What the Spirit is Saying to the Church Today
Common Insights of The Spiritual Exercises and the Charismatic Renewal
by Fr. Fio Mascarenhas
Speaking to the participants of the VI International Leaders' Conference of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal on May l5, l987, Pope John Paul II said,
"This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church. The vigor and fruitfulness of the Renewal certainly attest to the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church... Because of the Spirit, the Church preserves a continual youthful vitality. And the Charismatic Renewal is an eloquent manifestation of this vitality today, a bold statement of 'what the Spirit is saying to the churches' (Rev.2:7) as we approach the close of the Second Millennium" (L'Osservatore Romano, 15 May, l987).
These are very significant words for the Renewal as well as for the whole Church, since the Holy Father here calls the Charismatic Renewal a "bold statement of what the Spirit is saying to the churches" in these modern times. What does the Pope mean? In what way is the Renewal a clear message from God to his People? And is this message in any way similar to that of The Spiritual Exercises?
It will help to first study the original use of this phrase in the Bible (Rev.2:7ff), and then see how it applies to both the Charismatic Renewal and to The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Each has proved to be a wonderful means of building new and vital relationships between God and millions of his people, the latter for over 450 years, and the former in more recent times (since Vatican II).
The Book of Revelation:
The Apostle John writes in prophetic and apocalyptic style about a series of visions Christ has given him. The object of these visions is twofold: the (then current) situation described in the letters to the seven churches ("what the Spirit is saying to the churches": Rev.2:1-3:22), and the future eschatological events (Rev.4:1-22:5). The glorification of Christ is a dominant theme, and so is "Life in all abundance" - this life is God's gift through Jesus, who is "the Lamb of God" and "the Word of God". The theme of witness is central, and the moral life of the Church as witness to its faith is stressed. The sacred author's purpose is to encourage the Christians to be faithful in the face of persecution and confused doctrine, and he holds out to them the hope of eventual victory and reward on account of the glorification of their Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Book takes for granted that the Christian life is a battleground. Jesus, the faithful and true witness, is the model; he shows that persecution is the consequence of witnessing. The persecuted Christians participate now in the abasement of Christ, but they are assured that they will reign with him soon. God's enemies can stir themselves and persecute his people, but all power resides permanently with God; he began history and he will terminate it.
The expression, "what the Spirit says to the churches" occurs in each of the seven letters to the particular churches. In these letters, Christ refers to the merits and failings of each community, and offers appropriate encouragement or reproaches. The letters end with an exhortation, either for the church to change its ways (Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, and Laodicea) or to persevere in fidelity (Smyrna, Thyatira, and Philadelphia). The church that receives the most severe reprimand (Laodicea) is not accused of any grave fault but Christ condemns the existing state of tepidity and self-satisfaction ("neither hot nor cold" - 3:15); this community enjoys material well-being and the absence of persecution. Such an enjoyment brings on pride which, in folding man in on himself, closes him to every gift from Christ. But Christ's severe reproof is inspired by his love: for whoever will give attention to the call of Christ and will open to him ("Behold, I stand at the door and knock") will participate with the Lord in the joys of the banquet in the time that is to come.
"In general, these letters make clear that the gravest danger menacing the churches of Asia, toward the end of the first century, lay not so much in oppression from without (2:9,13; 3:9), as with the heterodoxy of some groups of Christians who, inspired by the Gnostic theory on liberty, suggested consorting with the syncretistic world around them (2:6,14-16, 20-25)" (The Jerome Biblical Commentary", p.473).
Centuries later, the situation of the Christians at the time of St. Ignatius, and more recently of the Second Vatican Council, was in many ways similar to that of the audience of the Apocalypse. Very many baptized Christians were tepid, lukewarm, complacent, and subtly deceived by secular humanism and materialism to compromise the effectiveness of their Christian witness. Hence, The Spiritual Exercises and the Charismatic Renewal came as timely "prophetic" messages from Christ to a Church (or to churches, since the Charismatic Renewal is an ecumenical reality) in need of new initiatives of renewal. God's desire is always to strengthen, motivate and empower believers to be faithful witnesses of the risen, glorious Lord, in the face of an indifferent, scoffing, and even hostile world.
