December 12, 2002

Regarding the Spiritual Classics
It perhaps wouldn't surprise y'all to say that Bill White's words resonate with me: the traditional spiritual works opaque to me; these "lower" works often help me to place building blocks on which to build a better spiritual life. Boy, he said that well didn't he?

By "traditional spiritual classics" I'm thinking along the lines of Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, Dom Chautard's Soul of the Apostolate, Teresa of Avila's Way of Perfection. I've not read enough of St. John of the Cross to say, but I suspect he would be in the same group. The lack is within me I'm sure. I'm not speaking, by way of example, of Thérèse of Lisieux's marvelous The Story of a Soul. Although classics are by definition timeless, the relative popularity of St. Thérèse compared to, say, a St. John of the Cross, suggests that God providentially provides saints that speak to our times. St. Thérèse speaks to us moderns.

A Baptist pastor continually preaches the following thing on the radio (I don't have a specifically Catholic radio station in tuning distance so I listen to the local Christian one):

"Christians have to spend more time remembering their position in Christ, not their condition."

In other words, focus on who you are - God's - and not your condition, which is often disconcertingly poor. It is interesting to this cradle Catholic that even Protestants have problems with legalism and "position vs. condition". This is stereotyped as a Catholic "works" problem. I've sometimes wondered if the best way to go about becoming a Christian is to start out as an evangelical and really nail the "grace uber alles" into your heart and then become Catholic and experience the fullness of it. For the gratuitousness of grace is the bedrock upon which everything draws. It was enlightening to me that even a Protestant minister must remind people to remember their position and not condition. Most of the Christian music I hear actually defines the word "schlock", but the thing that the evangelicals do well is to pound the simple message home that one is given a gift and that one should be grateful for that. All sense of duty must flow out of gratefulness, it seems to me. Or as is found in Cantalamessa's Reflections for Advent:
The gift comes before the commandment. It is the gift that gives rise to duty and not vice versa. The law does not generate grace, but grace generates the law. This is such a simple and clear truth that we tend to forget it. - Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.

I'm quite allergic to sentiment in religion. The idea of creating our own religion is an anathemna as is using religion as a crutch, or as a way of dealing with death. I trust not my feelings and I recoil at the thought of presuming on God. And yet...one must internalize the great gift. And one must error on the side of presumption, rather than discouragement.

By the way, that ol' hard-ass'd curmugeon Derbyshire discussed sentiment relative to animals in NRO yesterday:
I myself am more philosophical, with a quiet faith that the large natural order of things is reasonable at some level inaccessible to mere human minds. I am also temperamentally opposed to sentimentality about animals, and in fact to sentimentality in general. It was Dostoyevsky, I think, who described one of his characters as "evil and sentimental." Just so.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I find most of the classic spiritual works tend to make me focus on my condition, rather than position, although that is an unfair generalization. (This is not to infer that this in any way is Bill White's issue with the spiritual works, I am speaking only for myself.) But after reading parts of some of them, I'm not sure they have the benefit of improving my behavior... Try constantly not thinking about a pink elephant and my guess is that it'll be something you think about.

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