In The Wisdom Pattern, Father Richard summarizes five stages of change that have taken place historically in religious and cultural institutions. He calls these stages the “Five M’s”: human, movement, machine, monument, and memory. This week we explore these stages as inspiration for spiritual renewal in our faith communities and our lives.
It seems that many great things in history start with a single human being. If a person says something full of life that names reality well, the message often moves to the second stage of becoming a movement. That’s the period of greatest energy. The church is at its greatest vitality as the “Jesus Movement,” and the institution is merely the vehicle for that movement. The movement stage is always very exciting, creative, and also risky.
It’s risky because God’s movement in history is larger than any denomination, any culture, or any tradition’s ability to verbalize it. We feel out of control in this stage, and yet why would anybody want it to be anything less? Would we respect and love a God that we could control? I don’t think so! Yet we move rather quickly out and beyond the risky movement stage to the machine stage. This is predictable and understandable.
The institutional or machine stage of a movement will necessarily be a less-alive manifestation. This is not bad, although it is always surprising for those who see church as an end in itself, instead of merely a vehicle for the original vision. We need “the less noble” parts of the Body to keep us all growing toward love (1 Corinthians 12:22–24). There is no other way; but when we don’t realize a machine’s limited capacities, we try to make it into something more than it is. We make it a monument, a closed system operating inside of its own, often self-serving, logic. By then, it’s very hard to take risks for God or for gospel values.
Eventually this monument and its maintenance and self-preservation become ends in themselves. It is easy just to step on board and worship at a monument without ever knowing why or longing for God ourselves. At this point, we have jumped over the human and movement stages and have become what authors Mark Gibbs and T. Ralph Morton called “God’s frozen people.”  There is no hint of knowing that we are beloved by God and invited to an inner journey. In this state, religion is merely an excuse to remain unconscious, holding on to a memory of something that must once have been a great adventure. Now religion is no longer life itself, but actually a substitute for life or, worse, an avoidance of life. The secret is to know how to keep in touch with the human and movement stages without being naïve about the necessity of some machines and the inevitability of those who love monuments. We must also be honest: all of us love monuments when they are monuments to our human, our movement, or our machine.
 Mark Gibbs and T. Ralph Morton, God’s Frozen People (London: Collins, 1964).
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2001, 2020), 92–95.
Explore Further. . .
- Read Brian McLaren on Christianity as a movement of love.
- Learn more about this year’s theme Nothing Stands Alone.
- Meet the team behind the Daily Meditations.
Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Untitled Church I (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Toni Frissell, Minnie Burden, barefoot, riding a horse (detail), 1964, photograph, Library of Congress, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Untitled Window (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States.
This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story.
Image inspiration: The left and right photos are of stone monuments: solid and unmoving. Between them the fresh energy and movement of a horse and rider breathe life into this trio of images. How can we stay connected to the energetic, movement origins of our religions?
Story from Our Community:
I was widowed at the age of 34, after only 9 years of marriage. I realized one day that I was using all my energy to avoid the pain I was afraid to feel. One day in my desperation I laid down and let it flow through me. As I cried I sensed a downward spiral, but suddenly there was a stop. At that moment God caught me. I knew I would still live with my pain but that with my faith in God I will survive what life brings.
Prayer for our community:
God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough, because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.