Going Through the Motions

Recently, I spent a week on Cape Cod with my family, and after my wife and I returned home we went to Sunday Mass. As I sat in the church waiting for Mass to begin I realized that I hadn’t really thought much about God while on vacation. I hadn’t prayed or read scripture. I hadn’t been as attentive to God’s presence as I usually am. Needless to say, I felt bad about that and was glad I was now in church, ready to engage in my weekly ritual of worshiping the God who I encounter every day.

There’s something to be said about ritual, even when it appears to be a case of “going through the motions”. For me, the ritual of Mass, of standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, listening, praying, and receiving Communion, hit a reset button for me. After several days of unawareness of God, the Mass reminded me that God was still there, still present. And going through the motions of the liturgy helped nudge me back to that sacred state. Ritual is a powerful thing that guides and draws us into something important. Going through the motions of preparing your morning coffee draws you into the day laid before you. Taking a daily run reminds you of the gift of your body. Even daily prayer, though it can sometimes feel like you’re just going through the motions, opens yourself up to an awareness of God.

I remember years ago when I was involved with a regular faith sharing group, there were several times I did not want to go to the weekly meeting. I was feeling “out of the groove” with God, my prayer was dry, my week was dry; what would be the point of going through the motions and attending this weekly meeting? But when I went, I was reminded that God was always there, and a reset button was hit, drawing me back into a state of closeness with God.

Ritual action can be performed mindlessly. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes you’re not in a place to be fully engaged. That’s why ritual is so helpful, because what can begin mindlessly, frequently concludes in a state of richer awareness.

Saint Ignatius encourages those making the Spiritual Exercises to engage in the rituals of the church like Mass and confession. He suggests regular prayer times, and even for staying a full hour in each period of prayer. When I made the Exercises I remember that those hours could feel so long. I had prayed with the assigned scripture passage for ten minutes and got plenty out of it. What more could there be? Sitting that remaining 50 minutes felt as if I was just “going through the motions” of Ignatius’ prescription. Sometimes my mind would wander or I’d struggle to stay awake, but amazingly, I’d end the hour with much more fruit than I got out of the first ten minutes!

Don’t get me wrong. Going through the motions of life and faith mindlessly all the time is not a sign of a committed spiritual life. But once in a while, especially during a period of dryness or distance from God, going through the motions of a ritual can draw us back into the active and attentive motion of a personal relationship with God.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.

Shaping Men and Women for Others in Catholic Schools

For the many of us who have attended Catholic schools, we may wonder what makes a Catholic education different than a public one. As my wife and I have been re-watching episodes of The Wonder Years and Boston Public, there have been many moments we’ve paused and said, “In a Catholic school, a teacher would have the freedom to handle that problem differently.” But how exactly would things be handled differently? I believe that the elements of Jesuit education, inspired by Ignatian spirituality, can and should be present in Catholic education in general. And as a soon-to-be Catholic high school teacher, this is very much on my mind.

Ignatius tells us that the purpose of life is “to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” This is the reason we exist and everything we do is in service of that. The jobs we do, the education we get, the relationships we maintain, the reason we go to church, and even the things we buy should all serve the purpose of serving God. Allowing all those aspects of our life to be integrated is a goal of Catholic education. The Jesuits call this cura personalis, or care for the whole person. It means an educator’s job is to not solely to form the intellect, but to help a student form his or her social, spiritual, and emotional potentials. In other words, teachers are responsible for helping students uncover the women and men God desires them to be. When we’re balanced in all those areas of our lives, we can become “men and women for others,” as many Jesuit schools state in their mission statements.

But how do we do this? How do we become whole persons? Ignatian spirituality gives us a three step process:

Be Attentive

Here’s where we ask the question: What is my reality? Ignatius wants us to look at our current reality. Prior to his conversion, Ignatius was a vain and prideful soldier who lusted after women, power, and status. He seemed to have before him a path paved with gold. Traditional education offers little opportunity for true observation of our own life. Yes, we look out at the world. In science we begin with observation and in math we begin with a problem. But how often do we look interiorly at our own reality? If we look at ourselves, we’ll likely find we’re not whole. We’re broken. Something feels lacking.

Be Reflective

This is where we ask the question: What is the meaning of my experience? After Ignatius’ leg was shattered by a cannon ball, he lay in bed recovering. During this time he reflected on his reality and realized that he was not who he was supposed to be. Ignatius’ reflective time in bed was the beginning of what would become Ignatian discernment and decision-making. Catholic education needs to give sufficient time for students to reflect on their reality. What are their gifts and talents? What are their hopes and dreams? What do they believe and why? This is where tapping into imagination and emotion is just as important as intellect. Ignatius dreamed about a future of virtue and service to God. He noticed different feelings arising in him that indicated something about how he wanted to change his life.

