Dorothy Day famously said, quoting Romano Guardini, that “the Church is the cross on which Christ is crucified.”
As if that’s a bad thing.
Which of course it is, in the sense of the terrible abuse that has gone on in the Church, and the violence done in its name, and the corruption, and the hypocrisy.
But I think the biggest danger for many of the good and sincere people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” is the unspoken assumption that there’s a way to be happy all the time, and avoid boredom, and never have to face the darkness inside them, and the emptiness, and the need.
In that sense the tackiness of the Church, and the tedium of the Church, and the ordinariness—the threadbare carpets, the bad singing, the bumbling liturgies—all of that is to the good. It humbles us and it crucifies in small and necessary ways, because it’s only in the ordinary and the everyday, only there, in the moment, that Christ appears.
Sometimes people who think of themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious live lives of committed spiritual practice and charity towards others.
But sometimes to be spiritual-but-not-religious really means keeping everything in our heads where it doesn’t have to be acted out and so compromised. We can avoid making fools out of ourselves and avoid making mistakes because we haven’t tried to do anything in the first place.
It’s like deciding to be a musician and never picking up the guitar.
I know a man who travels thousands of miles every year, and climbs mountains, and visits monasteries, and prays and fasts, and who reads book after book about theology and world religions, and who talks about Christianity and about faith from that pristine and temporary distance, as if the life in the pews is somehow not good enough, not aesthetically and intellectually pleasing enough, when if he would stay on the mountaintop a little longer, for more than a week or so, if we would actually live in a monastery, over time, he’d get tired of the food and bored with the clouds and irritated with this monk or that, as they would get irritated with him.
Life. Ordinary life.
Michael Casey says that the reason to go to a monastery is to discover that God can’t be found there.
He means: it’s not magic. God is everywhere, on the mountaintop and in the valley and in the drivethru at Starbucks, and especially when we’re so bored and tired and emptied out we realize that the grace when it comes, the light when it comes, isn’t our achievement but a gift given to us freely as it is given to everyone.
God is in the monastery, too, of course. But in just this sense.
An ordinary daily mass. A Wednesday morning, say. The same scattering of people. The same white running shoes. The same rumpled khakis. The old lady in her walker. The fervent college student.
The same hurried prayers. The same mechanical recitations.
In the corners, in the silence, all the familiar shadows.
Caryll Houselander once wrote:
Every day crowds of unknown people come to him, who feel as hard, as cold, as empty as the tomb. The come with the first light, before going to the day’s work, and with the grey mind of early morning, hardly able to concentrate at all on the mystery which they themselves are part of: impelled only by the persistent will of love, not by any sweetness of consolation, and it seems to them as if nothing happens at all. But Christ’s response to that dogged, devoted will of a multitude of insignificant people is his coming to life in them, his Resurrection in their souls. In the eyes of the world they are without important, but in fact, because of them and their unemotional Communions, when the world seems to be finished, given up to hatred and pride, secretly, in unimaginable humility, Love comes to life again.
Sometimes I get so impatient with people, and with myself, so tired of all of us who say the Church doesn’t speak to us, who turn up our noses at it because this or that particular doctrine doesn’t suit us, or because of some simplistic or sentimental or offensively dogmatic thing some poor priest or believer says who can’t put into better words the love or hope or despair they feel.
As we can’t either.
We judge by the way people look. We judge by what people say. We judge.
I wonder how much of the resistance of many intellectuals to institutional religion doesn’t really have to do with class and race.
But deeper than the funny hats or the pious platitudes, underneath the skin, is a mystery we can’t fathom and are wildly arrogant to think we can.