I guess in a phrase it is the over-egging the cake I find off-putting. I feel a certain claustrophobia coming on when I begin reading many of the Catholic saints’ writings. Their intensity is overwhelmingly suffocating to me.
Now as being a person from the Anglican tradition, with a moderately powerful streak of Puritanism in me in addition; I guess the proper Catholic response to my distaste is that Anglicans are typically lukewarm and diluted in their worship and devotions; and that Puritans are rebellious and de rigueur too, too, prickly.
The Catholic on the other hand has his or her own de rigueur in that he or she will really ‘get-into’ that very personal self-examination mode; and what I might call perhaps unkindly therein ‘massage the affections’ which this microscopic fixation on their focus exposes.
The Catholic self-examines not so much for the sake of turning over stones of the mind beneath which faults and errors hide and thrive; so much as s/he seeks to detail his/her responses to the enormous fact of God; responses which are too often bordering on ecstatic with a strong dose of diminution of the self and its person in the light of this almighty fact of God.
I soon get weary of this; the insistence on the self being, personally, insignificant; the dinning repetition of this theme of self-deprecation; and its being raised almost to a standing of a tenet or dogma of faith. I myself get to a point whereabouts I begin to doubt the sincerity of the writer – not that I don’t believe they feel this way – but that their repeatedly saying so is more so a repeated salutary message to their readers rather than an earnest expression of their constant sense of smallness and inconsequentiality as a soul or a spirit.
The delight in which these writers delight in feeling small and a nothing, a nonentity, before the wonder of the great figure of the Lord God; the way that at the same time their peccadilloes are magnified by themselves to great and ponderous obstacles in the way of their relations with God; and so inimical to their own peace of mind; their abject pleas for forgiveness and for a Parental indulgence towards themselves, all pointing yet again towards their own weakness, fallibility, helplessness and desperation not to be held to account and so be cast off by God etc etc; and all presented with a certain preciousness of highly cultivated sensitivity – all this leaves me stone cold.
It was Hamlet who proclaimed of his mother that ‘the lady doth protest to much methinks’ and I feel the same about these Catholic saints.
Their dwelling is too often directed upon themselves and their own relations and their place before God; they seem often to be capable of allowing things to just happen and then calling that the will of God. The tenet, the dogma here being submission and surrendering oneself to God as utterly as one is able to – but to an extent which seems sometimes to be almost wilfully an affectation, a cult fetish, a nurtured and cultivated bad habit?
One of my (lackadaisical?) friends; an Anglican priest; used to tell a joke to his congregations about a guy stranded on his house roof in a major flood. Successively three helicopters come by each in turn offering to airlift him to safety but he says each time to his would-be rescuers ‘God will provide; He will look after me’ and he stayed put there until he died of exposure. At The Pearly Gates he questions the angels why he was allowed to die and asks where was God for him. The angels say to him;’ He sent you three helicopters!’
This sort of frustration with those ‘who only stand and wait’ to misquote Milton is what bugs me about their placid/passive ecstasy and to be frank the undisguised enjoyment many of these saints seem to adopt as a set-piece stereotype of holiness. As if such a stance justified doing nothing but accepting one’s lot; thereby creating as one’s lot a long and tedious constantly repeated and going-nowhere refrain in the vein of which I am here complaining.
It does seem to me to be a deliberate wasting of the gift of life given graciously to us by God. I guess I’m arguing against and grouching about the contemplative life in general and about its supposed virtue and excellence. Certainly contemplatives are for no good reason awarded honour and sometimes superhuman status by Christians; when the fact is that being or becoming a recluse or a person under an institutionalised holy vow of discipline and/or rule, is an odd and hardly justifiable occupation/vocation for a Christian.
