Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Is there such a thing as lay spirituality?

A friend queried me on my post of a week or so ago on some problems in the history of the laity, and asked in particular questioned whether there could be any such thing as a specifically 'lay spirituality'?

The need for a lay spirituality

I have to admit that I do struggle with the idea of a lay spirituality, not least because the case for it often seems to me to be based on caricatures of traditional spirituality.

Russell Shaw, in his book 'To Hunt, to Shoot, To Entertain, for example, argues that the problem is that lay people have typically been judged and found wanting against the gold standard of clerical/monastic spirituality, because they can't live the Evangelical Counsels in their fullness. He seems insulted by St Paul's portrayal of marriage as a concession, and wants a spirituality that emphasizes the fundamental equality in dignity of all baptized Christians. Equal dignity does not, however, wipe away all differences in objective status (and the Council of Trent defined celibacy as a higher state than marriage) or importance of role.

The obvious response to this is that lay people are called to live out the evangelical counsels just as the religious is, just in different ways: through chastity rather than celibacy for example; and detachment from goods rather than complete renunciation of private ownership. Whatever the objective differences, it is the subjective that really counts - each of us achieving the level of holiness we are capable of by doing what our state of life requires of us.

More fundamentally, Shaw argues that the monastic ideal is based on a contempt for the value of work (he cites the example of the desert monk who made baskets then burnt them when he had too many), and contempt for the world. Working and engaging the world, he argues, far from being things to be despised are the very means the lay person must use for sanctification.

One could point out that the West didn't follow the Desert Fathers on the subject of work - the Benedictine motto is 'Ora et Labora' (prayer and work), and St Benedict says 'he is truly a monk who supports himself by the work of his hands'. Similarly 'contemptus mundi' is meant to mean rejecting a focus on pleasure, power and other false ends, not some manichaean rejection of (physical and cultural) creation itself!

Monastic spirituality is, in my view at least, nothing more than a particular way of operationalising of the Gospel. And the wisdom distilled from experience that one can find in the Rule of St Benedict and other monastic texts is often just as applicable to a lay person as it is to a monk (as the flourishing industry that produces books with titles like' How to be a monk and not leave your day job' attests!).

How do we attain the virtues?

All the same, I've developed a theory which I'd like to test with you, my readers, that the call for a specifically lay spirituality perhaps in part reflects two different perspectives on how the process of sanctification occurs.

In a Thomist framework (and my friend is a Thomist) there probably isn't room for any such thing as a 'lay spirituality'. St Thomas after all, sees spirituality as essentially being about the cultivation of the virtues - there are some differences between states of life and between individuals in terms of which particular virtues they will predominantly get to exercise, and the situations in which they will exercise them in, but those specifics aren't really the essence of spirituality from St Thomas' perspective. It is the virtues, the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit that are the key focus.

Moreover, St Thomas essentially adopts a theoretical process to the acquisition of the virtues: start from a fundamental understanding of the virtue itself, develop an esteem and desire for it, pray for grace to acquire it, and so forth.

The other school of thought (which I suspect includes Benedictine spirituality) though starts not from the virtue we are trying to cultivate (and how to apply it in everyday life) but rather from how to approach life or a particular task, knowing that it is the process of carrying out our designated task that gradually transforms us and leads us to acquire the virtue. In this framework there is a need for reflection on how best to carry out those tasks so as to allow the transformation - or acquisition of the virtues - to take place.

Rather than starting from a theoretical understanding of a particular virtue, St Benedict tends to give us reflective, sapiental sayings (often from the Wisdom books) to orient us correctly.

Benedictine vs Thomist spirituality

Both St Thomas and St Benedict are firmly grounded in the virtue framework of the Fathers. I haven't (yet) checked to see whether everyone of St Thomas's 53 odd virtues are touched on in the Benedictine Rule, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that they are all there since St Benedict certainly scatters an extensive list of virtues for the ideal monk (for example in chapters on what to look for when appointing an abbot, prior or cellarer, or in relation to particular tasks) throughout the Rule.

