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Enthusiasm

by Francis J. Ripley

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  • Description:
    Here is an analysis of Msgr. Ronald A. Knox's excellent book, Enthusiasm, which traces the history and development of the phenomenon in church history he calls “enthusiasm,” or the various movements of Christian men and women who have attempted to lead a less worldly life than their fellow believers, claiming the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, and eventually splitting off into separate sects.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Pages: 400 – 409
  • Publisher & Date:
    Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, February 1951

There is a kind of book about which you may say, almost without exaggeration, that it is the whole of a man's literary life, the unique child of his thought. Other writings he may have published, on this or that occasion; please God, the work was not scamped, nor was he indifferent to the praise or blame of his critics. But it was all beside the mark. The Book was what mattered — he had lived with it all these years, fondled it in his waking thoughts, used it as an escape from anxiety, a solace in long journeys, in tedious conversations. Did he find himself in library, he made straight for the shelves which promised light on one cherished subject; did he hit upon a telling quotation, a just metaphor, an adroit phrase, it was treasured up, in miser's fashion, for the Book. The Book haunted his daydreams like a guilty romance. Such a thing, for better or worse, is this book which follows. I have been writing it for thirty years and a little more . . .

Such is the beginning of the delightful introduction to Msgr. R. A. Knox's newest book. He has called it "Enthusiasm," with the necessary qualifications: "A Chapter in the History of Religion, with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries." There are about six hundred pages divided into twenty-three chapters, plus an excellent bibliography and index.

The first chapter is entitled "The Nature of Enthusiasm." In a fascinating diagnosis the author claims that the real character of the religious enthusiast is a tendency towards "ultrasupernaturalism":

He expects more evident results from the grace of God than we others. He sees what effects religion can have, does sometimes have, in transforming a man's whole life and outlook; these exceptional cases (so we are content to think them) are for him the average standard of religious achievement. He will have no "almost-Christians," no weaker brethren who plod and stumble, who (if the truth must be told) would like to have a foot in either world, whose ambition is to qualify, not to excel. He has before his eyes a picture of the early Church, visibly penetrated with supernatural influences; and nothing less will serve him for a model. Extenuate, accommodate, interpret, and he will part company with you.

This enthusiasm involves a new approach to religion; it must be an affair of the heart, with the emphasis on a direct personal access to the Author of our salvation, with little of intellectual background or of liturgical expression. This personal approach dominates the imagination, and in that is its strength; but the mind is preoccupied with one's own salvation, and in that is its weakness.

At the root of "enthusiasm" lies a different theology of grace, maintaining that grace has not merely perfected nature, but utterly destroyed it and replaced it. The saved man has come out into a new order of being, with a new set of faculties that are proper to his state. Human reason as a guide to any sort of religious truth must be decried; man's miserable intellect must be abandoned. Then, at every turn, a direct indication of the divine will is to be expected. Worldly governments have no real mandate to exercise authority, and sinful folk have no real rights.

Revivalism and its Chief Symptoms

Symptoms of this revivalism, which is what the learned writer means by enthusiasm, may be the conviction that Christ is coming soon — ecstasy, trances, convulsions, and apparent speaking of unknown tongues. Throughout the history of Christianity the pattern has recurred from Montanism to Quietism, but for a hundred and fifty years from early in the seventeenth century it became the major preoccupation of religious minds, obscuring from contemporary view the rise of atheism.

About fifteen pages are devoted to the Corinthians' letter to St. Paul. Msgr. Knox uses this as evidence that perilous currents flowed in early Christianity, and that the first age of the Church, to which the enthusiast invariably appeals, was not in every respect a golden age. In an interesting reconstruction of the letter from the people of Corinth, in reply to which St. Paul wrote his Epistles, our author suggests that the spirit which had got abroad at Corinth was not that of the Judaizing teachers, as so many commentators maintain, but that of the Marcionite heresy that was to arise two generations afterwards, and which manifested a set of symptoms of enthusiasm or ultrasupernaturalism. This opinion is supported by detailed consideration of the six main divisions of St. Paul's first letter, dealing with the birth of sectarianism, false liberty and sexual indulgence, rigorism, idolatry, the decencies of public worship, and greediness over the gifts of the spirit.

