March 14, 2012

Ignoratio Christi Est

Often when I read the Church Fathers or the great medieval theologians I can't help but notice how immersed they were in the Sacred Scriptures. The vocabulary, the theological imaginations therein, these writers seem to just swim in it.

Why am I not like that?

I think about it sometimes. Of course it's primarily my own fault and my own failure to let myself be absorbed by the Bible instead of clinging to the noise and nonsense of the world.

But I've come to think that we in our time are also subject to a set of mistakes and errors that keep us from living as deeply in the Scriptures as we could.

First, for some crazy reason that I've never understood, we have decided that all Christian doctrine is relative while certain other systems of doctrine are raised to an unassailable, dogmatic status. There are certain forms of psychology, for instance, and the anthropology and teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous, to take two common examples. Questioning these is often far more 'heretical' than leaning toward a genuine heresy. I imagine that most religious could name the seven sacraments. But I wouldn't be surprised to find out that more could list the Twelve Steps than could name the Ten Commandments, and I would be willing to bet on it for the mysteries of the rosary or the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Now I don't mean to say anything against the recovery movement itself, which has done a lot of good for a lot of people, but just to say that we religious are often confused and uncritical about what are and what ought to be the axiomatic foundations of our thinking and practice.

Second, I think our poor practices of liturgy contribute to the poverty of our relationship to the Scriptures. Since we have accepted as a norm, for example, the option of  substituting the ordinary texts of the Mass with songs and hymns, we receive the scriptural language and imagination of the Mass in a much more processed and derivative way in this regard than we would if we just sang the proper chants. That's really the lovely thing about chant on the theological level; the music conforms itself to the actual words of Scripture. In the offerings of the big music publishers, it's often more like the other way around; the scriptural theme conforms to the music.

Our practice of the Divine Office, too, represents certain missed opportunities to embed ourselves in the Sacred Scriptures. The Liturgy of the Hours is more or less made out of Scripture and provides an opportunity to return our hearts and imaginations to them five times each day. Unfortunately, I don't think we say our prayers. I know that I miss them sometimes, in my distraction and to my shame. This is bad enough for us as religious, but even worse for us who are clerics who have publicly promised the people of God that the Liturgy of the Hours would be celebrated fully and daily in our individual persons. In my own institute, because of our lukewarmness but also for good reasons regarding our ministries and good things we need to be about, we tend to celebrate in common the minimum of the Hours that our Constitutions demand. This leaves the rest to be prayed in private. Unfortunately, I don't think we do it. As one of my confreres once said, the 'saddest sound in religious life' comes from chunks of breviary pages being flipped forward in the chapel, not having been looked at it since the last time we prayed in common. Now I also think that some of this problem comes from an uncriticized and impoverished sense of liturgy as a community activity rather than the worship of God, but that's another rant. Today I only wish to rant about how we rob ourselves of the power of the Word by our failure to say our prayers.

Therefore, let's repent of all these errors. Let's say our prayers, sing the Mass instead of substituting something else, and recover the Sacred Scriptures as the true foundation of our thinking about ourselves, our spiritualities, and the world.


Anonymous said...

Your comments sadden. As one lay person not initiated into the Liturgy of the Hours because in my country it is not a prayer prayed by laity. I am uncertain about the clergy and religious. One never hears it mentioned or programmed in parish churches. I have only heard it discussed on the classical musical radio station when Vespers or the Magnifiat are requested. As a Catholic teacher I practised reading Morning and Evening Prayers for some time, but alone and unnurished and under the pressure of work and life it slipped away. However I taught my students the psalms daily to enrich them? and no doubt myself. Just as reading good literature and saying and reflecting on great poetry the great literature and metaphors of Scripture inform, educate and console. Your words are encouraging.

Judy Kallmeyer said...

I wonder if part of the problem is that we tend to "say prayers" rather than to really pray, to be focused and concentrated on our prayer. It is really easy to "say prayers;" it is sometimes really difficult to truly pray. Then there are the folks like me who tend to fall asleep when they try to pray. I guess I am in good company as St. Therese had the same problem. The older I get, the more difficult it gets!

Anonymous said...

A very thought-inducing blog. But it reveals the mindset of the hierarchical church which longs for a return to an "ideal" church, typically prior to Vatican II, that never really was. The theology that is being taught in seminaries today reflects this, what I can't help but think is a psychological need, by maintaining that all you have to do is return to older prayer or ritual forms that are culturally foreign to the situation today. The purpose of prayer is to put us in communication with God. This is a very organic process. It's very small wonder the pews are empty...