Worshiping and Witnessing Side by Side

Once upon a time there was a man who feared sickness above all things and desired with all his heart to be healthy.

"I will do whatever is necessary to find health and keep it!" he declared. "For I have a duty to my children and my wife to remain on this earth and care for them as best I may! But to do that, I must first find health!"

So the man sought health. He found many books on health and read them all. He took his pulse constantly. He spent hours each week shopping for nutritious foods. Every morning he carefully weighed himself. Every afternoon, he examined his tongue and nostrils. Every evening he carefully examined any skin or tooth discoloration. Every night he plugged in special machines to measure his nightly perspiration output. And every breakfast he drank a special libation made of spring water, beta-carotene, juiced mangos and garlic powder. His days were spent running. His nights were spent in a house he flooded with steam from a menthol vaporizer to ensure his lungs functioned properly while he slept. He turned up his nose at sugar and fat, rolled his eyes in horror at non-dairy creamers, and frequently excused himself from his wife's lovingly prepared suppers to examine his scalp in the bathroom and make sure that he was not manifesting any symptoms of psoriasis. When his children hugged him, he was careful not to get his face to close to theirs, lest they give him some new strain of flu virus.

As time went on the man began to notice dark circles under his eyes. His hair became greyer, his forehead more and more creased with worry lines ("Poor skin integrity," he murmured to himself, "better beef up on my Vitamin D.") He began to experience shortness of breath, panic attacks, a racing pulse and an inability to relate to people. One day, in the middle of a Richard Simmons workout video at the local gym, he began to giggle uncontrollably and babble, "To my health!" in growing hysteria until the Van Man came and put him in the goofy booth.

He's still there, thank you, and is slowly recovering from his ulcers, nervous tics, rattling cough and painful gastrointestinal attacks. Nobody quite knows what became of his wife and kids and he himself can't remember. He hadn't talked to any of them for months before he was committed and seems to recall they had moved to Burkina Faso or the North Pole. One of those places. Anyhow, wherever they went didn't have a health spa.


I tell this little parable to illustrate a fundamental paradox of reality articulated by Christ: Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. It is a principle we can often forget, particularly when we are seeking to improve the life of our local parishes.

How do we forget it? Well, in my experience, I have most often seen parishes slide into sickness by focusing on what is ironically called "community-building."

Now make no mistake. A healthy community is vital and community-building is virtually always well-intentioned. People notice their old grey parish ain't what she used to be, so they say, "Hey! We need to have community! We need to have new life and health!" (And who could fault that?)

So somebody suggests that the members of the parish get together and "be reconciled to one another." The idea is that everybody "work through" their hurts, come "face to face" and then "let the Christ in me speak to the Christ in you."

Of course, then the question arises: What precisely will we speak about? And often the answer is: Community-building, of course! So we have community-building home groups and community-building parish gatherings where we get together and talk about our need to have community-building meetings and talk about building community. This, it is fancied, will bring new life to a parish.

Trouble is, however well-intentioned all this is, nonetheless it typically does nothing whatever to build community and can even work to harm what community there is. For usually this is nothing other than a parish behaving like the man in our little parable. At best, it typically turns the energy of the parish inward in a profoundly stagnating way and, at worst, it often tends to cause many individuals in the community to get stuck on chewing the cud of past grievances and fondling old hurts rather than truly getting on with new life. For just as we never have a really meaningful encounter with someone by sitting them down, staring in their eyes and saying, "Let's have a really meaningful encounter," so a community cannot build community when it tries to build community. The reason for this is simple to understand but hard to live out: For communities to thrive, their members must not be face to face, but side by side, gazing upon a common vision.

This paradox is the key of the second half of Christ's paradoxical remark. For it is, in fact, a truth not merely of religion but of all practical, meat 'n taters real life that only the community that loses its life will find it.

To some modern ears, such a saying sounds exceedingly undoable in the real world. Yet, in fact, it is, as G.K. Chesterton says, "not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or drill book."

The principle is this: there are some things in this world that we can only have by ignoring them and attending entirely to something else, just as the mountaineer can only save his life by doing certain things which appear to put him at risk. As the man in our parable discovered, health is among these things. We do not gain health by trying to be healthy; we gain health by loving life, going for walks, and developing an enjoyment of sport, friendship, good food, and sunshine. When we do these things, we discover, as a sort of by-product, that we are healthy.

And this is true not only in the area of health but in many other areas as well. For instance, we have seen in our culture a demand for something called "morality." Talk shows are awash in people saying that our country needs to become more moral and if we will just all get together and be moral and make our kids moral and realize that we have to be moral if we are going to be moral... well... then... we'll be moral!

