Archive, Conversation with

Conversation with Pablo Cervera

This conversation took place within the framework of a visit to Madrid to launch the Spanish version of Chastity

When talking to a monk-bishop one might expect the first topic to be God, the Church, prayer, spirituality. I would like to speak about another «spirituality», of the most spiritual art, of music. Mahler had a special biographical impact on you, as you have recounted. Years ago I also discovered it: first the Adagietto of the 5th symphony, then the 1st, the 4th, the 2nd symphonies. And it captivates me more and more every day. What happened to you? Would you reflect on music for us?

For me, music has always been a primary language. I was sensitive to it from a young age. I remember watching a TV production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at about ten. I was captivated. The one thing I wanted for my eleventh birthday was a recording of it. I believe a good case can be made for speaking of music as a language – as has been argued by Mother Elisabeth Paule Labat in an important book – a language not in the sense that it presents arguments or tells linear stories (even if some music tries to do that); but in the sense that it transmits insight and illumination. Music can effect with astonishing efficacy that conversation from heart to heart Augustine speaks of in the Confessions and Beethoven in his dedication of the Missa Solemnis. That is one reason why music has always been a crucial dimension of liturgical worship. It somehow enables us to speak the ineffable.  

I am formed in Ignatian spirituality, but reading The Shattering of Loneliness seemed to me to go hand in hand with the structure of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. Obviously, the language and the literary and spiritual devices you use are different. Memory is a conductor Leitmotiv of the work. Even the subtitle of it: Plato, Agustine, Jung developed that category…

Christians believe that man is made in God’s image, that there is a mysterious imprint of the divine on our nature, an imprint of an ontological dimension. It is there whether we recognise it or not, whether we care about it or not. That means, from a believer’s point of view, that we carry within us the living resonance of the creative Word that was the origin of our being; and that resonance penetrates through to our conscious self in the form of longing, which is a kind of remembrance, an awakening to a music that is utterly new, yet intimately familiar. 

I know that many have been powerfully impacted by your reflections on humility in the first chapter. What theological anthropology underlies all this, and what light can it shed for our contemporaries? 

Humility stands, in Christian vocabulary, for realism. To be humble is to stand firmly on the humus of this world and of my own identity, to have one’s feet on the ground. That is why the ascetic tradition insists that the precondition for any meaningful growth in the spiritual life (and for that matter, in human maturity) presupposes deep self-knowledge, a deliberate shedding of illusions. This process can leave us vulnerable, at least initially; but it is freeing; and opens us to the other – the other in the horizontal sense, our neighbour, but also the absolutely Other, God.

We live in times of disorientation. There are hopeful elements, although many spiritual movements suffer from ambiguity; perhaps they are reduced to sentimentality, subjectivism. You wrote this in your book: «The spiritual life is not, cannot be, a pious pastime. It must be preceded by total submission to the promises and demands of the gospel. It bears the imprint of the cross and is filled with the Spirit of the risen Jesus. No trivial ‘spirituality’ can encompass the greatness of this sacrifice of praise». St. John Paul II cried out many times: «Let us not empty the cross of Christ». Is this the great temptation of Catholicism today?

I think it is the great temptation of all times: we see it powerfully denounced already in the Pauline letters. The Church’s task is to expound the mystery of the Cross in such a way that it really appears as the victory of Love over hatred, of Life over death. A secular observer will see in the Cross only pain, humiliation, extinction. Only faith can recognise the Cross as being ‘glorious’, as we find it described in the Fourth Gospel. It is interesting to follow the iconography of the Cross in the first Christian millennium – from the early schematic representations of historical reference to the bejewelled Cross in Sant’Apollinare in Classe to the medieval accounts of the Crucified as King and Priest, depictions of immense dignity, as in the case of your Spanish Battlò Majesty. What is an iconography of the mystery of the Cross for the twenty-first century? Is that not a question worth pondering?

From the south of Europe, the Nordic countries appear cold to us, not only in relation to the weather but also spiritually (widespread secularism, agnosticism). Often, they have been at the avant-garde of lifestyle choices: pornography, drugs, childless marriages. However, I remember that a few decades ago, to my surprise, I learned that the works of St John of the Cross were best-sellers in Scandinavia. Did the society’s nihilism reach out to the «nothingness» of St John of the Cross in search for answers? What is the current religious situation like in northern European societies?

 I have not yet seen The Ascent of Mount Carmel on sale in tobacconists shops, so I’d take that point about bestsellers with a pinch of salt; but it is true that the Carmelite mystical tradition is a key reference for many seekers in our countries, not least due to the work of Fr Wilfrid Stinissen and Cardinal Anders Arborelius, wonderful ambassadors of the spirit of Carmel. As for the religious situation in Northern Europe, I have a sense that we are witnessing an epochal change. Our cultural context is no longer one of secularisation; that work is done. But there are many indications that people are not content to remain in the perspectivelessness of the purely ‘secular’. What is unfolding now is a ‘post-secular’ age in which the norm is no longer rejection of faith, or of the notion of God, but rather an openness to life’s spiritual dimension. I see it as a crucial Catholic task here and now to engage with that openness, to offer it nourishment and healthy direction. 

You were Lutheran. How is your vision about the liberal Lutheran churches today, their future? What can we learn about their drift? How did they give up on issues of sexual morality, starting with contraception?

I feel inadequate to prophesy about the future of Lutheranism. What we can learn from even a casual glance at the ecclesiastical landscape, I’d say, though, is this: in order to maintain integrity of faith, integrity of worship, a Christian Church needs to have a clear principle of communion; faith must be nurtured by sound teaching, expressed in worthy liturgy, and rendered concrete in acts of charity; temporising compromises with the spirit of the age are unlikely to be vitalising in the long terms, for the spirit of the age is constantly changeable and fickle, without much of a sense of obligation. Above all, the Church must remain rooted in the fullness of Christian revelation. The basic principle of Benedictine monasticism is, ‘Put nothing before the love of Christ’. That principle has universal validity.  

