Critiques & Controversies: April 2004 Archives

I share the thoughts below because they have much troubled me the past several days. I have cast about for ways of saying what I would like to say and what I believe needs to be said, but this interior monologue expressed exteriorly is the best I could manage.

Tom of Disputations has stated that it is his belief that the teachings of St. John of the Cross do not comprise a universal call to holiness, that, in fact, they are really only for Carmelites and those inclined to Carmelite spirituality--not everyone is called to union nor to the contemplative life.

IF I believed that, I would have to discontinue blogging, because the only purpose to blogging is to share the NOT-EXCLUSIVELY Carmelite message of the call to Union with God. There would be no point in writing about these matters for the seven or eight Carmelites who are already on the boards, they already know this stuff as well or better than I do. I cannot say better than St. John of the Cross what he himself said.

However, I don't feel it to be true for several reasons. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux are all Doctors of the Universal Church. Not doctors of the Carmelites, not merely great sainted leaders of the Carmelites. Now, there have been a good many founders of orders who are also Doctors of the Church, but many, as well who are not. It is not the founding of an order (which Teresa and John did not do) that makes one a Doctor of the Church. It is the articulation of a universal truth of the Church recognized as such. Thus what they have to say isn't spoken merely to Carmelites, or, for that matter merely to those inclined to mystical experience. Just as what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say is not confined to Dominicans or to those inclined to the exercise of intellect in Church matters.

For example, I quote John Paul II letter on St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Divini Amoris Scientia:

In these three different manuscripts, which converge in a thematic unity and in a progressive description of her life and spiritual way, Thérèse has left us an original autobiography which is the story of her soul. It shows how in her life God has offered the world a precise message, indicating an evangelical way, the "little way", which everyone can take, because everyone is called to holiness.

In fact, St. Thérèse's teaching is a distillation of the work of St. John of the Cross. Following His direction and that of St. Teresa of Avila, the Little flower concentrated their writings into the very concise, very small, very precise "little way."

from Divini Amoris Scientia
His Holiness John Paul II

From careful study of the writings of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and from the resonance they have had in the Church, salient aspects can be noted of her "eminent doctrine", which is the fundamental element for conferring the title of Doctor of the Church.

First of all, we find a special charism of wisdom. This young Carmelite, without any particular theological training, but illumined by the light of the Gospel, feels she is being taught by the divine Teacher who, as she says, is "the Doctor of Doctors" (Ms A, 83v), and from him she receives "divine teachings" (Ms B, 1r). She feels that the words of Scripture are fulfilled in her: "Whoever is a little one, let him come to me.... For to him that is little, mercy shall be shown" (Ms B, 1v; cf. Prv 9:4; Wis 6:6) and she knows she is being instructed in the science of love, hidden from the wise and prudent, which the divine Teacher deigned to reveal to her, as to babes (Ms A, 49r; cf. Lk 10:21-22).

Pius XI, who considered Thérèse of Lisieux the "Star of his pontificate", did not hesitate to assert in his homily on the day of her canonization, 17 May 1925: "The Spirit of truth opened and made known to her what he usually hides from the wise and prudent and reveals to little ones; thus she enjoyed such knowledge of the things above - as Our immediate Predecessor attests - that she shows everyone else the sure way of salvation" (AAS 17 [1925], p. 213).

Her teaching not only conforms to Scripture and the Catholic faith, but excels ("eminet") for the depth and wise synthesis it achieved. Her doctrine is at once a confession of the Church's faith, an experience of the Christian mystery and a way to holiness. Thérèse offers a mature synthesis of Christian spirituality: she combines theology and the spiritual life; she expresses herself with strength and authority, with a great ability to persuade and communicate, as is shown by the reception and dissemination of her message among the People of God.

Thérèse's teaching expresses with coherence and harmonious unity the dogmas of the Christian faith as a doctrine of truth and an experience of life. In this regard it should not be forgotten that the understanding of the deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit: "There is growth in insight into the realities and words that are passed on... through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51). It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth" (Dei Verbum, n. 8).

