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Spiritual mapping, in the Church, and through the minefield…

Spiritual mapping, in the Church, and through the minefield…

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bioarticlesemail ) | Jan 04, 2024

Let us consider for a moment those of us Catholics who accept all the teachings of the Church. Anyone in that category will be deeply concerned about the need for reform and renewal so that the Church, especially in her primary ministers and ministries but also in the particular charisms and apostolates of her members, will more effectively communicate the truth, grace and very identity of Jesus Christ. But we also need to be aware of our own danger, for we are walking continually through a spiritual minefield. At any moment, we can be both injured and blasted off-track by the vast number of demons and particular temptations which attempt to impede our progress. Indeed, these may injure us morally or even blow us to spiritual smithereens.

Even worse, whenever we are off-track, we become danger points for others who are trying to navigate our troubled world all the way into Heaven. To use myself as a symbol of the problem we all face, I wave and hold out my hand to others in every word I speak and write. But if I am a blind guide, what will happen to those who reach out and grasp it in the hope of finding a safe route home? As Our Lord mentioned, “If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:14).

Spiritual mapping

The first step, I suppose, is for each of us to purchase a spiritual compass that points in the right direction. I say “purchase” because this acquisition costs something in humility and spiritual commitment. We must give up our own claim to be a lodestone and instead strenuously cultivate a spirituality which points always to Christ at the heart of the Church. Such a compass must be calibrated not to personal preferences but to the Church’s own teachings and sacramental discipline. The Church’s magisterial teaching is the sole reliable guide to the truth about God, even if we can never, even in Heaven itself, fully grasp and exhaust the whole of this Truth. Moreover, the Church’s official sacramental discipline serves always as our primary source of grace. On this point, it is useful to recall that the grace received depends not on the strength of our own positive personal feelings, still less on our enjoyment of this or that liturgical presentation, but on the presence and action of Christ that can be guaranteed only in and through the Church herself.

The first rule: At its primary sacramental level, our personal spiritual growth comes not through our own wavering sensibilities but through the action of Christ as effected through His Church. Thus the issue is never so much what we can do for the Church as what the Church can do for us.

It seems suitable to think of spiritual mapping through the minefield of life in terms of a series of steps, by which I mean ordered rules. If so, then once we have a compass we can trust, the second step is to acquire the habits for properly cultivating and increasing the benefits we have gained from it. Assuming we have in fact already appropriated the Church’s compass for our own use, we must cultivate the skill in maintaining our course over uneven worldly terrain by understanding every obstacle in the light of Christ. For example, we must learn—partly through hard human experience—which obstacles may be gotten through by sheer persistence and which are so dangerous as to require that we circumvent them by altering our route. Such spiritual woodsmanship does not come easily. We may well experience scratches, falls and even injuries. But we gain ground by a careful consideration of our mistakes, which includes the knowledge of how best to recognize their danger in advance so as to avoid their repetition. At this stage we recognize that a mere formal affiliation with the Church must be made effective in each one of us through reception of the sacraments, personal prayer, sacred study and ascetic discipline.

The second rule: As human persons, we must actively recognize the need to transform Christ’s grace into powerful habits of soul, mind and body, exercising all the faculties which enable us more easily and accurately to arrive at our destination despite the obstacles in our path.

The third step comes, in the vast majority of cases, when we realize that on this journey we need companionship not just of Christ but of others who can help us, and whom we can help, along the way. This is a spur to vocational discernment, whether to marriage, religious life, the priesthood, the diaconate, or some particular form of apostolate in the single state—though of course it is very possible to enter into a vocation at an earlier stage only to realize, in situ, that we have a long way to go to properly actualize that calling. Regardless, the time comes when we recognize that there are many paths to eternal union with Christ through the Church, and that our own path entails, by some miraculous Divine condescension, a particular, conscious, and intimate participation in the Mystical Body of Christ along the way. This vocational recognition plays a dramatic role in shaping the ways in which we most productively travel forward not just with the Church’s compass but with a Guide who is, paradoxically, also our Goal. Now we are both serving and being served, choosing our closest companions more carefully, and participating more fruitfully in Christ’s own ecclesial spirituality.

The third rule: Traveling to heaven is not only a matter of our determination, insofar as this has been possible for us, to follow the Church’s compass. Within the Church herself, it is a matter of discerning how God has specifically called us, and of adjusting our very being to that call.

The fourth step is the recognition that, while the Church’s “official compass” is always reliable, it is not equally available to all. Christ Himself guides innumerable travelers along innumerable paths to the Father. It is helpful to realize that in the theology of St. Paul, to be joined to Christ is to be joined to the Church, just as to be joined to the Church is to be joined to Christ. This helps us, at least, to understand the possibilities that still exist within a vast world of spiritual ignorance. But a more important personal corollary may be a sadness that few have joined or followed us on our own path. Our initial confidence may have worn off. Perhaps we regard a lack of followers as proof of an unfruitful or even unreal vocation. There can be a darkness along this path, or even a discouragement, though the two are not the same. But the response to both is simply this: We are not called to be successful in anyone’s eyes, and perhaps especially our own. We are simply called to be faithful. We are called to walk the path God has called us to walk. In the economy of salvation, every sacrifice offered to God is fruitful. Nonetheless, the saying holds true that one sows and another reaps (Jn 4:37).

The fourth rule: A successful trip to heaven has nothing to do with visible success of any kind in this world, including visible spiritual influence on the lives of others. It has to do only with fidelity to Christ and the Church insofar as we have been given to know them. For they are one and the same.

A devotional afterword:

In these rules of (or steps along) the road to heaven, I have emphasized the importance of union with and fidelity to Christ and the Church. But it is especially the nature of the fourth and final rule, which is really a rule about apparent failure in those who have made considerable progress along the way, that prompts me to speak briefly about one particular addition to a well-rounded spiritual life in Christ.

I am referring here to the important role played by private devotions either to particular saints or as devised and recommended by particular saints. Four of the most widely known of these today—and which also have some public recognition in the Church’s liturgical calendar—are the devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the particular devotional prayer of the Rosary, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. But there are a great many other devotional “patterns” which have arisen in popular spirituality, especially in connection with the lives of the saints.

Nothing, of course, can replace the sacramental graces imparted by Christ through the liturgical ministry of His Church. But though participation in the Eucharist itself is the supreme answer to the difference between failure and success in our lives, in our weakness we can use all the help we can get. It is just here that some familiarity with the lives of the saints, and with some of the most striking devotions which have arisen through and from their lives, can be of inestimable value to all of us as we follow the general rules of the heavenly road. In these devotions, we find a particular appreciation for the engraced humanity we share. Moreover, this engraced humanity almost invariably includes holiness in the face of suffering and even worldly failure.

Therefore, while it is always a grave mistake to privilege personal devotions above the sacramental ministry of the Church—and still less to privilege any private revelation above Revelation itself as protected by the Divine authority of this same Church—the practice of approved private devotions in accordance with the preferences of each one of us who travels with Christ is extraordinarily helpful. Such devotions are helpful not only as personally congenial forms of prayer and spiritual growth, but usually also as spiritual demonstrations of the true difference between success and failure in following the Church’s compass along the road to God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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