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cave dwellers

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:1-3)

The Cave! To be told that you live in a cave, that you are raising your family in a cave, cuts deeply anyone familiar with Western philosophy. Plato imagines willing, self-satisfied, suspicious cave dwellers as the perfect representation of the unenlightened mob, from which a few might be saved by turning to philosophy. Yet when the accusation comes from someone who has earned a strong reputation from years of dedicated evangelical service in the most hostile territory, you have to take it seriously.

Through a recent Crisis article (“The Well-Sheltered Catholic”, May 5, 2012), I discovered that a few years ago Barbara Nicolosi of Act One vented her frustration with Catholics who have withdrawn from the dominant culture to raise their kids in “caves”. According to her description, these Catholics she attacks condemn Hollywood out of hand, protect their children from any of its products that smack of sin, and encourage a dismissive and haughty attitude towards its importance. Their children go to “special Catholic schools” where they read the Great Books, but have no apostolic drive, often preferring to become “a DRE in a small country parish in the backwoods where nobody will notice them and they can just shut the world down and out.”

So by raising Christian kids in a “safe” cave by shutting out the culture in the hope that they’re going to be unscathed, what we actually do is we create useless, impotent disciples for this modern time.

I understand Mrs. Nicolosi’s frustration. Her efforts to arouse Catholics formed in what should be fertile ground for her apostolate to the world of Hollywood have largely failed (at least as of 2007). Non-Catholic Christians have responded, most of whom are good-hearted but culturally illiterate. But Catholics, whose artistic heritage is so deep and strong, whose formation has explicitly included much of that heritage, have not. Why?

I would urge my fellow Cave dwellers to take seriously such strong criticism from a woman with a proven commitment to Christian fidelity, artistic excellence and practical evangelization. We could benefit from the advice she gives about properly introducing ourselves and our children to the most serious artistic expressions of modern culture, even when central themes involve questionable morality:

Mom and Dad watched great movies with us. Rear Window and Giant and On the Waterfront and Camelot. And they talked to us about them. I remember when my mother had us watch Doctor Zhivago. I was about 14, my sister was 16. And my mother said, “Now, this is a movie about adultery. But it’s a very beautifully made movie. It’s about art and it’s about sin and it’s about communism.” And she said, “We’re going to watch it together because I want you to see this beautiful film and then we’re going to talk about it.” And it was great, because I learned about sin in a way that was not an occasion of sin.

Yet I disagree with Mrs. Nicolosi’s condemnation of our life choices. She blames Cave Catholics for acting out of fear, short-sightedness and laziness. What she says has some truth, but she is mostly out of date and misses what is essential in our Cave life. I have lived most of my adult life – nearly 30 years — as part of the Catholic sub-culture. In the beginning, in the desperate, hopeless days of the 70’s, many fled to the “Cave” as a shelter, driven by fear, frequently embittered by fear. Yet once free to procreate, nurture and educate, these Catholics and the cultural refugees they welcomed by and large turned their attention away from what was evil and began developing the best life they could for their families and friends. Having rejected the stifling, empty, bureaucratically-dominated social conventions, taking the big plunge to either homeschool or start their own schools, they found themselves disconcertingly free to determine how to live and what to teach.

With some trepidation arising from their lack of expertise, they sought out the good, true and beautiful as it appeared to them. Practicing the fine arts quickly became important, though not in the industrial way favored by Mrs. Nicolosi. Music – classical, folk, ecclesiastical, some contemporary – ballet and Irish dancing, story-writing, amateur theater (with a predilection for Shakespeare), icon-writing, Ukrainian egg decoration, even short video and amateur movies – anything that could be done with their local resources. More importantly, they worked hard to make their lives beautiful, not in isolation but in communities, in their small, neo-village communities centered as much as possible around their parishes. To judge by their growth, they have succeeded, attracting new members to share in the central values defining their communities.

Mrs. Nicolosi bemoans the lack of apostolic fervor she thinks our communities produce. As I interpret her, she thinks the commitment and devotion given to fostering them is mere self-indulgence, a real burying of the talents. In her extraordinarily harsh, “Last Judgment of the New Evangelization”, she reports the feeble response to eternal damnation of those who were lukewarm in evangelizing:

And the Cave Dwellers will say, “Oh, but Lord. We did send some souls. See! Here are a few members of our families and also several of the folks in our church small group. (Sadly a lot of them were, you know, seduced by the evil media and lost. That damn Hollywood!)

