“In the child Jesus, the defenselessness of God is apparent. God comes without weapons, because he does not wish to conquer from outside but desires to win and transform us from within. If anything can conquer man’s vainglory, his violence, his greed, it is the vulnerability of the child. God assumed this vulnerability in order to conquer us and lead us to himself.”
Joseph Ratzinger, Christmas Reflection, Ox and Ass at the Crib in Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts
As I type these words one of my dearest friends, who is suffering from Covid 19, is in the ICU of a local hospital fighting for his life. He has been fighting Covid 19 for twenty days and he keeps getting worse. And now he is in grave danger of needing to be put on a ventilator. I sent him a text message a few hours ago and asked him how he was feeling. He sent back a one word reply: “Agony”.
In the era of Covid he is not allowed any visitors of any kind for any reason. And other than the nurses, doctors, and the beeping/whirring machinery of modern medicine, he is alone. His friends must stand by and wait with anxiety as we try and cobble together some idea of what is going on from the tiny scraps of news that we get from his sparse and often cryptic texts. But we do know one thing: he is in deep peril and at this moment there is little more that modern science can do for him beyond hooking him up to a machine that will further damage his lungs even as it saves his life, temporarily, by breathing for him. He is at this moment, quite literally, completely helpless and vulnerable, and none of the various measures he has taken in his life to make his existence more “secure” are of any use. He is “exposed” to the elementals of life like never before and stripped of the last illusions of “control”, as his entire life is now reduced to a few bits of data on a chart, in a tiny, windowless room, that smells like the color blue.
I chose the quote from Ratzinger above because of its emphasis upon the Incarnation as God becoming a part of this very regime of vulnerability. And not “vulnerability” as an abstraction, but the kind of real vulnerability my friend is experiencing along with millions of others. The eternal and infinite God has “become” a finite and timebound man. And I highlight the term “becomes” and avoid saying things like he “entered into” time, since the latter can still be viewed as something extraneous temporarily making a foray into a strange and foreign milieu. The scandal of the Incarnation isn’t that God took on our humanity like I “take on” a different shirt in the morning (on a good day) but that he “became” the man, Jesus. Nor did he become a man through some grandiose public display of power with magnificent circus pyrotechnics signaling his arrival onto the scene like a President who swoops into a disaster area in order to score political points. God became a man by first becoming one of the most vulnerable and dependent things that exists: a baby.
Saint Paul refers to the “humility” of God in becoming a human being and refers to it as a form of self-emptying “slavery”. And it is a form of slavery that will culminate in his death by crucifixion, which was often a common fate for rebellious slaves in ancient Rome. But we must avoid the temptation here to misread Paul’s words and to view the humility of the Incarnation as a denigration of the full dignity of our humanity, conjuring up as it does a faint whiff of the notion that God had to “swallow his dignity” in becoming human – – as if God’s dignity and our own are in competition to one another or in some kind of opposition. Indeed, the mere fact of the Incarnation is a shock, a scandal, and a devastating rejection of all such Gnostic systems of dualistic opposition between creation and God, insofar as it affirms that our nature is precisely made to be so taken up, in its totality, into the divine nature. We are not worms groveling before a pluripotent deity of heteronomous power who could crush us on a whim if he so desired. We are, rather, free spiritual beings with an immortal soul imprinted with the very image of God and made for communion with that God. We are indeed “mere creatures” and God is the infinite Creator. And there is a great ontological gulf between us. But it is God who has bridged the gulf and made our very alterity the foundation for our union: all love begins in distance and not identity. As Balthasar puts it: We are “like” God precisely in the fact that we are not God.
And so I choose to emphasize the humility of God in the Incarnation through the lens of vulnerability and not as some kind of “denigration” of God’s lofty State. Because what so shocked the ancient world about the Christian claim – – both among Jews and pagans – – wasn’t that God lacked the “power” to become incarnate, but that such a thing represented an unacceptable “compromising” of the divine eternity and immutability. Both Jews and pagans were very much accustomed to gods (God) who spoke to their seers, who took on an “alias” and walked among them for a bit, or who sent his emissaries to do his supernatural work. So what was shocking in the Christian claim wasn’t that God would deign to “come down” and cavort with his creatures in some theophany, but that God would “become” one of his creatures. Such a claim involved God too directly in the vulnerabilities of the human condition and in so doing “compromised” his very divinity. This is not Gnosticism, but it is nevertheless a view that plays in the sandbox of Plato’s “divided line” between the incommensurate and mutually antagonistic realms of spirit and matter.
Latent in such a view, sadly still very prevalent in our own day, is that God cannot “experience” what we experience without being involved in the realm of change and corruption. God must remain “above the fray” and can only “empathize” with our plight from a distance. He can indeed have “compassion and mercy” toward our vulnerabilities and can even “zap” a miracle from heaven and send it my way to prevent me from some danger, but God cannot become more interior to me than I am to myself. Furthermore, when all is said and done, God remains “out there” in a realm that is “away” from us when we cannot imagine God differently than as a generous, celestial, potentate. And even if we say that God was “in Jesus” this is often imagined, in a kind of magical, superhero manner, as being like Tony Stark’s “Ironman” suit with its nuclear powered heart running the whole artificial operation of wingless flight and stinging death rays. Or, as C.S Lewis points out, such a distant God often degenerates into a drooling benevolence, like a senile grandfather who dispenses coinage to the kids to buy ice cream.
Christmas is therefore a radically subversive festival. Born into a realm of violence, the Christ child is uniquely vulnerable from the get-go. His parents were already turned away from an Inn, which, when you meditate upon that, means that the Inn keeper turned away a pregnant woman who was clearly near-ready to give birth. And perhaps that is precisely why he turned them away in the first place signaling just how indifferent and cold the ancient world could be to women, children, and even men of low estate. And immediately following the birth of Jesus, Joseph must take his family and flee to Egypt as the murderous political regime flexes its imperial muscles and begins the indiscriminate slaughter of children in order to calm the neurotic tremors of Herod who imagined that his precious power might be in jeopardy. The years of quiet anonymity that then followed in Nazareth may appear to have been a period of relative safety for the young Jesus, but the political reality of that time meant that Roman-controlled Galilee was anything but a bucolic haven of Shire-like peace. The ubiquitous presence of the accoutrement of Roman control could not have escaped the notice of the young Jesus nor the vulnerabilities that such a presence created for the local villagers. The entire atmosphere was politically charged with an immovable Roman fist constantly in play to snuff out the revolts, insurrections, and grumblings of various Jewish groups given over to a politically radicalized theology. Therefore, when Jesus does finally enter into his public ministry he was well aware of how vulnerable he was, what a violent ordo he was entering into, and what the eventual consequences would be. His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night prior to his death gives us a searing insight into the fact that though his death was willingly accepted as part of his mission, it did not present itself to his psyche as something peaceful and secure: “Hey guys, sleep on… I got this. Remember that I am God so this is no big deal. See you on the other side…”
“Agony in the Garden.” It brings me back to my friend’s one word text: “agony”. When I look at the Christ child in the manger I do not imagine the little drummer boy and talking donkeys. I see instead a God who wishes to experience our agony from within. The silence of that manger in the cave takes my soul to the silence of that Garden and the silence of the tomb and the wordless pain of all who suffer alone. In the manger I see a God who is not play-acting at being a human being. I see a God who is about to experience a lifetime of vulnerability, pain and a horrific death. You might complain that I am not making enough proper theological distinctions between God “suffering in Jesus” and “God suffering in the Divine Nature as such”. Fine… your theological angina is duly noted. But those distinctions, though necessary, must never be allowed to mute, blunt, and render sterile, the very purpose behind the Incarnation in the first place. Theology is not Revelation. Christ is Revelation and theology is a second or third level meditation upon that primary fact – – the fact of the human Christ who suffers, dies, is buried, and rises again, and the God who is “implicated” in that same experience.
But why such an emphasis upon vulnerability? Because just as Dorothy Day teaches us that voluntary poverty creates a personal zone wherein we are then forced to live in what she called “precarity”, so too do all forms of vulnerability strip us of our illusions, lay us bare, and thus open us up to the most fundamental questions of our existence. And the sufferings associated with disease and death are the greatest forces for precarity that we will encounter. Indeed, many saints and mystics have pointed out that in the post-lapsarian regime of sin in which we live the manner in which we die is the greatest purgative of all. Thrown back upon ourselves with all of our various “props” taken away we are left with the raw and unbrokered encounter with that child in the manger whose death in vulnerability and precarity preceded my own in time and exceeds my own in orders of magnitude. The angels, the shepherds, the Magi, the animals … all rejoice at the birth of this child. A great King is born. But a King whose Kingdom will be made up of those who do not shrink from vulnerability, but who embrace its unique powers of divestment.
