St. Benedict and Stability

As I finish my final month of sabbatical in a Benedictine monastery, I’ll continue reflecting on their threefold vow of obedience, stability, and conversion of life. Last time we considered obedience. Today we’ll consider “stability.”

Benedictine monks vow to stay in the monastery that they enter, unless obedience sends them elsewhere. Historically, monks were sometimes sent out as missionaries, or to be abbot of another monastery. But normally their promise to God includes a definitive choice that this monastery is going to be their spiritual and physical home for the rest of their life.

Other religious communities, like the Missionaries of Charity or the Jesuits, are mobile by their very nature. They expect to be moved many times during the course of their life.

The hyper-mobile spirituality of some orders and the ultra-stable spirituality of the Benedictines each have their place in the life of the Church. The frequent call to be moved is a reminder that “here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). It is a share in the mission of Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). It prevents stagnation.  On the opposite side, fruitful growth can only happen with patience and perseverance, through ongoing relational connection. Even when serious reforms are needed – especially when serious reforms are needed – it takes a stable and patient commitment.

We live in the FOMO age in which people young and old spend much of their day avoiding solid commitments as they restlessly “connect” through social media. We live in an age in which people quite easily move from job to job, state to state, or marriage to marriage. Even when such moves are good and necessary, they are incredibly challenging for all concerned. Benedictine stability deserves our attention!

We can begin by naming what stability is not. It is not easy living with a resistance to change. Every virtue has its shadow side. A week ago, I had Mass and coffee with a neighboring community of Benedictine Sisters. One of them wisely suggested that a great temptation in Benedictine life is comfort. Comfort kills. When we settle into an easy life, we will find ourselves unhappy and stuck.  Comfortable living does not bring joy or delight. We can only experience joy if we are also open to risk or loss, to sorrow or death. There is no joy without vulnerability. Healthy relationships only survive and thrive when there is a willingness to make mistakes and repair the damage, to engage in difficult experiences, to work through healthy conflict, to admit truthfully what is not working well, and to move forward into the unknown with a trust that God will bring new life and fruitfulness. The Benedictine vow is threefold – including conversion of life. Stability without conversion brings death and decay.

The true invitation of stability is an invitation to be fully present and engaged – with God; with others; and with one’s own body, mind, and spirit. It is direct spiritual combat against acedia, sometimes called “sloth,” which is not what most people think it is! Too often acedia is viewed as “laziness” – which is to be combatted by discipline and hard work. As a recovering workaholic, I can personally testify that we can numb ourselves with lesser labors just as much as with any other drug! No, acedia, the noonday devil, is the siren call that pulls us away from being truly present, to stop feeling what we are feeling, to disconnect from our people and our environment, to hide and isolate. Yes, it can come in the form of “lazy” escapes, but the noonday devil does not discriminate in his tactics. He simply wants to lure us away from drinking in the present moment in all its fullness – and all the better if he does so without our even noticing.

Today’s restless FOMO culture is a prime example of acedia at work. FOMO (“fear of missing out”) paralyzes millions each day, keeping them glued to their smartphones while sapping their capacity to be truly present, to notice, to receive, to savor goodness, to mature, to give, and to bear fruit.

Even in the early months of social media and smartphones, I remember vividly a New York Times article in 2008, highlighting the experiment of an MIT professor with his economics students. They played a simple computer game, in which they clicked on one of three doors. Behind each door were real cash prizes. But clicking on one door caused the others to shrink, and eventually, to disappear forever. Instead of finding the door of greatest value and clicking on it repeatedly, the majority of students “kept their options open,” terrified of committing to one thing only. FOMO.

Both FOMO and comfort are enemies of authentic stability. On the one side are those who are afraid to commit, even when the pearl of great price is at hand. On the other side are those who would keep clicking on the same door even when it is no longer paying out – indeed, even when it is depleting them! Isn’t it interesting that 1,500+ years of Benedictine history also included sweeping and successful missionary efforts? Stable living in one monastery was the norm, but when those stable monks planted a foundation elsewhere for the sake of spreading the Gospel, their new monasteries often became hubs of faith, culture, and civilization. Evangelization takes much patience and time.

Benedict begins his Rule with some sage commentary on these attitudes of the human heart. He discusses different “kinds of monks.” There are solitary “hermits” (as he once was), and there are “cenobites” – those who live in a stable community life. Then there are the “sarabaites.” Rather than surrendering themselves in obedience and allowing a community to correct them, they build up a self-made rule and a self-given salvation. “Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy … Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.” Sound familiar? It is the attitude of so many towards religion today – picking and choosing for themselves that which is good, true, and beautiful rather than allowing themselves to be changed by the living God.

