Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Check-up time

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 23, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky About 300 years ago, when I was but a young high school seminarian, my classmates and I used to hide a lot from Bishop Bernard Topel, then the chief shepherd of our diocese. He had taken up residence at the seminary to keep an eye on his future priests.

Why did we hide? Well, Bishop Topel would take a certain delight in cornering us seminarians in the hall. Pinning us down with a stabbing finger, he would ask in his characteristically high-pitched voice, “How are you?” Of course, we would respond with the usual non-committing “fine,” or ‘’as good as could be expected.” That would only intensify the conversation and the bishop would drive home his point: “No. I meant spiritually!”

We admired Bishop Topel, but his piercing query into our spiritual lives always left us uncomfortable. We took to hiding in storage rooms, lavatories, clothes closets, and even kitchen freezers to avoid the discomforting grilling and soul-searching questions.

As seminarians, we clearly evidenced a “spiritual life,” engaging in our daily pious practices, devotions and celebration of the sacraments, especially daily Eucharist. It was fruitless to insist to Bishop Topel that our observance of these practices was an obvious measure of our spiritual well-being. That wise spiritual man knew only too well the poverty of such involvements if they are not engaged in with a heart that hungered for the living God.

Seminary life, like all daily life, had its routine, even in the aspects of its spiritual formation. In that regard we found ourselves, like other believers, facing the constant necessity of keeping the heart attentive. With others we knew the temptation to measure our righteousness before God by those activities – however good they may have been in themselves – which occupied so much of our daily lives. Or, on the contrary, we knew well the feelings of guilt that would come if we did not busy ourselves with such spiritual activities, sensing somehow that we were disappointing God.

There is something deceitfully comfortable in measuring our spiritual health by external rites, rituals and activities. They are readily observable (or equally observable in their absence). They are easily under our control and we readily can be masters of our own lives in their regard. In most instances, these kinds of spiritual practices are not all that difficult to accomplish – the habit of weekly Mass attendance, a run through the rosary, the pages of the breviary, m orning and evening prayers, grace before meals.

Quite frequently in the Gospels, Jesus reminded his disciples that these practices are lip service if they do not spring from an active spiritual life that is born and nurtured in the heart. Just as Bishop Topel would not let us hide from his queries, Jesus does not let us hide from our inner selves, seeking refuge in mere external behavior. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees must have given the Lord daily Excedrin headaches! While valuing spiritual practices as a means of expressing our personal and communal faith, Jesus invites us to listen to our hearts, to explore the realm of the Spirit within, and to live from the true inner self.

Let’s face it: We often seem to be too busy to pursue the spiritual life. We excuse ourselves all too quickly. “After all,” we mumble to ourselves, “such an endeavor is for the few, the saints and the mystics – or possibly seminarians, priests and Religious.” On the contrary; the spiritual life is a very real and profound dimension of every individual’s personal existence, because God touches each and every one of us with an amazing grace.

“How are you?” is a healthy question to ask of ourselves regarding our relationship with God – especially now as yet another season of Lent peeks around the corner. We can let the words of Bishop Topel echo in our minds – “I mean, spiritually!” God tugs at our hearts, gently nudges us out of our hiding places, and invites us to life. As in all seasons of repentance, we can hide behind devotional practices (even additional one taken on the for the sake of “penance”) or we can open our hearts and let God call us to a deeper, richer, more vibrant relationship. Time for a check-up.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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