The focus was clearly going to be on a 20th century figure, who played a key role in the adoption of spirituality into the Protestant world. In some exciting ways this Protestant discovery of spirituality (primarily within Catholicism) coincides with my own life. It has significant roots in the 1960s. It has something to do with Vatican II, which opened in 1962. No doubt, there are elements of the Vietnam War and the whole Civil Rights movement wrapped up in this history. For me personally, it is a trip down memory lane.
So as I began to think about what I could do, it dawned on me that I could compare this luminary 20th century figure to a Quaker whom I know interacted with the luminary. Most people would not know much, if anything, about the Quaker. Everybody knows about the other guy. This of course, drove me back into the writings of the Quaker, namely, Douglas Steere.
Douglas lived throughout much of the 20th century. He was born in 1901 and lived until 1995. He was a philosophy professor at Haverford College, a Quaker college outside Philadelphia. He had a rich life as professor and social activist. He and his wife were very involved in the reconstruction work after WW II. He was involved in the Civil Rights movement. And the best part was the fact that I knew Douglas personally. He and his wife had come a few times to the former college where I taught. Both were amazing people.
So for the first time in a very long time, I had an occasion to go back into some of the writings of Douglas Steere. He was most unusual in that, as a non-Catholic, he had immersed himself in the world of spirituality. His doctoral work was on a 19th century spiritual director. He traveled to Europe in the 1930s and spent a month in a Benedictine monastery. Clearly, he was a non-Catholic pioneer into the rich trove of spirituality.
I turned to one of my favorite books of Steere, namely, Together in Solitude. It is actually a gathering of essays he wrote on special occasions. For example, one was written from Rome when he was an official observer at Vatican II. How cool, I thought, to be non-Catholic and be in the Eternal City at the momentous occasion of Vatican II!
So I began reading the first few pages in an essay entitled, “Common Frontiers in Catholic and Non-Catholic Spirituality.” The beauty and insightfulness of his words came back to me again and again. Steere suggests there are those common frontiers and similarities for the Catholic and non-Catholic alike. For example, he says, both groups could agree “that as creatures, our loving back to God is spasmodic, inconstant, and anything but continuous, that we require infinite encouragement, and that there must be countless occasions of restoration to an awareness of the constant action of grace.” I could not agree more.
Certainly my “loving back” to God is haphazard. I like the ways he puts it: spasmodic, inconstant, discontinuous. These ring true to my experience. On my good days, I do a decent job “loving back” to God. Some days I make a good instrument for the Divine incarnation. But other days---too many other days---I am hopeless! That is why I was helped by more words from Steere.
He continues by saying, “I believe we could also agree in assuming that conversion is continuous and, that, in spite of one’s intentions, there is no such thing as the total commitment of a person to grace. Instead there are ever new areas in one’s life, and in the life of one’s time in which on is immersed, that call out for further grace.”
If conversion is continuous, then I have hope. If today I do not do very well, tomorrow is another chance. And with some grace, I have an even better chance. And that leads to the final words I want to share from Douglas Steere.
Steere nails it when he acknowledges, “All of this means that we are unfinished creatures and nodes of unfinished creation even when we have been drenched with grace, and that we require all the skilled assistance that can be given us in the continuous process of increasing self-surrender and inward abandonment to the grace that the Christian life calls for.”
That says it perfectly for me. I am an unfinished creature. Actually, I am relieved. Life is the call to finish being a creature. Spirituality is the promise that grace abounds and will help in this finishing process. I’ll work on it today. And since conversion is continuous, tomorrow I will have at it again. I will “love back” all that I am capable of doing this day.