The Lead points us today to an article in the Guardian by Mark Vernon about a lecture series conducted by Diarmaid MacCulloch. I’m certainly going to have to listen to it (via this link here) but, having not yet done so, I want to make two comments on the reporting of this event; first a comment, then a critique.
Vernon reports MacCulloch as speaking against the avoidance of silence in Christianity in general which is (apparently) part of a critique of the institutional church’s suppression of the interior life. Evagrius Pontus seems to be lifted up as the ignored martyr, pilloried for interiority and the stand is killed off… This seems a gross over-generalization and I expect that it’s coming from Vernon rather than MacCulloch. Yes, historically the church has taken issue with some of its most forward-thinking teachers of mysticism and ascetical theology: Origen, Evagrius, his spiritual heir John Cassian, and a number of later folks wither received suspicion or rejection from later folks when their speculative or ascetical theology fell a-foul of the prevailing dogmatic theology. However, the practices and teaching of Origen, Evagrius, Cassian, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers did find fertile ground in the monastic movement and—as both Dom Leclercq and DeLubac pointed out—a return to Origen and the other sources by spiritual movements has always heralded a period of spiritual flowering and rebirth.
The other side of this is to point out that Vernon (and possibly MacCulloch) seem to be speaking of Western Christianity which has decidedly taken the kataphatic path of spirituality, that which focuses upon what can be positively said about God that therefore privileges linguistic and dogmatic expression—talk. The East has broadly chosen the apophatic path of spirituality that focuses upon the via negativa and what cannot be said about God but only experienced.
Bottom line: the church in the West and the Anglican churches specifically have done a poor job speaking about and promoting the interior life. We need to do a better job of this!
Now for the critique which also picks up on the previous point… What really jumped out at me in the Lead’s excerpting and coverage of this article is this paragraph:
The legacy of this tradition is that, today, if you go to a mass or morning worship, there will be barely a moment’s silence. Quakers aside, it is as if there is a de facto ban on silence in public worship. When people gather together, they should rehearse approved truths. The inner life, left alone, foments heresy and subversion.
Now—what’s the assumption here? That the Sunday morning public worship is the expression of everything that’s important, worthwhile, and taught by a particular tradition. And it’s dead wrong.
Sunday mass is an important part of your complete spiritual life—no question about it. But to either say or imply that it should be the totality of your spiritual life is a big mistake and is not something that the Church has taught. Nevertheless, some of the major shifts in 20th century American religion are grounded in this assumption. Let’s face it—the widespread revisions to the Mass lectionary in both the Roman Catholic post-Vatican II effort and its protestantization in the Revised Common Lectionary feed directly in to this fallacy. The idea expressed in these reconfigurations is that more and more Scripture has to be poured into the Sunday morning service, more and more weight has to be laced upon that time slot because that’s when our culture chooses to “do” religion.
On one hand, we’ve got to be real: the majority of people in our churches do now and always will see religion as a phenomenon relegated to Sunday morning. That’s unfortunate, but is the way things go. Some religion for some people is better than none…
On the other hand, we have done a very poor job of communicating of communicating the Church’s historic teachings about the spiritual life and where and how silence is found within them. We are not doing a good job of communicating that all Christian formation, Christian liturgy, and Christian experience is not intended to be crammed into an hour to two-hour block occupying Sunday morning. We are not presenting a clear, on-focus message about either Christian maturity or Christian proficiency. And, to be frank, this is one of the huge problems that I have with both Holy Women, Holy Men and the Communion Without Baptism movements. HWHM is a celebration of diversity for diversity’s sake; CWOB is a celebration of the extraordinary channels of God’s grace. What we’re lacking, though is any sense that there is a norm—that there are clear classic disciplines for cultivating the relationship with God, and that there are consistent and ordinary means through which God gives grace to the covenant community. By highlighting diverse routes and a multiplicity of ways, we increasingly lose (and obscure) the sense that the Church offers any firm guidance for those who seek a deeper relationship with God. Just because some have chosen and found their own way does not mean that the Church does not offer a particular well-trod path.
At this point, of course, I can’t help but loop back to the original topic. One of the major mistakes that moderns make when they encounter the work of the great Christian mystics is misunderstanding their context. Speaking particularly about the medieval mystics, they cannot and should not be considered apart from the liturgical life that grounded their mystical freedom. Too often people try to set up a stark dichotomy between the teachings of the mystics and the paths of the institutional church. But the freedom of the mystics is intimately bound to their practice of the Church’s liturgy particular in the Mass and Office (or Mass and prymer for some…). To set the Mass in stark opposition to contemplative practice is just wrong—it’s not just misunderstanding the Mass, it’s misunderstanding the contemplative life as well.