Sunday, September 23, 2007

Divine Compassion

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the innate capacity of the human being to remain in ignorance. Bliss, some of them say; for others, endless monotony and confinement. From the moment of birth to that eventual encounter with death, we all share a common denominator in that pursuit for the transcendent, the liberating and the mysterious; we do not always know what 'it' is, of course, and this is not surprising especially in a society that has completely shut off its ears to this simple truth.

First, let me begin my saying that this post is not a paean to exalt the virtues of illiteracy, stupidity and willful blindness; but neither is it a canonization of knowledge as the ultimate good. I am referring, however, to that sense of wonder which we so often have confused with foolishness.

My experience with many non-Catholics can be synthesized and described in a few words: illuminating, repulsive, interesting, and worrying. Usually, my most frequent non-Catholic correspondents are Protestants of the Evangelical kind. The next most frequent 'variable' are people who come from quasi-Catholic churches; I say quasi-Catholic because these churches maintain a veneer of Catholicism on the outside but profess a completely alien faith interiorly. Falling under this category would be the Aglipayans, members of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or Philippine Independent church. In both variables, I have noticed a certain tendency to lambaste the Church for keeping people in ignorance.

The Evangelical Protestant tirade usually starts off about the Crusades, the Inquisition and criticisms of the Eucharist and Papal supremacy, with facts spouting off their mouths' with machine gun rapidity. The intention is obviously to make the Catholic question his faith in light of these revelations of erroneous doctrine and blind dogmatism. The Aglipayan attack is usually more subtle, hitting at disciplinary norms like the practice of priestly celibacy more so than doctrine (they don't attack processions, because they also have them). The Catholic, when faced with these accusations, has two options: to defend his faith, or the more common tactic, to run away.

Sometimes, it is difficult to formulate an answer on why many Catholics act this way. It is even more difficult, however, to arrive at an answer on why Protestants can choose to be, and remain, Protestants. As I mentioned in a post some months go, my aunts used to take me to Protestant worship services when I was much younger. As a boy of five, I remember seeing an aunt being 'slain in the Spirit', falling to the floor, weeping, wailing, and flailing her arms in a flurry of movements. My gut reaction was to hit the pastor in the face for hurting her, but I was scared, so I just let it be. Of course, there are countless Protestants out there whose faith is unquestionable. I'm not denying that.

My beef with most of Protestant theology, however, is that they tend to simplify things too easily. Redemption in Protestant thinking is essentially reduced to a transaction, and salvation becomes mere head knowledge. And since that is all that is required to reach heaven, faith is ironically reduced to nothingness as well. Sometimes I can't help wonder whether Christianity is just another piece of information to the Protestant: it is useful, yes, but once its purpose has been fulfilled, it can freely be disposed of at the opportune moment. Again, I am not saying this applies to all Protestants; my maternal grandmother is a 'devout' Evangelical who would probably reach heaven long before I do.

But the problem does not lie exclusively with Protestants-- many Catholics too suffer from the influence of this knowledge cult. There are also those dyed-in-the-wool Roman Papists who reduce the life of Jesus into the space of a few words, basically acknowledging His death on the Cross as a suitable ransom for our sins, but failing to see anything else beyond. Personal sanctity is reduced to knowing how many obscure saints and feast days and liturgical vestments one can cite at the drop of a hat. It can a very immature and dangerous way of living one's faith.

Most Catholics who lived before Vatican II were 'in the dark', in that sense that they did not concern themselves with too much facts, but with the Truth. The typical pre-VII matron wore a massive, four-foot long mantilla to church, prayed the Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful mysteries at one time and was probably a member of Adoracion Nocturna or Legio Mariae; however, she also kept her superstitions, counting things in threes (oro, plata, mata-- gold, silver, death), and probably could not differentiate a protonary apostolic from a canon, let alone a bishop from an abbot. Most did not even have missals to read from during Mass, preferring instead to make their novenas and devotions 'when the priest faced the altar' (that is why scheduled novenas rarely work here).

Even with the True Faith, many still suffered from the corrupting influence of ambition. That is why we have had such colorful personages in Philippine history like La Santa de Leyte, a prophetess who claimed the world would sink in a year's time and who founded a messianic cult to prepare for this doom, and Apo Iro, the wandering miracle worker who mystified commoner and noble alike in the halcyon days before the Second World War. Yes, to us, they sound like heretics, laughably superstitious men and women who knew nothing of what Christianity is 'really' about. We laugh at their ignorance from the distance afforded us by centuries and cold, rational examination, while forgetting the fact that even hallowed Councils like First Nicea involved much back door manipulation and even threats from one Christian to another.

It is my opinion that we would probably not be recognized by our Catholic forebears-- yes, even the rad-trads-- not because we have a different faith from them, but because our faith is essentially different from theirs. As Mosebach writes in his magnum opus 'The Heresy of Formlessness', it is a tragedy when it requires a particularly pious priest, a breed above the rest, to celebrate the immemorial holy mysteries today, when before, saint and sinner alike celebrated the same liturgy. We have freely handed our collective heritage as Catholics to an oligarchy of the few so that what remains of 'authentic' pre-Vatican II Catholicism is only, ironically, the ignorance and 'vapidity' this very same Council set out to destroy.

The joy of 'ignorance' lies not in keeping minds in a vise-grip of self-imposed nostalgia, but the sense of mystery and wonder it endows us. One of our greatest tragedies today as Catholics is that the faith we have today has essentially been sanitized to a point that it becomes a textbook religion. It is basically like writing a ten-step program on the proper way to eat hamburgers. It has been robbed of a sense of the supernatural: when before, conversations about the favors granted by a saint were common fodder, we are struggling with polemics and apologetics on why we even pray to the saints in the first place. It is understandable when this phenomenon is confined to secular countries, but even here in the Philippines, one of the most Catholic nations in the world, more and more are they who feel the urge to rationalize what cannot be grasped by reason alone.

The mysteries of Christianity are far greater than what any mind, be it of man or angel, can ever fathom. It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies that what we call 'traditionalism' today is not the same tradition which nourished and enraptured our fathers and forefathers before us, but a systematic, standardized reaction against this very same tendency. I am not saying that it is hopeless to fight for our heritage; I am not a pessimist. There is much good that the Holy Father's motu proprio can, and will, do-- but we must not expect things to change overnight. What is needed in this case is more than just a document, but a complete change of heart.

Again, we need to be reminded that conversion is also not an overnight process. True conversion does not rest on baptism alone, but is only the beginning of a lifelong process. Saints are made, not born, and almost always from the fires of turbulence and suffering. Sanctity cannot be reduced to an affair of the intellect, and neither can gold be purified without fire. Let us be positive with the limited things given to us. In God's time, everything will be better-- and this is a pledge of hope we can all cling to.


WhiteStoneNameSeeker said...

Having finally been led through from my own terribly ignorance and confusion about the Faith I now see the Way, the Truth and the Life is a very narrow path indeed. It would be too easy to step away from the Way because curiosity becomes more important than prayer-or 'saying' the prayers becomes more important than REALLY saying the prayers.

My experience of the protestants I know and love-and their churches, is they have stripped away the beauty and the story to make it simple, but have instead made it too easy, not challanging at all; and oh so bland.
I know the 'Spirit of Vat II' is rightly so accused-but it never stripped as much away as some protestant churches I have been to.

Just found your blog btw. It is lovely.
God bless

Rita said...

Awesome post! What a thoughtful and prayerful analysis of how things are.

Archistrategos said...

Thank you both for your comments! They are much appreciated. :)