Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lifestyle and Language

Dark Night of the Soul: A Masterpiece in the Literature of Mysticism by St. John of the Cross
(E. Allison Peers)- Kindle ed. -

Progress on my Lenten Reading List continues!
St. John of the Cross is one of the great Catholic authors of all time; he is not a St. Augustine or a Thomas a Kempis, but if you want to face the issue of the role of mystical theology in your life you can’t get around him. That is saying way to little, but perhaps much from where I am standing.

Back on 6 February 2011, I wrote something about an observation made by Hans Urs von Balthasar in an article on theology and sanctity in “I: The Word Made Flesh” (part of a new English edition,1989, Ignatius Press, of a work by him from 1960, entitled “Explorations in Theology”). In my review, I did not mention that in that article by von Balthasar the Spanish Mystics and especially St. John of the Cross took it on the chin, as having contributed to the rupture he described between personal holiness and doing theology. He did so by basically blaming the Spaniards for having articulated, if you will, a distinction between theology and what we call spirituality. This broadside at the Spanish Mystics has haunted me ever since I read it last summer and pushed me this Lent to attempt the “bitter pill” of finally reading the “Dark Night of the Soul” all the way through.

No doubt the “bitter pill” thing will raise an eyebrow or two, but that’s how I see it. I have to say that it is very clear to me that I did not miss my calling to monastic life. I enjoy visiting monasteries; I am thoroughly convinced they may even hold the key once again to saving past civilization and promoting a new synthesis. It’s just not my thing personally.

I am grateful now for the reading, but St. John of the Cross won’t make my ideal hand library. My problem is that his world is off the beaten path of Catholicism, even if what St. John describes as the “dark night” (either of the senses or of the soul) offers profound insights into what holiness or intimacy with God is all about:

“All this, says Divine Scripture, took place by night, when Jacob slept, in order to express how secret is this road and ascent to God, and how different from that of man’s knowledge. This is very evident, since ordinarily that which is of the greatest profit in it—namely, to be ever losing oneself and becoming as nothing—is considered the worst thing possible; and that which is of least worth, which is for a soul to find consolation and sweetness (wherein it ordinarily loses rather than gains), is considered best.” (Dark Night)
It is different from but, perhaps, complementary to Lorenzo Scupoli’s description of the path to holiness through spiritual combat. For me, Scupoli is and will remain more accessible also for the Catholic rank and file.

The issue, in part, is with the lifestyle (seemingly) which sets the stage for the destitution of the dark night and contemplation. I’ve made a week’s retreat in a cell at a monastery most observant of the Rule of St. Bruno… no thank you! Even in the nice little guest cell the good Benedictine nuns provided me in Martinique about a year and a half ago, the confinement brought with it general arthritic pain/trauma from head to toe. It is, of course, much more than that; it is the monastery or hermitage as the setting or forecourt of a mystical sort of prayer unto contemplation.

“First, it describes this dark contemplation as “secret,” since, as we have indicated above, it is mystical theology, which theologians call secret wisdom, and which, as Saint Thomas says, is communicated and infused into the soul through love. This happens secretly and in darkness, so as to be hidden from the work of the understanding and of other faculties. Wherefore, inasmuch as the faculties aforementioned attain not to it, but the Holy Spirit infuses and orders it in the soul, as says the Bride in the Songs, without either its knowledge or its understanding, it is called secret.” (Dark Night)
As much as I love and respect Pope St. Gregory the Great, when he speaks of missing the quiet solitude of the monastery, I cannot see it (once a year, maybe, but not for life). I think that his contemplation in the midst of the world as the Bishop of Rome, without the solitude, was what was so fruitful for the life of the Church. No doubt the study and quiet of the monastery is the rock foundation, the treasury from which he drew forth an abundance for the Church. Serious studies, the ordered life of prayer and study through years of seminary is what nurtures a priestly vocation and prepares a man to be another Christ for the world (not “adventure” or an apprenticeship in the world of work). The aridity or pain outside the monastery comes from being yoked to the Church, from those moments of disarray when the studies and prayer are forged into a new and more profound synthesis after the mind of Christ and His Church in the crucible of suffering ourselves and suffering with our people. The silence or nakedness of the dark night is too distant and analogous to what the shepherd’s life must be about. From the life of St. Patrick we know of all the prayers he said as a boy slave tending flocks on the hillside. Prayer always sustained Patrick’s life and ministry, but his gift to Ireland later in his life was framed in other and very different terms.