But this divestment of self is only possible when the hope of the resurrection is present as well. St. Paul makes this very clear: It is the resurrection that removes the “sting” of death thus robbing it of its power to drag us into despair. Therefore, the “vulnerability” of God in Christ is a conquered vulnerability. Nevertheless, in order to achieve a share in the resurrection we must all do as Christ did and first walk the path of the cross. Our vulnerability does not have the last word, but it does have the penultimate word. There is no Gnostic escape hatch wherein we can access the Divine milieu in an immediacy requiring no suffering or vulnerabilities. There is no “Gospel of wealth” backchannel passageway to a resurrection life that requires no antecedent sufferings. As I have said before: Deepak Chopra and Joel Osteen and Paula White all have perfect teeth. And they are all of the Antichrist. Resurrection comes only after the cross, even as the Hebrews only got to the promised land after a sojourn at Sinai.
On this Christmas I think of my friend. Alone and in agony. My prayer is that the God who made himself as vulnerable as a baby, and who died in agony, will take up residence in his anguished soul and guide him on his journey, wherever that may lead.
I begin this post, as I sometimes like to do, with an admission. As I thunder and bluster about the bourgeois worldliness of the modern Church, and the need for all of us to take up the universal call to holiness, I have harbored in my heart a smoldering doubt about whether or not I am a hypocrite, or worse, a fraud. I don’t mean a fraud like some infomercial huckster selling air fryers (fried means fried, as in hot oil), but the more academic fraudulence of a scholar so caught up in an idea – – however true that idea might be – – that he forgets to submit it to the existential verification of his own life. I started this blog in order to be blunt, even brutal, about our cultural and ecclesial crisis, but also to be equally unsparing with myself. And so I want to be clear: I live a materially comfortable life and I always have. I have never been a wealthy man by American standards and have always lived paycheck to paycheck with very little money, if any, in savings. Still, I have never gone “without” and my pot-belly attests to my ready access to Cheetos and Chips Ahoy cookies, not to mention my nightly bourbon, while I survey YouTube on my IPad for all the latest on intelligent parrots and the most recent Bigfoot sightings. Indeed, for me, unlike millions of truly poor people around the world, a “food crisis” consists of the realization at 5:00 AM that we are out of half and half for my morning coffee – – a crisis that leads immediately to me climbing into our old Mini Cooper to drive furiously, and contrary to all of the laws of God and man, to the nearest Quickie Mart to purchase the magic elixir. And if the Quickie Mart is out of half and half then for me that constitutes proof positive that God does not exist.
Furthermore, and not to put too fine a point on it, we did not start our Catholic Worker Farm until we were empty nesters and it was safe to launch out into more precarious financial waters. And by “safe” I mean we were now free of the responsibility of making sure my daughter was raised in a materially secure environment. My wife and I were discussing this just the other day and reached the conclusion that it is precisely the pressure of making sure that your children “fit in” to their broader socio-economic milieu that leads to most of our compromises with worldliness. I could be wrong about this, of course, but I am certainly guilty as charged in this regard and refrained from “inflicting” upon my daughter my own desire for a more radical Catholic existence. I thought this would be “unfair” to her and sought instead to make sure that her life was as bourgeois as that of her social peers. What this attitude bespeaks, sadly, is that in my mind the boilerplate for what constitutes “being fair” was the default mode of suburban, bourgeois living and that somehow living a more radical Catholic life was something potentially harmful. Apparently, the dogma does live loudly within me, but not the dogmas of my faith, but rather those of secular modernity.
The very next day I received an email from a reader of my blog named Victor who raised exactly this point. He has graciously allowed me to share it with you:
“A few personal reflections, purely from introspection, on “bourgeois Catholicism” that I thought I’d share:
Thinking about my own recent past, I have found the growth of an unconscious bourgeois impulse since getting married (four years ago; I’m fairly young). This is not because my wife is bourgeois – she grew up in a poor immigrant household – but because within me, this new sense of responsibility for the material well-being of someone else almost overnight made material/monetary concerns take a more important place in my heart… but I have become conscious of the need to care for the family spiritual well-being as well.
-I believe that there is some legitimate tension there; the impulse of a man to provide for his family is a good one, by and large, though like any good impulse it can become perverse. But I think this is where there can be legitimate difference between the monastic and married vocations… the difference is likely more nuanced than the “way of the commandments” and the “way of perfection” dichotomy that you mentioned, but I do think that there is, in fact, a difference. I think the married person is, necessarily and rightly, more concerned with the material things in his pursuit of the well-being of his family, but that he must remain vigilant to prevent the desire to provide from becoming a desire to possess.”
“I have been thinking about the above a lot lately because my wife is pregnant (thanks be to God!). I have the desire (good, I think) to ensure that my child grows up in a materially safe and secure environment, and I mentally wrestle with how to square this with the desire to ensure that I don’t get so wrapped up with finding the best school district that I neglect the more urgent requirement for spiritual nourishment. I have generally concluded that I need to learn to live with some of this tension – perhaps uncomfortably, since discomfort will prevent complacency and force me to examine my conscience and motives regularly – and that such tension is actually just a feature of being a pilgrim creature in a material creation that God saw was “good” but which fell through sin, and will one day be redeemed.”
This wonderfully honest email reminded me as well of a private Facebook message I received a few months back from a former student of mine who is a very good guy and a devout Catholic. He asked me if I had any practical suggestions on how to live a more authentically Catholic life in the midst of this world-gone-mad. And so I sent him an article I had written on Dorothy Day and the call to holiness lived through a life of voluntary poverty. He wrote back: “Ugh. How can I do this?? How does one live the ideals of Dorothy Day when you have five kids and a Goldendoodle??” It struck me at that moment that perhaps I had not been clear enough about our need to transpose the principles embraced by Dorothy Day into the unique register of our own lives. Therefore, I want to emphasize that I in no way expect people, least of all myself, to simply imitate in every detail the specific contours of Dorothy’s vocation. That is not only impossible for most of us, for a host of various legitimate reasons, but also undesirable insofar as we all have our own unique vocations to live out in the kaleidoscopic variety that God has provided. Nor do I think that it is necessary for all of us to live like monks or to take on a life of financial destitution.
And so I told my former student that as far as I could tell he was already living a life of Christian sacrifice that is analogous to Dorothy’s since he had made the decision to have a large family and to take on the task of the daily grind of employment in order to provide for them. His wife is also a former student of mine at DeSales who willingly took on the bodily pains and degradations associated with pregnancy and who now has given up the freedom of youth and the allure of a carefree and affluent life, in order to nurture her children properly. Such is the vocation of marriage and why it is a true sacrament, not just in terms of the fidelity of husband and wife mirroring the fidelity of Christ to His Church, but also in the very literal death to self that raising a large family requires. The key requirement, therefore, in battling the siren song of the false Gospel of Mammon, isn’t that we mirror the complete material poverty of someone like Dorothy Day or Francis of Assisi, but that we choose a life lived radically for others which will, all on its own, generate the needed moderation in our appetite for material possessions. Because one cannot live radically for others while pursuing at the same time wealth and pleasure as the chief goals of life. And therein lies the key: all of us are sinners, most of all me, and we all fall short of the sanctity we desire, but if our goal is to live for others in the regime of Christ’s grace, the pursuit of financial security above all else will recede until it dissipates into a faded memory of the folly of our youth.
But there is also something else that is instructive here: Children. Lots of children. One of the oddities of modern American suburban life is that the smaller our families became the larger our houses grew. I too was one of five children and I grew up in a cracker box of a tiny house where we had one bathroom and all of us boys (three of us) had to bunk together in a makeshift “bedroom” my dad had cobbled together in the basement with blankets for walls and a carpet remnant he bought used from some sketchy carpet outlet store. And such was the plight of almost everyone who lived in my neighborhood: big families living closely together in small homes. The homes were small because that is what people with large families could afford. Most mothers were stay at home moms in those days. Choices were made in favor of children over material comfort and the sacrifices that large families entailed. Nobody waited until all of their financial ducks were lined up before they started having children. I understand that today far more people go to college and thus delay marriage until they have a chosen career started. But even still, there has been a palpable shift in emphasis over the past fifty years away from large families and toward much, much smaller families that you “can afford.”
