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looking for God in the "winter period"

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Feb 28, 2006

Bill Cork alerts us to an article in Commonweal by Lawrence Cunningham titled "Catholic Spirituality: What Does It Mean Today?" In spite of a couple sour toss-aways, it's a fairly balanced look at the resurgence in Catholic piety in its manifold forms. Cunningham uses "spirituality" in a broad sense to mean "the ways in which people, beyond the ordinary practices of the faith, have sought to live their Christian lives more intensely."

In the "winter period" following the council, to use Karl Rahner's phrase, the growing interest in spirituality may signal a grass-roots attempt to find meaning and coherence. Maybe the rise of the new ecclesial movements is a response to the precipitous decline in the religious orders, just as the new forms of spiritual practice may signal a replacement for the collapse of baroque devotionalism.

While the collapse of religious vocations is certainly a factor in the lay initiatives, the vacuum to be filled is much more extensive. Most devout laity were simply dismayed by the worldliness of priests, nuns, and brothers -- by their complacent lack of curiosity about supernatural realities; by the attitude expressed by Bishop Reggie Cawcutt in his hankering to head for the beach "when the church stuff is over"; by the attitude Barb Nicolosi encountered when she asked Sister what time Mass was: "And why would we be having any kind of Eucharistic liturgy on Friday?" Faced with this kind of apathy on the part of the pros, the laity scrambled to preserve as much of a devotional life as could be maintained in default of Holy Orders. And just as evergreens seem to brighten in winter as the life around them dies, so the piety of the laity appeared more vivid when the clergy lost interest in "the church stuff."

Cunningham fails to mention one of the most striking developments in contemporary spirituality, the neo-gnosticism (seen in mystagogues like Richard Rohr) that proposes a two-tier relationship to The Divine: "spirituality" for the Few versus "religion" for the Many. This division was addressed with admirable candor by Jesuit Father Joseph Tetlow, in an essay that frankly admitted his own (and his Jesuit generation's) enthusiasm for discernment of spirits and their lack of interest in religion, but which wondered whether such a split resulted in (largely unacknowledged) losses. Tetlow wrote that the Jesuits' founder St. Ignatius Loyola wanted his men to teach things useful for the religious lives of ordinary people ...

Instead, we [post-conciliar Jesuits] were teaching discernment of spirits and finding God in all things -- a fairly vague spirituality. Further, we were doing this when "religion" was despised in the West and in much of the rest of the world. We were infected with this distrust -- this disdain --of "religion."

Yet my father had lived a holy life by living his religion. The families I grew up with remained in the Church, receiving the sacraments, living faithful married lives -- all by "religion."

It has become very clear to me as I traveled the world attending meetings and giving workshops that the huge majority of Catholics will never have a spiritual life, an interior life of prayer and progress in asceticism. They will live and die as my father did, knowing God intimately through the Church. They are neither leftist nor far-right radicals. They are the millions in the middle.

The history of the early Jesuits brought home the truth that the early Company spent much more time and energy on these middle millions than on the few to whom they gave one-to-one Exercises. More than that, Master Ignatius had done that, himself: he spent more time in the plaza than in the conference room or confessional.

Scales fell from my eyes after reading Father Tetlow's piece -- at least to the extent that I understood the spiritual jargon of Jesuit and other post-ecclesial publications for the first time. It had never occurred to me that the Church was an inferior halfway house destined to be replaced by the Discernment of Spirits and the attendant interior dispositions. No wonder the Alphas' abstract love for the poor co-exists with a concrete contempt for the blue-collar working class! No wonder the Alphas dismiss the Gammas' discomfort at liturgical abuses as oafishness! We "millions in the middle" were never meant to be listening-in in the first place.

The view of most Catholics, in contrast with Father Tetlow's gnosticism, is that there is no choice between religion and the spiritual life, as if they were either/or options, but rather that humble, dutiful, and heartfelt dedication to the demands of true religion, reliably and exhaustively taught by the Catholic Church, makes possible (but does not guarantee) an opening to higher supernatural gifts. A good Catholic -- meaning one who embraces the Church's harsher demands as well as her norms of observance -- may have an opening to saintliness, but the converse is absurd: saintliness is impossible in defiance of or indifference to true religion.

Notice especially Father Tetlow's separation of those Few who have "an interior life of prayer," from the Many who "[know] God intimately through the Church." It's good that he concedes that God may be known intimately through the Church, but perplexing in how this is distinct from an interior life of prayer (which is, after all, interior, and may perfectly well be hidden in what appears to others' eyes to be rote recitation of a rosary or external participation at Mass).

Note too that the interiority of Father Tetlow's "interior life of prayer" works in the other direction as well: the godliness, if godliness there be, of the Few is invisible to the carnal eyes of the Many. Those of us red-meat-and-rosary types who belong to the Mass-going Gammas often miss out on the spiritual maturity of the Alphas but almost always pick up their disdain for religion, that is, for the Catholic Church. Moreover, since it's the Church that teaches morality and attempts to hold us accountable to moral norms, the élite contempt for the Church we see in the Reggie Cawcutts and those post-eucharistic nuns is usually read as a contempt for morality. It speaks well of Father Tetlow's charity and tolerance that he recognized and applauded holiness in his father and in those many millions like him. It's a matter for debate how many of those he trained in the life of the Spirit share his view of things below as well as those above.

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