The consideration of the difficulties of St. Paul in his dealings with the Corinthians forces Msgr. Knox into this rhetorical question: "If such formidable clouds could gather on the horizon of Christendom, when preachers were still living who retained vivid memories of Our Lord's sojourn on earth, when apostles were still endued with mysterious powers of coercing the refractory, when (above all) no schism had loosened as yet the fabric of Church unity, what would be the experience of later and more degenerate times?"

Appeal of Rigorism for the Fanatic

So, he comes to Montanism in which some of those half-dormant symptoms, whose presence has been diagnosed in the early Corinthian Church, came to light in an acute form, as Christianity perverted by fear of learning and speculation and debased into a coarse revivalism. Had not Tertullian lent energy to its propaganda, Montanism would have been but a small ripple on the surface of Christendom. Nevertheless, the contrast between the carnal and the spiritual, which sectaries in all ages have derived from St. Paul and written large on their prospectuses, was borrowed from Montanus, who first offered the world a "pneumatic" as contra-distinguished from a "psychic" Church.

After discussing the setting of Montanism, its beginnings and the character of the prophesyings of its votaries, Msgr. Knox attacks the often repeated error that this heresy was simply an obstinate survival of really primitive Christianity. He distinguishes too between the early Christian prophets, who enjoyed a recognized position at the time when the Didache was written, and the prophetical sons of Montanus. Here, incidentally, our author has an interesting paragraph on the date of the Te Deum. The concluding pages of the chapter are a captivating study of Tertullian who, we are told "is racy; alone perhaps among the Fathers, he has the makings of a journalist; but he is always nagging." He is often cheap and sometimes comes refreshingly near the borderline of blasphemy. He is never profound and never opens a new window on some aspect of theology. His true home is among the extremists; he was incurably a logician, impatient of compromises and halfway houses. He was a rigorist, because rigorism was easier to defend — a naked fanatic, who tried to stampede the Church into greater severity when she had not forgotten how to be severe.

From Montanism we pass to the Donatists and Circumcellions. We are told that Donatism was an archaic protest against the waning of something which had become so familiar that it seemed an integral part of the Church's life. It was a secession from a Church which no longer had room for martyrdom. The practice of the Donatists in rebaptizing their converts was neither the nerve of their contention nor the forefront of their offense. What fixed the Donatist ethos, and distinguished it from that of the Catholics, was in the last resort nothing else than an exaggerated veneration for martyrdom. So, they enriched the annals of Christian abnormality with a unique record of misguided heroism. Their shock troops were the Circumcellions.

Underworld of the Middle Ages

In a chapter called "The Underworld of the Middle Ages," Msgr. Knox tells of Waldenses and Catharists and then takes a rapid view of European heresy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under the headings of the countries principally affected — France, Italy, Germany and Austria, Flanders, England and Scotland, and Bohemia. There follows a chapter outlining the principal characteristics of the pattern of medieval heresy, and then our author passes on to consider the Anabaptists and the Reformation.

At the beginning of his treatment of this important phase, our author makes the very interesting suggestion that at the time of the Reformation there were still, up and down Europe, little pockets of undetected or half-detected Protestant influence which had survived and helped to bring about the Reformation and, especially, Anabaptism. He then writes of the relationship between Luther and the Anabaptists, asking what would have been the result if Luther had made common cause from the first with the prophets of Zwickau, instead of disowning their propaganda and driving them into an attitude of isolated protest, thus betraying the mystical creed on which his own theology was based.

The study of Anabaptism to be found here is not without its lighter moments, especially when the eccentricities of the sect are under consideration. For example:

On February the 11th . . . some Anabaptists having met at a house in Amsterdam, at the call of one named Richard they stripped themselves of their clothes and ran through the streets crying, Woe, woe, woe the wrath of God, the wrath of God! Brought before the magistrates, they refused to dress. We, they said, are the naked truth."

