Praying the Hours

Tonight was the final session of our RCIA course at St Mary’s for this year. It was great at the Easter Vigil to see so many come into the church. We had nine baptisms and thirty to be received. Praise God!

Tonight we concluded with a talk on prayer. In speaking on the liturgy of the hours it seemed to me that I was swept away a little. It is so hard to communicate the beauty and richness of learning to pray the hours. Somehow one connects with the centuries of the monastic tradition and through the psalms right back to thousands of years of Jewish worship.

Your own little words of worship are caught up in a mysterious mystical music of the spheres. The liturgy of the church seems to connect with the liturgy of the cosmos. The ritual and rhythm of time and space coincides and connects at a deep level. The liturgical cycle repeats and throbs in the rhythm of time.

Am I crazy? Has anyone else experienced this sense that my own life is caught up through this liturgy in something far greater and far more universal than you can imagine. Sing the psalms. Sing the responses and you are in touch with everyone else from the Holy Father to the loneliest hermit in a cell on an island lost in the sea.

Dare to Discipline

In the wake of the Catholic soul searching and hand wringing over the child sex abuse allegations and cover up, I’ve got some ideas on how the situation might be improved. It involves discipline, and lest this sounds too harsh for our delicate soft, selves, let’s remember that ‘discipline’ and ‘disciple’ are from the same root.

Here are some problems and solutions. I don’t propose this as infallible or as a complete (or even accurate) list. But see if it gets some discussion going.

1. We’re soft and decadent. We give ourselves too much of a break. We’re materialistic, self indulgent and too easy to let ourselves off the hook. What we need is some good old fashioned asceticism. Let’s look to the desert fathers who, repelled by the decadence of established Roman Christianity, fled to the desert to practice mortification. “These only come out by prayer and fasting…”


2. We’ve lost the idea that we’re involved in a spiritual battle and that the devil is like a roaring lion stalking about seeking whom he may devour. What we need is more prayer and a new alert and vigilant spirit that does not give the devil even one toe in the door. We need that vigilance first for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters. St Therese cries out, “Sanctity! It must be won at the point of a sword!” Call on the angels and saints.


3. We lack discipline and direction. People consider it essential to have a coach and strict self discipline for success in every other endeavor. Athletes, musicians, business men, academics all demand professional direction and discipline. We think we can get to heaven by sauntering along in some kind of spiritual feel good hippie trance. We need firm spiritual direction and self discipline.


4. We’re good at acknowledging that we’re good, but bad at admitting that we’re not perfect. We’ve gone too far in the “I’m OK. You’re OK” philosophy. God does love us just as we are, but he loves us far too much to leave us that way. He wants each one of us to be saints, and most of us are far from that goal just yet.


5. We’re too cowardly in dealing firmly with one another. All of us, but especially fathers, husbands and pastors need to speak out against sin and speak to family members, colleagues and Christian brothers and sisters who offend or who are in danger of offending. When a person is caught in sin proper forgiveness should be balanced with proper restitution and reparation.


6. We think we can be half a saint. We want enough sanctity to make us feel good and no more. St Therese cries out, “You must be a whole saint or no saint at all!”


7. We think that morality doesn’t matter. This is gnostic. It’s a false separation of the spiritual from the physical. What we do in our bedrooms, what we do in our boardrooms, what we do with our check books and what we do with our prayer books all affect our spiritual life.


8. We’ve replaced worship with good works. We’ve made the church into a social services organization, a fund raising agency, a school, a charity, a glorified soup kitchen, a babysitting service, a luncheon club, a dating agency, a social networking group, a group therapy session, a singalong and just about anything  but the gathering together of the saints of God. Only when we worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness will we begin to be transformed not by our good ideas and good works, but by contact with God’s awesome grace, and only when we are truly transformed can we hope to transform the world. Thomas a Kempis says, “Why do you wish to change the world when you cannot change yourself?”


