I saw an article from Tony Equale’s Blog about the film Catholics (aka The Conflict) that was made in 1973 from a novel.

My attention was first brought to this film when I went on a trip to the USA in 2002 and someone gave me a copy of the VHS cassette. It seemed to me to be a story of the Recusants in the 16th century transposed to the issues surrounding Roman Catholic traditionalists like Archbishop Lefebvre in that era. Then came the surprise, this staunch Irish abbot turned out to have lost his faith – the major twist in the story.

I have already had some acquaintance with articles by Tony Equale, a laicised Roman Catholic priest with a frustrating philosophy of life, a sort of materialism that claims in some way to be spiritual. I feel discouraged from going into his thought in any great depth. In terms of metaphysics, only the particular has any existence, not the universal as in Plato. The usual precedent of this notion is Nominalism, said by some to be largely at the origin of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. I have some sympathies for Nominalism, because one can love a person but not humanity or “people”. You can see and touch a chair, not the universal idea of “chairness”. I feel some repulsion in terms of strangers and people I don’t know, with whom I have never related in any way. Plato’s universal idea can give us an explanation of the notion of spirit and symbol, but seems awfully cerebral and un-Romantic. At the same time, my love for Eastern Orthodox (especially Russian) theology and philosophy brings me close to the Platonic notion of metaphysics and the essential unity of everything.

The story of Catholics is quite harrowing, on the surface a tale of hypocrisy or a complete lack of coherence. Why defend the Mass of the Ages (la “Messe de toujours”) if you have come to “grow out” of faith, belief in symbol and miracle, all that is contemplative and wondrous in Christianity, all that sets it apart from a simple moral teaching or a system for “controlling the masses”? It is almost disappointing not to see a victory of the recusants, but rather the capitulation of the leader and the scattering of the flock.

There might be an under-flowing thought that the 1970’s are back with a vengeance in the Roman Catholic Church with the election of Jorge Bergoglio to replace both John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, closing the loop with the aspects of Paul VI most influenced by the aggiornamento ideology following Vatican II. Our story may seem to one of bog-Irish folk surrounded by the harsh environment of the sea, one of stubborn Irishmen – though there was less of a traditionalist reaction in Ireland than in France. The Irish were more obedient to the Pope, as were the Italians and some of the English RC’s to an extent.

Equale suggests that the reality was much less binary than liberals and traditionalists, but that Roman conservatism simply assumed other appearances and forms: Paul VI was no less “reactionary” than Pius XII, and Francis is something of a paradox. For a “liberal”, Vatican II was never implemented, and authoritarianism continued in a re-looked version. Perhaps a less authoritarian and contemplative viewpoint would be more sympathetic to a liturgical life – where most of the RC traditionalists are more in favour of totalitarian politics to make their ideas compulsory for all, an essentially Enlightenment and moralist view. Perhaps not Hitler and Mussolini in style, but at least Pinochet and Franco!

As we get through the film, we find the tortured state of the Abbot’s spiritual life and belief. To quote Equale:

Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.

It is not always “plain sailing” for a priest or a monk when circumstances of life change the essential premisses of a religious conversion. We seem to have something that suggests the struggle of Bonhöffer as he saw the Lutheran church of which he was a pastor collaborate with Hitler. He conceived of an idea of Christianity without God. One cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. Equale seems to present his own motivations for leaving the priesthood and pursuing another way of life. Is it possible to remain a Christian without believing in God? What or who is God? Will we seek a scientific or a mythological explanation, or simply deny everything that is not material? Equale mentions that this agonising choice lies at the basis of the Grand Inquisitor. I do find it preferable to go to thinkers like Berdyaev who have harmonised Slavophile thought with the influence of Romanticism, German Idealism and ancient Gnosticism in its more orthodox or moderate expressions. A finer notion of God begins to emerge, one with which we can relate.

The Abbot is characterised by his altruism, his care for simple Catholic folk who sought faith and hope in symbol and miracle. He and other real and fictitious characters have fought this combat between their loss of faith and sense of pastoral duty, and it is interesting to dwell on this state of things. Sometimes we find ourselves in a way of life that is absolutely not ours. It can be the priesthood or marriage – or both. We all have to return to roots to perform essential “reality checks” on ourselves – and only the bravest will act according to their convictions. Then there is our notion of God: has it developed beyond the “Demiurge” of the Old Testament who rewards and punishes towards a notion of a universal consciousness in which everything participates with our own consciousness? We can know nothing of the essence of God if not by Revelation, but we can make the effort to get some idea. That is the point of studying theology.

