Grace and the Middle Voice of Spirituality

Grace and the Middle Voice of Spirituality

 

As a little cradle Catholic boy, I think the first prayer I learned was “Bless us oh Lord, and these thy guests, which we are about to receive, Amen.”  I thought I used to hear that around our farmhouse table.  I always wondered, for a long time, “When are the guests coming?”  We did not have any guests yet, but we were about to receive them.  They never seemed to come.  We called this saying Grace.  Those who know me know that I am very hard of hearing.  I began to wear hearing aids in my early 40’s.  I don’t think God disparaged my prayer of blessing the way I understood such a “simple” prayer.  Actually, the words are “Bless us oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, Amen.”  Either way, the prayers we do, whether “simple” “verbal” payers in the Mass or at your worship service, or even deep contemplative prayer, should never be disparaged.  God receives us where we are, and loves us as sinners as he gazes upon us as a mother gazes upon her nursing child at her breast, or as an eagle takes its babies under its wings.

Whether we are “saying” grace before we eat or are receiving the “gift” of the Eucharist, we are all in God’s grip of grace.  Grace has a lot to do with Spirituality of any type, whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.  Even Atheists have to face Grace, although they may deny it or call their spirituality “mindfulness.”  Still, grace is involved.  My intention for linking the two, grace and the middle voice of spirituality, comes from my studies of Ignatian Spirituality during the Fall Semester of 2018 as I study for a certificate in Spiritual Direction via Spring Hill College.  One of the statements that got my juices flowing is from the book, Candlelight, by Susan K. Phillips.[1] Dr. Phillips states:

Linguistically, we have lost the middle voice that lies between the active and passive voices.  In using the active voice, one speaks of initiating an action.  In the passive, one receives the action that another initiates.  … In the middle voice, the person actively participates in the results of an action that another initiates.[2]

 

In Spirituality in the terms of the English language, one thinks of contemplation as “active” contemplation where we mentally think thoughts about God, Scripture, etc. actively in our minds.  We think this contemplation can slip into what is called “passive” contemplation whereby we are supernaturally given thoughts to think by God, or perhaps given no thoughts at all and slip off into a thoughtless state of unknowing, or a state of union with the Divine Presence.  What if we thought of spirituality and contemplation in terms of the middle voice, which we do not possess in the English language?  This spirituality would be a participation in a gift that God has already given to us, a gift of Grace.  Referring to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address at the looming of the Civil War where Lincoln urged Americans to heed the “better angels of our nature,” Phillips states:

 

It is, rather, siding with the “better angels” of a person’s nature, his or her middle-voice willingness to participate in God’s grace.[3]

 

I think back to the creation story, where God made mankind in His image and likeness, placing in mankind a Divine essence, a spirit in man that was the action of God, that gave mankind a receptor, a sixth sense, or a taste for God.  This image came from God and is set to autopilot back to God upon our death.  It is in fact, eternity set in our being.  It is an act of God’s grace with which we should long to participate, in a middle-voice way, the action that another, God in us, in whom we live and breathe and have our being, initiated.

Another book we have read in our studies, Moving in the Spirit, by Richard J. Houser, S.J.,[4] refers to this grace and essence of God within us from an Eastern point of view:

The Western or Pelagian model is clearly at odds with Scripture, misunderstanding the origin of our inner desires and movements toward good.  In this model all inner experiences moving toward the desire to love and serve God and others are seen to flow from ourselves apart from the grace of God within us.[5]

 

Below is a wonderful illustration that pictures what Hauser is speaking of:

 

Scriptural Model: Self in God:

Houser Divine Union cropped[6]

God initiates: Self Responds

Grace and the middle voice of our participation in the gift of the Spirit that God has initiated are absolutely critical to beginning to understand Ignatian Spirituality.  Let us keep the illustration above in mind as we proceed.

Hauser states:

Those of us living with this Western understanding of the self and God will never appreciate the all-pervasiveness of the presence of grace in our life. … they do not acknowledge that the initiative toward the good comes from the presence of grace.[7]

 

Ignatius was a product of the period in which he lived.  The Western Church as a whole may have understood grace in a proper manner but errored in some parts of the Church concerning Pelagianism.[8]  An attempt, at the Council of Trent, in the general period of Ignatius’ lifetime, tried to solve the problem of Pelagianism, or semi-Pelagianism.[9]  Ignatius himself speaks of the grace that is crucial in Ignatian Spirituality:

 

When one is in desolation, … He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it.  For though God has taken form him the abundance of fervor and overflowing love and the intensity of His favors, nevertheless, he has sufficient grace for eternal salvation.[10]

 

Even from the very start of Ignatius’ Exercises, it is very clear that the crucial understanding is that it is God who first calls us and it is God’s grace that first initiates the acts of God in us, in which we participate.  The human Spiritual Director is to keep his or her “teaching” short and allow God’s grace to work directly with the directee.