Finally, Benedict discusses the “Gyrovagues,” who refuse to settle down and tend to drift from monastery to monastery, region to region. They become “slaves of their own wills and gross appetites” and “are in every way worse than the Sarabaites.” At that point Benedict effectively says he should move on, because he has nothing nice to say.

In our age that over-exalts being open-minded and keeping options open, the words of G.K. Chesterton come to mind: “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Benedictines understand that. They find the pearl of great price, and they commit to spending the rest of their life steadily pursing it in conversion of life. I’ll consider that third and final dimension next time!

A Time to Replant and Rebuild

This past summer, I often found myself thinking of two great prophets. One is the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, and the other is a modern-day prophet, the pope of my childhood: Saint John Paul II (pope from 1978-2005).

I am definitely one of those who call him John Paul the Great, and I believe that he had prophetic insight and an uncanny ability to read the signs of the times. One of his deepest prophetic convictions was that we are now entering a “new springtime of evangelization” in the Church as we go forth boldly into the Third Millennium. He urged us with the words of Jesus to “put out into the deep waters” for a great catch. With Jesus, he often exhorted us: “Be not afraid!”

I remember twenty years ago when some of us would ask ourselves, “Why does he keep saying that? What is there to be so afraid of?” Today I can say with truth that these are sad and scary times to be a close follower of Jesus. AND they are times of enormous hope, great promise, and signs of new life. We can weep and lament the great ruin and destruction of much that is fair and beautiful AND notice the new growth and new life that is springing up.

The prophet Jeremiah captures the paradox perfectly, by appealing to seasons of the year. I had an “aha!” moment this summer while reading him. So much has changed in Church life, and it often leaves her members feeling disoriented, confused, or angry – even when their parishes make good and healthy changes. Part of the challenge is that the seasons have changed – and that means changing how we approach our labor in the Lord’s vineyard. With occasional exceptions, we in the Church today are not living the fall, in a time of fruitfulness and harvesting. We are passing through a harsh winter and beginning a new springtime.

The destruction and decimation has been going on for some time – especially for those of us in Catholic institutions. Our programs are often geared at children (in schools and in CCD programs), but the parents themselves – if they come to church at all – are often part of a second or third generation of Catholics who did not learn how to have a personal relationship with Jesus and who did not learn the basics of their faith. For at least fifty years now, when teens receive their Confirmation, they leave. We used to tell ourselves lies that they would come back eventually – when it was time to get married or to have their children baptized. A small percentage of them do; the great majority never return. Many of them specifically identify themselves as “ex-Catholics” or even “atheists.” Church marriages are down – way down. I could go on and on.

Much has been lost. God’s Temple and God’s vineyard are lying in ruins. There is cause for lamenting here.

When bad things happen, our human tendency is to avoid grieving – it’s so painful and hard. We typically pass through various stages as we grieve – denial, anger, blaming, bargaining, depression, and (hopefully) eventual acceptance. If we do not somehow express our grief and anguish, our anger and bitterness, we will not come to true acceptance. Presently, we are living in a toxic culture that does not know how to grieve in a healthy way. Most anywhere we turn, we are invited to numb our pain with addictive behaviors or to funnel our rage into political or ecclesial divisiveness.

By contrast, the prophet Jeremiah knew how to lament, how to express sorrow and anguish to God. So much did he turn to God and lament that there is an entire book of the Bible entitled “Lamentations,” traditionally attributed to him.

There was much to lament. The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem, destroyed God’s Temple, and taken most of the people into captivity. They were left with a mere remnant – just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold.

Weeping over ruins of once great cultures, once great nations, once great churches, and once great institutions is a holy and healing exercise.

I think the crumbling and ruin has been especially hard for longtime Catholics. With so many things changing or collapsing around them, they desire that their own parishes be the one hub of stability, the one constant in their life. But we can’t do that – not if we care about saving souls!

Most of our American Catholic institutions were built up in a season of summer and autumn. Our immigrant forefathers had a tenacious Faith and didn’t hesitate to sacrifice everything to build up these institutions. They were serious about prayer and serious about discipleship. Their children learned the faith from their parents and practiced it in the home. There was a great boom in the number of priests and religious sisters.

