Published April 26th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
To hear Mike Matteuzzi tell it, he’s probably the wrong person to have created “Contemporary Spirituality,” a popular series that features speakers who encourage people to learn contemplative practices.
“I have neither a degree in theology nor a background in ministry,” he said. “I am a business owner and trial lawyer and it’s not lost on me that lawyers are among the groups most vilified by Jesus.”
And yet since late 2016 he’s been organizing gatherings that have drawn hundreds of people. Why? Because in his (former) Catholic parish in southern Johnson County “I just couldn’t find food for my journey.
“I was looking for offerings on contemplative prayer and the mystics and discussions on writers like Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr. There just wasn’t anything like that there.”
So in his do-it-yourself spirituality he draws on such well-known contemplative leaders as Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Ron Rolheiser and Sr. Ilia Deleo. (Disclosure: Early in these gatherings I was one of the speakers.)
After Matteuzzi was divorced, he did a 10-day silent retreat with Trappist monks in Colorado in 2014. There he met Meninger, a monk who encouraged him to activate his interest in spiritual retreats and such practices as centering prayer. So Matteuzzi invited Meninger to lead retreats on the subject in the Kansas City area. That’s how all this began.
“I somewhat overnight became the point person for these retreats and, frankly, it was a heck of a lot of fun,” Matteuzzi said. “It took only about 30 days to organize retreats for the next year, events in 10 cities in Missouri and Kansas. It came together easily, which very much felt like the work of the Spirit. I’m a pretty good organizer and cheerleader.”
The gatherings are held in a variety of locations. For instance, the recent four-part series focusing on the lives and teachings of Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been at Country Club Christian Church, One City Café and St. Elizabeth Catholic Church.
Early in his interest in this type of spirituality, Matteuzzi learned that Fr. Richard Rohr’s retreat center in New Mexico, the Center for Action and Contemplation, sponsors a two-year program called the Living School, but Matteuzzi assumed he wouldn’t qualify for it. However, a contemplative practitioner and clinical psychologist he’d gotten to know, James Finley, recommended him to Rohr, and Matteuzzi got in.
In the first year at the Living School students study the mystics and learn contemplative practices.
“In the second year the focus is action,” Matteuzzi said. “What are you going to do with what you have been taught? Go back where you came from and become multipliers. I immediately knew I was going to continue the retreats I was doing but with more intention and ideally with a name.”
Matteuzzi said he didn’t really know where to begin, so he drew on the wisdom of Sr. Therese Elias, who leads Celtic pilgrimages and Benedictine spirituality groups, and the Rev. Rob Carr, pastor of North Oak Christian Church. He also got help from Audrey Doetzel, a sister of Our Lady of Sion who is a retreat and spiritual director. She helped him create an online presence and do the basic organization needed for such events.
“We were regularly meeting for dinner,” Matteuzzi said, “and she asked what I wanted to do. She not only said she would help but did the entire web site, reached out to many of our early speakers and really gave us credibility.”
Today he relies on organizational help from others, including Hannah Bacon Fenley, a member of Country Club Christian Church.
“To me,” Matteuzzi said, “with each event we build community. I’m a connector at heart, and Richard Rohr always urges, at all costs, just stay connected. The spiritual journey can be lonely and these events bring together kindred spirits.”
The idea of community is important to Matteuzzi because he no longer regularly attends worship services.
“I’m not proud about not regularly attending Sunday services,” he said, “but many do not create a lot of space for meditation, and if I have an open morning and the chance to waste time with God, the solitude often feels more like where I should be.”
So Matteuzzi has become a spiritual impresario, a growing category in a nation in which about 25 percent of the adult population now identifies as religiously unaffiliated. Most of those folks aren’t atheists but, rather, seekers. Which is how Matteuzzi saw himself once he knew his church wasn’t offering what he thought he needed.
“I think I’m supposed to do this,” he said, “particularly I’m supposed to do this for me, but also for the community. And I really don’t have definite ideas about what contours it’s going to take in the future. But I think I’ll do it as long as I feel like I’m supposed to do it.”
Lots of seekers are glad about that, and will be even gladder when this virus lockdown time is over and they can gather again in person.
Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book isThe Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at email@example.com.