The one who explains to another the method and order of meditating or contemplating should narrate accurately the facts of contemplation or meditation.  Let him adhere to the points, and add only a short or summary explanation.  The reason for this is that when one in meditating takes the solid foundation of facts, and goes over it and reflects on it for himself, he may find something that makes them a little clearer or better understood.  This may arise either from his own reasoning, or from the grace of God enlightening his mind.[11]

This may remind us of one of God’s first intentions for mankind, spoken of us in the Garden of Eden, that we are to be dressers and keepers of the earth, which by extension would include each other.  We are like a tree, planted in the garden, planted by the water.

 

7“But I will bless those

who put their trust in me.

8 They are like trees growing near a stream

and sending out roots to the water.

They are not afraid when hot weather comes,

because their leaves stay green;

they have no worries when there is no rain;

they keep on bearing fruit.[12]

 

We are to bear the fruit first nourished by the water of God’s image and Spirit, given us by God, not of our own doing, it is by grace.  We are created by God’s grace, we are sustained by His grace, and we are renewed by His grace, bear fruit by His grace, and are saved by His grace for good works.  We take of God’s grace, of his sustenance, and give back the fruits of His grace.

 

In the season of fruition, there may be the experience of enhanced night vision.  Suffering may render the world dark, and certain forms of suffering include losing the sense of God’s presence.  …  We are to bear fruit by loving our neighbor, setting the captive free, giving food to the hungry, sheltering the homeless, loosing bonds of injustice, clothing the naked.  By doing so, we will be light in the darkness, well-watered gardens, and pilgrims guided by the Lord.[13]

 

As we consider our years, what we have done, and what we have failed to do, we think back to the Sabbath, also initiated by God in the Garden, when God rested.  Are we not called to rest with God too, to rest our egos as he works by grace in us?

 

28 “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. 30For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.”[14]

 

Are we not called to give up our ego, to reject the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to be a tree of life, to bear fruit for our fellow humans, for God, and all the angels and saints?  We are pilgrims on this earth.  We are just passing through. We are aliens to earthly kingdoms and citizens of a Kingdom to come.  This Kingdom lives in us, a Kingdom for and in which we participate by bearing fruit, by grace, the middle voice of spirituality.

So… Why should we be concerned about this matter?  See:

 

3I thank my God for you every time I think of you; 4and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy 5because of the way in which you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now. 6And so I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished on the Day of Christ Jesus.[15]

 

Try doing a computer search of an online Bible, using the words, “Christ in you,” and you will soon find that any spirituality we may claim to possess was because God began the work in which we participate.  In other words, I may serve my friend, or I may have been served by my friend, but I also take service in a middle-voice way as I share actively in the service that another, God, first initiated.  He placed His Image in us, and continues to sustain this image.

Even a little Catholic boy or girl can receive and participate in this grace.

 

John Cooper

[1] Candlelight: illuminating spiritual direction, by Susan Phillips, Morehouse Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8I92-2297-8 (pbk.)

[2] Ibid, p. 168

[3] Ibid, p. 169

[4] Moving in the Spirit, Becoming Contemplative in Action, by Richard J. Hauser, S.J., Paulist Press, 1986, ISBN 0-8091-2790-3 (pbk.)

[5] Ibid, p. 26

[6] Ibid, p. 27

[7] Ibid, pp. 26,27

[8] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pelagianism

[9] http://pauliscatholic.com/2009/07/canons-of-the-council-of-trent/

[10] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a New Translation Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph, Ludovico Puhl, S.J., Loyola Press, 1951, ISBN 978-0-8294-0065-6. P. 143, – 320. 7. (emphasis mine)

[11] Ibid, p. 1, 1. 2. (emphasis mine)

[12] https://www.bible.com/bible/431/JER.17.GNBDK

[13] Candlelight, p. 172

[14] https://www.bible.com/bible/431/MAT.11.GNBDK

[15] https://www.bible.com/bible/431/PHP.1.GNBDK

Discerning Deeper Call to Action

Discerning a Deeper Call to Action and Experiencing Consolations in Ignatian Spirituality

Prayer

I have been a business owner and cabinet maker for 45 years.  In this role I have trained many apprentices.  Some I trained had taken classwork in trade school in order to “be” a cabinet maker.  A better term would be to “become” a cabinet maker.  Cabinet making is a skill and an art.  One cannot become a journeyman cabinet maker only by going to school.  One must experience the actual work of cabinet making and do it for many years.  One must learn every day.  In a lifetime, it is unlikely all aspects of cabinetmaking will be mastered so one can say, “I know everything about cabinetmaking and I can do it all.”

