Belonging to God

Msgr. Charles Murphy has written a readable reflection on Catholic spirituality that speaks directly to American sensibilities. This is mostly good news. It is good news because Murphy’s book shows how wisdom from the Catholic tradition can be made accessible and practical for contemporary spiritual seekers. Murphy, pastor of Holy Martyrs Parish in Falmouth, Maine, and former rector of the North American College in Vatican City, offers a clear and balanced introduction to the spiritual life. Drawing on the insights of St. Francis de Sales and others, he writes for those who do not have a spiritual director, giving special attention to the needs of “beginners.” As one who believes that few of us make it past the beginner stage in spirituality, I welcome this book and expect that many will profit from it. At the same time, I have reservations about some peculiarly American accents informing Murphy’s approach, especially his basically pragmatic and optimistic outlook. The danger in such an outlook, I think, is that one might be led to believe the spiritual life is simpler and less daunting than it usually proves to be.

Murphy’s forte is his anecdotal style and his ability to summarize complex concepts and processes in straightforward language, as when he explains the obscure term mystagogia. “Candidates who are baptized at Easter continue their process of initiation for a time after Easter in a period called mystagogia, a Greek term that means ‘reflecting upon the mysteries.’ ‘Mysteries’ is the Greek-derived word for the Latin ‘sacraments.’ In the weeks after Easter the newly baptized and confirmed try to appreciate and grasp more fully the graces that have been so abundantly given to them in these two sacraments and in the greatest sacrament of all, the Holy Eucharist.” You could hardly put it any more plainly, and Murphy’s point about the need to continue reflecting on what God has done is well taken.

Equally attractive is Murphy’s healthy common sense. He talks about spiritual “highs” that can become addictive, conversions that wane over time, and the need to avoid perfectionism (putting the proper spin on the term “practicing Catholic”). He is open-minded toward what other disciplines, such as medicine and psychology, have to offer for spiritual growth. As he puts it, “people who are not functioning well in terms of thinking processes or personal relations and other life skills may not be capable of benefiting from spiritual direction until their life is in order.” Another sign that Murphy lives in the real world is his shrewd observation that “probably most spiritual direction today is being given by the few close friends with whom we maintain ongoing regular contact.” How true, and the church would do well to recognize and take advantage of that fact. Despite Murphy’s common-sense approach, he does not lose sight of the eternal horizon, and reminds us that the real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit.

But I am bothered by Murphy’s often breezy, and it seems to me very American, presumption that everything works out for those who have faith. One story Murphy tells is of Steve, a young husband and father who came to him for spiritual direction. We are informed of Steve’s personal struggles (especially those of the past), but these all seem to melt away before the warm glow of faith. “Steve became aware again of God’s unconditional love for him,” Murphy writes. Steve recognizes the mutual love he and his daughter share “as God’s gift and a window into the immensity of God’s love for them both.” As a result, “Steve’s life began to change. He no longer felt the need to go out and party as he once did...” And so on. These upbeat observations are too pat. I don’t doubt the quality of Steve’s faith, but I suspect the lived reality is more complicated than Murphy lets on or is possibly even aware of. This relentless emphasis on the positive encourages people to think that the right change of therapy or diet or mental attitude, applied with adequate elbow grease, will make life turn out just fine. Spirituality, though, is about more than feeling good about ourselves.

Part of the problem is that Murphy covers so much ground so succinctly that there is little time to taste real difficulty. For example, Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle is summarized in two pages. The saint’s afflictions are mentioned, but before you know it, you have passed through to the innermost room and are resting in God’s embrace. What’s missing is serious engagement with the unmanageable aspects of the spiritual life, with its boredom and incomprehension, its absurdity and its frequent absence from our lives when we need it most. Missing too are the more problematic sides of the God we know and love: the maddening, leg-pulling, trickster God; the irritating Taskmaster; and the all-consuming, devastating Holy Other.

Murphy’s title, “Belonging to God,” reminds us that spirituality should be understood as a relationship, not as a private characteristic of the self we are challenged to “develop.” And he is right to remind us that “To be holy is to discover and accept that we belong to God, who alone is holy.” But the association of “personal training” with spirituality should set off alarm bells. The popular language of self-improvement suggests we can achieve our spiritual “goal” (“falling in love with God”) if we just keep focused and on task. “Aaron [another of Murphy’s real-life examples] is faithful to his daily workouts in the gym; now he is also aware of the need to keep in good shape spiritually so he can bring Christ with him into every area of life in which he finds himself.” Buff body, buff spirit?

Murphy also believes in making up lists as spiritual aids: “the five spiritual principles”; Augustine’s “four elements of a truly fulfilling and satisfying life”; and (most daunting of all) the five points and seven subpoints of the late Cardinal Terence Cooke’s personal rule of life. One envisions conscientious types consulting and checking off these lists while never quite maturing in spiritual insight.

Americans, so notable for their sunny convictions and for striving for a better tomorrow, tend to forget that the American Dream has its dark side. Much of reality, after all, is simply imposed (sometimes brutally) on us, and is indifferent to our noble aspirations and eludes our canny management. The same is true of the spiritual life, where dedicated and focused effort is inadequate for dealing with problems too subtle to be recognized as problems or too intractable to be handled by anyone less than the Holy Spirit. In such circumstances, peaceful acquiescence and a tolerance for ambiguity can bring one further spiritually than can renewed vigilance.

But maybe I’m being overly pessimistic. After all, as Murphy reminds us in a lovely passage: “The salvation of the world by Christ was not accomplished by heroic deeds but in kitchens and on streets and in markets and places of worship, in one-on-one encounters and conversations.” In other words, God’s presence is to be found in the known and ordinary world. For most Americans, that would indeed be in the can-do world of believing and achieving.

Published in the 2006-02-24 issue: 
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Timothy P. Schilling lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

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