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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Cunningham on Being "Spiritual But Not Religious" 
22nd-Aug-2007 11:39 am
Indy/Figuring It Out
Larry Cunningham is one of our great scholars of spirituality. He was the one who introduced me to Thomas Merton, handing me Merton's private journals from 1952-1960 with the instructions, "Here: re-edit these. I've been working on them so long that I can't see the mistakes in the text anymore." And so I started my grad-assistant job at Notre Dame by reading over the shoulder of 20th-century America's greatest spiritual master as he wrote his most private thoughts. (That volume was eventually published as A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life.)

In this article, Cunningham masterfully pinned down the nature of this distinction that has become so popular or even chiché: "I'm spiritual but not religious." I hear this distinction being made quite a bit, and it usually becomes an accurate warning flag for certain problems that he here identifies. I want to use it in my course this year, but I'm currently debating its placement. I've thought about using it up near the beginning, in the first week or two. That's because I try right off the bat to address and get the students to try to rise above some of the intellectual traps they're likely to fall into: being seduced into the vision of the liberal/conservative dichotomy, with one perspective being all right and the other conveniently all wrong; the Secularlist philosophical reduction of "religion" into sociological or anthropological categories; or even such roots of modernity as the belief in constant "progress." This spiritual/relgious distinction is of that sort, and so it might best be effectively treated up front, thus allowing my lessons to procede with that stereotype already highlighted for the students so that they have the chance of being watchful for it and more able to read the material with a more open eye.

The other option would be to save it for later in the course. There are advantages to this, too, like the sheer rhythm of lessons and topical applicability. As the class gets routinely historical in its structure, an article like this one changes the pace nicely and can be placed with such material as to provide an immediate application of some historical text to a contemporary context. I could see discussing this with the students after reading liturgically-focused texts like Justin Martyr's second-century account of the Mass and Hippolytus of Rome's Eucharistic Prayer: that could allow for creating a liturgical/religious/spiritual unity of concept for the students in place of the spiritual/religious dichotomy and provoking discussion that applies the readings to their situations.

Anyone got any thoughts? Is it better up front, though dissociated from any of our subsequent study of Jewish and Christian experience? Or is it better placed later, after the establishment of some understanding and familiarity in the students with the intellectual and spiritual Tradition, where I can then present it tied to and expanding some particular historical document or experience we are then exploring? Or thoughts on the article itself? Like I said, I think it hits the nail on the head. Others, I can imagine, might find it rather threatening.

"Stairways to Heaven: Some Cautionary Thoughts for Those Who Are Spiritual But Not Religious"
By Lawrence Cunningham, from Notre Dame Magazine, Autumn 2002.

As soon as the dust settled at ground zero in New York City and the scope of the 9-11 tragedy became apparent to all, makeshift shrines began to spring up near the site and at adjacent fire houses. Pictures of those lost in the tragedy were pinned on walls, and at the foot of those same walls people left flowers, candles, mementos (teddy bears were a favorite) and scrawled messages -- notes of loss or grief, passages from the Bible or prayers. The candles often had religious decals of Our Lady of Guadalupe or Saint Anthony or Christ with a crown of thorns; other candles were those known among Jews as Jahrzeit (remembrance) lights.

Before too long people began to stop at these sites to look or pray or take pictures. When the World Trade Center site cleanup ended in May, the workers left standing an upright steel girder festooned with messages and photos; an American flag flew on top. The girder then was cut down and ceremoniously hauled away as tearful viewers watched.

These makeshift shrines often show up on the American landscape: in front of Columbine High School after the April 1999 shootings there or along highways where a white cross marks a fatal automobile collision. These clusters have the look of something primordial: the kind of display found for centuries at sacred shrines or pilgrimage chapels so common in Mediterranean Catholicism. Sacred spots are marked; gifts and tokens are left; people come to pray or meditate; community bonds are formed.

What do those displays "say"? Briefly this: We want to mark the spot; we want to remember; we want to symbolize our grief, our sadness, our bewilderment. Plainly put, people reach back to some of the most ancient gestures of spiritual symbolism to articulate something too deep for words. In a broad sense, we want to make a spiritual statement.

