Perhaps the greatest teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. It is, at least, the key to properly understanding the Council, according to Fr. Gaitley’s book The One Thing is Three. What does following this call look like in the modern world? Is it really possible to be a saint in suburbia?
The Little Way of the Morning Offering
Holiness does not consist in grand gestures or extraordinary deeds. Instead, for most of us holiness consists in quiet fidelity to the duties of our state in life. We are called to follow what St. Therese called her “little way”: doing small things with great love. Feeding one’s children, the performance of daily tasks, and casual interactions with others can all become transformed if we do them through, in, with, and for Christ. This is the meaning of the Offertory of the Mass. We offer ourselves along with the bread and wine, to become transformed through God’s grace. In popular Christian piety, this is reflected in the beautiful practice of the Morning Offering prayer.
Concentration Camps, Arms Manufacturing, and the Local Grocery Store
What if one’s daily duties, however, were totally incompatible with the Christian life? As a friend of mine put it, what if one worked as a guard for a Nazi concentration camp? Obviously, it would be absurd to attempt the consecration of such a life by offering it to God.
None of us are engaged in such blatant evil. And yet, there is good reason to wonder if our daily lives can truly be consecrated to the honor of God. What if one works for Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin building drones and missiles that our military will use in ways that contradict Catholic Just War theory? What if one works for an insurance company that provides coverage for abortions, or a government agency that advocates for abortion? What if one works for a credit card company or bank that lends money at usurious interest? What if one works for a fossil fuel company that contributes to climate change and the flooding of villages on the other side of the world? Or a so-called “Green” energy company whose lithium and cobalt mines are destroying lives in the Global South?
Quite apart from the dubious nature of so many jobs in the modern world, what if one’s daily routine includes buying produce harvested by exploited migrant workers? Their cries reach the Lord of Hosts, as St. James tells us. What if the clothes one buys cost the life of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh?
Indeed, all of our work, all of our lives are to some extent destructive. I’m just as much trapped in this as anyone else. I work in graphic design, producing periodicals that make a quick journey from printing press to landfill. What a trivial and irresponsible use of the world’s finite resources, when so many people are going hungry! I contribute to the “great symbol drain”: the over-utilization and consequent misuse of religious imagery. Try as I might, I can’t always avoid funding evil through my purchases. What are we to do with our terribly flawed lives?
The Kingdom of God in our Daily Lives
For most of us, the answer is not to drop everything and “flee to the fields” or “head for the hills”. We have families and commitments that we can not break. We are trapped: in a certain sense, we are prisoners of the systems of evil we can’t escape. And yet we can’t give way to complacency. We can’t surrender to the systems which have imprisoned us. I think the answer must be threefold.
If we feel trapped, we can offer that up for all the other people who are trapped in worse positions. We shouldn’t fall into the mistake of thinking that just because we are trapped we are somehow unable to follow Christ. Christ himself was “trapped” in unjust situations throughout his life. Our situation does not absolve us from doing the small things with great love. The Morning Offering is still relevant, along with all the works of unpretentious virtue that it implies. We should see our offering not as a consecration of the social evil in our lives, but rather as a share in the sorrow of Christ weeping over the evil and ruin of his city.
As Father Simon Tugwell writes in The Beatitudes:
That is often the way it is in life. Life in this world is a trap. Over and over again we find ourselves in situations which constrain us, and there is no true escape. We daydream of ideal choices, but we have to live with and in the trap. We are trapped in working conditions or personal relationships which bring out the worst in us, we are trapped in the consequences of our own or others’ past misdeeds or follies, we are trapped in the social and economic systems in which we live. We have only the mammon of unrighteousness with which to invest for eternal life.
The resulting sense of powerlessness is one of the major psychological pains of our time, and it can easily lead us to despair.
The answer that the Gospel gives is an austere one … It is not by fretting and flapping, but by bearing the cross of our helplessness and frustration, in union with Christ bearing his cross, that we shall find any genuine power for a more satisfying life.
To offer our situation up in solidarity with others who are oppressed by modernity, we need to stay aware of what is happening and not shrink back. It can be more comfortable to ignore the evil in our world, but we can’t give in to that temptation. If this is our cross to bear, as Father Tugwell says, we should experience the pain of it. We have to think about the sweatshop workers, the migrant laborers, the peasants starving after their crops were destroyed by climate change, and the victims of our unjust wars. We should spend time in prayer for and with the suffering and oppressed of the world.
