The story thus far…
This is the next essay, the more personal one, I just finished for the LateVocations.org site.
There’s a ton of work to be done. I’m starting to contact communities and other groups to see if I can have permission to link to them. I’m asking some people in the ladies’ group if they could provide a “my story” kind of autobiographical thing. These are the ones who have done something fairly concrete about the problem of late vocations. One of them has actually founded a community – that by all reports is doing pretty well. Another has bought a piece of property next to a monastery and is receiving direction to become a Benedictine hermit. Trouble is, because they’re all doing all these things, they’re pretty busy people.
There’s so much out there, so many people who are doing the do-it-yourself eremitical life, people starting little prayer groups and support groups, people doing very energetic charitable works – some of them even in their very late years of life.
Then there’s the whole business of laying out what the spiritual life is about. I have found some materials that really do need to be brought back to life. Most people have heard of St. Teresa’s Way of Perfection, but who has actually read it? Lots of people have read Introduction to the Devout Life, but who still knows about Mystical Theology more generally? How many have heard of the great Reginald Garrigou Lagrange? These are almost lost teachings of the Faith that have to be dug up, dusted off and made available.
Then of course, I’ve been warned by my good friends here not to allow all this to turn into just another form of activism. Not to allow promoting older vocations to distract me from my own. The point is well taken.
In June 2016, I wrote an unusually personal essay for the website One Peter Five about my experience in searching for a monastery or religious order to join in the 1980s, ’90s and early ’00s.
I searched in earnest through my 30s but that was when I learned that the wasteland was complete, the devastation was everywhere. It is true that there have been some small sprouts, coming up from under the ash layer, but they are few and vulnerable…
About thirteen years ago, I collected the data for a book on what was at that time, the late John Paul II era, considered the revival, almost a rebirth of the traditional forms of the religious life. I spent a year researching. I visited communities and went to the conferences and corresponded with religious.
But all that research showed me was that the time had not come; no real universal revival of the religious life could happen until a genuine revival of the Faith as a whole was under way. That would not happen until the bishops, cardinals and the pope had formally abandoned the path of destruction the Church had been on since 1965. And as we have seen since then, that isn’t happening.
That article for my friend Steve Skojec was about the second big transformation in my life. The long search for a religious order finally leading me out of the Matrix of “mainstream” Catholicism – the New Paradigm of the Church as it has been since Vatican II – into the pro-life movement and finally to embrace Catholic “traditionalism” as we must now call it, and write about the whole experience on the internet. In addition to writing the news for eleven years for an online pro-life news service – ending up in Italy as the Rome/Vatican correspondent – I started blogging more personally about my experiences in 2004.
I had already read my way back into Catholicism after rejecting it in my early teens. This was the result of three years in a diocesan parochial school in the Victoria, BC of the notorious Remi de Roo in the mid-1970s – ground zero of the revolution.
From my earliest childhood, the late 1960s and early ’70s, I was aware that there was something going seriously wrong with the world. That something great and good and necessary was not just collapsing but was being destroyed deliberately. I had the contrast between my English grandparents – born in 1897 and 1903 – and my mother, and the two worlds they lived in could not have been more different. And I knew which I preferred.
My mother and I were received into the Church on the same day in 1972. She was confirmed (baptized in the Methodist church in Manchester in 1945) and I was baptized. But it was fortunate that I received no instruction – my mother was instructed by Remi de Roo’s Sisters of St. Anne. At that time, having already abandoned the Faith, they were experimenting with the whole toxic mess of Carl Rogers’ “encounter groups,” pop-psychology, Teilhard de Chardin and various “New Age” and occult practices, an influence my mother was never able to shake off.
But I was only five and I loved the Faith because I loved Jesus and Mary. I had a little statue of Our Lady and another of St. Therese on my dresser that I had decorated like an altar – as all little Catholic girls do.
