“I love the Lord. I know he is real. I have felt him intimately and deeply but I need an anchor on earth to help me figure out what to do with my talents and how to survive in a secular world and in a job that is very anti-Catholic.” This stunning window into the spiritual life of a woman in her forties in many ways captures the spiritual journey we all share. The desire for a deep relationship with God, felt and experienced, nurtured through the companionship of others, is planted in our hearts by the same God for whom we long.
How do we help each other to grow in this love of God? How do we call one another to holiness, to a life of self-giving love? How might we be that “anchor” for one another, upon which we may weather the storms of life, celebrate the joys, grow ever closer to Christ, and reach out to others with the love with which we have been loved?
The simple response is that we will do this together. We experience and give Christ’s love with others. The deeper our friendships, the more we are called to give of self, beyond what is comfortable, in sacrifice. And the more we experience this kind of friendship with others, the greater our desire to share Christ’s love beyond our friends, to those who are most in need of our care, attention, sharing, and service. Having good companions on the journey of faith, rooted in our love of God, calls us out of ourselves for others. Together we are drawn to sacrifice and to grow in the self-giving way of Christ.
Let me offer a bit of context through a personal story. Over the last ten years, I have spoken with dozens of groups of people about the process of shaping parish life in order to more fully engage people as disciples. The gatherings have begun with prayer in which we have shared the parable of the sower and the seed. Following the proclamation of the gospel passage, I have asked people to share at table, “Who or what has been good soil for you in your life of faith? What has been the impact of that good soil in your life?” The sharing is invariably rich and deeply personal. In reporting back on their conversations, participants often speak of their parents, early teachers or spiritual mentors, family members, and good friends who have shared their faith in very natural, yet profound ways.
All of the stories “fit” with what we would be discussing as the day progressed: the process of engagement is one of bringing people to a deep sense of belonging within their parish communities, because belonging leads to faith that is lived in very particular ways in daily life. It was not until recently, however, that I began to see this process of spiritual friendships more clearly. When I asked “Who or what has been good soil?” I expected to hear about the many small groups that enrich our lives: retreat groups, small faith communities, ministry teams, and so on. I was thinking on the large scale of parish life, and thought the participants, staff and key parishioner leaders, would as well. Yet most often, the first people who came to mind were individuals. Following the individual relationship, participants spoke of being led to their first retreat, small group or ministry involvement. Rarely did a participant recall the group experience first. Almost everyone spoke first of someone, through whom the participant experienced Christ’s presence and was led to an awareness of God’s love in their lives.
Even with these many experiences of sharing and reflecting on the role of individuals who walk with us on the journey of faith, I continued for a long time to talk with people about the parish as a large-picture entity, rather than seeing the deeper personal relationships that make up our lives and are part of our experience of faith in community. That is, until recently. In January, 2013, I developed a brief survey that parish leaders may share with their people in order to learn more about the ways in which we grow spiritually. I will explain further in a moment, but for the sake of finishing the story, I will simply say that what is emerging from the survey helped me to think about all of those conversations about the people who act as spiritual friends, mentors, and people with whom we share our faith. I thought about this in my own life, and began recalling people who had distinct and powerful impact on me at specific moments. They led me toward deeper faith, bridging me into a new stage of faith development, and for that, I am deeply grateful. As I have talked with others about this, they have shared stories of the people in their own lives. These conversations have had the quality of standing on holy ground. I realize now that our life of relationship with God is best, most deeply experienced, when we have someone with whom to share and grow, within the community of faith.
Most of us are keenly aware of the growing dynamic in our culture of the “nones,” those who respond on surveys that they have no affiliation with a religious denomination. Among what we learn from the studies is the importance of sensing the potential to grow spiritually through membership in our faith community. As St. Augustine so aptly described, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. In our spiritual longing, we not only yearn for a deep relationship with God who is love, in our hearts we know that we need to walk this journey of faith with others.
Dismaying as it is, among those who move to another denomination or into the ranks of the unaffiliated, many, most in some cases, say they did not feel their spiritual needs were being met in the church of their youth. Something was missing for them, a primary connection between faith, sacrament, and life. Further reflection on the studies points to the role of the community in fostering deep faith lived in communion with one another. In a culture that prizes and elevates the individual, drawing people into communion could be perceived as a near-impossible task. Yet, we are called into interpersonal union, created to be with and for one another, and when our need to be drawn into communion is met, we are ready to embrace holiness.
It is not that we expect another to have answers to all of our life questions; we do not really expect to experience and stay on a spiritual “high” all of our lives. We do, however, know in our hearts that having someone with whom we may express our greatest hopes, dreams, doubts, and longings will make a great difference in our willingness to embrace Christ and to be embraced as the persons we are. This is, it seems, a person-to-person thing.
We will continue to think about spiritual needs here. I have things to share from the Spiritual Needs Survey, and things I hope we will think about together. For now, I wonder, who has been that bridge for you, the person who has led to you a deeper relationship with Christ, within the community of faith?
 Winseman, Albert L., Growing an Engaged Church, New York, Gallup Press, 2006