He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

In Denial: Dionysian Christianity

I recently read an article from Leah Rosenzweig about her feeling of betrayal after learning that prominent members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had committed horrifying sexual crimes.  Including one who had created the program in which she was a youth leader.

I understand the sense of betrayal.

Historically, because I entered the Catholic Church shortly before the sex abuse scandals in Boston were made public, I can almost feel her anger.  I shared it.

The first revelations of the sex abuse crisis left me quite angry, an anger I really didn't know how to process as a teenager.

Presently, it's a good thing that I've since learned how to process anger, because the recent investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups in Pennsylvania have resulted in that profound anger and I becoming re-acquainted.

Like Leah Rosenzweig, the mercy of the Church toward Maciel looks to me like cowardice on this matter.  Not because the hierarchy was lenient with Maciel alone, but because it has been so lenient with so many child abusers, with those who groom teenage boys to be their paramours, and with those who violated their vows of chastity, whether with grown women or grown men.

Instead of dealing decisively to remove the wolves from the sheepfold, the shepherds in many cases simply re-located the wolves to happier hunting grounds where they could prey upon more of the sheep.

This isn't just a callous response.  It's a weak response, and it's this weak response that she rightly rejects.  Ultimately, it prompts her to leave the Church altogether, despite her sympathies for the Church and its members even during her college years when she left the Catholic faith behind.

She mentions that the sort of Catholicism she encountered was rather weak and seemed a bit un-Dionysian after her exposure to Nietzsche, and I wish that she had made this point a bit more strongly.  In perhaps a bit less of an Apollonian fashion, so to speak.

The practice of many Catholics here in the U.S. and other places in the West has indeed become rather weak.  Nietzsche would be appropriately appalled by it, as he was by the bourgeois Christianity of Germany in his day.

This bourgeois Christianity is resurgent now, but it's not always been the default way of being a Catholic Christian.  Catholic Christianity as practiced by the Saints (whether canonized or not) has been and continues to be the radical answer to the question, "Master, what must I do to have eternal life?"

This bourgeois Christianity of many Catholics today is not the Catholic Christianity of St. Francis of Assisi's radical commitment to poverty for the sake of loving God and neighbor.  Nor is it the Catholic Christianity of St. Dominic, the Canon of Osma who preached the Gospel as a barefoot itinerant priest who actually practiced what he preached.

This bourgeois Christianity is disconnected from the witness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those wild desert-dwellers whose spiritual advice is filled with boldness and strength.  It's disconnected from the passion for Christ and the deep knowledge of one's own sin that St. Augustine showed in his Confessions.

This bourgeois Christianity would barely recognize the boldly mystical and visceral theology of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who laid down his life for the faith.  It's a sort of un-Dionysian Christianity not only in the Nietzschean sense of what it means to be Dionysian.

It is also un-Dionysian in the sense that it rejects the bold theology and martyrdom of St. Dionysius as unnecessary and perhaps a bit unnerving.  This weak, simpering "so secular they were almost cool" Christianity is not a Christianity worth having.

Indeed, it is barely any kind of Christianity at all.

Like Leah, I was formed in the tradition of this un-Dionysian and weak Catholic Christianity that is resurgent today.  I was very tempted to leave the Church to become a Buddhist, to do something more radical with my life.

To do something, interestingly, that she might see as more Dionysian, more life-affirming and exciting, to venture into an Eastern tradition so different from one's own and delight in it.  I decided not to do that, for reasons I've explained before.

I still feel somewhat drawn to that weakened Catholic Christianity.  There's an appeal in the kumbaya sensibility of that tradition, in the feelings of acceptance and community, a community that does not require much beyond being agreeable and...lukewarm.

But being lukewarm and comfortable in a community that easily accepts me isn't what I want to be.  It won't radically transform me in light of the Gospel message.  It won't bring me closer to the divine life of Love Himself.  There's no theosis in it.

I am glad that I found out that Christianity too is Dionysian as well as Apollonian, that to be Christian is indeed to be zealous in faith, to be radically committed to living a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the commandments of the one who loved us unto death.

The same One whom Peter denied three times, just as we often deny Him by our lives.

Lots of Catholic Christians are in denial.  Some in the hierarchy are in denial about the depth of their complicity in the sexual abuse crisis.  Others are in denial about the problems they have caused with their weak, simpering version of Christianity that is barely worth the name.

All of us are probably in denial about something that is holding us back from fully imitating Christ.

This is why we all need a Dionysian Christianity, a Christianity of radical witness to the Gospel to pull us out of our selfishness, a Christianity that reflects the insight gleaned from the wild asceticism of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a Christianity that by our lives shows all the passion and humility of St. Augustine of Hippo.

We need the bold Dionysian Christianity of St. Francis and St. Dominic, who renewed the Church during dissolute times by living the Evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

We need a Christianity that shows the extravagance of Love, a Christianity that will not settle for anything less than full communion with the beloved, one that rushes in like a fool to find the eternal wellspring of Love.

We need the Christianity of St. Dionysius, who lived for mystical union with Christ and laid down his life for Christ so that he might find that mystical union.

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.  See my Sources page for more information about which translation I used.

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