In this episode, Malcolm and Peter Land continue discussing the first chapter (and some themes from the second chapter) of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the third part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here and the second episode is here. The following are some of the points we discussed.
According to Pope Francis, we face a pervasive “virus” of indifference. He says:
We see it in the story of the poor man Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel. The rich man was his neighbor; he knew perfectly well who Lazarus was—even his name. But he was indifferent, he didn’t care. To the rich man, Lazarus’s misfortune was his own affair . . . He knew Lazarus’s life but didn’t let it affect him. . . . Hence people judge situations without empathy, without any ability to walk for a time in the other’s shoes.
Here in Italy you often hear people say che me ne frega when you have a problem. It means “So what? What’s it got to do with me?” In Argentina we say: y a mi que? They’re little words that reveal a mindset. Some Italians claim you need a healthy dose of menefreghismo—”so-whatism”—to get through life, because if you start worrying about what you see, how are you ever going go relax? This attitude ends up armor-plating the soul: that is, indifference bulletproofs it, so that certain things just bounce off. One of the dangers of this indifference is that it can become normal, silently seeping into our lifestyles and value judgements. We cannot get use to indifference.
The attitude of the Lord is completely different, at the opposite pole. God is never indifferent. The essence of God is mercy, which is not just seeing and being moved but responding with action.
We are all tempted to avoid seeing or hearing about things that make us uncomfortable. Often times, we don’t want to hear about the poor, because then we might realize we are required to care for them. This is an ancient problem in the Church. The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the first half of the second century, discusses the rich who hold back from joining the Church for fear of being asked to help the poor! We have to resist this temptation, have to widen our gaze and be affected by the struggles of others.
This willingness to see has to come before we make changes. Otherwise, we’ll end up seeing other just as problems, and impose our own solutions on them. To avoid this, we need to break out of our own perspectives.
Indifference not only blocks out the people around us; it also blocks out the movement of the Holy spirit. The Spirit of God is always attentive, always responds to us in a relational way. We need to imitate this openness so that we can see the new things God is trying to do. Indifference cuts off this possibility.
Showing Mercy to Others
We are supposed to be showing God’s mercy to others. By reflecting on our own failures, we will realize how indebted we are to God’s mercy. Everything we have is a grace from God; we aren’t inherently better than others. If we’re virtuous, this may simply be the result of a better background and other unearned gifts. This perspective makes it easier to show mercy to others.
It can be difficult to be attentive, particularly in the modern world. As I pointed out in a recent essay, the evil in us tends to resist “re-collection”.
One practice that can help to build attention is to go for a walk without an agenda, merely to experience the surrounding reality. By turning off the constant stream of mental “commentary” and experiencing things for themselves, we’ll develop the skills we need to pay attention to God and to our neighbors.
This matches the advice given by a Desert Father to a young monk who was having spiritual difficulties and wanted to know if he should pray special prayers or perform other spiritual exercises. Instead, the young monk was told to just sit quietly in his cell, eat when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, and sleep when he was tired. This was supposed to help him get back into touch with reality, with life stripped down to the basics. We’re dependent beings, and we need to realize this.
The media can help us to be in touch with reality . . . or it can keep us away from reality. Media platforms can become performative, catering to the prejudices of listeners, profiting off division and distortion. Such platforms can make it impossible for us to have the perception of reality that Pope Francis calls for.
When dealing with media, it is important to avoid platforms which take a polarizing stance. A media outlet which takes as given that there is only one answer to every question and that all opponents are evil or stupid is unlikely to be a good guide.
Searching for source documents is also important. Even if reporters and journalists aren’t intentionally spinning a narrative, quotes and summaries can only get one so far. If a document or book or speech is under discussion, reading it for oneself can be very clarifying.
Even more importantly, we have to deeply experience reality. In this way, we can become “media” for others. If we become truly quiet and attentive, and so get in touch with the reality of things, we can then become an ambassador of truth for others. We can act like the Apostles, who had a deep experience and knowledge of Jesus Christ and then went forth to proclaim his Gospel to the world.
Discernment is a key theme throughout Let Us Dream. We’ll be discussing it in more depth in upcoming episodes.
One of the prerequisites for discernment is the awareness that one does not have all the answers. We have to begin by asking questions, both about the situation and about what God wants us to do in the situation.
We can’t be quick to jump to an answer or reject a particular way of thought. Polarization is superficially attractive, but the Catholic way is often the “both/and”. We see this “both/and” solution being applied to many of the most famous disagreements in Christian history; Jesus is both God and Man, we need both Faith and Works, we revere both the Bible and Tradition, we value both celibacy and marriage. We have to hold divergent perspectives together in charity.
Peter Land discussed experiencing this in his own life. At college, he found that the students were more or less divided into “conservative” and “liberal” groups, and each group attended different events and listened to different speakers. He found that by attending a wider range of events and speaking with a wider range of people, he could come to a deeper understanding.
Starting with Small Things
We have to start with little things, little habits that we need to break or change. Peter gave a good example. He discussed learning to clean up after himself when he was living at college; that change of attitude helped to produce a change in the overall culture of his college dorm, making it more responsible and charitable.
Discernment should be started there, in the small things. Focusing on the big things can be counterproductive; big things grow from small things.
Trust in God
Trust in God is vital to true discernment. We’re inadequate to the task, and yet called to it. That’s why Pope Francis calls us to realize that we don’t have all the answers. We have to trust in the Lord to open doors that we don’t even know are there.
