The premier English language poet of the last century, T.S.Eliot, was quoting Beaudelaire, the distinguished French language poet of the 19th century, when he wrote, "The spirit kills; it is the letter that gives life."
Christians reading these words will quickly recall the similar and seemingly contrary words of Christ: "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh avails nothing."
Actually, the phrases of both the poet and the Savior are equally insightful. Jesus is certainly correct in teaching that man is enlivened by his higher instincts and demeaned by his fallen nature. The reader has only to look at one's own life to understand that mankind is better off immersed in the spiritual atmosphere of faith and belief than mired in the sensual world of the flesh and skepticism.
But Eliot has an equally valid basis for highlighting the benefits of keeping the letter of the law over embracing the mere spirit of the law. Roman Catholics have only to look to the last 40 years of church life to understand that the spirit alone (for example, the so-called spirit of Vatican II) has indeed led to a moribund Catholicism. The abandonment of the letter of Catholicism, all those cultic and cultural practices that were the sum, if not the substance, of pre-Conciliar Catholic life, has clearly diminished the religious vitality of the church.
It is all well and good to have exalted ideas about community, dialogue and diversity and the universal call to holiness. But these notions alone, however valid, are insufficient for an incarnational church like Roman Catholicism. Early in Lent, a Gospel passage has the disciples of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask why John's disciples fast but the disciples of Jesus do not. The world might well approach the Roman Catholic community today and ask why our ancestors in the faith fasted but we do not. There are only two mandated fast days in the church calendar - Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. There are only eight required abstinence days in the United States - Ash Wednesday and the seven Fridays of Lent. Is the current generation any better off because preachers advocate the spirit of Lent (prayer, fasting and alms-giving) but offer few practices by which these ideals may be carried out?
The true spirit of authentic Catholicism needs literal, practical, ordinary activities to sustain it. Roman Catholics need holy water, genuflections, signs of the cross, candles, rosary beads, statues, medals, ashes, palms, throat blessings, grace before meals, bedside prayers, meatless days, holy days of obligation, Mass on Sunday, confession on Saturday, stations on Friday, benediction, Rice Bowls, budget envelopes, the Catholic Charity Fund, Roman collars, cassocks, veils and religious garb. Eliot is correct when he writes ironically, "The spirit kills; it is the letter that gives life." Faith thrives on pious practices.
In this Sunday's Gospel, an arborist argues with the owner of the orchard to permit a fig tree that has been unproductive to be given a year's reprieve. The arborist will apply his expertise to the tree to ensure some fruit. If his talents are unsuccessful, then the tree can be uprooted and discarded. Every Christian knows that faith without works is dead. "By their fruit you shall know them," Jesus observes of his followers. Yet many of the works that have sustained Christian believers through the centuries have nearly fallen into desuetude. Mass attendance among Catholic Rhode Islanders is at 20 percent. There isn't a percentage low enough to indicate how few Catholics go to confession. Lenten fasts and abstinences, although few, are casually observed at best. Holy Days are nearly defunct (not entirely the fault of the laity). Virtually every church is locked after morning Mass, precluding much personal devotion during the day. And, of course, the Bible never was very big with Catholics anyway.
It has become fashionable to stress the distinction between spirituality and religion. And there is a distinc-tion. Spirituality is an interior disposition en-hanced and sustained by religious practice. Religion is the handmaid of spiritual-ity. Where there is sadly no religion, spirituality withers and dies. Man, a creature of body and soul, needs both traditional, Catholic practices as well as interior renewal to insure a fruitful Lent and a fulfilling Christian life.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)