Statistics are telling the story: Membership in churches continues to decline. The closing and consolidation of Catholic parishes confirm a turning away from traditional worship. The number of men and women joining religious orders has dropped drastically.
Such statistics, however, do not reflect the growing interest in non-traditional spiritualities, which confirm a profound longing for what churches try to offer – a sense of the divine and a place to belong.
Joanne Dehmer, a School Sister of Notre Dame and spiritual director at Loyola Spirituality Center in St. Paul, says the early Christians worshiped in each other’s homes. "Churches are too big now. There is no longer that sense of belonging."
Virginia Matter, a Benedictine Sister and spiritual director at St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood agrees. "The church," she says, "is really a community of people looking for sustenance and support. Those struggling the most are those feeling alienated or judged, such as gays and lesbians, or the divorced. They should be finding love and acceptance in the church, but they’re not. Many are seeking it elsewhere."
These two nuns (and long-time friends) have been trained in centuries-old traditions that are helping them serve those struggling the most – and everyone else seeking a spirituality that provides acceptance and rest. These traditions, introduced by Benedict of Nursia and Ignatius of Loyola, revolutionized the church at the time. And they continue offering answers today to anyone trying to find the divine in their lives.
"There are many paths to follow," says Dehmer, "but we are all on a path. Spirituality is about finding God in all things, but the journey starts within; it’s about growing in love with oneself. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and nothing we can do to take it away."
Benedict and Ignatius were born in troubled times and followed their hearts to find God in new ways. Matter and Dehmer say what these spiritual giants found has relevance to us in our own turbulent times.
Benedict of Nursia
Benedict, the son of a Roman noble, gave up his life of privilege to search for something more. He fled the chaos and dissolution of his father’s world and found a small cave high up in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, where he lived for three years.
News of his goodness soon spread; monks started coming to him, asking him to lead them in community. That was 1,500 years ago. Many think the monastic rules Benedict developed for these ancient communities hold the key to the peace we long for today.
The Benedictine Rule is noted for its humanism, common sense, moderation and wisdom. It honors God and the individual; it emphasizes the need to build and maintain a healthy community (e.g., family, work group, 12-Step meeting, neighborhood, etc.).
According to Benedict, the basic elements of life consist of prayer, learning and work. These daily activities, he emphasized, are sacred and – done with mindfulness – can open our hearts to God.
Matter cites another rule inherent in every Benedictine community: Hospitality. "We welcome everybody as Christ," she says, "regardless of their religious tradition or state in life. When people come to us, we don’t ask who they are or what they’ve done. We invite them into our home to experience a silent, safe, peaceful place that’s welcoming and restful. We welcome them for who they are; we honor their inner being."
The goal, she adds, is to expand this sense of hospitality outward into the rest of the world. Currently, the Monastery is sponsoring more than a hundred Benedictine Oblates, laypeople who are embracing Benedictine values and bringing them back into their everyday lives, where their homes, work places and other communities are a little more loving because of how they live their lives.
The Monastery also supports the Benedictine Retreat Center, which provides space, resources and encouragement to anyone wanting to live a more meaningful life. It offers opportunities for spiritual growth that reflect the wisdom embodied in the Rule of Benedict: finding God in the ordinary, leading a balanced life and seeking the common good.
Matter says Benedict’s rules guide each person on their own unique spiritual journey. "His rule starts out with the words of a loving parent," she says. "Listen, he says, as if to say, "Listen, my child. I have something important to tell you. Be still and listen with the ear of your heart.
"He’s telling us to get out of our heads and pay attention to a deeper voice that will lead us to our truth. What is that truth? What am I being called to do in my spiritual life? What is that wisdom he, as a loving parent, wants to share with us?"
He is telling us to be still and listen, she says, because what we hear in silence may heal our hearts.
Benedict’s Rule was penned centuries ago, but it continues to offer consolations today. It invites us to open our hearts to the divine and to know we can improve our world simply by living in love, being responsible people and seeing how sacred our world really is.
Unlike Benedict, Ignatius reveled in the worldliness Spain had to offer a young man in the 15th century. Throughout his twenties, he was known as a womanizer, gambler, soldier and a "contentious member of the court."
Around age 30, however, he was injured in battle and spent many weeks recuperating. To relieve his boredom, he wanted to read romance novels, but none were available. Instead, he was given books on the life of Christ and other saints. While the stories impressed him, he continued to yearn for fame, glory and the love of a certain lady in court.
But he noticed something interesting. While thoughts of this noble lady thrilled him for a while, they also left him restless and wanting more. Thoughts of the saints and Christ, however, left him feeling peaceful and satisfied.
Historians say this was the beginning of his conversion and also the birth of a concept called spiritual discernment – or the tapping into our own inner wisdom through our intellect, emotions and feelings.
According to Dehmer, Ignatius eventually formed the Society of Jesus (or the Jesuits), and wrote The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, which reflect his religious experience. He also found God in all things and believed lay men and women were the church. He met resistance from church traditionalists who believed priests should recite prayers at certain times and durations. By finding God in all things, however, Ignatius believed living every minute of every day was a prayer in itself.
"I think people are still trying to find God in every moment of their lives," Dehmer says, "but they’re no longer turning to traditional religions to help them do that. They’re finding God in their own spirituality. People come to Loyola for spiritual direction because of this deep longing, something Ignatius understood when he was alive."
She said Loyola’s directors have a variety of backgrounds, and are all trained in the Ignatian tradition, which help them welcome and support people of all faith traditions (or no faith tradition), backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations and economic means. "We share their journey and help them see how the mystery of God is present in their lives. We welcome people as they come to us, listening with acceptance and without judging. That’s when they find compassion and love in their own lives."
Like the Benedictine Oblates, the Jesuits have Ignatian Associates, laypeople whose spirituality is rooted in the spiritual exercises. They are invited to live lives of simplicity, fidelity and service; they serve in schools, universities, hospitals, businesses, social service programs, parishes and other settings. Their goal is to "stretch our abilities to minister in different cultural contexts as we walk with the poor and marginalized."
As a spiritual director, Dehmer helps people discern what values they want to incorporate into their daily lives – a commitment to growth and goodness that often transforms their lives, a transformation that bodes well for the rest of the world.
The Loyola Spirituality Center [ tel 651.641.0008] and the Benedictine Center of St. Paul’s Monastery , click on the Benedictine Center link, or call 651.777.7251 offer spiritual direction, retreats, workshops and other opportunities geared to spiritual seekers of all faith traditions, age, race, sexual orientation or economic means.