As through the Book of Revelation, so through The Exercises, and again through the Renewal, "what the Spirit is saying" to "those who have ears to hear" is the same thing: (a) Look at Jesus Christ! He is the glorified Lord! He is God's gift to you of 'Life'; he is 'the Lamb that was slain', the personal Savior of every human being; he is 'the Word of God' among you, teaching humanity 'the truth' and 'the way to happiness. (b) Look at yourselves! Realize your need for God's mercy: 'You have abandoned the love you had at first'! Do not be carried away by the world and its values. Discipleship means spiritual warfare; do not fear persecution and ridicule, but witness boldly to Jesus. Your personal victory and reward is assured, because Jesus is risen, and he is with you from moment to moment, with his peace, and joy, and comforting love, and new life!
Moreover, "what the Spirit says" is not just a matter of words, of empty rhetoric. As Paul claimed, "The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power!" (ICor.4:20). So too, the Pope has called the Renewal "a bold statement of the Spirit to the churches" precisely because it is "an eloquent manifestation of the continual youthful vitality of the Church". The Renewal, and The Exercises as well, quickly succeeded in the Church because they were seen to be effective as means of real conversion to Christ. Thousands, and millions, encountered them and began to show changed lives, a new commitment to the Kingdom of Christ, new and dedicated service to the Church, new initiatives of evangelization, etc.
The Spirit, who is "the Lord and Giver of Life", is untiring in his efforts to renew the churches, gently inviting all believers to be open to his saving, healing, purifying, empowering, nourishing, comforting, enlightening and transforming action, and both The Exercises and the Renewal succeed in fostering this disposition of receptiveness to the Spirit among their retreatants/members. Speaking to the participants of the V International Leaders Conference of the Charismatic Renewal in 1984, John Paul II acknowledged: "Your real openness to the Holy Spirit is your strength and your special treasure, and you are striving to express it in various ways..." (L'Osservatore Romano, 30 April, 1984).
What the Renewal is contributing to the Church of today is, in fact, the renewal of pentecostal graces, the repetition of what the great event of Pentecost caused to happen in the minds and hearts of the Apostles and the early Christians. (Hence, Cardinal Suenens suggested that the better name is "pentecostal" rather than "charismatic" renewal). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius likewise can be said to have this same effect on those who make them well: they bring pentecostal graces to the disciple in search of a deeper life in Christ. What are these effects of Pentecost? In other words, what is the first thing that "a real openness to the Holy Spirit" effects in the disciple?
Jesus is Lord:
First of all, a deep and joyful conviction that "Jesus is Lord!" The Apostles had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, had eaten with him, prayed with him, been taken "apart into a quiet place" with him, been taught by him not in parables but plainly and clearly, had witnessed his many healings and miracles, yet to them as to others it was still a great secret that Jesus was truly "the Lord". They did not penetrate into the heart of the mystery of Jesus until the grace of Pentecost transformed them permanently, and the outpouring of the Spirit opened their understanding definitively to the truth of who Jesus really is: the Lord and Savior of all humanity.
Pope Paul VI confirmed that this is a grace being given to the members of the Renewal when he said to the participants of the International Charismatic Congress in Rome in 1975: "Nothing is more necessary to a world more and more secular than the witness of this spiritual renewal which we see the Holy Spirit raising up today in the most diverse regions and milieu. Its manifestations are varied: deep communion of souls, close contact with God in faithfulness to the commitments undertaken at baptism, in prayer that is often communitarian, and at the basis of everything, a personal conviction. This conviction has its source, not only in instruction received by faith, but also in a certain lived experience" (Ibid., 29 May,1975).
The Pope refers here to not just beliefs (the intellectual assent to propositions of the faith), but to beliefs that have filtered down to the heart and become a "certain lived experience". Such is meant to be the common experience of all Christians, as Paul VI again exhorted the whole Church:
"(One must) be filled with new wonder and joy at the personal importance of the coming of Christ. Each one of us can say, must say, 'He came for me!' (Gal.2:20). For me! Let no one think he has celebrated Christmas well unless he has felt himself possessed and overcome by this ever new discovery: he has come for me! The love of Christ pursues me and overwhelms me (2Cor.5:14)! Each one must say and feel in himself: I am loved by Christ. Yes, I! Whoever experiences in some way this enthralling and central truth of Christmas, as he returns to his own home and to his own affairs, will feel rising in his heart the spontaneous song, Glory to God!" (Ibid., 25 Dec.1973, Christmas Homily).
