I was recently reading the beautiful book Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice by Mother Julia Gatta. As I expected, it is a rich, wise reflection on the priestly vocation, connecting aspects of Christian spirituality to the nitty gritty of the complexities of parish ministry. In a section on the necessity of geographical stability for a full communal life, Gatta draws on the Desert Monastics to encourage clergy (this book is primarily addressed to clergy) to discern what is at stake in changing parishes. Of the several temptations involved in changing cures, one to be mindful of is the belief that a new cure will eliminate the difficulties of interpersonal strife one may be experiencing in one’s current parish. Sometimes, Gatta suggests, only tumbling through rough situations for a while will smooth out ecclesial strife. We must be attentive to whether the desire for a new position is simply a manifestation of an American love of novelty, where we use our freedom to choose between a number of options to avoid the inherent troubles of sustained care in one church.
I was reminded, though, in this section, of the number of times many people I know and love have moved. In my experience, many have moved to a new place nearly every year of their 20s. Or rather been made to move. Either their landlord raised their rent beyond what they could pay; or they got a new job but since they can’t afford a vehicle they have to be closer; or their roommate bailed on them; or they needed a cheaper place because their student loans are hitting them hard. And so on. They are not chasing novelty. So many are being forced to move by the structural oppression of the economic and political world we have created. Not all traditional pieces of spiritual counsel can adequately address the concrete circumstances of our lives. At least not without discerning what is really at play. (No doubt Mother Gatta would agree. Her work was simply a jumping off point for my wandering mind rather than something I am disagreeing with.)
And yet I still believe that stability is necessary for spiritual growth. I am reminded of one story from the desert monastics that I have never stopped thinking about since I read it. The parable says that there was once a monk in a monastery who was prone to fits of passion and anger. Believing this to be caused by living around other people, he headed off into a solitary life further out in the desert. One day he went to get some water. After he filled his jar it fell over, spilling everything onto the ground. He filled it again, and again it fell over. He filled it a third time, and the jar emptied its contents once more. In a fit of rage, he smashed his water jar. He realized then that the enemy had tricked him. The passion was in him all along. So he went back to the monastery to resume the corporate spiritual life.
One thing that inspired The Hour was a conviction that capitalism makes it extremely difficult to be a Christian and we need to talk about it. Christianity has a long history of asceticism that prizes the great moral heroism of saints, who gave vast fortunes away to take up the religious life, or who gave their very lives to witness to the Gospel. But making a love of individual moral heroism a model for addressing inequality plays right into the dominant economic paradigm that places the blame for social ills on individual people.
So in our debut issue we made some rather odd claims. For instance, I suggested part of the reason it is difficult to sustain a public Daily Office in our parishes is because of our transportation infrastructure and housing policies. That may not give us anything immediately that we can go on to encourage a shift in our Daily Office practices, but if I’m right it does point us toward understanding why socialism is necessary not only to make for a just, equitable world, but why it is necessary to enable us to live Christian lives with more integrity. What I stumbled upon as I was reading Mother Gatta’s book was a concrete way that economics should affect how I offer spiritual counsel. It may be that geographical stability could help transform our inner lives, but in our world such a thing may be impossible for many. I have to be mindful of the bigger picture. Direction in the life of the Spirit requires attention to what constrains us in our environments. Such close attention will allow us to prayerfully point to creative ways to grow that adequately address our limitations.
I was reminded of a story that Kenneth Leech liked to share. You will recall that he was respected both as a writer on spirituality and on Christian socialism– two things generally thought to have their own, independent integrity... No need to relate them. I will quote from the introduction of Leech’s book Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World. It is a well known story but it’s just so charming and relevant:
“A priest in the USA said to me after I had spoken at a conference on racial harassment and the resurgence of fascism: ‘You must often get confused with the other Kenneth Leech who writes books on spirituality.”
It is our hope that in a very small way our method at The Hour carries forward, however insignificantly, what Leech was known for. Advocating for housing solidarity might be a move as “spiritual” as a Lenten fast.