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American Religious Life in Historical Perspective

Chapter 8

Poverty, Chastity and Prayer

Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology
Chicago, IL

If there is one theological development that has come out of the Second Vatican Council, it is the concept of the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation.

This means more than saying that the Church professes to have a sacramental system, from Baptism to Holy Orders. The Catholic Church claims to be itself the great Sacrament of the New Law. The logic behind this profession stems from the general principle that although God can perform by His own power all that is effected by created natures, nevertheless, in the counsels of His providence He has preferred to help men by the instrumentality of other men’s work; so also He makes use of human aid for that which lies beyond the limits of nature, for the salvation and sanctification of souls.

It is assumed that the divine mission committed to Christ by His Father did not end with His death but continued after His ascension through the Church that He founded. Consequently as Catholics view their Church, it is undoubtedly spiritual if we consider the chief purpose of the Church, which is to make men holy, and the immediate cause of holiness, which is supernatural grace in its various forms. But as regards the persons who constitute the Body of Christ and the means that lead to these spiritual gifts, the Church is external and its very external elements are instruments for communicating the internal life of God to souls.

This fusion of visible and invisible elements is not coincidental; it is causally interdependent. Comparable to what occurs in one area of the Church’s operation in the sacramental system, it is perennially taking place in the Church as a whole. External unity among the members and stability in doctrine and discipline are the sign of a deeper solidarity that comes from the animating Spirit of God. Conversely, doctrine and discipline and the juridical forms which govern the faithful carry the assurance of an invisible efficacy which for Catholics as far transcend the material instruments used as the raising of Lazarus exceeded the sound of Christ’s voice or the conversion of the Mediterranean world was beyond the capacity of a dozen Jews.

The Body of Christ is said to be mystical, then, because it is sacramental, not only in the functional sense of an external action signifying the conferral of interior grace, but on the cosmic level of a visible entity whose Body, in all its amplitude, is a manifestation of God’s presence on earth, begun at the Incarnation and extended into human history. Those who benefit from this communication are first of all the actual members of the Mystical Body, who receives these gifts as by a special privilege. But also outside the Body, whoever is eventually saved is told to credit his salvation to the instrumentality of the Church, whose invisible Head is the fountain of all life and holiness; and of whose fullness anyone who is sanctified must have received.

Although the main lines of this concept of Catholicism are clear enough, its full implication is open to wide development, as Pope Paul told the Second Vatican Council. “It is necessary,” he said, “to elucidate the teaching regarding the different components of the visible and Mystical Body, the pilgrim, militant Church on earth, that is, priests, religious, the faithful, and also the separated brethren who are also called to adhere to it more fully and completely.” [1]

Among these different components of the Mystical Body as the great sacrament of Christ—even as Christ is the sacrament of God—we shall concentrate on the religious.

Elsewhere in the Vatican Council documents, religious are said to participate in the Church’s sacramental role by being signs to a world that needs their witness in this life of what the true life that awaits us is destined to be.

The profession of the evangelical counsels appears as a sign that can and ought to attract all members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfillment of the duties of their Christian vocation. The People of God has no lasting city here below, but looks forward to one that is to come. This being so, the religious state by giving its members greater freedom from earthly cares more adequately manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below.
Furthermore, it not only witnesses to the fact of a new and eternal life acquired by the redemption of Christ. It foretells the resurrected state and the glory of the heavenly Kingdom…
The religious state reveals in a unique way that the kingdom of God and its overmastering necessities are superior to all earthly considerations. Finally, to all men it shows wonderfully at work within the Church the surpassing greatness of the force of Christ the King and the boundless power of the Holy Spirit. [2]

This was never intended to be a panegyric on the religious life. If the Council met to update and renew the whole Church, it meant to have religious become leaven of this updating and renewal by being what they should be—the sign of Christ’s presence to the people of God.

There are three areas of witness that stand out with special urgency for religious in today’s world—each with a heritage that goes back to Christ and when faithfully practiced leads to Christ. These three are the witness of poverty, chastity and prayer.

Witness of Poverty

It is customary when speaking or writing about evangelical poverty to begin by extolling the virtues of being poor and the value of sharing one’s material possessions with others.

I prefer to take a different approach. If religious poverty is to be a sign of Christ’s presence to the world, it seems more than useful to have some basis for comparison. What is this world before whom we are supposed to give witness of what Christ meant when He promised heaven to the poor in spirit and used the most extreme imagery to describe how hard it would be for the rich to be saved?

