Friday, January 15, 2010

Story of a Heretic

There was a time when I thought I should start every bible study a bit like an AA meeting. Except instead of saying, ‘Hi, I’m Liz and I’m an alcohol’ I should say, ‘Hi, I’m Liz and I’m a heretic.’

I do not have any great expertise when it comes to heresy. My only claim to knowledge is that I have a book titled ‘Medieval Heresy’, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for three years and I still haven’t found time to read. I do not really know what heresy is. When does something become heretical? Is there a difference between heresy and dissent? Are all Protestants automatically classed heretics? And do Protestants have people they think are heretics? (During that time I felt like a heretic, it was actually amongst Protestants.) Is there a boundary when an opinion crosses from ‘inaccurate’ to ‘heretical’? Or are any inaccurate opinions automatically deemed heresy?

So as you can see, I am not an expert. If you are looking for information on what heresy is and how it should be defined, press the back button on your browser. You’re not going to find it here.

But what I seem to have is a lot of thoughts about heresy and how heretics are treated. Recently, I was reading a blog post called Hildebrand on Schism, Heresy, Truth and Unity at Non Nobis. The post suggested that heretics would be better off leaving the Catholic Church. And there were some good points. But it also stirred up a lot of feelings about my own path. And how I have been treated and what I actually needed at the time.

Before I get to that, I should make one point clear. This post was talking about people within the Catholic Church. And I do realise, strictly speaking, that a heretic is someone who disagrees with the Catholic Church (not any of the multitude of other denominations around.) I guess if the way to define a heretic was as someone who disagreed with the church they were in, then you could simply find a church you didn’t disagree with and be a heretic no more.

However, my feelings about heresy and about being a heretic come from a time when I was not in the Catholic Church. And so I am going to talk about that time – even though it doesn’t really fit the proper definition of heresy. Well I did say I wasn’t an expert. Go back and read that part again and consider it my disclaimer.

Now I am not sure that I ever had any beliefs that would be considered heretical. (And this is where my lack of knowledge can be very limiting.) But I never denied Jesus’ resurrection of the dead. I always believed Jesus was fully God and fully human. Yet at the same time, I know I definitely considered some pretty heretical notions. And I did tend to say things that the people in my church did not like much at all.

And there were two ways that people generally dealt with this. They would either say, well if you believe that, you’re not a real Christian. End of conversation. Full-stop. It’s like they simply ticked me off their ‘people I want to talk to when I get to Heaven list’ and that was that. Not very helpful. In fact, often incredibly hurtful. To be honest, it still hurts. I wanted someone to help me, not simply dismiss me.

And the other response was just as unhelpful. Because that’s the whole ‘Well I disagree with you, but that’s okay’ approach. End of conversation. We just agree to disagree and everyone’s happy, right? But I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want someone to simply accept what I was saying. I wanted someone to show me why they disagreed with me. Have a discussion with me. Don’t just ignore the subject in case someone’s feelings get hurt. I’m a big girl. I can handle someone disagreeing with me.

That might sound contradictory. First I say that some people hurt me and their responses still hurts me. And then I say don’t spare my feelings. But see, there is a difference between having an honest conversation, where you actually talk to me and one where you simply shut the conversation down.

Maybe the whole problem comes from our approach to opinions or questions. If someone states an opinion, all we can do is either accept it, reject it or agree to disagree. If someone disagrees with us, we start focusing on how we can win the argument. If someone asks a question, we wonder how they’re trying to trick us. If I answer that the wrong way, will that mean that they’ve won the debate?

But sometimes people ask questions or state opinions from a sincere desire to open up the conversation. They don’t just want to tell other people what they think. They want to hear what others think. Especially if they’re searching. And the sad thing is that it’s often the searchers who are labelled heretics. But searchers realise they have not yet found the truth. That’s why they consider opinions that might be ‘funny’ or ‘strange’. That’s why they ask questions that make other people uncomfortable. They are looking, seeking desperately for something that makes sense.

And so often, they are opening doors – any door they can find – just hoping to find something, just trying desperately to get a little closer to the truth. But the problem is every time they open a door, someone wants to slam it back in their face. Either with a ‘You’re not a real Christian’ or ‘Don’t won’t to talk about this. It could become uncomfortable.’

Let’s be uncomfortable. Who says we have to be comfortable? I don’t recall Jesus saying pick up your comfy lounge chairs and follow me. We are to pick up a cross. And I believe, strongly, that any sincere search for the truth will involve quite a large degree of discomfort. People who are afraid of being uncomfortable should just give up the search altogether. Go back and lie in their ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ feathered bed. And I know, from my own experience, I was never searching for a comfortable Christianity. If I was, it would not have taken nearly so long to find it.