In this context, it is good to remember that, as St. Paul himself teaches, though all are called to be evangelical, not all are called to be apostles. Even in times of great societal wickedness, living the Gospel life with fervor does not normally mean preaching on the street corners. In his letters to the nascent Christian communities he had founded, St. Paul directs them inward, inspiring them to transform themselves and their lives in love. He did not criticize the Corinthians because they were not bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles; he criticized them because they were not living the life of Christ in their Church. He thanks God for the faith and love which the Ephesians and Colossians and Philippians show among themselves and urges them to continue to grow in their communal life in Christ.

For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers….(Eph. 1:15-16)

He proclaims his own calling to be an apostle, and tells the Churches that they share in his work, as he shares in their life.  If we pay attention to what St. Paul and St. Peter and St. John tell their communities, we might begin to think that Mrs. Nicolosi’s criticism is short-sighted. The Apostles spend remarkably few words exhorting their followers to preach to the Gentiles. Rather, they counsel them to understand more deeply their faith and to live it more perfectly in love among themselves. The Apostles follow the direction of the Lord Jesus, whose final prayer was that those who believed the words of the Apostles may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:21) Unity comes through love, as He manifested in His new commandment, “Love one another even as I have loved you.” “That the world may believe….” indicates that what seems to be an excessive internal focus is fundamentally evangelical. Really living the Gospel life itself makes it so attractive that it draws outsiders who are desperate for a taste of the living water drawn from the founts of love. The same Spirit that inspired the teaching of the Apostles, that inspired the limitless commitment to love shared by the early saints, also moved the Anthonys into the deserts of Egypt and the Benedicts into the cloister. What looked like running away from the dangers of pagan society turned out to be running towards the most intense experience of loving, sacrificial community. In God’s plan, these schools of community became the inspiration and seed-bed for the birth of European Christianity.

Much like the first Christians, many of today’s renewed Catholics have given themselves over completely to living a life of sacrificial, sacramental love in and among their families. It has not been easy, for most had no experience of community, hardly even of family, in their own upbringing, and even fewer in radically, evangelically Catholic families and communities. Driven by the Spirit to live according to the ideal, they often found that their zeal did not entirely prepare them for the rigors and surprises of radical living. But through faith, sacraments and friendship, their trials and failures have brought wisdom, making the way easier for the next generation by establishing culture and sensibilities and sage advice.

Out of these renewed communities have come true apostles. Religious communities are being filled or re-filled by many drawn from these communities. Priestly vocations are remarkably strong as well. Some have been drawn into writing, painting, architecture and music. Thousands have been called to teaching at all levels. And their numbers will grow. A recent Catholicity.com article estimates that there are now about 150,000 “evangelical Catholic families” and projects that internal growth alone will raise this number to around 1,000,000 in the next few decades.

And their influence will be disproportionately felt, for these Catholics are not only devoted to their faith, but they have received as strong a grounding in Catholic culture as their parents and their “special schools” have been able to give them. The priests arising out of their midst will not tolerate in their parishes the artistic shambles that Mrs. Nicolosi rightly bemoans. They will begin to renew the role of the Church as “the Real Patron of the Arts”. The DREs in “rural parishes” will be called to take up more responsibilities in the diocese. The collegiate professors will spread a deeper understanding and appreciation of the treasures of Catholic tradition. Local efforts to promote the arts will benefit from national and international association (e.g. The Sacred Music Colloquium).

