Allegory of the Cave (revised)
My girlfriend Anastasia and I were discussing evangelization the other day. If you don't know that that is, it's basically bringing people into a faith through various means. She and I often approach our Catholic faith differently, sometimes to very distinct disagreements. Those differences usually center around how we talk about our religion, liturgies, and points of emphasis. We were discussing this topic, and we took two typical stances. She believes that we can't just expect people to become Catholic and jump into Catechism excerpts and rosary novenas like that. I argued that without those very things, the potential new faithful are missing key aspects of the faith.
We went about this for about an hour, and then something just clicked. I was reminded of the Thai cave rescue from a week or so ago. In short, a soccer team went on a cave exploration while the cave was dry but were then caught very deep inside in a sudden surge of water. After practically two weeks they were found, but not rescued for some time. In the end, thankfully, they were all rescued along with their coach; only one fatality of a brave volunteer Thai Navy SEAL. The endeavor was both a feat of endurance, skill, science, and divine intervention. The whole story fit so well to what Ana and I were talking about that I made a little analogy for you.
The soccer team and their coach are trapped inside the cave, where they are engulfed in what must be total darkness. They have found a somewhat safe refuge on a ledge—in the cave, this is their only known source of safety and comfort. They don’t know how to leave and may not have the means to escape to sunlight. It takes a special operation to rescue them, one that will surely have failures and mishaps. But through extensive effort and preparation, experienced specialists to reach the boys. This is a glimmer of hope for everyone, but the task is nowhere close to complete. The cave is long and dangerous, with certain passages extremely narrow and strenuous. A full rescue will still take days, if not weeks. It is only during a small window of opportunity when the rains have subsided can the rescue take place.
Some divers leave the boys to plan the escape and bring food and drinkable water to the team. But there were some divers that stayed with the boys in the cave. Their very presence must have been a reassuring comfort to the scared boys. These brave men showed them their equipment—the intricate layers of tubes and hoses and masks. Diving is a daunting task for anyone, especially for boys that have never done it. The divers that remained in the cave are actively training these boys, and perhaps passively acclimating them to the idea of placing their entire bodies into water for extended periods of time. This confidence-building and practical advice is crucial if the boys are to leave. The trust that these divers are building with the team is an absolute must.
At the end of the day, though, the boys will have to leave their artificial security of the cave ledge and plunger into the water. They will be helped, no doubt, through an ingenious system of stretchers, ropes, and pulleys. But the training is done, and the real task is at hand. Experienced divers and rescue operatives will lead them through what will likely be the most real diving experience anyone would want. In a way, the fullness and totality of diving is what the boys will need to do if they are to survive. They must trust their rescuers and take the plunge.
You can probably immediately see the comparison I’m about to make. The goal of all Catholics (particularly the Church as a whole) is to ferry souls into heaven. This is made possible by faith in Christ, and following the totality of his teachings, revealed fully in the Church. That sounds radical and extreme. That’s because it is. Eternal life is real, I achieve it through faith, and that faith is the fullest when in communion with the Holy Mother Church? That would be a daunting claim for anyone to just accept.
The best “missionaries” in life know this, and will build genuine, loving relationships with those whom they are evangelizing. This comes from the model of Jesus Christ himself; he fed the hungry and cured the sick not to manipulate people, but to care for their basic needs. It is impossible to start a conversation about everlasting life when someone is literally too hungry and too ill to have a conversation about anything.
Today, while many of us do not go hungry or ill like our ancestors did, we suffer from new hungers and new diseases. We starve for real connection with people, are sick with loneliness and depressions. We seek not just romantic partners, but basic, honest friendships. People who will not judge them for their mistakes, but for the potential that they can be better.
This is where the analogy helped me understand Anastasia’s point. We can’t just expect the boys to put on complicated diving equipment and just go for it. The uncontrolled nerves could actually be dangerous, consuming too much oxygen and endangering the mission. The same can be said for those totally new to Catholicism (or Christianity in general). If I was to take a long-time Baptist who hadn’t gone to church in years, taking them to a Traditional Latin Mass would destroy any opportunity to further develop a relationship in regards to faith.
Missionaries must bring these people to what I have called “easy” Masses: the ones with plenty of young people, not a lot of pomp, and maybe some praise and worship music. These are the kinds of liturgies I’ve distained as irreverent, lacking in timelessness, beauty, tradition, culture, and mystery. I think I have some good points about those, but I’ve been known to exaggerate just a little. But this goes beyond my preference for a Benedict XVI-style Novus Ordo. I wouldn’t just toss someone a rosary and expect them to get it. I’m not going to go straight to the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos, or Eucharistic adoration. Those are topics cradle Catholics have a tough time with! I’ve developed an appreciation for praise and worship masses and other “non-traditional” approaches for their ability to ease people into the Catholicism. Building trust and comfort is necessary.
Again, however, training is not forever, and we are meant to leave the comfort of the cave and its ledge. We are meant to plunge into the full-depts of the faith. The Church offers 2,000 years of tradition and Tradition. Staying in the cave—never leaving praise and worship, never learning the rosary or the saints, or the beautiful papal documents—means an ignorance of the fullness of the truth. Diver brought flashlights to reassure and guide the boys out of the cave, but only for the purpose of seeing sunlight again! We cannot subsist on the light of personalities if we are to experience the Light of the World.
Missionaries must be competent in their faith, understanding it well enough, that they can introduce and ease someone into it, yet knowing when it is appropriate to reveal more and more about what the Church provides to her flock. This is not to say that the goal of all Catholics is to become regular TLMers. Not at all. It’s not to say that a person should reach a point where they can chant the Our Father in Latin or pray the rosary every day (though that last one is a good idea). But a reliance on what is comfortable in order to keep someone Catholic is to do that person a disservice to their soul. Do not deprive people of the richness that God offers in His Church.
Our evangelizing responsibility mandates that we truly guide them, caring for people, building relationships. It also means we are tough enough to take them through the deepest and most narrow of passages Christianity has. Without that, the sunlight at the end of the tunnel will not be reached.
With it, true life awaits.