Peter Maurin, the man who helped Dorothy Day found the Catholic Worker, used say: “When you don’t know what else to do, keep going to meetings!” Sound advice.
Jesus, it seems, would agree. At the end of Luke’s gospel, just before he departs this earth, he gives his rather shaky group of followers this counsel: “Return to the city and don’t leave until you feel yourself clothed with power from on high!” We find out later, in the Acts of the Apostles, how his followers interpreted that. They met and waited together in an “upper room” until they felt the fire of Pentecost.
When one tries to name the present moment in the church, few metaphors are as penetrating, as fertile a field for reflection, and as descriptive of what is actually happening as is this biblical image—a formerly-confident-but-now-somewhat-deflated group of disciples is huddled together in an upper room, confused and out of gas, needing to be recharged with power from above. That’s us; except our upper rooms are legion—church meetings of every kind, diocesan synods, ministerial associations, congresses on how to re-found religious life, ecumenical meetings, pastoral institutes, social-justice commissions, efforts in missiology, institutes on spirituality, and men and women all over the world (in kitchens and monasteries) feeling powerless and praying for God to come anew into our world. Our church meetings are “the upper room.”
Like the original upper room, our venues too are humble, church basements and church conference-centers, with their plastic chairs and disposable cups. The upper room is never glamorous, a de Vinci painting. It’s more like the meeting-room in your local church.
But that’s where we are today, by necessity, waiting for a new health and joy to return after a painful period within which we are being humbled and purified. This is not a time of pride for the church. Secular forces are increasingly marginalizing us; humiliating church-scandals, to the delight of the culture, frequently headline the front pages of our newspapers; and it’s fashionable to be anti-ecclesial and anti-clerical. This isn’t a time to hold one’s ecclesial-head very high.
Much of this, however, can be understood biblically, as a time of pruning, a time in the “upper room.” Much of what is happening in the church today is deserved, the chickens coming home to roost. We lived too long in a time of ecclesial and clerical privilege, forgetting that what we falsely idealize we will soon enough demonize. How we love to see the gods fall! A time of disprivilege will always follow its opposite. There was a time when the church couldn’t do anything wrong. Now it can’t do anything right. So Jesus has sent us back into the upper room, to pray and to wait, to sort out our confusion, and to re-root ourselves in the basics, so as to prepare to receive a new fire.
But that’s only half of it. We are in the upper room today for another reason too: like the first-followers of Jesus, immediately after his departure, we also don’t know any more what we should be doing. So much of what used to work no longer does. We are finding it ever-harder to pass on our faith to our own children, to fire the religious and romantic imagination of our culture, and to make a religious and moral dent of any kind in the ever-hardening secularity of ordinary consciousness. What should we be doing in the face of declining church attendance, the emptying and greying of our seminaries and convents, the growing agnosticism of our world, and the ecclesial indifference of so many of our own children?
Biblically, here is our answer: return to the city and remain in the upper room! What is meant by that? In Luke’s writings, “the city” refers to Jerusalem which, itself, is an image for the church, the faith, the dream that Jesus had instilled. To walk away from Jerusalem, as the disciples were doing in walking towards Emmaus, was to walk away from the church, the faith, and the dream. So now, like then, Jesus tells us: “Return to the city, to the dream!” And what is the upper room? The fundamentals. Our faith has some basics, some elementals, a rock-bottom foundation that we need always to fall back on. Too often, for every kind of noble reason, we forget (irrespective of the importance of the moral or religious struggle we are engaged in) that what God ultimately wants of us is charity, patience, understanding, hospitality, humility, prayer, community with each other, forgiveness, and a non-judgmental attitude. To enter the upper room is to re-root ourselves in these and then trust that God will save all those people that we can’t.
And we support others and ourselves in all of this by going to meetings! When you don’t know what else to do, return to the upper room—keep going to meetings!