Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Personal Reflection on Contemporary Roman Catholicism - an invited guest post by John Fitzgerald

Silence, Encounter and Depth
A Personal Reflection on Contemporary Catholicism
By John Fitzgerald

And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?
Matthew, 14: 29-31
I was born into an Irish Catholic family in Manchester in 1970. I had no idea, as a boy, of the seismic changes that had occurred in the Church prior to my birth. I don’t recall anyone – at home, church or school – referring to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) or the change in the language of the Mass from Latin to English. My mother was (and is) a devout and serious Catholic. Her practice of the Faith was in no way affected by what had happened, positively or negatively. Throughout the 1980s, as I looked deeper into Church history, I tended to assume, rather blithely, that my mother’s attitude and experience had been common to everyone, that nothing much had happened and that the Church was rolling on as normal and maybe even going forward. Thirty years on it is as plain to me that this assumption was false and that, if anything, the reverse is true. The liberal/conservative polarity exacerbated by Vatican II – a little like Morgoth’s theft of the Silmaril and Fëanor’s subsequent curse – continues to disrupt and divide, weakening the Church and undermining her mission to the world.

Our local parish, in suburban Manchester, fully embraced the liberal credo. The altar rail vanished and the church was ‘re-ordered’, with the altar in the middle of the nave and the pews all around, a little like Liverpool RC Cathedral but without the space and atmosphere. I remember, as an altar boy, disliking the maudlin modern music at the Sunday 11am Mass and the chumminess, bordering on smugness, of the congregation. I felt bad about this. I should, I told myself, have had a more positive response to the main Mass of the week. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t, and also, conversely, why I felt such closeness to Christ at the early morning weekday Masses and at Benediction on a Thursday evening, when the priest had just myself and a handful of worshippers for company. But there was silence and depth there – that was the difference – and room for the Divine. These low-key services were at the antipodes of Sunday mornings, where the focus was fully on the human – the ‘People of God’ – and the numinous was chased away in a welter of noise and banality.

When the teenage storm broke, this soft-focus faith provided no kind of ballast. I drifted, almost without realising it, into the dour secularism masked as revolt so emblematic of post-1968 youth. As its spiritual deadness dawned on me, during my last year at university, I began attending a ‘conservative’ Catholic church. I was astonished; filled with awe and wonder. Here was the quality and distinction missing from the church of my youth – Palestrina, Byrd, incense, bells, the priest facing East – away from the people, towards the tabernacle – and a Latin Mass every week.

I was smitten. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t last. It wasn’t long before I detected a hollowness at the heart of things – a camp showmanship, which manifested itself in a fussiness regarding robes and vestments which irritated me as much, if not more, than any number of ‘70s liberal platitudes.

The priests were kind, well-meaning and wise in their way, but their exhortations from the pulpit were drab in the extreme – follow the rules, don’t rock the boat, all will be well. There was no imagination, no mystery, no agony, no depth, too little silence, and for me, at that time of my life, no encounter. I wasn’t pious like that. I was (and am) a Celt, for whom the borders between this world and others have always been porous. That sensibility was totally lacking. So, finding only legalism and lifeless ceremony, I jumped ship and plunged into the stimulating, though sometimes treacherous torrent of the Western Mystery Tradition. Much of what I picked up during that mid-to-late ‘90s era (e.g. the work of Colin Wilson and Geoffrey Ashe) has been of lasting value, but ultimately, the whole amorphous set-up promised more than it delivered. It was a hall of mirrors. The Divine, though partially glimpsed, remained elusive, disregarding the junior magician’s command to come into focus.

It was only in the mid-2000s, after discovering the Traditionalist (or Perennialist) school of René Guénon and others that I began to re-conceive Catholicism, this time on a civilisational level, seeing it as a deeper, wider, broader entity than the liberal, conservative or nationalistic narratives of my past had allowed for. I saw the Church in her eternal context, ‘rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners’, as C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters. Catholicism, I realised, is a path to God that has played, and can play again, a pivotal role in the spiritual formation of the West. It might not be the only path, or the right one for all people at all times in all places, but for the West, and for Europe in particular, its past achievements, together with the spiritual power and potential it still contains, demand to be acknowledged and acted upon.

Nowadays, for the first time in my life, I feel in quite a good place, institutionally speaking. I worship at a Jesuit church, which places high value on contemplation and the Ignatian tradition of imaginative prayer, focusing on a personal encounter and relationship with the living, risen Christ. There is an also an Oratorian church nearby, which has a regular Latin Mass, so the civilisational elements which have become so crucial to me – this connection with Britain and Europe’s Roman past – is covered as well.

