A Whistle Stop History of Catholic Spirituality                                                            

Third Part: From Trent to Vatican II

For most people today the greatest glory of the Council of Trent was the Tridentine Mass with which I grew up. For one hundred years or more after the Council it not only perfectly embodied the mystical action of Christ but the mystical spirituality that was open to the faithful. It was this that enabled them to be so purified in their mystical prayer life, that they could be the more perfectly united with Christ in his mystical prayer, made present in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Acts of loving lead to a habit of Loving

The selfless sacrificial giving that is first practised in mystical prayer beyond first emotional beginnings, gradually creates a habit of selfless sacrificial giving. It is this that step by step enables our whole lives outside of prayer, to resemble the selfless sacrificial life that Christ lived while he was on earth. Then we can be more perfectly united with him when we go to Mass each Sunday with our spiritual brothers and sisters.  This selfless sacrificial giving is nothing other than the true love that, with genuine human endeavour suffused with divine love, grows out of the juvenile love that the poets write about and the pop stars sing about. However, it takes years rather than months to establish itself in those who seek it, and then only with the love that pours out of the Risen Christ.

What was lost to a handful of heretics in the early Church was lost again thanks to Molinos and his heresy of Quietism in 1687. When the mature adult loving that is learnt in mystical prayer was all but condemned, the faithful had to turn to a far more superficial pick and mix Spirituality.  Many have wrongly thought that this inherently fragmented spirituality has come down to us from the Council of Trent in harness with the Tridentine Mass, and that they are therefore but different sides of the same coin, which they are certainly not. It was not just that this splintered spirituality is in itself so diffuse and disconnected, but that its different orientations do not naturally lead to what should be their natural and preordained   consummation in the Mass. In short, they obfuscated the true God-given spirituality that was given to the early Church by Christ himself, and its superb and sublime conclusion in the Mass.

The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason

In the same way that the great plague coincided with the beginning of the rise of the Renaissance in the middle of the thirteenth century, the condemnation of Quietism coincided with the beginning of the Enlightenment at the end of the seventeenth century. This gave a further shot in the arm to the demise of mystical prayer as the new age condemned everything that could not be subjected to the analysis of pure reason. Inevitably, mystical theology was considered irrational, when in fact it is supra-rational because its formal object is the purification of our love by divine love, in such a way that we can be united with God.

The Enlightenment and the Church

The Enlightenment influenced all European institutions including the Church. If renewal could no longer come from God’s love and those mystics and saints who have been purified to receive it, then it must come from man’s reason and those who taught how to use it. Henceforth the Thomistic Theology that the Church used to express herself at the Council of Trent was used to renew the Church. I studied this theology during the last Thomist revival at the end of the nineteen-fifties. It seems that those who have championed these intellectual renewals have conveniently forgotten that St Thomas never finished his great work because after experiencing the love of God in what St Teresa of Avila later called the Mystical Marriage, he changed dramatically. He called all that he had written so far as mere straw and then laid down his pen. The great Summa Theologica was never finished!

The Enlightenment and Biblical theology

The dry intellectualism of my scholastic theological studies were suddenly revived by what came to be called the ‘New Biblical Theology’. The enlightenment had encouraged new, deeper and more critical biblical scholarship that threw light on how the Old Testament was brought to perfection in the New Testament and on the lives and liturgical practices of the first faithful. However, although this new theology was extremely exciting and helpful, it did not go deep enough. All the scholars had been brought up without the profound mystical theology that was extracted from religious education. This meant they were denied the first gift of contemplative loving which is the infused virtue of wisdom that is contained in that loving. It was this omission that prevented them from seeing and understanding in any depth the profound mystical teaching that Christ had bequeathed to the first Christians.

Brilliant but superficial

When Jean Daniélou SJ produced his dazzling masterwork –The Bible and the Liturgy, a contemporary reviewer described it as brilliant but superficial. This could be said of all the great scholars whose scholarship had such an influence on The Second Vatican Council and for that matter on me, and many others.

Although this scholarship helped to produce what to most of the laity was a new liturgy in their own language that in many ways replicated the ancient Christian liturgy, it did not go far enough. Because their scholarship was not deep enough they failed to produce a comparable document detailing the deep mystical dimensions of the early Christian spirituality that was expressed in the Mass. Alice in wonderland’s Cheshire cat may well smile, but if it has no substance behind it, it has little purpose.

The pick and mix spiritualities that have proliferated down to the present day can so easily cause disagreement, disharmony and discordance in contrast to the simple God-given spirituality that determined the daily lives of the first Christians. It was this spirituality that Christ himself introduced that made them one in him, in everything they said and did. It was this spirituality of true love that expressed itself in the same sort of selfless sacrificial giving that Christ first lived himself, that found its fullest communal expression in their weekly Mass. There, they received to the measure they gave, and what they received was the only love that through them could, and did, change the world in which they were living.

In order to develop the prayer that can continually help us to raise our hearts and minds to God as we practise the asceticism of the heart please follow the Podcast on prayer on this web-site entitled The Hermit – Wisdom from the Western Isles


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