Post-post-everything

Since my writing up Monsignor Pope’s article in my posting a few days ago, The Challenge of Downsizing, our good friend JV has posted “Tridentine” stagnation in a post-Summorum Pontificum world. It makes things even clearer. What is a Church without the crowds? Simply it is one that cannot afford big buildings, prestige and status, all things that did not matter to Christ or which were thought of as obstacles to the spiritual life. I think I have said it clearly enough.

I remember the brash assumptions of traditionalists, both Roman Catholic and Anglican, that beauty and “other-worldly” liturgy would draw in the crowds. They haven’t. Most people do not appreciate “classical” music neither, nor to they visit museums or art galleries. Most people watch television and listen to the rhythms and melodies to which they can relate. According to the principle of inculturation, methods of evangelism have to involve modern television entertainment. Count me out!

If “evangelization” is the way, what does that word mean? Etymologically, it means bringing groups of people to believe in or live according to the Gospel. There is also the question of the contradictory aspect of using the old liturgy in defiance of authority, thus creating a dialectic that causes reflection and commitment. If this element is gone by the old liturgy being assimilated into the ordinary diocesan system, the salt loses its savour. In my other article, I compared most “evangelization” with methods of marketing products and services in the secular world. The evangelical Protestants are the ones who do that best, especially the American “mega-churches”. If number matter, they have them – so shouldn’t we bite the bullet and go and get “born again” in a shower of emotion?

The bottom line is asking ourselves whether all people are “called” to be Christians. It comes back to the old exclusivism and the role of the “true church” in salvation. It is circular and a never-ending loop. I am not going to go into this again, and it is the main reason why I am breaking that loop by appealing to some of the Gnostic ideas. I don’t believe it is a matter of what happens when we die, but rather what knowledge we can gain of the immanent “kingdom” or divinity within ourselves, what the Orthodox call θέωσις. In reality, the notion is similar to Gnosticism with the difference of vocabulary and reference to mythology. People will not be encouraged to find this degree of “deification” by filling the pews of a mega-church, waving their hands in the air and getting emotional like at a rock concert.

Those people who become Christians are open, seeking of their own accord and “waiting”. They have enough knowledge to know that something higher than “ordinary life” exists and is desirable. I too have to abandon the illusion according to which liturgy and beauty would attract people to any church, be it a great cathedral or a converted garden shed.

The real issue is not whether we like churches or not. I have spent all my adolescent and adult life in churches – as a choirboy, choir man, organist and going through the minor and major orders at seminary. As a priest, my church life is what I make of it. The real issue is our fundamental priorities in life – whether we are interested in seeking our full spiritual potential (which goes to a different degree for each of us) or whether we are dead or nearly dead in this life.

When the spiritual soul begins to live, we have other needs and priorities than what goes on in churches. Those of us who remain “asleep” remain in the prison house from which Christ offers us liberation. The reality is not liturgy or joining the hot-gospel hard-selling teams, but working on ourselves and having compassion for all. The Gnostic notion of the three kinds of humanity (spiritually aware, tied to religious routines and laws, and materialists) is both salutary and dangerous. It can cause the “elite” to see everyone else as “sub-human” in the manner of the Nazis, or it can help us to recognise those who are nearest the “kingdom”. How do we know if we are “spiritual”? That is probably the most difficult thing in the world, but there are indicators. One is being free in a world that does its best to be our prison and motivated by love.

If the word “evangelization” has any meaning, it is the work we do on ourselves to become aware and alive, free and motivated by love. This can only be shared with others who have also “got it”, for whom no explanation or propaganda is necessary. Its finality is not putting bums on church pews, but something much higher. Perhaps some progress is possible via churches and sharing something with the literalists of routine and law, so that a light bulb may light up. Many things can make lives change, usually suffering of some kind. I remember the long Mattins services at Triors Abbey where I “suffered from suffering from the liturgy“. These were inner conflicts that would be interpreted in one way by my Abbot, and in another way as I began to discover.

We are coming to a stage where not only those who have “got it” are in a tiny minority, but also those who seek truth, routine, law and security. The vast majority seem to be materialists, dead as far as we can see, and who may well be annihilated when they physically die. That is something very hard and bitter to contemplate, but a horse can be brought to water but not forced to drink. That is essentially why I see most “evangelization” as futile. This saying from the Gospel of Philip will leave us with more than raised eyebrows:

Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing.

As a priest, I can be human and compassionate with all, try to bring consolation in suffering – but only open to the call from an imprisoned soul. With most people I know, this is so rare. Here on the internet, there is a wider interaction, but I never get to meet any of you reading my words.

All that being said, beware of appearances. Holiness is found in the most unexpected people and situations. Often it is the lowest that are the highest and vice versa.

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2 Responses to Post-post-everything

  1. Anthony says:

    Dear Fr. Chadwick,

    I have been reading your blog for some time now, having stumbled upon it while researching resources for the Sarum liturgy, and then discovered your philosophical and theological musings, including confrontations with post-modernism and gnosticism. As some of these topics border on my personal theological reflections I thought I would post. I will attempt brevity.