I thought long and hard on what aspect of our national culture to use as a symbol of American affluence, and decided on clothing. Why clothing? Because the essentials of what is necessary to cover one’s body and protect it from the elements is minimal; much less than a person’s need for food.

In countries like India, even in parts that have extremes of heat and cold, one or two changes of clothing are all that most of the 500 million people have. And over the centuries, until very recent times, most people in the West were rather plainly dressed. They had to be. There was no money for a great outlay on clothing.

Now we turn to the United States today. My source is a current trade journal describing the sales boom in women’s and men’s wear, sparked by that infallible gimmick of changing styles, but actually made possible by the country’s prodigious wealth.

Nobody knows quite why, but there is a real boom in the American clothing industry.

Retailers across the country tell the same story: “Price doesn’t seem to matter. They just come in and grab.”

In the stores, fashions have never changed faster for both men and women and no style seems too bizarre or too expensive to sell. Everything from the woman’s ‘micro skirt’ to the man’s ‘Nehru jacket’ can be seen on the streets soon after it reached the counter.

The buying spree is reflected in official statistics from the US Department of Commerce. These show that consumer spending for clothing and shoes has picked up smartly in the past few years. Last year, it hit 42.7 billion dollars, an increase of 13.2 billions, or 44.6% in the past five years.

Our theory is that American affluence has entered a new phase, one where people have so much money they can buy all the other consumer items they want and still splurge on clothing.

The clothing industry has its own way of expressing this. They say that people today not only buy basics but they also buy fashion goods.

For a man, this may mean a wardrobe that includes a plaid dinner jacket in addition to a black one. For a woman, it may mean buying, besides sheer nylon hosiery, a whole wardrobe of white stockings, textured stockings, polka-dot stocking and lace stockings.

Even children’s wear has been revolutionized. Hot currently is the ‘gangster look’ inspired by the movie Bonnie and Clyde for little girls aged 10 to 13. For infants, fashion comes in bright orange, yellow and green.

The hope is that the boom will go on and on. To spark it the clothing industry relies on constant change. The pace of this change lately has been dizzy.

The American man, secure for years in his timeless business suit, now is up against something new. Collections for men are being created and shown by several top designers for women and they are selling. Like today’s fashions for women the new designs for men are youth oriented, designed for a lean, young physique.

Rudi Gernreich, designer for women who has often scooped his rivals by guessing correctly which avant-garde styles would sell says: “I merely watch and observe what the young people are trying to express.” His prediction: “More minis. Skirts will disappear. The ‘pants look’ and bloomers are coming in.”

‘Moderate-priced’ department stores now carry dresses priced up to $600.

In high fashion, ‘a tremendous market’ is reported for dresses priced at $250 to $2500. From New York City, fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard makes this report:

A ready-to-wear evening coat and dress, by Norman Norell, price at $5500 bought off the rack by a dozen customers at stores across the country.

Flashy earrings from $5000 to $7000 that sell ‘like costume jewelry.’

And for men, The Wall Street Journal reports, fashion fads spread quickly across the land. One Los Angeles distributor sold more than 60,000 Nehru jackets. A jewelry maker sold 600,000 neck chains for men including three-dozen to a chain store in Crane, Texas.

Is there any hope for the conservative dresser? Eleanor Lambert, top publicist for women’s styles, offers some. By autumn, she predicts, the correct hemline for ‘everyone over 20’ will drop to the top of the knee.’
In view of the industry’s current accent on youth the big fashion question seems to be, “What will ‘everyone under 20’ do?” [3]

This is only a glimpse of the extremes of affluence that characterize our country. Compared with the world of times past, and with most of the world today, we are living in a terrestrial paradise. We spend seven billion dollars a year on hard liquor, two billion a year on the care of lawns, and seventeen billion on advertising to stimulate psychological needs. We have the largest per capita earnings, and the lowest per capita working hours. Ours is the best fed, least painful, most sweet-smelling culture of human history.

And this is the culture before which we are bidden to witness to the poor Christ and not be ashamed or afraid of doing so.

It is easy in the middle of poverty to hide behind pious phrases or defend our indulgence by saying we have to conform to the people among whom we work. That is not true. The world always tries to make conformists of those who challenge its ways, and crushes those who rebuke its wealth.

