• Uncategorized

    Are the Poor Busted—or Blessed?

    A few weeks ago, Steve Skojec posted an essay to his substack that bore the provocative title “Busted Are the Poor”. The tagline encapsulates the message of his essay: “Christ said the poor are blessed, but poverty makes most of us miserable.” As the editor of a blog entitled “Happy Are You Poor”, I felt that this called for a response! Yet I don’t completely disagree with Skojec. In fact, I think he makes many valid and instructive points. It certainly is true that poverty makes many people miserable. As Skojec personally experienced, poverty can even have negative spiritual effects. It can make people selfish, discontented, angry, and depressed. How can it still be true that the poor are blessed?

    A Confusion of Terms

    Father Dubay, the author of the book Happy Are You Poor and the unofficial patron of this blog, can provide some insight. Addressing the disagreements that swirl around the concept of voluntary poverty, he cited the following quote from St. John Henry Newman: “Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination…When men understand each other’s meaning, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.”

    In this case, I think there is a lot of superficial confusion that can be cleared up by a careful definition of terms. To begin with, the concept of “blessing” itself can be confusing. Christ says that the poor are blessed, but poverty is a mere negative. As such, it has no value in itself. It is only valuable insofar as it prepares the way for something else. Just as silence can be valuable if it leads to prayer, poverty can be valuable if it clears the way for discipleship. Fr. Dubay uses the example of readiness to read to illustrate this. By itself, such readiness is not valuable. A child who is ready to learn reading still can’t read, but such readiness is a prerequisite for eventual learning. Poverty is a prerequisite for true discipleship, but it does not necessarily lead to such discipleship. The poor merely possess a certain readiness for discipleship. 

    Further, this readiness can be negated by other factors. As Skojec points out, the material circumstances of the poor can hamper their spiritual development. And here it is important to draw another distinction. While poverty can be spiritually beneficial, destitution and a lack of security are generally harmful to a person’s spiritual life just as they are harmful to a person’s physical life. Skojec says that his family was not destitute while growing up, but it appears that he experienced destitution later in life: a lack of the basic necessities for a good human life. He writes:

    During one particularly rough patch, when my wife was pregnant with our fifth child, I was working 50-60 hours a week in a state with no mandatory overtime pay and no benefits. It wasn’t enough to cover food, utilities, rent, and all of our other expenses. We couldn’t afford living room furniture, so we sat on an old air mattress that kept deflating on the hard tile floor. The front two tires on our van wound up blowing out because the rubber had worn paper thin. The generosity of a stranger who was reading my blog at the time and offered to loan me a couple thousand dollars is the only reason we got out of that situation. We broke our lease, moved across country into my parents’ cramped 1-bedroom basement apartment with all five of those kids, and stayed there for a year until I had saved up enough, with the help of a loan from one of my brothers, to put down on a house. The son my wife was pregnant with at the time is named Jude because a novena to St. Jude I was praying was answered. The petition I was praying for was that our food stamps would be renewed. My pregnant wife and small kids needed nutritious food, not borderline spoiled garbage from the “manager’s special” section of the ghetto grocer. My son Ivan was so excited the first time we were able to buy fresh fruit again that summer. I gave him a bag of oranges, and you’d have thought it was Christmas.

    The Gospel’s call to embrace voluntary poverty is not a call to embrace destitution. A few saints do have a special calling to embrace destitution, usually as an act of solidarity with the destitute. In general, however, we are not called to embrace destitution; in fact, we are called to eliminate destitution through charitable giving. 

    It is true that destitution can make it harder to attain sanctity, or even a decent human life, in the here and now. There is yet another meaning to the term “blessed” that should be considered, however. God seems to favor society’s outcasts and rejects. It may well be the case that a homeless drug addict is nearer to the kingdom of God than many prosperous and devout Christians who seem to have everything together. In the Gospel, this can be seen in the stories of the Good Thief and the Samaritan Woman. They were social outcasts and sinners, yet they recognized Christ while the Pharisees failed to do so. Similarly, Lazarus was admitted to the company of Abraham, while the rich man burned in hell; Abraham explained that during their earthly life, Lazarus had received bad things, while the rich man had received good things. Now their roles were reversed. 

    This Gospel teaching does not mean that we should tolerate destitution, or that we should stop striving for virtue and discipline in all areas of life. It is merely a warning against judging solely from the standpoint of this life. Even spiritual successes can be dangerous if we put our trust in them. We’re all equally beggars before God; none of us merited our own creation, and none of us can merit our eventual salvation. 

    Security, Good and Bad

    The lack of security that so often accompanies poverty is a complicated issue. Like destitution, a lack of security can be spiritually corrosive, particularly for children. Some people say that a lack of security is a good thing; according to them, it leads to greater trust in God. Should we really put our security in anything other than God? There’s a certain truth to this, but I think such people are missing a crucial point. Steve Skojec writes:

    Jamie was more successful than I was early on, but we kept having kids every two years like good Catholics do, and she’d have to stop working to take care of babies or risk leaving them in the care of others. This situation made me upset every time we found out we were expecting again, which took a toll on our relationship. We frequently couldn’t cover all our bills, and were constantly floating late payments…So while yes, being poor makes people more dependent on God — you’ll rarely pray harder than when you’re about to be evicted or don’t have enough to eat — I’m just not sure that’s the best way to experience religion. One of the most important things I had to learn was to do for myself, and that meant not expecting God to do it for me. I believe I’ve written about this before, but the notion that we “can do nothing without God” needlessly debilitates people, sometimes keeping them from recognizing their own ability to help themselves. Praying for a raise isn’t the same thing as asking your boss for one. Novenas for a good job aren’t the same thing as building the skillset you need to land the position. And resigning yourself to poverty because you don’t want to be overly attached to money or material possessions means you’ll always be mired in mediocrity. If you don’t have the ambition you need to properly provide for yourself and the ones you love, how is that a virtue? How is the mentality that you’re blessed because you’re poor not just an excuse not to do your best? 

    Skojec is right to criticize the platitudes about trusting in God; it can all come across as very patronizing to the poor. In reaction to this, he advocates a certain kind of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Both positions miss a fundamental point. Jesus didn’t come to give humanity a code of ethics that individuals could adopt at will; rather, he came to found the community of the Church. Within that community, we’re supposed to be as tightly joined to one another as the members of a physical body. For an isolated individual or family, poverty entails a damaging lack of security. The only way to attain security as an individual is through the accumulation of wealth. 

    The pursuit of such individual security is harshly condemned by the Gospel. What is often missed, however, is that Christians are called to replace the individual security based on accumulating wealth with the security that comes from being part of a loving community. The rich fool with his barns was condemned, while the first Christian communities described in Acts shared their goods to such an extent that “there was no needy person among them”. (Acts 4:34) If we’re going to tell the poor to trust in God, then we have to get busy and ensure that their trust is not in vain. We have to act as the agents of God’s providence; otherwise, as St. James tells us, our faith is dead. (James 2:14-17)

    A friend told me that when he was growing up in a “Little Italy” of tenement dwellers on the East Coast his family and friends were all poor, but nobody was ever allowed to go hungry; the community looked after its own. Currently, the Church is failing to even live up to the standards set by merely human communities. The call to embrace poverty goes hand in hand with the call to build radical Christian community. (It is also notable that this is a “pro-life” issue. Steve and Jamie Skojec choose to have a large family. Such generosity is commendable, but too often the parents of large families end up burnt out by the strain. Today, individual families are on their own; in more traditional cultures nuclear families were supported by networks of extended family and local community.)

    Financial Success

    At the same time, a commitment to voluntary poverty does not prevent individuals from striving for excellence in their professions. In fact, voluntary poverty does not even rule out making a lot of money! Let’s imagine a hypothetical businessman who runs his company in accordance with Catholic principles. He pays all his workers a generous living wage and offers family-friendly benefits, his products are of high quality and are sustainably produced, he avoids undercutting his competitors, and he reinvests surplus wealth in his company’s local community. Even though his high principles put him at a disadvantage against unscrupulous competitors who off-shore jobs and pillage local communities, his commitment to honesty has paid off and his company is making a huge profit. So far, our businessman is an exemplar of Christian virtue. 

    Now he is able to pay himself a large salary. Everything depends on what he does with this income. If he uses it to amuse himself or live in luxury, he is not living a truly Christian life. But if he provides for his family’s modest needs and then gives the rest of his income to charity, he would be living a life of voluntary poverty in accordance with the Gospel. In any discussion of voluntary poverty, the stress should be on the word voluntary

    Still, it should be noted that many people will not achieve such success, no matter how hard they work. Skojec says “When you believe in abundance, and that there’s more out there for the taking if you just go out and get it, suddenly the stuff you have isn’t such a big deal anymore. Suddenly, you don’t feel like you need to cling to it for dear life.” Believing in abundance will only get one so far. For one thing, our hypothetical businessman is rather rare today; our whole economy is stacked against those who bring their Faith into their business dealings. For another, many people struggle with some kind of disability or handicap. The Christian community exists to make sure that the weak are not crushed by the burden of life, burdens that they might not be able to carry by themselves. 

    You Can not Worship God and Mammon

    The idol of the USA is Mammon: the individualistic pursuit of wealth, power, and status. In such a society, the poor are outcasts. They are not able to worship at the sacred shrine, and so lack a sense of self-worth and dignity. Skojec recounts his experience of being rejected as a child:

     I’m the oldest, but I rarely got new clothes, and when I did, they were usually from a clearance bin. Most of my apparel was of the hand-me-down variety, and it usually arrived in large black trash bags, the collected cast-offs from my more well-to-do older cousins. I got made fun of a lot in school because of my clothes, or the fact that I wore whatever generic sneakers my mom could grab for cheap from K-Mart instead of Nikes or Reeboks. It was the age of Air Jordans and Reebok pumps, after all. None of this Spaulding crap. So I started picking up jobs as early as I could. Babysitting at 14 turned into mowing the parish cemetery at 15 and then working at the local hardware store at 16. I quit football after my freshman year so I could work. The wages were garbage, but I worked as much as they’d let me, and it felt good to go the mall and buy my own clothes, my own shoes, and my own video games. I could even go to the movies, or go out to eat at the Chinese buffet. I had to go alone most of the time, but at least I got to go. 

