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Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard | An excerpt from The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard

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Editor's Note:In his books and articles, Thomas Howard has never been one to shy away from controversy. While attending the Evangelical Church of his parents and teaching English at an Evangelical college, Howard wrote his provocative best-seller Evangelical is Not Enough. Soon after entering the Anglican Communion, Howard began asking the kinds of questions that would eventually lead him into the Roman Catholic Church.

Throughout his pilgrimage of faith, Howard wrote numerous thought-provoking yet respectful articles on a wide range of topics for both Protestant and Catholic publications, gaining him a wide and loyal following. Known for his wit and charm, Howard also was a sought after speaker for conferences and college graduations. Due to a request made by one of his faithful readers, this collection of Howard's best material has now been published: The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard. Liturgical reform and sacred architecture, women's ordination and hierarchical authority, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien--these and many other topics of interest to Protestants and Catholics alike are tackled by Howard with his characteristic thoughtfulness in these articles and speeches--many of them never before published--that span more than twenty years of his prolific career.

The following essay was originally a lecture given at Gordon College, June 1995.

My guess is that a great clutter of bric-a-brac swims into your imagination when you hear of Catholic spirituality: rosaries, holy water stoups, crucifixes, little plastic Saint Christophers for your dashboard, and laminated holy cards depicting pastel-tinted saints with their eyes cast soulfully up into the ozone, not to mention all the polychrome statues and banks of candles flickering in little red glass cups (there are even electric candles that have a bogus flicker).

My guess is also that I am addressing at least three groups of people all stirred in together here in this assembly. The biggest group of you would locate yourselves in that wing of Protestantism known as Evangelicalism and will have been brought up in Evangelical households. A second group will tell us, "I was a Catholic until I was fifteen, then I met Jesus", or "I was Catholic until I was seventeen, then I, became a Christian." A third group of you are Roman Catholic even as we speak and may possibly have discovered that some of your colleagues here are very far from satisfied that your Catholicism qualifies you as a Christian. There may also be a fourth group, namely, those of you who are trying to shuck off whatever remnants of the Christian religion are still clinging to you so that you can get on with your own agenda.

Let me see if I can throw any light on this topic of Catholic spirituality so that the whole array of us may grasp things in a fairly clear light.

As you know, all of us do what we do for reasons that have roots in our history and culture. Some Jews, for example, wear great fur hats and long black coats and white stockings. You need to inquire into their history before you decide that they have unstylish taste. Calvinists put the pulpit at the center of focus in their churches: they have passionate reasons for adopting this architectural arrangement. Evangelicals sing a certain kind of gospel song, or praise song, which finds its roots in modern American culture. I am speaking, of course, of tradition. To be human at all is to be deeply rooted in tradition. We would all agree that there are bad traditions and good traditions: suttee in India, I suppose, and the shackling of slaves would be bad traditions, whereas taking off one's hat in a church and standing up when a woman comes into the room would be good traditions. To say that something is traditional leaves open the question as to whether it ought to be changed. If it is frivolous, or brutish, or misbegotten, then we would all agree that change is indicated.

There is no such thing, as you know, as nontraditional Christianity. What we do when we meet with other believers for worship, and the sequence we follow, and the very phrases and vocabulary that crop up--these did not spring straight from the pages of the New Testament yesterday. John Wesley, or General William Booth, or Menno Simons, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther, or J. N. Darby, or John Wimber, or D. L. Moody, or Roger Williams, or A. J. Gordon, or Ignatius of Antioch, or Clement of Rome, or Justin Martyr, or Gregory I--these gentlemen stand there between you and the morning of Pentecost in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

Even if you strive mightily for spontaneity in your worship, for example, you find two things: first, there is an ancient tradition of efforts at spontaneity in worship--it is called Montanism--and secondly, you discover that your spontaneity very quickly jells into half a dozen or so phrases and gestures. We are all human, forsooth, and we can no more shuck off tradition than we can shuck off these bodies of ours.

As our forerunners in the ancient Faith moved out from that dazzling Pentecostal morning into the long haul of history, we find that the touchstone for their life together, and for their prayer, and for their worship, was apostolic. Christianity was not just a higgledy-piggledy aggregate of independent believers and groups scattered across Samaria and Asia Minor. You had to be in obedient, visible, organic communion with the apostles themselves. Then, as the decades roiled on and Peter and John and James and the others died, you found yourself under the authority of the men on whom they had laid their hands. These men were overseers, or pastors: bishop is the word that came into play very quickly. If you were a Christian, you said, "Polycarp is my bishop", or "Ignatius is my bishop." There was no such thing in the Church to which you and I owe our faith--there was no such thing as an independent, or individualistic, Christian.

Naturally, zealous types popped up out of the weeds every hour on the half hour, so to speak, saying, "Hi, guys: I'm starting me a church over here", or "I've got a word from the Lord", or "The Holy Ghost has revealed thus and such to me." These men were called heresiarchs by the Christians (there were some women, too).

Things were very strict, actually: if you doubt this, look at Saint Paul's Epistles or eavesdrop on the Council in Jerusalem, which the apostles convened to decide what you were supposed to do about certain matters of conscience. The Christians were not left organizing workshops and symposia to hash over issues: the apostles told you what to do and what to believe. This news may make you skittish, but all of us, Baptist, O.P.C., Coptic, R.C., or Grace Chapel, have to agree that that was the way the apostles did things, for good or ill. If we attempt a different scheme, we do so under the titanic gaze of that great cloud of witnesses who, says the Book of Hebrews, are watching us as we stumble along through our fragment of history.