But rest assured of one thing. My parents could not “afford” their five kids. Nor could anyone else really in those days, but they chose that path nevertheless. My father was a fireman and made very little money. And on his days off he worked a second job to make a little extra cash to support the kids he could not “afford”. I have vivid memories of my father coming home after having been up all night fighting a fire in subzero temperatures puking into the toilet from all of the smoke he had ingested and from sheer exhaustion, only to grab a quick bite to eat before heading out the door for his factory job that involved menial and boring labor. And then, on his one day off a week, when I am sure all he wanted to do was sleep, he took us all fishing, or to my grandparent’s home in Omaha, or to McDonalds as a “treat”. One of my siblings, my younger sister Francis, was born with a very severe heart defect and was extremely ill most of the time which consumed my mother’s energies and ate away at her soul. And when our beloved Francis eventually passed away following surgery at age 5 the grief of my parents was a lacerating experience that only a parent can understand. If I had experienced a similar tragedy as a parent I would have curled up into a fetal position and remained there for years, before simply expiring in a world- weary despondence. But my parents soldiered-on since there were still four other children to care for. School lunches still had to be packed and work still made demands. I marvel now, really marvel, at their sacrifice and their courage. My father is now 87 and my mother 84. And yet they still bleed that wound every day.
My point in this autobiographical excursion is that the path followed by my parents and others of their generation is the path of the counsels whether it is recognized as such or not. They did not live in a monastery and they did not run a soup kitchen in the Bowery and they did not protest in the streets for more worker’s rights. All of those things are good and holy to be sure, but the death to self they entail are often less than what is asked of any parent who struggles to pay the light bill and who must care for sick or troublesome children. And that is the remedy for the worldliness that afflicts the Church today – – a death to self in a life lived radically for others in the shadow of the cross. It is a measure of how far removed from the world I just described – – the world of larger families and the sacrifices they entail – – when people raise their eyebrows quizzically and wonder how in the world it is possible to pay heed to our Lord’s condemnation of Mammon (not just its pursuit either, but its possession) in a manner consonant with “modern life”. An earlier generation of parents would have needed no such tutoring. They knew from lived experience that parenthood=Golgotha.
However, I hasten to add that I am NOT condemning those who have small families. Everyone must walk in their own shoes and all lives are different. There are often very sound reasons for limiting the number of children in your family and I am not here to judge anyone, especially since I myself have only one child. And some couples cannot have children at all. However, what I am saying is that we only progress in the spiritual life when our moral commitment to live a life for others is not just one more “lifestyle choice” that we can abandon whenever we want to move on to the next phase of my “life journey”. And this is why the most existentially honest moral choices are the ones that bind us to the needs of others in unavoidable ways. Preeminent among such choices is the choice to have a large family or to bind yourself to the Church via priesthood, or the religious life. There is the old cliché “the ties that bind” for a reason. And bindings often constrict and hurt. But it is precisely in such constrictions that true freedom and liberation are born.
I attend an Anglican Ordinariate parish. My pastor, Father Eric Bergman, has ten children with the 11th on the way. And he is the best pastor I have ever had. I cannot help but think that the two things are related. I have had excellent celibate pastors as well and I do not think the Church should end mandatory celibacy. But the one thing Father Bergman has in common with the many fine celibate priests I have known is that spirit of sacrifice for the sake of the other. The spilling out of one’s innards, of the viscera of your life, out of love for those for whom you are responsible. Of such spilled viscera are saints made. And that is what Dorothy and Peter were on about.
True sanctity never develops when we parse out our sacrifices in manageable units. As I have written elsewhere, we do console ourselves with the soothing balm of a thousand small “crosses” that are more manageable and can fit into our lifestyle. But what that means is that they aren’t really crosses at all, but the appalling opposite: narcissistic play acting at “religion” in a degraded form of Pascal’s wager where we convince ourselves that if we can at least imitate “sacrifice” in manageable bits, that means we are “sacrificing”. Or, at the least, to convince ourselves that if we keep play acting at being a “man for others” then maybe we will be someday, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary. Like Peter Sellers in “Being There”: we like to watch. We approach life as a spectator, which is to say we approach God as a spectator, which is to say, we do not approach God at all.
But I bring up the Ordinariate parish for another reason as well. Because in this parish there are many, many large families. So many in fact that the parish opened a home schooling cooperative a few years back (Maria Kaupas Academy) in order to accommodate not only the large families but also the desire of those parents to educate their children alongside of other children whose families shared their faith. These parents understand that you cannot throw your children into the cultural septic tank of our society and then expect them to come home excrement free. You can shut off your TV but you cannot shut off your culture. There are, of course, no guarantees that your children will retain the faith no matter what you do. Free will is a funny bird. But to return to the email from Victor, I think it is true to say that in order to live out the evangelical counsels as a married person with children it is necessary to find a faith community that is the central focus of your family life, and not simply one compartmentalized aspect of your life, confined to one hour on Sundays at a typical suburban parish filled with people with whom you share no bonds of common aspiration with regard to the totalizing demands of the Gospel. This is why my wife and I, though both cradle Latin rite Catholics, joined the Ordinariate parish. We are now, as I said, empty nesters, but I am also now an old, broken down, maladroit curmudgeon given to bouts of melancholy who needs this community of faith like never before. And do not be afraid to “parish shop”. The stakes are too high to “settle” for something less, as the tsunami of cultural paganism sweeps away everything in its path.
In this rambling and very personal blog post I am trying to write my way into an answer to Victor’s question. I probably did not succeed. The insight I seek to communicate is a simple one: in order to avoid the fruit of the poisonous tree of bourgeois mediocrity it is sufficient to bind yourself to the life giving tree of the path of the cross. You can pursue that path as Dorothy did, or you can pursue it through the medium of an oblative parenthood or a deeply devoted priesthood. But whatever path we choose we cannot shrink from the task. The fact that we all struggle with this is not evidence of the ideal’s impossibility or goodness, but of just how difficult it is to swim upstream against cultural forces that want us all to adopt a spirituality that is as tasteless and empty as eating rice cakes. I myself truly desire sanctity and I truly desire to live a life of voluntary poverty, ascetical discipline, and contemplative prayer. But it is always short-circuited and thwarted by my own execrable weaknesses – – weaknesses born of an addiction to comfort caused by a lifetime of ingrained living in that trajectory, in that regime. And is this not why we need the example of the saints? Of people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin? To prick our consciences and to show us what is possible?
And therein is the rub. Modernity is so totalizing in its reach that it robs us of the very ability to imagine differently. To think that something else is possible. It suffocates and snuffs out every alternative candle. I have lit many such alternative candles in my life. They have all been snuffed. But I keep lighting them. You should too, and parenthood, far from being a distraction from living the life of the counsels, is the brightest candle of all.
“Today Christians are faced with a no less heavy responsibility. There is always a temptation for religion to ally itself with the existing order, and if we today ally ourselves with the bourgeois because the enemies of the bourgeois are often also the enemies of the Church, we shall be repeating the mistake that the Gallican prelates made in the time of Louis XVIII. The Christian Church is the organ of the spirit, the predestined channel through which the salvific energy of divine love flows out and transforms humanity. But it depends on the Christians of a particular generation, both individually and corporately, whether this source of spiritual energy is brought into contact with the life of humanity and the needs of contemporary society. We can hoard our treasure, we can bury our talent in the ground like the man in the parable who thought that his master was an austere man and who feared to take risks. Or, on the other hand, we can choose the difficult and hazardous way of creative spiritual activity, which is the way of the saints. If the age of the martyrs has not yet come, the age of a limited, self-protective, bourgeois religion is over. For the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.” (Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History).
Nicholas Berdyaev makes the observation that of all the religions of the world, Christianity is the hardest to live out because of its totalizing demands. The Incarnation of God in Christ signals the transposition of all of creation into the divine life, and with that transposition comes an uncompromising call for a painful and purgative transformation, wherein a thousand small deaths must happen before our true form can appear. Therefore, that transformation requires an equally uncompromising response to that call. And no half-hearted responses will do, since the Incarnation is not a half-hearted overture in the first place. This requires a bracing and brutal honesty about who we really are, fully realizing that it is in our secrets that Satan lurks.
The call of Christ and our response to it are similar to the quality of love and courtship when the moment is reached where exclusivity is demanded by the very nature of the love itself, and is experienced as a sweet burden, a joyous bondage, and a liberating slavery. The demands of such love are total, as it now transposes life into an entirely new logic and regime wherein all that is old is new again. And in no way is it experienced as just one “part” of my life among many other parts. Indeed, it isn’t a “part” at all, but the transposition of all of the parts of life into a newly transformed whole, and any attempt to mute that transformation and exclusivity through compartmentalization and compromise is to betray it and eventually kill it off entirely. So too goes the path of conversion to Christ. It is not a white-knuckled affair of obedience to a command, but an entry into the way of love. And the way of love is far more demanding than mere obedience, which after all, knows only limits.
