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Spirituality more easily found in the world than in churches

Spirituality is undergoing a major reversal, one that makes the world and not the church its primary focus, according to Elizabeth A. Dreyer, who explains this profound change in the following interview.

The interview was conducted in St. Louis for NCR by Art Winter, former editor of Praying magazine. Dreyer was teaching a workshop on spirituality at Aquinas Institute in St. Louis.

Currently, Dreyer is James Supple Visiting Scholar of Catholic Studies at Iowa State University in Ames. She taught for 11 years at Washington Theological Union in Silver Spring, Md., and for two years at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. For 1997, she has received the Christian Faith and Life Sabbatical Grant from the Louisville Institute to write a book about the Holy Spirit. Her most recent book is Earth Crammed with Heaven: A Spirituality of Everyday Life (Paulist).

NCR: What do you mean by spirituality?

Dreyer: Definitions are very diverse. You can easily find 30 or 40. I understand spirituality to be the lived dimension of faith. It is what faith looks like in everyday attitudes and behaviors.

One can also speak in terms of individual or communal myths by which we live. In this sense, myth is the ultimate story in which a person chooses to locate meaning. For a Christian, this myth centers on a God who sent the Son and the Spirit to save us and be with us.

One's myth provides the reason to get up in the morning. It directs our values and behaviors. Spirituality emerges in the encounter between this wider faith story and one's concrete historical existence.

Many changes are occurring in spirituality, suggesting that some traditional notions no longer work. What parts no longer work?

Dualism is one obvious aspect of our spiritual inheritance that no longer works for us. Dualism refers to the separation of body and spirit, of secular and sacred. In the past, spirituality referred only to those things that were considered explicitly sacred or spiritual, like prayer and liturgy. Today we want spirituality to encompass our entire lives.

Second, many Christians today are not interested in a spirituality calling for a more or less automatic response, or one imposed from above. They want to be actively engaged -- understanding, participating and directing the meaning of their lives at a deeper level.

What are areas where spiritual dualism no longer works?

Work and the marketplace are obvious ones. Dualism sees the church as a place of goodness and grace, the world as a place of evil and sin. Therefore, you look for spiritual sustenance in church but never at home or at the office.

Sexuality is another example. Dualism put physical sexuality on the negative side of the equation. As a result, people would not look for God to reveal God's self in their sexual lives.

In the area of sexuality, the results of dualism have been extreme, with abstention becoming the major virtue. A more holistic understanding sees sexuality as a gift of God, bringing joy and creating life. Instead of seeing abstention as the only or primary virtue, one would also find holiness in using sexuality responsibly, in enjoying it and in celebrating it.

Sexuality would be a place where one could find God?

In a nutshell, yes. This involves noticing sexuality as a gift of beauty from God who made it part of the human condition. Because we now understand sexuality broadly, this has far-reaching effects for spirituality. We now see we do everything as sexual beings. We no longer limit sexuality to genital activity. We even see one's outlook on the world as male or female.

We also see, don't we, that through sexuality we become cocreators with God, passing on not only our life but God's life.

Yes. This also goes beyond the usual way we think of cocreating. If you look at cocreation in a broad sense, we see that God's love always creates, bringing new life as it reaches out to the world and everything in it. In this way, we need not limit our role as cocreators to begetting children. We become cocreators with God in everything we do.

In your sessions here at Aquinas Institute, you spoke of a revolution taking place in spirituality, although you said you preferred calling it a reversal. A reversal from what to what?

Karl Rahner, the late German Jesuit theologian, has been my inspiration in my attempts to develop the idea that grace flows primarily from the world to the church and not the other way around. In the past, we would imagine a sketch of the church with grace flowing from it out to a profane world. One went to church to get one's "bag of grace" in order to survive in a hostile, ungraced world.

Rahner begins with the idea that the world is already filled with grace, a result of God's self gift to the cosmos. God's grace saturates the world, indeed the entire cosmos, Rahner says, because God created it, Jesus redeemed it and the Holy Spirit lives in it. This makes the world the first arena, the primordial arena, for experiencing God's grace.

Rahner makes the world the starting point for grace. What does this do to the church's role?

When we gather as church, we do so in response to the mystery of God we have encountered in the world, in our daily lives. In church, we name, symbolize and celebrate the grace we encounter in the world. The reversal stems from where we understand God's grace to be in the most primordial sense -- in the church or in the world -- and how we relate the interplay between grace of the world and grace of the church.