Assuming the episcopate is not an easy thing in our day (although there are always «carrierists»). What was it like to abandon your monastic vocation so different from the episcopal ministry? Related with it, what can you say about your episcopal motto “Coram fratribus intellexi” (Face to face with my brothers). That is also the name of your blog: You have chosen an owl as your website’s logo. Is the owl a wink not to lose, as a bishop, its monastic roots?

For me, the appointment was a moment of crisis. Crises are never pleasant, but they allow us to grow, to mature, know the state of our heart and so where our treasure is. My motto, a phrase from a sermon by St Gregory the Great, a monk-bishop, speaks of the importance of never privatising faith, of ever being drawn more fully into the art the Fathers defined as sentire cum Ecclesia; it reminds us, further, that our God is a God who speaks to us, and that we must learn to listen; finally it proclaims that the truth of faith by definition exceeds the capacity and insight of any given individual, and so that, faced with it, I must be humble.  

About the book that has just appeared a famous vaticanista has just said that it is worth more than a Synod. Can you tell us something about the recent Synod? You have just appointed a «vicar for synodality» in your diocese, but with a very particular responsibility: that all members of the community walk just to the Lord.

Synodality, we have often been told, is a ‘shared journey’. We share the journey with one another, as members of the Church. That is enriching, often joyful; but much more fundamentally, we are called to journey ‘with Christ’, who tells us now, as he told the Apostles, ‘Follow me’. So I have defined the office of our Vicar for Synodality thus: ‘The chief task of an Episcopal Vicar for Synodality is thus to help the bishop ensure that everything that happens in the Prelature, in administration and pastoral care, is focused on the Lord Jesus Christ and his Gospel, our source of new life.’ As for the Synod on Synodality, it is a process in motion, motivated by a genuine desire to be creatively faithful, so we shall have to wait and see. The Holy Father frequently stresses the importance of listening. That’s an art to practise assiduously, presupposing preliminary discernment of what, and whom, it is worth listening to. Further, since we have talked about the Cross, I’d say that’s a dimension we need to look out for, accept, and learn to love, also in syodal proceedings.  

The title of your latest essay on chastity might seem like a moral or moralistic development. However, it is a question of laying the foundation of an authentic Christian theological anthropology that undoubtedly sheds light on the fullest human condition. St. John Paul II did that with all his theology of the body. What prompted you to write this essay? I hope your book will inspire others to write on the marital sphere that you do not address as you explain in our work. 

My main reason for writing the book was the realisation that the vocabulary of chastity had largely become useless in our cultural sphere: the associations it arouses are constricting, menacing, even ridiculous. So I wanted to explore the deeper meaning of chastity, first and foremost for myself, but also with a hope of being useful to others. The Theology of the Body has lost nothing of its relevance. What I have aimed to provide is simply an additional light from the side, if you like. I have endeavoured to outline certain principles. As for writing on chastity in married life, I think that is really a task for married Christians, a challenge I would like to launch.  

Some Catholic leaders have recently said that «calling [some people] to chastity seems like speaking Egyptian to them» as we live in a world that appears to be deliberately and happily unchaste. Instead, you have decided to write a crash course in Egyptian. Is chastity truly a hieroglyph for the contemporary world and why is it so urgent for it to learn the language of chastity?

We have spoken of music as ‘language’. The Christian life is likewise a language, an existential statement unfolding over time, through life’s joys and trials, with more or less fluency. If you accept my premiss that chastity has to do with wholeness and integrity, with letting a unity be formed (through prudent orientation and by grace) of the many, often seemingly chaotic aspects that make up my personality and history, then I think taking time to learn this language is time well spent. I ascertain that many of our contemporaries are tired of living fragmented lives, anxious in the face of an increasingly fragmented world. I believe ‘chastity’, correctly understood, gives us tools for constructive enterprise in the personal sphere of our private lives but also potentially in society more broadly, politically. 

I was struck by your characterisation of the LGBTQ+ acronym as a sort of «secular appropriation of the Biblical Tetragrammaton pointing to a realm of infinite possibility», and also by your assertion that the terms it represents are ‘self-subverting’. Would you mind elaborating more about this?

As far as I can understand, the key notion behind the acronym is this: that the spectrum of human sexuality, and so of personality, is in a state of natural flux, subject to incalculable influences within and outside the human subject; and that a human subject can navigate within this flux with a great deal of freedom, motivated by changing desires or simply by decision. These notions are in marked contrast to the discourse of just twenty years ago, when attempts were made to define degrees of sexual variance with the greatest possible precision, resulting in categories of rigidity. There is a certain anarchist energy in current gender theory. It can be enjoyable to be an anarchist – at least for a while, and as long as the anarchy of others doesn’t interfere with mine. Yet experience suggests that our nature is not like plasticine, that, on the contrary, it is oriented towards a finality inscribed both in the human soul and in the human body. The secular climate, now, tends to conceive of the body in terms of abstraction. The Christian view, meanwhile, is that my body is essentially real, is me, destined, not just for thriving in this present life, but for resurrection and eternal life. This insight invests the body with great significance. To submit that the true finality of my incarnate being lies outside myself, in an encounter with an absolute Love resonating in my most intimate desires is not limiting. On the contrary, it is wonderfully broadening. It is truly good news, evangelion. The challenge is to live it as such, and to communicate it as such.