Timing is everything - or so they say. And given Pope Benedict's decision to retire, the reading of Fr. Thomas Keating's book on centering prayer, Intimacy with God, is fascinating. It was published in 2009, of course, but today as I read the first few chapters that celebrate the wisdom of Vatican II - and spent time with Keating's careful and compassionate dismantling of much that has shaped the Roman Catholic church's theology and practice for so many generation - I couldn't help but wonder about what will happen next for this part of the church. And when Keating's deep concern is put alongside Gary Willis' new book taking on the historicity of the priesthood to say nothing of the "nuns on the bus" movement...
Keating calls into question three time-tested truths, attitudes and practices of the pre-Vatican II realm that continue to find resonance within the existing leadership class. The first he calls "the Western Model of Spirituality where external acts are more important than internal acts." This would include fasting, bodily penance, almsgiving, scupulosity re: attending the Mass and a variety of other practices that once gave shape and form to the faithful. We spoke about this for a bit in worship yesterday in anticipation of observing a Holy Lent. The old school Prods among us barely practiced any acts of piety during Lent - maybe dime or nickel mission folders - while our life long Roman Catholics spoke of not eating meat on Fridays or giving up candy. When I mentioned that a soul on Facebook recently queried, "What should I give up for Lent?" there was a lot of knowing chuckles because in popular culture the external acts have come to define the season.
The second attitude Keating challenges believes that "the self initiates all good works and God rewards them." It doesn't matter that this is essentially the Pelegian heresy of the 4th century - the belief that human beings have full authority over sin and are not fully dependent upon God's grace - this practice posits a distant Deity waiting for us to please him. "If we do well, it is thumbs up; if we fail, it is thumbs down." All of which is the polar opposite of the Gospel that teaches "that God initiates all good deeds through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit abiding within us." And the third unholy attitude of the Pre-Vatican II Church that Keating calls into question is our "overarching concern about getting into heaven rather than exercising the love of God and neighbor here and now."
And just so that we don't miss this point, he offers this caricature of a "good" pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic gentleman:
He attends Sunday mass faithfully, never eats meat on Friday and contributes generously to the collection every Sunday. He goes to confession and Communion at least once a year and expect that on his death bed a priest will be there with the Last Rites to anoint him so that he can at least get to purgatory and then after a brief detainment, shortened by means of masses offered for the repose of his soul, move on to heaven to be amply rewards for his exemplary Catholic life. It might never have occurred to this man that it might be a sin to exasperate or dominate his wife, shout at the children, underpay his servants and employees or to disregard the poor just down the street or in his parish. In short, he adheres to the dogmas and observes the externals of the Roman Catholic religion, but fails to practice the gospel. The gospel, you see, is a life to be lived, not just a set of observances... And this caricature is not too far-fetched. Before the Second Vatican Council there was a climate that favored bargaining with God... to avoid hell or to shorten purgatory... Excessive concern about future rewards or punishment tended to take ordinary people's attention away from their primary duty of manifesting here and now the love of Christ towards their neighbors. (pp. 5-7)
My confirmation group wondered last night why so many people leave religion - both Roman Catholics as well as Protestants - and they concluded essentially what Keating has described: too often the externals get confused for the heart and soul of the faith in ways that keep our wounded hearts intact. I like how Henri Nouwen puts it:
Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy. But gratitude goes beyond the mine and thine and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received. But I now realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and all I have is give to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy. (That means) I must make a conscious choice.
I bumped up against my resentments and weariness today and they reminded me that the time has come for some solitude and renewal. No more "doing" for a bit and a little more "being" and trusting in God's grace... I'm working on a quiet retreat. As an old school Prod I know my own version of "works righteousness" and bargaining with God. And while I pray with and for my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers during this hard time of transition, I also recognize the ebb and flow in my own soul. Perhaps for us all this is a time "to be still and know that I am God."