Some years ago, Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., gave a series of conferences to my Community on “Images of the Church.” He said that you can also call these images Models of the Church. These models are words or phrases, nearly all taken from Scripture, that describe the Church from one or another of her many facets. Some of the images that he listed are:
- People of God,
- Mystical Body,
- the Vine and the Branches,
- Virgin Bride,
- Community of love,
- Hierarchical Communion,
- Temple of the Spirit,
- Sacrament of Salvation,
- House of prayer,
Fr. Dubay said that each of these images describes one aspect of the Church and each of them is so rich that we would never finish sounding the depths of their meaning.
Moreover, because the Church is a mystery, one image or model is not enough to understand her. We cannot take one or even two or three images and think that we understand the Church no matter how well we know these few images. We would need to see the Church in all her aspects together, in every facet, image, and model and then we would begin to glimpse her reality.
This is like someone trying to see all of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris from one standpoint (once its restoration is complete, of course, which is expected in 2024). I can walk around Notre Dame, study it from every angle, investigate it from top to bottom, but there will still be something missing: I will not be seeing all of it at the same time. I can only be in one place at one time, and that limits my vision of the whole. I need a four-dimensional view, a view that is not limited by space and time, and that is beyond my abilities in this life.
Seeing the Catholic Church is like trying to see Notre Dame Cathedral. She is simply too vast and too mysterious for one person to grasp. I can meditate on the Church as the Body of Christ and as the Vine and the Branches. Those two models are similar and mediating on one easily leads to meditation on the other. However, if I pass from meditating on these two images to a meditation on the Church as the People of God, I find myself looking at the Church from the opposite direction. This calls for a broadening of my vision, of my way of thinking, and it is precisely this broadening that is necessary to be Catholic.
We say that we believe in a God who is Three and One, that we follow a Redeemer who is both God and Man, that we belong to a Church that has at the same time many seemingly contradictory facets. “It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek.”[i] We say that we believe these things, and we may well do so, but more is needed if we are to enflesh our beliefs in the way we live.
None of us can see the Church in all its facets, at least not while we are in this world of space and time. I can only see a few facets, and I need others who see other facets to help me to see more. We find this need for complementary seeing in the Gospels. During the first centuries of Christianity, a number of Gospels were written, but the Church has designated four Gospels as being divinely inspired and part of Scripture: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each Gospel presents a vision of Jesus Christ by a different person. None of them give a complete view of Him. All four are needed in order to come to know Him.
Moreover, the Church has always resisted any attempt to blend the Gospels, to reduce them to a single way of seeing Christ. Since 160 AD, when Tatian produced his Diatessaron, there have been many harmonies and mergers of the four Gospels, yet the Church has never used any of them in her liturgy. Lex orandi, lex credendi. We need to see Jesus Christ from the four different angles, through the four different visions, if we want to see Him as a person because only a person can see another person in a personal manner, and no one personal vision of Him is adequate.
This is illustrated by the magnificent rose windows of medieval cathedrals. The north rose window of Chartres cathedral shows Christ surrounded by a circle of the kings of Judah, his ancestors, and by another circle of the minor prophets. These circles remind us of his human lineage, which included not just the great kings, David, Solomon, and Hezekiah, but also Manasseh, who is said to have killed the prophet Isaiah. The prophets surrounding Him each prophecy about Him in a different way.
The north rose window at Chartres shows Him surrounded by the four evangelists. The great west rose window repeats the circle of the evangelists and adds a circle of the twelve apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel. All these human witnesses point to Christ from the angle of their own experiences and insights. The south rose window at Notre Dame in Paris teaches the same doctrine in its presentation of Christ surrounded by the four great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, with the four evangelists.
The pictorial catechesis contained in these windows is inseparable from the architectural catechesis of the buildings themselves. They soar to the heavens, and in order to soar with them, we must absorb the teaching they carry in their windows. It is only from within the church that we can see the doctrine of the windows, and it is only from within the Church that we can know Jesus, and none of us can know Him without the knowledge given by the members of the whole Church. I cannot see the Church from my angle alone; I can only see a part of her. I need the vision of others to see her in her totality, just as I need the vision of all four evangelists to see Jesus.
This is where synodality begins. Every interaction of Catholics is an action of the Church, though we most often forget this. In order to act as members of the Church, each one must have a vision of the Church, and these visions need to be harmonized. The differing models of the Church listed above, as well as the other models found in scripture, need to be brought into harmony before we can take action as a Church. This demands much reflection and prayer on the part of each Catholic as well as much openness to the visions of others.
This is not just a matter of discussion. It is a vital need of each Catholic. If I do not see the Church through any of its scriptural models, I will not be seeing the Church but instead I will see some caricature of the Church. Even if my vision of the Church is valid, I need the balance of differing visions to prevent me from reducing the Church to a political or social construct. This has happened time and time again throughout history, since the days of the Acts of the Apostles. It is happening again today, when too many Catholics cannot distinguish between the Body of Christ and one or another political party.
Without the balanced, harmonious tension of the varying visions of the Church, the Church will crash. We can see this vividly illustrated by the crucifix in the church at Portsmouth Abbey, Portsmouth, RI. The crucifix hangs in mid-air, upheld only by numerous wires of bronze and steel supporting it from above and from both sides. Richard Lippold, the artist who designed this, sees the wires as symbolizing the graces coming from God the Father (the silver wires of steel coming down from above), and the graces of the Holy Spirit (the golden wires of bronze from the sides and ceiling of the nave). I will dare to add to Lippold’s understanding of his sculpture and say that grace only acts through persons, and the graces that uphold the crucifix, the sacrifice of Jesus, must flow through ourselves. Without these graces working together in a perfectly balanced tension, the crucifix, like the Church, will crash to the ground.
For want of a vision, desire was lost.
For want of desire, courage was lost.
For want of courage, strength was lost.
For want of strength, devotion was lost.
For want of devotion, love was lost.
For want of love, the people were lost.
“For want of a vision, the people perish.”[ii]
[ii] Cf. Prov. 29, 18 – paraphrased
Images: (1 — Main Image) Rosace sud de la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris; By Paryż_notre-dame_rozeta_4.JPG: Albertus teologderivative work: Eusebius (talk) – Paryż_notre-dame_rozeta_4.JPG, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8249518. (2) South facade of Notre-Dame de Paris; By sacratomato_hr – DSC_0732, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33334184. (3) Rose stained glass window in Chartres, France; Adobe Stock: By inkl. (4) Richard Lippold’s Trinity sculpture at Portsmouth Abbey after restoration work. By Aculpepp – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59440193.
Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.