April 25, 2012

The Deepest Sadness, the Greatest Danger

In my current state of being between assignments, I've been able to get to several books I had meant to read but never did. One of the books I'm in now is Dom Augustine Baker's Sancta Sophia, which has already shown up in a couple of posts. It's one of those books that I'm so grateful to have finally got around to reading. Sometimes I think this is an operation of grace; the Holy Spirit means for us to read a certain book at a certain moment in the journey, and makes it happen just that way.

Another book I had meant to read but never got to until now is Peter Steinfels' A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Whether you agree with Steinfels or not, it's an important book. Though still fairly recent (2003), it's a little jarring how dated it already feels, given certain events in the Church: the election of Benedict XVI, Summorum pontificum, the election of Timothy Dolan as president of the USCCB, etc.

I'm enjoying the book, particularly in its communication of a love and reverence for the whole of Catholic experience in the United States. As a convert without a family history in the Church, that's something good for me to sense and feel, and to hold in reverence.

What grabbed me for a post today, however, was a little line in the section in which Steinfels is correcting nostalgia for the liturgy before the reforms following Vatican II, as if this were a time of universal reverence and awe before the mystery of God. As an effective strategy for doing this, Steinfels describes the experience of being an altar boy in the days before the Mass of Paul VI: "Other priests quickly communicated to the altar boys a smug familiarity with all things sacred, a kind of authorized irreverence in which we were privileged to share." (177)

How that speaks to my experience! Not that I was ever an altar boy, but I have received the same initiation: 'Here you go, brother, accept this false liberation to which you are now entitled by being admitted to our little club. It will only end in sadness and is ultimately ordered to your damnation, but for now let me admit you to this happy irreverence that frees you from worrying about God and lets you relax and be yourself.' Boo.

I remember in one place I lived we had a public chapel where there was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament each weekday afternoon. I would often spend some time praying with the odd assortment (one has to admit) of folks who would come. One day when I was going to the chapel one of the priests asked me bemusedly if I was on my way to join those who spent their afternoons "quietly screaming at the wafer."

That comment hit me so hard that I could hardly pray for a couple of days. It's bad enough that a priest was making light of the real presence of Christ in the sacred species. In a way, though, I was even more bothered by the way he was mocking the prayer and piety of the people. Fine, maybe adoration isn't your thing, or not the way you pray. Maybe you even think it's contrary to the spirit of the reformed liturgy. (You're wrong, but that's not the point.) But none of this grants permission to treat the grace of prayer in someone--as imperfect and confused as it is in any of us--as an inside joke on which we build our own rotten and fleshly communion.

It just goes to show how vigilant and cautious we have to be in any of our disagreements and conflicts. The world, the flesh, and the devil get into them so easily.

When we invite each other into the false liberation of the "smug familiarity" and "authorized irreverence" for the things of God, it won't be long before we are also trying to build our rotten solidarity on irreverence for persons and their experience. And the incarnation has rendered all irreverence for the human person a sacrilege.


Marc said...

It was this sort of nonsense-- your acquaintance's comment re "the wafer"-- that 'sent' me, albeit briefly, to the 'the last Council was simply a monumental error' 'camp'.

Digitalnun said...

As a Bakerite through and through, I'm so glad you are discovering Sancta Sophia for the first time! Sadly, your comments on the professional irreverence that can dog religious life struck a chord. To be fair, I don't think I've ever noticed it in a community of nuns, but I'm very conscious that it's easy for familiarity to breed contempt, especially when we are lucky enough to live with the Holy of Holies every day of our lives. Please make sure you (plural: all readers, not just Fr Charles, of course) are never one of those whose conduct causes others to stumble. We bear such a great responsibility.

Brother Charles said...

@Digitalnun Thanks for the encouragement! I'm finding Baker quite wonderful. It was the occasional reference by Thomas Merton that gave me the idea I had to read him. Perhaps it's evidence for my first priest, who had the penance of dealing with my as a pre-catechumen and a neophyte, in his constant assertion that I am not really a Franciscan, but a Benedictine at heart.

Father Anthony Cekada said...

"One day when I was going to the chapel one of the priests asked me bemusedly if I was on my way to join those who spent their afternoons "quietly screaming at the wafer."

Perfectly horrible. It catches the scorn I heard so often from modernist priests in the 60s and 70s, most of whom abandoned the priesthood and the faith, and some of whom ended up in jail. Good riddance — and God have mercy on them!

SeanD said...

St. Teresa of Avila is the patroness of those who are scorned for their piety!

Anonymous said...

I, too, have experienced such breezy contempt for the faithful and our pieties. About a decade ago, I was in discernment for a religious order in Texas. I remember, after several months of spending time with them, I was brought into their "inner circle", so to speak. Some of their recurring jokes were to poke fun at all things Marian: the Rosary, Marian groups, Mary shrines, and especially people with strong devotion to Mary. At the time, I was quite immature and was so thrilled that they would consider me "worthy" of their honesty that I never imagined challenging them. I probably even laughed at their stale jokes.
Now, I believe that they were trying to determine if I was "too pious" for them. However, my objection would not be that they spoke in such ways (the Mother of God can take care of herself quite well, thankyouverymuch!), but that they evinced such a disrespect for men and women whose faith should have made them fall on their knees in awe.

Ultimately, I discerned that God was calling me to a different vocation, and now I find myself a married father a few months away from Profession in the Secular Franciscan Order. Funny how things turn out....


Cloister said...

I almost read through this post and thought, 'right, yes, got that, got that, yes, good, fine', passing it by. Yes, I know the feeling of irreverence among the initiated. And, it is good to see it is wrong. This thing that got my attention though is that this book, Sancta Sophia, is recommended by Merton. I LOVE Merton - and a friend of Merton is a friend of mine - so now this Baker chap must be added to my reading list.

Talking of which - I am in the process of putting together a 10 week course on Catholicism and literature in the UK. It for 17 - 19 year olds. Of course, Seven Story Mountain (Thomas Merton) is on there. As is, Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde) and The End of the Affair (Graham Greene). Would you have any other recommendations? Catholic novels are good. The aim of the course is to illustrate that understanding and knowing you faith is an important part of appreciating the arts and culture.

I loved this post. and, it has given me cause for thought. We are all guilty of taking for granted the immense graces God grants us through his sacramental presence.


Unknown said...

Your comments, as well as Digitalnun's, remind me of an important fact - "We bear such a great responsibility." Although I cannot recall a specific instance, I'm certain that I, too, have been guilty of creating a 'good ol' boy's' exchange with others whom I have been in leadership in a way that assumes, "We're above being corrupted... we have a strong foundation." I wonder just how many others I have 'caused to stumble'? Thanks for the solid reminder that ALL we say and do can make a difference in the faith journey of our fellow Christians.

Pia said...

Hi, are you not on FB anymore? I was surpised to see you are actually moving to Italy...That's amazing! Good luck!