In this post I do not claim to offer a full spiritual or psychological analysis of religious fanaticism. I wish I could. I am not an expert on the subject. But in the spiritual realm, there are analytical elements that can be added to the normal elements dealing with fanaticism. It is some of these points, rather, that I would like to share, that require us to pause, ponder and think, for in essence we all in one way or another are very keen on certain things in life, and this for many reasons (i.e. freedom for instance… Remember the May 1968 French saying: ‘it is forbidden to forbid’).
Here I will be trying to understand and analyse the mechanism behind ‘christian fanaticism’. My interest, moreover, is not in what other religions think on this issue as I believe in leaving each to his own.
The little Pharisee in us
First and foremost, some might be tempted to think that they are not fanatical, that they are cool, open minded,… That is all well and good. But one important fact in the Gospel, it must be remembered, is striking: the presence of the Pharisees. They are amongst the most heavily criticised people in the Gospel. This should surprise us. They are, after all, a group of followers within the Jewish faith (and many will become Christians), rather akin to an elite group, of the purest amongst the pure: the word “Pharisee” in fact means “chosen”. What is striking is that the Gospel – which is written for us and not for those Jews who remained in the Jewish faith – criticises them quite strongly.
When we read the Gospel, the temptation is to keep our distance from this criticism and say that it is not addressed to us, but rather to the Pharisees, remarking: “look how awful there were”. However, in fact the Gospel is inspired by the Holy Spirit and written for us. So why are the Pharisees mentioned? The reason is simple: inside of every human being following Jesus there is a secret little (or bigger) Pharisee, who often escapes from our grasp.
This in fact affects the depths of the human soul and the religious attitude: whenever we are presented with a desirable object engendering possible worship, we have deep inside of us some mysterious mechanism that triggers behaviour quite similar to that of the Pharisee. It is in fact a mode of behaviour common to all human beings, and not just to some Jews living in Jesus’ time. One can be perfectly Christian and yet have the attitudes and ways of a Pharisee.
It is worth bearing in mind, therefore, that all criticism (constructive and positive criticism) that we find in the Gospel about the Pharisees is very strong medicine that is being given to all of us, and more precisely to that hidden Pharisee in us.
That the Pharisee is always well-intentioned is important to remember! But this is not enough. Although he wants to defend the purity of faith, at the end of the day, the means he uses are not the right ones. In this light one cannot refrain from thinking of the parable Jesus recounts, which applies most significantly to the Pharisee:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
Jesus was not displeased by the zeal of the person he was blaming. Rather He encourages the person to take part in the sanctification of his brothers. Jesus points to the “means” used (‘you will see clearly [how] to remove’): in other words, how do I help my brother? This observation, I feel, is rather pertinent, for the result is: “then you will see clearly [how] to remove”… It seems that the overzealous behaviour shown here is rather based on the ‘old man’ in us than the ‘new man’. If the old heart of stone is removed, and a new humble and meek heart is transplanted, then the Spirit of God will be able to move the person to see more clearly and really help his brother.
“Hypocrisy” and “double standards” seem to be the characteristics of this type of mentality. A greater importance is given to external things (the outside of the cup (Matthew 23)) over internal things (the inside of it). But above and beyond this, thank the Lord, is God who sees only the heart of our brothers, and therefore only He can be the Judge because He sees the truth therein and can assess its worth.
I can consequently have great “fun” re-reading the best Bible-thumping chapters ever written, allowing the Light of God to shine in me, trying to fish out and corner that little escaping naughty pharisee: chapter 23 in St Matthew. As a result then when, for example, I am sitting close to a person whose body odour is offensive, the thought can be nourished in me that my sins smell exceedingly more in the eyes (rather in the ‘nose’) of God than the smell coming from this person. I myself am merely annoyed by this smell, while the truth is that it is God who is hugely offended by my sins. In this way my sins will have a powerful impact on me. This will calm down my hypocrisy and bring me to spiritual realism.
The mechanism of fanaticism
I would like to suggest a possible route to the birth of some types of catholic spiritual fanaticism.
The world we live in is quite chaotic, confusing and psychologically impoverishing. Instead of elevating us, giving us a sense of security, unifying our life around God’s Presence amongst us, it offers us few values and references, and all that we find is unpredictability and random behaviour. This reality pushes us to go on a Quest for the Truth, a search for things more stable and long lasting and for a sense of security and peace. We search for our ‘Messiah’.
