Speaking of How to Pray

This article consists of a few loose ends: (1) a book review, (2) a letter to an editor, and (3) another book review. All are closely related in subject matter.

1. A Book Review

The Incarnation and Hilton’s Spirituality, by Rev. David G. Kennedy, OLW Editions, Barre, VT, 1984. My review of this excellent book first appeared in the Vermont Catholic Tribune in Burlington, in March of 1987. I repeat what I wrote at that time:

Walter Hilton is a mystic and spiritual writer of the 14th century in England. The Avignon Captivity and the Great Western Schism had made the 14th century one of turmoil for the Church, and England saw its first home-grown heresy in the Lollards, who espoused, among other things, an invisible Church. Little is known of Hilton’s life save that he was at first a hermit, and then a Canon Regular of Saint Augustine. He died in 1396 with a reputation for holiness. Miracles were reported at his tomb, and he has been accorded the title of “Venerable.”

Hilton’s masterpiece is The Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection, which Father Kennedy says “was apparently written for anyone who might be interested in the serious cultivation of Christian perfection, especially those deprived of competent spiritual direction” (p.37).

There are two main currents of contemplative writings in the Church, the apophatic, or negative way, and the cataphatic, or positive way, and Hilton is a prime example of the latter tradition. “The problem of whether the apophatic or cataphatic are two different ways of describing the ineffable, remains a subject of disagreement. Some scholars hold that only apophatic mysticism is truly mysticism, while others seem to contend that only cataphatic mysticism can be truly Christian” (p.51). An example of the apophatic (negative) tradition, in very modified form, is The Cloud of Unknowing by an unknown author, a contemporary of Hilton, whom Father Kennedy calls Ignotus. This Ignotus writes:

You must put a cloud of forgetting beneath you and all creation…I mean not only the individual creatures, but everything connected with them. There is no exception whatever… It profits little or nothing to think even of God’s kindness or worth, or of Our Lady…In this particular matter it will not help at all (Cloud, chap.5)…Meditations on Our Lord’s Passion …the practiced hand must put them away, deep down in the cloud of forgetting” (Cloud, chap.7).

The Scale of Perfection, however, is solidly in the cataphatic (positive) tradition:

But the aye (ever) lasting love of Jhesu is a true day and blessed light. For God is both love and light, and He is aye lasting, as Saint John saith…He that loveth God dwelleth all in light. Then what man perceiveth and seeth the love of this world false and failing, and for this he will forsake it and seek the love of God; he may not at once feel the love of Him, but he must abide awhile in the night, for he may not suddenly come from that one light to that other, that is, from the love of the world to perfect love of God. This night is nought else but a forebearing and a withdrawing of the soul from all earthly things, by a great desire and yearning for to love and see and seek Jhesu and all ghostly (spiritual) things” (Scale II, chap.24).

Father Kennedy comments: “Ignotus appears to discuss union with the Godhead, while Hilton ultimately teaches union with the Person of Jesus; Ignotus remains in the darkness of a cloud of unknowing, while Hilton, stressing cognition, emerges from a night of detachment into the light of God” (p.110).

Ignotus was criticized in his own day by theologians who feared that his apparent bypassing of the Incarnation would be taken advantage of by heretics who were opting for an invisible Church. Father Kennedy says:

The Incarnate Jesus appears to be no more than a door to be left behind in favor of the abstract Divine Nature. There is too much of a separation between the humanity and the Divinity…for according to orthodox theology, the human being, Jesus Christ, is the Son of God in Person, in Him one does not encounter merely a “human nature named Jesus,” then go on to a higher stage and encounter the Divine Nature. Rather there is one Person, Jesus the God-man” (p.186).

The problem of the apophatic versus the cataphatic way seems to be a perennial one in the history of the Church. In the 16th century, Saint Teresa of Avila would write:

We are not angels and we have bodies. To want to become angels while we are still on earth…is ridiculous. As a rule, our thoughts must have something to lean upon…The last thing we should do is to withdraw of set purpose from our greatest help and blessing, which is the sacred Humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Interior Castle, p.172).