Americans have an insatiable desire for the spiritual. Our bookstores have groaning shelves that try to teach us how to "get in touch" with our inner child, our guardian angel, our bliss, our soul. We want chicken soup for the soul to warm and heal us. We read books by spiritual gurus to make us more effective people, to harness our energies, to experience a high by running or rock climbing or walking along a beach. Sometimes we try a disciplinary regime of meditation to seek inner peace or lower our blood pressure, or we enter a 12-step program to combat our raging appetites for drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or food. The more dedicated might actually take on a seminar in mind-expansion or Sufi dancing. Sylvan areas of the country are studded with ashrams, retreat houses, conference centers and houses of worship that cater to every need from angel study to Zen.

What many seekers desire (to repeat what is now a weary cliche) is to be spiritual without being religious. One hears this with some frequency: "I am spiritual but not religious." Observers of the American religious scene have studied this phenomenon in works from Wade Roof's A Generation of Seekers to Robert Wuthnow's more recent After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s.

Every cliche bears within it a nugget of truth. This particular cliche about being spiritual but not religious seems to mean something like this: I would like to have some kind of fulfilling experience in my life but I do not want to be constricted by the demands of institutional religion. Being spiritual is to be uplifted by the spectacular awe felt at watching a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, while being religious is sitting on a pew listening to some dreary moralizer preaching about sin to a bored congregation. Spiritual means freedom and exaltation. Religion means rules, rote rituals and, well, religion. Spiritual is large and religion is small. Being spiritual will make me feel fulfilled but being religious will make me feel guilty. Being spiritual, then, is good but being religious is, if not bad, at least second best.

Is that, in fact, the case? Is the gap between religion and spirituality to be described in such stark oppositions? That distinction works only if we accept such a narrow caricature of religion and if we resist caricaturing spirituality as being the desire for some kind of "wow" experience to go along with all of the other comforts of post-industrial Yuppiedom. After all, the aim of certain forms of New Age spirituality (warm feelings of contentment and peace with the world) could as easily be obtained by the regular use of the hot tub.

To be sure, there are certain forms of spiritual discipline that not only exist outside the walls of institutional religion but do so with great benefit to large numbers of people. Alcoholics Anonymous and other serious 12-step programs come immediately to mind. Alcoholics Anonymous puts a premium on confession, repentance and dependence on some transcendental principle (a "Higher Power"), together with a desire to help others gain sobriety. That A.A. has a religious or spiritual component is so clear that some efforts have been made by militant unbelievers to adapt the 12 steps without reference to any Higher Power. It is also true that certain forms of New Age spirituality bring healthy benefits: Meditation does lower blood pressure, and a vegetarian diet might well forestall the Big Pain in the Chest.

The limits of "spirituality," as opposed to belonging to a religious tradition, are also well known. Much spirituality (think of the preachments of such best-selling authors as Thomas Moore or Deepak Chopra) is highly narcissistic and not easily distinguishable from old self-improvement schemes and/or the standard smorgasbord of psychotherapies. One might call such tendencies "spirituality lite."

Because such strategies are for the "self" they are not so easily transmitted to others. A good test case for a "spirituality" is this: Can you teach it to your children? Does it spill over into more loving relationships with others who are not part of your own nurturing community? An even better test: Does a way of being spiritual help in moments of profound crisis, like coping with serious illness? Nothing focuses the mind, the great Doctor Samuel Johnson once said, like being sentenced to hanging.

Of course, religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive. In Roman Catholicism, the religious tradition I know best, there is a spectrum of every kind of spiritual discipline. Being a member of a religious tradition like Catholic Christianity, in fact, nurtures a person who desires to become more spiritual. Contrary to what many think, being religious is the larger concept and being spiritual but not religious is its pale cousin.

The word "spirituality" has an honorable history in the Catholic tradition. The noun derives from Saint Paul's teaching that those who are in Christ "walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4). By flesh, Paul does not mean the body. For Paul, flesh is that which is not life-giving. He uses a polarity to make the point: "to set the mind on the flesh is death but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). We might more clearly see the distinction if we translate Paul's language into contemporary discourse: hatred is flesh/love is Spirit; violence is flesh/reconciliation is Spirit; rape is flesh/marital love is Spirit; greed is flesh/generosity is Spirit.

