It was as if these beautiful gifts and paths had been hidden from me (and others), and were treasures of the Church just waiting for rediscovery by those who sought them.
On the one hand, I must admit to being an instinctive proponent of working with what presents itself today, and how that may affect our actions for the future. While there is benefit in looking back into the past for a historic or reflective process -- what worked, what didn't, the mistakes and errors, what went right -- it is generally not my way.
On the other hand, the saints -- and in particular, St. Ignatius of Loyola in his "Spiritual Exercises" -- expound on the benefits of a look backward. Sometimes, looking back can be very helpful in the process of self-examination. We can discover the previously hidden operation of God in our lives by an awakened awareness of his influence through his broadcast channel to us: our soul.
My most recent spiritual journey unfolded in such an unusual way. Approximately 10 years ago, I became involved in prison ministry through contact with Chris, a software engineer at IBM. I met Chris through the Arise: Together in Christ program of the Archdiocese of Boston, which met regularly at his home in Ayer. Through Chris and many others, I became involved in the Residents Encounter Christ program at Massachusetts State Correctional Institutions. I quickly found myself lacking in the needed knowledge to answer the many questions about the faith, which came from the residents. After about a year of self-study, I realized that my self-study was not enough, and started to search for other ways to bring myself closer to the truths of the faith.
Dr. Aldona Lingertat was my first contact at St. John's Seminary, and with her guidance, I made it through the admissions process and found myself on a pivotal spiritual journey. I did not enroll in the Master of Ministry (MAM) program to add another degree to my accomplishments. Rather, I was really pursuing personal formation and a desire to truly understand the Magisterium -- i.e. the authentic teaching authority of the Church -- in a way that I could explain it, love it, and, most importantly, have its teaching alive in my heart.
During this time of study and formation, I learned many things, met many wonderful instructors and co-students, but most importantly, my faith was deepened. I learned that even though apologetics, as a defense of the faith, was essential to teaching others what our faith is and is not, it was not a method of conversion, which worked the best for me. Instead, I found that the gentle presentation of authentic love, as witnessed in the actions of Dr. Lingertat, Father Ritt, Father Nestor, Father Grimes, Father Sassani, Father Van De Moortell, and others, was the method of conversion that personally struck me as most convincing.
During this period, my desire to seek and to love God in the everyday, led me to an in-depth study of the mystics, the mystical path to God and forms of contemplative prayer. It was as if these beautiful gifts and paths had been hidden from me (and others), and were treasures of the Church just waiting for rediscovery by those who sought them. As if left in cupboards in the monasteries and sacristies of the Church, they were waiting to be dusted off and re-presented.
My experience as a lay student at St. John's Seminary caused me to move towards the Franciscan charism and to continue with further studies. This journey continued after graduation from the MAM program with two fantastic years at St. Eulalia's in Winchester as director of faith formation, and then, with doctoral studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I graduated in 2018 with a Doctorate of Ministry (D. Min.) and concentration in Spirituality.
Since then, I have taken up full-time retreat ministry -- ministry to which I have always felt drawn, and which was always a cornerstone of my prior teen, adult, and prison ministry activities. Today, I am actively engaged in retreat work in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains just outside Los Angeles. We have approximately 11,500 visitors per year, where I and my colleagues host programs and retreats.
The beginning of these significant life changes and this new destination began with my studies and formation as a lay student in the MAM program at St. John's Seminary. Like those hidden gems of the Church's contemplative path, the advanced education and formation of the MAM program can not only pave a road to dedicated ministry in the world, but it can deepen one's faith and love of God and his Church.
After all, the most truly vital journey in this world is to move ourselves, and then others, closer to God.
MICHAEL J. CUNNINGHAM, OFS, D.MIN, IS A 2014 GRADUATE OF THE ST. JOHN'S SEMINARY MASTERS OF ART IN MINISTRY PROGRAM.