Sunday, December 25, 2016

One Faith

In this Christmas season, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians celebrate the incarnation or coming to earth of God as a human baby, born like all of us, more humbly and marginal than many of us. Let’s pause the story of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Revival to review the similarities between Protestants and Catholics, even in ideas hotly disputed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Up to this point in our review of the 16th century, we have seen that more happened within this one century to change the circumstances of the Christian faith than in the preceding thousand years. There were a series of Protestant breaks in church allegiance in Germany, Switzerland, England and the Low Countries, along with a Catholic Revival that occurred mostly in Spain and the new Spanish colonies.

What we haven’t seen is how new theological positions were taken that echo to this day, nor how they affected practice. Even more important, looking only at how the breaks came about tells us little about the semantic and social misunderstandings that undergirded the religious disputes.

Justification: Faith versus Works

Few Catholic-Protestant quarrels better demonstrate how the battle royal between the two confessional camps was sparked by differences that weren’t all that significant after all than the split over whether we are saved by faith or works.

Stereotypically and a little simplistically, Catholics are thought to believe that Christians earn an eternal afterlife in heaven by doing good deeds, receiving the sacraments and abiding by Church law. Conversely, Protestants are popularly seen as proclaiming that heaven is given freely and unconditionally to anyone who assents to faith in Christ, regardless of deeds, rites or Church law.

Actually, there is more to it.

The Gospels introduce the idea of an afterlife as a matter of faith, an idea that was and is ambiguous in Judaism. Jesus speaks of punishment and eternal reward. The path to reward (or salvation) in the Gospels involves a turning toward belief—being born again (John 3:1-21). But conversion also means a new way of life (Matthew 25:31-46) that involves feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked and visiting those who are sick and in prison. Modern Protestants emphasize being born again, modern Catholics loving charity: faith versus works. Neither is necessarily more faithful or charitable than the other; what they profess, however, is different.

However, Catholicism does emphasize faith and Protestantism does demand good behavior.

Fully orthodox Catholic teaching and theological thought never denied that salvation is the work of God alone. God created us and saw us wander from the original creature-creator relationship. God then became a man and suffered on the cross in an effort to restore that bond. Faith is a gift that allows us to join in God’s creative and loving work; without it, we cannot be saved. Preparing for and accepting justification by personal consent is an effect of grace, not the product of exclusively human effort.

That’s the essence of Catholic teaching, and it doesn’t veer that far from at least the Lutheran understanding. And since Luther’s Sola Fide (only faith) is the foundational stone of Protestantism, it’s not so different from broad Protestant belief.

The problem arises not at the moment people become Christians, but after. Even the most sincere continue to sin after conversion, whether conversion is the moment of “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” as some Protestants describe it, or at baptism, as Catholics do. Protestants and Catholics agree on this.

In the Protestant view, the enslaving power of sin is broken by the merit of Christ. Christians may commit acts that are sinful, or contrary to divine will and ordinance, but may return daily to conversion. Thus, new sin no longer brings damnation and eternal death.

Catholic teaching holds that when we voluntarily separate ourselves from God, by giving in to our natural tendency to sin, it is not enough to go back to following the commandments. Christians must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) “through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God’s reconciling work in Christ.”

However, when Catholic teachers and theologians are pushed to the wall with various examples, it always comes down to individual conscience and God. If you are in the wilds of Mongolia far from any opportunity to go to Confession, can you be pardoned? Of course you can; God is not limited by Church rules. It may not have the reassurance of the spoken words of absolution, but God forgives.

These are subtle and highly intellectual points about the moral state of humanity and the genuine demands of faith in Jesus Christ on sincere believers. Protestants do not believe that you can be “saved” by conversion and then live an orgiastic life; in fact, the usual Protestant response is to question whether there was a sincere conversion in the first place. Similarly, Catholics do not believe that, absent confession in a booth, all Protestants will go to hell.

In modern times the differences have been tackled by people more learned than I, in the official Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification approved by The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999. It is available from the Vatican or from The Lutheran World Federation. The quote three paragraphs above, about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is from this document, paragraph 30.

To my mind, the most inspiring treatment of this matter, which is recommended for all Christians, is The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous and courageous Lutheran pastor killed by the Nazis. It would make a good gift for anyone during this Christmas season.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Barefoot in the Cloister

The junior partner in Teresa of Avila’s reformed Discalced Carmelite order was baptized Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (1542-1591). He was also of converted Jewish origins and from Avila, but he was 27 years younger, almost a son, and was far less high born.