Part of our theme is still personality development and the religious life. Does evangelical poverty foster this development or stifle it? It fosters it in a way that no one knows better than the person who lives it out with unstinted generosity toward God. Nothing in my experience more surely enslaves a religious than having access to luxuries and superfluities that others cannot get or that are incompatible with the principles of our vows.

Conversely the practice of poverty brings great liberation in the exact measure that I divest myself of whatever I do not need.

May I suggest three norms, in three words, for our practice of poverty in the contemporary world? To be relevant, and therefore sacramental in the lives of all who see us, our poverty must be sincere. We must be in fact, and not only by profession, really poor. God knows if we are poor only in name.

Our poverty must be laborious by which we resemble workers in the world who have to labor often in distasteful jobs under trying conditions.

Finally our poverty must be generous by which we freely devote ourselves and all we have for the service of the neighbor. Sincerity, labor and generosity may not be easy to spell out in rulebooks or constitutions, but they are not hard to determine, each one for himself, once we set our minds to it. Our poverty is sincere if we actually lack certain things we should like to have; it is laborious if we become tired in the work we perform; and it is generous if we cheerfully share.

Witness of Chastity

If the poverty of Christ needs witness today, so does His chastity. There is a close relationship between the two. When Christ called those who are poor in spirit, He also promised those who are pure of heart that they would see God.

It is no coincidence, either, that Matthew placed together two discourses of the Master in which His disciples asked Him practically the same question: How is this possible?

In the first discourse, on monogamy, Jesus said that marriage, from that time on, must be what it should be: one man with one woman until death. When the disciples heard this, they asked the incredulous question: “If that is the position with husband and wife, it is better to refrain from marriage.” Christ’s reply is the Magna Charta of evangelical celibacy:

That is something that not everyone can accept, but only those for whom God has appointed it. For while some are incapable of marriage because they were born so, or were made so by men, there are others who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let those accept it who can. (Matthew 19:11-12)

In the second discourse, which came on the heels of the first, a young man came to ask Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He was told to keep the commandments. When the man replied that he had kept all of these: “Where do I fall short?” Jesus gave us, through him, our Magna Charta of evangelical poverty. “If you wish to go the whole way,” Christ said, “go sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and then you will have riches in heaven; and come follow me.” On hearing this, the young man went away with a heavy heart, for he was a man of great wealth. (Matthew 19:16-22)

Whatever else these discourses teach us, it is the higher ethic, which Christ brought into the world, beyond anything the world, had ever seen before. No wonder the disciples were astonished at Christ’s prescription of monogamy on his married followers, which He did not retract but used as the occasion for offering even voluntary celibacy as an option to those who have the grace. No wonder the disciples were astonished at Christ’s prescription of monogamy on his married followers, which He did not retract but used as the occasion for offering even voluntary celibacy as an option to those who have the grace. No wonder Christ added a commentary on riches after the young man had left him. “I tell you this,” He said, “a rich man will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven.” At which the disciples were amazed and protested, “Then who will be saved?” Jesus looked them in the face and replied--and we need to hear this today--“For men this is impossible; but everything is possible for God.” (Matthew 19:25-26)

That is it. Celibacy like poverty is humanly impossible. It is possible only with the grace of God.

Nobody doubts it. The only doubt people may have is whether we are faithful to celibacy. Once convinced of that, they need no argument to prove that, without divine assistance, no one could live this way and be happy. They know from experience.

However, as in the case of poverty, so with chastity, we want to concentrate less on the dignity of this vocation or even on how to keep it faithfully than on the awful need the world has of our witness to preserve any semblance of chastity. Social scientists in other cultures, more than our own, are persuaded that material affluence has much to do with it. If nothing else, sex indulgence costs money, takes time, and needs expensive means of sustaining stimulation after the first heat of passion has been satisfied.

Whatever the reasons, ours is a sex-ridden society.

