Several years ago, Carlo Carretto, one of the great spiritual writers of our time, returned to Italy from the Sahara desert after many years as a monk among the Bedouin. He then wrote a spiritual testimony entitled, “I Sought and I Found,” within which he chronicles his journey towards, and struggles with, God. He ends the book with a letter, a love letter, addressed to the church, the visible institutional church. A paraphrase of the opening lines reads like this:
“How much I must criticize you, my church and yet how much I love you!
“You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe you more than I owe anyone.
“I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.
“You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
“Never in the world have I seen anything more obscurantist, more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
“Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face – and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
“No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
“Then too – where should I go?
“To build another church?
“But I cannot build another church without the same defects, for they are my own defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
“No. I am old enough. I know better!”
What a magnificent description of the church – flawed yet divine, mediating God’s presence even as it obstructs it! I have found myself drawing upon this description more and more as I deal with complaints about the institutional church. What’s to be said in the face of the fact that the institutional church is flawed, compromised, corrupted by power, fraught with human weakness and pettiness? What’s to be said in the face of the fact that the church has never lived radically and fully the Gospel it preaches? What’s to be said in the face of the fact that, in its darker moments, the church has hurt, and continues to hurt, countless persons? How can it claim credibility and how can it claim to mediate God’s presence in the light of this? These are frequently voiced complaints and often one hears the added comment: “I can deal with God, I can’t deal with the church!”
Such complaints are often sincere, though they can also be a rationalization. In either case, however, the facts they point to are true. We cannot deny history and reality. The church has always had, and still has, a dark side. It does not mediate God’s presence purely. That is simply a fact.
However, with that having been admitted, something else must be added: The church, just as humanity itself, is not something abstract. It exists only in real people. We meet the church only in a very particular, historical, concrete enfleshment, that is, in real people with real names, real problems, and real blemishes. What we meet is never the church, but only this or that particular church. The church is a family, a very concrete and historical one.
This can be, I feel, a very helpful perspective to keep in mind. When we are born into a family, we bear its birthmark. We can dislike it, we can get angry with it, we can stay away from family celebrations for long periods of time, we can rage against its faults, and we can fill with bitterness and protest that it should be more loving, more understanding, less quick to judge and assign guilt…but, in the end, it’s our family and we want to die reconciled with it. Ultimately, one of life’s non-negotiable imperatives is that one tries to come to peace with one’s family. Nobody ever really leaves one’s family, even if they die outside of it.
It is the same with the institutional church. It isn’t God. The institutional church is no more identifiable with God than my historical father is identifiable with God the Father. But, like our historical parents, it is real. It is what we actually meet on earth. As with our real family, we can dislike it, rage at its faults, and be bitter about its imperfections. We can wish for another family. We can fight with it and stay away for long periods of time (and, sometimes, this can be healthy), but, in the end, we bear its mark on our skin, it’s ours, it’s the actual and only place in history where we contact the historical Christ.
It’s because of this, its inexorable reality, that, precisely, we have such strong feelings about it. Like Carretto, there are the times when we feel like slamming the door of our soul into its face, and yet, daily, we pray to somehow die in its arms. It’s because of this that, like Carretto, we too ultimately realize that we can never really leave the church.