John’s father, Gonzalo, had been an accountant to richer relatives who were silk merchants until 1529, when he married John's mother, Catalina, an orphan of a lower class. Gonzalo’s family rejected him as a result, and he had to go work with his wife as a weaver. Gonzalo died when John was about three years old, and things got worse for the family. His older brother Luis died two years after Gonzalo, probably of malnutrition given the family’s poverty.

The crisis led John, as the loss of her mother did Teresa, away from his likely path. He entered a school for poor children, mostly orphans, and got a basic education, mainly in Christian doctrine, as well as modest food, clothing and lodging. In return John had to work, first as an acolyte at a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns, possibly the one in which Teresa lived briefly, then at a hospital, while he studied the humanities at a school run by the newly formed Jesuit order—which recognized the boy’s intellect.

In 1563, at about 19, he entered the Carmelite Order and took the name John of St. Matthias, professing final vows the following year, after which he was dispatched to Salamanca—Spain’s Oxford—where he studied theology and philosophy. John was ordained a priest in 1567, then indicated his intention to join the much stricter Carthusian Order, which stresses solitary and silent contemplation.

A journey from Salamanca to Medina del Campo, probably in September 1567, changed everything. He met the charismatic Carmelite nun Teresa of Jesus, as she was then known, who was in town trying to found the second Discalced Carmelite cloister, and she told him of her plans to reform the order.

She wanted to restore the purity of the Carmelites and the “Primitive Rule” of 1209 by St. Berthold, founder of order. The former Norman crusader had in 1185 established a hermit colony on Mount Carmel, near today’s Haifa, Israel. His rule was approved by the pope in 1226, but its observance had been relaxed by Pope Eugene IV in 1432.

The term “discalced” in the new order’s name was an essential element of the spirit of reform that animated Teresa, and later John. To be “discalced” means to be shoeless. The idea comes from Moses’ encounter with God speaking from what seemed to be a burning bush. In Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Discalced orders go entirely shoeless or wear sandals, with or without socks, a custom introduced in the West by St. Francis of Assisi for men and St. Clare for women as a reminder to remain close to God.

Teresa’s plan included nearly constant choral recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, official prayers marking and sanctifying the hours of each day. These prayers have been a public prayer of the Church since the 5th century. Embraced by many monastic orders and recalled in the Anglican service of Morning Prayer, they were prayed publicly throughout the Middle Ages and consist of psalms, hymns, readings and other prayers and antiphons, often chanted or recited responsively.

Her new rule called for the choir offices, study, devotional reading, Mass and long periods of solitude between Compline (night prayer, usually before retiring around 9 p.m.) and Prime (or “first hour,” early morning prayer, at about 6 a.m.). Total abstinence from meat was required, and a lengthy fast was observed, except Sundays, from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) until Easter.

For the friars, time was to be spent evangelizing the population around the monastery.

Returning to our story in Medina del Campo, Teresa asked John to hold off joining the Carthusians and follow her. After completing his studies in Salamanca, John traveled from Medina to Valladolid with Teresa, who was founding a convent there. After spending some time in Valladolid with Teresa and learning more about this new form of Carmelite life, John left to found a monastery, following Teresa's principles. It was established in 1568 in a donated run-down house in Duruelo, about midway between Ávila and Salamanca. On the day it opened John took the monastic name John of the Cross.

After founding many cloisters for men and women, Teresa went into seclusion and turned to writing, but she and John still managed to set up seven reformed monasteries between 1567 and 1571. In the following seven years she founded four more.

John became the first master of novices and filled various posts elsewhere until Teresa called him to Avila to be director and confessor at the convent of the Incarnation, where she was prioress.

Sometime between 1574 and 1577, while praying in the Monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila, John had a vision of the crucified Christ, which led him to craft a famous drawing of Christ “from above.”

John was ordered by his provincial to return to the house of his profession (Medina). He refused and was taken against his will to Toledo, where he was imprisoned for nine months in a narrow, stifling cell and tortured. In the middle of his suffering he experienced what he described as heavenly consolation, and some of his best poetry dates from this period. Once his views were accepted, he spent most of his time in the years that followed founding and running monasteries.