To be spiritual in Paul's sense of the term comes to every person in whom the Spirit of God (who is also called the "Spirit of Christ") dwells (Romans 8:9). This is fundamental to the Christian life. To put it boldly: To be a Christian is not to join a religion but to possess the spirit of Christ and live under the impulse of that life-giving force. It is that gift of Spirit that allows us to call God "Abba" (Father) as Christ did, which results in us becoming Children of God, "then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ" (Romans 8:17).

We, then, are first called to be spiritual people in the sense just described, and the way we receive God's Spirit in Christ is by being part of that community in which we can be made transparent to God, learn how to grow, how to live, how to act with others, how to share the gift of grace to all. To be religious means to be bound (the word religion comes from the Latin verb religare: to tie or bind) to God and to others who are part of the gathering of those who seek a similar relationship.

If being religious/spiritual is so simple, what does it have to do with this enormously complex historical reality called the Catholic Church? What have popes, bishops, parishes, devotions, pilgrimages, sacraments, the Vatican, icons, moral dicta, leather-bound tomes of theology, schools and universities to do with living in the Spirit of Christ? Does not the sheer weight of the Catholic tradition simply serve as an obstacle through which one must pass in order to be the person of spirit discussed by Paul? Is not the Catholic tradition as expressed in the factual reality of the church no better than other large corporations (as some might assume from the most recent scandals)?

Such objections are legitimate, but a few important distinctions must be made. First, one need not bear the total weight of the accumulated Catholic tradition in order to be a Catholic, anymore than an American citizen need constantly worry about what goes on in the various offices in Washington in order to be a loyal American. While both institutions can become burdensome in specific circumstances (an IRS audit or an unreasonably pompous rule issued by some church functionary), institutional structures are designed at their best to serve, not to obstruct. We are more at ease as citizens knowing that our borders are protected, our prisons hold the malefactors at bay, our highways are safe, and so on. In the same way, as believers we want churches to be ready to help us celebrate everything from birth to death. We'd like the spiritual memory of our Christian tradition safeguarded and passed on. We desire opportunities for various ways of discipleship from contemplative monasteries to agencies of social care.

It is often said, dismissively, that too many Catholics are "cafeteria Catholics" -- they pick and choose only those parts of the tradition that appeal to them. There is, however, another way of thinking about that criticism. By judicious choice you can get an excellent and nutritious meal in a cafeteria. It all depends on what is chosen.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that there are three essentials that make up Catholicity: the profession of the full apostolic faith; the full sacramental life; and the union of the local bishop with all other bishops including the center of that unity, the bishop of Rome, who is the pope. Once that essential core is present there is a huge panoply of specific ways in which a person may choose how to live in the Spirit of Christ.

Even here in South Bend, a bewildering array of avenues for deepening the life of the spirit exists. If one wishes to follow the way of service, volunteers are needed at the Center for the Homeless or the Saint Vincent DePaul Society or at Saint Margaret's House or the local hospice. If one likes the Taize prayer experience, there is a group that prays in that style, just as there is a charismatic group, a community that uses centering prayer and a Sant'Egidio group. At Notre Dame, there are daily rosary groups at the Grotto as well as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. There are Bible study groups. One can serve as a volunteer for RCIA or catechism classes. If one seeks contemplative prayer, the Thomas Merton Society can help. One can get spiritual direction at Mary's Solitude or at the local retreat center. One can start or join a support group or a 12-step program. There are small Christian communities and large parishes. There are devotees of Marian apparitions of various stripes, with groups regularly jetting off to Medjugorje. There is Mass in Spanish and English and Latin and Slavonic and God knows what else. If one has lost faith in the revised liturgy, one can worship in the Byzantine rite at either the local Melkite church or the Ukranian one. There is indeed food for everyone's tray.

Such activities and their variations are found in every diocese in the world. Some possess a long history and some are new. Within a mile of Notre Dame's campus there is both an Opus Dei house and a Catholic Worker house. Take your pick; both are Catholic. (And, by the way, a word of caution: If the group you investigate tells you that their way is the only way, run. Christ is the Way but there are many ways to follow the One Way.)

The Catholic spiritual tradition urges us to be obedient to two fundamental laws, namely, to love God and to love neighbor. Those laws are not separated into two impermeable boxes. Their intimate connection was stated two millennia ago: "Those who say, 'I love God' [yet] hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen" (I John 4:20). The real test, then, of an authentic spirituality is not how pious a person is or how good one feels about oneself but whether the cultivation of the spiritual life spills over in love for others.

