Perhaps the greatest gift the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes to us is its presentation of what we can describe as a ‘dogmatic spirituality’.
It is easy to think of dogma and spirituality, not only as irrelevant to each other, but somehow opposed. Dogma can be seen as hard, precise, unyielding. Spirituality, on the other hand, is often viewed as warm, welcoming, indefinable, mysterious.
In fact it is only in the union of the two, of dogma and spirituality, that life becomes possible. Perhaps we can think of this union by analogy with a body, composed both of yielding, warm flesh and a strong framework of bones. Life flows in the body precisely when these two come together, when the flesh is supported and structured by bones and when the bones are enfleshed. We would not want to embrace a skeleton. True. But an embrace of flesh without bones would be sadly disappointing. It is in the union of the two that we find life. It is only then that we can cry with Adam, ‘Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh!’
Understanding the connection
In one of the most important paragraphs in the Catechism it teaches that:
‘There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.’ (CCC 89)
Let us unpack what this is saying, and why it is so important.
The spiritual life is inseparable from dogmas. We cannot understand the spiritual life apart from defined doctrine. The Catechism speaks of the ‘path’ of faith. Spirituality is a path, a way of holiness. There are many ‘spiritualities’ in the Church’s tradition, of course – Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian, and so on. We can think of each of them as a distinct path, a distinct way of living out the call to holiness. However, underlying each of these paths, and common to them all, are the dogmas, those central truths of the faith that connect us to the fundamental realities of our lives. The great dogmas of the Blessed Trinity, of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, of our participation in the life of grace – it is by these that we live, and from which we draw our deepest springs of life. Christian spirituality consists precisely in the living out of the dogmas. Spirituality is dogma made flesh.
Dogmatic spirituality brings us to life. The connection between spiritual life and dogma is ‘organic’, that is, it is living. The connection is like an electric current, making a Christian life possible because we are connected to the true Source of life, Jesus Christ. The current runs in both directions, from dogmas to life and from life to the dogmas.
Dogmas provide light for the journey of faith, but only for those who wish to see. Without dogmas our spiritual lives are in darkness. Spirituality then becomes an inchoate feeling, or a blind yearning, without clear direction. In this case, the religious instinct which so defines us as human beings remains as the potent energy in our lives, but it is unchannelled and without focus, or our energy is dissipated. Either way, we stumble off in the darkness. It is ‘uprightness’ of life that makes the intellect and the heart open to ‘welcome’ the dogmas, welcoming the Word that would make its dwelling within us.
Applying the blueprint
Elizabeth Gouge, in her novel, The Dean's Watch, has a wonderful description of an elderly lady coming to a deep faith late in her life. The description tells beautifully of the realisation of this unity of dogma and life, of truth and love. She uses the image of the truths of the faith as a blueprint. As an architect uses a blueprint to measure his work, the dogmas are light shed upon our lives to measure and shape them:
‘Could mere loving be a life's work? Could it be a career like marriage or nursing the sick or going on the stage? Could it be adventure? Christians were commanded to love, it was something laid upon them that they had to do whether they liked it or not. They had to love...but what was love? Was there anything or anybody that she had truly loved? It came to her in a flash that it must be wonderful to hold God and be held by Him, as she held the cat in her arms, rubbing her cheek against his soft fur, and was in turn held within the safety and quietness of the bower.…
‘So she took a vow to love. Millions before her had taken the same vow but she was different from the majority because she kept her vow, kept it even after she had discovered the cost of simplicity. Until now she had only read her Bible as a pious exercise, but now she read it as an engineer reads a blueprint and the traveller a map, unemotionally because she was not emotional, but with a profound concentration because her life depended on it. Bit by bit over a period of years that seemed to her long, she began to get her scaffolding into place. She saw that all her powers, even those which had seemed to mitigate against love, such as her shrewdness which had always been quick to see the faults of others, her ambition and self-will, could by a change of direction be bound over in service to the one over-mastering purpose.’
Elizabeth Gouge helps us to see the importance of uniting a spirituality of love - that contains all the warmth of a cat rubbing its soft fur against you - with the necessary development of the scaffolding that supports such love. A dogmatic spirituality is as unemotional as a blueprint, as precise as a map, as enduring as stone, and as quiet and safe as a hidden bower.
This article is originally found on page 4 of the printed edition.