Likewise, it appears that “becoming” a spiritual director must be approached humbly, as an art more than a science, and a call to learn spiritual matters by experience as well as by knowledge.  Experience is crucial else one harm another by bumbling around dabbling in matters too great for oneself.  I feel the SPT 598 Spiritual Direction Practicum course conducted by Sr. Susan Arcaro and Sr. Barbara Young and in my case, supervision by Bob Fitzgerald, is a transition from head knowledge to experience as a journeyman would train an apprentice.  The spiritual maturity and kindness, calmness, and peacefulness of the three are a consolation in itself to acknowledge and emulate.  Thank you!

Speaking of the “head knowledge” of this course, our assigned books were Candlelight, by Susan S. Phillips,[1] and The Call to Discernment, by Dean Brackley.[2]  Also suggested reading was Silent Compassion, by Richard Rohr,[3] and Spiritual Direction, by Susan K. Ruffing, R.S.M..[4]  In addition, Looking into the Well, by Maureen Conroy,[5] was added as optional reference material.  I read all the books and benefited by each one, especially by The Call to Discernment.

I want to note the “experiencing” part of Spirituality in this essay.  I believe that Spirituality can only be known by experience.  Even if we are given a specific spiritual consolation, or a revelation directly by God Himself, it is an experience.  It is, by experience, that we have all been called to pass along our own calling by God to the rest of the world:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, etc.[6] 

Going entails passing along our experiences, our Faith story, the Gospel, and for those of us in this class, our experienced based Ignatian Spirituality learned not so much by knowledge, but by love.  This love, or affectionate awe, is derived by our desires to know Jesus more clearly, to follow Him more nearly, and to love Him more dearly.  In other words, just as a skilled carpenter, such as Jesus was, passes along this experiential knowledge and skill, art, and love, so do we, pass upon the specific graces with which God blesses each of us.

All the books we have read this semester reflect this experiential sharing by spiritual masters.  Likewise, the experiential knowledge, the examples of following, and loving Jesus are being passed along to us by our journeymen teachers, Sr. Barbara, Sr. Susan, and Bob Fitzgerald.  Thanks to all for this labor of love.  It is my desire to share this love with others as I have been so blessed to do with my directees.  Also, I want to share as an example of everyday life what a wonderful consolation it was to me to share with one of my physical sisters the Examen Prayer.  My sister expressed her burden to me of being somewhat addicted to list passed praying and going over the same list year after year habitually and not letting go.  I gave her two versions of the Examen Prayer and suggested she look up videos of the Examen Prayer on the internet and perhaps drop some of the list-based praying she said was burdensome to her.  She told me how helpful this was to her.  I share this because it is just one example of how our classwork this semester is bleeding off into my daily life and living with others. What a blessing it was to share spiritual matters with one I cradled in my arms when she was a baby.

I feel this Fall’s class is where the rubber meets the road regarding Ignatian Spirituality.  Now is the time to discern our specific calling to this skill and art of experiential Ignatian Spirituality.  May we discover how much we love others, how much we want to help others, as Ignatius did.  May we go into all the world as tools in His hands.  Now is the time for action.  The course name, Practicum, points to action and experience.  Our response to the call is action.

I would like to share some insights I experienced from reading the books for this past semester.  Candlelight draws on many years of the Spiritual Direction experiences of its author, Susan S. Phillips.  Dr. Phillips using actual cases of her directees (names changed) to illustrate for us how the art of Spiritual Direction is actually done.  One of the greatest consolations of her book to me was her 21st chapter, Planted by the Waters.  What resonated with me was that I should not try too hard on my own, but trust that God has called me to this work of spiritual direction and will of His desires supply nourishment to bear fruits of His grace, not only in me as I help others, but also provide His direct nourishment to the directees I am trying to help.  In this work of God’s grace as both the director and the directee sit in the candlelight of His Presence, this grace acting upon both.  I wrote an extra essay about Grace being a “middle voice” of Spirituality,[7] this is, that both Director and Directee are participants in the action that another, (God,) initiates.

Also, in Candlelight, Susan Phillips indicates respect for taking a Sabbath each week.  “There’s a feel of Sabbath to spiritual direction.  We enter into the rest that God blessed and called “holy,” a time of reflecting on the wholeness of creation and union with God.”[8]  For many years after leaving the Catholic Church at about 20 years of age, for matters of conscious, I observed the seventh day Sabbath (Saturday) of the Ten Commandments.  A little over 20 years ago I came to a better understanding of the New Covenant, and that our rest is actually in Jesus, who started His work in us, and I no longer observe the letter of the law, evening Friday to Saturday evening Sabbath rest strictly, but I respect those who attend to their spirituality in this manner.  It was a consolation to me to see how Dr. Phillips valued the Sabbath in relationship to spirituality and a reminder to me to respect all people’s beliefs.

