The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Merchant Searching for Fine Pearls

 

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Merchant Searching for Fine Pearls

This book is an updated exploration and summary of what was my accepted Thesis for a Master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry

Copyright© 2012-2017

Jerry

All Rights Reserved

 

Dedication

I dedicate this book to my beautiful wife who through her own selflessness has given me the freedom to explore and to the following priests who are in my journey:

  • Fr. Brian  who has grounded me in the mystery of Heaven on earth
  • Fr. Michael who physically shows how to breathe outward joy
  • Fr. Joe who despite all odds, claimed God called me as a lector
  • Fr. John O. who in Heaven still calls me to “take a walk on the wild side!”
  • Fr. Bill R. who challenged me to consider the human in Christ
  • Fr. John H. who demonstrated what it means to be humble
  • Fr. Bill K. who let my faith bring religious education to youth

My prayers and gratitude cannot equal what you have given and continue to give me.

 

Summary

            Good and honorable priests who are committed to their charism and are exemplars of Christian holiness deserve nothing less than their Church finding ways to re-elevate them in the eyes of the world. The purity represented by their white collar is a symbol of strength and hope, not something to hide from.  A partial solution is to leverage their sanctity so they more deeply become “merchants seeking the finest pearls.” This book proposes that parish priests (merchants) should be encouraged and equipped to actively cultivate parishioners who are called to holiness uniquely as lay Catholic mystics (pearls) as Fr. Karl Rainer quotes “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all”.

            As God’s gifts that benefit the Church, these individuals need assistance from priests and trusted theologically trained parishioners to help properly sanctify, protect, nourish, love and assist in the growth of these pearl’s faith so others may see a glimpse of the Kingdom already partially here through the lives of these “earthly saints.” They need delicate nurturing like that of an oyster which over time and with layer after layer forms the only living jewel.  To so nurture means drawing from scripture, the best resources of tradition, and modern experience. 

            I propose that to achieve this goal, priests’ roles and responsibilities need a slight reformulation as to give back just two hours of their time per week: one hour for further development of their spiritual fatherhood and sanctity and one hour to give specific individuals spiritual direction and shape others as spiritual companions to assist in this challenge. Church leadership can also gain credibility by training, recognizing, acknowledging and valuing the critical role of a priest participating with Jesus in this mission of bringing the light of Heaven into the world. Adrienne von Speyr and Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (her spiritual director) are the models for this book.   

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

What is the definition of a lay Catholic mystic?

Unwrapping Christ’s Parable

Cultivating Parish Pearls

Conclusion

 

 

 

Introduction

            This book proposes that parish priests (merchants) should be encouraged and equipped to become spiritual directors actively cultivating parishioners who are called to holiness uniquely as lay Catholic mystics (pearls). It is acknowledged that priest cannot do it alone and needs trusted and theologically trained individuals as spiritual companions/guides/advisors or spiritual directors (preferably from their own parish) to assist in this challenge. For the remainder of this book it is necessary to assume that spiritual companions/spiritual directors must also make the same changes in their life as I suggest priest do. Spiritual companions/guides/advisors and spiritual directors must be united in this priestly objective to help with the identification and growth of pearls. Spiritual companionship, guiding and advising are different from spiritual direction and should be carefully distinguished and properly identified.  Most pearls know they are called to participate in ministry as specified in the verse of Christ’s prayer to His Father: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (1) They have accepted the universal call to holiness by embracing a personal and deep prayer life with Jesus Christ. God’s grace, heavenly glory, love, light and beauty manifest as action within these individuals. As God’s gifts to benefit the Church, these individuals need assistance from priests, spiritual companions and spiritual director to help properly sanctify, protect, nourish, love and assist in the growth of their faith so all may see a glimpse of the Kingdom already partially here through the lives of these “earthly saints.”

            The desire to accept and respond to this unique calling is not easily understood by the individual, families or members of their faith community. These individuals sense restlessness; an interior smoldering that they alone cannot ignite and flame to its proper order. The difficulty to do so is further complicated by the fact they live within the secular world and may have a job and a loving family to support and engage with. They do not have the prescribed life of a “religious” or even likely that of any ecclesial role within the classic framework of parish or church. There are impediments to managing this God-given internal fire so there is a need for the parish to be a safe and comfortable place within the human condition to help members so called to learn obedience, understand, pray, love, witness to beauty, hear God speaking to them, be moved to action and to also rest.

            Throughout Church history the ability to contain and control these “fires” within the laity has typically resulted in a black and white view of orthodoxy versus orthopraxy, effectively achieving suppression rather than a feeding of the flame. Instead, parishes (and their priests) should be a home base, a place where exploring this holy fire is encouraged. In his book titled Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton describes the idea that parish priests can have success in providing flexibility to explore within reasonable limits.

     Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (2)

            St. Paul also asks the Thessalonians (early Church) to consider the Spirit’s action by being discerning and proceeding with caution.  

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (3)

No doubt, St. Paul is speaking to those who with God’s and the Church’s help are willing to become grounded in both the natural and supernatural.

            There is significant evidence of individuals who have perfectly balanced the tension of an intimate encounter with the Trinity into Christ-like radiance well within the framework of Church doctrine, producing benefits for the entire Body of Christ.  The Church has officially recognized some of these unique individuals as Saints and among those are Doctors of the Church.  Yet, for every individual that has both embraced and been embraced by the Church there are untold small “s” saints who have not made the progress in faith they might have if provided additional support. This is especially true in laity for whom it is far more difficult to find the right combination of a support system and spiritual direction for deep conversation and spiritual growth so an individual may learn how to respond with the complete surrender of Mary’s “fiat”.

            Mary with her (lay) “Yes” bore Christ so God could become human, bridging heaven and earth to reveal the dynamic possibilities of this union of God and man. (4) Jesus, as heaven on earth, unveiled a glimpse of God’s beauty and glory. History has repeatedly proven that the union of human and divine was not to be a onetime event. Christ still offers a glimpse of heaven in Word, the Eucharist, and in deep prayer with whispered holiness when we recognize and participate in the moment of surrender on the Cross. We are all invited to these encounters of grace to then “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” St. Paul articulates this call to holiness wherein all the members form a whole body, each with a unique and varied gift from the same Spirit, each representing a part of the body that serves and benefits the entire body. (5)

            Christ said “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more”. (6) St. Paul readily professed that there is order to these gifts emphasizing that to those to whom more is given more is expected. (7) Within this order are individuals who are continually called to embrace an intimate relationship with Christ, one in which Heaven becomes more present, more real, right here in our present time on earth. I assert that certain “parts” of the whole are meant to be uniquely cultivated and shaped by both human and divine means into exquisite, beautiful saintly pearls, lovingly embraced inside the protective shell of a local parish. These pearls need their parish to be a living home and confirming community that can help bring attention and physical visibility to Christ’s words: For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (8) Christ’s instructions are eternal, not fixed in time; he is offering himself to be a member of our immediate family as Emmanuel (God with us). Our own surrender to Jesus and his teaching, to do as he has done, to do as God asks, means Heaven is in direct contact with earth, deeply inside each person: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”!

            It is this receptivity to the Spirit that can be one of the keys to the recovery of the holy spiritual father relationship between priest and laity. Throughout Church history there are examples of a priest and lay person working together to produce fruit for the universal church. Consider Adrienne von Speyr, a 20th century lay Catholic mystic who was spiritually guided by Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar in Basel, Switzerland. She, Fr. von Balthasar and their supporting community will serve as the primary model and resource for this book. By working together and listening to God’s will, von Speyr and Fr. von Balthasar are the pearl and the merchant of Jesus’ parable for “The kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” (9)  Adrienne von Speyr, a convert to the Catholic faith was a medical doctor, wife, and mother who through the grace of God was gifted to become a lay Catholic mystic. Among the many other fruits of her life was her ability to articulate the truth that Heaven was and is already here and continually arriving on earth.  Fr. von Balthasar for his part in this “realized eschatology” became an extraordinary theologian producing a volume of work (among other works) expressing God’s manifestations of beauty.

            Only now that Speyr’s vast collection of books is being translated into English is the world able to recognize that what began as a tiny speck was formed into a radiant jewel to be worn in graceful and humble adornment as a symbol for the Church, shining Christ’s heavenly light outwardly. She is but a single example among laity inside of parishes containing many other pearls formed and yet to be formed, a fine string of pearls that recognize the Kingdom is here now and God’s will “is” already being done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

 

What is the definition of a lay Catholic mystic?

