N.B.: This post will last for 2 days as it is so long and unwieldy that I would not dare stuff more words into your Inbox a day later. And because of time constraints it’s also unedited, so I cannot vouch for proper spelling or grammatical tidiness. I hope is offers you some worthy food for thought.
Having just taught a class on the “spirituality of the laity for the parish priest” this past semester, I have been thinking lots about what exactly to do with all of the theological insights my class helped me to conjure up. It’s like being a kid in a candy store.
I have been working on an article, but as my present pace of life only allows my ideas to emerge in blog-sized bits and fragments, I thought it best on occasion to share them with you as they fall out of my consciousness. I know I’ve written many a time in Obstat on this theme, so for those who’ve read consistently expect not the totally new, just the fresh.
A funny aside. I was speaking with a parishioner in my parish about 10 days ago, and he asked me what I had taught this semester. As with someone tasked with uncorking a champagne bottle that unbeknownst to them has been vigorously shaken, that man was not prepared for what was to come. Beginning with the phrase, “It was the most electrifying class I’ve ever taught,” I attempted to explain it to him with what he likely took as fanatical enthusiasm. In the midst of my vigorous reply, he suddenly interjected, saying, “Sounds like you really find that really interesting. What are you all doing for Christmas?”
I probably should work harder on a marketing strategy for my theological passions.
Maybe that’s what I prize most about this WordPress Blog — As I type furiously, it remains is so serenely attentive and receptive to my every crazed and wily thought.
Like an antiphonal response, I repeatedly shared with the Laity class my contention that the “core” revolution of the Second Vatican Council’s vision for the lay vocation was rooted in its unconditional affirmation that the laity, qua laity, are called to the fullness of perfection in holiness. The radicality of the way of perfection is not a uniquely monastic or clerical privilege. Neither is lay holiness understood as a “downgraded,” lower order participation in, or imitation of, monastic or clerical spirituality. The path to perfection for the laity has a particular genius that is singularly and uniquely its own. It does not stand in a superior/inferior relationship with Consecrated or clerical life, but rather exists in organic harmony with those states of life within the Church’s one vocation, which is to make present the coming Kingdom of God in this world through the revolutionary conspiracy of sanctity.
The vocation to be lay saints, the Council affirms, is effected principally within the laity’s “natural habitat”: the temporal realities of the secular world. Let me allow Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium #31 to speak for itself:
But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.
The uniquely secular character of the lay vocation and mission gives rise to a uniquely secular spirituality; a spirituality whose heart and soul is tightly bound to the world. This is, in my mind, the undetonated theological bomb of the Council: What does a secular spirituality look like, and when will we see a new spiritual literature written that not only articulates such a spirituality, but one that is written by lay saints who strove to live by its earthy exigencies? As we have the treasure of an unimaginably vast spiritual literature written by sainted Consecrated religious and clerics, this new millennium will — please God! — give rise to a new body of literature written by secular mystics who speak of the dizzying heights of holiness achieved in board rooms, court rooms, house chambers, classrooms, showrooms, movie sets, construction sites, kitchens, ball fields and bedrooms. Of course, this literature has some history, is growing, but the best is yet to come.
The laity strive for transforming union with Christ not principally by doing explicitly religious/churchy things, but rather by doing mundane, secular, worldly things — full-scale engagement in civic, cultural, economic, political, marital, familial, military, athletic, etc. kinds of stuff. Lay saint-aspirants are unabashedly immersed in the secular world, are dual-citizens (i.e. heaven-earth) oriented mostly toward the earth. One might say that whereas monks and nuns follow the ascending Christ into the glorious heavens, laity follow the descending Christ into the world in order that, by finding their spiritual home engaging in its earth-bound occupations, the world itself might be consecrated to God. Secularity is the via to the heights of holiness for the laity, and the substance of what they will be judged on before the Throne of Christ on the Last Day. Gaudium et Spes 43 says it powerfully,
They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. . . . The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.
Forming Faithful Citizens
I was talking about my class recently with a priest who worked for years in college campus ministry. He said some intriguing things relevant to this topic that I will paraphrase here:
My concern, honestly, is that we’re facing a generation of young people that are withdrawing more and more from an engaged participation in public and civic life. They seem either cynical or uninterested in public institutions and the virtues of citizenship that call you out of your personal interests into the common interest; from private to common good. Even if you say that their enthusiasm to get involved in social media makes them more engaged with the global community than ever, the fact is that they seem to be less engaged with the real world of messy and unexciting local community activities than ever. And it’s precisely in local community where politics, culture and community solidarity need to primarily reside if we are to build real time, real world neighborhoods and virtuous communities. They seem to be thinking less and less as co-responsible public citizens and more as private consumers who think of community or careers more in terms of personal self-fulfillment rather than as a service to the broader common good. They think of involvement as largely a matter of private, voluntary associations, self-chosen relationships that are able to be un-friended, un-chosen at will.