This connection between love of God and service to others is the constant teaching of the great spiritual writers. Saint Teresa of Avila, for instance, maps out the path of intense prayer in her classic work The Interior Castle (written in five months in 1577!). This prayer, Teresa asserts to the nuns who were her intended audience, is not only for enjoyment but for the service of others. The test about whether someone has reached the pinnacle of the life of prayer is quite simple: Does the person love more?

Implicit in that fundamental truth that we should love God and love our neighbor is a criticism of much of New Age spirituality, which is almost totally oriented to the satisfactions of the self. It would be a caricature of Christianity to say that it hates the self (after all, Jesus tells us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves), but Christianity does say that self-giving love is for the sake of others. One good test about the value of any spiritual discipline is this: Does it help in some way the needs of others? True Christian spirituality ought to radiate out in a series of widening concentric circles from the self to the family to the local environs to the nation and to the world. That sense of responsibility and care for others seen globally is part of what it means to be a Catholic, which is to say, universal.

Being Catholic is like living in a huge home that has been occupied over the generations. Some furnishings are timeworn, some are packed away. It is a multigenerational home with old and young alike living cheek by jowl. There might even be a peculiar aunt or a tippling uncle living quietly in the attic. More than likely someone in the family has had a scrape or two with the law. It is a house that has its stories, its memories both good and bad; there are places where it needs some touching up or even major redecorating. The house has seen its fair share of happy events of births and marriages and its sad times of sickness and death. It is a place where some, getting heartily sick of the house, have left either in bewilderment or anger. It is a place, however, where one can return. A home, a wise person once said, is where they have to take you in when you knock at the door.

To extend the metaphor a bit: Much of what passes for spirituality is like four rooms in an apartment complex furnished with things from the old house. The apartment may be comfortable, but it is a wan reflection of the original house. Many of the "spiritual" writers who gain popularity today do so by cobbling together some fragments of an older tradition on a framework of trends in psychotherapy. The result is a dash of Jung, a sprinkling of a sanitized Jesus, topped off with a badly understood Eastern meditation technique.

Many people say that they seek out groups who teach such disciplines as yoga or meditation techniques because they do not find such resources within the church. That such resources are not easily found is a criticism of the church, which has failed to highlight its long and rich spiritual tradition. Within the broad Catholic tradition, profound ways of prayer, meditation and contemplative practices do exist. In recent times there have been concerted efforts to bring such resources to the attention of people. Not only are there written resources for every form of Catholic spirituality, but, since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a renewed interest in prayer circles and other such groups. There is also a burgeoning movement of lay affiliation with contemplative orders of both men and women.

It is ironic that the hidden treasures of Catholic spirituality have been popularized by people who are not Catholic but who see the contemplative wisdom that is available in the Catholic tradition. The books of the Protestant poet and writer Kathleen Norris, including Dakota and Cloister Walk, have spawned a host of other such works by those who are rediscovering the writings and practices of Catholic monasticism. Such writers as Patricia Hampl, Nancy Mairs and Annie Dillard have mediated Catholic spirituality in an accessible but serious fashion that some of our traditional "spiritual" writers have been unable to do. Fiction writers Ron Hansen and Andre Dubus have imagined the Catholic faith in new and original ways. They have shown -- as spiritual writers including Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton did in their day -- that there is no need to create a chasm between spirituality and religious fidelity. Indeed, the most creative of these thinkers have done what is the best thing that Catholics do: They have dug deep into the Catholic past -- the tradition of Ignatian, Salesian, Carmelite and Benedictine spiritualities -- and re-imagined them for our own day.

In the last analysis, religion can be seen as the way we remember God. In that remembering, we become spiritual persons. To remember God is to recall his presence in our lives. We remember God by signs in our sacramental life at the beginning through baptism and at the end in the last rites. We re-call, re-member, re-present Christ in the liturgy. In the great eucharistic prayer of the liturgy we pray to God, "Remember your people" -- "Remember all of us gathered here before you" -- we celebrate "the memory of Christ your Son" -- We recall "passion, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into glory."

In the little gestures of grace before meals, blessing our children, praying for our dead, marking our homes with crucifixes and pictures, wearing a cross on a chain, we remember God in the daily exercise of our lives. We honor the saints canonized and uncanonized by remembering their lives and deeds. Every time we tell or listen to the Word of God we call to mind the story of salvation. We teach our history, study our theologians, read our spiritual authors, recite time-honored prayers as a way of remembering our tradition.