It is, therefore, a rebellion against the transposition of all things into Christ to view it instead as an imposition, as the intrusion of an obnoxious exclusivity into my polyamorous idolatries and my insatiable and bottomless appetite for shiny things. What we end up seeking, therefore, are a series of compromises between the exclusivity of the call of Christ and our answer to that call wherein we seek to follow Christ in a manner that still allows us to retain our worldly pleasures and conceits. Our “red line” in the sand is the life of bourgeois well-being, and the Gospel must therefore be made beige enough for suburbia. And so the bourgeois tail ends up wagging the Christian dog, which culminates in a thinly disguised rejection of the pursuit of sanctity as a species of fanaticism. The “universal call to holiness” championed by Vatican II, and presciently called for by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin thirty years earlier, is corrupted, inverted, and falsified by rendering the quest for holiness in ordinary life into its opposite. The statement that “We can find holiness even in ordinary things” becomes instead, “It is holy to be ordinary”. And “ordinary” is then defined, strictly, according to the structures of plausibility constructed by bourgeois modernity. The true call to holiness, if it is still admired at all, is then cordoned off into a safe space of non-triggering velvet saints whose icons exude the oil of Laodicea. This is why Dorothy Day said “don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
The claim of Dorothy and Peter therefore was that the attempt to domesticate this transformation through a thousand compromises with “ordinary life” is a form of idolatry. It is the idolatry of the “everydayness” that imposes itself upon us and insists upon our assent to “real life” as opposed to the fanaticism of those who seek a Kingdom “not of this world”. And it is an idolatry as old as the Christian faith itself. The Romans accused the first Christians of being “anti-social” and “anti- human” because the Church insisted that our spiritual center of gravity resides outside of the nexus of everyday social commerce and within the nexus of a regime of grace that explodes the old wineskins of the “normal”. This is why Dorothy and Peter challenged the traditional theological distinction between the “way of the commandments” (a minimalist form of compromised living designed for lay people) and the “way of perfection” in the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. (a maximalist form of full Christian living designed for religious orders). Dorothy and Peter called this into question and realized way ahead of their time that the call to live a life of radical fidelity to Christ is meant for all the baptized, and not just the perfected few. They rightly saw that this minimalizing of the call to holiness entailed the compromised pacification of the Gospel as such.
What the early Church, by contrast, dared its followers to do was to imagine that what seems to be most “real” (everyday, commonsense, compromised living) is in fact an illusion. And it called us to dream differently and more radically. It is the inability to dream differently and to assert that this world, and its logic of compromise, is an end unto itself, that I define, following Berdyaev and Peter Maurin, as the “bourgeois spirit.” This spirit has always been with us, but, as Berdyaev points out, beginning in the 19th century it has been elevated into a strict and all-encompassing governing principle for our culture, religion, economics, and politics:
“What does the word bourgeois actually mean? … The word designates a spiritual state, a direction of the soul, a peculiar consciousness of being. It is neither a social or an economic condition, yet it is something more than a psychological and ethical one – – it is spiritual, ontological. … he is a man of a particular spirit, or particular soullessness. The state of being bourgeois has always existed in the world, and its immortal image is forever fixed in the gospels with its equally immortal antithesis, but in the nineteenth century it attained its climax and ruled supreme.” (The Bourgeois Mind. Books for Libraries Press, (Freeport, New York, 1966), p. 11)
Berdyaev, who was greatly admired by both Maurin and Day, goes on to describe the bourgeois culture of modernity as a cult of devotion to a life of “well-being”, by which he meant a rejection of life lived for the Kingdom of God, with all of its demands for holiness, in favor of a life lived for the comforts of the here and now; and if one happens to be “religious” as well as bourgeois, then it becomes necessary to treat the transcendent elements of the faith as an ancient palliative no longer needed in the new regime of comfort. Thus does the Christian faith lose both its triumphs and its tragedies, as everything is leveled out into a banal moralizing, and the grand Christian mysteries (the sacraments) become party favors at the table of sentimentalized congeniality.
This insight, it seems to me, is even more timely today than it was during Berdyaev’s era since the processes of putrefaction that he saw at work in the Church of his time, have exponentially progressed in our own, as the Church in America continues to abase itself on the altar of sentimentality, offering itself ever more to the Molochs of modern Capitalism, militarism, eroticism, consumerism, and therapeutic moralism. On both the “Right” and the “Left”, the Church in America and Europe is defaced with the graffiti of our vulgar cultural preoccupations and seems no longer to have the spiritual resources to even desire something more Christ-centered. In earlier eras reform was possible, despite corruption and spiritual laxity, because people still knew where and what the “center” was: the Christ presented in the gospels. Today we doubt the legitimacy of even having a center, viewing the very notion of a center as lacking in “inclusion”, which of course is merely code for “we want our bourgeois comforts and conceits.” And so we see that we are not so opposed to “centers” after all. Mammon suffers no rivals.
George Bernanos, in his masterful novel “The Diary of a Country Priest”, begins his narrative with the following words from the Curé d’ Ambricourt: “My is a parish like all the rest. They are all alike. … My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it. Someday perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – – become aware of the cancerous growth within us. You can keep going a long time with that in you.”
“Boredom” is a slippery term that can mean anything from the normal emotional fatigue that sets in when one is engaged in the drab duties of daily life up to the deep existential acedia of one who has simply grown world weary and has become jaded to life itself. But the boredom that Bernanos is referencing is of a unique kind that is peculiar to Catholic communities that have incrementally and silently abandoned faith in the sacraments as encounters with Christ and replaced that faith with a secular simulacrum wherein the outward form of the sacraments remains, while the inner life has been hollowed out and replaced with the banal ideology of a deeply channelized, and profoundly intolerant, bourgeois cult of self-fulfillment.
What Bernanos is pointing to is a moribund Catholicism that has gone to seed, like a dandelion long past its fruitful floriation and which has dispersed its seeds into the buffeting winds. What remains may still be outwardly green but it now has no discernible purpose. And soon its greenery will be dead even if the roots remain. Thus, there is also an air of putrescence about beige, bourgeois Catholicism, with a lingering stench that is the telltale signature of dead things decomposing, in spite of the deodorizing bureaucratic apparatus chanceries try to sprinkle over the rotting corpse. And as Nicholas Berdyaev also notes, the spirit of bureaucracy is the deepest inner voice of the bourgeois soul and bespeaks a fundamental orientation to “control through management techniques” that is the Mark of the Beast.
Therefore, the universal call to holiness is needed more today than ever before, as the progressive ideology that governs modernity erases the structures and institutions that have carried the weight of Tradition on their shoulders. Human freedom is defined by today’s political Liberalism as a radical autonomy from all previous strictures and structures, as the steamroller of “liberation” flattens everything in its path. In the place of Tradition, now destroyed, we are given … nothing. And this is because the formal “neutrality” of the choosing self is the only absolute in our pursuit of bourgeois well-being, and the only “sin” left in our moral lexicon is “intolerance” to the needs of this autonomous freedom. The modern believer is, therefore, in a situation unparalleled in the history of Christianity in that in order to persevere in the faith one cannot presume the support of the broader culture or even, sadly, of the Church, which is also infected with the same virus of aimless, mediocrity.
Therefore, the serious believer is thrown back upon his or her own inner resources. Thankfully, the Sacraments are still efficacious despite the corruption of the Church, pockets of serious Catholicism remain in almost every parish, and the Church still abounds in resources available to believers from the deep treasury of her past. Nevertheless, the path forward for the believer can only be the arduous path of personal holiness, since the crushing weight of the modern world is indeed powerful and a lukewarm compromise between bourgeois existence and “spirituality” tailored to that existence will not weather the coming storm. We cannot remain in a domesticated region of stasis since in the spiritual life one is either trending upward toward God or downward toward the libido dominandi. There is no “middle path” of compromised Christianity. And by “compromised” I don’t mean that the Church has sinners within it or even that it has many, many “big sinners” within it. I mean rather that the Church has been gripped from top to bottom by a foreign spirit that says you can have Christianity without the cross, without a cruciform structure to our lives, and that we can be “good Christians” even as we structure our lives around various forms of bourgeois “security”.