Preoccupation with sex has reached an all time high in the Western world. The writings of Freud, for example, are twenty volumes of analysis into the lives of men and woman whose mental balance had become unhinged through every kind of sexual aberration. Critics like Julian Huxley further testify to the extent to which sex has almost become identified with modern culture and the advancement of sex pleasure a desideratum that centuries of Puritanical rigor have sought unsuccessfully to repress. They claim that repression of knowledge about sex has led to the discredit of religion and the outlawing of God. “Our greatest taboo,” according to Huxley, “has been the discussion of sex. The child who begins to ask awkward questions and to display its perfectly natural curiosities on these as on all other matters, is, for the most part, simply told not to, and in a shocked voice. Here on the one hand, is the natural desire of curiosity, on the other, repression by authority, and by authority mixed up with ideas of right and wrong.” [4] The result is that religion is first associated with surpassing urgent knowledge and then discarded for hiding ‘the facts of life.’

Those who know the background of the work of the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University vouch for the fact that other and lesser motives than science prompted the publication of the Sexual Behavior of the Male and its companion volumes. Not the least was an implicit thesis spread through over 2000 pages of print, that since men and women today are so constantly and consistently breaking through the morals of sex, we should reappraise the whole structure of Christian ethics and revise its outmoded standard. Of particular concern are the sexual habits of unmarried youth.

Neither the law nor custom can change the age of onset of adolescence, nor the development of the sexual capacities of teenage youths. Consequently they continue to be aroused sexually and to respond to the point of orgasm. There is no evidence that it is possible for any male who is adolescent, and not physically incapacitated, to get along without some kind of regular outlet until old age finally reduces his responsiveness and his capacity to function sexually. While there are many females who appear to get along without such an outlet during their teens, the chances that a female can adjust sexually after marriage seems to be materially improved if she has experienced orgasm at an early age. [5]

Needless to say, this approach to sexual problems is revolutionary. If problems are still admitted, the conflict is not between human passion and an objective code of morals, sanctioned by 2000 years of Christian history, but between the legal and social restraints imposed by a stodgy religious culture and the newly discovered spirit of liberty that seeks only the maximum of sex pleasure before and after marriage, and is willing to break through any barriers to find gratification.

The net effect of ignoring moral values has been to flood the atmosphere with a sexual miasma of magazines and books, movies and television, and all the means of communication, whose incessant pressure places heavy demands on the virtue of men and women that still believe the Decalogue and hold that Christ was not a dreamer when He enjoined restraint of the passions even in the secret thoughts of one’s heart.

Periodicals are good example. The number of otherwise acceptable publications that cater to the prurient tastes of their readers is legion, and occasional efforts of civic-minded groups to control the tide only emphasize the powerful influence which magazines have on the impressionable minds of the young.

Yet, the most serious aspect of this sex revolution is not the amount of pornography or the ease with which it is propagated. The worst feature is the complacency that a radical change of moral climate finds among the people and the difficulty of getting the courts to convict anyone who is making a fortune on his neighbor’s concupiscence.

When in 1957 the Supreme Court ruled against Samuel Roth, a big-time smut peddler in New York City, denying his appeal against previous convictions, it looked for a moment as though a new policy was in the offing. But subsequent decisions by the nation’s highest judiciary indicate that such is not the case.

In the case of Sunshine Book Co. v. Summerfield, the Supreme Court overruled a circuit court decision and in so doing held that the Postmaster General could not bar nudist magazines from the mails. In United States v. 31 Photographs, the District Court upheld the prohibition of Customs officials against the importation of obscene material ordered by Indiana University’s Institute for Sex Research. The material was ostensibly to be used in connection with research projects, but the prosecution argued that the Kinsey reports and other productions of the Institute were notoriously not limited to research purposes. The Supreme Court overruled the District Court without giving a written decision.

In a celebrated decision that provoked wide reaction in religious circles, the Supreme Court passed judgment in favor of Kingsley’s International Pictures Corporation v. Regents of State of New York. The case involved the censorship of a motion picture known as ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ which advocated adultery as morally acceptable. The opinion of the court held that the New York statute under which the motion picture was banned is unconstitutional since it prevents the advocacy of an idea; in this case that adultery may be legitimate behavior. The Court asserted that the First Amendment protects such advocacy, on the score of literary freedom.

Parallel with this procedure was a ruling on the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In this action the Federal District Court had outlawed the mail ban of the Post Office and stated that undoubtedly much of the book would be shocking to many people. However, “Even if it be assumed that these passages arouse shameful, morbid and lustful sexual desires to the average reader they are an integral and, to the author, a necessary part of the development of theme, plot and character.” Accordingly no matter how salacious the contents of book intended for public consumption, their publication may not be hindered because they advance the purpose for which the book was written.