In our own day, it seems that the apophatic current of spirituality has encouraged some Christians to become interested in the religions of the East, with their mantras, yoga, and various forms of self-hypnosis. These practices do not lead to the triune God of revelation, but rather to an abstract, impersonal monad, or as Father Kennedy writes:

But the Personal Absolute can be found, known, only in Him, in Whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells in His created humanity. Without God-become-man, the absolute, which the “mystic” imagines he has attained, is, in the last analysis, the “never-attained objective correlative of that empty and hollow, dark and despairing, self-consuming infinity which we are ourselves” (p.258).

We should be grateful to Father Kennedy for providing us with such a sound remedy for the spiritual aberrations of our day — the solidly Incarnational doctrine of Walter Hilton.

I should like to add a little to my original review given above. One of Father Leonard Feeney’s poems, “Reflections on a Flea,” contains the phrase:

And by the way,
Speaking of how to pray,
Dogmas come first, not liturgies.
(The Leonard Feeney Omnibus, p.386)

Walter Hilton’s teaching on prayer is so excellent because he is so solid on doctrine. Father Kennedy has prepared a critical edition of the original Middle English (the language of Chaucer) of The Scale of Perfection, but has been prevented by poor health from seeing it through the publisher. However, there is a translation in modern English by M.L. Del Mastro which quotes Hilton thus:

It seems to me that a great and serious error is being made by those men who say that Jews and Saracens can be saved by keeping their own law, even if they do not believe in Jesus Christ as Holy Church believes, inasmuch as they imagine that their own belief is good, secure, and sufficient for their salvation, and, in that belief, do (as it seems) many good deeds of justice. And (these men say) if perchance these Jews and Saracens knew that the Christian faith was better than theirs, they would leave their own faith and accept Christianity. For these reasons they conclude that Jews and Saracens can be saved.1 No! This is not enough! For Christ, God and man, is both the road and the journey’s end. He is the mediator between God and man, and without Him, no souls can be reconciled, nor come to bliss.2 (The Stairway of Perfection, p.196)

Then, in the two footnotes indicated, Del Mastro comments on these passages:

  1. The position Hilton refutes here is now the orthodox one and goes under the name of Baptism of Desire, though in its own time it was, at best, a probable opinion.
  2. The position Hilton adopts here is that of medieval orthodoxy; without Baptism, salvation was considered to be impossible, and Dante Alighieri was forced, on the strength of this view, to consign Virgil, “the Father of my soul,” to Hell in his Commedia — albeit reluctantly — because that virtuous pagan (and a poetic genius) was unbaptized. By 1950 however, when the Jesuit Leonard Feeney preached a doctrine almost identical with the one Hilton presents here, he, with all his followers, was…spreading…heretical doctrine (p.350).

Maybe in Del Mastro’s Liberal/Modernist church, a defined dogma can be orthodox in one generation and heretical in the next, but not in Walter Hilton’s Church, nor in mine!

2. A Letter to an Editor About Father Most

The following letter to the editor, written by Father William Most, appeared in the March, 1990 issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, attacking my book, They Fought the Good Fight : Orestes Brownson and Father Feeney. I have taken the liberty of editing out a few lines concerning books other than my own:

Editor: May I alert your readers to a resurgence of the ideas of L. Feeney who insisted that the teaching of “no salvation outside the Church” meant in effect, if a person does not get his name on a parish register, he is damned, even though he may never have heard of the Church?… [T]he Holy Office (DS 3866ff.) in 1949 warned: “Our Savior did not hand over the things contained in the deposit of faith to private judgment to be explained, but to the Magisterium of the Church.” In other words, just as private interpretation of Scripture is Protestant, so too is private interpretation of Magisterium documents. Feeney’s Center wrote to the Pope the Letter of the Holy Office “contains heresy” (They Fought the Good Fight, p.256). These books seldom even attempt to reconcile all official texts and when they are mentioned the work is very strained. Thus Pius IX taught (DS 2866): “God…in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.” Feeney comments (TFGF, pp. 305, 306, italics his): “If God cannot punish eternally a human being who has not incurred the guilt of voluntary sin, how then, for example, can He punish eternally babies who die unbaptized?” Imagine after an aborted baby is cut up alive, he must be “punished eternally”!…Feeney…(TFGF, p.380)…says of Baptism of Desire: “That is heresy!”