And that brings me to my final point: the crisis in the priesthood. And by “crisis” I am not referring to the issue of clerical sexual abuse and its episcopal cover ups. As a former seminarian and a professional theologian I have, of course, come to know many priests. And over the course of the past decade I have noticed among my young priest friends in particular a sharp and stinging demoralization caused by their experience of parish life. They entered ministry full of vigor and enthusiasm, determined to be a strong priestly witness to the power of Christ, but discovered quickly that the beige, bourgeois Catholicism described above is not only deeply entrenched, but also very resistant to challenge. Furthermore, they also soon discover that the small band of “traditionalists” in their parishes – – folks who should be allies in the struggle – – are quite often narrow-minded and mean spirited malcontents ready to do battle for whatever cause they had just picked up from Michael Voris or Taylor Marshall. It is hard indeed to make common cause with people who think Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were liberal modernists not to be trusted, and who also think that the Novus Ordo, though “valid”, is an abomination concocted by Freemasons in the Vatican. There are, of course, sane and well educated Catholics in almost every parish, but their numbers are too few to offset the bourgeois ethos of the modern parish where the primary emphasis is on making Catholicism compatible with life on the cul-de-sac.
I know one priest via an email exchange who wrote to me complaining about how he had tried to end the practice of CYO sports playing games on Sunday mornings. The blowback he received was often vicious and left him shocked and demoralized. The idea that as a Catholic one should not reserve Sunday morning for organized sports under a “Catholic” banner seemed utterly foreign to his parishioners and they made it clear that the priest was being “divisive”, “intolerant”, “conservative”, and … wait for it … “contrary to Pope Francis’s message of mercy.” I know another priest who inherited a parish where patens were not used at communion time by the altar servers and the liturgical chimes had been removed from usage during the Eucharistic prayer. I asked him why he did not simply reintroduce them which was his right as a pastor. He just smiled and said it wasn’t worth the war that such moves would have created and decided instead to just keep the peace by acquiescing to their nonchalance toward the sacredness of the Eucharist.
Just last month I got an interesting email from another young priest who tried to open a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in a house near his parish but had to abandon the project when influential (i.e. wealthy) members of his parish told him that their donations would go away immediately if he even attempted such a thing. When he reminded them of Christ’s commandment to care for “the least of these” he was told that nothing was stopping him from opening a shelter in a different neighborhood, by which they meant “anywhere but near us”. He then appealed to the chancery for support but got nothing but silence in response.
These are but a few, anecdotal examples among many, many more that I could cite. And I am certain others who are reading this have had similar experiences. But perhaps the most galling and demoralizing aspect of modern parish life is the resistance that many young priests face from their own diocesan chancery and/or the bishop himself when they seek to introduce things like altar rails and communion while kneeling, Gregorian chant, frequent incensing of the altar, the people, and the book of the Gospel, or God forbid, worship ad orientem. None of these things are prohibited by either the rubrics or the documents of Vatican II themselves, but they are almost universally opposed by bishops who are terrified of appearing to sanction liturgical forms that restore a more “vertical” and supernatural element to the Mass and which seek to counteract the suburban view of the Eucharist as an hors d’oeuvre served to party guests. One priest described it this way to me: “It is true, as Pope Francis says, that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect. However, in my parish, communion is treated as a ‘participation trophy’ to be handed out to everyone who, after all, have had to put up with the annoyance of having to go to Church.”
Nor is the resistance limited to trying to make changes to the Liturgy. Indeed, some of the stiffest resistance arises when a priest tries to get the diocese to approve of a highly focused and intense commitment to social justice causes other than the (legitimate) fight against abortion. However, even with abortion, you find dioceses with more liberal bishops who seem embarrassed by the issue and try to curtail priestly agitation even against pre-natal homicide. Priests who seek to apply the moral mandate of the Gospel to the political sphere, both liberal and conservative, more often than not find their hands tied by secret reprimands from the bishop, complete with threats to be removed from parish ministry and assigned instead to oversight of the diocesan cemeteries. God forbid that the Church would lose its tax exempt status! How would bishops like the disgraced Bransfield afford their booze and daily flowers if they taxed the episcopal palaces?
All snark aside, the sad fact is that the tone and tenor of the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church is characterized by a “don’t make waves” mentality and it seems to matter not one wit whether the bishop is liberal, conservative, or just a managerial class apparatchik intent on promotion to Rome and that apartment in Trastevere. Indeed, the USCCB is dominated by bourgeois, managerial class dullards who were elevated to the episcopacy through the winnowing sieve of a self-protecting and self-replicating bureaucracy obsessed with preserving the appearance of “safe stability” above all else. This alone explains why most dioceses pay more attention to the lawyers and insurance companies than they do to their most effective pastors. It also explains why, from a diocesan perspective, the most important pastoral duty of any parish priest is to make sure the parish assessment is sent to the diocesan treasury on time, and in the full amount. Historically, (and I hope this is changing) a priest who “agitates” for a holier and poorer Church is more distrusted in many chanceries than a priest who rapes children. Let that sink in a bit…
Therefore, it should not come as a shock that something is happening in the parish priesthood that is not good. My armchair and subjective estimate is that a good half of the young priests I know are not merely “demoralized” but are, in fact, miserable. Some have even left the priesthood entirely, deeply wounded, and emotionally pulverized into dust. These men were seeking something to do with their lives that was “heroic” and deeply masculine in the ascetical discipline that true valor demands. But what they encountered in the modern parish was an effeminate Catholicism of therapeutic nurturing where the Eucharistic liturgy had been reduced to: “Hi, welcome to Church-Mart. I love you.” They looked forward to making a difference in the confessional only to discover that few parishioners actually went to confession anymore, and the ones that did were the ones who least needed to, or worse, (as one priest told me) you get the same 5 sexually scrupulous neurotics who showed up every Saturday to legalistically purge what they did Friday night. Wedding liturgies were found to be a martyr’s ordeal as the bourgeois ethos was in full Monty without shame: “No, you cannot sing a Dylan song to each other in place of your vows.” One young priest told me that on his tombstone he wanted the following engraved: “Father **** Concierge and Martyr”.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg since the young priest’s biggest battle is with the “don’t rock the boat” bourgeois mentality of both the laity and the episcopacy on a whole range of issues. So what is a young priest to do in this environment? I have gotten numerous emails from priests asking me to write on this topic and to offer a positive proposal for the way forward. I would like to cop out on that request since my analysis of the situation is dour and grim. In my opinion, the Church in America is in deep Kimchi at the moment. Nor do I want to offer puerile bromides like “holiness is the only answer”, even though that is a true statement in some ways. But I feel the need to offer something concrete lest I fall into a pattern of endless jeremiads without any hope. Allow me to just bullet point a few ideas:
Begin with a reassessment of priestly goals. It has become trite to say this but it is nonetheless profoundly true: “success” is not a Gospel category. Christ ended his earthly ministry an abject failure by the world’s metrics of success. And yet, his small band of Galilean misfits changed the world forever. Focus, therefore, on your own small band of parish misfits who seem to “get it” and work from there to plant whatever seeds you can.
Resist the temptation to despair at the apparent indifference of most in your parish and your chancery to your ministry. Such despair is of Satan. You are touching far more people than you realize. I learned this as a college professor. I was so often demoralized by the seeming indifference of my students only to get a letter from a student years later telling me how much my class meant to him or her. Focus therefore on the hidden effects your witness is having. And remember this always: even if you save only one soul in your entire priestly ministry, there is much rejoicing in Heaven.
Don’t let the bastards get you down. It is human nature to focus on those who say vile things about you even if it is only one comment in an ocean of otherwise positive statements from people. I remember as a teacher reading my student evaluations and even if 99% of the comments were positive I spent my entire day obsessing over the one jerk who said he hated my ties. Shake the dust of such rejections from your feet and move on.
Read good books. Then read more good books. And it does not matter the topic: theology, philosophy, history, literature, art history – – it all enlivens the mind and the soul. A priest touches the most people every Sunday in the Homily. Be the priest who actually has something interesting to say. A great homilist is a rare find these days and the discipline of homiletics has fallen on hard times with lousy advice in the seminary about telling stories and leaving folks with a pithy and practical “take away”. Give your parishioners real intellectual meat to chew on. Most lay people are starving for this. Do not remain on the level of “catechetics” since what most Catholics need these days is to be reevangelized.
Pray deeply and often. You cannot give what you do not have.
Be masculine. And by that I do not mean eating pork rinds at parish events and belching a lot. Be self-confident and supremely comfortable in your own skin. Know who you are and what you believe and live it with vigor and valor. In other words, do not be afraid to be a father.
