1. The Meaning of Spirituality
In the broadest sense of the word spirituality is a complex of values and principles that give meaning to life; in this sense every person who has and strives to achieve noble ideals could be considered spiritual. Some assert that spirituality produces changes within an individual and the word “mysticism” is often used interchangeably with spirituality. From this perspective spirituality is a spiritual experience that generates inner strength and makes one willing to commit to a just cause; it projects a utopian world and prompts one to struggle for its achievement.
A Christian View
In contrast to Greek philosophy, Saint Irenaeus defines the spiritual man from a Christian perspective as one composed of body, soul and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, one might say, the soul of our soul. He becomes one with us and reinforces what is human within us – anyone in whom the Holy Spirit lives is spiritual. Spiritual life is life in and with the Holy Spirit. One is spiritual if all the aspects of his personal life and relationships with others are integrated and if these aspects reflect the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Many Faces of Christian Spirituality
All the many varieties of Christian Spirituality that have evolved over the past two thousand years and the many expressions of spirituality existing today derive from particular ways of seeing and understanding the mystery of God. Any effort to speak about the Christian spirituality of consolation requires an examination of the mystery of God from this perspective. We must understand how God reveals Himself as Consoler and calls us to be a consoling presence to his people today. To live a spirituality of consolation our life-style must reflect the fundamental aspects of God as the Consoler of his people.
II. The Experience of Consolation
Moses stared at the burning bush with terror while God spoke to him: “’I have seen the plight of my people who are in Egypt,’ the Lord said,’ and I have heard their cry under their oppressors; for I know their sorrows and have come down to rescue them …’” (Ex 3,7-8). God reveals himself as one who is near, who listens attentively and watches closely. Consolation follows in the wake of liberation.
God consoles his people
There is a rich description of the consolation God provides in Isaiah 40-46. The Babylonian exile has caused profound grief and suffering for the people of Israel. The first Lamentation describes Jerusalem’s desperate situation. Desolation cries out for help. It asks the Lord to look on the desperation and agony of his people (1,1-22). Humanly speaking hope is futile. There is only one possible remedy – call upon the Lord. Prayer does not disappear into a void. The Prophet’s words reveal God’s decision to intervene in history – as he had done during the captivity in Egypt. Isaiah calls this saving intervention of God, “consolation.”
A consoling presence
In a few words the Book of Job describes a rapid transformation in the protagonist’s life. Job After loses his material possessions and is struck with a sickness that disfigures his face and makes him an outcast. He experiences the loss of all those things men normally hope to possess. In this tragic situation wise men, moved by genuine friendship and compassion, come to him, share his sufferings and console him. Their response to Job is uncomplicated: “Then they sat down with him upon the ground for seven days and seven nights; and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his affliction was very severe” (Job 2,13). Consolation involves simple and attentive listening, sharing and solidarity.
Jesus, the consolation of Israel
The Son is the Word the Father speaks to mankind: “This is my Son, the chosen one; hear him” (Lk 9,35). Through words and actions he reveals the face of God the Consoler. The evangelist Luke depicts him as the Consolation of Israel (Lk 2,25). There are images that help us understand how the Son is consolation for the desolate of his time.
The mystery of the Incarnation reveals to us that God did not stay in his proper place; moved with pity for mankind’s sufferings he abandoned his place in heaven and took on the humble condition of humankind. To introduce Jesus to his readers, Luke chooses the episode in the synagogue in Nazareth: Jesus has been anointed by the Spirit to preach the Good News to the poor, to free prisoners, to bring sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim a year of Grace from the Lord (Lk 4,18f).
With a parable rich in inspiration and beauty Jesus show us that God’s consolation involves mercy. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father sees his son from afar and is filled with compassion. The Father is an integral part of his son’s drama – he runs to meet and embrace his son with fatherly affection. Consolation involves reconciliation on an individual level (our personal history and experiences) and on a social level.
At the gates of Naim Jesus meets a woman surrounded by a crowd – they accompany her to her son’s burial. Jesus is moved and says to the woman, “Don’t cry!” He then goes over, touches the dead boy and says, “Young man I say to you, arise!” He then gives the boy back to his mother. (Lk 7,11-17). Consolation involves sensitivity and the ability to perceive and understand the sufferings of others. It involves us in life’s most tragic situations.
The Master hears the cry of the blind man from Jericho who sits at the side of the road and cries out for compassion. Jesus sends for the blind man tells him, “Go, your faith has saved you” (Mk 10,52). Consolation involves those who have no options, who sit at the side of the road begging for their survival and watching the seemingly real protagonists of history pass by unconcerned.
When Jesus reaches the house of his friends he meets Martha and Mary surrounded by people mourning the death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus is deeply moved. His heart is thoroughly human, he shares the sorrow of those he loves. He goes to the tomb and cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” (Jn 11,43). Consolation involves a commitment to change anything that can be changed.
When the hour approaches for his return to the Father Jesus promises to send another consoler (Jn 14,16-26). He tells his disciples not to be sad. The consoler will not save them from persecution, calumny nor the law courts (Mk 13,9). But in all these tribulations he will be present and will give them strength and consolation.
III. Consolation in our charism, our life and our mission
Certain characteristics of consolation described in the biblical texts above are especially relevant and meaningful for our own lives. The phenomenon of globalization may be breaking down distances but there are still many things in our world that create separation and exclusion. It is terrifying to realize that in the near future 80% of the world’s population will be stranded on the side of the road – like so many Bar Timmaeus’ – abandoned, desolate, without the strength to walk.
Consolation is the characteristic of God’s attitude to the humankind Consolation is the source of the mission – it prompted God to go outside himself, to reveal himself, to be sensitive to suffering and to be willing to intervene in history to free his people. God’s attitude implies that compassion is the origin, method and goal of the missions. We are called to see the world from God’s perspective.
This is what moved Allamano to envision missionaries willing to leave everything and follow the example of the Son of God becoming brothers to all men, a consoling presence in their midst. This inspiration was born at the feet of Our Lady, the Consolata, she who consoles the afflicted
Allamano’s insight is even easier to understand after Vatican Council II – mission work and the overall welfare of the individual go hand in hand, they are always relevant. Both now and in the past mission work involves a growing sensitivity to human values and a rejection of life-styles that lack humanity. Now more than ever people respect a religion that provides an experience of salvation now as well as promising salvation in the future. The men of our time see God as the God of history and life; they reject a religion that is pure formalism – without concern for life or respect for humankind. On the other hand, they love anything that helps us be more what we in fact are: human beings!
As a liberating and life-enhancing experience, mission work and consolation go together. They are inseparable. They constitute our way of being missionaries. They define our understanding of the missions today. This is a gift that comes from the Spirit. We must allow the Spirit to permeate our lives so that we live out our mission apostolate as spiritual people. We must strive to internalize the feelings and attitudes of God the Consoler.
To carry out our mission work with the spirituality of consolation we must embody those aspects that define God’s attitude towards humankind. This spirituality is the basis of our charism, the spirit that gives form to our lives and our way of being missionaries. Human beings are forever tempted to concentrate on their own pet projects and interests but to do our mission work as God wills requires a constant effort to conform to the spirit of the Lord. To nurture this spirit we must be men of prayer; we must review our plans and projects with God. To the extent that we live in intimacy with God and are contemplatives in our daily life, we will reveal the eternally consoling face of God to the people of our times.
IV. Questions for reflection
1. What are the most desperate situations facing the people entrusted to our care?
2. How is our community a consoling presence?
3. Can we say that the fundamental attitudes of God, the Consoler, are present in our spirituality and in the way we carry out our mission apostolate?
Father Luiz Balsan