For my son’s 12th birthday, I took him to New York City, where we stayed in a Brooklyn rectory and did all the things a 12-year-old boy would naturally want to do in such a big place.
A day before we arrived though, a man tried to blow himself up near the Times Square subway station so I was a little hesitant about getting too adventurous. It was hard to feel at home in a place so large and fraught with unpredictability.
Our trip to New York reminded me of something Leon Battisti Alberti said about cities and houses. In addition to being an accomplished 15th-century architect, Alberti was also a priest, philosopher and poet. He once mused that the city is like a great house, and the house in its turn a small city.
The great house of the city provides a common home to millions of people coexisting, cooperating (and conflicting) on a daily basis. The house then is a city on a much smaller scale. I would take it a step further and say that our interior life is also like a house (or a castle for St. Teresa of Avila), and we live in a time when both are in need of attention and reform.
The analogy between large and small is not unlike the experience of St. Francis in the church at San Damiano. When Our Lord spoke to St. Francis and told him to “rebuild my church,” he was not talking about the small rundown building where he was sitting. It was the whole church (and culture) that was in need of renewal.
St. Francis became a microcosm of that renewal by shedding his material wealth and embracing the poor and sick out of a deep love that came from God. His interior life, his interior castle, was renovated for God.
St. Francis is one of the few saints whose name always includes the name of a city: Assisi. In that small Italian city, St. Francis had the experience of coming to know God as his Father, other people as his brothers and sisters, and nature as their common home. The city became as intimate as a house.
Today, it is fair to say that attempts to “fix” the institutional church will fall short if the transformation is not already happening in the smallness of our homes and interior lives.
While it is tempting to think that renewing the church and the culture might be accomplished through a more clever use of social media, it is that same social media that fractures our attention and distracts us from the essential practice of contemplation.
If we stop focusing so much of our attention out there and retrain our attention for what is inside, then we begin to make headway. Houses are where the next generation of priests, bishops and cardinals will come from.
How will they be formed in the space of the home? What sorts of contemplative practices will they remember from their childhood?
Houses are where the next generation of Catholic laypeople will set out to leaven the strongholds of education, government and commerce through faithful and courageous witness. From whence is that courage fostered, that faith secured? In the home.
The profusion of home improvement shows on television would seem to suggest that among the most important acts of discernment in this life is choosing the right tile for the kitchen backsplash. The home improvement trend belies a deeper desire though, the same one that St. Francis experienced in the 13th century.
The church, the home and our interior life are in need of renovation. How successful it is depends on our ability to do the hard demolition work of mortification and tearing out the habits and vices that infect the household of our soul.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.
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