The Knowledge of Christ and the Christian Community
A Theology of History by Hans Urs von Balthasar contains the following passage about Christ’s relationship to time and his foreknowledge of future events:
It is not the case that Christ before his Passion was only appearing to live in time…What tells us more than anything else that Jesus’ mode of time is indeed real is the fact that he does not anticipate the will of the Father. He does not do the precise thing which we try to do when we sin, which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s dispositions for us, in order to arrogate to ourselves a sort of eternity, to “take the long view” and “make sure of things”. Both Irenaeus and Clement consider that original sin consisted in anticipation of this kind; and indeed, at the close of Revelation the reward which the Son bestows upon the victor is that fruit of Paradise which the sinner had to his own hurt stolen in anticipation. (Rev 2:7) God intended man to have all good, but in his, God’s, time; and therefore all disobedience, all sin, consists essentially in breaking out of time…Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than humility…This may be seen from Jesus’s relation to “his hour”, which is the Father’s hour. Essentially, it is the hour that is coming, which, in its coming, is always there and therefore determines everything that happens before it and leads up to it, but still has this determinative character as something that is to come, something that can not be summoned…The concept he has of it—and this kind of knowledge he does have—has for its measure that which the Father reveals of it to him. One can therefore say in general (since “his hour” is the epitome of his mission) that his knowledge as God-man is measured by his mission. The knowledge is not itself the measure, but that which is measured; whereas his mission is the measure that measures all else. His perfection is his obedience, which does not anticipate. The use of his capacities has to be adapted to this standard. To regard Christ’s knowledge as though he carried out his actions in time from some vantage point of eternity—rather like a chess-player of genius who quickly foresees the whole course of the game, and simply moves his men through a game which for him is already over—would be to do away entirely with his temporality and so with his obedience, his patience, the merit of his redemptive existence; he would no longer be the model of a Christain existence and of Christian faith.
Of course, von Balthasar is not denying that Jesus was God, and as God knew all things. There are many passages in the Gospels that show Jesus predicting the future. He is God! And yet he is also fully human. He did not let his status as God obliterate his humanity. As St. Paul says, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) During the temptation in the desert, Jesus rejected the suggestion to grasp at glory on his own terms. He would indeed rule over all nations and peoples, but only by following the will of the Father that led him to the cross. As von Balthasar points out, Christ showed this humility and obedience by living in the moment. As a man, he could learn and grow. (Luke 2:52) As a man, he could be surprised. (Matthew 8:10, Mark 6:6)
The humility of Christ stems from his love. He loves us so much that he was willing to stoop down to reach us. Even more amazingly, he wishes to raise us to his own level. By incorporation in the Mystical Body, we are being integrated into the very life of the Trinity. This communal reality of the Mystical Body should be the basis of any community building attempt. In particular, I think that reflecting on Christ’s relationship to time and to knowledge can help us avoid certain spiritual errors that are common among those building community.
The Bad World and the Good Community?
Devout Christians often misunderstand the true nature of temptation. We are tempted to obtain good things in the wrong way. That means that we need to be on our guard against spiritual pride and the other vices that can slip in under cover of apparent devotion. Instead, too many Christians are focused on the evils of the world “out there”. They correctly understand that such things as abortion and sexual perversions are contrary to the Gospel; but focusing on these issues can lead to a certain blindness regarding the more subtle forms of evil. This is particularly the case when Christian community is seen as a fortress or ark to hold at bay the evil of the outside world. Such a focus on other people’s sins is spiritually dangerous. It can promote the formation of a comfortable little “shire”, where all kinds of horrible spiritual sins can flourish under the cover of beautiful liturgies and seemingly devout families. Such spiritual pride goes before a fall. Eventually, God will allow the facade to crumble. Like the showy mushrooms that signal the presence of hidden decay, all the more blatant forms of evil will eventually crop up within the community itself.
The Desire for Control
As von Balthasar explains, the desire for control is the most fundamental temptation. The attitude of human beings toward God should be one of humble trust, surrender, and thanksgiving. Instead, we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness. We come to fear that he does not truly care for us, and so we set out to take care of ourselves. This was the temptation in the Garden of Eden: the suggestion that God was untrustworthy.
