Was it ever any different?

Here’s an interesting article – Fair Warning – Religious Re-engineering in Progress.

Quite frankly, is anyone surprised? We had Erastianism in the Church of England, and the French Church under Louis XIV had to say and do the right thing. Febronianism in the eighteenth century had the Church in the mould of rationalism and moralism. The Synod of Pistoia advocated the stripping down of churches and the removal of mystery from liturgical worship. I would recommend the reading of Dom Guéranger’s Institutions Liturgiques that was published in 1841 (sorry, it’s in French). The Romantic movement noticed something wrong with classicism and the stuffiness of eighteenth-century privilege of birth and wealth.  Guéranger was briefly associated with Lamennais about whom I wrote a few days ago.

The alignment of religion with contemporary culture is nothing new. Ultimately, it goes back to the Donation of Constantine or whatever really happened in the year those false papers were forged by the clergy. Today’s conservatives and bigots tend to take things out of context as if everything was perfect in the 1950’s.

I find JV’s observations on Gnosticism interesting. It is a kind of religious anarchism, and we know that human nature in society as a whole is such that things are in order with the right Führer (or Grand Inquisitor) for the right moment. However, individual persons in the light of grace are in no need of law or authority. This freedom of the spirit was expressed by Gnosticism and to a lesser extent by monasticism. Nowadays, monasteries are totalitarian corporations, to the extent that an honest abbot will recognise this to be so. The only difference is that monks voluntarily surrender their freedom and their very personalities – chilling. Many of us at different times in history perceive political authorities as “archons”, celestial or demonic powers. No Church or state can allow such a subversive attitude. Therefore, Gnosticism was exterminated and monasticism was discouraged in periods when the Church was more compliant with the State. There is very little to go on when you want to be yourself but yet a law-abiding citizen of your country and your Church!

Without this inner and esoteric dimension, Christ just becomes a moral teacher giving rules for polite society and how to be a good citizen. There is no further need for mystery or spirituality except as a means of manipulation and control. However, Jesus’ message was essentially radical, except for the passages where he seems to support capitalism and the work ethic, especially through the Parable of the Talents.

What can be done today? Clearly, modern society, popular culture and political institutions have no use for Christianity. Perhaps some politicians feel that Islam would fill the gap and be pliable. Any historian will retort that some thought they could buy Hitler and put him to good use in the 1930’s. Daesh and some other terrorist organisations were set up in something like the same way, and now it has taken on its own terrifying life. Christianity is too compromised by its message of compassion for weakness and self-sacrifice. The only Christians who risk persecution are those who commit terrorist acts against abortion clinics and other activities they deem as immoral. No one minds what people believe! Secular powers have no use for churches and none would recognise any authority in a bishop or even the Pope. Ideas of having secular authorities in the Church’s pocket are illusions.

The Church I joined three years ago accepts being marginalised and shunned by the “mainstream”. It is very simple, accept money from the powers-that-be but pay it back with your own soul. You become beholden. I hope and pray that the ACC will continue not to give way to any temptation, given that we have precious little money for churches or resources to train our ordinands for the priesthood. Churches that resist are compromised sooner or later, or die out as the salt loses its savour.

I have often come up with ideas, but I have no more perception than anyone else. We need to take the best and most orthodox from Gnosticism, especially the Alexandrian Fathers like Origen and St Clement of Alexandria among others. We do well to take the essential of the monastic tradition, beautifully resumed in the Rule of St Benedict, and apply it (by reinterpreting certain things) to ordinary people, including married people or single people working in the countryside or the city. Monasteries have become too much like military boot camps! Asceticism needs to be seen in more interior terms, like preferring frugality to comfort, doubt to certitude. It is a question of being more open to God than becoming compliant for dominant humans. The idea of the monastery needs some deconstruction and made into the secret garden of the soul more than a medieval stone abbey. Ideas of naming ourselves abbots and playing games have to be sacrificed, and we have to be ourselves without any external appearance that can justly be demolished and ridiculed by our critics. I am not interested in any of the externals I saw at Triors and Fontgombault and elsewhere, but in a way of renewing the notion of Christianity within ourselves and our close circles of family and friends.

We have not to fear being marginal and eccentric, nor should we dread those who kill the body but cannot touch our souls. This, for me, is the essential point of this article – even if every last cathedral and church has to go to secular use or rising religious ideologies.

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3 Responses to Was it ever any different?

  1. Stephen says:

    Dear Father – thank you for your excellent blog. Could you expand on the comment you made in passing: “I am not interested in any of the externals I saw at Triors or Fontgombault”? I love Fontgombault but found it sober and restrained, certainly when compared with the externals of your old seminary (the abbey church in particular feels very Cistercian to me, with few sacred images and not much colour, but the liturgy is also rather austere in its externals). I imagine the abbey church would originally, centuries ago, have been full of colour tapestries, icons, a rood screen perhaps. Clear Creek is similar, of course, and is the only daughter-house of Fontgombault I’ve visited (I don’t know Triors firsthand, although the Abbot of Clear Creek was the prior there before the foundation at Clear Creek). Anyway, I’d be grateful if you could expand. Many thanks.

    • I’m not referring to the monasteries themselves but the idea of attempts to imitate them. I too loved the liturgy and chant at both Fontgombault and Triors. Some are called to monastic life and it is a noble vocation. Those abbeys are full up and they are constantly founding new houses. I find a lot of inspiration in the Benedictine ideal, but am not attracted to the way monastic life (the bit you don’t see in church or the refectory) the way it is done now. That’s what I meant.

  2. Stephen says:

    Thank you. That makes sense. I’ve seen the bits beyond church and refectory at close range too, when I was a postulant, and I understand where you’re coming from. Yes, the Benedictine ideal is inspiring. I think for laymen, starting the day with the three laudate psalms from Lauds and perhaps saying or even chanting one or two of the small hours from the monastic diurnal through the day is a good place to start, and can easily be managed if we are willing to sacrifice half an hour of the day. I love ending the day with monastic Compline – I still feel connected to the community where I spent a brief time. I’ve found that when I do this I lose the desire to race off and check my email or flick through TV channels or mindlessly surf the net, which then means I have all this extra time in the day for my actual duties, including spending leisure time with my family. It doesn’t always work out of course, but we struggle on.

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