Friday, February 24, 2017

New book on the Faith and the New Age

View from the choir loft: Milton Manor, Latin Mass Society annual Mass

Roger Buck's Cor Jesu Sacratissimum: From Secularism and the New Age to Christendom Renewed is a brilliant and touching full-length treatment of the New Age and his escape from that to to the Faith.

It is available here:;

I've discussed Roger Buck's earlier book, The Gentle Traditionalist, here

I've written about the book over on Rorate Caeli. Below I reproduce part of an article I wrote for the Christmas edition of the Catholic Universe newspaper.

The New Age movement is just the most fully-worked out manifestation of something vaguer and far more pervasive. For many of those without a formal religion, it seems more natural to seek solace in a country walk, in contemplating the stars, or in talking to animals, than in the words of scientific atheists. Again, some see the experiences offered by drugs as attempts to gain knowledge of one’s inner self, rather than simply the chasing of sensual pleasure. Such people are not attracted to things which are easy to understand, but to things which offer the promise of transformation, transformation by getting through to something, something which modernity, materialism, and science, have clouded over or lost. Furthermore, what they want is not something abstract and wordy, but something tangible and felt. For people like this, the mysterious nature of Catholicism can be an advantage, not a disadvantage, as can its ‘incarnational’ character: its use of created things, like the sacraments, incense, sacred music, blessed objects, and so on.

The principle teachers of this vague, nostalgic, longing are often not New Age gurus but pop musicians. The group Pink Floyd sang:
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse, 
out of the corner of my eye. 
I turned to look, but it was gone, 
I cannot put my finger on it now. 
The child is grown, the dream is gone. 
I have become comfortably numb.

Many of the people who are influenced by these ideas are strongly inoculated against the Christian message by misconceptions and prejudices, and sometimes by bad experiences. We should be concerned, all the same, to allow the Christian mystery to exert its full power upon them, for unlike tree-hugging and psychoactive drugs, Christ really does have the power to transform and to save.

It is no coincidence that Christmas is the Church’s most successful evangelising event, with the lapsed and the curious crowding into our churches for Midnight Mass. They want to experience the powerful and potentially transformative mystery of the Christmas message, which many of them glimpsed as children in the darkness, in the traditional songs, the liturgy, and the crib. Perhaps the most effective way of neutralising the force of the Church’s message at this moment is sentimentality, which makes what is truly stupendous in the message look banal: the baby in the crib competing with the lambs as to who can look the sweetest.  (What if the lambs win?) But the biggest challenge is not to make the most of the evangelising opportunity presented by Christmas, important though that it, but to extend this opportunity, in some way, to the rest of the year.

How can make clear to the New Age generation that the Faith is not dry and boring, that it is not all about words and abstract ideas, but that it is an intriguing saving mystery which they can see and touch? The weekly liturgy of the Church is indeed a celebration of the mystery of the Atonement, not neglecting the Incarnation and the rest of the Faith. In the reform of the Mass after the Second Vatican Council, however, the mysterious nature of what is going on has become less clear. As Pope Francis expressed it in 2013, referring to the ancient liturgy of the Eastern Churches:
‘We have lost a bit the sense of adoration. They keep [it], they praise God, they adore God, they sing, time doesn’t count.’

This ‘sense of adoration’, or as Pope Benedict put it, the ‘sacrality’ of the liturgy, is clearly communicated in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the Traditional Latin Mass. What this conveys is not that the liturgy is something you can’t understand, but that it is something, at least in part, which surpasses understanding, and somehow remains far from abstract, but conveyed by sacred music, incense, and ritual. Pope St John Paul II said that New Age people are rejecting ‘rationalistic religiosity’: when they see this in the Church they aren’t interested. The Traditional Mass is something which can, at least sometimes, interest them.

