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If your guardian angel waves at you, wave back.

Catholic elite's head trip misses heart of the matter

True story: Recently, an elderly man lay dying in a hospital bed. At the same time, his sister died unexpectedly in another city. The man's adult daughter and friends decided not to tell him of his sister's death, fearing the news would upset him and affect his condition. The hospital staff agreed; the doctors and nurses said they would keep the news to themselves.

The next time his daughter visited, however, the dying man said he knew his sister was dead. Astonished, his daughter asked, "How did you know?"

"A woman told me last night."

"What woman?"

"I don't know," he said peacefully. "A woman in white."

The man's daughter concluded a nurse or doctor must have let slip the news, and even though her father didn't seem upset at all, she was irritated. She complained, but the staff insisted that none of them bad told her father. Who was the mysterious "woman in white"?

Did an angel tell the man his sister had died? Many who belong to what Andrew Greeley calls the "Catholic elite" - college-educated, often with graduate degrees, theologically articulate, often church professionals - would be skeptical. Other Catholics, many of those who constitute the more than 55 million "ordinary Catholics" in this country, would be less likely to scoff. Why?

Because those whose spirituality is intuitive, centered mainly in the heart, not the head, have a feel for this sort of thing. Call them unsophisticated and anti-intellectual and they may suggest that your faith depends more on theories than experience.

Joan Wester Anderson is a Catholic writer who hit on the idea to write a book about ordinary people's encounters with angels. She rented a post office box and wrote a letter to the editor asking people to send their angel stories. Her letter appeared in three Catholic and two mainline Protestant publications. The first time she checked her post office box it was crammed with letters from people eager to tell their stories.

After a mere eight months, Anderson's book Where Angels Walk (Barton & Brett) is in its sixth printing, having sold nearly 38,000 copies. She has a full speaking schedule, all but a few of her invitations from Catholic parishes.

Many members of the Catholic elite receive information like that with raised eyebrows; perhaps they quietly hum the theme from "The Twilight Zone."

What's the matter with these people, we may think, why are they so gullible? Angels. Saints. Our Lady of Here and There. All that "simple Catholic piety" stuff. They need creation spirituality! They need to read Joseph Campbell! They obviously know nothing about Carl Rogers and C.G. Jung. Their faith is simpleminded.

Parish staff people tell Anderson that parishioners ask for speakers on spirituality, but when they bring in an expert on spirituality, few people show up. On the other hand, when they invite Anderson to talk about angels, they get overflow crowds. "Don't be disappointed" one parish staff person told Anderson, "if we only get 10 or 15 people"; 250 angel enthusiasts showed up.

When a friend who is principal of a Catholic elementary school became a grandmother for the first time, she searched and searched until she found just the right picture of, you guessed it, a guardian angel. "It's to hang in the baby's bedroom," she said. "This is Catholic culture. Maybe it's old-fashioned, but something in me says it's important for a grandmother to do this kind of thing. It carries a good message."

I suspect that many of us, members of the Catholic elite, over the years let our spirituality become predominantly a bead trip. We allow our brain to drive, giving our heart and imagination mere scraps.

It's a large faux pas to admit to praying the rosary, having a favorite saint to pray to or believing in angels, especially guardian angels. I hate to say it, but I think we're talking about spiritual prejudice here. We're not talking genuine intellectualism but being a theological dilettante. After all, Karl Rahner - probably the greatest and most balanced Catholic intellectual of this century - took angels, saints and Mary seriously enough to write about them more than once in his multivolume Theological Studies.

Maybe I'm being too hard on the Catholic elite. As near as I can tell, books by Henri Nouwen - an author with much appeal among the Catholic elite - far outsell those by any other author who writes about spirituality. Wouldn't we have to say that his books have heart? Michael Leach, publisher at Crossroad Publishing Co., says a new Nouwen book will sell more than 25,000 copies during it's first year in print, and the number goes way up as time goes by.

Nouwen doesn't write highly academic stuff, it's true. He also eschews jargon and theological fads and trends, certainly a point in his favor. At the same time, Nouwen's books do not encourage a particularly warm spirituality. His stuff is still largely cerebral. In the Name of Jesus, for example, a 1991 book that has sold some 60,000 copies, is basically scriptural piety applied to the theme of leadership.

Nouwen talks about prayer. He talks about the love of God. He talks about the need to maintain distance from various aspects of the dominant culture. He uses stories and anecdotes. Yet he sticks to the theological lingo that constitutes the vernacular for the Catholic elite.

True, Nouwen's call for a more theologically articulate leadership is not a reference to academic theology. "Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of the ministry." But you won't find Nouwen writing about angels, saints and the Blessed Mother. Even though he tries to appeal to the heart, his background in the academic world, a world with which he is disillusioned, still limits his perspective on the spiritual life.

You won't find him writing about anything the Catholic elite would find in poor taste, anything that would encourage an effective spirituality, such as angels, saints, miracles and Mary, the mother of Jesus. In other words, Nouwen doesn't write about themes that take much imagination or expand one's horizons beyond the cranium.

A Nouwen book doesn't fill the world with wonders; it maintains a sober-sided outlook, which is why his books are popular with the Catholic elite.

Of the more than 55 million Catholics in this country, of course, the overwhelming majority do not read books by anybody, including Nouwen, Richard Rohr and John Shea, the three top Catholic authors today. Far more of those who do read spiritual matter read little daily meditations booklets - call them "sound bites for God" - like Living Faith (Creative Communications for the Parish), which has 90,000 individual subscribers and 310,000 bulk subscriptions that go to Catholic parishes; or My Daily Visitor (Our Sunday Visitor Inc.), with 24,000 individual subscribers and 5,500 parish bulk subscriptions. Such resources aren't cerebral; instead they aim to nourish the heart.

