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I'm a bit suspicious of the word 'spirituality', to be honest. I ought really to sit down and work out what it means. It seems these days to be used as a positive alternative to 'religion', which is of course a terrible and reprehensible thing: nobody wants to be 'religious', but everyone wants to be 'spiritual'. Anyway, what's on my mind here is to think about those deep elements which are at the centre of Catholic approaches to the life of faith - and more important than the flashy externals which people often notice. It's not all - or even mostly - about vestments and smoke!

Just a note - I'm using 'Catholic' to refer to a set of attitudes and approaches which I associate with no particular Christian denomination. In fact, I rather think that the Roman Catholic Church after the Reformation of the 1500s became significantly dominated by attitudes which had more in common with the Protestant churches it opposed than either would have liked to admit. What I think of as 'Catholic' ideas probably survived in the Orthodox churches more than anywhere else - though they've never been absent from other denominations completely. Well, most of them!

Ubi Caritas Et Amor
Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus ibi est: 'where are charity and love, God is there'. These words come from the ancient order of service for Maundy Thursday, and although they're not Scripture they express a powerful element of Catholic thought, that God's grace is broad and extensive, and already active in the world even where it is not explicitly acknowledged. God is at work even where his Name is not mentioned. We look for signs of the Kingdom, seeds of grace in the darkest of places and in those people furthest from knowing or loving God. All that is good is, at root, generated by God and reflects him. Jesus called the people of Israel to repent and believe, but he treated them as already part of God's people - nothing had to happen to them to make them fit for that. So with us: our acts of faith, small and inadequate as they must always be, help God to work, and he has chosen us as his colleagues in the work of salvation; but their absence does not prevent him working, nor does the cosmos, fallen though it is, fail to reflect him at all, no matter how indistinctly. If they did, nobody could ever be converted, because conversion is itself a work of grace.

The characteristic principle of Protestant ways of thinking is that God works to
separate out his people from a world that is so radically fallen it is incapable of knowing him, and that our acts of faith begin the process of God's working. The 'Ubi Caritas' principle expresses itself in an instinct to gather in, to look for opportunities to bring human life into conscious and explicit submission to God through the inexplicit signs of his grace at work. I think this fundamental difference helps to explain a lot of the differences in the ways churches do things, and it basically reflects differing views of exactly how 'fallen' creation is.

This Stuff Takes Time
Catholic thinking isn't bothered too much about the momentary. One unfortunate result of the Reformers putting the emphasis on human beings being 'justified by faith' in God's sight was the separating-out (there you go again!) of the single moment when that faith became active, and too much weight being put on it. It took a long while for this to happen. The old Puritans generally accepted that the development of faith was a process. It was when the Methodists and others came along in the 18th century and gathered lots of converts whose faith had previously been non-existent or dormant (obviously not in itself a bad thing to do!) that their members were encouraged to tell their own confessional narratives and isolate the moment when they first believed - or, as the modern patter runs, 'accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour'. They were all supposed to conform to the great Scriptural example of the 'conversion experience', St Paul. Firstly, this is a bit unrealistic: hardly any of us are St Pauls on our own roads to Damascus, and the book of Acts in the Bible doesn't really give us a full account of his life, opinions and psychology to judge how sudden his change of heart really was. Secondly, it creates too much psychological strain in Christians. We are encouraged to believe that, because that moment has changed our relationship with God, so in that moment all our spiritual struggles and doubts will be resolved. We are supposed thereafter to sail through life unperturbed by its slings and arrows. Some Christians do even worse, and tell themselves that everything will go right for them after they believe. Of course all this is unScriptural and deeply harmful, and you can see the result. When the believer gets into trouble, when things don't go right, the thought immediately arises that they haven't repented enough, they don't really believe, their faith is imperfect (which of course it is), or God doesn't love them for arbitrary reasons of his own. And some poor Christians will belong to churches who can't cope with any such admission of weakness, and actually tell them these things to their face, propelling them to despair, rejection of the Gospel, and/or suicide. And the Devil ticks another box.

The High Church version of this error is to place too much emphasis on the sacramental, in the sense of trying to pinpoint the exact moment when the magic happens, exactly
when the baby gets regenerated in baptism, or when the bread and wine actually become Jesus's flesh and blood in the Eucharist. This is nonsense too, and although it tends not to have the same disastrous psychological results, it screws the Church up as an institution and makes it obsessed with forms and rituals. Both versions of this big mistake seem to relate to the general Western European instinct to analyse and pick apart, and the Christian life shouldn't be treated in that way.

Catholicism says in response two things, firstly that loving God takes time; and secondly, that we don't understand time as God does. It's not just that following Jesus will take our whole lives, it's that for most of us, learning to follow will be about as much as we can manage. We should expect doubts, problems, spiritual difficulties and times of dryness and despair, and not be dismayed by them. In them, however weakly, we stand with Our Lord as he sweats like blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. Furthermore, we who are tied to this temporal, earthly existence can't easily grasp the idea of eternity, in which God is. God sees the whole business of our lives - from the baptismal exorcism of a baby to the final anointing of the same person moments from death - as a single extended act of in-gathering, part of the redemption of the whole world. Trying to pinpoint where belief begins, where repentance begins, where love begins, is a fruitless exercise, and we should waste no time on it.

