Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Super Flumina

Over Lent I read an excellent book by  Fr Eugene Boylan O.C.R called "This Tremendous Lover". It was written in 1946. It is a book about Christ and how to find Him.

The author spends some pages berating the disappearance of Metaphysics from education, which may seem a million miles away from the aim of the book, but the more this year progresses the more I agree with him.

To quote:
For the source of all the evils and errors in the intellectual life of to-day - the disease that makes much of its utterances, the mere wanderings of a feverish imagination - is the loss of metaphysics and of the ability for abstract thought.

So what has the absence of metaphysics from the intellectual life done for "modern man"?  To paraphrase Fr Boylan:

We think only with our imagination and subsequently we think what can't be imagined must be impossible .
Sentiment rules over moral principles.
The particular clouds the general in arguments.
Opinion trumps certainty.
Prejudice takes the place of judgment
Quantity rules over quality.
Matter is seen as the ultimate reality.
Now as a humble physics teacher, I see time and time again, a spark from pupils  who want to grapple with metaphysics. They are hungry for abstract thought and deep, deep questions as to the nature of things. Questions that don't necessarily have answers but which do require a disciplined approach to thought that is crying out to be nurtured.  I have seen this hunger for thought in some of the roughest and most deprived children I have taught.  I saw it also in clients when I worked for the probation service.  It is something I have regretfully had to walk away from.  Partly because my own training in metaphysics is inadequate and partly because it simply isn't what I'm paid to do.

I have blogged before that the Older Rite of the Mass is a profoundly more metaphysical entity than the Newer Rite.  It transcends matter, space and time simply by what it does.  The New Mass is linear.  Metaphysical and theological reality is not linear, it is the Eternal Present, it is God.  Attend a Solemn High Mass in the Older Rite of the Mass; what the choir is doing may or may not be the same as the priests, they may be in a completely different time frame, yet the priests and choir are not fighting each other.  The reality is in the NOW, it blows the mind away.  Attend a Solemn High Novus Ordo and everything has to be choreographed, the priests have to wait till the choir have sung their "bit", everything drags, it becomes a performance.  The final blessing comes before the "ite missa est" and this simply doesn't make sense. If the supreme interaction with the eternal present that is God is the Mass, and it isn't yet complete as the words "ite missa est" have not been said, then we don't need the priest's blessing.

So I have seen a hunger for metaphysics in ordinary people that could very well lead them to God.  I believe that the newer rite is not as metaphysically satisfying and the older rite of the Mass (but I do not question its validity).  Is the Church really suffering in some wasteland devoid of metaphysics?  Is that really what lies at the heart of the malaise in the world today?  Our intellect is a gift from God, it is there to bring us closer to God.  Are we stifling our intellects through sidetracking metaphysics?

I do feel sometimes like I'm weeping by the rivers of Babylon.  We are stuck in a strange, stifling, miserable land that is curious but doesn't have the language to engage with all that is True and Good.  But what can I do about it?  Wholesale Tridentine Masses for all won't achieve anything.  It is not so much about the liturgy as about our ability to think.  We are losing our ability to think.  The fecundity of Babylon and her daughters is making us all zombies.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Avoiding Pelagianism

This is, as I understand it, a brief summary of the "Scottish" heresy.  Pelagianism is often called the English heresy, but I'm sure Pelagius was a Scot and no doubt Alex Salmond would like to claim him as his own.

Pelagianism states that:
  • Original Sin did not taint human nature.
  • mortal will is still capable of choosing between good and evil without Divine aid
  • Adam set a bad example
  • Jesus set a good example
  • there is no need for grace
  • human free will can attain perfection
  • humans are sinners by choice
  • humans have full responsibility for obeying the Gospel and also full responsibility for every sin.
A modern day pelagian is portrayed as someone who is convinced that they can work out their own salvation.  That through the right prayers, the right discipline, good works and a good life the soul will be judged worthy of Heaven. A modern day pelagian may be caricatured either as a "religious nutter" (a novena, liturgy and rosary junkie) or as an upright member of a church community who goes to church each Sunday, is a fine upstanding member of the community but never examines their own conscience. In either case they are seen to be working for their salvation, but judged to be forgetting God and His mercy and grace.

I have a problem with poo-pooing pelagianism, because like most thing pertaining to come from these Isles it is complex, nuanced and actually worth taking seriously.  Why take a heresy seriously? Well if we don't look it square on, then I fear many more of us will actually fall into a serious trap with regard to our spiritual development.

The thing we must consider is the role of our free will.  Yes pelagianism takes free-will too far and gives it too much power and importance.  However, free will is a gift from God and is something very special.  Without free will, we can not love.  True love is primarily an act of the will and is not the fruit of our sentiments and feelings no matter how noble they may be.  We must will to love God.  We must will to obey the First Commandment above all others.  We must will to love our neighbour. I can't think of a saint who wasn't wilfully stubborn and single minded....

Once we have made this act of the will, we must continually renew that act and in order to avoid pelagianism we must also acknowledge our sinfulness, weakness, fallenness and our total reliance on God and His mercy.  And all of this is very Old Skool Catholicism.  It is the Catholicism of the manuals (see previous post) that tell us not to trust ourselves, that tell us to be disciplined and strive to live a virtuous life, it is the Catholicism that is hard, very hard, often uncomfortable and always humbling work, but work through which Grace can flow.  The problem is, it may be Catholicism that is a bit light on saying that God loves us and that may be why it has fallen out of favour.