We have to be willing to be led into the void, onto the water, into a foreign land like Abraham was. We’re called in this time to create new ways for the future, by being open to God’s grace.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use
In Simone Weil’s beautiful essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, she explains that prayer is simply the turning of one’s attention to God. It isn’t a busy activity, but rather a peaceful practice of being present before God and attentive to him.
Attentiveness can only be gained through practice. According to Weil, the development of this capacity for attention is the real purpose of school work. Each particular subject has a “useful” purpose, but any subject serves to build the capacity for attention, and this deeper purpose is more important. Even if someone has no natural aptitude for their studies, the attempt to concentrate is still beneficial for building attention.
This means that a student should strive to do the work well (otherwise they would not be truly attentive) but without worrying too much about goals or ends. Instead, they should strive to do each thing for itself and as a preparation for prayer.
Weil explains that every time we pay attention, we “destroy the evil in ourselves.” Evil divides and dissipates. This can be seen in the division between God and humanity, in conflicts between individual human beings, and in the internal battles we each fight against our lower tendencies. By concentrating, we “pull ourselves together”, overcoming the evil impulse to dissipation.
What is Attention?
To pay attention well, we need to know what attention is. Weil writes that attention is a negative effort, the act of holding the mind open in the presence of something. “Jumping” on a concept or idea too quickly is not attention, and can close the mind to the truth. At the same time, we can’t “jump” away from the idea or person before us. Weil describes attention while writing as waiting “for the right word to come of itself at the end of the pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.”
This negative effort of attention is hard for us. We’re very busy, and we want to stay that way: it makes us feel important and protects us from ourselves. We don’t like to be “re-collected” with ourselves and passively present before God in prayer, or before another human being or even an idea. Yet this is what Christ asks us to do. In the Gospel, the servants who were found patiently and attentively waiting are called blessed.
This virtue of attention is necessary for community, and also fostered by it. Weil points out this connection:
“Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
Community is all about giving others our attention, emptying our souls of self so we can take the other in; so we can, as Weil put it, say to the other “What are you going through?” Without this attention, community becomes soulless and sterile. “Companions” are literally those who share bread with one another; in a more extensive sense, they are those who share their lives, share their attention.
In doing so, we’re imitating Christ, who emptied himself for our sake. Not only will we imitate him, but in imitating him through attention we will truly find him. It does not matter what we are doing, whether studying, working, or serving our neighbor: if we are open and attentive to the things around us, we will find him there before us. For “in him we live and move and have our being”. All things are kept in being by the loving attention of God, so that when we look on anything with love and attention, our gaze meets his.
“Prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”—St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Gerry is from Mumbai, India. He is a cradle Catholic, but he and his family were not fully practicing their faith before an encounter with FMC. While they were on a vacation, they just happened to find out that Family Missions Company would be having a retreat, and decide to attend. It was a life-changing conversion experience. Gerry’s family eventually discerned a call to join FMC, and traveled to the FMC headquarters in Louisiana to receive formation.
Family Missions Company
Frank and Genie Summers founded FMC in 1995, drawing on their own experience as family missionaries. In the early 80’s, they had been living a materially successful but secular lifestyle, and their marriage was falling apart. After a conversion experience, they dedicated their lives to serving the poor and preaching the Gospel. For the next decade, they served as lay missionaries around the world. When the returned to the USA, they felt called to found FMC to train other families. They saw it as meeting a need, since there was a lack of resources for Catholic mission families. Today, there are around 300 FMC missionaries stationed around the world.
FMC was deeply influenced by the Charismatic renewal. Missionaries try to remain open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They focus on discipleship, on helping others to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus. The organization also emphasizes voluntary poverty and trust in God.
Gerry Martins took a course through the Alleluia Community’s Spiritual Direction School. Later, he returned to work with the Alleluia Community to start a campus of Encounter School of Ministry. Encounter Ministry aims to bring people’s charisms alive.
We interviewed the Alleluia Community in an earlier podcast episode. In this episode, Gerry mentioned that the community is really good at welcoming and integrating newcomers. Some communities can become cliquish and closed to new members; others simply fail to adequately integrate new members. The Alleluia Community, in contrast, has an intentional structure designed to make new members feel at home.
We discussed the value of voluntary poverty in following the Lord. Gerry pointed out that we shouldn’t be “thing-centered”. Voluntary poverty also helps us to trust God and other people.
One of the problems the Church faces to day is that there is nothing to bring people “into”. It is difficult to make converts without a welcoming community. As a community, we need to share our relationship with Jesus.
In this episode, I interview Sean Domencic, director of Tradistae, about his experience as founder of Holy Family House in Lancaster, PA.
Holy Family House
When Sean and his now-wife Monica were engaged, they came to realize how important Christian community was to living out the Faith. They started to discuss this idea with a few friends. One of them had a lot of experience with the Catholic Worker, a movement started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. The Catholic Worker movement is best known for providing personal hospitality to those in need in houses where the workers live with their guests. The Catholic Worker’s emphasis on social justice was very appealing to Sean.
Sean and Monica begin discerning opening a house of hospitality. They committed to the idea while attending a retreat for Catholic couples and families interested in community. After that, everything fell into place. They rented a house with two other friends, and named it the Holy Family Catholic Worker House. The local parish helped them to find people who needed assistance with housing, and they quickly filled the available space. They’ve just bought a second house to expand their ministry.
