Curbing Your Enthusiasm
An Anglican clergyman once remarked, “Enthusiasm, sir, is odious!”
It's true that he was expressing a general English cynicism, but to be precise, he was commenting about a religious movement which was sweeping England at the time. The movement was Methodism, and it one of its nicknames was, “Enthusiasm.”
The Methodist movement swept across Britain and the United States in the late 18th century. It was marked by passionate preaching and all the signs we would associate with the charismatic revivalism.
Its main men, the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield, were famous evangelists who brought thousands to an enthusiastic new experience of their Christian faith. The enthusiasm of the Methodist movement, like the enthusiasm of all great renewal movements in the church, is a vital stream of repentance and new life.
It is this same enthusiasm, however, that most often causes heresy, division and heartache in the church. The English writer, Father Ronald Knox, wrote a famous study of Christian sectarianism entitled Enthusiasm.
In it, he traces the oddities, abuses and idiocies that result from unbridled religious enthusiasm.
Knox recognizes that the main strength of enthusiasm is its vital personal experience of God, but that is also its great weakness. Individual “messages from God” are notoriously the stuff of illusions and mental instability. Strange sects grow up around visionaries which are funded by religious cranks.
Wild “supernatural” things happen, and reality and common sense are banished. Once you add the human propensity for gullibility — self-delusion — the tendency to use religion to manipulate others and our susceptibility to the deceitfulness of Satan, enthusiasm becomes too hot to handle. Maybe that stuffy Anglican clergyman was right, and “Enthusiasm is odious.”
But where would we be without enthusiasm? As Ralph Waldo Emerson has written, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” And Vince Lombardi famously quipped, “If you're not fired with enthusiasm, you'll be fired with enthusiasm.”
Enthusiasm and a personal experience of our faith is wonderful, but on its own it can lead us astray.
It does so in several ways: First of all, if we submit to our own spiritual whims too much, we make our emotions our boss, and while emotions are a vital part of life, when we are ruled by them totally we end up in disaster.
Secondly, if our faith is based solely on our religious feelings, it means we are the boss of our spiritual lives, but that's disastrous, because if there is one area of our lives where we are least aware of what is right for us it is likely to be the spiritual.
Thirdly, a spiritual life that is based in personal feelings does not withstand the tests and trials that come along.
When the going gets tough, the religious enthusiast drops out or looks for another form of spiritual thrill. This tendency leads to instability in the religious life and eventual loss of faith entirely.
The problem is nothing new. In his sixth century rule for the monastic life, St. Benedict discusses two types of monks.
One he calls the “gyrovague.” The word sounds like a cross between a gyroscope and a vagrant, and that pretty much defines the word. A gyrovague is a monk who spins around in a flighty way, roaming about from monastery to monastery. He is never content. He is driven by his shallow enthusiasm for the religious life, but he's controlled by his unrealistic feelings.
Benedict condemns this unstable type of monk and contrasts him to the “cenobite” who is rooted in his own community through his vow of stability.
Benedict realizes that the spiritual life is more like a long and dangerous journey than an amusement park. What we need most is stability, commitment and wise direction. That's why Benedictine monks and nuns take vows of stability, obedience and conversion of life.
The three vows are linked. The Benedictine monk or nun commits to a particular monastic community and promises to stay there to learn stability. He or she also promises to obey the superior in all things. These two vows of obedience and stability seem to quench any kind of enthusiasm.
One might ask, “How can we be free in the Spirit if we're bound to stability and obedience?” And yet it is the witness of countless monks and nuns that this is exactly what makes them most free.
It is the stability and obedience that allows the conversion of life to which they also commit themselves. Conversion of life is where the enthusiasm comes in, for the Benedictine monk and nun is also committed to the daily adventure of seeking conversion, and this requires daily enthusiasm.
The same principles apply to Catholic laypeople. We need the wonderful organizations, apostolates, ecclesial movements and support groups through which we express our enthusiasms, but these groups need to be solidly rooted and committed to the Church.
Since becoming a Catholic I have been impressed with most of the new ecclesial movements in their ability to root their real enthusiasm with an unshakeable commitment to the Church. Even when Church authorities seem suspicious and don't want to support them, like St. Francis waiting barefoot for a meeting with the Pope, most of the new ecclesial movements submit to the Church in obedience and seek a deeply rooted way of stability.
When enthusiasm is rooted in obedience, a new kind of unimaginable freedom and power surges forth. The solid teachings and disciplines of the Church give us the ladder on which to climb spiritually while enthusiasm gives us the energy and motivation to climb. The solid and loving teachings of the Church give us the map for the journey.
From that basis, we can go forward not just with shallow enthusiasm but with a Pentecostal fire deep in our hearts that will take us through any trial and lead us all the way to heaven.
Dwight Longenecker is the author of Listen My Son — St. Benedict for Fathers. Contact him at www.dwightlongenecker.com.
- October 9-15, 2005