FOUR LEVELS OF CHURCH: Keep my commands

Disclaimer: What follows is not authorized by Cistercians, Lay Cistercians, or Roman Catholic Church but is solely the opinion of a broken-down, old temple of the Holy Spirit.

During one of my Lectio Divina meditations (Phil 2:5), I asked what Christ did to ensure the continuity of his mission, giving honor and glory to the Father through the Son.

Knowing full well the eccentricities of the human condition called Original Sin, Jesus entrusted his mission to the Apostles through the Holy Spirit, giving them one command to love one another as He loved us. Read John 15. The Apostles entrusted it to each age. The Holy Spirit did not descend upon just one Apostle, Peter, but on all of them and the other disciples in the room.

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me, you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples. As the Father has loved me, I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[d] any longer because the servant[e] does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so you may love one another.

THE PARADIGM OF LEADERSHIP: JESUS HANDS DOWN HIS HERITAGE, THE CHURCH: We don’t live past seventy unless we are fortunate. How do you ensure that your heritage is passed on to the next generations? For humans, we have children to ensure our progeny and pass on our genes. Animals and plants do it automatically. It is the way of nature. Jesus is not different from us in that he also passed on his heritage. Notice that he did not, but could have, passed on his genes. Why not? I am not sure of the answer other than his kingdom was not of this world. Our zeal to leave what is most important to our family or business is endemic to humans. Jesus passed on his heritage to those close to him. He entrusted his mission to his followers, with Peter as its trustee. But Jesus did more. His heritage to the Church was not a book, not a series of rules to follow, not a bank account with money to spend on expansion. He left Himself. He left each of us at every age. The Church is holy; people in the Church are sinful, are tempted to offer incense to the Emperor, and are doubtful about how to move forward. Enter the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and beyond.

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus

13 Now, when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[c] the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[d] and on this rock[e] I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was[f] the Messiah.[

You just read Jesus handing off the baton to the next generation, although Peter does not seem to fully realize what is happening. This is Jesus not just giving his followers money or fame or fortune as their heritage but that they have authority to build his Church, one that is not limited to only Jews, one that proclaims that he is the Messiah, one that has the authority of Heaven to bind and loose on earth, one where one person as a leader is the paradigm of leadership, one based on mercy not sacrifice. This is the paradigm of one person representing the many, as in Christ and his Body. Throughout our history, from the beginning, one person became the visible leader of the community with followers. That model is present at all levels of the Church; you will read below. This should be evident in any Church down through the centuries.


  • Jesus never left a book but singled out twelve to be Apostles to restore the concept of the twelve tribes of Israel, ten of whom were assimilated into the North.
  • Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament by moving sacrifices of animals to live the Law in people’s hearts and stressing that mercy is essential.
  • Jesus is the Messiah, one who is both divine and human, the one who is Lord, with Apostles as inheritors of the mission., tasked with handing down Christ’s message to subsequent ages.
  • Jesus wanted his disciples to make his commands and teachings actual in each age.
  • Jesus selected twelve of the most unlikely persons as pillars of his New Jerusalem. Of all of the twelve, Peter was the one I would never have selected.
  • Jesus wanted me (and each of you, individually) to experience the upper room, the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the encounter with the woman at the well, the passion, death, and the Resurrection. Christ wanted a way to be present to you just as He was to the Twelve. The Church is that way, that truth, and indeed that life. Not the building or a set of prescriptions to follow (although those are important). He wanted your heart to be next to His Heart, to hear them both beating as one. 