I heard this quotation from Blaise Pascal on a podcast today:

There are only three types of people; those who have found God and serve him; those who have not found God and seek him, and those who live not seeking, or finding him. The first are rational and happy; the second unhappy and rational, and the third foolish and unhappy.

I don’t know how much of this post has been about heresy. Probably not too much. But maybe it was never really a post about heresy at all. Maybe it was just a post about my unhappy search for God. About conversations that never started and doors slammed in my face.

Sometimes I write because I have something I want to say. Sometimes I write because I hope my writing has something to say to me. And sometimes I write because I’m searching for answers and the computer screen is the only one who won't walk away


  1. Hi Liz,

    It's an interesting question: what is heresy? Or:What makes a person a heretic?

    In relation to Catholicism, there are certain dogmas a person is bound to believe, for that person to be a Catholic. The majority of these are summarised in the Apostles' Creed, but for more detail there is the Penny Catechism, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent. One of these books should be compulsory reading for any Catholic.

    During the 1980s I went to a town called Avrille in France, and lived with the traditional Dominicans in their monastery. The abbot, 'Pere Innocent Marie' told me my faith was too sentimental. He counselled me to read two books, the Catechism of the Council of Trent, and Abbot Dom Marmion's Christ the Life of the Soul. And so I read both. And his counsel was spot on. Such books strengthen your faith and root out misguided sentimentality. Our sentiments or feelings don't disappear, they are just directed towards things we should be happy about (being in a state of grace, etc) and things we should be sad about (sin, etc). Rather than being downcast at having to practice our religion once a year, and joyful about living in sin. (And I believe I am eminently qualified to speak on the latter two points).

    One of the values of knowing (and believing in) one's catechism is, it is very difficult to fall into heresy. The downside of knowing and believing in the Catechism is, you won't find many people in life who agree with you at all. They all know better. The modern world has educated them in its false maxims, which they believe and cling to like the martyrs clung to God. (It's one of the reasons I find interfaith dialogue unneccessary. There's enough about my own faith to occupy me for the rest of my life, without hearing people dribble error and heresy. I'd rather read the life of a saint, and learn something more valuable).

    In the Catechism of The Council of Trent, you will find the term 'he who does not believe [this], let him be anathema,' at the end of many articles.

    There's a subtle distinction between anathema and excommunication. To be excommunicated one is cut off from Holy Communion and attending public worship. To be branded anathema, one is cut off from the Church itself. Anathemas are for heretics. And rightly so.

    (Outside of dogmas of Faith, there are certain duties a Catholic is bound to perfom, which are called the Precepts of the Church. These include fulfilling one's obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, going to confession once a year, receiving Holy Communion during the Easter period, obeying the rules of fasting, and contributing to the support of the Church and its religious).

    So in reltion to your initial questions:

    Heresy is to deny an article of faith. A heretic is a person who denies an article of faith. One article suffices to make a heretic.

    I can totally relate to this:

    "I know from my own experience, I was never searching for a comfortable Christianity. If I was, it would not have taken nearly so long to find it."

    Anyway, that was a good read. It was thought-provoking, and made me do some revision regarding the Faith, which is always a good thing.

    David ...

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for your comments. Now someone reading this post - provided they reach the comments - will actually learn something. Plus, I get to learn something as well.

    I wonder if maybe the word 'heretic' has been used in so many different contexts and has so many layers of meaning attached to it, that its original meaning has been lost for some people. They have an idea of what a heretic is, rather than a definition. Or maybe that's just me.

    I was looking at catechisms yesterday and almost bought one. But then I saw a book on Erasmus and I got that instead. I have a Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the priest gave me. But it's only tiny. I should probably get a proper catechism.

    I believe most people are naturally inclined to slide into error in one way or another. Just like children are naturally inclined to be naughty in some way. Which I suppose comes down to original sin.

    One of the reasons why I believe church is important is that the Church can show people when they are sliding into error. If you left children to bring up themselves, without the guidance of a parent, they would just follow their own inclinations and be even naughtier than usual. And I think Christians who practice their faith alone also have a tendency to go with their own inclinations. We need the guidance of the Church, just as a child needs the guidance of his or her parents.


  3. Hi Liz,

    Well, it’s interesting about the whole learning factor. I did learn a lot about the Catholic faith, and when someone is interested, as you are, I’m more than willing to pass on what I’ve learned. I think it would be wrong not to. And I don’t do it out of any other motive than charity. For, contrary to popular opinion, I have my charitable moments.

