Mysticism and Asceticism

There is an extremely interesting article from the Latin Mass Society Chairman Joseph Shaw in his blog – Mystical not ascetic: a response to Pope Francis, Part 5. This is the last part of a series of articles on Pope Francis. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am of the conviction that we don’t need the Pope to be Catholics, and that we are Catholics in various Churches that are not in communion with Rome. Of course that subject is open to debate, but I do not flinch from such a position.

What is of interest to me is that what seems to be entering the picture is a third way, one that is neither liberal nor conservative. He begins with the distinction in Pope Francis’ mind between mysticism and asceticism – “Ignatius is a mystic, not an ascetic”. Mysticism is openness to the influence of the supernatural, of the Holy Spirit, and asceticism in his mind is close to legalism and being closed in on oneself. He is very insistent on criticising the kind of Christian who wants to turn back the clock, go by rigid rules and want everything clear and safe. Being attached to Tradition transcends looking to authority and discipline for doctrinal security. Tradition is the wholeness of the Church and the Christian experience in the whole of history, and not merely the period when the Church seemed to offer the most security and certitude.

This distinction may seem to be a little tortured, but it reflects some of my own thought over the years, and also that of some so-called “modernists” from the beginning of the twentieth century, Tyrrell in particular. That is a notion of being attached to traditional forms of liturgy and spirituality without being of a legalist or authoritarian attitude. We come to the idea that such “traditionalism” is not a part of the “liberal” and “conservative” dialectic. Many traditionalists are not “extreme conservatives” but rather of another category altogether. The points on which “traditionalists” differ from the “conservatives” are exactly legal positivism and Ultramontanism. Incredible! That this should come from a Roman Catholic’s pen!

Being a traditionalist in this perspective is being critical of these conservative tenets. We find Pope Francis showing opposition to canonical positivism and the centralisation of the Church with its logical consequence in Ultramontanism. One capital principle of canon law is salus animarum seprema lex – laws are overridden by the spiritual principles of Christianity. The moral obligation to obey laws is overturned when their literal observance would go against the whole purpose of ecclesiastical law. Laws have to promote the common good, and it is not legitimate to use law as a tool for gaining personal power – for example. Looking through the layers, I see Pope Francis calling upon the principle of subsidiarity – decisions being made at the lowest levels possible: leaving to diocesan bishops what diocesan bishops find within their competence, and the same with parish vicars and vestry councils. In that way, we don’t need to hear doctrines and moral teachings repeated ad nauseum by the Pope so that they may be that much “more true” for us. Still, many things said by Pope Francis seem to be incoherent, far from “infallible” and often confusing. It is not my duty to defend him at all costs – though there is a very appealing “core”.

Traditionalists like Dr Geoffrey Hull have influenced my own thinking in that they are critical of centralism and absolute Papal authority. In this, they differ from conservatives. A highly apposite point is that traditionalists appeal to the principle of preserving and fostering local liturgical rites and uses. Conservatives see liturgical pluralism as a source of problems and a lack of unity in the Church, above all a lack of lock-step discipline. Traditionalists are more likely to disobey through the use of their conscience. Do not we Anglicans see our own faces in this particular mirror?

One thing I do notice about this Pope is that his positions are not typical of the old liberalism of the 1970’s or the Anglican Establishment. I try to see through the tacky vestments and externals that seem to have taken the post-Benedict XVI Church back to the 1970’s. His doctrine of the priesthood is completely traditional. The liberal sees secularism as the yardstick to which religious practice should be conformed for the purpose of fostering political issues or “going beyond” Christ. We should be open to the world – but not of the world. Liberals love bureaucracy, committees and meetings. The Jesuit Pope sees the priest called to the front lines of his ministry and the sacrificial dimension. One thing by which we will be able to judge the Pope in the coming years will be how he deals with bureaucracies and all the stuff that makes the Church inaccessible to ordinary folk.

These considerations will not classify the Pope as a “traditionalist” and certainly not a “traditionalist” who is really a “super conservative”. Anyone’s words can be twisted around to mean anything. This is why I am not interested in “Pope-sifting”. We have to try to understand the underlying philosophy and get beyond the “buzz” phrases and the trappings.

We need to explain that Traditional Catholics are not hyper-conservatives with all the baggage of Ultramontanism and legalism…

It’s an interesting thought, but many of the RC traditionalists I came across were “super conservatives” and “true church” fanatics. But not all by a long chalk. All we can really understand from Pope Francis is his criticism of both conservatives and liberals. Does he recognise a “third way” transcending Tweedledum and Tweedledee? Only time will tell.

