The following letter is part of a dialogue with a young Catholic father who is strongly concerned with the lack of spiritual nourishment in the Church today.
20 June 2018
Dear friend in Christ,
As I wrote in my last memo to parishioners, one’s “spiritual life,” or mental-spiritual development, depends on the efforts a human being makes as trusting in the presence and creative power of God. It does not depend on attending Mass or on the Sacraments, in and of themselves. What the churches offer may invite those present to “participate worthily,” that is, to be attentive and eagerly desire God, and lovingly surrender to the ever-present One, putting His “will” into practice. Put concretely: what happens or does not happen in the mind / “heart” of the participant is what matters in religious services, and not what happens in space-time (externally). What matters is utterly simple: either one is turning towards God, or away from God. All life is either conversion or diversion, epistrophe or apostrophe, using the technical terms developed by the Stoics. As St. Augustine lamented in his Confessions: “Behold, You were within, but I was without….” External worship encourages one to linger “without,” rather than to be present within—present to and with the Presence that we by long tradition call “God.”
The serious problem with Christianity, far beyond clerical abuses of various kinds, is clerical neglect: the failure to help nourish parishioners with healthy, wholesome intellectual-spiritual formation and guidance. One way to put this is simple: Consider your own life, and imagine what your spiritual life would be without the efforts you made to study philosophy (and perhaps theology). I consider my own example, known from within: My family attended religious services weekly as I was growing up, but I am not aware of having received much spiritual or intellectual nourishment through them. The same is true today: other than some “consolation” people may get from attending religious services (and that consolation is of limited value), the benefits that I have seen have come to those men and women who took their own spiritual life seriously, who made a deliberate and conscious effort to study, pray, turn from evil, and do good; very little benefit accrues to those who passively attend any kind of service, whether evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.
The real problem facing human beings is how to become truly awake and alive in one’s lifetime. Meditation and study, linked with personal discipline, as in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, does far more good than fairly mindless, passive sharing in any religious ceremonies. The example, goodness, love from men and women who happen to be Christian of one sort or another has been highly helpful to me, but such goodness is not directly linked to attending services, or “reading the bible,” as in evangelical traditions. Furthermore, much of the good that can be offered to persons in religious services is lost on social programs and the “social gospel,” which is indeed “no gospel at all.” Clergy have often neglected to assist in the spiritual formation of their people, probably in large part because “one cannot give what one does not have.” From what I hear from parishioners who attend Masses elsewhere when they travel or are away from home, they find little intellectual-spiritual meat in the preaching / teaching, but rather see emphases on outward forms of worship, entertaining music, social action programs, and the like. In the case of Catholic clergy, many do not even struggle to prepare homilies, but download canned “homilies” off the internet, or take them from “homily helps.” Unless the priest or minister is speaking “from faith to faith” (Romans 1), he or she is not “preaching Christ,” and helping to form the hearer, but just amusing, entertaining, perhaps chastising. The word that forms the hearer must grow out of a spirit alive in the now to the presence of God. Otherwise, it is not the “word of God,” but mere human words of more or less mindless chatter. If and only if the one preaching is immediately present to divine Presence is one in truth a “minister of the Word.” In the words of the Apostle, “the written text kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Had I not studied philosophy and sought to practice meditation as a Benedictine monk, and not been blessed to have some truly good examples of right living and practical wisdom in my life, I think that I would have received very little spiritual-intellectual nourishment as a Catholic Christian. What do the churches have to offer to human beings? One often must seek God, loving and doing the truth, despite what is being done in and by the churches. Neither the educational establishments in our society, nor the religious institutions, are now offering human beings much that is truly beneficial. Or to put the matter differently: unless one struggles to learn, and works hard to grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually, one will be unformed, deformed, malnourished. Our schools, universities, churches have largely been failing to do what they ought to do, and generally pretend to do, at considerable expense.
What is a person’s “spiritual life”? What does it mean to be “spiritually alive,” or “awake in one’s lifetime?” I ask the question believing that spiritual life is not only good, but ought to be one’s highest priority. And I ask it now because it is important for each of us to understand a basic truth: you are responsible for you. Another human being can guide you towards the right path, the way of life, but you yourself must make the effort, and you yourself must reject false paths and steadily seek and do the truth. No other human being can live your life for you, cleanse you, “save you.” Not even God Almighty can “save” you, cleanse your inner person, renew your spirit, unless you freely choose to share in what God freely offers from moment to moment.You did not create yourself, but you cannot be whole or happy or truly blessed, unless you develop habits of rejecting evil and doing good, unless you truly seek to know and to do the will of God. To better understand the dynamics of the spiritual life of a human being, let’s suspend for a few moments “God talk,” and examine the human reality in light of the truth of experience.