The central truths of the faith, the key elements of the mystery of Christ, can transform disciples' lives only when they have truly affected the heart - one must feel oneself "possessed, overcome, overwhelmed by this ever new discovery", that Jesus is "my" personal Savior and Lord. Hence too, in The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius encourages his retreatants "to ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me" (n.234); to emit "a cry of wonder accompanied by surging emotion" (n.60); to "experience consolations", "great fervour", and "be inflamed with love" (nn.6,14,15...); "to wish to feel" shame, sorrow, horror, abhorrence (nn.63,78) or "to be glad and rejoice intensely" (n.221); to let one's spiritual senses have full play (n.121); to "desire the gift of tears", "to strive with great effort to weep" (nn.48,195); etc.
The Prayer of Praise:
Another effect of Pentecost, of one's "real openness to the Holy Spirit", is that the Christian's prayer-life becomes marked by confidence and by praise. As the Pope said above, "Whoever experiences in some way this enthralling truth, as he returns to his own home, will feel rising spontaneously in his heart the song, Glory to God!" This is certainly the experience of the members of the Renewal. Their prayer-life is characterized by praise, by a joyful confidence in the Lord. Pope Paul VI bore witness to this too: "Certain common notes appear in this Renewal: the taste for deep prayer and an emphasizing of praise of God..." (Ibid., Oct.11, 1973).
"We desire nothing more than that Christians, believing people, should experience an awareness, a worship, a greater joy through the Spirit of God among us... This Renewal ought to rejuvenate the world, give it back a spirituality, a soul, and religious thought, it ought to reopen its closed lips to prayer and open its mouth to song, to joy, to hymns, and to witnessing... "Those who do not belong to your movement should unite themselves with you to celebrate this feast, Pentecost, so that they too, devout pilgrims to this center of the Catholic faith, might nourish themselves on the enthusiasm and the spiritual energy with which we must live our religion. And we will say only this: today, either one lives one's faith with devotion, depth, energy and joy, or that faith will die out" (Ibid., May 29,1975).
The prayer of praise is of fundamental importance in the life of the Christian because it is an index of one's faith: according to one's confidence and trust in the providence and mercy of God, according to one's faith-conviction that "in all things God works for good with those who love him"(Rom.8:28), one is able to praise God in every circumstance of life. As Paul VI again put it, "This conviction has its source, not only in instruction received by faith, but also in a certain lived experience. This lived experience shows that without God man can do nothing, that with him, on the other hand, everything becomes possible; hence this need to praise God, thank him, celebrate the marvels that he works everywhere about us and within us" (Ibid.).
The praise of God must be part of one's normal spirituality, it cannot depend on the mood of the moment. When one knows personally and deeply that "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Rom.5:5), one is able to prescind from subjective feelings and circumstances and, by faith, to act according to the objective reality, which is that at all times "Jesus is Lord". He rules and guides our lives in times of difficulty and suffering as well as in times of success and joy. Hence, "Praise is fitting for loyal hearts" (Ps. 33:1) - and loyal hearts can be the characteristic of only those disciples whose faith is strong and stable, for faith brings them "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb.11:1).
Loyalty of heart is a quality very dear to Ignatius also, who therefore points out in The Exercises (the Principle and Foundation) that the whole purpose of man's life is "to praise, reverence and serve God". In many other places too he recommends again and again "the service and praise of God" (nn.20,46,98, etc.). And in his own life, we know he was wont to praise God often: e.g. "He felt great consolation and spiritual strength, with such joy that he began to shout through the fields and to speak to God, etc" (Autobiography, n.79).
The Abundance of Charisms:
In the days of Ignatius, probably the main problem confronting the Church was that of unsound doctrine. The counter-Reformation needed to be bolstered, Christian instruction needed to be given all over Europe, and the Church's missionary work had to be advanced all over the new world (the Americas, India, China...). Hence, Ignatius was chiefly concerned about these things. Similar to the case of St. Paul, who did not really address the problem of slavery in his letters, so also Ignatius, always a man of his times, seems to have paid little attention to the problem of a dormant laity in the Church. In today's world, however, when more and more attention is being given to the rights and inherent dignity of individuals and peoples, and when on the other hand secularism and a practical atheism (or religious indifferentism) seem to be gaining ground everywhere, the great need of the Church is for a renewal of a strong spirit of faith among its clergy, religious, and laity, and in a special way for the empowering of the latter, to enable them to fulfill their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world. Hence, the modern Renewal focuses on these things.
"The fresh breath of the Spirit has come to awaken latent energies within the Church, to stir up dormant charisms, and to infuse a sense of vitality and joy" (The Pope Speaks, 18 , p.334).
