Sorry for the hiatus—every so often I get swamped with things and the blog falls back in priorities, but I want to return to a topic we were discussing a week and more ago—the tensions about the liturgy in the Church today. I had written in my entry of August 13th of the dearth of spirituality in the Church today. This is tragic in a faith that has a heritage rooted in the personal encounter with Christ by his disciples, male and female, reflected by its scriptures and flowering in a history of mysticism from the profound experiences of Paul and John the Divine through the Desert Fathers and Cassian, Ephrem the Syrian and Pseudo-Dionysisus and John Damascene, Bernard, Francis, and Julian, a Kempis, Ruyersbroeck and Tauler, Teresa, John and Ignatius, deSales, Marie of the Incarnation, and Brother Lawerence, Thérèse, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and Edith Stein—not to mention Gertrude of Helfta, Beatrice of Nazareth, Richard Rolle, Hadjewich, Dom Augustin Baker, and countless others all the way down to Thomas Merton, Jessica Powers, and Mother Theresa.
Some intellectual historians speak of “the suppression of mysticism” as a reaction to the Quietist heresy of the seventeenth century. I think there is something to this. Ever since antiquity the Church has been afraid of “illuminism,” the idea that one should be guided by an “inner light” that trumps the faith of the community. Several of the heresies that tore apart the ancient Church were driven by this passion for radical subjectivity. The Montanists—among others—embraced this conviction that it was The Holy Spirit that spoke to the individual believer and that such personal inspiration reflect a sort of ongoing revelation that could overrule even scripture. It was in reaction to this radical religious individualism that the Church early developed a commitment to the idea that the truth resides not in the individual, even the inspired individual, but in the community’s collective discernment. Here is found the sensus fidelium—the living faith of the faithful—as the guarantor of orthodoxy. Along with the scholarship of the theologians and the pronouncements of the magisterium, but even more foundational than the scholarship and the magisterium, the sensus fidelium was the bulwark of orthodoxy.
Illuminism continued to haunt the Church throughout its history. It surfaced again at the time of the Cathar heresy in the 12th and 13th centuries and it haunted the nightmares of the Spanish Inquisitors in the sixteenth century. There was a revival of illuminism at the time of the Protestant Reformations and indeed it would seize and shape the Radical Reformation—the Reformation of the Anabaptists in Holland and Germany and the Quakers and Shakers and Diggers and Fifth Monarchy Men in Protestant England and its American colonies.
Despite the Church’s vigilance against illuminism it would raise its head in the sixteenth century in a particular incarnation referred to as Quietism. Quietism rejected the more extraverted and extravagant manifestations that illuminism had held before. Indeed it shadowed Catholic orthodoxy so closely that most Quietists though they were secure within the teaching of the Church. Moreover, many of its proponents were genuinely holy people, just a bit too holy. Quietism can be compared, perhaps, to a good cell gone rogue in the body that becomes cancerous but which had once been a healthy part of the body.
Classic 17th century Quietism was so close to Catholic orthodoxy that much of what some of its writers wrote—Archbishop Fenelon for example—is perfectly orthodox, indeed sound Catholic spiritual reading. Sometimes perfectly sound Catholic spiritual masters, Brother Lawrence for example, were accused, or at least suspected, of quietism when their doctrine is quite sound.
Quietism’s best description was given by Innocent X in his condemnation of the heresy. Referring to two leading spiritual writers among the Quietist faction, Archbishop Fenelon of Cambrai and Bishop Bossuet of Meaux, the pope said: “Cambrai loves God too much, Meaux loves man too little.” Quietism is the heresy which stresses the love for God to the point where love for neighbor becomes unimportant. One priest described it, in its contemporary manifestation, as “the heresy of the daily communicant.” It certainly is alive and well today hiding in the pious life of the Christian Pharisee. But rather than look at its modern manifestations in this posting, I would suggest that we look at the fear that it caused on the part of many bishops and priests that led to a “suppression of mysticism” in the Church from the 17th through the 20th centuries.
The broader heresy, illuminism, had always caused fear on the part of the orthodox in the Church—and not without reason. Attempts to discourage people from a life of deep personal prayer, of contemplative prayer, and to limit themselves to pious practices had long been a common error on the part of some Church authorities. Both Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross refer to this in their writings. Teresa tells her readers not to be afraid of contemplative prayer and says that she herself had been dissuaded from it for many years thinking it was for souls more educated, more virtuous, more advanced than hers, but she had eventually understood that Christ calls all of his disciples to the intimacy with him that can be found in such prayer alone. John of the Cross likewise tells his readers that he is not writing for some select group of spiritual proficients, but to encourage all his readers to undertake contemplative prayer. The Jesuits have always been anxious to share the profound experience of their founder, Ignatius Loyola, in the cave at Manressa and thus offered the Spiritual Exercises in order to guide others along the path of contemplation marked out by Ignatius’ conversion experience. Francis de Sales was anxious to bring spirituality to ordinary souls and so we have his Introduction to the Devout Life. Yet at the same time these saints were marking out the path of prayer, there were voices warning people not to go down that road.
While all religious had been ordered to daily periods of “mental prayer” in the sixteenth century by Clement VIII, this time was often filled by one person reading aloud a meditation or at least various points on which all gathered were to meditate. Sometimes devotions involving meditation such as the rosary or the Stations of the Cross were prescribed for this period. Mental prayer, for those allowed to practice it, became highly structured with an invocation of the Holy Spirit, an act of contrition to prepare, the formation of specific resolutions drawn from the prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, an act of thanksgiving and other conclusions being prescribed leaving little time for the actual meditation. What time was left for the individual often turned to more theological reflection than attentive and silent listening to God’s stirrings in the soul. There was a fear of such stirrings. One had to report any such stirring to one’s spiritual director for confirmation and directors were aggressively managerial over their subject’s spiritual life.
Also, and I think under the influence of Jansenism (the other leading heresy of the 17th century) “spirituality” took an excessive interest, a compulsive interest, in the moral conduct of the individual under direction. Prayer retreated into the shadows and the spotlight shown on morality, not solely sexual morality but certainly emphasizing that field of behavior. A relative degree of moral perfection became the sine qua non of the spiritual life so that many people began focusing on sin in their lives rather than the grace being offered in a relationship with God. The premise was that one could have no relationship with God as long as sin was substantially present. This false assertion alone locked the doors of the Castle of the Soul against many who otherwise might have advanced far in the spiritual life—and been converted in the process. More and more, a life of deep prayer was becoming the unique prerogative of the cloistered nun or monk. The most the rest of us could do was frequent confession, occasional communion (don’t’ forget daily communion was not allowed until Pius X at the beginning of the 20th century), and our devotions.
The suppression of mysticism, the discouraging of people from pursing contemplative prayer, mentioned in my last blog entry, has left a great spiritual shallowness in the contemporary Church. Moral integrity became a pre-requisite in the minds of many—including clergy—for a relationship with God rather than the fruit of that relationship. This created an obsessive fascination with sin rather than an emphasis on grace in Christian life and has perverted much spirituality over the last three centuries. And this, in turn, I think is much the root of what is unhealthy in the life of the American Church today.