We’ve learned a lot from the recent spate of blogging by other bloggers about this blog and the very idea of “intentional discipleship”. A number of objections were raised to the very idea of asking someone to share about their lived relationship with God, no matter how gently or appropriately it is done.
To even think of asking is to be judgmental, elitist, divisive, insulting, invasive, and well, not Catholic. To not ask is to be truly Catholic and respectful of others and the mysterious and unfathomable ways of God in the human heart. Naturally enough, the personal factor enters in. Several posters objected because they couldn’t imagine asking the question themselves and declared that they would deeply resent being asked.
The irony is that for 13 years, Catholics have lined up by the thousands all over the world, so that we can spend an hour asking them detailed personal questions about their experiences of God - and most have even paid for the privilege (but not much!).
At most Called & Gifted workshops, we offer what we call gifts “interviews” with participants who want to take the next step after the workshop. During the voluntary one-hour interviews, participants in the Called & Gifted workshop have a chance to talk one-on-one with a trained person who will try to answer their personal questions, help them identify ways that God has used them in the lives of others, and chose one charism to explore two hours a week for 6 months. (Note: we never, never, never tell anyone they do or do not have a particular gift. We listen in order to identify patterns in their lives that may indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit working through a charism. Often, the possible significance of these patterns has escaped the one discerning.)
We know from experience that 50 – 80% of those attending a workshop will want an interview. We’ve done thousands of interviews in English, Spanish, and Indonesian and we have trained over 1000 pastoral leaders in four countries to conduct the interviews.
We have always emphasized in training that interviewers are not therapists, spiritual directors, career counselors or vocation directors. Conducting a gifts interview is a very specific and narrowly focused ministry. Even if a trainee is a priest, trained counselor or spiritual director, we ask that they not confuse the two roles even if the interviewee requests it. Finish the gifts interview and then make a second appointment for anything else. We never thought to warn about mixing the roles of interviewer and evangelist.
I have done a least a thousand interviews myself over the past 13 years and it is an extraordinary privilege. (As I always tell those I am training, “this is the most fun you can have legally.”) For many Catholics, it is the first time in their lives that they have ever talked to another person about how God has used them in the lives of other people. The stories we hear are a tiny snapshot of the ocean of the amazing things that God is doing in and through the lives of ordinary Catholics who dare to say “yes”.
However, we have gradually come to the conclusion that we had overlooked a most significant factor in discernment process: participants’ lived relationship with God. This is a critical issue for the discernment of charisms because while charisms are given with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation, these gifts do not usually manifest until our faith become personal. If an interviewee went through some kind of conversion or awakening 10 years ago, we know to focus our attention on those last ten years. And we know that the impact of the charisms grow as our relationship with God grows. It has slowly become obvious that a significant number of the Catholics we have interviewed struggle with their discernment because their lived relationship with God is either seriously underdeveloped or in some cases, non-existent. And many of them are in leadership.
This first dawned upon me about 1 ½ years ago while listening to the experiences of a woman who headed up the local Catholic Women’s Organization. Her inventory scores were unusually low and her references to God’s role in her parish service were extremely vague and abstract. For the first time, I dared to ask “Since charisms flow directly out of your relationship with God, it would help me help you if could you briefly describe your relationship with God to this point in your life”.
Her answer was stunning. The woman thought for a moment and then calmly stated that she didn’t have a personal relationship with God. I probed gently, realizing that she just might not think of her faith in those terms. Surely she wouldn’t be so active as a parish and diocesan leader and really have no lived relationship with God. For the entire hour, she continued to talk about her involvement with the Church in terms that could have been used by the atheist president of a Rotary Club. Although I listened intently, I didn’t hear the tiniest shred of spiritual experience or motivation. This is particularly ironic since her parish was run by a charismatic religious order. But even there, the question of her relationship with God had apparently never been asked.