Be Loving

This is where we ask: What does the world need me to do? Moved by the love of God, Ignatius chose to act. Ignatius left his former way of life, repented, and sought out ways to help those in need. He went back to grammar school and then on to university, realizing the importance of an education. Our reflection should always lead us to action, an action that comes from a place of love. And our action in the world gives us new experiences to reflect on, leading us to more loving engagement with the world.

The Jesuits call this Ignatian cycle being a contemplative in action. This is what makes Catholic education different. We begin with our human reality: sin, messiness, imperfection, coupled with a desire to do good; we reflect on how God is calling us to greater wholeness; and then we respond to God by taking a step toward that wholeness. When I teach high school theology I’m not looking to get my students simply to memorize Bible stories and theological concepts. My hope is that what they learn can touch their own reality, move them to personal reflection, and help them uncover who God is calling them to be. Education ought to be a means toward that end, because once we discover that our vocation is ultimately to serve God by serving one another, we can become leaders who affect good in the world.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.

The Prayer of Listening

When I was a child I never understood when someone would tell me that I had to listen to God. No matter how hard I tried, I could not hear any voice. Why did the characters in the Bible hear God’s voice but I couldn’t? As I grew into a more mature spiritual life I discovered that God’s voice manifests in so many ways: in scripture, in other people, in my experiences, in my feelings, and in my gifts and talents.

In 1 Samuel 3 we hear the story of Samuel, who hears a voice call out to him in the night. He mistakes it for Eli’s call and goes to Eli saying, “Here I am.” This happens two more times and eventually Eli realizes that it is God who is calling Samuel. The scripture says that Samuel was not familiar with the Lord. He had not prayed before and he did not know anything about how God communicates. Eli tells Samuel that the next time he hears God call him he should respond, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” Samuel’s first experience of prayer is listening.

For most of us, our first experience of prayer involves speaking. Growing up we are told to say our prayers. We learn specific prayers like the Lord’s Prayer or we are encouraged to ask God for this or that. Seldom are children encouraged to listen. Though Samuel was a child, he was encouraged to listen to God. It took a very long time for me to learn how to listen to God, but I wonder if it would have come earlier had I been taught how to listen in prayer as a child.

The First Commandment of Ignatian prayer is to listen. Ignatius might call it contemplation. It involves listening to our reality through our senses—this is the basis of the Examen. When we imagine a gospel passage unfold in our minds, we first observe what happens before we start interacting. We observe Jesus’ actions. We listen to what Jesus says to his disciples. We hear a conversation. And then, slowly, we notice what happens within us. Only once we listen and receive from God can we respond to God. And when we do respond, we must then again pay attention and listen. Eventually this listening and responding and listening becomes a conversation, a “colloquy,” in Ignatian terms.

Prayerful listening occurs in the everyday, too. Keep a lookout for God through your day. Ask yourself questions like these: Where did God appear this week? What have I learned about myself and God through this experience? What set my heart on fire? What are the deep desires within me? What am I longing for? How does God feel when God looks upon me? What does God desire for me?

One of the best ways to listen to God is through the daily Examen. God In All Things offers a few audio examens you can use to help you listen better to God. Another way to learn how to listen is through spiritual direction. A spiritual director can accompany you in your journey with God. He or she can help you notice the ways in which God has been speaking to you or working in your life.

As with Samuel, the foundation of our prayer life begins with listening, looking, and noticing God all around us, calling out our name.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.

Why We Should Formally Recognize the Vocation of Lay Ecclesial Ministry

The Catholic Church is changing, and it’s not just because of Pope Francis. After Vatican II introduced a profound theology of the laity, lay people have been discovering that their purpose is more than to “pray, pay, and obey.” In fact, the Vatican II understanding of the laity taking their place primarily in the secular world is also being challenged. A 2011 study found that there are nearly 38,000 lay ecclesial ministers (LEMs) in the United States. These are non-ordained paid ministry staff working significant amounts of time in various kinds of official Church ministries. And with fewer ordinations to the priesthood, LEMs are becoming critical to the ministerial and pastoral functioning of the US Church. Given this, we might ask: why is lay ecclesial ministry not fully recognized as a genuine vocational calling?