By the time I was six, I had told my mother I wanted to be a nun, having got the idea from a movie about St. Francis and St. Clare. She responded by making me a little novice’s habit out of sheets she bought at the Salvation Army thrift shop. I would put it on and do housework, which is what I figured novices did. In the summer of 1975, I begged my mother to take me out of the experimental hippie “free school,” (“Sundance”… I kid you not…) which I hated, and send me to a Catholic school. She did, and I was sponsored by the diocese to go to St. Patrick’s elementary school – uniform and all.
It should have worked out differently, but the school was also run by the Sisters of St. Anne, though perhaps a less radical faction. I did indeed receive a much better education. My writing was encouraged as was my interest in sciences. But of religion we had only what Bishop Remi was peddling. By the time I was done, at 13, I was convinced that the Catholic Church was an evil and oppressive institution whose only aim was to hold power for the sake of power. The revolutionaries had finally had their way with me, as they had done with my mother.
It was a direct action of the Holy Ghost, I believe, that brought me out of that pit of misery. It was a pivotal moment, one sunny day, walking down Pandora Avenue and I stopped for a street light at the Fort Street intersection. I had glanced into the window of the stationary store, and the thought popped into my head, “I might be wrong.” It occurred to me at that moment that many, many very intelligent people, indeed some of history’s greatest names, had been Catholic believers. It could not be that all of them had been wicked men. I realized I had never really read anything that the Church had said about itself. This did not seem like a good way to understand something. I was, of course, still sure that the Church was a wicked institution, but I realized that simple justice required it be given a fair hearing.
Instead of continuing to the Cultured Cow for a hamburger, I went to the public library and asked my friend the librarian to show me books about Catholicism written by Catholics. She showed me to the stacks, three aisles of it, and where Catholicism started in the Dewey Decimal System card catalogue, and told me when I had finished those few thousand books, she could show me more.
From that day, I launched into an examination of the Catholic Faith. It took until I was 29 to finally concede that there was no part of the Catholic religion that contradicted either objectively observable realities or itself; as good a logical proof of veracity as any.
By 31, I could no longer deny my obligation to live according to what I had learned was true, and as soon as I returned to the practice of the Faith, the old longing for religious consecration came back very forcefully. So I started the search that would finally constitute the second half of my education as a Catholic. What I observed was shocking…shatteringly so.
Starting with learning what had happened in the religious orders, I learned about what had happened in the Church and the world since the 1960s, the catastrophe that had begun to dissolve – and has by now nearly eradicated – an entire global Christian civilization. I have given this catastrophe various nicknames-of-convenience. For the phenomenon within the Church, “Novusordoism,” seems appropriate, after the “New Order” of the liturgy instigated in the mid-1960s by Pope Paul VI. Including the catastrophe of the secular social revolution I have also referred to it as “the Asteroid,” likening it to the “extinction event” paleontologists tell us wiped out most of the dominant life forms on the planet millions of years ago. One major revelation was that the destruction of the Catholic Faith was of a piece with the destruction of the 2000 year-old Christian social order.
Many people have written to me saying that they are becoming overwhelmed with “confusion” over what is going on. They cannot understand why everything seems to be disintegrating before our eyes. But well before the Asteroid hit, responsible Catholic theologians – including popes – still roamed the earth, and these had already named it more formally. In the Church, throughout all its institutions from the top of the hierarchy down to the lowliest pewsitting, bead-squeezing, little old lady, the name for this dessicating, paralysing infection is “neo-modernism”.
I learned that the “conservative” narrative I had recently embraced – that the Council had been “highjacked” by radicals but John Paul II had cleaned things up and the Church was swinging back towards orthodoxy – was a complete fabrication. Crucially, I learned that the liturgy of the Church had not been “reformed” but demolished and replaced with something that had been deliberately crafted, by one man, specifically and deliberately to corrode the Faith down to its foundations so it could be replaced with something new.
