Thursday, 17 July 2014

Tradition and the future

I was in conversation with someone at my church recently and we were talking about something our Priest mentioned in his homily. He said that many of those who were ordained in the 60s and 70s will come to retirement in the next few years, and he sees something of a problem for the Church. Because of low numbers of vocations there isn't really a strong new generation of priests coming into the church. Therefore there will be fewer and fewer priests as the older ones retire and die out. This problem has been talked about a lot recently, with some speculation that married men will be able to become priests for these pragmatic reasons. Our priest thinks that one solution is to expand the role of the laity, so that they can effectively play a much larger role in the Mass. The lady I talked to seemed to think that this was a very good idea. I am not so sure. I will try and explain why here.

Over the last year our parish has had talks by various groups on the future of the church and the role of the laity. The most controversial one was by a group called ACTA - A Call To Action. They are a 'group of Catholics brought together by our love for Christ's church and our anxiety about its future'. In general they express an unhappiness with Church teaching such as the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which coming after the 'opening up to the world' represented by Vatican II seemed to them a step backwards. Thus they believe the Church needs to be more in step with current thinking on homosexuality, contraception, gender equality, and many more 'hot button' issues. I know that someone who spoke at one of their meetings, Tom O'Loughlin, has expressed the view that there is no 'hermeneutic of continuity', a phrase coined by Pope Benedict XVI to describe an interpretation of the teaching of the Church pre and post Vatican II. The hermeneutic of continuity is an interpretation of Vatican II that sees a continuity before and after this council, whereas a 'hermeneutics of rupture' sees an essential break post Vatican II with the past.

So clearly there is general discussion about the future of the church in the light of decreased vocations, with a vocal progressive lobby who want to see greater involvement of the laity in line with what they see as the 'Spirit of Vatican II'.

I want to say why even though I'm not a 'rad trad', I can't agree with these ideas. Please excuse me if this seems a rather long-winded way of approaching this, but it is of such importance that to me that I need to go into some personal history. I grew up with a church which seemed to me a dull outdated place. I did not really question going to church, however, until I began to read more widely. I had always had a love of fantasy stories, especially ones involving mythological subject matter, and in particular what is known as 'The Matter of Britain' - ie. Celtic and Arthurian stories. My appetite for this was fed by Tolkien and Lewis, as well as more modern fantasy writers such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Pat O'Shea, Ursula Le Guin. A strange blend of Christian and Pagan ideas often suffused these stories, and I was fascinated by the idea of magic and enchantment. All in all, a very normal 12 year old boy!

I never connected any of this with my faith, or church attendance. I remember a Canon at Great Bardfield church who had a talent for bringing alive the symbolism within the Christian faith, but in general, the symbolism in the Mass was never alive for me in the same way. There was a sermon I remember liking chiefly because it was about the soul's quest and its labyrinthine turns, which echoed one of the things I had been reading about in my book of Celtic Tree Magic which I had recently bought! But only isolated moments like this stand out amongst my experience of faith being lived.

As I am writing this, however, I feel that I am perhaps misrepresenting my perception of my own faith. It is not that I ever really rejected what might be called a theistic worldview for a non-theistic one. If I'm honest, I would say that I was like many teenagers searching for something 'alternative' which they can use to form an identity distinct from their parents.

 But it is also true that I was searching for something with depth - something beautiful, good and true, but I often found it obscured in my own faith by a misguided attempt to be 'relevant' to young people, which is of course the one thing that will put off any young person! It was like the church was embarrassed about the great treasury of wisdom it possessed in the Saints and the Sacraments, and was attempting to be a protestant sect. Many people who are brought up Catholic get the impression that their faith is just being really nice to people. But this kind of empty moralism is a flattened, deracinated faith. Even so, I believe a move towards it has been made in the church since the 60s as a kind of concession to the secular world, a way of keeping people on board. Perhaps it was also a reaction to the sort of rote-learning from the penny catechism that has so much fallen into disfavour in modern times. As an RS teacher, I can understand the need to connect with the lived reality of the young people being brought up in the faith, but we should not underestimate the human spirit's longing for the depths and the mystery of the faith, and neither should we expect that children are not capable of intellectual acuity, or coming to know their own faith in a rigorous way.

To come back to the danger of turning away from the difficult parts of our faith, in order to make it palatable, I heard recently that the Anglican Synod will soon vote on whether to keep in the part of the baptism ceremony about rejecting Satan and all his works. It struck me that although Catholic Church is unlikely ever to get rid of this phrase, there are people in the church who would like to gloss over the reality of evil. During the baptism of our daughter, when it came to the part of the ceremony where the devil is rejected, our priest made light of it and joked about the film The Exorcist! Now this may just have been his manner (he can be quite the comedian!), but this seems to me an example of the flattening process of accommodation to the modern world which I have been talking about.