This desire for control can be seen in the individualism of the modern world. We are told that we need to “go it alone”, to control our own destinies. To do this, we break family and community ties. I recently came across an interesting example of this on social media. A commenter was arguing that young people should not live with their parents. Instead, he urged them to seek independence no matter what the cost. He said that he had moved away from home to live with five roommates and work several different jobs just to make ends meet, but independence was “worth it”. This is obviously absurd. Can anyone be truly independent? Why is sharing the cost of living with five unknown roommates more virtuous than sharing the cost of living with one’s parents?
The deeper, darker reality behind such views is that sharing an apartment with roommates is seen as superior precisely because of the lack of pre-existing ties. Family bonds are not chosen; they are simply given, received as a gift. Roommates, on the other hand, are chosen. They can be left behind when one no longer needs them. Our culture glorifies personal choice and individual freedom, but this leads to a deep unhappiness just as it did in the Garden of Eden.
As people become more and more aware of this fundamental lack in our society, community building starts to look more attractive. The danger is that community will become just another strategy for control. If we enter into a community with our culture’s individualistic mindset, we will fail. Community will be seen as a way to escape the dangers and problems of life, as a way of walling out conflicting ideas. Parents will see community as a way to gain control over children, leaders will see community as a path to power.
In reality, however, community building is about relinquishing individual choice and receiving others as a gift. Any healthy community will contain differing perspectives and temperaments. Such differences will inevitably lead to tension. The Christian way is to accept such difficulties, instead of striking out on an individual search for fulfillment or attempting to coerce community into artificial uniformity.
The Problem with Blueprints
In one sense, “building community” is deeply paradoxical. How can we build something which must be organic? How can we plan for something that depends on the unpredictable nature of human relationships? Von Balthasar’s description of Christ’s knowledge and his relationship to time can help us to navigate this seeming contradiction.
In one sense, Christ foresaw the future. He understood his mission, and that mission required a certain vision of things yet to come. Similarly, as Christians we have a mission. In fact, our mission is a participation in the mission of Christ: showing the love of the Father to the world. Community is a key part of this mission; the pagans in the ancient world saw the love of the Christian community and were attracted by it. To fulfill this mission, we need to think about the future. As Pope Francis says, we need to “dream” of a better world. We need to have a vision of Christian community, or we will remain stuck in the status quo.
Christ’s knowledge, however, did not keep him from truly living in time. He did not attempt to control events by drawing on an eternal perspective. Rather, he was docile to the will of the Father and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the moment. Similarly, we need to live in the moment and be open to the voice of God. Discernment is essential, and discernment is ultimately a communal process. This means that our initial vision will probably be modified by the people and events we encounter along our path.
To maintain this flexibility, we need to fight the temptation to “grab” for power and control over events. We can’t let the initial vision degenerate into a mere “blueprint” of a future project. Living in the moment can keep this degeneration at bay. Having a meal with friends is a good and beautiful thing. It should be valued for what it is, not as a stepping stone to something in the future. It should not be seen as an opportunity to “build social capital” that can later be “invested” in some project.
Of course, such actions and activities may end up laying the foundation upon which a more intentional community is built. They can only become such a foundation, however, if we value them for what they are. We are to “seek first the kingdom of God”, and “all these things” will be given to us. The “kingdom of God” that we are to seek is “among us” in the here and now, not in some distant future.
And when the future becomes the present, we may be surprised to find that what God has built upon our foundation was not what we had envisioned, but something much better. We will be able to say, like the steward in St. John’s Gospel, “You have kept the good wine until now”.
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Augustine Tardiff, a member of the Madonna House community in Combermere, Ontario. They discuss the history and spirituality of Madonna House, the life of the founder, Catherine Doherty, and the formation of intentional community.
Origin and Structure of Madonna House
Madonna House is a lay apostolate founded by Catherine Doherty, a Russian refugee who worked with the poor in the US and Canada before retiring to Combermere. Augustine pointed out that she didn’t intend to found a community, but people kept coming, and a community gradually grew up around her. This is similar to the origin of the Benedictines and the Franciscans; saintly figures have the ability to attract others, even without intending to do so.
