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THE REAL PRESENCE The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist CHRIST IN THE EUCHARIST

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Developing a Personal Spirituality

Copyright © 1995 James H. Dobbins

By now we should all be developing, consciously or instinctively, a personal spirituality. This personal spirituality will in large measure direct how we pray and how we relate to God in our daily lives.

This personal spirituality is a function of how we view Christ. For example, St. Francis saw Christ as the suffering victim who gave all He had for others. Therefore, he developed the Franciscan spirituality around this concept of the suffering Lord and established his order, the Franciscans, as one in which the members devote themselves to others, especially suffering others. St. Dominic, who was a contemporary of St. Francis, saw Christ as preacher, and developed his spirituality around Christ as preacher and set skill in preaching as a major element of spiritual development in the Dominican order. The Jesuits see Christ as teacher. St. Ignatius Loyola developed his community, the Jesuits, as a community of educators. St. Vincent dePaul saw Christ as one who went out to different places and reached out to the poor, so he established his community, the Congregation of the Missions, commonly called the Vincentians, as a community focused on missionary work, particularly among third world countries. Each community follows the footsteps of Christ according to the view they each have of what kinds of footsteps they are; Christ as suffering for others, Christ as preacher, Christ as educator, and Christ as missionary. This is why the various orders are concerned with not just whether a person has a vocation, but is their vocation in tune with the spirituality of that order. If the candidate is found not suitable for that order, it does not necessarily mean they do not have a vocation; just not a vocation focused on that kind of spirituality.

Our own personal spirituality is a determinant of how we approach, and therefore how we love, Christ. One who sees Christ primarily as a healer might seek to follow in His footsteps by being a good and God-filled doctor. Christ has so many aspects, that there is some aspect to which anyone can relate as a primary focus. Naturally, we will recognize the other aspects of Christ, but the one which is dominant for us is how the Holy Spirit inspires us to direct our lives.

For example, in my own view, I see Christ as teacher. Within this framework, I understand that a part of His teaching is teaching us how to carry our cross and that we need to be prepared for and accept any suffering He might choose to send. But it is the teaching aspect that is predominant for me; the way He was continually trying to help people understand the Father, understand His relationship to the Father, what is necessary to reach Heaven, and how to focus on what is of lasting value instead of mere temporal value. I see Christ teaching us through both His words and through His actions. I see my task as trying to understand as best I can what He taught and how I have to incorporate it into my life, and then put it into action by following in His teaching footsteps. In doing so, I have gone down several paths, from teaching adult education classes in Church, teaching CCD, teaching my children, teaching myself. I don't know why it is this aspect of Christ that has caught my attention. It might be because I come from a long line of teachers and this mode of action was around me all the time, or it could be a priest or nun who was a teacher and impressed me as I matured. It may be none of these. I don't really know, but it also doesn't matter as long as it is this focus, for this time in my life, that the Holy Spirit wants of me. This is the real challenge. If I choose a set of footprints to follow, and they are not the one the Holy Spirit wants me to follow, I will probably be miserable. Otherwise, it will feel comfortable, like a favorite sweater; warm and soft and "just right". The focus may change for me at some point down the road, and if that is what the Holy Spirit wants, I pray for the grace to recognize that new call.

Within the framework of developing a personal spirituality, there is a culture in which we live, and each of us has a view of what constitutes tradition, especially social and religious tradition. What is traditional for me, a product of the 40's and 50's, is different from that of someone who is a product of the 60's and 70's. What we perceive as right and wrong is sometimes shaped by society and tradition, when it should be shaped by God. Therefore, what we develop as a spirituality must be developed in terms of what God seeks, and thus must be the product of what is often referred to as an informed conscience. This means, regardless of how we are impacted by society, we need to educate and inform our conscience. Who is our role model? Is it a rock star, or is it a saint, or perhaps a family member we respected, or is it perhaps Blessed Mother Teresa or John Paul II? We ask our children to pick a patron saint for Confirmation, but don't explain well what to look for, or why. Sometimes we find our true patron saint many years later.

Implied in this is a further aspect of spirituality, and that is the action aspect. How we view Christ, how we develop an internal spirituality, will largely drive how we take action in response to that spiritual calling. This is something which sometimes surprises people when they develop a spirituality intuitively instead of deliberately, and this leads to a certain action, and then they are surprised when those close to them do not see the same things, do not pursue the same action goals. For them, it is so clear, that they have difficulty with what they perceive as the ignorance of others, or the fact that those others may have a different spiritual development and therefore a different call to action. It helps us to understand these things, in ourselves and in others, if we understand this concept of spiritual development, the deliberate development of an authentic personal spirituality.

We have come to a point in our development in this prayer group where we no longer have the excuse of ignorance. We have come too far, we have learned too much. Our only authentic response at this point, if we are to remain faithful to Christ and the Holy Spirit working in us, is to make what we have been doing unconsciously become a conscious endeavor. It is time to meditate on and think about "what Christ is to me, and how should I act in response." This takes time. For example, if I see Christ as a teacher, do I have to be a teacher myself? Not necessarily. I may support religious education by being a CCD teacher, or by working in the CCD office, or by other forms of supporting the efforts of those who teach others about God. Perhaps it is bringing people to the teachers. If I see Christ as healer, do I have to be a doctor? Not necessarily. I can be a nurse, I can be an EMT at a rescue squad, or perhaps I can try to help heal people internally, spiritually. Many people wander through this world in a great deal of pain internally. Their self-concepts are all messed up and they have no concept of God or no way to bring God into their lives. Perhaps offering these people a way to find God is how you can bring them to Christ so He can heal them. If this is your action choice, then your task is similar to that of the Blessed Mother; bringing people to her Son.

Another thing we need to understand is that the development of our spirituality, the action we take in response, is not all solitary. We do this within the context of a spiritual community. We do this within the spiritual community of our families, whatever that might be. We do this within the spiritual community of the Church, however that happens in our parish, and in a little prayer group, do this within the context of our own little community. These communities serve useful purposes for education, support, and spiritual growth. We discuss our ideas with each other, we learn together, we grow. In maturing spiritually we also learn how to help others grow spiritually since part of our growth is through our role in community. It is the action, the spiritual activity, of the Mystical Body of Christ; alive, vibrant, healthy, as long as we too are all of these things. If we retreat into ourselves, if we become self-focused instead of Christ focused, if we serve our own will in preference to the will of God by worshiping the gods of power, wealth, self-satisfaction, self-love and temporal gain, then we shrink spiritually. Nothing, not one thing on this earth, is worth even one minute of back-pedaling away from Christ. However circuitous our route, we need to continuously move forward toward the Light, toward the Bread of Life, toward home.

One question that usually arises, either within ourselves or from others, is whether our spirituality is necessarily linked to our theology. Does dogma dictate spirituality? Theology and Spirituality differ, but support each other. They are not mutually exclusive. Spirituality is quite personal and, as already indicated, has much to do with how you view Jesus. If you view Him as the sufferer and caretaker of the poor, your personal spirituality will likely be in tune with that of the Franciscans. If you view Jesus as teacher, you are likely to be more moved by the Jesuit or Dominican approach to spirituality. The theology you practice (theology put into liturgical form) and believe (the dogma you accept and make part of your being in your relationship with God) form the root and basis for the way you express your spirituality, at least in the beginning.

At some point, however, you will develop a personal spirituality and relationship with God that transcends all theology and prior spirituality, a relationship which is so intimate and private that there are no other players but the two of you. It is the transcendent end encompassing all the elements of love and trust and hope that you knew about, believed, and prayed about, but now experience in the depth of your being. Your soul resonates with love for God. Your spirituality is no longer an imitation, where you follow the spirituality of Francis or Ignatius or anyone else, no matter how great these saints may be, for you have found your own unique relationship with God and it is dearer to you than anything else could possibly be. When you have this, then the theology returns full circle for, when you have come to this point, the Eucharist you receive will mean more to you than it ever could have before; Reconciliation takes on a whole new perspective; for all of this enhances your union with God, and you live in almost continual communion with the almighty God who loves you, you, infinitely.

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