Beautiful candles of belief

“The beautiful candles of belief, that would not do to light the world any more, they would still burn sweetly and sufficiently in the inner room of his soul and in the silence of his retirement.”  It is D.H. Lawrence describing the faith of an elderly gentleman in his novel, Women in Love.  In that one beautiful sad sentence Lawrence expressed the double alienation in western culture: alienation from community and from the life of the body.  Many writers have drawn attention to these.  They are a withdrawal into the self, and even further, into the psyche: in Lawrence’s language, “retirement” (from public life, community) into “the inner room of his soul” (his psyche).  They are symptoms of some great defeat.  Lawrence wrote early in this century.  By the middle of the century Wittgenstein had spent his mature years attempting to cure western culture of this double alienation: from the terrible introversion of ‘the inner life’ and an equally terrible individualism.  Fergus Kerr writes that Wittgenstein’s effort was “to retrieve the natural expressiveness of the human body, and to reaffirm... community.”

To test the water I raised this question with a group of ordinary Catholics whom I meet regularly for discussion.  “Let’s try an experiment,” I said; “I will defend a certain position, and you can attack me.  Let’s have a fierce debate!”  They were all for it.  I then began to express in a pure form the double alienation in our modern world, and the way it is when it becomes religious: “What matters is the inner life.  The outer life is of no account.  The world is but a source of temptation.  Only in the depths of our heart can we meet God.  (And quoting a leaflet I remember from childhood), ‘Remember, man, thou hast but one soul to save; and after that the Judgment.’” And more to that effect.  Then I waited for the assault... and waited... but they all agreed with every word! 

“What about the Christian teaching that God is everywhere, not just in the depth of your soul?” I said.  “What about St Paul’s teaching that far from having only one soul to save, ‘we are all members of one another?’ What about the sacraments?  Are they not visible and public acts?  What about ex opere operato...?”  Oops, sorry!  Jargon!  But what a truth that Latin tag expresses!  Let me explain.

In the administration of the Sacraments, the essential is what the priest does (provided he has the intention of doing what the Church intends), not how he is in his own inner life.  This may sound mechanical and unspiritual.  Surely, you say, the priest should be in the state of grace when he administers a Sacrament.  Of course he should.  But supposing he is not?  Who is to know?  If the validity of a Mass depended on the inner state of the priest, you would never be certain that what you attended was a real Mass.  Nor could you be certain that you were validly baptised.  In other words, you could not be sure that you were a Christian.  Nor could the priest be sure that he was a priest, or sure that he was a Christian.  Nor could you be sure that anyone else was a Christian.  In other words, the Church would be entirely invisible!  Therefore it is just as important to believe in the outer life as it is to believe in the inner.  The sacraments make use of material things: water, bread, wine, oils... and something bodily is done to you by other people: something a) bodily, and b) by other people.  The beautiful candles of belief are lighted not only in “the inner room of your soul” and in “the silence of your retirement,” but publicly, visibly, and in the hands of the people standing around you, the Christian community.  This community prays that the light of faith in you will light up the world. 

The most intractable of all egos is the pious one: nothing can buffet it, because it claims nothing less than divine sanction.  It usually just repeats the prejudices of the day (or the day before), and covers them with a protective coating of religious feeling and language.  One eye looks in and the other looks up, as with the citizens of Laputa, whom Gulliver met on his travels.  (Swift was striking at the rationalists of his day: Laputa, I imagine, is ‘La puta’, a reference to Luther’s calling reason ‘a whore’.)  There is a kind of spirituality that follows the same lines, escaping inwards and upwards.  I recall a text in The Cloud of Unknowing where the author advises us to be very careful of the words ‘in’ and ‘up’.  They very easily become a denial of community and a denial of the body. 

An hour later I was still defending myself against charges of heresy!   That private, inner, other-worldly, ‘ghostly’ kind of spirituality takes a long time to die.  I remember hearing a very old version of the Act of Contrition long ago in the confessional when I was a beginner: “...and to you, my ghostly father....”  It gave me a slight shiver, because it was even then several years since we began to say Holy Spirit for Holy Ghost.  A ghostly father must be a spiritual father, but that was not the first thing I thought of; the first thing was that I was wearing my Dominican habit, which is white!  Perhaps in future I should wear the other part of it more often, the black part.  Black is not an up-and-in colour; it is down-and-out colour.  Black like the good earth. 

From I Remember your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death, by Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1997, 2nd ed. 2017

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