Now I quite agree that the decline in morality is a very serious thing. Nonetheless, I think it is sheer moonshine to imagine that we can revive the morals of our country for the sake of morality. Rather, we must have our sights set on something entirely different (and higher) than mere morality if we hope to rescue morals. Again, Chesterton's wisdom is insightful:

Morality did not begin by one man saying to another, "I will not hit you if you do not hit me"; there is no trace of such a transaction. There is a trace of both men having said, "We must not hit each other in the holy place." They gained their morality by guarding their religion. They did not cultivate courage. They fought for the shrine and found they had beome courageous. They did not cultivate cleanliness. They purified themselves for the altar, and found that they were clean.

Once again, we find a sort of "law of unintended consequences" at work. If we seek earthly good (like morality and community), we don't even get that much. But if we seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, we get all the other good things (like morality and community) thrown in as well.

Which brings us back to "community-building." For, of course, a healthy community is a very desirable thing. But we must remember that the community we are called to build is the Kingdom of God. And that Kingdom (more than any other) looks, not to itself, but to the King first. That is because the Kingdom of God really is a community, which is to say it is a people of common vision--the vision of Christ at work redeeming the world. But to have a common vision is to stand, not face to face, but side by side. Our Church's very architecture reminds us of this fact by placing us side by side at Mass. We are directed to look, not at ourselves, nor even at each other, but at Christ lifted up in the consecration of the Eucharist. Only then, when we have stood side by side and faced him, can we find the power to turn face to face and give His peace to one another. The gesture is exactly backwards from what the world tells us we should do. There is here no hint that the community should first turn stand face to face and find unity in one another. Rather we are called to enter immediately into the common vision of Christ in the Eucharist and then find ourselves graced to discover a strong community as a byproduct.

And this is doubly true of the Church's mission to evangelize and renew the face of the earth. It is a sore temptation for us Catholics (who aren't very good at evangelism) to deflect the Pope's call to bring the good news to the world with a "but first" mentality. Like the man in the parable, whole parishes can lapse into saying, "Sure we should evangelize, but first we have to build community and be reconciled with each other. When we're finished with that, we'll evangelize." Yet this is to take the swift road to frustrated stagnation in which we simply never enter into a common vision of Christ at work in the world but simply remain focused inward. Evangelism, like worship, calls us away from this prison of inwardness, for it also is a standing side by side (this time to face the world rather than the altar). And as our Lord promises, this self-sacrifice also is the true means by which community is built and Church renewed.

Consider but two examples: the civil rights movement and the prolife movement. Both of these movements have probably done more to build community within the Church than any other in the past generation. In the 1950s and 60s, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, white people and black people who were previously divided and deeply suspicious of one another gradually found a new unity in their common vision of the dignity of human beings and their willingness to face the sin of racism. Their healing and unity came as they stood, not face to face, but side by side. So too, Catholics and Protestants who have struggled for centuries with the legacy of 16th Century religious wars and bitter political, theological and cultural factionalism have discovered healing, not so much by standing face to face as by working side by side in the prolife movement. In sharing the common vision of the holy place which is the womb, Christians have once again proved Chesterton's wisdom: by seeking life and justice for the unborn, they have begun to discover it for themselves.

And all this is the biblical model as well. For the early Church found its strength in the Spirit poured out at Pentecost and it exercised that strength, not in introspective "community-building" but standing side by side, facing the altar and facing the the world in the name of the crucified and risen Christ. It was in this act of communal self-denial, this refusal to turn inward that the Church paradoxically found health, growth and a marvelously strong community.

So then, how are we lay Catholics to embrace this call to evangelize? I believe the trick is largely to begin, however clumsily or fearfully we do it, because if we only do that, we will find we get better at it as we go along. So let's invite a friend to Mass. Let's speak out loud about our faith and find some way in which we can bring it to bear on the real questions of ordinary life. If there is a troubled someone we are praying for, tell them we are praying for them. (This is, by the way, not tooting our own horn; it is bearing witness to them that somebody gives a rip about them and is, I have discovered, nearly always deeply appreciated, even by non-religious people.) Discover loving and thoughtful ways to reply to criticisms of the gospel and its truth. And while we are doing this, let's contact a few people from our parish and see if they have ideas or resources or people they're praying for. Before we know it, we'll be getting together with them to pray and strategize on how to respond to so-and-so's needs or how to answer such-and-such's question about the Church or how to rebut Mrs. Thingummy's mixed up letter to the editor favoring euthanasia. We will be working side by side with people in our parish we may never have met before in an effort to evangelize the world and renew the face of the earth.

And we will, by the way, have started to build community in our parish. Standing side by side, seeking first, not our own good, but the Kingdom of God we will find the King has, as He promised, added everything else as well. For whoever loses their life for His sake shall find it.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea