Friday, November 7, 2014

Nine Cheers for Exotericism

I have been writing a memoir about my journey to the Catholic Church after a forty-year detour through esoteric spirituality.

The term is purposefully vague. I won’t go into the precise nature of the New Age teaching I followed before finding my way to Rome, though I do so in the book I am writing.

Here in this space, I simply want to work out what it was about that teaching that was wrong—or didn’t work for me—and how the Catholic Church provides a better answer.

Coming to grips with this part of my personal history has been hard. It has been more difficult than living the history itself, because while I lived it I was convinced that I was doing right. It’s painful now to accept being so wrong for so long, but there’s always Flannery O’Connor’s statement for consolation:

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

Here are a few features of the path I followed, which may apply to other paths like it. I will explain why I think the Catholic Church is different in each case. I apologize for any inaccuracies or misinterpretations. I am only trying to work all this out as relatively new lay Catholic.

Comments are welcome.

1. The path I followed demanded absolute obedience to the man who directed it.  

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—Let’s not even talk about papal infallibility. As anyone who has looked an inch deep into it knows, papal infallibility has been invoked just twice in history. Both times it did nothing but confirm what ordinary Catholics had believed for centuries, namely that Mary was conceived without sin (the Immaculate Conception) and that on her death Mary was assumed bodily into heaven (the Assumption).

The authority one follows as a Catholic is not the Pope, but the Magisterium. That term, meanly hijacked by Phillip Pullman for his Dark Materials trilogy, is in fact beautiful. The Magisterium is essentially a consensus of Church leadership over two millennia.

When I agree to heed the Magisterium, I am following not only the Pope and the bishops of present day. I also am following the early Church Fathers for whom the Resurrection was as recent as the American Civil War or Revolution is for us. I also am following St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, and other Doctors of the Church. I also am following all the saints from the most brilliant to the lowliest, like one of my favorites, St. André Bessette.

I am kin to all of them: a good family that.

2. Our leader’s source of authority was himself, based in personal charisma and an encyclopedic knowledge of academic psychology and spiritual tradition. He was answerable to no one else. In a word, he was self-ordained. 

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—My pastor was ordained by and is answerable to a bishop. The bishop is answerable to an archbishop,* who is answerable to the Pope. The Pope’s authority stems from an unbroken line of Apostolic transmission, but even the Pope’s authority is limited (see #1).

3. Our leader claimed to be connected with a national and international network of teachers like himself, but when he saw that another leader might have influence over us, his followers, he isolated us from those leaders.   

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—The moment we become Catholics, we avoid all such manipulative techniques. We become members in good standing of a worldwide community of believers and an eternity-wide communion of saints. And we have at our disposal the traditions and wisdom of Church teaching gathered over two thousand years. We do not need a pastor or bishop to give us access to any of that.

4. Relationships between followers of our leader were secondary to each individual’s relationship with the leader himself. The best diagram of our spiritual community was a wagon wheel: hub, spokes, and rim. The leader was the hub; his closest followers were the spokes; and the less involved were the rim. 

The spokes on a wagon wheel do not touch. Their only connection is through their common connection with the hub. In our organization the only intimacy was generally found between outliers on the rim. In many cases these proved to be “rebels against the empire.” 

In other words, the path I followed discouraged genuine community and friendship.

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—The organizational diagram of the universal Catholic Church is hierarchical but not in the way many think. It is, in an analogy offered by St. Paul, a head (Christ) and a body (the rest of us). As Catholics we are all part of this one body, connected by the blood in our veins. Some are brain tissue, some heart tissue, some muscle.

Unlike the community I left, I began making friends as soon as I entered the Catholic church. This is one reason I now sing the praises of “exotericism.”

5. Being esoteric, the path I followed claimed to be for a select few, an enlightened cadre. It was Skull and Bones for the spiritually excellent. In fact, some referred to our path as esoteric Christianity, meaning that it taught what Jesus really meant, the inner teaching He offered only to his closest disciples. 

NB: This may seem an outrageous claim, but it is commonly made today. It is made by any New Age teacher or even religious humanist who sees in Jesus Christ a particularly good man but not the Son of God; and who claims to discern the essence of Jesus’s teaching, i.e., what Jesus, the really good man, meant. The rest of his teaching is set aside as extraneous. Even Thomas Jefferson did this in a custom selection of Bible readings he created, which summed up all he thought was important in Jesus’s teaching.

What would Jesus do? is a question that many people who disown the label religious feel qualified to answer anyway. 

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—The Catholic Church is exoteric. It is for the rich and the poor, the intellectually gifted and the mentally challenged.

No passage in the Gospels sums up Jesus’s teaching more succinctly than the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the poor in spirit. But then of course the Beatitudes can be interpreted “esoterically”! (I’ll explain if you like.)

6. Esoteric paths like the one I followed look down on ordinary, “exoteric” Christian practice.   

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—The Church, of course, celebrates such practice. And meanwhile it not only calls the poor blessed, it cares for the poor.

What place do the poor have in “esoteric Christianity”? Answer: none.

7. Those like our leader who claim esoteric understanding set themselves up as a spiritual aristocracy, no matter how they profess democracy and other liberal ideals.

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—The Catholic Church is the most inclusive organization, not to mention the longest-lived, in human history. In time, the aristocratic, esoteric path I followed will have dwindled to an overgrown track in the woods, while the Catholic Church will continue serving as the King’s Highway—a term from The Pilgrim’s Progess, about which more soon on this blog.

8. Those who follow an esoteric teaching take too much on faith. The authority for esotericism is usually some unknown, unnamed source, often “in the East.” Or else it is the personal revelation enjoyed by a single “enlightened” teacher. Neither can be verified by the rank and file. 

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—Compared with such nonsense, Christian faith is eminently reasonable. The authority for exoteric Christianity is everywhere around us, from the Bible and two thousand years of Church teaching and tradition to the very culture of the West, founded on Christianity.

9. The path I followed was essentially a humanist path, one in which God is not necessary.  

HOW THE CHURCH IS DIFFERENT—If you don’t know how the Church is different in this case, you haven’t been paying attention.


* Actually, in the archdiocese of Boston, the bishop is the archbishop, but you get the idea.

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