A Thousand Miles Wide and two inches Thick. A meditation on the importance of depth and promixity in life

One of the dangers to avoid in life is that things become 1000 miles wide and only 2 inches thick. Sometimes, it is better to have a few things, and experience them in depth, than to have many things but experience only the surface of them.

One of the most obvious and glaring examples of this, is our experience today of community. It is surely at least a thousand miles wide, indeed, its expanse is  global. But how deep for rich is it?  As never before, we can communicate at the global level.  I am aware for example, that people who read this blog, read from all over the world, in every time zone, on every continent in many countries.  On Facebook, I have 5000 friends, my YouTube page is also well visited and my recorded sermons are on iTunes. I’m “out there” in the “virtual world” and thousands also connect with me through their sites and projects and videos. I “know” and “interact” with a lot of people. Worldwide, instant communication with large numbers.

And in speaking about myself, I am likely describing you as well. Take a few pictures and, shazam , they’re out there on Google+, Picasa and Facebook and 500 people might see them in moments. If you write an article or read one, quick, (or should I say “Tweet”) you send the link and hundreds or thousands get it. Talk about communication!

But in all this communication, how deep is the communion? As never before we are “connected” but where is the experience of connectedness, of true community, of communion? Consider:

1. Most families rarely sit down to dinner together.

2. Courtship and marriage are becoming difficult and even rare. I cannot tell you how often that young people tell me today how hard it is hard to “meet” anyone. Though the opportunities seem greater due to easy transportation and communication devices, the actual “in-depth” experience implied by the term “meet” someone, is harder to come by.

3. Promiscuity, “hooking up,” are destructive of the deeper summons to intimacy,  and casual dating, and/or the predominance of mere “group” gatherings, have tended to erode the older notion of “going out on a date” and dating steadily in preparation for marriage.

4. Indeed, 40% of women today have never been married, and if you poll only women age twenty-five to forty the number is closer to 60%. Most couples who do finally get married, postpone that now until the early to mid thirties. And smaller numbers of those who finally do get married struggle to stay married. Of all women married today, only 36% of them are in their first marriage. Thus, in summary, marriage is rarer, later, and less successful than ever before. [1]

5. Smaller families – I goes without saying, with marriage being in such crisis that birthrates have plummeted, and the internal community of the family is a smaller and less rich experience than the larger nuclear and extended families of the past.

6. Most people no longer attend community meetings and seldom interact with their neighbors. Church attendance is not the only form of community meeting that has declined, in terms of numbers attending.

7. Few roots – Most people do not live and die in the community they grew up in, or work for the same company the whole of their career, but are more constantly on the move from job to job and place to place.

8. Fewer anchor institutions – Increasing numbers of Americans do not attend a neighborhood school, but go to “magnet” schools, private schools, or other far flung schools.

9. Increasing numbers of Catholics do not go to their neighborhood parish. In fact only 25% of Catholics go to Church at all. And of those who still go, increasing numbers commute to specialized parishes featuring particular “mixes” of preaching, liturgy, ethnic factors etc. The parish a Catholic attends may often be no where near where they live.

And thus we have modern life, a thousand miles wide but often less than two inches thick, a life that is increasingly “virtual,” far flung, highly selective and insular, outwardly focused but inwardly impoverished, rich in diversity, but poor in depth, filled with acquaintances but short on intimacy.

There are innumerable factors that have given rise to this modern experience. But in this post, I’d just like to emphasize one, and that is simply, “contiguity” or proximity.

“Contiguity” is here understood as the condition of being physically close, (from the Latin Contingere meaning to touch, or border upon, con (with) + Tangere (touch)).

“Proximity” comes also from the Latin proxima meaning near or neighbor.

We human beings are “Body-persons” That is to say, we are persons whose substance includes (but is not limited to) the physical dimension of reality. Having a body locates us in space. And, since our bodies are tied to the physical order there are going to be some limits that pertain to our ability to relate to others. Though we are able to be very mobile today, working and living thirty miles apart is still a huge factor in our lives, especially if there is traffic. Where ever “there” is, it is still going to take us time to get there, and the further things are physically apart, the more difficult it is going to be for us to have deep relationships with people who are “there.”