            There is no doubt the term “mystic” and even Christian mystic has been co-opted by not only by the New Age cult but by others who have changed the pure definition of the word. This book presents a challenge that there are local parish based lay “Catholic mystics” who meet the classic Catholic definition established by the Church Doctor of Mystical Theology, St. John of the Cross. This type of lay Catholic mystic has existed since the dawn of Christianity, observed in the laity of the Desert Fathers. There is also no question that it is difficult to determine if an individual may be a lay Catholic mystic. Despite all the obstacles, the Church remains responsible for cultivating these lay Catholic mystics for the good and benefit of the Body of Christ.  St. John of the Cross states: The tree that is cultivated and kept carefully by its owner produces fruit in due season, and the owner is not disappointed. (10)

            Occasionally a bold, respected member of the ecclesial body of the Church crafts a book to bring this opportunity to the attention of its members. For instance in the 20th century Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange proposed that infused contemplation and the mystical life are the normal way of holiness of Christian perfection. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, as Pope John Paul II’s professor, highly influenced “Chapter V: The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church” of “Lumen Gentium”. The universal call to holiness is essentially an invitation to everyone to become a lay Catholic mystic.  It is quite clear from the beatitudes that Jesus Christ expects us to try to do so, as each of the eight categories is a separate invitation to become blessed. Fr. John Hardon in “The Modern Catholic Dictionary” writes of the beatitudes:

The promises of happiness made by Christ to those who faithfully accept his teaching and follow his divine example. The beatitudes are expressions of the New Covenant, where happiness is assured already in this life, provided a person totally gives himself to the imitation of Christ. (11)

            Msgr. Stephen Rosetti (respected retreat master and a lead researcher into the promotion of the wellness and spirituality in the priesthood) writes in “The Lion Roars” among other introductory topics that we must defuse the notion that mystics are special:

Mystics are not part of a small, elite society that has attained some special status by its own work. Rather, mystics are people who have come to experience the intense, personal desire God has to share himself with us: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you.” (12)

He further goes on to express the value of an experienced spiritual director is to “minimize mistakes and to assist in one’s growth in the mystical life. (13) However, before a parish priest can embrace the notion that they are to be someone’s spiritual director they must be able to identify characteristics that can be applied to individuals that are already aggressively participating in the universal call to holiness as defined in “Lumen Gentium.” If a priest can also identify a parishioner capable of being a spiritual companion this may multiply his capacity to direct others. Priests also must either have the intuition or trained insight to discern how these few individuals at each parish can be cultivated to assist the Church in her mission to attract others to the light of Christ that shines within.

            History has shown a significant variation and range to be found in the combination of individuals with saintly and mystical qualities. The majority of individuals documented as Catholic mystics are quite often members of religious communities.  However, for the purposes of this book, the “pearls” that are to be shaped into their Divinity/Heaven-aware, saintly potential, are parish laity. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P, in his two-volume book “The Three Ages of the Interior Life” (14) and related book “Christian Perfection and Contemplation” (15) integrates the works of St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, Thomas Kempis and other Catholic mystical and theological sources into a lifelong plan that can assist a maturing saintly individual (that would result in a grounded lay Catholic mystic).  Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange identifies certain characteristics and signs of this maturing. Obviously, no one individual can have all of the traits listed below but rather may indicate some that are stronger and others that are only trace elements in their particular journey.  Based on Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s research and other documents from more contemporary Church approved Catholic mystics, I propose that some of the following attributes can be observed even in beginners on the journey to becoming lay Catholic mystics:

  • Intimately know the presence of God as transcendent mystery
  • Have learned to not place any value on mystical phenomena (even their own) but rather on the fruit
  • Have a contemplative prayer life
  • Are humble participating members of a Church community
  • Are open and friendly with a priest(s)
  • Believe that the Eucharist is life sustaining for them and that confession is healing
  • Are in communion and enjoy an affinity with one or more saints
  • Are devoted to Mary, and often Joseph
  • Read and reflect on Scripture and other spiritual materials such as books on saints
  • Have a spiritual guide (are seeking spiritual direction or otherwise know the value)
  • Are tuned in to God’s will and contributing their entire person-hood to it 
  • Striving through ongoing conversion and transformation to become more Christ-like
  • Serving the “other” is a driving force in their life
  • Despite hidden correcting, taming and suffering, they maintain joy and peace
  • Understand and practice holiness and sanctity
  • Lead a normal life in the world

            A number of the attributes in the above list require additional definition specific to these “pearls.” To mystically know God’s presence means not just at certain times when it is convenient but rather that God as Trinity is actively present at all times in their life.  While this may seem on the surface to be obviously true for everyone, for a lay Catholic mystic, interior prayer rarely ceases as God is continuously transcendent and immanent for them. While extraordinary phenomena may be a part of their relationship with God, they most often treat them as simply consolations from God or reject the vision, locution, etc. if it is not from God. They have effectively learned to extract only the fruit of their mystical experiences for others. Lay Catholic mystics have absolute certainty and take comfort in acknowledging the communion of saints. They may have one or more saints in Heaven who they know are personally participating with them in their journey.  These individuals are open and willing to be guided by a qualified spiritual director as necessary, especially when God allows the various degrees of contemplative prayer to develop. This form of prayer as defined in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (16) allows its members to more fully enter into conversation with God. Contemplative prayer is a sign of accepting the universal call to holiness and is a clear mark of a lay Catholic mystic.

            Their “Yes” is indelibly etched into their heart; they know they are called to holiness and cannot resist the relentless pursuit and specific purpose of distributing God’s love to others through them in complete humility. They understand their own individual humanity must be mingled with that “Yes” so that who they are as individuals is not lost but rather gained, enhanced and combined with what God provides. They trust that the Church in her various capacities is there to help, especially through the sacraments and believe a priest should be a spiritual father for their further individual sanctification.

            In the human condition there is always suffering. A mark of a lay Catholic mystic is they have joined their suffering to that of Christ so that they may participate with their calling more completely. They know there is aggressive correcting and taming happening within. Despite whatever is going on in their suffering, there is an interior sense of joy and peace that cannot be taken away.  Perhaps most importantly, even with all the intensity of their relationship with Divinity, they desire to be in the world as long as God would like them to be. While they may wish to be directly with the glorified God in Heaven, an early death is not desired as they understand their mission is grounded in the earthly reality of helping humanity in some way.      

 

Unwrapping Christ’s Parable

            There is much to unpack in Christ’s pearl parable found in Matthew 13. While perhaps different from the classic interpretation of Christ as the “Pearl of Great Price,” my hope is that this analysis bears good fruit. I explore a number of related questions in this parable as it relates to a parish merchant and pearl.  How is the Kingdom already here but not yet fully revealed? Why should the Church (through parish priests and theologically trusted companions) be the merchant seeking fine pearls? Why should a parish priest spend his already limited time on cultivating lay Catholic mystics? Who are Adrienne von Speyr and Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar and why are they models? Are all lay Catholic mystics required to be spiritual giants like Adrienne von Speyr? Shouldn’t they be “religious” or use their gifts of prayer in monasteries? Is the saintly/mystical calling equal in religious as in the laity? Why are these unique individuals difficult for the Church to understand? How can the Church be sure the individual is blessed by heaven/heaven sent? Why should an individual believe and explore the mysterious will of God here on earth?  Why should parishes want to cultivate these pearls? Why should local parishes be directly concerned for these individuals? Why is the parish/priest the oyster to the pearl? Who is responsible for identifying these potential pearls? What can these lay Catholic mystics offer in return?  What are the layers and layering process of these pearls?  How and where do the pearls fit with the Church? What local parish/parish resources are available to properly cultivate these pearls? Why is encouraging a deep prayer life important?  What is the cost to a local parish?  What gets returned to the parish and the Church? 

 

How is the Kingdom already here but not yet fully revealed?

      Consider the following responsorial Psalm (17) summarizing God’s relationship with his people;

The Lord made the heavens.     

Splendor and majesty go before him;     

praise and grandeur are in his sanctuary.     

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!

The love and beauty of God expressed in the above responsorial psalm resonates with Newton’s law of motion: i.e. for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  We as Church, the Body of Christ, are God’s containers, his sanctuary, and an expression of his grandeur.  To adore and have gratitude are our natural responses to God’s gift of pure unconditional love. This recognition creates an endlessly outwardly expanding spiral; the more we individually accept God’s love, the closer we come to touching and revealing the edge of Heaven as we allow it to also approach us. The more love (learned to be) received, the more that the gift can be shared with others.