Community Life at Holy Family House
The members of Holy Family House have weekly community meals and round table discussions, and pray vespers together. They still have outside jobs, so they can’t do as much outreach to the wider community as they would like.
The Future of Holy Family House
Although Sean emphasized that those starting community shouldn’t expect too much right away, he also emphasized that they should be open to wider visions of what might be possible in the future. In addition to their houses of hospitality, he hopes that his community can eventually start a Catholic Worker farm. They are also interested in helping to turn their local parish into a real community, with members living near the Church and building up a vibrant local economy of mutual aid.
As well as talking about the development of Holy Family House, we discussed Christian community in general.
Expectations and Vision
Sean talked about how important it is to have everyone involved in a new community “on the same page”. People can easily come into a project with incompatible visions, which only crop up later. They can cause a lot of heartache and trouble down the road. A clear vision gives a community something to coalesce around.
Friendship and Intentionality
In earlier podcasts, we’ve discussed the importance of starting out organically, starting with friendship instead of a blueprint. Sean agreed with that, but pointed out that such a group of friends does need to move on to something more structured. The ability to commit to a shared project is a test of friendship, and can help to deepen it. Even once this happens, however, the community can’t stop valuing the friendships; the friendship and the vision are the two poles between which the community has to keep going back and forth.
Catholic Social Teaching
It is vital that Catholic Communities have an emphasis on Catholic Social Teaching and on service to the poor. As Peter Maurin said, such communities need to be clear about what the world currently is, what it should be, and how to get from here to there. Without this clarity, Christian community can easily deteriorate into a sort of Christian suburb. Sean also pointed out how important it is that a community embrace voluntary poverty. Sometimes those who desire community want to wait until they can do so from a position of economic strength, but this may compromise the community’s integrity.
Consumerism can easily seep into a Christian community that is focused on providing a “good life” for its members. This can sometimes happen due to the seemingly harmless desire of parents to provide a good education and cultural environment for their children. As Sean said, there’s nothing wrong with education and cultural enrichment; he hopes he can provide these things for his future children. More importantly, however, children need to see that their parents are trying to live out the Gospel. Without this, any cultural environment is likely to become hypocritical, and children are quick to pick up on this.
Avoid Division, Embrace Discussion!
Sean and I discussed the fact that we have various disagreements on ideological points, but that we still see one another as allies. We can see one another’s projects as valuable, due to our shared commitments to the Church and our shared interest in social justice. This is in line with the Catholic Worker tradition of the Round Table Discussion. We need to be committed to seeking the truth, but we need to do so in unity with others who may differ from us. As Tim Keller said in a past interview, there will be political and ideological differences in any community, but these differences can’t be allowed to tear the community apart. Without a commitment to unity, the quest for truth will falter as different perspectives are isolated in their own ghettos.
Sean’s Tradistae project attempts to present the tradition of the Church; in particular, it attempts to show that Catholic Social Teaching is a vital aspect of the Church’s tradition. Too often those interested in Catholic Tradition are only interested in relatively superficial aspects of it. The Tradistae project seeks to change this; it includes a podcast, easy essays, and social media outreach.
A few days ago, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from the Gospel of Matthew was read at Mass. During the sermon, the priest commented on a surprising aspect of the story. We’re always told that we should share what we have with others. It comes as rather a shock when the wise virgins refuse to share their oil at such a critical moment. What can we learn from this aspect of the parable?
Christians are certainly called to share their wealth and time with others. In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the virgins comes shortly before his depiction of the judgement on the nations, in which those who gave generously to the poor are saved, while those who failed to do so are rejected. The oil in the lamps, however, does not represent material goods or even spiritual gifts. Rather, it represents the Christian’s loving and faithful response to Christ. This faith can’t be shared. Nobody can make our personal response on our behalf: it is a deeply personal choice made by each individual.
The importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ means that cultural Catholicism can not save us. A Christian society and culture can make it easier for us to respond generously to Christ, but it can’t replace our personal response. In a Christian culture, a larger percentage of individuals may live outwardly decent and Christian lives. Living a decent life, however, isn’t sufficient for salvation, nor is mere social conformity.
Without proper catechesis, a Christian culture can even impede the making of a personal commitment to Christ by masking the importance of such a decision. Those in a Christian culture may never come to realize that such a choice is necessary, and may instead remain content with going through the motions. I discussed this complicated relationship between personal commitment and cultural values in an earlier post.
Cradle Catholics can be particularly susceptible to seeing the faith as merely mechanical and routine. Many of us were baptized merely because of our parents’ decision. Baptism does make us members of the Church, but baptism needs to be “activated” by a personal choice.
Sherry Weddell discusses this issue in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. She points out that the Church has always distinguished between the valid reception of the sacraments and the fruitful reception of the sacraments. Validity depends on the basic matter and form of the sacraments and the right intention on the part of the minister. The fruitfulness of the sacraments largely depends on the interior deposition of the recipient. Jesus always comes to us in the Eucharist, but whether his coming will transform our hearts largely depends on our cooperation. To illustrate this point, Weddell quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, Pope Benedict XVI, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church. In particular, she cites CCC 2111 and CCC 150:
2111 Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
150 Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.
For those who want to explore this subject in more depth, I highly recommend Forming Intentional Disciples.
