Sentire Cum Christus

There’s a wonderful phrase I first encountered in Cardinal Müller’s address to the LCWR–this post is not at all about that–which is the “sentire cum Ecclesia“, the capacity for a religious congregation or other group to feel with the Church. Every word there is important. Isn’t that great? We feel with the Church–with–the Church. It’s not, or not primarily, about theology (rather, “theology”), or doctrine, about Magisterium, and all the rest. When we feel with the Church, those things come naturally.

And I would suggest that the sentire cum Ecclesia comes from the sentire com Christus. To feel with Christ. A priest who was a spiritual father to me would sometimes begin homilies, or pronouncements on difficult or controversial sentences, with the phrase “The Holy Spirit and I think that . . .” For a long time I thought it was just a bit of humorous bombast. But when you encounter the saints, you realize they have this sentire cum Christus. They know certain things, and they don’t know how they know them, but they know they know them, and they know it’s from the Holy Spirit. What I took to be from my spiritual father a bit of affectation was actually the most simple matter-of-fact thing: the Holy Spirit and him saw eye to eye. Jesus was “meek and humble of heart”, and yet he said things like “You have one here who is greater than the Temple.” Was he bragging? We know it is the exact opposite.

This sentire cum Christus brings to mind the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Notice how Jesus doesn’t say “The sheep follow him because the shepherd says very interesting things and has very sound doctrine.” No. The sheep follow Jesus because they know his voice.

In Latin as well as in French, sentire means “to feel” and also “to smell.” Think of how a pet recognizes the smell of his master and is excited simply by the smell. The sheep, the dog follows the master, joyfully, because he knows his voice, he smells him, he feels him. This is the sentire cum Christus. It is also one sense in which Jesus asks us to be like little children. A child does not love her father because she has weighed the pros and cons of her father’s doctrines and eventually reached the conclusion that the father is worthy of love and fellowship. The love comes from a much deeper level. When the child sees her father after separation she leaps for joy and runs towards him with totally simple, unguarded, all-consuming love. This is the sentire cum Christus.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that doctrine is unimportant, not at all, quite to the contrary. But doctrine without Christ-fellowship is just words, just a philosophy among many which may or may not be true; and Christ-fellowship leads to sound doctrine–at least in my experience. The sentire cum Christus means the sheep do not follow the wrong shepherd.

How do we foster this sentire cum Christus? In my experience, and from what I’ve been able to tell from the life of saints, the main answer is: prayer and the sacraments. Prayer, in particular–daily, regular, prayer, with time set aside for it. And the sacraments, of course, confession and the Eucharist. And the study of the Word of God and of doctrine, but these should come naturally as a result of the rest.

Prayer is not something we do, it is something God does to us. And what is that? He makes us more like Him, more conformed to Him, more like Jesus, the totally human and totally indwelled of the Father. Why is Jesus the Good Shepherd? Because the Father dwells in him and he in the Father. “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

The way we are drawn in the mutual indwelling and reciprocal self-giving of the Trinitarian life is through prayer and the sacraments. And the way that it manifests itself is through the sentire cum Christus. Which in turn manifests itself in growing in selflessness, in truth, in good works, in the theological virtues–in short, in holiness.

(P.S. I’m relatively sure it should be “Sentire Cum Christo” because “cum” as the adverb “with” is followed by the ablative, but Church Latin is Pig Latin. Shhhh. ;) )


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