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Elizabeth Arblaster: Building the Tower of Babel or the House of God?

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Without our eyes on God we may build monuments to our egos rather than true parish renewal. Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

During the lockdown most of us placed myriad work and personal activities on hold. Despite the hardships of lockdown many people commented to me that they found the restrictions had liberated them from the relentless activity in which they were usually engaged and which our culture seems to demand of us.

Sometimes the culture can overpower the still, small voice in our decision-making, a dynamic experienced strongly on social media. Our criteria for whether to engage in something is in danger of being flipped from ‘Is the activity good in and of itself?’ to ‘Will it look good to others?’

What has any of this to do with the renewal of our parishes? As it turns out, a great deal. When it comes to parish renewal our question should be: ‘How do we make decisions which will not simply lead to the sating of our culture’s appetite for activity (or perhaps quell our own anxiety) but instead actually lead to participating in the superabundant fruitfulness promised by God?’ Or to put it more simply: ‘What actions will really lead to the renewal of our parishes?’

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Scripture has helpful insights about this. The story of the tower of Babel can be read as a cautionary tale about renewal. In this narrative the people of the plain of Shinar faced the problem of being “scattered about the whole earth” (Gen 11:4).

Their anxiety is not so different from our real post-lockdown concerns about whether people will remain scattered or return to Mass. The solution of the tower-builders was to immediately make plans to save themselves: “let us make bricks and bake them in the fire”, “let us build ourselves a town and a tower with its top reaching heaven”, “let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4). Wow, all that activity! I guess that is going to solve their problem!

Well, no. Unsurprisingly their self-reliant and imprudent attempt to save themselves fails and results in further fragmentation of their community. This is because the people of Shinar have made their plans without God, a point made plain by the writer’s wry remark about God making a ‘visit’ to see the town and the tower. This is what Bishop Barron calls participating in the ego-drama which ‘I’ write and direct, and in which I star, rather than theo-drama, which God writes and directs, and in which He invites me to play a role. The ego-drama is not fruitful.

Fr Jacques Philippe reminds us that “all the good we can do comes from God and from Him alone: Apart from Me, you can do nothing, Jesus said (Jn 15:5). He did not say, ‘you can’t do much’ but you can do nothing.” This is consonant with the words of the psalmist: “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the labourers work” (Ps 127:1).

By contrast, God’s plans, which can seem pretty counter-intuitive to us, are disproportionately fruitful. With an irony characteristic of God’s way, the psalmist tells us that people who implement their own plans will merely work longer and longer hours, while those who cooperate with the Lord will be blessed by Him even while they sleep (Ps 127:2).

We see this kind of blessing on the efforts of the saints who produce incredible fruit through obedience to and trust in God’s plans. Take St Therese of Lisieux. Despite never becoming a great active missionary in the way she envisaged, and spending her life in a cloistered convent before dying at age 24, the Little Flower’s life and writings have made her one of the most influential saints in recent centuries and now, ironically, a patron saint of missionaries.

Don’t we want this kind of fruitfulness for our parishes? If we do, then we must resist engaging in activity for its own sake, as demanded by our culture or our own anxious need to do something to address the problems we can see, and instead discern how to participate in what God is asking of us.

Does this mean that we should never do anything? No! Or that we should sit around endlessly pondering the perfect solution and never carrying anything out? Of course not!

Go Make Disciples gives guidance for areas of parish life which we can look to strengthen because they help people flourish as disciples; they are the very things Jesus did when He called and formed disciples. Strengthening these areas of parish life is good. But the job of parishes and individual Catholics is to discern the particular good things God is asking of each parish, at this time, with these particular people.

This means our first question should be, ‘What does God want us to do?’ And our first action should be the contemplation of God and His answer to that question. Our Lady stands as an icon of this reality. Despite living in a time of significant political oppression, Our Lady did not make her own plans to ‘build a tower’ to save her people.

Instead she received a proposal for salvation from God and cooperated with Him to become a tabernacle and an ark for the Word Incarnate. Through her cooperation with God the Father, and her unity with the Holy Spirit, another Temple was built: the body of Our Lord (Jn 2:21). At all times she contemplated and pondered God’s action in the events of her life so that she could always be the one who heard the word of the Lord and obeyed it (Lk 11:28). Her advice to the disciples then and now is, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

How do we root our action in listening as Mary did? Here are some ways that can enhance our ability to listen to God so that He can direct our activities. Stop. Desire to learn to listen to God. Make space to listen through silence. Learn to pray. Get to know who God is through Scripture. Read spiritual books to put oil in the lamp of our hearts. Trust God. Detach from our plans. Purify our desires. Receive the grace of the Sacraments. Do the daily examen. Go on retreat. Learn to be sensitive to how the Holy Spirit speaks to us. Ask God for healing. Do not be afraid. Follow small inspirations from the Holy Spirit.

Above all remember the words of Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard OCSO in The Soul of the Apostolate: “[A]ction relies upon contemplation for its fruitfulness; and contemplation, in turn, as soon as it has reached a certain degree of intensity, pours out upon our active works some of its overflow. And it is by contemplation that the soul goes to draw directly upon the Heart of God for the graces which it is the duty of the active life to distribute.”

Throughout 2022, the Parish Renewal Team will offer opportunities to grow in these ways.

We pray this will support your journey to grow in holiness, so that the grace you receive will overflow in your family, your workplace, among your friends, and into your parish and beyond.

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