If you can pardon the commercial (I took no royalties for the book), in Our Father’s Plan, I have a 28 page appendix which studies all Magisterium documents, shows they can be harmonized, and especially studies numerous Patristic texts, which show the same Fathers commonly made two kinds of statements, one kind seemingly stringent, the other very broad. Thus St. Justin Martyr (Apology 1:46): “Christ is the Divine Logos, of whom the whole race of men partake. Those who lived according to Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists, such as among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus.” In the light of Romans 2:14-16 it can be shown that Justin’s words — and those of many of the Fathers — can readily be understood to mean that those like Socrates had a real, substantial membership in the Church, even without external adherence. Hence the axiom Extra Ecclesiam is fully validated, and all Magisterium statements can be seen to harmonize without any straining.

Rev. William G. Most,
Arlington, VA.

Father Most has been carrying on a personal vendetta for years against Father Feeney in the pages of so-called “conservative” papers like The Catholic Register, and I have never bothered to answer him. But in this case I felt obliged to respond, and wrote a letter to the editor of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review. The Jesuits, to their shame, have long had a closed mind on the subject of Father Feeney, so I was not surprised when Father Baker S.J. did not publish my letter. In my book, I had already dealt with the points raised by Father Most in his letter (which he ignored), so I turned to the Appendix in his Our Father’s Plan which he was promoting, and wrote to Father Baker again:

Editor: In the March 1990 issue of HPR, Father William G. Most issues an “alert” to your readers concerning a revival of interest in the teaching of the late Fr. Leonard Feeney with regard to the necessity of the Church for salvation. He was especially critical of my recent book, They Fought the Good Fight: Orestes Brownson and Father Feeney . The letter concludes with an apology for a “commercial” for his own recent book, Our Father’s Plan, which contains an Appendix entitled “Is There Salvation Outside the Church?” The Appendix lists numerous citations from the Fathers, one group saying, according to Father Most, that there is salvation outside the Church, and another group saying that there is no salvation outside the Church. He writes: “We might say that God practices a sort of brinkmanship. He has made two commitments that go in opposite directions” (p.243). “Brinkmanship” is defined as “the policy of maneuvering a risky situation to the limits of safety.” As a description of God’s method of teaching His children, such an expression strikes me as being “offensive to pious ears.”

The citations from the Fathers which Father Most calls the “Broad Texts,” are of two kinds. One group says that before the coming of Christ it was possible for a Gentile to be saved outside of Judaism, therefore, according to Father Most, it is possible to be saved outside the Church. But not one Father cited draws this conclusion. The other group of “Broad Texts” say that it is possible for a non-Catholic to keep the natural law outside the Church, therefore, according to Father Most, it is possible to be saved outside the Church. But, again, none of the Fathers quoted draw this conclusion. Indeed, Saint Paul says, “For, if justice be by the law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21).

He gives only three “broad” citations from the Magisterium: an encyclical of Pope Pius IX, the “Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston,” and Lumen Gentium (2,16) of Vatican Council II. This last text, which is substantially the same as the other two, reads: “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”

But Father Most ignores the following crucial sentence which states:

“Whatever truth is found among them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.”

So, a person of good will involved in invincible ignorance can indeed be saved, but not where he is. The Council continues:

[It is to such persons that the Church] “…to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all such men…painstakingly fosters her missionary work.”

Father Most concludes with what he says is a “new” solution to the problem of “contradictory” texts, namely that those outside the Church who are saved, are, whether they know it or not, actually inside the Church! But this solution is nothing new; liberal theologians have been proposing variations on this theme for years. Among the better known variations is that of Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian.” Urs von Balthasar, hardly a partisan of Father Feeney, in his The Moment of Truth, roundly censured this approach as a denial of grace and the supernatural. I do not believe a sober, sympathetic study of Father Feeney and the doctrinal tradition he sought to articulate is misplaced or suspect.

Thomas Mary Sennott
St. Benedict Center

I did not bother to read Our Father’s Plan, since I was only interested in the Appendix, so I had never read a book by Father Most. But in 1992 I wrote a paper entitled “Whether in Christ There Was Ignorance?” and in my research I read everything on the subject I could find, including his The Consciousness of Christ. I had just finished reading the excellent The Human Knowledge of Christ, by the Jesuit, Father Bertrand de Margerie, and Father Most’s book struck me as extremely mediocre in comparison. I had thought that Father Most was supposed to be a conservative, so I was surprised to find his book full of biblical Modernism. For example, he denies the historicity of the story of Jonah and the whale (p.45). I found it somewhat disconcerting since, with this denial, he has a footnote describing the true story of a sailor, James Barkely, who in 1891 was actually swallowed by a whale, and the next day, when the crew were cutting up the same whale, he was found inside alive (p.35).

