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
The Hard Sayings of the Gospel
What Gospel teachings won’t you hear about at a typical parish? Conservatives lament the lack of sermons addressing the worthy reception of the Eucharist and the evils of abortion. Progressives decry the lack of sermons on social justice and care for the poor.
I’ve heard sermons on abortion and on helping the poor, and I’ve heard plenty of “asking sermons” in which priests urge the faithful to support the parish with time, talent, and treasure. I’ve only heard one sermon, though, on the spiritual dangers of owning a lot of “treasure”. That sermon, I should add, was given by a visiting priest. He said that he could only speak on such a dangerous topic because he’d be gone by the morning!
The Gospels strongly emphasize voluntary poverty. The rich young ruler went away sad, because he would not give up his possessions. The rich man, unlike Lazarus, had his good things in this life and eternal fire in the afterlife. God called the man with his bulging barns a fool. The poor are blessed, according to Christ. The Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at God Incarnate.
The Misuse of a Teaching
In a wealthy and powerful country, the topic of Gospel poverty tends to be avoided. It might annoy the rich and cause them to leave the Church. Someone recently told me, however, that Gospel poverty is preached to the poor in the Global South. According to him, in poor countries poverty is preached to the poor and oppressed as a way to keep them subservient and to distract them from the injustice of their oppressors. I don’t know how common this misuse of the Gospel poverty concept is. What is certain is that it is a misuse.
Serving the Poor to the Point of Poverty
The path to heaven for the rich, the only way for them to fit through the needle, is to serve the poor. Such service has to go far beyond that asked by the time-talent-and-treasure sermons. In general, the rich are only too happy to give donations, so long as such giving doesn’t impede their lifestyles. They give of their surplus, not of their need, as Christ pointed out. Fr. Dubay, speaking of this, says:
“We may consider a concrete example. At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, “Bill, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?” After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs. Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression “we could afford”, they meant “without changing significantly our level of consumption.” They did not mean “we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking or cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars.”—Happy Are You Poor, pp. 84-85
While we might not consider ourselves “rich”, the average American is wealthy by world and historical standards. If we are able to spend money on unnecessary items, then we are wealthy by Gospel standards. St. Paul writes to Timothy “For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) The Church calls us to put the needs of those who lack food, clothing, and basic shelter ahead of our desires for recreation, amusement, and fashion.
If the “asking sermons” were really heeded, the rich would become poor. In the body, would the hand ornament itself while the foot bled to death? In the family, would a brother take an expensive vacation while his sister starved to death? This is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward: the rich are to make friends for themselves with the mammon of iniquity. The rich are to give it to the poor, and it is the friendship of the poor that will get the rich into heaven.
Is this a Swap?
Wouldn’t such a giving away of wealth merely swap the conditions of the rich and poor? No, for two reasons. Practically, there are more poor than rich. Every wealthy individual who gives up a mansion could build many modest homes in the Third World, without making anybody wealthy. “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s greed.”
Theoretically speaking, such a “swap” isn’t desirable. From a Gospel perspective, wealth is undesirable, but so is destitution. Destitution is the lack of necessary goods and is bad for the soul just as it is bad for the body. We’re composite creatures, and damage to one part of ourselves is likely to reflect onto the other. The Christian ideal is that of Acts, where we see the rich selling what they have to give to the poor, and where “none of them lacked anything”.
Lifting the Poor out of Destitution
This highlights the folly of preaching Gospel poverty to the destitute. The poor, hungry and persecuted are indeed blessed. Why is this so? Because Jesus identifies himself with them. He lived among the poor, had nowhere to lay his head, and died on a cross. This identification means that as we treat the poor, so we treat Christ.
By all means, the Church should preach the dignity of the oppressed and poor—and the Church must warn their oppressors that eternal ruin may befall them if they do not recognize that dignity and act upon it.
Pontius Pilate was famously indifferent to the truth, and he refused to sacrifice his personal safety and ambitions to protect Truth himself in the guise of a poor, suffering Man before him. If Pilate had seen the face of God in the marginalized, he would have been a transfigured man. As it is, barring a last-minute conversion, we can suppose that his second face-to-face encounter with Christ was not a pleasant one.