As we journey on this quest, we might come across a more alive Christianity, a renewed discovery of Catholicism, and be overwhelmed by some graces that God gives us. The initial lack of order in our life, psychological instability, sense of loss, fear and weakness will then start to diminish because of the action of the Grace of God.
The initial Graces we receive give us the peace we were earnestly longing for. But what happens is that since we are still beginners, these graces fall into the hands of the ‘ old man’. Thus we receive them and understand them in a very base human way that prevents us from treating God, the Truth, for who He is. There is an unconscious deviation that occurs in us. Good intentions are always present. But they are not enough!! One can inflict a lot of damage with good intentions, starting with oneself!
When Peter says to the Lord, when was announcing that He will suffer, die and rise: “no never”… who was talking here? The Old Man in Peter. When Peter says that he will follow Jesus despite Jesus warning that he cannot do so, who is speaking here? When Peter cuts the ear of the guard, who is acting here? The Old Man in Peter!
It is not enough to have the New Wine, i.e. Jesus in our life. We also need the Old Wineskin to be transformed, purified, changed, into the New Wineskin!
When Jesus performed miracles, fed the crowds, stopped the wind, healed all illnesses, what was people’s reaction? He greatly resembled a Political Messiah, with all the necessary solutions : food, clothes, shelter, and peace! They wanted to make him a King! The Messiah King! But who is reacting in them here? The Old Man. How does he react? According to the base human way.
The ‘Pearl’, the ‘New wine’ is being given to swine: the old skin. This will not work, it will not bear fruit.
It is worth stressing once more that Jesus is not questioning people’s zeal. Yet, it is not because we have zeal that validates the use of baser human means. Emphatically not! When God’s Graces fall into soiled hands, old hearts of stone, old skins, they become Idols – i.e. they are unconsciously worshipped like God! Our attachment to them is true spiritual idolatry, where importance is given to what we have understood, what we have felt, and not to God himself, the Giver.
The Old Heart tends to accelerate, rushing to conclusions, to interpret according to human values, hopes and desire. One light, one grace, is now given prominence according to the desire of the moment, the part becomes the whole. One light is transformed into an entire doctrine or conviction. We start to focus on things that matter to the Old Man in us… but in fact they are only a part rather than the whole of theTruth. We rush on, not wanting to wait until all the Truth is revealed to us, until the entire picture is painted before our inner eye. The attachment to such things is already the seed of fanaticism.
In essence, it becomes evident that Graces which have been undermined by selfish/subjective needs, can generate fanaticism, and lead us astray from God’s ways.
Strangely, after having been ‘poor’, for a long time, in the spiritual sense, as we search for the Truth, any crumb of light that enters into our perception becomes the object of our new born fanaticism. If any person comes and challenges us, or touches this newly received part of the Truth, we become very confrontational, aggressive and insistent. Our approach becomes radical and fundamentalist. We build up in our mind the convictions we want, with the little we have, and totally disregard the different thinking or behaviour of anyone else.
Ironically, deep inside of us, we are unaware that our thinking and emotions are dominated by fear: the fear of losing our grip on the little crumb of light which has fallen into our hands, and which has become our “god”. There is a subtle but vibrant idolatry at work here. A crumb of the Truth now becomes all the Truth. Now, into the bargain, we became very zealous about it.
Total blindness, total lack of humility! Who can save us? Nobody. Why? Spiritual pride has already taken root in us and it is impossible to convince a person who has spiritual pride.
A person with common human earthly pride is open to redemption, because an appeal can be entertained when it emanates from a higher point of view or perspective: an established spiritual life, God. But if you are dealing with a spiritually proud person, this is simply a dead-end! In fact this person actually claims to spiritual knowledge!
Fear, lack of full growth, a degree of ignorance, generate fanaticism and the dogmatic self-righteous insistence that comes with it. A zeal that does not emanate from God, for God is humble and meek.
Fear of losing what was gained when the light was experienced is enough to give him or her grounds for “certainty”.
All this shows a lack of growth. A fragmented and reduced approach to the real God, the real Jesus, the real Gospel. It illustrates a very superficial understanding of Christianity, and quite a serious degree of spiritual blindness. “…you said, you see, therefore your sins remain” said Jesus to the Pharisees toward the end of Chapter 9 in St John’s Gospel.
More significant even than this is to know that all fanaticism bears a degree of heresy in it, because one choses part of the Truth and not all of it. The challenge of doing the latter – choosing all the Truth – is infinitely harder, because grasping the whole Truth engenders quite a different way of behaving, and is necessary. It is a humble and meek way, and is founded on gratitude for the generosity and mercy shown by the Lord.
