The Solid Foundations Course is a very challenging course on Spiritual Life. Are all Baptised ready for such Teaching? What are the conditions to be ready for it? What should be done before the Solid Foundations Course in order to prepare the Faithful? Also, what type of teaching in Spiritual Life can be given to those who are not ready in order to get them ready? Is there any “danger” in offering the “Solid Foundations Course” to people who are not prepared for it?
These questions touch on various disciplines in Theology, all interconnected: ecclesiology (Theology of the Church), Spiritual Life (Spiritual Theology), Pastoral Ministry (Pastoral Theology).
– “Ecclesiology”: this is so because we need to understand which function in the Church serves which purpose, who is in charge of it and what its goal is, as follows:
– “Spiritual Theology”: because we need to understand not just the general functioning of the Grace of God, state of sin vs state of grace, but we also need to be able to understand the workings of the Grace of God from the first step in Christian life till Christian death, having reached the fullness of love in the process. By discerning the main articulations of spiritual growth, and of the workings of the grace of God in the faithful, we will be able to serve this work better.
– “Pastoral Ministry”: because we need to have labourers in the Lord’s vineyard, who are duly formed, and prepared to serve the work of the grace of God at each stage, and not to leave it to ignorance or random luck, or to general statements.
Combining these three disciplines helps us answer the initial questions above. In fact, we cannot just lean on one specialisation and ignore the others. The three are deeply intertwined and they need to be integrated together, adding their combined lights and perspectives to offer a proper analysis of the spiritual state of the Church – its spiritual topography (see videos/article and see also this very important article).
Traditionally the Church has two forms of teaching and formation for anyone who wants to become a Christian and to progress in the faith: Catechesis and Mystagogy.
– Taking Catechesis for a start, let us think of Adult Formation and its main tool, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The natural habitat for this phase in Christian life is the Parish. Any Parish is by definition missionary, and does its best to Evangelise everyone who falls within its domain. If the person wants to become Christian, Adult Formation is given, heavily based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Adult Formation may very well continue for a while. Thus, in total it covers the period before and after baptism. It takes the time it needs, there is no limit. The RCIA programme falls also into this category of formation.
– Mystagogy, then, is a more advanced teaching in the Church, where the faithful is introduced to a deeper spiritual life. We have some mystagogical homilies from the Fathers of the Church, but one should not dismiss the writings of the Desert Fathers and of the various Masters of Spiritual Life throughout the centuries. They are to be respected because the natural habitat of this deeper teaching is normally the Desert, the Monastery, the Hermitage. One seeks here the Doctrine and the Spiritual Master, a new style of life, and often a community life.
What differentiates the two stages of growth is Jesus’ Call. Let us remember what happened to St. Antony the Great father of all monks, East and West, whose life was written by the then Patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius the Great. He was a normal parishioner, so one can presume that he had been formed, that is, had his first Catechesis, and was a fervent parishioner, when one day, entering his parish church he felt that he was “hearing” the words of the Risen Lord, present in the words of the Gospel during the Liturgy, and that they were calling him personally to follow Christ. So, this is what he did. He sold all his possessions, entrusted his sister to a community, and started this stage of his Christian life by venturing into the Desert, searching for God alone. There are a number of lessons we can learn from this:
a- There is more to Christianity, as a life/experience and in formation/teaching than what we usually find in a Parish. Fair enough.
b- One probably needs to not only have had the initial formation/Catechesis, but also one needs to be a very good parishioner, where fervour, love and service would be at their best.
c- By so doing the individual is ready to hear Jesus’ call, because he or she would have done all that is possible to please God.
One would presume that for this second phase in Christian life, one could find all the needed help and support:
a) Formation, Teaching, Doctrine,
b) Formators, Masters, Spiritual Directors,
c) Friends who are on the same path.
If we look at St. Teresa of Avila’s way of structuring her architectonic masterpiece, The Interior Castle, one can notice this “hinge” or change before and after Jesus’ Call. In fact, she organised the entire spiritual journey into seven steps, or Mansions, and these seven Mansions were in their turn divided into two sets: 1 to 3 and 4 to 7. What distinguishes the two sets is the entering of God in a direct and personal way into the life of the person! She calls this intervention “the supernatural”, in the sense that it is above what our capacity/nature can do. Thus, at the beginning of the Fourth Mansions, St. Teresa says that here starts the supernatural.
If we contemplate her own life, significantly enough we notice that she lived as a nun for around twenty years without properly crossing this “line”. In fact Jesus was calling her but she could not hear his call (see articles on her conversion and on hearing Jesus’ Call). Her formation was not complete and even if she had been practising the Prayer of the Heart (Silent or Contemplative Prayer) for fifteen years, she could not undergo her “second conversion” and “hear Jesus’ Call”. She needed to work on the Virtues, and she did not know it until a knowledgeable priest discovered this and explained to her what she had to do! She would regret these years for the rest of her life, and she would praise the Lord for having had mercy upon her and for waiting for so long for her. She would in addition fiercely blame the ignorant priests who, if not exactly misleading her, failed to show her the right path to draw closer to the threshold, that would allow her to hear Jesus’ Call and start to receive the amazingly large number of graces He wanted to give her – and us.
