The Ecclesiology of Getting the Flu

Mention was previously made of Augustine’s notion of the City of God being on pilgrimage through the City of Man. In every waking moment, one City is passing through another, making the institutions of the former cut across those of the latter.

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 traverses the territory of the City of Man¬†without spatially conquering it. Instead of exerting a manipulative control over space, like in the City of Man, Certeau speaks of a “tactical” way of occupying space, where a social body self-consciously coalesces around a space that it knows is controlled by somebody else. Because the Church is on pilgrimage towards the eschaton, it engages in its works of charity in a space that is not its own, and yet through its members, brings together elements that point towards the inbreaking of Kingdom quite unlike the present one, though in a way that would not compel those without eyes to see or ears to hear.

One gets a tangible sense of this in the processes of getting over the flu whilst being a guest at someone else’s house. In the first few days, when at its worst, the flu renders the sufferer completely immobile and dependent on one’s host. The 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 of medicine and food for the sufferer, commercial space is brought to bear on the Church’s tactical action of healing through the bodily actions of the caregiver. What should be an activity exclusively geared towards profit-making is – albeit subtly and incompletely – redirected, and given a telos towards the care of the sick.
Through these seemingly insignificant acts, one can begin to discern a series of connections that in turn provide the seemingly disjointed institutions in the City of Man with the Christic trajectory of the City of God – Augustine reminds us that the City of God is pilgrimaging towards Christ. 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.
Admittedly, once the transaction is over and once the sufferer gets over the flu, the web of connections that provided the faint echoes of the Church will disappear into and be 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, this echo could very well form 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.

At the same time, this fragility is why Benedict reminds us in Deus Caritas Est (paragraph 25) that works of charity cannot independently constitute the Church, as a number of theologians and fashionable ecclesiastical commentators would want to have it. Rather, the works of charity must be set against the backdrop of Liturgy. As Catherine Pickstock suggests in her Modern Theology article “Liturgy, Art and Politics“, this pattern of pre-rational practices is what forms the foundations on which the Church is more solidly built.

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