He also suggests that the Church could have used “retrojection,” that is, she could have inserted events into the Gospels that did not actually take place during the life of Our Lord. For example, he says that the primitive community could have created the title “Son of Man,” and after the Resurrection inserted it into the Gospels (p.28). He also claims that Psalm 109, “The Lord said to my Lord,” was not by David, even though Our Lord had said it was (Matt. 22:24), but rather by an unknown author of the 10th century. Nor was it Messianic — even though Our Lord had implied it was — because at that time the notion of Messiah had not yet evolved (pp.45,46).

The Consciousness of Christ was supposedly written in reply to Raymond Brown’s Semi-Nestorian treatise, Jesus, God and Man, but these propositions by Most, and others in his book, are dear to the Modernist heart of Brown. Needless to say, this neither fish nor flesh approach had no effect on Brown, who came out with an even worse book a few years later, The Birth of the Messiah .

3. And Another Book Review

The Ultimate Church and the Promise of Salvation, by Jerome P. Theisen, O.S.B., St. John’s University Press, Collegeville, MN, 1976.

Pope Saint Pius X said that the basic tenet of Modernism is the evolution of doctrine. The very title of this book, “the ultimate Church,” suggests an evolving Modernist Church. I had this book by Father Theisen, now Abbot Theisen [now deceased — Ed.], in hand when I wrote They Fought the Good Fight, and even used some of his own citations against him. His case against “no salvation outside the Church,” which is no case at all, is similar to that of Father Most, which I summarized and rejected above.

One of the strongest arguments in They Fought the Good Fight: Orestes Brownson and Father Feeney, which Father Most has to ignore, is an historical one, namely that, in 1850 in the city of Boston, Orestes Brownson taught the same identical doctrine as Father Feeney, with the support, and even active assistance, of Bishop Fitzpatrick; his work was endorsed by all the attending bishops at the Seventh Provincial Council of Baltimore; and he received a warm letter of commendation from Pope Pius IX. Yet one hundred years later, in the same city, Father Feeney was condemned for teaching the identical doctrine. But like Del Mastro, Abbot Theisen believes that yesterday’s orthodoxy can become today’s heresy:

The adage as formulated by Cyprian is erroneous, and if taken literally today is heretical. What is involved here is a classical example of a formula badly conceived in the beginning, misunderstood through the ages, and today heretical in its obvious and literal sense (p.xii).

I personally prefer the open Pelagianism of Del Mastro and Theisen who simply say there is salvation outside the Church (at least you know where they stand), to the duplicity of Father Most who says that there is, and there is not, salvation outside the Church — God’s “brinkmanship.” “I would thou wert cold or hot. But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth” (Apoc. 3:15,16).

Having convinced himself that the Church is no longer necessary for salvation, Abbot Theisen wonders what remains for an unnecessary Church to do? He proposes several “tasks” for the Church in the world of today. For example: “overcoming racism” (p.172); “representing the needs of the poorly housed” (p.179); but probably what he considers an especially “Benedictine” task, “Promoter of Worship”:

The liturgical life of the church benefits the whole of mankind. A sound theology of liturgy points up its multi-directional purpose, including intercessions for human needs the world over…Put in terms of this study the church’s work is prayer for the whole of mankind…If what we have stated so far is true, must we admit that the church is necessary for salvation?…If this kind of prayer is necessary, it is only so in and through Jesus Christ. The church associates its prayer with his and so it becomes effective; it cannot be regarded as effectively salvational in itself (pp.167-169).

Abbot Theisen seems to have reversed the phrase in Father Feeney’s poem:

Speaking of how to pray,
Liturgies come first, not dogmas.

But if the Church is not necessary for salvation, then no dogma is necessary, nor is prayer. Abbot Theisen’s “ultimate church” is but another reductio ad absurdum in the long-standing Liberal/Modernist war against the all-important dogma, Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus .