April 21, 2011

Extreme Unction and the Spiritual Sweatpants

Some years back I spent some time working with a priest who was a former religious. He was a capable man, and had been entrusted with high responsibilities in his community. When I met him, after having left, he was still a hard-working and dedicated priest. He didn't, however, have anything encouraging to say about religious life.

He was convinced that mainstream religious life (in our cultural context) was dying, and that the spirituality of religious life needed to be that of a terminal patient. Like many religious and priests I've met over the years, the K├╝bler-Ross "Stages of Grief" was a primary spiritual schema in his pastoral imagination. He diagnosed mainstream religious life as having passed through 'denial' and 'anger', but being stuck in the 'bargaining' or 'depression' stages. What religious life needed, he would say, was to emerge into the 'acceptance' stage so that it could pass on its remaining gifts to others and die with whatever little dignity it had left.

I didn't reflect much on this at the time; I thought that perhaps it was just some of the bumps in Father's personal journey intruding as distraction in our relationship. He was otherwise a very kind and helpful man, so I just dismissed these things as a random negativity.

But lately I've been thinking about it again. The friary where I have been assigned since last summer is a new community. The house used to be a diocesan rectory until we took it over a few years ago. The chapel used to be the priests' dining room. Whoever set up the chapel had at his disposal some old stained glass windows, and someone chose one of them with an image of Christ crucified for the center of the space. The funny thing about it is that this window looks like it must of been part of a set illustrating the seven sacraments. The one we have is Extreme Unction. So each time I go to chapel and gaze briefly on Christ crucified, I notice the large "OI" jar of the oil of the sick next to him, and the words, "Extreme Unction" beneath.

Now I'm sure this is all an accident of decorating history. But I'm pretty sensitive to symbol. It gets into my reflection what it means for religious to pray in a chapel that seems to be dedicated to Last Rites.

Lately I've been wondering and reflecting on whether or not there are subtle ways we have given up, spiritual decadences we've permitted ourselves because we don't believe in a future for ourselves, zeals we've traded in for securities and comforts because we've let go of the missionary fire that burns for God's salvation to inflame the world. I'm not saying these are true, or in what ways, but I can't help but feel these questions entering into my prayer when I see that window.


ben in denver said...

There seems to be a lot of connection between this post and the one that you posted on Monday concerning diagnosticism.

There is much to be hopeful about in religious life. The green shoots are everywhere.

"Amen, amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remains alone. But if it die it brings forth much fruit."

Eve said...

I thought about you when I came across this article I had saved:


You probably know of him, or of others like him.

Lee Gilbert said...

"Lately I've been wondering and reflecting on whether or not there are subtle ways we have given up, spiritual decadences we've permitted ourselves because we don't believe in a future for ourselves, zeals we've traded in for securities and comforts because we've let go of the missionary fire that burns for God's salvation to inflame the world."

Couple of years ago a Dominican priest here in Portland gave an unusual sermon in which he wondered why miracles are so rare in our age vs the Middle Ages. He speculated that it might be because we joke so often about holy things. He pointed out that this is to treat them profanely.

For me this comment was like a flash of lightning that illuminated many things. We moderns, and especially we Americans, have a very highly developed comedic sense that comes from decades of watching the likes of Jay Leno, Johnny Carson and Jack Benny. How often have I heard priests and seminarians and even bishops indulge this kind of humor. In fact, within the past month a priest here started a homily in which he had the persons of the Trinity involved in a humorous dialogue. The punch line had the Holy Spirit saying that he had never visited the Vatican! Yet this priest is a good and holy man who mentions the pope and all the prefects of the various congregations in his intercessions every day.

Many years ago I heard a prominent priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago refer to the archbishop as "Supershepherd."

With all this kind of flippancy- which I am convinced is pandemic throughout the rectories, seminaries and convents of our age- we are probably going a long way toward neutralizing our own prayers and greatly offending the Holy Spirit. It is truly sacrilegious and profane.

By contrast, one reads the lives of the saints and the conversations they had with one another. Never, never in a million years would that high level of discourse fly among the priests and religious of our day. At least that is my impression.

Recently I came into possession of a very old history of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in which is a long quote from the Archbishop addressing his priests in about 1889 or so. What elevated and scriptual language! I thought to myself that never, never in a million years with this go over today. He would be laughed out of the cathedral. No jokes, none of the wearisome baseball analogies by which a prelate today indicates he is one of the guys, just the scripturally formed outlook of a holy and apostolic man framed in language worthy of his office and the setting.

St. Paul speaks of those who give themselves up to sensuality out of despair, and perhaps something analogous is happening in religious life today. Whatever that may be, for me it is exemplified by the TV in the rec room, where our priests, seminarians, novices and religious receive- as they have received all their life long- a very thoroughgoing indoctrination and formation, the formation of comedians. It is totally killing us.

No doubt many of these jokes and comments are truly hilarious, but that is not really the issue. The issue is whether they treat consecrated persons and things with the reverence due to them.

If we were all to repent of this business, we would likely have much to be truly joyful about, not only miracles but a revivification of religious and apostolic life...at least to the extent that sacrilegious humor is stealing grace and fervor from among us- as I truly believe it is.