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.

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  • Anna

    You’re entirely correct about those lessons, though I don’t know that they’re exactly “off the res.” I think there are a decent number of spiritual adults in the Church and all of them through the centuries have figured those lessons out. The first, for example, is the reason all religious orders require a long and searching trial period before they let you in. The second lesson reminds me of Chesterton’s “Four Faultless Felons.”
    But I heartily agree that they should be specifically included in RCIA programs. Too many come in thinking it will be all consolations and no desolations and their faith collapses when the opposite turns out to be much more the case.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    A good piece and you raise some interesting points on the issue of adult catechesis. I was thinking of something more than book learning and study groups, although those would be essential. I was thinking of just this sort of discussion amongst and between Catholics — that we’re all twits to an extent, and usually lesser parents, lesser siblings, lesser everything than we want to be — but we too easily lose sight of the fact that the church, a true instrument of the Holy Spirit, is still subject to the flawed humanity of her administrators, and when we expect anything from them besides twit-humanness from them, we set ourselves up for disappointment. But we’re not supposed to be looking at them; we’re supposed to be looking, ultimately, at the constant reality of Christ in our lives, present despite all the mess. Martha was forever trying to get that house straightened up and Mary was forever saying “screw that, let’s contemplate” and we are forever in their parlor, doing the best we can to please both!

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    All that said…I’m not sure the headline gibes with the text! :-)

  • Ryan Haber

    Max, you are an infallibly sensitive and very intelligent writer. I do not want to shortchange that at all. I haven’t read your piece yet, but fully intend to shortly. What caught my attention was this line, though:

    “Doctrinal orthodoxy doesn’t signify spiritual maturity any more than a clean driving record signifies psychological maturity.”

    I must beg to disagree, even at the risk of missing your point or addressing inadequately points raised in your article.

    A clean driving record does not prove psychological maturity, but a cruddy one is almost certainly a sign of psychological poor health. Even “accidents” aren’t really accidents, which is why the law calls them collisions. They are usually avoidable and avoided by the attentive. Similarly, any number of laws are ignored willy nilly by people who do not care a whit for themselves or others, or have not counted the risks involved in their carelessness. None of this speaks to a good bill of psychological health.

    Likewise, a person might be orthodox and still nuts – I have known many, and will silence my friends by admitting that I am one. And I admit that I am still recovering from a bad driving record, so I am not writing tongue-in-cheek, here.

    Yet unorthodoxy in a practicing Catholic almost always originates out of defensiveness of sin. Rejection of papal infallibility, typical of an American, is a cover for the use of birth control in 9 cases out of 10. I mean, really, they are not secretly opposed to the dogma of the Assumption, after all. Likewise, a Catholic who is pro-choice has much deeper misunderstandings about the nature of law and the paramount importance of human dignity as an icon of the Living God, and usually a good dose of utilitarian ethics added into the brew. In short, unorthodox beliefs aren’t outliers, but parts of broader systemic problems.

    Simple book learning won’t fix them, but my experience in seminary getting learned up with books has shown me that a steady confrontation with Truth, that is, with the person of Jesus Christ, is like an X-Ray and chemotherapy all rolled into one. Very unpleasant, revealing, and with the capacity for tremendous, if gradual healing.

    I’ll read your article and following comments, and then have more thoughts, I am sure. Thanks for your thoughtfulness, Max.

  • Ryan Haber

    Hear, hear. Now, having read and enjoyed the article, I think I can respond to a couple of points I missed before reading it ;-)

    St. Therese of Lisieux speaks of spiritual childhood as a *good* thing. And our Lord says that we have to “turn and become like children” (Mt 18:3) in order to enter the Kingdom. His use of the word “child” though, I do not think is meant to connote immaturity, but rather acceptance. That requires maturation for those of us who are immature enough to want it our way all the way. Relevant to the Church, I think it is the genius of children to accept the world as it is presented to them. In fact, many of the issues we have to work through as adults arise precisely from the fact that the world presented to us by our parents, etc., does not correspond as well as we’d like to the world in which we find ourselves. Yelling and screaming worked at home, maybe, but does not in the office; VCRs were cool as kids, but passe in our brave new world. We have to learn to be discerning to get by in the world, to accept this, but not that.

    But the deeper genius of childhood, accepting what is, is still called for when it comes to our dealings with God.

    The Church is an interesting animal, though, because She is given to us by God and yet often mangled up pretty good by any number of intermediaries (parents, priests, nuns, etc.) before She lands in our lap.

    We must accept the Church, and accept THAT She is riddled with sin while still we walk on earth, without ever accepting those sins individually. We must adopt with respect to Her the same attitude that we are to adopt with respect to ourselves and with respect to our favorite, closest people: tender, gentle mercy and tolerance with an eye trained for clarity and truth, and a heart that is truly at rest with nothing less than honesty and upright conduct, yet very comfortable amidst sinners (including ourselves).

    Oh, what a balance! Between apathy and apoplexy, between care and contempt! How can I care about someone I love, and not mind their sins? Mind their sins and not go crazy over their (sometimes terrible) vices? Mind the vices without letting the person be subsumed by them, swamped in my mind by their real deficiencies?