    Whatever else that school may have been teaching, it was effectively training new acolytes for the worship of Mammon. Jesus said that the poor are blessed, but he also said that no one can serve both God and Mammon. In the USA, most of us are subconsciously trying to serve both. Not surprisingly, such divided loyalties come with quite a bit of mental anguish. As the young Steve Skojec found, Mammon is a hard master, and its servants mercilessly persecute those who can’t or won’t serve their god. There was no logical reason for Steve to have been ashamed of his generic sneakers; in some societies, he would have been seen as fortunate for having shoes at all! And it isn’t as if the name brands are that much better at protecting one’s feet. Rather, he suffered embarrassment and rejection simply because he was not able to afford a meaningless status symbol. 

    Whether our poverty is voluntary or involuntary, few of us can resist the societal pressure to worship Mammon. We all tend to give the well-to-do more respect. Nor is this a recent problem. In his Letter, St. James warns the early Christian communities to beware of making distinctions based on wealth and fashionable clothing. He directs them to honor the poor members of the community. Without such a truly counter-cultural community, the poor will indeed tend to become mentally and spiritually “busted” by their interactions with the worshipers of Mammon. 

    A Community that Builds One Another Up

    As Skojec points out, not all of the poor end up busted. Almost miraculously, some of them are supernaturally generous and unselfish:

    It must be acknowledged, though, that there is another group of people: the truly, inexplicably generous…Poor folk who give freely and without reserve. People who will give you the coat off their back on an icy day, or the last bowl of soup in the pot even though they don’t know where the next meal will come from. They exist, and they are mysterious. Almost inexplicable, humanly speaking. These people are truly next level. They’re the ones I really admire. They’re the truly blessed poor. The ones whose wisdom we could all stand to benefit from, if we can only understand how it works.

    I think that such generosity truly is a mystery; a mystery of God’s grace. Such people represent the Christian ideal. Most of us, however, are not able to achieve this ideal without assistance. That is the purpose of the Church. As Christians, we are called to “build one another up in Christ”. Through a personal experience of God’s love mediated by the Christian community, we can grow in the trust necessary to embrace voluntary poverty. No one can give what they do not have. To pour ourselves out in love of God and neighbor, we must first receive this love through those around us.

    Cover Image: photo of old cars uploaded to Flickr by Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0

  • The Story of Moriah Pie

    In this episode, Malcolm and Peter interview Robert and Erin Lockridge. They are self-described “parish farmers” and the founders of Moriah Pie, a pay-as-you-can restaurant in Norwood, OH. (During the episode, they mentioned The Moriah Pie Cookbook; you can find it here.)

    Parish Farming

    As parish farmers, Robert and Erin maintain a network of vegetable gardens in Norwood. They grow food to share with their neighbors and consider their work to be a form of prayer. While they are both Orthodox Christians, their work is not a formal church ministry as such. Rather, it is a personal way of inviting others into a Christ-like attitude.

    Practical Gnosticism

    Too often, we tend to confine our religion to what happens in church, or to a personal relationship with God; the rest of life gets left out. In this way, we can become “Gnostic” without realizing it. Gnosticism was an early heresy that denied the goodness of the physical world. Instead, Gnostics focused on an intellectual pursuit of truth and on attaining a purely spiritual salvation through acquiring secret knowledge.

    Robert experienced this disconnect while he was studying theology in Vancouver. He had done a lot of gardening while growing up. As his Faith life deepened, however, he begin to feel that the physical world and material concerns were irrelevant to the important mission of saving souls.

    Yet his theological studies didn’t seem relevant to the lives of people in his rough neighborhood. He felt that he needed a way to integrate all the sorrow that he felt and that he needed a way to pray with his body. In this spirit, he began gardening again. He found the process of tending the soil, planting seeds, and receiving the gifts of God through the bounty of nature to be deeply healing and nourishing.

    He also found that his gardens allowed him to exercise a pastoral ministry that didn’t require being stuck in an office. He was able to work outside, tending the land, and receiving gifts from God through the people that he met.

    The Incarnation

    In part through reflecting on this experience, Robert came to realize how limited his earlier perspective had been. As he studied theology, he came to realize that every aspect of the Faith is based on the Incarnation of Christ. In Jesus Christ, God came in the flesh. By doing so, he consecrated the material world.

    As man, God became fully dependent on this created world to reveal who he is, and to reveal what it is to be fully human and made in the image of God. We’re called to love God with everything we have, and that includes the body.

    God’s Gardeners

    In one sense, the world was created for us. But in another sense, we were created for the world. God placed us here to tend and care for it so that it might flourish. We were made in the image and likeness of God, and so we are supposed to initiate his act of creation.

    This is raised to a new level in Christ. At the very heart of the Gospel is the giving of life so that life might exist and flourish. As those made in the image of God, we get to participate in this self-giving love. In the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we see the true image of God that we are called to imitate.

    The way of the world is that either life is taken so that life might exist, or life is given so that life might exist. The temptation is to take life to protect our own. But as Christians, we are learning to be free of the fear of death so that we can imitate Christ in laying down our lives for the life of the world. We’re called to serve, rather than to strive for domination.

    Sacramentality

    Peter noted that we experience the undying eternal reality through the physical reality. This is the meaning of the sacraments, and in one sense all of the created world is sacramental.

    In this way, tending the earth is a good metaphor for the cultivation of our souls. And this interior cultivation becomes a reality through our interaction with the physical reality. We can’t cultivate our souls through thought processes alone, or in isolation. To do so we need community and the physical reality.

    A beautiful story that Erin told exemplifies this sacramental understanding. She explained that by washing her children’s feet, she was able to learn how to initiate Jesus—and Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to show us the reality of God’s love.

    Feeding Hungry Bodies and Souls

    Part of imitating Jesus is feeding the hungry. Even if we can’t do it in the same miraculous way that he did, we can do so by giving our time and resources and participating in the everyday miracle of creation.

    While Erin and Robert were on their honeymoon, they were inspired by a waitress in Maine. She seemed to know all the patrons at her cafe and was able to exercise an almost pastoral ministry toward them. They were going to be living over a vacant space that had once been a coffee shop. And so, sitting in that cafe in Maine, they begin to envision what would eventually become Moriah Pie.

    The year before, they had run a pay-as-you-can CSA in the neighborhood. Neighbors could buy shares of vegetables from their garden, but there was no set price. In fact, Robert and Erin committed to remaining blind to what people were or were not paying. It was a good project, but it didn’t make as much sense as it could have made to the people of the neighborhood. Many of them weren’t used to using various types of fresh produce, or didn’t want to cook with it; it didn’t fit into the patterns of life in that particular place.

    And so Robert and Erin envisioned a pizza restaurant that would allow them to transform their garden produce into something more meaningful. They decided to open it only one evening a week so that they could spend the rest of their time growing the food. And like the CSA, it would be run on a pay-as-you-can basis. It would look just like a regular restaurant, but at the end of the meal, customers would receive an envelope instead of a bill. They could put whatever they wanted into it, and then the envelope would be dumped without anyone looking to see how much any particular customer had paid.

    They chose the name Moriah Pie because they wanted to reference the place in Scripture where Abraham names God as the God who provides. Moriah Pie was an invitation to trust in the providence of God.

    Practical Atheism

    Robert said that in the modern world we tend to live as practical atheists. We live in a culture and economy that is deeply disconnected from all the relationships on which it depends. We are far removed from all the people and creatures and the land that goes into our provisioning. This disconnection produces a deep form of poverty that leaves us vulnerable to practical atheism.

    Moriah Pie allowed those involved to directly experience God’s providing care. Such experiences can produce a truly Eucharistic perspective in which gratitude becomes the foundation of life and every action becomes a way of communing with God.

    We are called to work for God, so we shouldn’t worry so much about protecting ourselves. We have to have trust in God, and therefore be willing to go out on a limb. It is important to recognize our needs, but also to be able to receive, both from God and from others. We have to resist the American ethos that says “I can do this all on my own”.

    Moriah Pie invited this kind of mutual dependence on one another; many different people gave generously of themselves to make the project a reality.

    Free Pizza?

    An image Erin carved for the cover of their cookbook

    Erin and Robert explained that while their piazza was not “expensive”, it wasn’t “free”. Some people started to see Moriah Pie as a place to get “free pizza”—but nothing is free in this world. And seeing something as “free” can actually cheapen it.

    Certainly, somebody could eat the pizza and walk away without paying anything. This was the expected outcome of a pay-as-you-can restaurant; the food was not priced. It was not expensive, because some people can’t afford expensive food.

    At the same time, the pizza was not “free”. As a matter of fact, it was very “costly”, perhaps more so than pizza that could be bought elsewhere. “Cost” is at the center of everything that is valuable; our Faith is a very costly gift. All food comes with a cost, a cost to the bodies and lives of those who grow it, a cost to the community, and even a cost to the soil.

    Robert and Erin were OK with the fact that people sometimes walked away without paying anything, but they did ask all the guests to consider the cost, to think about all the effort of growing and cooking the food and running the restaurant. And they asked those who ate at the restaurant to consider giving back in some way, whether through volunteering or in some other way.