George Fox and Seventeenth Century Protestantism

Approaching nearer to the heart of his subject, Msgr. Knox devotes his eighth chapter to George Fox and seventeenth-century Protestantism. What a splendid description is the following:

This (Fox) is a man, full of scruples and questionings in his youth, who without (it seems) any agonies of conversion has emerged into a state of complete spiritual equilibrium, is sure of himself in all companies and upon all occasions. Watch him walking barefoot through the streets of a cathedral town, ingeminating "Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield," interrupting the sermons of the ministers — priests, he uniformly calls them — in their steeple houses, and preaching at them from the floor of the Church, allowing street-boys to pelt him and roll him in the mud, lecturing the magistrates when he appears before them, refusing to eat meat with the Lord Protector after his interview. Call him Don Quixote, if you will but remember St. Ignatius . . . And his companions, how they multiply, how they develop into lesser replicas of himself! They go everywhere; they try to convert the Pope, they try to convert the Sultan. In a fury of disagreement with all they see around them they carry the stout protest of their covered heads before magistrates and councils, before kings and princes of the earth.

Why did Fox succeed? Because Quakerism offered an Evangelical standard of living, and at the same time bypassed theology; the simple Englishman asked for nothing better. It was an eccentric rigorism that went back to the Anabaptists. (Some, indeed, have compared the Quakers with the Franciscans, but the comparison is obviously artificial.) Eccentric — because a study of the history of the Society of Friends reveals all the usual effects of enthusiasm plus some curious features more peculiar to themselves. There are warnings, exorcisms, judgments, miraculous healings and so on, but also some of the more disconcerting characteristics of Anabaptist prophesying and an enthusiasm for fasting for long periods.

Msgr. Knox makes a very strong point of the Quakers' neglect of theology. The only positive assertion they are prepared to make is their doctrine of the inner light as their rule of faith, necessarily superseding and overriding the authority of Scripture, tradition and reason. Even the largest and most authoritative accounts of Quakerism describe a theological system that is almost wholly destructive in intention.

Jansenism a Drama in Five Acts

Fifty-four pages of our book, two chapters, are devoted to Jansenism. The history of the movement is like a drama in five acts or a film in five reels: The Growth of Port Royal, The Battle of Port Royal, The Peace of Port Royal, The Death of Port Royal and The Aftermath of Port Royal. The story is told brightly and briefly. Richlieu had said that, if Luther and Calvin had been locked up when they began to dogmatize, the State would have been saved a great deal of trouble. Msgr. Knox now says that, if Richlieu had imprisoned St. Cyran when controversy arose about Mother Agnes Arnauld's Chapelet secret, there would have been no Jansenism. "Of the Jesuits who engaged in controversy against early Jansenisms," he continues, "it must be freely admitted that they do not always show up well." It takes all sorts to make a Society, and some of those who fought Jansenism were "too credulous of gossip, too crude in their satire, too tenacious of untenable positions," and they were continually being put in the wrong by the devastating accuracy of their opponents. On the other hand, "the whole attitude of Port Royal towards the regular clergy is a morbid exaggeration of that jealousy on behalf of the secular clergy which you will find, sometimes, among exemplary Catholics." The Jesuits were regarded as something unclean that had crept into the Church later than the first six centuries. Is it any wonder that they reacted against Jansenism?

In a really brilliant section of his work, Msgr. Knox distinguishes five main weaknesses about the whole Jansenist approach, which were largely responsible for the isolation of Port Royal from the stream of contemporary piety, and he couples these with the names of the five great Jansenist heroes, as follows: Mother Angelique and the Self-consciousness of Port Royal; St. Cyran and the Self-centeredness of Port Royal; Arnauld and the Combativeness of Port Royal; Nicole and the Legalism of Port Royal, and Pascal and the Pessimism of Port Royal. The parting shot of chapter nine is this: "What is least forgivable in the Jansenists is that, seeing the world as a massa damnationis rushing on to its ruin, they could find no other remedy for its unhappiness but to make war on the Jesuits."