To remember is to call to mind. That "calling to mind" is the fundamental task of the faith as it is enshrined in our lives as Catholics. In a number of places in the New Testament Jesus tells his disciples, "Remember the word I have spoken to you" (John 15:20). Paul urges Timothy, "Remember Jesus Christ" (II Timothy 2:8), and Paul asks the Ephesians to "remember that you were without Christ" at one time (Ephesians 2:12). To the degree that we call to mind (which is to remember) the presence of God in our lives, we live in the spirit of God. To be a Catholic Christian is -- to paraphrase Saint Augustine in the Confessions -- to "roam the spacious halls of memory." And from that living comes the spirituality worthy of truly being named as such.

* * *
Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Comments 
22nd-Aug-2007 06:50 pm (UTC)
While placing it early in the course has a certain logic, I like the idea of integrating in - say, wit the liturgical material. the students are likely to want to dismiss that as "too churchy" and this might help them think differently aboutthe whole thing.

You seem to be a creative and passionate teacher.
Congrats. - and good luck with the new semester.
John
23rd-Aug-2007 08:08 am (UTC)
I like that idea of "humanizing" the liturgy for the jaded and doubtful, as well. Then there's the next person's suggestion – the opposite of your own!

:-)

I certainly aspire to be such a teacher. Good luck on the new semester to you, too: I take it you're teaching this semester as well?
23rd-Aug-2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
Yep - "Intro to Theology" and "Theology of Spirituality" - First class is Monday.
John
22nd-Aug-2007 08:05 pm (UTC)
"I'm spiritual, not religious" is definitely on my top 5 list of dumb things I'm tired of hearing other people say.

That distinction works only if we accept such a narrow caricature of religion and if we resist caricaturing spirituality as being the desire for some kind of "wow" experience to go along with all of the other comforts of post-industrial Yuppiedom. After all, the aim of certain forms of New Age spirituality (warm feelings of contentment and peace with the world) could as easily be obtained by the regular use of the hot tub.

I think this sums up the inherent flaw in the whole statement.

One could almost argue that the vast majority of people who use the "I'm spiritual, not religious" cliche are in fact neither.

I think the whole discussion would be a real attention grabber earlier in the course. It would as ou say allow them to do the readings with it in mind. Also, if you are I are sick of the phrase, how much more are the younger students goign to have heard it ad nauseum? I like how it's combining a common real life situation with classic theology.
23rd-Aug-2007 08:14 am (UTC)
Yes, I'm surrounded by people who think this a very telling thing to say about themselves. Or who pride themselves on being "nonjudgemental" by which they also mean that they themselves have refrained from taking any positions whatsoever. There is of course no virture in being nonjudgemental when one has avoided even considering the big questions, much less having taken a position and tried to live it.

Your point about being "neither" seems to me to be very sound. True spirituality requires structure (a.k.a. "religion" in one form or another): it has to be lived in some concrete fashion, to be incarnated in some way, before it has any weight or significance whatsoever. Like love, it only is manifested in other persons: kept to ourselves, it remains only illusion.
23rd-Aug-2007 03:17 pm (UTC)
I don't know about nonjudgemental, but I encounter people who pride themselves on being "open-minded" and then go off on some of the most anti-Christian diatribes, contrasted to many Christians I know who don't label themselves as either "open-minded" or "close-minded", but who are far more respectful of other religions.

At my last church, I insisted that the newly created Education committee be re-labeled the "Discipleship Committee". The man who editted the newsletter complained to me that everytime he went to type "discipleship", he ended up typing "discipline" instead. The irony is that I think they are connected. Discipline is a dirty word in our society, but I think it is hard to acheive spiritual growth without it. Some of the people whose spirituality I admire most (Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, Julian(a) of Norwich, etc) led lives of incredible discipline. There is a modern characture of Francis of Assisi as this kind of proto-typical hippie who was in tune with nature and animals, while completely ignoring the very hard rule of life which he wrote for himself and his followers.

In the end, to profess to be spiritual while having no structure, no living it in a concrete way, and no discipline, is like those who profess to be concerned about their health while making no effort to get off the couch and do anything or change their diet.
26th-Aug-2007 09:47 am (UTC)
Yes, I've noticed the same sort of thing: "open-minded" seems to lack any virtue in a person who has abstained from making their minds up about anything, or who studiously avoids reasoning about the big questions.

