Many of the classical spiritual treatises have a curious layout. They begin with a challenge, telling us how to live our lives in a better way. Then, usually already in the very next chapter, they chronicle all the faults we will then have, precisely because we have converted and begun to live as they have prescribed. Strange as it sounds, conversion brings with it a whole series of new faults.
Ruth Burrows, for example, begins her fine treatise, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, by setting out a paradigm for conversion and then, immediately after, telling us all the new faults we will acquire if we do actually convert. John of the Cross develops his books in a similar way, immediately after each major challenge, he details what faults we will have when we begin to take that challenge seriously.
It seems nothing comes pure, even virtue. This side of eternity, everything has its shadow side. A more sophisticated intolerance inevitably accompanies virtue. Our friends, of course, already know all of this! They don’t need John of the Cross or Ruth Burrows to tell them that our deepening conversions so often make us intolerable. Many is the frustrated spouse, family member, colleague, or friend who painfully puts up with the righteousness of our rightness.
It is because of this, our proclivity to inflate with intolerance even as we fill with virtue, that the great spiritual authors also tell us that the capacity for genuine self-criticism is the litmus test of maturity. To be healthy means, precisely, to be healthily self-critical. Failure in this area is an infallible sign of immaturity.
If this is true, and I believe it is, then we would be wise today to write a spirituality of criticism, for both liberals and conservatives, along the lines of the classical treatises. The first chapter of such a book would lay out the positive challenge. The next chapter, though, would be entitled: Faults of those who have taken this seriously! It would have to be a long chapter, with one section for liberals and another for conservatives. Allow me, here, in a bit of a playful manner. to suggest what might go into this second chapter:
What are my faults, if I am a sincere liberal who has indeed taken seriously the gospel challenge to be prophetic?
With my liberal consciousness will come, as naturally as smoke follows fire, an arrogance. Consciously or unconsciously, I will consider myself enlightened – and those who disagree with me as more ignorant and less sensitive than I. Hence, I will use the phrase “a raised consciousness” and apply it to myself and my own without for a second realizing how absolutely arrogant that is.
As a liberal, too, I will posture open-mindedness, but then dispense that empathy on everyone, except one group. Against my conservative foes, I am allowed, in the name of open-mindedness, to be a bigot. My empathy, espoused as universal, is allowed one blind spot. From this stance, too, I am allowed to be positively gleeful at the demise of some of the major (conservative) institutions that once formed the glue of community – heterosexual monogamy, marriage, family.
Prophecy is a virtue. Liberals bring that virtue into the world. But gift of that virtue is often written off because of “the faults of those who have taken prophecy seriously”.
What are my faults if I am a sincere conservative who is truly concerned with being faithful to the tradition?
Like my liberal counterpart, I am also arrogant. Mine, however, is not an intellectual arrogance. I know my liberal sister or brother is better educated than I, but she or he is not as good, as faithful, as prayerful, and as moral (in the real deep sense) as I am. And that knowledge, that I, alone, am truly faithful, that I, alone, carry Christ’s moral loneliness, gives me permission to be angry, to abuse power (of course, only to be helpful!), and to by-pass some elementary laws of charity. Thus, I am a loving, Christ-faithful, prayerful person … who can, in the name of the gospel, be mean, unjust, and bitter.
Conservativism too is a virtue – and a much needed one. Conservatives keep society and the church from ultimately disintegrating, but that virtue too can most often be ignored precisely because of “the faults of those who have taken fidelity to the tradition seriously”.