The Redemption of All Creation
We are saved not as individuals on our own. Of course we all have our own relationship with God, and that freedom to speak on intimate terms with our Father is the wonderful treasure of the Christian faith (though in a sense even the unbaptised or unbelievers have some kind of 'relationship with God' - being human, you can't really avoid it). But that doesn't mean we're in it on our own, isolated individuals enjoying our own rapport with the divine. God's will is that the whole created order will be renewed, saved, brought back into proper relationship with him, and we human beings have a central role to play in that. Our bodies will be healed as well as our souls; sickness and suffering will depart; nothing will survive at the expense of anything else. I love the first verses of Revelation 21, which express this - they were used as an anthem at the first Mass I took part in as a deacon.

Look at Jesus. Wherever he walks, sickness, death, and disorder flee. He heals the sick, drives out demons, raises the dead, calms the storm. Nothing that is contrary to his Father's will can stand in his presence. It takes human evil, human rejection of love and truth, to put a stop to that. Yet Jesus's mission is ours - the reclaiming of the fallen Earth from the devilish powers, human and supernatural, that have usurped it. We do it through the liturgy, through working for justice, through spreading peace among those we know, through self-sacrificial acts of love, and through trying to trust that God will work miracles through us. And worship and prayer train us for that work.

For all its crudity and misunderstanding, the Charismatic movement has done great good by reminding all the denominations of this part of God's charge to us. It was always part of the Christian message from the earliest days, but sadly became overlaid and forgotten. Praise be for its coming to the fore once more.

The Binding of the Mind and the Breaking of the Heart
As we've said, a common misunderstanding among Christians is thinking that because believing is enough to repair the broken relationship with God which we all suffer from, all the work of knowing him is achieved in that moment. Catholic forms of Christianity insist that for most of us it takes time and effort - after all, no relationship is static. The effort takes the form of praying.

Our thoughts are usually random and chaotic, and because the human mind is so complex we can be led in all sorts of directions away from what we really want to think about. Equally, we can only have a true relationship with God if we are 'real' in our conversations with him - and we often have the most absurd misconceptions about what we, and he, are both really like. What we have to do is reduce the level of 'noise' so that we can concentrate on God - not necessarily on any very clear thought about him, question or request to him, but simply learn to rest in his presence so that he can converse with our heart. The Protestant tradition commonly suggests that the Christian life is an easy matter to understand: the Bible contains God's laws and Jesus's instructions and warnings are perfectly clear. But we need to eat and drink them, to have them written on our hearts, because (as that same tradition states) the Christian life is not really about following rules, but loving a person, Jesus Christ. What's often missing from old-fashioned Protestantism is the naked encounter with God in the silence of our hearts - Father to child, face to face. Nothing else will do, and without it the Christian path decays into various sorts of rule-following. What the old Fathers called 'the binding of the mind', the cultivation of silence into which God can speak, is absolutely vital to discipleship, and you can get lots of help and advice on doing it.

Then there's the breaking of the heart. A lot of advice on prayer (especially from the Orthodox tradition) is a bit wary of emotion, and quite rightly, because in our relationship with God, as with anyone we love, emotion will take us only so far. The point comes when nice feelings dry up or give out, and we have to rely on tougher things like will and determination. But, as in human love-relationships, love begins in emotion, and an awful lot of us are only learning how to love. The Church helps us learn by presenting us with Jesus, the human face of God. Year after year, it recites the story of his life, death and resurrection; it presents him as a helpless baby in his mother's arms, and as a broken man on a cross. Two things should happen: we learn what love is through Christ's example, and we learn how to love others by loving him, and then seeing his face in the faces of those around us, because he, through whom all was created, is in all. Emotion, the warming process of love, the enlarging of the heart which is part of true love, is crucial to this. Our dulled perceptions have to be pierced with the light of God's truth; our hearts, calloused, hardened and crusted as they are, have to be softened and broken by the hot longing of his love for us. There's no need to be frightened of this, if we recognise it for what it is.

The Eucharist
Call it the Mass, call it the Communion, the Lord's Supper or whatever you please, it's in the offering of Jesus's body and blood that the whole of the Christian faith is unified and made intelligible. Of course there are far more words to say about this than I could ever manage, or fit in here. Suffice it to say that, for the Catholic mind, this is where the boundaries between earth and heaven are collapsed, and God presents to us his own picture of himself and the whole of his saving work, in one tremendous and glorious act. Jesus is present - not crudely somehow inside the bread and the wine, though most powerfully and carnally in those things, but through the whole event. The whole event figures Jesus and his saving sacrifice to us, and by it we take his life, death and resurrection inside ourselves, praying that it will transform us, make us whole, equip us to do God's work in our own lives.  There's simply too much to say: instead, analytical reason has to retire, and allow grace to act. And we are left to worship the miracle: the God who becomes weak, who gives himself continually into the hands of sinners, who calls sinners to his service, who forgives and forgives though he be abused, traduced, betrayed, and ignored. How grand and magnificent this is. There is not gold, or silk, or incense enough in the world to adorn it. The great God of earth and heaven is in my hands, in my mouth, in my heart.


Chalice and Host
Malling Abbey
Catholic spiritual ideals arguably find their fullest expression  in the religious life. Here is an account of Malling Abbey, where I regularly go on retreat.
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