Letter From a Progressive-Traditionalist

This article appeared in the January 3, 1998 issue of America: The National Catholic Weekly.

By Ann Naffziger


I have been thinking a lot about our spiritualities since I visited you last spring at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and even more since you entered the Legionaries of Christ as a novice.

I haven't followed the same path that you have chosen, but watching the changes your faith journey has taken in the last few years has been helpful to me as I try to articulate my own journey. I know that sometimes you think I am being lost to the (shudder) New Age groupies who are worshipping some nebulous Galactic Force, or perhaps to a lesser degree that I have become what Albert DiIanni, S.M., in an essay in AMERICA earlier this year, called ‘culture Christians,’ whose desire it is to discover the good of the world and accommodate to it” (2/28).

You may not be able to believe me, then, when I say that I think that I am more Catholic now than I ever have been in my life-- despite the fact that I rarely pray the rosary, have some serious disagreements with the magisterium and tend to spend more time working for peace and justice issues than I do in daily devotional practices.

I can imagine the puzzlement you must feel about the lifestyle I have chosen, especially since our spiritualities were so similar when we attended a Jesuit university together. We worshipped side by side at Mass, participated in retreats, did service work with the campus ministry department and joined Bible study and faith-sharing groups together. But since graduation, when I moved from our Catholic college city to Oregon, my experiences have been very different from what they were during those four years when we walked the same dormitory hallways.

As you know, my recent experiences have included various activities not associated with Catholicism: everything from partaking in Native American “sweats” to dabbling in yoga, celebrating the solstices and practicing my breathing and smiling, à la Thich Nhat Hanh. I've become a vegetarian, I schedule a full body massage when I feel myself becoming overwhelmed with stress, and I've adopted as mentor an amazing woman who is a lay midwife and a proponent of naturopathic medicine with meta-physical leanings.

These changes are still new to me, and they feel very radical, even somewhat scary at times, so I am sure they must seem crazy to you. But James, please be open minded as I try to explain the movements in my spirituality over the past three years, which, for me, originate in the philosophical foundations of Christ's teachings rather than in wishy washy, diluted pagan rituals.

First off, I am living in the Northwest now, a region known more for its population of environmentally active tree huggers than for its Catholics. Yes, it is true, James, a population exists here for whom the great outdoors is more of a church than any institutional religion. Yet these people have taught me much, because God is magnificently glorified in nature.

As I ride my bike down country lanes, between blackberry orchards and hop farms, up and down sloping hills from which I can catch glimpses of the Cascade Mountains and the Coastal Range, my spontaneous prayer is often one of explosive praise and thanksgiving. No less magnificent are the forests and streams so abundant in this land of steady rains and melting snow. Then there's Mount Hood, the massive volcano I sometimes forget about when it is shrouded for days in cool, gray mists.

I can't help but agree with Aquinas who used “design” as one of the five proofs for the existence of God, because in experiencing nature, I know more of God. I will never succumb to pantheism, but the beauty of this earth is certainly a manifestation of my God.

As for my somewhat eclectic mix of meditation practices, I can only say that my experiences with yoga and contemplative breathing come more from wanting to experience a wider range of prayer than from any dissatisfaction with our church's tradition. I am not looking to convert, but ever since I had a Jesuit professor from India for one of my spiritual theology classes (remember him?), I have been intrigued by Eastern contemplative prayer and its way of integrating mind and body and heart—- St. John of the Cross's term-- into a unified prayer.

IF YOU HAVEN'T READ any of the work of the late Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit, I highly recommend it. Some might argue that the awareness exercises de Mello taught are not contemplation or even prayer, but it is during those exercises that I soak in the divine presence. And what is that if not prayer? So although my contemplation is superficially different from yours as you kneel in front of the monstrance to adore the Blessed Sacrament, I believe that in our own ways we are both following God's gentle injunction to “be silent and know that I am God.”

SUCH CONTEMPLATION is not my only way of praying either. I am fortunate enough to work in an office where we pray together daily, and as a staff we rejoice in doing so. Often we read the daily Scripture passages and share our personal reflections. Sometimes we sing hymns together and then sit in silence for several minutes. Always we finish with petitions and prayers of thanksgiving.

THE SUNDAY MASSES at my parish are very different, I am sure, from those celebrated in your seminary. Although they are not of the somber, high church variety, I find the liturgies at my parish to be richly nourishing periods in which the sacred remains sacred and the transcendent becomes immanent in our world when the eucharistic prayer is prayed. This church is located in the inner city, and our community is African American, Hispanic and Anglo. An impressive portrait of a black madonna and child greets us as we enter the church, and the gospel choir leads us in worship once a month.

The many children and elderly among us participate fully in our worship, and members of the local L’Arche community are another gift to us. Taking a cue from the people, the pastor is deeply involved with issues of social justice and the practice of voluntary simplicity in lifestyle. Small faith sharing groups abound to ground their members ever more firmly in the tradition of Catholic social teaching. There are, however, some aspects of this parish's program with which you might disagree. Lay persons are frequently invited to preach and some of these are women with graduate theological degrees who feel called to the priesthood! The committee called “Welcoming the Whole Family” works hard to insure that gays and lesbians feel welcome and accepted as a part of our community.

Another way in which my spirituality is evolving, James, is toward a greater appreciation of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. It was the influence of the Greek philosophers and later thinkers like René Descartes and David Hume that led so many cultures to separate body and spirit in their thinking and their acting. Jesus certainly did not do this. His great reverence for the human body was evident in the way he used physical touch to heal persons whose minds or bodies were deformed or wracked with pain. His way of interacting and relating was grounded in the Jewish tradition, which taught that human persons, rather than being mere objects, are bodies animated by a spiritual soul—embodied spirits.

My newfound interest in respectful, noninvasive health practices is derived from one such philosophy of integration because, as Wendell Berry says, “Our healing involves the preservation in us of the spirit and the breath of God.” Massage and naturopathic medicine are ways I can reverently attend to the temple of the Holy Spirit as I try to live out the church’s teaching that we are created in the image and likeness of God. (I have not yet embraced acupuncture, taichi or Reiki, as some of my more progressive friends have.)

James, I wish you knew my friend, Celeste, a member of my parish, because she is the one who has most helped me to grow into this new way of living. You will have to meet her someday, because whenever I try to describe her in my own words, she only sounds wacko. But she is not. It is her Christian faith that calls Celeste to a lifestyle which might seem very radical and alternative to you. Yet it is the only lifestyle she can imagine herself living precisely because she is a follower of Christ. Among other things, she is a massage therapist and a lay midwife. She swears that we can heal our own bodies with correct thinking and with nurturing, attentive care. She has a strong grasp of Scripture, but she also quotes The Sermon On the Mount by Emmet Fox and the Big Book, the text for Alcoholics Anonymous, as valuable spiritual guides.

WHEN I FIRST MET CELESTE, soon after I moved to the Northwest, I was a bit intimidated by her and her viewpoints, which I had never heard of. The fact that she had given birth to her three daughters at home was enough to put my scientific, rational mind on the alert. When she was giving me a massage for the first time and began talking about reflexology and energy balancing, I was highly skeptical, to say the least. She followed that up with her philosophy about how our thoughts have the power to shape our external conditions to the point that, as Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Mt. 17:20).

After knowing her for a few weeks, however, and seeing the works that flowed from her faith life (another example of action from contemplation), I ceased to be shocked by anything that came out of her mouth. Despite her alternative worldview, James, Celeste constantly reminds me of God's love for me and how that calls me to choose a lifestyle that is full of integrity, joy and openness to the will of God. Even with my background of 12 years of Catholic education, she still catches me off guard when she reminds me that God wants us to be joyful and free, to “have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). Now why would that catch me off guard unless I had grown up believing the opposite-- that God is a vengeful judge who waits for us to slip so that we can be punished as we deserve?

Celeste has also taught me a simple, but profound prayer: “Thy will, not my will.” She is expert at seeing the inner Christ in those around her. When I am having a difficult time with one situation or another, she reminds me of my total dependence on God, suggesting, as Emmet Fox says, that one should “feel out, mentally, for the Presence of God, as you would feel out physically if thrust suddenly into a dark room.”

She and her husband, Jim, have introduced me to the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (Can you believe that I never read any of these during four years at a Catholic university?) Together, we talk about how we might live out a vow of nonviolence, which includes a commitment to nonviolence of thought, tongue and action. Celeste also has a deep reverence for rituals, blessings and story, so in celebrating the solstices on the farm where her family lives, we sing praises to God for all creation.

James, I offer this description of my new friend in the hope that it might give you a small glimpse of my faith life here, 3,000 miles removed from where you spend your days in the novitiate. I appreciate that you and I can have ongoing conversations about the differences in how we live out our faiths, because sometimes I fear that our growing differences will detract from the closeness that we have shared for years now. At times I have difficulty understanding the turns that your spirituality is taking (toward the classical religious life?), and I know that you sometimes question mine, which is becoming more progressive. Yet I appreciate our conversations because they challenge me continually to evaluate my faith and to discern where the Spirit is moving each day, each month, each year of my life. In doing so, I keep returning, again and again, to one of Jesus’ famous metaphors.

JESUS SAID several times, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit.... The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil” (Lk. 6:43 45). In pondering this metaphor today, I feel abundantly blessed by God; indeed, my cup overflows. I have a job doing ministry and justice work. I am surrounded by a parish faith community that buoys me up in my attempt to live out the Gospel. I live with other community members, who by their example challenge me to live the life of contemplation and action to which our baptism calls us. And I have the desire and energy to reverence myself, others and all of life on earth in its myriad forms. I ask you then, what else can these things be but the good fruit of which Christ spoke?

Blessings on your journey, James, as it takes you to new places of intimacy with God. Know that you remain in my thoughts and prayers.



ANN NAFFZIGER, a graduate of St. Louis University, is an area director on the staff of Jesuit Volunteer Corps: Northwest in Portland, Ore. From her own two-year experience as a volunteer, she has previously contributed "Tranforming Work" (6/21/97) and "Awakening to Giants" (1/3/98).