The programs set up in our parishes were all about harvesting the fruits from healthy vines that were already there. The presumption was that all the members were unquestionably committed to Jesus and to his Church. As long as most of them were, parishes were booming.

That was a very, very long time ago. The destruction has been enormous. Over half of those vines are now dead. Only a remnant remains.

I remember as a seminarian hearing our bishop (now the world-famous Cardinal Burke) express with the Psalmist: “Foundations once destroyed, what can the just do?” (Psalm 11:3). I remember as a young priest amidst teens in the high school, feeling the sad truth of those words and taking them to prayer. I remember God speaking clearly in my heart a hope-filled answer: REBUILD THEM. I received great peace and much motivation from those God-given words. I still do.

We will find more strength to rebuild if we allow ourselves time to lament. Lamenting is a lost art. When we truly express our grief, God comforts us. We find ourselves having new strength and new resolve. The writings of Jeremiah do not end in despair or anger, but in renewed hope, with many promises of replanting and rebuilding. A new springtime.

We are not in a season of summer and autumn anymore. We are living amidst a harsh winter that is transitioning into spring. What is more, the majority of the vines in our vineyard been ruined and destroyed.

Many of us need to do much lamenting and much grieving. We have more pain in our hearts than we care to admit. God wants to hear our cries. He wants to comfort us.

Then, when we are ready, he will show us what replanting and rebuilding look like. Many of the things that have passed away will never return again – not in the same way at least – and that is worth the shedding of tears. Meanwhile, the new growth is already there in our midst. Amazingly, from the very ruins, new vines are appearing. They are very vulnerable at this stage and need much nurturing and caring. But they are beautiful!

If we would like to see those new vines grow and bear fruit, we need to learn how to live in the seasons of winter and spring. Our parishes need to step back from the “same old” way of doing things and ask what it means to replant and rebuild. Instead of spending most of our time, money, and human resources on the vines that clearly are bearing no fruit, we need to recognize new and divine growth when we see it (sometimes it shows up in surprising places!). We can then focus our energy and attention there. New vines are fragile and need much protecting, much nurturing, and much gentle encouragement.

It may take many years to see the new fruitfulness – God alone knows. Sometimes we sow and others reap. But we can take hope in the fact that Scripture often promises otherwise. We are promised that the sowers will be overtaken by the harvesters (Amos 9:13), and that those who sow in tears will reap with joy (Psalm 126:6).


Your new vocabulary word for the day is kerygma.

Kerygma means “proclamation.” It is a very simple proclamation, and it changes hearts. Kerygma happens when one follower of Jesus, moved by the Holy Spirit, becomes a herald of good news, and the hearts of the hearer(s) catch fire as they hear the message. When the kerygma happens, one follower of Jesus becomes the instrument whereby the hearer actually “hears” the gospel as good news, and is moved to heartfelt repentance, responding with a resounding “YES!” that starts showing itself in a new way of living.

Kerygma moments happen again and again in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter or one of the other disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, stand up and boldly proclaim the Good News that Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s such a simple message. Jesus died. He died because of your sins and my sins. Jesus has risen from the dead. He has the power to forgive you and forgive me. He has the power to save you and save me from death. All we need to do is repent of our sins, get baptized and place our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves. Then we can begin following him together on an amazing new journey.

Peter and the apostles, the guys who snoozed and snored while Jesus was sweating blood in the Garden, the guys who left Jesus all alone to die, the guys who denied him and abandoned him – yes, those guys –become heralds proclaiming Good News. Each time they proclaim the simple message of salvation in Jesus, hearts are moved to repentance.

Whether it moves 3,000 hearts (as on the day of Pentecost) or whether it touches just one heart at a time, the power of the kerygma is real. It’s a life-changing experience. God wants all of us to “hear” the good news in a personal way that re-orders our entire life. We change and become “all in,” surrendering ourselves to Jesus.

Notice that it has nothing to do with Peter or the other apostles being smart, or educated, or talented, or strong (they were none of those things!). Indeed, it was precisely their ordinariness and their human weakness that made the Gospel message so compelling to the hearers. These were changed men. Whatever it was that they had, the hearers wanted to experience it.

There are a few core reasons why the kerygma works.

First, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. We are cooperators, but truly led by the Spirit in the process. The same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work both in the heart of the one proclaiming and the one(s) hearing. And he does his work! He is the principal agent of all evangelizing. We all have access to that Holy Spirit through faith and baptism.

