Catholicism: Living Mystery or Human Label?

Rose Window, Temple Church, London EC4
Rose Window, Temple Church, London EC4 by Christine Matthews is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

In dialoguing with non-Catholics in secular society, the greatest problem will frequently be complete lack of understanding.

This can easily arise because – often without realising it – non-Catholics and Catholics have completely different understandings of what the Church is.

For within the secular world, the idea has become prevalent that Catholicism amounts to little more than a denomination, a belief system or a theological and moral code – pretty much like every other religion (or division thereof).

And of course, the non-Catholic has the liberty to hold such opinions, if that is how the Catholic Church appears to him.

However, there is likely to be continuing confusion – lack of understanding – unless Catholics of Faith make clear that this is not how the Catholic Church appears to us.

For me, it seems then burningly urgent to make clear that the Catholic Church has never regarded itself in such terms. Rather, these are relatively recent notions that the modern, secular world has constructed around the Church.

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All this hit home to me in a recent exchange on Facebook, where a woman spoke of Protestantism and Catholicism, in a way which suggested that they amounted to little more than ‘labels’. She also spoke to the effect that the name over the church door had little importance.

And before we go further, let me stress that I did not take her words to be anti-Catholic.

No, I sensed no such agenda on her part, but very much the reverse. I sensed a real sympathy for the Catholic Faith in her attitude.

Moreover, she strikes me as idealistic, articulate, educated, warm …

And I guess that she feels in her heart, the pain of the Wound to Christendom – that Christians are divided against each other.

And I guess that for her this Wound to Christendom can be addressed by not getting caught in labels.

I stress that word guess.  For it is dangerous to read too much into a Facebook exchange.

What follows will inevitably say more about my guesses than a real-life flesh and blood woman, logged into Facebook, whom I have never met.

Still I guess that she belongs to a vast number of people these days, who – consciously or unconsciously – tend to see religion in largely human terms.

I guess that she belongs to a vast group of people who see the Catholic Church as a denomination – meaning a human-created organisational system divided from other human-created organisational systems.

I guess that she belongs to the same vast group of people that I once belonged to.

For certainly in my youth, I would have deeply resonated with the idea: “Let’s not get caught in religious labels.  All that matters is what lies in the heart.”

And so I turned to Findhorn and the New Age movement, where such labels were downplayed or indeed, scorned.

And speaking very personally now – I wasted years of my life within that New Age movement. Years that I am now trying to undo and make reparation for.

Because all that time that I regarded religion as little more than a belief system, I was being sidetracked – diverted from unspeakably precious Mystery.

Diverted from the Mystery that now turns my life inside-out.

The good woman in the Facebook exchange spoke as though religious “labels” were unimportant. What mattered was the purity in one’s heart and one’s relationship with Christ.

How I agree with her that such purity and such relationship is what matters!

Unfortunately, the more my life is turned inside-out by the unsettling nature of the Catholic Mystery, the more I see how impure my heart really is. And the more I see how poor my relationship with Jesus Christ really is …

And the more I see that Jesus Christ understands how frail I am, how impure I am, how very much I would betray my relationship Him – and how therefore I need.

I need something that no mere label, no mere belief system could ever give me:

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I am the living bread which came down from heaven. … The bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world.

The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you …

For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him .

John 6:54-57

As a New Ager living at Findhorn, how confident I would have been that Catholicism was simply another label, an “Old Age” religion fading away as we exited Pisces and entered the Age of Aquarius.

And what would I have thought had I been told then that twenty five years later in the future, this “Old Age Piscean religion” would be more precious than anything that Findhorn could ever give me?

Because that “Old Age Piscean religion” is not a label, not a belief system, not a human-created denomination – but a Living Mystery which can turn your life inside-out, dear Unknown Friend on Facebook.

And I need to speak out, dear Unknown Friend on Facebook, because while I believe in your sincerity, in your goodwill, in your heartfelt longing to see an end to the Wounds that separates one Christian from another …

We will never achieve that through reductionism – I mean: reducing a Living Mystery to a label …

This reductionism is what the secular world tells us, this reductionism is what the New Age tells us.

But it has never been the understanding of the Holy Church – the Mystical Body of Christ – in either the Catholic West or the Orthodox East …

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7 responses to “Catholicism: Living Mystery or Human Label?”

  1. Jon Spayde Avatar
    Jon Spayde

    Roger, I could not agree more that the living mystery called Catholicism cannot be understood as a mere label. At the same time, the living mystery called the Holy Qur’an, and its relationship to Islam, Submission to God, cannot be so reduced. Nor can the life-changing force of Realization as understood by the Vedanta. Three living and vital mysteries. I often feel that the “mere label” idea is an attempt to come to terms with this, which for me is a profound truth–the multiplicity of authentic, and even orthodox, paths. A secularized and thin attempt to be sure. The simple fact that truly holy people have followed all three, and others, and that each is a repository of truth and wisdom far beyond New Age superficiality, is the challenge. I am also a convert to Catholicism after years of simple foolish academic atheism, but the gift of my academic years was familiarity with Asia and some small sense of the depth and truth of Asian religion. If I am to take seriously the faith of billions of human beings who do not happen to be Christian or Catholic, if I am not to imagine that God made a mistake in creating them and their faiths, (or in creating ours) it seems to me that I must at least consider a God who cannot be fully received in the terms of any one of them.

    I don’t offer this dogmatically–it is simply the only place I can honestly go.

    1. roger Avatar

      Thank you, Jon.

      Rest assured that I think a profound distinction needs to be made between New Age superficialities and traditions that have far more profound roots. Nor do I believe that God ignores the “billions of human beings who do not happen to be Christian or Catholic” – as you put it – through no fault of their own.

