Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pious and overly devotional

The post below quoting Fr. Faber (whose writing on the spiritual life deserves a great deal more attention than that of the attention-seeking Newman) has generated much interesting comment here and on Facebook. I post below my addition to the discussion.

First, I simply have an instinctive aversion to public displays of devotion, for much the same reason I object to public displays of affection between members of a pair-bonded unit. This might just be an English thing, but it embarrasses me on the person's behalf. It betrays a lack of a certain kind of social modesty. One keeps that sort of thing private. It's a thing appropriate to moments of sincere discussion between intimates.

I think (though he was not my favourite Catholic writer) I remember Thomas Merton also making a similar comment in Seven Story Mountain, along the lines of "There is something nauseating about pious talk".

The other reason is that it tends to cheapen the devotional life. Talking about, thinking about and praying to God is so important that it should not be tossed about like the wrapping on a bag of take-away.

But mostly I posted Fr. Faber's quote because of the ongoing debate about the Traddie world over nice vs. holy. Trads are notoriously given to very public displays of devotion (and insisting that they be conducted in the right way!!) while holding the knife ever-ready for the quick one between the ribs of anyone who crosses them. This tendency is hardly limited to the Traditionalist movement in the Church, but it certainly seems to be more prevalent as a community trait there.

They are ever-ready too, with the quick and often pat rejoinder when faced with any criticism: "The hard truth is better than the sweet lie". This is usually followed by recitations of Our Lord's open displays of anger against the pharisees and money-changers. Passers-by, non-Catholics and children, however, are often witness to these kinds of exchanges and I think are justified in going away disappointed. See how they love each other?

Well, I'm not a spiritual writer and it's not for me to correct, particularly since the quick and irritable rejoinder are defining characteristics of my own interpersonal and devotional life. I am faced daily with the temptation to the quick and snarky response.

I posted Fr. Faber's comment because I was relieved somewhat to learn that this is not a modern problem, that others greater and holier than I have observed it and fought against it. It's comforting to have companions in temptation.

The question of real vs. false devotion is extremely pertinent, and is a big part of Fr. Faber's very pointed writing on the spiritual life. Of course real devotion produces real sanctity, but it is only too easy to fall into the trap of presuming one's self devoted, and therefore superior to the general run of humanity, or even the general run of Christians. It is a salutary warning, and one that is repeated many times by C. S. Lewis and nearly all other writers on the Christian life.

It is for this reason I have banned excessive God-talk in the commbox, and the reason it tends to irritate me so much. I have found that in many, if not most cases when a person engages in gratuitous God-talk, particularly in a public forum, the person is much more likely to be talking about himself. Or herself, since it seems mostly to be a female vice.

In fact, this was proven to me quite aptly recently when a person who had left a particularly flowery God-talk commbox post became abusive and extremely nasty when I deleted his comment and said why. From the excessively POD language and tone, I had guessed that this was someone who was greatly enamoured of his own holiness and was very interested in demonstrating it for the world to admire. The incontinent note I received as punishment for daring to call him on his bullshit proved my suspicion to have been justified.

Don't keep your light under a bushel, by any means, but I think it's good advice to try to keep our phylacteries as narrow and our tassels as short as possible, yes?



Andrew Cusack said...

"Trads are notoriously given to very public displays of devotion."

Interesting. I've found the exact opposite: All the "trads" I know tend to be very much against gratuitous public displays of devotion. I associate that more with the "charismatic" or touchy/feely wing of the church.

Dominic said...

I too find the unpleasant "gratuitous public displays of devotion" thing to be more of a "charismatic" trait than a "traddy" one, in my experience, at least. At least overtly, anyway. Certainly the intrusive pious talk seems to go more hand in hand with well...waving hands around than it does with anything that uses Latin or kneels down. (There *is* a traddy tendency to be overly obsessed with minutia of the liturgy & vestments,; but I think there is a great deal of appropriate restraint and dignity in "public" events of a vaguely "traddy" nature)

Where I do agree with you is the existence of a commonplace tendency towards "the hard truth is better than the sweet lie" approach among "trads" - combined with a tendency to (wilfully? or otherwise? I'm not sure) mispresent the arguments of (perceived) opponents. Not naming names, but even some "trads" or "trad-friendly" types I greatly like and mostly respect fall into this trap, not infrequently.

Which as well as being wrong, and uncharitable (a word that they hate...and also sometimes misrepresent), is quite selfdefeating, as (IMHO) it really misunderstands the backdrop to the growth of liberalism and other such monstrosities in the church and more broadly, and what caused them, and the in some cases genuinely well-rooted hopes behind them.

And if you don't identify your enemy correctly, how on earth can you defeat it, or persuade it to come round to the truth?

And I wholly agree that in many cases gratuitious God-talk often amounts to self-talk. If I were being excessively contentious I might say it's another symptom of the creeping protestantisation of Catholic culture. But that would be a little simplistic, and a little unfair to those protestants who are not self-obsessed.