Nevertheless, I don’t think either Gregory or Patrick could have made heads or tails of the Dark Night of the Soul in terms of the mission entrusted to them; Gregory’s calling as Roman Pontiff had to be lived out in the midst of the world and of all sorts of activities demanding contact and even a measure of conflict with others. Patrick’s missionary apostolate was certainly powered by his communion with Christ, but the slipping off into the dark imagery seems a stretch.

What Bernini captures, as a sequel and reward to her “dark nights”, in his famous sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy as the angel pierces her heart with a silver arrow, or what St. John of the Cross might have known during one of his imprisonments at the hands of confreres less than enthused by his ideas of Carmelite reform, that I can surely appreciate. Their lifestyle just doesn’t fit me and cannot be the experience par excellence of intimacy with God in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit that is meant for all who follow Christ. It would be similar to St. Paul’s words about speaking in tongues, where he states clearly that this phenomenon as not for everyone.

“But there is a question which at once arises here—namely, since the things of God are of themselves profitable to the soul and bring it gain and security, why does God, in this night, darken the desires and faculties with respect to these good things likewise, in such a way that the soul can no more taste of them or busy itself with them than with these other things, and indeed in some ways can do so less? The answer is that it is well for the soul to perform no operation touching spiritual things at that time and to have no pleasure in such things, because its faculties and desires are base, impure and wholly natural; and thus, although these faculties be given the desire and interest in things supernatural and Divine, they could not receive them save after a base and a natural manner, exactly in their own fashion.” (Dark Night)
Don’t let me discourage you from reading the great mystics! I hope you have enjoyed the coupe (among many) beautiful quotes I have lifted from St. John of the Cross. In looking at St. John’s poetry even in English translation, I marvel. Maybe if St. John had said that this is only a point on the canvas of a life lived in work and study, that it plays no more of a quantitative role in the life of a monk or a hermit than it does in the life of a person in the world? If he had said that days for him were filled with hard work, study and classical prayer, then all I’d have to grapple with are my own reservations about finding in the Canticle of Canticles a light for my sentiments toward the God I love without peaking through the lattice or swarming over youthful physical attributes which have already seen their day.

He’s beautiful, but my romance and many others, though no less intense, is well a bit more restrained or, let’s just say, happy in its understatement. Enjoy!

1.     On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!— I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
2.     In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised— oh, happy chance!— In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
3.     In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me, Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
4.     This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.
5.     Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
6.     Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone, There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
7.     The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks; With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
8.     I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies." (Dark Night)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

High Noon at the Well!

Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17:3-7
Romans 5:1-2.5-8
John 4:5-42

“Through our Lord Jesus Christ by faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God, since it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace in which we can boast about looking forward to God’s glory.” (Romans 5:1ff.)
I am reasonably sure that my Lenten reading is what triggered a reflection on particular judgment in the light of the great Gospel we just heard about Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman at high noon at Jacob’s well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains what we believe concerning the particular judgment:
1021  Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ…
1022  Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately, - or immediate and everlasting damnation…
1058  The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
What provoked this thought about the particular judgment we must all face at the moment of death, I think, were Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman:
“If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.”
Lucky woman! As she admitted, He told her everything she had ever done. Jesus laid her life out before her eyes like a book and offered her an exchange which allowed her and many others of the town with her to come to faith in Jesus as God’s Anointed. Even among us with the best possible Catholic upbringing we might have reason to be envious of the opportunity Jesus provided her to know Him Who is our Hope and our Salvation.

Particular judgment! Most of us would not be so presumptuous as to brag or boast that we will die as the equivalent of canonized saints. Even those who talk about their saintly Irish mothers know enough to pray for dear Mom, to have Masses said for the repose of her soul, that she might quickly move from Purgatory to the glories of Heaven.

What about those who were estranged from the faith of their Baptism, perhaps because no one ever taught them their prayers as children, no one ever took them to Mass on Sunday or saw to it that they got to catechism and confession on a regular basis? What about those who were never baptized and their life’s journey kept them far from faith? What about all those who have never heard of Jesus? From India, St. Francis Xavier wrote to St. Ignatius of Loyola talking about the work to be done in the mission fields to save souls and how he was tempted to come home and run up and down the hallowed halls of Europe’s Catholic Universities and challenge all those men to put their preoccupation with schooling behind and come join him in proclaiming the Gospel.

