Monday, December 7, 2009

The Unassimilated Church

Modern man has an obsession for simplicity and authenticity, and can easily be tempted to sacrifice forms, structures, and symbols which he has not taken the time to assimilate. At a time when disputation is sky-rocketing, he may risk throwing out real values without proposing anything to replace them.

- From “Serving God First: Insights on the Rule of St. Benedict” by Dom Sighard Kleiner, translated from the French by James Scharinger (Cistercian Studies Series, 83), 1985

Once in a while I come upon something that neatly and succinctly expresses an idea or sense of things I previously been unable to put into words. Dom Sighard Kleiner’s words in the above passage are an example.

In our part of the Church, we continue to go through a time of intense and often conflicted change. We see it in liturgy, theology, ecclesiology, ethics, demographics, and myriad other areas. Change is a constant in life and in the Church, of course; but ours is an era which wears change on its sleeve much more proudly than most others, making it (in some quarters) the highest good rather than a necessary but ultimately neutral fact. This has resulted in at least these two interesting consequences.

First, “disputation”(as Kleiner calls it) is now a normal way of “doing business” in the Church. We argue about a seemingly endless number of things, but have very little energy or reserve for meaningful mission. This situation is sadly reminiscent of the Jewish leadership at the time of Christ’s earthly ministry.

Second, the high rate of change (and consequent insistence on novelty to keep things interesting to people no longer “formed” in a meaningful tradition) has produced a culture in our church wherein many of both lay and ordained leaders do not have an “assimilated” faith. “Forms, structures, and symbols” are no longer understood within a context or as part of an organic body of meaning experienced over time by a living community of faith: they are seen as discreet parts, mere “techniques” or the residue of another time – all of which is “fair game” for “updating” and being made “relevant” to a consumer mentality where nothing lasts for long and all is disposable.


  1. The principle underlining Kleiner's statement is definitely worth taking into consideration. However, should not our spiritual concentration be focused on living according to the exhortations repeated often by Jesus and the apostles rather than on form and rituals left unmentioned in scripture? Perhaps the religious add-ons so prominent in liturgical practices are less an aid than a hindrance to pure and simple devotion to Christ. Walking in love and functioning in the "one anothers" all week long may be simple, but remain the essence of authentic Christianity.

  2. Perhaps so, David. I was writing from the perspective of one involved in a specific way of "living according to the exhortations repeated often by Jesus and the apostles." In the tradition in which I am formed, the assimilation of the Faith is a deep, life-long process. The attempt to make "short cuts" in that effort seems to have resulted in some serious damage to our witness to the Gospel. My own experience has been that, when attended to prayerfully and with humility, Liturgical Christianity has a a great capacity to express quite well the content of your last sentence.

    Under the Mercy,