The following letter is part of a dialogue with a young Catholic father who is strongly concerned with the lack of spiritual nourishment in the Church today.
20 June 2018
Dear friend in Christ,
As I wrote in my last memo to parishioners, one’s “spiritual life,” or mental-spiritual development, depends on the efforts a human being makes as trusting in the presence and creative power of God. It does not depend on attending Mass or on the Sacraments, in and of themselves. What the churches offer may invite those present to “participate worthily,” that is, to be attentive and eagerly desire God, and lovingly surrender to the ever-present One, putting His “will” into practice. Put concretely: what happens or does not happen in the mind / “heart” of the participant is what matters in religious services, and not what happens in space-time (externally). What matters is utterly simple: either one is turning towards God, or away from God. All life is either conversion or diversion, epistrophe or apostrophe, using the technical terms developed by the Stoics. As St. Augustine lamented in his Confessions: “Behold, You were within, but I was without….” External worship encourages one to linger “without,” rather than to be present within—present to and with the Presence that we by long tradition call “God.”
The serious problem with Christianity, far beyond clerical abuses of various kinds, is clerical neglect: the failure to help nourish parishioners with healthy, wholesome intellectual-spiritual formation and guidance. One way to put this is simple: Consider your own life, and imagine what your spiritual life would be without the efforts you made to study philosophy (and perhaps theology). I consider my own example, known from within: My family attended religious services weekly as I was growing up, but I am not aware of having received much spiritual or intellectual nourishment through them. The same is true today: other than some “consolation” people may get from attending religious services (and that consolation is of limited value), the benefits that I have seen have come to those men and women who took their own spiritual life seriously, who made a deliberate and conscious effort to study, pray, turn from evil, and do good; very little benefit accrues to those who passively attend any kind of service, whether evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.
The real problem facing human beings is how to become truly awake and alive in one’s lifetime. Meditation and study, linked with personal discipline, as in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, does far more good than fairly mindless, passive sharing in any religious ceremonies. The example, goodness, love from men and women who happen to be Christian of one sort or another has been highly helpful to me, but such goodness is not directly linked to attending services, or “reading the bible,” as in evangelical traditions. Furthermore, much of the good that can be offered to persons in religious services is lost on social programs and the “social gospel,” which is indeed “no gospel at all.” Clergy have often neglected to assist in the spiritual formation of their people, probably in large part because “one cannot give what one does not have.” From what I hear from parishioners who attend Masses elsewhere when they travel or are away from home, they find little intellectual-spiritual meat in the preaching / teaching, but rather see emphases on outward forms of worship, entertaining music, social action programs, and the like. In the case of Catholic clergy, many do not even struggle to prepare homilies, but download canned “homilies” off the internet, or take them from “homily helps.” Unless the priest or minister is speaking “from faith to faith” (Romans 1), he or she is not “preaching Christ,” and helping to form the hearer, but just amusing, entertaining, perhaps chastising. The word that forms the hearer must grow out of a spirit alive in the now to the presence of God. Otherwise, it is not the “word of God,” but mere human words of more or less mindless chatter. If and only if the one preaching is immediately present to divine Presence is one in truth a “minister of the Word.” In the words of the Apostle, “the written text kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Had I not studied philosophy and sought to practice meditation as a Benedictine monk, and not been blessed to have some truly good examples of right living and practical wisdom in my life, I think that I would have received very little spiritual-intellectual nourishment as a Catholic Christian. What do the churches have to offer to human beings? One often must seek God, loving and doing the truth, despite what is being done in and by the churches. Neither the educational establishments in our society, nor the religious institutions, are now offering human beings much that is truly beneficial. Or to put the matter differently: unless one struggles to learn, and works hard to grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually, one will be unformed, deformed, malnourished. Our schools, universities, churches have largely been failing to do what they ought to do, and generally pretend to do, at considerable expense.