            To accept this paradox, this gift that yields more gifts, means an individual’s limited understanding of the natural and supernatural must be made broader and deeper. Called parishioners do not have to go it alone as they can go to their parish priests as spiritual fathers who are already trained to share their own holiness and to draw on help from the Spirit and Christ.  Christ directly ask us to step into this unknown, giving us courage to pray in the powerful prayer of the “Our Father” in which we are to boldly ask for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Christ is with us in this challenge. In the Eucharist he is the Body of Christ we consume and the Body of Christ we adore and contemplate in the Tabernacle. The same Christ that is in Heaven becomes present to us. He is continuously glorified and spiritually whole to us on earth, as an unlimited source and summit of divine life. Christ incarnate manifested from the Word which means the Body of Christ is always available through scripture so it can also be consumed continually.  These two feasts of Eucharist and Liturgy of the Word provide food for the journey. How can there then be any doubt that Heaven is already present? God has and continues to speak directly and indirectly to individuals who accept the offer to be in the world (not of the world), in the most significant human words of “I thirst” – I thirst for your love as I love you. These are the words that saints hear as if talking to a friend. They too thirst. If heaven was not already here, if God is not present, how would he otherwise know that he is loved back?  Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be separated from Heaven. This is how those who accept God’s invitation know and understand the Trinity within and why they are willing to do God’s will with help and guidance.

            The relationship of Church, parish and priest through sacramental and personal means is foundational to any expressive action. Virgil Michel, OSB, considered the founder of the Liturgical Movement in America was acutely aware of the Trinitarian quality of liturgy.

The liturgy, through Christ, comes from the Father, the eternal source of the divine life in the Trinity. It in turn addresses itself in a special way to the Father, rendering him the homage and the glory of which it is capable through the power of Christ. The flow of divine life between the eternal Father and the Church is achieved and completed through the operation of the Holy Ghost. The liturgy, reaching from God to man, and connecting man to the fullness of the Godhead, is the action of the Trinity in the Church. The Church in her liturgy partakes of the life of the divine society of the three persons in God. (18)

            In the intimate story of love at Lazarus’s tomb, (19) we easily imagine Jesus reaching into the tomb, reaching out to his Father’s glory, reaching to She’ol to bring Lazarus back into humanity. For those who believe in the intimacy of this moment, this is the same glory of God, the same preview of Heaven that becomes visible and actionable in the present times in many ways. Jesus repeats this same act of evincing the visible beauty of Heaven in his complete surrender on the Cross, through his resurrection and the consequent visibility of his humanity to those gathered in the upper room as in our time at the communion table. He brings with him the permanent gift of Heaven’s presence in the form of Spirit. In no uncertain words, he says “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (20) As we allow this love from Divinity to enter us fully, we can be transformed into splendor and majesty as an outward expression of the grandeur of the Spirit and of Christ to a Father that is accessible by all. Heaven and earth rejoice together!

            In the Book of Revelation, John speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, radiant in light, beauty and the glory of God. In his vision there are twelve gates, eternal entry ways to heaven made of angels and pearls.  Pearls, God’s gifts, already prepared by Heaven, ready to be formed on earth by the merchants who are tasked to find treasures from the alpha and the omega, from the beginning of time to the end, which remarkably includes the present! 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. ….  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them … the old order has passed away…. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water…. He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.  It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal. It had a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels were stationed ….. There were three gates facing east, three north, three south, and three west…. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl; The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb….. (21)

 

Why should the Church (through parish priest) be the merchant seeking fine pearls?

            Throughout recorded religious thought, we see signs of an innate mystical call for each person to fearlessly contemplate, understand, validate and express their loving relationship with God. Without the ability to explore this reality, individual gifts and charisms of God’s love which should be shared, can disappear before their proper maturity or can be suppressed if not properly nurtured.  This can create emptiness within an individual which instead of leading to becoming Christ-like, is filled with human desire, selfishness and pride.  While necessary, the current expressive systems of celebrating Mass, conducting youth or adult faith formation, joining ministries, and pastoral training do not sufficiently provide for bringing lay individuals into a relationship closer with Divinity when they accept the invitation to do so. The Church should be the epicenter, helping to locate, motivate and nourish laity who have received the unique gift of glimpsing Heaven. St. Paul of the Cross eloquently presents this understanding in the book titled “Flowers of the Passion: Thoughts of St. Paul of the Cross”:

Arrived at this point of humility, abandon yourself to God, and He will illumine your soul with rays of divine light and cause you to lead a life of divine love—a holy life. These are some of the sublime effects which the Divine Majesty works in souls that are truly humble and render to God all the glory of His gifts. Read these sentiments attentively, but with a simple and open heart, after the example of the mother-pearl, which, having received the dew of heaven closes itself and sinks to the bottom of the sea, there to form the precious pearl. (22)

            Published research on this subject of nurturing pearls to maturity is quite limited. Unfortunately, much of the Catholic material available specifically within this field is considered mystical theology aimed primarily at those in vowed religious life. Only limited education on the subject is provided in seminary training and is it not readily available to local parish priests who are in the best position to notice and help pearls in their formation. Embracing the concept of priests cultivating precious pearls will yield individuals who can help make parishes more vibrant and active, because they will both receive and give and by their fruits you will know them. (23)

 

Why should a parish priest spend his already limited time on cultivating lay Catholic mystics?

            We have to face the difficult reality that there is a public perception that the American Catholic Church has lost its way.  Yet, within this darkness there are signs of glorious light. There are good, honorable priests who may no longer be easily recognizable by the general public but are humbly active in their local parishes. These priests are not only performing their normal duties but engaging parishioners in multifaceted ways such as allowing them to help run the parish, visiting parishioners in their homes, and creating one on one time for spiritual direction.  They remain committed to their charism and to being exemplars of Christ by helping others see the grace of the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit working in their lives. Our seminaries are becoming filled again with men who bear the mark of holiness and wish to be Christ like. Among other topics our Popes are speaking openly and honestly about our environment, the sanctity of life, prayer, peace, the commitment we must have for each other and the application of social justice.

            While their own local flock may appreciate them as a shepherd, when these good and holy men are out in public their white collar causes some people to walk wide to avoid them.  But there is a way for the world to again appreciate the purity of the collar.  It is for these holy priests (and seminarians) to let their sanctity and their graces overflow beyond the current accepted tasks of their priesthood.  Since they have already personally found in Christ the pearl of great price, they know how to search among all the jewels and beauty of their parish for others that are Christ like. In doing so, they become the “merchant” seeking the finest pearl. George Weigel, a Roman Catholic journalist, speaker and author of numerous books on Catholic faith including a biography of John Paul II, offered an apologetic of this premise at a recent Chrism Mass.  

By teaching the truths of Catholic faith, by sanctifying his people through the sacraments, and by governing justly that portion of God’s people entrusted to his pastoral authority, the Catholic priest enables men and women to become saints, to become the kind of people who can live with God forever. All of this is intended to prepare men and women for eternal life in perfect communion with each other and with God. It is intended to make saints better, to cooperate with God in God’s making of saints. That is what a Catholic priest is for. (24)

 There is a tendency to think saintly people become that way entirely on their own because God pushes on a holy switch within that person.  While there is some truth that God is always available to us and desires us to do his will, he does not expect this to happen without the free will of our agreement, consent, contribution and guidance. Christ instituted the Church as a mechanism to teach, support and enable our ability to love God and love neighbor with all of our heart, mind and soul. (25) A local parish and its priest is where the responsibility to help further shape and form individuals with Christ’s commandment “to love one another as I have loved you” belongs.  It is in this full understanding, responsibility and unconditional love as the living image of Jesus the good shepherd, that a priest can actualize the entire teaching of Christ. 

