One of the things I have had to rethink over the past decade is my unfounded conviction that the earthly Church (the Church Militant as it is called) is “home”.
Home is enormously important to me. I am a hobbit at heart and the desire for Home is deep in my DNA. I love to travel and am grateful for being able to see a bit of the world from Australia to England and parts in between. But the sweetest part of all travel for me is coming Home. That which is redolent of Home is redolent of Heaven for me.
This was one of the deepest draws of the Faith for me: the Church smells like Home. The Faith affirms for me some of the deepest and most primordial intuitions about the Way Life Really Is. Both the God who reveals himself through the Faith and the Church he has given me as his Primary Sacrament have always spoken to me at an almost pre-verbal level of the essential love and goodness at the bottom of reality. God is so deeply at the center of things–at the center of me–that I find it extraordinarily difficult to even articulate beyond saying that I was magnetically attracted to Home there.
But I made a mistake too. I fell into the easy trap of referring to the earthly Church as Home. You’re likely familiar with the drill: “I was a Protestant, but then I came Home to the Catholic Church.” “The Journey Home”. “Rome Sweet Home”. etc.
It’s an easy mistake to make and I fell into it as a convert. To be sure, there is a nomadic quality to American spirituality, which is, like so much of American life, consumerist, wandering, seeking, and rootless. I was very much part of that life and becoming Catholic was, in comparison to it, certainly an experience of Homecoming of a kind. In a similar way, the Jewish Christians of the first century certainly experienced something in the encounter with earthly Jesus they had not been able to find in their own searching and seeking experience of Judaism. As a Protestant, I learned to hunger properly. In the Catholic Church, I learned it was the Eucharist I hungered for. And that was a real step.
But my blunder was to assume that the Church was my destination, my end point. It is not, for the very good reason that God has never intended it to be. Paul, the great apostle of that Church, tells the Romans:
The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Ro 8:19–25)
This is not “We have arrived” talk. This is pilgrim talk. This is the language of one who knows that he lives in the Now and the Not Yet. And indeed, as several of Paul’s other letters will make clear, he understands clearly that the Church Militant is the Primary Sacrament, saying that the Church is “his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23), that it is “the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:19–22), and that “through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). And lest you think Paul has arrived at this vision of the Church all on his own, reflect on the fact that it is simply the unspooling of the tightly wound thread of theological DNA handed him by the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road, when he said not “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” but “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” If there is one thing Jesus says about the Church again and again, it is that he has freely chosen to identify himself with his body. “Inasmuch as you do it to the least of these, you do it to Me” (Matthew 25:31-46).
And yet, as Paul makes clear, the Church, though deeply loved by him, is not Home, because the Church herself is on a pilgrimage to her true Home, who is God himself. That is why he lives in hope: “for who hopes for what he sees?” So he likewise tells the Corinthians:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Co 5:1–5)
Paul, in short, understands that our whole experience in this life is, by the design of God Almighty himself, never intended to wholly satisfy us. Everything, including especially our experiences of grace, is meant to call us further up and further into God. And as Paul experienced repeatedly, one of the ways that could be manifest was in the experience of rejection, even from fellow believers. It is a story that has happened many, many times in the history of the Church, and a reminder that such rejection is not a sure sign of rejection by God. It is better to go outside the Camp with Jesus (as, for instance, Pope Francis does constantly as he goes to the highways and bways to invite people to the Wedding Feast) than to hunker down safe and sound in Fortress Katolicus, driving out those deemed Impure and pouring boiling oil on those seeking entry. Jesus, bearing our sins as the final sacrifice, did so in complete rejection by the Righteous too. If you find yourself struggling with self-appointed Inquisitors, know that Jesus did too. Come to him who is your true Home in the Eucharist anyway, and do not let Inquisitors tell you that you are exiled from him. Yes, in this life, we all experience a sense of homelessness, because this life is not our Home. But Home has come to us, knowing what it is to have no place to lay his head. And so he is our Home when (indeed, especially when) the Righteous reject us.
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. (Heb 13:11–14)
This is not, of course, a license for every proud jerk to assume that when a fellow Christian rebukes his sin that he is a martyr. As the MAGA antichrist cult of endless self-pity (and cruelty) constantly illustrates, very often the rebuke of sin and the attempt to get a sinner to see that he is a jerk is an act of love, not “persecution”. But there are also many times when, acting with a clean conscience, we can find ourselves just heartbroken by the Church. Do not despair and do not give up. It is and always has been a jar of clay. The Blessed Trinity–and only Him–is the Home you seek.