Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Greatest Schism

This post's title does not refer to the Greek schism, nor to the Great Western Schism of the 15th century, nor even to the tremendous modernist crisis within the Church today. The schism I am referring to is the unfortunate fracture between theology and ascesis, between spirituality and mortification. The more I reflect upon it, the more I am convinced that this division is at the heart of all our other problems, even the modernist crisis.

In Christianity, our beliefs influence our manner of life, and our manner of life reflects our beliefs; both come together in our communal worship. This is the much commented on connection between the lex orandi and the lex credendi, and if I can coin a third term, our lex vivendi. All three must be united. In other words, it is not possible to have a proper intellectual understanding of Catholic theology without participation in Catholic liturgy; likewise, attempts to enter into Catholic spirituality apart from adhering to the Church's doctrinal teaching wind up going astray, and neither our liturgical experience, our intellectual formation, nor our spiritual life can be rightly ordered if our personal, moral lives are imbalanced. I am thus referring to the inalienable nature of any one element of the Catholic Faith. 

The Church was traditionally compared to the seamless robe of Christ; this comparison is true on many levels. While it certainly applies to the Church understood in terms of her unity, it also demonstrates the interconnectedness of the different parts of the Faith and teaches that no one aspect of it can be compartmentalized or abstracted from the others without doing grave harm. G.K. Chesterton once noted that all major heresies arise from someone taking one aspect of Catholicism too far and breaking it off from the rest of the Faith.

The great schism I spoke of earlier refers to the fact that those who study and write on Catholic theology and spirituality today are, by and large, divorced from any sort of regular ascetical life. Let us reflect on the lives of some of our greatest saints and doctors. We know Benedict, Aquinas, Augustine, Bernard mainly from their writings, and that being the case, we often neglect to meditate upon the physical conditions in which they lived and how ascetical their lifestyles truly were. Benedict lived in an inaccessible cave for two years; Aquinas was a friar, in the early days when the lives of the friars were still lives of true poverty and want; St. Bernard lived under the most severe rule then known in Europe. The lifestyle of St. Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross would discourage even the most ardent soul today. This is to say nothing of the life of St. Anthony or the other early desert fathers.

Yes, their lives were harsh, their penances strict, their loneliness must have been overwhelming at times. But it was in that cave on Subiaco that Benedict first conceived his great Benedictine Rule, the masterpiece that created western civilization. It was through her fastings, vigils and mortifications that St. Teresa received the spiritual insights that made her a doctor of the Church; the same with John of the Cross. It was under the blazing Egyptian sun that Anthony worked out principles that are still foundational in Christian spirituality. Aquinas was austere in his personal life, went about barefoot, lived his life in drab, clammy cells that most of us could not tolerate a weekend in, and died prematurely, wasted away by a life of penitence and asceticism. But it was in the midst of this ascetical regimen that the intellect of Aquinas was flooded with the divine light that gave the Church the Summa.

To put it bluntly, the saints can talk the talk because they walk the walk.

Ah, but what can we say of our modern spiritual writers? In what crucible of mortification were our current spiritual writers formed? Not a drizzly cave or a scorching desert or atop a pillar, but in a cozy little diocesan institute of higher learning. Their authority comes not from sleepless nights of anguished prayer, bodies wracked from fastings or feet calloused from walking this earth unshod, but because they have obtained a certificate from a diocesan-approved two-year program that says they are "qualified" to be a spiritual director! At night they go home, not to a drab monastic cell to catch a few hours of sleep on a stiff board, but to a suburban home somewhere to enjoy all the comforts of modernity. Or, if they are more fortunate, to a larger home purchased with the income derived from their latest books on how to "unlock" the secrets of the spiritual life.

And what of our theologians? Do they walk the earth barefoot? Do they abstain from meat for six months out of the year, as did the early Franciscans of which St. Bonaventure, one of the Church's greatest theologians, was part of? Do they die prematurely because of the rigors of their penance? Alas, no.

Our modern spiritual thinkers have talked the talk, but they have not walked the walk, at least not in the manner that it was walked by the saints.

Thus there is a tremendous divorce between theology and asceticism which is choking up the channels of grace. This means that our theology and spirituality is more man-centered, more the product of human reason and human feeling than on divine truths and spiritual light. I realize I am being absurdly vague here, and that it is difficult to generalize - and that people will post comments saying, "How do you know what so-and-so does in his private life?" My friends, I do not know what so-and-so does privately or how much he fasts, but I know that most of our theologians and spiritual writers today are not living anything close to what even the simplest monk or priest would have endured a millennium ago. I understand there will be exceptions, but on the whole, I think this thesis is correct. In the past, we had theology and spirituality that proceeded from a life of faith actually lived out in all its rigor; today, it is largely the domain of "experts" whose approach is extremely anthropocentric because it is book-learned, based on the "latest theories" and the product of unaided human reason.

We need holy monks, holy hermits, holy nuns - men and women whose capability to speak on these matters comes from a life which is crucified and hidden with Christ, which is something that cannot be earned with any certificate program or degree. Who will reconnect our spiritual life with our intellectual life? Who can refasten the chain that once held the sun to the earth? Who can repair this schism?

I am speaking clumsily and with great imprecision here. Perhaps, by God's grace, some of you will see through the mist what I am trying to get at and be able to reword it more concisely. You see, I really have no place talking about theology or spirituality either.


Hermit Crab said...

It's the opposite of Marxism.

Jeffrey Coogan said...

Wow- extremely interesting commentary. I would say that one's education qualifies one to speak of theology. However, only a person who has personally gone down the road of mortification, sacrifice and prayer can speak with authenticity about the spiritual effects of those practices.

Not That Guy said...

