Tuesday, 28 August 2007

How's that again?

My readers, I am sure, shall indulge me once again as I present my periodic silliness in what seem to be disassociated thoughts. This is illustrative of a tendency one often finds in people who not only spend too much time in prayer (consequently thinking, for example, that everyone is pining for ascetic theology - where the man in the next pew may be there because he's a minor politician and having parishioners see him at church may mean votes) but have studied too much theology (and assume 'motivation' for certain church matters which are so weird that we cannot see what would be glaringly obvious to anyone with an IQ above that of Lucy from the British Museum.)

Just to use one example, I recently read a book selection (from a book I'd not recommend, so it does not get a link) penned by a laicised Roman Catholic priest. (He clearly ignores that, as anyone in the Orthodox Church, Church of England, or Eastern rites would know, that having to sexually please a wife is not a guarantee of priestly sanctity.) Now, as far as I'm concerned, if he wanted to argue against mandatory celibacy for RC clergy, there is plenty of historical material with which to back this up, and he's welcome to do this till the cows come home. (Male cows are noted, I must add, for dispensing what seems to be this highly intelligent and learned man's current speciality.) But his premise, that he was released from active ministry to marry because he and others who did the same have a higher, 'new' theology of marriage, making them more advanced that priests who did not, is unlikely to impress anyone - and seemed pointed at self congratulations which would raise the eyebrows of most.

In the same book, the author comments about the decline in the use of sacramental confession. He sees this as positive, not only because the inferior beings who remained in active ministry therefore cannot indulge a need to control the laity, but because it shows a higher awareness of theology on the part of the flock than the pastor. Supposedly, those who no longer use sacramental confession have grasped, where the inferior clergy have not, that Vatican II teaches that the primary source of forgiveness is the Eucharist.

I could write a ream on the value I find in sacramental confession - and a library on Vatican II - but I'm not so inclined at the moment. My point is one quite different. This priest, during his time of active ministry, was an academic - and, like myself, probably often had times when he could not breathe in the breezes of good sense because too much dust from library stacks were crowding his lungs already. Yet I have a few advantages - one, that my family were the most pragmatic of people; two, that I spent much time in parish work and actually listened to the people around me.

To continue with his example - he's even more in outer space than I am if he thinks a decline in confession means a sophisticated theology of forgiveness through the Eucharist. (Another post I'll save for another day, but one dear to the heart of the medievalist, is how seeing Mass solely in relation to forgiveness caused some of the more regrettable excesses of the Reformation.) First off, as one who spends much time in churches on either side of the pond, I have observed that, in parishes which have the means to offer confession regularly / daily, such as Brompton Oratory, Westminster Cathedral, or Saint Francis in New York City, there is no lack of penitents on any day of the week. Many people clearly still find this sacrament to be very valuable, and one should at least admit the possibility that its availability affects the queues.

I've often heard the devout, quite rightly, be deterred from making their confessions because they've been discouraged (or even laughed at) in the past. I hope this has improved, but I can well remember when 'devotional confession,' which had been encouraged as a source of sacramental grace a year earlier, suddenly was discouraged. I also remember well when even one who made confession only once or twice a year was likely to be told 'nothing you are telling me is a sin.' (I think they must have only been hearing murder cases that year...) On a merely practical level, others complained that they needed to make appointments in churches where confession was not regularly available (that's awkward, especially in places where staff are trained to keep people from bothering clergy, or when one is embarrassed to approach a virtual stranger). Others wanted anonymity.

I'm not about to analyse any of these situations in any depth. My point is that anyone who is convinced that a 'theology of forgiveness' rooted in the Eucharist prevents confession is likely to be basing reasoning on a point which hardly enters most people's minds. (Of course, in the RC Church, anyone with a grave sin that is not confessed isn't supposed to partake of the Eucharist anyway... but people who know that probably listened in first communion class.)

On another note, I'm remembering when two friends of mine, in their 20s at the time, attended a meeting of a group forming in their parish. The group was intended for unmarried people in their 20s and 30s, and my friends, like everyone else who was interested, were hoping to meet new friends and possible spouses. For reasons that even my odd mind cannot fathom, the first meeting was introduced by a religious Sister, who spoke about how the Church had long neglected the 'single life as vocation.' It clearly had not entered her mind that the last reason anyone was in attendance was from having 'decided on a single life.' (Does anyone? It doesn't occur to those such as this speaker that, even if one regrets the choice one made, those who married or entered convents did make a choice. This should not be assumed of those who happen to be unmarried.)

I'm getting too prolix today - and prefer to save that for when I have more depth to the post. :) I'll just leave my readers with knowing that, just today, I received an email from Amazon.com, informing me that those who bought books on Walter Hilton (see my web site if you aren't acquainted with him) had also been interested in the early days of US television. (Must have been an odd key word search, because this is the oddest connection since I saw the works of Julian or Norwich classed as "New Age," or when "The Satisfied Life," a book on medieval mystics and concepts of atonement, was in the human sexuality section.)

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Talents and denarii

I'm sure I'll be forgiven for the dreadful pun. One of the discouraging parts of wishing to maintain a blog that has any potential for being of value is that, when one looks back over the past two years' entries, it seems the best to be said is already written, and too much already has been repetitive. So bear with me as I ravel some thoughts which struck me recently.

