Summer Session: The Christian Task in the World

From Wednesday, 23 July, through Tuesday, 29 July 2014, three Jesuits joined together with ten young adults at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama for a special young adult session entitled, “Engagement with God: the Christian Task in the World according to Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The rector of the Casa Balthasar led the session, which was organized by friends and alumni of the Casa. The participants came from two countries and six US states. At the session, the students had the chance to reflect on the distinctive place and role of the Christian layperson in the world. The session also provided an opportunity for participants to reflect on the charter of Cor Mundi, a communion of friendship that brings together lay Christians engaged in studies or secular professions who strive to integrate as best they can their temporal activity with their life of grace. Since the summer session, two Cor Mundi circles have already formed in North America around session participants, and preparation for a third group is already in the works.

One of the student participants in the 2014 Mobile Summer Session offers this reflection, which communicates something of the spirit of the week of Christian formation and fellowship shared by the participants, the Jesuits who accompanied them, the families who hosted them, and many others who helped to make the session possible.

Reflection on the 2014 Balthasar Summer Session in Mobile, Alabama

In college, living in a kind of privileged academic bubble, I’ve found it hard to apply what I’ve learned about my Catholic faith in a hands-on way. Abstracted from the awkward everyday struggles of the adult world (true community living, grocery shopping, paying the bills), I often take for granted certain comforts inessential to Christian life. On the surface, it is almost too easy to be a young Catholic in college, where material struggles are minimized and true conflicts virtually non-existent. With all the resources constantly at my disposal, the temptation to slide into a lukewarm, complacent faith lurks around every corner. Beyond the intellectual side of our faith, young college students such as myself need a venue where we can practice incorporating a vibrant Catholicism into our day-to-day existence.

The Casa Balthasar summer session provides exactly the type of space where young adults and professionals can work on their whole person—secular and Catholic, intellectual and active—not as isolated personalities but as parts integral to one another. In this way young men and women such as myself come to better realize the truth of the “Incarnational” mystery as analogous in our own lives; for together we see, perhaps for the first time, how our Catholic spiritual identity forms the source for all our properly lay undertakings, not in a vacuum, but precisely as our Christian education should be: in the flesh.

Engagement with God

My individual experience was something like this: together with the other young men participating in the session, I would wake at seven in the morning and eat breakfast in relative silence with one another, allowing us to be together and yet respectful of each other’s prayerfulness. At eight-fifteen we met with the rest of the group at a local church and prayed, “alone together,” with the same points of reflection. This reflective start to the morning was the backbone for each day and for the session as a whole: we worked in prayer, learned in prayer, and recreated in prayer. This was the bond that held the days together.

At nine we met for our class session, where we discussed texts, primarily Hans urs von Balthasar’s Engagement with God, which challenged us to re-envision how we see our faith operating in our lives for the sake of the unconverted world around us. These study seminars took center stage among our daily activities, and forced us to learn as well as to teach. Each day we would be guided by our instructor through the main points of the chapter in discussion in order to give us a sense of the larger picture. Afterward we would read the chapter on our own, in silence, and annotate our texts with questions, comments, or connections we could make to our experiences. We would then regroup an hour later and go over the chapter once more, each participant leading the rest through a passage he or she found particularly insightful while the instructors received our comments and provided feedback to clarify points and fill in any gaps. I found the care and patience with which we dealt with each class refreshing. Rarely in any class do I get the chance to dwell so richly on such edifying materials. We aimed for depth of material covered, not quantity, and took the time we needed to let each sentence unfold before us, as we had with our morning prayer, without the pressure of having to cover a specific amount of material, or to get certain objectives achieved at the expense of thoroughness.

Christian service and centrality of Mass

Following our session, we returned to our central location and ate lunch together, which was prepared by two session students each day. The importance of these meals cannot be easily overstated: having to cook a meal and set a table for fifteen people within a half hour, then serve them throughout the lunch was challenging. But people flocked to help when help was needed, and each young person got the chance to work bit-by-bit towards the ideal of Christian service we had been studying. Rarely does a group of college students in particular have so many opportunities to appreciate a meal together with such care. When we had finished lunch, sometime around two in the afternoon, we would relax with various group activities until five, when we would meet at a chapel for Mass— the most important part of each day. The centrality of the Mass in our daily schedule reminded us that weren’t striving during the week to become smarter, as a student feels during the school year, but to more closely attune our lives—even in the simplest ways—to Christ’s model. We would finish the day with a dinnertime meal at a host family’s house, then return home refreshed and prepare to begin the day anew. These host families provided a shining example of simple love in action as lived out by ordinary, otherwise hidden and unassuming Christians. They opened their houses, and busy kitchens, to twenty strangers. Moreover, they cherished their time with us and took interest in our studies and in our personal growths, however small.

“The message was in the methodology”

In this way the summer session allowed me to set aside the worldly anxieties and social pressures so attached to growing up and going to college, without having to set aside my “student” identity as if it were a bad thing. There is a properly Christian way of being a college student, which doesn’t necessarily mean being a theology major but does imply a certain theological approach. That is, a way of studying science, or mathematics, or literature, or business while seeking the Word of God in all endeavors. This is precisely what we practiced at the summer session—through our texts, but also through the way we handled daily chores. In that sense, I suppose the methodology meant more to me than the message at times (though often the message was the methodology).

Imposing an explicit, and explicitly Christian, order to my day, including my studies, meals, and even relaxation, helped me to see many of the areas in my life which I could discipline to become a disciple of Christ:  things as seemingly ‘nonreligious’ as learning German or doing the dishes well. What I mean is that, while I often only set aside very specific areas of my life to develop in light of my faith (such as my intellect, or morality and ethics for example), if the Christian is distinct from the non-Christian, de facto, because of his relationship to God in Christ, then shouldn’t that relationship define him entirely, from the smallest quirks to the largest personalities? In that sense, nowhere have I been so constantly challenged to live a more perfect Christian life without having to sacrifice the demands of the student life I already live.