There is an inverse proportion between physical distance and things like involvement, attachment, passion, and connectedness. And, as we widen the physical coverage of our lives, the depths of our relationships narrow and become more shallow.

As a pastor, who knows the increasing concept of the “commuter parish” it is clear, in talking with my brother priests, that is much harder to engage people to enter more deeply into parish life through things like devotions, Bible study, religious ed for children, works of charity and community involvement.

Thus, while a parish may be blessed to have those who still attend due to things like historical ties, music and liturgical preferences, and other things like preaching and leadership skills by pastor or staff, the simple fact is, “commuter parishes” often go very silent in the mid-week.

Commuter parishioners also attend mass less often. That twenty to thirty minute commute, driving by five or six parishes on the way, is very easily disturbed by things like weather, getting up a little late, not being able to find one of the kid’s shoes etc. And though a parent might be devoted to a far flung parish, say  because it offers the traditional Latin Mass, their children my not be as connected, and they will not meet other children as easily, will probably not attend the parish school, or go to as many youth related events.

Why this lesser connection of commuters parishioners?  Because paved roads and sleek autos aside, thirty miles is still thirty miles. Even fifteen miles is going to take at least 30 minutes. It’s just a big factor for us “body-persons.”

There’s just something about contiguity, about being physically close to what matters in our life. Without a good amount of contiguity, and proximity, depth and quality suffer a LOT. Not being connected to the physical neighborhoods in which we live, and emphasizing far flung relationships or (worse) virtual ones, mean that a lot of depth and intimacy is lost. There’s just something about living close to the people we know that helps us know them better.

And while physical locale may limit the numbers and types of people we know, the depths of those relationships can be far better. In the “old days” so many spouses met simply by going to the local burger joint, or soda shop on a frequent basis, simply meeting by shopping at the same stores, or going to the same movie theaters. In the “old days” there was a lot more emphasis on the local high school dance, the football game, and other local things like parades, carnivals, etc. And when people were met at occasions like this, there was a stronger likelihood that they’d be able to follow up and meet again since “neighborhood” is just another way of saying, “the nearby hood”

There’s just something about being physically close. It’s part of the way we are made, as spiritual AND physical beings. And wandering too far afield, or casting our net too widely, has the cumulative effect of reducing the depths to which we experience life and people.

With all our mobility and far-flung interests, both actual and “virtual” we run the risk of a life that is a thousand miles wide and two inches thick.

34 Replies to “A Thousand Miles Wide and two inches Thick. A meditation on the importance of depth and promixity in life”

  1. I agree totally with what you say, father, but what happens if you have no choice in these matters? What happens if you have to commute to work because there are no jobs nearby? What happens if your nearest church stops following the teachings of the church? Both these factors apply to me but I still have a loving family relationship and plenty of (awful phrase) “quality time” with my kids. Sometimes we don’t have a choice about some of these facets of modern life we have to accept and have to make the best of it that we can. God Bless!

    1. Recognizing the issue and naming the demon is only step one. And while there may be difficulties in fundamental realities, there are usually marginal choices that can erode the fundamental problems to some extent. Say we don’t have any choice is neither fair nor accurate. For example, find a home closer to work may be difficult, but way to erode the fundamental problem is to be willing, say, to buy a smaller home, closer in, etc. in short, even if things seem overwhelming, it is good to recognize and name the issues, and then address them beginning at the margins.

      1. I’m sorry, father, but I don’t agree with you on this one! I’m not sure what it’s like in your neck of the woods but in the places I’ve lived (London and a small village in Switzerland), commuting to jobs is a fact of life and it’s virtually impossible if you are on a modest income to find a home close to the centres of work. It’s also a fact that some local churches fall out of communion with the real teachings and if that means I have to travel to the next town or village and attend church among people with whom I have little normal contact, then so be it! Where we do choice is in how we adapt to these modern changes. They can either wear away our religious belief or strengthen it. I hope with me, it’s the latter!

        1. You seem to presume all or nothing thinking on my part. What I have written of here is just one thing among to consider among many things and factors. So take it for what it is, something to consider. You are not merely a victim of circumstances. If per chance you cannot live near where you work, then perhaps there are other ways to be a little more local in your life. Just something to think about that is all.

