Talk about famous last words…I concluded my last post on Amazing Catechists – “Spirituality for 2012” – with the statement, “I will be publishing a follow-up to this article in a few days.” Ummmm….that was over a month ago. Yikes! Obviously, I need to invest in a new watch or a new planner. Or maybe I should learn how to use the ones I have!
I suppose I could have moved on and written about something else; I haven’t seen any indications that the masses are sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the conclusion to my ideas about spirituality in 2012. However, the ideas that I started kicking around in my head over a month ago are still floating around up there (which I’m interpreting as a good sign) and so I really felt like I needed to get out what I’ve been thinking.
I would certainly encourage you to familiarize yourself with my first posting prior to jumping ahead into this one. The overarching theme for that first post can be expressed in the following statement from the former Master General of the Dominican Order, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP, who once said the Christian life is one that is “moral, reflective, prayerful, and imaginative.”
The big news story in the United States, as far as the Catholic Church goes, is the recent decision by the Obama administration to demand that sterilization, abortifacients and contraception be included in virtually all health plans, including ones provided by employers who have a moral objection to such procedures and prescriptions (e.g. Catholic Church). In addition to the news cycle, there is a constant stream of commentary on what the Church should do in response to it. Admittedly, I have contributed to that stream on my own blog.
But as I keep tabs on that developing story line in the news, I come back to this post on spirituality and on looking forward in 2012 and I see a connection that I didn’t see 5 1/2 weeks ago when I wrote the first installment. So instead of being distracted maybe it was the Holy Spirit that lead me to wait so long to write part two. 🙂
In the ongoing remarks on the USCCB and HHS, I’ve seen a lot of commentators offer potential responses the Church should take. The two most common are: 1) the Church should just retreat in to itself and 2) the Church should just get with the times. I would like to label these two ideas as the “Catholic Ghetto” and “assimilation,” respectively. Additionally, I would add that both of them are dead-ends.
The idea or label, “Catholic Ghetto,” does not belong to me. I think a good definition of it is provided here:
It is common for certain sociologist and theologians to refer to the Catholic situation of the 1940’s and 50’s as a time when the Church in America lived in a Catholic ghetto. What this is getting at is that the Catholic population in the U.S. lived as a minority population that held together strongly by means of clearly defining itself over and against the rest of American culture.
As parishes in the United States became less nationalistic and more inclusive of a variety of ethnicities, the Catholic Ghetto largely broke apart. For the most part, the break up of Catholic Ghettos is a good thing because in addition to the ones listed above, another of its characteristics was that Catholics “did not see themselves as called to influence the culture around them,” a view that is contrary to both scripture and the Church’s teaching.
You can still see some signs of the Catholic Ghetto mentality. For example Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, has tried to create a “Catholic” town in Ave Maria, Florida. In this town, with Monaghan’s Catholic College in the center, Catholic families will live together, their children will grow up with other Catholics, marry other Catholics, and live in Ave Maria. Monaghan’s vision is founded on the premise that Christianity, along with many academic disciplines, was kept alive in the Dark Ages in monasteries; they were small pockets of truth in an otherwise corrupt world. At first brush this idea seems solid but as I’ll point out later, it is not without significant flaws.
The other dead-end is “assimilation,” where Catholicism just becomes like everything else and Catholics look like everyone else. Through assimilation, Jesus can henceforth be referred to as a “good man” and Christianity can be seen by society as “good thing” but neither should be spoken too loudly. In this way, Catholics and the faith they profess becomes invisible. In 1994, Jonathan Sacks wrote a book called, “Will we have Jewish Grandchildren?” In it, he reflects on how to keep the faith of Jewish antiquity alive and flourishing in future generations. This idea is something we also need to reflect on within the Catholic community.
I think of an oak tree with its roots running deep into the ground where it draws life giving nutrients and water, the things necessary for its survival. The trunk of the tree, its base, provides the foundation for continued growth. But ask yourself: where do we see the greatest signs of life on a tree? Do we see it when we look at its trunk? No. It is when we look at its tips, where new leaves sprout each spring. We see the greatest signs of life, growth, and vitality at its extreme ends. But all parts, from the massive trunk to the smallest buds sprouting at the tips of the highest branch, are 100% oak tree.
The tree is a familiar metaphor for the Body of Christ, the Church. The ground represents God where the tree trunk (i.e. the Church) is firmly planted. It is the ground (God) that feeds the oak tree (Church) all it needs to survive. From the trunk, branches (individual Catholics) grow, reaching out in an endless amount of directions, always springing forth with new signs of life and vitality. This metaphor shows us God’s plan.
