Posted by: Thomas Richard | March 8, 2015

Going Beyond “Rediscover Catholicism,” Part I

An internet search for Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly leads to countless glowing reviews of and praises for the book. Many, many Catholics have been greatly blessed and newly motivated in their faith, because of this book. It has proved to be a strong encouragement for Catholics toward a new confidence and a positive attitude concerning their faith, and their Church.

This article, and the next – “Going Beyond ‘Rediscover Catholicism,’ Part II” – are written for those who have already read the book and will not need a summary of it to understand what I write here. I write these articles, however, to point out for those who have read the book, that there are some things missing in the book – serious and important things – that Catholics need to know about, concerning the path to the vocation given us all, and encouraged in the book: our vocation to holiness. These articles, I hope, can build upon what began with Rediscover Catholicism, and can help the reader progress even further toward our holy vocation.

The Self-Centered Context of our Culture

Christ, and His Church, call us to holiness and to the perfection of charity. Mr. Kelly rightly identifies this crucially important call, our Christian vocation: “Holiness is the goal of the Christian life.” (p. 72) He also rightly places our vocation in the midst of a culture set in opposition to the vocation – a culture having prevailing philosophies of individualism (“What’s in it for me?”), hedonism (“If it feels good do it”), and minimalism (“What is the least I can do?”). (pp. 35-39). Mr. Kelly places strong emphasis on the need for Christian discipline, which opposes the prevailing hedonism, and he strongly emphasizes the need to strive even heroically to advance in the Christian life, which opposes the prevailing minimalism of the culture. That much is good. What remains, however, is the matter of individualism: “What’s in it for me?”

Mr. Kelly appeals to, rather than opposes, this prevailing cultural attitude. This is not bad in itself, because God also appeals to our personal self-interest in calling us! However, God does not stop there, and neither does traditional Catholic spirituality. The book Rediscover Catholicism does not clearly help the reader see beyond that initial appeal to self-interest, but Catholics need to know that God calls us far beyond it, to the perfection of charity fitting for the Kingdom of God.

Rediscover Catholicism’s Focus on Self

Mr. Kelly’s most strongly emphasized paths and practices to holiness, surprisingly, are characterized – perhaps unconsciously on his part – not in opposition to but consistent with the prevailing cultural philosophy of individualism, and “What’s in it for me?” The most used measure of all Christian practices that are encouraged in the book, its gold standard of religious or spiritual value for any practice, is whether or not it leads to a “better-version-of-myself.” The self is placed at the center and as the measure of the spiritual life. Some examples:

  • Concerning repentance, turning back to God: “at His side I am a better person… when I turn away from God I am turning my back on my true self.” (p. 153)
  • Concerning Confession: “The journey toward the-best-version-of-yourself is a journey away from the defects of the-present-version-of-yourself.” (p. 154) “Confession is an opportunity for you and God to work together to form a-better-version-of-yourself.” (p. 157)
  • Concerning prayer: Mr. Kelly recounts his own personal advance in prayer this way: At first, he used to pray for his personal problems, “God, I’ve got this problem…This is the situation… These are the circumstances… Then I stumbled onto the question that would change my life forever: God, what do you think I should do?”
  • Concerning participation in Holy Mass: “When you walk into Mass next Sunday, simply ask God in the quiet of your heart, ‘God, show me one way in this Mass that I can become a-better-version-of-myself this week!’… Once it is revealed to you, spend the rest of the Mass praying about how you can live that one thing in the coming week.” (p. 210)

This pervasive focus on the self, on what’s good for me, is summarized well as a spirituality of self-actualization: ultimately, “What’s in it for me?” – the very concern of secular individualism that the author rejected in the secular world. Concerning this “journey of the soul and the quest for love,” as he wrote in the book: “God invites you to embark on the adventure of unveiling and actualizing your unimagined potential.” (p. 123)

Self-Interest in Traditional Catholic Spirituality

It is important to know that the spiritual journey to holiness has been known and recognized by saints, fathers and doctors of the Church from very early days, as a journey in stages. The journey is not one life-long continuous process, as the book Rediscover Catholicism presumes. Instead, the journey to holiness is a process including three defined stages that are clearly distinct and different from one another. Recognition of the three stages is essential to any spirituality that reaches to the full attainment of holiness and the perfection of charity. The three stages have been given names, in Catholic tradition, as:

1) the stage of the Beginner, or the Purgative Stage;
2) the stage of the Progressing, or Proficient, or the Illuminative Stage;
3) the stage of the Perfect, or the Unitive Stage.

In the Beginning or Purgative Stage, the soul is self-centered. This is well-described by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153 AD). Thus it is no surprise that a Catholic book on the spiritual journey would begin with the appeal to self-interest that is predominant for all beginners on the journey. But the journey ought not stop there – and neither should the book. We are all called to holiness – to be saints – as Rediscover Catholicism rightly emphasizes. But the journey cannot continue as it began – we need to grow beyond the self-concerns of the beginning stage, if we are ever to attain God’s intention in this world.

