Friday, February 20, 2009

It's a bird... it's a plane... it's an ENTHUSIAST!

Barbara Nicolosi recently announced in Church of the Masses that the project she co-scripted, Mary, Mother of the Christ, is a go. Her news almost immediately got drowned in a maelstrom of discussion over whether the Mother of God experienced the normal pain of childbirth. 98 comments later, the discussion has possibly come to an end with the primary enthusiast of the "Mary had no labor pains" school of dogmatic thought unable to resist putting in the last word.

I picked up Ronald Knox's book Enthusiasm this morning to list it for sale in my Pious Ladies Bookmobile. Instead, I decided to keep and read it. The topic seems relevant to the religious enthusiasm displayed by Ms. Nicolosi's interlocutor Emmanuel in the discussion on Mary's childbirth experience. I also recognize in it my own temptations towards gnosticism and what Knox calls ultrasupernaturalism. I've never gone off the deep end of religious fervor but have definitely surfed its waves. I think I'll read this. (Digression -- so many books, so little time...)

The full title of the book is Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries. The Ronald Knox Society of North America calls it his life's work:
Msgr. Knox traces a tendency to enthusiasm from the first days of the Church into the XX Century. It contains not only a characteristically charitable analysis of this tendency but valuable lessons for those of us who remain confused by the strange enthusiasms of so many of our neighbors in the XXI Century.
Here is what caught me and stopped me from listing the book for sale. This is from Chapter One: "The Nature of Enthusiasm":
If I could have been certain of the reader's goodwill, I would have called my tendency 'ultrasupernaturalism'. For that is the real character of the enthusiast; he expects more evident results from the grace of God than we others. He sees what effects religion can have, does sometimes have, in transforming a man's whole life and outlook; these exceptional cases (so we are content to think them) are for him the average standard of religious achievement. He will have no "almost-Christians", no weaker brethren who plod and stumble, who (if the truth must be told) would like to have a foot in either world, whose ambition is to qualify, not to excel. ...

Quoting a hundred texts -- we also use them, but with more of embarrassment -- he insists that the members of his society, saved members of a perishing world, should live a life of angelic purity, of apostolic simplicity; worldly amusements, the artifices of a polite society, are not for them. Poor human nature! Every lapse that follows is marked by pitiless watchers outside the fold, creates a harvest of scandal within. Worse still, if the devout circle has cultivated a legend of its own impeccability; we shall be told, in that case, that actions which bring damnation to the worldling may be inculpable in the children of light. We must be prepared for strange alternations of rigorism and antinomianism as our history unfolds itself.

Knox's phrase in that last paragraph -- "a legend of its own impeccability" -- brings to mind the recent scandal that finally broke through to the surface of the hidden life of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Debra Murphy has a ten-part series on the Fr. Maciel case which I confess I have not yet read. I need to brace myself before I look more keeply into that particularly unpleasant can of worms. But my cursory glance shows me that Debra has done a comprehensive summary and analysis of the Maciel scandal, so I don't hesitate to recommend it to those with stronger stomachs.

So why is Superman heading up this blog entry? Why, because he is the Man of Steel -- he is emblematic of the way that the enthusiast is tempted to see herself or himself. He is mightier than thou! Pure as a pre-pollution snowfall! A good man to look up to, as long as we don't find ourselves standing there with our own capes waving behind us, looking down at the rest of the impure world.

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