In your book Earth Crammed with Heaven you quote Rahner saying that in presenting this notion of grace, he proposed "a Copernican revolution." Copernicus suggested the sun did not go around the earth, but that the earth went around the sun. With Rahner's Copernican revolution on grace in mind, can we say the world does not revolve around the church, as we seemed to think, but that the church revolves around the world?

I haven't taken it quite so literally, but that would be accurate. Rahner understands the church, values the church, within the context of the cosmos, instead of seeing it as an entity that, as he says, "closes off" the world from grace. He sees the church as sacramentalizing the grace of the world.

Does this reversal make the world rather than the church the primary arena of the spiritual life?


And that's the reversal in spirituality you are talking about?

Yes. The big place for God's activity -- with a capital B -- is the world. God doesn't just give God's self to the church. God always gives all of God's self to all of history, in all its tragedy and horror and in all its beauty and glory.

Michael Skelley, in his book The Liturgy of the World: Karl Rahner's Theology of Worship, says Rahner speaks of a "liturgy of the world." In and through this liturgy, as I understand it, God connects with people's daily lives. This means that we now have two liturgies, the other being the one we normally think of, the liturgy of the church. How do you connect these two?

Let me restate what I have been saying about reversal: that the liturgy of the world is now the primordial liturgy --

May I interrupt? Do you mean primordial in the sense of coming first or in being the bigger and more important liturgy or both?

Both. It is the biggest, the deepest and, at the same time, it precedes the liturgy of the church.

In view of that, one must ask what becomes of the eucharistic liturgy, the formal sacramental liturgy of the church? How do we understand it in relationship to the liturgy of the world?

I will try to answer in terms of the questions people ask me. They want to know how their daily lives relate to sacrament, to church. Rahner tells us God graces the world and therefore it is holy. At Mass on Sunday, we sacramentalize this larger liturgy of the world by providing language, symbols and ritual to call it to mind.

That brings me back to the reversal. Instead of going to church on Sunday and getting grace and bringing it out to the world, you go to church to celebrate the presence of God's grace in the world, in daily life. Of course, we also go to lament our failures, to repent the times when we failed to respond to God's grace.

Is this liturgy of the world really a liturgy? If so, that means, I think, we believe that what goes on in the Sunday liturgy also goes on, in a different way perhaps, in the liturgy of the world. In the Sunday liturgy, for example, we believe God speaks to us in the reading of scripture and in the preaching. Does that mean God also speaks to us in the liturgy of the world, in the events of our daily lives, and, further, that we are to speak for God in the world?

That is exactly right. One can use the word existential in speaking about the liturgy of the word in the liturgy of the world. The world is where we live out the word every day. The liturgy of the word on Sunday is a symbolic, ritual re- enactment of liturgy of the word in the world.

Can you make a similar connection between the eucharistic part of these two liturgies? What would the liturgy of the Eucharist symbolize?

Everything -- God's grace, God feeding us, the meaning of eucharistia, that is, of thanksgiving. Participating in these two liturgies implies searching for connections between them. Further, these connections are dialectic. For example, the Sunday Eucharist might remind me to live a life of gratitude, and, as a result, I might actually do so, or try to do so, in my daily life. On Sunday, I bring my attempt to live a life of gratitude to church. Holding this life up, I listen to the Christian story, confirmed in some ways, challenged in others.

The two liturgies work back and forth, but keep in mind that the liturgy of the world remains primordial. That means people who don't participate in the liturgy of the church, who never celebrate Eucharist, are not cut out of the eucharistic part of the liturgy of the world. God always communicates God's self to the world and invites everyone to participate in it.

Do they participate even if they are not aware of it by doing what we think of as the ordinary things of life, such as loving, working, relating, helping out in the community?

Yes, although I am not comfortable projecting religious activity on people who don't see it that way themselves. When I as a believer see people who don't believe living a life of love and self-sacrifice, I call that gospel living. From my perspective, these people are cooperating with God's grace even if they do not understand it that way.

So, developing a spirituality with these two liturgies means getting something going between them, perhaps like a Ping-Pong ball being bounced back and forth?