            Jesus speaking directly to his disciples taught them to seek the fruit of total surrender to his commandment: encounter the spirit of the Beatitudes to express the rewards of Heaven. Priests are current day disciples tasked by Jesus to create lights in the world shining like a city high on a mountain top for all to see. To gently help remove the bushel basket from the candle so it can be set it on a lampstand where it can give light to all in the house, shining before others so they may see the good deeds done to glorify our heavenly Father. Christ was not just instructing his disciples about the Beatitudes, to forgive, to love, to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” but he was eliciting the responsibility to create and nurture these virtues in others. (26)

            At every parish there are one or more potential pearls; lay Catholic mystics in formation. Unfortunately many of our priests are charged with running the parish so they have limited time to help manage and work towards cultivating their pearls.  Fr. Henri Nouwen expands on this thought;

It is amazing to find most priests are still working very much on their own and have not yet found the creative ways to mobilize the potential leadership in their parishes and share their responsibilities with others. (27)

As a suggestion there are roles our priests are taking within their parish that can potentially be done by an administrative assistant, thus freeing them for important pastoral responsibilities. Deacons, lay professionals, and volunteers as “parts of the body” can help so priests may have more time to directly assist potential local lay Catholic mystics to exercise their call to holiness. 

            Through such help all will benefit. The public will begin to understand that the Church, through a parish priest and his parish resources cooperating with God can help individual pearls bring Heaven into the world. The parish priest can once again be viewed as spiritual and human centers, focal points for telling and showing of what sanctity means.  Our local parishes can be seen as shining beacons and resting places for all who are weary.  The public can recognize that Church is a holy place where Heaven and Earth meet. Supporting the ability and accessibility for a parish priest to assist parishioners in their spiritual journey offers one such approach.  A modest two hours a week carved out of their weekly schedule by sharing their workload could have a significant impact. Adrienne von Speyr recognized this same opportunity over fifty years ago when she wrote:

In the Church, the predominate tendency in many ways is to see the saints as manifestations that have fallen straight from heaven, to take their words as untouchable oracles, and therefore, especially with more modest missions, with the “lesser prophets”, not to contribute very much to their success.  If everyone, especially the people holding some office, had been more aware of how much they were permitted and in fact supposed to participate in the administration of the saint’s missions, they would have engaged themselves and their offices more emphatically in those missions.  Priests need to be trained very differently in this regard. They have to understand how many missions flounder on account of being insufficiently cultivated by those in office, both in their lives and in their prayer. (28)

 

Who are Adrienne von Speyr and Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar and why are they models?

            Adrienne von Speyr was born in Switzerland in 1902 and in her youth was raised a Protestant but something inside eventually drew her towards the Catholic Church. As a recently re-married medical doctor recovering from a heart attack, she met and became friends with Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar who himself was a newly ordained Jesuit priest serving as a university chaplain. Her discouragement over the death of her first husband prevented her from saying the “Our Father”, especially the specific verse “Thy will be done.” Fr. von Balthasar assisted her by helping her understand “that we offer God our willingness to let what He does take over our lives and move us anywhere at will.”  Fr. von Balthasar describes her understanding of what he was saying “as a light switch going on causing a flood of prayer as though a dam had burst.” (29) Immediately following her Catholic baptism on All Saints Day, she began a lifelong mystical encounter with the Trinity, the Communion of Saints, and indeed all of Heaven. Fr. von Balthasar states that key to living the remainder of her life with God was a meeting with a great light and voice shortly after her conversion that enlightened and told her “you shall live in Heaven and on Earth”. (30)

            Fr. von Balthasar recognized that Adrienne von Speyr had something to offer the Church and he became her spiritual director for the remaining thirty years of her life.  With Fr. von Balthasar’s assistance she wrote over sixty books most in which he helped to suppress her mystical encounters and instead focused on their fruit. Fr. von Balthasar was able to develop his own rich theology in large measure from these shared encounters. Fr. von Balthasar’s multivolume “The Glory of the Lord” and his co-founding of the journal “Communio” with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) exemplify his legacy.  Fr. von Balthasar, who some consider the greatest theologian of the 20th century, openly stated that von Speyr was the primary resource for his own vast accumulation of spiritual knowledge and wisdom.

It was Adrienne von Speyr, who pointed out the fulfilling way from Ignatius to John, and thus laid the foundation for most of what has been published by me since 1940. Her work and mine is neither psychologically nor philosophically separable, two halves of a whole, which, as a centre has but one foundation. (31)

            Fr. von Balthasar, originally a Jesuit, decided to leave the order to co-found the secular institute “The Community of St. John” with von Speyr. In his book entitled “Our Task”, he writes of being von Speyr’s spiritual director, their relationship and the need for the creation of the institute:

Like all the extraordinary experiences of Adrienne (this was part of her charism as founder), what is described here has significant and consequences for the community to be formed. Those who are theologically trained, especially priest, will have to test – in a much more inconspicuous way – the spiritual insights or lights of others. They must understand how these gifts are to be understood and, if need be, to bear fruit for the community and the Church. (32)

Fr. Von Balthasar’s description above is consistent for all priests who may be in position to discern a parishioner(s) which God has blessed with an ability to offer something unique to the community. This task is at the heart of this book; as with God’s guidance, Fr. von Balthasar became “the merchant” who effectively sold all he had to buy the finest pearl.  To work with von Speyr, Fr. von Balthasar was forced to make the difficult and traumatic decision to leave the Jesuits which meant in doing so he formally lost his Jesuit identity and priestly duties until his later acceptance in the diocese of Chur, Switzerland as a secular priest.

            There can be no doubt Fr. von Balthasar heard and followed God’s will and continued to do so over his entire career. He chose to slowly release von Speyr’s works starting with her commentaries on the Gospels and then her mystical writings for the not so obvious reason of establishing the balance of her writings as doctrinally sound.   It is only in the last two decades during which von Speyr’s works are being translated into English, that English speaking theologians are seeing her as an iridescent pearl in the world.  Her unveiling Heaven here on earth in the 20th century deserves to be studied in far greater depth. She is a modern example of an ordinary individual nurtured into extraordinary Christian maturity by an ordinary priest who were both formed by God’s action into something exquisite for the benefit of the entire Body of Christ.Cultivating Parish Pearls 

            All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history. (33) Pope Paul VI, Lumen Gentium

Are all lay Catholic mystics required to be spiritual giants like Adrienne von Speyr?

            Throughout the recorded history of the Church certain Catholic individuals stand out. Through their mystical encounters they offered something extraordinary to the world. Examples of famous Catholic mystical saints from religious orders are St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola. In more recent history, a few lesser known lay Catholic mystics such as Blessed Frederic Ozanam, co-founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society and Blessed Anna Marie Taglia, are enjoying greater recognition by the Church. Other lay Catholic mystics being considered for sainthood include Dorothy Day, co-founder of Catholic Worker Movement, Fernando Rielo, mystical poet and founder of Indente Missionaries and Catherine Doherty, the co-founder of Madonna House. 

            Each of these individuals is being increasing recognized as providing significant fruit for the church. A common denominator for all these individuals was a close affinity to one or more priests in their lives. Catherine Doherty in particular had a beautiful love for priests as she appreciated their great value to society. Father Stephen J. Rossetti comments in reviewing the updated version of Catherine’s book “Dear Father”: “In these days, we are acutely aware of the humanity of a priest as indeed Catherine was; but her words suggest that she saw more deeply the tremendous grace that is priesthood.” (34) When examining the effect of each of these candidates for sainthood, it is important to note that their acceptance of God’s grace, unity with Christ, their associations with their community and priests in their lives helped shape them distinct from each other for the specific benefit of their particular mission. This same call is evident to individuals within every parish according to the call and strength to fulfill it they have received. 

            Consider for a moment the analogy to a glorious sunrise. While the burning sun may be a focal point in the scene, the beauty would not be possible in combination with all the other elements in view and the thoughts that emerge. While these smaller elements may not have the same intensity, they too contribute to the witness of God’s glory. God places these points of beauty throughout to accomplish the whole so we may sense his presence in the ordinary. We are all graced with the possibility of holiness and invited to become one of the points of beauty. Among us at every parish are unnamed lay Catholic mystics who remain humble and most often are delicately placed mingling within the scene, desiring nothing in return and preferring anonymity.  

            Their mission in life is quite often given by God to them on an “as needed” and ad-hoc basis. They are the nameless servants of God, who in their own local communities show Heaven’s radiance on earth.  They offer glimpses of Christ-like behavior directly because they are in the world while not of the world. A common trait of these saints as previously stated is that of feeling of belonging to the communion of saints. Most often, Mary as a member of that community has a specific role in the life of this individual. They have embraced Mary’s “Yes”, combining it with their own “Yes”, becoming pearls strung together across time and space (as Church) to form an iridescent necklace, in union with God and all of Heaven.   As an example, Adrienne von Speyr had her first and then repeated mystical saintly contact with St. Ignatius of Loyola. But she also had a close relationship with Mary.