St. Bernard recognized and described four “degrees” of love, on the spiritual journey. I will outline them here (i):

  1. In Bernard’s first degree, the person knows nothing of God. All that he loves is measured by the good it does for him, or the pleasure it brings him. This can include both things and people! He loves things, and he loves people, in the measure that they bring pleasure to him. This pre-Christian kind of love is expected for a child – but tragic in an adult.
  2. In Bernard’s second degree, the person discovers God – and learns that God is his greatest benefactor. God can do more for him, and bring him happiness and pleasures, greater than anything or anyone else! And thus he begins to love God, but he loves God for all the good that God can do for him. His love for God is mercenary, self-focused. This is identified with the traditional “Stage of the Beginner, or Purgative stage” in traditional Catholic spirituality. This is the beginning of the Christian’s relationship with God in Christ: the relationship is expected to grow beyond this stage.
  3. In Bernard’s third degree, following faithful discipleship in God’s ways and truth, following faithful walking with the Lord, the person learns of the great good of God in Himself! God is good, beautiful and true – and worthy of love – far beyond the good that he does for the person himself. God is good, and worthy of the greatest honor because of who God is, in Himself. Thus the person begins to love God as God, and not merely as his personal benefactor of the self. In this stage, however, traces of mercenary love still remain, which the person longs to overcome.
  4. In Bernard’s fourth degree, after faithful and zealous prayer, service to God, and longing to give his all to God, the person sees clearly and in its radiance the great and infinite goodness and glory of God, which overwhelm fear and concern for self. The person begins to love others, and even himself, only in God. Whether he lives or he dies, God is good in all His works. God is all, in all. Here, the love of God with one’s whole heart, mind, soul and strength becomes a human reality.

Discipline and Habit

Another very important factor in the author’s spirituality, is discipline: “The philosophy of Christ is based on discipline…” (p. 89) Mr. Kelly points to the saints – one of our most valuable resources as Catholic Christians – as both examples and teachers of discipline on the path to holiness: “Like Jesus, by their example the saints invite us to a life of discipline.” (p. 89) “The saints’ lives were firmly grounded in discipline.” “ They quietly chiseled away at the defects and weaknesses in their character. They became the-best-version-of-themselves.” (p. 91) The saints thus become examples for us, in our quest for self-improvement. Indeed this is God’s concern as well: “The will of God is that you become the-best-version-of-yourself, or in classical spiritual language, that you live a life of holiness and become a saint.” (p. 126)

The author writes that this saintly discipline must become for us, as for them, a habit of life. “Our lives change when our habits change. Think about all the heroes, leaders, champions and saints. What set them apart from their peers? They just had better habits… Their habits were helping them to become the best version of themselves, and they were acquired intentionally through the effort of discipline.” (p. 128) He continued, citing the many beautiful virtues made manifest in the saints, “patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, forgiveness, and love. Or is it their desire to explore their God-given potential?… Or maybe it’s just that they are focused on loving God and neighbor by becoming the-best-version-of-themselves. I suspect it is some combination of all of these.” (p. 132)

The roles of discipline and habit continue, in the book, with a center and focus on the self, as illustrated here:

“Find your place in salvation history. Be a saint. Be yourself. Perfectly yourself.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to become the best version of yourself. The best thing you can do for your spouse, your children, your friends, your Church, your nation, and God is to become the-best-version-of-yourself.” (p. 141)

Discipline and Habit in Traditional Catholic Spirituality

Discipline and the development of virtuous habits – or virtue itself – are also placed, in traditional Catholic spirituality, within a journey of distinct stages. Discipline is crucial in the Beginner’s or Purgative Stage, but virtue is the fruit especially in the second, the Illuminative Stage of the Proficients. St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized these qualities in the stages which he briefly described, allowing us to see the place of discipline in the first stage, but virtue in the second:

  1. the Beginning stage. Beginning the Christian life, the believer finds that most of his concern and effort is made withdrawing from sin and resisting the appetites which drive him away from charity. Beginners need to nourish and carefully foster charity to prevent its loss, and they need to avoid falling back to the ways they have just left. Attacks of temptation disturb the peace of the soul in this stage, but after struggle and perseverance, the believer can give his mind to making progress.
  2.  the Progressing stage. In this second stage, a certain measure of victory over temptation has been achieved. Most of the effort of the soul is now directed to advancing in virtue, with the concern that charity grow and become strong. This is the stage of those who are making progress in the journey.
  3. the stage of the Perfect. In this third stage, which is not static but which also involves progress, most effort is made cleaving to God, and enjoying Him. In this stage are Christians of heroic virtue, who sincerely long to leave this earth and be with Him. (ii)

St. Thomas’s separation of the growth in virtue (in the “Progressing”, or Illuminative Stage) from the place of discipline (in the “Beginning”, or Purgative Stage) is important because of the radical difference between the two stages. This will be investigated next, in “Going Beyond ‘Rediscover Catholicism,’ Part II,” but after first noting again that Rediscover Catholicism assumes a linear and incremental path to holiness, and does not recognize the crucial existence of stages at all.


notes:

i) see St. Bernard of Clairvaux, The Love of God. This is discussed further by R. Thomas Richard, The Ordinary Path to Holiness, (Alba House, 2003) p. 25 ff.
ii)  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, Q.24, a.9.


Responses

  1. Faithwise I think I’m in a different place than the book’s target readership. You’re expressing some of what I was feeling while reading partway through a couple of Mr. Kelly’s books- but that I couldn’t put into words.

    • Thanks for your response, Christian. It is a wonderful reality – a blessing – to experience a hunger left unsatisfied. And then to discover, or even just just get a sense of “why” – in finding that yes! there IS more. There is more. There is always more, in the beautiful truth of God. (Did you read the “Part II”?) May the Lord lead you ever deeper into His “more.”

  2. Excellent article. Thanks so much. Thanks especially for sharing what St.’s Bernard and Thomas Aquinas wrote on the matter.

    • Hello Nuntius – thank you for your comment. How blessed we are, in the Church – we have many – so many – powerful and light-filled sources of holy wisdom!

      Did you read the “Part II”? It is linked at the end of Part I. It contains even more of such treasures.

      Thomas


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