I learned that not only was there no general revival of Catholic orthodoxy going on, but that “conservatism” was merely another, more intellectually and aesthetically palatable form of the New Paradigm, and that it accepted the same gross distortions of reality as the so-called “liberals”.
I started writing about these discoveries and found myself increasingly at odds with and alienated from most of the “conservative” Catholic establishment, including the pro-life movement which by that time (c. 1999-2001) employed me. Discovering these undeniable realities left me marginalized, as the trendy term has it.
This also, of course, included all those “conservative” religious communities that adhered to the New Paradigm, who seemed to see no connection at all between the abolition of the liturgy and the corrosion of the Faith. I had learned the old Catholic maxim: “Lex orandi; lex credendi,” the law of prayer is the law of belief, that has been forgotten by the “conservative” mainstream. It means, simply, that liturgy is the physical manifestation of theology; it is theology in motion.
In the mainstream New Paradigm Church there is nothing left of the understanding that every action in the sanctuary is a physical manifestation of what the Church teaches we must believe. The traditional idea is that the liturgy of the Church was given to us by God as were the doctrines of the Faith, as part of the deposit of the Faith. It was the way He wants to be worshiped, as the earthly form of the heavenly liturgy, that when we are at Mass the heavens and earth become briefly one.
Modern Catholics have been taught that liturgy is nothing more than a kind of popular theatre, and the rubrics are there for us to mold to “express ourselves”. If we are “liberals,” it can be used to “express” that set of ideas. If we are “conservatives” we prefer “reverence” – however we interpret it. The liturgy is, in effect, about our own personal aesthetic preferences; it is all about us. It was this New Paradigm that I knew I could never again embrace.
I came to see that the distinction between “liberal” and “conservative,” in liturgy and doctrine, was essentially meaningless. In both cases, the material, the matter, of the actions was the same. The two labels are nothing more than different and endlessly adjustable positions on the same scale, and depend for their definition heavily on comparison to each other. One is a “conservative” only depending upon whom one is standing next to. The Novus Ordo liturgy itself, and not merely its manner of expression, was designed not to manifest Catholic belief, but something else:
“Modernism is the idea that there are no eternal truths, that truth is the correspondence of the mind with one’s lifestyle (adaequatio intellectus et vitae), and that, therefore, old dogmas must be abandoned and new beliefs must arise that meet ‘the needs of modern man’…
“…[T]he post-conciliar theological principle is neo-modernism, and the theology that is based on it is known as the nouvelle theologie. It is the idea that old dogmas or beliefs must be retained, yet not the traditional ‘formulas’: dogmas must be expressed and interpreted in a new way in every age so as to meet the ‘needs of modern man’.
This is still a denial of the traditional and common sense notion of truth as adaequatio intellectus et rei (insofar as it is still an attempt to make the terminology that expresses the faith correspond with our modern lifestyle) and consequently of the immutability of Catholic dogma, yet it is not as radical as modernism.
It is more subtle and much more deceptive than modernism because it claims that the faith must be retained; it is only the ‘formulas’ of faith that must be abandoned – they use the term ‘formula’ to distinguish the supposedly mutable words of our creeds, dogmas, etc. from their admittedly immutable meanings.
Therefore, neo-modernism can effectively slip under the radar of most pre-conciliar condemnations (except Humani generis, which condemns it directly) insofar as its practitioners claim that their new and unintelligible theological terminology really expresses the same faith of all times. In other words, neo-modernism is supposed to be ‘dynamic orthodoxy’: supposedly orthodox in meaning, yet always changing in expression to adapt to modern life…”
It is easy, once you know where to look, to discover what ideas, what doctrine, the Novus Ordo liturgy – with its endless “options” – was intended to express.
In the end, it became impossible to escape the conclusion that what we have seen in the last 50 years has been the superimposition of an entirely different religion on the surviving structures of the Catholic Church.
Novusordoism ≠ Catholicism.
