Centered in Christ: Explore the enduring power of classic Catholic spiritualities

  • Written by Kevin Birnbaum
  • Published in NW Stories
From left: St. Dominic de Guzmán, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Benedict of Nursia. Depicted by Tracy L. Christianson From left: St. Dominic de Guzmán, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Benedict of Nursia. Depicted by Tracy L. Christianson

There’s more than one way to live the Catholic faith. Throughout the nearly 2,000-year history of Catholic Church, several distinct Catholic spiritualities have arisen, each with its own emphases, practices and traditions.

Here we offer just a taste of a few of the “classic” spiritualities — Benedictine, Dominican, Franciscan and Ignatian — that have endured through the centuries, and that continue to be lived out in the Archdiocese of Seattle. Perhaps one of them will prove especially attractive to you.

As you explore these spiritualities, keep in mind what local Jesuit Father John Topel was told by one of his professors as he was preparing for ordination: “Remember, the things that make Ignatius different from Dominic and so on are peripheral — all Christian spiritualities are centered in Christ.”

Dominican spirituality

St. Dominic de Guzmán (1170–1221) was a Spanish priest who founded the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, to oppose the Albigensian heresy. As you might guess from the name, the spirituality of his order has a lot to do with preaching the Gospel.

“We have four pillars: prayer, study, preaching and community life,” said Dominican Father Marcin Szymanski, parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle.

One of the order’s mottos is “to contemplate and to hand on the fruits of contemplation.”

“You cannot be a preacher without putting aside a certain amount of time for your own prayer,” explained Father Szymanski. “We cannot preach if we have not first pondered on the word of God.” One traditionally Dominican form of prayer is the rosary.

The call to study is reflected in another Dominican motto, “Truth.”

“We preach because we want to share the truth with others, and we need to first learn about that truth,” Father Szymanski said. “We are called to learn, to search, every day on a regular basis.”

Prayer and study thus form the foundation for preaching, which doesn’t just happen in the pulpit. “We are all called to preach by our way of life,” he said.

And it’s not just for priests. “In our time, it’s the time of preaching by laypeople — in their workplaces and places where they live, they have much greater reach to people with the good news.”

Suggested resource:, the website of the Lay Dominicans in the Eastern U.S.

Ignatian spirituality

The cornerstone of the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), the Spanish knight-turned-priest who founded the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, is a retreat based on his Spiritual Exercises, which he formulated during several months of prayer in the town of Manresa in 1522.

An important part of the four-week retreat, which delves deeply into the life of Jesus Christ, is Ignatius’ unique form of prayerful contemplation.

“What Ignatius calls contemplation is probably different from most of the ways in which other spiritualities define it,” said Jesuit Father John Topel, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Port Townsend. “What Ignatius means is that you put yourself in the imaginative scene. You imagine yourself in this Gospel scene you’re contemplating. You become an actor — you see, you observe, you dialogue — and through this use of the imagination your whole being is caught up in it.”

Another important Ignatian concept is the idea of seeking God in all things. “For Ignatius, the way you find God is: In every single moment of every single day, God is present and talking to you,” Father Topel said.

Thus, Ignatius’ nightly examination of conscience, or Examen, focuses less on cataloguing sins than on thanking God for all the ways he has been present in one’s life that day.

Suggested resources: "Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality" by Margaret Silf, a daily prayer service run by the Irish Jesuits, another daily resource from the Midwest Jesuits

Benedictine spirituality

The spirituality of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–542), who founded several monastic communities and whose Rule was adopted by many others, has played a large part in shaping Western Christianity for 1,500 years.

“The model for Benedict is Ora et labora,” said Benedictine Sister Betty Schumacher, pastoral associate at St. Jude Parish in Redmond. The Latin motto means “Pray and work.”

“Benedict always believed there needed to be a balance in one’s life, so there was a balance between work and prayer,” she said. “This spirituality is so appropriate for today’s layperson because it’s [about]: How do we achieve balance in our lives?”

One way to begin cultivating a more Benedictine sensibility, she said, would be to set aside regular times each day for prayer.

Benedictines are also especially known for their hospitality. “We’re supposed to welcome every person as if they are Christ,” Sister Betty said. “Every guest should be welcomed as Christ.”

Another important part of Benedictine spirituality is lectio divina, or “holy reading” of the Bible or other spiritual books.

“It’s reading slowly, it’s finding a passage, it’s finding words or phrases that speak to you, it’s sitting with that, contemplating it, meditating upon it, and then it calls you to some sort of prayer or action,” said Sister Betty. “So it’s reading for a deeper understanding, a deeper meaning. I would say it’s reading with intention and attention, and then just sitting with the words.”

Suggested resource: "The Cloister Walk" by Kathleen Norris

Franciscan spirituality

Everyone knows of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/2–1226), the wealthy young Italian soldier who embraced a life of poverty and famously had a deep love
of animals and nature. Franciscan spirituality “is about relationship, about being brother and sister with all of God’s creation,” said Franciscan Sister Christine Still, a Seattle native and a vocation director for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

Often described as “contemplatives in the world,” Franciscans are guided by four interrelated values: conversion, poverty, humility and contemplation.

“Conversion is that consistent turning to God, that consistent reflection on, reliance on, thankfulness for God and all that God has given,” Sister Christine said.

“Poverty is really about simplicity,” she said. “What is it that I really need to manage in this world, to live the Gospel, to serve God’s people? And then what do I do with those things that I’m given that are extra?”

“Humility is about my — and this is in a healthy way — my littleness,” she said. “I am not greater than somebody else or something else. We were all created by God.”

Contemplation requires taking time for prayer each day. “We use many different forms of prayer,” said Sister Christine. “The cross is central. Adoration, where I am truly looking upon my God, is important. Sitting next to a river and watching a river otter play in the water is prayer, because everything tells me something about God. Everything tells me a little bit more about God, reveals something more.”

Suggested resource: "Poverty and Joy: The Franciscan Tradition" by William J. Short

Northwest Catholic - April 2015