THE CULT OF EXPERIENCE
The Charismatic Appetite

November 2008By Heather M. Erb

Heather M. Erb, who has extensive teaching experience at the undergraduate and graduate levels at several major universities, including Fordham, Penn State, the University of Toronto, and St. Francis University, currently teaches graduate philosophy for The Catholic Distance University in Hamilton, Virginia, and is a visiting professor of philosophy at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania.

If wisdom is, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, the ability to savor things as they really are, then making an effort to savor the true nature of human worship of the divine is time spent pursuing the highest of spiritual rewards. In an attempt to savor the fullness of the Catholic faith, some homeschooling parents recently expressed interest in attending a charismatic Life in the Spirit Seminar hosted by a Catholic parish in a central Pennsylvania university town. My experience as a professor who has taught scores of philosophy and theology courses at several Catholic colleges and universities has shown me the practical wisdom of reiterating information about various spiritual movements in the Church. Insights on how the charismatic movement impacts on the Roman Catholic faith tradition are neither rare nor novel, but are nonetheless part of the remedy needed for today's theologically hard of hearing.

Enchanted as we are today by the cult of self-expression in all its guises -- new prayer forms and postures, liturgical innovations, exercises in empowerment parading as catechetical programs -- we seem more preoccupied with imaginary wounds to ecclesial communion than we are with the decades of theological bloodletting that continues to alienate the truth that binds us to the good. Like fundamentalism, the charismatic phenomenon often presents itself as a juggernaut that crosses denominational and faith boundaries. Like an appetite, the charismatic impulse goes out toward its fulfillment in a satisfying (and divine) object which it assimilates. The psychological and moral aspects of this appetite reveal a spiritual hunger, or desire, reminiscent of the medieval "concupiscent gaze" repudiated by SS Bernard and Augustine. The concupiscent gaze is a metaphor for the soul whose inner eye, or "eye of the heart" (oculus cordis), actively and aggressively consumes all in its path, instead of contemplating reality silently as a gift from on high.

The charismatic quest for paranormal experiences of God is also a desire for an ecstatic enclosing and enveloping of divine power, the spiritual parallel of St. Bernard's image of a body that has become "all eye" in its consumptive gaze. Instead of approaching the spiritual life as a gourmand attacks a banquet table, however, Catholic mystics traditionally have savored the delights of divine things in the serene light of truth, with the aid of intellect, the in­strument that cleanses the inner eye by raising its gaze upward and beyond the experiential self.

According to St. Bernard, the process of spiritual detachment involves a purging of one's body, will, and even memory, the storehouse of desire and experience, that "stomach," "receptacle," or "cesspit" that needs to be pumped out so that only humility and gratitude remain. This self-emptying of the spiritual ascent stands in sharp contrast to the self-centered metaphors of "filling up," "empowering," and "activating" that one meets in the charismatic vocabulary. Self-denial is also the condition for true communion with God and fellow man -- a noble friendship fostered under the sun of reason, in contrast to the contrived pseudo-communion of ecstatic emotional dissolution.


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Fascinating article! I recently had a somewhat similar experience with a speaker (a priest) at a meeting of Catholic homeschooling parents. The priest encouraged meditation/centering prayer with all the same self-centered focus and catch phrases like "going deep inside yourself to find God". He stated that this was common practice in the early church (desert fathers) and that it had been "lost". Apparently we had to find it again by leaving the Church and learning it from Hindu monks!!?? Conspicuously absent from his talk was any mention of the Eucharist, the sacraments, or the Church! I questioned the speaker repeatedly and asked the Diocese for the bishop's position on this practice and all I got was silence! Posted by: rpkammerer
November 14, 2008 10:05 AM EST
Point: well taken.

