cave dwellers

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1-3)

The Cave! To be told that you live in a cave, that you are raising your family in a cave, cuts deeply anyone familiar with Western philosophy. Plato imagines willing, self-satisfied, suspicious cave dwellers as the perfect representation of the unenlightened mob, from which a few might be saved by turning to philosophy. Yet when the accusation comes from someone who has earned a strong reputation from years of dedicated evangelical service in the most hostile territory, you have to take it seriously.

Through a recent Crisis article (“The Well-Sheltered Catholic”, May 5, 2012), I discovered that a few years ago Barbara Nicolosi of Act One vented her frustration with Catholics who have withdrawn from the dominant culture to raise their kids in “caves”. According to her description, these Catholics she attacks condemn Hollywood out of hand, protect their children from any of its products that smack of sin, and encourage a dismissive and haughty attitude towards its importance. Their children go to “special Catholic schools” where they read the Great Books, but have no apostolic drive, often preferring to become “a DRE in a small country parish in the backwoods where nobody will notice them and they can just shut the world down and out.”

So by raising Christian kids in a “safe” cave by shutting out the culture in the hope that they’re going to be unscathed, what we actually do is we create useless, impotent disciples for this modern time.

I understand Mrs. Nicolosi’s frustration. Her efforts to arouse Catholics formed in what should be fertile ground for her apostolate to the world of Hollywood have largely failed (at least as of 2007). Non-Catholic Christians have responded, most of whom are good-hearted but culturally illiterate. But Catholics, whose artistic heritage is so deep and strong, whose formation has explicitly included much of that heritage, have not. Why?

I would urge my fellow Cave dwellers to take seriously such strong criticism from a woman with a proven commitment to Christian fidelity, artistic excellence and practical evangelization. We could benefit from the advice she gives about properly introducing ourselves and our children to the most serious artistic expressions of modern culture, even when central themes involve questionable morality:

Mom and Dad watched great movies with us. Rear Window and Giant and On the Waterfront and Camelot. And they talked to us about them. I remember when my mother had us watch Doctor Zhivago. I was about 14, my sister was 16. And my mother said, “Now, this is a movie about adultery. But it’s a very beautifully made movie. It’s about art and it’s about sin and it’s about communism.” And she said, “We’re going to watch it together because I want you to see this beautiful film and then we’re going to talk about it.” And it was great, because I learned about sin in a way that was not an occasion of sin.

Yet I disagree with Mrs. Nicolosi’s condemnation of our life choices. She blames Cave Catholics for acting out of fear, short-sightedness and laziness. What she says has some truth, but she is mostly out of date and misses what is essential in our Cave life. I have lived most of my adult life – nearly 30 years — as part of the Catholic sub-culture. In the beginning, in the desperate, hopeless days of the 70’s, many fled to the “Cave” as a shelter, driven by fear, frequently embittered by fear. Yet once free to procreate, nurture and educate, these Catholics and the cultural refugees they welcomed by and large turned their attention away from what was evil and began developing the best life they could for their families and friends. Having rejected the stifling, empty, bureaucratically-dominated social conventions, taking the big plunge to either homeschool or start their own schools, they found themselves disconcertingly free to determine how to live and what to teach.

With some trepidation arising from their lack of expertise, they sought out the good, true and beautiful as it appeared to them. Practicing the fine arts quickly became important, though not in the industrial way favored by Mrs. Nicolosi. Music – classical, folk, ecclesiastical, some contemporary – ballet and Irish dancing, story-writing, amateur theater (with a predilection for Shakespeare), icon-writing, Ukrainian egg decoration, even short video and amateur movies – anything that could be done with their local resources. More importantly, they worked hard to make their lives beautiful, not in isolation but in communities, in their small, neo-village communities centered as much as possible around their parishes. To judge by their growth, they have succeeded, attracting new members to share in the central values defining their communities.

Mrs. Nicolosi bemoans the lack of apostolic fervor she thinks our communities produce. As I interpret her, she thinks the commitment and devotion given to fostering them is mere self-indulgence, a real burying of the talents. In her extraordinarily harsh, “Last Judgment of the New Evangelization”, she reports the feeble response to eternal damnation of those who were lukewarm in evangelizing:

And the Cave Dwellers will say, “Oh, but Lord. We did send some souls. See! Here are a few members of our families and also several of the folks in our church small group. (Sadly a lot of them were, you know, seduced by the evil media and lost. That damn Hollywood!)

