The Church in the Wilderness

When looking at the American Catholic Church and the surrounding culture, the honest, orthodox Catholic is left with at least two sobering conclusions: we are losing the culture war both outside the American Catholic Church and inside its precincts. The Obergefell v. Hodges decision (same-sex “marriage”) by the SCOTUS put an exclamation point on the former; a recent poll, along with many other metrics, disclosing the beliefs of self-identified American Catholics confirms the latter:

65 percent believe that employers who have a religious objection to the use of birth control should be required to provide it in health insurance plans for employees; 32 percent disagree.

54 percent believe that businesses that provide wedding services should be required to provide those services to same-sex couples; 43 percent disagree.

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47 percent believe that transgender people should be allowed to use public restrooms of gender with which they currently identify; 50 percent disagree.

Someone may ask the question: “Aren’t the beliefs of Catholics who attend Mass once a week better than this?” The data there is more in line with the Magisterium but is still disappointing. One can argue that the source of the information for both polls, the Pew Research Center, is biased toward the cultural Left, but, even if the studies are off 3-5 percent, we are still in deep trouble.

The Church has, in many places, become the culture. The secularists have influenced us much more than we have influenced them.

The good news is that, when you look at both the biblical narrative and Church history, in a time of profound spiritual and moral decline, God usually has a consecrated person (or a group) hidden away, whom he is preparing for the purpose of meaningfully engaging the people causing the decline and the institutions they have constructed.

Elijah, in a time when Baal idolatry was rampant in Israel, was hidden away in the brook Cherith and then later with the widow of Zarephath before he had his showdown with Ahab and the prophets of Baal. John the Baptist had his wilderness years before he engaged in public ministry. Jesus pointed out that John performed no mighty miracle: he didn’t raise the dead but he raised a nation from the dead and prepared the way for the Messiah.

The father of all monks, St. Anthony the Great, temporarily left the Egyptian desert in 338 to visit Alexandria in an effort to debunk the teachings of Arius. Though not a scholar or polemicist, he confounded them with his words. Benedict of Nursia (A.D. 480-547), who, for three years, became a hermit and lived in a cave above a lake would emerge from that cave and exercise such a profound influence on the Church and the surrounding culture that the early Middle Ages have been called “the Benedictine centuries.”

Today’s practicing Catholic has no better example of the interplay between contemplation and action, prayer and cultural engagement, than Christ in the Gospel of Luke. The entire narrative is characterized by a rhythm of him withdrawing to pray in an isolated area followed by public ministry and then back again to a deserted place for more prayer, meditation, and communion with his Father.

His extensive public ministry was built on an equally extensive private ministry alone with the Father away from the crowds. The servant is not above his Master: the more profound the spiritual and moral decline in the surrounding culture, and the more we are out in that culture, the deeper we need to go in our private devotion and spiritual formation. A large house (our public ministry) must be built on a foundation (our private ministry) that is big enough to support it.

We pray the Rosary in the morning and then it’s off to work, spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament before spending the day with primarily secular people, read an uplifting book about one of the saints in quiet contemplation before going to a summer family picnic that will also be attended by an irascible uncle—a lapsed Catholic who has no unuttered opinions and disagrees with us on every major political, economic, and cultural issue.

The primary purpose of our private ministry alone with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is theosis. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (AD 130-202), said, in agreement with many of the Church Fathers, that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.” The apostle Paul writes about the believer, whom God foreknows and predestines to be conformed to Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29). The process of theosis is sometimes not as mysterious and mystical as we think.

You arise early in the morning before work, and, armed with your favorite Colombian coffee, turn on your computer and go to the USCCB website (or some other site) and read the daily readings. When you read and meditate on the Gospel passage, you are struck by the fact that Jesus is, by implication, talking about being generous with your time, talent, and treasure, but, your life, in recent months, has been just the opposite. You make changes; it’s an old-fashioned word called repentance. In a very real sense, you have beheld Jesus in the Gospel story and are being changed into his likeness:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (II Cor. 3:18). (Emphasis mine.)

If the exigencies of your workaday world sabotage this contemplative moment, then this change probably doesn’t happen. The purpose of contemplation is transformation.

Jesus said that “if you have seen [beheld] me, you have seen the Father.” It’s interesting to note that one of the leading causes of social pathologies in the West is fatherless homes that result in higher rates of poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, lower educational achievement, poorer physical and emotional health, earlier pre-marital sexual activity and alarming rates of illegitimacy.

What many Catholics don’t realize is that they may confess on Sunday morning, “I believe in God the Father,” but, in reality, live a Father-less spiritual life in their day-to-day existence. Without a devotional dimension, they are not seeing the Son or the Father and are more susceptible to secular toxicity. For a small beginning of a list of the spiritual and moral pathologies issuing out of this Father-less epidemic in the American Catholic Church, take a look again at the data cited in the beginning of this essay that underscores the heterodox beliefs and practices of many American Catholics.

The “canvas of contemplation” for seeing the Son, seeing the face of Christ, is incomprehensibly deep and wide. It involves both the religiously explicit and religiously implicit areas of life. For orthodox Catholics, the former has to do with everything we practice that has a spiritually overt nature: Mass, the Sacraments, the Rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, spiritual disciplines, Holy Days of Obligation, etc.

The latter has to do with the “sacrament of the ordinary,” in finding God in the waitress’ smile, a loyal friend, the desert wildflower, Mozart’s Requiem, Eliot’s Four Quartets, the Sistine Chapel, or a well-crafted movie like Schindler’s List or the great German film, The Lives of Others. It also has to do with God’s preferential option for the poor in seeing the face of Christ in the hungry, thirsty, naked stranger (Matt. 25: 31-46). In embracing both the religiously explicit and implicit, we enter into those regions of life where Time intersects with Eternity, and, with the eyes of faith, behold the face of Christ, and are changed by such an encounter. These are sacramental moments.

Again, the process of theosis is not as ethereal or abstract as it may sound. Consider Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen identified as the power behind his legacy. When you adore someone, you become like them. A young actor who idolizes a celebrated older actor often begins to resemble him in body language, countenance, and the timbre and cadence of his voice. Marlon Brando and the younger “method actors” that followed him come to mind.

Our own theosis has powerful implications for engaging the culture both inside and outside the Church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.” Sanctity and the Sistine Chapel sell. As I’ve said more than once in previous essays, it’s often not what’s taught but what is caught that brings conversion. This was true in Mother Teresa’s relationship to Malcolm Muggeridge; the saintliness of Inkling Charles Williams played a major role in the conversion of W.H. Auden. Verbal proclamation of the gospel and apologetics (the True) are crucial, but unless the True is confirmed by the Good, it makes for a hollow witness.

The call of theosis is not just for the ordained priesthood but is also for the lay priesthood, for the homemaker, school teacher, carpenter, and accountant who must navigate another day in the quotidian. We must all embrace the Contemplative Moment. Set your alarm 20 minutes earlier, pray an extra decade on the Rosary, go to Confession more often, stop making excuses for missing Adoration, do a weekend retreat out in nature, listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos 1-4, spend time with a good friend, remember that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ (Jerome), forgive an old adversary, enjoy a good meal, be grateful for all that you have, see the face of Christ. All this is not only good for you but for the local church you attend and the culture outside of it.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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