The Second Vatican Council’s reminder of a “universal call to holiness” for all the baptized has borne great fruit in the life of the Church. In her mission of evangelization and catechesis, the Church has gradually identified how the call to holiness takes on flesh even in the life of a catechist. In fact, over the last 25 years there has been an emerging discussion of an authentic “spirituality of the catechist” based on the vocation and mission of the catechist. This positive movement is reflected in the Church documents and, with ever-increasing and expanding frequency, in the publication of articles, books, and curricula for the formation and training of catechists.
Any treatment of the spirituality of the catechist inevitably includes a focus on the nature of personal prayer. Often highlighted subtopics include: The importance of daily personal prayer; the effectiveness of evangelization and catechesis hinging on the catechist’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; concrete recommendations on how to develop and maintain one’s prayer life through participation in the sacramental life of the Church, as well as other spiritual practices and exercises.
In my experience, catechists accept with seriousness and dedication the vocation and mission that the Church entrusts to them. They generally participate diligently in all of the abovementioned areas of personal prayer, and sincerely strive toward personal holiness. In my years of training catechists and members of the laity, including through spiritual direction, it is rare, however, that I encounter someone with a basic understanding of how the overall path to holiness concretely unfolds. Personal prayer, as well as Christian perfection, are often described today as a “journey,” a “path to holiness,” or in terms of “spiritual growth.” While these are certainly apt descriptions, such analogies remain vague in themselves without concrete details about the path to holiness and where it leads.
Many of us have forgotten the specific stages of the spiritual life proposed by the Doctors of the Church and spiritual masters such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Ignatius (although not a Doctor of the Church). The classical “three ways” or “conversions” of the spiritual life, the Dark Night of the Soul, and the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, are not generally known or taught to catechetical leaders, catechists, or the laity as a whole. As a result, the spiritual life or path of holiness appears to many as a nebulous, disjointed journey. The times I touch upon one dimension or another of the stages of the spiritual life in a teaching or a homily, inevitably at least a few catechists or parishioners share afterward that they have experienced the exact same struggles in prayer, and how helpful it is to have clarity in those areas. For this reason, it seems appropriate to deal briefly with a reality many of our lay faithful face during personal prayer: spiritual aridity, or more specifically, the Dark Night of Sense.