‘They Fought Like Warrior-Poets’ – What Moves Culture?

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Mankind, by its very nature and manifested across time immemorial, has always lived in the context of ‘the group.’ New York Times columnist David Brooks even wrote a book boldly entitled The Social Animal – rephrasing Aristotle’s age-old definition of humans as ‘rational animals’ – in which he establishes the central characteristic of humans as their communal nature. Moreover, Brené Brown, a researcher at University of Houston School of Social Work and lights-out TED speaker has claimed that a summation of her decades of research shows two fundamental traits of human beings: “connection and belonging is why we are here” (pg. 68, Brené Brown, Daring Greatly). That really is a quirky, awe-inspiring reality. We are all individually and completely ourselves, but (avoiding all Jerry McGuire references) as individuals, we aren’t complete in and of ourselves. We need others. Hence, community is in our blood.

Now, arising out of these communities in which humans unavoidably find themselves is something called ‘culture.’ Equally as obvious and confounding as this communal nature of man is this term ‘culture.’ Everyone knows culture exists and that it is important, but we come up short when trying to define it. What is culture, anyway?

It isn’t just something reserved for stuffy museums and archipelagos of highly lauded ‘great works.’ It is not something people participate in only every once in a while when they see an opera, look at a Titian gallery or otherwise seek out some activity when they feel like ‘getting some culture.’ No, culture is far more expansive than that, formed from every corner of a building and every act of a citizen. It is “the way we do things around here” (pg. 174, Brené Brown, ibid.). It is the way of life of a people. It is not just what we do sometimes. Culture is the waters in which we are unavoidably swimming and the juices in which we are stewing. It is the spirit and soul of a communal body of people that exhibits its personality, life and health.

But, notice the root word of ‘culture’ – cultus, which is Latin for worship. Where is the natural spring, the birth canal, the inescapable origin, the ‘root’ for this ‘way of life’ of any people? Ultimately, it germinates from what that people worships. That is to say, culture springs forth from what that people loves and gives its collective heart to.

This is such a crucial point. This is why culture always comes back to how a community of people answers certain questions: What is ultimately significant and meaningful in life? What is true about the world and the cosmos? Who is man? What is his place and role in the world? What is the purpose in living? And, perhaps most poignantly, culture stems from and points to three questions achingly explored in Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World: Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?

All of these questions show culture to be more foundational than just what kinds of foods we eat and how we dress. Rather, it cuts straight to the heart of a people, finding its footing in how they answer Jesus’ perennial question:

“What do you seek?” (John 1:38)

In such a context, it doesn’t take an especially exacting gaze to see that our culture is not such a healthy one. It is one thing for a people to take their best stab at answering the questions above and let the cultural chips fall where they may. But, it something different entirely to do what our society in the West now does: not answer the questions at all.

Look at the above list of questions again… does our society give any whiff of an answer to them at all? How can that be? How is that approach to life an honest response to what are certainly the deepest, most rudimentary questions leaping up from the flames within our chests? How healthy can a culture be (and, more importantly, the people who give birth to such a culture) if it stands blind, deaf, dumb and mute, cutting out its own heart? This is why some have argued that we have no culture left.

What is the remedy? What can give life to what is dead? What can turn darkness into light? One (and only one) thing:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)

Each and every human being (and, by extension, each and every society) needs the ‘newness of life’ that only Jesus can give. It is to Him that we must come with empty hands and to Him that we must give everything. He is the only one who has the power to change societies and their attendant cultures. Life comes from no other source than God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the definition of foolishness (and Einstein concept of insanity) to dig into any other well. Therefore, if we wish to play a part in healing the wounds or solving the problems around us, we must, as St. Therese once said, “hide [ourselves] in the wounds of Christ,” so that, through us He may redeem, transform and give life.

And this is the climatic point of the Christian life: if we are truly pierced and converted by the Gospel, then we will spray out over the battle-contested garden of the world as warrior-poets of the Gospel – firmly girded with trust and hope in our Father and ever ready to die for Him in our combat against evil.

We follow Him on His mission to save people from destruction and death (as we ourselves have been saved.) In this way it is absolutely our mission (albeit, indirectly) to build a healthy culture, because it is our mission to let the light of Christ change the way people see and live in the world – to unleash Christ to transfigure hearts.

