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.’


Anonymous said...

Inspiring and true.

We are living in the era of the beast. Yeats predicted its birth, and I make no excuse for quoting it in its entirety here. His poem is terrible, yet beautiful, which makes it true.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The beast is born, but it cannot win. Christ will come whether or not there is a Christian revival first. It is prophesied, and it is our comfort.

Nathaniel said...

Good perspective! I'm planning on going through confirmation, soon, and it has been a great trial to walk into such a mess with eyes wide open. I have been greatly inspired by this type of Universal Christian perspective. I do not mean quite a "mere Christianity" but more an acceptance that the Church of Christ has (almost) always been flawed and human, going through eras of corruption and intrigue, but still retains at its core to those who seek it God, His sacraments, and enough tradition, grace, beauty and inspiration to fill my life with.

Considering Mathew 13:24-30 has been especially helpful in this regard.

"And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up? And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it. Suffer both to grow until the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn."

stephens said...

Many thanks to John Fitzgerald, that was much appreciated.

Alex said...

"The Church, the Spouse of Jesus, seems to have followed the life of her Lord, and to have exemplified in herself its various stages. There has been the Hidden Life of the early ages of the Church, followed by the more Public Life ... and we now seem to be bordering on the times when the Church will mirage, will reflect, will in fact mystically reproduce the Crucifixion of her Divine Head and Master."

- Ven. Mary Potter:

Imnobody said...

This Catholic only wants to thank you for this post, which, IMHO, can be applied to the entire Christianity.

William Wildblood said...

This is movingly written. Thank you. You’re so right to point out the difficulty of finding a way through the Scylla of legalism, conventionalism, rigidity and cold-heartedness and the Charybdis that is liberal rejection of tradition and denial of transcendent and absolute truth. Somehow we have to sail between them, seeing them both for what they are and not embracing the one as we flee from the other. I think we can only do this by keeping the light of Christ ever present in our hearts. Or trying to do that, at least.

Albrecht said...

I once experienced the Roman Catholic Church in a way similar to Alec Guinness's. I was impressed by the piety, the tradition and the liturgy. I have been very much influenced by Catholic writers such as Thomas A Kempis, G.K. Chesterton, St. Augustine and, more contemporarily, E. Michael Jones. In 1998 I joined the Church.

Over time the institutional response to the priestly sex scandals as well as the degree to which the rot had spread disgusted me. What had for over a thousand years been the ark that held God's people safe in the flood had degenerated into a sordid mess. I thought that evangelical churches, whatever their faults, are less likely to tolerate this kind of abuse. They are less in awe of their pastors and better able to eject them for serious offenses. (As opposed to the apparent RC arrangement where the perverts are transferred to some unsuspecting parish down the road.) Some of them are serious about handling the Scriptures and about moral teaching. In 2005 I left and started attending an Evangelical Church.

There are Latin masses nearby and I am sometimes tempted to attend. Two things make me hesitant: One is that while theses churches and their priests are bravely independent of the Vatican II Catholic zeitgeist, they are still under the same institutional framework and, if push came to shove, would need to conform. The other is the fact that the traditionalist movement is, I think, a rearguard action of those who remember, or remember those who remember, the old pre-Vatican II Church. They are weak and isolated while the forces in the Church which ever whore after the fallen (and falling) world, are in firm control (and were so even under John Paul II and Benedict XVI). The current Pope himself is a socialist and, it appears, something of a cultural Marxist. It sometimes seems that Francis and Roger Mahony and Bishop Weakland et al, really ARE the Church.

Devout Catholics might reject my stance as the self-justification of an apostate. But looked at from the outside (I was not born Catholic) the Church's abandonment, no, its desecration, of its own patrimony makes one wonder if She can really be what She claims.

May God have mercy on us all, especially those engaged in the wholesale vandalization of the Church.

Nathaniel said...

@Albrecht - All your concerns are quite real and serious! I personally attend a Latin Mass under the local diocese weekly and enjoy it, and the type of people it attracts (faithful, conservative Christians with large families) have been helpful to me in trying to figure things out. It is, of course, not a cure-all, but the meditative and beautiful service with chants, etc. is meaningful to me and can't be found elsewhere.

I also think very highly of the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X. I ignore all the political debates and nonsense. They are treading a very careful path, but have been slowly but surely growing since formation, and remain faithful to tradition and Christ's church.

Ratzinger prophesied "The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning... And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith."

Nicholas Fulford said...

"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 ..."

Silence is the space wherein that which is most wondrous expresses. Oh for silence, and a mind that has the patience to sit in such intensity without yielding to distraction.

Aldous Huxley referred to the space between word and silence as a fiercely creative space in his novel "Island". It is the gestational space where things take form from silence and/or dissolve back into silence. It is that antechamber to the hidden, the timeless, the *in itself* - or as close to such as we experience.

This is what I experience at night in a forest on a multi-day hike. I wake up at 03:00 and listen intensely to the near silence of wind in the trees, and it strikes me that is almost as though a conversation is taking place, but one which because of all the noise we have to contend with in our modern world is not something to which we are attuned.

" ... 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."

Nihilism is like anarchy; it is a temporary and transitional state. Whether or not Christianity - if revitalized - can hook into the alienation that people feel to offer a meaning laden alternative is an open question. If it were to do so, I hope that it manifests those qualities that are best about it, and that those aspects which have been most harmful and cruel within the rubric of churches fall away. I find that the various eschatologists who like nothing better than to see the great judgment and the Lake of Fire for unbelievers as noxious vapours and a loud discordant cacophony. If those who practice Christianity were to set aside their various angers and embrace a doctrine of love, who even amongst the atheists would object to that. Let the fruit bear witness to the root of the tree, and if the fruit is rotten surely something is deeply amiss. It may be that the root is corrupt or that somewhere between the root and the fruit some illness is the cause. Still, the simplest thing to understand is love, even if it sometimes extremely hard to practice.