|Saint John of the Cross|
This conversation came up at dinner on Tuesday when a Brazilian friend of mine was talking about his doctoral thesis in Spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He is writing on a reexamination of the spiritual doctrine of Saint Francis de Sales from the perspective of the personalist philosophy of John Paul II. His point is that “conversion” must involve not merely an intellectual assent to doctrine but a person-to-person encounter with Jesus Christ. We had a fascinating conversation as I know relatively little about either Francis de Sales or the philosophy of the late and now Blessed Pope. I know them both as historical figures, but not as intellectuals, but I was struck by the similarity with the ideas being attributed to them by my friend to the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross with which I am somewhat famiiar. I guess I should not have been so surprised, at least in regards to John Paul, as I believe he wrote his doctoral dissertation on John of the Cross and Faith. In regard to the subject of Faith, John of the Cross makes a clear distinguishing between knowing about God and knowing God.
I am struck by how many people know a lot about God without necessarily “knowing” him, or more to the point, without knowing Jesus Christ because no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him. Faith to them is a matter of an assent of the intellect to theological propositions defined by the Church. As I am writing this, I think in particular of a woman I had known some years ago when I was frequently in Leesburg Virginia. This lady was the local doyen of orthodoxy. She rigorously critiqued every sermon, taped various priests and religious education speakers who had come to her parish to report them for suspicious ideas, and for years had controlled the religious education program in the local parish. She had her small group of disciples and she used them to make sure the parish didn’t stray from what she perceived to be sound doctrine. But alas, new brooms sweep clean and a new pastor displaced her stranglehold on things. I have no doubt that she was (and perhaps, if yet alive, still is) a sincere person. The problem was that for her faith equaled orthodoxy, or what she took for orthodoxy. She could tell you all about what the Church (for her that meant the magisterium) taught about the faith, at least from Trent up to 1960, but I can’t say that I think she was a woman of faith. She was a person of doctrine—but that is not a woman of faith. Prayers were something one said. “Spirituality” was comprised of no more than devotions—we had an argument about that once when she told me that “meditation is dangerous and you shouldn’t be practicing it, much less teaching it.” Her fundamental moral compass was off in as that she had no scruples of taping a speaker without his (or her) permission, quoting them out of context in letters to the bishop, or even bearing false witness when she thought a religious education director, a speaker brought into the parish, a music minister or liturgical director was going off in what she thought to be a wrong direction. Faith was orthodoxy; orthodoxy was faith. There was no evidence of anything more than rigid doctrine and a rigid relationship to a rigid deity in her life. She fit that description of Henri Bremond regarding Jansenism that I cited two or three days ago: “Before penetrating into the depth of the mind Jansenism ruins the peace, condition of all true religion. Before making converts it makes partisans, sectarians, whom it fatally severs from the mystical currents of their time.”
Unfortunately this woman is by no means unique. The fault of classic Protestantism—at least the American variety—has been gross subjectivism: the triumph of emotion over intellect. But Catholicism, again at least the American variety, is no better off in its opposite of being strait-jacketed into doctrine. All the doctrine in the world does not lead one to change of heart that is at the center of Jesus’ call in the Gospels. That is why I was delighted to hear this Brazilian priest talk about Benedict XVI’s emphasis on evangelization as this personal encounter with Christ that is so transformative of the human person. It is certainly not to be that raw subjectivism that I just attributed to the American Protestant tradition. (I will do a few entries some day on John Wesley and how his own crisis of faith brought about this bizarre doctrine-less “faith” that marks American religion.)
Now as to how this ties into our upcoming entry on the Innocentian Reformation. The reign of Innocent III was marked by figures such as Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzman and others who, working within the perimeters of Catholic doctrine and just on the frontiers of institutional Catholicism brought their contemporaries to this personal encounter with Christ that revived a religion that had been fading from the lives of everyday people and made Christian faith an exercise in actually shaping one’s life to the demands of the Gospel. That is what we need today for renewal and that is what we rarely have. At the end of the day the issue of faith is: do I take the Gospel for my rule of life. Do I try to live not the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the Documents of Vatican II, but the Gospel. All due respect to those ICEL and Vox Clara people but it looks like their latest work isn’t succeeding in bringing faith to life any more than had the Latin Mass or the previous translation of the liturgy, but if we are to be people of faith we had better find something that will.