In the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux we do not find perhaps, as in other Doctors, a scholarly presentation of the things of God, but we can discern an enlightened witness of faith which, while accepting with trusting love God's merciful condescension and salvation in Christ, reveals the mystery and holiness of the Church.

Thus we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experience of faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ. In her are found the gifts of the new law, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit, who manifests himself in living faith working through charity (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., I-II, q. 106, art. 1; q. 108, art. 1).

We can apply to Thérèse of Lisieux what my Predecessor Paul VI said of another young Saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena: "What strikes us most about the Saint is her infused wisdom, that is to say, her lucid, profound and inebriating absorption of the divine truths and mysteries of faith.... That assimilation was certainly favoured by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit" (AAS 62 [1970], p. 675).

8. With her distinctive doctrine and unmistakable style, Thérèse appears as an authentic teacher of faith and the Christian life. In her writings, as in the sayings of the Holy Fathers, is found that lifegiving presence of Catholic tradition whose riches, as the Second Vatican Council again says, "are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and prayer" (Dei Verbum, n. 8).

If considered in its literary genre, corresponding to her education and culture, and if evaluated according to the particular circumstances of her era, the doctrine of Thérèse of Lisieux appears in providential harmony with the Church's most authentic tradition, both for its confession of the Catholic faith and for its promotion of the most genuine spiritual life, presented to all the faithful in a living, accessible language. . . .

10. The spiritual doctrine of Thérèse of Lisieux has helped extend the kingdom of God. By her example of holiness, of perfect fidelity to Mother Church, of full communion with the See of Peter, as well as by the special graces obtained by her for many missionary brothers and sisters, she has rendered a particular service to the renewed proclamation and experience of Christ's Gospel and to the extension of the Catholic faith in every nation on earth.

There is no need to dwell at length on the universality of Thérèse's doctrine and on the broad reception of her message during the century since her death: it has been well documented in the studies made in view of conferring on her the title of Doctor of the Church.

A particularly important fact in this regard is that the Church's Magisterium has not only recognized Thérèse's holiness, but has also highlighted the wisdom of her doctrine. Pius X had already said that she was "the greatest saint of modern times". On joyfully receiving the first Italian edition of the Story of a Soul, he extolled the fruits that had resulted from Thérèse's spirituality. Benedict XV, on the occasion of proclaiming the Servant of God's heroic virtues, explained the way of spiritual childhood and praised the knowledge of divine realities which God granted to Thérèse in order to teach others the ways of salvation (cf. AAS 13 [1921], pp. 449-452). On the occasion of both her beatification and canonization, Pius XI wished to expound and recommend the Saint's doctrine, underscoring her special divine enlightenment (Discorsi di Pio XI, vol. I, Turin 1959, p. 91) and describing her as a teacher of life (cf. AAS 17 [1925], pp. 211-214). When the Basilica of Lisieux was consecrated in 1954, Pius XII said, among other things, that Thérèse penetrated to the very heart of the Gospel with her doctrine (cf. AAS 46 [1954], pp. 404-408). Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, visited Lisieux several times, especially when he was Nuncio in Paris. On various occasions during his pontificate he showed his devotion to the Saint and explained the relationship between the doctrine of the Saint of Avila and her daughter, Thérèse of Lisieux (Discorsi, Messaggi, Colloqui, vol. II [1959-1960], pp. 771-772). Many times during the celebration of the Second Vatican Council, the Fathers recalled her example and doctrine. On the centenary of her birth, Paul VI addressed a Letter on 2 January 1973 to the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, in which he extolled Thérèse's example in the search for God, offered her as a teacher of prayer and theological virtue of hope, and a model of communion with the Church, calling the attention of teachers, educators, pastors and theologians themselves to the study of her doctrine (cf. AAS 65 [1973], pp. 12-15). I myself on various occasions have had the joy of recalling the person and doctrine of the Saint, especially during my unforgettable visit to Lisieux on 2 June 1980, when I wished to remind everyone: "One can say with conviction about Thérèse of Lisieux that the Spirit of God allowed her heart to reveal directly to the people of our time the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel.... Her 'little way' is the way of 'holy childhood'. There is something unique in this way, the genius of St Thérèse of Lisieux. At the same time there is the confirmation and renewal of the most basic and most universal truth. What truth of the Gospel message is really more basic and more universal than this: God is our Father and we are his children?" (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, vol. III/1 [1980], p. 1659).