          1. My wife & I deliberately sought to reduce required travel when we married. By our 15th anniversary my commute had dropped from 30 miles to 4 miles, then to 1 mile; and she now does virtually all her work from home. My married son lives less than 3 miles away, and our grandson goes to school 200 yards from my house; most school days his first couple of afterschool hours are spent here. Until a couple of years ago my parents lived with walking distance of our house as well. Church is 8 minutes from home.

            Not everyone can make this work; but keeping work, church and family close has been a conscious and continuous goal.

  2. I agree that we have some real challenges in society. I truly hope the “new evangelization” will afford us the opportunity to read the signs of the times and reach out to help people experience the Good News where they are at — not by simply repeating old formulas. I think people still long for values and community (as evidenced by the new phenomenon of social media) but they must find it in different ways in our more fast-paced and transient culture. In the past one could graduate from high school, get a job in manufacturing, settle down in the hometown and marry the high school sweetheart at 19 and start a family. The current economy doesn’t allow people to settle into a good job and put down roots like it used to. The need for advanced education to find work and for 2 working parents just to make ends meet means the family dynamic has changed in order to survive. It is a sad fact that many don’t find a sense of community in parishes, but they still long for God, community, and values. There are many more community service programs for young people and movements for justice than ever; there are less “religious” people, but still plenty who consider themselves “spiritual”–not ideal, but a good start. Many of these non-religious people want to acknowledge Transendence in the births of their children, their weddings, and the deaths of loved ones, but perhaps in less “traditional” ways. There are some great opportunities, and I hope the current Synod will be fruitful and offer some inspiring and effective ways to proceed.

  3. I remember the days growing up in an inner-ring suburb, walking to Mass, walking to the parish school. Something is lost when we break that physical proximity. Of course, our problem now is just keeping parish schools open, never mind worrying about where the people come from. The Catholic blogosphere, on the whole (not this blog!), doesn’t help with this, taking every chance they can to bash parish schools. Seems like a lose-lose for everyone and on we go, driving and driving farther and farther.

  4. Funny that a phone commercial addresses the problem of phones and a blog addresses the problem of non-bodily interaction. I guess this problem all start when people started writing books. One reason the internet is such a big deal is that our bodies cause us problems.

  5. Unquestionably, it is a complicated and multi-faceted challenge we face, but one factor too-often overlooked is of our own doing… We, Catholics, have reduced “Keep Holy the Sabbath,” to, “Make it to Mass.”

    Our Jewish ancestors understood that the Sabbath was created by God, for humans, that we might have a scheduled, regular time for cultivating relationships both in the home and among the larger faith community of which we are a part.The Eucharist is the source and summit of our identity as followers of Christ, but to be an authentically Eucharistic people in the way modeled by Jesus is not simply to sit in a Church for an hour a week and receive Holy Communion.

    30 miles may be 30 miles, and yet look at the wild success of many non-denominational mega-churches that offer, in addition to worship, an opportunity to build community through things like robust faith formation programs immediately after services for children, teens, and adults; cookouts; weekday small Christian communities; and far more than this space could contain. We would do well to ask, humbly and sincerely, how we might learn from their experiences.

    The Catholic Church will never return to being the hub of community life it was for Irish or Italian immigrants in Philadelphia, Boston, or Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, but neither does it have to be simply a drive thru for the Sacraments. Indeed, to become so is to condemn ourselves to irrevocable irrelevance. It begins with life-changing liturgies that inspire, challenge, sustain, and transform; it continues with invigorating adult faith formation that filters down through the parish into the next generation; and it spreads outward as these formed disciples go about living their lives and affecting all whom they encounter.

    We can sit around and blame the declining Mass attendance on the ostensible assault of secularism and other pernicious external factors; or we can ask, “How might we better live out our Gospel commission to bring ever more people into an intimate personal encounter with Jesus?” That is, to ask what would be the best materials for producing a candle, rather than cursing the darkness.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with your perception on how our Protestant and evangelical cousins build communities centered on their church and, even more importantly, centered on God. Notwithstanding the incompleteness of their understanding of the Christian faith, they do build communities of faith very, very well. They have men’s groups, Bible studies, programs to get new members connected with long-time members, networking events for job hunters, after school programs, and so on. The church has a community – and not just a bunch of people that turn up for Mass on Sunday mornings. I know some parishes think and act beyond Mass but many don’t. I’d love to see the stats on what range of community-building programs each ADW parish has. I do wonder why we Catholics don’t seek to reach out in the way other Christian churches do.

