Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

On feelings and prayer.


There is a programme currently shown on British television called 'Spirituality Shopper'. The very name of this should give us the shudders; it is the very worst of relativism that reduces religions to a pick-and-mix counter. As John Morrish writes in 'The Tablet' this week about it:

"A spiritual crisis now seems to be well within television's range, especially when it can be treated as another case for the magic of the makeover... the 'shopper' in question is invited to choose content-free spiritual exercises in the way you might fill your trolley with sugar-free Alpen."

This approach to religion makes a mockery of all faiths, reducing the great religious traditions to new-age remedies. As one can expect, the key to what the 'shopper' chooses is what she (so far, all the 'shoppers' have been women) feels best about. In short, religion is reduced to feeling... and as we all know, our feelings have a tendency to be downright fickle.

This reduction of faith and religion to emotions and feelings is rampant; it ravages our faith. How often have we seen liturgy determined by its 'feel-good' factor? Too often. When faith becomes about how it makes me feel, we are in fact worshipping ourselves. I, we become the sole determinant of a religion's worth. In short, I become god. For example, in this week's episode, the 'shopper', did not feel anything meditating on the psalms so she wrote her own poem and meditated on that! This kind of inward looking, navel-gazing 'spirituality' makes idols of ourselves, our emotions, and our experiences. Conversely, the Liturgy of the Hours, in which one prays the psalms is a wonderful antidote to self-indulgence - we pray as a universal Christian community, we reflect on the psalms as a treasury of Judeo-Christian prayer and experience of God, whether or not we feel sad, angry, happy, praiseful at that time. Our feelings matter less than the fact that in the Liturgy, God who is to be adored, is in fact offered a sacrifice of praise by the living Church.

One of the saddest things a good Catholic friend said to me last week was that he did not pray as often as before because it did not make him feel good anymore and he was not getting anything out of it... I told him that was an indication that he needed to pray all the more! All too often, our consumerist mentalities reduce God to a commodity - we 'buy into' Him if it makes us feel good, if we can gain something from Him, if He or Church is "relevant"... And yet, God, who is wholly Other, is God. He may not be reduced to a commodity, traded on feelings.

For some, the absence of God in prayer is a sign of high mysticism. Indeed, spiritual writers all point to this stage in the prayer life as a sign or spiritual growth, if one persists in faith, hope and love. A fine example is Blessed Teresa of Calcutta:

"Once Mother Teresa began her work in the streets of Calcutta, a new dimension characterized her interior experience: the intense union with Jesus that she had felt was no longer felt. The consolation of God's sensible presence gave way to a feeling of being separated from Him. In the pain of her loss, her desire for God became all the more acute and agonizing. She was encountering God in the pitch darkness of faithful longing and was being challenged to surrender to Him in blind trust." (From the postulator of the cause, Fr Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC)

What this shows is that feeling good or getting a 'spiritual high' are not essential to our spiritual life or our faith. In fact, they may be bad for us; true faith endures when the initial grace of feeling good is gone. We cannot rely on our feelings as the determinants of our life. If we do, we are truly at crisis point. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

"We thus advance towards a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will - one dare not even add 'unfortunately' - be swept away." (From the essay 'We have no 'Right to Happiness'')

Thus St Thomas Aquinas had this to say of feelings and emotions: "When emotions precede the reasoned judgment on which the moral worth of our actions depends, they cloud the judgment and lessen the worth of the actions: deeds of charity done merely from [an emotion of] pity are less praiseworthy than those done from choice." (ST IaIIae, 24, 3 - McDermott trans.)

The clear thinking in both these theologians and the experience of Bl Teresa is that emotions, feelings, while a grace and blessing and very useful indeed as a barometer are not to be depended on as the measurement of worthy action. For a 'spirituality shopper' to choose a spiritual practice or faith based on how it makes him or her feel is fatal - it runs counter to faith itself, the very heart and essence of any spiritual exercise.

A final word from Fr Henri Nouwen, my favourite contemporary spiritual writer:

"Sometimes we experience a terrible dryness in our spiritual lives. We feel no desire to pray, don't experience God's presence, get bored with worship services, and even think that everything we ever believed about god, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is little more than a childhood fairy tale. Then it is important to realize that most of these feelings and thoughts are just feelings and thoughts, and that the Spirit of God dwells beyond our feelings and thoughts. It is a great grace to be able to experience God's presence in our feelings and thoughts, but when we don't, it does not mean that God is absent. It often means that god is calling us to a greater faithfulness. It is precisely in times of spiritual dryness that we must hold on to our spiritual discipline so that we can grow into new intimacy with God." (From 'Bread for the Journey')

I have experienced just what he talks about there and what kept me going was the rhythm of a disciplined prayer life. This I believe, is the wisdom of the 'Sunday obligation', the obligation of clergy to pray the Office and the rosary... Once again, Holy Mother Church provides the means to carry us through the dry spells if only we'd listen. But then, if we are only listening to our feelings, listening to ourselves, how can we hear the wisdom of the Church and her saints? How can we hear God if the one we worship is in fact our very own selves?

4 Comments:

Blogger Julie D. said...

Excellent post and the thoughts I got most from were your own. Thanks!

2:56 pm  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Thanks for your affirmation. I do often quote from other people quite a bit to shore up my own ideas... it must be a legal training thing!

10:18 am  
Blogger Julie D. said...

I'm a quoter by nature also ... standing on the shoulders of giants as it were. :-)

1:15 pm  
Blogger ChrisOw said...

Wonderful stuff... Excellent selection of quotes. That bit from Henri Nouwen is enough to get me to want to read Bread for the Journey which I've not read.

4:46 pm  

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