The Interconnected Gospel
As it turns out, the neglected or misused topic of Gospel poverty has a close connection to the other “hard sayings” mentioned earlier, to social justice and abortion and the worthy reception of the Eucharist. Social justice without an embrace of Gospel poverty is a farce. The wealthy, merely by reason of their wealth, are unjust and oppressive. From the teaching of Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, through Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, right up to the teachings of Pope Francis and the Catechism of St. John Paul II, the Church has taught the universal destination of human goods. The surplus wealth of the rich belongs to the poor, not due to charity, but due to justice. Those who keep what belongs to another are unjust and commit the sin of theft.
This injustice makes the wealthy guilty of murder; they are responsible for the deaths of those whom they should have helped, including the many children aborted because their parents face economic hardship.
Such callousness to the life of others turns the Eucharist from the sacrament of life into the potential for damnation. St. Paul warns that those who receive unworthily eat and drink damnation upon themselves. What is not so well known is that this warning was given to a community which was not honoring the poor among them. In First Corinthians, St. Paul explains that our reception of the Eucharist makes us into one body in Christ. As members of the same body, we must care for one another.
The Epistle of James on Gospel Poverty
This Christian stance on wealth can be clearly seen in the following quotations from the Epistle of James: he calls the poor blessed, calls on the Church to feed and clothe them, and warns of the coming condemnation of the rich who do not aid the poor.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world . . .
2:1-6 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?
2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
5:1-5 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
For more on Gospel Poverty, see our outline of Fr. Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor.
Which came first, the Christian Culture or the Converted Christian? Or, more precisely, which comes first; a way of life inspired by the Gospel or a personal encounter and relationship with Christ?
At first, this seems like an easy question. Of course, an encounter with Christ has to come before an individual starts following Christ! And if an individual doesn’t love Christ, what motivation would there be to follow Christ’s commands?
Encountering Christ through Culture
It becomes more complicated, however, when we consider how most individuals encounter Christ. Jesus is no longer with us in the way he was 2000 years ago, but he left us a Church that is supposed to present him to the world. Part of our duty as members of the Mystical Body is to show Christ’s love to others, and one of the ways we do this is by building a Christian culture. That’s what the Early Christians did; they built a social way of life that was informed by the Gospel. By doing so, they made the love of Christ palpable and appealing to outsiders. They also produced a subculture where, as Peter Maurin would say, “it is easier to be good”.
This website promotes the building of Christian communities as a means of evangelization; to effectively evangelize, such communities must have a culture that is deeply informed by Christianity. Evangelization means giving good news—and our good news is a Person. Through our community way of life, as Tim Keller explained in a recent podcast episode, outsiders are able to meet Christ. So in a certain way, the Christian culture does come first. This also holds true for children being raised in the Faith; their first encounter with Christ will be through the witness of their family and community.
Culture can be Dangerous
Despite all this, there can be a certain danger in putting the cultural aspect first. For one thing, those raised in such a setting won’t necessarily have a personal encounter with Christ that results in conversion. A Christian culture (whether in a subculture or in the wider society) can actually end up acting as a sort of substitute for true discipleship. The result can be a society where everyone “goes through the motions” but where charity has gone cold. A merely cultural Christianity can be more dangerous than a secular hedonistic culture because those in a Christian culture think they already understand the Gospel message.
Don’t Blame the Culture for the Failure of the Church
While the cultural aspect is usually first in time, it shouldn’t be first in our imagination. Instead, we should focus on our personal relationship with Christ. That relationship should motivate us to build that “world in which it is easier to be good”—for others! Of course, it might be easier for us as well, but that shouldn’t be our primary motivation. If it is, we can end up blaming “the culture” or “the world” or “the church” for our problems. We might imagine that if only conditions were better, we’d be better. In reality, we bring ourselves and all of our weaknesses and failings into any new circumstances. (In a recent podcast episode with members of the Bruderhof, we discussed following Christ as the primary motivation for building community.)
Live in the Moment!
We can end up wasting a lot of time trying to provide ideal cultural conditions for ourselves and our families. If we’re always looking forward to an imagined future, we’ll miss the many comings of Christ in our daily lives. Even from a more temporal viewpoint, a focus on an imagined ideal future is a mistake. I was once lamenting the lack of community in the modern world, and a friend said to me, “Everyone lives in a community! Of course, it might be rather dysfunctional!” It is usually better to work with what we have rather than attempting to find the ideal life.