By the time I was through this painful process, I understood that it would be impossible for me to enter a community that adhered to the New Paradigm. Moreover, they knew it too. I was told by the head of a highly respected monastic house – where the Novus Ordo Mass was always offered in Latin – that my “nostalgia” for the pre-conciliar Church meant that I had no vocation. This was an opinion held even by the community of priests to which I had grown close – including my own spiritual director who was like a second father. The alienation this brought about, the realization that I was completely alone, was probably what drove me to leave Canada and go walkabout.
I had discovered what it was that was dissolving the Church, but felt like Cassandra trying to explain it to people in a state of complete denial. Now, when objectively observable indicators like Mass attendance, adult conversions, priestly and religious vocations are in an undeniable death-spiral everywhere, a new symptom of the disease has manifested, a general apathy and a nihilistic acceptance.
While the bishops carry on pretending nothing is wrong, the religious orders are “amalgamating,” to turn their remaining material resources to caring for the last of their members, having long since turned their apostolic works over to the secular arm. Last one out, please turn out the lights.
At the same time, those who fomented this catastrophe are rejoicing at the empty wasteland they have created, calling it a garden, while the rest of us quietly starve to death believing we are healthy and well fed.
It might seem strange that in this positively apocalyptic setting anyone should be returning attention to something so apparently passive and subjective as a life of prayer. Such a person might even be accused of having given up in despair, of running away from the fight. One would imagine that such a lifestyle is more suited to times of peace and order. But this betrays a misunderstanding of what prayer actually is.
After seven years in Italy, I realized that the time had come for a more radical dedication to the warfare. As a news writer, even for a pro-life and consciously militant Christian outlet, I was able to distance myself from what was going on. I was able to treat it as just a job, with on-hours and off-hours. Psychologically, this is a necessity, since the job requires sticking your head daily down into the most unimaginable cess pits of human evil. But after all those years, the question, “What good is this really doing?” finally became one I could no longer truthfully answer.
After decades of searching, I realized my original intention had been fulfilled. I had entered the work mainly to find out what was really going on. In all those years, I had been driven by an overpowering curiosity, a need to know what was really true. By 2014, I realized I was no longer curious. At the same time, I perceived that a new interior need had arisen, a refinement, maybe a maturation, but still essentially a return of my innocent childhood dreams of beautiful stone cloisters, flowing habits and Gregorian Chant.
I had always marveled at the phenomenon of “heroic sanctity” and wondered how on earth the saints had become saints. How was it that Perpetua and Felicity had simply not noticed the wild beasts tearing at their flesh? How had St. Lawrence found the strength to withstand his martyrdom, and even crack a joke? How had Teresa of Avila, through illness and weakness, found the strength to entirely reform the Carmelite order? How had Maximilian Kolbe endured the starvation bunker, hearing confessions and encouraging his fellow sufferers, singing songs and at the utter end reportedly glowing with heavenly radiance?
I assumed, as most people do, that there were just some people who were especially privileged, particularly chosen by God for these special gifts, and this is true to an extent. Not everyone is called to levitate and bilocate and “read hearts.” Extraordinary manifestations are granted to certain people for particular reasons. But the call to holiness – far from being an invention of Vatican II – is indeed universal.
But how to achieve it – something theologians have known for centuries – has been largely suppressed. The frightening implications of traditional mystical theology – that going to heaven is difficult and real sanctity requires much effort – the “spiritual combat” – is not a popular notion. Particularly the part about the possibility of failure. When even popes start implying that “ultimately” everyone goes to heaven, the idea of embarking on such an antique path as asceticism and prayer seems like an unjustifiable imposition. Doesn’t God want us to be happy? Why torture yourself? All those morbid old ideas are just too harsh for modern people, right?
No, in our times “sanctity” is about serving “the poor” and maybe founding a religious order. The high, dry and rocky path of those old spiritual alpinists, the Desert Fathers and hermits, the weird anchorites and stylites…the rooting out of faults, the fasting and sacrificing… all that stuff is from the Dark Ages.
