SOON it will be ten years since there appeared within the Catholic Church in America the phenomenon known as the Charismatic Renewal. Initially it was considered by many as a spiritual movement resembling earlier Protestant "pentecostal" revivals.
It was also thought of as a current passing through most other Christian bodies and as something which would not last. The latter prediction has been proved false. Indeed, the growth and staying power of the Charismatic Renewal has surpassed all expectations. At the beginning of this year, for example, it was estimated that there were 2,480 Catholic pentecostal prayer groups alone. And although the majority of these were still in America, 58 per cent of them were also ecumenical.
In this country the "renewal" likewise continues to Make an increasing impact. A typical conference on the subject held recently in Southampton attracted 'more than 200 delegates. Gatherings at Ilawkstone Hall and Worth and Ampleforth Abbeys have also been widely advertised. Charismatic retreats are now a common feature.
On the Continent, the renewal's best-known exponent is Cardinal Suenens. Two years ago he performed an invaluable task of gathering together a small international team of theologians and lay leaders to investigate in depth the theological and pastoral implications of the renewal.
This resulted in the rinblicalion of what has beCome known
as the "Malines Document." It offers tentative answers to the main problems posed by the
renewal, and suggestions as to how it might be integrated into the normal life of the Church,
The Charismatic Renewal is probably most typified in its small local prayer groups where one encounters individuals from every kind of economic, social and educational background. Morc than a few in such gatherings were previously nominal rather than committed Christians; some have experienced private tragedies of deprivation in their lives. Most will testify to the change in their outlook, life
style and attitude to the Christian Faith as a result of becoming involved in the renewal.
Not only are they reputed to take the Gospel and the sacraments more seriously, but most would claim to have experienced within themselves a "release of the Holy Spirit".
This in its turn is said to have brought a more personal awareness of Jesus as Lord and
a deepening of their commitment to him through shared and spontaneous prayer, as well as the bestowal of many gifts of the Holy Spirit. Not all Catholics (just as not all other Christians) have
erected the Charismatic Renewal with an uncritical eye. Some sincerely fear that it breeds elitism and excessive emotionalism, places too much emphasis on the experience known in traditional
pentecostal terms as "baptism in the Holy Spirit", gives too much prominence to
"extraordinary gifts" such as speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy, and is capable of alienating Christians dubbed as "non-charismatics."
Strangely enough, what seems to have been ignored by many people — apart from such exceptions as the Dominican Simon Tugwell in his "Did You
Receive the Spirit?" — is the
possibility of a basic resemblance (at least in inten tion) between the teachings of the classic spiritual writers and those leaders who have espoused the Charismatic Renewal.
It may be that the only major difference is that the renewal is operating in a community dimensioh.
Catholic writers in the past, such as Catharine of Siena, Te. csa of Avila and St John of . t he truss not to mention their spiritual forebears such as
Augustine and Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite), all wrote of the need of a renewal for those spiritually tepid.
It is true that they usually spoke of this as something to be sought through the three "ways" the purgative, the illuminative and unitative — but
the difference in their teaching and that of those in the Charismatic Renewal would seem to he largely one of cultural background or appeal. Too often it may have been thought that the language of the mystical writers seemed either esoteric or removed from the experience of the ordinary Christian.
The necessity of breaking with "the old man" however is a common feature, And what is the difference between the "fruits" experienced after purgation of the senses, as described by . St John of the Cross, in the form of a deeper understanding of the Christian mysteries. a greater facility in spontaneous prayer and an in
crease in apostolic work, and those encountered in the Charismatic Renewal — once an individual has experienced "the release of the Spirit"?
Is it possible that more than a few in the renewal may have attained at least the illuminative way?
On the other hand, none of the classical writers was content
to leave matters there. They in veighed heavily against the dangers of regarding in a proprietary way any gifts bestowed; they warned of the possibility of becoming uncon sciously proud of the new in sights granted. They eschewed any emphasis being placed on "extraordinary" phenomena and counselled deeper commitment to the Church.
Dark night of the spirit
Furthermore, they spoke of the risk for those on the illuminative way of regression: of ceasing to find God and coming to rely solely on themselves. In brief, they pointed out the hazards of self-deception and recognised the need for Christians to pass through a further stage, namely "the dark night of the spirit," before real union in a continuous sense with God might be given.
In the circumstances, perhaps those involved in the Charismatic Renewal could do worse than imbibe the writings of the classic spiritual writers. At least their teachings have been tested in time over the centuries and have been subject to close scrutiny and documentation. Their scriptural authority and doctrinal orthodoxy have been established.
Such study could enhance the movement and render its participants aware of the pitfalls in the path of genuine spiritual growth. It 'might also allay the fears or those now distrustful by causing the concept of "charism" to he broadened to include any gift which contributes to the upbuilding and extension of the Christian community.