I especially sympathize with your comments about Francis and the like: I think he's one of the most dangerous of all human beings, to this day. No wonder we try to tame him.

It's like philosophy being considered "non-relevant" or idle thinking by people today, whereas it used to always be understood that philosophy was a Way: that it meant a choice and discipline in a way to live ones entire life.
23rd-Aug-2007 06:40 pm (UTC) - Commitment
After further thinking more about this, I think part of the problem may be our society-wide phobia about commitment. I talked to a man who ran a bridal shop and he said the most disturbing thing to him was brides-to-be who would walk out of his store when he told them that dresses had to be paid 50%-2/3 up front and there is no refunds if the dress is not wanted (for any reason) when it arrives.

I'm spiritual, but not religious may mean in part "I'm sort of into spiritual growth, but I don't want to commit to anything." I could make fun of new age/occult oriented people I know who pick and choose from a whack of ancient gods, not even following consistently any one tradition. Then they talk of not wanting to join groups of fellow believers. So, basically you have a religion of your own construction that requires you to not believe anything in particular and you have a group of friends with whom you could get together to talk about your feelings or do rituals or engage in sexual rituals, but you're even too lazy to do that on a regular basis?

But that is too easy a target. This "I'm spiritual, but not religious" seeps into Christianity with people who claim "I'm a Catholic, but I don't practice" or "I'm a Christian, but I don't go to church." I think somehow they are all related. I should develop this more in my own journal.
26th-Aug-2007 09:49 am (UTC) - Re: Commitment
The bridal shop image is rather staggering.

And I'll watch for your further thoughts on the latter.
22nd-Aug-2007 11:40 pm (UTC)
More latter on this...but

You helped edit Merton's journals?!?!?


*jealous*
23rd-Aug-2007 08:16 am (UTC)
Just this volume, but yes, it was one of the richest experiences of my Master's: that sensation of sharing secrets with him – being one of the few to have had access to his private journals at this point – was rather heady, along with just the profundity of his good stuff (and the all-too-human character of some of the rest).
23rd-Aug-2007 12:33 am (UTC)
I'm a bit suspicious of centering prayer. In "The Unicorn in the Sanctuary," Randy England describes it as New Age meditation: "One of the most remarkable New Age successes has to be the breeziness with which New Age meditation is recommended--even in the church--for any Catholic who is interested" (140). He describes it as "Hindu meditation" (141)and an "unguided [pilgrimage] into the unknown" (142). What do you think of it?

(He also quotes Edward Rice on Thomas Merton: He was "an Englishman who became a Communist, then a Catholic, later a Trappist monk, and finally a Buddhist, at which point, his life having been fulfilled, he died.")
23rd-Aug-2007 08:34 am (UTC)
I cannot speak to centering prayer in any great detail itself, but I have to express my reservations about some of what you quote above, which sounds rather like just uninformed reactionary conservatism to me. It's far to easy to condemn something as "New Age" or "Hindu" by superficial parallels, many of which we will find because of its topic or sheer humanness. One might (to get silly) equally condemn any attention to "God" as deriving from that foreign Hinduism, which, as you know, also has gods.

The people who talk of Merton having left the Catholic faith and/or having become a Buddhist in the end (and in secret, dishonestly, in conspiracy-theory fashion) are simply uninformed and probably crusading against his perceived "liberal" turn. In his study of the Eastern religions and philosophies, it was the depth of his Catholicism and immersion into the Catholic monastic tradition that enabled him to become what many of the Easterns thought the best (or even the only) Westerner who truly understood what they were saying, as Suzuki said about Merton's appropriation of Zen, or the Dalai Lama of Mreton's grasp of Tibetan Buddhism. (I myself spent a year with a Zen Master and never made much progress until I read Merton and the Desert Fathers, when I finally came to appreciate the parallel approach to the same place.) Certainly to this day the Dalai Lama considers him the emblematic Christian – not a Buddhist.

