality in their own words”.  They include Hildegarde of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schonau, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich and others.  Because of their sense of union with the humanity of Jesus and because of their profound sense of being created in the image of God, these women believed that the journey to God was open to all created beings.  Mary Malone ends her chapter with a beautiful quotation from Julian of Norwich, who, she says, more than anyone, has articulated the centrality of love in an experience of God:

“And God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was round as any ball.  I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made.  I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing.  And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will because God loves it; and thus everything has been through the love of God”.

The hazelnut brings me to Kathleen Gibbon’s chapter, The Earth’s Story, Our Story. She introduces the relationship of ecology with spirituality, a very much neglected topic. Mankind has degraded the flowerbed, Dante’s imagine of the earth.  I quote; “A new story that is beginning to seep into our consciousness… we are now learning that fifteen million years ago from a source of energy no bigger than a pinhead, the Universe flared fourth from the heart of mystery”. The pinhead is not even the size of the hazelnut mentioned by Julian of Norwich.

Kathleen Gibbons goes on to tell us this fireball, which developed from the pinhead, also contained the essence of all that would manifest itself as spirit, soul, dreams, creativity, life itself in all its splendour.  “From this original, flaming forth, bursting with energy, unfolded in a magnificent outpouring of galaxies, stars, planets and even yet unnamed life forces”.  This presentation recalls Teilhard de Chardin’s, The Phenomenon of Man, in which he traces the stages of evolution from elementary consciousness to self-consciousness and eventually to Christ himself as the alpha and omega.

I can go much of the way with her, provided she tells me where the pinhead of energy came from originally.  From whence came its potential to unfold so marvellously?  Quantum theology to which she appeals does not tell me.  The Book of Geneses tells me that that God created everything out of nothing. There was not even a pinhead before that moment! Why did he create the Universe?  It out of his infinite love and goodness which he wished to share.  The story of creation in the Bible sees man as the steward of creation with the duty to cultivate and respect it.  Up to now the record is very poor indeed. “An ecological conversion is needed”, as Pope John Paul has urged.

Patricia Donnellan takes the opening lines of Psalm 130 to describe how her world was turned upside down when her husband died ten years ago.  “The shortness of his illness, surgery and subsequent death in a period of ten months altered all our lives”. Her title, Out of the Depths I have Cried, sums up the loss of belief, grief, feelings of loneliness, fear, rage and anger experienced afterwards.  I know that readers will sympathise with her long journey in search of healing even if they could not accompany her on the rollercoaster journey she has travelled to date.

To most of us, spirituality or the spiritual life in general, will involve regular prayer. Prayer is a recurring topic throughout the book.  There is a chapter on Christian Meditation by G.T. Fehily, better known as Tom Fehily.  He outlines the life of John Maine, his method of meditation and his personal meeting with him thirty years ago.  John Maine introduced him to daily prayer and meditation with the use of a mantra,  “and it has become as much part of my life as daily breakfast “.

Anne Francis gives us some beautiful reflections on family life.  She tells us that the family is the first school of spirituality, the place we experience community at its most basic form.  It is the place we learn to care, to love and to forgive.  In the past, family spirituality was seen as in opposition to celibate spirituality but this is a false opposition.  “Every day, parents are passing on spirituality and values to children in ways unappreciated and unsupported by Church people”, she says.  She urges Church people to make good this lack of appreciation and support.  We have wonderful opportunities to fruitfully explore such shared values as intimacy, mutuality, abstinence and universal love.

Mary T. O’Brien has a wide ranging chapter on, Women, Spirituality and Literature. Like myself, she believes in definitions, “A work of literature must possess excellence of form or expression, universal interest of some sort, and something of permanent appeal or value”. Mary is well-read especially in the area of religious poetry.  She describes how her own tastes in literature have been changing from Alice in Wonderland as a child, to The Breastplate of St. Patrick translated by Kuno Meyer.  The poetry of Tadhg Gaelach O’Suilleabhain is now favoured as well as “the delightful and sane work of Teresa of Avila”.

