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Lucid Lessons From Six Great Saints

BY Sister Mary Thomas Noble

March 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/15/98 at 1:00 PM

 

Paths to Renewal: The Spirituality of Six Religious Founders by Zachary Grant OFM Cap

(Alba House, 1998, 172 pp., $9.95)

At the end of this book comes a story that distills its essence. As a young priest, the author stands outside the friary in the Lower East Side of New York, watching the children dash out the school door. An eight-year-old skips up to him, stops in her tracks, examines him thoroughly—habit, cord, sandals, beard, twinkling eyes, then asks, “Do you live here?”

“Yes, I do,” he replies with a broad smile.

“Is your name Jesus?”

Father Grant found this a haunting question. So should we. Our answer will determine the outcome of our efforts for the renewal the Church is looking for.

Paradoxically, in the minds of many the word “renewal” has become a likely candidate for the recycle bin. We tend to line up with surly Qoheleth (or Ecclesiastes): “There's nothing new.” We've seen it all. This talk has been around for a long time. It's “a chase after wind” (Qoheleth again).

So, to quote Father Grant, “this book adds to the cascade of writings on the spiritual life that have deluged the Church of the past 30 years. That fact, plus the abundance of committees, programs, and encounter groups that have arisen for the strengthening of the bond of charity among the people of God, would make one think that the zeal of Christians is poised to conquer the effects of sin and to unite all to Christ. Aquick look around will assure us that it has not happened!”

But this isn't what Father Grant is about. Instead, he picks up a prism and holds it in the light. He turns it carefully, this way and that, so that we can see the light filter through in different colors with a freshness and intensity we hadn't expected. At least, not in connection with religious life.

The prism is religious life. The facets are founders of six religious orders, chosen for their inclusivity: Augustine, Benedict, Dominic, Francis, Ignatius, and Teresa. The “great six,” with all their splash and divergency, fill the spectrum.

Contrasting their backgrounds, the author moves through three critical periods in Church history not unlike our own: the fourth and fifth centuries, rife with heresy and secularism; the Middle Ages, tumultuous scene of new forms of religious life and preaching; and finally the post-Reformation era. In each period founders are paired: Augustine and Benedict, Dominic and Francis, Ignatius and Teresa. Differences and similarities show up as the prism turns. Charisms for Church reform blend with ways of prayer, apostolic profiles, and the characteristic virtues of the founders.

Having set the stage, the author launches into his underlying theme. His sketches of the great six lead into an overall view of the Church. Each founder reflects a unique way of responding to the Spirit. We pass beyond—or within—the boundaries of religious life. The spiritual traditions that have been reflected are opened out to the entire Church. We are all called to holiness, to the work of renewal.

But where do we fit in the picture? Here, Father Grant is at his most intriguing, as he lets the possibilities flow through the prism. Our relationship to Jesus, who is the way to the Father, is the key to our vocation in life. Do we see him as friend, Son of God, Savior, brother, Lord, victim—or do we combine several of these aspects to produce yet another hue in the spectrum? Is our prayer predominantly wonder, adoration, entreaty, praise, faithfulness, surrender? Is our preferred virtue obedience, humility, mortification, poverty of spirit, constancy, trust? These are all clues to our place and destiny in the Church.

It is the author's conviction that by relating personally to the specific characteristics of one or more of the Church's major spiritual traditions, lay people immersed in family and professional life can discover the fullness of a spirituality that they will come to experience as practically connatural to them. The great six have set in motion distinct currents that are still valid. Originating in response to the Church's crying need of reform and renewal in earlier seasons, they continue to invigorate her life today. It is to our advantage to tap the potency of our spiritual lives to grow in depth and new initiatives.

Developing his theme still further, Father Grant draws up a thought-provoking schema in which he groups the documents of Vatican II according to their relationship to the six fundamental traditions. Each has a special charism, he believes, for implementing certain decrees of the Council. The aptness of his intuitions is startling.

Were it not for the style of the author, the scope and thrust of this book could be mind-boggling. But his writing has the simplicity and clarity of a window pane. It lets in the light in great shafts because there are no curtains- no pretensions to distract. The text flows from his thinking in broad, unhampered sequence. Frequent recapitulation and previewing emphasize the overall thrust.

“Franciscans pray with their eyes open,” he remarks, in comparing ways of prayer.

Father Grant writes with his eyes open.

Sister Mary Thomas Noble, a Dominican nun, writes from Buffalo, N.Y.

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