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Peter Stockland: Living faith within the realities of life

By 
  • May 29, 2021

Five minutes into a recent online retreat, I felt myself going spiritually backwards.

Zoomed in on the priest’s face floating inside my computer screen, fidgeting and shifting and unable to decide whether to sit or stand, fending off the combined forces of COVID confinement frustration and Facebook-Instagram-Messenger-email FOMO, I was once again a school kid wearing wool pants in a hot church during an eternity-length homily.

Then Fr. Timothy Gallagher told us online retreatants this: “Never fail to begin again.”

It offered a five-word reset: the perfect permissive injunction for me to wait a few minutes more to see how things might progress.

“That’s doable,” he said.

He was absolutely right. Over the next two days, social media-driven Fear of Missing Out gave way to a decidedly different FOMO, i.e., trust that Faith’s Opportunities Might Open. As they did, just by sticking with the retreat.

The essence of Fr. Gallagher’s talks was that the opportunities to refresh and deepen our faith are abundant throughout each day and can be realized even amid feelings of flailing and failing. “There is never reason for discouragement if you can begin again,” he said.

The words were a quote from Venerable Bruno Lanteri, founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in early 19th-century Italy. Fr. Gallagher did his PhD dissertation on Lanteri and has subsequently devoted his life to writing and speaking about the Piedmontese priest’s work, in particular his Spiritual Exercises and approach to spiritual direction. Both were forged in two crucibles. One was the tumult of the French Revolution and resulting political persecution of the Church in northwestern Italy. The second was an intra-institutional conflict of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“In these same years, the Church struggled to free itself from grim Jansenism — a teaching that portrayed God as an easily-angered judge, and that led people to fear rather than love Him — and the burdensome pastoral practice it imposed,” Fr. Gallagher writes in Overcoming Spiritual Discouragement: The Wisdom and Spiritual Power of Venerable Bruno Lanteri.

In place of imminent punishment, Lanteri emphasized immediate possibility. Do what you can do in your life of faith right now, today. Go to Mass, live sacramentally, pray, examine conscience and conduct, read spiritual works. Do so within the realities of the life you live.

Practice and practicality become indivisible, which is not an excuse for abandoning spiritual attention. It’s a constant call to seek and find the opportunities that exist within the busyness of our lives. It’s an inversion, really, of the way many of us (hi, mom!) approach our faith.

We think habitually of going to Mass as a duty. As a result, we primarily think of going to Mass as fulfilling the purpose of spiritual life. But from a kinder point of view, indeed from a practitioner’s perspective, going to Mass isn’t an obligation. It’s an opportunity to renew, to strengthen, to deepen our life with God. Or as Fr. Gallagher put it, it’s yet another welcome chance to: “Raise your heart frequently and gently to God — frequently, gently, with peace.”

Isn’t that, ultimately, our Christian purpose? Embracing such welcome, he emphasized, requires realistic recognition that all our good intentions are prone to fail, which we can offset by our commitment to begin again.

“Do not wait until you have devotion to begin. Constantly live as a beginning.”

In the beginning of the retreat, I rapidly assessed its outcome as absurdity gusting to futility. By the end, after beginning again, it offered a compelling approach to faithful renewal at the beginning of the end of COVID confinement.

We have all eagerly awaited escape from the pain and the stultification of the past 15 months. We’re about to discover shortly and sharply that life before March 2020 was just as imperfect as we all have always been.

What better guidance for re-launching into that post-pandemic future than a voice of deepest faith counselling us to, “Say boldly, ‘I will begin again now.’ ”

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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