THERE is a little “now word” that has been stuck in my thoughts for years, if not decades. And that is the growing need for authentic Christian community. While we have seven sacraments in the Church, which are essentially “encounters” with the Lord, I believe one could also speak of an “eighth sacrament” based on Jesus’ teaching:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matt 18:20)
Here, I am not speaking necessarily of our Catholic parishes, which are often large and impersonal, and to be honest, not always the first place one finds Christians on fire for Christ. Rather, I am speaking of small communities of faith where Jesus is lived, loved, and sought after.
THE ENCOUNTER OF LOVE
Back in the mid 1990’s, I started a music ministry with the word on my heart that “Music is a doorway to evangelize.” Our band not only rehearsed, but we prayed, played, and loved one another. It was through this that we all encountered a deeper conversion and desire for holiness.
Immediately before our events, we would always gather before the Blessed Sacrament and just worship and love Jesus. It was during one of these times that a young Baptist man made a decision to become a Catholic. “It wasn’t so much your events,” he told me, “but the way you prayed and loved Jesus before the Eucharist.” He would later enter the seminary.
To this day, even though we have long parted ways, we all remember those times with great affection if not reverence.
Jesus did not say that the world will believe in His Church because our theology is precise, our liturgies pristine, or our churches great works of art. Rather,
This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
It is within these communities of love that Jesus is truly encountered. I can’t tell you how many times being among like-minded believers who strive to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength has left me with a renewed heart, illuminated soul, and strengthened spirit. It is indeed like an “eighth sacrament” because Jesus becomes present wherever two or three are gathered in his name, wherever we implicitly or explictly put Jesus at the center of our lives.
Indeed, even a holy friendship with one other person constitutes this little sacrament of Christ’s presence. I think of my Canadian friend, Fred. Sometimes he comes to visit me and we leave the farmhouse and go hole up in a little dirt sodhouse for the evening. We light a lamp and a little heater, and then plunge into God’s Word, the struggles of our journey, and then listen to what the Spirit is saying. Those have been profound times where one or the other is edifying the other. We frequently live the words of St. Paul:
Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, as indeed you do. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
As you read the following passage of Scripture, replace the word “Faithful” with “Faith-filled”, which essentially means the same thing in this context:
Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; those who fear God will find them. Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship, for as they are, so will their neighbors be. (Sirach 6:14-17)
There is another little group of women in Carlsbad, California. When I spoke at their church many years ago, I called them the “daughters of Jerusalem” because there were so few men in the congregation that day! They went on to form a little community of lay women called Daughters of Jersualem. They are immersing themselves in God’s Word and becoming signs of love and God’s life to those around them.
The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 780
IS “COMMUNITY” THE NOW WORD?
Several years ago, I had a strong sense that, in order to survive this culture, Christians would have to withdraw like the desert fathers did centuries ago in order to save their souls from the pull of the world. However, I do not mean we should withdraw into desert caves, but from the constant exposure to media, the internet, the constant pursuit of material things, and so on. It was around that time that a book came out called The Benedict Option.
…orthodox Christians must understand that things are going to get much more difficult for us. We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country… we are going to have to change the way we practice our faith and teach it to our children, to build resilient communities. —Rob Dreher, “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country”, TIME, June 26th, 2015; time.com
And then this past week, both Cardinal Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict have spoken about the emerging importance of forming Christian communities of like-minded believers who are totally committed to Jesus Christ:
We should not imagine a special program that could provide a remedy for the current multi-faceted crisis. We have simply to live our Faith, completely and radically. The Christian virtues are the Faith blossoming in all the human faculties. They mark the way for a happy life in harmony with God. We must create places where they can flourish. I call upon Christians to open oases of freedom in the midst the desert created by rampant profiteering. We must create places where the air is breathable, or simply where the Christian life is possible. Our communities must put God in the center. Amidst the avalanche of lies, we must be able to find places where truth is not only explained but experienced. In a word, we must live the Gospel: not merely thinking about it as a utopia, but living it in a concrete way. The Faith is like a fire, but it has to be burning in order to be transmitted to others. —Cardinal Sarah, Catholic Herald, April 5th, 2019
At one point in my talk to the men at a retreat last weekend, I found myself shouting: “Where are souls who live like this? Where are men who are burning for Jesus Christ?” Fellow evangelist, John Connelly, drew the analogy of hot coals. As soon as you remove one from the fire, it quickly dies out. But if you keep the coals together, they keep the “sacred fire” burning. That is a perfect picture of authentic Christian community and what it does to the heart of those involved.
Benedict XVI shared such an experience in his beautiful letter to the Church this week:
One of the great and essential tasks of our evangelization is, as far as we can, to establish habitats of Faith and, above all, to find and recognize them. I live in a house, in a small community of people who discover such witnesses of the living God again and again in everyday life and who joyfully point this out to me as well. To see and find the living Church is a wonderful task which strengthens us and makes us joyful in our Faith time and again. —POPE EMERITUS BENEDICT XVI, Catholic News Agency, April 10th, 2019
Habitats of Faith. This is what I am speaking of, little communities of love where Jesus is truly encountered in the other.
PRAYER AND PRUDENCE
All this said, I want to encourage you to approach this clarion call to community with prayer and prudence. As the Psalmist said:
Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build. (Psalm 127:1)
Several years ago, I was having breakfast with a priest. I had sensed Our Lady saying a few days earlier that he would be my new spiritual director. I chose not to discuss it with him and just pray about it. As he was looking over his menu, I peeked over mine and thought to myself, “This man might just be my new director…” At that very moment he dropped his menu, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Mark, a spiritual director is not chosen, he is given.” He picked up his menu again like nothing had happened.
Yes, I think it is like this with community. Ask Jesus to give you one. Ask Him to build the house. Ask Jesus to lead you to like-minded believers—especially you who are men. We’ve got to stop talking about football and politics all the time and start talking about the things that really matter: our faith, our families, the challenges we face, and so on. If we don’t, I’m not sure we can survive what is coming and, in fact, what is already tearing marriages and families apart.
Nowhere in the Gospels do we read Jesus instructing the Apostles that, once He departs, they are to form communities. And yet, after Pentecost, the very first thing the believers did was form organized communities. Almost instinctively…
…those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:34)
It was from these communities that the Church grew, indeed, exploded. Why?
The community of believers was of one heart and mind… With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. (v. 32-33)
While it is difficult if not impossible (and not necessary) to imitate the economic model of the early Church, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council foresaw that, through our faithfulnes to Jesus…
…the Christian community will become a sign of God’s presence in the world. —Ad Gentes Divinitus, Vatican II, n.15
It seems to me that the time is now upon us to at least begin asking Jesus to build the house, habitats of Faith in a faithless world.
A renaissance is coming. Soon there will be a multitude of communities founded on adoration and presence to the poor, linked to each other and to the great communities of the church, which are themselves being renewed and have already been journeying for years and sometimes centuries. A new church is indeed being born… The love of God is both tenderness and fidelity. Our world is waiting for communities of tenderness and fidelity. They are coming. —Jean Vanier, Community & Growth, p. 48; founder of L’Arche Canada