Secondly, the kerygma works because the disciple who is proclaiming has actually been transformed by his personal relationship with Jesus. He’s not just talking about Faith. He’s proclaiming Jesus. Not as an abstract idea, but as a real person who has really changed his life. The change is obvious to the hearers. It attracts them. It’s an open invitation. They hear the Holy Spirit gently whispering in their own hearts, “Wouldn’t you love to have that experience for yourself?”

Thirdly, there is always freedom in the kerygma. Whether it’s Jesus himself proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, or those early disciples proclaiming the Resurrection, they respect the freedom of the hearers. There is no forcing or pressuring, no nagging or manipulating, no guilting or shaming. If the hearers aren’t interested, so be it. Those who proclaim the kerygma only want followers who want to follow.

How different this all is from the everyday experience of so many Catholics during the last several decades. The majority of Catholics these days are simply NOT interested in talking openly about their personal relationship with Jesus. As for those who are willing (myself included), it is with deep sadness that I admit that many of us have too often been led more by fear than by the joy of the Holy Spirit. I confess that out of a fear of failure or rejection I have engaged in pressuring, manipulating, shaming, or other methods that were totally NOT used by the early disciples. It’s so hard to trust the Holy Spirit, to wait for God’s timing, and to respect human freedom – especially when it’s our own children or spouses or friends, and especially if we tie the outcome to our own personal worth, somehow thinking were are a failure if they say “no.”

I have definitely learned, slowly but surely, to be both patient AND bold. If the person is not yet ready to hear the kerygma, so be it. But when I notice that the Holy Spirit moving, as at Pentecost, when I sense the person asking “What must I do?” THEN is the moment to proclaim the Good News of Jesus – and in a truly personal way that speaks to her experience. THEN, perhaps for the first time, that person can see Jesus as his Savior.

It is such a privilege to be a herald of the kerygma. You get to be the person who announces good news of great joy to persons who are longing so deeply for it – and it changes their lives forever. What a joy!

But there’s a deeper question. Have I ever really “heard” the kerygma myself? How can I give what I have not myself received? There, I think, is a big part of why we Catholics (yes, even we priests and bishops) have struggled so much to be bearers of good news to a world that longs for good news. We may possess a great store of knowledge, we may faithfully follow many rules. Perhaps we even had an amazing experience of Jesus long ago. But if we are not perpetually being renewed in the Joy of the Gospel, if we have not truly internalized the kerygma, if others do not see in us that Jesus is truly “Good News,” then who will care?

I encourage each of us to ask today, what has been my own experience of receiving the kerygma? When has my heart burned with joy at receiving the good news?

For me personally, there have been many “kerygma moments.” I remember the first time I went to Confession at the age of nine, how honest I was despite my deep fear, and what an incredible joy I felt afterward. I remember many moments on retreats in which God comforted my heart, deepening my desire to trust and surrender to him. I remember the witness of my friend Peter, a seminarian in his late 30’s. During a few years of intense personal struggle for me in the late 1990s (moments in which I felt very unlovable) he kept gently gazing and speaking good news into the places of my heart that feared and doubted. The Holy Spirit was very much at work, consoling my heart at a time when I deeply needed it. When Peter explained that “a good friend is someone who sees right through you – and loves you anyway” I not only grasped the words intellectually; I truly “felt” their truth. It changed me.

I remember Peter tragically and unexpectedly dying that fall of 1999, after only five months ordained as a priest. I remember surviving a fire a month later, losing nearly all of my possessions. Truth be told, I would have gladly thrown them all away to have Peter’s friendship back.  Then I remember astounding graces and spiritual encounters during the Jubilee Year 2000. I received deep healing as others prayed over me and stood with awe and gratitude as others receive astounding graces and healings when I prayed over them. God knew what my heart needed and gave it to me; he assured me yet again that I could trust him and surrender.

Even then, there were parts of my heart that I was keeping locked away and out of sight. I simply wasn’t ready yet to receive totally or to surrender totally. I continued through life as a perfectionist, secretly fueled by shame, secretly insecure about not being good enough or loveable. Too often, I tried to “get life right,” to try harder or work more. I slowly got more disconnected and burnt out, losing sight of the good news of Jesus and of my identity as a beloved child of God.

Theologically, I knew the teachings of Scripture – God loves us while we are yet sinners. Salvation is a gift. We cannot earn our way to receiving love. But that was not what I was believing internally. There were layers of my heart that had still never heard the Gospel proclaimed. I was not yet ready.