A focus on cultural influences can also make us fearful; it can erode our trust in God. Christians can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness when they find themselves in less than ideal circumstances. In a hostile cultural setting, they can feel that God has betrayed or abandoned them. We shouldn’t focus so much on the chaos in our society and Church that we forget Christ’s promises. He promised that the gates of hell will not prevail over the Church and that he will be with us till the end of time. God is a loving father and gives each of us everything that we need to achieve salvation.
“The Good Life”
Seeking ideal conditions can easily degenerate into a selfish pursuit of “The Good Life”. Christians sometimes try to justify a comfortable, aesthetic existence as being helpful for spiritual and cultural development. This mentality can blur the Christian call to aid the poor. Feeding the poor has to take primacy over art and other cultural experiences. If we find that we can’t pray in less than harmonious settings, then we should question the true strength of our relationship with Christ.
In the end, an overemphasis on the cultural aspect is Pelagian. We can end up trusting in good works or institutions or rituals to save us. The world is a broken place, and we can’t redeem it or ourselves by our own efforts. We need a Savior. While many come to Christ through an experience of Christian culture, Christ is all-powerful and can meet us anywhere. (It is just like any relationship; loving relationships can start under the strangest conditions!)
Encounter and Discipleship
The Christian life is all about discipleship, and the first disciples were some of those exceptions to the rule of cultural primacy. When Jesus called his first disciples, they weren’t part of a Christian culture, but they had an encounter with Christ and responded to it generously. The first Christian culture grew from their encounter with Christ. The early disciples were on fire with love and enthusiasm, and gave their lives to provide a witness to others so that they could meet Jesus. Similarly, we should live as witnesses, letting our love of Christ become incarnate in our lives.
Why this website is not “Liberal” or “Conservative”
“Small minds pit truth against truth, large minds do not.”—Fr. Dubay, in “Happy Are You Poor”
As we discussed in our last podcast episode, cult members tend to see all outsiders as malevolent and untrustworthy. The cult sees itself as fundamentally righteous, and therefore above criticism. Such thinking produces hate and fear directed at outsiders. It also produces blindness to any problems within the group, or within the individuals who make it up.
In a subtler form, this mentality is the constant temptation of the devout Christian. It is the fault of the Pharisee who “thanked God he was not like other men.” The devout are tempted to fixate on the obvious moral failings of “inferior” outsiders, while ignoring their own more subtle sins of pride, rash judgment, and envy. It is always tempting to ignore our own flaws by focusing on those of others.
In the United States today, both of the major political parties have developed this cult-like, pharisaic attitude. Increasingly, the members of both parties see their opponents not merely as mistaken, but as maliciously bent on destroying the country. As with any cult, this fixation on the “evil outsiders” makes party members increasingly unlikely to see internal flaws.
When Christians are drawn into the cult-like world of political ideology, it increases their danger of becoming Pharisees. A conservative friend was lamenting the lack of “really good sermons.” As our conversation progressed, it became clear that in his mind, a “really good sermon” was one focused on abortion or homosexuality; in other words, a sermon that challenged those he saw as outsiders but did not challenge him. Of course, there is a liberal counterpart to this, which laments the fact that sermons aren’t aimed at xenophobia or greed. Political ideologies have divided Christians into opposing groups, each of which sees Christianity as being primarily about defeating “the other guys” instead of about a loving and humble relationship with God and our neighbors.
Both political parties are corrupting because they are “totalitarian.” Just as nothing in a cult member’s life is separate from the cult, political ideologies are increasingly affecting every area of life, from healthcare to education. Religion is no exception. Political platforms often determine the stances that Christians take. This is a serious problem, as the letter to the Hebrews warns us: “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.” The Christian message does not align with either of the major political parties.
Political ideology contrasted with the Gospel
Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Is this the message of any political leaders today? Do they not rather encourage their followers to seek revenge, to hate opponents, and wish for their downfall? Don’t they encourage a fixation getting what is owed us?
Jesus tells us: “Happy are you poor”; and “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Is this the message of either political party today? Or do they rather hold out promises of ever-increasing material wealth to those who vote for them?
Jesus tells us: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Do our political parties encourage us to become angry, to call our brothers and sisters fools… and worse?