Beauty, Truth and Goodness are often derided. I remember being mocked by philosophy students at university when I tried to talk about them. "Truth is beauty? The truth is ugly!" They laughed. But I knew that everyone is searching for these three things whether they know it or not. I remember obtaining a catalogue for the shop at Prinknash Abbey and ordering frankincense and a cassette tape of latin plainchant one Christmas. I would sit in my room and amongst clouds of incense burnt on the back of a spoon with the monks chanting, and probably my parents were thinking 'what a strange child we have!'. It seems obvious to me now that I did look within my own heritage as a Catholic for the depths of truth, and the spirit of enchantment and the soul of beauty, and was of course able to find it, but only piecemeal, and not set out as a whole coherent system, so of course when other coherent systems were presented to me, I was more drawn to them.

As I became a teenager, my thirst for magic and enchantment acquired a more intellectual edge. I began looking in the new age, mind body and spirit sections of bookshops for books on magic. I found there the systems and philosophies which I had longed for, and which began to shape my beliefs. I found the Beat poets, and especially Allen Ginsberg, whose Blakean visions in Manhattan appealed to me. I found Aleister Crowley at thirteen (!). I read his book Magick in Theory and Practice. It affected me. This was real magic - invocation and spirits and so on. I became fascinated by Dr. John Dee and the occult, got a set of Tarot cards, became interested in astrology, and fed all this with an intellectual framework provided by Jung. I was exploring a rich and secret world, closest in its syncretism to Gnosticism, which I had learned about through Jung. I found here a belief in a dualist God, a God of dark and light, which seemed to fit more with the world as I saw it. I could not believe in an all-good God in the face of evil and suffering.

Most Catholics will see all this talk of the occult and magic as very dangerous and heretical. And of course, they are heresies, and are dangerous because they lead one into error. But I felt intellectually justified in my beliefs - the faith of my upbringing did not seem to provide me with coherent enough challenges to these Gnostic wanderings (of course, it had always had answers, I just didn't know where to find them). A moment stands out in my memory. I had some interest in the Book of Revelation, with its complex symbolism and prophetic imagery (of course these things appealed to me!). I asked my RE teacher about it at school. He dismissed the book of Revelation as "Hollywood" - not worthy of serious study, just a lot of pretty pictures. Even then at the age of fifteen I was pretty sure there must be allegorical and symbolic meaning to it - we had been taught that the Bible was the Word of God anyway, so why include this book in the Bible if it was no more than tinsel? He clearly had no understanding of it, and was afraid to look into it in any depth. His stance reminds me of an attitude amongst the Pharisees, to whom Jesus says: "But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men, for you yourselves do not enter in; and those that are going in, you suffer not to enter."

I now have the excellent book All Things Made New by Stratford Caldecott, about the Christian Mysteries and the book of Revelation, so I am thankfully able to understand in more depth this fascinating piece of scripture.

I floated around for many years trying a pick and mix approach to spiritualities. The usual New Age stuff. It was a search for light amongst shadows, a wandering in the dark woods following various will o' the wisps. All leading further into the briars, and it was not entirely unpleasant there. I am reminded of Old Man Willow in The Fellowship of the Ring, whose song sends Frodo and the hobbits to sleep by the river until Tom Bombadil comes along and releases them with his own song. There are different kinds of song, and some imprison, whilst others free.

As Catholics we need to be aware of the richness of our faith and not be afraid to enter into its mysteries. These are not secrets hidden from most, known only to an educated elite. Neither is there a need for some special initiation, or the search for some guru. There is now only one Master - Christ. There is now only one initiation - Baptism. What is needed is a guide for those who have been baptised, but who now need to enter more fully into their faith. This used to be called mystagogy. Many parishes have mystagogical programmes designed to do this.

I want to just finish with the final piece of the puzzle. Why did I turn around and come back to Mother Church? One book did it. It was called Meditations on the Tarot - a journey into Christian Hermeticism. Published anonymously (but widely known to be Valentin Tomberg), it has gained a massive following. I know there are many Catholics who will not go near this book, simply because it has the word Tarot on the cover. That is a shame, but in a way it doesn't really matter. This is not a book about the Tarot, but uses the images on the cards as a jumping-off point to explore the Christian and Hermetic traditions. This book should be read by everyone who finds their Christian faith somehow deficient, and is seeking answers in new-age spirituality, eastern religions and so on.

 I don't have space here to explain fully the scope of the book. I can say what it did for me. It showed me that we didn't have to reject Pagan wisdom completely if we are Christian. It showed me in fact how indebted Christian theology is to those great Pagan Philosophers Plato and Aristotle. More even than this, it seemed to be attempting a kind of Baptism of the esoteric elements of many religions. In fact the author Valentin Tomberg wants to show that pre-Christian esoteric traditions only have meaning if they end in Christ, and that the only true magic is the Mass.

This is a grand project, and it is very much a task for the modern era. In fact, I think it may have been called for by Pope John XXIII. Let me explain. In the video below Father Joseph Kramer describes Pope John XXIII's opening speech of the second Vatican Council in which he talks about finding a new language to better engage the modern world. Father Kramer asks the question "Have we found a new language that does engage the modern world?"