Part of this remembering can consist in small but concrete practices that put us in solidarity with others. Voluntary poverty can play a part in this. So can practices such as refusing to buy items made in China or other countries that lack labor protections. To the extent possible, such practices should be used to distance ourselves from the benefits of oppression. Our “101 Ways to Change Your Life” list provides a range of suggestions for such small changes in lifestyle.
Such small changes and such awareness will help to keep the longing for a better world alive in our hearts. Faithfulness in small things will pave the way for the ability to be faithful in greater things if God wills it so. Ultimately, we long for the coming of Christ, but also for the coming of his reign of peace in the here and now. We need to keep such longing alive so that when the chance comes, we are ready to change our lives to better reflect the Gospel.
Such chances revolve around the power of community. An isolated family is only able to do so much. But if we gather with others who share similar longings, we can begin to escape the reign of sin in our modern world. Together, we can start taking concrete steps toward establishing the reign of Christ in our lives.
Image of downtown Denver by R0uge; CC BY-SA 4.0
I recently had an interesting conversation with Jason Wilde and Peter Land, in which we reflected on the first year of our podcast project and discussed the direction of the project going forward. The conversation will be edited and released as an anniversary podcast episode. In this essay, I want to expand on some of the themes that came up.
Walking as Community
We often think of community as a stable, static thing, rooted in a particular place. Peter Land recently took part in a three day walking pilgrimage, and found a deep sense of community among the participants. It made him reflect on the traveling community that surrounded Christ, and also on voluntary poverty and detachment. When one has to carry one’s belongings, simplicity of life starts to seem more attractive! We’re called to be open to the Holy Spirit, journeying together toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the rooted village or neighborhood really the best metaphor for the Christian life? Is such a community even the best setting for the Christian life?
The Dangers of Community
A false sense of security and contentment can certainly be a danger for Christain communities. In my interview with Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof, they pointed out that community members can become attached to their ways of life. They can also slip into seeing the community as an end in itself, as a substitute for following Christ and being open to the Holy Spirit. Communities need to be on guard against becoming self-referential and satisfied with themselves.
A spirit of poverty keeps these problems in check. Although factual frugality of life is necessary, being “poor in spirit” means more than merely living simply. Wealth represents an attempt at control, a grasping at security. The rich fool of Luke 12 thought he was all set once his barns were full of grain, but his security was an illusion. Even without material wealth, we can fall prey to a spirit of wealth that desires control and security on individual terms. To avoid this, the community must practice poverty, but must also exercise a “preferential option” for the poor. Poverty comes in many forms, and there are many ways that communities can reach out to the poor of the surrounding community, whether those in need of food and clothing or merely those in need of a listening ear. The community must refuse to treat anyone as “outsiders”, and instead should see everyone as part of their community in Christ.
By reaching out and entering into the life of others, we are freed from false contentment, security, and routine. The life of Catholic Worker communities provides a good example of this dynamic in practice. Not only do they practice voluntary poverty and service to the poor; they invite “outsiders” to participate in the life of the community and host “round table discussions” that provide a platform for dialogue with a diversity of views.
These same dynamics can affect the Church as a whole. Throughout Church history, there has been the temptation to complacency with how things are, which leads to insular thinking and a focus on the structures of power in the Church rather than on our journey to the Kingdom. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, we are a pilgrim Church on the road with one another, an evangelizing Church reaching out to those on the peripheries. We must never lose sight of the Apocalypse, the coming of the kingdom for which we pray in the Our Father and for which we are called to work in our lives. Only by going beyond ourselves, reaching out toward God and neighbor, can we avoid the stagnation that leads to decay.
The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 clearly illustrates the dangerous nature of wealth. When the topic comes up, however, many Christians quickly point out that Christ only said “if you would be perfect”, and that it would be “hard” but not “impossible” for the rich to enter heaven. After all, while a camel going through a needle may seem impossible, Christ did say that nothing is impossible with God! Going even further, some have claimed that the eye of the needle was merely the name of a narrow gate or pass, through which a camel could pass, if perhaps with difficulty.
