It is said that one day as St. Thomas Aquinas was praying at Naples after he had finished writing the first part of the Summa, Jesus spoke from the Crucifix: “Thou hast written well of me, what recompense dost thou desire?” Thomas humbly answered, “None other than Thyself, O Lord.”
“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” __ Saint Thomas Aquinas
What has the extrinsic (externals) got to do with the intrinsic (internals)? The inner reality is obviously the goal of our spiritual quest and the other accoutrements, art, music, and even theology itself are not, of themselves, the inner reality of what we seek, which is God alone.
As the story of St. Thomas Aquinas’s experience (above) illustrates, Christ is not disinterested in good theology. That might also suggest that the other extrinsic acts of the Church are of some consequence as well. We’ll have to decide about the veracity of that assumption individually.
I see the outward expressions of faith versus the inner reality of our faith in much the same way as I see the definitive teaching of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The extrinsic bread and wine is not the inner reality of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. However, it is essential and necessary to our understanding of the theology of the Sacrament. We cannot substitute a cookie and a glass of grape juice for the elements of the Holy Eucharist as it would not be appropriate, legitimate or valid.
It is also apparent in our everyday lives that if our houses are in complete disarray with televisions and radios blaring, we will have difficulty in reading a difficult work or pondering a problem that requires our complete attention. Likewise, if the extrinsic accoutrements that surround our Prayer of prayers, the Mass, are in disarray, we may deny the Mass its ability to give to us all that is available to our individual souls. In the most egregious cases it might also become inappropriate, illegitimate and invalid. Thankfully, in most cases, one can only claim inappropriateness for the poorly ordered and designed liturgies.
Now as good as St. Thomas’s writings on theology were, and the apparent ratification of his writings from Christ Himself, even Thomas saw past his accomplishments. Thomas knew that the real goal of spirituality was God Himself; a humbling fact that made Thomas recognize that his life’s work was as “straw” in comparison. Though Thomas’s humility is laudable, his theology informs the spirituality of our Church and helps prevent seekers from chasing after “false gods” or embracing heretical ideas. Good theology becomes indispensable to good and proper spirituality. But the theology, in and of itself, is not the end we seek.
If, while attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we expect to be lifted from our workaday world into a direct encounter with God, we may never realize our rightful expectations if all we experience are expressions of the ordinary. If the art is stark and the church space is like an auditorium, we cannot reasonably expect that the people will stop their endless chattering or the lack of constraint that is tolerated by their children’s behavior. We cannot expect them to participate in a more dignified and reverent manner than their surroundings demand. As we laugh and joke and listen to “sing-along” tunes, what religious experience are we actually gaining? Do we really go home feeling like we have had a direct encounter with the Divine Creator?
The banal and mundane have overtaken many parishes regarding their “mission” within the community. Today we have committees writing and rewriting mission statements for their parishes: usually to include small faith communities and activity groups who get involved in helping the poor or feeding the hungry. Obviously it is laudable to help the unfortunate in one’s community but it is ironic that this becomes the focus of the parish rather than the outcome of the spiritual: it should be a natural extension of the only reason a local church has to exist; to save souls. At one time parish churches had no need for a mission statement: the parish was first and foremost a place to increase one’s spirituality, a place to have a face-to-face encounter with God and a place to experience, through that encounter, our sinfulness and need for God’s Grace. The parish made us confront ourselves and our God and thus to know the immense chasm between the holiness of God and the wretchedness of our selves. And this is an essential element to obtaining a mature relationship with God based on True Reality. It is a classic example of how the means have now become an end in itself.
Let me be clear. All Catholic parishes should actively do what they can to alleviate hunger, end poverty, visit the sick and the imprisoned and especially work for the elimination of abortions. We are called to service and we cannot sit idle as others suffer or die. But it is not the end for which we were made – it is only a way to reach our end. The job of the Church should primarily be concerned with getting us beyond our works to the End for which we were made: God Himself.
We live in a busy and noisy world. And that noise and activity is spilling into our sanctuary: our place of quiet, our place of worship and our prayer. Today, being active in a group that provides some kind of good in the community conceals a real danger: for it may supplant or become the sum total of the congregation’s spirituality. As Dom Chautard makes clear in, The Soul of the Apostolate, an intense and deep interior life is essential to the success of any apostolate. Many have become content to remain within this restricted world while they futilely attempt to save the external world while ignoring their internal relationship with God. The extrinsic can never suffice for the intrinsic; its as futile as using a flashlight in the noon-day sun.
Any church wishing to write a mission statement or in need of a motto need go no further than the words we hear at Mass every day: Per Ipsum et cum Ipso et in Ipso. That is to say: Through Him, with Him, and in Him. No mission is possible until this is realized within each and every soul desirous of a fruitful apostolate. Any mission that is founded upon our union with God will always bear fruit that lasts. You will not need to invent apostolates for these members, as their souls will quite naturally be sent forth by Christ as He did His apostles.