On the Concrete

19 06 2008

Two Reflections on One Anecdote

Pt. I – An attempt at theology

I have done my share of Bishop Williamson-bashing on my blog, but as of yet I have not revealed to you, the reader, my only real one-on-one correspondence with the good schismatic prelate. I was twenty, and looking to drop out of Berkeley to enter a seminary of the Society of St. Pius X. I had written my harrowing story of conversion to then district superior Father Peter Scott, and he had given me the green light to give up all that I had for Jesus and the Church. He had even written me a rather touching letter saying that my past would not negatively effect my future as an SSPX priest, and that I would be welcome into one of their seminaries after a period of discernment, which ended up lasting about a year.

I wrote a similar letter to Bishop Richard Williamson, then rector of the SSPX seminary in Winona. The only reply I received was a handwritten, curt post card telling me that he thanked me for the letter, but that perhaps I would be better off if I gave myself a year where I thought about it and performed “some HARD LABOUR” (his emphasis, not mine). He insinuated that being a college student in a top-tier university gets you out of touch with reality, and that for me to really get my feet on the ground spiritually, some good old fashioned sweat and dirt was necessary.

At this point, however, I wish only to focus on that one word: reality. In Christianity nowadays, there is not enough reality. People feel that worshipping God “in spirit and in truth” means treating God like Caspar the Friendly Ghost. Without getting into too much detail, I will speak briefly about some issues, painting things with broad strokes, but hopefully stimulating some thoughts on these issues:

1. Marriage: The Catholic Church’s placing of “mutual support” on par with the reproduction of children as ends to marriage can bring about an idea that marriage has its basis in the ethereal realm of good feelings. I would say that the historical reason behind the traditional hierarchy of these ends stems from the fact the Roman Church is an institution that respects the concrete above the theoretical. You can see children and you can see families. Families exist to raise children, and marriages exist to create families, just as the highest symbol of the Most August Trinity in creation is the family. You cannot see or objectively define mutual support of the couple in their road to salvation. If anything, that mutual support only emerges through their obedience to one another, their raising of children, and their leaving behind of the more pleasant ends of marriage to find the complete self-emptying of living for their children and for each other. In the end, even the homosexual couples can cite “mutual support” for their demand to marry. Few will think that they are making a family, or if they do, the “family” part is optional. That means all the difference in the world.

2. Vocation: How many Catholics talk about “finding their vocation” as if everyone had one, as if they were standing in some line waiting to get doled out their own particular plan that God has in store for them? The problem is that a vocation, a real vocation, actually entails a real, audible call. When I was in seminary, we were taught that you don’t really know that you have a vocation until the day of your ordination when the bishop calls you by name to step forward to be ordained. When I was tonsured a monk, I was called by my abbot to be accepted into the brotherhood of monks. Before any of this happens, you can think that you have all the vocation in the world, but you have none until you are actually called. No one is called to marriage in supernatural terms. (Marriage is, in reality, the default state of human beings, though these days in many parts of the world it doesn’t seem like it.) And certainly no one is “called” to be a bachelor. That does not mean you are not called to holiness, it just means that you are on your own in deciding what that general call means in your life. Sometimes I think that all this talk of vocation seeks in some degree to forfeit responsibility for your own decisions. In the end, for most of us not called by the Church to anything specific, we have to make the choice on what path we will follow and we have to own that decision. That is not a vocation. That’s just life.

3. Rules: Modern people think that rules kill the spirit. In seminary, we had a time everyday where we had to practice “mental prayer”. For me, it was the most unprofitable part of the day, since, being the childish person that I am, I was almost always distracted. And even when I did it right, it profited me nothing since you can get a “spiritual high” that is more often the result of physical sickness, hunger, or lack of sleep. What formed me most were the rhythms and cadences of the Latin of the Office, serving at altar, and saying certain prayers in a timely fashion. Only the completely spiritual man is formed purely through contemplation and abstraction. The rest of us mere mortals are formed by rules and rote exercises that treat us like a bunch of misbehaving children. That is because rules are not contrary to the spirit, but rather its foundation. The statues, the rosaries, and the precise “fetishized” gestures of the priest in the old Mass were the highest expressions of the spiritual world.

For me, then, the old time religion was a religion of the concrete, and if this religion is dying off even within the Church, it is because we are too given over to a “spiritualism” that kills the spirit. To attack the evils of the world with such a ghostly weapon would be akin to attacking a brick wall with a styrofoam mallet. Only the real can oppose the real, only the concrete can defeat the concrete. It may be time for us to get our head out of the clouds and come back to earth.



6 responses

21 06 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Indeed, the idea of “mutual support” may be behind the boom in annulments in the Catholic world. If marriage is understood as a union of couples to have babies and start a family (i.e. in concrete terms), fewer could claim ignorance of the true nature of marriage or immaturity. Put the definition in some more nebulous concepts, and such fudging of the “indissoluble bond” of marriage becomes possible. And that is why annulments are getting the reputation of becoming “Catholic divorce.”.

21 06 2008

“an idea that marriage has its basis in the ethereal realm of good feelings.”

Well put. Not only marriage, but everything in contemporary religion seems this way. Not just ‘spiritualism’ but spiritualism of banal, happy feelings.

The Orthodox seem to have a handle on this ‘concreteness’ much better than those in the West do. I wonder whether this is because they have held up their liturgy or they have held up their liturgy because they are more ‘concrete.’

20 06 2008

“In reality, however, religion necessitates material symbolism; it needs something we can touch and feel. In the end, the “purely spiritual man” does not exist, or if he does, he is an exceptionally rare bird.”

And if he does, he is not a Christian in any orthodox sense of that word. Humanity was not created to be “purely spiritual”.

20 06 2008
Arturo Vasquez

“… wouldn’t that be the Platonic slip of Rome showing?”

Ummm, I don’t get it. What I was thinking about when I wrote that was the figure of Plotinus in late Neoplatonism. Plotinus is probably the father of all “spacey” anti-material mysticism in the West, even though Plotinus himself as a whole was a very down-to-earth human character in the history of human thought. The problem is that from the Plotinian system, one could come away thinking that spiritual and mental ascent occur when you begin to shut out all externals and material symbols. This is even in contrast to Plato himself, who thought the understanding of the good is mediated by material beauty. This “mysticism” is what you might come away with if you read Meister Eckart or St. John of the Cross. In reality, however, religion necessitates material symbolism; it needs something we can touch and feel. In the end, the “purely spiritual man” does not exist, or if he does, he is an exceptionally rare bird. If anything, I think this would be an indictment of the various Protestant’s “solas” (sola Scriptura, sola gratia, etc.) and an indictment of Rome only insofar as it acknowledges the legitimacy of such a flawed world view.

20 06 2008
The Scylding

“Only the completely spiritual man is formed purely through contemplation and abstraction.” – wouldn’t that be the Platonic slip of Rome showing?

19 06 2008
Matt K

Great post. I disagree, though, that “no one is called to marriage in supernatural terms.” Marriage is a vocation, even if it is the “default” vocation — cf. CCC 1603.

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