The National Shrine of Divine Mercy is always a stop for me if I am in the area of Stockbridge, Ma. The National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, which receives tens of thousands of visitors a year who seek spiritual renewal through the sacraments. I wandered there a few weeks ago while visiting family in nearby N. Egremont. Two prayer services, one confession, one mass, and a visit to the book store later I was gifted an unplanned spiritual retreat.
I can be very cynical about the dangers of religious Icons, rituals, fraternal communities, and organizations just like the Marians. A recognized Catholic organization currently publishers of St. Faustina’s diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul, in many languages. The organization presses produce religious artwork, pamphlets, magazines, prayer cards, books, and appeals – some 50 million pieces of literature and images a year – which are sent out to a world yearning for meaning, mercy, and healing. St. Faustina is, by historical accounts, a relatively new Saint, canonized April 30, of 2000.
Much of the National Shrines work and message revolves around the theme that St. Faustina was a prophet as evidenced by the following words in her diary: “I sent prophets wielding thunderbolts to My people. Today I am sending you with My mercy to the people of the whole world. I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart.” (Diary, 1588). A little theological contradiction here, the prophet lineage ended with Christ in Christianity – so technically not a prophet per se, but certainly an example of a person who lived a life entirely focused on communion with God.
How do we give reverence to people who model spiritual living without idolizing individuals who may or may not represent a genuine spiritual calling by the eternal absolute divine source of all created things? Catholicism is rich with reverence for fathers of the church, saints, religous symbols and rituals. There is always a danger of the immediate visual imagery or ritual practices supplanting or distorting our understanding of the one true God (accepting monotheism for simplicity sake). Who among the world’s established monotheistic religions believes their institution has not fallen victim to human hubris in their claims for spiritual supremacy over other religions?
There is not a faith today or historically that is not guilty of hypocrisy or discordance with its own scriptural text, never mind God’s will. The off shoot quasi Catholic/Political arms of conservative Catholicism (like the Church Militant) who claim to be guardians of the faith – even opposed to Papal authority when it suits them are an example of spirituality gone wrong. The latter and other represents the greatest threat to my identify as a Catholic. There is a culture of extremist using Catholicism for political, personal, and cultural gain – or at least ability to maintain certain privileges’ currently in their possession as a majority class of people. Carefully picked Catholic issues championed not for real change – but for hate and fear politics. Even at the highest levels Church Authorities like the US Stated Bishops have lost their way by allowing political influence to dictate poorly defined theological positions and public statements that perpetuate division and alienation.
And still, Catholicism and all its off-shoot traditions, churches, artwork, rituals, and contradictions holds a special place in my heart. It is not the beauty and glamour of the Papacy, the theological density of the church writings, or the physicality of the great cathedrals that grab my attention.
The building above itself, while authentically beautiful, is not the inspiration. The people I encountered and witnessed in prayer and adoration that day were, in my view, the “A Team” of the faithful. They travelled from near and far to celebrate Mass at this chapel and their collective interior prayer immersed in collective adoration and ritual was and is very powerful. Life, however, for all but a few of us, is lived in the communities, not within the Shrine’s walls.
The test of any faith is what happens when we return to the community. Is our actions and our felt presence of the creator as strong or even stronger than when we are on our knees before the cross?
Pope Francis recently made a decision to limit the Latin Mass. The decision has drawn worldwide media coverage including the Times article below. Why is such a decision controversial when roughly only 1% of the world’s population speak Latin! The logically inclined can see that he withdrew approval as the ritual was serving division rather than unity, man rather than God. American Media has an article by a believer who loved the Latin mass, but after reflection, arrived at this sentiment. The moment our spiritual practices or rituals are serving man’s desires rather than Gods we have gone astray.
There is a place and a context for spiritual art, music, ritual, and other forms of worship. It always goes back to intention. Are we serving God and all Gods people when we worship, when we pray, when we act on our spiritual beliefs? If not, we are disrespecting generations of faithful who have carried the message of Christ for 2000 years and ignoring the essence of the “Trinity.”
The faithful get glimpses of this essence in worship, in Catholic traditions and sacraments, and in the physical structures of our shrines and cathedrals. The essence of our beliefs, however, are lived and experienced through the expression of our souls as stamped by the Trinity and expressed through our thoughts and actions. All the cathedrals in the world and rituals performed are worth nothing if believers are not able to strive for living a divine life where we are living examples of spiritual living in everything we do and everything we nurture.
St. Augustine I am told preached that God became man so that we could become divine. Our divinity is not expressed by achieving religous dominance by clever rhetoric, flashy buildings and and rich symbolism, or cleaving to political power to project our influence. It is simple, pure, and straight forward spiritual living that rightly orders our affections and desires in accordance with higher spiritual principles. These principles can be found in our church traditions, in our sacred text, and the life of Jesus Christ. In the blink of any eye, however, they can evaporate before our eyes and mind and be used to serve disordered selfish affections and desires rather than the greater good.
The Latin Mass, for example, can provide great beauty and spiritual egotism when practiced by a select few. Two contradictory truths in one ritual (sacrament). The choreography of the Latin Mass with its focus of prayer directly at the alter rather than the people has an air of mysticism and beauty that can move you like no other mass. Latin language, music, robes, and intricate priestly ritual performance of the mass passed down from 1570 to 1962 was no small change in our church’s practices. The Tridentine mass is a thing of beauty. However, if only one percent of the world speaks Latin is this the right vehicle for God’s message? The practice of this mass has devolved into something that is no longer relevant. Our society has evolved to warrant people being participatory and responsible for their own salvation. The pews no longer filled with illiterate people. People demand now more than bells, whistles, candles, huge edifices, and great works of art or music. They demand spiritual coherency.
Any religous institution that purports to carry out divine will must have internal and external spiritual coherency both within the institution structure and with the believers that represent the faith. When an institution wanders off the path of holiness – the believers will find themselves divided and in a state of great spiritual angst from which many disordered thoughts actions will be given license to create further disharmony. Acrimony and hostilities aimed at both Catholics with a different theological base and others (all of secular society or other faiths). Disillusionment and confusion with the idea of spirituality maturation requires change and discomfort. Hopelessness and numbness at the ineptitude of leadership to protect us from controversy or inconvenient truths that shake our spiritual foundations. It is a powder keg of misery when individuals have gave up their individual responsibility to a religous (or political) entity.
These institutions are bound to make grave errors as they are led by men, often many men, that fall prey to the misuse and abuse of the power they hold. We own their failures by willing consent – when we remain loyal when loyalty is not deserved.
The priest I met while at the Shrine of the Divine Mercy recommended I practice first Fridays. The spiritual rewards he implied on the surface seemed overly simplistic and ritualistic. However, I stood on-line with the “A Team” on that first Friday a few weeks ago for confession. Most were clearly practitioners of first Fridays. Some, who I judged to be clearly more holier than myself, spent a shockingly great amount of time in that confessional booth. The serenity and peacefulness radiating from most of the “A Team” including the priest said something about First Fridays. Keep in mind the “A Team” and the priest are not to be set up in my mind as idols – they represent fellow believers who have found a ritual that feeds their souls and hopefully ability to live a holy life outside the church. Inside the church is the practice field – outside the church is the real game!
It is a shame that Latin is a dead language. Nobody would argue that certain languages and text are more beautiful or powerful as they are prior to translation. However, if we were purist, we would all be speaking Greek – the language of the first century Christians!