These simple references to an uninterrupted series of testimonies from the Popes of this century on the holiness and doctrine of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and to the universal dissemination of her message clearly express to what extent the Church, in her pastors and her faithful, has accepted the spiritual doctrine of this young Saint.

A sign of the ecclesial reception of the Saint's teaching is the appeal to her doctrine in many documents of the Church's ordinary Magisterium, especially when speaking of the contemplative and missionary vocation, of trust in the just and merciful God, of Christian joy and of the call to holiness. Evidence of this fact is the presence of her doctrine in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 127, 826, 956, 1011, 2011, 2558). She who so loved to learn the truths of the faith in the catechism deserved to be included among the authoritative witnesses of Catholic doctrine.

Thérèse possesses an exceptional universality. Her person, the Gospel message of the "little way" of trust and spiritual childhood have received and continue to receive a remarkable welcome, which has transcended every border.

The influence of her message extends first of all to men and women whose holiness and heroic virtues the Church herself has recognized, to the Church's pastors, to experts in theology and spirituality, to priests and seminarians, to men and women religious, to ecclesial movements and new communities, to men and women of every condition and every continent. To everyone Thérèse gives her personal confirmation that the Christian mystery, whose witness and apostle she became by making herself in prayer "the apostle of the apostles", as she boldly calls herself (Ms A, 56r), must be taken literally, with the greatest possible realism, because it has a value for every time and place. The power of her message lies in its concrete explanation of how all Jesus' promises are fulfilled in the believer who knows how confidently to welcome in his own life the saving presence of the Redeemer.

I'm sorry to quote at such length, but I think it is time to put this whole question to rest. There can be no question that John Paul II and one assumes much of the Church from the time of the Saint's beatification has regarded here doctrine as sound and universal and her doctrine is nothing other than that handed down from the Bible and from the riches of her mother and father in faith, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross.

Regarding St. John of the Cross, another opinion supporting my own from Doctors of the Church.

John's words are for all creatures and especially members of the Church. They do not have to live in monasteries or secluded settings or be contemplative. For John, God wants to transform each and everyone regardless of their lifestyle. All have to give the payback. We are "bandits". Intentionally or unintentionally we keep or are stingy with God who wants our loving thoughts, feelings, aspirations and desperations. John understood that to give up these for God results in a giving back to Him. John always reminds us that love is only repaid by love alone. We are spiritual thieves. We have imprisoned the Word made Flesh in God's many sanctuaries. God is more entrapped by His love for us than by our "stealing" him away from the celestial court. The kingdom of the heavenly court dwells in our midst, mystically and physically. Faith and love grasp this truth.

There is a mystic in each of us. It's God dwelling in us in a marvelous and invisible manner. God is absolute Mystery. God told Moses "I am who I am" One can not say more about God's presence than what God told Moses. The mystical apostle, St John, described God's nature: God is love. The mystical doctor's message is where there is no love, put love and you will find love. He was absolutely convinced that nothing is obtained from God except through love.

(I apologize that I was unable to find the document of Pius XI declaring him a Doctor of the Universal Church.

In my opinion, the fact that St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite in no way narrows the scope of his advise merely to those who are Carmelite. He is a teacher of the Universal Church--not without flaw or error, but certainly on a par with other Doctors of the Church. Just as St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and all of the great saints are not teachers of one small sector of the Church alone, neither is St. John of the Cross. One need not be Carmelite to heed his advice. Moreover, John of the Cross can be viewed simply as a synthesist of Doctrine up to his time. Finally, John spent more time as a director than as a teacher. Much of his teaching is really about teaching one to understand where one is on the spiritual path. He did very little direct teaching about a "method" or a "mode" of praying--he simply marked the path and told us how to recognize signs that tell us we need to progress and move on.