In 1576, the Carmelite order began to persecute Teresa and her friends. Officials forbade her to found additional convents, and the general chapter ordered her to “voluntarily” retire in one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph’s in Toledo. Her friends and subordinates didn’t get off so easily.

Teresa also rebounded from confinement when King Philip II intervened, halting  Inquisition proceedings against her associates, and Pope Gregory XIII set her up as a special provincial for the new branch of discalced nuns. In the last three years of her life, Teresa founded four more convents.

Forty years after her death, she was canonized and later declared patroness of Spain. In 1970 Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church, along with Saint Catherine of Siena, the first women to be awarded the distinction. Teresa is revered as the Doctor of Prayer.

John learned of Teresa’s death while staying in the friars’ monastery of Los Martires, beside the Alhambra. Three years later he was elected Provincial Vicar of Andalusia and founded seven new monasteries in the region. In 1588, John was elected third Councillor to the Vicar General for the Discalced Carmelites, but that post ended after a dispute, and he was sent in 1591 to an isolated monastery in Andalusia. He fell ill and went to a nearby monastery for treatment, where he died at the end of that year, less than a decade after Teresa.

Close to a century later he was canonized; his feast day is December 14. The Church of England commemorates him on the same day as a “Teacher of the Faith.”

Teresa left a remarkable legacy in her spiritual writings, which include her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, her seminal work The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection.

St. John of the Cross is a leading poet in the Spanish language and authored some 2,500 poems. Two of them—the Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul—are deemed masterpieces for their style, symbolism and imagery.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Bad Night in a Bad Inn

The title words are how our earthly life was described by one of the foremost mystical theologians of the 16th century, a feisty yet devout saint who is also said to have complained to Jesus, who appeared to her in a vision, that considering the way he treated his followers, “It’s no wonder you have so few!”

Few of the central figures of the Catholic Revival of her day are at once as earth bound and spiritually high flying, so dyed-in-the-wool loyal to the Church yet so modern, as the woman baptized Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-1582), who founded the Discalced Carmelites, taking on as her junior partner another mystical giant of her time. Just as evangelical humanists in Europe were attempting to demolish the upward-worshipping arches of Europe’s medieval cathedral, Teresa of Ávila sought to reform the monastic life from within, to make it more prayerful.

Teresa was an unlikely Catholic mystic. Her paternal grandfather, Juan Sánchez de Toledo, was a marrano (a convert to Christianity who remained secretly Jewish), ultimately condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. However, her father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, fully assimilated into Christian society and even acquired a knighthood to prove it.

Moreover, growing up in the tiny hamlet of Gotarrendura, Avila, a mostly mountainous central western province of Spain, Teresa was a callow youth who avidly read medieval tales of knights and primped to look the part of an attractive privileged young woman. She was delivered from a conventional path most likely by her mother’s death when Teresa was 14 and the marriage of her oldest sister, after which she was sent to be educated by the local Augustinian nuns. However, she returned home 18 months later when she became seriously ill. During this time she became devoted to the Virgin Mary and experienced the earliest instances of what she later described as religious ecstasy.

At home with her father, considered by biographers a saintly man and fond of serious books, she took up broad-based spiritual reading, including the letters of St. Jerome and other spiritual books similar to those Loyola read during his convalescence. Like Loyola, she included what she gathered from her reading in her own teaching about the spiritual life. Against her father’s wishes, however, and still in turmoil about taking the step, she left the family home to join the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, in 1535, at the age of 20.

Reportedly in the next year she endured terrible inner struggles. Some say it was homesickness, others that it was something more. She was repeatedly beset by bouts of fever and fainting that some modern observers describe as “malaria,” although it probably wasn’t. She was taken to a healer whose cleansing treatment probably dehydrated Teresa and left her with pain, constant fever and ruined nerves and unable to eat or sleep. For three years she was never completely well, and instead of helping her spiritually, her sickness halted her private prayer; she wasn’t healthy enough to be alone.

She later wrote that she didn’t realize that “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” She criticized herself for her sinful “guise of humility” that made her undeserving of divine favor. In her words, she was like “a baby turning from its mother’s breasts; what can be expected but death?”

Drawing on readings of the devotional work Third Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna, she began to attempt examinations of conscience, spiritual concentration and inner contemplation, rising from what she called the lowest stage, “recollection,” (or gathering oneself) to “devotions of silence” and even to “devotions of ecstasy,” in which she experienced perfect union with God, which she described as a rich “blessing of tears.”