In this context, it is good to remember that, as St. Paul himself teaches, though all are called to be evangelical, not all are called to be apostles. Even in times of great societal wickedness, living the Gospel life with fervor does not normally mean preaching on the street corners. In his letters to the nascent Christian communities he had founded, St. Paul directs them inward, inspiring them to transform themselves and their lives in love. He did not criticize the Corinthians because they were not bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles; he criticized them because they were not living the life of Christ in their Church. He thanks God for the faith and love which the Ephesians and Colossians and Philippians show among themselves and urges them to continue to grow in their communal life in Christ.

For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers….(Eph. 1:15-16)

He proclaims his own calling to be an apostle, and tells the Churches that they share in his work, as he shares in their life.  If we pay attention to what St. Paul and St. Peter and St. John tell their communities, we might begin to think that Mrs. Nicolosi’s criticism is short-sighted. The Apostles spend remarkably few words exhorting their followers to preach to the Gentiles. Rather, they counsel them to understand more deeply their faith and to live it more perfectly in love among themselves. The Apostles follow the direction of the Lord Jesus, whose final prayer was that those who believed the words of the Apostles may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:21) Unity comes through love, as He manifested in His new commandment, “Love one another even as I have loved you.” “That the world may believe….” indicates that what seems to be an excessive internal focus is fundamentally evangelical. Really living the Gospel life itself makes it so attractive that it draws outsiders who are desperate for a taste of the living water drawn from the founts of love. The same Spirit that inspired the teaching of the Apostles, that inspired the limitless commitment to love shared by the early saints, also moved the Anthonys into the deserts of Egypt and the Benedicts into the cloister. What looked like running away from the dangers of pagan society turned out to be running towards the most intense experience of loving, sacrificial community. In God’s plan, these schools of community became the inspiration and seed-bed for the birth of European Christianity.

Much like the first Christians, many of today’s renewed Catholics have given themselves over completely to living a life of sacrificial, sacramental love in and among their families. It has not been easy, for most had no experience of community, hardly even of family, in their own upbringing, and even fewer in radically, evangelically Catholic families and communities. Driven by the Spirit to live according to the ideal, they often found that their zeal did not entirely prepare them for the rigors and surprises of radical living. But through faith, sacraments and friendship, their trials and failures have brought wisdom, making the way easier for the next generation by establishing culture and sensibilities and sage advice.

Out of these renewed communities have come true apostles. Religious communities are being filled or re-filled by many drawn from these communities. Priestly vocations are remarkably strong as well. Some have been drawn into writing, painting, architecture and music. Thousands have been called to teaching at all levels. And their numbers will grow. A recent Catholicity.com article estimates that there are now about 150,000 “evangelical Catholic families” and projects that internal growth alone will raise this number to around 1,000,000 in the next few decades.

And their influence will be disproportionately felt, for these Catholics are not only devoted to their faith, but they have received as strong a grounding in Catholic culture as their parents and their “special schools” have been able to give them. The priests arising out of their midst will not tolerate in their parishes the artistic shambles that Mrs. Nicolosi rightly bemoans. They will begin to renew the role of the Church as “the Real Patron of the Arts”. The DREs in “rural parishes” will be called to take up more responsibilities in the diocese. The collegiate professors will spread a deeper understanding and appreciation of the treasures of Catholic tradition. Local efforts to promote the arts will benefit from national and international association (e.g. The Sacred Music Colloquium).

This is a long slow process. I understand Mrs. Nicolosi’s impatience. But learning to live lives of love is not easy. Ask the Benedictines or Carmelites or anyone who has tried. St. John thought it so important and evidently so difficult that he is reported in his old age to have reduced his sermons to merely saying, “Love one another.” This is especially true in this new era, a return to apostolic Christianity, in which Catholic laity are invited and expected to live lives of deep prayer. How to do this, integrating it with our daily duties, learning to discern real slackness from the limitations implicit in busy family life, demands a lot of commitment, a lot of experience, a lot of time. One of the greatest sufferings of these families is the sense of failure that haunts them as they face the messiness of most of what they try to do.  But we have often seen how those who too quickly become apostolic in Mrs. Nicolosi’s sense can easily lose their way, becoming scandals to the very souls they have moved so powerfully – “Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil.” (Mark 4:5)

“Cave dwellers” is harsh and for the most part undeserved. “Shire folk” might be more appropriate. As the hobbit, Merry, reflected in the Houses of Healing:

It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep.

Still, we “Shire folk” can learn much from Mrs. Nicolosi’s reminders. Their deep grounding in a good, lovable life readied the hobbits to play an important role in the affairs of the Wise. But they had to fight their natural tendency (one they shared with the Elves) to simply shut out the greater world, with its terrors and its glories, and to treat anything foreign with suspicion. We Catholic Shire folk should be both confident in our life yet open to loving the Wide World instead of condemning it, and ready at the proper time to take our share in its struggles, failures and successes.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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