Fr Gabriel Reidy OFM was the most erudite man I have ever met. His advice set me back on the right path for the rest of my life. Later in an oral examination he asked me whether or not lay spirituality was originally monastic, or mendicant spirituality that had filtered down to the laity or was it a religious spirituality in its own right? In short, did it derive from the spirituality lived in monasteries, priories or friaries or did it have a different origin all its own. My answer was that lay spirituality had its origins in the spirituality as lived by those who took vows and lived in religious communities, that filtered down to the laity. He was such a gentleman that he did not say that I was wrong he just said that he held the other theory, elevating my empty headed guess to a theory!
In the book that he was writing on lay spirituality, he insisted that lay people looking for a spirituality on which to base their lives should look no further than the God-given spirituality that Our Lord introduced into the early Church.
Although the later spiritualities of those who chose a celibate life may inspire us, and their teaching on prayer and other principles of the spiritual life might help us, we must firstly look to the spirituality that Our Lord gave to the laity in the early Church. The point Fr Gabriel was trying to make was that rather than being encouraged to become semi-detached members of later spiritualities designed for celibates, the laity should be encouraged to return to this profound spirituality. Although I will be spending many articles detailing the unique teaching on prayer of the great Carmelite Doctors of the Church, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, I have not tried to base my own daily spiritual life on the way in which they lived their semi-monastic life within their religious communities. Instead, I have tried to base my daily spiritual timetable around the way in which Jesus lived with his first disciples and how it continued to develop, most particularly for, and by lay people, and their families in those first Christian centuries. What was primarily done for the Church in later centuries under the influence and inspiration of religious orders, was done in the first Christian centuries by lay people inspired and animated from within by the dynamic action of the Holy Spirit.
Where to find Lay Spirituality
This spirituality was primarily given to and lived by ordinary families long before religious life as we know it came into being. The spirituality is available to all and can be found in the scriptures, the writings of the Fathers of the Church and in the works of great modern writers like Fr Joseph Jungman SJ for instance and many others.
In essence, this family-based spirituality had already been lived by Christ himself. For he had been filled, not only with the human love of his earthly father and mother, but by the divine love of his heavenly Father at one and the same time. He wanted this same threefold love that totally transformed him to be available to all. That is why he sent the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost day to make many more Holy Families in which human loving was surcharged by divine loving, as his had been.
Spiritual Power Houses
These families would become the spiritual powerhouses from which the ancient pagan world would be converted. This would happen not so much because of the message that they would preach, but by the supernatural quality of the love that animated them and their families, that had never been seen before.
Long before religious life came into being in the guise of Monasticism thanks to St Antony (AD 252-356), Christian Spirituality was predominantly devised for and lived by lay Christians. Religious life as we know it today did not exist. That the Mass and the sacraments were administered by a predominantly married clergy in the early Church was to be expected, as part of the natural evolution of Christianity from the Jewish family-based religion from which it arose. However, the spiritual reasons why celibate clergy gradually became the norm, are as valid today as they were in the past. A return to married clergy therefore as the norm, plays no part in the suggestions for renewal that are put forward in my articles. Nor is my emphasis on lay spirituality intended to undermine or disempower the hierarchical structure of the Church that was there from the beginning, but rather to re-empower its authority that derives from tradition and thrives on holiness.
The liberty that led to Laxity
Since the Church became over clericalized after the ascendancy of Constantine and a new-found freedom for Christians led to laxity, the central role of lay spirituality in the Church was gradually undermined. Then, when the Roman Emperor, Theodosius the Great (AD 379-395), proclaimed that henceforth Christianity would be the official religion of his Empire, this state of affairs gradually worsened, as liberty led to laxity. It would no longer be predominantly the family, but senior celibate clerics and religious orders who would take pride of place. I will return to this theme next time. However I will tell you the conclusion that I will come to now, so that there need be no delay in giving you the opportunity to return to the Spirituality first lived by Christ and then through his apostles given to the early Church.
The conclusion is very simple for it depends on love, not our Love but God’s love, for that love and that love alone can transform us, our families and through them the world. But if we do not choose to learn to practise the prayer in which we are open to receive God’s love then nothing will happen. That is why I have posted courses on prayer on my website so that readers can begin now to receive the only love that can alone radically change our lives and the lives of others decisively and permanently for the better.
In order to develop the sort of prayer that can continually help us to raise our hearts and minds to God as we practise the asceticism of the heart please visit my web-site and follow the Podcast on prayer entitled The Hermit – Wisdom from the Western Isles
David Torkington’s blogs, books, lectures and podcasts can be found at https://www.davidtorkington.com/