    Some of the most meaningful gifts were very small. For instance, a homeless man drew a picture for them and left it along with a few pennies. As Erin said, if all that you can offer is three pennies, that might be costly for you!

    Bearing the Burdens

    Our economic system is premised on hidden, externalized costs. These costs are borne by underpaid workers, and by damaged ecosystems and communities far away. When we buy cheap goods, we don’t see the real cost and its effect on others.

    Rather than shunting costs onto other people, we should try to bear the costs ourselves. We should try to keep the costs close to home, where we can attend to them. Robert explained that they’ve chosen ways of life that involve more vulnerability, less control, fewer material goods, and more work; in all these ways, they are trying to avoid displacing the cost onto others, but instead learn to bear the cost well themselves.

    By keeping the cost local, we can all become more like Christ. By bearing the costs with one another as a community, the culture of a place can change. St. Paul tells us to bear burdens for one another so that the weak are not crushed by them.

    Inefficient for What?

    Robert and Erin worked primarily with hand tools. In a world where so many people don’t know how to pray with their bodies, a world that lacks “good work”, using less technology is a sort of witness. To become skilled with one’s hands is something deeply empowering.

    Of course, working by hand is seen as inefficient. But we always have to ask: inefficient for what? When Peter Land visited Moriah Pie, he helped to shell black walnuts by hand. It was a rather inefficient process; after hours of work, he only had a small pile of shelled nuts. Yet during that time, he and the other workers enjoyed great conversations and time with one another. A method of work that is inefficient at producing a large volume of food quickly might be the most efficient way to cultivate human relationships. Shared work and food are essential to community life; our modern fragmentation of life is partly a result of an “efficient” economy that values quantity above everything else.

    Achievement

    Moriah Pie did not solve all the problems of the world, or even of the neighborhood. Yet it helped those involved to “rest in God”. This is the core task of the Christian life. We have to learn to die so that we might live. We have to learn to trust and rest in Christ, like the Apostle John at the Last Supper. In building community, we have to be careful to be so wrapped up in achieving something that we missed the value of the present moment and what God is offering us.

    More about Robert and Erin:

    After the closure of Moriah Pie, the Lockridges are now running a breakfast cafe on the same pay-as-you-can model while continuing their work as parish farmers. To support their work, consider purchasing their Moriah Pie Cookbook, which can be found here. It tells the story of Moriah Pie through beautiful illustrations, photos, and reflections, and contains a collection of unique recipes.

    Cover image courtesy of Erin Tuttle Lockridge

  • Uncategorized

    Poverty, Security, and Community

    The call to embrace voluntary poverty is one of the hardest teachings in the Gospel. It is widely rejected by otherwise devout Christians. In part, such rejection stems from mere misunderstanding. Gospel poverty is often equated with destitution, but it does not entail a lack of basic necessities. In fact, Gospel poverty calls us to aid the destitute by sharing generously with them.

    Other objections have more of a basis in actual fact. One of the main concerns people have about embracing poverty is that poverty seems to entail a lack of security. Wealth is fundamentally oriented to security; savings accounts and insurance policies are designed to protect us from unforeseen disasters. In particular, parents desire security and stability for their children, and wealth seems to be the only way to attain this goal. 

    Some would respond to this concern by claiming that such a lack of security is a good thing. They would say that our security should be found in God alone and that putting our trust in created things is inimical to putting our trust in God. After all, we will have to give up any created security at the end of our lives when we will be called to surrender ourselves completely to the mercy of God. If we haven’t practiced such surrender during our lives, how will we achieve it at death?

    There is some truth to this position; however, it ignores several critical points. Some people are called to embrace destitution and a total lack of security for the sake of God. But for most of us, and particularly for children, material security is important. 

    Today, most of us seek our security through what I will call the “individual method”, which is based on wealth. We are advised to make investments, build up savings, purchase insurance, gain marketable skills, and even choose a house based on the likely resale value. This personal accumulation of wealth is supposed to provide for the upbringing of children, support us during retirement, and protect us in the case of disasters and misfortune. 

    “Prepping” is a good example of this pursuit of individual security. Preppers store up vast amounts of food, weapons, and other supplies to ensure that they will survive any disasters in the future. This may seem extreme, but prepping can serve to highlight certain fundamental tendencies in our society. The American Dream is based on achieving individual wealth and then enjoying a comfortable and secure suburban life, isolated from the problems of other people. While the prepper seeks security and isolation in a bunker full of food, the suburbanite seeks it in a house with a two-car garage, insulated from neighbors by lawns and winding drives and paid for by a well-stocked bank account. 

    In fact, our society is so oriented toward this kind of individual security that even Christians have come to see pursuing it as praiseworthy and virtuous. Given our social conditions, such a mistake is understandable. But it is undeniable that this individual search for security is harshly condemned by the Gospels. Perhaps the clearest example of this condemnation is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. He built bigger barns to store his vast wealth; this wealth, he thought, would make him secure and comfortable for many years. But God responded to these thoughts of his, saying “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”

    Christians should avoid such hoarding of wealth not merely because it is spiritually dangerous, but because it signals a lack of charity. Effective hoarding depends on protecting wealth from others. If we save up wealth for a future that may never come, we can’t use it now to help those who are in need. Why should the hypothetical needs of our future be considered more important than their real needs in the present? 

    There is, however, another way of attaining security: what I will call “the communal method.” This method of achieving security is common in more traditional cultures, and is actually recommended by the Gospel. It is based on giving generously in the present while trusting in the goodness of the community to provide for the future. 

    The Amish, for instance, condemn the practice of insurance. They feel that it displays a lack of trust in God. And due to their cohesive communities, they don’t need insurance. When disaster strikes, the community comes together to help those who are affected. If a house or barn burns down, the community has the skills and ability to rebuild it. 

    This kind of tightly-knit community used to be much more common. A friend of mine told me about his experience growing up in an ethnic neighborhood community on the East Coast. He said that while they were all poor tenement dwellers, nobody would have ever been allowed to go hungry in his neighborhood.

    The Early Church provided this sort of community-based security. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the wealthy members sold their property to provide for the needs of all, and local churches sent aid to areas that were suffering from famine. Monastic orders have continued this practice of communal security. 

    Depending on a community for security is not opposed to trusting in God. God works through secondary causes. In fact, the Christian community is supposed to show the world the love that God has for each one of us. As the Mystical Body of Christ, when we care for one another we are participating in God’s work of creation and redemption. 

    Of course, this security strategy depends on having a community! St. James condemns the Christian who would ignore a brother or sister who was in need of food or clothing. But today, we don’t know who among us might be in need. We hardly know our neighbors and our fellow parishioners. For all we know, the family in the next pew over has just had their power shut off or is struggling to buy groceries. 

    In this way, Gospel poverty and intentional community are the flip sides of the same coin. Poverty makes community desirable. If we are individually wealthy, we may come to feel that we don’t need others. By contrast, in poorer countries, community is still valued. An acquaintance recently told me that in Honduras the people tend to look out for one another, despite all their other problems. As he put it, in Honduras they have “small houses and large plazas”; the public sphere is emphasized. By contrast, here in the USA, we have large houses while in many places the public square is non-existent. 

    At the same time, community makes voluntary poverty survivable. We can achieve a certain simplicity of life by ourselves. It is fairly easy to cut back on unnecessary travel, avoid buying luxury goodsn and switch to buying second-hand clothing. But to follow this teaching fully we need a supportive community. We can’t escape our dependency on insurance and individual wealth without assistance. 

    All the Gospel precepts were given to a community rather than to disconnected individuals. Christ came to found a Church, not to provide a list of ethical statements. Without a community, we are unable to fully live out the Christian life. For this reason, rebuilding community needs to be a priority for Christians going forward. This rebuilding doesn’t need to come in the form of grandiose projects. Rather, it should start simply. Get to know fellow parishioners. Invite them over to talk, eat, and pray. Spend time with one another. While such gatherings may seem futile in the face of the challenges facing us today, Christ promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he would be in the midst of them. Only by gathering together with Christ will we find true security, both in this life and in the next. 

    Photo by Gentry George, USFWS on Pixnio

  • Let Us Dream

    Let Us Dream Episode 5

    In this episode, Malcolm and Peter start discussing the second chapter of Let Us Dream, by Pope Francis. This is the fifth part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here, the second episode is here, the third here, and the fourth here. The following are some of the points we discussed.

    Individual Discernment and the Community

    In the first chapter, Pope Francis talked about the importance of seeing clearly so that we are aware of the reality of the world around us. In the second chapter, he talks about the importance of discernment. We need reflection, silent prayer, and study to discern; but we also need a community.

    How are individual discernment and the private conscience of the individual related to the communal teaching of the Church? It might seem like these things are opposed. In reality, however, the guidance of the community is there to keep individual discernment from going off the rails. It provides accountability and helps us to see beyond ourselves. We also need authority to keep private interpretations from producing division. This is why the Church has the final say on any private revelation.

    Growth as a human person always includes a history, a tradition that we’ve inherited, and feedback from others. Even Jesus himself built on the Jewish tradition that he inherited as a man. As Catholics, we have the community of the saints and the rich tradition of Catholic thought and practice. None of us can claim to have formed our own ideas of religion and morality for ourselves; we’ve all been shaped by others.

    Learning in community is much more than just coming to understand concepts. Concepts are presented to us by fellow members of our community, but they are not learned primarily through intellectual thought. We learn by doing, being part of a community that has certain kinds of practice, through the witness of others. As St. Paul said, imitate me, as I imitate Christ.

    The tradition grows like a tree in the living tradition of the community. If concepts become isolated from their lived surroundings, they can become idolized. When that happens, we are left with these dead concepts and no way to grow. Unless concepts are enfleshed, they are of no use.

