Thursday, July 14, 2011

Spiritual Short-Cuts

Fr. Longenecker at Standing on My Head has a great new post, Gimme That Ole Time Religion, which I recommend to everyone.  The last bit caught my attention:
Now the marvelous thing is that if everyone did this--if everyone really went back to the core gospel message and took it seriously and tried to follow the old path of sin, repentance, faith and sacraments, then all the other problems would be solved too. You would have a wonderful Christian fellowship. You would have the right kind of liturgy, you would have justice and peace. You would have the answer to your intellectual questions and you would find your heart's desire.

Try to seek those things first though--and without sin, repentance and faith--and all you end up with is piffle. You may find the treasure chest, but it will be empty. Worse, you may find some sort of religion, but it won't be the Christian faith.
I've been saying that last bit for years, but never as concisely. If we're aiming for the effects of grace, but trying to reach them by our own effort, we will utterly fail and end up as some empty social justice organization everyone feels obliged to participate with, but no one really wants to. If we are trying to love God, and be sorry for our sins, then every effect of grace will follow. It's the spiritual short-cutting that messes everything up. Perhaps especially because Americans are obsessed with results.

Maybe you've had a priest tell you before that Catholicism "is not a 'me and Jesus' religion."  Usually, there's an agenda hiding behind that.  I've met a lot of heterodox priests who like to use this line as the starting point of precisely what Fr. Longenecker is writing about.  It goes something like this:
Catholicism is not a "me and Jesus" religion.  It's the Church and Jesus.  So if you want to be closer to Jesus, you need to be closer to the Church. [so far, that's fine]  What you need to do is stop worrying about having all these personal devotions and start taking part in the Church.  [here comes the fun part]  Instead of going to the Adoration Chapel, you could be working at the homeless shelter.  Instead of praying the rosary with those little nitpicky hypocrite EWTN-watching old gas bags, you could be going door-to-door for UNICEF!  Then we'll be seen by all building the Kingdom of God!
This is why I cringe when I hear priests and theologians say that Catholicism is not a "me and Jesus" religion, but a "Church and Jesus" religion. I don't cringe because they're absolutely wrong, but because it's a false dichotomy. It's another "both...and..." If we don't make a personal effort to love God, then we can't be a part of the Church that loves God. If no one is making a personal effort to love God, then there can't be a Church that loves God. Likewise, if there is no Church that loves God, then how could I do it on my own? Or if I love God, how could I ever be content loving God without the Church?

We absolutely need to be involved in the Church, but we need to be involved in the Church as holy, God-loving individuals.  We need devotion on individual and parish and diocesan levels. 

If we do not have devotion, we will never build the Kingdom of God.  Whatever good we do will not have been done by saints.  Saints are devoted to God.  Saints pray.  We cannot hope to build the Kingdom by abandoning prayer.  That would be like picking up tools to build a house but never once looking at the instructions are talking to the contractor.  Spiritual short-cuts have the same result as construction short-cuts: the ugly, hollow edifice all comes tumbling down.

Fiat Men, let's never give up our quest for devotion to God, but let's absolutely live it out in service and love for all we meet.  Nevertheless, let's not worry ourselves primarily about those things.  Let's devote ourselves to God so that those things come naturally.



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