In Mary this inclusion of the human Yes in the divine Yes is so complete that it flows over upon the saints like a grace peculiarly her own and makes them capable of being indifferent and surrendered in a similar way. When they have given God their consent, they will always be able to do what their mission of the moment requires. And something of the Marian grace overflows to all Christians. (35)

 

Shouldn’t they be vowed religious or use their gifts of prayer in monasteries?

            Historically, if someone of unique faith and holiness was “discovered” before they were married it would be suggested that they should become a priest or nun. The Church has also quite often drawn those with more mystical qualities fully into its fold by placing them with others of the same gift in monasteries to live their life out in prayer. While this may be true for some who are called to the “religious” life, there are other options that need to be considered. This is especially true in the present day as God’s presence seems to be lost to those “of the world.” God has a place for everyone and for some it is to be iridescent but otherwise ordinary people placed firmly “in the world”.

            Consider the situation of young adults who, perhaps influenced by the secular world, do not immediately feel they can abandon everything or do not feel drawn into the life of a vowed religious. Or likewise maturing adults who may already have families and now wish to allow the interior call to deep prayer more freedom, knowing they could offer themselves to the Church. Like Samuel, these individuals are quite familiar with the unrelenting love of God calling out to them and in reply utter Samuel’s “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” (36) These individuals understand there is more they can do with the intense love given, but they need an infrastructure for further exploration. They need the ability to daily seek what can be found within the walls of a monastery while at the same time be immersed in the task of living Christ-like lives in the world.  Our local parishes can offer a significant portion of this supporting infrastructure.

 

Is the saintly/mystical calling equal in vowed religious as the laity?

            The calling of a religious or a lay person is absolute but a contemplative and or a mystical component is not always a prerequisite.  God chooses those whom he wishes to offer the grace to echo this type of deep “Yes” to sometimes be located in the world. Unfortunately, there is no documented evidence or studies regarding the “distribution” of Catholic mystics. God’s individual callings vary in numerous and often hidden ways. For instance, the ability and amount of time for contemplative prayer for an active lay Catholic mystic “in the world” may likely be for different percentages or take different form than someone called in monastic life. Since the greater percentage of Catholics are laity, it does seem plausible that there may in fact be more saintly mystics in the laity than in formal religious communities.  God does not discriminate; he gives individuals the capacities to both “touch” transcendence and be in the world at the same time. Lay Catholic mystics are not called into a vocation where rules and structures rather centrally help form that individual.  Adrienne von Speyr understood this from the perspective of a lay person called to God’s will no matter the time or place.

In the vocation to the religious life, there is a period marked by the call, he will know by the time he reaches his majority to what vocation he is being called. For the saint, there is no such specific time of vocation related to human development. Usually he has to do God’s will in the circumstances in which he finds himself. (37)  

 

Why are these unique individuals difficult for the Church to understand?

            There is no denying that everyone has some unique gift from God. Everyone is part of the Body of Christ but a calling to be a lay Catholic mystic can be confusing. As individuals move closer to the spiritual domain, they are exposed not only to God but Satan’s influence.  It is quite easy to be deceived by spiritual manifestations into believing one is special and more important than someone who has not received a “special” gift. To be clear, God gifts are not special, they are “unique” and meant for the Body of Christ. If an individual has this attitude of specialness then the person is already in the wrong spiritual domain and tends to drift away from the protection of the Church. The individual loses out on all the Church has to offer such as growth in faith and grounding with the help of a spiritual director.  A spiritual guide is critical as when one is pursued and allows the pursuit, the mystical realm can be quite stimulating, needing frequent discernment.

            There is no doubt that once an individual accepts and permits this type of embrace it can be analogous to taming a wild horse.  To someone that may be already experiencing deeper spirituality without proper understanding or the desire to step back and allow contemplative prayer to be in its proper place, disorientation can result. There can be significant confusion as to what contemplative prayer is, what constitutes progression in prayer, what it might mean and how its fruit should be used by a lay person. If God’s gifts are not properly discerned, then the notion that an individual can become saintly is a missed opportunity for the Church. Most importantly, the potential lay Catholic mystic should not have to guess. The treasures that they are, the treasures they are to become, need to mature.  Henri Nouwen writes: “Because finding the treasure is only the beginning of the search, you have to be careful.” (38) I propose that a promising potential approach is to equip and train parish priests and other theologically trained individuals such as Deacons and Pastoral Ministers to detect and cultivate individuals who have been gifted by Heaven. The parish priest and qualified guides with a potential Catholic mystic parishioner can enter into a process not unlike how the tiny speck in an oyster at the correct time and under the correct conditions creates a perfect pearl.

 

How can the Church be sure the individual is blessed by heaven/heaven sent?

            Saintly individuals are tuned into the “yes” of “doing God’s will” most often by experiencing God’s love and communications. Having a capacity to do so is part of the definition of a Catholic mystic. Much has been written about the “test” of a true Catholic mystic. Though a full review of this literature is beyond the focus of this book, a number of documents have been published that can be used as an initial basis for determining if a person may be a mystic; e.g.,  Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.’s article on Mysticism (39) orPrivate Revelations and the Discernment of Spirits” by Fr. William Most. (40) “Normae Congregationis” published in 1978 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith is a document on apparition discernment (41) that can also be applied to discerning the authentic attributes of a mystic. 

            One problematic issue with all these documents is that they assume an individual is already a mature mystic and there is a need to perform a test as if it were a blood test as to diagnose a problem.  In reality, the Church could assume a different posture, one more attuned to a preventive medicine type approach. Starting even at an early age (yes, even teens), a parishioner should feel comfortable that a local parish is a place to help identify, develop and manage these unique characteristics for the benefit of the Church.  While the test criteria in the above documents are still valid, this proactive approach is far less intrusive and confrontational. The necessary details for implementing this specific process are also beyond the scope of this book but they could provide critical elements for further analysis.

 

Why should an individual explore the mysterious will of God here on earth?

            What happens when we as individuals attempt to sort through the profound face to face encounter of the reality of heaven on earth? What do we do with the truth of realizing that the mystical presence and love of God is always available?  Should we ignore it, engage in silent prayer, become participants or perhaps find ways of outwardly expressing it? If we choose to express it, how do we do so within the confines of the secular world? Karl Rahner, examining the notion of recognizing God, said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all”. (42)  To be a mystic is not about visions or mystical phenomena (these may be present but surprisingly they have little meaning) or the latest New Age fad, it is about acknowledging and expressing God’s gift of his presence in the ordinary aspects of our lives. There are extraordinary fruits associated with this type of relationship with God. For some it is focusing their Christian state of life on social justice initiatives, on commitment to lay ministries, on being a better person, being present or perhaps on attempting to reflect on their moments of Divinity’s touch in the form of music, poetry or art.

            We should all be entitled, open and encouraged to explore, express and observe our relationship with God that can sometimes reach beyond the ordinary. For instance, consider inspired musicians who create music that touches our soul.  As we listen to a song especially in a Mass, we too can be captured in the moment, knowing Christ is present.  For a few minutes our reality changes. We forget about the distractions in our life that hold us back.  We briefly taste mysticism as we engage in singing the song in wonder, captivated for a moment that does not have to stop. With Heaven and earth’s help and practice (43) we can continue to know that presence in the ordinary aspects of our lives without even hearing the song.

            How is it possible however to go beyond someone else’s beautiful song of pre-packaged words or thoughts? And more specifically how do we see it first in the ordinary?  For starters, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians to no longer think as a child. (44) As an experiment, think back to the vivid childhood story “The Little Engine that Could.” (45) Within the depths of Christian maturity (46) allow yourself to be immersed in the story as a parable. Remember the story’s premise? The powerful engines felt they could not climb the mountain, yet the little humble (47) engine agrees to take on the task.

