In meditation, one seeks to suspend one’s beliefs, feelings, judgments, attachments—everything that the meditator holds dear. The man or woman who truly meditates in openness to the Unknown God enters into a dark abyss of unknowing. In this condition, what one has known, thought, loved, may indeed become a hindrance to the descent into the divine spring.
Over the years, I have had to deal with a few Muslims, with their unquestioning attachment to “holy Koran.” And I have had to deal with many Evangelical Christians with this unquestioning attachment to “the holy Bible.” During the past thirty years of functioning as a priest-monk in the Catholic church, I have had to deal often with “devout Catholics” who hold an unthinking, unquestioned, unexamined attachment to the Catholic Church—to “holy Mother Church.”
As Plato tells us in the Apology, Socrates was accused by Athenian officials and brought to trial on three false charges: “denying the gods of the city,” “introducing a foreign divinity,” and “corrupting the youth of Athens.” He is found guilty of all charges, and his prosecutors ask for the death sentence. By a close vote, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. And so he died. Before he walked out of the court room of some 500 jurors, Socrates exhorted them in many moving words, often summed up in one of his memorable phrases: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And then his final words before leaving the court: “Now it is time to go—I to die, and you to live. Which of us has the better fate is unknown to anyone, except to God.” In condemning Socrates to death, democratic Athens has condemned itself to an unjust existence.
The problem of not examining ourselves, our beliefs, our lives, is endemic to all of us, and to some more than others. Among church-attending Catholics, one can find a phenomenon that is difficult to understand, in part because it is unseen and largely unknown even to those with the problem. On close examination, one finds in many Catholics now and over the centuries an unquestioned, nearly unbreakable attachment to “the holy Catholic Church.” It shows up recently as some of the hierarchy’s evil deeds and cover-ups have come to light, and yet “the faithful” remain blindly loyal to the institutional church. Why?
Theologically, it is as if the Church stands in the place of God or of Christ. Hence, despite seeing real problems, they pretend that the Church is really holy anyway—even while clergy and lay persons commit heinous crimes and sins. Psychologically, the attachment of many Catholics to the Church is foundational in their lives. The Church is for them an extension of their own egos, just as the Mother was first experienced as an extension of the infant himself or herself—as part of oneself. As these children grew older, most of them learned to differentiate themselves from their birth mother, and became relatively independent and functioning adults. But many Catholics psychologically have failed to undergo a due and healthy separation from the institutional Church. In some ways, the Church became a new mother, a Big Mother, often equated with Mary, then interpreted as “next to God” or even as “divine.” No few Catholics in recent centuries have treated the Church as though it were “the Kingdom of God on earth”—the true and perfect embodiment of God Himself. Of course it did not help that many clergy furthered this idolatrous belief, priests even declaring themselves to be an “alter Christus,” another Christ. Who is the real Christ?
What we have in these many Catholics is not only an undue psychological attachment, but in effect, a form of idolatry—just as so many Evangelicals in effect worship the Bible as unquestionably true and holy and good. In shortest scope, neither the Church nor the Bible is perfect nor a completely true or good embodiment of God. To tell Evangelicals and Catholics this simple truth would incite many of these folks to declare one a “heretic,” or “an unbeliever,” or in terms used by Muslims today, “an infidel.” In truth, “humankind cannot bear very much reality” (Eliot, “The Four Quartets”). In reality, all of the churches are highly imperfect human societies. The Catholic Church is not fully holy—indeed, far from it—and the church is surely not “divine.” Scholars even provide persuasive reasons to assert that the Church was not founded by Christ, but developed by his disciples soon after his death-Resurrection. Indeed, we should all do well to consider words of St. Thomas Aquinas: that the body of Christ is not a particular institution, but all of humanity in history. Christ is far too big for an institution. We human beings are the body of Christ—imperfectly so, often unjustly so, but together we, and not a given denomination or political society, is the “body of Christ” in time.
Now for a practical question—a “pastoral question”: How is one to relate to Catholics who cling devoutly to the institutional Church, regardless of what its leaders and representatives do? As a pastor, teacher, or parent, how should one deal with Catholics who refuse to grow up spiritually and “let go of the sides of the pool”—let go of their ego-attachment to Mother Church? How can one help remove blindfolds from the willfully self-blinded? This attachment to “the Church” is in reality a very strong attachment to one’s own ego. How difficult it is to let go of self in all of its forms.
This problem still faces me, even in retirement. I still deal with Catholics in pastoral roles from time to time, and more often then not, while trying to guide them towards the Unknown God, there remains a huge obstacle in their hearts and minds: it is their ego-attachment to “the Church,” and to the “God” and “Christ” of the Church’s creeds, and sometimes to “Church teaching,” “the priest,” “the bishop,” “the Pope,” “the Bible.” In all of these cases, I have to challenge these undue attachments. And the inevitable result, not unexpectedly, is intense psychological resistance. Adult Catholics do not like to be told that they need to grow up spiritually and think for themselves; they would rather bury their minds in “the Church,” or in their particular priest, and so on. We are dealing with extreme ego-attachment, or what now is often called “an addiction.” Many Catholics are addicted to the illusion of the perfect, divine Church, that psychotically stands to them as their mother did in infancy. Spiritually, these Catholics resist growing up.
What is one to do? Keep silent? Not challenge these “true believers” whose attachment may well be hindering their way to God? If one challenges them, as I have experienced on no few occasions, some become agitated, belligerent, highly critical, declare me “unCatholic” or worse, begin to carp and mock me. They grow impatient, restless, irritable, and often nasty as I move them to see that the Church is not God, not perfect, not nearly so holy as they dream. Many of these Catholics would rather silence the challenging voice than take up the hard task of examining themselves, and letting go of illusions and undue attachments. They must come to see that the Catholic Church is a highly imperfect human institution that has often masqueraded as “the perfect society,” as “the Kingdom of God on earth,” as “holy and divine.” These Catholics must give up their illusory beliefs and their iron-clad attachment to “the Church” in order to begin afresh the journey of their soul into God.
Presently, I am not sure that most Catholics are willing to die to themselves, to renounce their illusions, to let go of “the Church,” and to seek the living God in humility, with a strong awareness of their own ignorance and lack of genuine faith as childlike trust in God alone. An essential step forward can be made when these Catholics cease muttering busy prayers, and sit silent and still in meditation.
—Wm. P. McKane
07 June 2020
Click on the above Poetry and Tanka tabs to read a variety of styles of poetry.