The Modern World
We currently live amidst the ruins of a collapsed cultural Catholicism. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Catholics in the USA still tended to live in enclaves of cultural Catholicism, the so-called “Catholic Ghetto.” Catholics sent their children to Catholic schools staffed by religious orders, socialized principally with other Catholics, read Catholic periodicals and publications, and joined civic and fraternal organizations composed of fellow Catholics. The situation in many Catholic countries was similar.
All seemed well, but a dangerous complacency seems to have crept in. Catholic culture was being passed on, but it was not always fostering a deep personal response to the Faith. When push came to shove, this cultural Catholicism collapsed. Social and demographic factors disrupted traditional Catholic enclaves and societies, and with their disintegration Mass attendance and other markers of Catholic practice declined. How many times have we heard the hackneyed phrases “I was an altar boy, but . . .” or “I went to Catholic schools, but . . .” from someone who no longer practices the Faith, or no longer even identifies as Catholic? This is the final fruit of culture without conviction.
Vatican II and the Call to the Laity
Even as this dissolution began, the Holy Spirit inspired Pope Saint John XXIII to call an Eccumenical council. People were surprised—the complacency mentioned earlier made it appear that there was nothing for such a council to do. Ultimately, the Council addressed the fundamental problem with the old cultural Catholicism by reiterating the Church’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. The Council called on the laity to follow Christ wholeheartedly, instead of just going through the motions. This theme runs throughout the Council documents; it can be clearly seen in the following quote from Lumen Gentium:
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity . . .They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history. (Lumen Gentium 40)
The message of the Council was not in time to prevent the collapse of cultural Catholicism. Indeed, the essential message was often buried by the fierce debates that rocked the post-conciliar world. Reactionaries and progressives alike focused their attention on modifications to the old cultural shell. The Council’s challenging call to true spiritual renewal went largely unheeded in many places.
God has not abandoned his Church, however. The challenge of the Council remains before us. If we take it up, if we choose Christ with all our hearts and let that choice inform every aspect of our lives, we can become a force of true renewal in the world. From our personal commitment a new, more vital Christian culture can emerge, one that grows from and supports personal conviction, but does not replace or supplant it.
Image of Catholic schoolchildren in the 1960’s from National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
In this episode, Malcolm and Peter Land discuss the first chapter of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the second part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here.
Going out to the Margins
Pope Francis calls the Church to go out to the margins. There are many kinds of marginalized people in our world, and Pope Francis says that it is among those who are ignored by the world that God chooses to work. We’ll miss what is happening if we’re not on the margins. We need concrete solidarity with the marginalized, not just emotional solidarity.
To have solidarity with the marginalized, we need to meet people where they are at, whether geographically or mentally. We also need to truly listen to others. We can’t barge in with our own ideas to “rescue” people. Instead, we have to be just as ready to learn as to teach. We should not see the marginalized merely the recipients of our aid, but as actors in their own right.
The life of Matteo Ricci displays this willingness to learn. Ricci was the first Jesuit missionary to China. He adopted the customs of the Chinese and incorporated their traditions and philosophy in his presentation of the Faith.
Peter told the story of how he left the Boston College “bubble” and found reality on service immersion trips. These trips were different than classic “mission trips”; they were not structured toward a particular goal. Rather, they focused on just being available to the people in a marginalized area, being with them and listening to them. A theory of service or of solidarity is not enough. We have to leave our “bubbles” of wealth and privilege and allow ourselves to be challenged by reality.
Dialogue, not Compromise
A compromise is sometimes necessary, but it is not ideal according to Pope Francis. Compromises are always temporary, giving space for discernment to resolve something according to God’s will. If one resists the temptation of an immediate, easy solution, discernment can lead over time to a deeper solution which is not a compromise. This deeper, fuller solution might not be obvious before meeting others where they are. This is important for community life; community members need to hold their differences together and choose the path of discernment, not conflict or compromise, which would merely bury the problem.
The Wrong Kind of Certainty
Pope Francis tells us that we don’t have to have all the answers to make a start. In fact, he tells us that the wrong kind of certainly can be detrimental. We shouldn’t show up to a problem with a blueprint solution all ready. That will preclude the kind of dialogue and discernment discussed above. This eagerness for the wrong sort of certainty is a big problem in our culture. For example, we see it in the way that buildings are designed with no relation to the complexities of their site. We can also see this problem when people take any questioning of their position as an attack.
Don’t Count the Cost
We need to build a society of solidarity, and to do this we need combat the indebtedness which plagues our society. In the Old Testament, God instituted the Jubilee Year to cancel debts. In the political realm, we should search for ways to do the same.
On a personal level, Christian community members need to get rid of the American tendency to keep tabs and scores. We need to be able to give and receive freely, both when exchanging material gifts and in less tangible areas of our lives. We need to cultivate forgiveness and generosity. Since we are only stewards of God’s gifts to us, we shouldn’t feel that other people are indebted to us. As Peter said, we need to drop the attitude in which we think “I lent him twenty bucks. I might not say anything about it, but I’m still waiting for those twenty bucks!”
Where can Community Grow?
Community can’t grow in suburbia, because suburbia is too socially exclusive, and too geographically spread out. City cores are often too expensive. Small town American might offer some advantages. Some American small towns still have the structure which can make them viable, and they are “on the margins”. The question of the best location for a community is difficult to answer.
Moses exemplifies the right attitude toward social renewal. As a young man, he saw the oppression of his people, and tried to remedy the situation by his own power. He failed and fled the country. Much later, God told him to go and set the people of Israel free. Moses seems to have learned something over the years. He told God that he wasn’t strong enough to liberate the people. That didn’t matter, however. Ultimately, Moses wasn’t the one who would free the people. Rather, God worked through him despite his weakness and accomplished great things.