You say, “I am hungry,” so you feed yourself. You say, “I have toothache,” so you go to a dentist. Now, suppose one feels confused, depressed, anxious? All too often, one wants a quick cure, an immediate solution. Mental and spiritual problems—confusion, sorrow, worry, hatred, ignorance—did not just happen at one time. By various situations, and by many choices, many actions, one becomes what one is, and what one feels inside. A person who squanders much time in entertainment or mindless activities or in drug abuse, who does not discipline himself to rise early, to work hard, to do one’s proper tasks, to spend time in quiet and meditation will, over time, becomes confused, dull of spirit, listless, troubled, anxious, depressed. With the right concentration of one’s energies on such spiritual tasks as doing one’s daily duties, working for the good of others, eating and drinking healthy foods in moderation, getting proper exercise, sitting still in the presence of God or of “no-god,” then one becomes sane, balanced, and more alert. No one can keep eating junk food, abusing alcohol or drugs, not exercising, not nourishing the inner person through disciplined meditation and study and expect to be spiritually alive, awake, and mentally healthy. You become what you do.
Christians have often neglected to develop a proper spiritual-mental life, because they thought it would just happen, or the Church or Bible or God would do it for them. The Church is here to assist you on your path into God; you yourself must make the effort, trusting in the supportive presence of God (called “grace”). Not even the Eucharist works automatically; if you do not truly desire oneness with God even at the cost of dying to your own fleeting desires, how do you expect to “grow in grace,” to “receive the Holy Spirit,” to become truly blessed and happy? Good things in life nearly never happen without much effort. Unless you yourself strive to attune yourself to the all-good mind and will, to refresh yourself in Beauty, why should you expect to be happy and in peace?
May we have the good sense and discipline to listen to God and to obey regardless of the cost. “Through much suffering one enters the Kingdom of God,” that is, lives in the peace and freedom of God. And Christ Jesus assures us: “Know that I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Several people have said to me recently, “Priests do not retire.” I cannot speak justly for diocesan priests, because I am not one, but for my part, I think that parish priests can and do retire, and in many cases, deservedly so. I am happy for a retiring diocesan priest who served his parishioners for years, who proclaimed Christ faithfully in word and deed, who truly dedicated himself to “the care of souls,” that is, to the spiritual well-being of his parishioners. Such priests—and bishops—deserve to retire, and to continue to serve in a pastoral role if and when they wish to do so. Such service is optional after retirement, and how much one does, and the kinds of work, would depend on the individual priest’s willingness, interests, and health. That they continue assisting with some pastoral duties is not required, but their own personal choice—with the permission of the local bishop, of course.
But I am not a diocesan priest, but a Benedictine monk, who was selected for ordination to the priesthood by my Abbot to serve our monastic community and, at times, to assist others who are linked to our monastery. A Benedictine monastic, male or female, has one primary goal: to seek God with all of one’s resources, with the grace of God, until death. The work of seeking God does not end, and from this task, one does not retire. For those monks who are also ordained as priests, there is always a tension, if not a contradiction, between the life of a monk and active priestly ministry. Normally, the monk seeks God within the walls of the monastery. With my Abbot’s permission, I temporarily served as a Navy Chaplain with Marines and Sailors during the Gulf War because of emergency need. Later he asked me to assist in a parish a few miles from our monastery. Then with his permission, I served as a parish priest in the Midwest, and in 2009 I returned to serve temporarily in parishes in my home state of Montana. I serve here only with the permission of my Abbot, to whom I belong as a monk, and with the permission of Bishop Michael. Whether or not a bishop permits me to function as a priest in his diocese after retirement is his decision.
As of early this year my Abbot granted me permission to remain living outside of the monastic walls, at least “for the duration.” He has the authority to call me back to St. Anselm’s Abbey at any time, and for any reason. As I retire from active pastoral duty, my monastic calling and vows must return to the fore: to give my energies to seeking the presence of the living God. This search requires many hours of solitude, profound peace, contemplative prayer, and nourishing study. Having been formed as a Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey (Washington, DC), and having lived the life for years in our monastery, I have a good sense of what is required of me. It will necessitate making considerable changes as I retire from active ministry on 1 July: it will take time and prayer for me to know how best to live as a faithful Benedictine monk.
To help me adjust to returning to the life of a Benedictine, I will in effect be taking a sabbatical, and not be available for pastoral substitute work at least for some time. I must also limit social invitations, as befits a more contemplative lifestyle. The best way to contact me, should you wish to do so, is by email. My iPhone will be turned off much of the time, as required for silence. Furthermore, I have planned day trips to areas in Montana in the summer months to exercise my dogs and me, and to see more of beautiful Montana then active life has permitted. I will also spend time with my brother in Utah, make a quiet retreat on the Oregon coast in the fall, and then visit my sister and her husband in San Diego over the Christmas holidays. I have not seen my family for several years.
As several of you have truly said, I will need to be retired for a while to learn how to handle the changes well. Having worked full time since my student days, and having been busy serving in active priestly ministry since 1991, retirement will require major adjustments, as it does for everyone. Some folks have asked if I will be “bored.” My response is: “Are you serious? I have many interests and hobbies.” More fundamentally, retirement permits one to strive for peace in solitude and silence, as befits a Benedictine. In truth, retirement is a graced time for anyone to seek God; that is our human calling. Furthermore, writing would be a more suitable way to continue ministering to the faithful, as it requires solitude. The LORD will guide me to assist in pastoral duties, such as funerals, at the right time, if it is appropriate to do so. In all things, peace: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Know that you will be with me in my heart and prayer. I will treasure the years we have spent together in this passing light.
—Fr. Wm. Paul McKane, OSB (Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey)