Many Catholics lack understanding of Church’s mystical tradition

  • May 14, 2010
Michael Hryniuk“I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.”

Catholic spirituality expert Michael Hryniuk has heard this one too many times. But he says while many people leave the Church in pursuit of something “more spiritual,” many of those still practising their Catholic faith miss out on the Church’s valuable mystical tradition — often because the terminology scares them away.

“Here, when people hear ‘meditation’ they think yoga and this is a lack of understanding about the roots of the Christian mystical tradition,” Hryniuk said. “And when I say contemplative practices, what we’re really talking about is ministry that’s attentive to God’s presence and discerning the movement of the Spirit and that accompanies people on their way to Jesus.”

This can include — but is not limited to — the practice of Christian Centring Prayer.

“There’s nothing ‘New Age’ about this,” Hryniuk said. “New Age people have their versions but because we haven’t cultivated our own understanding of mystical tradition, we associate it with New Age or we allow people to go to New Age (practices).”

Hryniuk, a theologian, author and speaker, is director of spiritual formation for Our Lady Queen of the World parish in Toronto and directs Theosis Resources, a consulting ministry that supports contemplative formation and renewal in parishes, schools, dioceses and denominational bodies. He is also an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto and with St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., in the diploma program for human care and assisted living.

Most Catholics, Hryniuk said, understand the beauty of devotions like adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and praying the rosary, but when it comes to experiencing God without the use of words, images, symbols and visual experiences, people are often lost and miss out on where God is speaking throughout their day.

“It involves formation, learning how to pray and the discipline of the spiritual life but it also involves discernment and direction,” he said.

People trained in spiritual direction can help by guiding a person to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their lives, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The mystical paradigm requires people to practise contemplation, something that isn’t easy but is possible through a variety of Catholic practices.

“(Christian) monks would recite a verse or a word continuously and it would draw their minds to a kind of single point of awareness of God’s presence. And this stream of spirituality coming out of the monastic tradition became a very powerful force in the sixth and seventh centuries,” Hryniuk said.

Taizé prayer, popular with youth, mirrors that concept, Hryniuk said. Also common, especially in the Orthodox Church, is the Jesus Prayer, the repeated recitation of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

“What you’re doing is you’re sounding that verse, you’re repeating it over and over again and that draws your attention more fully — it concentrates it, focuses it on God’s presence and leads you to an awareness of God’s presence that takes you beyond thoughts, words, images and takes you into stillness and silence and that’s why young people love it and flock to it.”

Unfortunately, Hryniuk said, mystical forms of prayer were always reserved for the mystics, monks, priests or “holy people” involved in highly specialized and focused kinds of prayer life and it was assumed that the normal person could never experience that. But, he added, the proof that people are thirsting for this kind of prayer life is all around.

In the 1980s, as church attendance declined, the sale of religious books in the United States skyrocketed — a strong indication people were searching for something more. Today, when Hryniuk hosts retreats on spirituality, he meets people who left the Catholic Church for Buddhism or other practices but who say they never would have left if they had been exposed to the Catholic mystic traditions.

Mystical prayer is another way to keep youth interested in the Church and to help them experience God in their daily lives, Hryniuk said, but the Catholic Church is slow to implement its use in youth ministry programs.

As co-director of the “Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project” at San Francisco Theological Seminary in the late 1990s, Hryniuk worked as a consulting theologian for a project that experimented with Christian spirituality in youth ministry. Through trial and error, it was discovered youth couldn’t learn spiritual practices unless adults leaders understood and practised these. Once that happened, the youth loved it, and these particular churches, across different denominations, have flourished because of it.

In Catholic circles, one of the most commonly known forms of Catholic contemplative prayer is the St. Ignatian “Examen.” The Lectio Divina also falls under the heading of contemplative prayer.

Odillie Gaudet, a spiritual director who works at the office of formation for discipleship at the archdiocese of Toronto, said people just don’t have access to information about simple contemplative practices like this unless they hang around theology schools, attend Jesuit retreats or have attended sessions like the monthly Lectio Divina led by Archbishop Thomas Collins.

“Pastors or lay people who know of these practices should engage people to be part of it in some way,” Gaudet said.

Sr. Sue Mosteller, SSJ, says people today often look first for an authentic spirituality as opposed to an authentic Catholic teaching.

“I think the teaching could follow but in some ways people need to be attracted to the good news and the good news needs to be announced in a way that touches the spirit,” Mosteller said.

Fr. Eric Jensen, author of Entering Christ’s Prayer: A Retreat in 32 Meditations, says many pastors are too overworked to set up programs that help enter into a scriptural spirituality like Lectio Divina. But he suggests if people took the initiative, they would see changes.

“If people did no more than meet every week in each others’ homes to prepare the Sunday readings, this alone could change their lives,” Jensen said.

But people should explore various spiritualities, he said, like Franciscan and Carmelite spirituality which leads to two of the Church’s well-known mystics: St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. And contemporary mystics are not to be overlooked, like Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton, he added. For modern reflections, Hryniuk suggests the writings of Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen and John Main, among others.

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