A forceful commentary on the present situation is the preface of DH Lawrence to one edition of his Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He argues that if the world would resume the free, uninhibited use of the Anglo-Saxon monosyllables relating to elimination and copulation, all our neuroses would melt away. Sober critics admit there is much charm in this simple doctrine but its only drawback is that it is not true. “They tell you,” say the critics, “sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right. But it has not. I think it is the other way around. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess.”

Implicit in the rise of sexualism through all this media of communication is the denial of original sin, which, by definition, means that men have lost their perfect dominance of the passions and therefore the sex urge should be controlled rather than stimulated for the sake of the pleasure it gives.

As a religious looks at this orgy of sexualism, can he have any doubt about the need for his witness to show the world that chastity is not only possible but practicable and, with God’s grace, does not suppress our personalities but gives them inner peace and new energies that only the chaste of heart can enjoy?

Our contemporaries, to whom we are sent, are taking a hard look at the meaning and value of human love and of the whole sexual life. To them we should offer the sincere, simple, and wise testimony of our consecrated chastity.

No less than poverty, our celibacy also is essentially sanctification. According to the teaching and example of religious teachers and the constant teaching of the Church, we embrace chastity as a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world. Through it, full dominion of our bodily and spiritual energies is trained for a prompter love and a more total apostolic availability toward all who enter our lives.

Moreover, the profession of chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is of itself a true preaching of the Gospel. It reveals to all men the beauty of spirit over matter and the power of grace over nature.

Yet we also know that celibacy is not a virtue of the weak nor something that is acquired without cost. It demands of us sacrifice by which we knowingly and willingly forego entrance into that family relationship where husband and wife, parents and children, can in many ways, even psychologically, attain mutual fulfillment.

Our celibate consecration, therefore, involves a certain affective renunciation and solitude of heart that are part of the cross offered us by Jesus as we follow in His footsteps. This sacrifice of marital companionship closely associates us with His paschal mystery and makes us sharers of the spiritual fertility that He enjoyed.

We assume that the vow of chastity is accepted with a humble, joyous and firm spirit as a gift from God. We further assume it is offered to God as a sacrifice. Given these premises, it not only does not diminish our personality nor interfere with our human contacts and dialogue with the world; it rather expands our capacity to love, unites us with others more deeply, and brings us to a fuller charity than is normally possible without celibacy.


No one who has any experience with celibacy has any doubt that using the right means to preserve chastity is absolutely necessary. Sincerity of purpose or good will may carry a man or woman through other commitments or religious life, but of themselves they are not enough for evangelical chastity. Either the proper means are taken or celibacy is lost.

The first set of means pertains rather to those who admit candidates to the community. These candidates must show, above all, faith, balance and informed freedom of choice.

Without faith, how can anyone make sense of this higher love that raises the perfectly normal affections of a man or woman to express themselves above their natural capacity?

Without balance of character, how could we hope for that progressive equilibrium between impulse and intellect that remains unshaken even in the vast provocative sexual or affective situations that may arise in the apostolate?

And without informed freedom of choice, how can we trust that later on the decision to celibacy may not be retracted?

Let me promptly add that age or previous exposures to sexual stimulation are not, of themselves, any proof of balanced character or informed freedom of choice. They can be quite the opposite in the absence of a deep faith and proved desire to give oneself to Jesus Christ.

I cannot overstress what I consider a fetish that many have made of psychological and psychiatric testing of candidates for a life of celibacy. I do not exclude such tests where doubts exist; but I feel they often obscure the prior and greater need for knowing a candidate’s spirituality and, after admission, of guiding him (or her) spiritually for a long time and not only the first few years of postulancy and novitiate.

Once admitted to a religious community, how does one grow and develop in a life of celibacy?

I suggest five norms, none of which is new, though some are brand new in their relevancy today. To neglect any one of these is to live in a dream world of theoretical chastity, not in the real world of consecrated celibacy.

  • Before all else, a religious must cultivate a close friendship with Christ and familiarity with God. In this world no one lives without love. When our contemporaries question or fail to understand what our love is all about, we should offer them a prompt reply by the witness of dedicated chastity. But this witness will be only as sincere as the love for God that burns in our hearts. We are not freaks or misanthropes; we, too, are in love.

