Growing in Spirituality

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July 8-21, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 26
Growing in Spirituality
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
What is spirituality? How does it differ from a strong religious faith? What can Catholics do to grow in spirituality? Spirituality can be described as enhancing one’s relationship with God through prayer and worship with the belief that the Holy Spirit will guide and inspire one to become more holy.

Sister Marise May, OSF, Spiritual Director at the Spiritual Renewal Center in Syracuse, said that spirituality is all about one’s relationship with God. “That’s the major difference between spirituality and religion. While religion is public worship that includes a body of doctrine, beliefs and traditions, spirituality is a personal relationship with God,” she said. “People can belong to a religion and be very devout in their faith tradition and not be spiritual.” “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me,” Sister Marise quoted from Matthew 15:8. “That’s easy to do –– pray and not have our hearts and minds on what we are saying. If you have a relationship with God, it’s easier to pray to Him in your own words,” explained Sister Marise.

Father Joseph Champlin, rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, said that spirituality is more general than being of the Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or other faith. “It has to do with your inner life, your spiritual life, your life in the soul and your connection with God,” he said. “When we talk about being a religious person, a Christian or Catholic, we are talking about public worship at Mass as well as a set of common beliefs as followers of Christ,” said Father Champlin. “To practice spirituality, one needs to have some quiet time for God and God alone.” Father Champlin gave the example of today’s young adults who are interested in spirituality but not necessarily in religion; are interested in prayer but not necessarily attending church. For those who wish to grow spiritually, Father Champlin suggested taking time each day for prayer and reflection. “Prayer is a conversation with God,” he said. “It’s speaking to Him as you would with a friend. It should be a two-way street –– speaking to God and spending time listening to Him.”

One type of wordless prayer is called “centering prayer” and is practiced by many religious and lay people. Traditionally known as contemplative prayer, centering prayer is a prayer of silence and meditation. “Be still, and know that I am God,” said Father Champlin, quoting Psalm 46:10. Centering prayer emphasizes a personal relationship with God by opening the mind and heart to Him. “Centering prayer is turning within,” said Father Champlin. “It is sitting quietly and focusing on the presence of God that is deep within you.” Father Champlin finds centering prayer an important part of his spiritual life. He said that with practice, one can learn to let go of the distractions and truly listen to God. One popular approach to practicing centering prayer is to choose a mantra or sacred word or phrase such as God, love, peace, or Jesus, Mary and Joseph, or here I am Lord. The word or phrase should be repeated throughout the 20 minutes of prayer. One should sit comfortably with his/her eyes closed, settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of one’s acceptance of God’s presence. When one becomes aware of other thoughts, return to the sacred word. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for several minutes. It is recommended that two periods of centering prayer be practiced daily. Centering prayer is an exercise of faith, hope and love and moves one beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Him.

Sister Rose Raymond, OSF, a spiritual advisor and the program director at Stella Maris Retreat Center, defines spirituality as persons seeking God as they become aware that God is seeking them. Sister Rose said that people seek out spiritual direction because they are looking for more in their relationship with Christ. “I tell them they are here because God is seeking them and they are responding to His call. They are here at His invitation,” she said. As spiritual advisor, Sister Rose walks on a journey with individuals looking for ways to become more aware of God in their lives. She suggests that people use the Scriptures as primary tools. “The more one knows Jesus and who He is, the more they are able to walk the path with Him,” she said. One type of Scripture-based prayer is the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The Society of Jesus, a religious order founded by St. Ignatius in 1539, is deeply rooted in Ignatian spirituality. As members of the Society of Jesus, all Jesuit priests are required to participate in two, 30-day retreats in which they do the exercises. Father Jim Smith, SJ, a retired Jesuit priest from Le Moyne College and a spiritual and retreat director, explained the program. “The exercises of St. Ignatius are the foundation of Ignatian spirituality. The Jesuits are one embodiment of it, but there are others,” said Father Smith. “It’s not monastic nor is it like the Carmelites which involve long periods of contemplation. It’s aimed at persons who are active in the world and society.”

