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Father Jovita: Transcendental Spirituality

by V. Rev. Jovita C. Okonkwo, Rector of the Cathedral


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V. Rev. Jovita C. Okonkwo

During my formation years in the seminary, I read a work by St. Theresa of Avila as part of the exercise of spiritual reading which seminary formation instills on future priests. I do not remember the particular book but I remember pulling it from the seminary library in the “Spiritual Classics” section. Because I made notes on my readings and read them many times over, I’m able to remember a particular expression of this great spiritual author which stuck with me. St. Theresa of Avila said that there are no plains in the spiritual life. At every point of the spiritual journey, you are either climbing up or falling down. And so, as we draw close to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the holy season of Lent, my reflection turns to spiritual awakening through which an intentional Catholic measures and becomes aware of his or her whereabouts in the stepladder of spiritual progress or regress.

In my previous reflections, I have enumerated behaviors that I consider paramount for attaining intentionality in a person’s Catholic faith and practice. Some of the behaviors already mentioned include voluntary subordination, which is the bases for service and communion; authentic self, drawing us to a full awareness of whom we are and how our Christian self supersedes any other affiliations, ethnic, racial or national; and covenantal relationship, binding us together with Christ and each other. In this edition, I’ll focus on transcendental spirituality as the core principle of the spiritual life to which is aligned our metaphysical dignity and the awareness that there is something in us greater than the tactile, the palpable and the utilitarian. Anyone may choose to deny the spiritual in us but just as the denial of water would not cure thirst, a denial of the spiritual would not succeed in making us only material. We are free to deny the spiritual but we are not free to get away with the effects of such denial: ennui, boredom, depression, psychoses and the entire war unleashed against humanity by the forces of darkness.

Transcendental spirituality is a form of return to the basics and an acceptance of who we truly are – spiritual beings, who have been given a body to act out our existence. Contrary to popular attitudes which present us as mere bodies in search of avenues to prolong and garnish the physical life, transcendental spirituality moves us to return to the roots of our existence and reclaim our true self as images of a transcendent being. The sociologist, Ferdinand Tonnies distinguished between the province of meaning and the marketplace of utility. The shared community of meaning he called Gemeinshchaft, while the marketplace of utility he called Gesellschaft. Transcendental spirituality urges us to leave behind for a moment the Gesellschaft and return to the Gemeinschaft. I am one of those who believe that the average man and woman of today lives a disconnected, compartmentalized and disoriented life. Before you accuse me of hardcore pessimism, I want to declare that I’m aware of my bias toward the transcendental, and such metaphysical density makes me think that religious convictions are truer than even the so-called proved hypotheses, especially of the social sciences.

Take a look at the core values promoted in our fast changing society: choice, which means the freedom to do as you wish, not as you ought; radical equality, which forces all the fingers to be equal whether or not they are; killing with dignity, which argues that life is meaningless if it loses its utility and hence, not worth living; genetic carpentry, which seeks to construct and select only superbodies and destroy weaker bodies, measured by their utility; and reproductive right, which reduces the act of human generation to a fantasy of the senses. I could go on and on to enumerate the sacred vessels that decorate the altar of the Gesellschaft. In contrast, transcendental spirituality seeks to restore wholeness, foster a holistic, integrated life, imbue meaning and purpose to life, and renovate the disconnect between the internal self and the external world.

I like to look at Lent from its etymology, Lenten, which means spring. A few years ago, I opted to celebrate Christmas with my brother and his family who live in tropical Florida. As I was concluding the Christmas day Mass, I knew my bag was packed and tucked into the trunk of the car; all I needed to do was remove my vestments, put on my jacket and hop into the car that was already at the parking lot ready to take me to Tulsa International. The Christmas dinner in Miami was scheduled for 3:00pm to accommodate my arrival. I flew from Tulsa to Dallas. No difference; everything looked the same both at take-off and landing. Then I boarded the flight to Miami, Florida. On approach to Miami, the world looked entirely different to me. It felt like I was in a trance as I saw everything look green again. At first, I wasn’t sure what was happening to me, but then I recovered my senses and realized that I was in another segment of the world where people live in everlasting springtime. I rushed out of the plane and felt like embracing the trees, the grasses and the world they inhabited but then came the greatest feeling of all – I felt the kind of warmth in my body that I was used to. The winter coat that I took to Florida became rather a burden that I carried, and I couldn’t wait to get inside the room so I could release myself from my winter costume, in and out. At table I tried to narrate this feeling to my Florida family, but they looked baffled and were surprised that I was making too much meaning out of what was for them ordinary. And so, Lent can be compared to my journey from Tulsa to Miami; from the dry grapes of winter to the fresh fruits of spring. Living in Florida doesn’t give you that feeling. You have to arrive there from an atmosphere of crushing winter. Lent is our journey of spiritual awakening and connection with our transcendent God through the practice of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Anytime we are able to move higher in the stepladder of spiritual progress we feel the warmth of God’s love and abiding presence and are caught up with the Spirit of the Living God.