Before addressing this argument, it is important to clarify that Gospel poverty does not entail destitution, the lack of basic necessities. Father Dubay’s book Happy Are You Poor explains this very well. Our summary of his book can be read here.
Necessary for What?
God’s mercy being infinite, it is of course true that voluntary poverty is not “necessary for salvation”. The only thing necessary for salvation is to humbly ask for the mercy of God. Someone can live a totally depraved life and be saved by asking for mercy at the last moment. It should be fairly obvious, however, that the message of the Gospel is not “do whatever you want and then ask for mercy at the last moment”. The real question for the Christian should be: is voluntary poverty an integral part of the Christian life?
Further, there is an interesting aspect to the idea of camels squeezing through a narrow gate. There is much debate as to whether the initial word in the Gospel was “camel” or “cable”, whether an “eye of the needle” gate existed, and so forth. Still, at least some commentators think the saying means that a camel could get through, but only if it was unloaded of all its baggage. After all, the rich are not a distinct species; they are human beings like the rest of us, with the addition of a lot of “stuff”. Christ may have been making a humorous comparison between a heavily burdened camel stuck in a narrow gate, and the wealthy who trudge through life spiritually weighed down by their possessions. The birds and wildflowers are carefree, while the rich need many barns to store their goods.
The inherently burdening nature of wealth, however, is denied by some Christians. According to them, when the Gospel counsels “poverty” what is really meant is mere detachment. They insist that so long as one isn’t inordinately attached to possessions, wealth is harmless or even beneficial.
For one thing, this idea ignores the vital connection between physical reality and spiritual attitudes. As Father Dubay puts it, for wounded human beings “possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed.” This is a Gnostic age that downplays material reality, an age which is “spiritual but not religious”. Christianity, however, is firmly rooted in the material, and takes physical actions very seriously. It is ironic that many who argue for mere inward detachment are simultaneously engaged in arguing for the importance of concrete, material acts of religion.
Our age is also an extremely individualist one. It is very telling that when the topic of poverty is discussed, the focus tends to be on the effects wealth may or may not have on one’s individual spirituality. The Gospel does not overlook the personal aspect, but puts even more stress on the social aspect of wealth. Whatever loopholes there may be in the story of the rich young man, there are no such loopholes in the picture presented by Matthew 25, James 2:14-17, and 1 John 3. If we don’t love and serve our brothers and sisters, then we don’t love God. This love can’t remain a spiritual thing of “thoughts and prayers”, but demands concrete action.
Christian love is absolutely incompatible with purchasing luxuries for ourselves while our brothers and sisters are starving. Such selfish actions also expose so-called “detachment” that is devoid of practical results as a pious sham. Someone who was truly detached would be only too willing to give surplus wealth away to feed the hungry.
To me, it seems that there is a fairly watertight case for the essential role of voluntary poverty, at least when the social dimension is taken into account. In one sense, however, the very fact that we’re discussing whether it is an essential practice highlights a problem. Here is an aspect of Christian spirituality that is extensively discussed in Sacred Scripture and that has been recommended in glowing terms by numerous saints. Given all this, why are we debating about whether it is essential? It seems rather like a debate about whether a good night’s sleep is important to academic or athletic performance the next day. Sure, you could possibly succeed without it; but why be so quick to dismiss something of such obvious value?
The folly of this dismissal can be seen by comparing Catholic attitudes toward voluntary poverty with Catholic attitudes toward the Rosary. The Rosary is certainly an excellent prayer, but it isn’t mentioned in scripture, and obviously isn’t necessary for living a good Christian life, let alone for salvation. Yet there are Rosary confraternities, books of rosary meditations, programs and articles on how to say the rosary, and organizations dedicated to promoting it. Many Catholics pray the rosary every day. All well and good. The contrast with voluntary poverty, however, is striking. Shouldn’t we put at least as much effort into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on voluntary poverty as we put into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on the Rosary and other non-biblical religious practices? Perhaps if Catholics reclaimed this traditional yet neglected element of the Faith, our Church would be transformed.
Over the past ninety years, the American economy has grown dramatically. It is now 19 times larger than it was in 1930. Its growth is exponential, meaning that the amount of time it takes to double in size continues to decrease. In fact, our economy needs to grow to stay alive; without growth, it crashes. (COVID-19 has temporarily halted, and even reversed, economic growth; it remains to be seen if the economy will “recover” in the coming years.)
