One of my spiritual heroes, the late Fr. William McNamara, was once teaching moral theology to a class of second graders. He asked the students, “If the good people were all red and the bad people were all blue, what color would you be?”
One little girl answered, “I’d be stripe-y.”
This second grader was expressing St. Augustine’s version of human nature. In his day, there were great saints who told their stories. The theme of their stories was (to borrow a phrase from centuries later), “I once was blind but now I see.” Augustine disturbed the late Roman world with his book The Confessions, in which his theme was “I once was blind but now I see ‘as through a glass darkly.’” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
In this life, we are all stripe-y. We all see through a glass darkly. It is a paradox and a frustration. We are given this life to grow in wisdom and grace, to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to descend into our very souls (true selves if you prefer secular language) and live out of them. And yet – and yet – we remain muddled, sometimes foolish, reactive, prone to do all sorts of wrongs. “The good that I would do, I do not. The evil that I would not do, that is the very thing I do.”(Romans 7: 19). We long to become like Christ, and therein lies our happiness and the meaning and the value of our mortal lives[i] – but if our salvation and ultimate destiny depend on our success at that project, we are doomed by our incorrigible and ineradicable fallibility.[ii]
That is why there are several kinds of grace – two of which apply here. One is the forgiving, reconciling, justifying mercy of God who accepts us and loves us as we are. The other is the transforming grace of transformation, the hand of God sculpting, the breath of God enlivening, the will of God aiding our own wills to become more than we are today. As someone said, “God loves us the way we are, but because he loves us, he does not leave us this way.”
Now let’s bring this abstraction to earth. I had expected to be a considerably more enlightened being than I am at this stage in life’s journey. I would have wanted to be a better person. But it turns out I’m still pretty flawed and fallible. But there’s actually something good about that. One way I have improved is that, thanks to my failings, I am far less likely to look down on others. I am too aware of the plank in my own eye. (Matthew 7: 5). And the truth is: my spiritual ambition to become ethereal and serene was about 65% imagining it would make me feel better and 35% anticipating how great it would be looking down on the less spiritually advanced folks. I am still a pretty foolish person but I have learned this much about life: the project is considerably more substantive than feeling better and there is no room in it for lording it over other people, especially based on subjective moods.
Oddly enough, that brings us to the Church. As a young adult, I kept my distance from the Church because I didn’t respect Church folks very much. That is a common attitude among the young, especially these days. And it often persists late in life. One of our hospice chaplains reports that as she serves unchurched people they express no need for a faith community because they feel that they are “good with God.” I don’t know what that means but it could be they think they will go to Heaven without the benefit of the Church, which (there is some argument about that, but) I think they are probably right. And they may mean they are reasonably calm (which is nice but not, in my view, the purpose of human life) or they have a clean conscience (which, in my view, is more likely an anaesthetized and morally indifferent conscience).[iii] More and more folks are choosing to practice their spirituality “on their own cloud” as one anti-church person put it to me this week while telling me to get off his – yes it was a grumpy old boomer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3F4GmbHl5g
So let’s have a truth moment about the Church. We’ve done some wonderful and noble things – inventing hospices, hospitals, and hostels; standing against slavery, apartheid, and genocide. We’ve produced some heavy-duty saints that any secularist or spiritual-but-not-religious person would be hard pressed not to admire. But as a whole, Church people are not better than other people; and Church people are not nicer when they are in Church than when they are at home or work. Oddly enough, they are often worse. The Church as an institution and its members individually have also behaved abominably.
So, why complicate life by getting mixed up with such people? Today, we can hold ourselves out as better, holier, more spiritual and righteous by saying we are better than the Church so we don’t get its mud on our clothes. Why be part of the Church?
There is the upside of necessity. We cannot maintain any kind of spiritual practice without community support. This is not just a Christian thing. Buddhists, AA, etc. all say the same. We need each other, no matter what the soloists claim. We soon learn that our spiritual journey will be either short or circuitous if we do not dare wander beyond the little cloud of our own subjectivity. So we look for a faith community that is worthy of us. We hope in such a community to hang out and bask in each other’s holiness.
But such a faith community must be pure enough for us and by our standards of purity (which these days may or may not be restraint from fleshly sins – purity can as easily consist in holding all the right opinions of inclusivity, etc.). In recent years, we have seen people separate themselves from churches that were deemed impure by virtue of LGBTQ inclusion. Before that it was women’s ordination. In every era, there is some issue leading to separation in the quest for a pure and holy enough Church to live up to or personal standards.
This centrifugal impulse toward purity goes back at least to the 4th Century when the Donatists broke away from the Catholics because some of the Catholic clergy had been ordained by bishops who had betrayed the faith during the last Roman persecution in 303 AD. The Donatists wanted a pure Church, untainted by cowardice and moral laxity. So they formed their own group as a community apart from Roman society generally and apart from the rest of the Church. It was an enclave of the good. Peter Brown called it “a place of refuge, like the Ark.”