Connecting them is the jugular issue here. People want to connect church life with daily life. Rahner stresses that mature, educated Christians are not happy with a liturgy that doesn't connect with life. This dissatisfaction has helped to produce the energy for trying to find a new spirituality. No longer happy with a one-hour cubbyhole of the faith on Sunday, we want to find tentacles that reach out to the world and, in a more primary sense, from the world to the church. You need a theology to do that, and seeing the world as a sacred place provides a starting point.

In his book Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr sets up five models for the relationship between Christ and culture. At one end, Christ and culture go together and are basically the same thing; at the other, they oppose each other. The reversal in spirituality based on Rahner's thinking challenges one end of Niebuhr's spectrum -- that the world is an evil place and the church is over against it.

Rahner says evil and sinfulness are everywhere, in business, in church, in human beings, in culture. But he also says that all of this is graced at its root because God created it, redeemed it and sent the Spirit to live in it.

If we see the world as sacred as well as marred by sin, that makes the world the arena for God's presence. So where do we, as sacred people created in God's image, look for God? We look for God all day, every day in our lives. But we have to believe the world is a holy place in spite of its evil.

What are the steps in developing a spirituality beginning with the world rather than the church?

We have been talking about them. First, the world is a sacred place. Second, you are a sacred person. Third, God is present in the world. These are beliefs. Next comes putting them into practice.

That begins with noticing where the fruits of grace are born. And where do we look? To our experience. Say you are dealing with a friend with AIDS or a spouse with a chemical dependency or a child with a handicap. How do you respond with love in such situations? How do you maintain patience and care? Or on a larger scale, how do we as individuals and a nation creatively and lovingly respond to situations like Bosnia or the Middle East?

In such situations, we go through a naming process. When we respond in love and generosity, that's the fruit of grace and a sign of God's presence. As Christians, we believe that. Further, we notice people all around us responding to God's grace in everyday but often heroic ways. Thus, we can name what is going on in the world as graced activity. As a result, graced activity no longer remains confined to church on Sunday. Instead, we see grace as truly present in daily life when we love each other.

Sometimes we fail. Elizabeth Johnson talks about the presence and absence of God and how we experience both in the world. At times we lose the ability to respond to grace and wind up murdering and raping each other. But that doesn't change the fact that God chooses to be present to our world even though we may abuse that presence.

Do we experience the same presence and absence of God in the church as well?

I would say so. The church is a community among other communities, one we believe is guided by the Spirit. But I believe the world is guided by the Spirit as well. The church helps us to organize and come together and become a sacrament of the larger liturgy, the liturgy of the world. Even though we experience failure in doing that, the church's role, nevertheless, remains that of sacramentalizing the grace of God in the world.

It seems ironic that we Catholics, who pride ourselves on having a sacramental mentality, somehow lost the notion of the sacraments as symbols of God's presence in the world. We seem to have limited them to being signs of God's presence in the church.

Exactly. We started losing the connections between church and world. The desire to renew these connections is fueling much contemporary thinking in spirituality. Earlier, we spoke of steps for developing an awareness of God's presence in the world and fostering a connection between that presence and God's presence in the church.

I'd like to add another point, recalling that God's love is limitless. Often we try to limit it. Saying that God can only be operative in church is an example. So is saying that God can only be operative in certain special ways among humans.

These attempts to limit God cannot be correct. Who are we to say that God's grace can only function in a certain arena? We don't have the right to say that God's grace is limited. In fact, we believe the opposite. If we do indeed believe that, it frees us to say, "No, we don't have a corner on God. The church doesn't have a corner on God."

All of us have different corners on God, and even that doesn't exhaust God. For me, this is a way of understanding God's presence as being everywhere. And we are all called to the difficult task of discerning the difference between good and evil in ourselves, in our families, our countries, our church and the world. This is a communal effort. Our consciences need to be well-sensitized, and we need to consult the wise ones in our midst, as well as church leaders and theologians.

And we believe God not only to be present everywhere, but acting -- acting in the same way, say, as God acted in liberating the Israelites from Egypt or bringing them back from the exile in Babylon. We do believe, don't we, God acts in that way today?

Yes, because God wants us to behave in a God-like manner. God has created us to be imitators, as Christians, of Christ, and ultimately to have union with God. Clearly, God has a vested interest in our being bearers of God in the world. As a result, we cannot be disinterested in the world. That unfortunate notion came from the idea that all the good stuff is in heaven and that we are just putting in time in history. Now we see that we must be engaged in the world, pouring our energy and creativity into ways to make the planet a better place. That is a fairly challenging invitation.