So I don't think the blog is in any danger. I stand on firm ground when I categorically state that St. John's teaching, like St. Therese's and St. Teresa's and St. Catherine of Siena is meant for all. If one chooses not to follow it, that is one's own business, but to suggest that because one does not choose to follow it, it necessarily follows that the teaching is not for all is, in my opinion and the opinion of a great many others whose thought means a great deal more than my own, erroneous. St. John advises all of us, Carmelites and Catholics of no order. What he has to say is not for a select few, the "chosen" or the called. Nor is meant only for the Carmelite order. This, in point of fact, is part of what is meant when one is declared a Doctor of the Universal Church. To object that his saying is difficult and therefore not required of us can be legitimately compared (in a far lesser degree) to stating that Jesus' teaching is hard and therefore not required of us. Truly St. John's teaching is not a requirement of salvation (whereas Jesus’ is); however, the difficulty it presents in no way abrogates its efficacy in achieving a life of holiness.

Are there other ways to do the same thing? Perhaps, but they all come to the same thing: "Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me." "You cannot serve God and Mammon" (or God and Venus, or God and Ceres, or God and Nature, or God and . . .) it is God alone. This is the core of the doctrine of St. John of the Cross and his call to contemplation and union is meant for all, either now, or in the life to come. There is no getting around it. The vocation of Christian life is perfection in charity that can only come about through stripping oneself (through grace and the Holy Spirit) from all attachments to things less than God. Hard, but true, and stated time and again in the teaching of the Church from the lips of Jesus to the present day.

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For thus says the Lord,
the creator of the heavens,
who is God,
the designer and maker of the earth
who established it,
not creating it to be a waste,
but designing it to be lived in. (Isaiah 45: 18)

For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.

I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain: I the LORD speak righteousness, I declare things that are right. (Isaiah 45: 18-19)

I thought a pause in our headlong rush through St. Teresa Benedicta and St. John of the Cross was called for. A momentary pause, or to quote the poet:

A Moment's Halt--a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste--
And Lo!--the phantom Caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from--Oh, make haste!

The purpose of the pause is to clarify what St. John of the Cross teaches and what he does not. This was inspired by an e-mail exchange with a friend in which the friend brought up some points I thought he might have inferred from reading these posts. It turns out rather that he got them from a mission given by Opus Dei priests in his community. Here is his summary of impressions:

For example, the priest last night kept talking about finding ways to make ourselves more uncomfortable, to constantly deny ourselves even basic needs, such as a glass of water when we're thirsty (the priest even make a crack about people who constantly carry around what he called "baby bottles", to ensure that they're never without water), in order to please God. This is why I made the comment I did about fasting until my prayers are answered: if we're called upon to actively cause ourselves pain, then there can be no end to it until we die. Escriva sounds to me like a modern day flagellant. The priest even mentioned that he would try not to see the beautiful, which you counseled against, by averting his eyes when riding through a countryside.

[here follows an excerpt of my reply]
I find the view you describe repugnant, Jansenistic, and very nearly manichean. It suggests a hatred of physicality that is unhealthy. . .I'd like to talk about what St. Teresa Benedicta and St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila were NOT talking about, and what you describe is precisely it. I think if you view it in the way St. John of the Cross does you find a much more faithful way of approaching creation. We do need to mortify the senses by choosing the less appealing rather than the more appealing, but we needn't shut our eyes to the glory through which God speaks to us. That strikes me as just short of sinful--a denial of the [essential] goodness in creation.

As much as I respect the works of Josemaria Escriva and other followers of the Opus Dei prefecture, I've always been a bit cautious regarding their personal approaches to the world. If this priest represents mainline Opus Dei teaching, then indeed caution is called for. I rather hope he expresses extremes of the view. The reason for this is that it strikes me that such suggestions and actions come very close to blasphemy.

The Lord made the world and made it good. He made it to be a world to be lived in. And throughout all creation is the imprint of the Maker. His signature can be found everywhere in nature--in running streams, in sweet grapes, in the scent of orange blossoms or the sea, in the touch of spring-warm breeze, in sunsets, in the sound of the wind in the trees, etc. The Franciscans were well aware that the glories of the Creator were signs of Him and means of access.