Are all those who never hear of Jesus, who don’t accept Him because they’ve never really encountered Him, are they all lost for eternity? What happens to them at the moment of particular judgment? Is it a “near death experience” of a cozy white tunnel and then nothing?

I’d like to think that for all those who have been deprived of the opportunities given to you and to me that there would be a kind of pre-particular judgment, a high noon experience at Jacob’s well, bright light and no shadow, with Jesus sitting there and opening up that conversation with a request for a drink of water from the well. If they botch the encounter? Well fine, then off with them to oblivion. God did not spare His only Son, but delivered Him up for the many and not just a few. Our failures in handing on the faith cannot be laid at the doorstep of those who have been deprived.

Granted, the Samaritan woman did not get her “home free card” that day, but she met Jesus, she knew the Savior of the world. Her life was different and she was empowered to make the choices such that when her earthly life had ended she knew what was coming. I am sure that when indeed she drew her last breath and opened her eyes on eternity that there was more than a bright light. She recognized her Lord and He welcomed her into His Reign. Did she go in as a canonized saint or did she have some time to do in Purgatory? It’s hard to say. Certain however is that fact that the exchange at Jacob’s well held her in good stead for the rest of her life and for what was to come.

“Through our Lord Jesus Christ by faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God, since it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace in which we can boast about looking forward to God’s glory.” (Romans 5:1ff.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Hearty Recommendation

A friend directed me to a very austere Benedictine website with an exceptionally good article in favor of worship "ad Orientem": Facing East and Papal Fads  Fr. Hugh, OSB, articulates well the sense of what we should be doing at Mass.

One day soon, I would like to address the resistance on the part of older folk (my contemporaries) to the Holy Father's and others' invitation to Turn to the Lord for the Eucharistic Prayer  in terms of what I suspect is a sort of knee-jerk reaction we will glorify by giving it the designation "a pastoral option" inspired by (you choose) either resignation or desperation. Too many pastoral agents refuse to privilege Sunday Mass as an encounter with the Lord of Life. They must (I guess) see it as a "last stand" for instructional or motivational contact with people. By making liturgy discursive/didactic we have cut off our nose to spite our face. I promise more as soon as I can.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Reflection for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

Book Club (Part II):
“The Spiritual Combat”
by Lorenzo Scupoli (Scriptoria, 2009)

            For an old confessor and counselor, I would have to say that for me the genius of Lorenzo Scupoli as displayed in his classic work, “The Spiritual Combat”, is patent. There, in both his practical and theoretical discussion of how to root out vice and struggle for virtue, or a virtue in a one by one uphill fight, he has singled out strategically the virtue of “patience” to illustrate his teaching in the book, not once, but he does so again and again. His definition of patience, however, has not so much to do with putting up with others or even with ourselves, but in having a clear idea of what we can expect of life (That may account for the good old Italian exclamation used even yet today “pazienza!”, which punctuates a lot of circumstances where English might provide an expletive).
Some would add to this analysis of the spiritual struggle centered on patience or to this approach to life the qualifying phrase: “if we choose to walk with Jesus”, but the point can fairly be made that patience, without ifs, ands or buts as described by Scupoli, yes, is part of what is involved in Christian perfection, but perhaps more importantly or by way of context is equally what we as integral human persons must be about if we are to face life as it is in the real world. I can expect and even demand this kind of patience from anybody regardless. In life, we are called or challenged not just to renounce the proverbial “champagne and caviar diet”, but to say “no” to beer and pretzels too, if we would be something other than self-serving or mere casualties to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune here on this earth.
How many people come and say, in effect, “Father, I deserve better from God! Why doesn’t He give me a break? Why doesn’t He answer my prayers for healing? (deliverance from trials, loneliness, or fill in the blank as you see fit)”. “Scupolian patience” looks at life quite differently. No doubt the old master would probably have more to say to such complaints from suffering or tried souls than to piously invite the person to a new and deeper sharing in the mystery of the Cross of Christ. Isn’t the admonition to “life without pretense” applicable here? I cannot help but think of the Book of Job and God’s teaching to Job toward the end of the book (Job: Chapters 38-41) before justifying him in the presence of his so-called friends and restoring to Job with surfeit the material prosperity which the world of Job’s time deemed to be the incontrovertible sign of God’s favor. Yes, indeed, there is much more, in terms of life, here at stake than the call to Christian perfection.
The whole truth about life and human existence as taught to us by God and His Church would banish both the fatalists and the Pollyannas. Charles Dickens’ work “Great Expectations” traces a character or two overcome because life didn’t go according to plan. Scupoli would probably be more determined and insist that beyond pointing out the tragedy of living life disappointed, disillusioned or in despair, in point of fact, life had better not go according to my individual plan or expectations. First question and response from the old catechism: Why did God make me? He made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life, so as to be happy with Him in the next…
Scupoli insists that Christian perfection is indeed a victory over ourselves but that rigorous mortification itself is not its key or even essential component. He says “… it is not your duty to will and perform that which is in itself more excellent, but that which God before all else strictly desires and requires of you.” (p. 4) Scupoli spends himself to describe “four very safe and highly necessary weapons, that you may win the palm, and be finally a conqueror in this spiritual conflict – these are:
Distrust of Self. . . . . . I.
Trust in God. . . . . . . . . II.
Spiritual Exercises. . . III. (for our understanding, for our will, for governing our senses, for growing in virtue)
Prayer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . IV.” (pp. 4-5)
What moved or provoked me to this return to my book club intervention from Saturday, March 5, 2001 was the 2nd Reading (Year A) from Mass for this the 2nd Sunday of Lent:
“With me, bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News, relying on the power of God who has saved us and called us to be holy – not because of anything we ourselves have done but for his own purpose and by his own grace. This grace had already been granted to us, in Christ Jesus, before the beginning of time, but it has only been revealed by the Appearing of our savior Christ Jesus. He abolished death, and he has proclaimed life and immortality through the Good News.” II Timothy 1:8-10
I think it fair to say that Lorenzo Scupoli did not “whip up anything in his own little kitchen”; his teaching in “The Spiritual Combat” stands within the tradition and bears no small resemblance to St. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy and to us. We have everything to be gained by enriching our Lenten reading with the approved authors of today and also of once upon a time. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Continuity in Prayer and Praise

