The Spiritual Practices: A Reservoir of Strength & Joy
by Msgr. Roger J. Scheckel, Spiritual Advisor
A constitutive part of a Marian Catechist’s formation, prior to, and following, their Consecration is the carrying out of certain spiritual practices. For the person entering the Candidacy Program, there are six daily spiritual practices, one weekly, and another monthly. In the Pre-Commitment stage, that follows Candidacy, another daily practice is added to the previous six, and the frequency of others is increased. The required spiritual practices are listed in The Marian Catechist Manual, authored by Father John Hardon, S.J. In this article, I would like to take up a question that has been raised by a number of Marian Catechists, that being: “What if I don’t get all the spiritual practices accomplished every day? Can I, in good conscience, seek to be or continue as a Marian Catechist?”
Before considering this question directly, I believe it would be helpful to make at least two observations regarding spiritual practices in general. First, progress in the spiritual life requires dedication and effort. It has been said that the work required in the spiritual life is more demanding than physical and intellectual work. It was not always this way, nor was it God’s intention that it be this way. Prior to the fall from grace of our first parents, union with God was natural and easy. The effort that is needed by us to progress spiritually, is necessary, due to the weakness that all of us possess, as a consequence of the sin inherited from our first parents; a weakness that is exacerbated by our own actual sins. Consequent to the Fall, spiritual progress is possible, only through the help of God, which is always extended to us; as well as, through continual human effort. The human effort needed to advance in the spiritual life is critically important. The spiritual life does not tolerate idleness. If a person is not advancing through a conscious effort that cooperates with God’s grace, then most probably that person is regressing. Our situation might be likened to a person swimming in a river, against the current. If, for any reason, the swimmer stops making an effort, he or she slips further away from the goal or destination.
Accompanying the above understanding, of the importance and necessity of human effort in the spiritual life, is a second consideration, that being, our spiritual practices are means to an end and should not be mistaken for the end to which they lead and serve. The end or goal of our spiritual practices is sanctification. Sanctification is the result of God’s design and grace made present in the human person through the power and working of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual practices are the means by which we hold on to and perfect in our lives the sanctification we have received from God. This should not be misinterpreted to mean that our spiritual practices are optional or unimportant; rather, it places them in their proper role, being at service of a higher purpose.
The spiritual practices required of Marian Catechists are necessary, if we hope to maintain, as well as, advance in holiness. At the same time, these practices are subordinate to, and at the service of, the divine life that was given to us for the first time in the Sacrament of Baptism. Understanding these two matters may help in preventing two extremes from appearing in carrying out the required spiritual practices, these being rigorism and laxity. Laxity results from a failure to be realistic about the weakness of our fallen human nature, as discussed above, encouraging a complacency or a nonchalant attitude in putting forth the effort needed; while on the other hand, rigorism fails to appreciate the provisional nature of the spiritual practices, that they are in service to something beyond themselves.
The spiritual practices expected of the Marian Catechist, in the stages of early formation, as well as after Consecration, are substantial. You will not find in the Marian Catechist program a casual approach to the catechetical and spiritual formation of the candidate. To live out faithfully, what is expected, will require a sincere commitment and an earnest desire on the part of each catechist. It needs to be emphasized, however, that the spiritual practices are to be adopted gradually by those who are taking them up for the first time. Over time, they are to become habitual within the catechist’s life. However, each of us develops habits at a different rate. For some, it comes quickly, and in a steady way while, for others, it takes a longer period of time, and there may be various setbacks. This is what might be called the “law of gradualism.” It is the acknowledgment, that the effort and time needed to develop a habit, which leads to what is good and holy, is peculiar to each individual. However, the “law of gradualism” needs to be distinguished from what might be termed, a “gradualism of the law.” Because it may take a person a considerable amount of effort and time, to develop the habit needed, to faithfully carry out the requirements that guide the spiritual life, of the Marian Catechist, this does not make the requirements any less required. The “law of gradualism” recognizes and respects the full integrity of the requirements while, at the same time, recognizing that each person travels an unique path, in coming to live out, eventually, the fullness of these requirements.
What should a person do if they are occasionally, or regularly, failing in carrying out all the prescribed practices? My first recommendation is for the person to be in contact with a spiritual director, to whom they should present this concern in an honest and forthright way. A good spiritual director should be able to help discern, with the Catechist, if there is laxity or rigorism involved. A particular person, for example, may be deeply troubled that he (or she) is unable to fulfill the requirement to attend daily Mass, due to the unavailability of Mass in his locale. If this person is being robbed of his (or her) peace of soul because he is unable to do, what may in fact be impossible, he needs the help of a spiritual director who would indicate that he is tending toward a kind of rigorism, which is counterproductive to spiritual growth. In a situation where it is morally or physically impossible to carry out a spiritual practice, then it is to be understood that the conscience loses its force to bind the person in conscience. This is best determined with a spiritual director. Another example, where the obligation to carry out a spiritual exercise might not be in force, is if the duties of one’s primary vocation in life, e.g., spousal and parental responsibilities, require unexpected attention, making it impossible for a particular spiritual exercise to be carried out on a given day or week. However, if the exercises are not being carried out due to willful neglect, e.g., watching television for recreational purposes while leaving the daily rosary unprayed, this might indicate an interior disposition that needs more formation and discipline, before seeking or renewing Consecration. Again, this discernment should be made with a spiritual director.
Consecration precludes any notion or practice of minimalism. It presumes that the person to be consecrated comes with a generous heart, seeking to become more generous in his or her love of God and neighbor. While there are no canonical obligations involved with the Consecration, nonetheless, a moral obligation is involved, insofar as the person is making a public promise before the Cardinal, to live in accordance with the norms set forth by the Marian Catechist Apostolate.
Those who are in formation, and those who have already been consecrated as Marian Catechists, must take seriously the spiritual practices that have been prescribed. They are not meant to be burdensome, but at times they will be challenging, particularly for the person who is taking them on for the first time. However, with a gradual but persistent approach, guided by a spiritual director, these spiritual practices will eventually become habitual for the Marian Catechist, providing a reservoir of strength and joy for carrying out the catechetical apostolate.
Originally published in The Tilma, Fall 2001