This search for a new language in which to express the eternal truths has had some dead ends. We cannot go back to an age when faith in anything but the Christian God was unthinkable, nor do we want to repeat some of the more rigid dogmatic processes of neo-Thomism. Equally, we cannot embrace the modern age with some of the abandonment of the progressives. There is room for a nuanced view of the relationship between Catholicism and other faiths. I think we have been given one key to this project in the method of Christian Hermeticism of Valentin Tomberg who said "Why do most Christians not remember the past? Because they do not love the past. One has to love the pagan past."

If we have young Catholics who know their faith and its relationship to other faiths in this depth, we will have a generation who are far more likely to hear vocations and follow them. But more importantly we need new artists and story tellers, who are able to do justice to the richness of the Christian story in an age when it is in danger of being misheard.


  1. Thank you, Matthew!

    Very meaningful and well said.


    "To come back to the danger of turning away from the difficult parts of our faith, in order to make it palatable, I heard recently that the Anglican Synod will soon vote on whether to keep in the part of the baptism ceremony about rejecting Satan and all his works."

    Unbelievable - and I thank you for alerting me.

    But to come back to your journey - all very moving indeed.

    Among other things, this so important:

    "It is also true that I was searching for something with depth - something beautiful, good and true, but I often found it obscured in my own faith by a misguided attempt to be 'relevant' to young people, which is of course the one thing that will put off any young person! It was like the church was embarrassed about the great treasury of wisdom it possessed in the Saints and the Sacraments, and was attempting to be a protestant sect. Many people who are brought up Catholic get the impression that their faith is just being really nice to people. But this kind of empty moralism is a flattened, deracinated faith."

    The Church is dying, at least in the West.

    From Valentin Tomberg's Lazarus (which you have probably seen):

    “Against the will and hope of the now deceased Pope John XXIII and of his successor, Paul VI, it happened that the Second Vatican Council became a door which opened to the world, but in such a way that the “world’s wind” blew into the Church.

    The Council for which Pope John XXIII prayed did in fact fail; it failed … to guard the “portal” where the way begins which leads to degeneration, to exhaustion, and to death (hades) – the “way of the world”.

    This failure to guard the threshold the portal opening up to the “way of the world” … is nothing else and can be nothing else but the way to death …”

    Could anything be clearer? Tomberg - very consciously, one may be sure – invokes the word hades – suggesting hell. He clearly believes the Church has started on “the way to death”.

    Matthew, the older I get, the more _existentially real_ this becomes for me. In fact, it is hitting Kim and myself in such an interior, existential way, that there may be some big changes coming in our lives ...

    But thank you for everything in your post, including your journey in adolescence, to VT etc ...

    Finally, long ago, you asked me to shout out about your fine Facebook effort. You may hardly believe this - but I am so _dumb_ with internet things that I kept thinking, how am I going to do this at our site. (Given that I almost always avoid short blogs with single messages in favour of longer pieces).

    Only recently did I see that Facebook actually gives me the opportunity to invite Friends to pages.

    So I plan to do that now, but I must find the page. Catholic treasury was it called?

    Not been using Facebook recently - but I will look. Anyway, I really liked what you were doing with that page and want to revisit it.

    Thinking of you, Lucia and Lisa warmly and tenderly. You give me hope ...

  2. Matthew, my original comment was too long to be accepted. So I had to cut out part of Tomberg's quote to fit it in. I will now paste it in as a second reply. This bit comes just prior to the bit I left in:

    "It happened that the “second Pentecostal miracle” hoped for and prayed for by the Holy Father – the proclamation by the World Council of a deepened, elevated and expanded treasure of Church revelation – was replaced by a policy of “keeping in step with the times”.

    The Council did not reflect the timeless inspirations of heaven, but rather the earthly needs, complaints, wishes and demands of the age .

    It became a sort of religious parliament with a “progressive left”, a “conservative right” and a “moderate center”.

    Thus people spoke of a “democratisation” of the Church, now breaking through.

    The “world” remarked with satisfaction: the Catholic Church is moving closer to us; yes, just a little while and it will be part of us – the Council exudes a “fresh wind”, the wind of a free and modern spirit! …

    A fresh wind did indeed blow from the Council.

    It blew up such problems as the abolition of the celibacy of priests suddenly become pressing; the problem of mixed marriages with those another faith; the problem of acceptability of the “pill” and other methods of contraception; the problem of “demythologisation” of the Holy Scripture and of tradition; the problem of the Mass, in the sense of abolishing Latin as the liturgical and sacred language and the substitution for it of many national languages and many other problems associated with conforming to the spirit of the age …

    The “fresh wind” of the council was not the wind of the Pentecost miracle in the Church but a wind blowing out of the “world” into the Church – through a portal which had now been opened.

    It was not the effect of the Church on the world, but the effect of the world on the Church."

    1. Hi Roger,
      Thanks so much for your feedback, it is great to have comments from someone who is at the heart of the questions I raise here. I do hope you and Kim are ok, and I'll keep you both in my prayers.

      The page was indeed called Catholic Treasury on Facebook - here is the link: and thank you for doing that.

      That last line is very telling - "It was not the effect of the Church on the world, but the effect of the world on the Church." I hope that there are people who will be able to perform the Christian Hermetic task of guarding the Church.