This need for growth is problematic in a number of different ways. Most fundamentally, we live on a finite planet, and anything that has to grow forever will eventually run into limits of some sort. In this essay, I want to consider a particular question: how does a growing economy affect the development and existence of communities, whether intentional or organic?
To answer this question, we need to answer another one: why does the economy grow? There are a number of causes driving economic growth. For one thing, our population is also growing. There are more people in the United States today than there were in 1930, and so there are more workers and more demand for goods and services. This population growth isn’t a complete explanation for our economic growth, however; while our economy today is 19 times larger than it was in 1930, our population is less than three times larger than it was in that year. Another reason for this growth is that living standards have risen. Some of this rise is beneficial, since it involves people obtaining better access to basic necessities. This rise, however, is also insufficient to explain the growth of the economy. Even before the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness was on the rise, and 10% of American households were experiencing food insecurity, and yet the economy was growing rapidly.
Much of the growth in the modern economy is driven by two factors: increased desires, and commodification.
In our society, we’re constantly bombarded by advertising, and we experience social pressure to “keep up” with the increasingly consumptive lifestyle of those around us. This pressure can make us desire all kinds of things beyond what is necessary for a dignified human life.
Houses today are much bigger than they used to be; while 70 years ago the average new home had 983 square feet of floor space, the average new home in 2020 had 2333 square feet. This extra space is a vacuum crying out to be filled with consumer items of all sorts. In fact, many Americans now find that the space available to them is too small, and the personal storage industry, which hardly existed 70 years ago, has ballooned dramatically.
Fashion contributes to this growth of desires, causing perfectly good clothes and other items to be discarded in favor of the latest and greatest. Software is continually updated, cars are traded in, and “dated” appliances and countertops are scrapped.
Disposable items, mostly made of plastic, are ubiquitous in the United States, and promote economic growth by replacing more durable goods. In general, the faster a given item moves from the store shelf to the landfill, the more the economy grows.
“Economy” literally means “the management of the household”. It is how households and societies support themselves. In this sense, vegetables grown in the backyard for personal consumption are part of the economy, as is the work of a child watching younger siblings. Goods and services of this type, however, are not counted toward the GDP of the formal economy. One of the major ways that the formal economy grows is through commodification, by turning social “capital” of this sort into financial wealth. A good example of this is entertainment. In past times, entertainment was a relatively small proportion of the formal economy; people made most of their own entertainment for free. Now, entertainment has become a multi-billion dollar industry, increasing the size of the economy. There are many similar examples in other areas of the economy; in the past, most cooking, mending, and child care was performed by the informal, social economy instead of by the formal financial economy. Even the basic social interaction of conversation is becoming commodified by social media platforms that see us as an audience for advertising. Every time a social interaction is replaced by a financial transaction, the economy grows.
This growth produces constant disruption on many different levels. People move across the country as the economic prospects in a given location change. Factories are torn down for homes. Farms become suburbs, and suburbs in turn are bulldozed to make room for expanding city centers. Businesses have become ephemeral. Even large businesses now have an average lifespan of only 18 years, and small businesses are even more transitory. Whole industries and the skill sets they require quickly become obsolete. This churning disruption boosts economic growth even further.
Effects on Community
It should be fairly obvious that this growth damages community, both directly and indirectly. Commodification in particular destroys the opportunity for community building. There is a certain trade-off: home cooked meals build community better than fast food meals eaten on the go, but the latter produce more economic growth. Increasing desires make it harder to stay in one place and put down roots, since our society penalizes those who are unwilling to be both geographically and socially mobile. The indirect effects of growth are also detrimental; no community can develop if everything is in a state of constant flux.
To build community, we need to push back against the drivers of economic growth. It is literally a matter of life and death. The economy needs to grow, or it will die. If we let the growth machine drive us, its hunger will eat up every scrap of social connection in our lives. The process may make us wealthy (if we’re among the lucky ones who end up on top) but it will leave us spiritually and socially dead.
On the societal scale, those with the skills and aptitude to do so should pursue the transition to a steady-state economy not dependent on growth. We’ve come to see exponential growth as normal, but in a wider historical sense it is deeply abnormal. There are other ways to structure an economy.
