Christmas Octave Saints, Liberal Arts, and the Problem of Suffering

St. StephenThe week after Christmas begins with the liturgical celebration of St. Stephen, martyred as a young man, and ends with the celebration of the long-lived Pope St. Sylvester. But St. Sylvester could very well have become a martyr, having begun his papacy just before the Emperor Diocletian’s widespread, horrific persecution of the Church. Both men braved the demands of leadership and the possibility of death for their faith and for those whom they led.

How might they have prepared themselves to confront suffering and death? The scant information about either man’s life makes it impossible to know much. As a theology professor, I wonder if education had a role. St. Stephen’s brilliant defense of the Gospel before the Sanhedrin leads some to think he might have studied under Gamaliel. St. Sylvester, a Roman, might have received a liberal arts education and in any case governed St. Sylvestera Church led by bishops like St. Athanasius and Eusebius of Caesarea, whose family background, work, and writings give telling signs of their liberal arts training.

Ancient Roman culture relied on the liberal arts education to prepare its leaders, but today we struggle to show its practical value or wonder if it should have any. To enlarge my own perspective, I have begun reading through The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce Kimball. In his introduction Kimball explains that some have held the liberal arts tradition to teach an ideal conception of the human person, others have held it to teach eloquence through the study of language, literature, and rhetoric, and still others have held it to pursue knowledge of the truth of things, especially of the human person.

While recognizing the value of each of these three approaches, Catholic theological and philosophical traditions lean upon the last one because it seeks to know perennial qualities of reality, often denoted by “nature,” as in human nature. Belief in God encourages this search for the perennial qualities of things, which are created “good” by God. What is this goodness?

Let us consider another of these “big questions”— “What follows this earthly life?”—to illustrate the kind of thinking that the liberal arts wedded to the Catholic tradition seeks to promote. A liberal arts approach will examine various responses to this question and their implications. We can compare two approaches to care for the dying, one recognizing a Christian vision of the afterlife, Midwife for Souls: Spiritual Care for the Dying by Kathy Kalina, and a secular vision that remains agnostic, Living at the End of Life: A Hospice Nurse Addresses the Most Common Questions by Karen Whitley Bell.

In a nutshell, here is the difference between these two views of dying. If one does not recognize any life after death, then dying is about finding and celebrating a new depth of meaning in the life one has lived, as Bell illustrates:

For now, what I’ve come to understand is that we live among people who understand, not what will be after the last breath, but what can be with this breath, for this life, this moment. They live with a clarity of purpose, with compassion, kindness, and grace.… From them I’ve learned that it’s possible to live that afterlife – that paradise, that heaven, that rebirth – to forge a better existence, now (202).

By contrast, if one recognizes an actual life beyond this one, then dying can be a preparation for that life, even if one’s last years or months also involve discerning and celebrating the meaning of one’s earthly life. It is the time when the person not only detaches from this life but attaches to the next.

The “spiritual tools” of the caregiver help the dying examine their lives, and therefore easily draw upon the liberal arts tradition of leading an “examined life.” I do not know whether Kalina or Bell ever pursued such an education, but I do know that the liberal arts tradition offers rich versions of the spiritual tools each offers.

Take narrative for example. Bell teaches spiritual lessons primarily by telling the stories of her patients. She then adds open questions, often suggested by the stories and designed to help people explore their deepest values. Kalina too encourages the practice of “life review, sorting out the events of life and finding meaning” (20).

Given her theological convictions, Kalina’s primary tool is prayer and her primary narrative is scripture. Only God overcomes sin and brings the person into union with Himself. The caregiver asks God to receive the dying person into heaven and to help her help the dying and their families perform the spiritual work of preparation. For example, Kalina observes that some patients begin to moan at the very end of the dying process. She does not assume that this moaning is caused by pain because she knows from scripture that it could be the work of the Holy Spirit within the person: “as St. Paul explains in the Romans 8:26, ‘when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words’” (35-36). When Kalina hears this groaning, she first looks for indications that it has caused by pain. But if there are no such indications, she does not try to quiet the moaning and instead prays with the Spirit in the dying person. It might do productive spiritual work.

