I have been for months trying to compress in a short statement the soul of the Second Vatican Council’s revolutionary call to the Catholic laity to make their own the full fury of the Eternal Trinity’s roaring call for them to become culture-shaping public and domestic (but not domesticated!) saints, arsonists igniting the secular world with the seething fires of divine truth, goodness and beauty. I think I may have found my highly compressed statement today.
It comes from mid-twentieth century American Catholic novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor who, in explaining her consistent choice to write about Protestants instead of her fellow Catholics, commented,
Religion-obsessed Protestants express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch…To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join a convent and are heard from no more, whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head.
That’s it. Those who are called to live the lay vocation are called to live it with the same “intensity of belief” as the monks and nuns who renounce the world with stark clarity in order to redeem it through their unmeasured love of its Creator. In fact, that is a great gift of religious life to the laity: a visible herald of the intensity of belief all are called to.
This gives lie to what a student once said to me,
I always assumed that to be really radically holy as a Catholic meant priesthood or religious life, and that the lay calling was for those who decided to “settle,” to compromise somewhat with the world and accept an accommodated form of sanctity.
For Christians, in the final analysis, to be really “radical” in holiness only means one thing: Receiving and practicing God’s no-greater-love manifest on the Cross. It’s not the vocation itself that’s more radically holy, but the love with which one responds within the vocation God has given.
The laity, wandering about in the world, cause all sorts of trouble for the world by calling it back, with a Prophet’s divine immediacy, to its original dignity, truth and goodness, i.e. put skin and bones on the Church’s exquisite social teaching.
While retaining the God-willed role of monks and nuns in the Church, if those called by God to be laity practiced this “Protestant principle” of being wildly on fire with nowhere to go but to wander about the world as moms and dads, artists and politicians, car mechanics and librarians, home-bound seniors and unruly teens, we just might give Jesus a little of what he asked for:
I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! — Luke 12:49