Dear Donagh, I appreciate your website and I dip into it every so often.…
I want to ask, why is everything so boring in the church? Boring people, boring bishops, boring masses, boring everything. How could this be what Christ wanted? Is it the same in other churches and religions? AO’D
Dear A, thanks for your letter. I hope you don’t mind that I shortened it so drastically. (I cut out the boring bits!!) What you say is true: there's an atmosphere of vast boredom in many parts of the Church today. It's likely that there are very many causes of this, not just one cause.
Your question fans out to a wider question, and bear with me while I take a wider glance around. Boredom is a major fact of life in modern industrialised societies. This is a puzzling thing. How is it that in a world so full of exciting things and events we are now more subject to boredom than ever before? When I was a child we had a totally simple life, with none of the toys or amusements that children have now, and yet I never remember being bored. This could be a trick of memory, to some extent: it’s hard to remember emptiness. But I think it’s more than that. We had less expectation of novelty; a little of it went a long way. Children are able to create worlds out of almost nothing: a few sticks and stones become a house, a village, a world…. The world is very different now. But possessing more things doesn’t necessarily alleviate boredom; in fact it may even increase it. Boredom is about being unrelated to what I have; it's an emptiness of the heart. If I may put it this way: boredom, and its opposite (contentment), are not quantities but equations.
Children's toys today are mostly finished products: the toy car looks in every detail like a real car…. There is no call for imagination. The child can relate to it only as an owner, and ownership does not fill the heart. Yes, he is allowed to press buttons to make it go, but pressing buttons is about indirect action, distance, non-engagement. It is not experience. D.H. Lawrence wrote, "The great and fatal fruit of our civilisation, which is a civilisation based on knowledge, and hostile to experience, is boredom. All our wonderful education and learning is producing a grand sum-total of boredom. Modern people are inwardly thoroughly bored." He lived long before the invention of television and computers. What would he not say of us today?
"A civilisation based on knowledge, and hostile to experience." When we in the Church try on this cap it seems to fit very comfortably! In a series of excellent articles in Spirituality a few years ago James Kelly described the aftermath of the 17th-century Quietist controversy. "The resultant condemnations… were the occasion and cause of the subsequent spiritual tragedy which Henri Bremond has dubbed the 'rout of the mystics'. Thereafter the whole interior, spiritual and mystical life was viewed as dangerous and held in suspicion within the Church…. Thereafter we witness the gradual rise of the external dogmatic institutional element within the Church until it almost subsumed the whole reality during the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century." (Spirituality,1998, # 20. See also # 21; 1999, ## 22, 23, 24).
Yes, there has been a lop-sided emphasis on dogma, and it continues to the present. There are more 'theo-logicians' than theologians: the logos is not moving in them, but only the categories of logic. That bias is not limited to academic theologians; it is visible everywhere and at every level. Two years ago I read this in a liturgical calendar: "We are greatly helped not only by theological investigation but also by that heritage that is the lived theology of the saints." This one sentence stands out in my memory. So theology, it seems to say, is first and last; and the sanctified life is just an illustration of theology! Reflection is first, and only then (if at all) comes experience! But surely reflection by its very nature (and as the word implies) comes second.
The deepest cause of boredom in the Church, I believe, is this endemic rationalism that fails to nourish the spirit or even the imagination. People are bored because the Faith is presented to them as a finished product (like the modern child's toy). All we are called to do is to declare it ours. "Let us stand to profess our faith!" (For contrast, look at the Rule of St Columcille in 'Wisdom Line',.)
But the Spirit is always moving in the Church. There are so many new initiatives happening. For example, millions of Christians everywhere are discovering meditation and contemplative prayer. There are meditation groups everywhere I go; I marvel at the number of them. In Cork, where I live (a tiny city), there are at least 20 meditation groups. I have friends who are totally committed to the faith in a variety of practical ways. There are great things happening in the Church. Take a look, for example, at www.integritas.ie. This young married couple are dear friends of mine. The Spirit is moving in the Church. Learn where to look!
It was said that religion is what you do with your solitude. You could also say it is what you do with your boredom. There is some sense in which we have to be empty if we are to receive. Boredom isn't all bad. What freedom would be ours if we could sit down sometimes with our emptiness (empty feelings especially) and see it not as something to be avoided at all costs, but as a purification and a clearing of space for something new to be born! In fact we would never come to anything new if we were afraid of emptiness; our whole lives would be only a rearrangement of what we already have.
All these new initiatives need to be gathered in; they give life to the Church. Or rather, they are an expression of its life. That is the meaning of the word 'integritas' in my friends' new initiative in Co. Kilkenny. If left outside, a new initiative runs the risk of becoming unbalanced and elitist. There is always the danger of false separations: private versus public, informal versus formal, individual versus universal…. For balance, everything has to be gathered in.
I hope this has been of some help, A. God's blessing!