Summary: In recent times the Church has reminded us that everybody is called to holiness. In previous times that was understood to apply more to consecrated persons. The consecrated also had the means to be holy at their disposal: Formation (religious and spiritual). Now lay people are hearing that they are called to holiness; they can hear Jesus calling them to follow Him in their state of life, but they can’t embark on the journey to holiness without receiving help from the Church’s bi-millennial wisdom, that is, “Spiritual Formation”. In all fairness, we can’t expect lay people to live the life of consecrated people, therefore we need to give them the main elements that they have to implement; we need to distinguish between religious formation and spiritual formation. If we do not offer serious Spiritual Formation, the realisation of the Call to holiness becomes a flimsy endeavour. This article enucleates the bare minimum to be followed and lived by everybody. We will also discover in this article that there are elements that are not seriously implemented in Lay Spiritual Formation: both in Teaching and Personal Tuition.
I- Lay People are Also Called to Holiness
II- “Spiritual” and “Religious Formation”
III- The Core of Spiritual Formation
IV- The Lessons We Learn
I- Lay People are Also Called to Holiness
First, let us clarify why we need to address « Spiritual Formation ». When we hear Jesus’ Call (see articles on Jesus’ Call) to follow Him from close up, when we understand that He is calling us and inviting us to perfection, or holiness, we need to become aware that it is not enough to follow any particular way of life.
Let us remember that for many centuries people who felt the call to follow Jesus from close up consecrated themselves to Him, and adopted a different style of life and mostly, but above all they received a Spiritual Formation, a Doctrine capable of helping them reach the goal, plus all the needed spiritual supports to help them walk the walk until the end.
Last century, more than in any other century, the Church became more aware of a fundamental teaching of Jesus: we are all called to Holiness (see more particularly Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Chapter 5). It is true that there is a difference between knowing intellectually that we are called and becoming spiritually aware of it (see articles related to the topic ). But by, as a Church, having a greater awareness that we are all called to Holiness whatever our state of life, doesn’t mean that now we can walk the walk toward holiness. The Pillars of Spiritual Formation, the pillars that help ensure our steady growth and reaching the goal have to be understood properly and applied to everybody, and if here we are talking more about lay people, we need to know what applies to us once we hear the call. Can we continue as we were doing? What should change? In which measure? Why? These questions are fundamental and they go hand in hand with the “universal call to holiness”. We cannot just preach that all baptised are called to holiness and then just leave them with weak or diluted means. We will end up living a lukewarm spiritual life; we will end up going up and down without real progress, going around in circles thinking that this is it.
II- “Spiritual Formation” and “Religious Formation”
Traditionally, consecrated persons receive in their early years of formation (Novitiate and the following years) two types of formation: Spiritual Formation and Religious Formation. Often the two are mixed together but per se they are different. Religious Formation has as its goal to initiate the person into this new type of life, to introduce them to knowledge of the consecrated life in general (the vows), to the history and specific aspects of their own specific Order or Congregation. On the other hand, Spiritual Formation helps the person in his or her first years to have a spiritual life, which in fact is vital in order to keep a living and growing relationship with Jesus. Religious Formation touches more on the new state of life while Spiritual Formation is more about the inner aspect of this new state of life. From afar or in the lay person’s view, they seem to be blended into one but in fact they are different, namely, Spiritual Life itself will be lived in a specific style of life, or state of life (religious, monk, nun, lay consecrated).
The challenge today with the greater awareness of the Call to holiness for lay people is to enucleate, extract from the actual living prophetic tradition of the Church, what belongs to everybody and is necessary to ensure a steady growth. Otherwise we fail to provide the needed help and wisdom of life to the persons we are calling to holiness.
Today we often continue to behave as if it were enough for a lay person to do a few things in order to become holy “e.g, going to Sunday mass, confession (however irregular) and saying the odd prayer…). In fact, lay persons who hear Jesus’ Call to follow Him, have a sacred right, the right to receive the wisdom and practical advice and guidance of the Church in order to respond to Jesus’ Call.
We can’t keep Religious Formation and Spiritual Formation so entangled that it becomes almost impossible to offer a solid path for the real and proper sanctification of Lay people.
III- The Core of Spiritual Formation
The Common denominator in Spiritual Formation
What is Valid for Everybody in Spiritual Formation
What is, then, the difference between the means of formation for a consecrated person and for a lay person who hears Jesus’ Call? The states of life are different, this is true. We can’t ask a lay person to live the life of one who is consecrated, but can we deprive the life of the lay person of all that strictly belongs to necessary spiritual formation? Can we deprive the lay person of what is valid for everybody?
Let us try to discern and extract from spiritual formation as it is known among religious, from its bi-millennial wisdom, let us extract what is necessary, vital and applicable to lay persons.
Having been involved in the formation of religious, cloistered nuns, nuns, monks and seminarians, I feel that this background allows me to draw on the two thousand years of experience and wisdom of the prophetic function of the Church.