LEVEL ONE:  There is such a thing as the Church Universal, composed of all the faithful in Heaven, those who still struggle on earth (militant), and those awaiting purification (Purgatory). We call that the mystical Body of Christ. The following is from New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia, and Mystical Body of Christ.  The doctrine may be summarized as follows:

  • “The members of the Church are bound together by a supernatural life communicated to them by Christ through the sacraments (John 15:5). Christ is the center and source of life to Whom all are united and Who endows each one with gifts fitting him for his position in the Body (John 15:7-12). These graces, through which each is equipped for his work, form it into an organized whole, whose parts are knit together as though by a system of ligaments and joints (John 15:16Colossians 2:19).
  • Through them, too, the Church has its growth and increase, growing in extension as it spreads through the world and intensively as the individual Christian develops in himself the likeness of Christ (John 15:13-15).
  • In virtue of this union, the Church is the fulness or complement (pleroma) of Christ (Ephesians 1:23). It forms one whole with Him, and the Apostle even speaks of the Church as “Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
  • This union between head and members is conserved and nourished by the Holy Eucharist. Through this sacrament, our incorporation into the Body of Christ is outwardly symbolized and inwardly actualized; “We being many are one bread, one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).”


  • This is the most universal level of the Church, the “Big Picture,” where the ancient concept of “extra ecclesia, nulla salus” applies. This saying recognizes that “through Christ alone” is their salvation, and all there is after death in the Kingdom of Heaven are the assemblies of believers. 
  • The four signs of Christ’s Church.
    •        It is the sense of the Universal Church that we can call the Church of Christ holy, one of the four marks of the Church Universal (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic).
    • We can call this Church Universal at this level one because we all live at this level, connected through our Baptism and the Holy Spirit.
    • Similarly, we can call this level of Church apostolic because the Church handed on to those who follow them the essentials of what it means to be Catholic.
    • We can call this level catholic because, even if people don’t accept Christ as the Son of God, Savior, make up their own religion, or even deny God ever existed, they are all redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb. The Church becomes all those in Heaven who stand before the Throne of the Lamb, those who still run the race for the prize here on earth, and those who await purification.
  • Each of the four levels of the Church is linked together in knowledge, love, and service to one another.
  • Fundamental teaching: love one another as I have loved you. John 15.
  • One leader represents all members worldwide as Christ. That person is not Christ but one to whom Christ gives authority to bind and loose. Who is that?
  • When I say I am Catholic, this is the level at which I speak.
  • The sign of contradiction in the Church Universal: There is diversity in the unity, continuity in the apostolicity, sinfulness in the holiness, and individuality in its catholicity. The Mystery of Faith.


On this level of Church Universal, as it evolved from the Apostles going out to various parts of the world and St. Paul’s missionary outreach to the Gentiles, there are many ways the Gospels were applied in liturgy, governance, doctrines, and prayer. These are called rites, for lack of a better way to describe them. They are all united under the apostolic head of Peter, open to all mankind, and linked with Christ, the Head of the Body of Christ. Rather than take ten pages or more to describe all these various rites, I will cite my sources, and you look them up. What a rich heritage we have. Don’t take it for granted.


One of the conundrums of what happened after the Holy Spirit entered the spirits of the Apostles is how fumbling, fueding, jealous, envious, lustful, and prideful humans could lead the Church. I had to clarify that when I speak of the Church Universal as Holy, I mean those also in Heaven, those awaiting purification, and those on earth NOW. Again, the sign of contradiction comes into view. It doesn’t make sense. The Church Universal is Holy because Christ, our Head of the Body, is Holy, the Holy Spirit is Holy, and God the Father is Holy. Jesus was like us in all things but sin. There is no one outside of Jesus who is without sin, the one exception being Mary, who was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (who is Holy). The rest of us must use the Sacrament of Reconciliation, personal petitions for mercy, as we do in Eucharist and Chapter 4 of St. Benedict’s Rule to examine our conscience. No one! No one is without sin, and everyone is in daily need of conversation and mercy from self to God.


When I was in my late forties, a young woman approached me at a religious convention and asked what religion I was. I said, “I was not anything right then but was formerly Roman Catholic.” She told me that the Roman Catholic church leaders did not create their Church until 313 AD, the Edict of Milan, and before that, it was the Apostolic Church, which she said she follows. Of course, she did not believe in Apostolic succession or had ever heard of the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, the history of the Western or Eastern rites and their histories, the evolution of art about the Sacred, the communion of saints. Wow! I was looking at the progression of the Church forward to now; she was looking at the regression of the Church, skipping from the Now to Apostolic without sensing the violence it does to reality.

