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Catholic Spirituality: An essay by Dr. Thomas Howard

Editor’s note: The following essay by Dr. Thomas Howard, who died this past week at the age of 85, was originally a lecture given at Gordon College in June 1995.  It appears in the collection The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard.

My guess is that a great clutter of bric-a-brac swims into your imagination when you hear of Catholic spirituality: rosaries, holy water stoups, crucifixes, little plastic Saint Christophers for your dashboard, and laminated holy cards depicting pastel-tinted saints with their eyes cast soulfully up into the ozone, not to mention all the polychrome statues and banks of candles flickering in little red glass cups (there are even electric candles that have a bogus flicker).

My guess is also that I am addressing at least three groups of people all stirred in together here in this assembly. The biggest group of you would locate yourselves in that wing of Protestantism known as Evangelicalism and will have been brought up in Evangelical households. A second group will tell us, “I was a Catholic until I was fifteen, then I met Jesus”, or “I was Catholic until I was seventeen, then I, became a Christian.” A third group of you are Roman Catholic even as we speak and may possibly have discovered that some of your colleagues here are very far from satisfied that your Catholicism qualifies you as a Christian. There may also be a fourth group, namely, those of you who are trying to shuck off whatever remnants of the Christian religion are still clinging to you so that you can get on with your own agenda.

Let me see if I can throw any light on this topic of Catholic spirituality so that the whole array of us may grasp things in a fairly clear light.

As you know, all of us do what we do for reasons that have roots in our history and culture. Some Jews, for example, wear great fur hats and long black coats and white stockings. You need to inquire into their history before you decide that they have unstylish taste. Calvinists put the pulpit at the center of focus in their churches: they have passionate reasons for adopting this architectural arrangement. Evangelicals sing a certain kind of gospel song, or praise song, which finds its roots in modern American culture. I am speaking, of course, of tradition. To be human at all is to be deeply rooted in tradition. We would all agree that there are bad traditions and good traditions: suttee in India, I suppose, and the shackling of slaves would be bad traditions, whereas taking off one’s hat in a church and standing up when a woman comes into the room would be good traditions. To say that something is traditional leaves open the question as to whether it ought to be changed. If it is frivolous, or brutish, or misbegotten, then we would all agree that change is indicated.

There is no such thing, as you know, as nontraditional Christianity. What we do when we meet with other believers for worship, and the sequence we follow, and the very phrases and vocabulary that crop up–these did not spring straight from the pages of the New Testament yesterday. John Wesley, or General William Booth, or Menno Simons, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther, or J. N. Darby, or John Wimber, or D. L. Moody, or Roger Williams, or A. J. Gordon, or Ignatius of Antioch, or Clement of Rome, or Justin Martyr, or Gregory I–these gentlemen stand there between you and the morning of Pentecost in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

Even if you strive mightily for spontaneity in your worship, for example, you find two things: first, there is an ancient tradition of efforts at spontaneity in worship–it is called Montanism–and secondly, you discover that your spontaneity very quickly jells into half a dozen or so phrases and gestures. We are all human, forsooth, and we can no more shuck off tradition than we can shuck off these bodies of ours.

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