Father Smith explained that St. Ignatius designed the exercises as 30 full days of prayer which included four to five periods of prayer each day as well as a daily session with a spiritual director. When St. Ignatius was designing this method of prayer, he realized that unlike the Jesuits, lay people could not commit to a 30-day retreat. Therefore, Ignatius designed the 19th annotation of exercises that consists of an at-home retreat program that lasts 30 weeks. The participant commits to one hour of prayer a day, which embraces the Scripture readings designated by St. Ignatius. It also requires a two-hour weekly meeting with a spiritual director. This highly structured, Scripture-based program invites Christians to put themselves in the scene of a Gospel passage, see the people, hear what they have to say and watch what they are doing, explained Father Smith.

Sister Rose agrees that when praying with the Scriptures, one should reflect on how the story plays out in his/her own life. “The Gospels are dynamic,” she said. “They are always relevant to our everyday life and always have a new meaning.” This method of reflecting upon Scripture passages has been very helpful in Bishop James Moynihan’s spiritual journey. Under the spiritual direction of Father Joseph Neville, SJ, Bishop Moynihan completed the 19th annotation a year ago. “It was a wonderful experience,” said Bishop Moynihan. After Bishop Moynihan returned from an annual retreat, Father Neville asked him about the experience. “I told him that the retreat was good, but what I really needed was a retreat on the last four things –– death, judgement, heaven and hell.” Father Neville told Bishop Moynihan that what he was searching for was an Ignatian retreat. “I never knew it would come to this,” said Bishop Moynihan. “That I would be asking for a Jesuit retreat. But it is the most powerful experience I’ve ever had. I begin every day looking forward to my hour of prayer.” Another exercise Bishop Moynihan was surprised to find himself practicing was keeping a journal of his reflections. “I didn’t ever think I would be the type to keep a journal,” said Bishop Moynihan. “But I have two journals chock full. I still keep my journal every day. As I write in my journal, I pray. When I look back at what I’ve written, it’s pretty good stuff,” he said. Bishop Moynihan said that the exercises of St. Ignatius use all of the senses when one puts himself/herself within the Scripture story.

Gary Smith, a parishioner of St. Margaret’s Parish in Homer and a spiritual director, said that his spirituality is deeply rooted in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. “One of my favorite forms of praying is to spend time participating in the Scripture passages and reflecting on how that story speaks to me and shapes my life today,” said Smith. “The 19th annotation of the spiritual exercises is the single, most powerful sustained prayer experience I’ve had,” he said. Regardless of the form of prayer one chooses, spending time in prayer every day is a sure way to become more spiritual. “Listening to God is important,” said Sister Marise. “He speaks to us through other people and through the events of our daily life.” “I would tell someone who wants to grow spiritually that they must pray. Many times, it’s necessary to pray for the desire to pray,” said Kathy Papa, a parishioner of St. Joseph the Worker in Liverpool and a spiritual director for religious and lay people. Papa suggests that even if people are not at the point where they want to be involved in spiritual direction, just meeting with a spiritual director once or twice can help them get started on their journey of strengthening their spirituality.

Sister Marise suggests that those who would like to join a prayer group but cannot find one should start one of their own. “Get together with some people you are comfortable with and reflect on God,” she said. For those serious about growing spiritually, Sister Marise suggests meeting with a spiritual director, which she describes as a personal trainer for prayer, joining a faith sharing or Bible study group, or participating in a retreat. “Also, one can read about how to pray,” she said. “One should not feel like a failure if one method of prayer doesn’t work.” There are many types of prayer to fit individual lifestyles and spiritual needs. Simple prayer is defined as unstructured conversation with God. “People tell me they do their best praying while driving in their car,” said Sister Marise. “Take little God breaks throughout the day. Be aware of God and let Him hug you,” she said.

“Perhaps spontaneous prayer is one of the best kinds of prayer,” said Sister Rose. “It’s about finding God in the ordinary.” For more information on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, centering prayer and other spiritual guides and programs, contact the Spiritual Renewal Center at (315) 472-6546.

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