A Whistle Stop History of Catholic Spirituality

Part Two: The Curse of Quietism

Even the most conservative and partisan Catholics cannot help but be disgusted by the sexual depravity and greed of the Renaissance Popes. That their depravity influenced Martin Luther to break away from the Church in 1517 to begin the Protestant reformation is beyond question. However, this regrettable behaviour was not mirrored at ground level.

Pre-Tridentine Renewal

This can be verified by any objective scholar who has read about the massive spiritual reforms that changed religious orders in Europe during the fifteenth century. This could be seen most especially in England in the following centuries when a new Age of Martyrs gave witness to the strength of the faith of our own Recusant ancestors.   They can be studied in the works of great Catholic historians like Monsignor Philip Hughes. That these reforms reached out to influence the ordinary faithful can be read in Professor Eamon Duffy’s book, The Stripping of the Altars that once and for all has given the lie to the reformers contention that the ordinary Catholic laity were festering in a world of religious superstition and immorality.

Sir Nicholas Tempest – Martyr

When the council of Trent was called, it was not because of the state of the Catholic faith at ground level where my own ancestors were being imprisoned, tortured, and put to death for the faith they refused to give up.  I am myself  a direct descendent of Sir Nicholas Tempest, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1537 for standing up for his faith against Henry VIII who had lost his.

The Mass for which my ancestors suffered and died in penal times was represented in a new and glorious liturgy at the Council of Trent. In future this Mass, Christ’s own mystical sacrifice, was made present in such a way that the faithful felt drawn to participate in it and in Christ’s own mystical worship of his Father.

The Mass and Mystical Spirituality

This Mass stood at the centre of a mystical spirituality that according to such great spiritual historians as Bremond, Tanqueray, Cognet, Pourrat, Garrigou LaGrange OP, Poulain SJ and others, reached it heights in the hundred years after the Council of Trent. In his life’s work, Enthusiasm, Monsignor Ronald Knox puts it this way:

“The seventeenth century was a century of mystics. The doctrine of the interior life was publicized, developed in far greater detail than it had ever been in late-medieval Germany or late-medieval England. Bremond, in his Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, has traced unforgettably the progress of that movement in France. But Spain too, the country of St Teresa and St John of the Cross, had her mystics. Italy too had her mystics who flourished under the aegis of the Vatican. Even the exiled Church in England produced in Father Baker’s Sancta Sophia a classic of the interior life” (Chapter XI).

That this spirituality should suddenly come to end because of a heresy called Quietism that was condemned in 1687, would seem inexplicable to the general reader. But this heresy contained within it what were considered at the time to be the worst possible abominations that had to be obliterated, at all costs, namely a conversion to Protestantism. The first protestants believed that as human beings were intrinsically evil, any idea of union with Christ, let alone with God was out of the question. Mystical prayer to that end was therefore a non-starter. If they did seek to experience God in prayer therefore, they could do no more than wait on him in total inactivity as no human action, let alone merit, could induce God to act. So when the founder of Quietism, the Spanish Priest Molinos, taught his followers to do nothing in mystical prayer nor to do anything if sexual temptations should afflict them, he was condemned as charged. That charge for which he was found guilty and given a life sentence was of leading his followers into Protestantism and into serious sexual sins.

Anti-mystical Witch Hunts

The outrage in the Church at the time cannot be underestimated. For the first time in the Church, mystical prayer wrongly came to be seen as not only dangerous but a practice that had to be everywhere suppressed. The subsequent anti-mystical witch hunts threw out the baby with the bath water as any form of spirituality that had the slightest whiff of Quietism about them had to be rooted out.  Their endeavours were so successful that down to the present day, mystical theology has been undermined, if not positively condemned, and what the Church historian Louis Cognet called ‘Christian Humanism’, has taken over.

Catholic Humanism

In his monumental History of the Church Monsignor Philip Hughes wrote:

“The most mischievous feature of Quietism was the suspicion that it threw on the contemplative life as a whole. At the moment when, more than at any other, the Church needed the strength that only the life of contemplation can give, it was the tragedy of history that this life shrank to very small proportions, and religion, even for holy souls, too often took on the appearance of being no more than a divinely aided effort towards moral perfection”.

This moral perfection not only included the moral teaching of the Gospels, but the moral teaching of stoicism that had seeped into Christianity in the third and fourth centuries and again, as we have seen at the Renaissance. With the mystical theology that had for over seventeen hundred years taught believers how to die to self in order to live, in, with and through Christ permanently undermined, something else took its place.

A Pick and mix Spirituality

A plethora of private devotions and popular piety produced a pick and mix spirituality to which I have already referred.  It expanded to take its place in striking contrast to the simplicity of the God-given Spirituality of love, that Christ had introduced into the early Church. That many, if not most of these devotional practices, are good and have been found helpful for all too many sheep without shepherds is undeniable, but it is time to return to the Spirituality that God gave us and to learn from our earliest forebears. It is so clear, so simple and so totally transforming, for it transforms us into being one with Christ in our prayer life, in our daily life, and in our liturgical life. That is why I must now continue to describe and detail it for all, because it is for all who know how to receive God’s love, and how to return it in kind.

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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