Often in my life I have found myself struggling with some set of ideas that I cannot join together or articulate with any kind of accuracy. At times the ideas seemed to be part of some bigger scheme that I could not master. Occasionally I would have hints about how to think through the ideas to a deeper understanding but they seemed to amount to no more than hints. What has happened to me often is that someone gives me a book or an article that puts together in a relatively clear fashion what has been confusing me and what I have not been able to articulate or completely understand.
This happened to me this fall when I was attending a course on spiritual direction. It was given at Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston by Father Joe Kelly, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and one of the spiritual directors at the House of Formation for seminarians which is part of the Center. The course took place one day a week for six weeks. It will resume in the spring. Each week Father Kelly gave out reading materials. All were excellent, but one especially spoke to me. Written by Rev. Gerald Fagin, SJ, it was entitled “Are We Relating to God in a New Way?” and it appeared in the November-December, 1993 issue of Review for Religious, pp. 817-827.
Fagin identifies various tensions or polarities that are always present in our efforts to grow closer to God and comments on each one. His insights are excellent and can help us understand where we have been and where we are in our understanding of our relationship with God. One of the tensions Fagin points out is what he calls the movement from objective to subject-centered. In discussing the movement he writes the following concerning the objective approach:
“This way of life was supported by a clearly defined Catholic culture that gave Catholics a sense of identity rooted in unambiguous doctrinal and moral teaching and distinct rituals and practices. It was the world of the Baltimore catechism, Friday abstinence, fasting in Lent, First Friday and First Saturday devotions, benediction, indulgences, and St. Jude devotions. It demanded discipline and obedience and self-sacrifice, but it offered clear expectations and a structured and measurable way of living out a committed Christian life that led to sanctity.
“ Such objectivity is an essential element in any relationship to God. Rituals, practices, and devotions are at the heart of a genuine experience of God and a faithful response to God. We need clear guidelines and traditional structures if we are to be accountable and if we are to guard against the kind of subjectivity that is open to deception and divisiveness.
“What has emerged, then, is not a total rejection of this way of relating to God, but a new emphasis on the human person as a free and developing subject in the spiritual life…The spiritual life is described in terms of a growth in trust and love and openness and freedom and sensitivity to the Spirit. Religious experience rather than religious practice is central to this approach.”
In his essay Father Fagin goes on to spell out the new approach in detail emphasizing the importance of experience, freedom and new insights in theology and psychology. I like Father Fagin’s caution that we must not throw out the baby out with the bathwater, that there was much in the previous spirituality that would recommend it. The object-centered approach to spirituality was the approach that was presented to me and that I embraced for much of my life. My guess is that it was the approach that most of the seminarians I studied with, most of the priests I worked with and most of the Catholic laity I worked with or knew well also embraced for much of their lives. That having been noted, it is clear to me that something new has emerged in the Church.
Father Fagin’s insights speak to my experience in several ways. One is that everything he has observed about the change in approach speaks my own attempts at living the spiritual life. Another is that it sheds light on the way many Catholics I know approach God. A third way is that it fits in with the type of philosophy of the human person that I embraced many years ago, that I have been teaching for more than forty years and that is the vision expressed, at least implicitly, in any essay or book I have written. I would describe that philosophy of person as Thomistic-existentialist –personalism. For me this vision illuminates the human mystery. I hope it does for those to whom I present it.