Before his Passion, Christ prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. Our political parties, on the other hand, produce division; it is their basic strategy, just as it is the basic strategy of the cult.
St. James tells us: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Jesus tells us that the sheep and the goats will be divided depending on how they served the poor. Yet Jesus also tells us: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Neither of our major political parties upholds both social justice and the sanctity of marriage.
The Gospel message can’t be divided up. Christians can’t pick and choose the truths they accept, but this is what both political parties want us to do. C. S. Lewis said, “The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”
We can’t let ideology warp our understanding of the Gospel. Instead, we must “be transformed by the renewal of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and perfect and true.”
This website strives to serve this renewal by providing a place where those with different viewpoints can interact in friendship. Please join our mission, and pray for unity among Christians.
Prayer from Fratelli Tutti
O God, Trinity of love, from the profound communion of your divine life, pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love. Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus, in his family of Nazareth, and in the early Christian community. Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel, discovering Christ in each human being, recognizing him crucified in the sufferings of the abandoned and forgotten of our world, and risen in each brother or sister who makes a new start. Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves. Amen.
In podcast episode 5, while discussing the economics of Christian community, I said, “I would prefer to use as few words as possible to describe what we are doing [building local economies based on justice and charity].” This of course was rather ironic, coming in the middle of an hour long conversation involving some 8,000 words! In context, however, the “words” referred to are ideological or political “labels,” such as “conservative” or “socialist.” This preference for “not naming” stems from several different principles.
Most pragmatically, “naming” oneself or one’s movement can unnecessarily antagonize others. We live in a time of polarization and division which has affected our nation, world, and Church; as Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “Nowadays it has become impossible for someone to express a view on any subject without being categorized one way or the other, either to be unfairly discredited or to be praised to the skies.” (Paragraph 156) Since the kinds of local projects I’m advocating are not “liberal” or “conservative,” “Democrat” or “Republican,” “Left” or “Right,” it would be counter productive to antagonize neighbors by the use of such labels.
This unnecessary divisiveness among neighbors points to something deeper; these labels are divisive precisely because they are unreal, false universals that prevent us from interacting with the glorious diversity of reality, blinding us to the particular persons and situations around us. Saying “Democrat” or “Conservative” allows us to homogenize and write off millions of fellow human beings, but the neighbors next door are not Democrats or Republicans, even if they might identify as such; they are human beings like us, made in the image of God, with many interests, cares, and concerns beyond politics or ideology. We share more than we might realize, particularly at the local level. Abstraction, naming, categorizing, gives a certain kind of power. Yet that power comes at the cost of isolation and depersonalization, making hatred and division much more likely.
As Christians, our relationship with Christ should be our sole identity; “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11) And for the Christian, there can only be one fundamental outlook on others, an outlook of love. Ideologies are unloveable; erroneous ideologies may need to be opposed by the light of the Gospel message. This opposition, however, can’t be applied to the human beings around us. Deeper than any political, ideological, racial or even religious division, we all share a fundamental unity as members of the human race, as Pope Francis has reminded us in his recent encyclical. He challenges us to show a radical respect for others: “At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups and peoples, let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins.” (Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 191) A good first step towards practicing such respect and love would be to drop divisive labels and embrace the freedom that comes from a shared identity as children of God.
Welcome to the Happy Are You Poor blog and podcast! We discuss a wide range of topics related to living a radically Christian life in the modern world. Our particular focus is on voluntary poverty and informal but intentional community building. We will attempt to post a new podcast episode twice a month. We also post blog posts, book reviews, and other resources building on the theme of each episode.
The core Happy Are You Poor team members are Catholics, and we present a Catholic perspective on the topics covered, but all Christians are welcome to join our discussions.
We welcome comments from readers and listeners and will do our best to respond to all comments. We also welcome guest blog posts on related topics and are looking for podcast guests, in particular those who are involved in building local community. For a more detailed explanation of our principles and purpose, see our “Principles of Community” page.
Our name comes from the book Happy Are You Poor by Fr. Dubay; for more on this book, see this summary on our site.
Scroll down for our most recent posts or see our list of recent blog posts and podcast episodes in the sidebar.
You can also find the podcast on iTunes at this link: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/happy-are-you-poor/id1542368538
And on Spotify at this link: https://open.spotify.com/show/3AzBQ4gaircf5tXNLQnbDh