With God’s help, we can accomplish great things. We can be “restorers of the ruins” as it says in Isaiah. At the end of our lives, we want to be able to look back and see that we took the risk and gave everything we had to build the kingdom of God. We always have to remember, though, that God is working through us. It is important to provide the space and time for God’s spirit to work through us. And we have to remember that the Holy Spirit can work through everyone, not just through us.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use
In our most recent podcast episode, Dr. Cameron Thompson used a story about transplanting grapevines as a metaphor to explain the development of culture. To move an established grapevine, it is necessary to cut off most of each vine’s branch structure, and it isn’t even possible to keep all the roots. So long as each vine retains enough of the stem and root structure, it can grow again in a new location, even after spending a few months stored in a bucket of soil.
The new branches will be similar to the old ones, but they won’t look completely the same. Even the grapes the transplanted vines produce will taste different due to the influence of a different soil and climate.
Don’t Focus on Cultural Details
This story illustrates a possible mistake about culture. If Christians become fixated on restoring cultural elements from the past, it would be as if someone planted grapes or grape leaves instead of roots. They would rot rather than grow.
Culture, like a leaf, is an emergent phenomena. It grows through complicated, often chaotic processes over time and reflects a group’s collective experience of reality. We can’t “build” or “restore” or “preserve” a culture by acting on it directly, any more than we can hurry the growth of leaves by pulling on them. All we can do is plant the roots or seeds of culture.
Since a culture grows from a group’s experience of reality, a revitalized Christian culture can only grow from the patient work of Christians living out the Faith together in daily life. The new Christian cultures which emerge from community life may have similarities to other cultures which existed in the past, but won’t be identical to them. If Christians are too worried about the details of the culture which will emerge, it will have the same effect as impatient children who dig up seeds to see if anything is happening yet.
The growth of a vine or tree is a good metaphor for other aspects of a developing community. When a tree is planted, it usually doesn’t look much like a tree at all. Young trees look more like insignificant sticks. Very rich people can afford to plant trees instead of sapling sticks; they can hire a crew with heavy machinery to uproot mature trees and move them to a new location. Such trees generally struggle, however. The insignificant sticks planted by those with more modest means (and more patience!) tend to do better in the long run.
Similarly, it is best if a community develops organically, with an openness to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Attempting to “build” a full-fledged community to fit some preconceived blueprint is a risky way to start. As with tree planting, a “wealthy” approach is more impressive, but not as sustainable for the long run; we need to cultivate humility and poverty of spirit. Beware of those attempting to impose grand visions on a blank slate! Augustine Tardiff discussed this point in our excellent conversation about Madonna House. I’ve also written a blog post on the subject.
The Life of the Church
Christ often used the metaphor of a fruitful vine or tree when speaking of the Church or of an individual’s response to the Lord. Like a growing plant, the Church is a living, vital reality. As such, the Church grows and develops over time. To quote Let Us Dream by Pope Francis:
That has been the tradition of the Church: her understanding and beliefs have expanded and consolidated over time in openness to the Spirit, according to the principle enunciated in the fifth century by St. Vincent of Lerins: “They strengthen with the years, develop with time and become deeper with age.” Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops, like a tree that remains the same yet which gets bigger and bears more fruit. There are some who claim that God spoke once and for all time—almost always exclusively in the way and the form that those who make this claim know well. They hear the word “discernment” and worry that it’s a fancy way of ignoring the rules or some clever modern ruse to downgrade the truth, when it is quite the opposite. Discernment is as old as the Church. It follows from the promise Jesus made to his disciples that after he was gone the Spirit “will guide you into all truth”. There is no contradiction between being solidly rooted in the truth and at the same time being open to a greater understanding.
As Pope Francis mentions here, this concept of development is often misunderstood. Conservatives are prone to imagining the Church as if it were something like a snapshot or painting of a tree; something static that can only be preserved, but not developed. Progressives often invoke development, but they tend to forget that development entails continuity. They are prone to imagining the Church as if it were a mechanical system that can be modified and redesigned at will. In contrast to these two view is the vision of Pope Francis: the Church as a living tree, growing, changing, maturing, and reacting, but always linked in a vital unity to the past.
It can sometimes be hard to distinguish healthy growth from an aberration. While it would be counterproductive to hack off every new sprout on a growing tree, it would be equally unwise to celebrate the emergence of mushrooms from a tree’s trunk. Some growths are problematic, antagonistic to the health of the tree. Even a tree’s own branches can grow in such a way as to jeopardize the whole.
In the Church, how is one to judge which growths are a true development of the original seed? Fortunately, we don’t have to make this determination on our own; God granted infallibility to the Church for just this reason. Much as we’d call in a tree surgeon to assess the state of our trees, the hierarchy of the Church is charged with discerning spirits. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
It is in this sense that discernment of charisms is always necessary. No charism is exempt from being referred and submitted to the Church’s shepherds. “Their office (is) not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good,” so that all the diverse and complementary charisms work together “for the common good.”
By remaining connected to the Pope and the bishops united with him throughout the world, our lives and our communities will remain connected to the vital sap of Christ’s life in the Church.
