I spent last weekend with a small group of mostly Roman Catholic young religious learning about a mode of communication called contemplative dialogue. At the core of this method is silence. Contemplative dialogue groups begin in silence, hold space for silence, and allow statements and questions to emerge from and move back in toward silence.
Out of this deeply prayerful weekend came a pair of questions that resonate deeply for me: What does it mean for the Church to be poor? What does it mean for us to be human? At heart, I believe, these are the same question.
It strikes me that these two questions form the core of our challenge as Christian persons and communities today. Materially, the Church is anything but poor. Every facet of our ecclesial life is encrusted with the trappings of imperial pomp, from our liturgical vestments to our church architecture to our exclusionary hierarchies to our definitions and dogmas. We have been obsessed with numbers, universality, power, and prestige. For centuries we sought to make the whole world Christian, by force and coercion, as often as not. This enterprise, rooted as it is in greed and jealousy, has generally led to oppression, colonialism, and genocide. Church building and evangelism are often just another form of idolatry, attempts to save ourselves rather than turning to the true source of life and salvation.
As our churches empty of people, and our society moves away from institutional Christianity, we are presented with the gift and the challenge of allowing God to birth something new in us. Too often we churched Christians focus in on strategies and solutions to fill the pews again. But what if God is actually calling us to empty pews? We worry about how to pay for the upkeep on our expensive real estate. But what if God is actually calling us to let the buildings go? If we are truly a Christian people, truly a Christian church, then death is good news indeed. For it is by dying that we allow God to fill us with new life. The paschal mystery is no less true for the Church than it is for each of us individually.
This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen we will hear emptiness. […] If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop moving. But this emptiness has nothing to do with our value or our worth. All life has emptiness at its core; it is the quiet hollow reed through which the wind of God blows and makes the music that is our life.
The Church can be a quiet, hollow reed through which the Spirit of God blows, making music for the world. But in order to be that instrument, the Church needs to return to the silence and emptiness beneath all the pretty clothes, the beautiful music, and the preaching and teaching. We have spoken for too long. We need to return to silence.
Such emptiness can be a terror for us. Or it can be a womb out of which God will draw forth a new life for us as a Christian people. Whatever that life looks like, it will be different than what has come before. New life always is. But until we as a Church move away from our earthly riches and toward the emptiness of spiritual poverty and silence–which, as Paul would affirm, is really the richness and wisdom of God–we will never allow God to enter in. And without God’s life, what is the Church?
This reflection is the second in a series of three Advent reflections on fasting. Last week I wrote about personal dimensions of fasting. Next week, I’ll reflect on national and political dimensions of fasting.
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