Whether one encounters the dramatic martyrdom of St. Stephen or the many trials of St. Sylvester, one handles suffering and death better with some personal preparation and with the help of others. The liberal arts tradition remains well equipped with narratives expressing the meanings people have found in life, suffering, and death.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry to the Sick and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Hurts So Good

With Christmas having just passed, now is not the time for 1980s pop music nostalgia. However, the title (and very little else!) of John Mellencamp’s 1982 hit does recall Friday’s feast day of St. Stephen Proto-Martyr. Tertullian’s challenge continues to inspire: “The blood of the martyrs are the seeds of the Church” (Apology #50). Scripture itself attests to this; after SSaint Stephentephen’s murder, persecution actually spreads the Church further abroad (Acts 8:1). Once Saul himself converts, the dispersion accelerates even more. St. Mark repeatedly describes Jesus’ actions as immediate; St. Luke instead testifies to the Gospel’s relentless expansion. Nothing, not even death itself, thwarts it. Just before St. Stephen appears in Acts, Gamaliel the Pharisee warns: “For if this idea of theirs or its execution is of human origin, it will collapse; but if it is from God, you will never be able to put it down, and you risk finding yourselves at war with God” (Acts 5:38-39).

This reading, perhaps too common, cannot be separated from that this life-giving blood comes at great cost. John Allen, Jr., has among his many credits constantly shone light on the widespread persecution of Christians in the twenty-first century. This comes after the twentieth century, which witnessed regimes spanning the political spectrum willing to kill Christians who refused to forsake their faith for momentary political or social ease. It is very easy to type and read these lines; living them to follow Christ, as St. Stephen first showed us, is another matter. And yet that is our calling. Pope Francis has repeatedly made this very point. Nevertheless, this also requires joy. The angel first tells the shepherds: “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10).

The liturgical calendar offers little respite as the northern hemisphere’s days darken and then slowly regain the light. The year ends in November with the Feast of Christ the King, a feast instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a reaffirmation of God’s sovereignty confronted by human alternatives both fascist and Communist. Then four weeks of waiting through Advent are culminated in the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity. The very next day we are reminded, though, that death awaits us all and for some that will come precisely as a result of their belief in Christ. This juxtaposition should not surprise us; after all, just hours before we celebrated God’s incarnation, surely a juxtaposition like no other, that begins in a barn. The next day, December 27, is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. In his own way St. John provided a harmonizing note for understanding martyrdom: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Jesus was a real person!

The eternal Word, born of the Father before time began, today emptied himself for our sake and became man.

Antiphon 3, Evening Prayer I
Christmas Day

A baby is born in Bethlehem, and all the world is changed. God has become man. I’ll say it again – God has become man. All religions are not the same. A baby is born in Bethlehem, and all the world is changed.

Christianity is the only religion to claim the God-Man. Other faiths claim prophets, or representations of a spiritual entity, but only Christians claim that the God they worship, the God they claim created the heavens and the earth, became a human being and lived among us in the flesh.

I can recall the first time that this fact really struck me. I was a student in Rome and was on the Scavi tour at Saint Peter’s Basilica. We were at the tomb of Saint Peter, and I was looking at his bones. Now, my family had a custom of visiting the cemetery, usually at Christmas and Easter, placing flowers at the graves of our relatives, and praying for them. As I was “visiting the grave” of Peter the Apostle, the thought occurred to me that this was similar to visiting my grandparents’ graves. Then I thought, “Oh my gosh, Peter was a real person!” Then, immediately following, “If Peter was a real person, then Jesus was a real person!” Thus began my insatiable appetite for all things theological. I just had to learn everything I could about this Jesus – this very real person who walked this earth.The_Nativity_of_Jesus_Christ_by_logIcon

The Incarnation is a doctrine of faith unique to Christianity. When this doctrine is ignored or underappreciated, Jesus can become anything from a wise prophet to Santa Claus. He is neither. He is the God-Man, the perfect, intimate unity of God and human. He is the One who, by His death and resurrection, makes it possible for all humans to be intimately united to God the Father. Therein lies our Christmas joy!

A baby is born in Bethlehem, and all the world is changed.


Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Don’t be afraid of the dark

When I was little I wasn’t exactly scared of the dark; but I always kept the door of my room open just a bit when I went to bed, to allow a fine stream of light from the hall to shine into my darkened room. That soft beam didn’t light up my room, but it let in just enough light to make me feel comfortable, keeping my doll’s faces from looking like monster’s, or my curtains like ghosts. I guess a night light would have done the trick, but I didn’t want light coming from within my room; I wanted it to reach in from the outside, to connect me to the safety and love I knew lay just outside my door. That light from the hallway pierced the darkness of my room and let me know that the night was not to be feared, and the darkness had no power to hurt me.

Today is December 21, the winter solstice. It marks the deepest, darkest time of the year, and our entrance into the cold winter. Yet it’s also a turning point in the cycle of the seasons, marking the beginning of the journey toward the sunshine and new life of the Spring. We know the winter brings with it severe weather, blizzards and ice storms, cold winds and sometimes nights so dark it’s difficult to find a single star in the sky. Nearly everyone “dreams of a white Christmas,” but after weeks – or months – of cold and darkness, the swift coming of Spring is everyone’s fervent wish. We long for warmth; we long for the light.

Nativity iconIn a few days we will experience the coming of the Light on Christmas Day. Jesus Christ, “the light of the world” (cf. John 8:12) will enter into our darkness. He doesn’t enter in an explosion of light, a “big bang,” or a fiery descent from the heavens. Instead, Jesus comes to us much like that sliver of light that entered into my childhood bedroom. He chooses to bring His light to us as a baby, small and vulnerable, yet with a radiance that lets us know there is safety, comfort and love just within our reach. The icon of The Nativity of Our Lord illustrates this by its extreme contrast of dark and light. In the center of the icon is the cave with its rough-hewn, jagged edges. The cave is not just dark, but pitch black. It is an impenetrable darkness that leaves the viewer with the ominous feeling that no light could possibly breach it. It instills a sense of fear and despair. Yet this darkness represents not only the death and sin that has held us captive since the fall of our First Parents, but the grief, pain and insecurity we each carry. Those craggy edges are the obstacles we face both from without, and from within ourselves.

Just outside the cave lies the Child, the Source of Light that illumines the rest of the icon’s landscape. How can one so little generate enough light to make even the darkness of the cave seem inconsequential? How can such weakness and vulnerability be God’s powerful answer to sin and death? This is the mystery of our salvation, the mystery of Christmas – and the mystery of a tiny beam of light coming from a place of love that can wash away the fear of the dark. The Evangelist tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18) Love illuminates the darkness, overpowers fear, and is strong enough to defeat death. Not just any love can do something so marvelous, however; only the One who is Love has that authority.

The Child Jesus enters our dark world as that beam of Light that appears so insignificant, yet somehow comforts us, gives us peace, and reassures us that salvation is upon us. The Baby Jesus in the icon is not wrapped in the sweet “swaddling clothes” of a Christmas carol, but in the tightly bound cloth of a burial shroud, reminding us that His light can only fully enlighten the world and definitively cast out the darkness after it has first been extinguished on the Cross. This Baby Jesus is vulnerable, and He too is pursued by the darkness of the cave, which doesn’t yet recognize the Light. This Baby Jesus lived and grew under the heart of Mary, and emerged from her to reintroduce Love into the world. It is this same Baby Jesus who desires to live and grow in our hearts, from where His Light can emerge and radiate out to all whom we encounter. This “littlest One” is born in the darkness in order to bring us fully into the Light.

As a grown up I usually sleep better in a darkened room. But even now, knowing that there is a Light spiritually bathing me in Its warmth fills me with the comfort I felt as a child. Perhaps that’s because I am a child: a child of God who is King of Kings, Prince of Peace, and the Light who outshines even the coldest, scariest darkness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Art of Preparation

A number of years’ ago, my sister read an article titled “Be a Guest at your own Party!” The gist of the article was that with excellent preparation holiday entertaining can be stress free. To this day, my sister and I still judge how well we prepared for a party by asking if we feel like guests. As much as we get that good preparation goes a long way, sometimes it seems that no preparation is enough to make the Christmas holidays stress free. Perhaps this is why we have been given the season of Advent—a liturgical season designed to help us prepare not just for the celebration of Christ’s birth, like the way we prepare to celebrate a birthday, but rather the real celebration of anticipating Christ’s return and the coming of the fullness of the kingdom of God. And seriously, who of us is really ready for that party?