Counterpoint: Although not a "charismatic", I have been worshipping alongside Catholic charismatics (and other good Catholics)since the 1960's -- especially through Franciscan University at Steubenville. My prayer and worship of God and my service of neighbor have grown steadily. Their enthusiasm and love of God and neighbor have spurred me on -- just as Peter's, Paul's, and the Apostles' enthusiasm converted thousands. I frequent the sacrments regularly-- Mass every day and Penance one every week or two.
Here's my point: true Catholic charismatic prayer and worship bring one more deeply into the sacramental and apostolic life of the Church. If it does not, then there is something amiss. Obedience to the Church and its magisterium should be the norm for Catholic charismatics; openness to the charismatic gifts (properly ordered to the sacramental and apostolic life of the Church) should be the norm for Church officials. The Holy Spirit is the giver of all good gifts; they should be received with gratitude and used in the way the Spirit wills for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church.
Posted by: tom reynolds
November 15, 2008 01:45 PM EST
Fr. James Manjackal MSFS asked me to forward this message to you:

I read the article "Charismatic Appetite". I am sorry to say that the author does not know really what is happening in the life of a charismatic. I am a catholic priest of the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales for last 35 years. I had a great "emotional experience" of the Holy Spirit in the year 1976 and from then on I am a preacher of Charismatic retreat until now.
My emotional experience helped me to grow more and more in the fruits and gifts (sevengifts) of the Holy Spirit. Although I had degrees on Philosophy and Theology, I came to know more about Christianity, my priesthood,the meaning of my vows etc. only after I became a charismatic. I think that Christianity is not just following of a few dogmas but it is a lived experience of Jesus who is alive which is made possible to a believer through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which is called "Baptism in the Holy Spirit". Baptism in the holy Spirit helps a christian to live a meaningful and authentic Christain life because the grace received in various sacraments will be more activated and become more powerful in him.

It is unfortunate to call it "experientalism" or "Individualism". I have seen in my preaching ministry that hundreds and thousands change their lives into a meaningful and authentic christian catholic life, by going often to confession, the Holy Mass and making daily personal prayer to keep a personal friendship with Jesus. I see the Charismatics living a better Christian Catholic life than others. Even with regard to charity-helping others who are in need, they are far better than others. I am ready to write more about it if needed.
Fr. James Manjackal MSFS. comenowholyspirit@yahoo.com
Posted by: venjesus
December 31, 2008 06:36 AM EST
Unfortunately, Fr. Manjackal leads credence to those who view Charismatics as spiritual elitists. How can one not when he claims that Charismatics are "better Christian Catholics" and "far better at charity" than others.

I was involved in the Charismatic movement for a number of years and enjoyed the fellowship and grew in my devotion to Christ. And it is wrong-headed to minimize the emotional component of the conversion experience. After all, we're called to know AND love Jesus.

However, I quit participating when it became apparent that many involved in the movement were rejecting orthodoxy and embracing modernist, protestant positions.

It is also my experience - with many exceptions - that Charismatics spend more time at prayer meetings and social events than at works of charity or service to the Church.

Generalizing is always hazardous but I would say, more often than not, the Charismatic movement is a good starter spirituality. Most Charismatics eventually move own to more traditional and quieter ways of growing in the Lord.

Unfortunately, it is true significant minorities of Charismatics apostatize and join protestant, even cultish groups. However, we lose many more main-stream Catholics to aggressive evangelizing than we do Charismatics.

The Holy Spirit goes and comes as he wills - always but not exclusively through the sacraments. I've heard de-meaning comments - not only from Charismatics - made about the little gray-haired folks praying their rosaries in front of the Church. In most circumstances, those who make such comments would learn much from those unpretentious, pious people.

One of the majesties of the Church is the many flavors of spirituality favored by the Holy Spirit, each offering different charisms and with appeal for those of differing temperament.

Some of us identify with the great and ancient orders, e.g., the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustinians, and providing great caution is used, the Jesuits.

Others may be more comfortable with modern, more lay oriented groups like Opus Dei or the Neo-Catechumen way. We can serve and find fellowship in the Knights of Columbus, Our Ladies of Charity, the Holy Name Society - the list is almost endless.

We need to look at the fruits of any movement. If a movement encourages humility, chastity, obedience and detachment, if it encourages frequent reception of the sacraments, if it proclaims the Word of God, then how can it be bad?
Posted by: editor@catholicwitness.com
January 13, 2009 11:20 AM EST
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