In 2005, the US Bishops attempted to respond to the rise of LEM with a document called Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord. While it does emphasize collaboration with priests and bishops, it maintains the old school theology of the laity’s ministry as simply extensions of the priest’s ministry and whose primary place is in the secular world. The theology for this can get complicated and messy, but the main problem that arises is that it creates a ministerial hierarchy, where ordained clergy are viewed as more “valid” ministers than LEMs. This is problematic considering the current reality of the US Church, where more and more lay people work side-by-side with clergy and who in some cases are the primary administrators of parishes. Ministerial roles traditionally filled by priests are now frequently being filled by lay people. Many of these lay people have spent some years being formally trained, have received graduate degrees in theology and ministry, and have had solid pastoral formation. Their very vocational calling is to full-time ministry in the Church.

Sadly, many Catholics in the pews are only willing to approach a priest when in pastoral need rather than an LEM who may have more training or experience in areas where they need assistance. A hierarchy within ministry is maintained in a way that undermines the common mission of all. The reason for this, I believe, is because there is a lack of public, liturgical, and even sacramental recognition for LEMs. Clergy and religious carry with them “credentials” by virtue of their public ordination or solemn vows. LEMs do not have that. And having a degree is clearly not sufficient to reduce the ministerial hierarchy.

So how can we eliminate these problematic dynamics? Public liturgical recognition. I want to be clear that in no way do I want to dismantle or undermine the priesthood. I myself felt called to the priesthood in the past, and I recognize it as an important and critical vocation in the life of the Church. At the same time, more formal recognition of the vocations of lay persons who are called to full-time ministry would benefit these minsters and the people they serve. Boston College Professor Hosffman Ospino explains:

Unless we have clearly defined institutional channels to acknowledge and affirm the vocation of all lay ecclesial ministers, lay people formally involved in ministry will constantly find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of ‘proving’ the authenticity of their calling to the ecclesial community that they already serve in ministerial and professional ways.

Lay ecclesial ministry has typically been viewed more as a profession rather than as a vocation. Lay ministers receive “certification” and are perhaps occasionally blessed at the end of a parish Mass, but there remains a certain void. With the increase in LEMs, Hosffman Ospino says there is a need to make sure that LEMs are not seen as a “watered-down or a second-class alternative to the more traditional vocations to ministry….” LEMs move beyond the laity’s universal call to discipleship into intentional—and often full-time—ecclesial ministry. Their primary role is not in the secular activities of the world, but in the ecclesial activities of the Church, that is, being a formal minister of the Gospel in the name of the Church.

Certain dioceses like Chicago have held public liturgies, presided over by the local bishop, which affirm, commission, authorize, and bless the LEM vocation. However, diocesan-wide celebrations like this are uncommon. LEMs in most places go without formal ecclesial recognition beyond their hiring. Edward Hahnenberg, a supporter of a “concentric circles” model of ministry where clergy and LEMs are on a level ministerial plane yet maintain their unique identities, calls for a reordering of ecclesial ministry. He says that any ecclesial minister has these three characteristics: commitment, a public nature (versus private ministry), and recognition by the community/leadership.

In its best Catholic form, such recognition would occur in the context of a ritual. A liturgical ritual is the sign that the LEM has made a commitment, that the nature of their ministry is public and in the name of the Church, and that the ecclesial community has recognized and affirmed the calling. In a Church where the faithful in the pews have traditionally given more credence to a priest than a lay person, a public (or possibly even a sacramental) liturgy will give LEMs the same visible authorization and affirmation that priests receive at their ordination. Priests will see their lay colleagues entrusted with the same ministerial authority they have. And lay ecclesial ministry will finally be viewed as a credible vocational calling, perhaps even one that is sacramentally realized.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.

A New Path: How St. Ignatius’ Agere Contra Can Help Us Step Outside of Our Comfort Zones

A new year is a great chance to take a look at our human tendencies and perhaps move outside of our comfort zones.

Saint Ignatius knew our human tendencies well. He was a lover of the world and fell easily into lust and vanity. The pull he felt toward such things he called the “evil spirit.” Many of us have a tendency to stick with what’s comfortable and known. This autopilot can get us into trouble, though. Over time Ignatius studied how this evil spirit would tempt him into sin or a disordered life. In his journal, he noted ways that he could fight against those things that drew him away from God and a good, healthy life. One of his methods is called agere contra (to act against). In practice, it means to try to do something different than your everyday habits or respond in a new way to everyday situations.