Euro shots 038On the one hand, it is the time of year when the spiritual emphasis of preparation matches the secular reality—there is a lot of preparation necessary to celebrate Christmas in the parish and in our homes. And, while many of our Christmas traditions have spiritual roots: the symbolism of the wreath and tree, the tradition of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus in giving gifts, the exquisite storytelling of our favorite Christmas carols, baking, gift –buying, gift-wrapping, cooking, and decorating can overwhelm and even steal away the time we need for spiritual preparation.

Imagine if you knew when Christ would return? What would you need to do to be ready for that? I read an Advent reflection that described the days of Advent as a time to make room for Christ: by clearing out all in our hearts that is not Christ. We celebrate Christmas specifically to help us make a habit of taking stock of how ready we are to receive Christ.

One of my favorite Scripture passages which captures the art of this spiritual preparation is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 25:1-13). Tasked with keeping their lamps light in anticipation of the coming of Our Lord, five of the women thought ahead and brought additional flasks of oil and five, did not stop to think of what they needed to get the job done. Those unprepared and without oil were locked out of the feast. This parable (depicted here in the photo of the beautiful mosaic found on the front of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome), is worth making part of your Advent prayer and reflection.

For me, it is a reminder of the contemplative and active dimenswisefoolishvirginsions of the Christian life. Preparation is a contemplative act in that we are drawn deeper into the mystery of the unfolding plan of salvation. Coming to know the Lord in prayer is the surest way to be confident we will recognize the Lord when he comes. Serving the Lord is the other dimension of preparation. Oil, in the parable, is symbolic of works of love, and so the subtle message of the parable is that at the eleventh hour, the foolish women could not borrow the good works of their wise sisters! At the heart of Christmas is the exchange of gifts—material and otherwise that really are signs of the love we have for those receiving the gifts we share. The poem below captures this so beautifully:

Face to face with our limits,

Blinking before the frightful

Stare of our frailty,

Promise rises

Like a posse of clever maids

Who do not fear the dark

Because their readiness

Lights the search.

Their oil

Becomes the measure of their love,

Their ability to wait—

An indication of their

Capacity to trust and take a chance.

Without the caution or predictability

Of knowing day or hour,

They fall back on that only

Of which they can be sure:

Love precedes them,

Before it

No door will every close.

                                                      (T.J. O’Gorman)

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

A Vision for a New Year!

YCL Logo-1It is the Year of Consecrated Life, proclaimed by Pope Francis and begun on November 30, 2014. It is actually more than a year … extending until February 2, 2016! In 1997, Pope John Paul II instituted February 2nd as World Day for Consecrated Life, which is attached to the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

This year is to be along the lines of the Year of the Priest a few years ago or the Year of Faith of more recent memory – a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, this makes it pretty exciting! In Pope Francis’ video message that was viewed at the Vigil to begin the Year of Consecrated Life, he set the stage, “My first words, on this occasion, are of gratitude to the Lord for the precious gift of consecrated life to the Church and to the world. May this Year of Consecrated Life be an occasion for all members of the People of God to thank the Lord, from whom every good comes, for the gift of consecrated life, appreciating it appropriately.” It is the Year OF Consecrated Life and FOR the whole Church.

Much of the content connected with this celebratory Year is directed to Consecrated persons, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in it for everyone. Since it is the season when we might start thinking about making New Year’s resolutions, I thought the three “aims” of the Year of Consecrated Life might give us food for thought.

Pope Francis issued a letter – his full message – for the Year, issued on November 29, 2014, the eve of the Year and directed to his “Brothers and Sisters in Consecrated Life.” (If you’re interested in reading the whole thing, you can find it here.)

The first aim of the Year of Consecrated life “is to look at the past with gratitude.” (Introduction) In a couple of weeks we will start to see all of the “year in review” programs and news captions. Do we have our own manner of reviewing our year or several years? Do I tend to focus on my mistakes or bad things that happened? Pope Francis starts us off with the disposition of gratitude as we look back. He invites Consecrated persons to claim the richness of their Institute’s history, charism, and action of the Spirit which brings us to the point where we are today.