What is Liturgy?

All of the positive signs notwithstanding, that for the English speaking world we stand (thanks be to God) on the threshold of a rupture-healing liturgical reform, I am anxious about doing more to insure that we restore the continuity in our prayer to the Lord and our solemn praise of the Living God. Again and again I am confronted first off with the well-meaning of the laity, but also of priests and bishops, who don’t see as a break with the past, which needs to be healed, the didactic form of liturgy with all its discursive elements as it has commonly been executed over the last four decades. But it must be said: For weekdays we are too far from our roots in the essential liturgy of the Latin Low Mass; for Sundays we are leagues from the once common consciousness that worship by God’s People took place before His Throne.

Can I say to a popular and loving pastor that he should have said “no” to an Ash Wednesday flash crowd, carefully orchestrated for and enthusiastically executed by the children of his grade school? What about that YouTube video of a priest from down in these parts (he’s got a great singing voice for belting out those Gospel/charismatic hymns!), vested for Mass, with wireless microphone, who has the whole congregation singing and swaying? What is liturgy? At some point, we lost all measure making that weekly “hour of power” and those occasional conference gatherings and special events the communal supplement to somebody’s Bible reading and prayers punctuating their quilt making, needlepoint and rocking in that chair handed down from somebody purported to have made the crossing on the Mayflower.

Not in desperation but with a bit of puzzlement over this question, I picked up an English translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, in its skeletal form, set down for use in the U.S. today. It is worship (even without all of the pomp and splendor which attracted the Grand-Duke Vladimir of the Kievan Rus and encouraged him to turn his back on paganism and accept baptism) indeed in spirit and in truth. I was impressed as never before with Byzantine Liturgy as petition, intercession and supplication. The Word of God has its place, but significantly the whole from beginning to dismissal is yes an ongoing dialog between the priest and people but by way of an encouragement to a work (laos ergon, leitourgia) addressed to God Himself, while calling on all the angels and saints with Mary the Mother of God at their head. A profound sense of the sacred permeates it all in that it is truly addressed to the Triune God, Who is above all and in all, transcendent yet eminently present, to be worshipped and adored. Worship is not a pep fest and to class it as theater would be denigrating. Standing or kneeling at God’s footstool is not “let’s pretend”; it is Calvary renewed for us in an unbloody fashion; it is Sacrament and Sacrifice for the salvation of the world.

