Monday, May 12, 2014

Per aspera ad astra: On Hard-Identity Catholicism

There’s an old adage: Per aspera ad astra, “Through hardships to the stars.” We never reach the heights without a climb through that which is uncongenial, that which challenges and stretches us. Trials come before triumph, purifications before perfection. This is true as much for movements as for individuals.

One day I was meditating on chapter 58 of St. Benedict’s Rule, and I was struck by the way the holy patriarch recommends winning souls for monastic life. 
When anyone is newly come for the reformation of his life, let him not be granted an easy entrance; but, as the Apostle says, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” If the newcomer, therefore, perseveres in his knocking, and if it is seen after four or five days that he bears patiently the harsh treatment offered him and the difficulty of admission, and that he persists in his petition, then let entrance be granted him…
Once the monk is admitted, his trials are not yet over:
Let him [a senior monk] examine whether the novice is truly seeking God, and whether he is zealous for the Work of God, for obedience and for humiliations. Let the novice be told all the hard and rugged ways by which the journey to God is made.
This reminded me of something Fr. Zuhlsdorf regularly says: if we want to increase priestly and religious vocations, if we want conversions, then we need “hard-identity Catholicism.” We need to say clearly everything that we believe—consoling things (God is love) as well as astonishing things (the Real Presence), painful things (all of us will suffer our whole lives from disordered concupiscence and will need continual repentance), and unpopular things (marriage can only be between a man and a woman). We need our traditions, customs, and devotions in full. We need to make suitable demands on people—for otherwise they cannot possibly believe that we really believe the things our Bible and our Catechism say that we do.

For close to 50 years people in the Church have supported the softening or even suppression of the Faith's demands: be it an effortless accessibility in the liturgy, less fasting and abstinence, fewer holy days of obligation, little or no mention of hell or purgatory, almost no preaching on mortal sin and confession, ignoring the virtues of purity, chastity, and modesty, or countless other examples. We have had “soft-identity Catholicism”: nothing too harsh or off-putting, difficult or countercultural. This approach has been a failure, as anyone familiar with Church history and Catholic spirituality could have predicted. Indeed, heroic individuals like Cardinal Siri did predict it with utter clarity, since they had the wisdom to recognize the false principles.

Then another thing struck me about St. Benedict’s description. “Zealous, obedient, and ready for humiliations” could be a spiritual charter for the new liturgical movement and especially for those who hold fast to the Church's tradition. We must be zealous, tirelessly promoting and defending the sacred liturgy and all that is holy, beautiful, and valuable across generations. We must also be obedient in all the ways that are essential and necessary. And these two qualities together will mean that we are sure to be put to the test regularly and that we will experience humiliations.

Commenting on Matthew 12:19, “He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets,” the Church Father Remigius writes: “The Greek plateia is in Latin called latitudo. No one therefore has heard His voice 'in the streets,' because He has not promised pleasant things in this world to those that love Him, but hardships” (Catena Aurea, 1:443). Yet these are the hardships that wean us from ourselves and attach us more and more to Him who is our salvation, life, and resurrection.

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