Gerard M. Hopkins and T.S. Eliot she describes as “giants in their field”. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) merits more attention than he has received so far for his poetry.  Mary also admires modern Irish poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Michael Hartnett, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, Brendan Kennelly, Maurice Tuohy Duffy and Maurice Farley, who, believe it or not is a woman! Mary has written some poetry herself but humility prevents her from publishing it! “My take on literature has changed dramatically over the years. Now I can pass the fiction shelves in Waterstones without being tempted to browse, but I could easily be persuaded to participate in a workshop on the Psalms”. Mary’s book-list is well worth perusing for the rich sources of spirituality, past and present.  She concludes:

“This survey is of necessity personal and therefore subjective. It is in no way exhaustive.  For those who would have wished a stronger role for woman, I can only respond in the words of Eavan Boland: ‘Feminism remains a superb tool of analysis for discovering why a woman did not write a poem.  It is of no value whatsoever in judging the poem that she wrote’.  And, by way of compensation for those who may have expected a more outrightly feminist approach to the subject, I will end with a literary gem from the pen of Eaton Stannard Barrett (1786-1820), entitled Woman:

Not she with traitorous kiss her Saviour stung,

Not she denied him with unholy tongue;

She, while apostles shrank, could dangers brave,

Last at the Cross, and earliest at the grave.”

That certainly is the hurley across the shins for the men!

Joseph Putti played a huge part in this project from start to finish.  Together with Fr. Tom Fogarty and the Committee, he planned the Summer School. He invited a wonderful team of speakers, he chaired some of the sessions, he gave a fine opening lecture, A Spiritual Vision for a Materialistic Society, and finally, he got the speakers to submit their scripts which he edited and saw through to the publishers.  This publication is a credit to his talent, his vision and his tenacity.  Well done Joseph!

The two-day Seminar was concluded with Mass at which Fr. Tom Fogarty preached the homily.  He spoke of the part played by the Holy Spirit in all our lives.  We received Him in baptism but if he is to stay alive in us through his gifts, we must create the space for Him to do so. “The last two days have been memorable.  The Spirit of God has been evident, not just through our speakers but also in those who attended the Summer School”.  The readers of this book will also receive some of the same inspiration in these pages, I believe.

During the week we celebrated the Feast of Francis de Sales, author of the spiritual masterpiece An Introduction to the Devout Life.  I read it in my first days as a seminarian in Maynooth.  It was only when I became a bishop that I adverted to the fact that he was Archbishop of Geneva.  He insisted on making time for spiritual direction of others by letters or through personal meetings.  He is reputed to have said, “One soul is diocese enough for a bishop”. I will end by quoting two paragraphs from his masterpiece:

“At the creation, God commanded the plants to bear fruit each according to its kind and he likewise commands Christians, the living branches of the vine, to bear fruit by practising devotion according to their state of life.

The practice of devotion must differ for the gentleman and the artisan, the servant and the prince, for widow, young girl or wife.  Further, it must be adapted to their particular strength, circumstances and duties.

Is the solitary life of a Carthusian suited to a bishop? Should those who are married practise the poverty of a Capuchin?  If workmen spent as much time in church as religious, if religious were exposed to the same pastoral calls as a bishop, such devotion would be ridiculous and cause intolerable disorder.

Yet this foolish mistake is often made.  True devotion never causes harm, but rather perfects everything we do; a devotion which conflicts with anyone’s state of life is undoubtedly false.

It makes the care of family peaceful, the love of husband and wife more sincere, the service of one’s king more faithful, and every task more pleasant and a joy.

It is not only erroneous, but a heresy, to hold that life in an army, the workshop, the court, or the home is incompatible with devotion.  Purely contemplative, monastic or religious devotion cannot be practised in these callings; yet, these are not only kinds of devotion; there are many others suitable for those who live in the world and capable of leading them to perfection.

Wherever we find ourselves we not only my, but should, seek perfection.