The Protestant Movement as a Monastic Spirituality Gone Wild

I read a comment last night on Dawn Eden’s blog to the effect that praying to the saints was like turning away from the Sun. Other than the rather obvious comeback that you can’t really turn away from God, because as the psalmist points out, He is everywhere in His Creation… well, I was thinking about how Carmelite it sounded. All detachment and stuff.

But really, that’s about half of the Protestant movement, isn’t it? All smashing the images and destroying the “superfluous” things that “stood in the way” of a close relationship with God. And of course, Luther was a monk.

The problem is, there are certain facets of monastic spirituality which are not really meant for life outside the monastery, and which monasteries in fact are meant to control and channel into more fruitful paths. Like detachment. If you get too detached or rather, detach yourself in the wrong way, you’re going to have trouble keeping yourself alive, much less caring for your family. In a monastery, your cohorts can tell if something’s wrong, and your leader can command you not to do things that are destroying your health or hurting other people. But if you’re roaming the world with no spiritual adviser, you can do all sorts of things to yourself, as the Desert Fathers found out. But even they didn’t bring their kids along. Scratch a Puritan, and you get someone who would have been a lot happier in the planned, guided, controlled community of a monastery.

Alongside detachment, Catholicism has always harnessed what only seems to be the opposite ideal — sacramental thinking, which sees God in everything and everyone, and appreciates both the deeper meaning of a thing and God’s graciousness in creating anything at all.

So we pray with our brothers and sisters who live in Christ, appreciating the ramification (to use its original sense of branching) of God’s love through them and through us. To be totally detached from such a wonder, on which God has spent a lot of time and energy, would seem ungrateful — in fact, a turning away from the Sun of God’s love, a hiding from His Light and Life.
The irony is that there seem to have been a lot of monks and nuns who were in the convent and shouldn’t have been, while a lot of people who should have been were stuck on the outside. That it was the people on the outside who ultimately destroyed what they would really have enjoyed is one of those nasty little comments of history.

On the other hand, though, we have merry saints like St. Teresa of Avila, discalced in the mountain cold but dancing with her sisters; and St. Philip Neri, perpetually in ecstasy during the Mass but also making joke after joke. We have St. Thomas More, living in the world as a lawyer, husband, paterfamilias, and statesman, but secretly doing penance while keeping the Jesus-commanded happy face.

Those are people who are close to God, with nothing standing in their way. And those are people who didn’t run around spoiling everybody else’s (lawful and moral) fun. Interesting, huh?

There’s a big difference between “that kind of spirituality does nothing for me” and “that kind of spirituality is both worthless and harmful”. We have to be careful to avoid mixing the two, or we’ll perpetually be smashing things that other people have a perfect right to love and enjoy.

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