Merton was in fact fairly traditional in his liturgical preferences and was never too excited about some of the Vatican II liturgical reforms. When he was on his great Asian journey, studying all these other faiths and philosophies, he was traveling with no less than six relics from the Abbey's store of such items. These he used in his daily praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, as per his Order's Rule. How old school Catholic is that? :-) I cannot think very highly of those writers who would make such accusations: it doesn't take much effort to read his writing enough to get an accurate picture, rather than exploiting mere (selective) appearances for some other agenda in current Church politics. Who's not really being very Catholic if that's what's going on?
23rd-Aug-2007 01:15 pm (UTC)
Excellent response! "Centering Prayer" as I know it it simply a way of teaching a rather ancient monastic prayer tradition as given, for instance, in the "Cloud of Unknowing". I'm sure you are aware of that, so I won't go on here.
John
23rd-Aug-2007 01:09 pm (UTC)
see the distinction if we translate Paul's language into contemporary discourse: hatred is flesh/love is Spirit; violence is flesh/reconciliation is Spirit; rape is flesh/marital love is Spirit; greed is flesh/generosity is Spirit

there is contemporary discourse, as used here (aking to contemporary jargon) and also contemporary discourse as in the sense of dialoguing with those whose lives have not been impacted by the love of God and therefore have no choice (are acting just as impulsively as those who place flowers and photos at places of tragedies) but to opt for a spirituality that seeks to assuage their god-cavern in their lives, which is also that part of their soul screaming out for an encounter with true love. So the spirituality of such people might seem self-serving, but it is all that these people know (it is not that they are necessarily dismissing religion for spirituality: they have never encountered among all the tomes and tombs of such a tradition of Catholicism or Orthodoxy, the true love these traditions claim to embody. rather, they encounter priests who play with boys and hypocritical christians and bible thumpers and moralists and religious folks who are quick to judge their lifestyle but in the end offer them not that for which they so deeply search and thirst.

Therefore, the discourse/jargon of defining the polarity "rape" versus "marital love" seems to me the most objectionable here: those not touched by the love of God, they are just as thirsty for love as those who have been. But they see only hypocrisy or stupidity in the holding up of "marital love" (and marriage) as the "highest" or "only acceptable" means of sexual expression of fulfillment. And yes fulfillment smacks of self-centeredness, but what Christian does not enter into the marital state to not receieve sexual gratification.

So what I am saying is that marriage and marital love are under huge challenge today, especially when holy matrimony ends up fifty percent of the time in holy divorce. So people see that and want no part of it. They cannot see, it has not been shown to them that "marital love" is the greatest expression or embodiment of sexual love. This is the fault of the Church, of Christians, for not being the light and not guiding the hungry, or should I say guiding the blind and feeding the hungry. We all humans, christian or not, are seeking love. But to "push" marital love as the ideal is going to take a lot of work, on the Christian side, since among Christians it is not honored and not working.

The real test, then, of an authentic spirituality is not how pious a person is or how good one feels about oneself but whether the cultivation of the spiritual life spills over in love for others.

Most people I know today dont care a wit about feeling pious but they do care about feeling good about themselves (the cult of self esteem).

And I would also say re the quoted part also: this is the test for an authentic love, also. So I would start with baby steps and ask or challenge or just embody to nonChristians (or those of us who share our human lot with those who claim to be Christians) moments or acts of self-giving. For in the last analysis I think it is love as self-giving rather than as self-taking or self-gratification that is unknown in the world, as unknown today among contemporary culture as it was unknown in ancient greco-roman world. But I wouldnt be preaching "marital love" to the young people of today, but embodying "self-giving." I think folks can get a quicker line on that than the other. Since, first, the other is seemingly far more often seen in contemporary culture and in the news, and it is also the basis for the latter.

23rd-Aug-2007 01:10 pm (UTC)
In the last analysis, religion can be seen as the way we remember God. In that remembering, we become spiritual persons

The weakness in this statement and part of the article is that the author does not caution how even in this we can risk being spiritual in the way he cautions against: we can remember God and participate in the sacraments all the while to fulfill our own feelings and sense of piousness (or even to escape from purgatory or receive a plenary absolution) without any growth in love for others. Thus there is even when we choose the best, a kind of cafeteria catholicism that may offer the best victuals but in the end is still self-serving.

Let one unbeliever's self-interested offer of water to a homeless person stack up to hours of saying the hail mary for one's own personal salvation: which is greater in God's eyes? Which person, which action, resulted in actual love for one's neighbour?
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