Everything we know of St. Teresa of Avila is about the Teresa who learned the lesson and applied it and who was teaching it. In fact, the idea of working on the virtues, in a perfect way, is explained by her in her pedagogical masterpiece: Way of Perfection where she prepares us for crossing the red line of the supernatural. The main lesson of her life is entrusted to this book. We have much to learn from it if understood well, and when many crucial aspects of the work of the Parish will become much more evident. (see this article on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II)
Do we have in the Gospels such a distinction between these two phases of Christian life, before Jesus’ Call and after it? The answer to his question is in the affirmative, for we have this distinction exists plus and the necessity of a first preparation that would allow us to hear Jesus’ Call and answer it.
An examination of some of these distinctions will prove helpful:
– God prepared his People to receive Him in Jesus in two ways: in a distant way, with Moses and the Prophets. In a more direct way, when He sent St. John the Baptist to preach a baptism of repentance and prepare the actual people of God present to receive Jesus. Many of Jesus’ Apostles, in fact, were disciples of John the Baptist. Preparation, however, is very important. Otherwise, if we are not prepared, all we can hope for is to deal directly with Jesus’ Call and ask for the “juicy bit” of Contemplation and deep spiritual life.
– When the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30) asked Jesus how to obtain eternal life, Jesus did not start by saying: “come and follow me.” No. He started by directing the attention to God who is Good and asked the young man if he had followed Moses’ Commandments. It is only after having checked the moral maturity of the young man that He dared to go further and put forward the further necessary requirements: “one thing is lacking, go sell all your belongings and come and follow me.”
– If we go yet deeper into the Gospels we can consider the structure of St. John’s Gospel, set in the form of six steps of purification, in order to reach union with Christ in the contemplation of His Glory on the Cross. We may then see the two phases of Christian life at the junction between the third and the fourth signs, that is, between the healing of the paralytic and the multiplication of the loaves.
The Solid Foundations Course places itself at this junction between the two phases of Christian life, and more precisely rather at the beginning of the second phase where a person, like St. Antony, venturing into the “Desert”, abandoning everything for Jesus (by the will and not necessarily materially), needs a proper Spiritual Formation, to learn how to walk this new path, learn about what it consists, its stages, what is required to do in order to grow, etc. This fundamental Course lays the foundations of a powerful Christian life. Many consecrated persons have benefitted from it and would immensely benefit from it, as often, here and there, the initial formation lacks very important indications about the workings of the Grace of God. But not only consecrated persons, many lay persons also feel Jesus’ Call, and are eager to follow Jesus and to learn how to do so. It is a new territory for all of us, but the bimillennial wisdom of the Church, its experience and discernment are here to help us grow.
Please click here to see the Syllabus of the Solid Foundations Course
Question: is it dangerous or misleading to give this solid teaching to some of the faithful who are curious or interested in it?
Answer: it is a difficult question. As we saw, St. Teresa did read about advanced ways of prayer like the Prayer of Recollection described by Francisco de Osuna. Did it help her? Indeed it did. Was it fully satisfactory? No, because she lacked important aspects of the formation that belonged to the previous stage, namely, she was never advised to work on the virtues. Was it dangerous for her? Not for her, but it could be dangerous for others, because people can illude themselves and live in a phantasmagorical “spiritual” world, be misled themselves and mislead others. How many times have I heard people saying that they love St. Teresa of Avila, and I always wonder what is the exact reason for this? Is it for the visions, the locutions or the consolations she received?
Spiritual Life requires serious and solid discernment. And skipping important stages or short-cutting them, could be dangerous. The Lord himself said: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6)).
Let us also remember that prudence does not mean to ignore giving any spiritual teaching prior to hearing Jesus’ Call. That would be completely wrong. Let us remember that Baptismal Catechesis, or Adult Formation bear a spiritual teaching also. The explanation of the Our Father, for example, (a first level of explanation) is necessary. This is why traditionally the structure of any Catechesis or Adult Formation bears a degree of teaching in Spiritual Life. Please have a look at the fourth part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is all dedicated to prayer and spiritual life. It is the beginning of the teaching of Spiritual Life. Of course, it cannot be compared with the teaching of the Solid Foundations Course, but it is absolutely necessary.
Objectively speaking, then, understanding exactly how the Grace of God works, what it expects from us and at all the stages, would really prevent us from losing twenty vital years or more of our spiritual life, as was so in the case of St. Teresa – to her everlasting sorrow.