Agere contra can be put into practice for all kinds of situations, including the following:

In Prayer
Part of the spiritual life includes times of desolation. Those are times when we feel darkness or emptiness, distance from God, lack of faith or hope, and feelings of restlessness or despair. If we’re normally ardently prayerful, we might suddenly find a certain dryness in our prayer or lack of motivation for it. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius asks the retreatant to spend a full hour in prayer. If we experience consolation in prayer, it might be easy to sit for the full hour—but when we experience dryness and desolation in prayer, we may be tempted to shorten the time. St. Ignatius offers an agere contra method to respond to this temptation:

“For this reason, the person who is exercising himself, in order to act against the desolation and conquer the temptations, ought always to stay somewhat more than the full hour; so as to accustom himself not only to resist the adversary, but even to overthrow him.”

(Spiritual Exercises, 13) 

In Occasions of Sin
If I find myself quick to judge someone, I may “act against” the way I would normally react, making an attempt to give the person the benefit of the doubt. If a certain movie or television program causes me to obsess over something potentially sinful, I may act against the tendency to watch it. Acting against sinful tendencies can help keep me in check and on the path of bettering myself through God’s grace.

In Personal Will
Going against a particular tendency can give me personal strength and will power. At my favorite restaurant, I might have the tendency to order the chili burger with cheese fries. And it’s so tempting! But I note a good-looking salad. It sounds good, but boy, that burger and fries seem to be calling my name. But I always order that. Agere contra steps in: I know I haven’t had veggies in a while. So even though the salad might be less enjoyable than the burger and fries, I choose the salad—not just for the health factors but also as an exercise of my will power. And why shouldn’t spiritual strength also come from it? Why couldn’t agere contra help me focus on God’s gifts to me? This could come into play easily with the amount of food I eat or whether I order dessert.

Just Because
Sometimes agere contra can simply mean taking a different path. I choose not to take the quickest route home from work to enjoy more solitary time (maybe some alone time with God). I choose to give up my tendency to plan a date night and let my significant other decide this time. Instead of traveling abroad this summer, I choose somewhere domestic. I choose tea instead of coffee. It’s not all about practicality or occasion of sin. It’s about doing something different, because when I act against my “normal” there’s a chance I’ll learn something new—about God, about relationships, about myself.

Remember, this is about going against what you would normally tend to do. We recognize that sometimes our human tendencies can be flawed and that we’re also creatures of habit. Habit can be a good thing, but not if it prevents us from growing as persons loved by God. Ignatius warns against a “disordered” life. Having order does not mean acting like a robot and never straying from your schedule or plan. Having an ordered life means you can let go of certain attachments or unhealthy relationships, you can adapt to new situations, and you can remove blockades that prevent you from growing more fully into your true self. Agere contra is one way to help jar us out of the safe path we’ve always been taking.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.

Choices Made Sacred

Saint Ignatius’ life and personal reflection opened the Catholic Church to a rich approach to discerning both life’s smallest and most daunting choices. I find Advent offers a great parallel to Ignatian discernment and decision-making. It’s a time of preparation and pondering, ending with the glorious incarnation. As we prepare to celebrate the incarnation—the coming of God to earth through Christ—we can imagine our decisions as being miniature incarnations of God in the world. Making choices in the light of God’s promptings, we bring the love and grace of God into the world.

The Second Week of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises offers a meditation on the incarnation seen through the eyes of the Trinity. There is chaos, people rich and poor, the starving and fed, joy and mourning, living and dying, violence and peace-making, laughter and sorrow. Sometimes we’re in a place of chaos regarding our decisions. What do I do with my life? Which school should I apply to? What job do I take? Who do I date? Thomas Merton once wrote,

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.

Ignatius says that when we feel varying emotions and pulls in different directions it’s good. This is the raw place of God’s language. It’s time to listen.

We may not receive a clear angelic sign from God like Mary did in the Annunciation story, but God does offer us signs through our interior feelings and desires. Ignatius notes that there are good and bad forces (or “spirits”) at work, pushing us toward God or pulling us away from God. I think when Mary was asked to make a decision about bearing the Son of God, she was in a place of freedom. Regarding our choices, we should be able to say, “I will be okay with either of these choices if God leads me to it.” This is freedom. Even after saying yes, Mary had the chance to ponder her future choices. But she pondered all these things with freedom. Paul Coutinho, SJ says:

When good things happen in Mary’s life, she accepts the good and celebrates it without clinging to it. And during the painful times in life, she flows with the pain without clinging to either the good or the painful.