The Devil, however, as Lewis well knew, is a skilled and subtle operator. Each day of my Catholic life is another staging post in the battle to keep my distance from the legalistic squabbles which so disfigure the Church. The ‘hot’ example at the moment is the debate concerning allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion. The liberal argument, at its best, sees a softening of the existing strictures as a Christ-like notion, akin to His verbal dismantling of the ‘whited sepulchres’ of first-century Judea. Conservatives dismiss this stance as intellectual window-dressing. The liberals, they claim, are simply caving in to contemporary mores. Communion for the remarried, they argue, is merely a Trojan Horse for same-sex marriage and the gender ideology behind it.

Broadly speaking, I feel that the conservative understanding is right, though I don’t believe it would be particularly catastrophic if the liberal view were to prevail one day, as long as it was underpinned by solid theological reasoning. But it’s hard sometimes to maintain the conservative line when one hears and sees the rigidity, cold-heartedness, institutionalism, paranoia and legalistic aggression often deployed, in certain Catholic forums, in its defence. Conversely, other comments, elsewhere in the RC press, portray the liberal mind-set at its absolute worst – naïve, deluded, self-destructive, blinded by modernity, and utterly ignorant of the great patrimony handed down to this generation of Catholics by the saints, martyrs, popes, scholars and ordinary men and women of previous times. Malcolm Muggeridge, thirty-five years ago, wrote superbly about this in The Great Liberal Death Wish. To learn where well-intentioned liberal reforms coupled with the dismantling of tradition can lead, he suggests, one need do nothing more than read Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, that grim and startling prophecy of the collapse of liberal values and the unleashing, via the Russian Revolution, of unbridled nihilism. ‘After us, the Savage God’, as W.B. Yeats put it.

The Communion debate has been raging for two years now. It is difficult, for myself at least, to see it as anything other than a colossal sideshow and distraction – a quite spectacular waste of time and energy. A demonic intelligence, surely, is setting the agenda here. Both sides are being ‘played’. The world around us dissolves into spiritual, intellectual and material chaos. Imagination and inspiration are needed as matters of urgency, yet the focus of too many Catholics is diverted elsewhere, on human constructs and political agendas – the maintenance or amelioration of rules. Not that this isn’t important. It is. But on its own level, which isn’t the highest. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this perfectly. His paean to the Blessed Sacrament in his Letters shows exactly where Catholic priorities should lie: ‘Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.’

This transcendent element was what most moved the actor, Alec Guinness, on his first of many visits to Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire: 

Arriving at the large, draughty, austere, white chapel I was amazed at the sights and sounds that greeted me. The great doors to the East were wide open and the sun, a fiery red ball, was rising over the distant farmland. At each of the dozen or so side-altars a monk, finely-vested but wearing heavy farmer’s boots to which cow dung still adhered, was saying his private Mass. Voices were low, almost whispers, but each Mass was at a different stage of development, so that the Sanctus would tinkle from one altar to be followed half a minute later by other tinkles from far away. For perhaps five minutes little bells sounded from all over and the sun grew whiter as it steadily rose. There was an awe-inspiring sense of God expanding, as if to fill every corner of the church and the whole world. 

'The regularity of life at the Abbey, the happy faces that shone through whatever they had suffered, the strong yet delicate singing, the early hours and hard work – for the monks are self-supporting – all made a deep impression on me; the atmosphere was one of prayer without frills; it was very easy to imagine oneself at the centre of some spiritual powerhouse, or at least being privileged to look over the rails, so to speak, at the working of a great turbine.’

It is precisely this ‘turbine’, this ‘power-house’ – this level of intensity – this silence, encounter and depth, that we need to tap into if we are to entertain hopes of igniting a Christian renaissance in the West. Without this spiritual energy and zeal, our society is left almost completely denuded, with nothing to show for itself except a giant religious and philosophical vacuum. And this vacuum will be filled, one way or the other, if not by a revived Christianity, then, in the long-term, by the imposition of authoritarian rule, either through the depredations of a corrupted ruling class or the ascendancy of a rival civilisation. What will ensue, I suspect, will be a second ‘War of the Ring’, the outcome of which will be every bit as uncertain as in Tolkien’s legendarium, and just as dependent on the extent to which the remnant of the West look up towards the outstretched hand of Christ or down towards the dissolution of a purely human social and political order. ‘Where there is no vision,’ as the Proverb says, ‘the people perish.’