Contemplation and Mission
Sixth Sunday of Easter (A) | Fr David Sanders comments on the ‘Benedict Option’ and calls us to go beyond that towards a ‘Dominican Option’.
How should the Church in the West face what is seen as a rising tide of secularity often antagonistic to religion? One solution which has been suggested recently is called the Benedict Option. What does it require? It demands withdrawal and consolidation. If the Church is to survive this menace it must stop trying to compete with the combined forces of capitalism and technology which destroy everything in their path. It must withdraw from the world and concentrate on building up its true identity through actually putting into effect the stringent demands of the Gospel. Just as St Benedict in the fifth century withdrew from the decadence of city of Rome before the fall of that great empire and founded monastic communities so must Christians today become creative minority communities who keep alive the flame of faith.
In the passages we have been reading from St John’s Gospel since Easter Jesus is faced with a similar situation. In this farewell speech Jesus is preparing his disciples how to face life without him. How will they survive imminently when he will be taken and crucified but even after he has risen in glory to his Father how will he be present to them? He does not want them to have any illusions. The world will hate them as it has hated him. They too will face persecution. So he concentrates on turning inwards. They will be a community apart. They must find their true identity by keeping Christ’s commandments. And this means that they must love one another. There is no mention of loving enemies.
The church community which Jesus prepares for them will replace the old temple now destroyed. Christ now is the new temple, his Father’s house, where they will experience the presence of God. As Jesus tells them ‘‘I am in the Father and you in me and I in you’’. The Christian community is where the Father and the Son will dwell and each member will experience the presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Christ will not leave them orphans for they will be children of God living in this new family which Christ creates on the cross as he gives his beloved disciple into the care of his Mother.
But while the Gospel seems to turn inwards the first reading from Acts turns us out to the world. Obviously it makes sense for the Church to know its own identity before it tries to convert others. And as the Church remains in Jerusalem after Pentecost it insists on certain practices which define itself. It insists on the teaching of apostolic doctrine, it holds its property in common, it prays and it breaks bread in the eucharist. These disciplines define the Church. But once it knows who it is then it must obey Christ’s command to move out. It can no longer be self-absorbed. ‘You will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judaea and Samaria and indeed to the ends of the earth.’
Persecution forces the Christians to leave Jerusalem. Stephen is stoned for his witness to Christ. And today Philip enters the hostile world of the Samaritans and proclaims the Gospel. The Spirit of truth in John’s Gospel is now the Spirit which drives the Church out of its comfort zone. Through the power of the Spirit Philip continues the work of Jesus as he drives out the demonic spirits and heals the sick. Peter and John come up from Jerusalem to legitimate what has been happening. The church is one in its teaching and its mission. And the Kingdom of God extends to new territories as the new converts are baptised and themselves receive the Holy Spirit. The mission must continue if Christ is to be a light to the gentiles.
The witness of John’s Gospel and the witness of the Acts of the Apostles must complement each other. Christians must know their faith and live it before they can evangelise. You can’t preach love of enemies unless first you have shown you can love your own brethren. The Church is both contemplative and missionary. Neglect one aspect and you undermine its witness. At a later period in the history of the Church St Dominic said that we must hand on the things we have contemplated. Contemplation and mission must go together. On reflection then it might be good idea for the Church to have a Dominican Option!
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of St Dominic sending out his first friars, from the chapel of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC.