Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)
We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:
When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?
Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.
Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.
This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.
Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.
Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.
Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)
Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.
P.S. – This is CRM’s 100th post! Please, if you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing and sharing with friends and family.
I am in the (very) remote stages of planning a book on the virtue of faith… The Biblical, scholastic, and contemporary definitions of faith, faith and the moral life, faith and the contemporary West, faith and psychology, and so on. It seems to me that such a book, specifically with a presentation of a solid pastoral praxis aimed at healing the anxious minds of millennials which is directly grounded in Biblical and Thomistic thought, is sorely needed. One chapter will be dedicated entirely to Peter as an example of the whole life of faith… its beginning, growth, crisis, rebirth, overflow, and finally its consummation in martyrdom. Allow me to present the rough draft of the very beginning of the chapter, in which I am showcasing the kind of Biblical theology which I think is sorely needed in our age – both in the academy, and in the real world of ministry.
We find Peter living a natural life, working for natural gain, by reaping the fruits of the natural world. Peter had clearly been passed up for higher studies by the rabbis who would have taught him Torah and the Prophets in his youth – otherwise, he would have certainly accepted such a great honor, an honor afforded to only the most promising of students. Instead, he is fishing. Peter had watched Jesus heal his mother-in-law a little while earlier, and the whole countryside was already talking about the public ministry. Just before having Peter go further out into the lake, Jesus had been preaching to a crowd so great that Peter provided his own boat as a pulpit to keep the people from crushing Him – what a privilege to be the steward of such a man’s ministry! What an opportunity to study the Book and even to be the disciple of a living prophet… But he will not trust this prophet that much, at least not yet, as the ensuing discussion shows. Peter echoes the unbelief and impetuosity of his forefathers in the desert when, shortly after having seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law, he begins to argue with Him about food. However, while those Jews were helpless in the desert, Peter is a professional fisherman, floating on the Sea of Galilee, which is full of fish. Though prophets may know much about the supernatural, surely a lifelong fisherman knows how to fish! Peter reluctantly, almost flippantly, gives in and acquiesces to let down his nets. (Some translations give an eisegesis here, translating “ta diktua” in the plural when Jesus asks, and in the singular when Peter responds – “let down the nets,” “I will let down the net.” But the Greek itself does not give us this.)
Jesus shows Peter that acquired skill and natural talent are no match for His word… The same voice that moved over those chaotic primordial waters in the beginning of time now brings order to the Sea of Galilee. The fish hide in the cool of the darkness, and only by being brought up into the light will they be able to be caught and sustain life; and thus it was in the beginning as well, as all the life which God brought forth came from the darkness and was made helpless before Adam.
While the amount of fish caught doesn’t quite tear the nets, it does tear Peter, who no doubt had none of the foregoing typology on his mind but was simply stunned by the show of power. For the first time, we see Peter confront his interior emptiness. Unfortunately, he does not yet know the correct response; “Depart from me,” he tells the Lord, “for I am a sinful man.” This display of the power of Jesus to control nature inspires reverence, but it does not inspire devotion… Peter feels unworthy of being in the presence of such power – evidently, he thought that it was a greater deed to control fish than to heal his mother-in-law – and so he seeks separation. He does not see that the very purpose of the coming of the “prophet” Jesus is precisely to forgive sins, a power as yet unheard of, except for God alone. And so, just as we see Peter face his interior emptiness for the first time, we see Peter reject Jesus for the first time. (Later on, the order of these phenomena will be reversed, with rejection leading to the confrontation of self.) Nevertheless, Jesus asks Peter for his discipleship, promising him that he will become “a fisher of men.”. This mysterious invitation was irresistible. Perhaps Peter hopes to follow in the footsteps of Elisha, the disciple of Elijah… One day, he might acquire a “double portion” of the spirit of the prophet Jesus!
As Corpus Christi approaches – and with the season for First Communions already upon us – I would like to offer a simple analogy to help explain transubstantiation to children. Or adults. Or both.
First, a note: there is no perfect analogy for the process whereby bread and wine become Our Lord (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity), because in all other kinds of changes, either an accidental change causes the substantial change (as burning a paper changes it to ash), or the substantial change is at least followed by accidental change (as death causes the body to stop functioning as a living, unified whole). For neither of these things to happen, but for the “what” of a thing to change nonetheless, is altogether special.
That being said, we can point to the reality indirectly, by using the “via negativa” (transubstantiation is not Jesus hiding in the substances of bread and wine, it is not a destruction and replacement of the substances bread and wine and God producing an illusion of the accidents of bread and wine, etc.), or, in this case, by making an analogy of experience.
From far away, a rainbow looks like a colorful, solid, translucent band which could be touched, like a window. This corresponds to our experience of the accidents of bread and wine – it really does look, feel, taste, etc., as if bread and wine were before us, and we really do see what looks like a solid, translucent band of colors. As any keen 2nd grader knows, that’s not what a rainbow really is. A rainbow is a bunch of little bits of light that look like one big band of colors. Now, for some kids, perhaps it will come as a shock that you can’t really reach the end of a rainbow – but plenty will be able to tell you that when you move towards a rainbow, it moves away from you. The “reality” can’t be reached by looking more closely: it will always be hidden by an appearance of what it is not. Of course, one can go to the spot where such-and-such bits of light are being refracted, but then there won’t be any experience at all. In each case – chasing a rainbow, or being where a rainbow was seen from a different spot – the reality is hidden from our senses.
I have used this analogy myself with kids and have found it to be helpful. (Of course, it is really an explanation of the effects of transubstantiation – I have no idea of how to explain the change itself rather than by laying out all the doctrine and its metaphysical pieces, which would not be necessary or helpful for a 2nd grader.) I would recommend showing first that a thing doesn’t change its “being” just because its shape or color changes… This helps to give them an idea of the difference between accidents and substances/essences.
Have you found any different analogies that work well? Comment below!
Just a few points for your own meditation on this Good Friday, and through the Easter season.
Covering and uncovering of flesh is an important theme in Scripture. Here is a very quick glimpse:
Genesis 3:21 – The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.
Amos 2:16 – And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD…
John 20: 5-7 He bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Romans 13:14 – Instead, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.
The removal of a garment implies vulnerability, putting one on implies protection. Adam and Eve are strong in their “weakness” before the Fall, as they are constituted in a special state of grace. When they lose their innocence, blood is spilled for the first time in Scripture… Their own meager attempt at clothing themselves with leaves will not do. Instead, something has to die in order to cover them up. A brute animal will work – there is nothing better, for the moment.
We ourselves have just been in the Garden with the Lord – not Eden, but Gethsemane, its antithesis – and soon we will see Him in another garden. Moments before entering Gethsemane, He had taken off His outer garment in order to wash the feet of the disciples, the entire process of which was a catechesis on the kerygma… He rises up from the throne of the Godhead, removes the outer glory which is rightly His, takes on human nature as its servant, has mercy, puts on his outer glory again, and then returns to His throne. Finally, He commissions them to imitate Him. This is the whole Life of Christ.
Then in Mark we read of a man who runs away naked (14:51-52)… Perhaps it is Mark, perhaps it is Lazarus, perhaps it is some other person whose identity needed protection. Whoever it is, instead of leaving everything to follow Christ, this poor soul leaves everything in order to run away. No doubt he had high hopes of the advent of an Israel more like a New Rome than the New Jerusalem of Jesus, which would be won with swords and clubs by zealous warriors like Simon Peter. Instead, this Yeshua does not go about expelling the pagans as the old one did when he led the Israelites into Canaan, with violence of His own. Instead, this one makes himself vulnerable to violence, and eventually is stripped naked and put on a cross to die. How unlike the Joshua of old! Perhaps the rebellious murderer Barabbas would give the Jews the kind of Christ they wanted…
The Lord is dying, and the Temple’s own “garment” is ripped, as if to let God loose from the Holy of Holies, out into the Nations, to save the Gentiles. Meanwhile, the soldiers divide Jesus’ clothing among them, casting lots for the outer garment. Relics of a famous criminal, artifacts of a failed rebellion, prized items of curiosity which would one day certainly make for good conversation pieces. “This was Jesus of Nazareth’s cloak – do you remember him?” That cloak which held no seams, in which Christ could hide nothing to keep for Himself, which had been the instrument of healing, which protected the human dignity of God incarnate, was now itself given to the world, almost as if to pay respect to that command of the Baptist: Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none… (Luke 3:11) He is willing to give away not only His Divine dignity but also His human dignity in order to save us.
A day comes, a night comes, and then in the morning we see the Lord again, alive, but He does not look the same… He is changed in the flesh, mysteriously. He has become in His humanity something more suited to His Divinity, and yet His humanity is the same, even with His Body having the same wounds. His Flesh is perfected, becoming the completed New Adam, the fullest expression of all that humanity can be. In this Garden of the Resurrection, where He meets the Magdalene, He is the champion of death, having willingly gone under the knife as that animal in Eden did unwillingly to clothe our first parents. Now He will clothe us with His own Flesh and Blood, with His own Love, with His own Life which has now sprung up from the Earth, like a seed that dies to give forth its fruit… Changed, yet the same. He has left the old garment behind.
We expect monsters to stay under the bed. In the closet. In the dark. When they do come into the open, it’s usually easy to spot them, but it can be particularly difficult when they masquerade as something good, benign, or even necessary. It’s the sickest when these sorts of things target kids.
Enter Bunny Token.
Anyone who regularly watches YouTube (even kids watching cat videos!) will by now have seen the ubiquitous advertisements for “Bunny Tokens,” a cryptocurrency designed to unify the “adult” entertainment industry. The currency is, unlike BitCoin, (which you may have heard of,) limited, meaning that once they’re gone from the first shelf, you have to buy them later on at a higher price. This adds a real sense of urgency to the market. (Apparently, they’ve reached their soft cap for initial investments.) It’s not the first cryptocurrency for the industry, but it looks like it’s going to be extremely dominant based on the strength of their advertising campaign.
The monster has come out of its hiding place into the digital version of primetime, apparently with a plan to crawl back home into the darkness with its prey. (Cryptocurrencies allow for a much higher rate of anonymity of the buyer and seller than do currencies regulated by the government. It is actually an ingenious business move. Wise in the ways of the world indeed.) While this cute little bunny-monster is in the light of day, it provides us with a good opportunity to call pornography what it is – childish, unnatural, shameful, and deadly.
Childish – The qualifier “adult” is usually applied to pornography and the things that go with it. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine a more childish activity than watching people abuse themselves and each other, let alone paying for it. Why an 18-year-old instantly becomes eligible for this kind of thing makes no sense whatsoever, and deep down we all know this. (And you can safely bet that the industry subtly pushes towards younger kids with a voluptuous wink and an approving nod.) We expect little kids to have no sense of self-control. We expect adults to be above what most people still consider perverted or at least think should stay hidden in the dark, even if they won’t admit that view in polite company. We teach our children not to be selfish. We teach them to respect others’ bodies and privacy (although this one is being threatened with trans-bathrooms and trans-lockerrooms). We teach them that some pleasures are immoderate, even if there’s no evident and immediate harm done. Pornography unteaches all of this, and study after study shows the long-term damage that an addiction can do to social and psychological flourishing. And now, hundreds of millions of kids who just wanted to watch a harmless cat video are being tempted to buy some Bunny Tokens. Wonderful.
Unnatural – We are talking about the proper functioning of the reproductive part of the “vegetal soul,” which also has nutrition and augmentation (growth) as essential parts. The twisting of the sexual faculty to order it towards one’s own immediate gratification “free of consequences” is an unnatural vice (which would include the free and willful choices of self-abuse, contraception, sodomy, etc. – anything which pre-excludes the possibility of human generation based on the lack of the complementary organ in the faculty’s system, or based on the willed introduction or willed perdurance of some deficiency which destroys the faculty’s proper functioning, like a hysterectomy which is presumed upon for its contraceptive power in each sexual act)… It is not merely an excess or deficiency, as most vices are, it is something different. If we switch the faculty in question from the sexual to the nutritive (or digestive), we can see this relationship quite clearly. An excess of eating is bad because it causes obesity and sometimes even the death of the body through contracting diabetes or high cholesterol. A deficiency of eating is bad because it causes malnutrition and can also, obviously, be deadly. An unnatural digestive vice, if practiced with the full consent of the will, would look something like this. (NB: of course, true eating disorders usually involve a constraint of the will which inhibits moral freedom and therefore reduces culpability proportionately.) We know that “food porn” is not to be treated like actual porn – that should tell us something, shouldn’t it… The unnaturalness of this kind of thing could possibly be bad for the body, but it won’t kill a person who’s careful enough. Why, then, does the clip above work as a means of demonstrating the vice of the characters? (Yes, go watch it!) The aspect of exploitation of other people adds to the seriousness of the offense, just like physical violence adds to the gravity of fornication or adultery. With pornography, let us remember, the person acting or posing on the screen, despite definitely being a son or daughter to real parents and being created in the image and likeness of God, might by some chance be one’s own friend or relative. Imagine the horror of such a discovery, when an anonymous and faceless actor or actress turns out to be your sibling, or parent, or child. It’s also possible that those people aren’t even alive anymore, and the pleasure being derived is from a person whose body is now ash or rotting in the ground. Let that one sink in.
Shameful – A proper sense of shame is one which causes repulsion from immoderate acts of the lower powers of the soul. The acts of which one should be ashamed are the ones that are most properly called “shameful.” While there is less guilt in sins against the Sixth Commandment than in other sins (like theft or lying, which don’t “tug” as hard on our wills as the fires of the lower passions for bodily pleasure do), there is certainly more shame. And the more removed the act becomes from its proper mode, the more shameful it becomes. I recall learning in seminary about how to deal with people – usually lonely, elderly men – who come to confess the sin of bestiality. (No, not the kind with another human – though that is wrong too.) They will usually mutter something about their dog… and, well… struggle to mention it. The lesson was that the best thing to do, other than perhaps gently mentioning the possibility of finding the dog a new home, is to ignore it. The penitent likely knows full well how shameful that act is and doesn’t need to be reminded. He’s just that lonely. Well, a quick glance at St. Thomas’ list of the order of gravity in the parts of lust – probably one of the most studied Articles in one of the most studied Questions in the Summa – reveals that the sin of self-abuse is only a few steps away from being too friendly with an animal, and resides above other sins in its essential gravity which even Western society considers wicked. (Of course, there can be mitigating factors in this sin, as the Catechism explains. Personally, I think they are often over-applied, but surely, someone who is going out of their way to invest in a cryptocurrency to purchase pornography long-term does not deserve as delicate of a treatment as an 8-year-old who is just discovering that touching down there feels good.)
Deadly – Pornography is a scourge that can and does pull souls down into the darkness of sin, killing the life of grace within the soul, ruining social functioning, brain chemistry, and actual relationships in the meantime, not to mention exploiting often very vulnerable people who become the objects of one’s lust. If you are a parent, and you have been shying away from this topic, RIGHT NOW is a good moment… Bunny Token ads have been all over YouTube, and they have provided you, ironically, with a great occasion to bring this subject up, into the light, with your kids, in order to root out vice. (And no, you don’t have to be already watching questionable content for these ads to find you. The industry is looking to grow its audience.) What are you waiting for? Wake up and smell the concupiscence!
The further the monster comes into the light – especially if it is dragged there – the less it will seem like an innocent bunny, and the more it will seem like what it really is.
You know about the Trinitarian symbolism… Christ, the voice of the Father, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. You know about the imagery of John the Baptist, the “New Elijah” and the last of the prophets. And you know about the Jordan River symbolizing a turning point in salvation history, as it was when Joshua crossed over into the Holy Land with the ransomed Hebrews from Egypt (and their descendants), which of course recalls the splitting of the Red Sea and also Noah’s Ark. The river is between Israel and “the nations,” remember.
But add these symbols to your “just too cool” file. The Sea of Galilee, near where the Jordan River begins, is full of life, and it is where Christ calls the first Apostles to follow Him. (Remember the miracle of all those fish in the net?) Around it is the area where Christ begins and does most of His public ministry. The Dead Sea, where the Jordan ends, is just that: dead. It’s so salty that nothing can live in it, even to this day. So when the Lord goes down into the waters in between the two, what is He saying?
Hold on though, it gets better. The Dead Sea valley, where the Baptismal site is, is actually the lowest point on planet Earth (that isn’t under a body of water)… By a lot. See for yourself. So not only does the Jordan River make sense locally, for the Jews, caught between life and death, but it makes sense for the Gentiles as well.
The next time someone wants to say the symbolism in the Gospels is “too convenient,” you can tell them that the Evangelists didn’t even include everything.
We need to bring back this patristic style of Scriptural exegesis, and we need to bring modern day tools into it. Surely, there is a whole lot of stuff we are missing because we won’t take the Lord’s providential action in salvation history seriously enough as it is presented on the Sacred Page.
Merry Christmas, and a happy Feast of the Baptism of the Lord!
What is the draw of a Covenant Community, anyway? Isn’t being baptized into the Church and living within the parish enough? Isn’t having a biological family enough? Isn’t having a spouse enough? After all, these, too, are covenant communities. People see the good and understandably want more… Living in an intense form of common life, where certain things are shared and there is a structure of obedience, is freeing. It is what human beings are built for. It’s what Heaven will be in full. (By the way, Heaven is not an ecumenical community – true friendship and common life mean a common order of worship!)
I understand the pull to an additional form of covenant community quite well, as someone looking to enter religious life. The thing is, unlike most people, I’m planning on not marrying… That means no spouse or children to account for when discerning where God’s will is leading me – or to drag along where some manipulative superior says “God’s will” is leading me. That’s a major part of why religious life works so much better.
Other differences usually include: immediate oversight and control from the hierarchical Church, a rotating leadership (typically with a large democratic component), many internal checks and balances on governance and financial transparency, strict requirements of theological and spiritual formation for those entering, a clearly defined exit path, and a particular charism which is being offered for the good of the universal Church.
There are also differences between Covenant Communities and “religious movements” like Communion and Liberation, Focolare, or the Neocatechumenal Way. These are massive organizations – with no real “covenantal” dimension, at least not in the same way – that more or less propose living ecclesial life in a certain way in some kind of community with one another, integrated into the hierarchical Church. While there can develop eccentricities (and even real problems) in such movements, the successful ones are closely linked with normal ecclesial structures like parishes and dioceses and/or are so massive that well-defined statutes and close hierarchical oversight are guaranteed. These kinds of movements provide a healthy alternative to signing one’s family’s life away to some charismatic leader and his friends.
So that is one option for families: join a well-established, global movement which is vetted by the Holy See and has a clear purpose and appropriate transparency.
But maybe that isn’t enough or right for some people. What other options might be out there? Let me propose two, beyond Third Orders, and/or simply picking friends wisely and making an attempt to spend time together, and/or just really trying to involve yourself with a parish to make it better and let it make you better. (Another Maryland community comes to mind which has this very healthy approach of the last two paths…)
The first is to form associations dedicated to some particular work of mercy, corporal or spiritual. (This is usually how religious orders start, of course!) One of the biggest problems is that Covenant Communities are an attempt at an extra-parochial parish… And they attempt a self-sustaining utopia founded on shaky ground. Associations dedicated to works of mercy actually go and encounter the dystopia head-on with a clear purpose in mind: feed the hungry, heal the sick, pray for the living and the dead, instruct the ignorant, etc. The last one is especially big, as it would involve forming homeschool co-ops (or even private schools in some cases). Such an association satisfies so many desires and needs… For community, for social/spiritual aid, for witness, for working toward common goals. This is especially true for educational projects, which are obviously easier to involve the whole family with. These groups are out there… Go find one that suits you, and make it better!
But maybe even that is not enough… Well, then, in most cases a person simply has to realize that family life is a massive obstacle to the desire for common life with others. (Aristotle teaches that we can only have 2 or maybe 3 friends of virtue, the “real” kind – true common life founded on authentic virtue is that hard, at least in this life!) Because of the prudential issues involved with entering into a Covenant Community, it is better to just wait until the general resurrection. But for single people, including those not really considering religious life or priesthood, there is another option…
Dioceses could establish houses of formation for lay people. Basically, lay seminaries. (Not men and women in the same houses, of course, or at least entirely separate halls/floors/wings without easy access.) There could be an application process of some rigor, tons of diocesan oversight, and membership would be conditional on several things, such as being regularly employed, not getting married, not doing anything too crazy, etc. People could apply right out of college (22) up until about 25 and stay for 3-4 years. Rent would be minimal. Mere “houses” could be set up I suppose – and this is very popular in Africa – but if the diocese is setting up a house for single laymen, why not just go the extra mile and bother to give them some education in the evenings and on weekends? Teach them some basic theology. Teach them how to pray. Teach them how to grow personally and practically. Teach them about what makes family life work well in the long-term.
How many recent college grads do you know who would stop, drop, and roll into such an accommodation?
If you don’t get a few priests and religious after a while out of such a set up (highly unlikely), you will definitely get plenty of well-formed young adults ready to take on life. In the meantime, they can have a serious communal life regulated by an external structure, without having to worry about whether their kids will “grow into” the community life they have promised for them, where their money is going, etc.
Well, that’s it. What are your thoughts? Do you know of any concrete examples of my two proposals? Do you have any experience with a Covenant Community, good or bad? (And I do know that some good people have good experiences, which is fine!) Let me know in the comments.
SOS. No, I’m not crying for help, that last one stands for Sword of the Spirit, a group which has indeed made people cry for help. Before we begin our superficial case studies of two Maryland-based covenant communities gone haywire, I want the readership to know of my own personal connections with one of them (LOG). I have close connections with people who were involved, I have been to their school, I have talked with people affected by the community’s activity and fallout, and I have met their former leader. Let me be clear: I mostly don’t want to talk about people… I really want to talk about the community. Communities are more than the sum of their parts. So this is not a post about people who were involved (save for one), but the way that people interacted with one another in a certain context. So if a WOG-er, LOG-er, or MOG-er is reading this – and I think that is likely to happen – please don’t feel personally judged. You are not the community. And you are free to disagree with my assessment… I think that such freedom is important, don’t you?
The three acronyms in the title stand for Word of God, Mother of God, and Lamb of God. The first is the covenant community which was (until 1990) immediately operated by Sword of the Spirit, the Ann Arbor-based ecumenical super-community. The second is a D.C./Gaithersburg group which was radically reorganized in the late-90’s by Cdl. Hickey and still operates today. (You might be familiar with the publication that came out of the group, called “The Word Among Us.”) The last group was begun in the Greater Baltimore area in the late 70’s and ran into the mid-90’s when it was effectively dissolved by Cdl. Keeler.
I won’t go into all the problems of these groups (especially WOG, which I don’t know much about). I will provide links to caches of documents on MOG (here) and LOG (here) and make a few observations about commonalities among covenant communities, those two in particular. Then I will talk a bit more about LOG, and I will talk about its new incarnation.
First observation: the so-called Charismatic Renewal is a common theme. It seems that where there is a covenant community, there is the Charismatic Renewal. (See this article on the downfall of the Steubenville covenant community, Servants of Christ the King, for another example. Steubenville is, of course, an epicenter of the Renewal.) There is something that tends to unhinge “members” of the Renewal from normal ecclesial life. Perhaps it is because they often see themselves as “members” of a renewal – that is, special, set apart, even “chosen.” (Not all, but many… most… enough.) This is then combined with an inordinate expectation of God’s use of emotions and experiences in prayer and community to drive one toward or away from some action or idea. There is no need to dive into these problems here… I think the point is clear enough: if one feels spiritually powerful because of a direct and “personal” relationship with the Holy Spirit, confirmed by others in the same elite group, the importance of the Church as such diminishes. Interested readers might check out this online book on covenant communities by a Notre Dame professor (who was dismissed from the People of Praise in South Bend, IN) which explores this topic and loads more.
Second observation: the word “obedience” is a red flag. If the covenant one signs says anything about obeying the leadership, one can expect trouble… And if you don’t see the trouble, you are probably part of the problem. This is due in no small part to the fact that leadership will seldom if ever rotate unless a leader dies. An opaque chain of command will almost inevitably be established which monitors and controls lower-level members (psychologically, socially, financially, etc.). It will be done in the name of “pastoral care,” or for the sake of “integrity,” or some such thing. Of course, it is simply manipulation which frequently ends in grave harm to psyches, friendships, and even marriages. Real confidentiality among members, under a covenant with an “obedience clause,” will not exist. It will get so bad that even to breathe a word of gentle criticism against the leadership or the community’s direction will be “corrected.” See an example of a covenant document, from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, GA, here, and do scroll through the comments from former members.
Third observation: Language in general will also slowly become special or equivocal within the group, as the insular nature of the community can only lead to. Taking this together with the previous reality of monitoring members, the word Orwellian comes to mind.
When members start talking about “repentance” or “fellowship” or “spirit” or “discernment” in ways that seem a bit off to an outsider, it is probably a function of spending too much time around each other in an overly intense context of ordered socialization run by people who don’t know theology.
Fourth observation: The sense of being an alternative Church, or a Church within the Church. Covenant communities are the ultimate “safe space” – and how dreadful it would be to get cast into the outer darkness! “They are screwed up out there, unlike us. They’ll get you… they’ll get your kids… they’ll use you to infiltrate the community and try to tear it down…” This creates tons of fear which keeps people in line. The threat of spiritual danger can be just as effective, or even more effective, than the threat of physical danger. And the thing is, depending on how one interprets “out there,” it is true. Western society, and even many pockets within the Church, are incredibly dangerous. Ironically, covenant communities tend to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Training people to mistrust the Church, or even to avoid the sacraments, is deadly rather than life-giving. It is an idol.
Fifth observation: A lot of people get hurt, and a lot of people would be hurt if they allowed themselves to feel and think naturally. This should be obvious. The number of damaged minds, broken marriages, and even apostasies that come from covenant communities should be enough evidence to show that something is gravely wrong with the model.
Sixth observation: A driving force is religious novelty. A “new community.” An “emerging leadership.” Prayer “in the Spirit.” A “different way of life.” Leaders with “prophecies.” These sorts of fascinations are hallmarks of beginners in the spiritual life, not mature leaders. Religious novelty is one of the major themes of the Old Testament: God is spiritual, we are not, and so we will tend to go after lesser things to make God more tangible like ourselves. We want experiences, things we can see and feel and hear, things we feel immediately controlled by and can immediately control. The most superficial study of the Carmelite doctors will convince one of how stupid – and dangerous – this kind of thinking is. St. Teresa frequently saw Christ in plain human form… To her it was rather secondary, almost trivial. She would tell her confessor about what happened, and then she would forget about it. She certainly would not follow commands from such visions without permission from her director… After all, what if it was actually the Devil? A thorough study of the lives of the saints will reveal that this is a pattern: holy men and women do not trust their own spiritual experiences to guide them. They ask someone disinterested to show them the right path.
As I noted above, I have some tangential experience with a covenant community, Lamb of God. The echoes of the community, some 20 years later, are quite loud – there are still damaged relationships and suspicions around Catonsville, there are still some attempts at a common life among former members and their friends, there is still a school, and the old leader of the group is still around. He has, however, moved on to a “new project.”
I have also had some limited active experience with this project, called ChristLife. Just as I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community” or a “covenant community,” I cannot really describe what this entity is, only what it does. There is an evangelization series which it sponsors in parishes (which is basically sound and useful, if not a bit elementary), there is a young adult group (in which I have several friends), and there is a company which somehow also involves itself in broader international mission work. There seem to be many more interior checks and balances on ChristLife than on LOG, and there is certainly more diocesan oversight. However, old dogs don’t learn new tricks. It concerns me greatly that the leader of what essentially turned into a cult (good intentions notwithstanding) immediately became the director (and after some 20 years, has been the only director) of an evangelization program within the exact same local church. Someone will have to explain to me how that is prudent… How might people be being manipulated? What attitudes and mindsets have been carried over from LOG into ChristLife, by the leader and by former members who involve themselves? Who else might be pulling strings that aren’t publicly known to be involved? Etc.
I don’t doubt the good intentions. I do doubt the means.
In the final installment, I will propose a different vision for how a “covenant community” might work. Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe…
Your husband has just left with his buddies… Not for the bar, not for the bowling alley, but for the Crusade. He will probably never return – the territory is unfamiliar and the enemy fierce. The organization of the ranks is questionable, too. You are left alone in your little Belgian village. A few years pass, and some wearied soldiers come back into town after the failed campaign. The Mr. is not one of them: you are off to the local Beguinage.
There, the organization of the ranks is questionable as well – just as most of the crusaders were not professional soldiers, the superior is likely ill-equipped: she is not a professional ecclesiastic (viz. a priest) or even a proper religious. The other women are only half-invested, since they can own their own property and leave at any time to get married. The local bishop is aware of the institution, but he has other, more pressing affairs to attend to. Many of the women bring tons of money with them after the sale of their land, so the community is overflowing with wealth.
What could go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out. The Beguines (and Beghards, the male version) were suppressed by the little-known Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. These semi-monastic communities, mostly centered in the Low Country, had amassed enormous wealth and slipped into very bizarre spiritual doctrines. (Basically, their errors amounted to the thought that one was able to attain, in this life, their twisted vision of spiritual perfection. For the condemned propositions, see Denzinger 471-8, older numbering.) It is also difficult to imagine there were no “power issues,” given the nature of the structure of the communities and the strange ideas that eventually pervaded them. (The “no kissing rule” was especially weird… Yes, go on click that Denzinger link. You know you want to see what infallible statement the Church has made on kissing.) If you think you are perfect, and your inferiors think you are perfect, when you are definitely not, how would that not occasion terrible abuses? Even though the Beguines did not share property (unlike the Beghards) or take vows, there was still a superior of the community, and how could a perfect superior not wield undue control? (Coincidentally – or not – Vienne also dissolved the Knights Templar, who had begun a similar downfall into wealth, power abuse, lax membership requirements, and heresy. One is reminded of the Church in present-day Germany.)
The Beguinages did attract pious women who did plenty of good work for each other and their towns, but in the end they didn’t work in many important ways, namely in cultivating a mature spirituality among the members. (There are, however, still a few active Beguinages around… The suppression on the Beguines – not the Beghards – was lifted 9 years after the Council, but eventually, the need disappeared and so membership declined.) When wealth, power, and gross spiritual imperfection are mixed in an ill-defined religious community with limited ecclesiastical oversight, one should expect mayhem to ensue. This is the lesson which Church history teaches us, and I fear it is a lesson not being well-learned today. That means the error will be repeated… Let us turn now to the so-called “Benedict Option.”
