Thursday, November 13, 2014

Is a Spiritual Work of Mercy a Missionary Work?

Many of you likely do not know that I have been working on the official constitutions of a religious order. Yes, I am right up there with Basil, Benedict and Augustine. No doubt.

It is hard, complicated, curious and fascinating work. I tried to write a religious rule when I was nineteen. Suffice it to say, this one is a little bit more involved.

The process in a nutshell is this: translating the holy work and enthusiasm of a group of Christians into legalese. It's kind of like asking artists to write computer code. I usually find myself on the 'artist' side, but here I am being asked to perform the other function. It's very easy to get into the position of sucking the air out of the room. Poetry is poetry and will never run a computer. If you turn it into code, it is no longer poetry, it is something else; it may yet be beautiful, but it is not what it was. It reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's words about the 'meaning' or 'theme' of a novel. A good novel is an experience and cannot be reduced to a 'theme.'

Now that I think about it, isn't this what OLSWA has undergone in the last five years? It began as a crude apostolic initiative by sincere and enthusiastic Christians - but governments don't accredit that kind of thing. It needed to be put into institutional form. But institutionalizing isn't all bad. I can't argue how effective any specific case of institutionalization has been, not even OLSWA's - something is always lost, and something is always gained - but, whether it's more good or more bad, it is usually necessary for maturation. After all, the Church is an institution. But it is not only an institution.

Socrates teaching some people on a street corner can never be improved upon. But you cannot replicate it. Plato's Academy is not Socrates on a street corner. The Franciscans are not St. Francis, and not even the Trappists are St. Benedict. But some of the good of Socrates, Francis and Benedict can be bottled-up and passed out.

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The 'religious order' that I am assisting (yes, I know, it is not a religious order, Your Grace!), the religious order Society of Apostolic Life (happy?) I am assisting provides one thing: a witness to the importance of the Blessed Sacrament in the world. Now, according to canon law that neither qualifies it as a Society of Consecrated Life (which has living the Evangelical Counsels as its principal focus) nor as a Society of Apostolic Life (which has a certain ministry as its primary focus). Those are your two options, the only two canon law recognizes. Yes, teaching is a ministry that would qualify as a legitimate ministry for a Society of Apostolic Life (SAL), but is 'promoting devotion to the Holy Eucharist' teaching? One might argue it is. I would. Missionary work or evangelization also qualify as legitimate ministries, but this is not the evangelization of pagans or even the fallen-away. It is about strengthening the faith of the already committed and does so in one particular way only. What's even more problematic canonically, the members of the Society don't even perform the main parts of the evangelization: God does, by means of His presence in the Holy Eucharist. In other words, the members of the Society encourage a person to make himself teachable to God Himself, that is the primary function of this SAL.


But, I argue, is any spiritual education done any differently? Consider the passages: They will be taught by God” (Jn 6:45, Is 54:13) and “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps 46:10). These are not about the life in heaven, but about the reality of our new life in Christ in the here-and-now. Augustine was famous for stating that it is God alone who teaches.

How can you institutionalize the Spirit? The Church has been doing that for two thousand years. We'll find a way. God will show us the way. Please keep this holy initiative in your prayers!

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