What about the Little Flower, who sketched out a "totally new" way to union with God that did not require the great penances of the saints of old?

Boniface said...

The only reason Therese was able to come up with her "Little Way" was because she herself was very mortified.

Keep in mind, I am not saying one needs to practice "great penances" but only that one needs to be mortified or practicing ascesic. Therese certainly was mortified, but she found her mortifications in little things. That is the point of her teaching.

Ghost of Tyburn said...

Regarding the variance in mortifications allowable I suggest reading Humility Of Heart by
Rev. Fr. Cajetan da Bergamo.

There are exceptions to various ascetical practices, but no exception to the requirement for humility.

Ghost of Tyburn said...

Because of our bodily nature as well as our fallen nature, our intellectual vision is obscured and less powerful than it will be when our soul separates us from our bodies. God designed us this way and we need to fight against natures so they do not overwhelm our intellect and drag us down.

Boniface said...

That's a great book!

But I think that humility and mortification go together - the fact is, there is no greater mortification than to exercise constant humility. I think, in looking at my article, we need to not think only in terms of severe penances, although I used them as an example. The fact is, we are all called to make war on the flesh.

Ghost of Tyburn said...

Yes, Boniface, I agree. Though there is a danger of some penitents going overboard with their mortification which is why a wise spiritual director helps in the higher levels of the spiritual life.

The Litany of Humility by Raphael Merry Del Val is a great gut check and seeking out humiliations is a fine penance in addition to fasting and other mortifications.

I'd also agree with you in the present day the problem is lack of mortification not excess. The other thing that strikes me is the power over the Demonic many of the great saints (Dominic casting out 15,000 demons; St Vincent Ferrer raising multiple people from the dead) had versus the lack of such wonder workers today. Of course, modernist and neo-modernist clergy just say those stories were all made up.

Rosa Mystica said...

The ultimate mortification is to voluntarily become a victim soul. St. Francis, Therese of Lusieux, Therese of Avila, St. Faustina, Sr. Josepha, etc. were all victims. I understand this is quite a calling, but it is the greatest love. Ultimate self-sacrifice in union with the Savior.

Unknown said...

Posted a link to this article on my blog Otaku Catholic. Hope that's ok.

The Little Flower was mortified and even did 'extra' things that weren't required in her rule, they were just comparatively small next to the great saints. It wouldn't be small to me or a lot of other people though!

Anonymous said...

Living a penitent life springs from the love of the object studied. Mortification et al appears in an individual's life something akin to sweat coming to the surface as a result of exertion. Asceticism is a by-product of intense loving contemplation of God Himself in prayer desiring greater union with Him.

Anonymous said...


Infrequent visitor to your blog here and confused Catholic. You articulated why Mother Angelica is more inspiring than many other Catholic broadcast personalities. Because she suffered growing up and suffered in body visibly on air.
For most of us, even at retreats we are treated t sumptuous food and get comfy beds.


Mar said...

Thank you for this article, Boniface. Mention could also be made of St Alphonsus Ligouri who,
although a bishop, practised the most rigorous austerities. His 111 works on spirituality and
theology underwent 21,500 editions and translations into 72 languages, making him one of the
most widely read Catholic authors.

In the second session of Vatican II Bishop Frane Franić spoke of poverty as a necessary condition of holiness of bishops. He also said that bishops had a much greater obligation to be holy than all other members of the Church "because as bishops we must sanctify others". Pointing out that since the Middle Ages not many saints have come from the ranks of bishops he said that "this would seem to indicate a lack of heroic sanctity among bishops, and I believe the reason for it is a lack of evangelical poverty".

Anonymous said...

Imagine a Theologian returning back home after his classes, driving his 2013 car xx. Perfect Temp., feeling the amazing power of the magnificent machine under his control, with all the incredible technology at his service. Impossible no to feel self centered, powerfull, and a super human.
And it doesn't need to be a luxury car.
He might be thinking in dispossesion af all goods as a virtue, and as a requirement to find God, but he would never really get it.
And that just for the car....

Jack said...

Can someone tell me why we need to flay ourselves alive every day to procure grace? I had a crappy time growing up, non-catholic parents who divorced, why do I need to inflict yet more suffering on myself ? It may be fine for boniface's kids wit their happily married parents who teach them to pray the Rosary but for the ones God didn't love enough to place them in the care of nice catholic parents that soda and chocolate bar represent the only means of dulling the pain (which we're allegedly supposed to thank God for) attendant with our upbringing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack,

I hope you come back to this. The point of mortification is not to inflict suffering upon oneself. It is, rather, to detach oneself from the world, the flesh, and the devil. With our nature fallen, we instinctively and habitually seek to satisfy our lower nature. This requires a turning away from God to one extent or another. Requires it - being distracted from, turning away from, or defying and denying God.

Being proud, weak, flesh, it does hurt us to not satisfy whims and wants. But doing so allows us to focus more on God. By practicing mortification, we can begin to deaden our fleshly desires and become closer to uniting us with His will.

When the saints practiced severe austerities, it was because they had already mastered their lesser desires and detached themselves from common things like mortal sins, worldly desires, and even had detached themselves from bodily needs like warmth, food & drink, sleep.

In our case, it is great progress to offer up our trials like illness, family problems, problems at work, and daily frustrations. When we can be resigned to those things, then we may feel the desire to seek further austerities.

It is important to remember that these saints found JOY in their mortifications, not because they were masochists, but because the were so focused upon God that the rest became irrelevant. God was the source of the joy, not the suffering.

I, of course, suffer great pain and indignation when someone gets my pizza order wrong, so I am a long way from being a saint. "Offer it up" is what Catholics always say. If you can do so,even on occasion, it indicates good will on your part, and shows that you are on the right path.