Finally, and in line with #6, do not shrink from resistance. Have the courage of your convictions and fight, fight, fight for them until your last breath. The greatest saints almost always encountered fierce resistance from all quarters, with some of them even being censured and silenced for a time. But they fought on and perdured. To give up in the face of resistance is to admit that maybe you are not as convinced as you think you are of your own convictions.
The Church will survive. It is not our Church but Christ’s. However, the beige, bourgeois Church seems unconquerable at the moment. And I don’t want to be trite or glib here ending with some Pollyanna hope that is the opposite of the theological virtue of hope. We are living in a Golgotha moment that is an excruciating trial that seems to have no end on the horizon. In fact, it would seem that things are only going to get worse for the foreseeable future. Our Lord endured a descent into Hell and we too are not to be spared such a dark night of the soul as we follow in our Lord’s path of kenotic oblation. Christ assured us of victory if we perdure, but he also assured us that the path to glory for anyone who is his true follower is first the path of Calvary. He is indeed Risen, but he is so as the risen and crucified Lord who is in eternity and for eternity, the “Lamb who was slain”. It would appear therefore that unlike previous eras of the Church, our lot is to have this dynamic laid bare and made raw. Therefore, a stark and clarifying – – indeed “purgative” – – choice is being presented to us as a bracing gift of the Spirit: embrace the path of suffering for others in the run of grace or embrace the path of Mammon and success. The middle ground is gone and the halfway house of beige Catholicism is being exposed more and more as the spiritual equivalent of the crack house on the corner.
The “Gospel of bourgeois wealth” is tempting but it is of Satan. Joel Osteen, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and their Catholic epigones in the “prayer and praise” crowd of charismatic cultists appear on the surface to be prophets of Christian “joy”. But it is all the honey-laced arsenic of the AntiChrist. It is a Kool-Aid cult of capitalism. And if we drink it we will perish.
I was reading an article the other day about an ongoing miracle in Italy that dates back to 1336. In December of that year a young, pregnant woman named Egidia Mathis was walking home at night and feared for her life because of some unsavory characters who appeared to have evil intentions toward her. So she ran to a nearby pillar that had on it an image of the Virgin Mary and pleaded with Mary to help her, whereupon, as the story goes, Mary appeared and scared off the bad guys and offered comfort to the young woman. As if that wasn’t miracle enough, at that same moment a row of leafless, ice-covered, blackthorn bushes near the pillar suddenly broke out into full bloom, with flowers covering the bushes. All of these events created so much stress and emotion in Egidia that she gave birth right there on the spot to a healthy baby. A Church has since been erected at this location and is dedicated to “Our Lady of the Flowers”. And every year since 1336 (with the exception of 1914 and 1939, on the eve of two World Wars) the blackthorn bushes at that location have broken out into full bloom out of season in the cold of December. You can read the entire story here: http://www.ncregister.com/blog/joseph-pronechen/miracle-of-the-flowers-repeats-for-six-centuries
I begin my reflections with this story because the image of flowers miraculously blooming in the dead of winter seems like an apt description of the emotions I felt during my visit to the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York last year. And not just because flowers are beautiful and can brighten up almost anything that is dreary, but because, as in the miracle, the wholly gratuitous, unexpected, and life-affirming eruption of the authentically supernatural into our lives is genuinely shocking and provocative. I went to Genesee weighed down by the clerical sex scandals of the previous year expecting very little beyond a quiet period of reflection during this Christmas season. I went, to be blunt about it, with a cynical and strangely attenuated heart, feeling metaphysically desiccated and fragile, hoping for a small, spiritual consolation of some kind in the midst of this agonistic winter in the Church. I was expecting little more than the spiritual equivalent of a jolt of caffeine in the morning to get you going again, but what I found there instead, like a man on his way to debtor’s prison accidently tripping over a pot of gold, was hope. Not the trite and emotionally shallow hope that one gets from a “good trip” somewhere, where you meet “good people” and have a “good time”. Here I mean hope in the sense of the theological virtue that one encounters very rarely in life, if at all. You can read all about the theological virtue of hope in the theology books of course and you can “know” a great many things about it through such study. But until one actually lives it or encounters it, it remains an abstraction offering nothing of real life-changing substance. That is the value of the saints. They are blackthorn bushes blooming out of season. And I met them at Genesee.
But in order to map-out the topography of the concrete hope the monks and lay workers at Genesee gave me, and why I think the exact contour of this hope is important to anyone serious about living the Gospel radically, I think we first need to understand the nature of the “winter” we are currently in. Because you cannot cure a disease unless you are accurate in your diagnosis of the pathology in question, and you may even end up in a worse state if you engage in radical forms of treatment for the wrong ailment. Doctors can kill just as easily as they can heal if they are quacks. And the Church, dadgummit, has enough of those.
Like many of my fellow Catholics, I have experienced the “winter” of the sex scandals as a period of sadness, pain, and a demoralization caused by disillusionment. However, in my own case – – a theologian and former seminarian, aged 62, who came of age in the post-Vatican II silly season – – the sex scandals were not so much a shock as they were a confirmation of something my wise, seminary spiritual director (a German, Jewish convert who had fled Hitler with his family) told me all the way back in 1981: “Enter the Church’s ministry with eyes wide open. Because let me tell you, the rot is very deep.”
In other words, I was not surprised by the scandals because I had been expecting them. Anyone who has worked inside the Church over the past 50 or so years has known that some form of this day of reckoning was on the horizon. A prescient and brave few were sounding the alarm bells but were ignored, as all such prophets get ignored by large institutions that are rotting from within even as they desperately cling to the status quo of the outward trappings of former glory. And this decision to ignore the inward rot of the Church so long as her post-Tridentine integralist façade remained largely free of signs of putrefaction, is why many, if not most, of the bishops of the Church since Vatican II, far from being true pastors and shepherds of souls, were witless, managerial-class boors with an eye on that promotion to Rome and an apartment in Trastevere. Their mandate was as simple as it was banal. Namely, to “save the appearances” of outward success even as everyone on the inside knew it was a sham and a scam. Which is why their almost universal boilerplate model for dealing with sexual abuse by priests was to cover it all up. The phrase “Do not air your dirty laundry in public” is certainly not peculiar to the Church, but the managerial-class bishops of the Church raised it into a criminal artform as they desperately tried to hide their weird and sketchy “Uncle Teds” from the neighbors.
This explains why the bishops were not shocked by the allegations against some of their priests and why such allegations did not lead to swift and decisive action. Why were they so insouciant and cavalier about it all? Why did they treat it all as a managerial and an actuarial problem rather than a criminal one? Why? Because they were expecting it. They had known for years and had been explicitly warned that something rotten was festering. But the knowledge of the extent of the abuse and the repeated warnings had the opposite effect on the bishops than what one would expect. It simply jaded the bishops, as it was slowly doing to the entire clerical caste and became just one more “problem” that the manager/bishop had to deal with as he struggled to save the appearances.
My point here is simple, but important, as we struggle to try and understand the genesis of the episcopal cover ups. Anyone who lived in and through the clerical culture in the Catholic Church over the past 50 years could not help but be influenced by the pervasive nature of the perversion that was all around us. Not that one was tempted to engage in the perversion oneself, but that one would become inoculated against how horrible it truly was. In other words, there was a “dumbing down” of the episcopal response to clerical perversion because there was first a “numbing down”. For example, when I was in the seminary in the 80’s, I remember that one of my fellow seminarians got the boot when a male prostitute he had written a check to waltzed into the seminary’s main office on a fine, sunny day to complain that the check had bounced. The reaction of my fellow seminarians was to joke about whether the young man got kicked out for soliciting a prostitute or for his bad financial management. The point, beyond all the joking around, is this: after a while such incidents no longer shock. You get used to it. And when new events would arise of a similar genre, you would just shrug your shoulders, sigh, and quote David Byrne: “Same as it ever was”. Unfortunately, so did the bishops. (Do not judge me for my David Byrne quote. Yes, I am old, and do not know modern pop artists. But it was the 80’s after all and I liked The Talking Heads).