Jansenists Were Rather a Party than a Sect

The Jansenists were not so much a sect as a party. They tried to isolate themselves from the world. Their indefinable body was most clearly defined by their necrology, which only included those who were thought to have supported their side of the quarrel. As time went on, the only qualification for admission to it was to have been an enemy of the Jesuits, whom the Jansenists held responsible for the decadence of the Church. And to appear in the necrology was all one with having one's name written in the Book of Life.

In regard to the doctrine of grace and salvation, the essence of the Jansenistic approach was surely this:

If you believe in the Fall as a shattering blow that unmade man to his very essence, then in the first place you are surprised that man should be in a position to attain salvation at all — it must be mere grace; there can be no response in that wicked creature to second its action. And in the second place you begin to suspect common human virtues; you trace ulterior motives in them, and write them down as 'natural,' useless in God's sight. Thus you conceive that some level of conduct and of prayer very much above the ordinary must be needed, as the passport to heaven.

It will be generally agreed that it would be hard to find anywhere a finer account of the genius of Jansenism than the following:

That very few people go to heaven, and those only by a catastrophic exercise of God's mercy; that the honnetes gens we come across are mostly reprobate, their apparent virtues being only the result of casual good nature, or of selfishness in disguise; that the chances are against your being one of the few elect, unless your life is heroically given to God as few people's lives are; that you must therefore give the world, and worldly people, a wide berth, for fear of acquiescing in their standards; that you must scrutinize all your motives carefully, to make sure that even your generous actions are dictated by the love of God, not by 'commodity,' friendship, or human respect; that in cases of doubt you must never, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, but choose the course which is certainly inculpable; that if you fall into sin, you should make satisfaction for it by abstaining for a time from Communion, even when absolution has been granted; that such abstinence from Communion is sometimes a useful discipline, to be practised with the advice of an enlightened director — that is the teaching of Port Royal; such is its genius.

Jansenism was Puritanism rather than asceticism. It exaggerated the moral protest that was being made in many places against the growing luxuries of an astonishing age. It never learned to smile. Its adherents forgot to believe in grace, so hag-ridden were they by their sense of need for it. It is against this background of wholesale pessimism that the "Provincial Letters" of Pascal must be read.

Quietism a Reaction Against Regimentation of Prayer

From Jansenism we pass to Quietism, to which four chapters and well over a hundred pages are devoted. Our author regards it as a natural reaction, which unfortunately went too far, against the standardization and regimentation of prayer which was almost carried to excess in the post-Tridentine world. He attacks strongly the idea that Jansenism and Quietism were cognate developments, vaguely in alliance, against the doctrines of the Church. He says, also, that it is misleading to connect, or even to compare, the doctrines of Quietism with those of the Reformation, as, for example, Monsignor Farges has done.

There follows a magnificent section on the prayer of contemplation, in which we find a critical appreciation of the Ignatian method of meditation. The purpose of St. Ignatius, it is said, was to turn extroverts into introverts but, unfortunately for him, the age which immediately followed the Counter-Reformation was, on the whole, an age of introverts. On the other hand, it would be untrue to suggest that the Quietists made the mistake of supposing that one could attain the prayer of quiet by his own efforts. The "oraison" which they preached was, in the first instance, the prayer of simple regard.

Readers will be impressed by Msgr. Knox's discussion of the seven paradoxes of mysticism. They are:

  1. The mystic has a sense of being carried away by a force stronger than himself, yet he can merit by his prayer.
  2. The contemplative's apprehension of God, in becoming more direct, becomes less distinct.
  3. In trying to love God more, the soul makes less use of its affections.
  4. The will becomes more and more the center of our prayer, yet its acts become less and less perceptible.
  5. Some contemplatives find that, the more they pray, the less they ask for.
  6. The more the soul enters into itself, the less is it self-conscious.
  7. The soul, as it advances in contemplation, becomes less, not more, conscious of living virtuously.

