Is the Church Out of Touch?

It may be wrong of me, but I’ll hazard a guess that lots of people are returning to work today with mixed feelings — glad to get away from unrelieved family, but distinctly dyspeptic and concerned about their bank balance. A few will have left their Christmas tree up and will return in the evening to continue celebrating, albeit in a minor key. And in between, what? I daresay a certain amount of moaning and groaning, sharp-tongued responses to those who ask clumsy questions, and a general rejoicing that there are only four working days to go before the week-end. In other words, there is a very clear divide between Church-speak — we are celebrating the Incarnation, and how! — and ordinary-human-being-speak — we’ve had our holiday, now it’s back to the rat-race. Is that why the Church so often seems to be out of touch with people’s lives? Where once it turned pagan/folk celebrations into Church festivals, it now grimly argues that those same festivals are being obscured by contemporary secularity.

Those of us who are believers need to reflect on the way in which we present our faith to others. Do we make it sound attractive or off-putting? Are we more interested in proving others wrong than in attaining a clear-eyed vision of the truth? I am sometimes criticized for not doing enough to defend Catholicism, which seems to mean that I have not condemned enough people or argued sufficiently over intricate points of observance. My usual response, that I am much more interested in spreading faith than in defending it, is clearly regarded as inadequate. I certainly don’t think that we can be wishy-washy about what we believe or why, but I have never found anyone drawn to Christ through being rapped over the knuckles, so to say. The two saints we commemorate today, St Basil the Great and St Geregory Nazianzen, illustrate this in different ways.

It was St Basil the Great’s meeting with Eustathius of Sebaste, rather than having grown up in a remarkably saintly family, that, by his own account, changed his life:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labours, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.

Despite his firm opposition to Arianism, Basil was never unwilling to see the good in his opponents, and although he was quite capable of criticizing public officials or unworthy clergy, he more than made up for his hot temper and sometimes imperious manner by his generosity and very real concern for the poor. His friend Gregory, theologian par excellence, was much less disputacious, a true contemplative whose discourses and poetry drew many to reflect more deeply on the truths of Christianity. I wonder how we measure up to men like these. Do we draw others to Christ, or do we repel them?

There are many in Britain today who never see the inside of a church save for the occasional wedding or funeral and who are as devoid of any Christian background as it is possible to be. The Bible is an unfamiliar book, while the Christian calendar and its rituals have to be explained in the simplest possible terms because of complete unfamiliarity with the language of the liturgy. It is in such a world that we are called to proclaim Christ; and it is for us, as ordinary Christians, to respond to the challenge. If we are out of touch, what chance have we of showing forth the beauty and holiness of Him whom we adore?

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The Gift of Friendship

January is the month for friendship. Today we celebrate the feast of SS Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen who were, among other things, close friends; later on we shall celebrate St Aelred of Rievaulx, author of one of the most influential medieval tracts on friendship, De Spirituali Amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship). They show us how creative Christian friendship can be, but since most of us are not in the same league as they were as bishops, theologians, poets or monastic founders, we may be forgiven for thinking our own friendships rather more humdrum, less noteworthy, maybe even less worthy of regard.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our friends are gifts we should both treasure and celebrate as demonstrating something we might never otherwise know: the ability of human beings to love one another in uncomplicated ways. They show us something of God’s own love. The very word ‘friend’ has interesting Indo-European roots connecting it with both love and freedom. There is indeed something magnificent about bonds of affection entirely free of self-interest or ties of blood; and for Christians, there is the assurance of John’s Gospel, that Christ sees his disciples as friends.

So, why does friendship often seem to go wrong? Why do people who once loved each other as friends end up hating each other as enemies? One reason must be that we have a tendency to selfishness. We want exclusive rights. When we want exclusive rights over another person, things can go very wrong indeed. Instead of freedom and mutual respect we play out a game of dominance and submission. We forget that Christian friendship must always have a Trinitarian aspect, with Christ himself the bond of unity between the friends. One way to avoid falling into the trap of forgetfulness is to pray for our friends, to invite Christ into the time we spend with them. That doesn’t mean we are any less free, or that our friendships take on a pious cast that is death to all spontaneity or ‘silliness’. It simply means that we honour the giver of friendship as we honour our friend.

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The Importance of Sisters

Today’s commemoration of the Cappadocians, St Basil the Great and his friend, St Gregory Nanzianzen, plunges us into a wonderfully saintly family history. Basil’s grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was a saint. His father, Basil the Elder, was a saint; his mother, Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr and mother of eleven children, herself suffered for her faith although she seems never to have been considered a saint by the Western Church although the Orthodox Church venerates her as such. Two of Basil’s siblings are reckoned as saints, Macrina the Younger and Gregory of Nyssa. A third, Peter of Sebaste, is sometimes called a saint, sometimes not; a fourth, Dios, is credited with founding one of the most famous monasteries of Constantinople (though there is some dispute about the identity with Dios of Antioch). All in all, a very holy family and a very influential one, which championed the faith of Nicea against the Arians.

Interestingly, and unusually for the time, perhaps, the influence of women is well attested and celebrated. Basil is the great legislator of Eastern monasticism as Benedict is of Western: both were profoundly influenced by their sisters. Basil seems to have modelled his monastic community on his elder sister’s, just as Benedict is credited with having been taught the true nature of prayer and monastic discipline by his sister Scholastica. Perhaps when we write the biographies of great men we should pay more attention to their sisters, especially if they happen to be churchmen.

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