Eventually, the trials of life wore me down. A few years back, I reached a point of recognizing that my life was totally unmanageable. I wanted to be well. I was ready to die to self. I allowed myself to surrender and to become vulnerable in ways I would previously have thought impossible. I began letting myself be “seen” by a few trusted people – letting all of myself be seen, mind you.  It has allowed me, more and more, to believe with all my heart that I am truly a beloved child of God – no matter what. Now that I no longer felt like I had to perform (or at least much less frequently felt that way) I discovered, to my amazement, that old habits of sin melted away.

I still have a long way to go, but the more I have internalized the kerygma, the more I have discovered that the Holy Spirit is opening up new opportunities for others around me to receive the good news. I find myself more frequently able to show kindness and mercy because I have been learning what it is to receive it.

It’s an old axiom of the first universities in the Middle Ages: nemo dat quod non habet (“a thing can’t give what it ain’t got”). We will not be able to proclaim Good News to others if we are not allowing Jesus to be good news for us.

What about you? Have you experienced the kerygma? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you remember any “kerygma moments” in which someone proclaimed good news to you and the Holy Spirit totally changed your heart.

If you can think of those moments, I encourage you to revisit them with gratitude and allow you heart to be touched once again.

If you cannot think of any, would you like to be moved by the Holy Spirit in that way? Would you also like to experience the joy of the Gospel? If so, you can ask God for that. And you can seek out someone who has experienced it, and ask that person for help. The Risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit just might surprise you with what comes next.

Gradualness: More Lessons from Alcuin

At the end of the 8th Century, Alcuin of York wrote three fascinating letters in response to King Charlemagne’s efforts to “convert” the Saxons by the sword. Alcuin had learned much from the highly successful evangelization of his homeland of Northumbria.

Last time we learned the essential role of human freedom and holy desires . Today we learn in more detail what that gradual growth and conversion looks like. Alcuin offers a few metaphors to illustrate his point.

First, there is the image of a seedling plant in the vulnerable stages of its early growth: “We must ponder profoundly in what fashion a new plant must be cultivated, such that the first flowerings of faith are gradually brought to fruition: lest they be embittered by a harsh frost, and fail to grow to the sweetness of the hoped-for fruit.”

The “frost” that particularly concerned Alcuin was Charlemagne’s immediate demand for tithing among the converts. Not only were they forced into baptism, but were promptly giving new bishops who fleeced them with a ten-percent tax. Alcuin acknowledges to Charlemagne that tithing is a marvelous spiritual practice that is encouraged in Scripture. But it is not the best way to begin your effort of evangelizing. In his witty use of Latin, Alcuin describes the tithe [decimus] as a decimation of the faith of these poor people. He emphasizes the need for preachers [praedicatores] rather than predators [praedatores].

Faith is a fragile gift, easily lost in the early stages. The preacher should start with the sweeter and more pleasant things and work towards the harder ones. Alcuin appeals to Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians, in which he viewed himself as giving milk to spiritual infants, slowly nursing them toward solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Alcuin next considers Jesus’ metaphor of not putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17). Alcuin interprets the cryptic image: “Who are the old wineskins, if not those who have been hardened in the errors of heathenism? If you pass down to them the more austere precepts of new preaching while they are still in the beginning of faith, they will be broken, and will go back to the old comforts of falsehood.” Just as with winemaking, maturing in faith takes patience and time: “The soul that is fortified by the fermentation of sacred faith over a long period of time is stronger than in the initial vintage of fresh preaching.” As an example, Alcuin describes Peter, filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit, which empowers him to bear bold witness before Nero in the Roman palace as a martyr – quite the contrast with Peter in the house of Caiaphas on Holy Thursday – too terrified to witness even to a slave woman. “Earlier he was more timid, later more constant; earlier an example of fragility, later of fortitude.”

Alcuin adds the example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), pointing out that Jesus did not rush to censure her, but rather bowed down in a gesture of humility and wrote in the ground, in order to show teachers how they should acknowledge their own weakness, first looking at their own hearts and writing their sins in the dust that they find there. In doing so, they will find themselves much more gentle when it comes time to confronting the sin of others.

Alcuin then maps out a structured “order” of gradual conversion through faith. He quotes the wisdom of St. Jerome, who is himself commenting on the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “A precise order: He bade the apostles that they should first teach all nations, then immerse with the baptism of faith, and after faith and baptism should command those things that must be observed. And lest we judge those things that were commanded to be light and few, He adds: all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.”  

Notice the order. First comes the hearing of the Gospel, which stirs up in our hearts the first beginnings of faith. Without that foundation of faith in the heart, baptism and the other sacraments will not grow and bear fruit in us.  Then comes incremental instruction designed to help the neophytes grow in faith and bear fruit, as they learn to live Christ’s precepts in all their fullness. Finally comes the fullness of truth and love in Christ. Alcuin frequently suggests that the earlier preaching should focus on “sweetness” and nurturing growth, and only later in the process, when disciples are strong enough, to bring in the “harshness” or “bitterness” that is required for a full observance of Christ’s precepts.

Those who preach the Good News and teach the faith play a crucial role.  Alcuin calls for “pious preachers, of honest morals, educated in the knowledge of the holy faith, and imbued with the evangelical precepts.” He warns against two evils – on the one hand, greedy and ambitious shepherds who prefer wealth, honors, and privileges to heavenly rewards; on the other hand, the damage that is caused when Churches go for a long period of time with no shepherd at all. Alcuin reminds of the need to pray and work to provide suitable shepherds for the “dangerous times of this age, which has fewer helpers in the Lord’s work than are necessary.”

Alcuin articulates the qualities that a preacher and teacher of the faith should have: “He must glow with all the lanterns of the virtues in God’s house, but must be capable in a knowledge of the most sagacious discretion, so that he can know what suits each person, sex, age, time, and place.” A good preacher is a good listener, tuning into what the needs of the person are at this particular time. With an attentive heart and wise mind, he nurtures the gradual growth of faith in the heart, until total conversion takes root.

In so many ways, heathenism is alive and well today. Faith is withering and dying in the hearts of our people. Those of us who preach and teach the faith can learn a lot from Alcuin’s wisdom!

Gradualness: Lessons from Alcuin

Genuine Christian conversion happens gradually, one step at a time. That was the lesson that Gregory the Great imparted to the missionaries in England in the early 600s. By the 700s, there was a great spiritual vibrancy there, particularly in Northumbria. A land still steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism was transformed in less than a century. In all fairness to my Irish friends, I should point out that Celtic missionaries such as Aidan may have had more to do with that conversion than the Roman missionaries. God can sort that one out! The main point is that gradualness is highly effective, especially when it focuses on inward transformation through conversion.

Enter Alcuin, born in Northumbria in 735. From him we can learn the essential role played by human desire and freedom in the step-by-step journey of conversion.

By the mid-700s, the spreading fire of Christian conversion in Northumbria had ignited many vocations to monasticism as well as an explosion of learning. If you or someone you know has undergone a profound conversion experience, you know how that works. You begin to feel an insatiable zeal to keep learning more about your newly discovered (or newly recovered) faith. It was no different in Northumbria. An influx of manuscripts from the mainland supplied new libraries. At the library in York, Alcuin soaked up all the learning he could: mathematics, literature, law, Scripture, theology, and more.

Enter Charlemagne as king of the Franks. He sought out a circle of intellectual advisers, and persuaded the reluctant Alcuin to come to his court in 782. Alcuin spent eight years in Aachen, educating Charlemagne, returned for a time to Northumbria, then back to Charlemagne’s court, and finally to Tours, where he lived from 796-804.

Perhaps you have heard the stories of Charlemagne forcing conversions among the newly conquered Saxons. Many of them became Christians, not because they desired to, but because they were forced to, upon pain of death. It was a gross misapplication of the Gospel passage: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

What a difference Alcuin must have noticed! The recently converted Christians in Northumbria were unstoppable in their repentance, their spiritual growth, their eagerness to learn, and in their zeal to go out and evangelize others. By contrast, those forcibly made Christians under Charlemagne were not exactly growing in their Faith.

When Charlemagne began employing the same methods among the Avars in Hungary, Alcuin had seen enough. He wrote three rather scathing letters in 796: a carefully worded one to Charlemagne, a more candid commentary to Arno (Bishop of Salzburg), and an expression of exasperation to his close friend Maegenfrith, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers.