I have only ever heard of miracles at second or third hand. A miracle is not simply something wonderful like a sunset or a scintillating sea, a towering cliff or a mountain or the birth of baby humans and animals. It is something like the unexplained cure of a disease or disability, exorcisms, blind recovering their sight, someone with almost no brain tissue having a normal life and rational faculties. I have lived a very ordinary kind of life, but I do remember an exorcism at Triors Abbey, and I overheard some of the guttural cries from one of the rooms of the guest house. Whatever it was, it was not mental illness and it frightened the wits out of me! Some people do relate sincere accounts of miracles and wonders. Why should we assume they are not telling the truth even without scientific proof? Some people are charlatans, and others are honest and sincere.

There are the miracles of the New Testament and in the history of the Church. Why should they be all assumed to be false or lies? Miracles also happen in worlds outside our experience of “matter”. Unlike Equale, I don’t believe in matter, but rather in energy and consciousness which produce an illusion of matter. In such a perspective, anything is possible.

Certainly the Church has made too much of a “machine” of God, grace, miracles, forgiveness of sin and everything we hope for from God and the Church. Country parish religion can sometimes be a little much to swallow for someone with a humanist education, but it beats materialism hands down!

It is perhaps salutary to see how priests have lost the faith and kicked everything in. What do they end up with? I can only begin to imagine what many priests went through in the 1960’s as they eschewed an authoritarian Church in the pursuit of something closer to the plain reading of the Gospels and a fairly anarchical Christ. Many priests met women and married. Others sought solace in science and sociology to get away from the Deux ex machina of neo-Scholasticism. Others become Protestant pastors or converted to other religions. Dom Bede Griffiths sought to harmonise the Christian message with Hinduism and its tradition of the wise elder. The quest for the spiritual can take us in all kinds of directions as happened with Thomas Merton. When I was a working guest at Triors Abbey, I quickly saw that I was entirely foreign to a monastic vocation in the reality of that community – even though I respected and esteemed the Abbot and the monks. The spiritual idea in our Romanticism is so elusive and unattainable. Either it is false and illusory – or simply we are unworthy due to our sins and blindness.

Another message comes through from Catholics. As we read in Pascal’s Pensées: L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. Man is neither an angel nor a beast, and the problem is that whoever wants to act like an angel, acts like a beast. The translation isn’t perfect but it will have to do… When we try to excel in spiritual life beyond reasonable limits, it is often the “dark side” or simply our weakness that takes over. The worst enemies of the Church have often been the most bigoted and devout, as many of the worst revolutionaries in the 1790’s were former Jansenists. We need to seek reasonableness and moderation, which are not to be confused with mediocrity or lukewarmness. This has always been a strength in Anglicanism.

I would not tar all traditionalists with the same brush as the Abbot who was faithless yet tried to be a father to his community and the lay people who attended his Mass. Many are excessive, and others are worthy of respect in their constance and Christian witness. We need to make vital distinctions.

We all have lessons to learn.

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5 Responses to Catholics

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I remember seeing that on television when it was first broadcast, but not much about it (I think it was about the same time that I started Dante, in Dorothy Sayers’ translation, which made a lot vivider impression). Having quick recourse to IMDB and Wikipedia, I see Brian Moore wrote the screen play based on his own novel (and later wrote a stage version) – and that he did the same for Black Robe, which I did not realize was by the same author and the film of which I enjoyed (an inadequate word) – though I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by him, yet. The Wikipedia article says of the novel, Catholics, “The novel ends on an ambiguous note as the Abbot prays for the first time in years, but in the face of the abandonment of their traditional way of life.” I don’t remember the end of the movie, and have not tried to view it, before commenting, so I’ll still have to see for myself… That summary sentence (aptly or not) makes me think of Lagerkvist’s Barabbas, which I enjoyed (again, inadequate!), as well as the film of it, with screenplay by Christopher Fry. It also makes me (again aptly or not) think of St. Catherine of Genoa, about whom I’m just reading – though as if Catholics ends at the turn of the story of the beginning of her mystical life. I was also struck by D.H. Farmer saying, “The most notable study of her in English is F. von Hugel, The Mystical Element in Religion”, which has got me browsing in the scan of the second edition in the Internet Archive.