We don’t need to wait for social transformation, however. We can reign in our desires by embracing the Christian virtue of voluntary poverty. We can resist the pull of hyper-mobility and the restlessness of the modern world in our personal lives. Perhaps most importantly, we can reverse the trend toward commodification. By working together, making music, cultivating conversation, tending gardens, repairing homes, and enjoying meals, we can knit the severed threads of community life back together.
Postscript: At first glance, it seems that economic contraction also destroys communities. I’ve seen this play out first hand in the Rust Belt. The reason for such destruction, however, is that economic growth had already destroyed older, non-commercialized ways of life. In a sense, the devastation seen when the economy declines is simply a revelation of the preexisting, underlying destruction.
Our current economic growth appears to be unsustainable. It is very likely that many local communities will face economic contraction in the future. This contraction will be destructive, unless communities can band together, reject the narratives of growth, and find non-commercial, community-based ways to meet their needs.
Port image by Fatlouie CC BY-SA 3.0
In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, St. John Henry Newman distinguishes between “real” and “notional” assent and understanding. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying his argument, “notional” knowledge is the sort of knowledge we have of abstract concepts. In a notional way, I assent to the proposition that 2+2+4; I believe this to be true. We also have notional knowledge of many concrete realities that we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, my knowledge of Julius Caesar, and my assent to the reality of his existence, is notional.
We gain “real” knowledge through direct experience. I have real experience of my parents, and can give a real assent to their existence. We can also have a “real” knowledge of some concrete realities we haven’t directly experienced; for instance, Newman explained that he could have a “real” knowledge of a fire in London even when he was hundreds of miles away. This was possible for him because he had direct experience of London, and direct experience with fires, though not with this particular one.
Newman does not mean to say that notional knowledge and assent aren’t real, but rather that such knowledge and assent aren’t based on concrete experience. He goes on to explain that notional knowledge generally does not touch us as deeply as real knowledge.
Our knowledge of God can be either notional or real; Newman calls the notional knowledge of God “theological” and real knowledge of God “religious”. For our spiritual life to grow and develop properly, we need a real, religious experience of God. Our Faith isn’t an abstract proposition, but a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus wanted this relationship of faith to be a communal rather than a purely individual matter. This is the purpose of the Church: to bring us together in union with Christ as the mystical body.
As with our knowledge of God, our knowledge of the Church should be a “real” knowledge. The Church isn’t an idea or a list of rules. Nor is it the building down the street. The Church is a community to which one gives one’s life. Though the Church is spread across the world, it is also local and particular. William T. Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed contains the following beautiful reflection on the local nature of the Church:
This universalization of the body of Christ, however, is never detached from the local and the particular, for the eucharistic community is essentially local, gathered around the altar in a particular time and place. Furthermore, the particular is of supreme importance because the Eucharist is not a mere sign that points to Christ; this particular piece of bread is the body of Christ . . . The catholicity of the church is not sustained by a cosmopolitan detachment from the particular . . . “Catholic” means a gathering rather than a spreading out, a unification of the many through attachment to the local eucharistic community. One becomes more catholic, more universal, the more one is tied to a particular community of Christians gathered around the altar.
Sacrosanctum concilium outlines the same idea:
41. The bishop is to be considered as the high priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful is in some way derived and dependent.
Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church; they must be convinced that the pre-eminent manifestation of the Church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in these liturgical celebrations, especially in the same eucharist, in a single prayer, at one altar, at which there presides the bishop surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers.
42. But because it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his Church, he cannot do other than establish lesser groupings of the faithful. Among these the parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important: for in some manner they represent the visible Church constituted throughout the world.
If we are connected to the Church through the local Eucharistic community, then in a certain sense it is almost impossible to fully join the Catholic Church in the USA. It is almost impossible to gain a real, experiential knowledge that would enable us to give a real, as opposed to a notional, assent to the Church’s claim on us.
It is perfectly possible to have a loving relationship with Christ—he can be encountered everywhere. It is perfectly possible to enter one of the many church buildings, and receive life giving sacraments. In a sense, however, the Church can only be joined if that building contains a true community gathered around those sacraments, a community to which one can give one’s life. All too often, our church buildings contain merely a disconnected collection of individuals showing up to a “Mass stop”. Even if we participate in extra-liturgical activities, we tend to go our separate ways, living and working apart from one another.