    Values and Unity

    Pope Francis says that all values are non-negotiable. Division occurs when values that should be together end up separated. A good example of this is the Protestant/Catholic split, in which one side represents the importance of the personal and the other side represents the importance of the institutional. That’s why we can learn from those on both sides of these historic splits; we can learn from what they do well, and learn to correct what we might do poorly.

    Currently, the Church is undergoing a split between progressives and reactionaries. Those in both of these camps tend to appeal to their own personal judgment and discernment and use this personal discernment against the Church. Progressives appealed to conscience against Humanae Vitae, and reactionaries are currently appealing to their own understanding of Church teaching to reject Pope Francis. Such moves further division and destroy the chance for authentic dialogue. To keep this from happening, we need to give our own vision to the Church; that way, our vision can enrich the Church, instead of tearing it apart. That is why Pope Francis is calling for a synodal process of listening to one another during these difficult times.

    As Pope Francis says, all values are non-negotiable. Dialogue is not about deciding which values to drop; rather, dialogue is about coming to a deeper appreciation of the values that we share.

    If we cling to our own personal understanding of a particular value without taking the views of others into account, our understanding will be stunted.
    We can learn about our own values from other people, who may practice them better than we do.

    St. Augustine said that we can never exhaust the meaning of scripture because scripture is the word of God, and thus infinite. This being so, the truth is always beyond us. Too often, we think of truth as something we possess, all tacked down and finalized. Those holding such a view fear dialogue. It is seen as necessarily involving a surrender of some aspect of the truth. Instead, if we realize that we can always learn more, we will see dialogue as a quest for more truth.

    A Refuge from the Tyranny of the Urgent

    As well as dialogue, however, contemplation is needed for authentic discernment. Pope Francis says that we need a “refuge from the tyranny of the urgent”. The tyranny of the urgent can lead us to see all events merely through the lens of our own projects, our own interests. We need to be attentive to current realities, but we also need a healthy degree of separation, the ability to step back. Paradoxically, this will give us a better perspective on the events themselves.

    This stepping back and achieving interior silence is not opposed to dialogue; in fact, it too can be a communal project. In the practice of Lectio Divina, we pull away from the tyranny of the urgent as a group, so that we can listen to the Word of God.

    The Beatitudes as Values for our Time

    Pope Francis presents the Beatitudes as the key set of values for our time. They are central to the Christian Faith and are expanded on by Catholic Social Teaching. It is important to realize just how radical the beatitudes are. They cut against the grain of all human striving. They are extremely different from any set of merely human values.

    There’s a temptation to see the beatitudes as “very nice ideals”, but to look elsewhere for guides to practical action. Pope Francis, however, is telling us that they should guide our actions in the current moment.

    Our model is a crucified Savior, who was a “failure” in a worldly sense, and yet redeemed the world. In a similar way, the saints actually did more in the long run for the world than the practical people. Where are the worldly-wise now? What lasting values did they really achieve? We aim for a different kind of success. Even if we seem to fail, God is pouring graces on the world through us!

    To make Catholic Social Teaching and the Beatitudes come to life, we need to start practicing them. We need to be a community of and for the poor. We need to always put the weakest members first. What would such a community look like? If we took the principles seriously, they would radically reorder our lives.

    It is easy to say that we should put the poor first. In practice, however, it is often a different matter. It is hard enough to sacrifice money for the poor—even harder to sacrifice our convenience and the way we order our lives. Too often, we’re merely giving from our excess, both financially and otherwise. We offer services for the poor, but we don’t offer to bring the poor into our lives. And of course, there are many different kinds of poor. The lonely, the sick, the disabled, and the marginalized are all “poor” in their own ways. Malcolm and Peter shared some stories of how this isn’t being done, and how bureaucracy and convenience are leading to a rejection of Christ in the poor.

    By contrast, the Catholic Worker communities we’ve interviewed bring the poor into their hearts and homes. And many Catholics would be ready to do something similar if they were presented with the opportunity. Peter told a story of how he was attacked by a vicious dog while he was on a walking pilgrimage, and how some Catholic parishioners took him in and took care of him until he was well enough to continue traveling.

    St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use

  • Uncategorized

    A Practical Response to War: Embrace Poverty

    As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds on, there has been a global outpouring of support. Faced with the horrors of war, we feel called to do something to help or at least to show our solidarity. Voluntary poverty can serve both as an act of solidarity with those who are suffering and as a practical response to the effects of the war on the global economy. 

    While the destruction of Ukrainian cities gets more attention in the media, a crisis is developing in poorer countries around the globe. The world is facing a food, fuel, and fertilizer shortage. For most of us in the USA, this is likely to prove only a minor inconvenience. For those in the poorer countries of the Global South, it is life-threatening. By embracing voluntary poverty and cutting back our own consumption, we can free up supplies for those in need. Judicious donations can transfer our unused “purchasing power” to those who would otherwise be unable to afford basic necessities. 

    Food

    Together, Ukraine and Russia produce a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports, and more than two-thirds of the world’s sunflower seed oil. As the war disrupts farming and transport, and sanctions hamper shipping, these supplies are in danger of disappearing. This will have catastrophic effects on countries that depend on food imports, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. 

    At the same time, 26 million tons of grain are fed to livestock every year in the USA alone. This represents a massive waste of calories, since the resulting meat, eggs, and dairy products contain many fewer calories than the original grains. If we all reduced our consumption of animal products, this grain would be available to feed human beings. Such a reduction would bring our consumption more into line with the global average meat consumption. An average person in the USA consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, while the world average is closer to 75 pounds. Feeding less grain to livestock would also reduce the environmental impact of American farming and promote better living conditions for farm animals. 

    Our alcohol consumption also wastes a lot of grain. Every year, the USA grows two million acres of barley for producing beer and other alcoholic drinks. By reducing our alcohol consumption, we can free up some of that land for more productive uses. 

    Fuel

    Our appetite for alcohol, however, is dwarfed by that of our vehicles. Every year, 5 billion bushels of corn are turned into ethanol to fuel American vehicles. This is a terribly inefficient way to produce fuel since the amount of energy used in the production process is so large. It is notable that most other countries do not use grains in this way; ethanol production in the USA is the result of aggressive lobbying by agribusiness interests. It is not efficient enough to be profitable on its own. 

    Gasoline prices have also gone up around the world, since Russia is a major oil exporter. By limiting our travel, we can help to reduce these prices and keep poorer countries from being priced out of the market for transportation fuel. 

    Fertilizer

    Russia is the largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer in the world, and also a key exporter of natural gas, which is critical for fertilizer manufacturing. As the prices of fertilizer skyrocket, small farmers are being pushed out of business by growing costs.

    Americans “cultivate” 63,000 square miles of lawn! All that lawn uses a lot of fertilizer—around 90 million pounds of it! Now would be a good time to skip fertilizing useless, decorative lawns to save fertilizer for more important uses. This would help to lower food costs, which are being pushed higher by fertilizer prices. 

    Conclusion

    It is said that the world is facing a food shortage. This isn’t really true. Despite the effects of the war, there is plenty of food to go around—but we Americans are feeding all the food to our cows and cars! Our “need” for cheap meat and travel is depriving other people of the food they need to survive, and contributing to the ongoing degradation of the environment that we all depend on for survival. Faced with this reality, the only Christian response is an embrace of voluntary poverty. In Gaudium et Spes the teaching of the Church on this matter is laid out very clearly:

    God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner… In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods…Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him”.

    This is a matter, not of charity, but of justice. It is unjust to consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, particularly during a time of crisis. If we consume more, some other person will have to consume less. While we don’t know these invisible “others”, God knows them, and Christ identifies himself with them. When we stand before Christ, will he say to us “I was hungry, and you fed me”, or will he say “I was hungry, but my food was wasted because of your greed”?

  • The Grace and Main Fellowship

    The Grace and Main Fellowship

    In this episode, I interview Joshua Hearne from the Grace and Main Fellowship, an intentional and ecumenical Christian community located in Danville, Virginia. We discuss what it means to be a community for the poor and marginalized, rather than being a community that merely serves the poor and marginalized. We also talk about community life, organic growth, Asset Based Community Development, urban farming, and hospitality.

    The History of the Community

    The Grace and Main fellowship started as a bible study group in Danville, Virginia. It was very simple; just five people meeting once a week to discuss Scripture. They had no real intention of doing anything more than that.

    Over time, however, the members started eating with one another, praying together, and generally spending time together. They started to discuss the possibility of reshaping their lives around a more radical commitment to the Gospel. As Joshua put it, they eventually stopped and said “Maybe this isn’t a Bible Study like we thought it was! Maybe God is trying to do something more here…Maybe we’re one of those intentional community things we’ve heard about…Or maybe we could be one, anyway.”

    From this small beginning, the community has grown and evolved and changed over time. But the members are still eating, praying, and working with one another, and are still committed to living life in solidarity with the marginalized.

    Ecumenism in The Grace and Main Fellowship

    The Grace and Main Fellowship is an ecumenical community. Joshua said that in one sense, that’s just a statement of fact; the community has included members from many different Christian backgrounds. At the same time, it is also an aspirational statement. The community is united by some basic commitments and tries to focus on that unity regardless of the diversity of thought on other subjects.

    It is important to keep in mind that when Christ portrayed the Last Judgement, he didn’t describe it as a theology quiz! Instead, he described the judgment as being focused on a basic question: how did you treat the least of these? While searching for the truth is important, it is even more important to seek unity with fellow Christians and to give one’s life to Jesus without reservations.

    A Spectrum of Participation

    There is a wide spectrum of commitment among those who participate in the Grace and Main Fellowship. At the center, there are those who have discerned membership as a vocational way of life, and who have committed to sharing resources and leading an intentionally simple way of life. At the other end of the spectrum are those who occasionally drop in for events. Between these two extremes, there is a whole range of different commitment levels. These levels are fluid; they can change over time, depending on individual availability.