And so my larger point is that the bishops are/were not singularly evil men, but were rather the products of the ecclesiastical culture of their age. And that culture is largely reflective of the culture that surrounds us. But therein resides the true nature of the “winter” in which we find ourselves, and the true nature of the disease that afflicts us. In short, at some point in her history the Church in North America and Europe ceased to be culture-forming and came to be, instead, formed by the culture. Granted, the Church has always been and should be influenced by the dominant culture. How else could she evangelize? How else could she enculturate her message in each new era? And of course, it is naïve, psychologically and sociologically, to think that anyone can ever fully overcome the formative effects of their culture and engage in a form of pure, objective “reason” devoid of subjective bias. Nor should they want to. Only simpletons and fools want to be Mr. Spock. But at some point, in order to gain wisdom, or even to just think critically, or to be able to “think outside the box”, or to gain a new vision of cultural possibilities, one has to be able to rise above the crowd, to row the boat upstream, and to dare to imagine things differently. One has to be able to take the mental furniture your culture has given you and be able to rearrange it creatively, in order to avoid your soul becoming a static set on Downton Abbey. As Chesterton once famously said, usually it is only dead things that float downstream. Only a living thing can swim against the current. And this is a truth that all the artists and the creative visionaries in our ranks know: you must cultivate and then continue to nurture a lively and intuitive imagination in order to reach the only kind of critical “objectivity” that matters.
And how much more is this true then for people of Christian faith whose task in evangelizing the culture is in large part a task of imaginative reconstruction of possibilities. To take the stuff of this world, and to be able to take its flat surface appearance as an “object”, and to reimagine it as an epiphanic eruption of a deeper, spiritual depth. For our hope, rooted in our faith, is that there is a “new heavens and a new earth” that is in the making here and now, and whose full fruition will come in the future. Our hope is for a new Kingdom, born in and through the stuff of this world, which is radically different from some kind of Gnostic Disneyworld in the sky disconnected from this world in any meaningful way. The Kingdom of God is, rather, the indicator of a very real inward transformation of the entirety of creation. As Christ says in Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new”. He didn’t say “Behold, as a reward for not doing naughty things with your naughty bits, I give you the ultimate Space Mountain.” But the latter scenario befits the reduction of the faith to a moralizing, bourgeois “niceness”, where the Christian faith is poured into the Jell-O mold of secular, suburban life precisely to create a domesticated Christianity that lacks the imagination to think otherwise. Because Christians who think like Christians might just rock the boat enough to lower the GDP. Yikes.
My claim, therefore, is that the fundamental crisis in the Church today is not rooted, primarily, in sexual perversion. It is rooted, rather, in the idolatry of worldly comfort, which I take to be the very essence of the bourgeois spirit. It is an idolatry made respectable (and therefore unrecognized as idolatry) by the Church’s modern acceptance of the Enlightenment’s co-optation of the Kingdom of God by politics and economics. This entails as well the de facto, practical atheism that ensues when God’s Transcendence comes to be viewed competitively over and against our worldly fulfillment. In such a bourgeois regime, where Christianity has been tamed and has become just one more aid or help to our self-improvement in this life (Shmemann’s genius insight), the Kingdom of God has to be gutted of its true supernaturally transformative power and replaced with either the ridiculous Gospel of prosperity or the totalizing social/political Gospel of the Left. And, as Schmemann further points out, our status as homo adorans, as primarily in our essence “worshipers of the true God”, is thus replaced by homo faber, or humanity viewed as a mere economic commodity, either as a producer or as a consumer, and as a forger of brave new worlds in the here and now.
Thus does it come to pass that nobody believes in the God of Jesus Christ anymore. Thus does it come to pass that the Church has morphed into a worldly simulacrum of the Kingdom – – a counterfeit idolatry riddled with the lies and deceptions of suburban, bourgeois fulfillment, to such an extent that the Church even remains silent about America’s clearly evil, and “gravely disordered” military industrial complex whose sole purpose is the preservation of late capitalist bourgeois wealth. My goodness, look and see how Catholics – – liberal and conservative – – strain at a gnat yet swallow a camel. We strain over our endless debates on human sexuality, while swallowing in one gulp the very capitalist, militarist, and hedonistic false anthropology that undergirds the entire modern American enterprise of “value neutral inclusion”.
I have long believed, therefore, that the laity play a much larger role in the current crisis than we are often willing to admit. (Don’t kill me for saying that. I am not exonerating the clergy here). Because the clergy in any era are formed by the lay world in which they were raised. And post-World War II Catholics have lived largely affluent lives of material comfort, taught their children that such comforts were the point to existence and, therefore, a kind of birthright, and indulged in the fruits of the sexual revolution. Some might see my comments here as an unfair rant, filled with judgmental and harsh generalizations. I can only say two things to this. First, I stand by these observations because I too am a product of such a culture. I feel it in my bones, in my marrow, in the depths of my soul. And if you are honest you will admit that you too are deeply affected by this same ethos. I adopt no Archimedean stance of “holiness”. I am not a sheep among a herd of goats. I too am a zombie-child of my age. I am a compromised scoundrel who can barely scrape together a single honest prayer during the course of my day. Second, for evidence of my thesis look no further than the total collapse of the Catholic façade after Vatican II’s spin doctors lifted the lid on the Church’s cultural libido. In other words, if pre-Vatican II Catholicism was so strong, why was its collapse so swift? Perhaps the answer to that question gives us a clue as to our current crisis: we as a Church have been ill for quite some time, and that illness is not perversion or clericalism, although both of those things exist in the Church. No, the illness is the cult of “well-being” as Berdyaev puts it, or put another way, it is the cult of worldliness. And this illness afflicts the laity as much as, if not more than, the clergy.
This is why I say it is important to diagnose the disease properly before a remedy is recommended. For if we focus solely on priestly sexual predation, and episcopal cover-up, and the “lavender mafia”, we will miss the role the laity have played in all of this. We will be engaging in a kind of Girardian scapegoating – – even if those we are blaming are, in fact, guilty as charged (which they are). I am friends with a growing legion of parish priests who entered parish ministry full of vigor and idealism, but who are now on the verge of psychological and emotional collapse. They know priests who have turned to booze or porn or women or dudes or expensive trips or lots of fancy restaurants (or all of the above) to anesthetize themselves against the crushing pain of meaninglessness that the “beige Catholicism” of modernity has become. And when you add in the fact that many of their fellow priests were already immature and broken human beings when they entered the priesthood – – celibacy being the great attractant for both saints AND the weird and immature – – you will soon see why all of this was so utterly predictable.
Please understand I am NOT here offering an apologia for clerical malfeasance. I am very much on public record, in front of millions of TV viewers on The O’Reilly Factor, condemning such corruption in no uncertain terms. Any priest or bishop involved in sexual abuse and/or its cover up should be immediately laicized and turned over to the proper civil authorities. And if canon law stands in the way, then either change canon law or to hell with it. Furthermore, the Church should indeed pay through the nose, to the point of severe financial hardship, to compensate in some small way the victims of such abuse. Simple justice demands all of this. And insofar as the bishops can alter Church policies in a manner that fosters real procedural transparency I am for it. Better late than never.
My larger point, however, is more practical with regard to where we go from here. We keep expecting the Pope and the bishops to “do something”. We keep waiting for “new policies from Rome” and are waiting with high expectation for some upcoming meeting of bishops in Rome to develop new “programs and strategies”. We wonder out loud why the 2002 Dallas Charter didn’t change human nature from the ground-up and create a new springtime of clerical holiness. We keep arguing about married priests or women priests or female deacons – – as if tweaking the clerical “structure”, as Pope Francis notes, will change the Church’s idolatrous commitment to a shallow worldliness. The Anglican Church – – the relatively few of them that are left in Europe and North America – – says hello. The desire for a quick and simple solution on the level of a policy change is understandable. As C.S. Lewis noted, the modern world is made up of “men without chests” who seek solutions in the world on the level of technocratic and managerial control rather than in a renewal of virtue. Therefore, placing our hope for change in an ecclesiastical committee tasked with altering procedures is just business-as-usual thinking. I make no pretense, furthermore, to knowing the answer to this problem. But I think I can confidently state that there never has been in the history of the Church, nor will there ever be, a bureaucratic solution to what is, in its essence, a problem associated with spiritual failure: Nemo dat quod non habet.
I can’t say when this process of cultural accommodation to the modern bourgeois spirit began. Intellectual genealogies are always dicey. They always seem to fit the ideological filter of the historian in question. For example, I once knew a Greek Orthodox theologian who said he could trace, in five historical steps, the path from the filioque to the Holocaust. Or the Catholic version of this in a prominent moral theologian who I once heard give a talk tracing the causative line from the acceptance of condoms to the rise in urban street crime. It reminds me of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur says to Sir Bedivere: “This new learning amazes me. Explain to me again how one can use Ram’s bladders to prevent earthquakes.” The problem with modern intellectual genealogies is the same as the problem with medieval science: they are deductive attempts to start from a settled first principle or seminal historical event (e.g. the rise of nominalism) to concrete empirical conclusions or sweeping historical claims about the present crisis. Therefore, in trying to adjudicate the causes of the modern crisis in the Church, it is better, I think, to begin inductively, via a “thick description” of multi-focal cultural trends, rather than deductively with a set of dogmatic presuppositions.
