|St. Ignatius Loyla|
When we encounter Jesus in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments it is a mediated encounter. I would like to explore this idea of evangelical Catholicism more deeply over a series of postings. In yesterday’s post I gave the opinion that a genuinely evangelical Catholicism would draw on the prophets and the Gospels to root within itself a firm commitment to Social Justice. I want to return to that idea, but first I think there is a need for establish a more explicit foundation for what Evangelical Catholicism demands of—and, at the same time, offers—us in our appreciation of the Scripture. And to begin, I want to go back to Weigel’s statement:
The Catholic Church is being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Prayer and to make friendship with him the center of Catholic life.
When we encounter Jesus in the Scriptures and in the Sacraments it is a mediated encounter. Christ comes to us, not directly, but through the Word read or preached, or through the Eucharist or through the Absolution or through the Anointing. We encounter Christ through the grace of a Sacramental agent. Christ’s presence is mediated by a third party. Now, it is Christ we encounter—don’t get me wrong—but the human soul always wants more, wants a direct and unmediated encounter. The mystics all speak of these direct encounters: Gregory the Great, Bernard, Teresa of Avila, Sister Faustina, Francis de Sales, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross. While the mystics tell us of such encounters, such experiences are—by God’s grace—not beyond our capacity. Indeed I think that most of us have, on the somewhat infrequent occasion, had such a direct encounter when we became suddenly aware of our being in the Divine Presence. The search for this direct encounter is, according to John Cassian, the raison d’etre of the monastic life, but it is by no means the sole prerogative of the monk or nun. Cassian knew from his own experience that it is possible for the human soul to encounter God directly, however briefly, in this life in anticipation of the unending enjoyment of his Presence in eternity. We call this direct encounter of God during the span of our life here on earth “contemplative prayer.” It is always an infused gift—not something that we can manufacture by our efforts at prayer or our moral behavior or our charitable works (though these can prepare us for his presence)—but God’s choosing to bring us, albeit somewhat momentarily, into his Presence.The regular commitment to contemplative prayer is an invitation to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In the Christian tradition, contemplative prayer is always rooted in the Scripture, in the Word. It is usually tied to some form of Lectio Divina—that cogitatio on the scriptural text. (I hesitate to say “meditation” only because some will interpret this too narrowly, so I am using the more medieval word: “cogitatio” which means “thought” or “reflection.”)
The reason that our prayer stays anchored in the Scriptural text is that one of the dangers of pseudo-spirituality is the tendency for a person to devise a Christ of their particular imagination. Rousseau said that “God created man in his own image and likeness and man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.” For many people the Jesus they “encounter” in their prayer is nothing other than a projection of their own ideas and prejudices. When we practice contemplative prayer, we stay close to the biblical text because we know that Word is authentic. Yet entering into the Word in prayer is a different experience that studying the Word or even hearing it read in the Liturgy. We can read the Bible for inspiration, for learning, for guidance. All of that is good. In bible reading, we stay in the text. But contemplative prayer is more passing through the text as one passes from an outer room into an inner where our most beloved Friend is waiting for us. Our entrance and our retreat from the Divine Presence is in the Word, and the Word taken in its purity and not as “proof texts” to reinforce our pre-conceived ideas and notions. In fact, Saint John of the Cross says that one of the signs of the authenticity of our prayer experience is that it challenges the ideas and notions which we brought to prayer. If we don’t leave prayer somehow changed, we were not in the Presence of the Risen Lord.
Karl Rahner, admittedly no theological hero for George Weigel, wrote that the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will cease to be a Christian at all. His point is that living in this post-Christian era, only the person with that direct and unmediated experience of God will have the stamina to remain faithful in a faithless culture. When we talk about an evangelical Catholicism we need first to ask ourselves what priority we will give to laying the groundwork not for the piety that is so prevalent in certain circles today, but for a genuine spirituality that brings people into the intimate friendship and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Piety lets us know about Jesus, but it lacks the ability to give us an authentic introduction to Jesus Christ where he can be the sort of friend Weigel speaks of.