May 28, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: The Examination of Conscience

May the Lord set the Church free from these new forms of gnosticism and pelagianism that weigh her down and block her progress along the path to holiness! These aberrations take various shapes, according to the temperament and character of each person. So I encourage everyone to reflect and discern before God whether they may be present in their lives. (62)
In obedience to the Holy Father, I have tried to make this examination of conscience that he encourages. And I admit that I feel rather stuck at least with regard to how I guess it is supposed to apply to me.

(Just as a caveat I want to say that in my opinion the terms pelagianism and gnosticism are used rather loosely in the document. But that would be another post.)

Of the dangers presented under "new pelagians," the one that I suppose would apply to me is "a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy." (57)

(Before continuing it has to be said that this punctilious is particular to the English translation of the document. The phrase does not say the same thing in other languages, or at least in those languages that I am able to examine well enough to confirm this. I can't speak for Polish or Arabic. Perhaps readers who are competent in languages other than English can comment on this issue. Such questions of translation are a little cloudy with Pope Francis, because one doesn't know for sure what the original language of the document is. My guess is either Spanish or Italian, depending on the unknown combination of author and ghostwriter(s))

First, a little history. I got to be a Christian and a Roman Catholic mostly on my own. I read, reflected, and finally prayed myself into it. It didn't happen because I met anyone in particular or any parish or community. Once I thought that becoming Catholic was what I wanted to do, I went to a priest of course, and he directed my reading in a very useful way. But it was still a personal decision. At the time I even regarded it as a private decision, but the Holy Spirit soon provided for me to be corrected about this.

All this is to say that my early learning of the faith and its practice was from books. And so after I was baptized it wasn't long before I had a lot of questions. There were things about what I observed in the practice of the faith, like the celebration of Mass for example, that didn't match up to what I was led to expect by studying my St. Joseph Sunday Missal (Red vinyl cover. I loved that book.) In a similar way my experience of myself was confusing in some ways; even though the old Adam had been drowned in baptism, he didn't seem to know he was dead.

So I went to priests and asked my questions, presuming that they were the experts in the faith and would have the answers I needed. They were always patient and always had answers. But their answers did not always agree. So how could I know which priest to trust on some particular matter?

Worse than that, as I continued to learn the Church's doctrine (for one thing the English edition of the Catechism first appeared in 1994, the year I graduated from college and entered religious life the first time.) I began to see that some priests would tell me things that were contrary to what I could look up myself.

Before too long I simply stopped trusting anybody to tell me anything. I learned to find things out for myself. If one priest told me the Gloria or the Creed was optional on Sundays and another told me it was obligatory, it didn't matter, because I could read the rubrics for myself. If one priest told me something wasn't a sin and another that it was, it didn't matter, because I had the Catechism.

I didn't do this out of any 'conservative' or 'traditional' motive; I wouldn't have known how to apply these labels at the time. (May the Lord help me to recover such innocence!) For me it was a matter of making this project of being a Catholic work, of the survival of the vocation that I believed God had invited.

(My entrances into religious life, which provided me with much more intense experiences of confusion, wonderment, and even being scandalized, have only served to continue to confirm me in this frame of mind.)

Was this the beginning of a 'new pelagianism' in me, a failure to trust, an insistence on trying to save myself?

Recently I had a very difficult experience that perhaps goes with this whole reflection. I lost a spiritual director because we couldn't work with each other anymore. I have left many spiritual directors of course, but always because one of us was moving or the circumstances of my religious life were changing in some way that made a change necessary. This time it was pure impasse. That had never happened to me before, and it was very jarring to my religious life and my prayer.

What happened was that he insisted on my doing something that seemed to me to put me in danger of sin. I said I couldn't do something that exposed me to such danger, nor support something that might expose others to the same. He was not willing to discuss alternatives. He said that my concern about sin was unfounded, but could not point out to me the error in my reasoning nor cite any codified doctrine of the Church to support his position. I even tried to ask if letting go of my own reasoning and trusting what he said--even though I couldn't comprehend it--was a 'night' that I was being invited into in the sense of John of the Cross (the director was a Carmelite), but got no clear answer. When I saw that we were both beginning to become exasperated with each other, I suggested in an email that we terminate and he wrote back to say that this was a 'good discernment.'

I really struggled with the whole thing, and continue to do so. Was I wrong? Am I failing to trust the wisdom figures God provides for me? Did I fail to enter into a letting go of my own will and a mortification of trust in my own insight? Am I sinning against holy poverty by clinging to my own reading of the matter rather than abandoning myself to the guides and superiors that the Holy Spirit provides for me?

What it comes down to is that I don't know how to accept something if the Missal, or the Catechism, or whatever document of Church doctrine or law says the opposite, or how to understand how what the Church says doesn't apply to some particular situation if there is no other thing I can read to support this difference. If I'm not supposed to believe or follow them, why are there norms? Or if some apply to some situation and others not, but there is no key provided for making this interpretation, what does any claim mean? In that case, I'll just go back to praying with the Quakers on Sunday. (Which is nothing against you Quakers. It's just a theological reflection.)

As I said, this is an attitude I arrived at early on in order to survive. Was I being asked to let go of this early learning (in the style of childhood patterns that we learn in order to survive but become maladaptive in adulthood) in order to move to a new kind of faith? I don't know. And when I say I don't know, I really mean it. In all honesty, I am not sure.

So in a certain way the examination of conscience the Holy Father encourages in Gaudete et exsultate 62 and the punctiliousness he mentions in 57 come at a fitting moment for me. And I confess that I don't know what to say about it, whether or not I am guilty of being a 'new pelagian,' or even how to repent of it if I am.

But I do know for sure that the whole matter with the spiritual director and the breakdown of that rapport, and these difficulties that led to it, have left me in a considerable state of spiritual and religious unease over the past several months.

In the past, however, I have had the experience that a 'stuck' position is sometimes the beginning of a new abandonment to prayer, and I can only hope in that.


Anonymous said...

I find it very disappointing that when I need clarity on some church norms, I will get a response that I am "mixing apples and oranges" intro from a priest. Could have said in a better way.

Brother Charles said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that trying to get clear answers from priests can be very frustrating. My experience has been similar!