This is a long slow process. I understand Mrs. Nicolosi’s impatience. But learning to live lives of love is not easy. Ask the Benedictines or Carmelites or anyone who has tried. St. John thought it so important and evidently so difficult that he is reported in his old age to have reduced his sermons to merely saying, “Love one another.” This is especially true in this new era, a return to apostolic Christianity, in which Catholic laity are invited and expected to live lives of deep prayer. How to do this, integrating it with our daily duties, learning to discern real slackness from the limitations implicit in busy family life, demands a lot of commitment, a lot of experience, a lot of time. One of the greatest sufferings of these families is the sense of failure that haunts them as they face the messiness of most of what they try to do.  But we have often seen how those who too quickly become apostolic in Mrs. Nicolosi’s sense can easily lose their way, becoming scandals to the very souls they have moved so powerfully – “Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil.” (Mark 4:5)

“Cave dwellers” is harsh and for the most part undeserved. “Shire folk” might be more appropriate. As the hobbit, Merry, reflected in the Houses of Healing:

It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep.

Still, we “Shire folk” can learn much from Mrs. Nicolosi’s reminders. Their deep grounding in a good, lovable life readied the hobbits to play an important role in the affairs of the Wise. But they had to fight their natural tendency (one they shared with the Elves) to simply shut out the greater world, with its terrors and its glories, and to treat anything foreign with suspicion. We Catholic Shire folk should be both confident in our life yet open to loving the Wide World instead of condemning it, and ready at the proper time to take our share in its struggles, failures and successes.

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18 replies to this post
  1. Meanwhile, euthanasia is streaming into our society on the high speed train of the popular culture. The forces of death will have their way with the elderly and sick in state hospitals and nursing homes all before the Catholic Cave Dwellers even know it is happening. But you go ahead and tell yourself that you are not meant to be yeast in the world.

    And what the heck is the insult that we have been unsuccessful in drawing many more Christians into Hollywood? You have no idea what you are talking about. We've been very successful and there are thousands more people like us here now. You are entitled to your own paralyzing fears, but not your own facts.

    • Ms. Nicolosi,

      I thought that in your interview which Dr. Seeley cited you yourself were complaining about being unsuccessful in drawing Christians to Hollywood. In fact, I thought that was the entire theme of the interview. I did not think Dr. Seeley was speaking in criticism of your personal efforts, but was simply pointing out one of the reasons you were feeling frustrated. He did the same thing you have been doing in that he gave his own opinion on the matter of raising our children to evangelize and he cited his own reasons. Where he differed from you was in using a civil tone and pointing out what he thought was valid about your thoughts on the matter.

      Before I read your comment, I felt more inclined to reflect on your advice regarding my own children. But your unwillingness to enter into civil dialog on this topic has given even more weight, in my mind, to the comments made by Dr. Seeley. It is hard to take seriously a person who says they care about the souls in Holly wood and the elderly who are dying of euthanasia, when that same person speaks in such an uncharitable tone to one who is trying to enter into dialog on that same matter, and I have to ask myself if your methods of introducing children to more of the popular culture would, in fact, prepare children effectively for evangelization, or would, more likely, bring their manners and general way of life down to the level of those they would have hoped to evangelize.

      I will give more thought to the matter, but I’d just like to point out that your manner of answering Dr. Seeley seems contradictory to your advice to us on how to deal with those in Hollywood. The temptation on my part is to dismiss your ‘feedback’ entirely.

  2. Ms. Nicolosi,

    I wonder what your thoughts are on the analogy brought up between the active life the Apostles were called to and the contemplative life of the Desert Fathers as well as the Benedictines/Carmelites. Martha as opposed to Mary?

    Are the latter subject to your same criticisms? Or is there a distinction, if so, what?

  3. Wow, I'm the homeschooling father of 8 and live in the evil countryside. We have unsociable chickens and denim-skirt wearing goats. It's too bad our children are bi-lingual (German and English), play soccer and the piano, sing in a local performance choir, can cook from scratch, love foreign films and classical music, Karl May books and Lord of the Rings. Next year I'll be sure to send them to public school, where they will learn not to be such interesting people, innocently open to the beauty of God and the goodness in his world.
    Seriously, as an real-life homeschooler of many years, I've never met anyone remotely like the people described above. No doubt they exist, but are there that many of them to pose such a serious threat? What about the parents that feed their lambs to the wolves? I think they outnumber the Cave Dwellers.

  4. Mrs. Nicolosi, Mr. Seeley did not say you were unsuccessful in drawing Christians, but rather Catholics. He acknowledge the response of "non-Catholic Christians". If you believe he has misunderstood the situation, then fine correct him on what he actually said. But id many Catholics have responded, why do you screed against Catholics who devote themselves to other matters?

