Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mere Laymen?

It is often discouraging - or perhaps overwhelming is a better way to put it - to be a layman talking about the deep spirituality of the Jesus Prayer and trying to share it with others. So often we read from the writings of well-intentioned folks that only monastics have a true grasp on the spiritual life and the depths of the Jesus Prayer. We are given the impression that if we really want to live a life of silence and solitude within the heart, then we really ought to be monastics. Folks living in the world can gain an experience of this silence and solitude within, but they can't live in it continually because they are caught up in the cares of this life. Even when encouraged to read writings such as the Philokalia we are given the warning that the writings are directed towards monastics and that they are not really directed at "lay people."

I often get the sense that that phrase, "lay people," is often used as an almost derogatory phrase. We put ourselves down because, after all, isn't holiness reserved primarily for clergy and monastics? Perhaps there are even times when clergy and monastics are hesitant to take the words of the laity seriously because, after all, "they're only lay people."

But I have been encouraged lately through the writings of the saints, in particular through St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. But I'll come to that in a moment. I would like to recommend a lecture given by Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. at an Orientale Lumen Conference given on the "theology of the laity." He titles his talk "The Laity in the Church? The Laity Are the Church." (emphasis is his). Now, one thing I love about listening to Fr. Taft is that while being very highly educated and extremely intelligent, he is also very humble. After all of his years spent in academic theology, he is moved to tears while telling the story of an old woman, a married lay woman, living the Gospel life in a small village in India where her family was the only Christian family and they had no parish church. She had a simple faith and she lived it. She couldn't read, so she didn't even have the opportunity to read the writings of the great Fathers of the Church. But she heard the Gospel message and then lived it. Have a listen to the lecture, it is quite good: .

Now, isn't that what the spiritual life, the life of a Christian is all about? Aren't we all called to live the Gospel, or as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says, the "commandments of the Gospel," in a radical way? This radical living of the "commandments of the Gospel" is not something restricted to clergy and monastics, but is the calling of all Christians. And just as this radical living is the calling of all Christians, so too is the calling to support one another in such living. As St. Paul says, we are all members of the one body of Christ, be each member has it's specific role. We must be grateful for our role as lay people in the body of Christ, just as clergy and monastics must be grateful for their roles. And we must support one another as members of Christ's body. The laity require the support of clergy and monastics, and the clergy and monastics require the support of the laity. We all need one another.

This was recently illustrated to me in St. Ignatius' book The Arena. In it he talks about the necessity of a person first living the Gospel life in the world, among the cares and anxieties and distractions of the world, before then entering the monastery. If a person is unable to live the Gospel in the world, then they will certainly be unable to live the Gospel in a monastery. The monastery is not meant to be an escape from the world. It is in the monastery that one intensifies the life of the Gospel that one has already been living in the world.

Another source of encouragement for me has been reading St. Theophan the Recluse's letters to a young lay woman in the book The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It. In one chapter he is teaching the young lady about the use of a prayer rope. He tells her how to establish the number of times one is to go around the prayer rope, what prayers to say, how we can use the rule of the prayer rope to replace the typical morning and evening prayer rules found in the prayer books, and even how some monastics use the prayer rope to replace the singing of the Divine Office. In his discussion with her he goes on to say that he is not trying to "drive her into a monastery." He says that the prayer rope is used by both monastics and lay people alike. What really struck me, however, is the fact that he admits that he himself learned to use a prayer rope from a lay person! Such a great saint was taught how to use a prayer rope by a layman! Think on that.

In the end, we all need each other. The clergy and monastics come from the laity, after all. Where else do we initially learn of the spiritual life if not in the "domestic monastery," the home, family life, our parents, lay people? Our clergy and monastics are formed first in the world. We support them just as they support us. They need us just as much as we need them. They initially learned from lay people, and can continue to learn from lay people, just as we ought to learn from them and from their way of life.

Blessed be God that we are all members of the Body of Christ and can support and uphold one another throughout our struggle in this world, amidst the trials and temptations of this life! There is no separation in vocation between the laity, clergy and monastics. We all have one vocation. We are all called to live the Gospel. We are all called to live lives of Christ-like love. The situations in which we are called to live that life may differ, but the calling itself remains the same. LOVE! May heaven consume us!