Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
Ephesians 2: 22
Ephesians tells us that as members of the church we are “no longer strangers and sojourners” but “fellow citizens.” Through repentance and baptism we become “members of the household of God.” Yet the passage goes on to say that for whatever its resemblance to other human societies, this one is inherently different. For it is held together and grows “through” Jesus and in Jesus is “built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
The extraordinary nature of the ecclesia that is the church is very difficult for human consciousness to absorb. Although we are at our core spiritual, we are always somewhat at a distance from our spiritual consciousness. It is rather our pre-transcendent consciousness that dominates our ordinary awareness. So, our societies, however spiritual their origins, tend consistently to become more and secular in nature. Thus, a household whose foundation, as Ephesians says, is the faith of the Apostles, becomes in time a hierarchy ruled by a theology of power that resembles more the divine right of kings than the living grace of the Spirit. Gatherings or communities that arise out of the realization of brotherhood and sisterhood somewhat inevitably move toward hierarchical and corporate service organizations at best and closed societies at worst.
The vision of “the church” that Ephesians presents to us is of members who are together being built into “a temple sacred in the Lord.” The community finds its true nature in its growing hospitality as “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” What this means in practice is that, of course, the members of the community must be committed and invested in it, but beyond that, they must first of all be obedient to the One who is forming the community or church. Each and every member must be equally committed to listening, to attending to the presence and call of the Spirit of Jesus, who is the body’s life.
The obedience of spirit to which we are called often seems contradictory to all of our own lights. For, as with Mary at the feet of Jesus, it can often call us to be still and to rest when our impulse is to act and react. On the other hand, it can also ask us to work harder when we would prefer to kick up our feet and take our rest. It can ask of us to be silent when we feel we must speak. It can ask of us to welcome those who appear a threat to our community, when we would move to exclude them. It can ask of us to share with the others our weakness and sinfulness rather than our strength and virtue. Community inherently differs from other human societies in that it calls for what Henri Nouwen termed “downward mobility” rather than our culture’s greatest aspiration for “upward mobility.”
Several years ago, Michael Gates Gill wrote a memoir entitled How Starbucks Saved My Life. In this book, Gill relates how he passed from all the marks of being successful in American culture to a place where he had lost everything: his work, his family, and his health. He became forced to take a job at Starbucks, and it is there that he learns what it is to be truly human through the experiences and relationships of ordinary life. Adrian van Kaam reminds us that human life is marked throughout its journey by what he terms transcendence crises. These are the moments when “things fall apart,” when we are reminded that everything we build will, in its time, collapse of its own weight. The crisis, that is the opportunity as well as the danger in these moments, is that of transcendence. Will we “go beyond” where we have become stuck and limited, becoming more obedient to the Spirit who is our life and home, or will we “hunker down” and opt to die rather than to grow and change?
Whether in our personal lives or our communal lives, we are always being formed by the Spirit through our spirits into the person who sounds through the life of God in each of us and together into the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit” that is our life in communion. From the beginning to the end of our lives this formation never ceases. And so, our responsibility to God for it never ceases. As Cardinal Newman wrote: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” It is difficult for us to trust enough to always be ready to change, but that is precisely what spiritual obedience is. It is to learn to trust that if we do our best to dispose ourselves, individually and communally, to what God would change in us and do with us, then we shall know, in the words of Julian of Norwich, that “All will be well.”
The secular and sacred reflect two kinds of dependence. The secular world depends upon the things it needs to divert itself and escape from its own nothingness. It depends on the creation and multiplication of artificial needs which it then pretends to “satisfy.” Hence the secular world is a world that pretends to exalt humanity’s liberty, but in which the person is in fact enslaved by the things on which one depends. In secular society a person is alienated and becomes a “thing” rather than a person, because one is subject to the rule of what is lower than oneself and outside oneself. One is subject to one’s ever increasing needs, to one’s restlessness, one’s dissatisfaction, one’s anxiety, and one’s fear, but a above all to the guilt which reproaches one for infidelity to one’s own inner truth. To escape this guile one plunges further into falsity.
In the sacred society, on the other hand, a person admits no dependence on anything lower than oneself, or even “outside” oneself in a spatial sense. One’s only Master is God. Only when God is our Master can we be free, for God is within ourselves as well as above us. God rules us by liberating us and raising us to union with God from within. And in so doing God liberates us from our dependence on created things outside us.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 52