The forty days of Lent which is expressed in the Latin terminology Quadragesima recalls the various recorded journeys of God’s pilgrim people; which find them always moving away from destruction to life, from slavery to freedom, and from hardship to plenty. We find many images of this journey in the pages of scripture. For example, the journey of Noah and his household to evade the flood (Genesis 6-8), the journey of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldaeans to a land of inheritance (Genesis 15), the journey of Lot and his household out of Sodom (Genesis 19), the flight of Jacob from Laban the Aramaean (Genesis 31:1-32,2), the great journey of Jacob’s children from Egypt to the promised land (Exodus 13:17-15ff), and the various exilic returns of God’s people from their land of captivity.  For the new people of God, the Church, it is a journey which they make with Christ, from the illusion of tempted vices to the uprightness of virtue, from the abandonment of divine justice to the apotheosis of divine mercy; and with the neophytes, a journey from the ruins of the grave to the newness of resurrected life.

All these journeys call for an awakening, a recall of lost glory and an embrace of our true identity. Lent is a return to our true homeland where we get caught up with the Spirit of God who made us, according to the Baltimore Catechism, “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” And for such a journey where we find ourselves in pursuit of holiness and wholeness of life, we often realize, according to Fr. Cantalamessa (the preacher of the papal household), that, like the journey of the chosen people of God, it too is a journey consisting of continuous stops and fresh starts. We never stop finally until we reach our goal, which is heaven. To stop thirsting for holiness, to stop climbing the hill and remain on the plain, according to Cantalamessa, is to resign oneself to mediocrity. Fulton Sheen warns that mediocrity is the penalty for loss of faith. St. Augustine admonishes that the entire life of a good Christian is a holy desire (Tota vita christiani boni, sanctum desiderium est). That is why the image of the Church that should be familiar to us is that of the troop of Yahweh, a pilgrim people, a people who know that they are merely resident aliens of the earthly city.

I have been criticized for suggesting that Catholics should be intentional about their faith. I do not wish to answer the critics but state with St. Theresa of Avila the age old principle of spirituality: “Here, there are no plains.” Along the same line, St. Theresa cautioned that a Christian who does not pray need no devil to cast him into hell; he casts himself there by his own choice. An intentional Catholic Christian cannot be comfortable in the plain. In fact, such plains do not exist. Even in the temporal order, I do not know of any field of knowledge, life or endeavor where people are okay with the plain. For example, businesses survive because their owners continue to strategize and re-strategize according to market forces. They collapse when they are deaf to the realities of the marketplace. Good lawyers are those who continue to improve themselves through rigorous study so that they are able argue cases compellingly for their clients. Last Sunday, I met a physician who told me he went back to school to get his Masters and is currently studying for his doctorate so he could stay competitive. Why do we think that in the Catholic faith, we can be just nominal? Is it hard to see that a nominal Catholic is equally a fallen Catholic? Have you wondered why we have six Catholics and three Jews in the Supreme Court, yet continue to witness the passing into law behaviors of extreme moral depravity? Choosing the plain in place of the ongoing movement toward transcendence has caused a terrible disconnect in the spiritual and moral values of lax Catholics. When we do not grow in spirituality we inadvertently promote the marketplace of utility and diminish the shared community of meaning. Our connection with the transcendent becomes surrendered and the powerful elite atop our society’s institutions and leadership with agenda to spread a nihilistic monoculture win the battle.

Our faith will collapse and fall if we do not intentionally practice it. That is why we are provided numerous avenues to keep it alive. The various movements in the liturgy and even the changes in the liturgical seasons help to form us as energetic people of faith, with each season providing a different flavor and seasoning for our faith-life. If Christmas awakens in us the need to appreciate God’s gift of Himself in His incarnation, and our duty to give gifts to others, Lent calls us to reawaken our spiritual deposit so we may recover from the night of sin and embrace the springtime of God’s mercy and forgiveness. If we do not grow in faith and closeness to God, we rot in our indifference.

This Lent, we are once again challenged to recover our spiritual depth. We can do so by immersing ourselves in the ocean of God’s mercy during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. The Holy Door of Mercy can be a good first step to enter into the transcendent life of God and let our spirit connect with that of our maker. We are invited to join the faith formation classes offered every Wednesday in our parish to equip us with the spiritual arsenal to fight the good fight of faith. We grow toward the transcendent by making it a priority in our lives. God has given us the invitation by coming down to be human like us. We have no guru to meet, no incantations to make; we only need to surrender our lives to Him who alone can make us whole. May the Blessed Mother Mary show us this Lent the merciful face of her Son!

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2 Responses to "Father Jovita: Transcendental Spirituality"

  1. William Lutz says:

    I can only speak for myself. I can testify first hand that my faith would collapse if I were not to practice it. I am truly grateful today for the many avenues that the fullness of the Catholic faith affords me to practice my faith. Thanks be to God.

  2. Rhonda Myers says:

    Although I could hardly grasp the first paragraph on transcendental spirituality, I can definitely understand and hold onto the proclamation that if we do not grow in faith and closeness to God, we rot in our indifference!

    Thank you, Fr. Jovita

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