It begins in a cave. Moses. Elijah. The Nativity. St Benedict at Nursia. St Francis. St Antony in Kiev. St Ignatius at Manresa. It begins in silence, in stillness and solitude. It begins in holiness.
That is the way it has always been, a hidden life in desert or forest, slowly rippling out into the wider world as disciples are made, and communities are formed. It is an organic growth, like the ripening of grain or fruit. It cannot be hurried, and it cannot be manufactured.
But it is not like that in modern America. “America” as a concept is all about manufacturing and hurrying and prodding. Spiritual techniques are thought to create spiritual life, and the trappings of material success are the evidence of things unseen. I can think of several instances in the last few decades when someone had a vision of a vibrant religioius/lay community and set out to raise money and build monasteries and churches, long before a community had gathered, and long before the founders had become holy. Some of these projects crashed and burned in big scandals, and others just petered out, but it turns out such things cannot be created on human initiative.
The replacement of outer life for inner, of materialism for spirituality, has long marked American evangelicalism, with its preachers seemingly intent on acting like living caricatures, its message transformed into a sort of Christian cargo cult. Prosperity and worldly comfort are the criteria of spiritual success.
The Catholic Church in this country, long submerged in the American ethos, has not remained untouched by the worship of celebrity and prosperity. The cult of the Catholic superstar emerged some time ago, and it seems the stars implode with some regularity. Mercenaries have replaced mendicants, and we are worse off for it.
One who has evaded the seductions of fame is Fr Benedict Groeschel, one of the two Catholic celebrities I have known personally (the other is John Michael Talbot).
I was among the first postulants when the community he helped found broke away from the Capuchins to live a more ascetic life, over twenty years ago now. Living with them in New York I got to see Father Benedict close up.
One of the first things I learned about him was that he was not a stereotypical saint. He may well in the interim have mastered these things, but back then he was impatient and short tempered. The brothers would roll their eyes at his acolytes, mostly older women, who oohed and ahhed over Father. Occasionally one of them, or sometimes a young pious man, would land a post as an assistant at the retreat center where Father Benedict lived. They were starry eyed at the prospect of sharing such close proximity with the “holy man”, and we waited for the inevitable tears when Father would snap at them for some infraction or other.
One of my most vivid memories of my time in New York was Father Benedict, driving a van full of habited friars in thick traffic, laying on the horn and yelling out the window “MOVE IT LADY!”
Only in New York.
Yet there was not one of us who did not recognize the man’s essential goodness, his holiness. For none of the fame went to his head. He was as bemused as the rest of us at the adulation of his devotees. He was utterly humble, and did not take himself seriously at all.
His love of God was as obvious as his detachment from material things. He lived austerely, wore a simple habit, and utterly loved the poor, not in some abstract way, but as his brothers and sisters. A man of great intellect, he delighted in simple folk, some of whom were seriously dysfunctional or addicted. And they loved and revered him, cognizant of his affection and respect for them.
How did Father Benedict resist the allures of pride that come with fame? I suggest that it was his embrace of poverty, coupled with the community. Every healthy community curbs such foolishness, and anyone who knows this particular community knows that no one would last long in it who took himself too seriously. And there can be no holiness without asceticism.
I contrast this with other high profile Catholic preachers, with their independent ministries and for-profit corporations, flying first class, charging high prices for tickets to hear them preach, surrounded by the trappings of fame, and often of fortune.
And this seems fine with their followers, so long as their message is an “orthodox” (though very selective) version of Catholicism. It seems that there is little expectation of asceticism, of living in simplicity.
This is quite a contrast with the history of spiritual renewal, with the poverty of the great saints. And it is a contrast with the Eastern Orthodox, who still look to the living ascetics in the monasteries for spiritual leadership.
The fall of so many celebrity preachers in recent years may well be the second wave of the tsunami that began rolling over the Church some time ago with the revelation of the extent of the abuse crisis, and the lengths the leadership of the Church had gone to protect criminal clerics.
God seems intent on smashing whatever idols we may have created, whether of the hierarchy or of individual charismatic priests. Many will lose hope, unable to embrace reality. But others will emerge with a purer faith, cleansed from human respect and burning anew with the uncreated fire of the love of Jesus Christ.
(The icon of the Prophet Elijah is by a cloistered Carmelite nun from Terre Haute Indiana. The community’s icons can be seen here: http://www.heartsawake.org/1/Religious_Icons.html)