Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus – Chapter 7

From Fr. Bennet Tran, Pastor: One of the more significant books that has influenced my thinking and ministry is Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. I hope that we as a parish will engage with the insights offered by Weddell. In the coming months, we will print a summary of a chapter of the book the first and third Sundays of each month. I hope this book will spark interest in our discussions about what is happening in the Church among our family members and friends and encourage us to take action to respond to the signs of the time. The book is readily available on line.

Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, by Sherry A. Weddell

Chapter 7: The Third Threshold: Openness
Summarized by Brad Bursa, edited and revised November 2018

A witness story from Brad Bursa:

A little over ten years ago, some long-time friends I had basically dismissed during my high school years due to their active faith came calling again. They wondered if I would be interested in coming to a “youth” holy hour at the other parish in town. After making excuses each Sunday for several months, I finally relented to both their persistence and their undeniably joyful way of living life. I’ll never forget the experience, during that first holy hour, of a presence. It was undeniable, and certainly not conjured up by the 90s praise and worship CD spinning in the boom box.

I liked the feeling of presence, and you could say I was curious about exactly what “it” was. Maybe there was something to this “Eucharist thing,” but initially I was not open to considering how this possible truth would impact my life. This curiosity congealed as my friends and I split for our various universities in the fall of 2004.

Days into that first semester, I happened upon a group of guys who invited me to an evening of adoration at a little-used chapel on my secularized Catholic campus. So I went. And kept going.

A couple months later, due to a number of personal decisions, I broached the chasm of despair and darkness, and for the first time actually recognized personal sin for what it was. In that moment of realization, of light tinged with despair, I moved from curiosity to openness. If this presence I’d been encountering really was Jesus, and Jesus is legit, then I’d be open to his being a part of my life. So I tossed up a prayer to that effect alone in my dorm room.

In so doing, I officially stepped into the ring, and the wrestling match of conversion had begun.

In Chapter 7 of Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell tackles this very phenomenon – the precipice of openness, stepping into the possibility of change in one’s life. Pope Benedict XVI summed up this experience during his inaugural homily, saying: “If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?”

Weddell notes that openness to change is often sparked by a major life event and the vulnerability that these varying circumstances can inspire. Occasionally, one negotiates the journey to openness without struggle, however many go back and forth between wanting to change and being opposed to it (i.e. interior wrestling). With regard to people we may know who are teetering on the edge of openness, it is important not to pressure them beyond what they are prepared to do right then. Ministering to someone who is open requires patience as they “try on” and perhaps “take off” the faith, or experience frustration with what they sense is being asked of them (think of the difficulty in surrendering control, for example). Weddell notes that ministering in this case also calls for “serious, enduring intercession” and care for the person that must be genuine – “no matter what our friend decides, he or she needs to know that we are truly friends.”

However, one need not twiddle his thumbs while waiting for a friend to totter over the edge of openness. It can be helpful to propose appropriate challenges to take the next step, much like Jesus did. Obviously, this assumes that a deep trust has already been established. A few suggestions might be:

  • Practicing nonjudgmental truthfulness while talking through your own faith struggles and the experience of God helping you through.
  • Asking thought-provoking questions like “What do you do when life gets hard?” or “Where is God in all of this?”
  • Helping him/her connect the dots (i.e. using your own gifts of discernment to help point out ways God is present and even using them) by using their own words as much as possible. Remind the person how God has been at work in their lives.
  • Encourage him/her to ask God for a sign (and help the person to put on their spiritual lenses and see…previous point).
  • Ask if you can pray for him/her to be open to God – and pray on the spot!
  • Ask if he/she would be willing to offer a prayer and acknowledge openness to God.

Next, Weddell moves into a section aptly titled “God with Us.” Here, she stresses the power of Eucharistic adoration (which is not a devotion for the already devout or an escape from helping a neighbor in need) as a form of evangelization well-suited for the postmodern mindset. “Adoration is experiential, mysterious, and accessible to everyone: the non-baptized, the non-Catholic, the unchurched, the lapsed, the badly catechized, the wounded” and so on. Adoration is like “spiritual radiation therapy” because the soul is placed directly in the presence of Christ “in the trust that he will act if we leave the door open the merest crack. All it requires is the ability to sit down.” I’m very certain this is exactly what happened to me during my senior year of high school and into college.

Finally, initial openness to change cannot be mistaken for intentional discipleship. This is often the case in the Church at a time where acknowledging openness to personal change moves one beyond the communal spiritual norm. Hence it is the case that, according to Weddell, “Catholics who move into a stage of spiritual development that is beyond their particular community’s experience may quickly discover that their family, friends, and fellow parishioners are uncomfortable with this new development.” Openness creates a challenge and, “We need to recognize the presence of a hidden hemorrhage fueled by spiritual growth in our parishes. Numerous Catholics are experiencing spiritual longings but may have little or no language for what they seek…Their spiritual antennae are up, and they are quietly looking for people who might know, for clues, for guidance.”

Often these seekers find that their needs are not being met in the Church, and many leave – motivated to do so by “a loss of spiritual hope that eventually turns into a loss of trust.” Many of them enter the Protestant world. However, we are beginning to see that in parishes where discipleship is spoken about openly, seekers hidden in the shadows are emerging. A culture of intentional discipleship is attracting the low-hanging fruit already in our midst – people already baptized and Catholic. According to Weddell, “All we need to do is recognize, honor, nourish, and support the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and we will gain radiant new disciples.” Personal openness must be met and fostered by communal openness. Our community must be open to the radical transformation offered by the Holy Spirit.

What times in your life can you identify as times of openness to God?

What spiritual practices have helped you remain open to God?

Look at Sherry’s suggestions for fostering openness. Which of these would you be comfortable practicing?

How can our parishes become places where openness is encouraged and supported? What can you do to support someone at this threshold?