    So that discernment is still very important too – we must be on the constant search to discern what is of God and what is not. We know that the teachings of the Church are true, and we know that humans often present them badly, or present their own opinions as the word of God. As you pointed out, Max, we must find ourselves with peer groups of like-minded (but not too alike) brothers and sisters in Christ, a good spiritual director, and so on, with whom we can join ourselves. It’s no idle figure that our Lord sent the disciples out in twos.

    Beyond discernment, I think this paradox is an invitation to pray for greater faith, hope, and charity. They are all essential for heaven, and for life in the Kingdom in the meantime. With faith we remember that God has a plan, with hope we remember to rely upon Him to fulfill it even when everything seems screwed up, with charity we remember to return His tenderness by tireless efforts to accomplish His will as best as our dim wits and His grace guide us.

    I fully believe in the value of purely secular psychological techniques, provided they don’t compromise Christian morals; and I don’t believe that the sacraments are magic panaceas.

    Yet I do not believe that spiritual direction is mostly the art of gentle referral. Priests in the course of their ministry accumulate ample wisdom that is not normally accessible to laypeople. Moreover, I chuckle every time “psychologists discover” some timeless truth that the Church has never forgotten, as in the book “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,” which is very good except that it seems to think the legacy of divorce is something, well, unexpected. Perhaps it was to some purely secular psychologists. Priests, though, worth their weight in holy water never once doubted that a plague of divorce would mean legions of walking wounded, functioning in the world perhaps, but often just barely.

    Grace perfects nature, remember. Your most astute observation in this piece, Max, was something to the extent that contemplation, etc., won’t help someone who is unwilling to really look inward. So very true. So very true.

    Yet grace has a funny way of slipping in the cracks of doors that we slam shut. It also has a funny way of blending in and looking like much lower, more ordinary things like affection, intuition, or devotion. I love the song “Amazing Grace.” When we’ve been There ten thousand years, we’ll still have plenty of time to marvel at the hidden workings of grace. It is grace that has brought you to where we are, Max, and me too. I pray it keep us here; no, I pray it draw us closer still.

  • Rs46

    Max, this is a very excellent article and brings up some real tough questions on spirituality. I’m not particularly interested in organized religions but I want to compare the situation a bit with going to school. Taking classes won’t necessarily make you smarter although you will learn some things you didn’t know before. But it plunges you into an environment that, if fertile, can really get your brain excited. Most learning is self-taught but sometimes you need to be in the right place for it to happen. I imagine that is what church can do for a lot of people. But just like a class needs an inspiration teacher so does the church need inspirational leader. “Designed by geniuses to be run by idiots.” A great line. Do you suppose the internet falls into that category (present company excluded)?


  • Melora

    I have to agree with Rs46 on this. As a convert to the Catholic Church, it wasn’t really education that brought me into the Faith. I was a teenager at the time, going through a lot of bad stuff. I remember watching some movies on tv that had nuns in it. I remember reading a book about St. Francis and later reading a book about St. Catherine of Siena. I didn’t really have current examples of faithful Catholics around me, nor did I go to a school where religion was taught. I DO remember searching for answers. Trying to figure out what I should do with my life, who I was, what was the Truth. I distinctly remember praying to God one day to know what was the Truth and from there, He led me to the Catholic Church. Ironically, some of the people I came into contact with were NOT faithful people. They went to church but they were doing things that were against the Church. Yet, at the time, I didn’t know this nor even seem to care. My eyes were set entirely on God at the time and it was HE WHO was calling me to Him. I only mention this because I feel that your article touches upon this conversion of heart. One has to be open to the grace of God in order to receive it. And as the Body of Christ (all Catholics) we are God’s hands and mouth on this earth. So we can educate people about the Faith, we can give good example (like the faithful volunteer who continually helps others despite her own sins) and we can try as best we can to do what we know to be right. But in the end, it is grace that will draw that soul to Jesus. :)

  • Melora

    Bob, Yes, I think the internet falls into that category; though I suppose any sort of technology would fall into that same category since the majority of people do not know how it all actually works! I’ve heard sermons on this subject before and St. Peter is always given as an example. Well, most of the Apostles. How they were all very imperfect. St. Peter denied Jesus three times, on THE day he should have been most faithful and yet, Jesus made him the very first pope. Christ knew of the weaknesses, sins and failings of men, but He still built His Church upon “the rock”. As a convert myself (and one who has moved a lot and been to different parishes), I know that I can not look at people in the Church and base my faithfulness solely on that. My faithfulness to the Church is based on God and His teachings. The Sacraments do not change and the basic teachings never change, even if men deny, leave or fail God Himself.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I think you are right about religion not being able to fix your life. I once heard a priest say, if you are an alcoholic and become a Catholic, you are a holy alcoholic; if you are a jerk, you become a holy jerk. It was both comforting and disheartening. When I was in RCIA a man joined us for a while, but left because he wanted to “get his life together” before joining. I thought, you will spend your whole life getting your life together. Better do it with God than without. Religion may not fix your life, but boy, I can use the company.

  • Kevin

    I have to agree with Ryan’s observations on orthodoxy. It is at least a sign of some spiritual maturity. It is acceptance of things as they are. That takes some humility and grace I think. Of course, it must be coupled with orthopraxis, and that is always the hardest part.