The Holy Spirit is our name for God present in the world, isn't it?

Yes. The Spirit filled Christ and enabled Christ to live the way he lived. That same Spirit invites us and enables us to live a godly life. The Spirit makes it possible for us to live lives of grace in the world. Our tradition speaks of the Spirit in terms of creating, renewing, reconciling, healing and prophesying. We need to work out the meaning of these activities in our own daily lives today. What does it mean to be renewed? To be reconciled? To have the Spirit so we know the things of God and participate in them? The Spirit empowers us and makes it possible for us to do the things of God.

This Spirit is luring and calling and acting when we are at the breakfast table, or walk through the office door or come home after a day's work. The Spirit does in us what the Spirit did in Jesus' life.

Yes, I think so, empowering us to live as Jesus did.

And to go back to Rahner's term, responding to this Spirit is the participating in the liturgy of the world.


Can we say we participate in this liturgy of the world in the way that the Second Vatican Council calls upon us to participate actively in the liturgy of the church?

Yes, and the two forms of participation are deeply connected. With the reversal of grace and with a sense of participating in the liturgy of the world, the liturgy of the church takes on a new vibrancy.

This should be good news to those of us who spend almost all our time in the world rather than in church, because what we are saying is that even though we are not in church, God is nevertheless with us or we are with God. As a result, we live in the religious arena all the time.

Yes. We might distinguish here between explicit and implicit religious experience. Church on Sunday is explicit religious experience. Being kind to someone at the office can be implicit religious experience. It is your response to God's grace, when you realize that you are a player in the liturgy of the world. Further, you become aware that you are bound together with everyone else who is responding to God's grace. When grace offers itself and we decline, say, to be kind to a colleague, that's a failure to participate in the liturgy of the world.

The church's liturgy provides an opportunity, in its beginning rites, to confess that and ask God's mercy. We used to say -- and I guess we still do -- that missing Mass on Sunday, failing to participate in the liturgy of the church, was a serious sin. What kind of a sin is failing to participate in the liturgy of the world?

Much more serious! That's a good example of how we got off track. The point of the Sunday obligation was to encourage people to participate in the liturgy of the church. That's a legitimate and holy thing for Christians to do. But losing sight of the church liturgy's connection to the world puts all the weight on what happens in church.

The point of the reversal I am talking about is this: The real business of living as Christians takes place in the liturgy of the world. Haven't we in the past believed in God's presence in the world and related that to the church's worship? I think, for instance, of Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who spoke of her "little way" as responding to God's grace by doing the ordinary tasks of life. While her way may have been little, it nevertheless took place in the big arena, in what we are calling the liturgy of the world.

Did we lose that? A number of figures in the tradition have pointed in this direction. Francis de Sales, who lived in 17th century France, is one. He is one of the first to say explicitly that holiness is possible through one's occupation. He said that, for instance, of soldiers and homemakers. In his book, Introduction to the Devout Life, he tells parents that if they have a sick child, their duty is to the child, not to church on Sunday. When lay people read that today, it gets their attention because, in general, they did not grow up hearing that. Faced with choosing between a sick child and church on Sunday, they would have a tug-of-war or feel guilty about missing Mass.

Another 17th century figure, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a Jesuit, developed a spirituality of the present moment, saying that God was present in every moment of our lives. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a Carmelite, wrote a book called The Practice of the Presence of God. There have been others as well who pointed to God's presence in the world, but most were monastics and clergy.

The spin on this approach is a little different today, inasmuch as the laity have become actors in the spiritual life in a more explicit, intentional way. I would put it this way: Just as we are trying to recover the truth that God's love is limitless, we are also trying to create an understanding of the spiritual life that is inclusive. While Francis de Sales and Therese of Lisieux point us in the direction of a worldly spirituality, they lived in religious communities. They didn't have kids. They didn't pay bills or taxes. They lived an explicitly religious existence.

Those of us who are laity have a different lifestyle. Thus, we are faced with the question, How do we develop a spirituality that includes all of our lives, all of our worldly activities?

The bottom line making this possible, I take it, is God being out in the world doing God's thing?

Yes, and we are invited to notice, to catch up and to get involved.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996