Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Spiritualities of Lent (East/West)

SOURCE:  Eastern Catholic Spiritual Renewal

Someone had asked me why we don't have the Stations of the Cross in our parishes any more. From this person's perspective this doesn't make any sense because all prayers help us to get closer to God and in his mind were all Catholics so there shouldn't be a problem. Like this person, many approach Tradition from the perspective of: "all Catholic spirituality is the same". In fact, most consider our Byzantine Tradition just another way of having additional prayers or an extra liturgy. So its understandable for this person to ask this question but it also demonstrates their lack of understanding that not all spirituality is the same. Being that Great Lent is around the corner I thought I might demonstrate in a few ways just how much we are different.

Those who read my blog know that I approach spirituality from a nontraditional perspective. Generally, the concept of spirituality has come to be understood as a relative term. For example, most Christians understand the term to mean how a person relates to God. Taken this understanding at face value any way we pray doesn't matter because the result is the same. From a personal perspective this seems to make sense. However, even though our relationship with God is personal what we know of him comes from Revelation- from our local Church Tradition.

When we begin to define our spirituality on how we received Revelation the term spirituality no longer is exclusively personal. We can no longer say that any way to pray will work. By accepting Revelation in the way it has been mediated by the local Tradition we also accept a unique way to approach God, which is a way proper to that Church Tradition. Even though prayer is always personal we are now praying within the context of the Church's Tradition. There are many factors that are involved in just how the tradition transforms our personal spirituality, which I won't go into now. However, the point I wish to demonstrate is that the Byzantine and Latin traditions have developed very different "spiritualities", which we can see in just how we both "pray" during Lent.

There was a TV program on a few years back that showed some of the extreme practices of religious groups. Included in the program were certain Catholics in the Philippines who during Lent would have public displays of extreme self mortification and even a parade of people that were physically crucified. These groups are not an official representation of Roman Catholic teaching, but they do represent the Latin spirituality in its extreme form.

Throughout Roman Catholic history, self mortification has been part of their spiritual heritage. Even today there are groups in the Latin tradition that beat themselves with whips, such as Opus Dei. There was even a testimony of a nun and others who claimed the last pope whipped himself. When understood properly self mortification for Roman Catholics is a way to identify with Jesus Christ. This identification leads one to share in Christ's suffering and to express a remorse for ones sins or a contribution in paying ones debt for sin (penance). During Lent we see the amplification of this spirituality, especially in the prayers of the Stations of the Cross.

In the Byzantine tradition we have similar practices of self mortification, which are highly practiced during Lent. We fast, do prostrations, and have All-Night Vigils to name a few. However, our understanding of self mortification is not the same as it is in the Latin tradition. As I pointed out, in the Latin tradition self mortification leads a person to identify with the redemptive suffering of Christ, which at times leads to some to extreme practices. It could be said for the Byzantine tradition instead of "identifying" with Christ through mortification we seek his "identity" or indwelling presence. For the most part, mortification in the Byzantine Rite is a way of purification rather than a penance. Through our mortification we seek to participate in the divine nature rather than to imitate the sufferings of Christ or show penitential remorse for sin.

Obviously the spiritualities behind our different Lenten practices comes from how our two traditions have come to understand sin. Properly understood, the Byzantine tradition takes a therapeutic approach to sin in its spirituality, whereas in the Latin tradition we find a forensic approach. Based on this, the answer to the person to why we don't have the Stations of the Cross is simple: we don't have the same spirituality. Each tradition reflects how it has come to understand the mysteries of Divine Revelation. It's important for us that we learn to pray with our local Church traditions. There is something very unique and special about the way each tradition reflects the same mystery that we share. If we do not overcome the tendency to see spirituality as something wholly personal, we will miss out on just what God is trying to say to the world in our traditions. We must learn to receive from Tradition and hand on Tradition, this is the essence of our unique churches spirituality.

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