I had a strange dream last night, a conversation with an English-speaking Benedictine monk in the south of France. The person exists, and he and I have had warm and cordial correspondence over the years. He and I share a passionate interest in liturgical studies. The dream was a conversation in which it was concluded that I had nothing to offer the Church. No doubt, this bleak judgement came in my subconsciousness from the time when I was still in the TAC and Archbishop Hepworth was telling me it was “going to be all right” and the facts were saying just the opposite.
I woke up fully and thought it through. We are here to achieve something and offer it to the world. We all seem to have read the Parable of the Talents. It can be anything like writing a book or setting out on a voyage, or engaging in humanitarian work, just continuing with a ministry of intercession and the Mass. There are so many possibilities, including this modest blogging. I thank God for not having “writer’s block” for more than a few days at a time or a week at most. The conversation in the dream amounted to my death, or spiritual death, the death of a vocation – whilst there is still life in my body. I am active and in good physical health. The Benedictine monk was good, warm and pleasant – but could have nothing to offer.
What I seem to have discovered is that the Church has something to offer us and to everybody, and that we have something to offer to the Church and the whole world. Fortunately the Church is not an institution or a “perfect society”, but a Sacrament of Christ. Like the Blessed Sacrament, the Church can be visibly broken and yet retain its unity as one Body of Christ. We try to manufacture unity and get all the eggs into a single basket, but the unity is already there and lives in us all.
Churches are certainly brought to the same apparent impasse as when I was conversing with the monk in Dreamland. They are told that there is nothing to do, nowhere to go except submitting to death and oblivion. The world is changing and we Christians flounder like so many fish as the water drains away. We continue in our “true-church” claims and jurisdictional squabbles, the Orthodox like Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other communities.
The Church and Christendom have had their long histories characterised by asceticism and beauty. Now, in the western world, and in many parts of the east, north and south too, we can’t drive for a few minutes without seeing a church in a village or at the side of the road. The symbols are all there: the wayside calvaries, statues on street corners in our towns, the relics of bygone popular piety. City parishes do quite well, but it’s dead out here in the countryside.
Christians often think that the solution is marketing and advertising – in the same way as businesses compete for customers potentially needing (or thinking they need) their products and services. Some churches still send people in twos to sell the goods door to door in the way glitzy salesmen used to push vacuum cleaners. In other eras, the Church came to the help of the poor and the sick. We now have a welfare state, and giving to it out of our earned income is mandatory. Here in France, we not only have the French equivalent of Obamacare, but also for our pension fund and what finances unemployment benefits and benefits for children and handicapped people. That doesn’t include income tax levied by the State. We are charged so much that we barely have anything left to give to charity after paying our bills and the ever-spiralling costs of energy and food. What can the Church offer there? Little more than words now that the liturgy has been taken away from most parishes…
I come back to my question – What have we to offer? There are holes in the welfare state and needs they don’t cater for. These have to be looked for. One area secular society is not interested in is death, from caring for the dying to caring for the bereaved. Hospice care is expensive and can be more than short term, and the quality of care decreases when priority has to be given to curables. The cost of funerals and undertakers is staggering. The Church used to have confraternities for burying those whose families couldn’t afford expensive obsequies organised by firms of undertakers. Most of us would want something simple so as not to be a burden on our families. A niche seems to be open, but such things in our modern world are increasingly regulated, so that (like health care) the only way is to insured for the colossal costs.
There is a need, not for charity or moralising, but for spirituality and beauty. Those who are attracted to such things are, like myself, greying and ageing – and who are used to thinking in such terms outside the pressures of the materialistic world of money and social status. These things are matters I have already discussed, and perhaps a church that has nothing to offer, no raison d’être, has only to fade away. Many Christians hope for a return of the old ruling class, empires and kingdoms, or failing those, authoritarian military junta regimes. But all those things are in the past. Christianity can no longer depend on the old models of society. What would the “Benedictine monk” say on behalf of the world? You are canonically irregular and nothing can be done about it. Is that not the sentence pronounced by the judgement of secular society?
Coming out of this, we would find the notion that Christianity is there for those who want it as an ideology and philosophy of life. There are many others, old and new. Many of our contemporaries feel that we kept our captive audiences in the past through irrationality, which has since been cleared away by science and rationalist philosophy. Of course, the further science goes, the less it fits into the secularist’s world view, and again we are faced with mystery and the transcendent. The materialists have also reached the end of their tether. They have nothing to offer, and they have been overtaken by their own science.
The only thing the Church has to offer is a vision of transcendence through the beauty of holiness, through the liturgy. I have often suggested the idea of some kind of monastic life adapted for married people and families as well as celibates and ascetics. Such communities do exist, like the Amish and various Catholic charismatic communities like the Chemin Neuf. Not everyone is made for hothouse life or yet another life involving competition, social status and the strong lording it over the weak. Even if all we want to do is offer a solemn liturgy, there has to be a full “crew”, not only at the altar but in the organ loft and the choir stalls.
Something has broken. Churches and anything more than individual costs money. That money has to be earned or collected from people who are already overtaxed and overcharged for the welfare state. We have no alternative to carrying on with the old “baggage”, because we know nothing else. We are attached to our liturgy, artistic culture and we ways we do things – but few others are interested.
What we offer is not going to be in exchange for people coming to our churches. Our gift has to be gratuitous and invisible, the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. I am made to think of the grain going into the ground as the only condition of it growing and producing fruit. Nisi granum frumenti cadens in terram mortuum fueri… There are still places in the world where churches have a market among greying people of my age and older with a religious culture and interest in “churchy” things. Whether that market is increasing or decreasing in those place, who can tell.
We have to be faithful. I may indeed have little to offer, as I answered that question from my Bishops board of ministry when it interviewed me last year. I told them I would be of no use to them whatsoever except what I can do as a priest – offer the Holy Mysteries of the Mass for the redemption of the world. Say that to anyone other than a Church, and they won’t give you the time of day. That is the difference between the Church and the modern world. The Church welcomes useless people like myself, and the world throws away its trash when it is no good any more.
We have everything to offer to those who have nothing to offer! Blessed are the poor in spirit…