Quietist Reaction to the Paradoxes of Mysticism

"What does Quietism make of these seven paradoxes?" asks our author. It has been admired as a lonely protest, claiming liberty for the human spirit; it has been condemned as a Satanic parody of Christian devotion. But it was neither. It was simply an exaggeration, at every point, of an existing and perfectly orthodox tendency. It is a direction of the human mind, not a bunch of conclusions. You can be more or less of a Quietist. Isolated statements are to be found, even in the most approved mystics, which would perhaps arouse suspicion if we met them in the works of Molinos. It is a vulgar error to suppose that Quietism consists in leading a quiet life, or that the Quietist is necessarily an idler. Nor is it true to say that these people exclude human effort completely from their prayer. What is true is that the Quietists laid a disproportionate emphasis on contemplation, as if it elevated the soul to a different grade of Christianity from anything it had experienced hitherto. They renounce considerations of the intellect, sensible affections, acts of the will, all preferences in time and eternity and, finally, even those "consolations" from above which are given to the contemplative, at certain stages in his course, to compensate him for the earthly privileges he has abandoned.

The chapters entitled "Madam Guyon and the Battle of the Olympians" and ''Malaval, Petrucci, Molinos" are packed with information not, so far as I know, previously gathered together in one volume, and certainly never before presented in such entertaining fashion. Towards the end Msgr. Know sums up in reply to the question: "What lies at the root of the Quietist error?"

In the last analysis, a kind of ultrasupernaturalism. Just as the Lollard will decry human reason so as to leave more room for the inner light, just as the Anabaptist will protest against human institutions so as to pave the way for a theocracy, the Quietist wants to do away with human effort as such so as to give God the whole right of spiritual initiative. Primarily in his prayer; but ideally — why not? — in every other department of life. He is not content that grace should perfect the work of nature . . . — and God will do the rest. God alone must do everything; we cannot even cooperate with Him, only allow Him to operate in us, and forget that He even allows us to allow Him.

Wesley and the Spread of Methodism

With the eighteenth chapter we approach the study of Wesley and Methodism. Four chapters are devoted to this subject, the first being "A Profile of Wesley." What a man he was! From the age of thirty-six onwards he traveled 225,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 sermons, some of them to more than 20,000 people. He first began to feel old at 85, and was still making his way as far as Aberdeen in the year before his death.

If he lived to preach at Kingswood under the shade of trees which he had planted, no life was ever lived less in the shade. Continually on the road, continually in the public eye, engaged oftener than not in such controversies as would have sapped the nervous strength of a man ordinarily vigorous, he lived to the age of eighty-eight as a prophet would live who was determined to reproach his contemporaries with their decadence.

He was no organizer. In fact, it is the absence of organizing talent that makes his performance chiefly remarkable. He laid great emphasis on house-to-house visitation, and, during his missionary journeys, he took part in it himself.

We are told many interesting details of Wesley's asceticism and of his love affairs; of his attitude towards Catholicism ("John Wesley had thought of becoming a Catholic"), and of his readiness to recognize divine interference on his own behalf. He was all autocrat, but still unable to control his American followers. In regard to mysticism he was strangely inconsistent, now loving it, now revolting against it. With Whitfield he quarreled about Calvinism, but finally he rejected it.

A fact not generally known, I think, is that John Wesley lived and died a member of the Church of England. It was not until five years later that his followers decided to separate from the Establishment. But Wesley's "orthodoxy" is only one example among many of how it is possible to "vary" from the Established Church, whilst still belonging to it.

What was the secret of Wesley's appeal? Msgr. Knox points out, that one reason for it was that Methodist preaching was extempore, in days when the majority of clergymen read out their sermons — and not always their sermons — Sunday after Sunday. Their appeal was to the head, not primarily to the heart. Their message was simple only in so far as they left nine-tenths of Christian doctrine out of consideration, and concentrated on the remaining tenth — Soteriology.

