Friday, May 6, 2011

Roots of the Reformation VI: The Spiritual Renewal of the Laity

illumination from a Reformation Era choirbook
in Krakow  Poland
Much of the groundwork of the Protestant Reformations was laid in the centuries immediately preceding.  Luther did not materialize out of thin air and he—and the other reformers—were the heirs of a rich and complex theological heritage that manifested itself in the the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Catholics tend to see the Reformers as innovators who scotched their Catholic roots for something new, but in fact most of the Reformers—and Luther in particular—were actually conservatives who were trying to salvage what was best, or what they estimated as best, in the ancient and medieval Church and pass it on to future generations and one of the characteristics of the medieval Church that they—and again Luther in particular—wanted to pass on was a rich and vibrant life of faith for the individual. 
This is always a problem in Christianity.  What does a life of faithful discipleship mean?  Is a disciple to be a loyal member of the Church, observant of its laws and unquestioning of its authority?  Is a disciple one who has a living and vibrant relationship with Christ, rooted in the scriptures and a life of prayer?  Of course the answer doesn’t require an either/or answer.  But too often a lifeless and formal religion is what people are introduced to and warned not to go beyond by those whose faith is in the Church as an Institution rather than in Christ risen from the dead and present in his Body, the Church, the community of the baptized.  Sometimes the Institutional Church is made into an idol that leads us away from the worship of the Father in Spirit and Truth that Jesus calls us to in the Gospel of John. 
Let me give an example.  Father William Menninger, a Trappist Monk of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer MA was scheduled to give a program on contemplative prayer at St. Ambrose Parish in Annandale VA last February. Father William is a highly respected and widely known authority on contemplative prayer.  He has worked for years with his fellow Trappist, Abbot Thomas Keating in bringing the wisdom of the monastic tradition to ordinary Christians—Catholics and Protestants alike—teaching a method of contemplative prayer called “Centering Prayer.”  Centering Prayer is a form of “acquired contemplation,” that is, a process of preparing the soul for the gift of contemplation proper, “infused contemplation,” by quieting the senses, the imagination, the intellect, and the will.  There is nothing “new age” about this—the practice can be found in one of the most important medieval spiritual texts: The Cloud of Unknowing as well as the Eastern Christian Philokalia, and can be traced back through Cassian to the monastic Desert Fathers and Mothers. It is also consistent with and echoes the Carmelite Tradition, most notably Saint John of the Cross.  What is the problem?
Frankly I don’t know what the problem is, or at Saint Ambrose, was.  But the pastor got phone calls, did “some research” and cancelled his permission for Father William to speak on the parish campus.  This isn’t unusual.  Many of the clergy today are frightened of their congregants being introduced to advanced levels of spirituality.  As one priest in the Newark Archdiocese told me: “What happens if they (the laity) become holier than the priest? Why will they listen to us?”  He has a good question.  Why indeed?  And in fact, it is a danger, a real danger, to the Institutional Church when the laity outstrip the clergy in wisdom, compassion, and faith—all fruits of a life of unitive prayer.  Indeed, in the centuries after the Protestant Reformations, many in the Institutional Church discouraged or even prohibited the laity—and even prohibited many priests and religious—from being introduced to contemplative prayer because they recognized how prayer, in the hands of the laity, had left the Church vulnerable to the influence of the Reformers.  Some of the Reformers—and I emphasize some—were men of genuine personal holiness and faith.  Luther is one such figure.  Despite what most Catholics have been taught, Luther was a man of great spiritual maturity and orthodox Christian faith.  The Catholic-Lutheran dialogues of the last forty years—study sessions sponsored by the Holy See and consisting of both Catholic and Lutheran scholars that examined key doctrinal issues—have found in their study and conversations that Luther was in substantial agreement with Catholic doctrine on questions like the Real Presence  of Christ in the Eucharist.  We have also discovered that Catholic teaching is in substantial agreement with Luther on such signature Lutheran doctrines as Justification by Faith.  This isn’t to say that there are not very important questions that we do not yet have to resolve before we can restore the unity of the Church, but only to say that Luther was no theological mad man.  It also must be remembered that I am talking about Luther—not Calvin, or Knox, or Thomas Műnster.  Each of the Reformers have to be dealt with separately.     
Martin Luther was highly influenced by a German Dominican writer, Johannes Tauler, who in turn had been influenced by the great medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart.  Luther and Tauler were not contemporaries—far from it, Tauler had lived almost two centuries before Luther.    There exists a 1508 edition of Tauler’s sermons, however, that belonged to Luther and has Luther’s marginal notes.  Tauler’s conviction that mere assent to doctrine does not constitute faith, but that faith requires a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ was the motivating drive, or one of the motivating energies, in Luther’s understanding of salvation by faith.  This in turn would motivate John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, two centuries later in his impassioned search for a feeling of being saved.  As the English are not known for their sentimentalism, it was a frustrating search which reached a somewhat tepid apogee in his “Aldersgate Experience.”  While Wesley may have never done better to feel his heart “strangely warmed,” it did stamp the Methodist movement with a great emphasis on “feeling” and as Methodism has probably stamped American Religion, including American Catholicism, with its distinctive subjective enthusiasm, it affects us even today.  In fact, in as that circles are always vicious, this desire for emotional satisfaction in religion brings us back to where we started, to those who find the search for that feeling of intimacy with God motivates them to “centering prayer” and other religious experiences, as well to those who fear “centering prayer” and other religious experiences, being satisfied instead with a meatless broth of doctrine and discipline for their spiritual nourishment.   But that should not be a problem in Catholicism where there is room for all.  In the next posting we will look at the medieval spiritual renaissance, the Devotio Moderna, that created this emphasis on personalized relationship with God. 

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