The Dangers of Isolationism and the Need for Holy Guides

In the past few weeks I have come into contact–both in person and in social media–with people who have felt the need to lecture me on their individual learning in areas of the Catholic faith. I stepped in at a Catholic bookstore when a man was telling a woman in full communion with Rome that she should go to SSPX Masses. I tried to explain to him that we shouldn’t be encouraging people to wade into complicated areas with a group that has not been fully rectified with the Church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made progress in that area, but not nearly as much as this gentleman believed.

He then went into a tirade about how he had read all sorts of things and knew more than I did, even after I tried to tell him that I am in fact a theologian who has studied the documents of Vatican II quite a bit, because he had launched into an attack on those documents. The discussion was futile. It was like talking to a brick wall. He knew better than I did and that was that.

I’m sure he does know more on some things than I do. Everyone does. However, he demonstrated a weakness to me that is very common in the line of thinking of that particular crowd. This is true in both social media and in person. I can attest that the hostility many of us face from these folks online is just as prevalent in person, which I must admit, took me aback quite a bit. The weakness is a form of turning in on oneself.

Fr. Chad Ripperger, an exorcist and FSSP priest has warned this particular group of people, who are of a more traditional strain–as in only the Latin Mass, all else is invalid, Vatican II is wrong, etc.–that a martyr complex or persecution complex is destructive. This is precisely what tends to present in these circles. The rest of us–apparently myself included–are the enemy who is keeping everyone from the fullness of Catholicism. I personally veil in the Novus Ordo and I prefer a balance of English and Latin in the Mass e.g. Sanctus, Mysterium, and Agnus Dei. I’m not a fan of the banality of Marty Haugen, Dan Schutte, and David Haas. Those are merely my preferences, however. In the end these decisions are up to the individual priest and the bishop. We can’t allow our disagreement with certain choices to trap us in anger. I’ve done this before and it causes nothing but harm.

The danger I see is that far too often these folks read or study in isolation. I rarely see appeals to Sacred Scripture or Magisterial teaching, ether that or they cherry-pick documents. Whenever someone tries to explain the development of doctrine, as articulated by Blessed John Henry Newman, it is discarded. I’m not entirely sure these folks realize that Christology, for instance, took centuries to develop and is still developing in certain areas. The psychological dimensions of Jesus Christ are being examined by many theologians at present, as an example.

These people often focus on their own abilities to understand things. It’s a focus on “I” read this or “I” know this. It is often predicated upon a private revelation they studied, which is a good as far as it goes, but private insights and revelations are not Magisterial teaching and are not binding on the faithful. If I have a private experience of God, you are not bound to follow what He has revealed to me. You aren’t even bound to believe that it happened to me.

If the Church approves a private revelation, then we can at least trust that it does not contradict the Church’s teachings on faith and morals and it is a safe message to incorporate into our spiritual lives. We must always keep in mind, however, that our faith is not entirely encompassed in the message of Fatima, or the still not fully approved apparitions at Mejugorje, or any other private revelation given as a great grace to the saints. Our faith is understood through Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. The three legged stool if you will. Once we unhinge ourselves from one of these legs, the stool will topple over.

There is nothing wrong with being an autodidact. Every faithful Catholic should have a regular habit of studying great spiritual works. Most importantly, all Catholics should be spending regular time praying and reading Sacred Scripture. Issues arise when we do so in isolation without ever seeking guidance from others, especially orthodox learned priests, theologians, teachers, spiritual friends, or catechists. We are made for communion with one another. This means that we should take our studies and what we learn to other people. This offers us the opportunity to humbly accept correction–I am corrected on a regular basis, as it should be–and to make sure that we are not in fact erroneously understanding something.

Spiritual teachers are an indispensable aspect of the spiritual life. It’s for this reason that priests receive formation from other priests, theologians, and philosophers. It is why theologians are required to undergo years of study under learned and trusted teachers. We need to balance our self-study with discussions and learning with other people. This includes those who may not be book-ish, but whose simple faith is a guiding example to us. I learn a lot from my husband who never cracks open a work of theology.

If we have fallen into protectionism, isolationism, anger, or vengeance then we are desperately in need of guidance. There are some people who have become so blinded by their anger at the Church that they relish the day they think when it will come burning down. Not only is this anti-scriptural, it’s to fall into the trap of sinful anger and wrath. These are traits that are quite common in certain circles. If we find ourselves pulling away from the Magisterium, for instance, then we have put ourselves in danger. We are then heading towards the same mistakes of the Reformation. We place ourselves above Our Lord in thinking that we know better than He did when He gave the keys to St. Peter.  We somehow know better than 2000 years of Church Tradition and Sacred Scripture.

