A Night of Two Very Contrasting Books, One Old, One New

This used to be in every Catholic home...
This week sees the final days of the Nightshelter Project ran by churches of various denominations in Brighton. It is a great shame it is ending because while it is clement now, English weather is pretty unpredictable week to week.

Also, just because it isn't absolutely freezing outside, does that somehow make sleeping outside pleasant? It is a shame church's cannot keep such a project going in the longer term and take more homeless people in. The initiative itself is good, the volunteers are kind, of course, but ending it in March suggests to me that it lacks the desire to go beyond a sense of duty. Sleeping in the cold is not fun. Sleeping in the rain probably isn't much fun either. Brighton is crying out for some decent provision for its homeless community. Most of them are thrown to the wolves who are only there to make money out of their misery.

While I was at the Nightshelter I read some of a book by Fr Timothy Radcliffe. It was written in a kind of 'question and answer' style. Fr Radcliffe has this way of saying things so sweetly that even when he is saying things that sound rather like dissent, or agreeing that there needs to be more 'debate' in the Church with regard to the usual issues that obsess The Tablet editorial team, that you still like him even though you're a rabid, foaming at the mouth traditionalist. He has this way of dissenting that it is almost as if he has presented you with a bunch of fresh flowers while he's doing it. You have to re-read what he's said because you know he hasn't said something outrageous, its just that, in a way something's not right. Of course, I don't mean this post to be a personal attack on this Dominican, I just found it symptomatic of a wider problem in the Church in terms of modern thinking about the Faith.

Endless speculation and discussion, debate, about the future of the Church and whether the Church will relax this rule or change that discipline seems to me to be a totally fruitless endeavour. It is even more disturbing when it is coming from a Dominican - or any Religious - because it really makes you wonder about vocation to the Religious life and what that means today. I wasn't terribly angered by Fr Radcliffe's book, it just left me feeling rather cold - perhaps even lukewarm. He says a lot, a great deal, but I just find that he has nothing to say to me.

So I put down Fr Radcliffe's book and looked at the book next to it, none other than 'The Imitation of Christ'.  Once I started reading it, I could not stop. I was totally absorbed in the writer's obvious love for God. He is seeking to draw the reader to Christ and, in particular, urging the reader to put aside the World and to renounce it. It is radical, even a little frightening and very challenging. His entire theology is focused on Christ and the Cross. He is urging readers to give up sin, turn to Jesus and to be transformed by Him, to seek sanctity and forego all the passing pleasures that this world entices us with.

It is fine Lenten reading, since Thomas a Kempis is urging himself and others to take up the Cross and to embrace it as the only source of true and lasting happiness. He urges the reader to remember Death and our judgment. It inspires awe. His holiness and his love for God just pour out from the pages and make your heart burn with desire for God. For Thomas, to be obedient was to be a king, humiliation to be counted a ruler, subjugation to the authority of the Church true and lasting joy. Everything else to him was vanity and empty, pointless, useless distraction from prayer and the love of Jesus - his eternal Salvation. The world, he said, would forget all the vain intellectuals and philosophers in time. All their words are useless compared to the love of Jesus.

Kempis: Serious about Salvation
It is well known that 'The Imitation of Christ' has stayed very near the top of the official Catholic Church's most recommended reads for now centuries and for good reason. It has stayed there on merit, not because of fashion. It probably is not widely recommended by hoards of priests today. It has stayed there because it is the truth about the human condition - our distaste for self-denial and suffering, humiliation and injury - and our desire to be united with Jesus. It is all about the Christian's desire for self-mastery, the mastery of the passions and the subjugation of the will to the will of another - the Other.

It is about dying to self in order to rise with Christ and loving the Cross, embracing every hardship, renouncing the world and its vanities for the sake of your soul. It is everything you would expect a religious book to be - explicitly religious, heroic and truly spiritual. It is the kind of book that could transform the life of a sinner and encourage him to become a Saint. It is well known that St Joseph Benedict Labre carried a copy with him in the streets of Rome as he wandered around on pilgrimage to various holy sites in the World.

