“The spiritual life does not remove us from the world but leads us deeper into it”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen
This quote reflects a profound truth that, as I have often written of, describes the soul of the quintessentially lay vocation to “sanctify the secular.”
I am preparing a class for the Fall at the Seminary that will dive deeply into this perspective, and hopefully I will draw forth some useful insights for future priests whose entire mission is about shepherding the lay faithful to embrace their robustly secular identity and mission. In particular, a priest must show God’s people a way that allows them to discover in every single facet of their daily life in the world a primary path to holiness, as well as a means to heal modernity’s ever-growing alienation of religious faith from secular life.
I thought I would share here some of this stolen wisdom that I absconded from two people I had the privilege of meeting over the last several years, both of whom offered me blindingly brilliant, eminently real and in -your-face concrete instances of this Catholic vision at work.
“I thirst” — John 19:28
One was a mother with older children who shared this story with me (as ever, in paraphrase):
When my children were young I used to long for the days before I had children, when I was heavily involved in charismatic renewal, with lots of time for me-prayer, supportive community and feel-like-a-hero service outreach activities; these gave me energy, life and a sense of purpose. After my second child was born, I felt deep down — though I would never have admitted it — that having children was somehow leading me away from God, as they seemed to present a distraction from what I spiritually enjoyed and thrived on. I also knew intellectually that this couldn’t be. But there I was! I fought it constantly by trying to edge in as many church-related activities as I could, sometimes overburdening my husband with my absences or overspending $ on babysitters.
Then one night when I was awakened by a hungry baby, I sat in my rocking chair nursing and I cried. I prayed, “How do I find you like I used to, God? I need more than this.” Then I suddenly heard God whisper deep into the depths of my broken heart, “Thank you for feeding me.”
It was like a spiritual explosion in my heart, a revolution, a whole upturning of my distorted worldview. God was there, appearing in the dark of night, in my house, in my nursing child, in my domestic vocation, in the present moment. And my longing for intimacy with Jesus suddenly seemed wrapped in dirty diapers and dishes and rare dates out with my husband. After that night, I saw that church life and my me-prayer — still very important to me! — were to be servants of my life outside of church. That my home was my first church. Now I always say, and my charismatic friends laugh, that saying prayers before meals or bedtime with my children has become my new mysticism, and shopping for groceries at Walmart, my new mission trip.
That last comment — so perfectly stated! — sparked my own reflection on what is so unique to the spirituality of the laity. Any spirituality that is proposed to a lay man or lay woman must cohere with the specific demands of their unique personal vocation, so that the mother encounters Christ principally in her hungry children, the husband in his exhausted wife, the plumber in his leaky pipes, the politician in her courageous stand against injustice, the teacher in his unruly students, the patient in her fearful sickness, the musician in his inspired composition, the citizen in her vital involvement in community activities, the soldier in his military service.
“He was counted among the transgressors” Isaiah 53:12
The other example was from a high school teacher I will call for the sake of anonymity, “Mr. M,” who had, for nearly two decades, specialized in reaching troubled students whose home lives were characterized mostly by chronic instability or some form of (usually emotional) abuse. He came to a re-awakening of his Catholic faith several years ago, and now has what George Weigel would call an “evangelical Catholic” faith — lively, explicit, verbal, joyful, Jesus-centered and unashamed. He told me that he had always felt close to a “generic God” in his work with his students:
Even before I got into my Catholic faith, I met God every day in the faces of my students. It was like He was there with me, or in me, using me to get through to them, to give them hope and help them to believe in themselves; that God had a plan for them. And He sued them to get to me! One day, a student said to me, ‘I know you’ve got God, Mr. M; where do you go to church?’ At first I didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t go anywhere. But then I just spontaneously said, ‘Here.’
As he thought more about this when he went home, he felt a personal challenge from God through his students, so he decided he would go back to his childhood Catholic parish and reconnect with his faith. He got involved in a Bible study filled with charismatic Catholics, “and,” he said, “I was a committed Catholic whose generic God became Jesus Christ.”
But it’s the last part of his story that, for me, shed the most light on the lay vocation:
The hardest thing for me was to find a way to connect the God at school with the God I found at church. The God at school wasn’t “religious” — He was informal, rough, messy, dirty, rebellious, hanging out behind the school after hours, crying out for love. The God at church was religious, neat, clean, orderly, hiding crying babies in a glassed-in room and doling out love.
Then one day when I was sitting in my pew after Mass to pray, I looked and I looked and I looked longer at the crucifix over the altar, and I at once realized that He was one and the same God, at church and at school — religious and irreligious, orderly and messy, clean and dirty, gentle and rough, and surrounded by his immaculate Mother and a rabble of rebellious sinners and unfinished disciples. On the Cross Jesus was crying out for love, and doling out love. Both. He’s the God of Both.
Healing our Land
Now, if we could share this vision out into the Church and let it catch fire! What if a large portion of Christ’s faithful suddenly found themselves devastated to discover that Christ is absolutely everywhere and in every circumstance of life, lovingly assailing them with His saving presence! We might begin to heal the tragic schisms between heaven and home, oratory and office, cathedral and classroom, Mass and the mechanic’s shop, angelic choirs and jazz concerts, ciboria and soup bowls; between God and the world He created good from the beginning. Assail us thus, O Christ!