Cover Image: Large tree on a tree spade. Photo by Dutchmanindustries, CC BY-SA 3.0
A Conversation with Doctor Cameron Thompson
Malcolm and Doctor Cameron Thompson discuss the Benedict Option, both the movement and Rod Dreher’s book of the same name. During the discussion, they draw on Doctor Cameron Thompson’s book The Original Benedict Option Guidebook and on Malcolm’s articles Rescuing St. Benedict from the Culture Warriors, and The Benedictine Monastery and the Franciscan Field Hospital.
The Culture War
Too often, Christian community is seen through the lens of the culture war. In this narrative, building community becomes, in Doctor Thompson’s words, “the back-up option”; something conservatives can fall back on if they don’t win the culture war.
A culture war framing of the Benedict Option is disastrous particularly because it obscures what St. Benedict was really doing. St. Benedict did not share the concerns of 21st century culture warriors. Rather, St. Benedict founded his monasteries because he wanted to follow Christ and help others to do so.
We don’t need to build community because the surrounding culture is hostile. We need to build community because we are Christians, and community is necessary for the Christian life. Christ founded a Church, a community, not just a bunch of gurus with a unique school of thought.
Nor is our battle against flesh and blood, but rather against evil, which runs through every human heart. If we buy into the notion of the culture war, we can be too quick to see outsiders as enemies, and too slow to see and fight against evil inclinations in our own hearts and within our communities.
Rod Dreher’s work contains two divergent narratives: the Benedict Option as culture war and the Benedict Option as Christianity fully lived out. If our community building is to be fruitful, and if we are to be faithful to the original vision of St. Benedict, we must reject the first narrative and embrace the second.
“Liberalism” and the Breakdown of Community
Community is necessary even for a good human life. As Doctor Thompson pointed out, the kind of “liberal” individualism we see in today’s world is a modern aberration. Historically, all cultures were communal. In the past, community was just natural, and Christians could build on this natural foundation. Today, when community is not natural, Christians have to become more intentional about building community.
It should be noted that when we mention “liberalism” in this episode, we aren’t talking about the Democratic Party or the “left”. Philosophically speaking, both Democratic party and the Republican party are classically liberal. Liberals take the individual and the individual’s rights as the philosophic starting point in thinking about community, rather than emphasizing society as a whole.
Liberalism breaks down communities because it focuses on individual selves. This focus is a philosophic mistake, because we only become fully selves through our relation to others. An individual can’t fully understand his or her own personhood apart from relationships to other persons and to God.
The Role of Economics in Community
One of the main reasons for the modern breakdown of community is the elimination of communal economics. For instance, in many countries the common land that would have once been managed by the community has been privatized.
As we work to restore community, it is important that we include an economic dimension. If we all live in the same area but then go our separate ways for work, we haven’t really built an integrated community. Instead, we’ve build something like an American suburb from the 1950’s.
In such a context, there was a certain amount of neighborliness, but a deep sharing of life was absent. It isn’t surprising that when many Americans think of community, this suburban model is what comes to mind for them; it is often the only kind of community that an American has experienced. During the episode, Doctor Thompson talked about his move to Italy, which gave him a clearer perspective on the lack of community in the USA.
This emphasis on local, community oriented economics is just one aspect of a deeper principle. Community needs to be rooted in the local, the particular, the real. Community may begin to develop online, but it needs to move into real life as soon as possible.
Serving Christ in Others
We are called to serve others, but we can’t do so in a patronizing, superior manner. A key aspect of Benedictine spirituality is serving Christ in others, in a concrete, practical way. Everyone around us should be seen, and served, as Christ himself. This attitude can help us to avoid seeing ourselves as the “heroes” who swoop into “save” other people. Rather, if we are serving Christ in others, we have to embrace a spirituality of humility and respectful love.
This recognition of Christ in those around us can also help us to avoid the temptation of forming a clique. Cliques form when an individual or group tries to surround themselves with others who are just like them. They feel that they are superior, and so they only want those around them who respect this perceived superiority. (Doctor Thompson warned that the formation of cliques may become more likely if we see ourselves as Christ and others as recipients of Christ’s ministry in us, rather than seeing them as Christ.) By contrast to the clique, true communities will contain diversity and disagreement. Tim Keller discussed this in an earlier episode.
A healthy community needs leadership. True Christian leadership is simply an aspect of this kind of service to others. The true leader seeks to serve those in his care to the best of his ability. Further, in a Benedictine monastery, the obedience required is not merely vertical, from the monks to the abbot. Rather, obedience is also supposed to be horizontal, between the monks, as well as being internal, the personal obedience to the commitments one has freely made.
Don’t Plant Flowers!
Those interested in the Benedict Option sometimes become too focused on “preserving” particular cultural elements. Doctor Thompson points out that this is a mistake. Instead, communities should focus on fostering the underlying spirituality from which culture can grow.
He used a wonderful analogy to explain this. At one point, he had to move an established vineyard to a new location. If he had planted flowers or grapes or leaves from his vines in the new location, they would have just rotted. Instead, he dug up the roots. He had to leave behind much of the branch structure, but he kept enough of the root and stem so that new vines could grow. Of course, the new growth wasn’t in exactly the same shape as the old growth. Nor did the new grapes that the vines eventually produced taste exactly the same, because the vines were growing in different soil and in a different climate.