I think that the stable and necessary elements of a new life, following Jesus from close up, need to have at least the following five elements.
1- A complete and adapted Teaching of Catholic Spiritual Doctrine. i.e. Receiving Courses of Formation.
One should add also with these courses of Formation two more important activities:
- reading about spiritual topics
- studying spiritual topics.
Reading and studying are important means for the grace of God to reach us and strengthen us.
2- Receiving Personal Tuition on the teaching received (see number 1). It helps check its practical implementation.
3- Receiving Spiritual Direction. It helps check the proper personal implementation of the teaching and real growth. It helps balance all the elements, especially 4 and 5, in a form adapted to the person. Any teaching and personal tuition should be, at the end of the day, implemented in a way adapted to the specific person. The spiritual director is the one who is normally capable of adapting the teaching and tuition to the capacity of the person according to their stage of growth.
4- Having a Sacramental Life (Mass and Confession)
A Committed Spiritual Life (practising Lectio Divina and Prayer of the Heart).
A Fervent Devotion to Our Lady and to the Holy Spirit in order to follow Jesus the best way.
5- Fulfilling the first aspect of God’s Will: living to perfection the duties of our state of life. Priority given to the State of Life and its duties. It is within our state of life that we know God’s will and live to its fullness the call for Holiness.
The following areas in our daily life give us the opportunity to grow:
Love of one other. Forgiveness.
Service (in our community/parish/…).
Spiritual Friendship: keeping in contact with friends who are on the same journey helps a lot. Sharing the journey and supporting each other.
Zeal (sometimes Mission).
These five elements are of equal importance and need to be implemented harmoniously. The help of Personal Tuition and the Spiritual director are here very important. If any of these five elements is lacking our steady spiritual growth can be jeopardised.
Note: in consecrated life (religious and monks) the Spiritual Master, here named “Personal Tutor,” is different from the Spiritual Director. The two functions are different.
Also, the confessor may be different from the Spiritual Director. Confession is a Sacrament, while Spiritual Direction has a completely different function from Confession. It is exceedingly delicate and requires greater experience and attention.
IV- The Lessons We Learn
From what we have seen above, we have become aware that some of the Pillars are either very weak or simply non-existent. Using the word “pillar” is important because it means that each element is necessary, that it supports our Spiritual Life and it can’t be weakened or worse be non-existent. In my humble view each pillar needs to be strengthened today amongst lay people. It is vital that some action should be taken.
– The Church should offer all the needed help for lay people who are on their journey to Holiness. We can’t just be content by what is offered in the Parishes. The Prophetic function of the Church needs to provide all the help in pillars 1, 2 and 3 as it is provided for Consecrated persons.
– The Church needs to offer a complete Teaching/Formation in Spiritual Life for lay people who have heard Jesus’ Call. We can’t just rely on sending people to the different schools of spirituality, like asking them to join any of the actual lay affiliations to a religious order, like “Secular Orders” (Franciscans, Benedictine, Dominican, Carmelite,…). We need to provide the next mystagogical tool after the Catechism that offers a common more advanced teaching on Spiritual Formation. The existence of different schools and traditions of spirituality is a blessing and richness for the Church. But the absence of a “valid for all” synthesis or core teaching will do great harm. As the Church offered us the Catechism for Catechesis, now the Church needs to offer us another book, a mystagogical book that contains the core of spiritual teaching, necessary and valid for all the Church, especially for lay people. Claiming that such synthesis is not possible goes precisely against all that this article intends to clarify. Not only the time has come to offer such a synthesis, but it is urgent. We have too much of a blurred vision of what advanced spiritual life is and what type of help it needs to grow.
– The Church needs to train many persons to help lay people in their journey. Formators and Tutors. Not to mention Spiritual Directors.
In order to conclude, one needs to be aware that underlining the necessity of a Spiritual Formation for Lay people, other than the Catechism is urgent, and that, furthermore, identifying the pillars of Spiritual Formation for lay people is in my view something “new”. De facto it is not new, but since Vatican II what is “new” is that it still hasn’t been realised properly and on a large scale.
Why does the Church take seriously the Spiritual Formation of those Consecrated and regulates it and doesn’t do the same for Lay people? Are lay people again being placed in a second-class category? They are definitely not! We are all exposed to receiving Jesus’ Call to follow Him, and therefore we all deserve the practical bi-millennial wisdom of the Church given to us in an essential way, so we can respond to our vocation.
Last but not least, I deeply believe that this operation of understanding the core pillars of Spiritual Formation will benefit the Consecrated because it will help distinguish better the difference between “Religious Formation” and “Spiritual Formation” and help see how a committed spiritual life can be lived within a given “state of life”. Distinguishing between “Religious Formation” and “Spiritual Formation” is not, however, an invitation to separate them or think that there is no deep connection between them in the case of those Consecrated.