On April 17, 1739, John. Wesley was conducting a sort of Bible class in Bristol. He expounded the fourth chapter of the Acts, and then (quoting from his Journal) declared:

We called upon God to confirm his word. Immediately one that stood by (to our no small surprise) cried out aloud, with the utmost vehemence, even as in the agonies of death. But we continued in prayer, till a new song was put in her mouth . . . Soon after, two other persons . . . were seized with strong pain, and constrained to roar for the disquietness of their heart. But it was not long before they likewise burst forth into praise to God their Saviour. The last who called upon God as out of the belly of hell was I.E., a stranger in Bristol. And in a short space he also was overwhelmed with joy and love.

Paroxysms as Symptoms of the Supernatural

Throughout his book, Msgr.. Knox has to deal with this question of paroxysms as a symptom of religious excitement, and some of his most interesting pages are devoted to their diagnosis. It must be noted that other Methodist preachers were accustomed to interruptions of their services such as those described in the Journal. For example, Whitfield's preaching in America notoriously produced these symptoms: "Some were struck pale as death, others were ringing their hands, others lying on the ground, others sinking into the arms of their friends." When he was challenged about these strange happenings, Wesley himself claimed that the outward phenomena accompanying conversion were beyond nature, and are meant to provide evidence of the supernatural. If they failed to do so, it was because one refused belief, or because Satan managed to interfere.

In one of his finest passages, which will be helpful to those who are working for the conversion of our separated brethren, whether in England or in America, our author brilliantly describes Wesley's legacy:

He (Wesley) and the other prophets of the Evangelical movement have succeeded in imposing upon English Christianity a pattern of their own. They have succeeded in identifying religion with a real or supposed experience. I say "real or supposed," because in the nature of things you cannot prove the validity of any trance, vision or ecstasy; it remains something within the mind. Still less can you prove the validity of a lifelong Christ-inspired attitude; in the last resort, all it proves is that certain psychological influences are strong enough to overcome, in a given case, all the temptations towards backsliding which a cynical world affords. But, for better or worse, the England which weathered the excitements and disappointments of the early nineteenth century was committed to a religion of experience; you did not base your hopes on this or that doctrinal calculation; you knew. For that reason the average Englishman was, and is, singularly unaffected by reasonings which would attempt to rob him of his theological certainties, whatever they may be. For that reason, also, he expects much (perhaps too much) of his religion in the way of verified results; he is easily disappointed if it does not run according to schedule. It must chime in with his moods, rise superior to his temptations; a decent average of special providences must convince him that it works. Otherwise, though without rancour, he abandons the practice of it."

Enthusiasm as a Revolt against Aristotelianism

Having devoted a chapter to some vagaries of modern revivalism — the Irvingite Departure, the Persistence of Shakerism, Perfectionism — Msgr. Knox comes to his final conclusion, The Philosophy of Enthusiasm. Basically it is a revolt of Platonism against the Aristotelian mise en scène of traditional Christianity. The issue hangs on the question whether the Divine Fact is something given or something to be inferred. Your Platonist will divorce reason from religion. God reveals Himself immediately to the soul and demands from it a wholly interior worship; He issues His commands to it, reveals His truth to it; He is to be served for Himself alone, not in any degree for man's well-being. To suggest that happiness in this world or the next is the end of man is an Aristotelian trick. From this Platonism a spirituality in line with that of Quakers and Quietists results, but it fails to account for revivalist enthusiasms. To the revivalist the salvation of one's own soul is everything.

This apparent anomaly is due to the overmastering influence of one man, St. Augustine. Exaggerated now from this angle, now from that, his theology has provided the dogmatic ground of revivalism.

Traditional Christianity is a balance of doctrines; more — it is a balance of emphases. Because he exaggerates, the enthusiast cuts a finer figure, doing nothing by halves and always gaining our sympathies. But a distinction should be made between "mystical" and "evangelical" enthusiasm. The former, taking its point of departure from the Incarnation rather than the Atonement, bypasses the theology of grace and concentrates on the God within; the latter, more acutely conscious of man's fallen state, thinks always in terms of redemption and is concerned above all else with knowing, somehow, that one's sins are forgiven.