  6. Build up your treasures in Heaven. This means a lot of things, one of them is to make the faith active in your memory. Learn a song (or ten). Sing them. Memorize a prayer (or ten). Pray them. Pray them alone. Pray them with others. Start by inviting your spouse and children to pray with you. Sparingly use what authority you have to prime the pump. Move on to inviting your relatives that are still active or once were active in the faith. Learn why you should pray. Tell other people the reasons for prayer. Find an article that answers questions you have. Give it to others if they like to read. Move on to public devotions like Stations of the Cross and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

    In other words cultivate what you have dominion over, for to those that have, more shall be given. Oh, sorry, fancy word alert. Somebody said, recently, that fancy words are bad to use. My bad. Let’s try: Work with what you have. Or: If you want a living faith, then start living it. The program, admittedly in a state of some disarray, is just sitting there waiting for you to pick it up and work with it.

    Think of it this way: If you stumbled across a nearly empty city in near perfect condition, wouldn’t you at least try to think of some way you could take advantage of what you have found? Call me crass, but I would and I am. There is plenty of room for you too. One’s with good views are going dirt cheap. Act now!!

  7. We need to stop and ask and find a very good answer to these questions:

    Why do we, as parishioners in a geographical area, need to all come together and do things together in each others’ presence?

    Why do we as human beings, outside of the parish but in a corporate setting, need to come together to do things in each others’ presence?

    What happens when we are not able to form strong human relationships?

  8. Well, I’ll speak in defense of online contact: as a trailing spouse, it allows me to keep in touch with people who I got to know face-to-face and then had to leave. The alternative is a string of friendships lost, ties severed. It allows my parents to view pictures of their grandkids when visits for us and them is impossible for years at a time. Yes, local ties are important, but it’s not a matter of either/or.

    Commuter parishes….I’ve been a catechist for my territorial parish, although I attend another. Would you welcome an experienced and orthodox catechist who attended Mass elsewhere? Would your DRE? The parish I attend doesn’t need my help, and the parish nearby sometimes does. The priests are fine with it, but some DREs, not so much. Again, does it have to be either/or?

  9. When I was searching for stained glass windows in Catholic Churches early this year, I found Kevin Knight’s New Advent site. He indeed must ‘burn the candle, at both ends.’

  10. It is 2012. You could live stream anything other than a sacrament. 30 milesisn’t uncommon in sparsely populated areas (I wish it was just that on my Harley late summer through the Dakotas and Montana).

    Your neighborhood is less physical and more virtual. Those you have things in common by subject can see – or not – the Catholic approach.

  11. The New Advent site has many blessings, I’ve found prayers, hymns, and today can read what the Pope is currently saying to our bishops in Rome. Also the blogs, you can read some really interesting writings. John Paul 11 in a letter to all priests“ …we must all be converted anew every day.This is a fundamental exigency of the gospel, addressed to everyone…” So there is choice at New Advent..

  12. Siigh, well, now I feel guilty for attending a parish that’s 45 minutes from where I live. It’s the nearest Byzantine parish… I’m having a hard time accepting that it would be better for me to attend the local Roman parish (5 min walk from home, and the only parish in town). Particularly spiritually.

    I’m not sure, Monsignor. Is it really right to instruct people to attend a spiritual community in which they are unfulfilled? Are they really likely to be productive members of that fellowship – merely by virtue of it being convenient – if they are unhappy with the Liturgy / catechesis / tenor of the local community? And particularly if they are the sole dissenter in a large parish, and thus unlikely to change the entrenched culture of that parish?

    I agree there is great value in finding a parish and becoming a member of that community, but I don’t see why this is only possible at your nearest parish. My fiance was raised in 4 different parishes, with his family a true part of none of them. His family attended daily Mass at one of several local parishes, each within 10-20 minutes of home. Compare this with a family in my town, in the same situation as me – 45 minutes from the nearest Byzantine parish – who raised their children with a consistent fellowship that was simply further away. Sure, it takes more time and organization, but if you are devoted to the Church, this seems workable?