To go out of one's way to deny oneself basic needs, to make oneself miserable in the world redounds to whose glory? It is one thing to undertake basic mortifications (the fast prescribed by the church, or such small fasts as we are called to make in the world) but to deliberately shut your eyes so that you cannot see the glories of creations. While this is a severe mortification, if also approaches Manicheeism. It seems to suggest that there is something wrong with participation in the world. And what I quotes from Isaiah above indicates clearly what the Lord thinks about the world--He made it to be lived in, not fled from. We are not called to make ourselves miserable or full of pain. The world will do enough of that for us, and when it happens, we are called to joyfully accept it. However, why go looking for trouble--living presents enough pain and suffering as it is?

No, it strikes me as foolish not to acknowledge what is around you. I don't think the good Lord calls us to make ourselves hurt every day as some sort of memorial to him. In fact, elsewhere in Isaiah don't we hear about the kind of fast the Lord wants?

5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward.

(Isaiah 58:5-8, KJV--sorry Bible Gateway doesn't offer Douay Rheims)

There, the Lord speaks through His own prophet saying we should feed the hungry. Well, why should we do that if the Lord wants us all to suffer for Him? Wouldn't it be far wiser to leave them to be hungry because they are already suffering? So too with the yoke of oppression--why throw it off? Just let those who are under oppression throw it off. In fact, if we take the doctrine above to an extreme, we could say that it is our duty to oppress so that there can be greater suffering for all.

Nonsense. This seems, as I said, at best suspect, and at worst something that should be suppressed. I have no interest in administering "the discipline." I have no desire to return to the glory days of mortifications unto sickness.

Nor do the Carmelite Saints. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross do not teach this and roundly teach against it. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity said that if we suffer and can find some alleviation from it, then it is right to do so; but if the suffering is irremediable, we should accept it gladly and unite it for the betterment of all to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross.

Carmelite teaching is not that the things of the world are bad, but, in fact that they are so good we tend to want them too much. We need to mortify the senses. And by that I believe St. John to mean that we must not seek out sensation, not that we are to blind and deafen ourselves, but that we are to accept the things of the world without taking delight in them. That is to say, we don't seek to linger in the sensation, but we let them pass on by and we continue our pursuit of the path of God. We don't deliberately not look, but we also don't seek to look. This is a world apart from deliberately not looking at God's glorious creation. It may seem subtle, but it makes all the difference in the world.

To be fair to Opus Dei, I've never seen any hint in the writings that we are called to make ourselves miserable. St. Josemaria is said to have administered the discipline frequently, but I don't know if that is the rumor of detractors or what it really means. Nor does it mean we are necessarily to follow his example. Saints can be unhinged and still be Saints--St. Dymphna comes to mind, as do certain actions of St. Rose of Lima (quicklime on the face and broken glass to mar her beauty and prevent vanity). And I do believe that the deliberate infliction of inordinate pain is a sign of illness, not of health in mind and body. A fast, a small mortification, fine; but to daily seek to live a life of misery and pain--that is a definition of mental illness and you can find it clearly delineated in the diagnostic manual.

We need to remember St. Teresa of Avila danced with her nuns at recreation and played tambourine. St. John of the Cross is said to have dearly loved the scenic vistas of Medina del Campo and the Spanish Countryside. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity was a master pianist, awarded a number of awards at her school. St. Thérèse's sister was an accomplished photographer. John Henry Newman an accomplished poet. These are all joys and creations of the world, and so long as we do not make them the end-all be-all of existence, participation in them and delight in them is a good thing. We learn again about God.

So, lest there were any apprehension about what one is called to in the Carmelite way, I thought I would make this clear distinction. It is one thing to "see without seeing" it is another to deny yourself water because you can suffer more. As Christine said elsewhere, the call to suffering is a gift of the Lord that not all receive and I don't think it should be considered a universal salutary practice. The acceptance of such suffering as comes (and cannot be avoided) with equanimity and with joy, on the other hand, is a practice that leads to wholeness.

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