God has promised to provide everything we need, but we can’t get it when we are not connected to the tree trunk; we can’t just be a branch suspended in the air (cf. Jn 15:5). Nor can we be a branch just laying on the ground, cut away from the tree. When that happens, the tree is weakened and the direction that particular branch was growing out towards will not be reached. The fallen away branch just lays on the ground and eventually dies. It is possible, indeed it is necessary, for the tree branches (Catholics) to be 100% Catholic and reaching out to a world that is not the same as itself.
The unity within Catholicism of God, the Church, and its people, is an earthly example of the the most perfect unity, that of The Blessed Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is what Christianity has that no other religion does and we can demonstrate it by living our lives, firmly grounded in the Church. In fact, I would submit the doctrine of the Trinity may be the most important aspect of a spirituality for 2012 and beyond.
During the Enlightenment, man developed a deep seated resentment towards doctrine, especially Catholic doctrine. Nicholas Lash wrote in his book, Believing Three Ways in One God:
The Enlightenment left us with what we might call a crisis of docility. Unless we have the courage to work things out for ourselves, to take as true only that which we have personally attained or, perhaps, invented, then meanings and values, descriptions and instructions, imposed by other people, feeding other people’s power, will inhibit and enslave us, bind us into fables and falsehoods from the past. Even God’s truth, perhaps especially God’s truth, is no exception to this rule. Only slaves and children should be teachable, or docile.
But the ancient doctrine of the Trinity, regardless of what those enlightened individuals might believe, may be the most exciting thing we have to offer as Catholics. However, it will only be exciting if it is in contact with something outside of itself. Keeping it locked up, like in a Catholic Ghetto, will strip the doctrine of all its power and vitality.
The doctrine of the Trinity is often held up as something remote and obscure. I would submit that it only becomes remote and obscure in its presentation, not in its actuality. The best way Catholics can communicate the truths encapsulated in the doctrine of the Trinity is to communicate their faith in the doctrine through conversation. It is the personal aspect of taking time to talk with people that will resonate with others.
This should make perfect sense to us! After all, what is the Trinity but the eternal, equal, living conversation between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Additionally, we see the Trinity made real for us in the person of Jesus, who, among many other things, is a man of conversation. Take a look at him through the eyes of John.
- Jesus’ conversations when calling his disciples (Jn 1:29-51)
- The conversation with Nicodemus who came to talk to Jesus at night (Jn 3)
- The conversation with the Samaritan Woman at the well (Jn 4:4-42)
- The Bread of Life Discourse (Jn 6:22-71)
- The conversation with the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11)
- The conversation with the man born blind (Jn 9)
- Last Supper discourses (Jn 14)
- Jesus’ conversation with Pilate (Jn 18:28-40)
- Jesus’ conversation with Thomas (Jn 20:24-29)
There are a couple of keys to understanding these passages and to ultimately discerning our own response to challenges in our time. Jesus was constantly in conversation with people and not just his disciples, but he was reaching out to people that were outside his “comfort zone” or outside convention (e.g. conversation with the Samaritan woman). We continually see Jesus in contact with “the other” and offering them the love and peace of his father. This is what the Catholic Ghetto can not do. It betrays the openness to the other that is so obvious in the Gospel.
Secondly, true conversation, the type that has the potential to be life-changing, is open, mutually respectful, and loving. We don’t see Jesus talking down to people nor do we witness him talking about people; rather, he spoke to them. The story of the man born blind really illustrates that point.
Third, everyone that hears the conversation is converted. Converted to what and to what degree can not necessarily be determine and in the grand scheme of things, it is not that important that we know. A good conversation will take you to unfamiliar ground and lead you in unexpected directions. Through them, all will grow in grace. We are not in charge of that grace; at best, we can only hope to be channels of it.
We never know who may be touched by our conversations. It may be the person we are most directly involved in speaking with is the least moved, but the person who merely overheard it is changed for ever. Jesus held many conversations in crowds, big and small, and we read in the scriptures how people would “murmur” among themselves while Jesus spoke. They were being touched by what Jesus had to say and they weren’t even in the conversation.
Our thinking is mostly dualistic: white/black, up/down, left/right, Republican/Democrat, Catholic/Protestant, etc. It is these oppositions that help give us our identity. But this dualism, does not allow for openness or for love. Instead we should allow ourselves to be swept up in a Trinitarian love that opens up possibilities for going places beyond these simplistic, either/or distinctions. We can be immersed in the love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This love is not introverted; it can not be kept in a ghetto. Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit that pushes us to be in contact with people and situations that are beyond ourselves. It is so alive, so bursting forth with vitality that it can not be made to look like everything else (i.e. assimilated).
The doctrine of the Trinity is the most exciting thing we have to offer others. It is what should guide our spirituality in 2012 and beyond. It is the doctrine behind the words of the God who says: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5)
I am indebted to Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP who has helped me see these things in a new, fresh way.