Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How Religion Has Changed These Last 50 Years

Does this sort of religion "work" today?
I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air with Terry Gross Easter Monday afternoon while I was in the car and she was interviewing anthropologist T.M. (Tanya Marie) Luhrmann who was speaking about prayer and the experience of evangelical Christians of God “talking back” with them in prayer.  I should have listened to the whole show before I make a judgment but I am a little skeptical of God talking with “evangelical” Christians ever since Jesus told George Bush to invade Iraq.  Trust me, if I ever had a good reason to push saying the rosary it is what God supposedly says to politicians and preachers when you get into free style prayer.  But what caught my attention was this:
“American spirituality has shifted since the '60s toward a much more engaged, responsive, intimately experienced sense of the spiritual. Every church is different. Every person within a church has a somewhat different experience of God. But I thought this represented something really important about American spirituality."  I think this insight has a lot to say about the changed Catholicism of the last fifty years. 
        Now I grew up, or at least got a good head start on growing up, in the pre-Vatican II Church.  I was in High School when the Council met.  I had at that point been through eight years of Catholic grade school and was safely ensconced in a private Catholic Boys High School where we were expected to be in Sodality and where the entire student body went to Mass in the gym every Friday morning.  I grew up with family rosary, Mass on Sunday, Wednesday night Holy Hour, and Friday Stations during lent.  We had no meat on Friday, fasted in Lent and the Vigil of Christmas (and several other days), and had a crucifix in every room in the house (except the guest bathroom), and assorted statues and holy pictures not only in the bedrooms but the living room, family room, foyer, and dining room.  We weren’t fanatics—though it sure sounds like it now—it was what everybody we knew (‘cause everybody we knew was Catholic) did.  We didn’t have Mass in English, communion in both kinds, charismatic prayer meetings, centering prayer, bible study, Lectio Divina, or guided meditation.  Thomas Merton was Seven Story Mountain, Joan Chittester was still wearing a wimple (and not yet writing books), and Richard Rohr and Ronald Rohlheiser were both in Little League. It seems strange in retrospect, but this sort of religion worked.
     Mass was something Father did for us.  He said Mass.  We went to Mass and, if we were in the “State of Grace” and hadn’t eaten, we went to Holy Communion.  God to us was “mediated” by the priest. Those gates in the communion rail were a powerful symbol—they kept us at our respectful distance but they swung open and closed to admit the priest who went from us to God and from God to us.  In the same way, the priest standing at the altar with his back towards us and “facing God” was a clear sign of his role as our designated mediator. 
       And if there was anything that the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council did, it was to give us direct access to God in which the priest may have remained a facilitator but no longer was the mediator.  The gates were gone—the rail was gone—the barrier stood no longer and we could enter the sanctuary without obstacle.  Prayer was in our own language and we could speak with God directly without Father having to take our prayers to God in Latin, God’s language of choice.  The Mass and rites of the Church shaped our prayer, but didn’t exhaust it.  Now people would gather for prayer meetings.  Now there were bible studies.  Now people began reading books about meditation and growing in the spiritual life.  Lay people began having spiritual directors and spirituality shifted from staying out of sin and saying prayers to serious paths of spiritual journeying.  It wasn’t only evangelicals who wanted an experiential prayer life—it was Catholics. 

     This has had various consequences.  For some of us, we have found communities in the Church that help us on this journey.  We attend parishes where the homilies are scriptural and make faith a matter of daily life.  The Liturgy of the Church nourishes us spiritually and is an important component of our relationship with God.  Others have found their experiences of Church lacking anything meaningful.  Sometimes this is because they don’t know what they are looking for, they just know they aren’t finding in Church, or at least the Catholic Church.  Some have found that once you take away the spoon-fed mediated sort of religion, they are not interested in the work a spiritual life takes.  Others have found the Church, or even religion in general, to be no more than stories and ceremonies in which they aren’t interested.  And still others attend churches where the priests are still trying to give them the old mediated religion where the priest will sit on them until they hatch and then feed them beak to beak the worms of piety, predigested in their priestly gullets as if that will give them the nourishment to be spiritual eagles.  I think Vatican II made a brave new start but then I think have had a loss of confidence, not unlike Simon Peter after those first tentative steps across the sea.  I think those who have taken the Council seriously have benefitted in their spiritual growth.  I know I have

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