A million articles have now been written in response to Rod Dreher’s book on the need to duck out of postmodern society and form intentional Christian enclaves – which, he opines, is sort of the point of Christianity anyway (made obvious in part by the comical slew of “original” variations on the theme – the “Marian Option,” the “Augustine Option,” etc.). The idea is basically that Western society is so bad that it should just be left to destroy itself while we preserve our faith and morals amongst our own rather than risk more bleeding by living out “in the wild,” and we can draw people into the Church by leading attractive lives and with some occasional missionary activity overflowing from the enclave.
While most critics of this idea are concerned with the abandonment of wandering souls to the Zeitgeist, which is a legitimate (although in my opinion overblown) concern, my critique is focused on the interior life of an “intentional Christian community” rather than its exterior missionary activity. We don’t always need to preach to Gehenna (Jesus didn’t bother!), but we do always need to know who is in charge, where the money goes, how the hierarchical Church is involved, and in general how the community lives its life together.
There is a chasm between the domestic church and the hierarchical church. It is easy to fall into it.
I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community,” though this is now the primary buzzword, closely followed by “covenant community,” although these are distinct (albeit not mutually exclusive) realities. An “intentional Christian community” is just that – people who intentionally associate with one another to aid their discipleship. A “covenant community” involves signing a contract that pledges certain things for the good of the group… Like “obedience to the leadership.”
Let’s ask some questions.
First, is this or that community even specifically Catholic? If not, how will the Catholic Church be presented by non-Catholic members and leaders? Will there be requirements or “suggested opportunities” for members that don’t square with Catholic doctrine and morals? Is there a non-denominational-ish church which the community is obliged or semi-obliged to support, financially or otherwise? What is being preached and taught there? What about a school? Same questions. What kind of spirituality will the community develop and encourage that is not founded in or ordered to the Mass and the confessional? How exactly does one’s local parish pastor involve himself in the lives of Catholics in such a community? How do members relate to their parish in general? Is the leadership tempted to use the group’s ecumenical nature as a means of dodging episcopal oversight? How can a Catholic member in good conscience follow a non-Catholic spiritual leader, precisely insofar as he or she is a spiritual leader? These are serious questions, some of which don’t have easy answers. It can sometimes happen that, as far as the Church is concerned, what happens in such groups is more communism than ecumenism.
There are many other questions to be answered by any community, especially the ones that require signing a contract or “covenant” to join… Will the community be at the service of the parish and hierarchical church, or vice versa? How will a poorer family support both the community and the parish? What are the details of the “covenant” (viz. what is actually required, and why)? How does one opt out of the community, if it is possible at all? If it is not possible, why? How is personal information treated within the community? How are relationships between men and women monitored? Where does the money go, and how is transparency guaranteed? Are there inordinate pressures to take or leave certain jobs? Is there any restriction of relationship with people inside or outside the community for arbitrary reasons? What is required to become a member of the community? How does the community relate with the diocese and bishop? In whose name does the community exercise its ministries and evangelization projects – their own, the diocese’s, the parish’s, the individuals’? If priests or deacons are members, how does their membership and activity relate to their official ecclesiastical role wherever their bishop or superior has actually assigned them? Exactly what role does the leadership of the community play in the life of the group? What is required to become a leader in the community? Does all of the leadership rotate periodically? If no, why not? What is the understanding of the “grace of state” among the leaders?
This last one is huge. Grace of state is a gift that comes with occupying a certain office. In some cases, it can, in a sense, involve an infallible discernment of the will of God, which would imply obedience to that person’s demand under pain of sin. A few examples will suffice… The president of a country signs legislation that people must drive on the left side of the road. The local bishop chooses not to allow a tabernacle to be put in a certain rectory. The parents of a child tell him that he will go to the parish school. Who would argue that obedience in these examples is not a matter of moral precept? However, this does not mean the decisions were necessarily made for the right reasons… Perhaps the president is hoping that his new law will cause catastrophe for tourists. Maybe the bishop is jealous of the piety of the priest who lives in that rectory. It could be that the parents would actually do better to homeschool their child, but they are just lazy. It doesn’t matter: it is still the will of God precisely because these people have the right to demand these things of those under them in virtue of their offices – offices which ultimately derive from God, either through nature (like the government or the family) or through grace (like the hierarchical church).
In covenant communities, there is often an ambiguous commitment to “obey” the leadership. One could be shamed and thought of as impious or disobedient (or even Satanic) for not falling in line with whatever the leaders require. After all, don’t they have the grace of state to determine God’s will for the community?
No. There is no office of nature or of grace which authentically interprets the will of God for such a community which comes from within the community itself. That is the job of the pastor and/or bishop, or a duly appointed delegate. Even then, the scope of obedience only goes so far – the bishop, for instance, does not have the right to tell parents they must enroll their child in the parish school. The pastor does not have the right to demand a certain amount of tithing from his parishioners. Etc. These things can frequently be items of “discernment” in covenant communities which then become “suggestions” or “opportunities.” Pity the member who does not go along with the will of their leaders! In fact, it seems that all that a duly appointed ecclesiastical representative could really authentically interpret is how to relate the community to various real authorities, such as the pastor, the bishop, the government, families, and so on, according to those authorities’ proper roles. What one finds instead is often one or several people at the top, who were self-appointed, who never rotate, and who claim to be authentic prophetic voices for the community which is centered around their wills; in other words, cult leaders.
