What I Saw at the Abbey of the Genesee: The Crisis in the Church and the Universal Call to Holiness
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.