Friday, August 18, 2006

Triumphalism or Compunction?

This post is occasioned by two immediate causes and a long-term concern. The long-term concern is one that I have alluded to: the necessity of a real aggiornamento in the Church based in creative ressourcement. This is a complex matter and therefore one that I am not inclined to dwell upon too specifically in public. My approach is rather to have entered monastic life and let the Holy Spirit do the creative heavy lifting.

The first immediate cause: from time to time I check the referral websites for our own site just to see who links us. Not infrequently, we are linked to traditional Catholic sites. I have no qualms with this: it is no surprise that our particular community, dedicated to a primitive observance of the Rule and Gregorian chant, would attract Catholics interested in history and tradition.

On the other hand, I often find it pretty difficult to sign on to the general tenor of traditionalist sites and modes of discourse. I feel a bit like the odd ball in high school, not quite getting what it takes to fit in. I admire the zeal shown by apologists and others who take great interest in knowing all kinds of things about tradition, but if one examines the links on these sites, they often go round and round to other links that unfortunately say lots of the same things. I say that this is unfortunate because I don't believe the approach usually found, championing the successes of Catholicism and denigrating any critics of Catholicism (even in its obvious institutional shortcomings), is the way forward.

Perhaps the best way to explain this (I told you that it is not easy!) is to say that this approach seems to me to rely too heavily on the model of the Church as the Perfecta societas, the Perfect Society. This was perhaps the most common model of the Church from Trent until Pius XII's encyclical Mystici Corporis. There is nothing wrong with the model, but all models have limitations. In this case, there is too much of a tendency to look toward earthly successes in the Church as the model and to see sainthood as revolving around being a Great Person. It fits well the Church from about 1100 A.D. to the Enlightenment and then it makes less and less sense.

By contrast, Saint Benedict saw himself not as a great person but as a less-than-average monk compared to the great Fathers before him. He saw his monastery not as the perfect society, but as a school for the Lord's service, populated by imperfect monks:
--monks can be "evil or stubborn, arrogant or disobedient" (RB 2:28)
--"Our holy Fathers, energetic as they were, did all (150 Psalms) in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewarm as we are, can achieve it in a whole week." (18:25)
--"sleepy" monks "like to make excuses" (22:8)
--"We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately..." (40:6)
--"The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent [but] few...have the strength for this..." (49:1-2)
"For observant and obedient monks, all these (books of the holy catholic Fathers) are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues; but as for us, they make us blush for shame at being so slothful, so unobservant, so negligent....With Christ's help, keep this little rule that we have written for beginners..." (73:6-8)

In other words, far from triumphalism, Benedict exhorts us to compunction, humility and prayer, conscious of the fact that we probably won't measure up to our forebears. Here is the wisdom of the Patriarch of Europe.

I mentioned 1100 as a turning point; one characteristic of 'reforms' and the new 'orders' in the Church is that they easily lent themselves to being interpreted as criticizing existing forms of forms of the recent past. New forms of religious life seemed to open up the monastic program to charges of outdatedness and irrelevance (this is an overgeneralization, but I hope that you can see the kernel of truth in it). Where Benedict looks to his immediate predecessors to lament his own inadequacy, Citeaux looks to its immediate predecessors to lament their inadequacy. As the idea of Christendom eventually takes hold, there is an increasing emphasis on the present and a distance from models of the past, much of this transition being quite unintentional.

The Tridentine model of the saint as a warrior for souls and for the glory and protection of the Church would have made little sense in Apostolic, Apologetic or Patristic times. Again, this is not to say that there is not something wonderful about Ignatius Loyola, Francis De Sales, Alphonsus Liguori, John Vianney, Prosper Gueranger and Therese of Lisieux. They are all saints whom I admire and whose intercession has assisted me at many moments of life. But we have entered a new period of time calling for a different mode of holiness, and I don't see the way forward in imitating these models, which depend so much on a visibly extensive Catholic culture that simply does not exist in the West today. For obvious reasons, I propose late-antique and Merovingian models, such as Benedict, Gregory the Great and even the Fathers in general: saints who very creatively preserved what was great and glorious of a dying age but whose love of Jesus Christ allowed them to refashion it for a new age.

The second item, briefly: the publication of a book entitled, Voting About God in the Early Church Councils, by Ramsey MacMullen. The blurb reads: In this study, Ramsay MacMullen steps aside from the well-worn path that previous scholars have trod to explore exactly how early Christian doctrines became official. Drawing on extensive verbatim stenographic records, he analyzes the ecumenical councils from A.D. 325 to 553, in which participants gave authority to doctrinal choices by majority vote. The author investigates the sometimes astonishing bloodshed and violence that marked the background to church council proceedings, and from there goes on to describe the planning and staging of councils, the emperors' role, the routines of debate, the participants' understanding of the issues, and their views on God's intervention in their activities. He concludes with a look at the significance of the councils and their doctrinal decisions within the history of Christendom.

I must confess that I would like to read this book. Part of the difficulty of moving forward as Church is that the traditional explanations of history don't suit post-Enlightenment thinkers, and alternate explanations are scary for Catholics. The idea that there was possibly bloodshed involved in the background of Nicea and Constantinople might seem a threat to the truth of the Faith. But instead of ignoring such a charge, or deciding beforehand that it must be specious or slanderous, why not try to understand the circumstances with sympathy toward those involved and with faith that the Holy Spirit is able to teach Truth through imperfect, even sinful instruments? This might in fact turn out to be a comfort for those of us who have suffered greatly because of the monkey business 'inspired' by Vatican II (this is most of us). The Church may be, in theological terms, the Perfect Society, but she is also made up of sinners on pilgrimage, in the world and not of it, not yet fully regenerated. Let me state again: for anyone who has experienced the agony of battling sin in this life, knowledge that God saves even the imperfect should encourage and embolden, not frighten.

This is a very rough statement of my position, and I recognize its severe inadequancy. Thus, I especially invite charitable comment and correction.

And may Christ lead us all to everlasting life!


Dunstan said...

Good morning, Fr. Prior:

Thank you for your observations

Jorge Sanchez said...

As someone taught by Jesuits for 8 of the 19 years I was in school, I appreciate Jesuit spirituality, their worldview and the triumphalist mindset that came from the era of their founding.

As I've grown older, I've become more attached to the older orders: the Franciscans, Dominicans, and especially the Benedictines. I think it's the humility of a long history that draws me to it. I think more of us can do greater good and less evil if, instead of thinking of ourselves as soldiers in a spiritual fight for the souls and salvation of the world, we think of ourselves as humble laborers and students, praying and living as best we can today.

The problem lies in the difficulty people have realizing that we must live charitably and peacefully with all others, even if we are part of the Church militant; too often we think that being soldiers for Christ gives us license to be uncharitable towards others.

Thank you, Father Peter, for your wisdom.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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