NB If you want to read about Spiritual Sins, read the First book of “The Dark Night of the Spirit” of St John of the Cross (Chapters 1-7), where the author addresses the seven spiritual capital sins: a reflection of the usual seven capital sins transposed onto the Spiritual Realm: spiritual greed, spiritual gluttony, spiritual lust, spiritual pride, spiritual laziness, spiritual jealousy,… All momentous sins!
The healing process
The needed purity
If a fanatic has a little seed of humility and repentance, he or she can find a way to heal and grow spiritually.
As a first step it is important to trust God and entrust ourselves to Him. This attitude is essential. It comprises a sincere wide and deep act of Faith in God. We are not the managers of our Spiritual Life, we did not call God, we do not deserve even one of His innumerable Graces. Everything flows from His immense Mercy, calling us to follow him. He Called us, it is not we who called Him.
It is God who knows that the greatest part of our being still needs to be purified and changed; that the Old Man is still very alive in us; that a big part of our make-up is still raw material. The work is one of transformation, of daily effort, of daily steps to take, of daily growth. Therefore it is extremely advisable, everyday, to place into the hands of God one end of a figurative woollen ball by concentrating on doing Lectio Divina as well as possible. If, everyday, we repeatedly ask Him to hold one end of the thread, if, everyday, we put it back into His Hands, He will finally possess the entire ball in his hands, but more importantly, the thread will be absorbed by Him to subsequently become the means of transforming us.
It is important to realise that spiritual life is like human growth: it takes years to become an adult. It takes years for a small seed to become a big tree! This means that we should not cease trying to achieve our first victories, but consider that everyday there will be a battle, and that we need to win it. We should not be satisfied with a few crumbs but aim for the abundant Table of Food God has ready and waiting for us. This means that patience, resilience and perseverance are the unavoidable keys to success in this situation.
It must also be kept to the forefront of our thinking that rushing, jumping to conclusions, taking short cuts over important steps, forgetting the daily spiritual realism, make us go astray.
Every day entails its own effort, pain, and growth. Spiritual realism dictates that ‘today’ is what matters the most. It is not beneficial at all to discard the necessary steps. Neither is it beneficial to look behind, or be attached to the “old edifice”. Let it fall if it has to – and unavoidably it has to!
It is important as well not to mix and confuse one light with the Uncreated Light, Jesus himself, and to forget also the thousands of other lights the Lord wants to send us. As mentioned before, it is important to avoid transforming a grace we have received into an idol… into a “god”. Only God is God, and anything created that falls into the narrow space of our mind cannot be idolised. God is infinitely wider that our little brain and understanding. One truth calls for another truth until the Truth is formed, until the whole picture of the Truth is formed. And remember, the Truth is not a theory, it is a person: Jesus.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd
It is also useful to remember that fanaticism is fiercely insistent. On the other hand Jesus was meek and humble. He said to the Samaritan Lady (St John chapter 4): ‘I am thirsty.’ He did not start by saying: ‘you have the wrong religion, you are an adulteress,…’ Conquering others for Christ requires a lot of delicacy and forethought as well as patience, both of which constitute a purer form of Love.
The Church, in the final analysis, provides a better and more balanced judgement. Why try to out run the Church? Why run in a different direction to the Church? Why claim that the Church makes various assertions when it is you who make them, and do so in your own way? After all, who gave you permission to do so? What are your credentials?
It is of the utmost importance to believe in the Church. “To Believe” is not to stop at what we see. It is to go deeper, with pure intentions, to find Jesus and the Holy Spirit instead of seeking out trouble! St Francis of Assisi confessed to a known adulterous Priest. Why? To show us how his faith was stronger than appearances, that he saw and believed in the sacred Priesthood of this Priest! Do we have such faith?
It is important, also, to have recourse to the deposit of God’s Wisdom which the Church holds in trust. Submitting to the Holy Spirit who is alive in the Church, who speaks through the Church and in the Church is a true wise choice. Thus it is beneficial to have recourse to the Church for solid doctrine in order to find in her, God. Likewise it is always very good to humbly consult God through his Priests, such behaviour, in fact, being endorsed by St John of the Cross who says that God loves this way of acting.
As a final reminder, let us remember that the Lord did not blame us for wanting to remove the speck from the eyes of our brothers, but He stressed the fact that we need to learn how do it: by removing first the beam in our own eye! The Lords wants us to really learn what is true love, true Mercy, true compassion, so we are more qualified to remove the speck from our brothers’ eyes, not with aggressive fanaticism, but with peaceful, meek, compassionate Mercy.