Don’t get me wrong! I am no more tempted to “go byzantine” than I am to investing in the stock market, but this quiet encounter of a Sunday with Chrysostom, with that Church’s unbroken tradition of prayer and praise has aided me in sorting out a few things as I seek to serve the cause of the reform of the liturgy reform within our Roman Catholic tradition of worship.  

"Sunday-go-to-meeting” is not our tradition 
and represents a clear rupture in need of healing. 

   The simple sung propers (entrance antiphon, responsorial psalm, communion antiphon) might be the agreeable “purge” which will enable us to look at a limited role for hymnody, let us say as an enhancement of certain moments of silence (a processional, a Eucharistic hymn of thanksgiving as a post-communion, perhaps? For pilgrimages and devotions?). With the ordinary parts of the Mass sung (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Great Amen, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei) we might find ourselves relishing a lot less all the syncopated stuff in the hymnals presently in usage.

Respect for rubrics and adherence to published texts 
is at no one’s discretion.

      We owe it to our children and to all who enter the Lord’s House to let them know, to assure them that what Joel Osteen does or Bennie Hinn does at a tent revival has nothing in common with what the Church in God’s Name has called the priest to do at the head of God’s People each Sunday. Father did not and cannot simply “make up” what we do in praise of God.

A return to worship “ad Orientem” is or will be our saving grace

    I hope no one misreads me. I would only formulate the wish that EWTN would simply exercise a legitimate option and start celebrating the daily TV Mass “ad Dominum”, so as to give folks from the comfort of their home an idea of what can be. The wood furnishings of that daily Mass chapel in Alabama could be rearranged in lovely fashion in the course of a single day. I am not advocating in parishes and religious houses of the more permanent sort another “barbarian invasion” of the temple to right wrongs with sledge hammer or pick ax. In church buildings, where possible, continuity with the past should be recovered, but some churches (even Santa Sabina in Rome, where the Holy Father celebrated on Ash Wednesday) cannot be changed. The great liturgists of all time, St. John Chrysostom for the East and St. Gregory the Great for the West, agree: we must physically focus together on the Lord when we pray the Eucharistic Prayer.

Just now I absent-mindedly touched my bishop’s ring and was reminded that with my titular see of Bomarzo I have a “Bride” who doesn’t talk back and who cannot not understand. For this I bow my head to all bishops with real “brides” and parish priests more familiar than I will ever be with “domestic” life. Be assured of my prayers that you might find ways, like our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, to open this loving dialog as Christ Himself would do, washing her clean and healing every spot and blemish.

On My Lenten Reading List

Church Fathers and Teachers
by Pope Benedict XVI
Ignatius Press (Kindle Edition)

Quite some few years ago, I can remember going out to breakfast with the pastor of my cousin's parish and driving past the family home. The pastor offered, as we drove by, that he had asked the principal of the grade school if the youngest boy was as smart as his older sisters, who were all quite brainy. Sister had responded with a smile that he was indeed and perhaps even smarter; it was just that he was a "lazy boy". Reading this collection of Wednesday Audience talks of the Holy Father reminded me of that conversation and of the fact that I'd have to class myself as a "lazy boy" when compared with the great monks of the Middle Ages whom Pope Benedict XVI discusses in the course of this very agreeable little book. I recommend it highly for all, but especially for those who are looking for something to enrich themselves during Lent, longer than a daily meditation from MAGNIFICAT though not a full book. You won't need lots of time or a dictionary to benefit from these marvelous teachings about our fathers in faith. Any of the collections of general audience talks from the Holy Father would fit the bill, as each Wednesday is really stand alone, but yet most edifying and thought provoking.

My special joy from this volume, which treats the last of the Church Fathers and a goodly number of teachers or doctors of the faith from the Middle Ages, is to be impressed by these men, most of whom spent at least part of their lives in a monastery or two. The "lazy boy" thing comes in as I marvel at men who were entrusted to the monks yet as children and who fell in love with monastic prayer (communal and personal), with study and hard work. All of them became accomplished Latinists and not few mastered the ancient Greek language as well. They were not only repositories of the wisdom of the ages; they mediated in a cultural dialog across centuries, contributing to a new synthesis which included both the ancients and the new peoples of the Continent. I envy them for giving themselves generously from their youth to their studies, learning Latin and in some cases Greek, and reading the great philosophers and the early Fathers of the Church. If only I hadn't been such a "lazy boy"! If I missed out on the "study" part of the triad, I guess I have to compensate with hard work in other areas and dedication to prayer.