            It is easy to recognize the little engine needs help. Something inside (48) places us alongside the engine. We hear the words begin to tug at our own heart strings. “I think I can, I think I can.” As chorus, (49) we join in as silent prayer envelops the situation and we reach out and help push that engine up the steep hill. As we rise, struggling (50) in the darkness of the unknown (51) we feel the effects of potential failure as it attempts to overtake us, but friends (52) are there for us.  “We think you can, we think you can.”  Our thoughts let us envision great and wondrous scenery (53) in the climb. We recognize Christ is with us, the load begins to lighten (54) and we, the Body of Christ, think we can, we the Church think we can. At the top there is beauty (55), light (56) and love (57) that we are meant to give to others as we progress forward. What we can encounter is the gift of spiritual union “with the engine”, confirmation that Christ is with us. St. Paul, in writing to the Ephesians, describes the Father’s plan of salvation by our inheritance of what Christ has fulfilled and what we must still accomplish:

He has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth. In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the one who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will. (58)

            More questions come to mind. Can we use such techniques to discover possibilities that resonate in our daily lives? How do we connect and reflect back to all we know and have learned of our faith? Where can we discuss and explore what we are connecting to?  What are the effects if we do so? What if the sense we discover is that we are that little engine that said “I can”?  Can we find the place and grace that allows the strength of others to help us up that mountain?  Where can we find the gentle encouragement that at the same time controls the fire? What more do we need to learn? These and other questions need to be asked and need a home!

            Returning to the pearl metaphor, it is easy to recognize that what starts out as something small like “the little engine that could” can yield a wondrous iridescent pearl. Without an oyster to bring this tiny speck into maturity, there is no cultivation of a pearl. Like the little engine that could, it must be patiently helped, strengthened, layered and polished over time so that it may rise and then shine before men. Heaven initially participates by placing desire into an individual and then expects the Body of Christ, as Church, to also help bring that pearl to its full luster so others can physically see the grandeur in God’s sanctuary.    

 

The Church – Sign and Instrument of Holiness

Since the Church in Christ is a mystery, she ought to be considered the sign and instrument of holiness… Men and women saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult circumstances in the Church’s history. Today we have the greatest need of saints whom we must assiduously beg God to raise up. (59) (Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici)

Why should the Church want to cultivate these pearls?

            Christ states the reason why the Church should want to cultivate pearls explicitly in Matthew 13: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened”. (60) The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the richness of receiving and giving this leavened bread to the world.

The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch. The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Finally, by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all.  In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking. (61)

            The Church benefits when its parts become stronger. When one part is healthy, other parts can be nourished so those parts may also be healthy.  When one part of the Church shines its light, its goodness, its iridescence, the whole Church radiates in the warmth.  A single Christ like individual can be the yeast that not only can make an impact on the others that are within the Church but also those on the outside. Adrienne von Speyr writes in eloquent metaphor of Christ’s presence in “everyman” that can be in any place that it is needed.

 A husband presents his wife with a pearl, and she wears it so tastefully that she gives the impression of having been given a whole necklace. And the pearl really is so magnificent as to represent a whole necklace. Perhaps he says to her what a pity it is that he can only give her one pearl; he would like to have given her a ring. She replies, “Look!” and shows him the pearl on her finger. If he says what a pity it is that she cannot wear it as a ring, she says, “Look!” and shows him the pearl at her ear. She uses the pearl wherever he would like her to be adorned. This is an image of man’s goodness as shown to the Father by the Son. The Son is one, yet to the Father He seems to be “everyman”. He gathers together all the goodness of which men are capable, all of their love of the Father and hope and faith in Him, in order to concentrate their radiance as intensely as possible. (62)

The Church, supporting local parishes and their pastors, provides the opportunity to cultivate these pearls (in the process of being made) so that they know how to represent the Church and Christ to the world in the best possible light. These potential pearls simply need the warmth of a comfortable place to be, a place of community, a place where all parts are welcome to become the One Body of Christ.

 

Why should a local parish be directly concerned for these individuals?

            Besides daily Masses, even the smallest of parishes have religious education programs for their youth and outreach ministries where Catholic social justice initiatives are pursued. Parishes may also have adoration hours or days in which Christ is exposed as the Blessed Sacrament to create time for reflective prayer, thanksgiving and silence. There are music ministries, perhaps “Rosary”, “Prayer Shawl” or St. Vincent de Paul ministries that are all supported by the parish community. These ministries are accepted as normal functions by the parish. There is no question that individuals involved in these ministries have an internal desire to be Christ-like. But there are also heightened possibilities, perhaps individuals within these ministries or in the parish whose relationship with God may move them to do or be more but who are not able to develop to their full potential through no fault of their own. These are ordinary people who most often do not know that what they feel inside is different. As parish members they are supporting the local community, helping it rise to greater heights.  They need to be fed uniquely and there is no better place than the trusted local parish (as a field of rich soil) for this to occur as Jesus explains in the parable of the seeds:  “But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” (63) Local parish priest know their fruit producing individuals. They know them as the ones producing the hundredfold, the ones who are saintly and who by their light attract others to Christ.   

 

Why is the parish/priest the oyster to the pearl?

            When the disciples approached Christ about why he was speaking in parables his response was “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given.” (64) In the series of parables in Matthew 13 describing the Kingdom, Christ was not asking the disciples to simply stop at where they were in their understanding. Rather he was initiating a process to create a community and unique place that should be inviting, open, honest and nurturing, a place where one can yield to the call of contemplative prayer, a place called parish, led by a disciple – also known as a priest, who together with the parish can form a shell of protection from the effects of worldliness and of selfishness while seeking to understand the Kingdom. In parable after parable, Jesus was describing this process, this people and this place.  A place for the tiny mustard seed to grow into a large bush, a place where a little yeast leavens the entire bread, a place where a tiny speck placed into the oyster shell can eventually yield an iridescent pearl. 

            Classically, people who have the intense desire to be intimate with God and accept the invitation to contemplation needed to enter a religious order to gain entry to this protective sphere.  However, this is not always God’s will. God has called lay individuals to contemplation and to be sanctified so as to serve in purposes which may begin with what is offered in a typical parish setting. Adrienne von Speyr offers an explanation of the glorious possibilities:

This love is not there merely to be contemplated for its marvels – unless we finally give the word contemplation its full sense. One contemplates in order to become useful, in order to receive and pass on, in order to learn the one thing necessary and to pass it on as such. Once contemplation acquires this sense, its absolute urgency becomes evident; we must at once see and understand – as far as we can understand – in order to give what we have perceived! Perhaps the greatest feat of the Lords’ love was the founding of the Church.  He chooses his Bride and allows each one of us to become representatives of this Bride. In our surrender to the Lord each one of us can become his Bride, a Bride in and through the Church. And yet, nothing is more real than the fact that we, unworthy though we are, are invited to partake in the love-relationship between Bride and Bridegroom. We are being awaited, since our invitation has been so urgent.  The Lord anticipated our helplessness by establishing the sacraments. (65)

            Reception of the sacraments provides certain graces akin to fuel that helps us to continue to pursue the invitation further. Private, one-on-one time with a parish priest in spiritual direction or a spiritual companion creates an opportunity to discuss this further exploration of God’s gifts. What begins as an individual call with overflowing graces conjoins with the parish’s call so these graces can be offered to others who are perhaps not even members of that immediate community. The call and response to holiness, especially for a lay Catholic mystic who may obtain knowledge and understanding from multiple sources, needs the parish to be a home, a safe and equally understanding place where the pearl can rest to absorb and build layer upon layer.  

 

Who is responsible for identifying these potential pearls?

            No doubt to identify pearls in progress is a difficult task, requiring not just theological but spiritual training. The obvious candidate for this role is the parish priest.  They are the ones that know the pulse of the community, the parishioners and the interactions they witness in sacramental life.  Perhaps the most important sacrament that can be used to identify potential lay Catholic mystics is that of “Confession.”  Confession unlocks the inner thoughts and allows the soul at least temporary freedom to rise above sin which holds us back.  Sin acts a shield, a barrier to letting the soul perceive God.  The moment we release sin we are forgiven by the act of Christ on the Cross and we become vulnerable to God’s whispers. Adrienne von Speyr puts it another way:

Within the resolution there must reside a moment into which everything must become concrete, as concrete as the Son’s resolution to die on the Cross, otherwise the resolution is not genuine. An encounter between two worlds is involved in this resolution, just as the Lord’s resolution to become incarnate coerces heaven and earth – two worlds separated by sin – into a perfect encounter. I must now bring my own world, a world that has been one of sin, into accord with the world of the Lord in heaven, the eternal resolution of the Son. (66)

            Our parish priests need to be equipped to notice this vulnerability, this openness to see the soul approach the sense of heaven coming to the present moment, the now.  It is here the priest becomes a contact point, a catalyst leading the soul to greater things. Von Speyr again speaks of the priest’s role in the growth potential of souls in such transactions.

