Monday, September 25, 2017

Objective Form and Subjective Experience: The Benedictine/Jesuit Controversy, Revisited

Almost three years ago, I published an article here entitled “The Ironic Outcome of the Benedictine–Jesuit Controversy,” which in rewritten form became part of chapter 5, “Different Visions, Contrary Paths,” of my book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness. A reader recently contacted me with some interesting observations that prompted further thoughts. I am grateful to him for contacting me — as I am to everyone who sends me such reflections. They are often the germ for NLM articles!

In any case, here is what he wrote:
I have been subjected to two “Life Teen” conferences this summer, and I must say they are the true challenge to the return of Tradition. For they don’t attempt to be heterodox, just the opposite in fact. Those folks who wish the Church could just “get with the times” are dying off, and their children, if they had any, have apostatized. But the Life Teen business is so painfully anti-intellectual that you can barely argue with it, and so it’s tough to defeat. You know things by their fruits, and the fact is that these people are able to exercise a decent attraction for a time. It’s the longer view that comes into question, and it requires more subtle arguments about form and the nature of the spiritual life.
          Your book touches on the Benedictine–Jesuit divide in terms of liturgy, but I think that it can be pushed even further. On my view the Benedictine life is the practical working out of the Augustinian theological/spiritual synthesis. At the heart of that synthesis is the conflict between pride and humility. Pride is self-indulgence to the point of contempt of God. Humility is God-indulgence to the point of contempt of self. At the heart of this is Augustine’s profound self-effacement. He knows how complicated, tangled, and inverted things can become. As he says in the Confessions: “I have become an enigma to myself.” The Augustinian (and therefore the broadly Catholic) method for resolving that question is through submission to form that is not self-created or self-perpetuating. This, for two reasons. One, the self is untrustworthy and deceived, and two, because there is no coming to faith without mediation. That’s why he concludes the opening of the Confessions: “I call upon thee, O Lord, in my faith which thou hast given me, which thou hast inspired in me through the humanity of thy Son, and through the ministry of thy preacher.” The humanity of the Son, that is the one who takes the mediation of flesh through Mary, and the ministry of the preacher — i.e., Ambrose, and the episcopal office more generally.
          Thus, it’s not by accident that humility, submission to the rule and the abbot, are the very foundations of Benedictine life. It is through obedience — both to the rule and to the abbot, which are parallel to Augustine’s ministry of the preacher and humanity of the Son — that one draws near to the Lord. Here there is no room for self-expression or self-presence as we’ve come to understand those things. On the other hand, that’s why Benedict constantly exhorts the abbot to patience and magnanimity, never abusing that great authority.
          In a similar way, in Benedictine life the liturgy, the opus Dei, is the reception of and adherence to form, down to the last detail. Salvation comes through conforming yourself to the mediated image, just as the mediated image, in the case of the Host, becomes salvation, when a priest conforms himself to the given form (no wonder Augustine understood ex opere operato in his refutation of the Donatists). In other words, ‘experience’ understood as “conscious seeming,” has almost no role to play in Augustinian–Benedictine spirituality. Contrast that with the Jesuit tradition. Experience is everything. Self-presence, self-knowledge can be read (and indeed in the consciously modern period have been read) throughout the Exercises. It becomes very easy then to cast such things as fixed liturgical forms, rubrics, traditional chant as evils just to the extent that they put a damper on experience. To an experientialist, if something becomes rote, it doesn’t seem like anything. Options, flexibility, creativity, become paramount.
          Now, I’m not claiming this is what Ignatius had in mind, but in broad strokes, I think one can see clear differences. These are differences that aren’t merely contrasting; they are contradictory. The two schools disagree on the nature of knowledge, on the formation of the soul, indeed, on the very purpose of the liturgy.
          I may be way off base on all that, but I think there’s something to it. I’m curious to know your reaction to this theory.
I sympathize with many things my interlocutor is saying; his singling out of subjectivism as a modern vice is correct, and it is hard to dispute that the Jesuits have played a role in the decentering of the Church from her public liturgy. But I have to take some exceptions to his interpretation of Augustine.

Augustine can be and has been used to support just about any position under the sun (just think of the Protestant reformers who continually cited him, or later, the Jansenists). The reason is simply that he is so rich, so comprehensive, and so subtle that he really did see every angle of a problem. He gives us a lot to work with — and to take out of context. In his mature thought, however, there is a perfect balance of the subjective and the objective, or to put it differently, as a Platonist with a deep spiritual hunger for the reality of God, he was absolutely fixed on the Good which is above and beyond us, and in love intimately with this Good as it came to possess his own heart. The usual contrasts between, say, “objective spirituality” (i.e., liturgy, sacraments) and “subjective spirituality” (e.g., personal prayer, emotion, experience) fall apart when it comes to him: his most personal experiences were precisely ones of the reality of God as mediated through the order of creation and the order of redemption. He would look at us with extreme puzzlement if we started to make an opposition between Eucharistic worship and personal friendship with God, or between adoration through stable external signs and inward conviction or conversion. He would say: The Eucharist, the divine liturgy, is the locus of that friendship; and that friendship cannot exist unless nourished by God Himself. We have to be drawn out of ourselves into the transcendent mystery of God through sacramental signs in order to know and love ourselves aright and to have His indwelling presence in us.