9. We are too easy on our clergy. We love our priests. We love our deacons. We love our bishops. We support them. We honor the sacrifices they make. However, we should also hold them accountable. The fact is, money and power corrupt and priests and bishops often have more money and power than they know how to deal with. Together we should uphold the sanctity of their office and the laity should work together to confront and challenge clergy in a respectful and firm way when they go astray. We should not be surprised at corruption, and I think a bit of healthy suspicion of those in power is not a bad thing. Furthermore, wayward priests and religious should be disciplined by their superiors, lax bishops should be disciplined, not given plum jobs.


10. We have neglected catechesis and spiritual formation. Instead of teaching the fullness of the Catholic faith, liberals have dished out sentimental, feel good religion on the one hand while the conservatives have dished out dogma and apologetics and liturgical ‘correctness’ without enough spiritual formation and direction in dynamic life of the Spirit. Christian love is always tough and tender at the same time. Liberals give us tender without tough. Conservatives give us tough without tender. We need both.

Cutting Edge Catholicism

Sorry not much blogging this week. Along with everything else crazy busy and Lenten we’ve been having our first school mission with Fr Luke and Br. Felix–two of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. They’ve been at St Joseph’s Catholic School for three days, and the students have been enthralled. I love this pic of the friars in London.

I’m passionate about introducing our kids to vibrant, dynamic and cutting edge Catholicism. In fact I’m passionate about this not just for our kids at St Joseph’s Catholic School, but for everyone. What on earth is the point of what C.S.Lewis called Christianity with water? Give me the full blooded stuff! Christianity with water is the weak hearted compromising pablum that actually does more harm than good. What I’m talking about is a kind of complacent, sentimentalized, do gooder religion that doesn’t do much good except if you’re suffering from insomnia.

While they were here I took the friars over to Bob Jones University art gallery, and in telling them the story about Bob Jones I related how the old boy was a good ole fire breathing, stompin’ and sweatin’ and yellin’ evangelist. At the same time Bob Jones Sr. was tender hearted. he loved people and genuinely loved saving souls. Of course I have my criticisms of fundamentalist Protestantism, but at least it has some guts and backbone.

This is what the Catholic Church most needs in this age: we need to stop all the internecine quarrels about this form of liturgy or that form of church music. We need to grit our teeth and put up with one another and open our hearts and minds and learn from one another. Mostly we need to all draw closer and closer to Christ, soak up his Spirit and each in our own way according to our own vocation and charism live out cutting edge Catholicism.

The question then arises, “What is ‘cutting edge Catholicism’?” It is nothing less than being transformed into the image of Christ, and what I have found in my journey is that no particular group or religious community or personality type has the monopoly. It should go without saying, but I’ve found saintly, joyful, simple Catholics who are traddies and trendies. I’ve met sour, legalistic, self righteous and angry traddies and trendies. I’ve met the real thing amongst charismatic Catholics, liberal Catholics, conservative Catholics and just plain bread and butter Catholics. Likewise I’ve met phoneys and frauds and pharisees in all of the above groups.

What I want for me and what our Church and our world needs most is that indefinable air of authenticity. It is hard to pin down, but it always has a sense youthful curiosity mixed with the wisdom of age. It always has a sense of seriousness mixed with zest for life and a joyful sense of humor. This person takes others seriously, but does not take himself seriously. He is patient with fools, but not with tomfoolery. He is modest but not prudish. He loves to pray but is bored with mere piety.

The friars I was with this week had these gifts. I want some.

Three Ways

If we are made in the image of God, then it must follow that we are little Trinities. I think we are: body, mind and spirit are three in one and one in three within us. The problem is that, unlike the holy Trinity, we are not perfectly unified. The body wars against the spirit, the mind wars against the spirit, the spirit (without grace) goes astray.

Furthermore, I have this theory that each one of us favors one of the three as our preferred mode of being. It’s like being right handed or left handed. We are primarily head people, heart people or body people, and we process our lives with one of the three predominant. So head people think things through. Heart people feel things, and body people do things. We’re thinking, feeling or acting. Which are you?

Yes, these are generalities, and all of us are more complex than these simple categories, however the categories are useful for discussion and useful in the strange and wonderful task of getting to know ourselves.

