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Murmuring in the Desert

“David II Teniers chose to illustrate this story from the Golden Legend: in the sky in the middle of the composition is the crow holding the meagre meal for the two monks in his beak. The water skin and bowl at the two men’s feet in the bottom left-hand corner symbolise the fast they have imposed upon themselves: water and bread only. Nothing but spiritual food, represented by the book of Scripture, seen open here, sustains them; it lifts their soul up and away from the sufferings of the flesh. The skull, a reflection of the vanities of the world, placed on a rock, marks the separation between two worlds: on the one hand the desert, a source of meditation and introspection, and on the other the hustle and bustle of the world, a sure enough obstacle to contemplation.” –Musée de Flandre

Sitting through mass while my wife and I wrangle our three small children often feels like penance instead of worship. We usually cannot pay attention to the readings or the sermon. The music alternates between boring and saccharine. Our parish has a nice new-ish church building, but all the windows are clear and empty because we cannot yet afford stained glass. After Mass, everyone bolts to the parking lot because our current mortgage won’t allow us to build an adjacent social hall for many years. The vast majority of parishioners remain complete strangers to us, though we have attended this parish for six years.

If any fellow parishioners live in my suburban subdivision (where we have also lived for six years), I would never know it. We know only one other family in our neighborhood, and they attend another kind of church. Sure, we have a few parish friends with kids, but they live far enough away that we do not drop in unannounced and our kids do not play together.

What must converts think of how we Catholics relate to one another, especially those from contemporary evangelical churches that place so much emphasis on social interaction, networking, and small groups? Did they bother to convert to the Catholic faith for the sacraments, only to experience harsh isolation from other Christians?

Our parish does actually offer a Latin Mass, and we have had one since way back when you needed an indult. Since none of our parish priests know how to say this mass, a kind Polish priest drives up from his parish a half hour every Sunday and feast day. No one knows how to chant, there is only one set of vestments, and in almost 10 years of celebrating we have never observed a single high Mass due to lack of resources. The attendance ranges from 20-75 people any given Sunday, and most drive from across the entire diocese just to sit in mostly silence watching a priest offer a low Mass. Despite the richness offered by this form of the liturgy, we do not dare take our kids to the Latin Mass since it is only offered in the afternoon when the little ones would put up an intolerable nap time protest. The attendees of this Mass are entirely unknown to the rest of our parish, and vice versa. The same intra-parish ghetto-ization occurs between attendees of the Spanish Mass versus the English Masses, and among the people who send their kids to our Catholic K-8 school, those who use public school, and those who homeschool.

Did parish life always feel so dry and isolating for Catholics? Even in my own short life, I look back fondly on the college days when I knew mostly everyone at Mass and socialized with all of them (the priest included) after Mass and during weekly activities. It worked well because we lived in relatively close proximity. We were the same age. We did not have kids or spouses or careers. Parish life radically differs from this somewhat monastic ideal. As a family, we do not feel supported by the Church or our parish. The Church claims to value the family, yet seems to fall short on establishing the kind of communities that can spiritually, morally, socially, and materially uplift and sustain Catholic families. Feeling the same kind of absence, “Barefoot and Pregnant” blogger Calah Alexander recently opined, “I’m tired of trying to live up [to] the Church’s teaching when the world and the Church herself seem allied in the attempt to punish me for it.”


While the debates rage on about liturgy and clergy sexual abuse and social justice and the struggle for religious liberty (all valuable debates), I question why we do not pay similar attention to rebuilding a sense of Catholic interconnection in our parishes and neighborhoods. If we are to recover the beauty in the liturgy, we must first have families who are able raise their children to recognize Jesus in that beauty. The obstacles to family formation are manifold, and I do not wish to dwell on them, instead offering my paltry anecdotes as an introduction.