The Catholic Church is sometimes derided because it is too human. It is too human, replete with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as it wobbles through centuries, down paths that lead to false promises only to renew itself through its Saints to get back on the path of righteousness. You can tell a Gathering of Believers by looking at their battle scars. 


One of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation is that each person becomes their own head of their religion. They are the pope, the doctrinal interpreter of truth, and the way to skew history to fit their principles. I say this to point out that Church is not an individual but rather Christ is the head of the Body of Christ. You are baptized into the Faith of the Church when baptized with water and the spirit. Individuals are the bricks in the roadway, the stones in the wall, and the cells in the Body, but they are not the Body. When you are born, you come into the world as an individual, but you must have a mother and Father create you. When you die, your family does not die, you do, and you will be judged according to your works and how well you loved others.


The need for humans to belong to something, anything of value, goes back to the time of primitive humans. Belonging is one of those human characteristics developed with human reasoning. To be sure, animals need to belong, but we all come from one source of life and have held those characteristics throughout the centuries. When someone asks me what religion I am, I answer, “I belong to the Catholic Church.” That may have a different meaning for me than for the person asking the question. That difference is contained in the many assumptions we have about language based on our education, upbringing, and experiences in life. Here are some reflections of mine when I say “catholic.”

When I say, “I am Catholic,” I speak of this level, one in unity with apostolic continuity, holy in seeking God but sinful with individual sins. As St. Benedict says in Chapter 4 of his Rule, “To put one’s hope in God. 42. To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself. 43. But to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself.” Individually, all of us but Christ and His mother are sinless of us. No exceptions. There are no individuals as Church, only gatherings of individuals who, in humility and obedience to Christ’s directives, seek God daily through our Scripture and Tradition.

  • When I say, “I am Roman Catholic,” I mean I belong to the Church Universal, Roman Rite.
  • When I say, “I belong to the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee,” I am also a member of the Church Universal, practicing the Roman Rite, and am a Lay Cistercian.”
  • When I say, “I am a Lay Cistercian, professed,” I mean that I belong to the Lay Cistercians of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery and have made my Final Profession before the abbot, Dom Augustine, OCSO. I am also a member of the Church Universal and belong to the Roman Rite.
  • Churches can have Faith as well as individuals. When I say, “I belong to Good Shepherd parish, Tallahassee, Florida,” it means I belong to a parish community of Faith. Simultaneously, I also belong to the Church Universal, the Roman Rite of that Church, the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, and am a Lay Cistercian of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Trappist Monastery in Georgia. Did you get that word, “simultaneous”? All four levels are one in Holiness, Oneness, Apostolicity, and Catholicity, just as there is only One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism.

LEVEL TWO: This level is the local Church, sometimes called the assembly of the faithful. The early communities did not have formal churches but assembly places to meet, such as catacombs, someone’s house, or hidden resources. These churches were not named for people but for their geographical area, much like today. Paul writes to them, such as Hebrews (Jews), Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and so on.


Christ is the head; we are the Body. After centuries of morphing from local communities of believers, such as those geographic areas for whom St.  Paul wrote his letters, we have the earth made up of dioceses, or geographical areas, with a bishop, priests, deacons, and now religious orders of men and woman, plus lay ministries. Each geographical area has episcopos (leader, teacher) and presbyters (priests), and also deacons (spiritual service to the members).

  • Each level of the Church is linked in knowledge, love, and service to one another as priest, prophet, and king.
  • Fundamental teaching: love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself. (Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 22:37)
  • One leader of a geographical area or religious community represents all members as Christ. Cistercian monks and nuns have an abbot or abbess as the representative of Christ for the community. Dioceses have a bishop as head of the community of believers.
  • The Bishop is a teacher, guardian of orthodoxy, protector of the Scriptures, has the power to bind and loose, and presider over the Presbyterate and Body of Christ within his area. The Bishop received power from one who wears the shoes of the fisherman, head of the Church Universal. It is not they who have chosen to be Bishop, but Christ has chosen them.