This is a valuable activity because, as Pope Francis explains, “Recounting our history is essential for preserving our identity, for strengthening our unity as a family and our common sense of belonging.  More than an exercise in archaeology or the cultivation of mere nostalgia, it calls for following in the footsteps of past generations in order to grasp the high ideals, and the vision and values which inspired them, beginning with the founders and foundresses and the first communities.” (1.1) Advent calls us to the same kind of remembering. In the readings of last Sunday, Peter asks us “what sort of person ought you to be?” Looking at our past can help remind us of our goals, values, and ideal, and recognize how we live consistently with this vision and where we might do better.

final_ycl_logo_en_newThe second aim of the Year of Consecrated Life gives us some concrete follow-through from the first aim: “This Year also calls us to live the present with passion.  Grateful remembrance of the past leads us, as we listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, to implement ever more fully the essential aspects of our consecrated life.” (1.2) Recalling those things most important to me, the things innate to my identity, I can claim them as my own (again or for the first time) and live out of them, anew, with passion!

The challenge to Consecrated persons is no less the same for all believers. “For the various founders and foundresses, the Gospel was the absolute rule, whereas every other rule was meant merely to be an expression of the Gospel and a means of living the Gospel to the full…. The creativity of charity is boundless; it is able to find countless new ways of bringing the newness of the Gospel to every culture and every corner of society.” (1.2) Does this fit into our plan for the New Year? It is a nice idea, but what does it look like? Pope Francis continues,

“Living the present with passion means becoming “experts in communion,”… In a polarized society, where different cultures experience difficulty in living alongside one another, where the powerless encounter oppression, where inequality abounds, we are called to offer a concrete model of community which, by acknowledging the dignity of each person and sharing our respective gifts, makes it possible to live as brothers and sisters….So, be men and women of communion!  Have the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one (cf. Jn 17:21).” (1.2)

As in all things Catholic, there are never two without three! The third aim should come as no surprise: to embrace the future with hope. Hope for the future makes the past both meaningful and bearable, and the passion for the present possible. This is not meant to be a wishful-thinking hope, but a leap of faith. How can I embrace that which is not yet here? Pope Francis explains, “This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37).  This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future.  It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us.” (1.3) How am I writing my own history? Can I trust in the God for whom all things are possible? If I resolve to the live the present with passion, can I add that next layer of commitment to embrace the future with hope?

The Year of Consecrated Life is just beginning; may the blessings and graces of this Year be enjoyed by you and all People of Good Will!

Sr. Kelly Connors, pm, teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online and is member of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary.

Dying on Your Feet at the End of the World

When my children were young, I homeschooled them for five years. vision st johnDuring that time, we were part of a large group of homeschooling families in my parish who received spiritual counsel and pastoral support from Fr. Joseph Sheehan of blessed memory. When I met Fr. Sheehan he was about eighty years old, a “retired” priest who served our parish as a part-time associate assigned to say mass on weekends and visit the elderly once a week. That certainly is enough to ask of an octogenarian priest, but Fr. Sheehan’s view of “retirement” was vastly different. He visited the elderly and the sick often; he mentored the homeschool families; he offered Mass and heard confessions nearly daily (this was a rare parish that had confessions at 7 p.m. seven days a week, and there always was a long queue). Why did he work so hard when he deserved to rest in the winter of his life? His motto was: “I want to die on my feet.”

In the mid-1990s, the first of the many apocalyptic books in the Left Behind series was published. From the perspective of Catholic theology, they are significantly problematic, but they were hugely popular among Christian readers. Over the next several years, more books in the series appeared, and the interest in the End Times waxed. Combine that with the apocalyptic themes present in Advent, and Fr. Sheehan was bombarded with parishioners seeking counsel on how to prepare for the end of the world and, moreover, worried about the signs of the Apocalypse they saw in what Pope St. John Paul II termed the “culture of death” that characterizes the modern world. And then the new millennium was fast approaching. It was December 1999, and even the sanest people were worried about possible apocalyptic devastation caused by Y2K at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve when worldwide computer systems threatened to shut down. No doubt some people still haven’t used up their fifteen year stockpile of water bottles and batteries!