This perhaps explains why some individuals join the Church only to leave it again. They’ve heard about the Church; they give a notional assent; but not finding the concrete reality, nominal assent can never become real and vivifying. Discussing this problem, the priests who host the “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” podcast said ‘there is nothing to bring them (converts) into”!
Newman does point out that it is possible to come to real knowledge, and therefore real assent, without direct physical experience. He explains that if someone tells him there’s a fire in London, he can get a real knowledge of it, in part because he’s experienced fires and cities before. In our case, however, this indirect route to real knowledge is very difficult. The Church is a kind of community, and most of us have never experienced a real community. Our so-called communities tend to be more voluntary and accidental collections of individuals with a high turnover rate; perhaps it isn’t surprising that this experience shapes many Americans’ participation in the Church.
This means that for most of us, the Christian life is out of reach, since the Christian life is fundamentally about participation in the Church. We can live “as Christians”, since that can be done anywhere. One can live as a Christian even in a concentration camp or on a desert island. We’re each personally responsible for our response to God’s Grace. Yet the “Christian life” remains out of reach for the isolated individual.
The essential nature of community for joining the Church may also explain why Christianity declines in wealthy countries and thrives in poor ones. Wealth is largely a means for avoiding the necessity of community life, as I address in this blog post.
What can be done about this? We have to enrich our faith, moving from nominal to real knowledge. We have to find others to gather with: as Jesus said, where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is in their midst. Such gathering must eventually move on to commitment, formal or informal, or one has not truly “joined” anything. And further, such gatherings should not be separate from the parish structure. There are various nominally Catholic groups that capitalize on the desire for community, and build themselves up at the expense of the local church. Even if, at present, the parish is merely an uncomfortable and empty shell, it provides the structure that assures our local community is really an instantiation of Christ’s body, a branch on the vine, not a lopped branch doomed to wither.
By building local community, we can renew the Church by being the Church, by making it once again an “ekklesia” or assembly, instead of merely a building.
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
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 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
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
This article was contributed by a reader; we encourage guest submissions.
In the recent article Including the Chronically Ill in Community, Malcolm wrote about the importance and difficulty of including the sick in community life.
This made me think about how many saints have seen the sick as the treasure of their communities. They would show visitors their infirmaries or sick wards as if they were showing them their most valuable possession. Someone was always there to comfort and care for the sick. We need to emulate this in our communities.
Jesus had great compassion for the sick and loved them so much that he identified himself with them. In the Judgement of the Nations, he tells those on his right hand that whenever they visited the sick, they visited him. And of course the sick are also often hungry, thirsty, imprisoned in their homes, in need of being clothed and strangers to their communities. The families of those who are sick sometimes go to great lengths to care for them. Bearing this burden alone, however, can make the whole family isolated and over-stressed. The families of those who are sick also need care and assistance from others.
In many places, Perpetual Adoration has become very popular; parishioners sign up to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for an hour every week. Since Christ has said that he can also be found in the suffering members of his Mystical Body, it seems that parishes should also organize a similar rotation of volunteers to visit the sick. I once read about a priest who took care of his sick mother. He said that going into her room was like a sacrament. The sick are a “sacrament” in a special way. I have experienced this in my own care of the sick.
Some of the sick might need actual care and assistance, but in many cases, the visitors would be there to offer prayer, companionship, and encouragement. In some situations, actually visiting the sick person might be impossible or unwanted; in such cases, the scheduled visitors could spend their hour praying for the person from their home or from the adoration chapel. Imagine how consoling it would be to know that there were members of the community praying for you around the clock, and somebody was always available if you needed assistance!
Many people reading this would probably feel that if they were sick, they wouldn’t want such attention. They’d hate to be a “bother”. This mentality is very corrosive to the formation of real community, which depends on the mutual bearing of burdens.
As with adoration chapels, many of the volunteers in this kind of program would probably be elderly people, who are often lonely themselves. Such a project would give people who feel that their lives lack purpose and meaning a renewed sense of responsibility and belonging, and it would help to pull the whole community closer together.
Jesus blesses those who carry out his command, “Love one another as I have loved you.” His love means that he is never far from us, and so we should never be far from those in need.
Cover Image: Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0