One of the key figures of the Gospels is John the Baptist, and I don’t think we give him as much attention as we should.
If you look at the Gospels, they all start off talking about the public life of Jesus Christ by talking about John the Baptist. From the ministry of John the Baptist came the first disciples of Jesus. It is on the ground work of John the Baptist that Jesus will build the Church. We might even consider John the Baptist to be a type of co-founder of the Church. It was from their experience of John the Baptist and their experience with Jesus Christ that the Apostles would take their instruction for founding the first Christian Community. To neglect the influence of John the Baptist is to really not understand the spirit that Jesus and the Apostles began with.
And what was the example of John the Baptist? A man living a life of prayer, poverty, chastity, and asceticism while calling together a community based on conversion and the confession of sin.
John the Baptist was the starting ground for the Church, the initial point of conversion. Jesus and the Apostles were to sanctify and continue the work of conversion. John the Baptist was basically the archetype of all Religious life in the Church. In order for the Christian to understand Jesus they need to understand John the Baptist; they need to encounter religious, consecrated life.
The Christian imagination is one informed by religious life. It is the heart of the Church, the wellspring from which we understand who we are as Christians. It is the source of Christian inspiration and creativity. To be ignorant of religious life is to be ignorant of John the Baptist, and to be ignorant of John the Baptist is to be ignorant of Christ.
To understand this even better we really have to go back to the beginning of the Church, to a time before convents and monasteries, before sisters and monks, and even before they were using any terms like priests and bishops in the manner that we use them. We have to go back to a time when there were no churches, just communities gathered in houses. When we go back to that point we find the following:
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. . . All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.” (Acts 2:42, 44-46)
“The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. . . There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they would distribute to each according to need.” (Acts 4:32, 34)
These are the first models of what it means to live the Christian life and what immediately stands out is 1. Communal living. 2. Shared possession of good (Poverty) 3. United under a single intention (Obedience). Essentially they were living what we understand as religious life.
In 1 Cor 7 Paul talks to us about chastity and says “I wish everyone to be as I am [that is, celibate], but each has a particular gift from God… Now to the unmarried and to the widows I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do.” (1 Cor 7:7-8) He then later says:
“Now in regard to virgins I have no commandment from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who is trustworthy. . . I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” (1 Cor 7:25, 32-34)
Just from these few examples (and there are many more) we find that this early living of the Christian life was basically religious life. It was communal living where poverty and obedience were practiced and chastity was greatly encouraged, even preferred.
This was definitely more than
come to Mass, get coffee and donuts, and get an hour of RE. No, all their efforts and life centered around this community of faith.
So, what happened to this tight-knit community? Well, the manner of communal living with shared goods got really difficult as the Church got bigger. They still had this intense communal life during the time of the Roman persecutions, but then came the great transition, caused by the acceptance of the Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine. When Constantine made the Christian faith the official religion of the Empire, everyone wanted to join. The Church was now popular, and people joined just because it was popular, and thus was born the Christmas and Easter Catholics.
In light of the pastoral demands it became extremely difficult to maintain the sort of intensity that the early Christians had in living their faith. The fruit of this was that some Christians, after reading the scriptures, sought to continue to live out this intense Christian life. These communities became known as religious communities.
In effect, they should be the examples of Communal life after which we should be modeling our own life. Many times, when talking about Christian family life, we use the term “domestic church” and the ideal is that we should be modeling our family life after the life of the Church. However, for many Christians, the only example of Communal Faith is the parish, which is often not a very good example. It’s often a collection of lukewarm Catholics at various stages of their faith life who generally treat it like a social club. It’s a field hospital, which is a value in itself. The pastor is there nurturing them with milk and hoping that some of them develop a strong faith. We need better models for Church, for Christian Community, and for that reason it might be better to say “domestic monastery.”
It is in monasteries, convents, and religious houses where we can experience the depth of the Christian experience and be inspired. Seeing it in action helps us to cultivate our Christian imagination, gives us a template for our own Christian life. We begin to appreciate poverty, chastity, and obedience in our own lives.
Every Christian needs to have a real knowledge and experience of healthy religious life. Without that experience we really don’t understand Jesus, John the Baptist, the apostles, or the Church.