February 4, 2011

Who Am I?

As readers may have noticed, a couple of posts disappeared yesterday. Not that I thought there was anything objectionable about them per se, but a couple of other conversations had me wondering whether perhaps they were expressive of an interior struggle that I had not yet discerned well.

As I took my usually contemplative walk down Hammond St. from the Chestnut Hill T station to the BC campus for the Medieval Trinitarian Theology seminar yesterday, I imagined that I would write a big post about this, a sort of grand examination of conscience about how I am as a Catholic and how I got that way. But it's too much. It would have to include the latest insights into my conversion, the formative aspects of the twists and detours of my religious vocation, the appearance of new sorts of external authority that have come into my life since I started blogging (i.e. priesthood, licentiate in sacred theology) and how they have changed my perspectives, the formative experience of sharing in pastoral power as a parochial vicar for three years, and the still-in-discernment sense that I am called to do something at some level to make my vocation a response to the sexual abuse crisis.

That's too much for one post. So instead of that I'll just relate one little iconic moment in my Catholic life, and explain how it relates to the current edges of my interior discernment.

When I was a neophyte I wanted to learn the Mass as best I could. I discovered that there was such a thing as a hand missal, and of course I bought one right away. I would pray through and review the prayers and readings before Mass, and have my ribbons all set to pray along. At one Sunday Mass we didn't say the Creed. I was confused; my book said that the Creed was said on Sundays and solemnities. So I approached the priest and asked him about it. He explained to me that the Creed was optional. So I thought to myself, he's a priest, he knows these things better than me. This became the form of my sense of myself as a Catholic; I learned to second-guess myself. More things didn't match up with my reading, with what the saints and the Church said in their books. And I'm not talking just about liturgy, though liturgy forms the simplest sorts of examples. Some of the implosion of my first effort at religious life came about because this second-guessing of myself reached such a point that I hardly knew who I was.

In some ways, the story of my Christian life since then has been a progressive ownership and self-possession against this pattern of thought.

But this in itself is only the occasion of the fundamental question at hand. To take up the example again, I formulate one expression of the question like this: does it matter to God whether or not we say the Creed at Sunday Mass?

Of course the answer is both yes and no.

Yes because we believe that just as the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary, the same Spirit--who is God--is the principle of the Church which is the abiding presence of the Body of Christ to the world, extended, as it were, through history from Pentecost until the End. (This is why, of course, Mary has become our Blessed Mother.) So the Church is the Body of Christ conceived by Holy Spirit, and what she has decided through her Ecumenical Councils and the living tradition of her liturgy matters very much. To remove the Creed or to tamper with the liturgy is thus to cut oneself--and the worshipers in one's care--from God.

On the other hand, we have to say that in some senses it does not matter to God whether we say the Creed on Sundays. Jesus Christ has delivered us from a religion based in rules and regulations. Indeed, in a certain sense we have to say that Jesus Christ has delivered us from religion altogether, so long as we think of "religion" in a certain human sense. Even more, a basic principle of ecclesiology and sacramental theology reminds us that though Jesus has guaranteed us that his saving grace comes to us in the sacramental economy he has established for us, his grace and salvation is not bounded or limited by this economy.

This Creed thing is just an example, but discerning the depths and particular contours of the "yes" and "no" of this question gets at something of a struggle both theological and personal to which I perhaps have to pay more attention.

So thanks for your prayers, and for all of the friendship and encouragement I have been able to receive and give through this blog. Also, if you have never scrolled all the way down to my disclaimer, it's something which I'm proud to display.


Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Fr. Charles, thank you for baring a bit of your soul. I have gone through periods of greater or lesser liturgical scrupulosity over the past five years or so. That liturgical scrupulosity tends to lead to theological scrupulosity, and before I know it, I'm judging the state of the soul of every priest and layman who doesn't bow during the Creed. It's truly poisonous, given what a sinner I am.

That's one of the reasons I've committed myself to liturgical catechesis, to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar. Because I've come to realize that the problem I'm responding to is real, but my emotional response to it is insufficient and improper.

So I applaud you for your care in discerning the matter and your response to it.

At the same time, I recommend (if I may be so bold) caution when it comes to "yes and no" solutions to problems. I do think it is a serious issue when the liturgy, among other things, is tinkered with. (I also think it's quite serious that the promising new English translation of the Missal has been tinkered with over the past two years... but that's a-whole-nother issue.) And I think the more things we play fast-and-loose with, the worse our situation becomes, and then who knows what will be "optional" tomorrow.


Brother Charles said...

Thanks, Jeffrey; it's good to hear from you. In the question I'm posing to myself, liturgy is just the simplest illustration, but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. Thanks!

K T Cat said...

Outstanding post.

I am a science- and logic-based Catholic and this part jumped out at me: "does it matter to God whether or not we say the Creed at Sunday Mass?"

Yes it does. This same question can be and is asked of all of the rituals we go through as Catholics. Those who believe in a personal religion and who detest organized religion frequently raise such objections. I think such prayers and rituals serve an important purpose to us as humans.

Rituals and organized prayers serve to help us overcome the reptilian portion of our brain. That's the part that focuses on basic animal needs - food, sex, protection. Reptile morality says you should mate, eat and kill as often as possible after which sleep is a good option. In essence, the seven deadly sins come from obeying the dictates of the reptilian portion of our brains. We need a mental framework to fight that primitive portion of us. That's where ritual comes in.