Fr. Sheehan mounted the pulpit as Y2K loomed ominously before us and boomed: “It is clear: We have reached the End Times. Like a thief in the night, the world may come to an end – any day, any hour, any minute.” The people in the pews gasped and winced, bracing themselves to meet the End. Then he said, “YOUR END.” Indeed, the end is near for every person, some sooner than later, but for all, soon. Every single life is just a dot on the timeline of the world. “Worry about your own end,” he said. If each one of us lived as though today were our last, no one would worry over the End Times; in fact, the world would resemble less and less a culture stinking of death and destruction. Be penitential and joyful (for Catholics, not a contradiction in terms) by living a life of constant sacrificial love. In other words, we are to “die on our feet” for the Lord.

The 1986 documentary Mother Teresa, portrays her in the winter of her life. One of the sisters relates that a doctor told her Mother Teresa had a very bad heart and that she should rest. Mother would hear none of that and said she wanted to “die on her feet.” And, the sister said, “That is just what she is doing,” giving every last drop for Jesus. She lived a life, not worried about The End, but Her End, being so spent of her own self, that when she took her last breath, Jesus could enter fully. Paradoxically, worrying about her end was to forget about herself. Dying on one’s feet is a metaphor for going outside of oneself, moving towards another for God’s sake. We “save” ourselves by saving others through sacrificial love.

My mother Mimi lives with my family. She is an Advent baby, born in mid-Grandma and me 2012December. This Advent, she will celebrate her ninetieth birthday. As I write this, she is dying on her feet. She is blessed today with being able to cook, drive, read, remember, and well, pretty much take care of my husband, me, and my four mostly grown children. She also helps her friends still living who are not as fortunate as she in health of mind and body (they are dying on their feet in a different but no less meaningful way in their humble need of others to care for them). While being ninety may concentrate the mind on “the end,” you’d never know it from my mother, from Fr. Sheehan, from Mother Teresa. My Advent prayer for you is that you may die on your feet at the end of [your] world.

Happy 90th Birthday, Mom!

Patricia Sodano Ireland is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Program Director of OnlineTheology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

Mary and Advent (Or, Why Legos Just Don’t Satisfy the Infinite Thirst for God)

My kids are into Legos right now. They are perhaps not my favorite toy, to which the bottom of my foot will testify.Legos

But Legos—excuse me, interlocking brick construction systems—are at least an interesting case-study in human desire. To wit: Kid A desperately wants Lego Set X. He thinks, speaks, and dreams of Lego Set X. He obtains Lego Set X—rejoicing! He constructs Lego Set X. It’s fun.

On the day after comes the Great Letdown. Onto desiring Lego Set Y!

We adults may not try to fill the God-hole in our hearts with Lego sets. Then again, maybe we do.

Or perhaps we go for more Grow out of legossophisticated alternatives. Like the iPhone 6. Or the right job. Or the great relationship. But we are still just overgrown kids, vainly throwing Lego bricks into an infinite hole and wondering why we still feel lousy.


All of this points to the providence of having the Feast of the Immaculate Conception right smack in Advent, on December 8. The season of Advent these days has become the time to advert to our infinite desire for God amidst and despite the relentless consumerism of December. The purity of Mary, which is the product of her Immaculate Conception, releases her to drink deeply from the only well that satisfies human thirst: the truth and love of the triune God.

Mary fully allows the Father to achieve what Fr. Robert Imbelli in his beautiful book Rekindling the Christic Imagination calls “Christification”:

Christians are called not merely to the imitation of Christ but to participation in his own life, gradually becoming transformed from their old self to the new self, recreated according to the image and likeness of their Savior, who loves them and, in the Eucharist, continues to give himself for them.

The icon is the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice, a classic Russian icon. Mary calls us to come and drink from that chalice that never runs dry, the eternicon 3al, self-giving love of her Son Jesus. Like Christ arising from the chalice, so are we, as little Christs, resurrected into the newness of Christian life by his Eucharist grace. The Christification that God has achieved in Mary, he wants to do for each of us. What Mary has allowed God to do for her, she wishes us to experience through her maternal care. And we will, if we say fiat as she did.