To be clear, the saving mystery is still there in the Ordinary Form; what differs between the forms is, to put it simply, the way the mystery is presented. It has long been argued that the use of Latin, silence, and complex ritual in the Mass made it more difficult for worshippers to understand what was going on. At one level that is clearly true: for native English-speakers, Latin is definitely harder to understand than English. At another level, the question is more complex. The Mass is not just a collection of theological propositions, which can be made easier to understand by putting them into simpler language. The Mass as a whole conveys something to the worshipper which goes beyond mere words. As Pope St John Paul II explained, about the use of Latin: ‘through its dignified character [it] elicited a profound sense of the Eucharistic Mystery.’ It communicates something precisely by not being the language of everyday speech, but by being ancient, beautiful, and at times silent.

To see the evangelising potential of the Traditional Mass we need to be alert to what the liturgy is expressing non-verbally as well as what it is expressing verbally. Non-verbal communication is key to conveying a sense that something special is happening: something sacred, something to do with God, for example with genuflections, signs of the cross, special clothes, and a special language. This can seem intriguing to people who are seeking, in their lives, something mysterious and transformative. As Pope Paul VI noted, ‘modern man is sated with words’.

Since the Traditional Latin Mass is now a legitimate ‘Extraordinary’ Form of the Church’s liturgy, we should look to see how it can be a resource for evangelisation. What it is particularly good at is demonstrating to Catholics, and to others, that what the Church possesses, in the Mass, is something of unfathomable grandeur. The priest and the server prepare for it by a public expression of sorrow for their sins; men doff their caps and women cover their heads; we kneel; and at the moment of its coming the only adequate language is God’s own language: silence.

Are people influenced by the New Age really going to be attracted by this sort of thing? They acknowledge the spiritual realm, but this is usually seems perfectly compatible with a self-centred and comfortable life. The Extraordinary Form focuses attention on the Other; the New Age focuses attention on Oneself. Despite this the ancient Mass had the power to attract the most sensual egomaniac of English fiction, Oscar Wilde’s creation Dorian Gray, who used to wander into Catholic churches to see Mass being said:
The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize.

Dorian Gray was fascinated by what he saw, and in real life many of Wilde’s ‘decadent’ friends, and eventually Wilde himself, converted to Catholicism, which could give them what their sensuality could not give them. The explanation is that in their sensuality they were not seeking just pleasure, they were seeking meaning, and furthermore they were seeking spiritual realities manifested in created things. This is what they found in the Mass and in the Church.

The New Age Pantheist says that the physical world is God. The mystery of Christmas tells us that because of the Incarnation, God can be contained in a physical reality. The Church’s ancient liturgical tradition spreads that idea out to the whole of life, because it makes clear that the sacraments and holy images and holy water and all sorts of physical things can do more than simply remind us of God: they can convey an objective blessing and the objective action and presence of God in the world. The world is not a flat, rationalistic, machine: it is enchanted. It is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘charged with the grandeur of God’: a grandeur which can be glimpsed in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

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  1. I'm reading the book at the moment. It really is terrific - scholarly, soulful and poetic - suffused with warmth and generosity, and a wise, tender, life-affirming faith.

    Speaking personally, I think the New Age might already have passed its high-water mark. I foresee a new attempt to steal the Church's clothing on its way. The wave of political populism sweeping the West will find its religious echo sooner or later, I feel, in a quest for the Sacred that will demand much stronger fare than anything the post-V2 world can offer. I think it's highly likely, in fact - dramatic though it may sound - that the coming years might see a widespread revival of the ancient pantheons of pre-Christian Europe.

    Faced with such intensity, a humanist-orientated Church (like the mainstream politicos of Europe and the US) will be simply blown away. We need to invest, more than ever, in the restorative power and God-centredness of Catholic tradition. The Latin Mass, of course, is absolutely central to this - the cornerstone, I would say, for any meaningful religious riposte to (1) secularism, (2) the New Age, and (3) the coming religious populism outlined above.

  2. Thank you for this insightful post. Coming from a Reformed Protestant background, with every second former-Reformed Christian morphed into a New Ager, I would say "You've nailed it Joseph Shaw".