Eventually, the community became more formalized; it includes lay men and women as well as priests. It is structured rather like a religious order though there are differences canonically speaking. The community members share their goods in common. Most of them live on the Combermere property; there are a number of smaller satellite communities around the world.
New members initially make a series of temporary promises to the community. After having been with the community for ten years, they can make a life-long promise to remain with the community.
Augustine said “Her life story would make a two hour Hollywood movie!” She was born into nobility but lost everything and had to flee Russia after WWI and the Communist revolution. After many harrowing adventures, she made her way to Toronto. She worked with the poor in Harlem and worked for racial justice. Her love of God was what attracted people to Madonna House; she showed them that the Gospel way of life is possible.
Organic Development and Openness to the Spirit
It can be dangerous for a community to start with a highly detailed plan; this can block the workings of the Holy Spirit. It can be tempting to impose a plan or vision on other people. The vision of Madonna House, in contrast, has evolved over time.
The evolution of perspective can also happen to those who join a community. Augustine described his own journey to community life. Initially he was much more focused on leaving behind the problems of the world, but he came to see that this was not a sufficient perspective on community life. Over time, he also came to see that his initial focus on finding a good place to support his personal relationship with God didn’t take relationships with others into account. We don’t have to sacrifice our relationship with God to help others; these two relationships always go together.
Being in but not of the World
Madonna House is not separated from the world; it has a strong emphasis on hospitality, with hundreds of guests coming every year. These guests come to experience spiritual revitalization, and then take that renewal of spirit back into the wider world.
Augustine also stressed how “natural” the life at Madonna House is. He pointed out that it isn’t so far removed from everyday life as to be irrelevant to the normal lives of those who visit. The members don’t wear habits, and don’t “put on” a “holy” aspect. As he put it, the people are “good people”, but they are “just people.”
The fact that the community contains both men and women is also part of this kind of “normalcy.” Augustine remarked that this aspect of the community is unusual but very enriching.
Some of the satellite houses run clothing rooms and soup kitchens for the needy. Many of them, however, have come to realize that there are a lot of other organizations that provide material assistance to the poor. Many of them now focus on offering “prayer and listening houses.” They provide a Christian presence and listen to others, helping to combat the pervasive problem of loneliness. Those who run such houses say they are busy from morning to night. People just keep coming to them.
Living the Liturgical Year at Madonna House
The emphasis put on the liturgical year at Madonna House is one of the aspects that Augustine found particularly appealing. He said that in the world, feast days are hardly different from any other day, but in the community they are a big deal. He also discussed the Eastern Christian influences on the liturgy and spirituality of Madonna House.
Working the Land as Spiritual Practice
Madonna House runs a farm where they grow a lot of their own food. Working the land can help us to realize our dependence on God. The care that farmers have for their animals can give us insight into the care that God has for us. Like the animals, we don’t always understand what’s best for us, and we are prone to getting into trouble, but God loves us anyway.
The Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty: Madonna House Spirituality
During the podcast, Augustine mention Catherine’s “Little Mandate”. It wasn’t that God spoke to her and told her to write this down; rather, these were themes that came to her over and over again in prayer. These principles are the best short summary of Madonna House spirituality.
- Arise – go! Sell all you possess.
Give it directly, personally to the poor.
Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me,
going to the poor, being poor,
being one of them, one of Me.
- Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
- Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise!
Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
- Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
- Love…love…love, never counting the cost.
- Go into the marketplace and stay with Me.
- Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
- Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbors feet.
Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
- Pray always. I will be your rest.
Cover image: Combermere Madonna House. Photo by Rob Huston, CC BY 3.0
- Arise – go! Sell all you possess.
Podcast 2: Organic Development of Community
Peter Land and Malcolm Schluenderfritz discuss community development. Topics include: the purpose of this website, the importance of organic development, the tension between intentionality and organic development, the primacy of friendship, core groups, the role of time and spatial relationships in building community spirit, community as an internal attitude or virtue that needs to be developed, an integrated life, the preferential option for the poor, poverty and community spirit, prepping, security in community, individualism, isolation, and the unexamined life.
(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)