    I found his article to be calmly written and charitable. Your response doesn't address any of the substantive claims made, but is just an angry response, with a red herring and a false dichotomy thrown in. The order of charity is first God, then the humanity of Christ, and Mary and then self, then wife, children, etc. We are called to love first and foremost those who by relation or happenstance of life are closer to us. This is natural. One need look first to his own salvation, that his family. You seem to think that they who devote the efforts and love to their family and friends are not helping society. But the family is the foundation of society. Start rightly ordering the family and one's personal relationships, and one is doing much of the work of evangelising society.

    It is not the job of the laity, as such, to preach. That normally belongs to the clergy (with certain, interesting, historical exceptions). It is the job of the layman or woman to love his/her spouse, his children, his friends, and in all things seeks first the kingdom of God. The rest will follow. And this is only addressing your apparent disdain for domestic virtue. It says nothing of the great value in prayer and merit that comes from a saintly soul. A few days ago we celebrated St. Thérèse of Liseux. She was a modern apostle, though she never went out preaching (she had wanted to be a cloistered nun in Indo-China though). He apostolate was to leave the world and its temptations, for her own soul sake, but also for the sake of the world. Her apostolate was not any less, and in fact was considerably higher in its state, than going out and making a lot of active noise. We need both, sure, but why villify either?

  5. Two comments:

    – Mrs. Nicolosi's shallow sarcasm in her comment as well in some of the articles posted reflects itself a lack of culture; culture arises from a community of persons, not from watching popular TV or high grossing movies. Nor does a lack of basic civility indicate an evangelical spirit.

    – Since when is modern popular culture actually culture at all? It lacks the basic qualities of culture. Much of popular culture is a monolithic corporate project to homogenize taste, sensibilities, and morality for the aim of profit. This is a destroyer of culture, of peoples, not something to parley with. One cannot court the spirit of the world, one is not enriched by the likes of Damien Hirst or Quentin Tarantino.

  6. Thank you, Joshua, for clarifying for me.

    One of my former students commented: The Shire analogy was apt, especially if one keeps in mind that the hobbits were not meant to stay there always, but to go forth in their own small way. A good foundation is important, but it is only a beginning. In my own experience, I've been lambasted by homeschoolers (who really didn't know a thing about me) for going to the Chicago Art Institute for grad school because "it's too secular". I'm aware of the worldly influences and seminars on transgender studies, but I prefer to focus on the cultural opportunities of studying the old masters techniques. I think Ms. Nicolosi was merely warning against an overcautious extreme to which Catholics frequently tend, in which they refuse to engage (or see any good in) the culture at all.

  7. We are committed Cave Catholics. Catholic history shows swings in the temper of the time, and we're in one in which Christianity needs to keep strong by being together and committed. I rather feel my family is kind of its own monastery.

    There are simply too many well-paid, large forces at work against Christianity. And they know each other and have worked together against us.

  8. Good Mister Palmetto! So busy imbibing culinary skills and culture and languages and faith, and playing good music, how do your splendid children find the time to gather nuts and berries, not to mention spearing mastodons and drying the meat into jerky outside of your cave? I am most impressed! Bless you all, and carry on con brio!

  9. Neither of us were Catholic when our children (one of each) were young, altho I am now. Both children are adult converts who married adult converts. Both are home schoolers, with the eldest of their children now out of the nest. One teaches in a Catholic school, one is a Benedictine nun, another is a Carmelite monk. The rest are searching for their vocations, but we have no fear that any will go wrong. In a cave? Not at all. While many of their friends fit a similar profile, I cannot identify a single one, parent or child, who fears engagement with the world. Their firm grounding has given them confidence to engage without being captured.

  10. My life was changed by a rural DRE (well, PhD). I'm glad he was more concerned with quality over quantity.

    Thank you for pointing out the nature of self-selection in society. The new institutions, built by those who self-select out of failing institutions, become the pillars of the society of tomorrow.

