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Like many parents of young children, Ivan Uberti likes to begin his family’s supper by saying grace. But in addition to saying a traditional mealtime prayer, Uberti’s family takes time for another, less common spiritual practice he learned at his local Jesuit parish.
Along with his wife and three children, Uberti, a broker in New York City, prays the examen, short for “examen of consciousness,” a form of prayer first introduced by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. This brief reflection involves taking a few moments to review the blessings and challenges of one’s day.
“At the dinner table when we say grace, I’ll ask my kids, ‘Do you have anything to thank God for? Did anything good happen to you today? What do you want to pray for?’” says Uberti.
Like Uberti, many laypeople have begun incorporating spiritual practices that first originated in religious orders like the Jesuits, Carmelites, Benedictines, or Franciscans into their everyday lives. Inspired by their parish communities, nearby retreat centers, and monasteries, or by their own personal reading, these individuals devote much time and energy to living the charisms of these spiritual “families.”
Official, card-carrying membership isn’t required for laypeople to embrace these spiritual families in the larger Catholic community, though some choose to demonstrate their commitment by taking personal vows.
Either way laypeople often find that their “family within the family” helps them grow closer to God and offers them concrete ways to put their faith into action.
Your personal retreat
“With any spirituality, there are three questions any human should be asking,” says Father Julio Giulietti, president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and former director of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Boston College. “Who am I? Who is my God or my higher power? And How do I reach that God, and how does that God want to reach me?”
For those who embrace Ignatian spirituality, the answer to the latter question lies in two important spiritual practices: the examen and the Ignatian spiritual exercises—a 30-day retreat, usually away from home.
The examen, intended to be a 5- or 10-minute prayer, allows you to review how God has been a part of your choices and circumstances.
“We look at how we reflected God’s love throughout the day or what troubled us. It’s not about blame or praise but awareness,” says Giulietti.
St. Ignatius first recorded the spiritual exercises in the 16th century during a year of prayer in Manresa, Spain. He intended the exercises to provide the basis for retreats for priests, religious, and laypeople. For laypeople who can’t go away for 30 days, many Jesuit retreat centers offer condensed two-week or eight-day versions of the retreat. For those who want or need to make the retreat at home, the “19th annotation” retreat allows people to practice the Ignatian exercises in the midst of the rest of their lives over a period of nine months.
Uberti says that attending retreats based on the spiritual exercises have changed the way he thinks about God, often in ways that are challenging.
“It has made me realize that it’s not just about me and my private relationship with God,” Uberti says. “It’s also about finding God on earth.” He finds this to be difficult at times. “It’s easier to leave God in heaven,” he says. “But thinking about the idea that God is beside you, it’s very difficult. You don’t want to see God in your nasty neighbor.”
Uberti’s exposure to Ignatian spirituality has changed his routine in the workplace as well, where he negotiates financial transactions for clients in the United States, Brazil, and his native Argentina.
For a few moments each day, several times a day, Uberti focuses on something that has nothing to do with finance, yet provides an excellent return on investment, he says. Uberti turns to his office bookshelf, which holds his Bible and books by Mother Teresa and Jesuit spiritual writer Anthony de Mello, and spends a few minutes doing some spiritual reading at his desk. At other times he listens to Gregorian chant on his computer and prays quietly.
“I feel the need to pray during my working hours, every hour or so,” he says. “Otherwise, there’s this 10- or 11-hour black hole, and it’s 6 p.m. before you realize you’re a human being again. I don’t want that to happen.”
Looking for God within the heart of corporate America may not boost Uberti’s bottom line, but doing so helps him realize “how God is a part of your day,” he says. Setting aside these quiet moments in the midst of a hectic schedule is a practice that honors St. Ignatius’s call to “find God in all things”—even in corporate America. Uberti has taken those words to heart.
Get to work
Awareness plays an important role in another, more ancient spirituality as well—that of the Benedictines. Benedictine spirituality has its roots in the life and writings of St. Benedict of Nursia, a fifth-century saint who founded a monastic community and wrote the Rule of St. Benedict, a practical and spiritual guide for religious life. More than 1,400 Benedictine and Cistercian communities of men and women still live the Rule today, along with thousands of laypeople who have embraced its wisdom. Those who follow the Rule say it’s not so much a set of religious prescriptions as it is a way of life.