The person who challenged the Donatists was none other than St. Augustine who, you will recall, had come to see himself as still a deeply flawed man despite his position as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He saw himself as a field in which wheat and weeds had both been sown. Matthew 13: 24-30. And that shaped his view of the Church. Now this takes close reading but it is worth it. Augustine’s biographer Peter Brown writes:
The Donatists might be content to find themselves in the Ark;
Augustine was concerned with a deeper problem; the human
race was divided; communication between fellow men in society was difficult . . . A man who feels intensely that the existing bonds . . . in society are somehow dislocated, but that the group to which he belongs, can consolidate and purify them, will . . . be very different from the man who feels he can only create an alternative to this society
-- a little ‘Kingdom of Saints’ -- . . . in a hostile or indifferent world.
Augustine saw the religious project, the project of human life, altogether differently. It isn’t about being “good with God,” securing our ticket to heaven, easing our conscience, or managing our anxiety. Neither the Church nor the world make those things easy. But it isn’t about that. It’s about sharing God’s love with the world in its brokenness. No one in the Bible describes “the world” more darkly, more cynically, more pessimistically than St. John the Evangelist, but he is the one who says, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son that whoever believes (trusts) in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3: 16)
So this Church thing isn’t about what we get out of it but what we put into it. It’s about sharing God’s love in a broken world and a broken Church. In our own broken fallible way, we serve other broken fallible people. We show them as best we can the path of grace. But even when we show the path well, they are apt not to follow it. What then? Augustine says:
The man you cannot put right is still yours: he is part of you;
either as a fellow human being or often as a member of your
church. He is inside with you.
Right or wrong, we are in this together, “for better or worse, in sickness or in health, till death do us part.”
When Churches splinter into little pockets of purity (self-defined) or splinter into individuals practicing their own brand of spirituality on their own cloud,[iv] it is not surprising to see the secular society follow suit into disintegration. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy In America, said the great threat to democracy was our penchant for individualism but that democracy was sustained by certain “habits of the heart” fostered by our religion and experience in voluntary associations. As we 21st Century Americans have lapsed into neo-Donatism, we only exacerbate the deeper problem that concerned Augustine, “the human race (is) divided; communication between fellow (people) in society (is) difficult.” Or as Yeats put it,
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world;
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction; while the worst
Are filled with passionate intensity.
We join the Church, not for our sake, but to love the world because God loves it, and here’s the kicker – in the awful, painful, dreadful, endlessly frustrating act of loving the world – that is how we are changed – changed into the likeness of Christ “who loved (us) and gave himself for (us.) (Galatians 2: 20)
It is a stripe-y Church for us stripe-y people. But it turns out the stripe-y-ness is not all bad. It is in fact the very means of our transformation. I have long loved this saying of St. John of the Cross, but only recently have I begun to grasp more of its meaning. John said,
God has so ordained to sanctify us through the frail
Instrumentality of each other.
The new point for me is that it is our very frailty that makes us the instrumentality of each other’s sanctification.[v] We do need each other to be kind, supportive, courageous, and inspiring. But we also need each other to be ornery, wrong-headed, mean, duplicitous, and all those “bad” things that come to us so naturally. We don’t want it but we need it because when people are difficult, that is when we learn the spiritual arts of forbearance, forgiveness, and grace.
One does not get to be a bishop without loving the Church, but no one spends much time as a bishop without seeing more of the Church’s faults than most people do, and most people see plenty. To hang in with this love “till death do us part,” I have to love the Church “warts and all” and that has become all important to me – because the Church is the Body of Christ “who loved me (warts and all) and gave himself for me.” Those pure communities of the spiritually advanced are too sterile for authentic human life. In the worlds of the song, We All Need A Little Dirt To Grow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGOOH6ZTuXM
[i] The problem with theologies that consist entirely of assuring is that grace abounds and it’s all alright and we don’t’ have to do anything is that they render this mortal life meaningless. There is nothing to do but wait.
[ii] The problems with spiritualties that consist of our mastering and advancing are that: 1. We are usually unable to do them; and 2. They turn upon themselves in self-defeating ways. Prince Charles jokes he had always wanted to be recognized as a humble man. Finally someone gave him a medal for humility but when he put it on they took it away from him.
[iii] In my experience an easy conscience is the product of a strenuous discipline of self-delusion. None of us are that good. On the moral scale, I am not good with God; but, thank you Jesus, God is good with me. Thomas Merton said, “the man who is not afraid to admit all that he sees wrong with himself, but recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of these shortcomings, may begin to become sincere. His sincerity is based not on his illusions about himself, but on the endless, unfailing mercy of God.” No Man Is An Island
[iv] In Habits Of The Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah told the story of a woman named Shelia who practiced the religion of Shelia-ism, which consisted of doing what seemed right to her, believing what she chose to believe, and generally subscribing to doing her own thing.
[v] “Sanctification” is an old word in the Christian tradition. It means to be made “holy” but that leads to the need for more definitional unpacking. It isn’t about being pious. It is about the surrender of ego and being given away to God. It is akin to growing into the likeness of Christ. In psychology terms, it could be called self-authentication if “self” means the true soul, which is linked, to Christ as opposed to our ego.