This initial issue of our online journal is the beginning of what we hope will be a continuing dialogue among all sectors of the Xaverian community (and beyond) in pursuit of a deepening understanding and practice of Xaverian Spirituality. The process of discovering and articulating the unique spiritual call of Theodore James Ryken and his first brothers has been carried on throughout the history of the Congregation, notably in years past through the work of Brothers Jan Devadder, Aubert Downey, and others. It reached a certain summit of expression through the work of the Committee which formulated the Fundamental Principles: Brothers John Collins, Bernard Philpott, Roger Demon, and Peter Fitzpatrick. The research and study received new impetus and focus with the publication of Brother Jan’s two volume biography of Brother Ryken: Rooted in History. Most recently, this work became more fully articulated through the charism study initiated by then General Superior Brother Lawrence Harvey and meticulously researched and explicated by Brother Reginald Cruz. The resultant descriptions of the Charism as lived by Brothers, Associates, and Collaborators were approved by the Members of the 27th General Chapter in 2013.
The Preamble to the Charism Description that was approved by the General Chapter reads as follows:
We, Xaverian Brothers, associates, and collaborators are a true religious family, striving to fulfill the spiritual aspirations that Theodore James Ryken had for his Congregation. Following the path of our Founder, we are called to live ordinary lives that give witness to God’s unconditional love. We believe that the Xaverian calling is a way of being put in our place in the world, a place of humility and simplicity, from which we receive the grace to turn toward God, fall in love with God, and put ourselves in God’s service as followers of Jesus Christ. Within each distinctive life choice, we are further invited to attentiveness, simplicity, flexibility and openness to the common, unspectacular flow of everyday life. We unite ourselves to God through an integrated life of both contemplation and service. Through the Xaverian Way we are awakened by the Spirit of God to our own graced potential and freely offer that giftedness in service to the gospel. Through our ministry, in particular among the poor and the marginalized, we work to help others discover their own uniqueness so they, too, may “share the love of God with the world through their own giftedness.” In a spirit of hospitality, we try our utmost to be approachable and available, as true brothers and sisters who welcome others and accompany them in the joys and sorrows of their lives.
A charism can never be fully and finally defined because it is an organic living reality. Through the lives of those who commit themselves to its aspirations and practice a charism continues to develop and adapt to a changing Church and world, as well as to the historical moments and cultural mores of its adherents. A charism is meaningful and vibrant to the degree that it is appropriated and lived out through the unique lives and calls of those who are attracted to its particular mode of living the gospel. With this online journal we hope to create a space in which major themes that emerge from the Xaverian charism statement may be reflected upon, especially in light of the experience of those who attempt to follow in practice this particular insight into the living out of the gospel.
Our preparation for the launching of this project began with a gathering of brothers, associates, and collaborators with Father James Wiseman, OSB, a graduate of St. Xavier’s High School in Louisville and Emeritus Professor of Spirituality at Catholic University of America. The topic of his doctoral dissertation was the theme of love in the major treatise of Jan van Ruusbroec, and he is the translator and editor of the Paulist Press edition of the major works of Ruusbroec. In the course of his presentation, Father Wiseman highlighted themes from the experience and thinking of Ruusbroec that seemed to influence the spiritual understanding and practice of Theodore James Ryken. He also helped the group to reflect on the significance of the themes for their own lives of contemplation and service.
Perhaps our deepest insight into the spirituality of Brother Ryken comes from his brief spiritual autobiography written shortly before his death in 1871. He speaks in that text of his conversion experience at the age of 19:
I led a worldly life from my fourteenth or fifteenth year until about the age of nineteen when, thanks to a deep humiliation, I was converted and fell in love with the service of God. I felt strongly inclined to works of penance and to prayer, and to avoid all social interaction with my worldly companions.
We have chosen this conversion experience, the beginning of Ryken’s journey on the spiritual path, as the source of reflection for the first issues of the journal. Ryken speaks of three dimensions of that experience: a deep humiliation, a turning toward God (conversion), and a falling in love with God and God’s service. In this first issue several persons from their own unique experience and perspective will offer expressions and reflections of the first dimension of Ryken’s experience.
In his work The Spiritual Espousals, Jan van Ruusbroec describes how as the light of the sun shines most strongly and warmly on the floor of the valley, so too when a human person stands on the ground of her or his “own littleness”, then the light of God’s love and grace streams into that helplessness, which Ruusbroec says, “Christ is always moved by.” The possibility of conversion, of living for God, requires a recognition of our profound need and helplessness. The grace of God, in Jesus, is sheer gift. Our role is to recognize and live out of our profound need for that gift.
Brother Edward Rice has captured this experience of Ryken and teaching of Ruusbroec in an original work of art that highlights this initial issue. In his description of his work Brother Edward writes:
The large circular shape represents God / the Sun and the smaller circle the human person / T.J. Ryken. The concepts of one’s smallness before God, being grounded or brought low and the radiance of the valley between two mountains are some of the images I focused on. The gentle curving lines beneath the small circle are intended to represent the valley.
Ryken describes his initial experience of what has been translated “humiliation” with the word from the Brabantian Dutch dialect “vernedering.” which can perhaps better be translated “to be brought low” or “to be put in one’s place.” “To be brought low” is to become the valley that Ruusbroec describes.
In her reflection, Jeannette Suflita describes for us a very ordinary experience of being brought low through a recognition of the universal ambitions of our pride form of life. Spontaneously we would prefer a task that gives us recognition rather than a service that may go without notice. Yet, in realizing our own pride, and thus being brought low what Ruusbroec calls “blic,” a flash of Divine light, may enter our consciousness and enliven our spirit.
Gail Dennig describes how “change starts in a moment of blic,” but until we are distanced from the modes of management and control that dominate our daily life we miss these graced possibilities. It is often the “overwhelming circumstances of life” or the awesome reality of nature that bring us low enough to know our own true place, and from that place in the valley of humility we become disposed to recognizing the Divine light that suffuses our life and experience.
Cathy Reynolds shares with us the experience of her mother’s final weeks of life and how, in the midst of the valley of such darkness and loss, she also experienced great light and love. As she so succinctly puts the experience: “The beauty of the mountain is within our grasp, only if we are willing to go deep into the valley first. We can do that by understanding our own lowliness and willingness to open our heart to God’s love and mercy.”
Finally, Brother Joseph Pawlika offers a phenomenological description of the centrality in the spiritual journey of coming to experience our smallness and living from our true ground. He invites us to ponder how we must be willing to go through the painful and humiliating experience of true self awareness, so that, now being emptied enough of our falseness, we may allow God’s life to be born and take root in us. He quotes from the DeWit Lectures at Harvard Divinity School of Abbot Thomas Keating:
The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal.
We are grateful to each of our contributors for the generosity of their efforts and openness and vulnerability of their expression. We and they hope that this and our following issues may foster in those of you who may consider them a deepening reflection, based on the Xaverian Way, on your own life and experience and a fruitful dialogue that may help all of us to “mutually help, encourage, and edify one another and . . . [to] work together” as we grow in the love of God and God’s service.
Alice Hession, Christopher Irr, Brother Lawrence Harvey, Brother John Hamilton
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