The fundamental imperatives of the Christian vocation are two in number: love God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. The twofold commandment involves loving in three distinct directions: love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. Any Christian spirituality must be concerned with these three vectors. This may seem self-evident, but it has not been so for large swatches of church history, when self-love held purely negative connotations despite the second commandment’s injunction to make the quality of one’s self-love the norm for the quality of one’s love of neighbor.
Christian spirituality in its most fundamental meaning refers to striving to think, imagine, feel, desire, choose and act under the influence of the Holy Spirit of the risen Jesus. If one so strives, then one is seeking to live, act, die and be raised in the pattern of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, because the Spirit of Jesus is the divine power within us that can conform us to the pattern of Jesus’ mystery while respecting totally the uniqueness of our own life and identity.
A spirituality is apostolic when it gives pride of place to the experience of being sent forth (Greek, apostello) by God to act and, at times, to suffer on behalf of the neighbor in witness to the Gospel and in imitation of the pattern of Jesus’ ministerial life. To put this into a sentence: apostolic spirituality considers healthily self-giving love in service of the neighbor to be the sum and substance of the Christian life.
An apostolic spirituality differs somewhat from a contemplative spirituality, whose central image in many cases is nuptial union between God and the person. The fundamental imperatives of the Christian vocation express themselves in both traditions. But apostolic spirituality views particular moments of prayer as means to enable the individual, as someone growing in intimacy with God, to serve the neighbor with more discernment and more fully. These differences of nuance between two traditions of spirituality bear witness to the Spirit’s action in the church, action which brings about a variety of gifts and charisms.
A famous story concerning Ignatius makes the point about apostolic spirituality. When told of a Jesuit much admired for his prayerfulness, Ignatius simply asked his interlocutor, “And how mortified is Father X?” By this he meant, how free is Father X from his false self, from disordered attachment to self, because only such freedom will allow him to be available to be sent to any part of the world at any time when service of the neighbor requires it.
In this little incident, we can find some of the principal features of an apostolic spirituality: prayers and “mortification” (taking measures, with God’s grace, to die to one’s false self) are instrumental, a means to something else. Love of the neighbor is where it all comes together, and freedom to be sent—freedom to be available to the neighbor in need—is the fundamental disposition of this spiritual path.
In an apostolic spirituality, all the particular spiritual practices I engage in are for the sake of uniting me to God as the one who is engaged in a tremendous project in our world, who is laboring that it be transformed and brought into final union with the divine. All the projects and practices of an apostolic person seek to unite the person to God’s project, the reign of God. This is the profound dream and desire God yearns to realize in the world and beyond it, but not without our creative cooperation.
A Threefold-Fold Dynamic
Apostolic spirituality is a dynamic process with distinct but interrelated phases that indwell one another as well. We can turn to the Easter appearances of Jesus to glean something about the dynamics of Christian apostolic spirituality. I would suggest that there are three phases to the process: first, Jesus shows himself to his disciples as forgiveness in person; second, he renews his friendship with them; third, he sends them on mission, which expresses itself in various ministries.
Let’s look at these three phases of Christian discipleship, of apostolic spirituality.
The dynamic of forgiveness comes first. It is crucially important that Jesus manifested himself to the disciples as acceptance and forgiveness. They had betrayed their relationship with him by allowing their feelings of fear and anxiety to become the basis of their actions. When Jesus manifests himself to them, he does not chastise them; he says simply “Shalom,” wishing them wholeness in relationship with him. In the beginning of Christian discipleship is the experience of God’s and Jesus’ unconditional love, in the form of acceptance, affirmation, forgiveness, reconciliation. We are loved and forgiven sinners, again and again and again. This is the beginning that marks the entirety of the relationship with God and with Jesus in the Spirit.
This dynamic of acceptance and forgiveness makes possible the next phase, that of friendship and intimacy and community. The risen Jesus connects with his disciples in conversation and shared ritual, renewing his friendship with them. He doesn’t deal with them as slaves—inducing fear and anxiety—but as friends; and they taste an intimacy with Jesus similar to the intimacy that the younger, prodigal brother experienced when his father forgave him after his time in self-chosen exile.
Then the risen Jesus sends them on a mission that expresses itself in various ministries of witness, reconciliation and service. The quality of that mission will depend to a great extent on how deeply they allow themselves to be sinners who have been forgiven and have experienced the deepening of their friendship with him. Forgiveness, friendship and mission. I suggest that these are the three phases of Christian vocation, the three dynamics of the Christian spiritual life.
The Interplay of Community and Ministry
In an apostolic spirituality, forgiveness and friendship are for the sake of service (mission), even though they possess great significance in themselves. Reconciliation and forgiveness are not the end-all and be-all of the Christian life as we are meant to live it out on earth; nor is community, friendship, intimacy among apostles an end or final point, for such friendship and community are meant to open up into loving service of the neighbor.
But having said that, loving service of the neighbor, all action on behalf of God’s reign, is for the sake of what God finally wants to bring about. And what God wants, finally, to bring about is total communion between God and God’s creation and among all creatures. In the end there will be not particular deeds of loving service for the neighbor but community, communion, friendship, intimacy.
The practical conclusion I would draw from these last two paragraphs is that as active and other-oriented as apostolic people need to be, we will not be authentic or even healthy in our ministry if we are so intent on serving the neighbor that we never allow ourselves to experience the communion that is the ultimate goal of all ministry, indeed of all living. The balance between community and apostolate, family and ministry is essential. If those who seek to serve others—and to help them come to what God wants for them—find time and energy devoted to community a distraction or impediment to the ministry, then they are in the strange situation of offering to others what they themselves do not value! If communion with God and with one another in God is the goal of living, that means we need to “waste time” with one another if our witness is going to be honest and consistent.
A Strategy of Discernment
An apostolically oriented spirituality has everything to do with making choices, often complex choices, to act in certain ways in the world. The God we are seeking to cooperate with is a God who is involved in every nook and cranny of the world, in its hell-holes and its mini-paradises. Where do I choose to give my time and my attention and my energy, and from what do I choose to withdraw them? In Ignatian terms, an apostolically oriented spirituality demands that I learn how to live and act as a discerner of spirits and as a seeker of God’s desire for me.
Discernment of spirits is a growing skill and gift of the Spirit that (1) allows me to notice the interior movements within for what they are and (2) allows me to distinguish those interior movements that positively reinforce my deepest desires and my orientation to God and Jesus and the values of the kingdom from those that tend to lead me away from connection with my deepest desires and my trust in the Lord’s love for me.
As a seeker of God’s desire for me, I strive to learn how to use the data my experience provides and work with it in order to find out how I can better serve the reign of God. The data may be an experience of intuitive certainty, or movements of spiritual consolation and desolation, or a time of tranquility when, truly desirous of discovering God’s desire for me, I use my God-given practical intelligence to find the course of action more conducive to God’s greater glory in the world.
Spiritual discernment helps me focus on my relationship with God. It allows me to deepen my desire to participate more fully in God’s project in the world and leads to an increase of my desire to allow the Holy Spirit to guide my memory, understanding and will. Spiritual discernment also allows me to exercise my grace-given trust that God will bring me to what God wants for me, provided I do all that is in my power to choose wisely within the finite amount of time available to me. In the last analysis, growing as an apostolically oriented spiritual person means growing as a contemplative in action, growing as a person who more and more joins with God (“contemplative”) as God labors in the world and does that “joining” precisely by healthily loving the neighbor (“in action”).