If this is so, then it makes sense that we also approach our faith in one of these three ways. At school I see some kids who just naturally connect with the religious stuff. They understand the spiritual. They understand a relationship with God. They understand the poetry of the sacraments, the intuitive moments of peace and the mechanics of prayer. Other kids are well meaning and they want to love God, but they seem to draw a blank. It’s like some kids have musical talent and others have to struggle.

It doesn’t mean the non-spiritual are left out. They just connect with the faith and encounter God in other ways. I see the mind centered ones engaging with God through their theology and philosophy courses. I see them struggling to understand. They read their way into meeting Christ and argue their way into an encounter with God. That’s OK. They join in with the sacraments too and they join in with the life of the church, but they do so first through their mind.

Then there are the ones who are body centered. Maybe they don’t connect so well with prayer and rosaries and sacraments and worship. Maybe too they’re yawning in theology class and can’t really see the point of Bible study and philosophy and apologetics. But they love going on mission trips and serving at the altar and doing service in the community and helping others and that’s how they connect with God and encounter the the One.

If this is so, then we ought to be patient and curious with one another. Curious because it’s a wonder that others connect with God in perfectly valid, but different ways than I do. Patient because I should honor their way and not seek to impose my own. Patient because if God is doing something in their life in their way then he’s really humble and I ought to allow that to happen and enable that to happen and be amazed when it does happen.

Instead how often do we seek to impose our own spirituality, our own tastes in worship our own understanding of the church’s teachings on others? How often we assume that our way is the right way? How often we scorn others and find all sorts of arguments to prove them ‘wrong’ and so make ourselves right.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not arguing for a kind of wishy washy relativistic faith based only on subjective personal experience. However I am saying there is such a thing as personal experience in our faith, and it’s a good thing, and it comes to us in as many different ways as there are people.

This is why the objectivity of the sacraments and of the church is so important. It is this objectivity that we return to. Whether we are head, heart or body people, no matter how we best connect with God on a personal level, all of us need to be grounded in the solid rock of the church and her sacraments. There the personal is grounded and the subjective is experienced with objective certainty.

In the Land of Believers

Gina Welch is a California cradle Jewish atheist, daughter of a communist father and feminist mother. She’s a product of Yale and admits that the one sub group of American society she and her friends considered it ok to mock, fear and hate were Evangelical Christians.

As a budding writer she conceived a book project: she would go underground and infiltrate one of the bastions of Evangelical Christianity–Dr.Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The resulting volume is an extraordinary read. The author is intelligent, open hearted and self aware. She knows the world she is entering is totally alien to her. She is scared of the unknown. She suspects her subjects will be disapproving and judgmental. Most of all she knows she is prejudiced. She expects to do an objective expose and ends up having her world transformed.

Her story is entrancing. As a former fundamentalist myself, I could understand and sympathize as Gina encountered Evangelical-speak, struggled to understand doctrines and customs that seemed bizarre, irrational and unintelligible. I was with her as she attempted to understand and accept a sub culture that seemed tacky, sentimental and stupid. I was also with her as she was genuinely touched by the sincerity, warmth and affection of her new Evangelical friends.

The most winning thing about this book is Gina’s genuine realization that Evangelicals are real, ordinary, complex and likable people. She did well to allow herself to be changed by her experience. It is to her credit that she admits to being touched by what she calls ‘Feeling X’–a real emotional jolt that came through the Evangelical praise music, the powerful preaching and the genuine love and affection of the Christian community. She is eloquent when she speaks of the lack of hypocrisy of the people she met, their genuine care for each other and for the poor and the practical attraction of having a faith that makes sense of the world, a community to belong to and a regular fixed point of faith, support and love in the world. When Gina goes on a mission trip to Alaska and shares the simple joy of a homeless woman ‘getting saved’ we connect in a powerful way to the need for all of us to be open to ‘the other side.’ When she accepts that the Evangelicals ‘soul winning’ is a form of genuine compassion for others she makes a soul leap forward.