This is what it means to be a disciple. Consequently, it is only this kind of sold-out abandonment to the Christ-centered Gospel that suffices for restoring a putrefied and entombed culture like ours. When disciples truly live together in a community of Gospel-oriented mission, then societies flourish and fluoresce with truth, unity, justice, beauty, goodness and peace.

Brothers and sisters, this is what we are called to by Him who stands at the ready to pour out His grace and power into the hearts of all men. How can we not respond?

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The Importance of Community

00000402421032046K051JMV(Image credit Charlie Mackesy)

What are the worst things in the world? What are the things that run directly contrary to what we are made for? Peter Kreeft has a suggestion: boredom and loneliness (from his talk Lost in the Cosmos). This makes sense, because at the heart of all reality – at the heart of everything we are made for – is the Trinity: unending, ecstatic love, which is anything but boring and lonely.

Now, look out your window or into your own home or into your own soul – do you see any boredom and loneliness…? Sadly, like a wet, hot dumpster, our world (and, we must admit, our own hearts) reek with the ‘worst of things.’ Why? For this post, only one reason will be explored; a paramount problem that is one of the biggest challenges of our times: a lack of community.

PointCounterpointDan, times change and so does the nature of relationships…

So quipped Jane Curtin in the legendary SNL skit, Point/Counterpoint. She was referencing mostly romantic relationships, but let’s expand it to a broader view of basic human-human relationships. Does the nature of human relationships change? It would seem just the opposite of Jane’s claim is true: the more ‘times change’ the more things stay the same. We are not titans – individuals fit to conquer and thrive if left to ourselves.

We are, by our very nature, interiorly impoverished; ever in need of a labyrinthine webbing of others to bring us out of the curvatus in se (curving inward on oneself) that St. Augustine and Dante showed to be the very essence of Hell. For this reason, no man (if he is to remain a man) can be an island. We are made for love and “love can be kept only by being given away” (No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton.)

Yet in our society today it is a fact as cold as steel that this webbing of others – this sense of community – is increasingly hard to find.

Perhaps this is true especially for the young adult demographic. In the recently published article, “Alone in the New America” (well worth a read), authors David and Amber Lapp chronicle “the alienation of young working people.” In the midst of heavy debt and beleaguering, widespread, epidemic family fragmentation, most Millenials have embraced a “go-it-alone ethic” in which “there is no sense of ‘we.’” Instead:

“They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust… thinking of themselves as strangers to each other in their struggles… They just come to work and just cope.”

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“I don’t think there’s a thing we can do about it,” said Anthony. “And that’s kind of the American way – this is a free country, and free this and free that. But it’s your life, and not too many people care about other people’s lives. As long as it’s not theirs, they don’t care.”

Preeminent scholars, Charles Murray, who has been called “arguably the most consequential social scientist alive,” and Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard, have painted this rather sobering picture in their books Coming Apart and Bowling Alone, respectively.  The long and short of it is this: on a national level (and most strikingly in particular populations) “the raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much… that the situation may be beyond retrieval.” Blame the media, blame technology, blame work – whatever the reason: our “social capital” has plummeted, deeply affecting our ability to form and join into vibrant communities.

One would venture to guess that this is all anecdotally confirmed by our own experiences. When was the last time you saw hoards of kids playing with each other in a neighborhood? When was the last time you interrupted someone’s family dinner? When was the last time you saw two total strangers interact with each other on the street? And just think of how many inventions of the past decades have replaced regular opportunities for human-human interaction, right down to buying groceries and cooking food (charmingly depicted recently by the season opener of Downton Abbey).

This may sound like a caricatured, nostalgic response but it is a) empirically verifiable and b) hard to deny that it’s ‘easy’ nowadays for people to live without sharing common experiences, memories, activities and life with a consistent group of people. This is the very essence of community and it is rupturing. To drive it home, consider this chilling remark from a priest at an ordinary parish in southeastern Michigan:

I don’t know where everybody is. I don’t see anybody anymore and I don’t know where to find them.

Yes, that’s heavy stuff.

It gives “subject to futility” (Rom 8:20) a whole new look. If you’ve read this far, it can seem like the darkness is getting darker. But the light is getting lighter!

Do not abandon yourself to despair. We are the Easter people; and ‘Alleluia!’ is our song! (Pope John Paul II)

Set firmly in the beating heart of Christ, we can be confident and without fear. He reigns supreme over any problem that might seem insurmountable. And, what’s more, he wants us to live in this world – not out of it. He has a way for us to witness to the world of the gift that is freely given: His Mercy, His Love… Himself. How will He have us witness to the world while living in the world? No doubt: in the context of Christian community.