A priest friend once quipped that the clergy cannot be counted on to create great parishes. This responsibility lies firmly with the laity. Despite how loudly we may murmur about bishops or liturgy translations or the lack of new vocations, our parishes will not improve unless we change how we relate to one another. Pride convinces us that we can go it alone as individual Catholics without relying on the rest of the Church, including our neighbors, priests, the saints, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Desert Fathers chose lives of asceticism and hermitage, yet they placed a higher priority on hospitality and kindness toward travelers than to their personal spiritual devotions — traveling through any desert is exhausting and dangerous. St. Benedict’s Rule 53 integrates this sense of desert hospitality into a way of life, based on Psalms 47:10 and  Our Lord’s words in Matthew 25:35. The Rule of St. Benedict and the writings of St. John Cassian both indicate that hospitality toward guests is to be prioritized higher than personal devotions like fasting because the former is a Christian necessity, while the later is a useful spiritual choice.

How do we recover this sense of hospitality and interconnection within our parishes? While I wish I could come to you with a proven program you can implement (“7 Habits of Highly Effective Parishes?”), I do not have experience in rebuilding parishes. I do, however, know which gaps need repair and have a few tangible ideas to help fill them.

To that end, I’d like to offer a few suggestions I think may help us regain our sense of community and build stronger parishes:

Parish networking — Help people answer, “Which parish members live in my neighborhood?”  You can help prime these relationships by assigning regular prayer devotions like a weekly Rosary to these small neighborhood groups.

Share resources — Carpools to school. Homeschool co-ops. Celebrate feast days together with neighbors. Shopping trips for the homebound. Share warehouse club memberships or subscriptions. Trade assets like books, movies, and games.

Help new mothers — If we are really a pro-life people, we need to make it easier for families to choose life. This is not limited to crisis pregnancies. Why do so many Catholics contracept if not to avoid the seemingly daunting task of having children? New mothers can greatly benefit from the time flexibility available to older mothers and teenage girls.  Neglecting new mothers is a sure way to keep them from bringing themselves and their children to the graces available in the Mass and the sacraments.

Help vocations — Assist priests in scheduling visits to parishioners’ homes so children know them outside of mass. This can include dinner, a house blessing, and a family Rosary. Schedule regular trips among multiple families to visit religious communities and seminaries. Purchase goods manufactured by religious orders, and help advertise these goods to fellow parishioners.

Help Christian unity — Break down the social barriers among different communities in your parish (e.g. Spanish vs. English vs. Latin; homeschool vs. private vs. public). Partner in charitable service with local Eastern Rite and Anglican Ordinariate Catholic parishes, and in this partnership learn how these small and usually isolated communities establish and maintain their communities. Take your children to attend their liturgies.

These strategies are a modest start toward rebuilding our connectedness as fellow Catholics. We are not called to spiritual and material isolation from one another as if this isolation itself protects us from the corrupting influence of the world. I find it illustrative that salvation history begins first in an isolated garden and ends in the fullness of time in the mystical city of Jerusalem. We are called toward real communion with one another, assisting each other in our quest for holiness.

The Good Samaritan - David Teniers the Younger
“[The parable of the Good Samaritan] It does not exactly reply to the question ‘Who is thy neighbour?’ but propounds and answers a larger one, ‘Whom in distress should I like to be neighbour to me?’ and gives an everlasting instance of the golden rule.”

Yet we should not despair if our current parish life doesn’t yet have this kind of spiritual kinship. Lest we become discouraged with the current state of affairs in the deserts of our neighborhoods and parishes, St. Francis de Sales offers rich advice to combat spiritual dryness:

5. And lastly, my child, amid all our dryness let us never grow discouraged, but go steadily on, patiently waiting the return of better things; let us never be misled to give up any devout practices because of it, but rather if possible, let us increase our good works, and if we cannot offer liquid preserves to our Bridegroom, let us at least offer Him dried fruit — it is all one to Him, so long as the heart we offer be fully resolved to love Him. In fine weather bees make more honey and breed fewer grubs, because they spend so much time in gathering the sweet juices of the flowers that they neglect the multiplication of their race. But in a cold, cloudy spring they have a fuller hive and less honey. And so sometimes, my child, in the glowing springtide of spiritual consolations, the soul spends so much time in storing them up, that amid such abundance it performs fewer good works; while, on the contrary, when amid spiritual dryness and bitterness, and devoid of all that is attractive in devotion, it multiplies its substantial good works, and abounds in the hidden virtues of patience, humility, self-abnegation, resignation and unselfishness. (Introduction to the Devout Life IV, 14)

Originally published on August 1st, 2014.