"The great blossoming of ecclesial Movements and the manifestations of energy and ecclesial vitality which characterize them are certainly to be considered one of the most precious fruits of the vast and profound renewal promoted by the Second Vatican Council..." (L'Osservatore Romano, 2 March, 1987).
Charisms, as service gifts, equip each Christian "for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain...to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph.4:12,13).
A New Understanding of the Cross:
As the Charismatic Renewal has become more mature over the years, and its members have deepened their grasp of the essence of the Gospel, many of its conferences across the world have focused on the subject of the Cross. There has been a new insistence on Jesus' teaching that one cannot be a real disciple if one does not daily pick up one's cross and follow him. Forgiving one's brother/neighbor seventy times seven; accepting ridicule, insult, or even persecution for the sake of the Kingdom; rejecting the enticements of 'the flesh' in one's daily life; keeping the commandments (especially the new commandment of love); all these are seen as ways to die to oneself, to empty oneself in imitation of Jesus, by the power of his Spirit. As in the Apocalypse, and in The Exercises ("The Two Standards"), so again now, Christian life is becoming seen as a battleground, and the members of the Renewal are being encouraged to give a faithful witness to their "new life in the Spirit", with full confidence that Jesus' glorification is the guarantee of their own victory and reward.
The Cross of Jesus remains supremely relevant to humanity, and the need for the cross in the lives of the "loyal followers" of Christ also continues. Many in the Renewal have learnt to accept this, as the U.S. Bishops Conference and other countries' Bishops Conferences have acknowledged. The Exercises likewise gets the retreatants to ask repeatedly for the grace to be identified with their suffering and humiliated Lord (nn.98,167).
The above are some of the "pentecostal graces" mediated by the Renewal, and also The Exercises, so that both, in their own ways, can be called "a bold statement of what the Spirit is saying to the churches". In practice, of course, the work has only just begun. Renewal is a perennial need, an ongoing process. The Exercises of St. Ignatius and the Charismatic Renewal can truly help disciples to be converted to Jesus, changing them from being "neither hot nor cold" into zealous "contemplatives in action". But a follow-up is always necessary! Having made a 30-day retreat, a Jesuit must still make an annual 8-day retreat, and a daily hour of meditation, etc. So too the members of the Renewal, having once received a "baptism in the Spirit", must keep up their process of renewal and conversion through an annual conference/retreat, the weekly prayer-meeting, daily fidelity to prayer, scripture, etc.
A mutual exchange, therefore, between The Exercises and the Renewal can be of great fruitfulness: retreatants (the Jesuits included!) opening themselves to the graces of the Renewal (the charismatic gifts, etc.), and the "charismatics" seeking the graces of the Exercises (meditation, spiritual direction, etc.). St. Ignatius's Rules for Discernment are specially useful, and can truly be called, "what the Spirit is saying" to today's Renewal!
That the Good Spirit "makes all easy and removes all obstacles so that the soul goes forward", whereas the Evil One "harasses with anxiety and afflicts with sadness...to prevent the soul from advancing" (n.315) is something commonly experienced in the Renewal. The advice, therefore, about never changing a former decision in a time of "desolation" is very important. People in the prayer-groups do find that after a time of initial enthusiasm (following a `baptism in the Spirit'), "God has taken away the abundance of fervour and overflowing love and the intensity of his favours". Hence, some are tempted to doubt their genuine spiritual experience, and to question whether it was all just an illusion or something only emotional.
But, as Ignatius teaches, "consolation will soon return", and in the meanwhile, one must "resist with the help of God, which always remains (though one may not clearly perceive it)"; one must "strive to persevere in patience, and to react against the vexations which have overtaken one (by even more prayer, etc.)". On the other hand, those enjoying "consolation" too must guard against "a spirit of pride and vainglory", and remember that "it is not within our power to attain great devotion, intense love, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all this is the gift and grace of God" (nn.318-324).
Finally, perhaps the insight of greatest value for the Renewal is that "consolation" can sometimes come from the Evil One, or that in cases when it is undoubtedly from God, the Enemy can still try to influence one in the period immediately following the genuine consolation. Hence, one must "distinguish the actual time of consolation from the period which follows it". How many good resolutions have been subverted or exaggerated because the novice "born-again" Christian was not taught to be on guard against the subtle deceits of the "father of lies", "the deceiver"! It is imperative that those in the Renewal and those of the school of The Exercises make efforts to assist each other as generously as possible, for "the greater glory of God".
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