To be a believer at all in those early days was to look on yourself, not so much as a private individual who had accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, but rather as one who had joined himself to this entity called the Church. If, say, you were a Christian shopkeeper in Antioch, and I, your pagan neighbor, having watched you and your fellow believers for a couple of years, came to you and said, "Um, I think I'd like to become a Christian", you would not say to me, "Oh! Great! Here's John 3:16. We can just bow our heads here, and you can repeat this prayer after me, and then you'll be a Christian." No. You would say to me, "Ah. You want to be a Christian, do you? Well--I'll introduce you to our bishop, Ignatius, and he will turn you over to some of the Christians for instruction for about a year, and you will be allowed to sit in on our worship (but you'll have to leave when we get to the Lord's Supper every week), and then, next year the bishop will baptize you, and then you'll be a Christian."

If this sounds peculiar to us modern American believers, our attitude toward it is an index of how far we have removed ourselves from the disciplines and traditions of the very men to whom we owe our faith. And incidentally here, that ancient scheme may be what lies at the bottom of the confusion Evangelicals sometimes encounter when they ask some Roman Catholic if he is "saved" or "born again". Most Catholics will mutter and hem and haw, and possibly croak out, "No--I'm a Catholic." In so doing, he is groping for an identity that goes back to apostolic times. That word catholic came into play within a few decades after Pentecost. To be catholic was to be identified with Peter and John and Paul, and with Ignatius and Clement and Polycarp, and with that odd crowd in the Roman Empire who worshipped God and his servant Jesus (this is how they often phrased it). It was a profoundly corporate identity. Individualism had not taken control in those centuries, and, interestingly enough, it was at that time that what we see today as Roman Catholic piety began to form itself.

Which brings up a point: earnest Christian believers often speak of "going back to the Book of Acts", or of taking their cues from the New Testament alone, as though they were saying something trenchant. What they miss, of course, is that the infant Church did not take her cues from the New Testament (there was none), and secondly, that in this New Testament you can't find a blueprint for Christian worship (Acts 2:42 lists four ingredients of their meetings together, but does not tell us how they arranged things). And thirdly, of course, to insist too shrilly on a rigorous adherence to the letter of Acts 2:42 is to suggest that the seed which the Holy Ghost planted was a poor seed and never grew. A Roman Catholic sees the growth of the Church, and of her worship, not as a matter of naughty medieval popes Scotch-taping accretions onto the Church's worship until finally you get an extravaganza called a High Mass, but rather as the organic budding and flowering and fruit-bearing of a tree from a healthy seed--a tree big enough for all the birds of heaven to roost in, to borrow the Gospel phrase. So that, when you point out to a Catholic that his worship, the Mass, scarcely looks like those huddled gatherings in the Upper Room and so forth, he will be thinking of the habit that acorns have of growing into enormous oaks, which of course don't look like acorns at all.

This brings us to another point which I might be able to help with here. On this matter of the Mass, or the liturgy, as the apostolic Church called her worship, we blunder into something that might surprise you. When you go to the very, very earliest documents in the Church, you find that corporate worship had taken on a highly specific form. They met, not for a sermon mainly, nor for fellowship mainly, nor primarily for teaching, nor singing, nor anything else at all except the Eucharist. The Lord's Table, in other words. That, from the beginning, was what they meant by worship. They would have been stumped to find Christians two thousand years later gathering for corporate worship on the Lord's Day without celebrating the Eucharist.

And not only this: their worship did not take any old form. They knew nothing at all of spontaneity. Like the Lord Jesus, who had grown up in the synagogue, and like all the people of God right back to Moses and before, they would have known that, when you come together on a regular, recurring, long-term basis to offer the sacrifice of adoration at the Sapphire Throne, you need a form,. For the form sets you free from the shallow puddle of your own ad hoc resources of the moment and draws you into the dignity, nobility, and splendor attending the angelic worship of the Most High, and for which you and I yearn with fathomless yearning. For we mortals are, of course, ceremonial creatures. Hurrah for spontaneity in its place, but when we come to the great, central, profound mysteries that undergird our mortal life--birth, marriage, worship, and death--then we reach for a form. A ceremony. Every tribe, culture, society, and civilization has known this.

Why do we ceremonialize that which matters the most to us? Why do you brides dress up that way and walk so slowly down the aisle? Why do they drive the hearse so slowly? Why do you put those candles onto that birthday cake?

Because, you and I would protest, the ceremony, far from obscuring the event and far from cluttering things up, lo and behold, brings home to us the full weight of significance. Oh, to be sure, obstetrics and gynecology are to be praised for their assistance in getting our babies launched, but when we come to what it means--that a new person has appeared on the scene--ah, then, we need to go deeper than the obstetrics can carry us, and the only way we can do that is by means of ceremony. All Jews and all Orthodox and Roman Catholic and Anglican Christians count on this; and all Muslims and Hindus, and indeed people of every tribe and culture, will testify to this. So, if you tax a Roman Catholic friend about why Catholics stick with a rigid form for worship, he will not quite grasp what you are urging on him. Surely, he would want to know, you don't seriously suppose that spontaneity is what we want when we come, as the holy people of God, week after week, century after century, to offer the sacrifice of adoration at the Sapphire Throne?

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