“It’s a certain take on the gospel,” says Pat Giesen of Cold Spring, Minnesota, a retired financial services professional who is a Benedictine oblate. An oblate, according to Giesen, is “a layperson who makes a commitment to follow the spirit of the Rule to the extent they can as a layperson.” Oblates like Giesen typically have a close relationship with a nearby Benedictine monastery, and sometimes visit for communal prayers, reflections and retreats. Giesen maintains a close relationship with St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Giesen reflects on short passages from the Rule of St. Benedict every day, according to a schedule established by the monastery. The Rule includes both practical and spiritual instruction side by side, a juxtaposition that’s no coincidence.
The Benedictine “slogan” ora et labora, or “pray and work,” captures the idea that though one should take time to pray, one’s daily work can be a form of prayer, too.
“When Benedict founded the community, he said essentially, ‘We will earn our living by the sweat of our brow,’” says Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., who has written numerous books on Benedictine spirituality. “They were working monks—they were the order that taught farming to all of Europe when the Roman Empire broke down.”
Those who embrace Benedictine spirituality more than 1,500 years later still try to be mindful of God’s presence during their work.
“No matter what you do, you offer it to God and ask for the strength to do it,” says Lucie Johnson, a Benedictine oblate living in Minneapolis. “You do it in the presence of God, so it becomes a form of prayer. Prayer and work become one, in a sense—if you’re doing kitchen work, your pots and pans become like the vessels of the altar.”
Johnson, a university psychology professor and information technology consultant, says she tries to apply much of Benedict’s wisdom to her own personal and professional life, even when he appears to be speaking specifically to monks. A chapter on how abbots should lead their communities, she says, has given her insights into how to handle the authority she has in her job.
“Of course I’m not an abbot,” Johnson says, “but I am a professor, and I have responsibility for my students. Benedict says when you are in authority over people you should act as Christ does and respect and listen to people. Benedict says we should care for those who are weaker.”
In addition to reflectively reading and living the Rule, another important spiritual practice for Benedictines is lectio divina, Latin for “divine reading.” Those who practice lectio take time to slowly read and pray with a brief passage from scripture, often one of the readings from the daily Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours.
“It’s not a study method; it’s a contemplative praying with scripture,” says Johnson. “You slowly read the passage until you find the idea that seems the most salient, then you ask yourself ‘What is this an invitation to do?’ ‘What is God trying to show me?’”
For Johnson, who likes to practice lectio in the morning, it “is like being taken on some sort of walk that is different, day by day.”
Rest and relaxation
Almost any Catholic spiritual tradition prizes silent prayer, but it is especially important in the spirituality of the Carmelites. The Carmelite orders of priests and sisters have no known founder, having begun among hermits living in the Mt. Carmel mountain range in the Holy Land. But their spiritual practices were largely influenced by St. Teresa of Ávila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. St. Teresa and St. John, often described as mystics, especially emphasized contemplative prayer.
“They put an emphasis on praying in such a way that one lets God take over in one’s life,” said Keith Egan, who organizes an annual forum on Carmelite spirituality and is emeritus professor of theology at St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame, Indiana. Those who embrace Carmelite spirituality often refer to contemplative prayer as “mental prayer.”
Though Teresa and John of the Cross popularized contemplative prayer in their writings, Egan says its roots go back to the Old Testament, especially with the prophet Elijah, an important figure in Carmelite spirituality who has long been associated with Mt. Carmel.
“He longed to see God face to face,” Egan says of the biblical prophet whose story is written in the Book of Kings. In a similar way Carmelites who practice mental prayer hope to experience God in their silence.
“You don’t have to say a prescribed list of words someone else wrote down,” says Rich Giesman, a third order Carmelite living in West Palm Beach, Florida. “You can talk to God within your heart. You’re just sitting there looking at God, and he’s looking at you. You put everything out of your mind and ask him what he wants you to do.”