      Everything you say spoke deeply to me for years.

      However in recent years, I have had to weigh other factors alongside these. Some of these have arisen from my contemplation of Valentin Tomberg’s works. And although I am not completely sure, I think you are one of the people coming to this site via its connexions with Tomberg. So I hope that invoking him in my response will not be unwelcome.

      So what are the other factors that began to weigh on me, after years of total resonance with the wisdom contained in your words above?

      Big topic – but here are indications at least.

      First the real dangers – grave dangers – of syncretism and notions of interchangeability between religions (though I am not saying you advocate such things at all!).

      Second, also very, very weighing on my heart – the slow DEATH of the Church.

      Now Valentin Tomberg wrote in terms severely critical of Vatican II (You can find much of this critique at this website here.

      Note the implied critique of the post Vatican II attitude to ‘mixed marriages with those of another faith’!

      Mixed marriages!?! Why on earth is Tomberg implying criticism of mixed marriages!?! This troubled me my liberal heart for years …)

      However as I worked with Tomberg’s critique of Vatican II and deeply conservative Catholicism – rather than avoided it – I began to be ever more hit by the reasons why he would venture to support things like the pre-Vatican II attitude to ‘mixed marriages with those of another faith’- i.e. that the non-Catholic partner should convert.

      These reasons lie somewhat in the factors I have just mentioned regarding syncretism and interchangeability.

      And again there is matter of the slow DEATH of the Church in the wake of Vatican II. As Tomberg writes in Lazarus Come Forth after his critique of Vatican II:

      “The darkening which today is described as “the present crisis of the Catholic Church” can lead to the necessity for the solitary sons of the Church to hurry to the aid of the Holy Father, the most solitary of solitaries, in order to save the Church from the abyss toward which she is moving …”

      I would append to all of this, the profound distinction that Tomberg makes between religion pre-Calvary and post-Calvary.

      While I have very much contemplated Tomberg’s thoughts regarding the nocturnal effects of the Gospel in transforming Buddhism in terms of ‘Asia‘s moral values’ (my emphasis – MotT pg 102), I also have noted the very, very sharp distinctions he makes at times between Christianity and Eastern religion.

      Thus I have spent a great deal of time thinking regarding Tomberg’s thoughts regarding religion which is oriented to being as opposed to religion oriented to love:

      ‘He who chooses being will aspire to true being and he who chooses love will aspire to love. For one only finds that for which one seeks.

      The seeker for true being will arrive at the experience of repose in being, and as there cannot be two true beings (“the illegitimate twofoldness” of Saint-Martin) or two separate co-eternal substances but only one being and one substance, the centre of “false being” will be suppressed (“false being” = ahamkara, or the illusion of the separate existence of a separate substance of the “self).

      The characteristic of this mystical way is that one loses the capacity to cry.

      An advanced pupil of yoga or Vedanta will for ever have dry eyes …”

      So much more might be said, Jon. But let me note that these words about “for ever” – this radical distinction Tomberg makes between Christianity and Vedanta on page 36 seems clearly related to his words a few pages earlier on pg 31 regarding the same theme:

      ‘This problem can open the door to truly divine mysteries and can also close them to us . . . for ever, perhaps, who knows?’

      All of this is I think key to Tomberg’s deeply critical of Vatican II and indicates why Jon I can respect your views above, I also have to weigh many other factors.

      A last underscoring of the above …

      15 years of working with Tomberg’s writings, including his little known legal writings, plus many years of privileged access to aspect’s of Tomberg’s legacy not generally known in the English-speaking world, have convinced me that Tomberg was very gravely concerned for the fate of Christianity in the new millennium that is upon us.

      The Holy Church since Vatican II has moved close, very close to the abyss … And this website is a struggle to know how to honour the truth contained in what you say Jon and at the same time do whatever I can – whatever little drop I can – to help the Church at the edge of the Abyss.

      And finally Jon, if you will, please see my response below to Agnikan. Because the syncretistic New World Religion of Alice Bailey is something that I believe Valentin Tomberg was very concerned with …

  2. Agnikan Avatar

    In the age of Aquarius, the Piscean religions would still survive and, even, thrive.

    1. roger Avatar

      Thank you, Agnikan. I do not know which “New Age Authority” you turn to for this assertion, however allow me to name the “New Age Authority” which guided me for years and on which I base my statements: Alice Bailey.

      In my youth at Findhorn, I studied intensely thousands of pages of Alice Bailey – which it must be said are so much at the very root of these New Age notions of Pisces and Aquarius.

      Alice Bailey is very clear: with the outgoing Age of Pisces and the outgoing Sixth Ray, Christianity the Piscean religion par excellence (according to Alice Bailey!) is bound to fade away in favour of Alice Bailey’s syncretistic New World Religion …

      Perhaps you are studying another ‘New Age authority’ on this subject – but I suspect that such a ‘New Age authority’ will owe a great deal to the neo-theosophical stream of Alice Bailey.

  3. Troy Avatar

    “… the pain of the Wound to Christendom – that Christians are divided against each other”

    If you think about it that’s really people problem, not a ‘Christianity’ problem. People are divided against each other. You find this problem within every label/group.

    1. roger Avatar

      Yes indeed Troy and thank you!

      This is a problem of the Fall … and the Fall is not overcome through reducing Christianity to labels, the Fall is overcome through His Sacrifice on Calvary.

  4. roger Avatar

    For the record, I wish to note that comments have been deleted from this thread.

    This was due to a contributor wishing that his/her comments be deleted and my feeling it right to delete my own comments in response, which would have only highlighted that which the first contributor wanted to be eliminated.

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