Helpful guidelines for the spiritual life

Jared Staudt

“You are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary.”

We recognize Jesus’ response to the busy Martha in these words (Luke 10:41-42), but can we see ourselves in them as well? Do we focus on the one thing necessary or do we get caught up in the daily grind? We spend so much effort on our daily tasks, sacrifice to make time for exercise and maintain our health, and seek help through counseling and career preparation and advancement. How much time do we devote to our souls and the cultivation of the interior life? St. Ignatius pointed out that the spirit needs exercise, even more than the body, for when the body passes away we will be judged by the state of our soul.

Therefore, with the arrival of summer, and some additional free time, it’s an opportune moment to take spiritual stock and to make some new resolutions! A recent reprint of a spiritual classic can help, providing some guidelines for a reboot of our spiritual life. Sophia Institute Press has recently reprinted a classic in Fr. Basil Maturin’s Spiritual Guidelines for Souls Seeking God (2016). The book offers a poignant spiritual vision, delivered by a remarkable man.

The author was an Irish born priest of the Protestant Church of Ireland, sent to the United States to serve Irish immigrants. He converted to Catholicism in Philadelphia and after being ordained a priest was later sent to serve as the Catholic chaplain of Oxford. He returned to the United States in 1915 to conduct a series of talks and booked his return passage to Europe on the RMS Lusitania. This fateful boat did not reach the shores of Europe, struck by a German submarine, and Fr. Maturin died heroically attempting to rescue others.

What strikes me most about Fr Maturin’s book comes from his emphasis on relating to God. We strengthen our spiritual life and engage in exercises of the spirit not for an abstract reality, but to enter more deeply into the love of God. The priest tells us that “we must endeavor to keep near to God, to learn to know Him better, to understand the tokens of His will and the method of His dealings with us; in a word to get on terms of loving and reverent friendship with Him” (57). All of Fr. Maturin’s guidelines come down to growing in our ability to grow in friendship with God.

In order to love God more, we have to grow in a life of virtue and remove any obstacles that stand in the way. Therefore, Fr. Maturin speaks much of penance and mortification, because we have to begin moving “the long clogged wheels and rusted springs of the spiritual life . . . through penitent contrition . . . the mother of all virtues” (16). Only by preserving through challenges do we come to “a love that has been tested in every conceivable way. . . . Habits are being formed here under the pressure of temptation and difficulty that unfold in perfect form and beauty when that soul has developed these habits passes into its heavenly home” (44).

Fr. Maturin focuses on this goal, of reaching our true home, and laments that so often we forget where we are going! “There is nothing sadder to see,” he says, “than an aimless life” (33). The spiritual guidelines he offers should help us to focus on the one thing necessary, teaching us how to abide in Christ and to persevere until the end. He describes how we can grow in our intimacy with Christ over the course of life as all of our efforts and the graces of God blossom in eternal happiness: “He who longs and strives to be good has already created a bond of sympathy with Christ, has returned, indeed, a long way toward Him. As one after another of these barriers that we have set up in ourselves are removed, light and love come streaming in, and the bonds of that mystical friendship become woven, to grow stronger through eternity” (95-96).

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash