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Are you in a cult? Of course not. No way. A dumb question.

Or is it?

It's an interesting word, "cult." Tough to define. Oh, we know the blatant examples -- Moonies, Scientology, Branch Davidians. But it's more than that.

When we say "cult," we often equate it to a feeling:

Someone we know is in a situation that seems "cult-like" -- hard to put one's finger on. All of us have fallen prey, at one time or another, in one way or another. Let's say this: a cult is a circumstance in which folks suddenly find themselves in a small world exclusive of others. Only they are right. It is like they are chosen. It is "them" against the rest of the world. They have special access to information. They are "chosen ones." Everyone else is out of touch. They alone hold the truth. Say one thing out of line, away from the "cult's" line, and you are a heretic (or a traitor).

We think of cults in religious terms but cults exist in every aspect of living. There are religious cults, for sure: cults that revolve around charismatic leaders, a particular set of rules, or private revelations. Anyone who doesn't believe everything they say is suspect (and not a true Catholic). But there are also political, business, educational, media, legal, entertainment, and nationalistic cults (which cause wars). There are sports cults. There are criminal cults (see the Mafia's blood rituals).

A cultist sees only black or white when in fact there are always gray areas here and in the hereafter (see: purgatory).

A cult is when one's vision narrows. A cult is when there is intolerance for anyone who differs. A cult is when there is no attempt at common ground, or objectivity. We're not talking about tolerating sin; we're not speaking of compromise. Nor are we speaking of worldliness: we should be divorced from the "world," in the sense of divorcing ourselves from what the Church instructs us to. We're talking about tolerating other legitimate viewpoints (as the Vatican does).

There are movie cults. There are cults founded on specific predilections. There are radio-show cults. Unfortunately, there are cults formed around excellent, even holy causes. The devil can twist anything! The Vatican recognizes certain cults formed around the Blessed Mother (see Lourdes); but it is a different use of the word cult (see: cultis).

When you think that anyone who differs an iota from the viewpoint of your group or clique (or the media celebrity you follow) is the "enemy," you're entrapped in a cult-like spirit. In fact, cultism is more a spirit and mindset than an actual membership.

The keyword is "trapped": usually, we don't realize our bondage. We didn't see it coming. We just glided into an orbit. Ide fixe. We become a bit blinded. We don't know how cultic we have become. We can't seem to shake free of a certain way of viewing matters because we have lost objectivity, operating in a spirit of dispute, argumentation, obsession, and anger. Those are first signs.

We are living in an age where nastiness rules and there are cults at every turn -- liberal cults, conservative cults, cultural cults, Christian cults.

One must, of course, draw the line at sin. One must also draw it at belief in God. Atheists are wrong, period; those who reject Christ are wrong, period; abortionists are wrong.

But don't draw it at superficial differences.

In the past decade, that cult feeling has landed smack in the middle of politics more than anything. Liberals have swayed toward "cults" of deviance while others have taken on the spirit of libertarianism, hyper-materialism, and Ayn Rand (an atheist who now also influences too many of us conservatives). In Marian Catholic circles, there are cults whereby one is disdained if one does not believe in a certain seer. There are cults around certain movements within Catholicism. You can feel the electricity.

That's another sign: the sensation of being zapped in someone's presence when there is honest disagreement. There is a spirit of harshness or nastiness that belies the pretense of Christian love.

There are cults around musical bands (see The Grateful Dead).

There are blogging cults.

There are environmental (and anti-environmental) cults.

There is the cult of Wall Street.

There are cults of the rich.

It all gets back to imbalance. It is extremism.

Are you in bondage to anyone or any group or any thing? Lent is a good time to purge. It is a good time to gain balance.

If you want to follow someone, follow the Pope, who exercises objectivity and love and whose leader is Jesus, Who didn't need a cult to draw followers for the past 2,000 years.

[resources: St. Augustine, Fl. retreat, March 6: Michael Brown: the prophetic pulse]

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