Friday, 9 February 2007

"Living and radiant things we can become"

Having been away from the blog for nearly two months (I'm sure to no one's distress), I was prompted to return today when I read the following brilliant quote from Evelyn Underhill's The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today. It is in the context of a chapter entitled "Psychology and the Life of the Spirit."

The tendency of the unconscious self to realise without criticism a suggested end lays on religious teachers the obligation of forming a clear and vital conception of the spiritual ideals they wish to suggest... to be sure they are wholesome, and tend to fullness of life. It should also compel each of us to scrutinise those religious thoughts and images.. on which we allow our minds to dwell: excluding those which are merely sentimental, weak, or otherwise unworthy, and holding fast the noblest and most beautiful...For these ideas, however generalised, will set up profound changes in the mind that receives them. Thus the wrong conception of self-immolation will be faithfully worked out by the unconscious - and has been too often in the past - in terms of misery, weakness, or disease. ...(The) idea of herself as a victim of love worked physical destruction in Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus: and we shall never perhaps know all the havoc wrought by the once fashionable doctrines of predestination and of the total depravity of human nature. All this shows how necessary it is to put hopeful, manly, constructive conceptions before those whom we try to help or instruct; constantly suggesting to them not the weak and sinful things that they are, but the living and radiant things which they can become. (Bold emphasis mine.)

I'm deeply tempted to continue with what follows, regarding what Evelyn terms "hymns of the Weary Willie type," but I'll save that for another day. However, I shall comment that, considering this book was a collection of lectures from 1921, she must have been in quite progressive circles. I was exposed to some of the ideas against which Evelyn cautions more than a generation later. (In 1921, my parents were still learning to talk.)

As my readers will recall, for all that I cherish my early education with the nuns from Cork (who indeed were excellent teachers - perfect for the budding doctor of humanities), I regret the constant emphasis on sacrifice, suffering, self-denial, and how God afflicts his friends. (To be sure, hell or at least a lengthy term in purgatory may have awaited the wicked, but, unless one was very sinful indeed - highly unlikely at the age of seven or ten - being God's friend was nearly the more frightening prospect. I still remember how I shivered, hearing of how little Jacinta at Fatima had begged Our Lady, "Must I die all alone?!") Now, certainly the history of the church in Ireland gives me an inkling of why faith was thought of as a battle, and the tragic Calvinist influence (which would turn the best vintage Catholicism into vinegar and gall) gave a picture of us as so depraved that anything we could find pleasant or appealing was the work of Satan. Yet the idea of a cruel, punishing God, who does not allow, let alone promise, any sort of happiness except in the next life has never fully left me, for all that it is a theology I despise. The penal laws were long past... and some, I believe, thought more's the pity, because at least martyrdom guaranteed admission to heaven. With the stake and block out of commission, we happily (ahem!) were taught to create our own martyrdom.

I don't know if anyone worked this out in depth (in fact, I doubt most of the Sisters who taught me at such a young age would have studied these ideas at all), but there were great elements of Gnostic dualism underlying much of what we were taught. (For all my later love of C. S. Lewis, even his works verge on the Manichean at times.) The world was a battlefield between Christ and Satan (the former presumably with a brogue, the latter with the drawl of Oxford) - and perish the thought that we 'soldiers' were not well armed and preferably wounded, because, even if we all knew Jesus would win in the end, he was going to keep Lucifer guessing until the last judgement.

My parents, southern Italian and hardly ones to dwell on guilt or a punishing God, certainly accepted the natural 'sacrifice' which is part of any decent life - in their case, largely connected with responsibility for immediate and extended family. I still shudder at much of their lives - not in relation to one another, but in endless, backbreaking labour and poverty. It would not be until perhaps five years ago that I myself had an idea that life was anything except an endurance test. (I had hopes it would be something other than that during my university years... but my convent days reinforced the idea, and the horrid jobs I had when I was forced to exit from the convent were on a par with dad's.) Certainly, they were not looking to create make-believe 'sacrifices' beyond those which already existed. But I saw much of that amongst the 'churchier' sorts.

To my knowledge, the grace of the Eucharist does not lose its potency as the day progresses, but everyone knew that attending at 11:00 was greatly inferior to doing so at dawn - it was a bigger sacrifice. If one was watching and enjoying a film, a really good soul would turn it off. People who truly have to deal with poverty have no illusions about its being glorious or a path to sainthood - but those who do not, and never have, will see to it today that nutritionists, trainers, scolding books, etc., reduce them to starvation, thereby giving them sufficient punishment for their prosperity.

In these Internet days, even if the tendency to self punishment is expressed a bit differently, I'm sorry to say I've noticed it is alive and well. On one forum on which I participate, for example, people are constantly moaning about being 'too comfortable,' and one gets the feeling that one should hate oneself (and take the blame for all affliction of the third world) because one has plumbing, electricity, Christmas presents, or clean clothing. On another (where I did not remain for long!), a young woman, who is a convert to Catholicism and afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, wrote of how she asked God to increase her physical pain for 'the salvation of her four children' - the eldest of whom is seven. (She is a generation younger than I am, and I wonder where she heard these concepts in the first place. But the idea that we must ask for crosses to achieve 'salvation' for others was old hat in the days of the brilliant and well educated Fulton J. Sheen.) I could quote scores of other examples, all current.

Soon, indeed, the forum crowd will be looking for new ways to torture themselves for Lent. Fasting will not be seen as a means to remove distractions from prayer, but as a punishment for 'gluttony,' and a way to force one to save grocery money to give to charities. (Ah, memories! We were working class kids, and really too poor to be gluttons, but the nuns had us convinced that our souls would be destroyed if we ate a piece of chocolate rather than putting its cost in the mite box in Lent.)

I may not be able to live this very well (yet - there's still hope, I'm sure), but I know all too well that one is far better off with gratitude than with guilt. I'm not referring to the healthy, genuine guilt one may feel for sin, of course - that is a grace. But feeling guilty that I had chicken tonight rather than pease pudding when people in Biafra are starving does no good. My guilt does not feed them - it only will eat me.

We are far better off with our lives being eucharistic. If there must be 'sacrifice,' let it be of praise and thanksgiving.