    Ms. Nicolosi's success also comes from a self-selection process. Through newly established (media) institutions, amiable and competitive relationships with individuals and other institutions shape society at large. The success of classical liberal arts educations, in their endurance and emulation in existing schools, is also a sign of this.

    Men are political; institutions are the leaven. If this were not the case, Ms. Nicolosi would not have reason to form and work with Act One, Inc. Although she might say of a child in school, "He’s a disciple when he’s 6 to his kindergarten class," she herself elected not to change the hearts and minds of individuals at existing media corporations. She joined already like-minded corporations and founded her own to cater to like-minded patrons and expand their number. Through a novel institution, she and her co-workers are able to move society in a way that would be impossible if they were striving individually and dispersed at various media organizations.

    This is exactly what those who work in classical liberal education have done. The only difference is the difference between the nature of mass media and education: one addresses individuals by the demographic, while the other addresses individuals by the classroom. They are different members in the same body, both self-selected out of a world that is passing away, both building the infrastructure for the society of tomorrow.

    As it was said, "Remember not former things, and look not on things of old. Behold I do new things, and now they shall spring forth, verily you shall know them: I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert." (Isaiah 43:18, 19 DRA)

  11. I love this article on so many levels. Like you, I believe that Ms. Nicolosi has good points (don't live in a bubble, etc) but I also agree that she overlooks the great good that people in small communities do. We need major reformers very badly, but we also need people like St. Therese to pray for them and people like St. Therese's parents to raise them. We need Catholics in ALL walks of life, from stay-at-home moms to DREs to construction workers to computer engineers to college professors. Obviously, not all of these people are actively out there in public converting people (though they must answer when a challenge to the faith comes up), but that doesn't mean that they're hiding in a cave. The important thing is to follow your vocation – whether that's a hidden one or a public one. Ms. Nicolosi would agree with that, surely; but I suspect that she sees many people who are apparently not living out their vocation, which upsets her, and understandably so.

  12. Shell shock in the culture war does not justify the post traumatic acting out against those living in the Shire. When one desires to recruit soldiers for the culture war from the Shire, one must come to shire like Gandalf, Ms. Nicolosi.

  13. I am saddened by Nicolosi's response to Seeley's article. The wording is harsh and uncharitable to say the least. I hope this is not a testament of her true self, as she does not come across as a loving person. She might have gained more community here on Imaginative Conservative had her email tone been subdued with, shall I say, Christian charity.

    We all are in this boat together. Not all of us are called to be Alice von Hildebrand's (great lady) or St Therese's of the Little Flower. Most of us are somewhere in between. I can attest after homeschooling for twenty years, that I never met a quiet gentle hidden mama. On the contrary, she is usually starting new organizations, with her children as secretaries and accountants in one of her many "Let's go help" crusades! I am not joking. Ask my own kids. Or, she is relating to one of Marie Bellets songs; What I Wanted to Say.

    One thing I do see now: The world is a scary place but these young people we raised are like dynamos in the streets and in the work place. On the flip side, you will see our young people fall (you mean struggle with human nature; YES!) and hopefully one day become a new man or woman in Christ. It is a messy business walking out your front door. I think most of these kids know that. I will exclude extremist Christians, as well as, extreme Islamists from that scenario. They have a tendency to be the ones Nicolosi only encounters apparently.

    Another item: Aren't we all just trying to do the right thing with some semblance of community to balance our harried lives? Why must we bicker? Instead…Let us find grounds to unite and encourage one another. Obviously, for most households, balance is a key factor. I do not homeschool right now. The kids that are still at home are in public and private schools. They are doing fine. Their teachers can't get over how communicative and kind they are to everyone, even the kids left alone at lunch tables. Sounds like we are raising pretty good kids that engage the culture (and yes, what culture?).

  14. Mr. Seeley, your charity, civility and willingness to see the merit in Ms. Nicolosi's article were beautiful examples of lived faith, and your article was well-reasoned and lucid. Thank you for writing it.

  15. I too am genuinely surprised by Ms. Nicolosi's response to this kind and gentle article. I've always had great respect for her enterprise, but she must recognize that a body has many members: a kidney is a whole lot different than a toe nail, and a toe nail is a whole lot different than a nose, etc.

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