I had another learning experience some months later while interviewing the president of a parish council in another state. By this point, I had started to ask the question whenever someone didn’t spontaneously start talking about their relationship with God. “Could you briefly describe your relationship with God to this point in your life.”?
Her answer was direct and delivered with fire in her eyes.
“I’ll tell you what I think. I think that God created the world, gave us intelligence and free will and the moral law, sent the prophets and Jesus to teach us what to do, and then left us alone to keep the moral law and take care of the world. We can choose to do so or not. Those of us who do so pretty well go to heaven. God is pretty distant on a day to-day basis. He doesn’t interfere.
I sat stupefied for the moment. The president of the pastoral council was a Deist, a believer in the perverbial “clockmaker” God, and completely Pelagian in her understanding of salvation! I wondered frantically how I could gracefully remind her that charisms are God “interfering” through us in a big way, that they emerge out of lived relationship with God and the necessity of prayer in the discernment process.
The really moving moment was when we got to her experience with the charism of mercy and her feisty deist persona disappeared. She had spent two years as the sole care-giver for a woman friend who was dying of cancer and abandoned by her friends and family. It was a life-changing experience for her and gave me the chance to point out that God has been part of the whole thing – that he had “interfered” through her - and given enormous comfort and strength to her sick friend. By the end of the hour, I had been able to talk to her about the necessity of prayer in discernment and actually pray with her as she asked God for the grace of greater openness to his presence in her life.
Then, a couple weeks ago, the whole issue came to a head in an extraordinary interview. A middle-aged father on the east coast talked to me with great warmth of his young adult children, of his desire to do anything that it took to see them happy and successful. He told me about serving as head of the parish visioning committee, talked of his joy in singing in the choir, and of the hours he spent on the internet, explaining and defending the truths of the faith. At that point, I asked him “the question” and his face become rigid.
“I think of God as a distant, stern, harsh, unforgiving figure. I never bother God about anything “small” since who am I to ask God anything? I just hope that if I don’t ask God for anything now, he’ll do the big thing and let me “in” in the end.”
I hesitated. An insistent thought would not let me go: “Tell him that he is a much better, more loving, and forgiving father than he thinks God is”. So I said it. He was an introverted man but his eyes became red and he visibly gulped. We talked for a few minutes more about the role of personal relationship with God in the discernment process but as I prepared to move on, he stopped me.
“Shouldn’t I deal with my relationship with God before I do further discernment?”
“Great idea.” I responded with outward enthusiasm and more than a little inward trembling. “What if you told God that you would like to believe that he is a loving, generous, forgiving father but that you can’t make yourself believe it on your own? You are asking for his help in believing in his love and put no limits on how he might make it happen but that the ball is in his court. You could pray that prayer every day through the discernment process and then see what God does.”
He nodded his assent vigorously. I hesitated again. “Would you like to pray about this now?” He thought for a moment and said “yes” but added, "I can’t pray aloud in my own words." I suggested that he pray inwardly to God and I would just pray with him in silence. I fixed my eyes on the floor for a few minute to give him some privacy for what was clearly a vulnerable moment. When I looked up, his reddened eyes were closed and he was clearly praying intently. When he was done, he gave me a big hug.
It wasn’t that the three people I’ve described had absolutely no relationship with Christ. They had all been baptized into Christ and his Church and were good people who did good things. But their activity had far outstripped their lived relationship with God. And in a “don’t’ ask, don’t tell” culture, it is unlikely that their fellow parishioners or even their pastor would ever know because one just doesn’t ask. We tend to regard people’s physical presence and activity as irrefutable “proof” of their personal faith. Why else would they be among us?
What if asking is not about judging – the first step down the slippery slope to the Inquisition? What if asking is the necessary pre-requisite to better serving the spiritual needs of people? What if asking so that people have a safe opportunity to tell their spiritual story and be ministered to by the Church is healing and life-changing? What if a "Do Ask, Do Tell" culture is truly Catholic?