What It Takes For Faith To Survive
Greetings from the sickbed. I had not realized how sick I had gotten in Italy until I returned home and was safe to crash. And crash I did. My doc has prescribed an antibiotic for this sinus infection. I’ve noticed that since my three-year bout with mono, my immune system is fragile, and even a cold often turns into something worse. So, my apologies for light posting. The real tragedy of all this, of course, is that when I’m in Austin this weekend, I will not be able to drink margaritas. Verily, we dwell in a vale of tears.
I wanted to say a little something more about faith in light of having watched Spotlight yesterday (read my impromptu essay from the airplane, which I posted yesterday; still can’t get over the fact that it’s possible now to have Internet on a transatlantic flight). I intend these words for all Christians — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — because I want you to benefit from the hard, hard lesson I learned. We are all going to face times of serious trial in the age upon us, and we should prepare ourselves. As a matter of fact, I think it was providential that I saw Spotlight after this grace-filled time in Italy, among inspiring Catholics. Let me explain.
As I have said before, as a Catholic, I was not prepared for the darkness of the child sex abuse scandal. Father Tom Doyle warned me early on, at the beginning, that if I proceeded down this path, I was going to come face to face with darkness that I could not even imagine. He told me this not to discourage me, but to warn me to prepare myself.
I thought I was prepared for anything. I really did — this, because I knew my faith. I knew it logically. I affirmed all its propositions, and strongly — that is, with an act of will. I thought that would protect me.
It did, for a while, but ultimately I quit believing in those ideals. No, that’s not quite right: I found myself unable to affirm those ideals. It was sheer exhaustion. This is not something that had ever happened to me with anything before, and I didn’t understand that it was possible. This is what can happen to you when your faith is too much inside your head.
The time I just spent in Italy helped me see this more clearly. For the monks, as for the lay Catholic Tipiloschi in San Benedetto del Tronto, the faith is not only propositional, but also a communal way of life. I trust that I don’t need to explain how this plays out for monks, but among the Tipiloschi, it is an extraordinary thing (see here for more details). Theirs is a lay Catholic community that is wholly committed to following Church teachings. They are thoroughly orthodox in their Catholicism, but they’re not angry about it. Do you hear me on that? They are not angry about it.
Living out their faith has a contemplative dimension, including formal group study of Scripture, the lives of the saints, and the Catechism. It also includes prayer, confession, spiritual direction, and, of course, frequent mass. They live out their faith by running a classical Christian school for the community’s children, as well as for others (they keep the tuition low so working people can afford it), and doing all kinds of charitable work in the community, especially involving their children in these things. And they meet often to feast, to garden, to sing, to play, and enjoy being with each other. The shocking thing for American eyes is how normal this all is for them. And in turn, I’m shocked that I’m shocked: this is how life in Christian community is supposed to be, but so rarely is.
I mentioned to Marco Sermarini, my host in SBT, earlier this week that if I had had in my Catholic life the monks of Norcia to give spiritual guidance and the Tipiloschi to live out the faith in daily life, things might have gone different with me and my Catholic faith. I had to make it clear that I am irrevocably committed to Orthodoxy, settled into Orthodoxy, and deeply grateful for the gift of it. But it bothers me that I didn’t enter Orthodoxy serenely, having concluded after passionless reflection that the case for Orthodox Christianity is stronger than the case for Roman Catholic Christianity — as if I were a judge deciding a case. No, I became Orthodox to save myself from drowning in anger, fear, and despair. I am very grateful to be Orthodox, and despite my love and admiration for the people I spent time with in Italy, I don’t have the slightest desire to return to Catholicism. I will walk along side my Catholic and Protestant brothers and sisters with joy and gratitude, but I’m on the right path, and am not leaving it. I hate to harp on that, but I just want to be clear here, because a lot of people, both Catholic and Orthodox, are confused about this.
To return to the point (a point that is valid for Orthodox and Protestant Christians as well as for Catholics): if there is no prayerful, contemplative dimension to your Christianity — because after all, the Christian life is about becoming fully united to Jesus Christ — then you run the risk of becoming like the tribal Catholics in Spotlight. That is, you risk becoming people who idolize the tribe (community) and its chieftains, even if it means sacrificing the ideals that the community is supposed to embody. If “being Catholic” (or Protestant, or Orthodox) requires you to turn a blind eye to the rape of children, or some other grave sin and crime, then you may as well adorn yourself with a millstone and jump off a cliff into the deep blue sea. Life in community is not enough in itself; in fact, as we see in Spotlight, it can lead you to make a false god of the community, such that you, in effect, murder the true God.
One of the reporters featured in the film says that he was raised Catholic, but quit practicing the faith. He always hoped to return to the faith one day, but now, given what he’s seen, he cannot bring himself to do it. It’s an excruciating scene, and actor Mark Ruffalo makes you feel the agony of lost hope. It must be said, though, that people who keep the faith at arm’s length like that, thinking that one day, one day, they’ll get it together and come back — they aren’t going to make it. I know a lot of Christians like that, people who are cultural Christians, with vague intentions of Getting Serious about it again. They will not last through what’s coming.
What does this have to do with the Benedict Option? I mentioned to Marco on Monday that I appreciated the sense of balance in the Rule of St. Benedict. He said he wasn’t sure what St. Benedict meant by “balance.” He said that the way he sees it, either you are with Jesus, or you aren’t. Either he is at the center of your life, and everything is organized around serving him, or, well, what’s the point? Either be radical, or don’t be at all. You can’t bracket your faith off from the rest of your life. To that I would add that in our post-Christian culture, either you will be radical in the sense Marco means, or you won’t be Christian, because it will cost too much, and be too difficult.
I think of the Tipiloschi as an ideal Benedict Option community because they appear to have achieved a good balance of active and contemplative life as lay Christians. You have to have both. And this is hard to do! But it’s necessary. As I go forward on the Ben Op book, I now have it more clear in my mind what kind of ideal I’m trying to lead people (including myself) towards. It was so, so good to see it in action, both in the monastery and among the lay people. It can be done; I know this because it is being done right now. Watching Spotlight on the flight back, and having to revisit in some sense the reason why I lost my Catholic faith, and might have lost my Christianity entirely had things continued, gave me deeper insight into the challenge we all face, and will face. Believe me, you do not want to discover your own failures as a Christian when you are put to a hard test. Now is the time to prepare yourself and your community for the difficult future ahead.
Obviously I don’t know each of your readers personally, but I’d say it’s a pretty good guess that many of you are like I was in the year 2000, when Father Doyle warned me about the malign power of the darkness I was just starting to explore. I thought I could withstand anything. I was prideful in my faith, and I was smashed by that trial. Whatever your faith tradition, my warning to you is: don’t take anything for granted. You don’t know what’s coming. You think you know, but you don’t. You think you can imagine from where the attack might come, but you are almost certainly deceiving yourself. Learn from my mistakes.