Monday, 25 August 2008

Walling off the Church from the past: we are all contemplatives now!

I mentioned yesterday that I was interested in the way that some ideas had simply been dropped from current discourse in the Church, and I thought I'd talk today about one of these, namely the idea of spiritual progress leading up to contemplative prayer.

We want contemplation, and we want it now!

I mentioned yesterday an article by Patricia Wittberg. One of the things she noted in talking to conservative religious orders was that they generally did not articulate a sense of progress through spiritual stages - the traditional purgative, illuminative and unitive ways. Instead, the expectation was that contemplation was not only open to all, but something one should expect to experience immediately. Certainly even the better modern texts, such as that by Spiritual Theology by Fr Jordan Aumann, though they talk about growth in holiness and the means of achieving it, avoid talking much about the traditional threefold way.

We've all seen the manifestations of the more extreme end of this philosophy - in my own diocese there are constant ads for workshops and contemplative prayer groups, many of them run by religious. Methodologies like 'centering prayer' have become immensely popular.

Similarly, in the moral theology course I've just finished, we did cover St Augustine and St Thomas' interpretation of the Beatitudes as mapping out the stages in the spiritual journey. But the key text used was a book on the Beatitudes by the late Fr Pinckaers that essentially argued against any such linear view. I think his view reflects the new orthodoxy. And it runs against many centuries of consistent teaching on the spiritual life.

The traditional path to contemplation

The traditional three stage typology was never regarded as hard and fast - St Teresa of Avila for example talks about people wandering around her seven mansions in different orders to the ones described: the Holy Ghost moves as he wills! Still, the basic point was that for most people, tackling contemplative prayer too soon could be positively dangerous. It is a step to be taken usually only on the advice of a spiritual director.

The argument is that one must first be well grounded in what God demands of us in keeping the commandments, which requires that we be well educated in the primary and secondary moral precepts so that we can focus on conquering mortal sin. Once we have achieved that level of control, we can move to a focus on cultivating the virtues. And only once some level of progress has been made on these fronts should we aspire to more. There are types of prayer and meditation that are appropriate for each level of progress - but contemplative prayer starts once we are fairly advanced, not before we have even really started.

'Beginners' in the spiritual life are ignored

In the moral theology course I did, which I suspect is fairly typical based on a perusal of other course outlines and textbook lists, the approach was to focus mainly on the primary moral precepts ('do good, avoid evil'), the idea of cultivating the virtues (without much specific content being provided), and to attempt to foster an attitude of 'discipleship' that would enable us to discern the appropriate action in the circumstances. That's an approach that could work if everyone taking the course was already well-grounded in the commandments, and was truly in the illuminative way. But I personally very much doubt that was the case!

The contemporary literature (and the typical moral theology course, my own included) spends a lot of time attacking the old 'manual tradition' for its detailed consideration of individual cases. But in the face of the widespread ignorance and disregard of the moral law amongst catholics today, there seems to me a pretty strong case for a return to more practically oriented guides such as Prummer's Handbook of Moral Theology (a one volume English summary of his 3 vol Latin manual), or even more recent but eminently practical texts aimed at a wider audience such as Fr Kenneth Baker's Fundamentals of Catholicism.

The consequences - religious feeding the anyone can do it if they try mentality

The reasons for the careful and systematic progress advocated by the traditional literature was the immense danger of delusion. Today however the popular paradigm, feed by endless seminars, books and prayer groups, many of them penned or led by religious, has become a dangerous egalitarianism and a sort of pelagianism - the idea that contemplative prayer is work we do, rather than being a gift of the Holy Ghost. It is a very small step indeed from this to believe that anything we do that might objectively be a sin really isn't - - because we still feel we are 'right' with the Spirit!

I do believe that we are all called to holiness, to become saints; and that failing to strive for perfection inevitably leads to going backwards! That doesn't mean though that we are going to get there instantly. The contemplative prayer push is I think well intentioned - but at the same time, is just another manifestation of the instant canonization at funerals mentality that we often see.

It seems to me that the idea that we must systematically progress in the spiritual life is one of those ideas we really do need to reconnect the wider Church to.

So we need good catechesis, and we need priests (and in their absence well trained religious) willing to be spiritual directors.

And in the meantime, we should all turn to the classics such as Tanqueray's The Spiritual Life, or Garrigou-Lagrange's Three Ages as a starting point - unless anyone can suggest anything that surpasses them?!

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