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.