“New Spirituality” & the Ghost of Catholicism

By John A. Perricone | New Oxford Review, January-February 2021

The Deleterious Effects of a Subtle Inversion

One of Hollywood’s more sybaritic starlets solemnly announced the other day that she was embarking on a 30-day “spiritual cleanse” in India. Since neither ecumenism nor eco-enthusiasm is my métier, I was bewildered. Could it be some novel gnostic excrescence? Or a 21st-century variation of Stoic apatheia? Perhaps a new twist on commonplace pantheism? Knowing Hollywood, it is more likely some terribly au currant exercise in self-absorption. No doubt it is that epiphenomenon of modernity — namely, being spiritual without being religious. But without religion, the spiritual is a vain voyage into the self.

Common error sees the spiritual as merely the non-physical. That is like saying a Titian painting is merely the absence of white. But that is missing the fuller picture — in fact, missing it entirely. When “spirituality” departs from the moorings of religion, it becomes anything that suits one’s taste. Beware of those “who say they wish Christianity to remain as a spirit,” Chesterton once warned, for “they mean, very literally, that they wish it to remain as a ghost.”

This parlous error is not confined to the pampered denizens of Hollywood. It has long taken up residence in the Church herself. No surprise, as it is the softer side of the hard-knuckled modernism that has been pummeling the Church for over one hundred years, reappearing now with a greater virulence than ever. What are its signs?

A conspicuous absence of doctrine, a decided tincture of Freudian / Rogerian self-stroking, a marked identification of “spiritual progress” with self-aggrandizement, a thinly veiled contempt for the Catholic tradition of striving for perfection, a studied attempt to reconfigure a Catholic figure — when admitted of mention at all — such as attempting to make St. Catherine of Siena or St. Julian of Norwich the antecedents of feminism, or even the Virgin Mother for that matter.

The softer side of Modernism

This “new spirituality” litters the contemporary Catholic landscape, leaving any naïve Catholic searching for God engulfed by its ideology. Its tribe suffers no lack of handsome facilities, usually identified as “spirituality centers,” a Huxleyan term the irony of which is lost on its partisans. Those are essentially therapeutic depots with a thin veneer of Christianity, monuments to what sociologist Philip Reiff called “the triumph of the therapeutic,” in a book of the same name. Visitors are greeted by practitioners wearing carefully affirming smiles with a Potemkin village manner. All of it a genteel descent into a Dantean demimonde.

The Church has suffered eruptions of this faux “spirituality” many times over the millennia, but heretofore she mustered the will to condemn it. That will has yielded to an irenic torpor. This ugly blotch on the Bride of Christ has many origins. Its remote predicates lie with the gnostics of the first century, the Manichees of the fourth, Joaquim of Fiore and the Spiritual Franciscans of the 13th, the questionable Cloud of Unknowing and the ambiguous Meister Eckhart of the 14th, the Alumbrados of 16th-century Spain, and the Jansenist Petite Église and the Quietists of 17th-century France.

But the most proximate can be traced to a 20th-century Cistercian monk, Fr. Louis, whose name in the world was more recognizable, Thomas Merton. This world-famous convert produced works on Catholic spirituality that can rightfully be called classics. More than a few thrilled to the lines of Seven Storey Mountain, Seeds of Contemplation, Bread in the Wilderness, and The Last of the Fathers. These works were part of a stellar period following his entrance into Cistercian seclusion in 1941. By the end of that decade he had become, for many, an iconic figure, fit to beckon souls to the delights of the interior life of sanctification as few others in the century had.

It lasted until the early 1960s, when Merton strayed. Permitted to leave his cloister — a shocking departure for that ancient Order of St. Bernard of Clairvaux — he began to rub shoulders with the emerging Catholic Left and gradually shed his old Catholic skin. His written works became hostage to the antinomian Spirit of the Sixties. The ancient Catholic spiritual/ascetical/mystical tradition, which Merton loved passionately and propagated eloquently, began to dim in his writings. Then it finally disappeared. Replacing it was a faddish syncretism that spoke of Lao Tzu rather than John of the Cross, karma instead of Calvary. Tragic for Merton — even more tragic for the Church.

Thomas Merton, complex man

The effects of this subtle inversion rippled out to every corner of the Church. Catholic institution after Catholic institution — seminaries, convents, houses of formation, schools, and parishes — surrendered to its sweet song of emancipation. In the 1960s and 1970s it was a Daring New Thing, a tantalizing rupture from 2,000 years of the Catholic ascetical tradition that had forged saints and mystics. By the 1980s it had become Standard Operating Procedure, a new orthodoxy for a “reimagined” church. And today? Consider this freshman “retreat” conducted at a New York Catholic high school this past year: The parents were asked to reflect on the following prompts, and their responses were then read to the teenage “retreatants.”