8 thoughts on “Murmuring in the Desert”

  1. “and if we cannot offer liquid preserves to our Bridegroom, let us at least offer Him dried fruit…”

    I couldn’t help but chuckle at that, as many a night my prayer has felt quite shriveled. But at least I am praying, right?

  2. Brilliant suggestions! May I add one? Pray. Pray for good Catholic families to enrich your life. Sometimes only God can make the connections

  3. I wonder if the inherent problems with modern life are also not to blame for the disconnection in parishes. Both parents working to make ends meet, grandparents often living too far to be involved in daily family life, commute times, and so on. The lack of time and energy to do much beyond work and parenting duties is a significant factor, I think.
    Your excellent suggestions point to the establishment of family relationships among parishioners. Family is key. Large, close-knit, multi-generational families tend to act as a magnetic force. Their relationships with each other and the community at large draws in others.
    There is nothing more beautiful than to see a large Catholic clan exert the beauty and power of family in a community. I think particularly of a family I know in my former parish in upstate New York. Mealtimes, especially holidays, is a time when not only the family comes together, but many friends and acquaintances are included. Those in need — elderly, disabled, widowed — are given a place at the table. New friends are introduced and drawn in. Aunts, uncles, cousins pitch in and help wherever needed.
    This extends naturally to parish life. Each family member has his/her own friends and interests in the parish and the circle widens as they are pulled in and incorporated in the family community. Parish ministries are a help as they are able to focus on parish needs and those who can meet them (a shawl ministry or the local food pantry, for instance). However, when the ministries become a substitute for the missing element of family, they often founder.
    I truly believe that the strength of a parish is in direct proportion to the strength of the families in the parish. Families in which mom and dad both work full time, where there are no close relatives to help with the children, where there are no cousins to help Grandmother paint her house and no one to visit Uncle Samuel, constitutes families that are weakened and of necessity open to the world’s solutions (full time childcare and public schools, institutionalized care for the elderly and so on). This weakens the spiritual cohesion of the family and therefore the parish.
    Ultimately, Catholics must return to the traditional family, and I believe this has already begun. It means recapturing the basic moral assumptions that underlie strong families and bringing them into the community. The term “family man” was once one of great respect in the working world. That needs to return to our consciousness and practice. Infants and toddlers need their mothers, not a daycare worker, however caring or well trained. Grandparents need to be present to take up the slack and to impart wisdom to their grandchildren. The concept of a carefree retirement needs to be retired.
    This all speaks to living life sacrificially. Catholics used to do it rather well. They can do it well again.

  4. We belong to a parish that is about half hispanic and half English-speaking. I discovered the hispanic half 9 years ago when we first moved here because I’m a photographer always looking for shots. My first Our Lady of Guadaloupe celebration had me hooked and I’ve gone to nearly every celebration the hispanic community has had since. Although I speak no Spanish, I feel very comfortable and am recognized and welcomed by many of the people who attend these wonderful celebrations, some of whom have become my friends in other situations. What surprises me greatly is the fact that for many of these celebrations, I am the only white person there. One does not need to know Spanish to follow the story of Juan Diago or the events of the Passion Play. I have spoken to other English speaking members of the parish, attempting to get them to come to, but to no avail. I don’t know what the problem is or how it is possible to meld the two halves of our parish.

  5. Many ‘enlightened” Catholics will often speak disparagingly of the pre-Second Vatican Council “Catholic ghettos,” but we sure seem to have lost a lot in the diaspora thereof

  6. All year, from Easter or even before, each person should be searching for their next candidate or catechumen to shepherd through the next set of RCIA classes. You’ll get to know a lot of the other sponsors in the parish. Or, if you strike out, go to the various religious education classes offered. You’ll find the same people show up over and over, and you’ll become their friends. Then you find these very people standing around talking in little groups in the parking lot after Mass, and head to the local coffee shop.

    In all honesty, I could not have done this when my kids were still at home. I was too tired.


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