Still, prayer was difficult.

“I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer,” she writes. “This intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down. All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles.”

She was eventually delivered to mental prayer, which she describes this way:

“For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love of God is not great delight but desire to please Him in everything.”

In time, in the prayer of quiet, God’s presence overwhelmed her senses. Rapture filled her with glorious foolishness, prayers of union when she felt the sun of God melt her soul away. Sometimes her whole body was raised from the ground, and she called her sister nuns to sit on her and hold her down. Troubled by these events, she “begged God very much not to give me any more favors in public.”

If her inner life was a struggle, so was her external environment. The convent was a shock. What at first was attributed to homesickness, became a longing for a much more ascetic, prayerful and simple life.

Part of the problem was her surroundings. The 150 nuns in her cloister lived a very comfortable and spiritually lax life. It was not uncommon for convents to be residences for well-born women who, for one reason or another, were unmarriageable yet who retained servants and luxuries, which they brought in tow to the cloister. They even got vacations from the convent to cut down on community expenses. They styled their veils and wore jewelry. A steady stream of people of high social and political rank, including young men and Teresa’s own worldly relatives, visited the convent parlors, which came to resemble the social courts of the nobility. What spiritual life there was, she remarked, involved hysteria, weeping and exaggerated penance.

Teresa suffered from being too charming and likable, and she wanted to be liked. The convent encouraged her to receive visitors and teach them mental prayer. Their financial gifts helped the community, but their attention often distracted her with what she described as flattery and lured her into vanity and gossip rather than spiritual conversation.

When all seemed lost, she got help in voicing her turmoil and finding a practical response by Fr. Peter of Alcantara, a Franciscan who was later canonized. He met her early in 1560 and became her spiritual director. She resolved to start a reformed Carmelite convent, correcting the laxity she had found in so many. She tapped her friend Guimara de Ulloa, a woman of wealth, who supplied the funds for a new cloister, where she was allowed to reside in a new order, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph, at Avila, founded in 1562. It was four years before the superior general of the Carmelites gave approval and granted permission to found monasteries for men as well.

This was the beginning of a new adventure, which we shall review in the next entry.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

For the Greater Glory of God

Just as an Augustinian friar was protesting the sale of indulgences and setting off a firestorm against the papacy in the northern reaches of Charles the Fifth’s European domain, in his southern realm, a Spanish knight’s religious conversion would give rise to a brotherhood of the pope’s most stalwart hosts.

For half a millennium, the religious order that springs to mind in response to Joseph Stalin’s question “How many divisions has the pope?” is the Jesuits. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), emerged as a religious leader during efforts to reverse the Protestant Reformation, and his devotion to the Catholic Church branded this group known for its absolute obedience to the pope.

Like Martin Luther, young Íñigo López de Loyola was not the kind anyone would call a saint. He loved medieval epics such as El Cid and the Song of Roland—the kind of thing contemporary novelist Miguel de Cervantes would mock in Don Quixote. Predictably, he joined the army at 17. Biographers describe him as “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status.” He is said to have challenged a Moor to a duel when the Muslim denied the divinity of Christ.

Diplomatic and a skilled leader, he was made a Gentilhombre, or officer at the service of the court. In defense of the Crown’s interests he fought in many battles, until in 1521, at the age of 30, a cannonball wounded his right leg and fractured his left. He returned to his father’s castle for medical care, including several surgeries (without anesthesia!), and ended up with one leg shorter than the other. He limped for the rest of his life.

During his long convalescence, he read the Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony, which changed his life. The result of 40 years of study, the work offers commentary on the Gospels and extracts from the many Church Fathers. Ludolph invites the reader to enter into the scene of the Gospel story and visualize the people and objects in a kind of prayer known as simple contemplation, the basis for Ignatius’ later spiritual teaching. He proceeded to read lives of saints and was particularly taken with Francis of Assisi and the idea of joining the Franciscans in the conversion of non-Christians in the Holy Land.

Once recovered, he visited the Benedictine monastery Santa Maria de Montserrat where, after a night in prayer, he placed his sword and dagger before a statue of the Virgin, forswearing his military life. He traveled on foot to the town of Manresa, Catalonia, where he worked with the Hospitaler monks in exchange for lodging. While praying in a nearby cave he experienced a series of visions. Then he set off on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but after a few weeks the Franciscans sent him home.