Ignatius says that in addition to noticing the “pulls” and feelings within us about a particular decision, we can be logical and make a list of pros and cons. We can also bring it to prayer and ask what God thinks about us making a certain choice.

Over time our discernment gains clarity and the signs in our prayer, feelings, and experiences begin to point toward a choice. The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent talks about John the Baptist fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of making straight paths for the Lord. The path we’re walking on begins to straighten out when we continue in discernment. But Ignatius warns us to test the good and bad spirits that may be nudging us one way or another. If you’re moving away from God, the good spirit will raise doubts and try to change your course. On the other hand, if you’re moving closer to God, this spirit will give you peace and reassurance. 1 John 4 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”

Advent leads to Christmas Day. As Mary gave birth, Jesus took his first breath. We do this in a way when we commit to a decision. The incarnation means that all things are good, including the process and fruits of discernment. Choosing to live one way or another or to do one thing or another is an incarnation of God. God’s will becomes present in a new way in our lives. This means our very choices are made sacred. But even after we’ve taken that first breath of a commitment, there are plenty more life choices yet to come where the process of incarnation happens over again.

This post is based on the four-week Discerning Advent series from GodInAllThings.com.

No Cup for You!

My parish does not offer the cup at communion. Unfortunately, this issue has been the cause of some division in the Catholic Church at large. Rules and norms vary from parish to parish. Yet for the first thousand years of the church, the Precious Blood was indeed distributed to all the faithful, not just consumed by the priest. Why the change and the fuss?

In the first half of the last millennium, along with the growing division between the clergy and laity (even physically within the worship space), the consumption of the eucharistic wine became a privilege of clergy alone. It became a symbol—intended or not—of what sets apart the clergy and the laity. Liturgical theologian Mary Collins talks about how symbols like these are meant to show the contrasting divinity and humanity of Christ, as well as his eminence and lowliness. Christ’s high and low natures have traditionally played out in symbols like male (high) vs. female (low) or the hierarchy(high) vs. laity (low). I believe reserving the chalice for the clergy alone became such a symbol.

What has happened after Vatican II is that some of these traditional symbols are no longer effective in conveying their original meaning. Women are now more active than men in parish life. Lay people distribute communion along with their priests and pastors. There is greater participation in the life of the Church, as Vatican II called for. Still, the residue of traditional symbols of Christ’s eminence and lowliness can create “liturgy wars” where people fight over whose theology is “correct”.

The problem with theology is how grey and varied it is. There is never just one theology, one way of interpretation, or even one way of worship. When I asked my pastor about why the chalice was not offered, he told me it was mainly because there were not enough eucharistic ministers to offer it at their seven weekend Masses. When I brought it up to another priest on staff he said this wasn’t the reason; it was not being offered because it wasn’t necessary. “Some people are confused about the theology,” he said. “You don’t have to receive the Precious Blood to receive the fullness of Jesus—the host is all you need.” While this is true, such a response (which I’ve heard a number of times) dismisses another important theology: fullness of participation.

When Vatican II made provisions for local bishops to decide whether or not to offer the cup, it was in the spirit of fullness of participation in the eucharistic meal. Not offering the cup to everyone present at Mass is like me inviting you to dinner and serving wine only to myself, not to you. Yes, you’d still be nourished by the meal—you don’t need the wine. But you wouldn’t be fully participating in the entirety of the meal.

Early eucharistic meals were real meals, centered around table fellowship, communion with one another. The US Bishops even say that “sharing in both eucharistic species reflects more fully the sacred realities that the Liturgy signifies.” That sacred reality is the full sharing in the Lord’s supper and its deeper meanings. By removing the chalice, the symbol is incomplete.

With the recent synod discussion on whether divorced and re-married Catholics should be able to receive communion, it is important to reflect fully on the many ways communion divides our churches (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). Pope Francis realizes that theological differences are not the only reasons for divisions. He also includes dogmatic and moral principles, “pastoral differences, political motives and self-interest to the point of clashing due to resentments and personal ambition.” At a recent Wednesday audience, the pope recalled his own first Communion and said that full communion is full participation in the Body and Blood of Christ. “The Church is tempted by evil, which tries to divide her,” he said. Communion is not about division; it is about welcome.

I’m not sure if my parish will ever offer the cup at Mass, but I sure do miss it. My greater concern is that my pastor will not acknowledge the laity’s yearning for full participation in the eucharistic meal. My participation in the Catholic community is not about certain religious pieties or church politics; it’s about my full participation within the Body of Christ where there are no haves and have-nots at Christ’s table.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.