How to Have a Good Spiritual Childhood

My RCIA class held the three-hour retreat that preceded Easter Vigil, and our admission to the Sacraments, at a Montessori school, whose grounds spilled back from the street over a couple of grassy, well-shaded acres. The day being Saturday, no students were present, but judging by the height of the tables and chairs, the youngest of them must have been in kindergarten and the oldest scarcely older. Though the retreat organizers were good enough to furnish us with chairs fit for grown-up buttocks, being surrounded by the trappings of childhood rejuvenated me in the literal sense — that is, made me feel young. It was, I thought, fit preparation for rebirth.

In First Things, Elizabeth Scalia writes of spiritual childhood as a permanent state. “I fear many adult Catholics are still very much ‘babies’ in their understanding of the faith, and their relationship to Christ,” she says, and for a cure proposes a sophisticated program of adult catechesis. She is not wrong; book learning never arrested anyone’s development. And yet I have to wonder whether it can really serve as a growth hormone. Doctrinal orthodoxy doesn’t signify spiritual maturity any more than a clean driving record signifies psychological maturity.

Put it this way: the path to any kind of adulthood has its objective benchmarks — legal majority, moving away from parents, marrying, having kids, signing a mortgage — but it’s also a subjective state of being. In a Life in Hell cartoon, Matt Groening writes that the final step toward manhood is “realizing you must be a man, because you sure aren’t a kid anymore.” He’s describing a person (actually, in this case, a rabbit) who has hit all his cues, looks and acts the part of adult, but inside, feels pretty much the same as he always has. I’ve known people like that — some quite well, har, har — and though most aren’t bad or feckless, many can be awfully unhappy.

Spiritual maturation is no easier. Jesus may not have left us orphans, but He did leave us latchkey kids. Each of us has to build his own spirituality, if not quite from scratch, then creatively and judiciously from the components the Church provides. (The danger is that it will come out grotesque and lopsided, like a Mr. Potato Head.) Discerning a calling for a particular type of ministry and choosing a support network in the form of a community or a spiritual advisor can involve no end of trial and error. Each trial and each error can, God knows, be an exhausting and dispiriting experience. The more I think about it, the more miraculous it seems that anyone makes it out of spiritual childhood in one piece.

Including my catechesis, I’ve been involved with the Church for a little under five years. A short time, yes, but a very turbulent one, which taught me a few iimportant lessons at a time when I was in no mood at all to learn them:

Religion can’t fix your life. Let me be blunt about this — no, better, let me be vulgar: if you were fucked up before baptism, then barring a concerted self-repair campaign, that’s exactly how you’ll stay. Fr. Richard Rohr wrote that some of the least productive members of a lay cooperative community he’d founded in New Mexico mistook religion for therapy. In a way, it’s an easy mistake. Certain things about religion — metaphysical certainties, a sense of purpose, contemplative prayer — are therapeutic. But to anyone afraid of looking too deep inside himself, they’re nothing but anodynes and Band-Aids.

Last summer, a beautiful young woman whom I knew slightly through my parish attempted suicide. Actually, it might be fairer to say she made a suicidal gesture, since the act looked more histrionic than practical. Within days, she began talking about joining some relief group in Haiti. I can’t swear she said, “I need a grand cause to make my life worthwhile,” but it seemed to many people, including me, that her thoughts were running in that general direction. She did go, and from what I understand, had the sort of uplifting experience she’d hoped for, though whether it made any longterm difference I’m inclined to doubt.

A very wise priest I used to know described spiritual counseling as “the gentle art of referral.” He meant he would not hesitate to suggest, in the nicest way possible, that stricken parishioners invest in a good shrink.

Maturity cannot be measured by austerity. In Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, journalist Geraldine Brooks tells the story of a young Egyptian woman preparing to marry a man whose observance of religious custom is much stricter than she’s used to. Wanting to accommodate him, she makes certain concessions. For example, she starts covering her head with a hijab. She draws the line, however, at gloves or a veil, explaining, “I don’t want to put on anything I’ll feel like taking off later.”

I hope her fiance knew what a bargain he was getting. I’ve met people twice that woman’s age with less than half her good sense. One fiftyish woman I know is a compulsive volunteer. You know, the type, I’m sure — works twice as hard as anyone else, deflects compliments, refuses thanks. When she was without a car, I used to offer her rides, and she generally found a way to turn them down, preferring to rely on Phoenix’s poky bus system.

At first, I found her example inspiring, if a little daunting. Serving as her scullery maid when she headed the kitchen during retreats felt like keeping up with the Energizer Bunny. Whenever I asked how she managed to get heroic virtue on tap, she answered, simply, “I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” Though a non-answer at bottom, it sounded like something that could have emerged from the mouth of a saint.

As I got to know her better, my impressions became more muddled. For someone so relentlessly helpful, she had an awful lot of enemies. I began to perceive that, despite all her admirable qualities, she was incapable of playing well with others. When it came to fault-finding, fight-picking and grudge-holding, she was without peer. It dawned on me that, for all the confident, self-sufficient airs she put on, her self-esteem was painfully low. I can’t say for certain whether all that service and self-denial was her way of preening or punishing herself, but I suspect they contained an element of each.

Just today, I mentioned her to a friend, who said something like, “Well, at least she was being useful.” Fair enough, but the subject here is spiritual health, not usefulness. They’re two different things.

You can always count on the Church…to let you down. The inspiration for Elizabeth’s column was Anne Rice, the celebrated re-vert who bailed last summer amid media fanfare. The lady could have picked no better time; between the European theater of the child abuse scandal and the Sister Margaret affair, 2010 was any Catholic’s annus horribilis. For me at least, the horror crept closer to home, as administrative changes no less drastic than a military coup transformed my parish out of all recognition. The EXIT sign started to look mighty inviting.

If I understand Elizabeth correctly, she believes that a good hammering-in of eternal truths can avert these crises of loyalty and conscience. There’s real wisdom in that point since, ultimately, it was my belief in the Church’s claims and promises that prevented me from swabbing my name from the muster. But that’s a mightily foreshortened version of events; working through my feelings of betrayal and disgruntlement took months. There are times when eternal truths, as C.S. Lewis notes in A Grief Observed, sound an awful lot like clichés, or feel like facile blasts of sunshine up the wazoo. Anyone silly enough to preach them to me in those days would have stood an excellent chance of being killed in odium fidei.

The effective balm, in this case, was being able to explore the dark side of the paradox. The Church is one, holy, Catholic and apostolic? So what? The Magisterium is infallible? Big deal. That both rely, for their day-to-day survival, on the toil of twits — there’s the beginning of wisdom. In The Caine Mutiny, one of the characters describes the U.S. Navy as a system designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. Herman Wouk was Jewish, but nobody could have penned Mater Ecclesia a fitter epitaph. It was just such thoughts that kept me in the pews.

As I record these lessons, it strikes me that all of them are, by Catholic standards, off the reservation to one degree or another. The first two rely on what Freud called healthy narcissism, or to put it in less loaded language, sensible self-regard. The third comes from the street smarts of a person who grew up in New York, the wickedest city since Sodom, and who has worked in some of the slimiest industries this side of the Mafia. They don’t contradict Church teachings, at least not explicitly, but neither do they emphasize what the Church likes to emphasize. They certainly didn’t come up in RCIA class.

Maybe they should have. Maybe they’re what adult catechesis programs are really missing.

My Shemagh and Me
Phoenix and the Prophetic Life for Beginners
Hooray for Cheap Grace!
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