This brings me to an Aristotelian point, which will supply a key premise. Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics that pleasure is the accompaniment of a good action, in some sense a concomitant or result of it, and that the best pleasures accompany the best actions. So, if you want the pleasure, you have to seek out the action; and if you want the best pleasure, you need to seek out the best action a human being is capable of. The reason we reproach “pleasure-seekers” is that they are aiming for easier, low-hanging fruit, usually of a sensual or emotional kind. The paradox is that if you seek pleasure in itself, you miss the better pleasures, which require a certain self-denial and self-transcendence. The virtuous man aims at good or great actions, and experiences a deeper, purer pleasure in doing them.[1]

Now let us consider worship as an action, and religious experience as a pleasure. Liturgical action, when pursued for its own sake, i.e., in adoration and praise of God, is accompanied by the best religious experience. But if we seek the experience as our goal, we will be denied the experience at its best, which comes only from pursuing something nobler than a mere experience. Hence, the person who will be most delighted in worship is the one whose motto is: “I want to find God” — not the one whose motto is “I want to have an experience of God.”

One may draw a parallel here with marriage. If a partner begins with the attitude: “I want an experience of a deep relationship,” the marriage is doomed. If he or she begins with the attitude: “I want to do right by this person, no matter what,” the marriage can flourish. What is vitally important is that the aim be not some experience gained by using another, but simply the other himself or herself: he or she is the aim.[2] It is the same with having children. For a parent to think “I want to have the experience of being a parent/having a child” is a subtle form of selfishness. The parent who thinks instead: “I want to bring a child into the world for his or her own happiness” is focused on the good of the other and willing to sacrifice himself/herself to accomplish it.

The result of this analysis is that we should not set form or objectivity over against experience, as if they are in opposition. Rather, form, or a formal action, will always come with an experience. A higher form will come with a higher experience. A lower form will be accompanied by a lower experience.[3] This, I believe, is exactly what Augustine is saying throughout the Confessions and other works.

That a lower form will be accompanied by a lower experience is what we see in a phenomenon like like Life Teen.[4] It’s easy to get the immediate emotional experience; it requires so little in the way of form or action. But it is correspondingly shallow and unsatisfying for that reason, and must be repeatedly sought, perhaps with attempts made at intensifying the same experience. In this way it is somewhat like drugs, where people start with small doses and eventually try bigger doses or move to more potent drugs, because they are seeking more of that experience, more of that pleasure.

With traditional worship, it is quite different. At first, the form is lofty and remote, the action difficult for our nature. We may feel dry, at a loss, perplexed, even offended at the lack of consideration for our feelings and (what we think to be) our needs. We are confronted with the otherness, the strangeness of God. But if we stick it out, something calls to us in our remoteness from Him. As we dwell with it more, it slowly seizes hold of us and lifts us up to a higher level, to higher perceptions of the truth of what we are doing and Whom we are dealing with. As this worship becomes more connatural, we experience more delight. The delight does not grow stale or cloying but, in fact, builds upon itself without limit, because it is of a spiritual or intellectual order (although not separated from the physical domain). At the limit, beyond this life, we enjoy the beatific vision, where the experience and the objective reality, the form, are utterly at one.

In conclusion, humility, obedience, submission to rule, reception of form, and adherence to form do not need to be (or be seen as) opposed to experience, self-presence, self-knowledge, and fulfillment. With Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas as our guides, we see that the latter are best accomplished by following the narrow road of the former, and the former is necessarily accompanied by the latter in its purest state. But we cannot pursue the latter for their own sakes if we ever wish to practice the former well; indeed, such a mistaken prioritization leads to a skepticism towards and an eventual abandonment of those “objective” foundations and qualities.

It is for this reason that Life Teen and programs like it are harmful to the spiritual development of adolescents, who are at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives, with anxieties about self-image, a tendency towards emotional instability and excess, and the temptation of pleasure-seeking. They will benefit the most, over time, from the traditional emphasis on formal liturgical action to which worshipers anonymously submit, all facing in the same direction and offering a visible sacrifice such as the nature of man requires, avoiding the psychological inflations and distractions of a contemporary style of worship.

I should like to give the last word to Dom Guéranger, as reported by Abbess Cécile Bruyère:
“Let us note well,” said Dom Guéranger in his familiar conversations, “that the science of the Christian life is a determined and definite science. Therefore we must not rest satisfied with repeating conventional phrases or with multiplying sentimental formulas [‘Oh, ah, I ah-dore you-ou-ou’—Ed.]; it is by labour, and not by dreaming and excitement, that we must learn the secrets of a science which has its axioms, its deductions and its certain rules. All must be drawn from divine sources, that this science may be truly that of the spiritual life in the Christian Church.”[5]


[1] The reason pleasure-seeking leads to a bad end is that action grounds pleasure rather than pleasure grounding action. If you seek the best action, you have a grounded approach to the best pleasure; but if you seek the greatest pleasure, the pleasure itself will not guide you on to the best action.

[2] Obviously, not as an ultimate end, but as one ordered by charity to God.

[3] By “higher” and “lower” here, I mean more in accord with man’s rational or spiritual nature as capax Dei, a nature open to the knowledge and love of God, which are attained most of all in contemplation.

[4] A similar critique could be offered of tendencies in the Charismatic Movement.

[5] Cécile Bruyère, The Spiritual Life and Prayer according to Holy Scripture and Monastic Tradition (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 121.

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