Similarly, the implementation of particular cultural practices from the past shouldn’t be our focus. They’re like flowers, leaves or fruit: eye-catching, but not fundamental in the same way as roots. Instead, we should focus on planting the roots of faith lived out in community life, and from those roots a new culture will grow. It will have similarities to other cultures that have grown out of the Faith in other times and places, but will also have differences, as is the way of living things.
The Monastery as Village
The Benedictine monastic model wasn’t invented out of thin air. It was modeled after the Umbrian village or clan that St. Benedict was familiar with. The traditional village contained obedience to legitimate authorities and laws, a shared way of life, communal property, and common worship.
Doctor Thompson suggests that we should take as our model or ideal not the “intentional community” but rather the village, which is more organic and natural. When people talk about patterning life after monasticism, they are often referring to the early modern restoration of monasticism, which wasn’t always true to St. Benedict’s original vision. If we forget the roots of the monastery in the village, we may be unable to successfully draw inspiration from the monastery in patterning our own communities.
Advice for Finding Community
Doctor Thompson had several pieces of advice for those seeking community. (He prefers the term “grow” rather than “create” or “build” community.)
- Live a life of deep, personal prayer.
- Find an experienced guide.
- Look at real life, working examples.
- Try to find others who are seeking the same way of life, but even if they are not similar to yourself.
- Root yourself in a local area.
Working for the Glory of God
In conclusion, we can draw from the last essay in Doctor Thompson’s book. He describes how we each have a patch of “earth”, both literal and metaphorical, to cultivate for the glory of God. As each of us seeks to give glory to God through our lives, humanity is able to encounter the love of God. The building of community can help us to live out this “cultivation.”
In the last podcast episode, Augustine Tardiff discussed the origin and spirituality of Madonna House. Among other interesting points, he explained that Catherine de Hueck Doherty never intended to found a community in Combermere! She thought that she and her husband were simply retiring to a secluded location, where they intended to live quietly with a friend of theirs. The community grew up naturally around her and became more formalized over time. Today the community is quite structured and intentional. It resembles a “lay monastery”; after a sort of novitiate, members promise to remain in the community for life. This structure, however, isn’t something Catherine dreamed up for a future community, but rather something that developed from the organic growth of the community.
I’ve discussed this concept of organic development in earlier podcasts. For instance, in our second podcast episode, I said:
I believe that it’s important for community to be organic, to be unscripted and growing from local characteristics, local particularities …
One other reason that an organic community is essential, is that a lot of community building attempts that start in a more scripted fashion are over ambitious.
The communities I’ve interviewed since then, however, seem to present a contrast with this position; many are highly formalized, with vows, rules of life, and complex leadership structures. Is there a disconnect between the principle stated above and the communities interviewed by this project?
I’ve always said that I didn’t start this project with all the answers. I’m learning from those I interview right alongside the listeners. To a certain degree, my earlier negative stance on more formalized forms of community has been modified by the many inspiring, highly formalized communities that I’ve discovered over the past months.
I’ve noticed with interest, however, a certain pattern in stories guests tell about the development of their communities. The communities tend to have an organic stage of development that proceeds the adoption of formalized structures. For instance, the City of the Lord community and the Alleluia community both grew out of prayer groups. The Bethlehem community started out as a youth group.
This makes it more likely that the eventual structure will be integrally related to the actual needs and shared vision of the group; it grounds the vision in the concrete and the real.
Still, at some point, some individual or group has to consciously make the move toward more intentionality and structure, since a loose, organic group will tend to drift apart over time. There are certain spiritual risks in taking such a step; in particular, the risk of instrumentalization and the risk of blindness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
About instrumentalization, Fr. Simon Tugwell has this to say:
“We can get into the way of thinking that everything that we do needs some kind of extrinsic justification. Asking “Why?” can become addictive. We have, by and large, become suspicious of people just doing things because they want to. When all else fails, we resort to curious pseudo-justifications, like going for walks “for the exercise” or riding a motor bicycle “for the experience”; worse still, we go all solemn and declare something to be “important”. So we decorate harmless occupations with high-sounding significances, like taking tea with someone “just to keep the contact” or “in case he wants to talk”… Our concern for purposes and importance is surely a serious way in which we can get out of tune with God… Enfolding all our conscious and even unconscious hopes and aspirations, there is the plan of God, and what we, from the point of view of our own limited purposes, regard as failures, maybe, from the point of view of God’s providence, important steps forward. It is so simplifying of our lives if we can truly grasp this point… This obviously does not exclude the possibility of our doing much that changes the world around us. That may well be a frequent consequence of our yielding ourselves to the act of God. But it does mean that we are required to take very seriously the gap between our efforts and any genuine achievement. Whatever we achieve in this life is itself only a kind of raw material, or perhaps a symbolic sketch of beatitude… what is important is what we are doing, not what we are trying to do.”The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions by Fr. Simon Tugwell
I know that I am personally tempted toward this instrumentalization, toward seeing everything as a means. All too often, I see getting together with friends as a means toward some particular discussion or project, rather than enjoying the moment for what it is. One of the happiest times of my life was the week following a retreat, during which God gave me the grace to temporarily see everything as simultaneously trivial and yet wonderful. Unfortunately, my usual restless spirit of “getting something done” closed in again all too soon.
Blindness to the Holy Spirit is closely related to instrumentalization. We may be certain that the Holy Spirit has inspired us to undertake a certain course of action, and we might think we know why. When the desired result is not forthcoming, we may become confused and disheartened, or press on stubbornly to an achievable goal. It may be that the inspiration toward a course of action was real, but that we did not understand the purpose behind the inspiration. Nor do we necessarily have to do so.