I enjoyed this book. In fact, I found it difficult to put down. Did Gina get saved and accept Jesus into her heart? I won’t spoil the ending, but the main disappointment in the book is that Gina did not weave in a more intellectual analysis of Evangelicalism, it’s history or the essential claims of the Christian faith. While she seemed ready to enter into the experience of Evangelicalism it seems she never once considered the possibility that Christianity might actually be true. She read C.S.Lewis’ More Christianity and dismissed it with a wave of the hand.

While her genuine appreciation of Evangelicals on the human level was winning it seems that she had more of an open heart than an open mind. She objects to what she sees as Evangelical homophobia, but never engages in the argument. She grits her teeth at the Evangelicals’ anti abortion rhetoric but never engages in the argument. She pretends to be a Christian even to the extent of ‘getting saved’ and being baptized, but never engages in the real argument. She admits to the attraction and usefulness of religion, but never asks whether the baseline claims of Christianity might be not only useful but true.

Gina is a sparkling and gifted writer. She captures the mood and essence of a person or a scene with refined and targeted prose. She has written an attractively positive account of her Evangelical experience, but it is as if she has not engaged with the intellectual argument regarding theism and Christianity because she assumes there cannot be one. The final result is that, as a fellow Christian, one still feels patronized. It feels like a privileged Ivy League preppie has stooped to associate with trailer trash and gone back to her latte sipping friends saying, “You know it was all sooo amusing and interesting and I actually got to like some of them!!”

This sounds pretty damning. In fact, Gina is a fine writer and the book is enjoyable. What interests me most of all, at the end of the day, is not what this book says about the Evangelicals and the narrow little world they inhabit, but what it says about Gina and the narrow little world she inhabits.

UPDATE: Br. Stephen reviews a similar book called Unlikely Disciple here.

A Deep and Subtle Joy

I first met Dom Luke Bell OSB when he was a monk at Downside Abbey. The Downside Community are part of the English Benedictine congregation, and part of their tradition is that they have parishes and schools. I bumped into Dom Luke again when I was visiting parishes for the St Barnabas Society,  and then was not surprised to learn that he had transferred to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight.

Quarr is a wonderful place. It became most well know recently through Tony Hendry’s book about Fr Joe–one of the holy monks of that Abbey. I knew Quarr well because my Anglican parish was on the Isle of Wight. I have many fond memories of retreats there, my friendships with the monks and finally, it being the site of our reception into the Catholic Church in February 1995.

So it was with some delight and anticipation that I discovered Dom Luke Bell’s new book A Deep and Subtle Joy. This book is a genuine delight. The monastic life is a truly incarnate Christian life. Through work, prayer and study the monks immerse body, mind and spirit in a life intended to be one with Christ. Fr. Luke takes this tendency on the part of the Benedictine tradition and makes it come to life with a meditative visit to Quarr Abbey itself.

So we go on a tour of the monastery, and as we do we are able to see through the ordinary aspects of life to their deeper meanings. Fr. Luke shows us the chickens, the pigs, the sheep and the bees and meditates on each one. Then we’re given a tour of the monastery: the guesthouse, the monastic ruins (Quarr is built a few hundred yards from the ruins of a medieval monastery) the cloister, the refectory, the tea room, the music room, the cell, the church, the cemetery and the nearby endless sea. Each portion of the visit breaks down into a chapter of the book and provides Fr. Luke a creative and beautiful meditation on the deeper meanings of each aspect of the monastery.

It is difficult to express how beautifully and completely a book like this captures the Benedictine spirit. St Benedict created a rule that helped his monks to live a graced life–a life that carried in every moment the sacrament of God’s presence. Somehow, Fr. Luke has captured the essence in his own book.

He has a simple, almost child-like style. Like the best of monks he welcomes us to his world and explains things with a charming delight and simplicity. Beneath the simplicity is a depth of wisdom and insight borne out of a life of contemplation and prayer.

This book deserves to be a classic of Benedictine spirituality. So often now books are consumables and even worthy religious books go through their first printing and expire. I hope remains available for years to come. It deserves to be basic reading for all who would seek to understand the essence of the spiritual life and the heart of the Benedictine way.

The book is available on Amazon here.

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