In regard to the use of the old Latin liturgy, the Pope seems concerned that it should become a kind of “ideological banner”. On the other hand, he has wonderful things to say about the Orthodox Liturgy and everything we attribute to our own traditional rites and uses. As mentioned in an earlier article, much will be discovered by the Pope’s choice of someone to head the liturgical department of the Vatican.

The traditionalist world is extremely diverse, with Jansenistic (“Augustinian” puritanism) undercurrents together with other theories more or less detached from reality or common sense. We continuing Anglicans, especially Anglo-Catholics, have much in common with the eminently liturgical motivation of our dissidence from the “mainstream”. Problems arrive when there are obsessions, single-issues and hobby horses, rather than an honest attempt to see the big picture. We have analogical problems in our circles.

I suppose, as this series of articles was written by a Roman Catholic, it is an appeal for “traddies” to get their act together and get rid of the cranky “stuff”. It would be a start. One lesson can be learned from the American experience of Prohibition in the 1930’s. Ban alcohol, and human nature will bring people to want to drink it increasingly. Ban the old Mass – and it is a most unpastoral thing to do. Prohibiting the old liturgy brings people to revolt and come up with self-justifying theories. If people could just get on with life, there would be no controversy, and the Church would be one in peace. We still have alcoholism and drunkenness in countries where people can drink freely, but perhaps less so than under Prohibition. I think the comparison is valid.

Wherever we are, in the RC Church, some dissident traditionalist community, or among us continuing Anglicans on the “other side of the fence”, the priority is not our self-justification but our Christian commitment and to the living and incarnate Christ through the Sacrament, the liturgy and beauty. Once we just get on with life, the world might become that little bit more peaceful – and nearer to God.

* * *

Update: see Alms and Liturgy. How Francis Wants Them by Sandro Magister. For all the good words we read, we cannot count on this Pope for the liturgy. Thank goodness we Anglicans don’t have to!

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8 Responses to Mysticism and Asceticism

  1. Given the simplicity of this Pope’s lifestyle, I find it difficult to imagine why anyone would say he is not ascetic.

  2. Hope says:

    Actually, prohibition was sort of a success. Pre-prohibition, the level of alcohol consumption was something like 5 liters per year per American. After, it was down to 2 liters per year and has never returned to pre-prohibition levels!

    • ed pacht says:

      Ummm, that’s open to interpretation. Prohibition itself resulted in an immediate upsurge of violent crime (as well as an immediate upsurge of drinking in certain segments of the population in defiance of the law) and the construction of an underground system of organized crime that hasn’t evaporated and still has a great deal of influence. Many are convinced that major negative phenomena such as a massive drug trade. stem directly from that period. I can’t say I know that for sure, but there is citable evidence. Yes, alcohol consumption is lower now than it was before Prohibition, but (though statistics are understandably ot very reliable for the period it has been claimed that consumption is also lower now than it was during Prohibition. My considered opinion is that it is the regulation of alcohol sales that came into being after repeal that has made the difference, and that it would have been far nore effective to impose such regulation rather than the failed experiment of outright prohibition.

      • This seems to be an excellent analysis. I’m an ex-smoker and I look at the reasons that brought me to decide to kick the weed as we say in England. The thing that is uppermost in my mind is the fact that smokers are enslaved to smoking, not so much by tobacco and nicotine but by the various chemicals that are added to enhance the dependence. It became a form of exploitation from which I had to declare my independence. Then there was the health aspect and the smoke smells on everything in the house and all my clothes. Thirdly, the price of cigarettes was going up and up and I am horrified to see how much they cost now seven years later!

        The point about all this is that many of us don’t like to be “nannied” and have things prohibited and forbidden. If I were a drug addict, prohibition of drugs wouldn’t make me want to stop, but rather the reasons that made me give up cigarettes mentioned above. It is a human and psychological thing. I think prohibition in America in the 1930’s enabled the Mafia to build itself up and turn its ways to even more lucrative commodities like drugs and prostitution.

        Drinking is a cultural thing. There’s a lot of “binge drinking” in England, Ireland and Scotland and kids are dying of cirrhosis of the liver. In France, drinking is more social and associated with meals – but alcoholism exists here too. If we had alcohol prohibition it would criminalise drinkers and feed a black market. People buck and revolt against prohibitive laws – everything is forbidden but anything can be “worked out”! People don’t like to be preached at. The best argument against any kind of substance abuse is health, or even better, the fact that they are being manipulated and enslaved by others, and they would regain their independence by getting off the addiction.

        Damian Thompson is well up on the subject of substance addiction in his book The Fix, and I have been impressed by many of his blog entries on the subject. It is something we need to learn something about in the interests of our pastoral work and as compassionate human beings.