Signing a contract is an important action, and it should not be done lightly. However, we must realize that humans are not angels – they do not perfectly understand all the implications of their actions – and therefore, vows can (and sometimes must) be broken for the good of the individual or commonwealth. Unlike marriage, association with a community is certainly something “intrinsically dissoluble” – that is, either party can choose to step away once it becomes clear that it is best for either of them, so long as any inordinate injury is avoided… It does not require an intervention of a third-party, like the Pauline or Petrine privileges in the dissolution of non-sacramental marriages. A vow to a merely human society is not a vow to God, and so it is far less serious, though it is still a matter of justice insofar as the reckless abandonment of the promise can bring damage to either party… One does owe something to the person or persons to whom a vow is made simply by the nature of the vow itself.
But let’s examine the nature of private vows made to God. (See the relevant canons here.) Vows to God are much more serious (as a matter proper to the virtue of religion), such that the complete release from them requires a dispensation or commutation from the Church (or the time elapsing). And yet even here, one who undertakes a vow to God with insufficient understanding of what he is committing himself to by that vow can’t be morally bound to it. (Think of a pious 5th grader who, in a fit of religious fervor, promises to God after Mass one day that he will never marry. He is unquestionably not bound by this vow! Of course, determining what is “sufficient” is a difficult matter.) What’s more, a vow made to God must actually be possible (obviously) and for the sake of a better state or action than what one would otherwise be in or do without the vow, or else the vow does not bind. (A person who promises to God that he will not go to Mass except on Sundays is not bound by this vow unless he would really be doing harm to himself or others by going to Mass during the week. A person who promises to God that he will tie his left shoe before his right shoe is also not bound by the vow because it is not better to do this. Vows like this are vain and sinful, in fact, and rash or hasty vows can be sinful as well.) It must also be the case that the “better state or action” must really continue to be better for the one who made the vow in order for it to remain binding. (If a husband vows to spend several hours each week in private prayer, this would cease to bind if his wife became very sick and needed his constant attention.) In general, when more fundamental obligations become more serious, the obligations based on vows begin to decrease in gravity.
Given all this, it should be easy to see that the “covenant” part of covenant communities involves a serious but not that serious kind of promise. The public vows made when entering proper religious communities, or private vows made directly to God, are much more serious – and yet there are many qualifications and ways out. I wonder how well the nature of vows is understood by leaders in various covenant communities – and how well they explain that nature to aspiring members. Once it becomes clear that a community is bad for one’s children, isn’t it incumbent upon the parents to remove themselves from that community? If it is becoming harmful to one’s psychological, emotional, spiritual – or financial – welfare, isn’t it a duty to leave? As a person slowly realizes that he got himself into something he didn’t really understand the details of, doesn’t his obligation to stay begin to diminish? Of course. And all the while, the leaders of these communities will still not be authentically interpreting the will of God, because they are only appointed or elected for the good of a merely man-made and non-fundamental collective to which people can freely come and from which people can freely go, usually without sin. This is unlike the government, this is unlike the Church, and it is unlike the family.
The “Beguinage Option” is not the right way – but clearly, the desire for intense communal discipleship is good. How can it be fulfilled in the lives of lay people who can’t enter or don’t want to enter religious life?
In the next post of this 3 part series, I will look at a few specific examples of covenant communities as case studies (including one with which I have some personal connection), and then finally I will propose a model or two of my own.
We hear a lot about the Good News. The Good News is that God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us and has risen from the dead, freeing us from the tyranny of sin and death. This is also called the kerygma.
The kerygma does not make sense to most millennials. Why? Because they don’t know the Bad News. There can no longer be much Western evangelization without first talking about the Bad News.
What is the Bad News? It is this: you are a sinner, you are going to die, you deserve to be punished by God forever, and there is nothing you or any mere human being can do to rectify this situation.
Post-modern millennials (PMM’s) do not believe in personal sin, that is, offending God in a meaningful way. They don’t even believe in God, or if they do, it is a God that is more like a soup than a person… He is not really more in one place than another, and He makes you feel good when you take a spoonful. PMM’s ignore death – they wrap it up as an occasion to celebrate the life of the deceased, thus avoiding significant grief over the horrifying reality of loss. Therefore, the thought that anyone could merit eternal punishment is incomprehensible to them, except maybe some Trump supporters, terrorists, and global-warming skeptics… Certainly, they deserve eternal punishment, right?
The faithful Jews of ancient Israel understood the Bad News very well – they knew sin, they knew death, they knew personal guilt. Particularly helpful in describing the sad state of affairs in which post-Eden humanity finds itself is the Book of Ecclesiastes… There is perhaps no book in Scripture which paints a clearer picture of the human condition. I submit that this text is a massively underused tool of evangelization, as it relies almost entirely on appealing to natural reason, and it very well disposes a person to feel the need for the Gospel message. Qoheleth just tells it like it is: the world is not fair, your wealth and pleasure, though good, are torturously fleeting and uncertain, people will not remember the good you do, and soon enough, you will die – all of the fruits of your labors will be lost to you, and you have no real way of controlling what will happen to them.
If that’s not a cold dose of reality, then nothing is.
And since we have to present the Gospel as real, it must connect with what is really experienced. A sincere appeal to life’s unfairness, the fleetingness of pleasure, etc., can open the door which He is always knocking on, even in the heart of a PMM. The Bad News is, in fact, the door itself which has blocked Him in the first place.