He went to the university in Madrid and was drawn to a group of women known as alumbrados or Illuminati (Enlightened Ones) who linked their zeal and spirituality to the Franciscan reforms and often experienced religious ecstasy. Their antics while in ecstasy caught the eye of the Inquisition, and Ignatius’ street corner preaching without a degree in theology got him arrested, but he was quickly released.

The next stop was the University of Paris, where he roomed with Peter Faber, a young man from Savoy, and Francis Xavier, a Basque nobleman. Both would loom large in the next and final enterprise, the Society of Jesus. Along with Ignatius they were the first members, Faber the first ordained. They called themselves the Company of Jesus, a name drawn from the military but also from the notion of discipleship as “companions” of Jesus and Amigos en El Señor (Friends in the Lord). They took vows of poverty and chastity and a third vow to go to the Holy Land when their studies were finished.

In 1534, Faber, now a priest, received the religious vows of Ignatius and five companions, and they all went to live in Montmartre until Loyola graduated with his master’s degree. Still set on preaching in the Holy Land, in 1537 the group got as far as Venice before war with the Turks blocked their way. Thwarted, Faber and Loyola set out for Rome to offer their services to the pope. They were all well-connected nobles, but the procedure still took time, and in 1544, by papal bull, the order was approved, with the Latin name Societas Jesu, to serve the pope as missionaries.

That year the term “Jesuit” was first used, but with reproach and scorn; it was a 15th century pejorative for people who constantly wove the name of Jesus into their speech; friends of the order took the sting out of the term when they began to use it in a positive way, although it was never used by Ignatius. Loyola became the superior general.

In 1548 he published the Spiritual Exercises, his major work, a manual for a retreat originally intended to last 30 days. It draws from his spiritual reading during convalescence from his war wounds and meditations at Manresa. It is a handbook for a priest directing or leading a retreat, to help people discover God’s will for them and summon the energy and courage to follow it. The guide covers four weeks of meditations: the first on sin and its consequences, the second on Christ’s life on earth, the third on his passion, the fourth on his risen life. It has instructions on how to pray, avoid undue self-reproach and choose a vocation in life without being swayed by love of self or of the world.

Ignatius originally thought of the exercises as a once or maybe twice in a lifetime experience, but eventually they came to be part of a yearly month-long retreat for all Jesuits and a modified version over many months for laypeople who cannot get away for 30 days. I took part in the shorter Ignatian retreat every year of high school and several times in my life.

Loyola rounded out his order with its constitutions and the motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (“For the greater glory of God”), often written AMDG. The phrase is meant to convey the idea that any work that is not evil, even something trivial, can be spiritually worthy if undertaken with the intention to give glory to God. The full Ignatian phrase is Ad majorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem or “for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity.”

By the end of the 16th century, in the name of AMDG, Jesuits had covered the entire globe.

Francis Xavier, one of Loyola’s original companions, reached Goa, in Portuguese India, in 1541, and devoted himself to a decade of evangelization in southern India and then China.

One of my favorite anecdotes tells of his encounter with an ancient Jewish community in China, established shortly after the Babylonian captivity, about five centuries before Christ. These Jews had mistakenly traveled east instead of west and eventually stopped looking for the Promised Land when they reached China. Impressed with Francis’ knowledge of the Torah they asked him to be their rabbi; he politely declined, explaining that he followed a new prophet, Yeshua. He continued his travels and died in China.

Another early mission gained the Jesuits the feudal fiefdom of Nagasaki in 1580, a privilege withdrawn seven years later because they were seen as too influential. In 1594 they founded the first Roman-style academic institution in the East, St. Paul Jesuit College in Macao.

The 1986 film “The Mission” tells the story of one Jesuit effort about a century later, when their work became controversial for their advocacy and defense of native Americans—a story for another time.

From the beginning the Jesuits made their presence felt in the New World. For example, in what is today Brazil, Jesuit priests Manuel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta founded São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively, and were influential in peacemaking, religious conversion and education of Indian nations.

In Europe, the Jesuits became the pope’s shock troops against Protestantism in the late 16th century, under English Queen Elizabeth I, who persecuted Catholics and executed many Jesuits by drawing and quartering. That, too, is a story for later.