  3. The thread drift here is FASCINATING, but since I can contribute something to where the conversation has gone, I’ll play:

    A short bibliography relating to addiction and recovery listing items that every clergymember should be familiar with:

    From AA: “Alcoholics Anonymous” (the “Big Book”) and “12 Steps and 12 Traditions” (the “12 and 12”)

    “Addiction and Grace” Gerald May

    “Invitation to a Great Experiment: Exploring the Possibility that God can be Known” Thomas Powers

    “Sin as Addiction” Patrick McCormick

    “The Dark Night of Recovery: Conversations from the Bottom of the Bottle” Edward Bear (N.B.: This books demonstrates a rather superficial anti-Christian bias. However, it is clear that the spirituality underlying it is profoundly Christian, even if the author would perhaps be loath to admit this.)

    • Addiction is a subject being researched by the medical profession. There are physiological characteristics such as the stimulation of hormones and stuff like dopamine in the brain. This can be caused both by chemical substances and “self-rewarding” behaviour. I stopped smoking 7 years ago and am completely off the nicotine and all the other rubbish they put in cigarettes. But sometimes, I get the occasional craving, which can now be simply chased away by a deep breath or a prayer. My own experience of tobacco addiction shows me that the problem cannot be solved by external moralising and patronising attitudes. The person has to work it all out – he has to want to quit.

      See Addiction: the coming epidemic by Damian Thompson. We can get addicted to anything, not only to chemicals.

      Probably, the most insidious substance is sugar in food and drink, and then the other stuff, as what gets puts in cigarettes to make them more addictive. Pornography is the other killer. Remember that Ted Bundy, the depraved serial killer who ended up on the electric chair, admitted that his vice originated in pornography. Another source of “stimulation” is the internet. When I was a teenager, we went to libraries to find out things. Now it’s all instantly available, and we want more and more of it.

      Damian Thompson’s definition of addiction is:

      We should think of addiction as, essentially, supply-driven behaviour that hijacks reward circuits common to all human beings and most animals. Particular substances and actions cause the brain to overproduce dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and, especially, desire. It’s even been suggested that a line of cocaine has a similar effect on the brain to the experience of falling in love. Certainly both cokeheads and young lovers spout similar varieties of carefree nonsense; also, they both exhibit signs of craving typical of dopamine.

      Since addictive highs are supply-driven, you can usually ‘cure’ an addict by cutting off the supply. But that’s easier said than done. This isn’t Vietnam. You can’t round up consumers of depraved videos and airlift them to a porn-free part of the world.

      Interesting. Modern consumer culture, seemingly about to collapse, depends on addiction and “producing surges of dopamine and other feelgood brain chemicals“.

      It all comes down to self-denial and asceticism (I might seem to be contradicting my article to which these comments are attached). Perhaps we need a great depression, twelve years of evil gangsters who send millions of people in trains to far-off places to be killed, and then the war of all wars. That is an atrocious thing to say, and the history of the twentieth century from 1929 to 1945 has done next to nothing in the way of bringing the world to God! There has to be another way, a more constructive “dark night of the soul”.

      The progress of technology and consumerism is accompanied by obesity and alcoholism wherever it goes, even in countries where people are starving. It would seem that addiction goes beyond the body and the soul, and is a true spiritual malaise. One can even be addicted to religion and its secondary aspects. How do we deal with temptation and sin? Perhaps as religious man has always done, through conversion and penance.

      We have to find a way to break the infernal circle.

      Looking at the comments to Damian Thompason’s article, one comment draws our attention to SMART Recovery as an alternative to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The most important tenet seems to be Teaches self-empowerment and self-reliance – encouraging. I don’t know if it’s any good, but it looks promising.

      • “The most important tenet seems to be Teaches self-empowerment and self-reliance – encouraging.”

        The problem is, it is the illusion of the possibility of “self-empowerment and self-reliance” that leads to addiction in the first place.

        Damian Thompson is Roman Catholic. He should know better.

        The First Step reads: “We admitted that we were powerless over _____________, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

        THIS is the beginning of all conversion.

      • I imagine that it is a secular organization, and can only put over secular principles. In a way, as was my experience with cigarettes, the way out for me was the notion of deliverance from a kind of slavery, especially the companies that manufacture cigarettes and the state tax offices that profit from their cut. This was in a sense an act of anarchy, self-reliance and self-empowerment. I would not have succeeded had it been a matter of compliance with the anti-smoking lobby! Though I am now a non-smoker, I can’t stand those people! I don’t find the notion entirely bad despite its Pelagian overtone for us Christians.

        Naturally, conversion to Christ is the best way out of all addictions, whether it is substances, behaviour or sin.

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