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There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about which “Option” the Church in this country should take in the face of an encroaching and unflinching “new world liberalism” and the accompanying disintegration of the long-trusted “built better argument.” In his column last month, C. C. Pecknold considered the “Benedict Option” but ultimately opted for the “Dominican Option” because it was less of a “withdrawal” and more of a dynamic “engagement with the world.” Dale Coulter then criticized Pecknold’s argument—and rightly—for being, first, a little narrow-minded in its construal of the Benedictine charism as “withdrawal” but then, more broadly, for being a little narrow-minded in its attempt to hold up one paradigmatic charism. “The beauty of Christianity,” he writes, “has been that cultural engagement emerges from the variety of charisms that the Spirit bestows. There will always be a Benedictine option and a Dominican option.” Amen to that. But I’d like to take this a little further.

And I’d like to do so not with my own words but with the words of the late Swiss theologian and priest, Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Contemplation can never be anything other than a continually new listening to “what the Spirit says to the churches” and what he unfolds from within the Church’s distinctive spirit of faith. These two forms do not completely coincide, but they interpenetrate intimately. The Spirit “speaks” primarily when, as the Spirit of Old Testament prophecy and of the New Testament in the prophecy of the New Testament (i.e., in the ecclesial charisms which are given to individuals for the sake of the community), new and unexpected things are brought forth and exhibited from the depths of the revelation in Christ. On the other hand, the Spirit’s understanding is carried on primarily in our inmost hearts, interpreting and assimilating the prophetic element in Scripture” are developed in supernaturally elevated faculties of the soul, is based on “prophecy” and can in turn manifest its prophetic, that is, charismatic and “missionary” character in the Church. In the face of this interpenetration and interdependence of the prophetic and the mystical, it is pointless to set the charisms and the gifts of the Spirit against each other and ask which takes precedence.” [emphasis mine] 

So we see von Bathasar explicating the two-fold role of the Spirit: its speaking externally and its granting understanding internally. In light of this point, it seems to me that our discussion of “Options” of cultural engagement ultimately flattens—even demeans—what the Holy Spirit is about. It hinges only on the “prophetic side” of the Spirit, the “charismatic and missionary character” in the Church, and forgets, or rends it apart from, the “mystical side.” If these two sides must “interpenetrate intimately,” as von Balthasar maintains, then we must abandon all attempts to “set the charisms . . . against each other” (of course we are doing so as part  of a larger thought experiment here, not in a purely objective manner, but we are doing so nonetheless).

So where does that leave us? By abandoning any attempt at choosing a paradigmatic charism, are we abandoning any hope for an organized effort at engaging the culture and combatting secularism? I don’t think so. In a way, it may free us from subconsciously conflating our personal charisms with the state of the Church as a whole. By remembering the individual, mystical, “understanding” aspect of the Holy Spirit, we are reminded that we are individual persons, with individual hearts and inclinations. Yes, we are the body of Christ, and we cannot forget that, but the foot is not the arm is not the eye. The foot cannot tell the eye how to see, lest it stop walking.

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