Ritual gives us a structure within which we must live. Rituals, because they gratify no immediate reptilian need, force us to sublimate that part of ourselves to the will of God. When we pray the Creed one more time, when we go to Mass even though Newcastle is playing Arsenal right then, when we listen to the Bible from audible.com instead of enjoying our CD, Monkees Live 1967 again, we're exerting dominance over the reptilian portion of our brain. We're saying clearly to God and giving an example to the people around us that sloth, gluttony, lust and all the rest can be controlled and the Church provides excellent tools to do so.

What say ye?

Brother Charles said...

Perhaps you confirm my discernment that I should fast from rock and roll for lent.

Marc said...

I understand the 'yes' and the 'no', in my limited way, and while I don't know which posts you suppressed, I'm sure you'll continue along the way of righteousness. Just don't start mucking about with the sacred rites! which would be an incontrovertible sign that something had gone wrong--not that I would presume to judge what exactly that might be.

Brother Charles said...

No worries there, Marc...I make every effort to "say the black and do the red."

RJ said...

Could we say: it matters to God (i.e. is/not in harmony with his loving will) because it matters for our sake? I mean, no litugical error, or even sin generally, hurts God as God but it hurts US. In this case, we are missing out on something important, which nourishes our faith, e.g. a communcal affirmation of one of those things that makes us essentially Catholic. In some respect, we fail to glorify God: in that respect too we harm ourselves and others by failing to carry out his loving will for us.

Ad Abolendam said...

This may mean nothing to you, but in reading your post, this line from Dionysius immediately sprang to mind:

"Let us then elevate our very selves by our prayers to the higher ascent of the Divine and good rays,--as if a luminous chain being suspended from the celestial heights, and reaching down hither, we, by ever clutching this upwards, first with one hand, and then with the other, seem indeed to draw it down, but in reality we do not draw it down, it being both above and below, but ourselves are carried upwards to the higher splendours of the luminous rays."

Also, (again, this may be because I'm working on my Dionysius chapter) I think you're wrestling with the interplay between the apophatic and the cataphatic.

Brother Charles said...

RJ and AdA: Two helpful distinctions, indeed. Thanks!

ben in denver said...

"Do not think that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil."

While it is certainly true in a sense that Jesus liberates from "religion" so that we can worship the Father in spirit and truth, it is not true that the law has diminished in importance.

What has changed, rather, is how we might respond to the law, or what the law is to us. Having risen with Christ, the requirements of the law are fundamentaly transformed from a legalism to a response of love. This both allows us to go beyond the requirements of law, because His Love is not bounded, and can, for the saint, even make the law totally irrelevant. The law remains only as a corrective for concupisence an no longer fills the formative role that it did for Israel, since we are instead formed in the Love of Chirst.

So the question of the creed might be cast differently then. It becomes: "Does the ommission of the Creed from Sunday Mass follow from a greater love for the Father than its inclusion?"

This question, without recourse to legalism, answers itself.

Brother Charles said...

Ben: I can always count on you for clarity. Thanks!

Greg said...

Perhaps we are living through a period in which the charism of Francis is being reawakened and that spiritual earthquake afflicts many at this time in ways they do not recognize — and patience is needed as the ground resettles.

Paul A. Zalonski said...

Great post. You raise some essential and interesting questions. Some of the respondents give some good perspective. 2 things help me:

1. How does the praying of the sacred Liturgy help me to adhere to Christ and the sacrament of His Church more closely each time I am present? What does the Lord want me to learn and change in myself to be in a deeper friendship and a more perfect communion with Him?

2. There is a difference in the liturgical life of the Church between purpose and meaning. None of the elements of the Liturgy have any purpose. Wearing purple in Lent has no purpose in the worship of the Trinity. The wearing of purple has tremendous meaning during Lent; the reality that it opens up for us is so real that we are sometime oblivious to the meaning. (Cf Romano Guardini).

Sara said...

Father Charles, this was good for me to read. Thank you. I identify with the neophyte in your story. What you wrote made me think about this sort of "tampering" in the context of abuse in a different way. What I realize is that when I am exposed to this sort of thing, I react like a child. I don't cry or scream but my thoughts are childish. These are my spiritual fathers and older brothers and sisters, and their actions confuse me and I only half understand what is going on.

Just recognizing that is really helpful to me. Now that I can identify it I can probably manage it better. So thanks again.

RJ said...

There's another aspect about the illicit variation of the liturgy. A priest who does this is arrogating to himself an authority he doesn't have. He's putting his individual judgement against a practice which he probably doesn't fully understand and which has been established for our good by people who are actually competent to make the decision (in the sense both of having the responsibility on behalf of the Church and the liturgical knowledge), or at least should be assumed to be competent. That's an offence against the common good.

tgshaw (aka secondarycreations) said...

Ritual might work against the reptilian brain for people who have a tendency to strain against it. But for many people, ritual serves a very comforting - and even protective - purpose. Someone who finds safety in following ritual may need to move beyond that in order to become more human (and less reptilian). At the very least, it involves not judging the soul or the intent of someone whose stance in relation to ritual is the slightest bit different from our own.