Staying in one’s cell

This is my first post for Daily Theology, and I’m very excited to be joining the virtual ranks. But the proposed topic for Theological Shark Week is, to put it mildly, a doozy. Personally, professionally, politically – this is one of the questions I’m most often asked, and for which I least often have an answer. Which is why I masquerade as an accountant on long plane flights.

Providentially, this ecclesiologist was asked to post on Tuesday, February 14th. Providentially, if uncomfortably. In my relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, am I celebrating Valentine’s Day or V-Day? Should this post be a sugary-sweet panegyric to the beauty and the holiness of the Body of Christ, marred only occasionally and temporarily by bits of misunderstood unpleasantness? Or a one-act “Ecclesia Monologues” about the violence perpetrated by Catholics and their leaders, past and present, against women, against gays and lesbians, against abused children, against non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians in general…the list could go on, with or without the footnote to Richard Dawkins. Either one of those options is attractive –hope in the Church bordering on Pollyannish optimism, the very opposite of real Christian hope, or “pragmatic” skepticism, distancing oneself from the Church and standing up, with Jesus, against the violence done to his members by the institutions of his Body. Either of these options is easier, logically and, in a certain sense, spiritually – to go “all in” with one’s trust in God’s presence in this particular institutional community, or to make a final break in solidarity with victims and in protection of one’s own spiritual safety. It’s enough to make me want to write about Cyril and Methodius today instead.

My real answer is that I don’t have a good, or necessarily even logical, answer. But that would make for a rather short post. So rather than try to argue in one direction or another, I want instead to outline some of my spiritual experience of living today as a Roman Catholic in what often feels like an ecclesial desert. I write as a lay Roman Catholic with many gifts – from my talents, from my training as a theologian, most importantly from my baptism as a Christifidelis. But I also write from an experience not of intense isolation but of communal awkwardness in which my pastors often don’t seem to know how to respond to those gifts, in which the mystery of the church’s holiness seems unnecessarily mysterious, in which the distance between the Gospel and the Church (leaders and members), seems stretched to the breaking point. In other words, not inappropriate two weeks before Lent begins, I, and many of my fellow Catholics, I believe, find ourselves living an experience of a community wandering in the wilderness.

I’m not in a position to judge or even evaluate those who experience this differently. But my particular cell in the desert is providentially – and I use that word intentionally – located. Through God’s grace, perhaps mixed with some naturally Pollyannish tendencies, I still see and rejoice in the beauty of my church, in the bright rays of holiness that regularly, randomly pierce through the clouds of mendacity, in the unfailing if frustratingly fleeting presence of Christ in my fellow Christians, in the Eucharist, in the commitment of bishops, pastors, and all the baptized to open space for the Reign of God through their love of God and neighbor, especially the most vulnerable of those neighbors.  But also through God’s grace, and through the accidents of biography, experience, temperament, relationships, my cell is definitely located outside of the walls of the city. I’ve seen too many friends injured, silenced, or ungratefully ignored, and know too much church history, to live comfortably with any Catholic triumphalism, however updated for 2012, and that despite some of my deepest, creedal belief in the Holy Spirit active in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

I experience this regularly in my classroom, this feeling of being an anchorite haphazardly attached to the walls of the church. How do I teach my students about the church as the Body of Christ, as the means by which Jesus’ saving work of reconciling humanity with God, with creation, and with each other becomes real and active in every time and place, without falling into the temptations of Christendom, the scripts of dominance, divisive identity, and triumphalism that provide an escape hatch from messiness of our actual ecclesial life? Alternately, how do I raise questions about that church, about its history, about its failings, without being heard according to another set of scripts that divide Christ from his church, or divide our deepest responses to the Gospel from the institutions that structure them, or simply deny a role for an outdated, patriarchal institution in a post-Christian world? How do I teach, or even live, in the middle, when the scripts make better t-shirts and soundbites, and provide apparently stronger foundations for individual and collective identity? How do we live as church while neither trumpeting nor attacking The Church?

I find the metaphor of the actively remaining in the desert helpful in my own Catholic Christian life for trying to pray where I am, and to stay where I am. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Moses counsels a monk, perhaps especially prone to wondering from place to place or community to community, “Stay in your cell and it will teach you everything.” Staying put in my cell often seems, given my modern lenses, like an intellectual cop-out – if I were really serious about these contradictions, I would Figure Out An Answer and Make A Serious Decision. But Abba Moses advises what we might call “holy inertia” – trusting that, as uncomfortable as that desert might be, staying put in the cell to which the Holy Spirit has brought me is the way of staying put in Her service and in the service of the church.  It’s not a lazy staying put – or at least it doesn’t have to be. The decision to stay put in the insecurity and discomfort of one’s cell and to wait for God there is as actively staying put as bed rest through the last weeks of a pregnancy or forcing oneself to remain at a desk writing, say, a blog post, and trusting that God is actively supporting my holy inertia. Jean Pierre de Caussade, in one of those Downton-Abbey-esque titles that 18th-century French spiritual writers were great at coming up with, talks about “Abandonment to Divine Providence” – trusting in the present moment as the place of encounter with God. And so for me, the starting point of my remaining in the church is, at this point, less a reasonable answer and more a hope that finding myself here is a part of God’s providence, and a place from which I can grow.

As was the case for the early fathers, even if staying in one’s cell is necessarily solitary, one is never entirely alone. It’s a thoroughly cenobitic lifestyle, as there are a number of other Catholics who feel in the desert these days. Paradoxically, the only way I find to live out my baptism alone is to live alone with these others. Similarly, but not unrelated to the Gospel from February 5, 2012 (Mk 1:29-39), in which Jesus prayed in a deserted place before continuing in his ministry, it seems crucial to life as church to live out that life, in part, in solitude.  For me, remaining distinct from the sometimes easier communities of identity with or against the church allows for the growth of new kinds of church, new ways of being church, opened up precisely by the refusal to retreat into either set of securities.

But before launching into any further thoughts that might seem to provide a real answer to the question, I need to stop and return to my lack of an answer. And so when asked why I stay Catholic, I don’t have an answer, but a practice – I stay in my cell.

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