If we believe that we can ignore an Ecumenical Council, then we once again are in danger. This is one of the reasons I urge people to read and study Church history. Far too many people think only with our current age in mind without being able to put it into the much needed wider context of the whole history of the Church. Periods after Ecumenical Councils are notoriously rocky. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI even said it takes 100 years for a Council to be fully implemented correctly. This period in history is not somehow significantly worse than others. The heresies may be slightly different or old heresies have found prominence again. There is not a golden age of Catholicism where everyone was leading holy lives and our leaders were all pristine saints. The Early Church faced division and violent martyrdom. There’s a reason the saints are held up as pillars of light to emulate in our dark world.

This practical understanding does not in any way excuse the sins of the hierarchy and the faithful. It is in fact possible to understand on a practical level the weaknesses of human beings and to be righteously angry in the face of great evil. The former is simply to understand how Fallen men and women work through their salvation with Christ in fear and trembling, often in a very broken, weak, and sinful way. The path to holiness is to battle the sin that lies in our own hearts and to be purified. That cleansing process takes a life-time, and even then, we may still need much time in Purgatory. That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious consequences when we choose grave evil.  It doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be very real consequences for when members of the hierarchy cause great scandal or that measures shouldn’t be put in place to prevent such scandals. There absolutely need to be! It’s important to remember that Christ Himself spoke frequently of the realities of Hell.

I simply mean that at a practical level, we do have to keep in mind that the path to holiness is a constant battle with sin, temptation, weakness, character defects, other people, the world, and the Enemy. I’m not a saint, yet. Are you? It’s not an easy path and anyone who says it is hasn’t fully understood that the Cross and the Resurrection are a package deal. Often those of us who focus on other people’s sins–we all do it–do so in order to avoid looking at ourselves. If we spend most of our time looking outward, then we are avoiding the very real work required interiorly and it is work. This is also something that needs to be done with knowledgeable, holy, and orthodox guides.

If we truly want to change the world and the Church, that is not going to be accomplished by ranting at other people both in person and in social media. In fact, that type of aggressiveness does more to harm our mission than to help it. If we truly want to transform the world and bring people to Christ then we must be actively pursuing holiness. That means a willingness to conquer the darkness in our own hearts and wage the intense battle that is required of us to do so. We have to stop focusing so much on the evils out there to the point that they rob us of peace. We can’t fight the battles out there if we haven’t fought the battles within our own hearts. Do we see the plank in our own eye? In the end we will persevere because it is Christ who fights with us and for us. With Him all things are possible. Even the most hardened of hearts can become radiant and holy. We must remember that this cannot be accomplished in isolation. We rely on Christ and His Mystical Body to succeed. We cannot walk the path in isolation.

 

 

The Need for Wonder

“We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

G.K. Chesterton

I have written a bit about beauty and how God woos us through his secondary causes. Today I want to write about wonder. The two go hand-in-hand. Wonder is something that children do quite naturally. The world is new, so every new, and even old, discovery leads the child to excitement, joy, and wonder. As adults we can have a tendency to look at a child’s wonder in apathy. We may scoff internally that it is only a rock, flower, worm, or tree. It is something that we have seen numerous times and so it bores us. Who has it right? I say the child.

In Fundamental Theology we learn that the theologian uses a variety of things to study God. It is described as three concentric circles. The outer layer is Everything. Yes, everything. Anything in the universe can provoke theological study, insight, and a greater understanding of God. Catholicism marries natural theology (that God can be known through reason in a limited capacity) and Revelation (what God has revealed about Himself through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition). The contemplation of a tree, for instance, can lead to a deeper understanding and love of God. The next circle is Sacred History (or Tradition). The Church has been around nearly 2000 years, so there is a deep pool (hence the name of my blog) of knowledge that can be used to grow in a deeper understanding of God. In the very center is Sacred Scripture. The Word of God to us. Throughout our lives we will travel between all three of the circles.

Theologians tend to have a natural capacity to wonder. In order to desire going deeper in knowledge of God there needs to be an element of awe and desire to know more; however, this capacity can be cultivated by all Christians with practice. The primary barrier to wonder is distraction. If we are too busy and lost in our thoughts or tasks all of the time then it is impossible to see the world around us. This is the same if we do not take the time to study our Faith and Sacred Scripture. We cannot wonder at God if we do not spend time with him.

