The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Psychology of Conversion

I realised that the liturgy I loved required for its appreciation a level of culture and education which was available to few. For every one like me, there were easily a thousand like that good soul who found the silent Latin Masses at Sacred Heart “just about the same” as the reverent and beautiful liturgies at Grace Church. Anglican worship of my sort, I had to acknowledge, was for the few, not for the many.

-tip to the Meam Commemorationem blog

The above is a quote from the Tablet from an Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic in the 1960's. Having read Newman and known personally and anecdotally of similar stories of Anglicans who have become Catholics in a similar manner, I began reflecting on what is the basis for the conversions of those who swim the Tiber and those who do not.

The story of the priest mentioned above can be summarized (perhaps overly simplified) by the term: truth over beauty. Over and over again, this seems to come up. The premise is that it is no good to have beautiful ceremonies if the doctrine is not pure. It is better to eat manna in the desert every day rather than have the onions and meat of Egypt. Grinding your teeth in frustration at liturgical banality is thus seen as an act of obedience to the Divine Will. At least, however, you can sleep well at night knowing that you are in the true Church and you have all of the answers to the important questions of salvation. Being in the Ark of the Church is better than being outside, even if it is dank and smells like wild beasts.

I will not critique this position. It is indeed very admirable in many ways. Many of us who have fled or stayed outside of the Roman communion would do well to do an examination of conscience in these matters. Are we letting little things affect our decisions on what the true Church is? Are we obstinate in having a petite eglise of our own making? Are we, on the other hand, compromising too much, refusing to take firm stands on issues on which we disagree with the Roman Church? Are we intellectual cowards addicted to incense, or even worse, blinded by our passions so that we can get away with things that the Roman Catholic Church does not allow (birth control, a married priesthood, greater latitude in belief, etc.) ? These questions must be asked.

This is not an auto-da-fe. I am not personally having doubts on the path that my life has taken. At the risk of protesting too much, I feel I have to at least say something on why, in spite of what I have written above, I maintain my current position. The problem is knowing too much: about history, about the Church, about liturgy, and about life in general. I am not going to reveal too much here; I will avoid becoming a spiritual exhibitionist. Indeed, there are too many moments on this blog that I have come fairly close to commiting this crime. I have encountered on my journey everyone from crazy Roman Catholic women who believe in questionable apparitions to spiritual drifters who sleep in open air. I have learned from Russian Orthodox abbots, Coptic monks, traditionalist "schismatic" Catholic bishops, a clairvoyant Mormon, and Anglican vicars. And I have learned to appreciate every single one of them. Maybe not in the same way, and not with the same amount of credibility, I have learned from all of them.

So when someone says, "the true Church is over there, over here, down there, etc.," I cannot help but yawn, roll my eyes, and say, "here we go again!" But on a good day, I repress my lack of enthusiasm, pull up a chair, and begin to listen. Many times, I am suprised by what he or she says. Sometimes I think it must be the Holy Ghost speaking through a human mouth. And even if we part ways in disagreement, I thank God that I had a chance to speak with him or her.

So I am loathe to begin to draw the boundaries of Christ's Church, even a little bit. For me, to do such a thing would be to make the Church into my own little "comfort zone" where I can label people and be assured that I am not "one of them". Sure, I still have very strict standards: I stick to the Nicene Creed and the General Councils, and above all literal word of the Gospels. Do I know, however, what they mean? I think I am just finding out, little by little.

So I can have my cake and eat it too. I think I have demonstrated on this blog that I think a religion without a cult that leads us out of our everyday lives is practically no religion at all, and that people need to be taught to be brought up higher when they worship, rather than be left in the language and actions of their monotonous lives. So in this sense, I disagree with the priest cited above. On the other hand, to the questions of truth above beauty, at least I can say that in my own case, the issues involved are not that simple. And I say to that: THANK GOD!!! It wouldn't be Christ's Gospel if they were.


At 4:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I don't get it. The opening quotation, that is. I would have thought that the parts of any Anglican liturgy that seemed too rarefied for the average person would be precisely the parts that were more "High Church", ie: Catholic, just like in the days of Thomas a Becket and Henry VII.

I might be less confused if I knew WHEN in the 1960s this priest wrote that. If it was in the early 60s and he's talking about the Old Mass and Benediction etc... then, as I said, I just don't get it. If it was in the late 60s, especially in 1969, then I guess you'd be right in thinking that he's trying to justify "liturgical banality" and put down traditional liturgical glory and beauty as something too high and mighty for the average Popish Joe. But then THAT seems totally out of whack because everyone knows that it was the average Popish Joe who HATED the liturgical "changes" (which, at best, made for "banality") and missed the "cultured" splendor of the traditional liturgy precisely because it WAS so very high above him and beyond his reach (just like clouds of angelic witness).

Are you maybe too nice to point out that Father is simply full of it? Or am I missing something, such as a tradition of Puritanical ugliness and banality in Catholic worship which pre-dated the Vatican II reforms?

At 7:02 PM, Blogger J. Gordon Anderson said...

And, as you have pointed out elsewhere, people convert to Rome, or to some other ideology, because of a hermeneutical crisis. Their new ideology has all of the "answers" for them. It does all of their thinking for them.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

It is the spontanaeity of belief (that is, organically founded on one's personal conscience confronting Scripture in the Church) that is lacking. The Orthodox and traditional Anglicans have more of an opportunity to develop this than the RC's do, precisely because of the "Magisterium" of the Roman Church.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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