Monday, April 24, 2017

The Problem of “Spiritual Illiteracy”

If you cannot read, every book is a closed book: you cannot see the meaning. Someone who cannot read Arabic or Cyrillic just sees a bunch of swirly shapes that convey no message, except perhaps: “What interesting designs! Ah, but they mean nothing to me.”

Is it not striking, and frightening, that it is quite the same with the majority of mainstream Catholics, when it comes to most of the 2,000-year heritage of the Church—in her liturgy and devotions, her theology and magisterium? After the great purge and superficialization of the teaching and practice of the Faith that took place ca. 1965–1975 and that has never been seriously challenged or supplanted in the majority of parishes and schools, we are facing an ever-increasing obstacle to the restoration of the traditional Faith, namely, what might be called “spiritual illiteracy.” Once the language of symbols is abolished, the people cannot read the symbols any more, and are therefore cut off in principle from access to the riches of the Church. It’s not like someone who knows how to read but is lazy or distracted or too busy to do so. It’s much more like someone who is incapable of reading, and therefore has no idea what he is missing, or what he could be gaining. Is this too pessimistic a comparison? I do not think so. The evidence is not hard to come by.

Those who are fortunate to be literate, to one degree or another, must first of all be grateful to the Lord for having deigned to bestow this grace of knowledge. It is given in order to support and increase our charity—first and foremost for Him and then for our neighbors. We exercise that charity in a special way by teaching spiritual literacy to catechumens and fellow Catholics. This is the educational work most demanded by our times, and, not surprisingly, least appreciated. It is not appreciated for the very reason given above: the awareness of the need for it is utterly lacking. A person born blind will never know what it is like to see colors, and if other people around him were not constantly talking about colors, he would never know they existed. In a community of blind people, without input from the outside, color would never be a subject of conversation; indeed, if one of their number invented the concept and shared it, the others would probably laugh him down.

We could also think of our situation this way. We learn, as rational animals, through hearing and speaking language. If we grew up like a feral child in the woods, raised by wolves, we would never have learned how to think and speak like humans; our very intellectual growth would have been stunted. Or if we grow up hearing only one language, it’s no surprise that we will be greatly at a disadvantage when it comes to moving in other linguistic circles, picking up their languages. (Contrast those Europeans who, because of the history and location of their countries, learn several languages from the time of their infancy.) Up until quite recently, Catholics grew up with the language of the Church — her pageantry of symbols, her liturgical rites and special music and cycle of feasts and fasts, her catechism. A few, namely the clergy and religious, acquired some proficiency in the more demanding language of theology. But now most of this is absent from the majority of Catholics, including the clergy. We have several generations of Catholics who have grown up speaking only the language of the world, the secular speech, with a feeble smattering of Catholic phrases, comparable to those one would find in a Berlitz guide: “Good morning,” “Thank you,” “The bill, please.”

Are we then amazed that, when we start speaking the language of tradition again, when we struggle hard to learn it and practice it and teach it to others, there will be many who cannot comprehend it at all, who are offended when they hear it spoken, or who cannot be convinced that it is worth the trouble to learn it? People who will say: “Stop talking that foreign language—I can’t understand it. Talk only in my language. Nobody speaks your old-fashioned language any more. It’s obsolete. We’ve moved on. You’re on the wrong side of history.”

The sad thing is that they are stuck, in a way: they cannot understand the beautiful stories, the lyrical poems, the potent prayers, the sweet secrets, that centuries of Catholic culture have bequeathed to us in a language once universal, and so they truly have no clue what they are missing, nor can they realize that what they are missing is the bulk of Catholicism’s legacy—like the part of the iceberg under the water, as compared with contemporary Catholicism’s tip of the iceberg. If they don’t know it, how easy is it to fling it aside contemptuously: “It’s not worth it, because I can still serve God and save my soul without it.” That’s what they think, even though it is not true: eventually the loss of the language and literature of Catholic tradition will allow the domination of a mixture of primitivism, emotionalism, and communal narcissism that will end either in idiocy or lunacy, total bankruptcy or volatile ideology. Catholicism is not incidentally but essentially based on tradition; therefore those who are not vitally and deeply united with the tradition will end up on the outside of it. One could call it schism in slow motion. As the world awoke to find itself Arian in St. Jerome’s day, so are huge sectors of the Catholic Church awakening to find themselves secularist, liberal Protestant, and modernist.

It will take Catholics a special grace of conversion to believe that there is something wonderful they are missing out on, to trust in those who can teach it to them, and to make the effort demanded in learning any new language. Traditionalists have their work cut out for them: to build up communities in which a sufficient number are, to so speak, fluent in tradition and have created, with God’s help, a small society, a microcosm of the Church of all time, where the unchanging truth and the immense interior beauty of the Faith can flourish outwardly. This will happen most of all by the worthy celebration of the traditional sacred liturgy (Mass and Divine Office) and public devotions. It also needs to happen in social events, catechetical offerings, and a network of friendships, families, and businesses. Those who are aware of something missing, a nagging sense “there’s got to be more,” and who begin to search will then be able to find the wealth that can heal their poverty of meaning.

A final thought. Languages considered to be “dead” have been revived by those who sufficiently cared, the most remarkable instance being the revitalization of Hebrew as the national language of Israel. Something analogous can and must be done in the Catholic Church with Latin and the entire theological, cultural, and liturgical patrimony embodied in this mother tongue of Western Christianity. If this seems an impossible project, be assured: it is. But the Lord who multiplied the few loaves and fishes will do the same with our efforts, if we are not unbelieving but faithful. As it says in Scripture, in the more literal translation of the Douay-Rheims: “No word shall be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).

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