This, then, is the hope of Advent: the hope of transformation into Christ, the satisfaction of those infinite longings for the triune God. This is the hope we bring to others. “The New Evangelization is not about a program,” Fr. Imbelli writes, “but about a Person and about participation in the new life he enables.”

As cool as Legos are, that’s much, much better.

Angela Franks teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


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What Is Spirituality?

“Time and again, the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs.
But each time, it was the dog that died.”    —G. K. Chesterton

The categories we use may obscure understanding. Some are vague, unclear, and misleading. For example, religion, art, mysticism, and culture may be employed in different ways in tension with one another. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not use “spirituality” in its account of a life in Christ. Only in the last 300 years has “spirituality” come into use. “Spirituality” was not used in the philosophical tradition of the West or in the biblical-theological tradition. The term “spirituality,” if not clearly defined, brings confusion. For example, in the present cultural malaise many say that they practice spirituality, but not religion, where spirituality is a positive, religion a negative.

Spirituality in its most general sense clearly has to do with human lived experience.

“the contents of the concept can be determined approximately in a positive sense as the practical or existential fundamental attitude of a person, the consequence and expression of his religious—-or, more generally, his ethically committed—understanding of existence: his life is entirely determined in what he does and in his state of being (habitus) by his objective insights into life and decision for life.”[1]

This view of spirituality applies to all, not just Christians. We speak of “Carmelite” spirituality, of Buddhist spirituality, of “lay” spirituality, but also of “spirituality for nurses.” This sets the human spirit at the center and emphasizes life’s specifically human dimension.

What is Christian Spirituality?

The adjective “Christian” substantively modifies “spirituality,” shifting focus from what happens within the spirit of an individual person over to that person’s relationship with God through Jesus Christ. According to Cunningham and Egan,

“Christian spirituality is the lived encounter with Jesus Christ in his spirit. In that sense, Christian spirituality is concerned not so much with the doctrines of Christianity as with the ways those teachings shape us as individuals who are part of the Christian community who live in the larger world.”[2]

What is Catholic Spirituality?

Andrej_Rublëv_001Should we speak of “Christian spirituality in the Catholic tradition,” or speak of “Catholic spirituality?” There is a historically rich tradition of spiritual writers quite conscious of being Catholic. They reflect the lived experience of being Catholic. The life of the Church is so substantively continuous that we can discern a “Catholic spirituality.” This Catholic spirituality coincides with that of the undivided Church for the first 1000 years, with the “Catholic Church” in the west for the next 500 years, and for the “Roman Catholic Church” for the 500 years since the Reformation. Catholic spirituality captures the essential dimension of Christian spirituality that is only captured when attention is drawn to the dimension that is “distinctively Catholic.” The distinctively Catholic dimension is its deep rootedness in a distinctive view of the catholicity of the Church and of the Catholic way of living.

“Catholic spirituality is a deep Christian way of living, practiced by the baptized members of the Catholic Church, which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, encounters Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of the Father, and thus is conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.” Catholic spirituality is thus not about a mere encounter with God. It is not merely about being a Christian. Its practice is about the life of the baptized believer within the Church, participating in the dynamic love of the Son for the Father in the inner life of the Triune God.

Spirituality or Spiritualities

There is one Catholic spirituality because the Church is one, holy, Catholic and apostolic, one body in Christ. Catholic spirituality is the practice of discipleship within the Church whereby one enters into the Triune life of God through Christ. Yet the Church has experienced a history of two thousand years. It lived through the end of antiquity, the medieval period, the tragedy of the Reformation, and the secularization of the modern period. These cultural situations call forth different forms of discipleship. The one Catholic spirituality takes many different forms. We speak of multiple Catholic spiritualities, of Saint Augustine or Saint Teresa of Avila. We speak of priestly, religious, or lay spiritualities. We speak of the great traditions of the different Catholic spiritualities, such as Benedictine, Carmelite, Franciscan, and Jesuit spiritualities. Each is a specific form of the one Catholic spirituality of a life of discipleship in the Church that enters into the life of the Triune God. Each enables baptized Christians to conform their lives to the life of Christ.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Gospel as Norm and Critique of All Spirituality in the Church,” in Explorations in Theology: III. Creator Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 281.

[2] Lawrence Cunningham and Keith Egan, Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1996) p. 7.