‘Multiplicity is the source of all evils’: On building and rebuilding community
January 2, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – When studying classic works of Catholic theology, one might be struck by the overwhelming emphasis on unity in love as the characteristic mark of the Church. This is not a mere theological opinion. It is a truth everywhere announced in the prophets, and given its most sublime expression by Christ Himself in the discourse at the Last Supper recorded in chapters 14 through 17 of the Gospel of Saint John. Sin disunites, fragments, isolates, sets at odds; grace gathers together, builds up, heals, harmonizes. The Church Father Origen, entirely orthodox on this point, writes:
Where there are sins, there are multiplicity, schisms, heresies, dissensions. But where there is virtue, there is singleness and union, on the basis of which all believers are one heart and one soul. And, if I may speak more plainly, multiplicity is the source of all evils, whereas clustering together and being brought back from a crowd into singleness is the source of good things.
This “singleness” is a reflection of the simplicity of God, ultimate source of all good things, while the multiplicity Origen denounces is not just any kind of multitude (for man has many spiritual powers as well as ten fingers and ten toes, and this is all to the good), but that deceitful and destructive pluralism in which the devil specializes, which can be seen in the lack of unanimity in Catholic doctrine or the lack of stably beautiful universal rites of worship. Well in advance of the “Benedict Option,” Origen is urging us to get away from crowds and to cluster into real communities where virtue can take root and bear fruit, where the many can be one heart and one soul in their common love of God and their common devotion to His unchanging truth.
Unfortunately, nowadays the anarchical crowd is all the rage, and the well-oriented parish, the united and loving family, the flourishing monastery or convent, are viewed as anachronisms. How are we to respond to the challenge of fragmentation and cynicism?
The first and most important step in bringing life to the world is an unceasing quest for personal holiness. Superficial activism has always been and will always be a great temptation for fallen human beings, inveterate “do-gooders” that we are. When there is a problem, the first thing people suggest is to interview experts, hold a conference, or create a new government office. Nobody suggests that we should retire to our local churches for prayer and undertake penances. The thought that the quickest path to sanity is sanctity occurs to very few. I should cultivate the one and only vineyard that is mine to cultivate, and in doing this, I will make a lasting difference in the world—lasting because it occurs at the deep level of the spirit. Saint Catherine of Siena puts it well:
Any soul, in cultivating its vineyard, cultivates that of his neighbor as well. The two are so closely united that no one can do good or evil to himself without doing good or evil to his neighbor at the same time. Together, you form but one single, universal vineyard.
When my vineyard begins to bear fruit, it bears an abundance of fruit that can be shared with our hungry neighbors. If I have nothing within me, I shall have nothing to give, as the old scholastic saying recalls: nemo dat quod non habet, nobody can give what he doesn’t have.
This being said, however, there can also be a subtle temptation to “go it alone,” to create a little hermitage where one can indulge one’s own desires rather than submitting to that ideal school of charity, a life in common with others. Only there is one perfected, like stones or bits of glass tossed in the waves until they are smoothed. The eremitical life is for the perfect, not for those on the way to perfection; and even the hermit is a member of the greatest community of all, the Mystical Body of Christ. Living with other people, in a spirit of openness to life—the lives of those already known to you, as well as the lives of those who may someday be entrusted to you—is the safest and surest route to perfection if one perseveres in it, just as refusing to make the sacrifices demanded by a common life leads to egoism and sterility.
These dynamics are vividly displayed in marriage. Only a fool could promise young lovers that their married life together will be paradise on earth. In reality, it is a hard path of reciprocal sacrifice, and the joys are not sufficient to carry the day. It takes the kind of love Saint Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, a realistic, energetic, patient, even stubborn love that can say “I don’t feel like doing this or that, or suffering this or that, but I will do it, for the love of God and for my spouse to whom I promised my fidelity.” It is at moments like this that the sacrament—or for religious, the vow—tests the reality of one’s desire to become a saint. And it is in and through moments like this that God really sanctifies us.
On the aims and efforts of laity in the modern world, Joseph Ratzinger offers these perceptive remarks:
No one can be a Christian alone; being a Christian means a communion of wayfarers. Even a hermit belongs to a wayfaring community and is sustained by it. For this reason it must be the Church’s concern to create pilgrim communities. The social culture of [today’s] Europe and America no longer offers these wayfaring communities. This brings us back to the previous question about how the Church will live in this increasingly dechristianized society. It will have to form new ways of pilgrim fellowship; communities will have to shape each other more intensely by supporting each other and living in the faith. . . . Close association with monastic communities will certainly be one way to have an experience of the Christian reality. In other words, if society in its totality is no longer a Christian environment, just as it was not in the first four or five centuries, the Church herself must form cells in which mutual support and a common journey, and thus the great vital milieu of the Church in miniature, can be experienced and put into practice.
These are our “marching orders” for the new year of grace—for each passing year in this world that God loves, that He has redeemed, that He wishes to save.