Often during the Lenten season I decide to read a book that I think will help me observe the season better. This year I picked a beauty. It is Michael Gallagher’s “The Human Poetry of Faith: A Spiritual Guide to Life” (New York, Paulist Press, 2003, pp. 142, $12.95). Actually I did not so much choose the book as take a friend’s recommendation that I should read it. My friend liked the book but I am even more enthusiastic than he was when he told me about it. Father Gallagher, S.J., deals with problems that have been on my mind for years.
The book was not written for someone like me but rather for those who can not seem to relate to traditional Catholic faith, those who might say something like “Religion is not on my radar.” In my own experience, such people are multiplying. I can not precisely locate them in an age group but I think of them as Catholics from 18 to 40. Though the book was not directed toward Catholics such as myself, I found it amazingly insightful and inspiring. Reading it, I was not merely learning about others but receiving insights that I hope to apply to my own life.
On the first page, Gallagher states that the purpose of the book is to evoke our human adventure. He wishes to make Christian faith more real through exploring our ordinary but deep experiences. He writes:
“For many years I have sensed that the main blockage to Christian believing lies in our lifestyles and not in our ideas. The way we live can keep us adrift on the surfaces of ourselves and unable to reach deeper levels of searching. This happens within individuals. But it is also a cultural unfreedom, a shared cultural desolation. When we suffer from malnutrition in our self-images, we become incapable of imagining God. Look at the faces in the streets of any city. Many of them appear stressed, as if fighting to survive in a perpetual battle against time. Fragmentation and hyperactivity are the hallmarks, they say, of post modernity…
“Our culture has difficulty with the antechambers of faith, rather than with faith itself. It is on the level of disposition and desire that we need help most.” (pp. 1-2)
Gallagher believes there are depths to everyone, hidden spaces even unknown to themselves. I agree completely, but what I have been wondering about for several years is how to help people face those depths, those spaces, how to help people reflect on what should be most important in their lives. I try to do that by presenting Catholic faith in homilies, essays and books, but Gallagher suggests that we have to start further back. To help people reach the religious level, we have to start with the pre-religious. I suspect that he is correct. If he is, it might explain why some people seem unmoved by the good news of Christ, even uninterested. For some there may be a need of a preamble, some reflection that frees them to accept the surprise of Christ.
Reading Gallagher’s book, I came to see that reflecting on the pre-religious might not only help others but that I can profit from such reflection and perhaps some of my friends, who are practicing Catholics, might also. The Holy Spirit is everywhere and even when we think about ourselves and our experiences with no direct appeal to our religious faith, we may be discovering truths that will help us to believe on a new level, truths that might even help us to fall more deeply in love with God.
Commenting on his book, Gallagher points out that it is not only more pre-religious than religious but that it is more imaginative than systematic, more spiritual than theological. He writes:
“At its simplest it wants to evoke human experiences of depth and it ponders them as the theatre of the Spirit. It hopes to show that these encounter points with God are more frequent than we think — if we think in narrowly ‘religious’ terms. There is a larger drama of growth through grace that is lived out in different ways in everyone.”(p. 3)
I am reminded of Pope Francis’ insistence that God is part of everyone’s life. This is true even if some people don’t believe it.
In his book, one way Father Gallagher tries to help people reflect on the depth of some so–called ordinary experiences is by imagining conversations between famous authors, people who may have seen aspects of the human mystery that many of us miss and been able to express those aspects in their writing. I found those sections of Gallagher’s book brilliant.