  2. I received this from a correspondent who would certainly prefer to remain discreet.

    Your post about Catholics is quite fascinating and reminds me of what a narrow fault line there is with and between Holiness and faith and Great Evil and nastiness. In his autobiography “More than Music” (a fascinating book) the musicologist and later priest Alec Robertson says how the greatest nastiness and wickedness has been found in and close to great “religious” people, Bruno Scott James, I think says the same in his. I suppose that’s why people “drop” church because they see some much madness and nastiness in some people and often non-religious people are nicer and “better” : oh what a mystery.

  3. Alleline says:

    Father, have you ever written more extensively of your experience at the monastery?

    • Here is something I wrote in about 2005 with a fresher memory. Please excuse the self-pity of the time. What I wrote was in an attitude of esteem and respect for the Abbot. The French have an expression – When you’re at the ball, you have to dance. I put myself into it heart and soul, and the scars are with me ever since then. However, the experience gave me strength to face my present situation.

      * * *

      A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth (Is 42,3)

      I arrived at the Benedictine abbey two days after Christmas 1996 to spend my six months in the guest house. I had simply to follow the monastic day of offices, the Mass, studying the Rule and helping with manual work. In this experience, I have retained a few words of Dom Delatte in his commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict:

      “The absence of distractions and diversion entirely delivers us to our suffering. The suffering of contemplatives is like Purgatory: the fire penetrates to the marrow, to the most intimate fibres; it is like food being cooked slowly, the lid on the pot, the steam transforming the food. All the movements become painful, like a man who has had his skin stripped away…”

      Even though the Abbot was a man of great wisdom and experience, could he in conscience treat a secular cleric like a novice in the pot, on pain of breaking him? His spiritual direction was of a depth I had never found in secular priests. It was obvious that his long years of experience as a monk and a man of responsibility gave him insight into all the spiritual sicknesses that contemplative monks suffer. I had to live on faith alone, banishing all worries and trickeries of the imagination, hoping only on God’s providence and the Divine Will. The darkness of the crypt at the Abbot’s private Mass after Matins and Lauds oppressed me in the early days of January 1997. Each day was a carbon copy of the previous one, and the movements of the monks celebrating their Masses in the chapels next to that of the Abbot showed their idiosyncrasies. Day by day, the first rays of dawn in the stygian gloom arrived at the Blessing, then at Communion, then at the Consecration, until the Mass began in broad daylight. The dull monotony of monastic life was relieved by the smallest miracles of nature. It is the admiration of a prisoner as he sees a single leaf emerge from its bud beyond the bars of his confinement, and when the first songbird alights on the window ledge.

      How was it possible to suffer by the liturgy I had always loved? The length of Matins and Lauds became a heavy burden, as it doubtless does for young novices who enter the cloister. Indeed the sickness of acedia has its devastating effect on the contemplative. This is where a monastic vocation is made or broken. As Dom Delatte had written, the skin is pulled away as the soul is cooked in its own Purgatory. However, something of my own personality and self-love remained, as indeed was intended, for I had never entered the cloister, nor was it intended to me even to consider a monastic vocation.

      During my six months in the Abbey guesthouse, my daily work evolved from sorting walnuts, cleaning the corridor of the guesthouse, working at the farm, sawing and chopping big logs to make firewood, making frames for beehives in the workshop, and finally the organ for the Abbey church. As at the seminary, I found that work is good for the soul, and was happy to do anything they asked. One very strange thing happened in the January of that year. There was a visit by an elderly priest and a young man, but that was nothing unusual. One day, I was cleaning the corridor and heard voices from within the young man’s room. I was trained as a child not to listen to peoples’ conversations, and continued my task. Then, I heard guttural sounds and loud words. Whatever could be happening? I then heard blasphemies against God and the monks. I was frightened, and asked the guest master for other work. “Very well”, he said “Go and ask the brother for a shovel and clear the snow in front of the doors”. That afternoon, I saw the young man walking in circles in the snow, falling and weeping. I went to see the guest master, and suggested that a doctor should be called. It was none of my business! I was used to being confused… And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, Who had his dwelling among the tombs. (…) And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones Mark 5,1-5). I immediately understood. The young man was possessed by a demon and needed an exorcism, and the old priest with him was the exorcist. I met the young man later, a rational and kind person from a large French city, and he spoke to me to allay my fear of him. He was a “victim soul” who accepted the demons from other possessed souls, and would undergo exorcism repeatedly. Here I was confronted with some incredible Christian heroism! If the Abbot took this thing seriously, so did I. The experience has remained with me, and reminds me that life does not always fit into nice rational categories. I should certainly become less fearful and more prayerful, confident that God is more powerful that the Old Enemy.

