The Sarabite gives us the following thought-provoking prayer:
I am sorry, Lord, that I have wanted to be an angel and not a man.
I am sorry that I have expected others to be angels and not men.
Lord, grant me the strength to accept my own humanity.
Amen. It’s a standing paradox that “angelism” poisons the wells of our spiritual lives, precisely because everything becomes subject to a perspective that can never be ours. As a consequence, even things good and proper to us become suspect, or lose their former power to move us or to communicate the realities that stand behind them. This disincarnational spirit is everywhere today – in the liturgy and the liturgical arts most obviously, but as a consequence, perhaps, of an underlying drift into the notion that truth is a proposition rather than a Person (which amounts to a failure of faith); that the means by which we attempt to represent and communicate the Truth are therefore of marginal importance. Thin Calvinistic air starves our capacity to engage as we ought with things both seen and unseen. We are alienated and displaced in both worlds. It ought to be obvious to us that we can’t be integrated ourselves, or think in an integrated way about anything, if we start out by falsifying our own nature – but it isn’t.
The Catholic novelist Alice Thomas Ellis (RIP), in a riveting interview several years ago with “radio shrink” Dr Anthony Clare, described a protracted breakdown in her late teens, during which she received an intimation of Hell, not as a place of darkness, but of unendurable, inescapable, endless light. This marked the beginnings of her conversion. It has the ring of authenticity: the lux perpetua for which we pray is of course insufferable to souls separated from God; but it’s also a consequence of "angelist" theology that Heaven itself begins to assume an equivocal aspect - a place where nothing human can be taken, or found; a place that might easily be mistaken for the Other Place.
Edwin Muir’s poem The Good Town opened this blog as a kind of manifesto. Here’s another by the same author, who has also given consideration to The Good Man in Hell; I think of the following poem, “There’s nothing here…” as its complement - not quite “The Bad Man in Heaven”, but the natural man, in the "Heaven" of the Calvinists:
There's nothing here I can take into my hands.
Oh, for the plough stilts and the horse's reins,
And the furrows running free behind me.
The clay still clings to me here, and the heavy smell
Of peat and dung and cattle, and the taste of the dram In my mouth, the last of all.
These things are what I was made for. Send me back.
There is not even a shadow here. How can I live
Without substance and shadow? Am I here
Because I duly read the Bible on Sundays
And drowsed through the minister's sermon? I knew my duty.
But in the evening
I led the young lads to the orra lasses
Across the sound to the other islands. Summer!
How can I live without summer? And the harvest moon
And the stooks that looked like little yellow graves, so bonny
And sad and strange, while I walked through them
For a crack with Jock at the bothy : old-farrant stories
He had, I could tell you some queer stories. And then we would dander
Among the farms to visit the lasses, climb
Through many a window till morning. But that's no talk
For this place. And then I think of the evenings
After the long day's work ...
Paul VI’s idea that the church could move “as far as possible” in the direction of Calvinist-style worship without detriment to Catholic souls so long as the traditional orthodoxy continued to sleep between the covers of the Catechism, is a conception essentially “angelist”. It’s shared by a great many Catholics today, in whom a tenuous, theoretical orthodoxy coexists with indifference, if not aversion, to the traditional formulations of faith and worship. This manifests itself in the context of the sacraments in a kind of crass “validitareanism” that prides itself in emancipation from anything beyond the bare requirements of sacramental validity. “Oh, I don’t need all that…God doesn’t care about all that…”
Here's how pious Catholics destroy their own religion:
Point A - God isn't concerned about that
Point B - That's trivial - God doesn't care...
Point C - Come on - I don't think God minds very much...
These were all pretty minor things, so we'll also concede D - P as belonging to the category of trivialities, beneath the attention of the Almighty and superfluous to spiritual advancement. Nobody got hurt, so let's press on...
Point R - My faith isn't dependent on all that
Point S - I don't need any of that to worship God or pray properly
Point T - Haven't we got beyond all that?
Point U - What's the relevance of this is to Catholics today...
...and now we're getting on a roll. We've established a principle: that we can construct, reconstruct or discard according to our own perceived needs, without detriment to anything theoretically "essential". We've also started to alter somewhat the way our religious practice and beliefs look and "feel", because all those little minor changes of "unimportant" things, taken together, add up to something suggesting a real shift. We experience this shift as exhilarating and liberating and can't help feeling scornful of those who, unlike us "need all that". Forget them. They're the chaff, we're the wheat; nor do we consider ourselves under any obligation to take seriously the warnings of those who can see trouble coming: prophets of doom, reactionaries, Pharisees, fearful conservatives and others who never “got” the Gospel.
By now we're well on the way to re-constructing a truly “spiritual” religion entirely in our own image and likeness; but what was once, in our dim, distant and superstitious past something that brought to life the vision of Isaias or St John in the Apocalypse now consists largely of being read at by middle-class people in nice knitwear. Where did everybody go?
It’s a symptom of our disintegrity that the things we think and say about ourselves are often the furthest from the truth: and it’s precisely when a man proclaims his emancipation from “all that” that he reveals himself to be most conspicuously in need of it.