    This forms a porous barrier between the “inside” and the “outside”. Such a porous barrier can help to keep a community healthy and integrated into the wider local community.

    Commitments and Formative Influences

    Despite this range of participation, the core members do share a set of commitments; they hold the Apostle Creed as a basic statement of belief and are committed to non-violence, solidarity with the marginalized, sharing life, and practicing radical hospitality.

    Some of the most important formative influences for Grace and Main are the Catholic Worker movement and the writings of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Koinonia Farm, Rutba House, the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Asset Based Community Development.

    A Shared Life

    The core members of the community live in a network of houses, all within walking distance of one another. Some of these houses are owned by the community, others by individual members, and others are rented by the community.

    The community also maintains a common fund to make sure that all the members have a place to stay and enough to eat. Core members are expected to donate to this fund in a sacrificial way.

    The members of Grace and Main are committed to practicing radical hospitality, opening their homes and lives to others. They open their homes to others for meals and community building, and take in those who need a place to stay. They try to provide true hospitality; not just a bedroom, but a family for those who need one.

    Christian Hospitality

    Joshua said that hospitality is sometimes seen as merely providing physical shelter. Too often, institutions “care for” the poor by providing for their material needs, but in a cold and mechanical way. Dorothy Day condemned this kind of bureaucratic “charity”.

    On the other hand, hospitality is sometimes seen as a sort of exaggerated politeness; but neither of these things represents true hospitality. Hospitality happens whenever we open ourselves to another and provide a place for them: in our lives, our thoughts, our prayers, but also in and among our possessions. It is taking what God has given to us and making it available to others who need it.

    In the deepest sense, hospitality is a commitment to sharing life with others. It is a way of life grounded in the Sermon on the Mount: an expression of fully loving God and neighbor. Such love entails pursuing the good of the other, rather than attempting to cast the other into our own mold. This is difficult, overwhelming, and heartbreaking, and yet very good.

    To truly practice hospitality, we need to exercise solidarity. We can’t love the poor without living with them in solidarity.

    Asset Based Community Development

    Practitioners of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) have a particular approach to community renewal. Too often, when an individual or institution sets out to renew a neighborhood, they focus on the negatives, what the neighborhood does not have.

    But this is a mistake. If you focus on negatives, you will be focusing on a void, on something that is not there. This void will not provide a firm foundation, and so whatever is built will fail.

    Instead, the ABCD model focuses on the positive. What does the neighborhood have? Who are the people of the neighborhood? What do the people care about? What are they already doing? Then, one should build on that, on what is working. Negatives are more obvious; we’re all more likely to complain about what is going wrong than to give thanks for what is going well! By focusing on the positives, you will eventually address the negatives, but in an organic way that may not look anything like what you initially envisioned.

    The Urban Farm

    The Grace and Main Fellowship maintain a large community garden. Like many of their other projects, it started very simply. They were planting gardens in their own yards, and other people in the neighborhood were interested. So they ended up planting gardens for others, and these gardeners started sharing the produce. The neighborhood started to come together around this network of gardens.

    Eventually, a local organization offered the group the use of an acre and a half of vacant land. It had been being used as an illegal construction waste dump. But the community cleared away the junk, cut down trees, and built garden beds. Half of the space is maintained by the whole group, and half is divided up into plots for individual gardeners.

    Their tool library was started by a man who had experienced homelessness and addiction. He had worked as a carpenter before he fell on hard times; after the community helped him get his life back on track they helped him to get some tools and find work. Working with these tools was so beneficial for him that he wanted to make them available to others. He opened their first tool library in an old shed that he had slept in while he was homeless.

    Now they’ve moved the tool library into a much larger building, and they offer a wide range of tools. People can borrow them to improve their houses and the neighborhood or use them to make some money.

    A Community of and for the Marginalized

    There is all the difference in the world between being a community that serves the poor and being a community of and for the poor and marginalized. Joshua said that Grace and Main would not continue to exist if it was merely a community that “cared for” the poor. By now, half the community members have direct experience with poverty; the formerly marginalized become leaders within the community.

    Joshua explained that it isn’t just that his friend Bruce needs a place to stay; rather, it is that he needs Bruce in his life! Being able to receive something back from the marginalized is important, or the relationship becomes one-sided and patronizing.

    Be a Cilantro Plant!

    Every community will be different. Those trying to form a new community shouldn’t try to replicate existing ones. Large, long-lasting and highly structured communities tend to receive all the attention, but small informal communities are always more numerous. You don’t have to change the world; maybe that is not your calling! As Joshua said, God created all sorts of plants. There are redwoods, which are huge and impressive and long-lived; and everyone wants to be a redwood! But God also made rose bushes—and cilantro plants. You should be happy to be a cilantro plant if that’s what God is calling you to be!

    This highlights one of the inherent tensions of the Happy Are You Poor project. We’re trying to provide inspiration for those seeking community. By necessity, however, we have to focus on communities that are organized and formalized enough to have a web presence. Just because I have to focus on the more formal communities shouldn’t obscure the importance of informal, organic community among neighbors and friends!

    For more about The Grace and Main Fellowship, visit their website.

    Header photo: the Grace and Main neighborhood, by Joshua Hearne

  • Detachment
    Uncategorized

    Modern “Detachment” and Christian Freedom

    We all struggle with attachments. Such attachments can transform perfectly harmless or even commendable relationships and activities into spiritual hazards. That is why Christians are called to be detached. Without the freedom that detachment brings, we will be unable to follow Christ in a sacrificial way. 

    In a way, the modern world is very detached. The average American moves frequently, leaving behind family, friends, and neighborhood to start fresh in a new location. Friendships tend to last only during a particular phase of life; college friends are likely to drift apart as life goes on. We’ve become much less likely to make long term commitments of any sort. 

    Such rootlessness undermines the possibility of authentic community. The absence of community, in turn, makes a fully Christian life impossible. In this way, the rootlessness of the modern world erodes Christian practice. This leads to a seeming contradiction. The rootedness of community is a direct challenge to the rootless detachment of the modern world—and yet detachment is essential to the Christian life. Should Christians value the ties to particular people and places that are formed in community? If so, how are such ties compatible with Christian detachment?

    The Identities Shaped by Love

    Thinking about the nature of love and identity can help us to answer these questions. Our true identities are shaped by what we love. Casual acquaintances might know my name, and my hair color, and where I live; but they don’t really know “who” I am. To know “who” I am, they would need to know about my loves: my attachment to particular persons and places, my religious and social commitments, and even my hobbies and interests. All of these relationships represent different kinds of love. 

    Love is an inherently risky thing that is almost always accompanied by suffering. We suffer when those we love are harmed or threatened, because we’ve given our hearts to them. We are also willing to undergo suffering for the sake of love. “Compassion” literally means “suffering with”. Being near a suffering person is uncomfortable, since their suffering tends to “rub off” on us. Those who lack love tend to move away when another is suffering, while those who love draw nearer in solidarity. 

    Our relationship with Christ is the ultimate source of our identity as Christians. Christ isn’t content to take second place in our lives; rather, he demands our whole heart and soul. We can’t wall this relationship off into a tidy category labeled “religion”, side by side with other categories labeled “work”, “politics”, “family”, and “sports”. 

    Given the all-embracing nature of the Christian identity, it might seem that we shouldn’t have any other loves or identities in our lives. It might seem that we shouldn’t give our hearts to anyone else, or at least that such gifts of love should be seen as merely an indirect way of loving Christ. For example, parents might participate in some game or other activity merely to show love for their children. They might privately think the game is boring and interminable, but go through the motions to please the children. Similarly, we might see human relationships as mere ways to please Jesus. He has told us that whatever is done for others will be taken as done for him. Obviously, we need to act in a generous and charitable manner toward all. But should we let our hearts become entangled in the messiness of mundane reality? 

    While some Christian thinkers have indeed disparaged natural human relationships, such disdain is not part of the authentic Christian tradition. Instead, we are called to truly love others. In doing so, we are imitating God himself. He loves creatures so fully and so intensely that they are maintained in being by his loving glance. There is no need for him to create; but he freely gives his love. In Jesus Christ, God even experienced the suffering that love so often entails. Out of compassion, he suffered in solidarity with his creatures.

    Of course, we can love creatures inordinately; such inordinate love becomes an obstacle to the love of God. Our loves need to be properly ordered. But the heart has an infinite capacity for love. Just because we love created beings does not mean that we have less love “left over” for God. 

    Christian detachment does not oppose an excess of love; rather, it opposes a lack of love. The miser, for instance, is attached to his money; he hoards it carefully and refuses to give it away. The spendthrift, by contrast, is detached from his money; he scatters it about in a prodigal manner. We are supposed to be prodigal with our love. We should throw it about recklessly, just as God did when he created the universe. 

    Of course, such reckless love entails suffering—which is why we are tempted to avoid it! Giving our hearts to another is dangerous! Instead, we tend to give our hearts to others with a string attached. We try to drag hosts of other creatures about on such strings in a possessive manner, to inflate our egos and make ourselves seem bigger. By doing so, we avoid the risks and sacrifices that come with true self-giving. Such consumptive and possessive attitudes, however, have nothing to do with true love. It is this counterfeit love from which we are called to be detached. Detachment breaks the string and allows us to give love freely, without counting the cost or demanding a return. 

    Voluntary Poverty, Love, and the Christian Community

    In fact, without detachment we are unable to love. Attachments are not solely an obstacle to loving God; they prevent us from freely loving anything. St. Francis of Assisi is the greatest Christian example of voluntary poverty. He gave away everything he had, so that he could freely follow Christ. For that very reason, he was able to love everything around him with a boundless exuberance. He was able to rejoice in things simply being themselves, without plotting ways to achieve dominance and mastery over them. 