    I will preface my arguments by stating that my religious history is that of a soul confronting precisely the post-modern dilemmas you mention: a) the question of the specific reality of Christianity in relation to other religions, and contemporary science and philosophy – with a major focus on the authenticity of religious and mystical experiences found through other sources, b) the reality of Christianity in relation to history? My search over two decades has involved immersion in the new age, in Hinduism and Buddhism (normative and Tantric in both cases), Islam, various forms of Gnosticism (ancient to contemporary), atheism, ‘personal religion’, Roman Catholicism, and finally – my home in Anglo-Catholicism. If you are interested, I can post on these two dilemmas another time, but for now I will just comment on Liturgy and Gnosis.

    Liturgy and Gnosis

    Although the Gnostic typology: hylic, psychic, pneumatic can apply as a generalization for people, it can also apply to the individual. In a sense, your physical body is hylic, your soul is psychic, and your spirit is pneumatic. Many people are predominantly one of the three. You can also cycle through these. Religious life is a progression where the journey is very much the focus. Spiritual insight, or mystical experience itself, does not wipe out the tendency to sin permanently. It does not do away with doubt, fear, etc. (There is some similarity to the Hindu formulation of the gunas (Tamas = Hylic, Rajas = Psychic, Sattva = Pneumatic). Ultimately, however, the body, and the soul are vehicles to be used to reach the pneuma. A ladder of spiritual ascent.)

    I highly recommend reading so me works on Mystical Theology, specifically Fr Garrigou-Lagrange. In fact, in terms of ‘the dark night of the soul’ or the experience of ‘dryness’, it may be essential to experience these things in order to rely on God rather than our own false senses of security. For me, that highlights the difference between Faith, as a theological virtue, and belief – as a cognitive phenomena. Faith is deeper, and co-exists with doubt. Belief often does not. Belief is a social phenomena, Faith – a spiritual one.

    To me, a fundamental ‘gnosis’ is that the psyche itself cannot be pneumatic. It can be a vehicle towards experiencing the reality of the pneuma (as in a reflection in a glass) but it is not pneuma itself. The psyche of the individual will always contain the tendency towards sin, doubt, ideation, and all the other conditions arising from duality itself, or the fall – as long as it is identified as being the individual themselves (Cf. The Catechism of the Council of Trent). This is akin to saying that ‘the answer’ you seek is not verbal, cognitive, intellectual. It is spiritually discerned.

    As God the Father is the ‘maker of heaven and earth’, all things that are, are good in potential. The psyche is thus not to be annihilated. It is to be trained. An eastern aphorism has it that ‘the mind is a good slave but a poor master’. St. Paul writes frequently about this. As such, what is needed is a way to experience ourselves as spirit, rather than just soul or flesh. A spiritual practice, a religious discipline. This is where the Church becomes vital in terms of the Sacraments and the Scriptures.

    Hebrew 4:12 states that “the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit”. The mention of a two-edged sword reminds us of the imagery of Christ in the Book of Revelations as the Word Himself, but also of that poignant scene in Genesis 3:24 where the Garden is sealed off by a “flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life”. We know that the ‘letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ – therefore a true, devotional, and spiritual reading of the Scriptures is necessary to experience Gnosis. You will find this in the lives of most great Church Fathers and mystics. St John of the Cross, like St Dominic, was often found reading the Bible. The Bible itself, like all else, is capable of being read in a hylic, psychic, or pneumatic way. The key is Christ.

    I have already written over-long, despite aiming at brevity. I have fallen short of the mark! I will conclude by saying that Liturgy – in terms of both the Eucharist and the Word – is the way to Gnosis. To quote a pope, ‘it is the fount and summit of the Christian Life’. The graces received through our involvement in this religious discipline will then unfold in our reading of scripture (whether through Lectio Divina, an Ignatian exercise, a reading using all four senses of scriptures, or just reading prayerfully) and through our practice of contemplation (which can take many forms – from Hesychasm, or more Western forms of Contemplative prayer – cf. the Cloud of Unknowing, or the works of St. John of the Cross, or Meister Eckhardt, or whomever – there is no shortage of Genuine Mystics throughout the centuries who have experienced and written about true, deep, contemplative prayer). Ultimately, the important thing in religious discipline is consistency, rather than method. You do the watering, but it is God who gives the increase.

    These are just my thoughts, ‘if we shadows have offended…’.

    Yours in Christ,

    Anthony

    • Many thanks for your thoughts. Going by your IP address or that of your service provider, you live in a lovely part of the world. That seems to be a place where I would launch my boat and let the world forget me for a little while. I can only imagine the smells of the eucalyptus and other wild plants under the sunshine.

      You might find many answers to your questions speeding over the water in a fresh breeze and a well-trimmed sail. I appreciate your comments and self-discovery. He who wants to imitate Christ can do so only by being thoroughly himself. That is the condition of any love for the “other”. I have read interpretations of the Parable of the Sower. Christ explains it as meaning the ways different people receive the Gospel teaching. It can also mean the different “parts” of ourselves.

      We all fall short and we all have ourselves to discover. We may find that this is a part of the message of our Lent.

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