      In March of the same year, I was visited by Monsignor, who might as well have been another demon from hell. He nearly snuffed the smouldering flax as he left me without the hope that would give meaning to my canonical incarceration. It was the technique of the guru, the strategy of the KGB torturer. That night, I wanted to die, to cease to breathe and let God take me away to His Kingdom. There was no question of suicide, simply that the Almighty should answer my prayer. Perhaps, my originality of spirit was too strong for me to allow myself to be broken prior to being destroyed. The inner conflict was unbearable. It would take an incredibly evil man to destroy his former subject with calculated deliberation. Perhaps he was merely disappointed that I had the will and determination to stay at the monastery for that long. Was I just stubborn? For me to leave of my own volition would be proof of my “instability” and “inaptitude”, all too convenient for Msgr. Wach, and that his responsibility for a commitment made too lightly would be dispensed. I intuitively felt that this was what was in his mind. No way would I oblige him! I called his bluff and it cut me into pieces.

      This is the stage where I arrived at the scene depicted at the beginning of this little piece. The next morning at Matins, I was unable to see my office book through my tears and hopelessness. The Abbot came to see me, and suggested I should go and make a pilgrimage to the house of Marthe Robin not far from the Abbey. The little house with its gloomy room where the servant of God lay in mystical agony for so many years, and where her earthly sufferings were relieved by her death made little impression on me. I prayed my Rosary as best I could, though there was no inner light or consolation. But, the labour of prayer in faith is at its purest when there is no reward, no light, no hope – only the darkness. I was the closest I had ever been to losing the Faith and denying the existence of God. That day will mark me to my dying day.

      The Abbot was sensitive to my distress and saw an opportunity in having me contribute to the life in the Abbey in the way I knew best. He was a highly experienced monk, and knew the limits and the breaking point. I had every confidence in the total integrity of this exacting but fair-minded Abbot. After Easter, he sent me to England to find an organ for the Abbey church. The large church needed a large instrument, and there was no limit on the height. This would leave me very free in my choice of an instrument. I was given an ample budget and sent on my way to England. I had a choice of several instruments, but the right one was in south Wales. The budget enabled me to pay a friend to spend a week helping to dismantle the organ and to organise transport by a professional removal company.

      Upon returning to the Abbey and finding the parts of the organ unloaded by the monks and tidily arranged in the cloister, a new life began for me. I adopted the same timetable as the lay brothers, which relieved me from monastic Matins and Lauds. I recited the Roman Breviary privately and attended Mass in the crypt in the early morning. I went to the Conventual Mass only on Sundays and feasts. I felt much freer as I had access to most parts of the abbey, especially the cloister and the workshops, and the main building of the abbey when access was necessary. It was a completely new life within the same place. The crypt was better lit in the morning, and the oppressive gloom was past.

      I was given all the help I needed for the task of rebuilding the organ. New parts were made to my specifications in the Abbey workshop, and by June, the organ took form. By early July, the work was finished and the organ was ready to play. It was blessed and inaugurated on the feast of the translation of St Benedict’s relics. By then, the Abbot was confident that positive propositions would lie ahead for resuming my vocation to the priesthood. I had been admitted to communion and allowed to function on occasions as a deacon. One of the priest monks, who was specialised in canon law, studied my situation and suggested that a solution could be found, and that by the fact of my time spent at the Abbey, I could consider myself officially absolved by the Church and cleared from my sins. It seemed like the rays of the sun were penetrating into my soul.

      Within his limited powers, the Abbot honestly sought a solution, but was able to find none. The task of destruction and discrediting had gone too far. Later in his report, he felt more of the opinion that I should consider life outside church organisations as an artist or a craftsman. He knew that I was not cut out for monastic life, and the possibility of finding a place in a diocese was remote. What could he do in all honesty? Monsignor Wach had washed his hands as had Pontius Pilate. Despite the Abbot’s reserved but favourable report, nothing changed the reality: what is to be done with a broken branch, a deacon no bishop will want, and who no longer has a canonical situation? We can believe that the one who chose this solution was far from being inspired. In retrospect, it was a mere brush-off. I had no choice. If the fog was thickening, the night would be more than difficult to face!

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