What links us together is the invisible web of Faith from now back through all the centuries. What is true never changes. What changes in each age is each of us. We come, we go, but Christ remains ONE forever, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

LEVEL THREE:  INTENSE COMMUNITIES OF FAITH From ancient times, there is a level of Church that is unique to the Church Universal, i.e., religious communities of men and women who follow the directive of Christ to leave Father and mother, sell what you have and give it to the poor and come follow him. These ancient forms of spirituality are not better than or worse than anything in the Level Two church. It is unique. These are communities whose purpose is the total or part-time dedication to serving Christ through various ministries, e.g., schools, universities, hospitals, Catholic Charities, contemplative, and hermits, to name a few. Look up the Catholic Almanac 2016.

Lay Cistercians are one such movement, affiliated with a monastery, living their lives according to Cistercian practices and charisms to seek God through silence and solitude, officially recognized by the Church Universal as having constitutions and by-laws. Lay Cistercians are a new movement started in the 1980s at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery, Conyers, Georgia, and Nigeria. Cistercians are those who follow the constitutions and interpretations of the Rule of St. Benedict as expressed by Strict Order Cistercians. I now belong to Levels One through Four. All are one in doctrine and practice, with Christ as their center,

CHARACTERISTICS OF LEVEL THREE: The exciting thing about this level of Church is intensity and exclusivity in the community context.

This level is not just about individuals, although individuals make up all those in this community. It is about the mutual choice of the vocation to grow a step deeper in moving from self to Christ. Here are some of the characteristics:

This happens amid a community of Faith. There are hundreds of religious and lay organizations in the Church Universal, each with a specific ministry or mission. You may have heard of some, and some are quite obscure. It points to the diversity of ways to have Christ as your center and live out that love in the world. Usually, they live together in a monastery or convent but may be dispersed worldwide to fulfill their desire to seek God.

Look up some of the religious communities in the Catholic Universal Church tradition.

LEVEL FOUR: LIVING THE CHRIST’S LIFE –– No one exists alone as their own Church. Individual members make up the Body of Christ. These members form parishes, communities of Faith linked together by practice and outreach to live the Life of Christ on the local level. You have heard the saying that all government is local, I hope. It is like that with this level. Individuals keep their individuality while in a community of like believers. You can belong to many levels of the Church. I belong to four levels myself. In practice, all these levels of one don’t distinguish between them.

There are no individual churches, or one being a church, except for my bias that all the reformers of the Fifteenth Century form individuals who are each a church. Individuals populate religious communities and lay associations, such as Lay Cistercians or Lay Dominicans, to name only a few. Just an observation which I call Ecclesia Sola, or Church alone, is an unintended consequence to add to the five other “solas” who formed their own Church. Maybe I will get over it if I get older (I am a cranky 82-year-old right now). Humor me.


The problem Christ had was to pass on his message that all humans are potentially adopted sons and daughters of the Father if they choose. This “if they choose” is the purpose of Baptism. It responds to the Father through the Church as the Body of Christ. Christ chose us; we did not choose Him. This choice is Faith. It is the context in which we are given citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, fulfilling what it means to be human as nature intended before The Fall. It restores the dissonance and corruption of matter and mind to resonance. It allows us to call God “Abba,” Father, and Christ, a brother. To keep us safe while we live, the Holy Spirit gives us energy (Eucharist) and the ability to make all things new again and again (Reconciliation).

Contemplation, using Cistercian practices and charisms, is a way to seek our life’s purpose from within, using silence, solitude, work, and prayer, in the context of community (the gathering).

At this level, I am Church because I am simultaneously one with all other levels of the Church.

This notion is not one that I discover automatically. I have to use my reason and my free will to discern how the purpose of Christ overshadows my personal preference in life. I must choose Christ, knowing that Christ has first chosen me to sit next to Him on a park bench in the middle of winter and just hang out. This is my view of being a Lay Cistercian.

The Church is not magical, but it is most undoubtedly mystical.

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