When Alcuin writes Charlemagne, he begins with flattering sentences, but you can detect the veiled sarcasm. He praises the king’s devotion to Christ’s glory, and his prowess in leading the peoples away from the worship of idols and towards the knowledge of the true God. With Charlemagne’s ego sufficiently appeased, Alcuin proceeds to correct the king’s actions, not so much by criticism of the past as by instruction for the future.  He presses upon Charlemagne the urgency to provide worthy and suitable preachers to the newly baptized, in order to foster growth in their faith during this very vulnerable stage. He cautions his king, “If knowledge of the catholic faith does not come first into the soul through the use of reason, the bodily cleansing of holy baptism will be of no avail.”

He is much more candid when he writes to Arno: “The miserable race of the Saxons has so often lost the sacrament of baptism, because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart.” He reiterates the same points to Maegenfrith: “We learn from Saint Augustine that faith is a voluntary thing, not a necessary thing. A man can be attracted toward faith, but not coerced. You can coerce baptism, but it does not profit faith.”

Has this not been the story of “faith” in so many of our Catholic families today? How many kids go to Catholic schools or go through their parish’s religious education program (or get Confirmed) because they have to? How many Catholics still show up at Mass on Sunday not because they eagerly want to be there, but because they feel obliged? Without freedom, without a growing desire, there is no authentic conversion. There is no spark that grows into a blazing fire. Indeed, there is often decline and decay.

Yes, there is a time and place for duty and obligation. It is right and just to give God thanks and praise. Not to gather on Sunday to give him due praise is an injustice against his greatness and his goodness. But even in the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion, there is a willingness and a growing interior freedom. Until there is inward growth, there is not yet virtue.

Many of my best experiences as a priest have come in my work with RCIA, as men and women of all ages find their way into Catholicism or back to Catholicism. Even in those cases where there is painful personal brokenness, the conversion can be amazing and truly transformational. Once that fire is burning, it becomes hard to keep up with the pace of their hearts and their lives.

Children are a different story, yet the same principles apply. In the end, it is desire and freedom that lead to deeply rooted virtue and enduring faith. Early on, we may need to “make” children do things. We may use fear of punishment and eagerness for reward to motivate them. But the long-range goal is to awaken holy desires and motivate them to make a free and wholehearted decision for Jesus. I don’t need to tell you that the raising of children (in the faith and in all things) is a step-by-step process – and not all steps move forward. Alcuin actually appeals to the raising of children as he explains (in some detail) the step-by-step journey of conversion in the heart of a believer. Gregory’s passage about gradualness draws more attention, but Alcuin goes more in depth on the actual steps.

I’ll share more next time.

To be continued…

Gradualness: Lessons from Gregory

Others often ask me to name the single greatest need in parish life today. Without hesitation, I tell them, “accompaniment.” Then I need to explain myself, because they can easily get the wrong impression.

“Accompaniment” and “gradualness” have become divisive buzzwords in the tumultuous era of Pope Francis. On the liberal side, there are some who employ the words as code for avoiding any conversation about objective truth and goodness, especially in the context of marriage and sexuality and gender. On the conservative side, there are some who have an intense visceral reaction against any talk of accompaniment or gradualness. It means you are “one of those” and therefore an enemy of the cause of truth and goodness and right.

This is all too tragic, because both accompaniment and gradualness are incredibly important, and both sides seem to be missing the point. We are called to abide in love and truth. You cannot have one without the other. Both are essential as we walk the path of ongoing conversion. If we fudge the truth in the name of love, we will reach a roadblock in our conversion. But we may never begin the journey if we are blasted immediately with the harder truths – before interiorly receiving the first truth that we are definitively loved. Jesus and the saints understood both points quite clearly. They loved the person in front of them and then accompanied them step by step on the formidable path of conversion.

What do authentic gradualness and accompaniment look like? Many of the saints offer us outstanding examples. I plan to draw from their wisdom in the weeks ahead.

Gradualness (or “gradualism” or “graduality”) means what it suggests – that growth in holiness comes gradually, step by step. It is a long journey of patient and persistent progress.

One of the most memorable examples of gradualness comes from Gregory the Great. He is perhaps my favorite pope of all time – and not just because he once preached about poop. He was a truly wise and loving shepherd during tumultuous decades that were shockingly similar to our own. By the time he was pope (590-604), there was no turning back the clock on the decline and fall of Roman civilization. It was a done deal. Much that was good and true and beautiful was collapsing, never to return. But Gregory refused to become discouraged or demoralized. Even in the twilight of Roman greatness, God worked through Gregory to begin planting the seeds of long-term renewal. He patiently and persistently established monasteries. These became islands of civilization and hubs of missionary activity. Eventually, every barbarian tribe that had run roughshod over Europe came to know Jesus Christ and his saving message. Learning was preserved and the foundations of modern civilization laid down. So much of what is good and true and beautiful in our own American heritage did not happen by accident. It was the fruit of ten centuries of steady monastic influence.

Thankfully, not all of Gregory’s efforts took a millennium to bear fruit. One of the earliest and most enduring evangelizing successes was in England, in the kingdoms of Kent and Northumbria. From Rome, from the monastery formerly known as his family’s suburban villa, Gregory sent out his abbot to travel to faraway England and evangelize the Angles. That reluctant missionary went on to become Saint Augustine of Canterbury. It warms my heart to think of it. I have been in that Roman monastery up on the Caelian Hill. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, an ancient racetrack and site of entertainment. There the pagan Romans had chased after fleeting pleasures and killed so many of the early Christians. That blood of the martyrs, sown with such great love and in such great abundance, truly bore fruit in the mission field in faraway England. By the time Bede the Venerable rolled around (672-735), Northumbria was so thriving in the Faith that it was sending out many missionaries of its own. Today, as we behold things dear to us falling apart, it is good to remember that much can be built up in just a couple of generations – especially when one learns to be patient and proceed step by step.

That was the lesson that Gregory taught in his famous instructions to Augustine and his fellow missionaries in a letter to the Abbot Mellitus dated July 18, 601. One of the greatest pastoral challenges Augustine was facing was how to handle the pagan shrines. One might expect a seventh-century pope to counsel the destruction of those temples, but Gregory’s response was much more nuanced: “Tell him what I have decided after thinking to myself for a long time about the case of the Angles, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation should by no means be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be destroyed. Have holy water prepared and sprinkled in these temples; have altars constructed and relics placed in them.”

Gregory proceeds to address the Angles’ celebrations that involve sacrificing cattle to their gods (or as he puts it, to demons). He urges the missionaries to adapt these celebrations into Christian feasts. Let the people keep on collecting tree branches and erecting their ritual huts. But make sure that their rituals are centered around the newly Christianized shrines. Let them slaughter and eat their cattle (what kind of fool would take away their feasting on steak?). But teach them to do so with prayers of thanksgiving to God, rather than prayers of idolatry. Allow them to enjoy their outward practices, says Gregory – but teach them to transition into the more interior joys of Christian faith.

Gregory then explains the law of gradualness. You cannot root out everything all at once from hard heads or stubborn minds. And you cannot climb a mountain by one great leap, but only step by step.

Notice that Gregory does not suggest that all these practices on the part of the pagans are holy or helpful. He suggests instead that many further conversations will need to be conducted. He is just giving a sense of where to start. After much prayer and discernment, he figures out the first steps that can be taken that will allow conversion to catch fire and accelerate.

Neither of Gregory’s decisions is a permanent solution, but rather a provisional measure developed by a wise and loving shepherd to address a unique pastoral circumstance. Gregory does not want to drive away new converts or potential converts by imposing too many rules too quickly. So he focuses on the most important things. He identifies two objective moral evils: pagan idols and pagan sacrificial prayers. These are direct violations of God’s commandments and have to stop. But he seeks to be as lenient as possible towards other attitudes and practices: attachment to a particular building, use of ritual branches and huts, and the killing and eating of animals. Yes, these attitudes and practices arise from hard heads and stubborn minds who have much to learn. More changes will be needed over time. One step at a time.

In short, Gregory’s view is one of “tolerance” –  but a totally different sort of tolerance than the one promoted today. Gregory’s tolerance is pastoral patience that is willing to walk with people step by step on the long journey of conversion.

His overarching goal is that we will all one day arrive at the peak of the mountain. We will never do that if we permanently settle on a plateau!

In every age the evangelist faces similar challenges. Where to begin? There is so much that is good and true and beautiful in every human heart, and so much that is broken. Thanks be to God, there are those who are finding their way back to faith and the Church. I am so inspired by their holy desires. I am moved to tears by their sad stories and woundedness. I have learned not to start with rules, but to start with love, compassion, and careful listening – tuning into the Holy Spirit who has led this person here in the first place. Not all topics need to be broached in the first or second – or even tenth – conversation. Much patience and tolerance is needed on the long road of conversion. Perseverance is also needed, resisting the temptation to settle for less than the fullness of truth. I find that once the fire of conversion is burning, the rest tends to take care of itself, one step at a time. Gregory understood all those points, and the results speak for themselves.