A reflection on some articles

I recently read three articles on by Elizabeth Liebert “Practice.”, Sandra Schnieders “Approaches to the Study of Christian Spirituality.” and Philip Sheldrake “Interpretation.” all were in the Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality

First, in responding to Schneiders’, I agree with Schneider’s proposal that the “academic discipline of spirituality is primarily the research discipline whose specific objective is the expansion of our knowledge and understanding of the God-human relationship.” (Schneiders 2005, 16) For my pastoral context, the core of the article is the understanding that the study of Christian Spirituality is not just the study of “Christian faith but the lived experience of Christian faith.” (Schneiders 2005, 17) Here is where I believe the primary implication for the approaches in the study of Christian spirituality is found. In Catholic health care, I find that the stories of individuals and communities versus theories of spirituality help inform and transform various environments as they try to come to grips with their own lived experience of faith and carrying on a ministry of the Church. The two comments from Schneider’s that really resonated with my own desire to study Christian Spirituality and the heart of my questions for the implications in my pastoral context rests in these two statements:

“personal transformation of the researcher (with implications for the world including the church) is integral to this approach. But this transformation is not so much in terms of better practice of Christian faith (though this is not excluded) as in terms of an expansion of one’s humanity, especially through the encounter with the “other,” whether personal, cultural, religious, intellectual, or through active participation in transformative praxis. The researcher is not so much learning what to do or how to do it better or how to help others in the spiritual life. She or he is becoming spiritually richer and deeper person.” (Schneiders 2005, 27)


“students who choose to study spirituality are usually personally involved in the search for God. What goes on in the seminar room and the library, in preparing examinations and writing a dissertation, is often profoundly transformative. Faith is stimulated, vocations are renegotiated, self-knowledge is deepened, appreciation of other traditions is broadened, commitment to service is consolidated. The quiet or dramatic interaction between study and personal growth is probably the most important aspect of the self-implicating character of the field of spirituality. As Socrates knew, one cannot wrestle with ultimate truth without becoming a different person.” (Schneiders 2005, 31)

From these two statements, my reflection turns to the role of leadership in Catholic healthcare. The leader in Catholic healthcare studies the traditions and practices of the sponsoring religious community. It is hoped that through the formation process, the person will become a spiritually richer and deeper person. To be a health care leader takes one set of gifts and talents, but to be a health care leader that is also leading a ministry of the Church calls for another set of traits that causes the individual to go deeper. This is not merely running a usual business, although business elements apply, but to allow the story of the founding community and of Christ help give meaning and a lens to view the work they lead is a whole different reality. Not all leaders in Catholic healthcare come to leadership formation in search of having a deeper relationship with God or find with the ultimate truth. Those who hand themselves over to the process have seen a transformation in the way in which they do the work. The disconnect with this is when leaders continue to bifurcate their work lives from their faith lives or see the spiritual life as a “bonus” to the temporal work. Through the work of leadership formation programs it is hoped that the leader will struggle with the ultimate truth (although not explicitly stated), and subsequently, in light of the healthcare ministry, not only become a different person, but also find ways to transform and lead the ministry. This similar thought speaks to Philip Sheldrake’s chapter on interpretation especially when I apply the models of leadership formation with a hope for practical outcomes in the ministry.

When the Catholic healthcare leader or any disciple focuses their formation experience purely on knowing the story and not finding new ways to retell or express the story, it remains a purely lifeless story. The purpose of formation is not only the personal transformation, but also the communal transformation of the community at this particular time and this particular place. I find it important that part of the formation process reflects on the past in a way to give new life to the present and future. Sheldrake reminds us of the purpose of “traditio” when he states:

“The past is what has happened rather than something that enables our present to come into being or that invites us to reflect on the future and on what we aspire to. Yet, tradition (Latin, traditio) is not merely to hand on a historical story, but also to hand it over, so that it may be freely and creatively re-expressed by each generation as part of its own self-identification.” (Sheldrake 2005, 460)

I believe this represents the challenge for the Catholic health ministry. So often, leaders find consolation in the stories of the “sisters who have gone before us,” that they fail to recognize that it is the same ministry that they are now called to lead. Thus, it has been handed over to us and we must find ways to re-express the ministry. The identity of the institutional ministries cannot be expressed in the same way today as they were 20, 30 or even 40 or 50 years ago. They must be re-expressed in a new way. In understanding how we can help re-express the identity of the ministry we must have a sense of the history, but find ways to respond to our current times in a framework that honors the identity of the past. Much of this struggle can be seen in the way the ministry handles questions and decisions. Some leaders want to start with the question “what would the sisters do?” My general response is “I don’t know.” I identify with Sheldrake’s questions regarding the contextual nature of spirituality. Often, I will use a historical story to help set the context and give us a sense of way in which the sisters might have responded to it, but even that story leaves us with additional questions that are particular to our time and place. Sheldrake’s reminder of Paul Ricoeur’s reflection on the role of “distanciation” on a text is helpful in that in this context it “enables the text to transcend the limitation of its origins in order to function potentially in any context.” (Sheldrake 2005, 468) This then leads to a chance for the community to reflect on what is the next step in the decision process, which begins the conversation with Liebert’s article.

Liebert explores theological reflection or as she calls it “the dynamic nature of pastoral theology.” Here she sees pastoral theology as,

“the task of prayerfully holding in tension the particular event or case in all its concreteness (that is, the individual’s experience; the minister’s experience; the community’s experience; the sociological, cultural, psychological, economic, and other dynamic realities) with the tradition in all its richness and plurality (that is, the texts of the Christian community, particularly the Scriptures and the foundational documents of the given faith community; the history of the praxis of the community; the sensus fidelium) until we can hear the word of God that is true to each simultaneously.” (Liebert 2005, 497-498)

Here is where I see a great intersection for the implications for pastoral ministry. Catholic healthcare looks for the practical reality of a given activity, whether it is grand rounds, education on catholic social teaching or during budget season. This helps to create fullness in the conversation and leads to a discernment process that can sustain and transform a ministry. So often I hear phrases from leaders who say “no margin, no mission,” this is usually an executive leader saying to me what good is it to take care of all of your “poor and marginalized” issues if in fact we can’t keep our doors open. Here is where I use the element of stories to talk about how the sisters before us not only kept their doors opened but primarily served the poor and marginalized and found creative ways to respond. In the end, the study of spirituality for my particular community continues to be a study of the lived experience of Christian faith. This is very helpful, when trying to help individuals understand one particular faith community, but what about when the faith communities differ.

One question that I am left with, however, is how does one have a dialogue about two different interpretations of the Christian faith? For instance, the Prosperity Gospel of some traditions and a ministry with a particular concern for those who are poor and marginalized. This is played out everyday in our ministry by those who would use language like “no margin, no mission.” My concern is how to have a dialogue between the two while guarding against a sort of relativism in the ministry.


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