    I would also argue that there are two positive outcomes from attending a commuter parish as well. The first is that you demonstrate to your children that Church is a priority in your life; it doesn’t have to be the speedyquick 45 minute Sunday Mass so that you can “get on with life”. And secondly, that time in the car is a wonderful time for prayer and reflection prior to Mass, or a time for discussion (of the readings, of Fr’s homily) after Mass.

    1. I’m not instructing you, I am just calling into a question an increasing tendency. Tendencies like anything have elements that are not bad but are sometimes taken to far and wide. Avoid all or nothing thinking Beth, I am not engaging in that here and neither should you. Take what you like and leave the rest.

    2. Here, here, Beth.

      A couple of years ago, I left my small church in my suburban neighborhood and began attending a much older, larger church downtown – a minor basilica, in fact.

      The advantages that the basilica has over the suburban church are several. The basilica has beautiful Catholic art and stained glass windows of the saints; the suburban church has no stained glass or Catholic art of any kind. The standard of preaching is considerably higher at the basilica, as is the standard of the choral singing. The suburban church had a stronger sense of community than the basilica, I suppose, but there is no question which offers the richer liturgical experience. The suburban church often seemed to be more like a community gathering place than a house of worship.

      I have no regrets about the move and, in fact, I can safely say that it has strengthened my faith. In particular, I have acquired a devotion I never had before to the saints depicted in the stained glass windows.

  13. There’s something very special about being in each other’s actual presence; there is true communion that we can sense directly. That is the difference. It is good that we will be resurrected with our bodies and be in the presence of others who we can sense as well with a new earth and with God.

  14. So we have the “more is better” concept growing all around us and you go and tell us that it’s not really more, it’s just rearranged into something with less depth. You’re doing it again, telling us what we need to hear instead of what we want to hear and I thank God that many are still receptive.
    Texting, instead of phoning, is more efficient in many ways. A short, and condensed, pulse through the ether is much more “cost effective” in some ways but, what’s the cost in quality of communication? I do it myself but try to use landlines to carry important things like the tone of voice that shows the emotions involved. Without the emotional content unpleasant things like deceit and suppression would well enter in.
    But, addressing the current numbing of feelings as stretching communication until it becomes progressively thinner, would take a lot more than I care to use here to cover it effectively.

  15. As a convert to Catholicism I find finding a new parish to attend after moving to a new city to be very difficult. Some parishes are more liberal than others. Since I have some responsibility for the salvation of my eternal soul, why would I want to join a neighborhood parish which is not true to the teachings of the Church? Or join one which is indifferent to my presence, and offers little to nothing in the way of opportunities for involvement?

    1. We’re all family, Doug, “liberals” included. They are our brothers and sisters too. That’s why you should be willing to be a part of a parish that is more liberal than others — because we are family, and we love our brothers and sisters — even those we don’t like or agree with. We should love them and spend some time with them, rather than set ourselves apart from them, causing division in the one Church. Besides — Jesus is there in those parishes, He is there, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, and that is reason enough.

      As Catholics, we do not have the liberty of hanging around only those people who share our own views. Our parish system is not a Protestant denomination system by another name, where those with certain likes can form this church and those with other likes can form another church more to their liking. Rather, the Church is One Big Family. And you don’t get to choose family, you only get to love them. It is a family composed of all flavors, stripes, and colors. We are conservative, liberal, traditional, progressive, orthodox, heterodox, single, married, young, old, singers, non-singers, hand-holders, non-hand-holders, well-dressed, t-shirt and jeans types, interesting, boring, weirdos, and straight-laced. Those we agree with, and those we disagree with. Those whose musical tastes we like, those who make us want to tear out our hair. Those we like, those we otherwise would probably dislike and maybe even cannot stand, just as is the case with any real family. Although we may endeavor to be saints ourselves, we are all sinners, we are no better than those we disagree with or dislike.