    St Paul, when writing to the Corinthians said, “What I have received from the Lord, that I delivered unto you.”

    Archbishop LeFebvre (whom I consider one of the greatest saints of the 20th Century), often said he was only continuing the apostolic succession, as in, passing on to others what had been passed on to him. He said he wanted it on his tombstone.

    I’m going to write a post on him. I’ll save what I have to say about him for that.

    As to the word ‘heretic’ meaning different things to different people. The world is drowning in a semantic, rhetoric cesspool of word definition. I can still remember when I could say I was gay, and it meant I was happy frolicking through life like a lamb skipping over the hills. Whereas now, if I say I’m gay, I have to wear protective underwear around most men. And fight off attacks from bloggers who think God approves of such behaviour. Along with attacks how we should all wear rainbow ribbons, listen to sermons by female priestesses, and fight for the gay cause against an evil God. (I’m just amusing myself here, okay?)

    I like your observations on children, and your analogy as to how people slide into error.

    In Genesis, after the flood, God spoke and said:

    “for the imagination and thought of man's heart are prone to evil from his youth.”

    A lot of modern people don’t believe we’re inclined to evil. They like to think of themselves as good. They’re all in for a shock on judgement day.

    As St Louis de Montfort says, we are the most grovelling of creatures.

    David …

  4. Hi David,

    Well I'm glad you do have charitable moments. Because otherwise I wouldn't be able to benefit from what you have learned.

    I don't know how anyone can think people are born good. Children don't need to be taught to do the wrong thing. They figure that out very well for themselves. But they do need to be taught how to do the right thing. And even as adults, we still need to be taught how to do the right thing and we're still more likely to go and do the wrong thing.

    I was talking to this guy once, who was saying that he knew he was going to get into Heaven because he was a good person. And I said, 'By whose standards? Who says that you're good?'He said, 'Well all my mates reckon I'm okay.' So I said,'Well that might have worked out pretty well for you if your mates were the ones in charge of Heaven. But unfortunately, they're not the ones who decides who gets in.'


  5. Well said.

    That type of comment reminds me of St Lawrence.

    He was a sacristan (in Rome I think). The emperor of the time commanded him to bring all the church's riches to him. So St Lawrence went out and assembled all the poor and lame and blind. And said, "Here are the church's treasures - the faithful."

    The emperor was incensed, as emperors are wont to be, and ordered that St Lawrence be burnt on a gridiron.

    After St Lawrence had been burning for a while, he said, "I think you'd better turn me over, the other side isn't done."

    And the funniest thing is, he's the patron saint of barbeques.

    You often hear comments like, how could God have a sense of humour with all this suffering in the world? But reprobates and infidels will always question God's wisdom and providence (and existence). The thing most people tend to forget when they make statements like that is, God didn't create us for this world. He created us for the next. And if, in God's plan, we weren't meant to suffer, then Christ (His only begotten Son) would have lived a very different life to the one He did. And since none of have an "infinitieth" of God's wisdom, then none of us have the right to question His Providence. (I won't go into a diatribe on the rights of man, and believers in the principles of the French Revolution - I'll stick to Catholic thought, which says that God's rights override our rights every time). We should believe that God is all wise and "orders all things sweetly" due to HIs ominipotence, and that all His decisions are wise and just and merciful. The death of a body is not the thing people should be concerned about. The death of the soul is another matter.

    Not one soul has ever escaped from hell. It's a horrible and terrible thought, but every now and then, it's a salutary thought, or something to keep in mind. I might even think about it more often instead of sinning so much.

    David ...

  6. Hi David,

    I have been watching The Tudors on DVD this afternoon. And in one part, Catherine of Aragon says 'If I had to choose between extreme happiness and extreme suffering, I would choose extreme suffering. Because when you have extreme happiness, you may forget God. But when you have extreme suffering, God is always near you.'

    And I believe that's true. I think people do pay more attention to spiritual things when they are suffering.

    I had a friend who always used to talk about another person he knew who seemed to have everything going for her. She was rich, good-looking, completely spoiled by her parents and just one of those people where everything seems to go right and nothing ever goes bad. And he would often say to me, 'Wouldn't you love to be like that?'

    And my honest answer is 'no'. I would not like to be like that. First of all, because it's harder to have traits like compassion, selflessness and appreciation when everything has just been handed to you on a platter. And also because I believe some suffering is necessary to develop good spiritual lives. And people who seem to have everything from an earthly perspective will often have very little from a spiritual perspective.




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