The "lazy boy" came home to me in another way as I was reading the couple talks the Holy Father dedicated to distinguishing between "monastic" and "scholastic" theology. I must have been asleep at my desk the day the professor explained the reason why we call it Scholastic Theology. I got the school (scholastic) part, but somehow I missed the part about cathedral school as opposed to monastery school, as in Monastic Theology! It's never too late, even past 60, to learn!

If you don't have a Kindle or a Catholic book store near by, I hope you have a Catechism of the Catholic Church at home. Make 10 minutes study per day yours for this Lent! If you haven't already, now is the time to break out of the "lazy boy" mode!

(I almost forgot! I also learned why a certain St. Theodore was called "The Studite"... Check it out for yourself!}

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Crisis Management

Whispers in the Loggia came up with a startling title: "Boston Reborn": In Philadelphia, The "Inferno" Continues. Certainly right across the U.S. the findings of the 2nd grand jury in Philadelphia and the steps taken by the archdiocese which substantially confirm suspicions of a "post-Dallas Charter" coverup have had an unsettling effect on many people. Obviously the archdiocese of Philadelphia has its work cut out. However, does it make sense from here that we rush immediately to a low Sunday pew count, parish school closings and parish closings, as if the abuse "domino" was the one which set off the chain reaction? No doubt this will be a dark chapter in Church history when it is someday written up. I think people should be more discerning however in commenting on the state of the life of the Church and remember that we are still suffering the consequences of the fall of another domino decades ago: contraception. Its implication for not only Catholic demographics, but also for marriage and family, not to mention people's basic approach to life, have yes been catastrophic. Urban decay has little to do with the faith and would seem to justify parish and school closings in neighborhoods very different in their composition than they were mid-20th Century.

The domino theory is not acceptable to describe our present malaise. "Straw that broke the camel's back"? I'm not so sure that is an apt description of the impact of the clergy abuse thing either. At this point I'd be willing to go with "Achilles' heel" and as potentially fatal to the life and work of the Church.

On a recent visit to French Guiana I was among those treated to a guided tour of the archeological investigations going on at Loyola, the site of the premier Jesuit plantation which thrived in the French colony up until the edict of France suppressing the Society of Jesus was also executed there in 1763. The authors of the archaelogical catalogue of the site, which I am reading now at my leisure, characterize the suppression of the Jesuits in one country after another in Europe as signaling the death knell of the Ancien Régime on the continent. The French Revolution would soon follow the suppression of the Jesuits with devastating implications for all of Europe's monarchs, petty or otherwise. Frankly, I had only reflected on the personal drama of the suppression and its implications, principally of a moral sort, for the life of the Church. That this series of acts might be interpreted as a last volley against the forces of change and progress by a sclerotic old political system had never crossed my mind.

The authors of this catalogue point to a cause célèbre in Martinique of a Jesuit (Fr. de Lavalette) running their operation on that island who was indeed a crook and had run up an immense debt. The confiscation and sale of Jesuit properties in Martinique alone would have sufficed to pay the debt. The orderly and productive nature of the successful Jesuit enterprise in Guiana could have been spared, had it not been for a mix of jealousy and rancor of foreign import.

I interject this little episode into my reflection on the "Achilles' heel" of the Catholic Church and especially in the light of a news item about the Minnesota abuse lawyer Anderson taking out TV spots to invite people to come forward and seek compensation, to express the suspicion that we have more at stake here than bad priests, however many they may be in number.  The leadership crisis in diocesan chancery offices would also seem to be patent, but I am wondering what else might really be at stake. As long as the rule of law remains intact in the U.S. I guess all we have to fear are bankruptcies. What is troubling is not only the rise of a bitter and unreasoning anticlericalism, but  the thought of  us all, clergy, lay or religious, becoming pariah as Catholics in the U.S. or in other parts of the world outcasts simply as Christians. Not only in Muslim countries are our brothers and sisters in Christ often now "fair game". It's hard in the West generally not to see a certain disaffection with truth, value and standard as not working to our disadvantage in a world which could care less about others (carpe diem).