      We live in a time and place where there are many different divisions between people — political, ethnic, and otherwise. The current social and political climate is especially contentious and riven with strife. Now, there are times when it is all well and good to be with those people who share our interests and beliefs, but it is also beneficial to spend some time with those people — those family members — we otherwise would never have anything to do with. So, it is not necessarily a bad thing to go to and stick with some parish that might make you squirm a bit. Perhaps there is some benefit to a neighborhood parish system after all — it might teach us the virtues of charity and bearing wrongs patiently.

      We are all One Family in One Church. Those whom we disagree with are our brothers and sisters in Christ as well as those we agree with. And it is nice, every once in a while, after doing battle with them during the week (as many do in this political town), to be able to set aside those differences and come together as one family in Christ.

      Moreover, in addition to not ostracizing those we disagree with, including those who we think disagree with Church teachings, we should not abandon them if they are, in fact, in error. To be sure, that is all the more reason to associate with them, to provide them the light of faithful witness and perhaps turn them away from their errors. Again, we are family. That means that this is a group effort, we are all in this together. It is not only your eternal soul that you have responsibility for, but you bear some degree of responsibility for theirs as well.

      1. I pray daily for the strength and courage to walk in the path God has laid before my feet.

  16. When I was a child before Vatican II, we could and did attend mass in different parishes when visiting relatives or if we had to catch a later mass at another parish. We were never surprised by different style services. They all had contiguity no matter the proximity. Perhaps the Church is as culpable in spreading the faith thin as the parishioners. I presented this question a couple of weeks back. Why not let the pope instruct twelve of his most faithful and trusted followers on how the mass should be performed and have them ensure that the bishops see that the various parishes in their diocese follow the guidelines given by the pope. it’s not like it hasn’t been done before. That would be contiguous.

    1. Now tell me that’s too shallow a perspective for such a deep subject.

  17. Momsignor, if being pastor of a commuter parish means that it gives you the time and energy to minister to us in the virtual hinterlands through your blogs and recordings, then I will just have to consider that commuter parishes are a blessing from God. Keep up the thought-provoking and most edifying work!

  18. I am an eligible Catholic man with a nice income who has been trying to get married for THIRTY YEARS. It’s a disaster out there. There is no meaningful, marriage-directed support for singles of any kind in Catholic parishes. I did not date on campus in college because most people were getting ready to move to graduate school and different cities, and I thought that after I graduated I would be able to find a Catholic woman ready to marry in my parish. Boy, was I wrong. To begin with, there were very few single women (or singles period) my age in each parish, and they all seemed to race out the door after mass. I was a lector, I was on my parish council, I did all kinds of things, and still… nada. I could not meet anyone. I can appreciate, from a single woman’s point of view, that if there are no obvious single men to meet, there is no point in hanging around. But what I have found shocking and disappointing is the outright hostility and rejection I met from married couples that I thought were my friends when I discreetly asked for introductions to single Catholic women. I am in a marketing-related business, for Pete’s sake. I know what networking is about. I always thought that lay society had a role to play in helping singles get married. I have been stunned by the extent to which Catholic “culture”, such as it is, is openly hostile to marriage for those who aren’t married already. When I mention the bleak outlook for Catholic singles who wish to marry and actually practice their faith, I always get asked what the Church can do, practically speaking. One answer is to pray for singles seeking marriage more often and tell the marrieds to quit treating the singles like social lepers!

  19. You have some very good points against “commuter parishes” like ours. But more people at our commuter parish are willing to stop and chat after Mass than at any of the neighborhood churches we’ve attended. Our children have made several good friends there as well, even though we can’t get together with these families as much as if they were neighbors.

    We even tried to serve coffee and donuts at our former, neighborhood church – most everyone seemed to want to just grab something and run – or didn’t even bother stopping. When the noise from the congregation got so loud we couldn’t hear the priest DURING THE CONSECRATION, we decided we needed to go – for our children’s sake. I would love to have a neighborhood church I could feel at home in, but so far, we don’t have one available. Thanks for keeping those points in mind, nonetheless.

  20. Wait until there’s a Catholic Facebook and don’t go on until then or else you’re teaming up with the people who, every day, try to destroy your Church.

    Even the Archbishop is foolish to lend yet more credibility to openly hostile secular corporations that explicitly lobby for the destruction of the Church.

Comments are closed.