Your support for him/her despite all the misgivings, fights, and mistakes.
 The unique qualities you admire about your child.
 Your child’s growth and maturity in the past year and transition into high school.
 Your belief in them, dreams, and support for the future.
 The importance of values such as kindness and love.
 Anything unique to your child and your relationship with them.

Recall, this was part of a “spiritual retreat.” If it seems instead part of a routine therapy session, you are right. Is there any mention of God? Any reference to the Catholic Church or her teachings? What about adherence to the commandments? Confession? Prayer? Sacrifice? Virtue? Christ crucified? All these clear markers of Catholic perfection are buried beneath an oleaginous newspeak designed to sterilize the soul of its supernatural aspiration. Perhaps this too is a form of child abuse that deserves prosecution.

This descent into solipsistic reverie takes its cue from a serious and long-mounted reconceptualization of God. Ascent of Mount Carmel and Interior Castle propounded by Doctors of Prayer like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila, respectively, are pre-empted for a feckless journey into the Freudian landscape of the inner consciousness. Any identification with the classic Catholic touchstones is treated as retrograde and atavistic.

Yet, no matter all their theological legerdemain, one truth remains: Union with God is won only on the Cross through the Tabernacle. True holiness possesses one litmus test: a deeper devotion to the doctrinal truths of the Catholic Church. Not merely nods to detached abstractions, but flights of passionate love. All other roads are dead ends paved by the Prince of Lies.

St. Augustine warned against this foray into the self-as-god because he once fell victim to its titillations. He was lured into a Manichean universe and a Plotinian Absolute, which leaves man unanchored to moral norms or bereft of contact with a personal God. After famously reading the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” Augustine exalted as though a heavy boulder had been lifted from his chest. “The Light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away,” he wrote. And he concluded, “You had converted me to yourself.”

At his baptism on Easter A.D. 387, Augustine entered the Ambrosian basilica in Milan and, in the words of C.C. Pecknold, “Singing hymns, experiencing a miraculous healing, touching the relics of martyrs, and breathing in the fragrance of the Holy Eucharist, the altar of his heart has been turned around by God. He knows that it is only God who can draw together all the scattered and fragmented elements of our lives, but we must offer all of ourselves to be forged in the fires of divine charity” (Catholic Herald, Jan. 27, 2020).

By the end of Book Ten of his Confessions, Augustine is writing as the Bishop of Hippo: “I am mindful of my ransom. I eat it, I drink it, I dispense it to others, and as a poor man, long to be filled with it.”

This alone is the soaring summary of a life of spiritual perfection, thoroughly grounded in the doctrine and tradition of the Church. Compare it to the “new spirituality.” Exactly. There is no comparison. The former proffers a royal road to Christ’s heart on Golgotha, the latter a narcissistic cul de sac of cloying conceit.

Spiral Into Chaos

As soon as a soul seeks a path other than the one set forth by the Catholic Church, he finds himself in a spiral of deceptions. St. John of the Cross tartly replied to those given to this temptation:

Fr. Bede Griffiths, OSB CAM

“[It] outrages Our Lord that you merely glance at your crucifix…. God would have a right to say, ‘Here you have my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him, and do not seek for new modes of teaching. Because in Him, and by Him, I have told you and revealed all that you can desire and ask me, giving Him to you as a brother, as a master, as a friend, as a ransom and as a reward.’”

The “new spirituality” is an ugly caricature of the truths of union with God set forth by the Church, her saints, and her Doctors. It is a blueprint for a soul’s demise, a perilous mimicry of modernity’s folly.

Whether it be the strange god of Hollywood’s invention or the still stranger god of modernism’s excreta, Catholics should flee it. For God is to be pursued only as God, the Thrice Holy God of Hosts. For that, one need go no further than one’s crucifix, then the Tabernacle.

Anything else is Catholicism’s ghost.

©2021 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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Fr. John A. Perricone, a Contributing Editor of the New Oxford Review, is Professor of Philosophy at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies, and at CrisisMagazine.com.

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St. Paul in Athens. Mars Hill. The Unknown God.

Acts Chapter 17

22 So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said:

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, 28 for

In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your poets have said,

For we are indeed his offspring.’

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.”

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from among them. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionys′ius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

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