Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Next Step — Blogging Under Obedience?

Devin Rose on The Journey Home. (Image: EWTN.)
After a month and a half of working on other projects, I seem to have gotten my blogging mojo back. (Of course, this means the other projects have gone back to the back burner.) However, as much as I kvetch about the culture-warrior role I’ve been stuck in for lo these eight years — more, if you count my long-lost-and-best-forgotten first blog — I keep returning to politics, every once in a while mentioning God or the Catholic Church to remind myself and others that I am a Catholic writer. Fortunately, über-apologist Devin Rose recently wrote a post on obedience which is not only worthy of comment but isn’t about politics (well, it’s not directly about politics).

“Demand I Do Something!”

Says Devin:

I recently finished Rod Dreher’s book on life lessons from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and one fascinating part of his story was his interaction with his Eastern Orthodox priest.

Dreher left Catholicism and became Orthodox in response to the priestly sexual abuse scandal. His local priest at their small Orthodox church is also a convert to Orthodoxy, and this priest became Dreher’s spiritual director, confessor, and pastor.

Well, we have that in the Catholic Church, too, but what’s different is the level of pastoral care that his priest could give him. Dreher’s priest put him under obedience to pray 500 Jesus prayers each day.

Now think about that: has a Catholic priest ever put you under obedience to do any spiritual discipline, beyond a few Hail Marys for a penance after Confession? I’ve never experienced that, nor even heard of it happening.

One Catholic friend of mine has actually begged his priest to put him under obedience! “Please, as pastor of my soul, demand I do something!”

Blogging in the Wild, Wild West

Devin’s concern is the relative freedom with which we Catholic bloggers expound on the faith. In theory, we’re accountable to Christ, to the Church, to our bishops and pastors, and to the truth of the Faith. In practice, we tend to be accountable only to our intra-ecclesial tribes, our audiences, and our hit counters, tailoring our messages according to SEO plug-ins.

Devin does concede that Orthodox writers have a more advantageous priest-to-layman ratio, and that Catholic bishops are way too busy to keep up with even the most prominent members of the Blogisterium. Nevertheless, “As it is now, we public Catholics are renegades in the Wild West, posting whatever we want with impunity. Most bishops and priests I wager have no idea who the prominent Catholic personalities in their area are and what they are writing.”

(I’ve seen my bishop. Once. We didn’t actually meet, though; the church was kinda crowded at the time, and I had to get Mom home right after Mass.)

No one thinks twice of following a sports coach’s directives to train: eat this, work out in that way, X times per week. If a coach didn’t do that, we would think he was doing a poor job!

Priests and bishops are our spiritual coaches: we need them to train us, to push us to go beyond our comfort zones. Yet this rarely happens.

I Confess … Sometimes

Then Devin says, “Now imagine if we public Catholic personalities were meeting with our priest and local bishop and receiving spiritual direction from them regularly. Imagine we were as close with them as Dreher is with his priest.”

Ah. Oh. Um.

There are reasons why I call this blog “The Impractical Catholic”. One of them is that my practice of the Faith is imperfect. Another reason for the name is that, when practiced fully and meaningfully, Catholicism can be pretty darned impractical precisely because it can set you against the Zeitgeist and make inconvenient demands of you. Just ask St. Thomas More.

Before I began my reversion, I spent many years living one of those lives that, while doing no spectacular evil, doesn’t really strive to be better; the C-and-E Catholic’s motto is “Be 75% of all you can be”. The precepts of the Church only require Confession once a year, and to receive Holy Communion at least once during the Easter season. Forming good habits can be as difficult as getting rid of bad habits, especially when the threshold is set so low.

The really good Catholics confess at least weekly, and receive Communion every freakin’ day, rain or shine. Here I am, patting myself on the back because I’ve made every Holy Day of Obligation this year (so far). I know my pastor, and my pastor knows me. I go to Confession every once in a while. But to call Fr. George my spiritual director would be a stretch similar to calling Jon Bon Jovi an actor … except that the fault lies mostly with me, not with Fr. George.

Take Your Medicine, Layne

I say all this, not as an excuse for slacking, but to explain where and how Devin’s post hit me. Perhaps the thought of putting myself under obedience to my pastor hits my “not-the-boss-of-me button”; I am, after all, a middle-aged man who’s fairly conversant with the moral teachings of the Church, and have been responsible for my own life for many years now. (Which, I suppose, is why I made such a hot mess of it.) Perhaps the thought of regularly baring my soul — to anyone — makes me quail; as a very private person, what I’ve confessed publicly is very little, and my most besetting sins are also the most obvious: Gluttony and Sloth. The thought of it is like seriously considering a daily spoonful of cod-liver oil. Or a deliberate glass of Scotch whiskey … neat. Glah.

Those are also quite likely the strongest arguments for putting myself under obedience. The most relevant question concerning any medicine, whether for the body or for the soul, is not whether it tastes good but whether it will do you good. You can get used to just about anything, no matter how disgusting or distasteful (though why one would deliberately cultivate a taste for Scotch remains beyond me). I am reminded of Tertullian’s thoughts on the subject:

Yet most men either shun [confession], as being a public exposure of themselves, or else defer it from day to day. I presume [they are] more mindful of modesty than of salvation; just like men who, having contracted some malady in the more private parts of the body, avoid the privity of physicians, and so perish with their own bashfulness. (On Repentance, 10)

Tertullian wrote in a time when confession was public; now that confession is private, I don’t have even the slim pretext the men of which he wrote had. Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow Me (cf. Matthew 16:24-25). It’s not as inconvenient as crucifixion, Layne, you big crybaby.

Summary

I should think that Catholics who believe they’re beyond need of spiritual direction are most in need of it. Pride is the capital sin that’s most subtle, and has the most ramifications. Blogging, especially if you have any success at it, is a terrible temptation to Pride; you have to have enough confidence in your opinions to expose them to a harsh and critical world, yet also have enough humility to recognize when a criticism is apt. Many bloggers write to show off their brilliance; but there’s nothing like writing for public consumption to expose the ass you really are.

If I can bare my asininity to the rest of the world, I can certainly bare it to my priest.

As a guarantee of orthodoxy — it’s a Catch-22. Since there are dissenting priests, you have to be orthodox enough to recognize an orthodox priest; if you weren’t orthodox, how would you know if your priest’s correction put you on the orthodox path? I think it’s enough for now to return to the practice of placing ourselves under obedience to our pastors, and hope they find time to read what we write without expecting it. After all, parish priests are awfully busy.

And, as the late Ralph McInerny said, no one owes you a reading — not even your pastor.