…You’re talking about a lay path to holiness that is fundamentally about being all-out engaged in cultivating civic virtues, building a virtuous culture and civilization by being fully engaged in the world of politics, business, medicine, education, art, and the like. But I’ll be honest, looking at the approach to Catholic life I cultivated in the years I was involved in campus ministry was really not that way. I think what I probably focused on was meeting their personal spiritual needs; helping them principally to discern whether or not God was calling them to serve in the church; encouraging their involvement in parish ministries far more than encouraging involvement outside of church; working mightily on their personal relationship with God. Of course that’s all important, but I really didn’t place importance on helping them to think of secular careers or involvement in non-ecclesial public life as a spiritual thing. Maybe they left thinking that it was spiritual to work in social outreach through soup kitchens or build homes for poor people, but I don’t think I emphasized enough for clearly them the way to do holiness through what 99.9% of them will end up called to do — to love and serve God and neighbor by being good citizens.
When many of them years later call me to share how hard it’s been for them to live in the secular world after thriving in the ecclesial bubble of our campus ministry, to see how sustain fervor in their prayer and faith life, or how to see that radical faith in Jesus has anything to do with the challenges of career work, worldly co-workers and friends, or the frenetic pace of family life, I wonder how I might have better prepared them to love Jesus as faithful citizens of this world. How I could have helped them see their role as joyful martyrs who love Jesus outside the protective walls of Jerusalem.
Broken yet good; fallen yet lifted up
The Council’s vision of the secular lay calling is rooted in a primal intuitions of faith. This world, even though it is fallen and broken, remains essentially good, was redeemed by Christ and is destined for the glory of the New Creation. In other words, all that is good and redeemable in this world will not be left behind in heaven. It will be “taken up” and transfigured, just as the dead body of Jesus was not left behind, but raised up in the glory of the resurrection.
That’s really amazing.
That said, if we say this world is destined for a glorious “transfiguration” in the next world, how does it “get there”? What’s the primary “vehicle of transition,” the means by which this world passes over from its present corrupted state to its future glorious form in the Age to Come?
The answer is, the laity who have been joined to Christ and made made royal priests in Baptism, sealed by the Spirit in Confirmation. Their vocation is to gather from this world, by means of their virtuous and sacrificial secular labors, the material of which the Kingdom to God is built. Just like the priest celebrating Mass, the laity have their own epiclesis by which they call down the Spirit to consecrate the world. Elijah-like, they call down, within their secular vocations, the divine Fire from heaven to consume the materials they have tirelessly gathered for sacrifice. Then every Sunday they bear up on their shoulders this igneous, Spirit-drenched treasury of sacrificial materials and, in the Offertory of the Mass, lift it on high, through the hands of the priest, into the all-consuming Eucharistic Fire. Therein, Christ makes our treasures his own in the imperishable glory of his eternal Father, where nothing worthy is ever lost or passes away, and makes them infinitely fruitful for the good of all.
In the words of Gaudium et Spes #39:
For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.
Or again, in the words of Bl. Pope John Paul II (which my wonderful students printed on a t-shirt!),
For their work, prayers and apostolic endeavours, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labour, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne-all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshipers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God.
We need earthy lay mystics who infuse the terrestrial with the celestial; who find their unspeakable intimacy with God mired in the unsung tedium of their worldly work, their nuptial love, their cubicles, their son’s ball game, their friend’s music recital, their rock climbing, their child’s needful cry. Who pray deepest while blessing their sleepy children, interceding for their sick parents, asking for the strength to sustain their two family-supporting jobs. Who cling to God in a father-daughter dance, in date night with their spouse, in their nonchalant generosity to a needy neighbor, in their grappling with loneliness in the evening of life, in their shouting enjoyment of football, in the daily grind of suffering or the moments of life-celebrating joy. Done well, this earth-bound mystic brew yields a spiced wine worthy of Christ’s everlasting Feast that celebrates the wedding of heaven and earth.
Okay. Time to stop.
A final thought
To conclude thus interminable ramble, let me share with you a poem I first penned the morning after the Laity class final exam, but re-wrote today as I looked out at the sun rising in the east. It thinks of the human vocation from the creation of the world to its consummation in the Age to Come. It’s dense and abstract, but for me it captures at least the taste of what I have found in the “spirituality of the laity” to be oh so sweet.
Song of the Lay Redeemed
God-breathed clay, twice-entwining in nuptial flesh
deeply Image-pressed, thrice sealed in uncreated Fire,
molded only yet to lift all here below always, ever-Higher
through the Father’s Song of Song, ever-Begotten fresh –
But lo, lament! this earthen Flame was felled far into mire.
Yet lo, again! Love unrelenting, relentlessly unthwarted,
crazed Bridegroom our murderous, adulterous love courted –
descending, plunging far too far down, so fleshly, deathly low
way into our raving mad folly, enduring our ferocious mortal blow.
Yet of sudden, see! a graying slain-God, bled dry of undying Blood
arises, freed alas to drench all – us! – from a gaping, wounded Side:
Spirit out-spilled from His seamed heavenly-earth, Love far-wide
drowning all loss of mortal death, welling up a springing sacred Flood.
Only that this Bridegroom’s soiled Bride might be washed, purely wed
embraced within His downward stoop, swept up into His God-ward wake,
loving her as feeding Food, as one Flesh for her to bless and dare to take
making her too a Food that feeds, who fills the hungry with His starving Bread;
who inebriates a joyless world by her self-forgetful love, stone-shattering God-quake
of sudden that forms all new: God-kneaded, Christ-infested, earth and heaven inter-cling
as Old falls up into New through our hands, leaping joy, wild with an unsung song to sing:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
be it forever our hymn to creation’s majestic King
in the New World filled by Ole earth’s lovely reechoing.