To avoid these two dangers as a group tries to achieve a certain end, it is important to live in the present moment, and to be open to diverse outcomes of any project or plan. Even more important is to value each step along the way for itself, not only for its instrumental value. For instance, St. Benedict’s monastic movement transformed European society in the centuries after his death. Benedict, however, didn’t set out to transform Europe or reform society. Rather he left a life of privilege to seek sanctity as a hermit. When others sought him out, he agreed to lead them in the spiritual life. As his group grew, he sent out his disciples to found satellite groups. He valued each step along the way for itself; living in a cave wasn’t seen as a “step” toward founding a monastery, let alone reforming European society. In many ways, the growth of the first Benedictine communities was very like the organic growth of Madonna House.
There are many reasons for building Christian community, but the most fundamental reason is that community is desirable for its own sake. Christ calls us to share our lives with one another, and so community building should never be instrumentalized. As an organic community begins to move toward more intentionality and formalization, the community might need to plan in a more formalized way, but the spiritual dangers of planning can be avoided by living in the present moment.
Cover Image: Benedictine Monastery at Subiaco, over the original cave of St. Benedict. Image in the Public Domain
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Augustine Tardiff, a member of the Madonna House community in Combermere, Ontario. They discuss the history and spirituality of Madonna House, the life of the founder, Catherine Doherty, and the formation of intentional community.
Origin and Structure of Madonna House
Madonna House is a lay apostolate founded by Catherine Doherty, a Russian refugee who worked with the poor in the US and Canada before retiring to Combermere. Augustine pointed out that she didn’t intend to found a community, but people kept coming, and a community gradually grew up around her. This is similar to the origin of the Benedictines and the Franciscans; saintly figures have the ability to attract others, even without intending to do so.
Eventually, the community became more formalized; it includes lay men and women as well as priests. It is structured rather like a religious order though there are differences canonically speaking. The community members share their goods in common. Most of them live on the Combermere property; there are a number of smaller satellite communities around the world.
New members initially make a series of temporary promises to the community. After having been with the community for ten years, they can make a life-long promise to remain with the community.
Augustine said “Her life story would make a two hour Hollywood movie!” She was born into nobility but lost everything and had to flee Russia after WWI and the Communist revolution. After many harrowing adventures, she made her way to Toronto. She worked with the poor in Harlem and worked for racial justice. Her love of God was what attracted people to Madonna House; she showed them that the Gospel way of life is possible.
Organic Development and Openness to the Spirit
It can be dangerous for a community to start with a highly detailed plan; this can block the workings of the Holy Spirit. It can be tempting to impose a plan or vision on other people. The vision of Madonna House, in contrast, has evolved over time.
The evolution of perspective can also happen to those who join a community. Augustine described his own journey to community life. Initially he was much more focused on leaving behind the problems of the world, but he came to see that this was not a sufficient perspective on community life. Over time, he also came to see that his initial focus on finding a good place to support his personal relationship with God didn’t take relationships with others into account. We don’t have to sacrifice our relationship with God to help others; these two relationships always go together.
Being in but not of the World
Madonna House is not separated from the world; it has a strong emphasis on hospitality, with hundreds of guests coming every year. These guests come to experience spiritual revitalization, and then take that renewal of spirit back into the wider world.
Augustine also stressed how “natural” the life at Madonna House is. He pointed out that it isn’t so far removed from everyday life as to be irrelevant to the normal lives of those who visit. The members don’t wear habits, and don’t “put on” a “holy” aspect. As he put it, the people are “good people”, but they are “just people.”
The fact that the community contains both men and women is also part of this kind of “normalcy.” Augustine remarked that this aspect of the community is unusual but very enriching.
Some of the satellite houses run clothing rooms and soup kitchens for the needy. Many of them, however, have come to realize that there are a lot of other organizations that provide material assistance to the poor. Many of them now focus on offering “prayer and listening houses.” They provide a Christian presence and listen to others, helping to combat the pervasive problem of loneliness. Those who run such houses say they are busy from morning to night. People just keep coming to them.
Living the Liturgical Year at Madonna House
The emphasis put on the liturgical year at Madonna House is one of the aspects that Augustine found particularly appealing. He said that in the world, feast days are hardly different from any other day, but in the community they are a big deal. He also discussed the Eastern Christian influences on the liturgy and spirituality of Madonna House.
Working the Land as Spiritual Practice
Madonna House runs a farm where they grow a lot of their own food. Working the land can help us to realize our dependence on God. The care that farmers have for their animals can give us insight into the care that God has for us. Like the animals, we don’t always understand what’s best for us, and we are prone to getting into trouble, but God loves us anyway.
The Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty: Madonna House Spirituality
During the podcast, Augustine mention Catherine’s “Little Mandate”. It wasn’t that God spoke to her and told her to write this down; rather, these were themes that came to her over and over again in prayer. These principles are the best short summary of Madonna House spirituality.
- Arise – go! Sell all you possess.
Give it directly, personally to the poor.
Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me,
going to the poor, being poor,
being one of them, one of Me.
- Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
- Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise!
Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
- Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
- Love…love…love, never counting the cost.
- Go into the marketplace and stay with Me.
- Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
- Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbors feet.
Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
- Pray always. I will be your rest.
Cover image: Combermere Madonna House. Photo by Rob Huston, CC BY 3.0
- Arise – go! Sell all you possess.