Allow me to begin with a rather underwhelming statement: the Ascension of Christ into heaven was a communal event. It did not take place before some individual believer with a great personal relationship with Jesus, but before the “disciples” and “apostles.” As the Church’s first reading this year for the Solemnity makes clear, this was a deliberate decision on the part of Christ. It was only “when they had gathered together” that Christ chose to visibly ascend to his Father (see Acts 1:1-11)
Why is this so underwhelming? Because when it is a question of the early Church, the Scriptures give testimony that nearly everything was a communal event. As the famous verse from the Acts of the Apostles put it, the early believers were “of one heart and mind . . . they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32 NAB). In that regard, the Ascension is nothing special. Just believers gathered together, as usual. Just with some better special effects in this particular case.
So why have I bothered to point out something so obvious–that in its earliest days Christianity was a communal affair? First, because it is something true of Christianity itself, not just the “early Church.” And second, because that fact is not at all obvious anymore to many Christians–both clergy and laity alike.
Christianity requires a community. I don’t mean that in some sort of theoretic, highly theological way; I’m not trying to explain the Mystical Body of Christ. No, I mean that in the dumbest, most existential way possible: you won’t succeed in living the Christian life alone. Christian friends are not optional. They are essential, part and parcel of the “Way” that is Christianity.
Of course I have a big philosophical explanation of this for you; that’s what I do. But let me set you up for it in a more tangible way this time, by first talking about the paradox that is The Catholic University of America (CUA).
When I first arrived at CUA as a graduate student, I was a bit scandalized by the undergraduates. CUA is, after all, the official Catholic university for America. It is owned by the Catholic bishops. There is a crucifix in every classroom. It sits in the shadow of the massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. And to overhear some of the conversations of the undergraduates–and observe their demeanor–you would think it is UCLA. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Or rap. All the usual college stuff.
That I could handle, actually; I’ve never imagined the work of a priest in the confessional at a college to be dull. No, what bothered me was the obvious lack of Catholic sacramental practice among the students. This became even more obvious to me when I began to teach. By and large, I was not teaching a bunch of rowdy but deeply, unshakably Catholic young men and women. Nope, I was teaching a bunch of young men and women who came from Catholic backgrounds, but clearly did not practice the faith whatsoever. If you asked them their religion, they would not hesitate to say “Catholic.” If you asked them when they went to Church, they would not hesitate to say “last Easter.”
For a long time, this bothered me. But then I noticed two things. First, I noticed that the graduates of many of the more “vibrantly Catholic” colleges to which I had been unfavorably comparing CUA students flipped out into wild hedonism upon graduation. Whatever worked at those colleges only worked while they were there. This phenomenon did not seem to apply to CUA graduates. For good or ill, the CUA grads seemed to have carried forward their faith, or lack thereof, from their college years. And second, I noticed that here and there, quietly, you found some very committed young practicing Catholics at CUA. And I noticed that they knew each other.
So what ties these two points together? Community. The students at the Catholic colleges where the students all go to mass had the support of a community in living their faith. Without that community, many of them withered. And the students at CUA who had succeeded in actually practicing the faith did so because they found or forged a community to support them.
Why is this the case? As St. Thomas Aquinas and I never tire of reminding you, grace builds on nature. God does not make mistakes. Christianity does not overturn everything that God has made to be naturally true, but rather elevates and purifies it. And one thing that is certainly naturally true is that man is a social animal. We are communal to the core.
John Locke puts this vividly in his work Some Thoughts Concerning Education:
“We are all a sort of chameleons that still take a tincture from things near us” (Section 67).
We are not islands. Other people necessarily influence us. Maybe not suddenly or dramatically–it is hard to actually see a chameleon change colors. But give it time. A Christian with only non-Christian friends is not going to remain a Christian. He will take their tincture: fornication, pornography, contraception.
Of course there can be exceptions to this. As an angel once said, nothing is impossible for God. But the fact remains that in the normal order of things, we do best what we do with other people. As Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, “by oneself it is not easy to remain continuously active.” We have study buddies. We hire personal trainers. We attend AA meetings. We intuitively know that if we really want to accomplish something, we should seek to join others in doing it.
Why should we expect Christianity to be an exception?