“Affairs are now soul-size,” says one of the soldiers in Christopher Fry’s play, A Sleep of Prisoners. I for one certainly feel them to be so. Figuring large for me in these affairs is the ideal of harmonizing within myself the claims of the spiritual traditions of the Church with ongoing esoteric study and effort. Continual inspiration for this ideal comes to me from a love affair of 24 years duration with the Meditations on the Tarot – A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. It has much to do with metanoia, i.e., a change of heart; also with gratitude, and with giving honor where honor is due.
In a recent conversation with a friend (as it happens) the question came toward me as to how I find it apt and congenial, given my esoteric inclinations, my anthroposophical associations, and my Sophianic activities, to be a practicing member of the “One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, that, in my case, manifests in its Anglican version, which version considers itself to be a branch of that same Church identified in the Nicene Creed. “How do you manage this?” he asked. He went on to suggest that if I could address this question adequately, I would surely be doing good service to thousands, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands of souls who, for one reason or more likely for several reasons, remain outside the church looking in, an essential part of themselves wanting to enter, yet another part of themselves, every bit as essential, firmly standing back. With Simone Weil, as in her Letter to a Priest, they might well say, “When I read the catechism of the [Catholic church], it seems as though I had nothing in common with the religion there set forth. When I read the New Testament, the mystics, the liturgy, when I watch the celebration of the mass, I feel with a sort of conviction that this faith is mine or, to be more precise, would be mine without the distance placed between it and me by my imperfection. This results in a painful spiritual state.” (Penguin, 2003, p. 7)
Of course many other obstacles beside the catechism serve to prevent the great majority of such souls from entering the traditional church, as the 75 or so pages of Simone Weil’s Letter, a good case in point, make abundantly clear. It is well past the midpoint in her exposition of what constitutes for her such obstacles that Weil declares, “The Church is only perfectly pure under one aspect; when considered as a guardian of the sacraments. What is perfect is not the Church; it is the body and blood upon the altars” (ibid. p. 44).
In general response, without getting into any particulars, we can consider what Brother Roger of the Taizé Community, an ecumenical religious order founded in France after World War II, has to say on this subject in his journal of 1979-1981:
Conversation with Michel. We returned to the topic we had been discussing recently. Many people are not entirely free of idealism with regard to the Church. They would like the Church to be totally unambiguous, true and pure. This does not help them accept the Church with all her weaknesses. Yet Christ’s ongoing life in the world needs to be passed on, and this has to be done through human beings. This conversation reminds me of an American Quaker who used to come to Taizé between 1948 and 1950. Later on we met every day at the Vatican Council. He was there as an observer. This Quaker said something like this: when he was young, he felt placed before an alternative and he had to make a choice. On the one hand the Quakers, and on the other the Catholic Church. Of all religious groups, the Quakers are the most consistent with a form of purism, since they refuse all elements of visibility to the Church. But, he added, they have always been the Christianity of the small group. (A Heart that Trusts, Mowbray, 1986, p. 17)
Though it would not at all be difficult for almost anyone to write a lengthy list of the shortcomings and transgressions of the institutional church, surely the above remarks of Brother Roger merit serious attention. Is Christianity primarily a matter for the pure? Is it primarily a matter for the small group? If so, what then would be the implications of this viewpoint for me, were I to adopt it? Or is Christianity first and foremost a matter for all humanity, never mind how simple of soul, how theologically unsophisticated, how spiritually untalented, the greater portion of its members? * If this is instead the case, what now would be the implications for me, were I to adopt this viewpoint? How after all is “Christ’s ongoing life in the world” effectively to “be passed on” to others? Is there in the Church a stream of living tradition to be found that is wanting further “ennoblement and spiritualization”, as the Meditations on the Tarot (p. 353) has it? Is there an impulse I might allow to work through me that would help effect, however modestly, “the rejuvenation and intensification” of that tradition? Is there room for a kind of freely acknowledged obligation, as it were, arising out of an awakened gratitude, indeed an ever-growing admiration, for this living tradition’s existence over the span of two thousand years? And, from the depths of my heart, what might I come to feel the nature of this freely acknowledged obligation to be for myself?
If the matter I have brought here is a “soul-size” affair for you also, dear Reader, I invite you to share your thoughts with me on this blog, so that a conversation of many voices may develop. Only in this way, as I see it, might the question my friend asked of me have any chance of being adequately addressed.
Pax et bonum,
* Pertinent to this, consider the words of Walter Hilton, the 14th century English mystic, from the 10th chapter of book II of his Ladder of Perfection:
. . . Those who have faith quickened through love and charity are reformed to the likeness of God: even though it is the least degree of charity, as with simple souls who do not feel the gift of special devotion or spiritual knowledge of God as some spiritual men do, but believe in a general way as holy church believes without fully knowing what that is, for they have no need. And in that faith they keep themselves in love and charity toward their fellow Christians as far as they can, fleeing all mortal sins according to their knowledge, and doing the works of mercy toward their fellow Christians. All these belong to the bliss of heaven, for so it is written in the Apocalypse . . . You that fear God, both little and great, thank him. By “great” are understood souls that are proficient in grace, or else perfect in the love of God, who are reformed in spiritual feeling. By “little” are understood the imperfect souls of worldly men and women, and others that have only a child’s knowledge of God and very little feeling of him but are brought up in the bosom of holy church and nourished with the sacraments as children are fed with milk. All these shall praise God and thank him for the salvation of their souls by his infinite mercy and goodness. For holy church, who is mother of all these and has tender love for all her spiritual children, prays and pleads for them all tenderly to her Spouse, that is, Jesus, and gets for them healing of soul by virtue of his passion, especially for those that do not know how to speak for themselves for their own need by means of spiritual prayer.
Thus I find in the gospel that the woman of Canaan asked our Lord for the healing of her daughter, who was troubled by a devil; and our Lord at first made a difficulty, because she was a foreigner. Nevertheless, she did not stop crying until he had granted her request and spoke to her like this: “Ah woman, great is your faith. May it be for you as you wish.” And in the same hour her daughter was made well. This woman signifies holy church, asking our Lord’s help for the simple ignorant souls that are troubled with worldly temptations and do not know how to speak perfectly to God with fervor in devotion or burning love in contemplation; and although it may seem that our Lord at first makes a difficulty because they are as it were alienated from him, nevertheless because of the great faith and merit of holy church he grants her all she wants. And so these simple souls who believe steadfastly as holy church believes, putting themselves wholly in the mercy of God and humbling themselves beneath holy church’s sacraments and laws, are made safe through the prayer and faith of their spiritual mother, who is holy church.