There's not much left at Remire of Loyola. The heat, abundant tropical rains and time have reclaimed all but the stone foundations of the buildings and a few pieces of broken porcelain. Overnight everyone turned their backs on the Jesuits and they had to disappear into the woodwork, if you will. The Jesuits of Guiana had worked well on their plantation, had defended the Amerindian people of the region from slavery better than most, had set up the first parishes in the region, but from today to tomorrow had no one to take their part. My puzzling thought is whether like the Church in Ireland at the hands of the English or the Church in North Africa, time and again, until barbarism finally claimed it once and for all, whether we don't have to start making provision for sharing the Gospel with future generations. These days I'm praying for monastic reform and renewal to face a new sort of barbarism. May we be spared and granted judicious civil rulers ready to stand up for genuine and enduring human values, ready despite non-establishment clauses to foster the good, true and beautiful as held and taught by the Catholic Church. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Club Material

“The Spiritual Combat”
by Lorenzo Scupoli (Scriptoria, 2009)
“Spiritual Combat Revisited”
by Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory (Ignatius, 2003)

            This is the one time so far in my life when I really wished I were part of a book club or where I was half-tempted to organize one. I would love to have not only blog comment input on why one of the spiritual best sellers of the last half millennium passed me by until age 60, but I’d love to hear what others have to say about both of these books. I’d want to ask the members of my club about their reading and make with them a plan for re-launching Scupoli. The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli should be on that same “active shelf” of a Catholic’s hand library together with The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
I’ve asked folk younger than me: “Have you ever heard of The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli?” and gotten reactions similar to my own after my last reread on retreat of St. Francis de Sales “Introduction to the Devout Life”. St. Francis recommends Scupoli as an authority and now that I have finally found and read the book for the first time and not the last, I can see why. After a couple of Google Searches, I would have probably given up on the book as hopelessly out of print had I not stumbled upon Fr. Robinson of the Toronto Oratory’s book and found there even more encouragement, discovering more of the de Sales link to the book and also of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s enthusiasm for Scupoli.
Fr. Robinson quotes a London, Burns and Oates edition of 1963. Amazon actually offers a couple English editions, but I am glad I happened upon the Scriptoria choice which is less antique and eminently readable in English.
Fr. Robinson succeeds well in describing the importance for the spiritual life of Scupoli’s work by mining the riches of St. Francis de Sales and Blessed Cardinal Newman. He analyses and confronts contemporary disenchantment with the central motion of Scupoli’s book, namely struggle to attain virtue for love of God and the longing to be with Him in His Kingdom. In his Epilogue, Father Robinson respectfully confronts the criticism which Hans Urs von Balthasar leveled at St. John of the Cross, as contemplative or mystic author par excellence, the “remarkable lacuna in St. John’s thought, the yawning gap where the Church should be” (p. 282). Perhaps here Fr. Robinson offers his own answer to my search for an explanation to the half century or more “eclipse” of Scupoli?

“Whether or not this criticism can be sustained in the case of St. John of the Cross, it certainly does give expression to the suspicion that the spiritual life is essentially a selfish one. It is thought to be selfish, that is, both in the sense that it is an isolated and introverted cultivation of the self as well as in the sense of its having no interest in, or concern for, other people. Neither of these understandings of selfishness can be taken as applying to either St. Jane Frances or St. Francis. At the center of the most fundamental relationship of all, that is, between the soul and God, there is (for both of them) the presence of the beloved other; a beloved loved indeed, in God, and not in the place of God, but loved and served as what God has created and God loves.” (p. 282)
“If we today, with some right, demand a more open and less constricted way to divine intimacy, then we must also relearn the Gospel lesson, repeated by the saints and prophets of the spiritual life, that the pearl of great price does not come cheap. We will have to learn to make the words of the dying saint (St. Jane Frances reflecting on the spiritual dialogue in Ostia between St. Augustine and his mother, St. Monica) our own: “And that is meant for me.” (p. 283)
For now I’ll stop at that with the firm purpose not to bury Jonathan Robinson’s book in my hand library and to come back very soon to “The Spiritual Combat”. It is my hope, in the not too distant future, to encounter folk who, when I ask about Lorenzo Scupoli will respond with a smile and tell me something of their dialogue with an old friend who has, I am convinced, much to say that would fill some if not most of the “yawning gaps” in the spiritual direction of the last 50 years!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Weathering the Storm

The Church Confronts Modernity,
Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era,
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., (Kindle edition) Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.

Every once in a while, I pick up a book on a lark and I hit pay dirt. This was the case with this very readable book which focuses on the first 20 years of the 20th Century and the contrasts between the so-called “progressives” and the American Catholic intelligentsia on topics like philosophy, sociology, education theory, labor and economics. Very simply stated, I learned a lot from the book and will continue to draw on it concerning any number of matters I am trying to think through these days.