    This highlights the difference between modern rootlessness and Christian detachment. Modern detachment is actually an attachment to the power and freedom of the self. The modern world tells us to carefully remain detached from anything that would hamper our individual freedom of choice. The modern world opposes commitments and roots in favor of self-seeking and so-called “self-realization”. For this reason, our society promotes “freedom” from connections to family and community, and even from religious and marital ties, to protect the free choice of the individual from any exterior constraints. Christian detachment, by contrast, is all about giving oneself to others. We’re called to be detached from our possessions so that we can give them to the poor. We’re called to be detached from our own will for the good of others. Both in religious life and in Christian matrimony, detachment is paradoxically expressed by binding oneself. 

    We can see how different these two attitudes really are by looking at the differing results. As we’ve already noted, Christian detachment leads to monasticism, life-long marriage, and care for the poor. It promotes care for creation because it leads individuals to see the natural world as something inherently worthy of respect, rather than as something merely intended to serve individual desires. It leads to thriving local communities because Christian detachment promotes unselfish love and cooperation. At the same time, it also leads individuals to leave their own communities and families to bring the good news of the Gospel to the poor. 

    By contrast, the modern kind of “detachment” leads to a breakdown both of the family and of monastic life. It creates a mass of isolated and disconnected individuals, each pursuing individual goals and personal satisfaction. Family breakdown leads to the warehousing of the elderly in “old folk’s homes”. A lack of care and love for the gifts God has given ends up covering the landscape with landfills. Local communities wither away and can no longer support individuals through times of crisis and need. 

    Love in the Christian Community

    Christ didn’t come to teach ethical principles, but rather to found a community: the Church. In the Gospels, he uses the analogies of a vine with branches and a head with members to portray this community. We’re supposed to be as tightly joined to Christ and to one another as the members of a living organism are bound to one another. Obviously, we wouldn’t want the members of our bodies to be “detached”! Rather, we want the members of our bodies to work together for the good of the whole. The New Testament also uses the analogy of a building to describe our unity with one another. If the elements of a building are detached from one another, the structure falls into ruin. In the concrete reality of a local Christian community, we can practice detachment from our own egos so that, like living stones, we can become attached to one another in the spiritual temple of God. (cf 1 Peter 2:5)

    Moving van picture by amy gizienski, CC BY 2.0

  • Last Judgement

    Friendship with the Poor: Christ in the City

    In this episode Malcolm interviews Matthew Flaherty, a Christ in the City missionary. They discuss the human dignity of the poor, the spiritual lessons of living in community, and the work Christ in the City does in Denver.

    Christ in the City

    Christ in the City is a small missionary organization of young adults who serve the unhoused in Denver. The missionaries live in community. Every day, they walk the streets and befriend those they meet. Their mission is to show the love of Christ to the poor and marginalized, particularly the unhoused.

    Matthew Flaherty grew up in Los Angeles, California. While attending college in Humboldt county, he heard about Christ in the City and their mission. He traveled to Denver and volunteered with them for two weeks. He was deeply impressed by the intentional life of prayer and fellowship in the community, and by the way their work grew out of their life of prayer. In particular, he was struck by the way that the missionaries developed friendships with the poor.

    Friendship, rather than just Aid

    There are many great aid organizations. In major American cities, it is easy to find free meals. That’s a good thing. It isn’t sufficient, however. Too many of the aid organizations are bureaucratized and professional. They can’t provide the friendship and relationships the marginalized need. In fact, at times they can further erode the dignity of the poor.

    The poor and particularly the unhoused suffer material hardships, but the loss of human dignity is even worse. Many of them never hear their own names spoken. They are socially marginalized, modern day lepers. The world ignores them. People walk by on the street, purposefully avoiding eye contact. We subconsciously block them out, because it is uncomfortable to see reality.

    Many of the unhoused become “resource resistant”. They know all about the resources available. But they lack the motivation and assistance necessary to navigate what is on offer. For instance, many of them lack IDs. Without identification, many services become unavailable. Getting a new ID card is a difficult and lengthy process, particularly for the unhoused. They have no secure places to store documents and paperwork. One theft can undo weeks of work, and give a fatal blow to their motivation to get off the street.

    That’s where Christ in the City comes in. Instead of an emphasis on aid, the Christ in the City missionaries have an emphasis on friendship. They treat those on the streets with dignity and respect. Through this friendship, they can learn about the unique struggles and needs of each individual person. The missionaries can then provide assistance, just as they would for any other friend in their lives.

    Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

    We’re called to see every other human being as a brother or sister in Christ. How would we react if a brother or sister was sleeping on the street? We might not all be called to work with Christ in the City, but we are each called to give the poor the respect and recognition that they deserve as fellow human beings. To often, we shunt our charitable duties over to organizations. We throw money at problems, because we can’t think of anything else to do. Giving money is good, but not enough; we have to show others the personal love of Christ.

    Aid through Friendship

    The Catholic teachings of solidarity and subsidiarity would seem to suggest that we can only truly help those we know. If we don’t know them, we don’t know what they need! This is a widespread problem in our society. St. James condemned those who say “go in peace, be warm and fed” without taking concrete steps to make this sentiment a reality. But if we don’t know others, we won’t know if they need help! It is perfectly possible that we’re attending Sunday Mass with a family who has just got their power shut off, but we don’t know them. This lack of knowledge makes us unwittingly fall under the condemnation of St. James. The Christ in the City missionaries focus on friendship to get to know the poor; but part of friendship is assistance. Aid and friendship are not opposed, but complementary.

    Life in Community

    At any one time, there are about 30 to 35 missionaries. They live in a building near downtown Denver. The typical day starts with morning prayer and a holy hour. Then the missionaries split up into pairs for their time on the streets. In the afternoon, the missionaries work on tasks to maintain the institution and carry out any plans they’ve made with their friends on the streets. Life is like a religious order, though somewhat less structured.

    Should We Give to Those Who Ask?

    Many people say that we should not give to the people who are begging on the street. They argue that this will merely fuel people’s addictions and negative lifestyles. There are several problems with this advice. What are we going to do with the money? Is our use of money necessarily optimal? Do we even rightfully own surplus wealth? Further, isn’t such a mindset rather dehumanizing toward the poor? Would we ask similar questions before giving presents to friends and relatives? Isn’t this the same mindset held by the bureaucratic organizations that insist on snooping through the lives of the poor before dispensing aid?

    Most importantly, the message of the Gospel and of the Saints is clear; we should give to those who ask of us. If we’re deeply concerned that our donations will be misused, we could give food or gift cards instead of cash. We shouldn’t worry, however, that God will condemn us for being “taken in” or giving money to the wrong person. As Matthew pointed out, we’re more likely to be condemned for not giving under the pretense of being responsible. God gives us a new day each morning, even though time and time again we squander his gift. We are called to imitate this open-handed generosity.

    You Are Not as Busy as You Think You Are

    Matthew’s concluding advice is to realize that you are not as busy as you think you are—and if you really are that busy, you should probably cut some things out of your life. While it might be difficult to give away money, it is even harder to give away time! Friendship is necessary, but if we are too busy we won’t have the time for the “interruption” of really seeing those God has placed in our path.

    Header Image: Last Judgement, 5th-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • Uncategorized

    The Knowledge of Christ and the Christian Community

    A Theology of History by Hans Urs von Balthasar contains the following passage about Christ’s relationship to time and his foreknowledge of future events:

    It is not the case that Christ before his Passion was only appearing to live in time…What tells us more than anything else that Jesus’ mode of time is indeed real is the fact that he does not anticipate the will of the Father. He does not do the precise thing which we try to do when we sin, which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s dispositions for us, in order to arrogate to ourselves a sort of eternity, to “take the long view” and “make sure of things”. Both Irenaeus and Clement consider that original sin consisted in anticipation of this kind; and indeed, at the close of Revelation the reward which the Son bestows upon the victor is that fruit of Paradise which the sinner had to his own hurt stolen in anticipation. (Rev 2:7) God intended man to have all good, but in his, God’s, time; and therefore all disobedience, all sin, consists essentially in breaking out of time…Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than humility…This may be seen from Jesus’s relation to “his hour”, which is the Father’s hour. Essentially, it is the hour that is coming, which, in its coming, is always there and therefore determines everything that happens before it and leads up to it, but still has this determinative character as something that is to come, something that can not be summoned…The concept he has of it—and this kind of knowledge he does have—has for its measure that which the Father reveals of it to him. One can therefore say in general (since “his hour” is the epitome of his mission) that his knowledge as God-man is measured by his mission. The knowledge is not itself the measure, but that which is measured; whereas his mission is the measure that measures all else. His perfection is his obedience, which does not anticipate. The use of his capacities has to be adapted to this standard. To regard Christ’s knowledge as though he carried out his actions in time from some vantage point of eternity—rather like a chess-player of genius who quickly foresees the whole course of the game, and simply moves his men through a game which for him is already over—would be to do away entirely with his temporality and so with his obedience, his patience, the merit of his redemptive existence; he would no longer be the model of a Christain existence and of Christian faith.  

    Of course, von Balthasar is not denying that Jesus was God, and as God knew all things. There are many passages in the Gospels that show Jesus predicting the future. He is God! And yet he is also fully human. He did not let his status as God obliterate his humanity. As St. Paul says, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) During the temptation in the desert, Jesus rejected the suggestion to grasp at glory on his own terms. He would indeed rule over all nations and peoples, but only by following the will of the Father that led him to the cross. As von Balthasar points out, Christ showed this humility and obedience by living in the moment. As a man, he could learn and grow. (Luke 2:52) As a man, he could be surprised. (Matthew 8:10, Mark 6:6)

    The humility of Christ stems from his love. He loves us so much that he was willing to stoop down to reach us. Even more amazingly, he wishes to raise us to his own level. By incorporation in the Mystical Body, we are being integrated into the very life of the Trinity. This communal reality of the Mystical Body should be the basis of any community building attempt. In particular, I think that reflecting on Christ’s relationship to time and to knowledge can help us avoid certain spiritual errors that are common among those building community. 