The Enthusiast Distrusts Reasons, Trusting in an Interior Light

The enthusiast tends to become an ultrasupernaturalist. He attempts to root up nature and plant the seed of grace in fallow soil, instead of grafting the supernatural on to the natural after the timorous fashion of orthodoxy. (To see in the Lollards, or in the Anabaptists, the forerunners of modern Socialism, is profoundly unphilosophical.) The enthusiast distrusts our human thought-processes, replacing the discipline of the intellect in matters of abstract theology by a kind of blind faith. (In the mind of the ordinary believing Christian, the two principles of reason and revelation are interlocked.) He must not think; that would be to use the arm of the flesh, and forsake his birthright. He dismisses also all considerations of human prudence, and trusts to the light within him in facing the day-to-day problems of life.

At the heart of him, the Evangelical is always an experimentalist. He feels certain that something has happened to him, and he invites you to let it happen to you — that is really the whole of his message. The paroxysms that so often accompany "conversion" are all part of a definite type of spirituality, one which cannot be happy unless it is seeing results. The most unfortunate thing about it all is the legacy the world, and especially the English-speaking world, has inherited from revivalism. Religion has become identified in the popular mind with a series of moods, in which the worshipper, disposed thereto by the arts of the revivalist, relishes the flavors of spiritual peace. Neither theology nor liturgy nor intellectual inquiry nor historical tradition is necessary. You make a little raft of your own faith on which you float safely enough through the sea of life, eagerly throwing out the life-line to such drowning neighbors as are ready to catch it.

The modern religious situation in the English-speaking world has been created by the bypassing of an historic tradition in favor of a personal experience.

On the one hand, it is assumed that every man's religion is his own affair; it does not concern, need not alarm, his neighbors. On the other hand, the Christian witness has become a sectional affair; Christianity is one of the fads which people adopt if they are interested in that kind of thing.

A Correct Interpretation of Enthusiasm

In interpreting enthusiasm rightly, there is one point that must be seized on above all the rest: in itself enthusiasm is not a wrong tendency but a false emphasis. The enthusiasts were often great men, most sensitive to the needs of their age; but fine instruments are easily spoiled. They reacted against institutional religion in any form, and there is no Christianity with a hundred years of history that does not tend to become institutional. More than all the other Christianities, the Catholic Church is institutional. Too easily do her enemies conclude that she is thereby incapacitated from all spiritual initiative. Still, there is danger in the Church's position.

Where wealth abounds, it is easy to mistake shadow for substance; the fires of spirituality may burn low, and we go on unconscious, dazzled by the glare of tinsel suns. How nearly we thought we could do without St. Francis, without St. Ignatius! Men will not live without vision; that moral we do well to carry away with us from contemplating, in so many strange forms, the record of the visionaries. If we are content with the humdrum, the second-best, the hand-over-hand, it will not be forgiven us.

A few more lines and our book is finished:

Frère Trophime: L'inertie est le seul vice, Maître Erasme; Et la seule vertu est . . .
Erasme: Quoi?
Frère Trophime: L'enthousiasme!

This echo of La Princesse lointaine, the author tells us, haunted him all through the writing of his book. Some readers may be haunted by another thought: has Msgr. Knox been altogether fair to enthusiasm? Is it always true that in the interpretation of enthusiasm "there is one point that must be seized on above all the rest — in itself enthusiasm is not a wrong tendency but a false emphasis?" The italics are mine. Would it not be possible for a companion volume to be written, with exactly the same title, yet devoted to the balanced enthusiasm of the Saints? Supposing that had been done, how would the resultant philosophy of enthusiasm compare with Msgr. Knox's last chapter? The etymologist will tell you that enthusiasm means a god-inspired zeal, and so the word would appear to apply more strictly and correctly to those who displayed it without exaggeration than to those in whom it is to be studied only in unbalanced form.

However that may be, it seems certain that this noble volume will be accepted, at least from the standpoints of literary excellence and sound scholarship, as one of the great works of the present century. No priest who wishes to understand aright the mentality of those outside the Church, whom it may be his duty to approach with the good-tidings of Catholicism, should neglect to study this fine work.


Enthusiasm may be purchased here.

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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