Now is not the time or place to engage in such a multi-focal analysis. Others have already done so admirably and with much greater scholarly vigor than I could muster. However, what needs to be pointed out is that if the crisis (the Church’s idolatrous acceptance of the bourgeois spirit as normative) has a complicated and somewhat opaque set of historical causes that played out synergistically over several centuries, so too then will its “solution” require a multi-focal and long-term commitment to a reform of the Church that will involve all of us. The clergy are indispensable in a liturgical, sacramental and hierarchical Church that is rooted in the doctrine of apostolic succession. Therefore, the laity must seek out and align themselves with those members of the clergy who understand the nature of the current crisis of faith and who are therefore serious about the kinds of reforms that are needed.
But the nature of the crisis requires a true revolution, radical in its scope, of the manner in which lay people live the faith in the “worldly world”. And in this regard leadership of this movement must be largely lay driven and directed, even as it seeks guidance and sacramental presence from the clergy. Vatican II famously championed the “universal call to holiness” and was viewed, correctly, as calling for an empowered laity and a less clerical Church. Sadly, what happened instead was the clericalization of the laity as we crammed as many eucharistic ministers and lectors and music ministers into the sanctuary as we could. Meanwhile, the true empowerment of the laity to live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a modality consonant with their state in life (the only path to holiness given by the Gospel) was eclipsed by the powerful movement of sexual liberation of the 60’s, and effectively derailed, and then subsequently redefined as the Gospel of therapeutic “self-improvement”.
The need, therefore, is to once again take up the truly revolutionary message of Vatican II – – that the bourgeois spirit of modernity can only be overcome by a renewed Church rooted in the evangelical counsels – – and to imaginatively rethink, in the light of this call, how lay people need to structure their lives in the world. We also need a renewed sense of how serious this all is. This is not a spiritual game we are playing, or an extension of that very same bourgeois sense of self in some kind of self-conscious role playing and posturing as a “spiritual person”. In its own way, such dabbling in even “rad trad” liturgy and forms of spirituality is just another form of accommodation with the therapeutic spirit of the bourgeois self. And the same goes for Christian homesteading and back to the land romanticisms that are just a kind of hip “prepping” with a biblical veneer. Spare me the Whole Foods crunchy cons who want to champion alternative ways of living so long as the creature comforts remain.
Don’t get me wrong … in their own way all of the things I just mentioned can be positive signs of something truly holy going on. My wife and I ourselves attend a high Church Anglican Ordinariate liturgy (thank you Pope Benedict!) since we are in search of a true experience of homo adorans, and we raise organic food on our “back to the land” Catholic homestead! But it is precisely, once again, because I sense the narcissism in my own soul that I can see the dangers inherent in even things that appear as positive reform movements. The finger of accusation I am pointing is at myself before it is at anyone else. It is precisely because I know for a fact that I need this reform in my own soul that I suspect lots of other people do as well. And so my only point is that all such attempts at restructured lay living must be seen explicitly, and lived accordingly, as a repudiation of the imperial, consumeristic, self and as an attempt at putting on instead the renewed humanity of Jesus Christ. And not the sanitized Christ of the modern settlement, but rather, the bruised and bloody Christ of the cross, the lamb who was slain, the savior born in anonymity, raised in anonymity, and who died in ignominy. That Christ.
All of this (finally!) brings me back to the Abbey of the Genesee, what I saw there, and how I think it relates to the crisis we face. I went to the Abbey for two reasons. First, for a short two-day retreat that I hoped, as I mentioned above, would give me a small spiritual booster shot. But my wife and I also went up because we were invited there by a lay person who runs the retreat center associated with the Abbey (Mike Sauter). We got to know him through a mutual priest friend who is a frequent guest of the Abbey and who is contemplating a monastic vocation there (Fr. John Gribowich). We were invited there because the monks of the Abbey, as well as the lay workers we met, are all interested in the universal call to holiness and who share our view that the current crisis in the Church is a spiritual one requiring a spiritual response. My wife and I met with the lay worker, our priest friend, and two priests from the monastery, one of whom was the abbot. We had an amazing two-hour conversation that centered on the nature of the current crisis in the Church and how some form of the universal call to holiness for lay people is absolutely necessary for the renewal of the Church.
The point I am trying to make is that those of us who buy into this vision are not an idiosyncratic gaggle of latter-day Essenes awaiting our own vindication at the approaching doomsday “for those others”. The vision is a positive one, espousing a life centered on the evangelical counsels for the sake of, and out of love for, the world. Our world. The only world that is given to us to inhabit.
But beyond all of this talk, and beyond the discursive and rational elements of the conversation concerning all of these “issues”, is the simple witness and example of the monks in all of its power. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is not the Church that attracts and speaks to the soul, but God. The human soul is made for God and is ever restless until it rests in the divine heart. The first pagan converts to Christianity did so because they felt liberated from the despairing and brutal world of the pagan divinities as they encountered the rejuvenating purity of the God of Jesus Christ. They felt the power of this God in a concrete and tangible way. And this encounter gave them new eyes for reimagining reality, for reimagining the manner in which society could be different. How people could live differently and treat each other differently. And that latter point is important. For what Christianity preached was not a private spirituality of enlightenment and flight from the world. That was the gnostic perversion. It preached instead the conversion and transformation of the world along the lines of the cruciform God of unlimited love. This new faith in the cruciform God created entirely new pathways for reimagining what the love of neighbor entails. Because true empathy is only possible where the imaginative powers have been engraced and transformed precisely in order to place oneself into the condition of the “other”. Christological forms of empathy are only possible in a world where the human imagination is now placed in the service of charity rather than the service of the libido dominandi.
Human beings will only pursue a revolution of the spirit if they think it is concretely possible, if they can imagine it actually happening. Otherwise all such visions will remain locked up in fantasyland along with unicorns and pixie dust. When I witnessed the monks of Genesee at prayer, I saw men whose entire lives are defined by the divestment of self which is rooted in a concrete hope for the coming Kingdom. I saw men whose imaginative vision of what is real, and therefore, of what is possible, was so transformed by their lives of worship and adoration that they became witnesses to others of the reality of that same world. The simplicity of their chants was gripping in its authenticity and unpretentious humility. And I felt my cynicism and negativity melt away because I sensed a most elemental liberation of my “concerns” (of MY slavery to our current principalities and powers) in the face of the power of the God of Jesus Christ. The monks live, and therefore model, the Gospel truth that one can find one’s life only if one first loses it. That love is not a zero-sum game wherein the more I give of myself the “less of me” there is. The paradox of the Gospel is that the more I love, the more I give myself away, the more it, and I, grow. The monks show us that the path to God, and therefore, deep happiness, is the path of divestment.
But the path of divestment is the opposite of the path of acquisition. Divestment allows us to open a space for the reception of the “gift” of the other and of God. Acquisition is, by contrast, a spirit of “grasping” and of domination. This is what the monks of the Abbey of the Genesee show clearly. Namely, that the power of voluntary poverty resides not in the realm of ascetic negation, but in the more positive domain of the transformation of the human lust for domination into the quiet openness that Elijah felt at the mouth of his cave, straining to hear that still small voice.
I know this might all sound like a romanticizing exaggeration, but it is not. These men are the real deal and when you encounter such blackthorns in bloom out of season it leaves an impression. And the takeaway from all of this, if you want to put it that way, for those of us trying to live the counsels as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin did, is that we must never lose sight of why we are seeking alternative forms of living in the midst of the new barbarity that surrounds us. For whatever form this renewed way of living takes the one common denominator has to be the imitation of Christ. Everything else is a vanity, an ideology, a subtle form of the spirit of acquisition. In other words, we cannot allow our faith communities to be defined by what we are against. There has to be a positive proposal that is rooted in an authentic alternative. And if we are able to live that alternative, we will become powerful witnesses to the fact that a different way of living is indeed possible, that it isn’t a fantasy like unicorns and pixie dust. We will have won half the battle if we can just give people the hope required to reimagine the deeper contours of reality beyond the drab and pinched confines of bourgeois modernity and into the deep pool of God’s profligate love.