    The Bad World and the Good Community?

    Devout Christians often misunderstand the true nature of temptation. We are tempted to obtain good things in the wrong way. That means that we need to be on our guard against spiritual pride and the other vices that can slip in under cover of apparent devotion. Instead, too many Christians are focused on the evils of the world “out there”. They correctly understand that such things as abortion and sexual perversions are contrary to the Gospel; but focusing on these issues can lead to a certain blindness regarding the more subtle forms of evil. This is particularly the case when Christian community is seen as a fortress or ark to hold at bay the evil of the outside world. Such a focus on other people’s sins is spiritually dangerous. It can promote the formation of a comfortable little “shire”, where all kinds of horrible spiritual sins can flourish under the cover of beautiful liturgies and seemingly devout families. Such spiritual pride goes before a fall. Eventually, God will allow the facade to crumble. Like the showy mushrooms that signal the presence of hidden decay, all the more blatant forms of evil will eventually crop up within the community itself. 

    The Desire for Control 

    As von Balthasar explains, the desire for control is the most fundamental temptation. The attitude of human beings toward God should be one of humble trust, surrender, and thanksgiving. Instead, we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness. We come to fear that he does not truly care for us, and so we set out to take care of ourselves. This was the temptation in the Garden of Eden: the suggestion that God was untrustworthy. 

    This desire for control can be seen in the individualism of the modern world. We are told that we need to “go it alone”, to control our own destinies. To do this, we break family and community ties. I recently came across an interesting example of this on social media. A commenter was arguing that young people should not live with their parents. Instead, he urged them to seek independence no matter what the cost. He said that he had moved away from home to live with five roommates and work several different jobs just to make ends meet, but independence was “worth it”. This is obviously absurd. Can anyone be truly independent? Why is sharing the cost of living with five unknown roommates more virtuous than sharing the cost of living with one’s parents? 

    The deeper, darker reality behind such views is that sharing an apartment with roommates is seen as superior precisely because of the lack of pre-existing ties. Family bonds are not chosen; they are simply given, received as a gift. Roommates, on the other hand, are chosen. They can be left behind when one no longer needs them. Our culture glorifies personal choice and individual freedom, but this leads to a deep unhappiness just as it did in the Garden of Eden. 

    As people become more and more aware of this fundamental lack in our society, community building starts to look more attractive. The danger is that community will become just another strategy for control. If we enter into a community with our culture’s individualistic mindset, we will fail. Community will be seen as a way to escape the dangers and problems of life, as a way of walling out conflicting ideas. Parents will see community as a way to gain control over children, leaders will see community as a path to power.

    In reality, however, community building is about relinquishing individual choice and receiving others as a gift. Any healthy community will contain differing perspectives and temperaments. Such differences will inevitably lead to tension. The Christian way is to accept such difficulties, instead of striking out on an individual search for fulfillment or attempting to coerce community into artificial uniformity. 

    The Problem with Blueprints 

    In one sense, “building community” is deeply paradoxical. How can we build something which must be organic? How can we plan for something that depends on the unpredictable nature of human relationships? Von Balthasar’s description of Christ’s knowledge and his relationship to time can help us to navigate this seeming contradiction. 

    In one sense, Christ foresaw the future. He understood his mission, and that mission required a certain vision of things yet to come. Similarly, as Christians we have a mission. In fact, our mission is a participation in the mission of Christ: showing the love of the Father to the world. Community is a key part of this mission; the pagans in the ancient world saw the love of the Christian community and were attracted by it. To fulfill this mission, we need to think about the future. As Pope Francis says, we need to “dream” of a better world. We need to have a vision of Christian community, or we will remain stuck in the status quo.

    Christ’s knowledge, however, did not keep him from truly living in time. He did not attempt to control events by drawing on an eternal perspective. Rather, he was docile to the will of the Father and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the moment. Similarly, we need to live in the moment and be open to the voice of God. Discernment is essential, and discernment is ultimately a communal process. This means that our initial vision will probably be modified by the people and events we encounter along our path. 

    To maintain this flexibility, we need to fight the temptation to “grab” for power and control over events. We can’t let the initial vision degenerate into a mere “blueprint” of a future project. Living in the moment can keep this degeneration at bay. Having a meal with friends is a good and beautiful thing. It should be valued for what it is, not as a stepping stone to something in the future. It should not be seen as an opportunity to “build social capital” that can later be “invested” in some project. 

    Of course, such actions and activities may end up laying the foundation upon which a more intentional community is built. They can only become such a foundation, however, if we value them for what they are. We are to “seek first the kingdom of God”, and “all these things” will be given to us. The “kingdom of God” that we are to seek is “among us” in the here and now, not in some distant future.

    And when the future becomes the present, we may be surprised to find that what God has built upon our foundation was not what we had envisioned, but something much better. We will be able to say, like the steward in St. John’s Gospel, “You have kept the good wine until now”.

  • Let Us Dream

    Let Us Dream, Episode 4

    (Originally recorded during Advent 2021, so references to “last year” are references to 2020.)

    In this episode, Malcolm and Peter finish discussing the first chapter of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the fourth part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here, the second episode is here, and the third here. The following are some of the points we discussed.

    Viewing the Past

    In Chapter 1 of Let Us Dream, Pope Francis discusses our relationship to the past in light of the racial justice protests of 2020. He voices his support for those protesting against racial prejudice and injustice, but also notes that he is concerned by the growth of a flawed attitude toward the past. He writes:

    What worried me about the anti-racist protests in the summer of 2020, when many statues of historical figures were toppled in several countries, was the desire to purify the past. Some wanted to project onto the past the history they would like to have now, which requires them to cancel what came before. But it should be the other way around. For there to be true history there must be memory, which demands that we acknowledge the paths already trod, even if they are shameful. Amputating history can make us lose our memory, which is one of the few remedies we have against repeating the mistakes of the past. A free people is a people that remembers, is able to own its history rather than deny it, and learns its best lessons.

    In chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses prescribed what the Israelites were to do after taking possession of the land the Lord had given them. They were to take the land’s first fruits to the priest as an offering, and pronounce a prayer of gratitude that recalls the people’s history. The prayer began: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” Then came a story of shame and redemption: how my ancestor went down into Egypt, lived as an alien and a slave, but his people called on the Lord’s name and were brought out of Egypt, to this land.

    The ignominy of our past, in other words, is part of what and who we are. I recall this history not to praise past oppressors but to honor the witness and greatness of soul of the oppressed. There is a great danger in remembering the guilt of others in order to proclaim my own innocence.

    Of course, those who pulled down statues did so to draw attention to the wrongs of the past, and to deny honor to those who committed those wrongs. But when I judge the past through the lens of the present, seeking to purge the past of its shame, I risk committing other injustices, reducing a person’s history to the wrong they did.

    The past is always full of situations of shame: just read the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospels, which contains —as do all our families—quite a few characters who are hardly saints. Jesus does not reject his people or his history, but takes them up and teaches us to do likewise: not canceling the shame of the past but acknowledging it as it is.

    Of course, statues have always come down and been replaced by others, when what they stand for no longer speaks to a new generation. But this should be done through consensus-building, by debate and dialogue rather than acts of force. That dialogue must aim to learn from the past, rather than judge it through the eyes of the present.

    Attacking the Past rather than the Present

    Sometimes the past is attacked because attacking the past is safer than attacking evils in the present. For instance, large corporations that currently use slave labor can easily score points by condemning the racism and slavery of the past. Similarly, it is easy for modern individuals to “like” social media posts that condemn past slave owners—on mobile devices that are made with slave labor. In this way, too much attention to past evils can actually serve as a way to white-wash the present.

    A Spirituality of Humility

    As Pope Francis pointed out, the way the People of Israel related to the past was informed by a certain spirituality. They were supposed to remember how good God had been to them and how much they had been given. In this way, remembrance of the past was supposed to lead to gratitude. At the same time, they were supposed to remember how many times they had failed to live up to God’s covenant. Remembering their failures was supposed to make them humble before God.

    This remembering of the past was ritualized through festivals and religious ceremonies. It played a large role in guiding the people and in shaping their spirituality. By contrast, today we do not have a spiritual understanding of the past. We are often ungrateful for the benefits we have received. At the same time, we sometimes try to use the sins of the past as an excuse for turning away from faith in God.

    Mercy toward Others

    By remembering the sins of our collective past and how good God has been to us, we can also grow in the quality of mercy toward others. The People of Israel were supposed to care for the stranger and the poor precisely because they had been poor themselves. They were to avoid oppression because they themselves had been oppressed in a strange land. If we imitated this view of history, it should make us more generous toward migrants and the marginalized in the present.

    The Personal Past

    We should have the same attitude toward our personal past. We all have sins and failures in our past for which God has forgiven us. We have all received blessings that we did not deserve or merit. We are all in need of redemption.

    This should make us charitable and merciful to others. We’ve received so much from God; in response, we have to give to those around us.

    Peter brought up the story of his walking pilgrimages. Many times, he relied on the generosity of others for food and shelter. Remembering this helps him to be generous, to give freely since he received freely.

