Between the Programs and the Pews

RNS-PEW-CATHOLICFor the last year or so, I have often found myself thinking about my “pet false distinction” when it comes to church life: either “eat the body” or “be the body.”  The former points to a heightened place of liturgy that crescendoes in communion.  The latter points to a heightened place of the church program that crescendoes in mission.  I totally admit the false distinction, what I communicate to my students as the “either-or fallacy.”  Both of them, too easily and too often, are missing out on something that we neglect to our danger.  Henri Nouwen points to it in the “where do I begin?” chapter of Spiritual Direction.

Through the discipline of spiritual direction, we explore in the presence of another wise Christian companion or two God’s claim on our lives, what has been and what may now be.  We recognize God’s activity and again say yes to the direction in which the Spirit calls us.  The direction might be fearful or even quite radical, but we might also be surprised to see that the call of God is a call that is very attractive and that we are able to respond to it because we are being drawn by a loving force.

It is not enough, Nouwen asserts, for us to be content with something like this conversation of “spiritual direction” as a rare and limited thing.  And it’s not just “psychological questions with psychological answers.”  There is a deeply spiritual reality at play in between the programs and pews of our churches.  Nouwen continues:

It is important that we start to think about a ministry in which we help one another to practice spiritual disciplines and thus live in such a way that we become more sensitive to the ongoing presence of God in our lives.  What finally counts is not just that there are good spiritual men and women in this very chaotic world, but that there are communities of Christians who together listen with great care and sensitivity to the One who want to make this healing presence known to all.

This is no easy thing, definitely not as tactile as communion or as measurable as programs and projects.  And while it’s always been necessary, many of us have done a good job of making it optional at best and irrelevant at its worst.  Maybe it’s a “chicken or the egg” situation: we do not have people asking the questions because we are not practicing and showing a better way.  The sooner we can start practicing the better way, the sooner we will, perhaps, find people asking better and deeper questions.

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