Why do we need wonder? Wonder increases our capacity for joy. It connects us more deeply to God. That wonder should come quite naturally during the Mass at the consecration and when we ingest and gnaw (literal translation from Scripture) on Our Lord. The face that Christ left himself as food for us to unite to him body and soul on this side of the veil, should incite deep awe and wonder. It is very easy for these things to become robotic. That is why we have to form a habit of wonder. We will not always have warm fuzzy feelings. Emotions are unreliable and ever shifting. Our faith is rooted in the love and grace of the Blessed Trinity, not our moods. There are days we may “feel” little, but we can still wonder.

How do we cultivate this habit? I will admit that wonder comes pretty naturally to me. As I said in my post on beauty, it only takes a tiny flower or a pretty cloud to stop me most days. I think that the habit begins with gratitude and learning to pay attention. We have to look up from our iPhones and watch the things around us. We need to watch our children play and see how they wonder. My daughter can teach me more about wonder more than anyone else I know. So the first thing is: Look up.

The next step is to figure out what things make us wonder. In the beginning it will be difficult to wonder at things that seem mundane. The brilliant GK Chesterton was so adept at wondering that the tiniest thing brought him into a state of wonder. I want to live like that and while I am well on the way, I have a ways to go. What is it that makes you stop in awe? Is it some aspect of nature? Flowers, trees, grass, mountains, ocean, rivers, desert, snow, sunsets, stars, etc. The possibilities are vast. Figure out the things that incite wonder in you easily.

Once you figure these things out, start to pay attention. Intentionally seek them out while you are out doing your daily tasks. Perhaps take a lunch break, even if only 15 minutes, outside. Go for a quick walk. Stop by your parish and spend 10 minutes with Our Lord who is reposed in the Tabernacle. Even if you are stuck at your computer, try using a search engine to find beautiful pictures to wonder at. Some days I search out pictures related to the season and others I look for the beautiful cathedrals of Europe or the Holy Land.

Another way to instill wonder is to upset the apple cart, so to speak. Change your routine every now and then. Have dinner outside or at a park. My daughter and I have picnics on our living room floor during the winter.

Wonder also comes from gratitude. Foster a deep sense of gratitude. This is something that I am working on too. If we are thankful, then we are more likely to pay attention. When we are upset or ungrateful we tend to put our heads down and fold our arms. Try to think of things you are thankful for each day. It can be the simplest things, like your morning coffee and the steam rising, or eggs sizzling on the stove. It should be the obvious things like family and friends. You will find that when you pay attention to the little things you are thankful for, the more you will begin to wonder at those things that seemed mundane.

Today make an effort to wonder. Step outside, even if it is cold, and look for something to marvel at. I am an avid gardener, so each day I check the progress of my bulbs. The tulips are halfway up, the daffodils are set to bloom, and the crocuses will bloom any day now. I love watching God work.

Yesterday I made a concerted effort to take the day off from studies. I am 2.5 weeks from the end of this semester. I have two more papers due and then final exams. It is crunch time and I will spend long hours studying until Easter. It was 76 degrees here yesterday and glorious. I went with a friend to the park with our kids. My daughter found shells near the river and I discovered a mussel shell in the river. I had never seen one in a river before! I was excited and so was my daughter. When we got home I looked up a video of a live mussel for my daughter so she could see it move. She understood that the shell had been an animal. There aren’t words for her excitement!

After our park adventures we played outside until dark. My husband had to fix his truck, so my daughter and I played in the dirt. Then the most spectacular sunset happened. It started off a pink, blue, and purple and then it exploded into orange. We laid in the grass and watched the most beautiful peach wispy clouds float by. As dusk descended, two bats started flying overhead in search of food while squeaking at one another. My daughter had never seen a bat before, so we watched them for a bit. My husband was happy to see them because we have a vegetable garden and bats keep the bugs down.

I intentionally took much of yesterday off from my routine and studies in order to wonder alongside my daughter. In doing so, I was able to contemplate the deeper mysteries of God and enjoy being a mother. My daughter is not bored of dirt, sticks, and flowers. She sees them as amazing tools and fun. She is the one who stoops down to pick up a tiny purple flower to put in her hair. She is the one who pointed out to me that the tiny purple flowers blooming our grass had “disappeared” at sunset. I was able to explain to her that they close when the sun goes down and will open at sunrise. What an incredible working of nature! If we want to cultivate a deeper understanding and love of God, then we need to pay attention to his beauty and allow ourselves to wonder as children do. There is a reason Christ calls the little children to himself. The children are paying attention. Are we? I hope you are having a very blessed Lent.

**I hope sharing my wonder helps you. I am in a constant state of wonder through my studies and the world around me. God bless.

P.S. Not everything needs to be a picture. Put the phone down and just watch the beautiful sunset. :o)