Sanctity: It isn't just for priests and nuns anymore. This, roughly, is how the average American Catholic perceived the Second Vatican Council's teaching about the universal call to holiness.
An explosion of books, periodicals, workshops and tapes on spirituality followed, often testifying more to a hunger for novelty than to an understanding of, or interest in, spiritual theology. Eclecticism (a little centering prayer, a few breathing exercises etc.) encouraged a cafeteria-Catholicism mentality. In recent years the Vatican has had to respond to the centrifugal forces by issuing specific warnings about Eastern meditation and New Age spirituality.
It is refreshing, then, to read The Ordinary Path to Holiness, a book firmly rooted in the tradition of Catholic spiritual theology. The author, R. Thomas Richard, a married layman, has “been elsewhere; done those things”: Before returning to the Church, he served as a Protestant pastor, earned a graduate degree and worked in religious education. He is a well-qualified guide for the many Catholic lay people who are unaware of the spiritual riches in their own tradition.
“Catholic spirituality ... is universal (‘catholic’) in scope; it is truly human in subject, having God as object,” he writes. “It has developed over many centuries, through the lived experience, holiness, and wisdom of many true saints. Catholic spirituality is wisdom learned in the crucible of divine testing and purification. It is simply Christianity, revealed to His holy ones in the experience of their life-offering.”
The great strength of this book lies in its description of sanctification as a slow and “ordinary” spiritual development. Since the early days of the Church, homilies and treatises have noted three stages of spiritual growth: the beginners, the proficient (those making progress) and the perfect.
Richard helpfully compares these stages to phases in a person's development from childhood to adulthood. “The onset of rationality, separating infancy from childhood, is analogous to conversion and acceptance of God — a most rational human act,” he writes.
To each group God offers a “way” of advancing. The purgative way purifies those who are just setting out on their journey to the Father. The illuminative way enlightens those who are committed to Christ so they may better understand and obey the Lord. The unitive way leads the devout soul to mystical union with the Trinity.
This “ordinary” progress of the Christian soul is clearly presented, relying on classical works of spirituality by St. Teresa of Avila and the theological synthesis of the 20th-century Dominican Father Garrigou-Lagrange. Richard's book is at the same time up-to-date, quoting extensively from Vatican II documents and the new Catechism.
In the later chapters, Richard discusses Scripture, prayer and the sacraments as means of preserving and nourishing the life of the soul. The excellent section on the Eucharist examines a wealth of New Testament passages. The pages on marriage, though inspiring, are less thorough. In a final chapter, “Holiness in Suffering and Dying,” the author relates the anointing of the sick and everyday difficulties and crosses to the mystery of kenosis: Christ's self-emptying and sacrifice for our salvation.
Read this book and see why, if you want to grow spiritually, there's no place like the Catholic faith. Even if — or maybe especially if — you're just an “ordinary” Christian.
Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania.
- March 30-April 5, 2003