But what if it isn’t? What if human beings are really essentially the same as we’ve always been? What if the Truth is the same now as it has always been?
Even more disturbing, what if those old theologians who wrote about the “fewness of the saved” were right? What if the easy-going, Hallmark-card version of Catholicism – just be a nice person – we’ve been fed for 50 years is – let’s just call it – a lie?
But much, much more important than this, what if it were true – as Vatican II itself said – that we are all, in whatever state of life and material situation we are in and whatever age we are, called to exactly the same heights of mystical union with Christ that St. Teresa experienced and wrote about?
What if that desire for heaven, for this ultimate union with God that I first felt as a child, praying the Rosary, dressing up and playing nuns, were actually the real goal of all of our lives? What would be our obligations then?
What if I spent all those years deliberately distracting myself from it because I feared it was impossible? What if, even worse, it was out of laziness? Out of sheer intimidation at the immensity of the task? What if I had thought that activism – all for the side of the angels, of course – was simply easier?
But think about it. As I’ve said elsewhere, imagine for a moment if only one in ten Catholics dedicated himself to seriously pursuing this goal? What would the world look like if even one in a hundred Catholics – out of … what are we now, 1.4 billion? – were actually to achieve the Transforming Union? What would happen in the world if one per cent of Catholics were saints? Really saints, I mean, in that old fashioned sense.
Maybe it is this that the devil most fears. Maybe this is why he has made the political sphere, the world of activism, so attractive to good Catholic people, people who honestly and deeply care about the world, who love God and want to serve Him. Satan knows that he cannot tempt devout people with evil things. But he can certainly lead them away from their true calling, distract them with all the best possible intentions.
The men and women who destroyed the supporting institutions and structures originally intended to support this pursuit could not destroy the pursuit itself. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that despite there being nowhere left to go, the vocation, the call to the religious life has not stopped. God still calls us. It makes no sense to us, we tend to ignore or dismiss it because there are no more monasteries, no more convents, no habits or pointed arches. But does that matter? If there are no monasteries to go to, follow Him where you sit. Simply: do as you’re told and never mind what’s in it for you.
All of these thoughts were coalescing in my mind when, in 2013, I wrote to the Oblate Master of the monastery in Norcia, asking to be accepted as an oblate. This was following the advice of three persons in religion whom I had consulted, all of whom had suggested it, quite independently. In November, 2015 I moved to this little town in the Umbrian mountains where there is no monastery of women to join, no structure for women at all. But there is the Mass and the Divine Office, and there is the countryside and the deep peace that seems to permeate this special, ancient place.
The first time I walked through the old Porta Ascolana in Norcia’s medieval town walls, I knew. What I had been told by innumerable novice mistresses, “When you’re in the right place, you’ll know,” had never happened, until then. Whatever is to come next, even if it is nothing at all, at least I know this is the place for it.
I was received as an oblate – like a lay associate – at the monastery the Tuesday after Easter this year. As deserts go, Norcia is pretty nice, and God has given me an easy and light burden in that way. The weather is mild for Italy, the rents are cheap and the Nursini are kindly, patient and easygoing in an old fashioned, countrified way. For a “hermitage” I have a nice flat in a house outside the walls, a fireplace, a garden, a beautiful view of the valley and a troop of kitties. In my front room, I’ve built a little corner, closed off by a screen, where I sing Laudes most mornings. Every afternoon I bike down to the Basilica of Saints Benedict and Scholastica – built over the house they were born in – to assist at the Office. I take long hikes in the country and collect walnuts in the autumn. I’ve started a herb garden. I’m trying to paint.
In all the externals, it seems like the perfect life, and it is. What remains now is the interior struggle, the warfare that is fought mainly between the ribs. The thing I’ve been avoiding all these years, I’m finally getting started.
God and all heaven forbid I should fail at it.