Because every earthly encounter between the Son and Father is just as new as their eternal encounter in heaven, the priest’s own encounter with the Son and the Spirit in confession must and can always be new itself, and from this perspective it will not be difficult to allow the encounter with the sinner to be ever new. (67)

The net effect of these multiple encounters of the human with the divine is a deeper cooperation of earthly and heavenly members of the communion of saints. To advance further requires a more intimate relationship between a spiritual director and directee with each other.

            This does not mean others cannot notice the spark, the inner joy, the glow of someone who wishes to be pursued. No doubt, anyone in a pastoral assignment could be trained to recognize certain qualities of an individual; however unless they have specific gifts themselves and are authorized to act, they should defer and bring this further detailed identification and likely need for direction of the one identified to their parish priest.  Pope Benedict XVI, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Pontifical Theological Faculty recommended that spiritual direction be available to everyone, especially to those who receive a divine call.

As she has never failed to do, again today the Church continues to recommend the practice of spiritual direction, not only to all those who wish to follow the Lord up close, but to every Christian who wishes to live responsibly his baptism, that is, the new life in Christ. Everyone, in fact, and in a particular way all those who have received the divine call to a closer following, needs to be supported personally by a sure guide in doctrine and expert in the things of God. A guide can help defend oneself from facile subjectivist interpretations, making available his own supply of knowledge and experiences in following Jesus. Spiritual direction is a matter of establishing that same personal relationship that the Lord had with his disciples, that special bond with which he led them, following him, to embrace the will of the Father (cf. Luke 22:42), that is, to embrace the cross. (68)

Jesus explained to his disciples the lesson of spiritual direction in the parable of the farmer who plants seeds on fertile ground (69). The seed, like the pearl, is surrounded by God-given earthly nutrients, life-giving water, and the tender care of the farmer to help the seed grow and provide again for others – so too may we show how to reflect back the love that has been given.

 

What can lay Catholic mystics offer in return?

            There is a saying that “a rising tide floats all boats”. Perhaps more than anything, the Church at the moment needs a rising tide filled with joy and peace.  This lifting action comes from God to be received and “played” back by those who know the gift.  God continues to call out to humanity with the offer for us to be Christ-like. Christ’s verse in the prayer “Our Father… thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, contains both expectations and truth.  There are those in each parish community that wish to be more intimately immersed and active in this prayer, believing it with their entire being.  They know deeply that God loves them so they desire to do his will because divinity and glimpses of Heaven are present to them.  They know Heaven not as a place to go, but as already partially revealed in the “right here and now” that can lift the Church, a Heaven that can raise the Church like an incoming tide. The Church has a choice to make as God has called out to lay Catholic mystics for over two millennia and still calls in the present. This call is not that earth will end and Heaven begin. The call is for a new and changed earth, one that entirely opens to the Heaven that has been coming to it.

            Lay Catholic mystics can be given the freedom to explore while parish priests direct their desire guided by the Church’s framework. When lay Catholic mystics learn to humbly amplify this ever present Heaven as a working member of the Body of Christ, their God given graces are transparently and seamlessly integrated into the whole body. The entire Body of Christ benefits and participates in the graces and gifts because as one part of the body begins to get stronger, the entire body becomes stronger. Then, the entire body begins to recognize Heaven and realize humanity does not have to leave earth but only be receptive to what is being offered. Adrienne von Speyr understood that God does not provide grace solely for the individual’s benefit but rather for the benefit of all:

In this call, God fills the believer with His Spirit and strength. Henceforth he knows himself as both individual intended by God and as one who has penetrated the anonymity of the children of God. In a new sense, he is one among many in the Church, a member of the communion of saints. He becomes one who is sent, someone for who mission is more important than he is himself. Like a newly hatched bird he can move in the freedom in a new world that is God’s world. (69)

What could be more extraordinary for a parish than to have a member who is not selfish, who desires to help others and ask little of the parish as he/she is now empowered by God’s spirit and strength?  This individual, now a pearl of exquisite shape and iridescence, becomes like a shining beacon attracting others into the Body of Christ.

 

 

What are the layers and layering process of these pearls?

            Christ uses the analogy of the pearl for multiple reasons. Not only was it a rare item in the geography of the area and time but also because it is the only jewel formed within a living creature. Like all jewels, it is created over a long period of time in the life of the oyster.  As the pearl matures, layer after layer is added, the oyster gives more and more of itself to embrace the original tiny speck. In the life of the human pearl analogy, the same process occurs. The pearl is formed in layers under the protection of the local parish and direction of a priest giving of their time, understanding and knowledge. 

            All the classic Christian attributes can become part of the pearl. As St. Paul speaks about in Chapter 5 of Galatians, the gifts and fruit of the Spirit in various weights, qualities and quantities are comingled so that they may serve others filled with God’s love.  Unique qualities and charisms that God infuses can become identified as to be seamlessly integrated into the whole.  The layers become bonded in such a way they cannot be separated: the supernatural perfectly mingles with the natural in a humble way. When the pearl is ready it can be removed from protection of the oyster, yet still associated with the oyster in unique ways.

 

How and where do the pearls fit with the Church?

            With John the Baptist and the crowd gathered at the River Jordan, Spirit in the form of a dove anointed Christ. This is the same Spirit we are introduced to in Baptism and anointed by Confirmation and that Christ explains lives inside each of us.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me, because I live and you will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him. (70)

When Heaven’s veil parted for St. Paul, he mystically witnessed the risen Christ as Spirit.  His initial view of Heaven and then his response enabled him to participate in the creation of Christian tradition. In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul explains the variety of gifts come from the same Spirit. To each is given a gift to serve the Church to be used in various capacities as God determines in both hierarchical and lay roles. Yet, St. Paul goes on to form a unique position in 1 Corinthians 13, as he echoes Christ by declaring the greatest gift is love. Pope John Paul II emphasizes this universal role of love in “Christifideles Laici,” writing of laity’s important role within the Church.

It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, and suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often repressed and buried, the more these realities will be at the service of the Kingdom of God and therefore at the service of salvation in Jesus Christ, without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded. (71)

It is the response to “exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often repressed and buried, the more these realities will be at the service of the Kingdom of God” in the everyday reality of human existence that can offer the integrated perspective of a transcendent dimension. This is the precise role of the pearl found and cultivated by the spiritual direction of a priest as to produce lay Catholic mystics for the benefit of the entire Church.

 

What local parish resources are available/required to properly cultivate these pearls?

            Unfortunately at the present moment, many priests and other professionally trained laity are typically involved in the day to day operations of the local parish and do not have sufficient time in their schedules to take on additional responsibilities. Learning opportunities provided by the local parish (and priest) such as Bible studies and retreat opportunities such as Cursillo, the Ignation Spiritual Exercises or exploring the role of contemplative prayer, are the beginning growth process for potential lay Catholic mystics.  To be effective in their local community lay Catholic mystics also need individual spiritual direction from their local parish priest or qualified individuals.  To make time for nurturing and counsel, resources may need to be shifted on a priority basis or additional resources may need to be added so as to highlight this important further “sanctification” function of a priest which further builds on the foundational ministry of celebrating the sacraments.   

 

Why is encouraging a deep prayer life important?

So Jesus said again, Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. (72)

            Christ offers himself in Word as heaven’s gate.  To read the Word is to both come in while going out through the gate with Christ, finding pasture in the here and now. As Christ does the will of the Father, so too do those gifted with the ability to hear and understand the Father’s will as it enters them through Christ. To express this visible presence of Heaven requires revelation as a foundation.  It is here that all truth is found. Adrienne von Speyr expresses this deep contemplation in imagery:

There is the possibility, in a vision sent by God, to grasp things both in heaven and on earth, in images that stem immediately from heaven and are destined for the earth, for the Church, or for individual believers present in the Church. If it is God’s will, the images of heaven turn into images that are revealed on earth, he grants them to those who belong to Him so that, in their task, they may disseminate living representations of heaven in the Church. The presence of the heavenly images on earth has been granted along with the responsibility that those images be preserved. Here, too, the talent must be properly managed. This management belongs to the content of our Christian life; it belongs to the mission of our faith. (73)

            Is this not a primary mission of our Church, to help direct our Christian life as we do God’s will on Earth as it is in Heaven?  Probing the depths of the Word means contemplating meaning beyond what is visible on the page. Belonging to Christ in this way provides a means to penetrate, visualize, image and reveal God’s love not for self only but for other members of the Body of Christ. Without the support of Church and a local parish that knows and trust individuals with these capacities to witness Heaven in this way, God’s glorious love and of Heaven present in the now would be minimized. Church offers a place to ground spiritual beauty in the reality of our earthly existence while parishes offer trusted holy ground from which faith can grow in both mystery and reason. True lay Catholic mystics do not ask for honor or to be put on a pedestal. They only seek nourishment and encouragement that what they have for the community is as real as the presence of Christ in what they have contemplated in Word and Eucharist. They, just like everyone else, simply want to share their love and feel humanity’s response.   