In one part of Fr Timothy Radcliffe's book, he sneers at times in the Church's life when Religious would overcome impurity and chastity by taking cold showers. Yet, do not recent events suggest that a few cold showers are exactly what the Church needs! I must say, I am kind of useless at Lent. I am absolutely rubbish, pathetic even, at fasting. I am very weak-willed and self-denial is something that I really struggle with. I annually find myself praying more, 'God be merciful to me, a sinner!' I annually find that me and the smack addict down the road have more in common than I thought. How often I run from the Cross!

Just because I am weak-willed, however, does not mean that the Church's great, illustrious and frankly massive tradition of preaching the Cross, self-denial and asceticism as being chief ways of growing closer to God and more holy in your given state of life are wrong. It just means that asceticism is hard and unsavoury as ever it was and that we are found to be wanting and found to be totally dependent on God's grace and mercy.

If Christianity as preached by the Catholic Church in the modern age, as well as loving your neighbour and forgiving him, is not about conquering yourself, holy obedience, trampling the World under foot and crushing the head of the serpent, dying to the 'old man' and living for the One who can make create the 'new man', even taking upon yourself the odd cold shower here and there to conform your will to that of Christ, then it really doesn't have that much to say to modern man that is different to what the World teaches.

If the Church, in Her monasteries, convents, seminaries and parishes, even Dioceses, are no longer preaching and promoting a form of asceticism, it will never inspire people to lay down their lives and seek vocations to those places. If they are places of comfort and luxury, worldliness and complacency, then of course they will die because if you want that you can just stay in the world and be of it. The Church will continue to fester in a worldly manner until either God intervenes in a dramatic fashion, or God raises up the Saints necessary to renew Her and lead the way.

Ascetic and holy: The Year for Priests role model was St John Vianney
A holy and strong Pontiff, a wonderful reformer and kindly Saintly Successor to St Peter would be a truly great thing, but if we are not preaching repentance, or living repentance, or think we need not reform our lives before our deaths, then all our prayers will be in vain. The latest scandals in the Church are just another wake up call. When will we wake up? There was, of course, a time when 'The Imitation of Christ' was in every Catholic home, and the home of every Priest, Bishop and Cardinal.

During the Year for Priests, the Pope Emeritus put forward St John Vianney as the role model for all priests and for good reason. His life, as well as being full of the love of Jesus, was modelled entirely on the Cross and the love for God that can only come about through self-denial, obedience and self-forgetfulness. Yet, when the United Kingdom was given the opportunity to venerate the heart of this Saint, only one Bishop, the Bishop of Shrewsbury was interested in it. Coincidence? No. His biographies tell us that, 'the inhabitants of Ars said to each other:  "Our priest always does what he says himself; he practices what he preaches.  Never have we seen him allow himself any form of relaxation."'

Pray for a holy Pope, holy Cardinals, holy Bishops, holy Priests, holy Religious and a holy Laity. For without the last one is really little hope of the Church obtaining the other five. The first one cannot do it all himself.

Comments

Wake Up England said…
God bless and reward you Bones. You're an inspiration; and I'm sure I speak for many (who perhaps prefer to stay silent) when I say a big Thank You for inspiring us to holiness.
Lynda said…
What a great sermon that would make! Thank you.
annely said…
this is very moving.Really it is.I'll come back later and read it again.Many times I've heard of The Imitation of Christ.Now I'm going to read it. Tommorrow I will find it and will anticipate. Another that I've not read but now will is G.K.'s,The Everlasting Man. Pray for the Cardinals for the Church's needs +
annely said…
This edition of The Imitation of Christ has a beautiful image of Christ.And this is very important. Just one perhaps but very important reason for other problems in the Church was the feminization of Christ. It wrought all sorts of distortions of the truths of the gospel and then too disordered psychologies.
Left-footer said…
I've nothing useful to say, except "Amen". Thank you, and God bless!
pelerin said…
Excellent post Laurence. A good 'sermon' as Lynda says.

I was given 'The Imitation of Christ' by an elderly friend as a present 48 years ago when I was received into the Church. I am ashamed to say it is a long time since I picked it up but having read your post I am going to make every effort to read it during the rest of lent. Thank you for the prompt - see how influential blogs can be!

We are all weak willed - one of my lenten decisions was not to go on the internet before midday ...!



Annie said…
In her autobiography, Agatha Christie mentions that her mother kept "The Imitation of Christ" by her bedside and read from it at bedtime. Agatha carried on the tradition and even has Miss Marple, in the story 'At Bertram's Hotel', reading from it before she sleeps.