I'm studying two areas related to the Hebrew Scriptures, plus philosophy of religion, at the moment. Though I've had the good fortune to have a background in many areas of religious history, I need at times to have my memory jogged. I found Karen Armstrong's "The History of God" to be quite useful. I would not recommend it as anyone's sole source for references in the area - Karen, here as usual, displays some excellent scholarship and insight, while presenting ideas the greatest scripture scholars and theologians debate as if there were one, agreed conclusion. Yet I especially did enjoy this book, because it stresses the transcendence of God, and the limitations of our visions. It also explored aspects of mysticism (striking similar in many aspects) in various religious and philosophical traditions.

Occasionally, visitors to my web site (who often are surprised there is such a thing as Christian mysticism... no wonder Amazon classes Julian of Norwich's books as "New Age") are interested in mystic experience in their own lives. I am a doctor of humanities, however much I have specialised in theology, and, though I'll not deny my gifts for teaching, I am not qualified in spiritual direction, so I cannot provide the sort of guidance they desire. (Actually, in many cases I doubt they'd embrace genuine spiritual direction. Some writers seem to think that mystic experience is some sort of a 'high' - and that one can, perhaps, reach the seventh mansion of Teresa on a Concorde flight if they read the Cloud of Unknowing this Saturday.) I'm sure it's a disappointment when I admit, first, that I myself am not a mystic (for all my acquaintance with mystic theology), and that those who are such cannot have become so as a matter of achievement. Karen's book had a quote I found very apt - all of us have the longing for intimacy with our Creator in some fashion, but, as Karen mentioned, the mystics have a particular gift, much as one might have a gift for writing poetry.

(I shall pause for a moment to sigh, since most of my family would have considered a gift for poetry as a total waste, much preferring to urge one to civil service exams... but that is another topic for another day.)

Most of us who are committed to a life of prayer pursue, in one of my favourite new phrases, the banality of orthopraxy. For one it might be an orientation towards service, for another (as it is for myself) liturgical prayer and intellectual pursuits, whatever. One is not superior to the other - but this world, overall, would be boring indeed if there were only technicians and bankers and no poets or musicians.

I doubt I can express this well, but I shall make an effort. Those who do have the gift of mysticism (and who, in some cases, are not those with heroic sanctity) always needed the framework of daily worship, the scriptures, wise direction, and other practises that are far from exotic and exciting. Many saw God as essentially unknowable. Those who experienced 'consolations,' such as Teresa of Avila, were cautious about these expressions, and mainly considered them to be more distracting than helpful. Visions, for example, can illustrate a powerful drive to intimacy with the transcendent God, but always have a flavour of the individual's vision.

Francis of Assisi, a poet and man of passion if not the most emotionally stable of creatures, may have been excessive (by any standard) in his pondering Jesus' suffering and wishing he could have comforted him, or in dwelling on how our sins caused the crucifixion. Yet he'd reached a point of such love and self forgetfulness that the stigmata (surely a reflection of his inward pain) indeed was an icon of his intimacy with Christ. Catherine of Siena, whose mystical marriage involved seeing a wedding ring formed from Jesus' foreskin from the circumcision, and who gives many signs of having anorexia, also had reached a point of holiness where even her own oddness had the passion for intimacy which the great saints illustrate.

I love Francesco and Caterina, of course, but I'm ravelling a thread in another direction. They were unusual people, and some of the manifestations of their personalities and weaknesses (which will be part of any person's experience, but the more for mystics because their passion for God is so intense) might be judged pathological today. (Thank God they lived in the days before psychiatrists, or they might have been 'cured' by doubting their own integrity.) Very few people who are, for example, constantly dealing with emotional outbursts, fear, insomnia, and self hatred, as did Francis (those interested in this area may wish to consult some of Fr Benedict Groeschel's observations), could 'open the book' of looking for mystic experience, heightened meditations and the like. There is too much danger of having our inward sinfulness and weakness manifest itself - I do not doubt the evil in this world, but I believe that the overwhelming number of demons are projections of our own violence, jealousy, and so forth. It is too dangerous to pursue the desire for exalted emotion (when one is not at the point of self forgetfulness which Francis, John of the Cross, or Caterina would have reached), or our very weakness can disguise itself as special inspiration.

I had one other thought - perhaps a loose association, but one I shall include as a minor rant. Jesus is sanctifying the cosmos as a whole - we are a Church (and this applies whether we know it or not, because I'm of the mind that Adam and Eve were part of 'the Church.') It is not a contest for who is more important than another - those 'may we sit at your left and right' discussions are quite tiresome. However, if there is a 'poet' among us, if we have a desire to be special, and a jealousy towards the mystic, it can lead to spiritual avarice rather than growth.

One must totally disassociate one's perspective from the deplorable perspective of 18th through 21st century capitalism, which can infect the spiritual viewpoint. I loathe such clich├ęs as 'you get out of life exactly what you put into it,' or 'practise makes perfect,' or anything of that sort. It is wrong, because it takes one aspect of achievement (though spiritual growth is a grace, not an achievement) - for example, that one greatly talented at the piano indeed needs years of training, practise, and the like to become a great artiste - and 'flips it around,' as if one without the talent who does not achieve such mastery just didn't work hard enough. (Never mind that I despise the 'get out of life what you put into it' crap because it's a wonderful excuse for the wealthy or powerful to despise the poor.)

We cannot decide to 'become mystics.' We are a whole - a Church - and those who carried Julian her food or carried away her waste were no less a part of this than was the mystic in the cell. It is not a 'course,' as if one who studies enough or engages in enough self hypnosis will be inspired by the Holy Spirit. (I suppose all of us have some inspiration now and then, but God protect us from thinking we can put in an order for take away at whim.)