Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Friday, February 23, 2018

msgrliptak_halfA gift, a few years ago, from a superb couple at the Cathedral of St. Joseph, where I reside and help with Mass schedules, made me aware of a book whose very existence I had not known about: Holy Thursday, a personal testimonial by one of the modern world’s greatest authors, Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac (Manchester, NH, Sophia Press, Eng. trans. 1991). Mauriac, who was elected to the French Academy in 1933, skyrocketed to fame with his first novel, A Kiss for the Leper (1922). He later served with the French Resistance during World War II, after which he distinguished himself as an editorial writer for Le Figaro. His Catholic faith permeated his books and other writings. Time magazine, noting his death in 1970, published his own eulogy:

"I believe, as I did as a child, that life has meaning, direction, and value; that no suffering is lost; that every tear and each drop of blood counts; and that the secret of the world is to be found in St. John’s Deus caritas est’ – ‘God is love.’" (op.cit.)

It goes without saying that Mauriac was at the core of our college literature classes in the seminary. In the theology classes I teach today, at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, he is necessarily included with the other French literary intellectuals steeped in Catholic faith; namely, Leon Bloy, Georges Bernanos, Charles Péguy, Jacques and Räissa Maritain, Paul Claudel – and all the others who make up an awesome litany of writers, artists and composers.

Holy Thursday contains personal memoirs like this:

"After my school years were over and I could leave for my vacation as early as Palm Sunday, the struggle within me became more severe in the Landes… In that little village I sensed the silence of the bells much more deeply than in the city… I fancied the birds were not yet singing; they were only rehearsing the hymn of Resurrection for the [Easter] feast…" (p. 25)

When I read about, or recall, memories like these, I cannot help but feel sad for what has happened to authentic spirituality today. Today we have retreat "masters" who have no understanding of John of the Cross or Teresa of Jesus or Thérèse of the Child Jesus; leaders who have abandoned Lectio Divina for certain of the Rhineland mystics; teachers who confuse retreats with academic lectures or with mere entertainment; gurus who launch into all "forms" of spirituality without having studied the differences between anaphatic and kataphatic methodology, from Pseudo-Dionysius to The Cloud of Unknowing; from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas à Kempis; and from Abbot Marmion to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

More pitiable are those who confuse Gospel respect for the environment with Cybele, the Goddess of nature. ("Happy are the Christians who recognize the imprint of God on the outside world," as Mauriac put it, as contrasted from the gods and goddesses of the forests in pagan mythologies.) For a Catholic, of course, or for anyone steeped in Christian or Godfearing faith, St. Francis of Assisi remains the most dramatic example of how best to be an environmentalist according to the divine plan; no saint better personifies true Biblical perspectives in this regard.

Mauriac, while yet a boy, was understandably indignant with the disciples who could not watch for one hour; but once, looking around, chanced to see "the aimless flutter of a butterfly driven into the chapel by the wind." The Lord gathers in those who allow themselves to be drawn to his holy embrace, while those who have been gifted with his grace, yet ignore his invitation to watch with him for a brief hour, sadly deprive themselves of the Savior’s awaiting embrace,

In this context, the modern mind naturally returns to the rants of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche – the same confused thinker whose outrageous ideas, cloaked in magnificent prose, reminiscent of pagan mythologies, were borrowed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to structure the "Super-Race" theory, the absurdity of the Übermensch. Nietzsche bade his followers to "remain faithful to earth with all the strength of your love." "Do not," he added, "allow your power to fly away from terrestrial things and to beat its wings against eternal walls."

That there are eternal walls is true. But within these walls is a door, the narrow gate of which the Savior spoke, which permits enough light to see ahead and certain entrance therein. That is the part of the truth which Nietzsche (and so many others) refused to embrace and teach, in his dream of man’s achieving the status of Übermensch simply by embracing the earth.

How much more depressing it is to hear or read about self-styled Catholic (or Christian) spiritual leaders who literally turn away from Christ, in order to become advocates of "systems" ultimately inconsonant with Catholicism. Solid spirituality rests on Biblical principles.

Often it is asked how and where strong, professional, Church-recognized degrees in spiritual theology can be acquired. Among authentic sources are solid Catholic seminaries, especially theologates where preparation for priestly ordination occurs. Some courses in such theologates are open to nonseminarians; some lead to degrees. One well-known source is Rome’s Angelicum, where Father Jordan Aumann, one of the most respected scholars in this field, taught for years. His books are very helpful.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.