Giesman says he likes to keep a journal by his side, and he occasionally writes down things he thinks God might be asking him to do. Giesman has been a third order Carmelite for 12 years, which means he has made promises—not vows—to live the gospel in the spirit of the Carmelite order.
Although mental prayer helps people to detach from distractions, words or worries, Giesman says, those who live their faith as Carmelites also try to detach themselves from excess material things.
“Carmelites are not usually materialistic people,” Giesman says. “We’re satisfied with what we have, and don’t feel the need to have that new car or that bigger house.”
Help the poor
Sharing this commitment to simplicity and detachment from material things are those who embrace Franciscan spirituality. Rooted in the life and teachings of St. Francis, this spirituality is centered not just on Francis’ love for the poor, but on his love for poverty itself. For both lay and ordained Franciscans, spending time with the poor is a spiritual practice.
The Franciscan tradition, according to spiritual writer and Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr, is not about “moral perfection or achievement but about drawing close to the pain of the world, the world’s own woundedness. It’s a unique starting place—Jesus’ own starting place of suffering. It’s always about moving toward the wounded one, the excluded one.”
For Patti Normile of Terrace Park, Ohio, a commitment to the Franciscan ideal of helping the wounded has led her to several mission trips in developing countries. She says a trip to a leper colony in Brazil had an especially profound impact on her, being mindful of the fact that St. Francis himself had a conversion experience when he kissed the wound of a leper he encountered at the side of a road.
“The story of the leper became very real to me,” says Normile, who has been a secular Franciscan for 25 years. “At a Mass there on the feast of St. Francis, I looked around and saw all of them there, missing noses, arms, and legs. They passed an icon of St. Francis through the congregation and everyone kissed it. At that moment, the story of Francis’s love for the leper became very powerful.”
For Gerry Straub, a Los Angeles filmmaker who makes documentaries about domestic and international poverty, spending time with the poor and spending time in prayer are intimately connected. He says his morning prayer time, when he prays the Liturgy of the Hours, helps guide his work with the poor. He suggests that those who want to help the poor but aren’t sure how can turn to prayer for guidance.
“If your heart is moved by compassion for the poor and you aren’t sure how to respond, the only way to know is in prayer,” Straub says. “It’s essential to carve out that time for stillness and silence.” To couple prayer with action, Straub says, is to live as St. Francis did. “Francis spent half of his life seeking God’s will on mountaintops, and he spent the other half of his life doing it.”
According to Rohr, Franciscan spirituality’s emphasis on being attentive to the wounded also gives rise naturally to a concern for the Earth as it suffers under the weight of global warming.
“Francis was made the patron of ecology for good reason,” Rohr says. “The whole world was his cloister. He spent a huge part of his life wandering on roads, in nature—it was his cathedral.” Francis also expressed his love for the Earth when he wrote his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” a hymn to creation that he composed near the end of his life.
Choose your own adventure
Ultimately, these four spiritualities—Ignatian, Benedictine, Carmelite, and Franciscan—share common goals: union with God and love of one’s neighbor. Think of them as different roads or paths leading to the same destination. No matter which road you choose to follow—or perhaps you’ll travel on all four at some point in your life—you’re guaranteed some venerable, soulful traveling companions who will be with you in spirit, their footsteps leading the way.
Not sure which one is for you? First, take some quiet time to think about the spiritual practices or saints’ examples you’re naturally drawn to. Then try a few practices on for size and give them some time to sink in. This approach eventually led Lucie Johnson to her decision to become a Benedictine oblate.
“The first time I encountered the Rule [of Benedict], it was not making a lot of sense, but I did like the prayers and the Liturgy of the Hours very much,” Johnson says. “I later pulled out the Rule and came across a passage in the beginning that said, ‘Listen with the ear of your heart.’ That really touched me, and it gave me a sense of calling.
“Deciding was not a quick, flash-in-the-pan kind of thing,” she says. “It slowly began to affect me after I tried things day after day. Staying with these practices has been very good for me.”