    The Redemption of History

    Pope Francis mentions that the genealogy of Jesus includes many sinners. Jesus does not reject this flawed past; rather, he takes it up and redeems it. He brings the best out of it. That’s the way God works with us; he brings good out of the brokenness of human beings.. And we must do likewise. We should acknowledge our brokenness and the brokenness of the past, and use it to build a better path going forward.

    History and Community

    The past is often a burden, a source of shame. When one is part of a group, one ends up answering for the actions of that group. As Catholics and as Americans we have to answer for sins that we didn’t personally commit.

    The Christian way is to bear such burdens with love and humility. There are, however, two different ways in which people try to escape these burdens. These two kinds of escapism map onto two flawed attitudes toward community in general.

    We’ve talked before about how Christians sometimes join a community in a futile attempt to escape the messiness of life. In reality, however, the advantage of a community is that it forces individuals to directly confront the messy reality of life. Communities often bring out the worst in others and in ourselves; we can’t as easily put on a good “show” for others when we live in close proximity to them. Such exposure to reality is humbling. At the same time, however, community can bring out the best in people as they carry the burdens of life together.

    The temptation is to deny that mistakes and burdens exist and pretend that everything is perfect. This is particularly the case when people join a community with unrealistic expectations of perfection. If the community tries to escape into idealism and an imaginary perfection, it will ultimately fail.

    Since community is often messy, people sometimes try to avoid community altogether. If one isn’t part of any community, then one will never have to carry the burden of another—whether that burden is spiritual or physical. In our society, many people are rootless and lead individualistic lives for just this reason. Our culture encourages people to leave behind the particularities of their communities and families for individual freedom. In the religious sphere, this is why many people try to confine religion to their personal relationship with God. That way, they won’t have to carry the burden of belonging to a religious organization.

    These are both flawed responses. We need community and we must take up the burden that the community will inevitably lay on us. Community makes us part of a greater whole, and gives us the aid that we all need.

    Our choices when confronted with the burden of history are similar. Too often when people say we should remember our past, what they really mean is that we should approve of the past. To aid in this approval, they produce a slanted version of history which ignores the crimes and sins of their group or nation. They refuse to carry the burden by denying that any past mistakes or sins exist. Truthful remembering of the past will always include a certain amount of shame, since we’re in a fallen world. It calls for repentance—but not rejection.

    Such rejection is the other error, the mistake of rootlessness. If we deny that we have anything in common with the past and look on it merely with rejection, we are not being truthful. We are each the product of a certain history and a particular community, whether we like it or not. We can’t imagine ourselves as spotless heroes compared with the benighted individuals that came before us.

    Choosing our Past

    Too often, individuals today choose their own history and narrative. When we are isolated and individualistic, we can pick and choose the history we want for our own lives and for our country. We can reinforce this choice by only exposing ourselves to that with with which we agree. Our polarized news media makes this easier. Social media can also feed this dynamic by isolating individuals in self-chosen echo chambers.

    We need to resist this dynamic and take ownership of our history and world as they really are. That’s what Pope Francis invites us into. We can’t be afraid of what we might be faced with. We have to allow the history of other people and other groups to challenge and change the way we see the world.

    Community is a great help in this process. As Tim Keller said, there WILL be people with different political viewpoints in a community—or it isn’t a very good community. This will produce tension. In a community, people will be confronted with perspectives that they never would have taken the trouble to seek out. Even the differing personalities found in a community can create this kind of creative tension. As Joseph Loizzo said, in a community one ends up becoming best friends with people one would never have chosen by oneself. This is all good, because individual choice is the opposite of true culture and community.

    We Are All Connected

    Nobody’s history is isolated from anybody else’s history. For instance, we are all part of the tragic history of the Native Americans who were killed or displaced by European colonizers. This tragedy can’t be blamed on any one individual in the present, but it is still something that we have collectively inherited. We need to acknowledge that we’ve inherited a world that is terribly unequal and that our own ancestors were often part of this history of exploitation and conquest. We have to make amends for the past as best we can. If we don’t do anything about it and merely ignore the fact, then we will become guilty for the sins of our ancestors. We will become complicit if we continue to take advantage of their misdeeds.

    In a sense, nobody can own anything with clean hands. That’s why we are told to “make friends for ourselves with unrighteous mammon”: by giving it to the poor. That’s the only way to avoid condemnation for holding wealth, since all wealth at some point was derived from injustice. We are each the indirect beneficiaries of shocking evils. It is one thing, an easy thing to condemn the evils of the past. It is a much harder thing to live out that condemnation in one’s way of life!

    There are the great societal evils; but there are also personal evils that we are complicit in. We only need to think of the sweatshop labor that went into our gadgets, or the migrant workers who are harvesting our food. Almost anything we buy is cheap simply because somebody else was abused. It is critical that we try to avoid benefiting from exploitation, past and present, as much as possible.

    Listening to the History of Others

    Another important way we relate to history is by listening to the history of others, both as individuals and as groups. Particularly when those others come from very different backgrounds than ours, this will expand our horizons.

    Everyone has a story to share; they are made in the image of God and have the potential for sainthood. With that in mind, we can learn from everyone. Of course, what they are saying might be incorrect or flawed, but even so we can learn by trying to understand them. Why do they hold these ideas? Where did this perspective originate? We should take particular care to listen when people are speaking out of their own experience. We can show love in letting that experience be received and understood, and find points of common ground and agreement.

    That doesn’t mean that we should depart from the truth or the teaching of the Church, but it means that other people and other traditions can shed light on aspects of the Truth of which we are not aware. Eastern culture and spirituality, for instance, can help to expand our Western traditions.

    It is easy to become angry at those who disagree with you. That’s a funny thing about human beings. If somebody is wrong, we should be sorry for them because they are missing something. Malcolm pointed out that if he suddenly met his past self he would violently disagree with that past self! It can be good for us to remember that we didn’t always get everything right. Our past mistakes should inform the way we respond to the mistakes of others.

    Similarly, as a nation, if we think we’ve always got it right, then we will not be to enter into the kind of dialogue and fraternity to which Pope Francis is calling us.

    The Standards of the Times

    Pope Francis also talks about not judging the past by the standards of the present. That almost sounds relativistic, as if he was saying that different times have different standards. He isn’t saying that, however. The standards are always the same. But God is going to judge each of us by what we did with what we have been given: our health, resources, etc. Those who have more are called to a higher standard. Privileges come with responsibility. This also applies to each individual’s access to the truth. At some points in the past, it was perhaps harder to see certain truths. So when we are discussing historical figures, the question should be; what did they do with what they were given? Did they to some extent transcend the flaws of their culture? Or did they sink below the level of their era? That should make a difference in how we judge their actions.

    The Beauty of Our Environment

    Let Us Dream discusses our relationship to Creation and our environment. As the Pope says, we can’t carry on as if we could be healthy in a world that is sick! Creation is a gift for us to cherish and tend.

    In particular, he mentions that beauty is the entry point to ecological awareness. In a world focused on technological efficiency, beauty is more important than ever.

    Today, we tend to impose things on the landscape, instead of being in love with a place and working in harmony with the beauty of the place. We create the same dreary strip malls and sub-developments across a huge diversity of environments.

    This is a problem, because the role of beauty is to lift up our hearts to something greater than ourselves. Beauty is going to play a significant role in dreaming of a new world and embracing a community that is greater than ourselves.

    By contrast, when people are surrounded by trash and an ugly built environment, they have less of a sense of dignity. If we treat the world with contempt, we are treating the giver with contempt. In disrespecting the Creation, we’re not only disrespecting God, but also those around us. We send a message about the value of those around us when we create certain kinds of environments. We need a sense of ownership, of responsibility for our places and our communities. How can we create beautiful spaces that invite people to cherish the world and one another?

    C. S. Lewis wrote about two different ways to see trees. We can see them primarily as a source of lumber, or we can see them in all their glory as amazing creatures of God and only in a secondary way as a source of lumber. Obviously, the first kind of viewpoint will not lead to restraint or respect or gratitude.

    Beauty is not useful; rather, it is a recognition of what a thing is in itself. If we see only utility and not beauty, then everything (including other people) will be seen as something to be used up and ultimately thrown away.

    Seeing Properly in Contemplation

    This whole first chapter is about seeing properly. And if you move too fast, you won’t see properly. We can’t see if we are not contemplative, if we don’t slow down and really try to see what is around us. God will give us a deeper vision if we are attentive. Advent is about being attentive, or the coming of the Lord will pass us by. If we want to avoid that, we have to be open to everything around us, since God can speak to us through anything.

    The shepherds and the wise men received a sign, and then they acted on it. They were ready. In fact, it came to them because they were ready. If we are attentive, God will invite us into something different.

    On a purely practical level, the sign came to the shepherds and the wise men because they were awake at night. The shepherds were keeping watch. That was because they were the poor and had to work at night.

    The wise men had spent a whole lifetime being attentive, even if they didn’t know what was going to happen or what exactly they were going to see. Many others may have seen the sign, but without a lifetime of attention, it didn’t mean to anything.

    Chapter 2

    In our next episode on Let Us Dream will be moving from chapter one, about being attentive, into the second chapter about discernment. If we are attentive, we will see many things: but then comes discernment, discovering what God is telling us. Think of the difference the same piece of news made to the wise men and to Herod. We need discernment to understand what we see. The second chapter is very Ignatian, very much about discerning spirits and the voices that we hear.

    At some point we all need to choose. We need to make a decision to follow God in everything. Such a decision might draw us away from what is comfortable. God never forces anything on us: how we will respond is up to our free choice.

    In a way, this is a good summary of the community building process as described by our guests. First comes openness to God and to those around us. Then comes discernment, which is ultimately a communal process. Over time, the small initial group can work to discern the best path forward. And finally, the members of the community may find themselves involved in projects they would never have even imagined. But it all starts humbly with openness and discernment.

    St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use