All those ordinary Catholics who show up in droves for talks about angels by Anderson and who attended the several major Marian conferences held in this country in the last couple of years may have something to teach us. At the same time, maybe the Catholic elite has something to teach ordinary Catholics in return. Maybe there is something to be said for living in the world as if there were angels.

Maybe there is something to be said for living in the world as if we have hale and hearty companions we simply can't see, companions who passed over the Great Divide and are eager to help us with their prayers.

Maybe there is something to be said for living in the world as if the mother of Jesus is our mother, too.

Maybe there is something constricting about a social life with not enough imagination to expand its horizons beyond the people we can whop on the back and share a pizza with. Maybe it's a heck of a note, from a Catholic perspective, to have to turn to a Presbyterian author to awaken a Catholic heart.

Be that as it may, Frederick Buechner - who in his sacramental view of life and the universe is thoroughly catholic - in the early 1970s did not hesitate to write about angels in his contemporary classic, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC:

Sleight-of-hand magic is based on the demonstrable fact that as a rule people see only what they expect to see. Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don't expect to see them, we don't. An angel spreads his glittering wings over us, and we say things like, |It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive' or |I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right' or |I don't know where I ever found the courage.'"

Personally, I lay the blame for the sometimes narrow, dried-up spirituality of the Catholic elite at the door of the scientific mind-set, which, for whatever undeniable benefits it may bring, also insists that if it isn't accessible through touch, taste, hearing or smell, then, even if it does exist, it isn't worth taking seriously.

We draw the line when it comes to the existence of God, at least in theory. But it's all aboard the scientific worldview after that, The spirituality of the Catholic elite is "into" psychology, for example.

Robert C. Roberts is a professor of philosophy and psychological studies at Wheaton College in Illinois. In his new book, Taking the Word to Heart: Self & Other in an Age of Therapies (Wm. B. Eerdmans), Roberts outlines how for many sophisticated Christians - and I would include the, Catholic elite among them - spirituality is thoroughly psychologized:

Small-group Bible studies have a distinctly encounter-group air about them, what with all the sharing of feelings and "needs" that go on there. We hear about sensitivity and openness and being in touch with our feelings; about being vulnerable and going with the flow and having a healthy self-concept and experiencing growth.

We seek spontaneity and personal presence and unconditional acceptance and being real and in touch and human; after all, life is a process. We learn to accept ourselves and avoid anxiety and depression by avoiding global self-evaluation, irrational self-talk and thinking we can't be happy if life isn't perfect.

We seek to get in touch with our unconscious, or the child within. . . . Smother mothers have learned to describe themselves as codependent. . . . We worry about our self-esteem, our identity crisis, our midlife crisis and communications breakdowns with our significant others.

Need I point out that an ex-Jesuit, John Bradshaw, is the guru of gurus when it comes to this stuff today? Some would gasp in horror if I suggested that Bradshaw's books encourage narcissism, self-indulgence and not growing up. Yet in practice, Bradshaw's flapdoodle shapes the spirituality of a good many people, most of whom, I dare say, are well-educated, not hungry and paid a salary well above the minimum wage.

When we Catholic-elite types would nourish our spirituality by scriptural meditation, we interpret what we read in the light of pop psychology. Thus, when Jesus instructs his disciples to forget themselves in service to others, one must be on guard against becoming "codependent." When 1 John says that "all wrongdoing is sin" (5:17), we remind ourselves, "Hey, my freedom to act is severely limited by my personal history - emotional abuse as a child and all that - so when I |do wrong' my culpability is nearly nonexistent and God understands. Why, it's nearly impossible for me to actually sin."

The spirituality of the Catholic elite is difficult to separate from theological and psychological ideologies. We relate to God and one another through theoretical constructs - self-help psychology and a sort of narrow theological feminism are big these days (already I can hear the letter-to-the-editor writers furiously sharpening their pens over that one).

Whenever we would be present to God, ourselves and other people, we act out of our ideologies so we find it almost impossible to simply be in loving communion with one another and God. Are you codependent? Are you theologically sexist as I interpret that term? Then we can't really be at peace with each other, and we can't really talk.

Not that a given ideology is devoid of truth, of course. By definition an ideology is a valid idea wearing blinders. For many of us, I dare say, our ideological concerns have a chilling effect on the effective dimension of faith and on our relationships with others. How often is our spirituality an affair of the heart? How often does it lend itself to stories? Is it ready to believe in the occasional miracle?

I suggest that we need to learn from "ordinary Catholics" who love to read about human encounters with angels, who love the Blessed Mother, who commune regularly with their favorite saints, and who don't spend much time getting worked up about ideological concerns because they don't have any. While not setting aside the intellect and the need for critical thinking, we need to lighten up and ask ourselves questions such as, "What if I do, in fact, have a guardian angel, as popular Catholic tradition insists that I do? What then? What if praying the rosary is by no means a simpleminded way to pray? What if our grandparents had something there? What then?"

There is no question that the spirituality of ordinary Catholics could benefit by reading the occasional nonpious religious book. It would be a good idea for homilists to encourage Sunday congregations to cultivate the life of the intellect now and then.

Still, if I had to say who has a richer, warmer, more loving spirituality, "ordinary Catholics" or the "Catholic elite," I would have to say: Hand me down my rosary beads, a copy of Where Angels Walk and the latest issue of Living Faith.

Mitch Finley's most recent books are Everybody Has a Guardian Angel . . . And Other Lasting Lessons I Learned in Catholic Schools (Crossroad) and Your Family In Focus: Appreciating What You Have, Making It Even Better (Ave Maria Press).
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Title Annotation:Spirituality
Author:Finley, Mitch
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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