Short tassels to the fore!

Mrs McLean said...

I suspect unabashed "God-talk" is more of a North American thing, anyway. Protestant evangelicals convert to Catholicism and then carry on. Golly--just think about Praise and Worship lyrics, and rocking side to side while singing them. So not Catholic, but sooo American.

My husband got very embarrassed when I prattled away about "Jesus", so I asked him what I should call Him then, and he said "Our Blessed Lord". It hadn't yet noticed that all Trids and Trads bob their heads at the Holy Name, so it does get embarrassing when people sling it about.

It is interesting how, at dinner parties, Trids and Trads I know can talk non-stop about the Catholic faith without sounding pious. An outsider might come to the conclusion that they think it is all some incredibly intricate art form.

Mrs McLean said...

The comments in your combox that most irritate me are the ones that suggest that cancer is somehow good for you and will lead to your spiritual betterment. They inspire me to rush out, buy frivolous shoes, have two gin-and-tonics, get up a flirtation with an inappropriately younger man and encourage you to do the same.

Mrs McLean said...

Inspire me to want to, that is.

HJMW said...

"An outsider might come to the conclusion that they think it is all some incredibly intricate art form."

I laff.

The other night, I took a non-Catholic friend to a party of our ex-pat Catholic Trad friends in Rome. I can't imagine what she must have thought of the conversation, which was not in the least restrained. She told me that she had great fun, and enjoyed being a fly on the wall and getting the knack of our rather odd vibe. I'll be interested to know what she thought.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

"It hadn't yet noticed that all Trids and Trads bob their heads at the Holy Name..."

Sometimes we merely wince in pain...

Anonymous said...

They inspire me to rush out, buy frivolous shoes, have two gin-and-tonics, get up a flirtation with an inappropriately younger man and encourage you to do the same.

Can I come? - Karen

word verification: bling

hyoomik said...

St. Jerome (not the friendly giraffe) wrote of the rich lady who handed out coins in front of the Church. One poor woman came back for seconds, and the rich lady punched her. And the widows at church banquets who would weep loudly, and then peak to see who was looking.
(verification word "barchess")

hyoomik said...

Re. something above, excessive smarmy religious talk is in fact taking the Lord's name in vain.
(verification word: shetrano)

Agellius said...

I agree with Seraphic that "unabashed God-talk" is a North American thing. A lot of Catholics, I suspect, don't want to be "out-Christianed" by the Protestants, so they adopt the earnest, bubbling-over-with-joy evangelical Protestant manner and lingo. This as a way of countering the charge that most Catholics just go through the motions and don't really "love the Lord" like Protestants do.

However I must say that I don't see this as a Trad tendency. The most I see them do is bow their heads in church and maybe assume a pious expression. And maybe some try to genuflect in a particularly dignified and reverent manner.

I also concur with Seraphic in that when I am around the most Traddish group of people with which I tend to socialize, which is the families associated with my kids' school, you almost never hear overt pious-talk. Once in a while it strikes me as odd, as if people who do love the Lord ought to talk about it once in a while when they get together. Yet I have no doubt that these people, for the most part, are genuinely devout.

[verification word: stoniza]

Anonymous said...

Come to Australia. Pious God-talk often results in anaphylactic shock in the listener and consequently is rarely engaged in.


Anonymous said...

LOL! so true, Lydia.

Felix said...

In my experience, the more a traddie priest is into liturgical niceties and ultra-pious sermons, the less he is concerned about the spiritual or temporal welfare of his flock.

luc said...

the Catholic faith IS an incredibly intricate art form. it can also be intrincately simple, anyway. that's the beauty of it.

berenike said...

Their visit to Fr Faber at the Oratory was a happy one. Dom Gueranger found him “frank, open and full of life, having the spirit of St Philip Neri”. [...] Faber’s name often appears in the conferences of Dom Gueranger and Dom Delatte; in one of his letters, Dom Delatte recommends All for Jesus, and admits to having read it twenty times.


Forward Boldly said...

Seraphic makes a point. Incessant God-talk is very much an evangelical thing, and much of that has been transported into modern Catholic culture. Back when I was a Protestant, we had people talking about Jesus all day long, trying to share the Gospel with anyone (whether they wanted to hear it or not), discussing our spirituality, prayer life, etc. Once I became a Catholic and experienced an intimacy with Our Lord through Holy Communion that I'd never before had, I spoke less and less of Him and thought more and more of Him. He became internalized, much more a part of who I am and of my daily life. In short, I came to know Him and love Him.

I remember someone once making the comparison between the way a guy natters on about how great his girlfriend is, and the way a husband may remain silent and discreet about his wife, yet loves her infinitely more.

Just another mad Catholic said...

attention-seeking Newman? c'mon Newman was did NOT seek attention, anttention sought him.