  • If the love of God is the foundation of celibacy, love of others is its normal condition for growth in maturity. Our love for Jesus Christ should impel us to genuine human love of people and to true friendship with them. Chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is not only safeguarded by fraternal friendship; it also matures and develops through it. Consequently we should regard as a precious apostolic fruit of our celibacy that mature, simple, anxiety-free dealing with the men and women with whom and for whom we exercise our zeal for the up-building of the body of Christ.

  • The perfect liberty of chaste love is not acquired in one day. It requires the wise use of all those positive means of sanctification and personal growth that are open and available to religious men and women. Among those I consider dedication to assigned tasks, cheerfulness of disposition, and kindness to others most important. If I am dedicated to my work, I will not be bored; if I aim at cheerfulness, I will not be sad; and if I am kind to others, they will not be unkind to me. Boredom, sadness, and the experience of unkindness are the sworn enemies of chastity.

  • Asceticism and the prudent custody of the senses are as necessary today as they ever were. Religious now have access to more sex stimulation than ever before. As long as such stimulation is not sought for itself or is honestly unavoidable in connection with our apostolate, God will not be wanting in His grace.

    But the story of needless emotional excitation along six lines—through reading, movies and television—is uniform. It leads to sexual arousal and then, either the religious wakes up and puts a stop to the needless stimuli or leaves the religious life. This is not prudery but sanity as anyone who deals with priests and religious defecting from their celibacy can testify.

  • Moderation in human contacts is necessary if chastity is to be preserved. Married men and women in the world know they have to moderate such contacts if they want to remain faithful to their husbands or wives. Frequent indiscretion, they discover leads to infatuation, and infatuation leads to infidelity.

Either religious also learn to discriminate with whom they associate, for how long they can talk, what they can talk about, and under what circumstances they can be alone with certain people—or nature takes over. I will add one sentence. Priests are vulnerable and arousable; and religious women are often the most accessible.

Witness of Prayer

The third function of a religious vocation is to witness before the world to the existence of God by witnessing to man’s dependence on God through prayer.

In a sense, this witness was already included in the other two, since neither evangelical poverty nor chastity are possible without prayer. But there is a distinctive testimony demanded by conditions in the world today.

It is always risky to generalize, and particularly so when making sweeping judgments about the whole Western world. Yet we are safe, I believe, in saying that the deepest issue facing our society today is its forgetfulness of God. I omit reference to the militant atheism in countries under Marxist ideology, since our concern is with the witness that religious should give in the society in which they live.

As before, with poverty and chastity, so here it is useful to take close look at just what this practical atheism in Western culture really means. To get some grasp of it, we begin by asking what religion means to people nowadays.

Religion means different things to different people. It has been loosely defined as that which holds the inner loyalty of a man. He may be fundamentally loyal to himself alone (an egoist), to the crowd he is with (the herd instinct), to his country (good citizen), to an abstract idea of man’s welfare (a humanist), to some conception of God (a theist), to God made known to us in His divine Son Jesus Christ (a Christian). Whatever engages a man’s inner loyalty is said to be his religion, unless he cares nothing about anything (a nihilist), but then he is worth only what he believes—nothing. For everyone is what he is by virtue of what he believes.

Among these conceptions, only that of the theist and Christian are valid in the Christian scheme of reality, and no more important distinction can be made than to sift the various meanings of religion as they affect morality. Unless the notion of a personal God is included, religion is not only a misnomer, it is a parody.

Yet there is prevalent in modern thought the idea that people can be religious, and therefore moral without believing in any religion in a sense of accepting an objective and transcendent Deity. “God,” in the words of John Dewey, “denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions.” [6] He admits the idea that “God,” representing a unification of ideal values that are essentially imaginative in origin, when the imagination supervenes in conduct, bristles with verbal difficulties. This is owing to our frequent use of the word “imagination” to denote fantasy and doubtful reality. “But the reality of ideal ends as ideal is vouched for by their undeniable power in action. And idea is not an illusion because imagination is the organ through which it is apprehended.” [7]

In other words, God does not exist except as the projection by our imagination of those non-objective ideals that guide our conduct. While the idea of God is not real, therefore, since it is created by a fantasy, it is not illusory because it serves the purpose of idealizing people’s hopes and desires.

Behind these notions, so prevalent today, is a man whose name should be remembered. He stands in much the same towering position in modern atheism that Benedict occupies as a patriarch of community religious life. His name was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). He revolutionized the world of thought—especially through Communism and Freudianism, both of which adopted his demonic theories of God.