It is not good that the man should be alone… (Gen 2:18)

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20)

…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32)

When did the Lord ever ask anyone to go-it-alone? When has He moved in history if not in a group that had a sense of ‘we?’ Even Abraham had Lot, Moses had Aaron, Mary had Joseph, Paul had Timothy, etc. God gathers to Himself a people, which is very different from merely calling a bunch of individual persons. As deeply affected by our environment as we are, we need the constant contact, support and inspiration of a people if we are to thrive, grow in holiness and succeed in mission.

Most Catholics in this country (like most people in this country in general) need to be more intentional about this. We don’t need people only to ‘chillax’ with as a means of getting our ‘fix’ of human contact. We need brothers and sisters – fellow disciples we can sharpen and be sharpen by, count on, lean into and love. (Note: recall the verse above: “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” – true community requires presence, going far and above just ‘connecting’ through the Internet.) We need to be accountable to others; we need others to point out our weaknesses and strengths; we need intertwined threads if we are to levee the cold. As a rather wise Karol Wojtyla once noted, it is only the vibrancy of solidarity “that allows man to find the fulfillment of himself in complementing others” (pg. 285, Person and Act).

band-of-brothers-12729So, in short, we all need to find and mature in this kind of community. The walk of a disciple (both in terms of holiness and mission) is just about impossible without it. And it is equally as unlikely for any standard pagan walking the streets about you to ‘hear’ the Gospel if they don’t first ‘see’ how we love and are loved by one another (John 13:35). As the authors of “Alone in The New America” once again note:

And it becomes apparent that these young adults need opportunities for communion: to share their stories in supportive communities, to name and to share their suffering, and to receive healing. The remedy for their alienation is the experience of solidarity, of being with others, of forging ties. (Emphasis added.)

In the Christian life, we are never meant to walk alone.

i.d.entity: Community of Missionary Disciples (Part 1 of 2)

Jesus-disciplesWhat is the Church?

There are whole courses on this topic and many ways to approach the question. There are the usual meanings about the ontological and existential nature of the Church that discuss allusions to the Body (1 Cor. 12), the Bride (Rev. 19) and the Vineyard (John 15). But recently we received a more business-oriented, less symbolical “job description” of the Church from our earthly shepherd, Papa Francesco.

In his recently released Evangelii Gaudium, which is simply the Holy Father sharing what is most particularly on his heart and mind right now for all his spiritual children, Pope Francis tells us what the Church is and what she goes forth as (especially the Church as a reality here on Earth):

The Church… is a community of missionary disciples (#24)

That’s what we are: disciples who share, first, our lives with one another as adopted children of God and, secondly, our mission of bringing the love of Jesus to others.

We are a community. We share our lives together; joyously and determinedly walking side-by-side in seeking the outcast and yearning toward our “inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled and unfading” (1Peter 1:4). We are a fellowship that “goes forth” and a family of brothers and sisters living in union together with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means we ought to “devote [ourselves] to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers”, even day by day “attending temple together and breaking bread in [our] homes, partaking of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:42,46). We need one another and we need to live our lives in a way that substantiates this fact.

We are missionary. As members of the Church we, “who were dead through our trespasses,” have been made “alive together with Christ.”  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are now in the Son. If so, we now share in their mission. We are on the great “co-mission” with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to “go make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). What did Jesus come to do? “To save and seek the lost” (Lk 19:10); to “save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). For this reason, “mere administration can no longer be enough”, but we must be “permanently in a state of mission” (Evangelii Gaudium #25). We have to have a constant, pulsing missionary spirit that is ever ready to witness to the love of Christ and sees everything in the light of bearing fruit for the Kingdom.

We are disciples. We are ‘learners’ who sit at the feet of the Master. We are warriors who have pledged our total, unreserved allegiance to a King. We have been “crucified in Christ” so that we no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in us; and the life we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20). And so, our lives are over, in a sense. He is our Lord and we must give ourselves totally to him. This is what it means to be His disciples.

This community of missionary disciples can be summed up in a line from John Mark McMillan’s song “Heart Bleeds”:

Like fools in love, we’re bound to make a scene.

This is what the Church is. And, as part of the larger body, this is what i.d.916 is as well. Whatever contribution we make can only be centered on our identity as a community of missionary disciples. Let us get on our knees before the Lord that this might be a reality.

(Click here for Part 2)