Of course we should examine ourselves; of course we should investigate ourselves and the world of ideas and study our emotions motivations impulses etc; but like those who make works of art to get their livings by such activities; it is somewhat presumptuous to believe one is right to do so and dare I suggest self-indulgent too? The whole tendency of reclusive contemplative lives, their whole tenor, goes directly against the proclaimed raison d’être which their adherents generally espouse; this almost affected certainly consciously-cultivated belittling of themselves and banging on about their unfitness to be considered worthy in God’s eyes is seen by me as being little more than ‘hot air’ because their actual situation is very usually one of security and tranquillity and assurance and safety – I mean materially as well as immaterially – it is in fact often a wholly privileged position a world in which so many ordinary others who deserve as much for themselves likewise face unheard of difficulties and sufferings.
Now the Catholic would retort Shakespeare to me and quoth he: ‘Because thou art virtuous dost thou think there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ And some of the more piqued by my uncharitable critique might quote The Master Himself saying ‘The poor you will always have with you….’ etc. And this brings me to another point about the people who are – to be nasty – navel-gazers – that too often they are rich, wealthy, if not personally, they are rich by proxy, by belonging to a rich house or a rich order or a rich college or a rich conclave, and so on; yet not realising or being aware fully of themselves being rich and over-privileged in terms of the adverse situation of most of world in general.
There’s an answer too from them for this charge – a stock reply is that riches are not forbidden or even bad in themselves – it is how they are used and how they affect their possessors which matter. The implication herein is that these riches do not affect the speaker and the uses of them – by the speaker again – are undoubtedly laudable ones. Yet is this not presumption again – that oneself is not susceptible to the lures of riches or able to be perverted by their glitter and their train? Lord Acton’s famous phrase applies maybe – since money and power are twins in our sublunary world? ‘Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
The Lord Jesus was without reservation and inhibition in his condemnation the persons who deserved condemnation – not least for the sake of their own hopes of heaven – and his gracious words in the synagogue at Capernaum (or was it Nazareth?) quoting from that marvellous superb man Isaiah on ‘the acceptable year of The Lord’ and Jesus thereafter wonderfully underlining the passage by his modest but pungent; ‘Today is this scripture fulfilled in your hearing’ – he was unafraid to mix with those whose unjust wrath he roused against him, in fact he no doubt understood he was obliged as being the Son and the Saviour to mix thus; and so bring the possibility of life and life in abundance to anyone and everyone he met and could be persuaded to it.
In short there is in the life of Jesus Christ as we have it handed down to us no precedent or justification; on the contrary there are conflicting and opposing tendencies in the life of Jesus – in what he did and where he went and whom he mixed with – no materials which condone or proclaim or encourage or endorse or approve or recommend any sheltered life, any indulged life; any reclusive life; any life of inwardly-directed self-examination and consideration; any life accessible to material riches; none of these are vindicated by gospel narrative.
Our Lord Jesus was utterly a man of action. He spent nights in prayer yes. He submitted his mind and body to His father yes. He was obedient and lowly and without malice or guile yes – but above all He did things, spoke things, gave guidance and succour, health and release, life and meaning; He made simple words trumpet as truth; He did this by being bold and brave and steadfast and courageous, dedicated and committed – to a mission and a course laid out for Him to fulfil.
Above all Jesus and His way of living and His mission and words and deeds; all are essentially healthy, affirmative, earnest and directional in their character – indeed superlative in these things.
Matthew Arnold said of one of his own poems which he rejected from his Collected Works that he had rejected it because there in it there was a sense that ‘there is everything to be endured; and nothing to be done.’ Similarly a very good friend of mine gave me some excellent advice once when I was in dire straits and felt helpless. He said to me: ‘There are very few things in life about which nothing can be done.’
In short, doing is healthy and liberating, refraining from doing for the most part is unhealthy and debilitating – unless refraining from doing is refraining from doing something known to be having ill effects. John Donne, maybe himself a Catholic in his youth, said when he became Dean of St Pauls London that in his estimation Charity is ‘doing what one can – all one can’. And St Paul himself said with such eloquence: ‘If I do not have charity; I am nothing’
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