Thursday 16 June 2016

The Gate & the Way

An Evangelical Christian preacher very often, if not always, preaches on the need for conversion. She will invite her hearers to accept Christ into their hearts and be born again. Catholics and other Christians are prone to finding this repetitive and tedious. They have, they think, already made that fundamental choice and are more interested in finding out the best way to translate it into their daily, hourly, lives. By contrast, Evangelicals often find Catholic preaching tepid and uninspiring. Moreover since it often focuses on outward behaviour it can lead an unconverted person to pursue an hypocritical life where they publicly conform with their bodies to Catholic usages but inwardly do not accept them and practice vices in private.

The late nineteenth century Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith reflected on a useful distinction which can be made here. There are Christians primarily concerned with foundation truths and those who mostly deal with superstructure truths-
"Foundation truths deal with the beginnings of things, superstructure truths deal with their development. The first show the entrance to the divine life, the last teach how to live and walk after we are in that life. Without the superstructure truths, the foundations remain bare and crude; without the foundation truths, the superstructure will be tottering and unsafe."
(The Unselfishness of God: Chapter 29)
Growing up she was exposed to much teaching about how she should live but not about why she should make such choices which were radically at odds with the world at large. When she encountered the Revivalist movement she, or at least her faith, went from being dead to being alive. This led her to direct her attention to the exhilarating task of making converts. But that was not the end of the story for her-
"As years have passed on and the foundations of our Christian life have been, as we believe, securely laid we have become more and more interested in the superstructure and now to some of us the old preaching which once we did not understand has become marrow and fatness to our souls. This is not so much because the preaching has changed as because we have changed."
(Quaker Writings: An Anthology)

The obvious thing to say at this point is that the Church needs balance and must find a way to combine both things. How it is to do this is a question above my pay grade to answer. To paraphrase Mr Spock, however, I will say that the needs of the many are often the same as the needs of the few or of the one. That is, each one of us who call ourselves Christian cannot afford to neglect either our own foundation or our superstructure. Specifically we cannot take our calling as an unexamined first assumption. We must continually revisit Christ, Christ Himself, and be born again in Him from out of the death of sin and forgetfulness which we constantly plunge ourselves into.

For Catholic and Orthodox Christians the sacrament of penance (confession) can play an important part in this process of renewal, unless it becomes a routine outward practice with no inward feeling attached to it. It could be said though that if we have many eggs the Lord has provided us with many baskets to put them into. That is, we have multiple ways open to us to return to our Divine source and seek refreshment. As we are each different then we may each find different methods more helpful to us. Prayer is one, daily examination of conscience is another, listening to charismatic preachers is a further option and so it goes on.

For my part I find nothing, outside of the sacraments, more powerful than the Gospel. When I approach it with a thirst for Jesus it always satisfies me. How you read the Gospel and why you read it will powerfully affect the impact it will have on you. When you pick it up longing with all your heart to encounter the Beloved then He will not hide Himself from you. In His divinity and in His humanity He is there, waiting for you, longing for you as you long for Him. Although I read from the Scriptures every day I do not always do so with the same attitude, few of us do. We must consciously call to mind the need to shore up our foundations and then open ourselves to what the Holy Spirit will do through the pages of that wonderful text to bring us to a rebirth in Christ.

Nor must we neglect our superstructures. The Church has produced many saints and their lives and examples can inspire us, teach us and guide us in our journey towards God. And we should recall that not all the saints are in heaven, some are among us still, some perhaps are our neighbours, our priests or teachers. Some, it maybe, do not yet embrace all the fullness of our faith but yet can still show us the effects of grace in the human heart. The Christian life is not only about doing but also about being. Sometimes the fastest way to travel is to stand still and the most deep reaching sound is silence. We can build up our faith lives and strengthen ourselves to help others by occasionally or frequently doing nothing but communing with our Father who is in heaven, His stillness to our stillness, His silence to our silence, His love to our love.

Although it is convenient to think about foundation and superstructure it is only an analogy. There are threads that weave their way through all of our aspects of life in Christ. There is, I think, no part or stage of the Christian life where we cannot offer up this heartfelt prayer which St Catherine of Siena has given to the Church-
"Lord, unmake me, and break the hardness of my heart, that I be not a tool which spoils Thy works"
May each one of us join ourselves to this petition and may the Good God in His mercy answer us.

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The painting is Pilger ins Heilige Land by Alois Niederst├Ątter

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