The most captivating part of the book for me was the Epilogue, which addresses the issue of American Catholicism pre and post Vatican II. It contextualizes for me as never before the issues involved in the critique of the pre-Vatican II Church in the U.S. as it stands accused of being a form of ghetto Catholicism. Two points surface for me in particular: a) the renaissance of Thomism and a strict adherence to the principles of natural law enabled the Catholic Church to respond to the devastation of World War I which totally eclipsed or bankrupt pre-war “progressive” optimism; b) Catholic institutional prosperity in the United States from 1920 until 1960 was fostered by its clear and constructive identity. The bottom line being: syncretism was (is?) the spirit of the age; it does not represent a cogent response to pluralism in society; it certainly is not a Catholic option.

In his epilogue, Thomas Woods expresses reservations about the serviceability of the documents of Vatican II for a Church like that in the U.S., immersed as it is in a pluralistic society. He makes a most convincing case from a historical point of view for the salutary effect of the anti-modernist oath on Catholic leadership in the U.S. Woods quotes authors of the period to explain the hardy institutional dynamism at work in the pre-conciliar Church in the U.S., which was anything but a simple ghetto (cf. Kindle edition, Epilogue):
 “By the Church's plausibility structure is meant the series of interlocking social institutions (e.g., parishes, seminaries, educational organizations, mass media outlets, professional and voluntary associations) that, in toto, are theoretically capable of producing a Catholic environment generating and making "real" among its inhabitants authentic Catholic thought and behavior. At its very best, this "Catholic  ghetto"-as it has been referred to by its Catholic detractors-does  not shield away all non-Catholic influence but allows for the formation of authentic Catholic identity and character development capable of engaging in a critical dialogue with the outside world."
Believe it or not, the first thing which came to my mind was a lecture I had just heard in Dallas at the 23rd Workshop for Bishops, presented by the National Catholic Bioethics Center (February 14-16, 2011) - A Universal Moral Language: Bioethics and the Natural Law. The first talk of the day was given by Janet E. Smith, PhD., who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. It was entitled “Universality and Natural Law and the Irreducibility of Personalism”. She did a marvelous job all the way around and especially concerning the central role Thomism has to play in seminary education and the intellectual life of the Church. She made a plea for cultivating along side it Wotylian Personalism (think: Pope John Paul II and the Theology of the Body, etc.).

After the talk and discussion, I asked a learned bishop friend of mine whether he shared her enthusiasm for the future of “personalism” and as I had suspected, he did not and for reasons slightly different from my own. In any case, common to both Woods and Smith was a tendency to underline that on the part of Americans of both periods (Progressive Era and today) to balk at St. Thomas’ sweet yoke, not so much as burdensome but chafing a bit at the collar and less than colorful. It would seem that Americans are bent on finding ways of dealing with a minority report or what I consider an elitist cross-section of humanity – those who seek a measure of personal satisfaction in their philosophy. St. Thomas is for me more in touch with the broad base of humanity and might be less emotionally rewarding but for his pragmatism ultimately reaches farther in providing universals applicable to real human psychology.

In any case, I’m wondering what the Catholic Church today needs to do to become for its own folk and for the sake of the salvation of the world more of a “player”. The pluralistic society is a constant; where is the voice or witness to call it to task and effectively shepherd the flock at the same time? For more than half a century, thanks to what my book here describes as “plausibility structure” the Catholic Church in the U.S. was indeed a player, not abstracted from everyday reality, but offering its own and others ready to dialogue the reason for our hope. For our own Catholic people today, where are the “interlocking social institutions” which could channel energy and offer a real option for contributing to the betterment of society? Woods reflects on the stir caused in the media by Dominus Jesus (2000, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), a document which many outside of the Church considered a betrayal of the Church’s perceived post-conciliar stance. Could it not be said, that in failing to clearly identify ourselves (institutionally) we indeed not only risk to but do indeed deceive, failing grievously in our prophetic role for the life of the world?

While not harping for a return to the “good olde days” of terse statements and anathema sits, Woods certainly credits the papacy of Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X with offering the beacon needed by the Catholic Church in the U.S. to sort through a massive and not inarticulate assault on revealed truth. He and certainly I am wondering if we couldn’t use a new “plausibility structure” to weather today’s storm…