The Call to Discernment was in my view the deepest and most profound of the books we were assigned this semester.[9]  Brackley takes a journey through the Exercises[10] as if one were experiencing the actual Exercises week by week.  I have taken the 19th Annotation of the Exercises and reading The Call to Discernment brought back my actual experiences of the Exercises to life once again.  When doing the Call of Christ, the King part of the Exercises, I received my first desires to promote Ignatian Spirituality, and specifically to write a book about my journey and to share the Exercises with others.  This book, Let God In: One Ignatian Journey is soon to be published and I am also in discernment regarding the promotion of this book which is a fruit of this calling. The 19th Annotation was an additional conversion experience for me.  It is just one of the factors which led me back to the Catholic Church of my youth.  The Call to Discernment speaks to the heart of my personal theology of non-violence and social justice and deepens my commitment and call to promote Ignatian Spirituality, not just for Catholics, but for others who may be Protestant, or of another Faith Tradition, or no tradition at all.

Next, I will mention Silent Compassion[11] and Spiritual Direction[12] in relationship to how these two books also led to responding to the call of God and my own personal discernment.  I already follow Richard Rohr’s daily meditations.  I use apophatic (wordless, thoughtless) contemplation in conjunction with kataphatic (with words and thought) meditation in my personal spiritual practices.  Ignatian Spirituality is largely kataphatic.  Silent Compassion was reinforcement for what I already do.  Spiritual Direction was valuable to me with its heavy emphasis on actual experience in spiritual direction and mutuality with God.  Experience is mentioned throughout the book.  Experience is what we are gaining this semester in the Practicum.  We are spiritual directors in training, gaining experience.  Ruffing is a master of her trade, passing along her knowledge and experience to others who include myself as an apprentice.

Looking Into the Well[13] was very helpful in understanding how to provide Verbatim’s and Process Notes.  The book is helpful not only to supervisors of Spiritual Directors, but to Spiritual Directors themselves as a continuing reference Source.  In process notes for my first directee session I wrote:

I thought I was going to have a real problem with the Verbatim, but now that I have done two pages requested, I could go on and on.  I was feeling apprehensive because I am so hard of hearing and have trouble listening.  I tried to “bone up” for a few days in advance, reading Looking Into the Well and making notes [from Candlelight] and typing them up, then a couple of days before the first session it came to me that I was trying too hard and I needed to let the Holy Spirt lead.  He/She did.  I am crying as I write this… There was so much more in this session I could have put in the Verbatim.

In closing, I want to speak of my class experiences of consolation this semester.  Our commonality of spirit in periods of prayer was very important to me.  Several of us shared different prayer presentations and Sr. Barbara and Sr. Susan offered succinct and helpful handouts relating to prayer.  Our prayer time was experiential in nature with each of us learning from each other’s efforts as if we were a team of prayer warriors.  Experience in prayer is crucial to all spirituality.  Bob Fitzgerald was very effective in advising exactly the right things and pointing out principles directly from the Exercises to clarify my concerns.  Thanks to all, including my classmates!  Finally, as a journeyman passes along his trade to future generations of apprentices, let it be so with Sr. Barbara and Sr. Susan, and Bob Fitzgerald, as those of us in our Fall 2018 class offer ourselves as tools in God’s hands and continue to discern just how, when, and where we will work to help all God’s people!

John Cooper

Tuscaloosa, AL

[1] Candlelight: illuminating spiritual direction, by Susan S. Phillips, Morehouse Publishing, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-8I92-2297-8 (pbk.)

[2] The call to discernment in troubled times : new perspectives on the transformative wisdom of Ignatius, of Loyola, by Dean Brackley, The Crossroads Publishing Company, 2004, ISBN: 0-8245-2268-0 (alk. Paper)

[3] Silent Compassion : finding God in contemplation, by Richard Rohr, Franciscan Media, 2014, ISBN: 978-61636-757-2 (alk. Paper)

[4] Spiritual Direction: beyond the beginnings, by Janet K. Ruffing, Paulist Press, 2000, ISBN: 0-8091-3958-8 (alk. Paper)

[5] Looking into the Well: Supervision of Spiritual Directors, by Maureen Conroy, Loyola University Press, 1995, ISBN:0-8294-0827-4

[6] The Go-Anywhere Thinline Bible Catholic Edition, NRSV, by HarperCollins Publishers, 2010, p. 945, Mat. 28:19

[7] https://jcooperforpeace.org/?s=middle+voice

[8] Ibid, p. 189.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Ignatius of Loyola

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.