However in forgetting this whole package of free will and humility before God, we may be in danger of falling into an equally sinister trap; the trap of presumption.  We presume that God loves us.  OK that is fine.  God really does love all of us, more than we'll ever know.  But then we presume that we're OK. We loose sight of the Gospel message to flee from sin. We presume the Holy Spirit is working in us (in other words, that we are not hindering His working). We loose sight of the need for the Sacraments and the wholesale embrace of the teachings of Holy Mother Church, no matter how uncomfortable they may make us. We make up our own religion, we make up our own god in our image, who is just like us, only better.  And now we've come full circle, because this sort of presumption sounds horridly like pelagianism too!

So, dear reader, my conclusion is that stray from a very narrow path and you will find yourself battling with the briars and brambles of pelagiansism on either side.  

Narrow path through nettles and brambles (Evelyn Simak) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Might you be a latent manualist?

If you look up the work "manualist", you will find it either refers to someone who being rather old fashioned, likes to use a manual of instruction to help them grow in Faith or you will find it means someone who likes to mimic the sound of breaking wind using their hands.  This post will be of no interest to people striving for perfection in the second mentioned field of endeavour.

I'll fess up and admit to being a rabid manualist (of the first kind).  The alternative seems to be spiritual direction, and I've had no luck with that, partly because spiritual directors are such nice people.  Cosy chats with nice people who make you feel good about yourself, that is all I seemed to get.... Maybe Christ spent a lot of time doing that and it never got recorded in the Gospels.  However, encountering and following Christ seems to me to be something far more uncomfortable.

A good manual will have distilled the basic truths of our Catholic Faith and present them with a sound, disciplined look at how to live a virtuous life. It will then take you through your journey of spiritual growth from beginner to advanced, with things to look out for on the way and notes on how your prayer life will change and the challenges you may face.  Much of this is simply a summary of the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, but put in such a way that even a numpty with no prior theological knowledge can grasp.  There will be no flowery language, no touchy feely stuff and certainly no hiding from the fact that you are a sinner, and you must continually WANT to stop being a sinner if you are to make progress.

I will mention below a few choice examples that I have come across, there may be one to suit you.  This are my personal thoughts, they are not meant to be definitive summaries.

  • The Spiritual Life-  Fr Adolphe Tanquerey SS (1930).  A fine, clear manual designed for seminarians but used extensively (before it went out of fashion) in the training of all religious and for the laity.  A soft, paternal style that gently gets you moving forward in the spiritual life.  It remains a classic and the one that personally I like to use. It fell off a bookshelf into my hands for the princely sum of £1 two years ago and I haven't looked back since. It also has a bibliography at the front that will make any lover of classic spiritual writing drool.
  • The Theology of the Spiritual Life- Fr. Joseph De Guibert SJ (1953).  Less weighty than the Tanquerey but very well written and very clear.  It seems to be the last of the manuals, I can't find one later than this.  You can sense that by 1953 manuals are beginning to out of fashion and the author is desperately trying to say that you mustn't dismiss the old ways, Tanquerey and others have much that is good to say, listen to them, they are still relevant.
  • Christian Perfection and Contemplation- Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP (1937).  A manual more suited to those with brain cells.  It lacks the numbered paragraphs of the previous two I've mentioned so it is easy for me to get lost, and is very scholarly as you would expect from the author. It is beautifully and seductively written nevertheless.
  • Abandonment to Divine Providence - Fr J P de Caussade SJ (d.1751) .  This book is the letters of a spiritual director to various religious sisters who were in his care.  It is very caring and covers all the possible things a devout soul may be going through, with a helpful index so that you can home-in on the advice you need.
  • An Introduction to the Devout Life- St Francis de Sales (1608).  A beautifully written classic from a Doctor of the Church. A gentle, gentle book, so gentle people may slip into it like a hot bath, then forget its message is actually rather a tough one.  Despite its gentleness, it is particularly hard on widows, I simply couldn't do what it was asking of me (I'm more Ruth than Naomi and more of a fool with it).  I recommend it to all who are not widowed.
  • The Spiritual Combat- Fr Lorenzo Scupoli (1598?) A violent little manual which strangely was much loved by St Francis de Sales, but is so very different in style.  This is hard, heavy weight punching stuff: you are a sinner, you must stop sinning, you must not trust yourself.  This is a particularly useful manual if you have one particular vice that you really are struggling to overcome.  Sins of the flesh meet their doom if this manual is followed.
  • The Science of the Spiritual Life - Fr James Clare SJ (1896).  This takes you through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in a most beautiful way.  It is heavily scriptural and meditative.  It really is a beautiful book, if you can find it.  You can follow it as a 4 week retreat or pick particular sections to work through. 
  • Manual for Interior Souls- Fr Jean Grou SJ (1803)  Written by a Jesuit who fled to England from revolutionary France.  It is most similar in style to the Caussade but it is not written as a series of letters.  It is the least dry of the manuals I have mentioned and may appeal to those who wish to have their instruction flavoured with a more generous helping of holy sentiment.
The key thing to remember is that manuals are all about bringing us closer to Christ.  There are other means of doing this but I think it is good to have a book of instruction that you stick to, that rests on centuries of experience and prayer, that isn't just the writings of an academic or a latter day mystic.  So I recommend you get trawling the interwebs and second hand shops looking for your own little life saver.

Not a photo of my manual collection, I think these are scouting manuals, but I can't be bothered taking my own photograph....and I'm sure Tanquerey has  a word to say to me about such sloth...