Sunday, December 9, 2012

A CHURCH OF ONE


Recently I read a magazine piece about an evangelical mega-pastor who was involved in a (to me) much-ado-about-nothing theological controversy, wore out his welcome in the mid-West, washed up on the shores of Southern California, and is trying to raise the funds to found his own church here. The piece described a men's retreat he hosted at a tony Orange County beach. The guys surfed (rented wetsuits and boards were available), they ate, they publicly prayed for each other. The emotional finale consisted of the men coming up one by one and the would-be pastor holding each person’s left shoulder with his right hand, making eye contact, placing a piece of bread in their hands, and saying, "The Body of Christ, broken for you."

All I could think of was Hazel Motes, the protagonist of the Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood, and his Church without Christ. Because there’s a world of difference between the Eucharist and a loaf of bread.   There’s a world of difference between devoting your life to the Church Christ built upon Peter and working to build your own personal church. There’s a world of difference between a priest with two thousand years of history, tradition, experience, and the Sacrament of Holy Orders behind him, and a lone wolf/ lost sheep who purports to "think outside the box."

There is no bigger box than Christ. There is no, nor could there ever be, any higher intimacy than eating the Body and drinking the Real Blood of Christ: bread and wine that has been knelt before, prayed over, consecrated,and placed into the mouth or hands of the faithful by a priest who is in direct apostolic succession to the first Apostles and with Christ himself; bread and wine that has been transubstantiated into what we believe to be the Real Body and the Real Blood and that when we become Catholics, we in effect pledge to die for. To try to heighten the intimacy through the cult of personality and a fund-raising church of one is not to serve, to adore, to worship Christ's Body and Blood but somehow, horrifyingly (if however unintentionally), to traffic in it.

We don't have cults of personality in the Church; we have martyrs and saints. We have priests who, however individually imperfect, undergo long, arduous training and who pledge obedience to an authority infinitely higher than themselves.  We don't have feel-good fests, we have the Mass, the Sacrament of Sacraments, which can look outwardly unremarkable, uninspired, even dull, and at the heart of which is the incoherently sacred mystery, the sacrifice of an incarnate God, upon which we believe the salvation of the world hangs.

Fellowship, bonding, publicly praying for one another is wonderful, but there’s a world of difference between fellowship generated by following a mere human being and Communion in the Mystical Body of Christ. “Something within you has a longing," the pastor counsels an uncertain retreatant. "You have a bucket--I call that a God-bucket. And I wouldn't go much further than that.”

Fair enough. We’re seekers all. But can anyone imagine going to the Pope for direction and having him respond, "I wouldn't go much further than a God-bucket?" What sets the disciple of Christ apart is this. Feel good, feel bad, you’re in for life. A sword’s pierced your heart. You're no longer on your own. You’ve staked it all.

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes
in John Huston's 1979 adaptation of "Wise Blood".


7 comments:

  1. You're on a roll this Advent, Heather. Today's post follows so nicely on yours of 12/4. From that one Kimberley's comments especially resonated for me--difference between walking into a Protestant (God bless em all) church and a Catholic.

    The Lord is bodily present in a Catholic church, seeing us with his human eyes, smelling us with his human nose, regarding and loving us with his human heart. The same pierced hands, feet are right there, the tortured-now at rest human mind, present in his physical body, thinks about us, misses us, loves us. We in turn see him too--looks like a wafer(!!!!)--and then consume him. Talk about getting close to God ...

    I've always had a little attitude about Advent. Seems like mini-Lent juxtaposed with way too much jolly jingling hypomania. Does not compute! But now, thanks to you Heather, I've got it sorted out.

    We getting ready for the baby.

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  2. Beautiful connection between the pastor on the beach and Hazel. A great reminder to me to seek the Church which Christ founded and that the Church without Christ is all around us even within us if we are honest. Thank you for continuing to reflect light into the often obscure world.

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  4. I read that same article. And like you, it struck me as a very sad story-- that tens of thousands of people showed up to his Church in the MIdwest, then disappeared when he disappointed them--speaks not just to the absence of real substance in his message, but to the absence, even of genuine seekers. (Discounting the likelihood that his teaching was in error) it seems more like his audiences wanted to be affirmed in what they felt they already knew.

    What I love about Catholicism: even if I have known its teachings for many years, at different stages in my life I will have to stretch, sometimes very uncomfortably, in order to meet it. Rather than requesting that the Church change its teaching, the Church changes me--which is usually what I'm after when I go on a seeking rampage, some interior change rather than an external one.

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  5. Exactly, Betty, thank you! Both the obviously well-meaning pastor AND his would-be flock are somehow left stranded...The Church (paradoxically for those we see her as rigid and stultifying), always opens the way to the MOST freedom; the MOST authentic, built-on-solid-rock, fellowship...always calls us higher...always, if we're open to it, surprises...

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  6. Heather this post is incredible. I linked to your blog on mine...fantastic.

    ICXC NIKA
    Jason @ Ascending Mt. Carmel

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  7. Very well done. You certainly show us that many Christians have indeed settled for less.

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