Early in his career, Feuerbach indicated his principal aim: to change “the friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, worshippers into workers, candidates for the other world into students of this world. Christians, who on their own confession are half-animal and half-angel, into men—whole men.” To these proposed improvements he had earlier added: “theologians into anthropologians,” religious footmen of celestial aristocracy into free, self-reliant citizens of earth. [8]

Never one to mince words or avoid clashing with established positions, Feuerbach laid the groundwork for his followers by asserting “the object of any subject is nothing else than the subject’s own nature taken objectively.” In less pedantic language it means that the object we think we know is really only ourselves projected outside the mind as though it were objective. The objects of religious knowledge are no exception.

The impact of these ideas on the popular mind has been far-reaching, and their influence even among nominal Christians has been corrosive.

In document after document and speech after speech, Pope Paul VI has been warning against this tendency to substitute men for God or, in Feuerbach’s terms, to discover that after all God is only man writ large. There is only man; there really and objectively is no God.

Religious have a noble task set before them by Providence: by their life of prayer to witness the opposite, that we constantly and desperately need God; that He deserves to be praised and glorified by His creatures; and that in loving Him we perform the highest function of our personality and the greatest action in the universe.

But we must pray. Reading and study, done for the glory of God are pleasing to Him, but they are not prayers. Administration and teaching; attending class and doing household chores; social work and conversation; walking, talking and eating—all should be done, as St. Paul urges, in the name of God. But they are not formal prayer.

Ten years ago it would have seemed strange for anyone to suggest there is no substitute for prayer. Today it must be stressed and strongly underlined that prayer is prayer and nothing can take its place.

What is prayer? Prayer is the conscious awareness of God’s presence and my responding to this presence by whatever sentiments occur to me at the time.

I have just awakened in the morning and immediately I think of God and speak to Him, asking Him to bless the coming day.

I have a full day ahead of me, so I place myself in God’s presence and spend 30 to 60 minutes planning with Him what I am going to do, or just talking with Him about Him or me or about anything that comes to mind.

I am hurt by what someone tells me, so I ask Him for the courage to be like Him in His suffering; I am pleased by what another says to me, so I thank Him for the consolation He gave me.

I am eating and like the food—a prayer of appreciation; I dislike the food—a prayer of patience.

I am listening in a class and cannot understand what the teacher is talking about, so I ask the Lord, “What is he saying?” (And the Lord may answer quickly, “Nothing!”)

I am in chapel and promptly make myself aware of His Real Presence in the Eucharist. Then I thank Him for being so close to me in His humanity, just feet away, and carry on from there.

I am at Mass, and have honestly tried to live the Mass before attending it. All through the liturgy, I make a conscious effort to unite my sacrifice with His, tell Him I adore His majesty, praise His goodness and await the blessings of His grace.

So it goes. No two lives of two religious are exactly the same. God did not want them to be. What He wants above all is that I keep in contact with Him in my way, with my temperament and trials, my experience and joys. It is the conscious contact that counts; what I am saying or what the subject of our conversation is does not matter much—no more than what a loving wife talks about with her husband or what a man shares with his friend.

Two marvelous things will happen as we cultivate the art of keeping in touch with God. Our personality will grow in depth—we shall think deeper thoughts; in vision—we shall see what others do not grasp; in strength—we shall have courage in the face of the greatest odds.

And secondly, our prayerful spirit will become contagious. Even those who do not believe what we do will respect our convictions and profit from what they see. Those who share our faith will instinctively find a kinship with us, and we with them, which must be the communion of spirit with spirit and is so satisfying, it cannot be described.


Chapter 8: Poverty, Chastity and Prayer

  1. Council Daybook, September 29, 1963, pp. 146-7.

  2. Constitution on the Church, 44.

  3. “Changing Styles and a Retail Boom,” US News and World Report, May 20, 1968, pp. 72-4).

  4. Julian Huxley, Religion Without Revelation, (New York, 1957), p. 119.

  5. Alfred C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, (Philadelphia, 1953), p. 14.

  6. John Dewey, A Common Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934), p. 42.

  7. Ibid., p. 43.

  8. Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen der Religion (The Essence of Religion), (Leipzig: Alfred Kroner Verlag, 1851).

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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