In some sense though, I suspect St Benedict generally sees the virtues as the result of the monk's activities, rather than focusing on their acquisition directly. Separation from the world is a way of removing distractions. And St Benedict puts a lot of emphasis on specifying the activities of the day - essentially prayer, study/reading and work - as the means for the Spirit to effect the transformation the monk.

The point is always to approach these activities with the appropriate attitude of mind (and he provides a long list of the appropriate dispositions in the chapter on the tools of good work as well as in individual chapters). In his discussion of humility, for example, the starting point is to cultivate a proper fear of the Lord, the second is not to do our own will; only the last degree is humility's outward manifestation in things like custody of the eyes.

St Thomas however exactly reverses the order of St Benedict's degrees of humility in the Summa, so that its external manifestations are the starting point for the acquisition of the virtue, and achievement of true fear of God is its highest degree.

St Benedict argues that it is our reasons for acting that change: what we initially do out of fear of hell eventually is done out of charity:

"Then, when all these degrees of humility have been climbed, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God that casts out all fear; hereby he will begin to observe without labour, as though naturally and by habit, all those precepts which formerly he did not observe without fear: no longer for fear of hell, but for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue. And this will the Lord deign to show forth by the power of his Spirit in his workman..." (RB 7)

St Thomas reverses the process:

"Man arrives at humility in two ways. First and chiefly by a gift of grace, and in this way the inner man precedes the outward man. The other way is by human effort, whereby he first of all restrains the outward man, afterwards succeeds in plucking out the inward root. It is according to this [later] order that the degrees of humility are enumerated." (IIa IIae q. 161 art 6)

They arrive at the same result, but the process to get there is different means.

So in a Benedictine framework, there is room for instructions on how to undertake lectio divina, for example because it is through the assimilation of Scripture that we see ourselves in a moral mirror, and learn what we must change and how to do make that change. Similarly, I suspect, a lay spirituality might discuss the particular activities a person is to undertake and how to approach them as a path to acquiring virtue.

St Thomas starts from the other side of the problem, presenting a distillation of the wisdom of Scripture, the Fathers and the philosophers and telling us in which faculties and appetites humility resides, how it relates to the other virtues, and so forth. The particular circumstances in which it is exercised are of less import.

So do we need a lay spirituality?

So assuming my analysis is on the right track, there may be some case for at least some elements of a distinctly lay spirituality (if one is not taking a pure Thomist approach), just as one can talk about priestly spirituality and perhaps the spirituality of religious life (though in both the latter cases, the differences between different schools of spirituality - such as Carmelite vs Benedictine vs diocesan - might be greater than the similarities).

Just how distinctive a lay spirituality really needs to be though is a different issue. Personally, I doubt it needs to be anything more than adaptation and distillation of the existing tradition (including St Thomas' treatment of the virtues) rather than the creation of something radically new.

However, I suspect Opus Dei and some other lay organisations would disagree.

What do you think?


Fr K said...

As part of my Licentiate in Spiritual Theology at the Angelicum I did a course called Lay Spirituality and wrote my thesis on this very topic, basing it on the writings and spirituality of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. The very first book written specifically for lay people to help them in their spiritual life was St Francis de Sales work Introduction to the Devout Life. So yes Virginia, there really is a lay spirituality.

Fr K

Terra said...

Dear Fr K,

Can you elaborate a little on where you think its distinctiveness lies?

The Devout Life is a great book, but didn't it give rise to a 'Salesian Spirituality' that has been adopted by priests (such as the Institute of Christ the King) and nuns as well as lay people - kind of proving my point!

I too have done a course in 'lay spirituality' (towards my Masters degree), but it mostly turned out to be a debate on things like lay ministry and the nature of the lay apostolate.

That lots of books have been written on the subject, and academic coures manufactured is no doubt true. The question is whether the content really stands up to scrutiny!