 

What is the cost to a local parish?

            There is a U2 song titled “Grace” in which the verse “She carries a pearl in perfect condition” (74) takes on special meaning. Mary carried Jesus, the pearl of great price to perfect condition. Like Mary, there can be no doubt that parishes (ecclesia in koinonia) (75) are the places (the Church) Jesus established to nurture laity, places where pearls can be encased in loving community.  In order for pearls to continue the work they do in life, they need a place they can go to rest in God’s love.  The cost is simply a clarion call to each parish priest to spend a little time with these pearls outside the normal work cycle of typical Church processes and duties.

 

Conclusion

            Spiritual intuition, along with complex and multidimensional training and formation, is required of a priest to help parishioners who are discerning their desire to see God’s will be done. Priests as spiritual directors and spiritual companions can help increase faith, hope and charity by sharing their experience and knowledge regarding becoming closer to God. Henri Nouwen writes of a priest’s own mystical role as an essential element to achieve this result:

It is painful to realize very few ministers are able to offer the rich mystical tradition of Christianity as a source of rebirth for the generation searching for new life in the midst of the debris of a faltering civilization. (76)

 

No doubt, the instruction manual for this process is bound within Scripture and tradition to the degree that those who have been able, apply God’s Word to their own sanctity and saintly lives.  Yet, as Nouwen suggests, even with a faltering civilization, the desire and ability to be saintly still exists in the midst of the current cacophony and confusion as the Body of Christ continues to mature. Like any objective, without applying resources toward the specific goal of receiving and accepting God’s offer of Heaven on earth, Heaven will continue to remain behind a thick veil.

            While numerous books have been written on the subject of mystical theology, spiritual direction, and the documentation and identification of Catholic mystics after their death, only fragments of how to start this process for nurturing lay Catholic mystics proactively have been gathered.  I am strongly asserting that the here and now of Heaven already includes active living lay Catholic mystics within its sphere. However, if you were to ask the average Catholic where, when or what is Heaven and how does Heaven impact saintly people, most would tell you it is a place to go after death to spend eternity. No doubt every parish priest already knows there are saintly people in every parish. What they may not realize is these individuals are ready and willing to speak of their desires to use their gifts to the degree they understand. Parish priest only have to be slightly more present to these specific individuals to have their holiness produce fruit for the community.  Adrienne von Speyr speaks of this as one of the Father’s gifts to us as grace that we are able to appropriate and work with.

Thus, by virtue of the Son’s sacrifice and his having brought the world home again, the Father is able to regard men as his eternal creatures. Eternal life is not situated in heaven, far from man’s grasp, something self-enclosed; it is the life-filled Word, in which men have a share because they are capable of taking it in. And that capability is itself grace.  (77)

 

The mission of priest and laity directly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is this:

To the apostles and their successors Christ has entrusted the office of teaching, sanctifying and governing in his name and by his power. But the laity are made to share in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly office of Christ; they have therefore, in the Church and in the world, their own assignment in the mission of the whole People of God. (78)

            It is in the best interest of our diocesan leadership to put more emphasis on the role of priest in regards to sanctification beyond the sacraments because assisting God in the cultivation of saintly people is one of our priests’ primary missions. Only a priest can offer the sacrament of Confession which frees the potential lay Catholic mystic from the burden of sin and is the primary vehicle where sanctity can be recognized and supported. In the forgiveness of this sacrament the lay Catholic mystic is freed to come halfway, to approach heaven so that heaven can approach him/her. Confession for a priest is the opening act, a prelude to working with a potential lay Catholic mystic perhaps over a lifetime as Fr. von Balthasar did with Adrienne von Speyr. 

            I propose a modest one hour a week be set aside for a priest’s own sanctification and one other hour to work with potential lay Catholic mystics. Training our priests does not necessarily have to be extraordinary or formal. It is rather the re-orienting of a priestly role to prioritize spiritual direction even it means transferring (if required) a limited portion of parish administration to laity. This additional time with God will allow and permit God’s grace to enter and help priests in the identification and formation of lay Catholic mystics.  For our priests to have the capacity to seek the finest pearl means they accept the absolute and endless depth of agape. To do so they must be immersed in contemplative prayer that is not force fitted into their already full schedules but rather to joyfully have the time to allow nourishing prayer to come to them. There is no better way for our priest to seek the knowledge of God’s whispers necessary to determine who may be a lay Catholic mystic in the making within their parish. While a single book, entitled “Making lay Catholic mystics for Dummies,” may not be available at this point in time, source materials and knowledge are available to priest given they are granted time and permission to pursue this holy mission already established by Christ.  More recent reference for self-study materials include:

  • Numerous Catholic oriented spiritual direction books
  • Books of gratitude and focus such as “Our Father” by Catherine de Hueck Doherty
  • Books that explain how to detect the subtle motions of the mystic such as “The Lion Roars” by Msgr. Stephen Rosetti
  • Books by Fr. Thomas Dubay such as “The Evidential Power of Beauty” (which draws heavily from the writings of Fr. von Balthasar) and “Fire Within”

 

            Priests do not have to go it alone as there are religious and lay people within many dioceses that already have the skills, formal education in ministry, and necessary background in areas such as mystical theology to educate, advise and assist the priests in this objective. Pope Francis in speaking to an audience of an international group of men and women religious working in the diocese of Rome eloquently presented the need for Spiritual Direction.

Spiritual direction, “is not a charism exclusive to priests. It’s a charism of the laity.” The pope said he was reading a book on obedience by St. Silouan of Mount Athos, who was a carpenter. “He wasn’t even a deacon, but he was a great spiritual director.” Pope Francis encouraged religious superiors — of both men and women — to identify members of their congregation who are good and wise and patient, and get them training in spiritual direction. (80)

Short retreats to Carmelite, Cistercian, or Benedictine monasteries could allow priests to learn how to deepen contemplative prayer for themselves and others. There are existing priests who are already engaged in Spiritual Direction, quite often in their own personal time. These priests are witnesses to transformative processes that should be shared with other priests. These processes can become part of the curriculum at seminaries and in pastoral ministry programs. There is far more to explore that is beyond the scope of this book on the topics of experimental knowledge, training and formation.

            This book at best has identified an opportunity to re-prioritize and slightly adjust the schedule and focus of our priest.  There are more phases, challenges, research, study and documentation ahead. However, even without these, the premise to start by taking small steps is a good beginning along the way to fulfilling a long term objective.  Through the support of their diocesan leadership and the parish community, priests can help others participate in further exploring the Kingdom in concert with Sacramental, Eucharistic and Word centered living.  The Catholic Church needs her priests to be beacons in a confused world, to be accepting of the call to magnify the often suppressed grace of God’s Beauty, Light and Love by being merchants searching for the finest pearls! 

 

Vita

            Jerry is a happily married Catholic man with three adult children. He has volunteered in various parish capacities since he was tapped on the shoulder by a parish priest as a young man. He has been involved in religious adult and youth education but also in more creative ministries such as the organization of a Community Garden, a quarterly gathering of Christian poets, artist and musicians, a weekly discussion and prayer group formed around the idea of Living the Eucharist, a web ministry, as well as a corporate co-founder of a global non-profit. He has been fortunate enough to have had Spiritual Direction for over 10 years. He has (and continues to) self-studied mystical theology and has a Master’s degree in pastoral ministry. His is intention is to transition into full time ministry.

 

Epilogue

            I realized after writing this book that it is also a personal love story filled with gratitude and desire to correct misconceptions. What I have learned from my wife and family, my priest friends, those who share my passion, my beloved Church, and God is that I am on a faith journey that has a past, present and future that is just beginning to bloom.  The flame of Christ’s love for our priests and desire for universal holiness needs to be fueled in perhaps imaginative ways.  I am of the belief that God desires of me to pursue this challenge. If you are interested in this opportunity that can heighten our beloved church please feel free to contact me.

 

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