What the Flu Taught Me about the Church
Many years ago, I caught the flu while staying at a friend’s house.
This was the type of flu that pins you to the floor for days on end. Simple movements become like participating in a World’s-Strongest-Man competition where you have to haul two semi-trailers over the Himalayas to reach the bathroom.
Your mind is not exactly operating in the most straightforward way either. However, maybe because of the flu’s breaking down all the cognitive barriers that make linear thinking possible, my time on the floor was also a time when I started thinking on the most obvious thing associated with the flu: ecclesiology.
I think what started it was thinking of an essay reviewing Augustine’s City of God. In that treatise, Augustine spoke about the life of the Christian as being akin to being the citizen of two cities. On the one hand, there was the City of God, the heavenly city. On the other was the City of Man, the earthly city in which we now live. In Augustine’s estimation, the Christian lives in both cities at the same time, only the City of God is on pilgrimage through the City of Man.
In every waking moment, one city is passing through another, making the institutions of the one cut across those of the other. At the same time however, as the Jesuit social theorist Michel de Certeau suggested in his The Practice of Everyday Life, the City of God moves through the territory of the City of Man without spatially conquering it. This is to be contrasted with the City of Man, which lives by exerting itself to control space. Certeau speaks of another “tactical” way of occupying space, where a social body comes together and moves through a space that it knows is controlled by somebody else (I referred to this puzzle in my book Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ).
Augustine goes on to say that the Church is passing through the earth on pilgrimage towards the eschaton, that is the Christ who the Book of Revelation says is the Last Thing. Because of this its works, which at its best are the works of charity, are always undertaken in a space that is not its own. Yet, through its members, the Church brings together elements that point to the inbreaking of Kingdom quite unlike the present one, in a way that would not compel those without eyes to see or ears to hear.
One gets a tangible sense of this when one gets the flu while also being a guest at someone else’s house. My friend, who is also a theologian, took very good care of me. In the first few days when I was immobile, I became very aware of my dependence on my host. His home, which modern man regards as one’s castle over and against others, all of a sudden is transformed into an opened space of hospitality.
At the same time, the care of the sufferer brings in other institutions in the City of Man. In the buying me food and medicine, my friend was bringing commercial spaces to bear on the Church’s tactical action of healing. What should be an activity exclusively geared towards profit-making is – albeit subtly and incompletely – redirected towards the care of the sick.
Through these seemingly insignificant acts, I began to discern a series of connections between the seemingly disjointed institutions in the City of Man with the Christic trajectory of the City of God. These connections in turn coalesce into the ligaments of the Church, subtly enacted via what Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est calls the “responsibility” of Diakonia or the ministry of Charity. This ministry is one that works within the institutions of the City of Man, and yet subtly reorient their teloi towards a completely different City, if only for a moment.
Needless to say, his care aided my full recovery, and as I made my way home. Upon my return, I noticed the web of connections that provided the faint echoes of the Church disappear into and get reconquered by the more solid (and seemingly real) webs of commerce, self-centred pursuit and domination. That faint echo of the City of God will seem to disappear as the City of Man reasserts itself and reclaims for itself the what it claims to be a rightful monopoly of space.
Yet to my mind, this echo formed the template of what an Augustinian imagination of the Church could be like in postmodern culture. It is precisely because of its faintness that we are called by Jesus to “stay alert” (Matt 25:13). As we would not know the time or the hour of the arrival of Christ, we may very easily miss the inbreaking of his Body and God’s Kingdom in a land under the captivity of the City of Man.
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