Warning: here I will rethink past thoughts, rehash points I’ve already made on old posts and allow my thoughts to sail about without an obvious place to land. But hopefully my thoughts will shed some light on an important question for those who find it interesting. It’s become, along with my work on St. John of the Cross, the new passion of my theological work.
I had a very fruitful conversation the other day with a theologian friend of mine about my recent musings on “the spirituality of the laity.” We were talking about a really interesting book I happened on this Fall, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher, that spurred me on to new thoughts regarding lay holiness. Our conversation centered around the question, “From whence will come the spiritual literature that captures the uniquely secular character of the journey to lay holiness that the Second Vatican Council proposed?”
The Church in the World
We were talking specifically about the need for a spiritual literature for people who don’t work for church-affiliated institutions (like me), who don’t intentionally separate themselves from broader secular culture into church-affiliated, but rather who live in the midst of the mixed-bag world of work and community and culture as fully engaged faithful citizens. These people find their Catholic connection in local parishes and its various sub-communities, and have to discover their unique path to holiness sunk deep within religiously diverse, un-religious or irreligious contexts. They’re fully immersed in the secular, temporal realities of marriage and family life, are invested in their local cultures and communities, are hard at work in their diverse secular careers, finding themselves very much at home in the secular world even as they willingly suffer the dissonance that comes with being salt, light and leaven in the world. In the world is where they are called by God to be, and as they experience a profound deepening of their faith they must have ready at hand a spirituality and a faith community that inspires and supports their vocation to remain where they are, planted deep in the messy and complex secular world, in the midst of temporalities, there to grow to the heights of holiness.
They must not, we argued, have offered to them a lay spirituality that tempts them think they must to quit, loathe or be indifferent to the spiritual value of their secular jobs, withdraw from all non-Catholic community involvement, get involved only in church activities, and so on. Though some of the laity are certainly called by God to do such things, most are not, and to make “flight from the world” or “church mouse” approaches to the spiritual life look more attractive, more holy or more ideal is to give laity who are called to secularity the clear impression that a life of faith lived robustly deep in the midst of the world is necessarily a lesser, compromised path to holiness than the clericalized/monasticized/ecclesiasticalized path. These laity who are called by God to saintly secularity, who are the majority of Catholics, should, rather, be described as Pope Pius XII described them: the Church on the front lines. They are the ones who “take it on the chin” for Christ as He labors in, with and through them to consecrate the world to the Father. They are the Church that Pope Francis desires to see alive and well:
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).
It’s spiritual vision proposed in a number of lay-oriented Catholic movements that have long inspired the secular lay apostolate, e.g. Saint Josemaría Escrivá’s Opus Dei, Chiara Lubich’s Focolare Movement, Legatus, the Knights of Columbus.
Who Will Write for Us?
My friend and I, after wading through these thickets of thought, sketched a proposal for creating fresh iterations of such a “secular saint” spiritual literature. We agreed that since very few of these “fully immersed in the world” saints will actually write a “way of perfection” autobiography or develop a unique spiritual doctrine that emerges from within their lived experience, they need informed biographers and scribes who are sufficiently fascinated with lay holiness, and who are able to theologically reflect on its unique genius, to set out its particular patterns of perfection, its distinct modes of prayer, vocational discernment and Christian virtue. We need what Roger Scruton called “voyeurs of holiness” who can share what they have seen and heard of these saints who are mostly hidden away in the world, and offer literature that empowers/inspires others who have been called along the same path.
I must say that as I thought later of the many types of theologically-minded biographers and scribes who could describe and analyze their holy sightings, I thought first of parish priests who are offered the privileged opportunity to catch an intimate, up-close-and-personal glimpse of God’s people at work consecrating the world. But it’s only those shepherd priests who love their sheep enough to share their smell, and who love the lay vocation as much as they love their own priestly vocation, who can offer to the Church a vivid view of how Christ’s faithful men and women in every walk of life, fully immersed in the world’s joys and sorrows, can and do become holy, scaling the heights of holiness. Men like a priest I know who never tires of sharing with me the stories of remarkable everyday people in and around his parish who “wow” him with their ability to find and bring Christ into the nooks and crannies of their corner of the world. When he sees them at Mass, he says, it fills him with joy to know that all of those unsung lives are brought to him that he might then bring to Christ who in turns sings of them before the Face of the Father. I’ve told this priest he must write of what he’s seen!
Four Lived Witnesses
Let me conclude with four offbeat, real-life examples that at least touch on this points I’ve tried to make here. Then I will leave you at the end with a Steven Curtis Chapman song.
First, I heard a homily this past Fall by a retired missionary priest who was reflecting on the life of prayer. He quoted the Catechism #2672, “there are as many paths of prayer as there are persons who pray” and made an interesting point. He said,
Although it’s true that there are basic elements of prayer that all Catholics share, we should not think that there’s only one good way to pray. While contemplative nuns are asked to pray for hours and hours every day, busy moms have to work hard just to find time when they can and where they can — maybe in the bathroom or locked in a closet for 10 minutes! And while nuns might pray about deep spiritual thoughts, moms will probably pray mostly about their children or husband or someone else who falls under their watchful eye. Dads might offer to God throughout the day their problems at work. I had an Aunt who was the holiest person I ever knew, and she became holy by constantly praying novenas for other people. The key is that you pray, that you let God in on your world and that prayer seeps into the shape and rhythm of your day to day life.
Second, there was a gentleman I knew in Florida whom most would label an “angry old man.” And he was. But when you got to know him well, you saw something different. He worked in a machine shop, was a man of deep faith, active in the Knights of Columbus, and he was keenly aware of his own shortcomings and his problems with anger. And if you knew his life story, you’d totally get the roots of that anger. He confided to me one time after I had given a lecture back in 1998 on St. Teresa’s Interior Castles,
That’s inspiring stuff, but way beyond me. Tom, for me to hold my tongue even once from a sarcastic bite is probably equal to the fortitude needed by a saintly priest facing martyrdom. Life’s made a storm in me, and only God’s mercy, my saintly wife and my brother Knights make me able to live with myself. I always say to men who struggle with their weaknesses, “All God asks is that you take the next best step.” And since that’s all I’ve got to offer God, I can only hope he’s pleased.
Third is a story I’ve already posted on — about a mother of three older children who shared with me her amazing witness from her days as a young mother (as ever, in Neal-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.
The final example includes some deep questions and struggles that undoubtedly arise for “ordinary” lay faithful who really do wish to take a next-best-step. This woman’s questions beg for a literature that speaks to her unique place in God’s manifold economy of grace. She wrote an email to an Orthodox priest in which she lays out with great honesty and power some complex conundrums that many who want to be faithful will, no doubt, identify with. And her email begs not only for a suitable spiritual literature that informs the lay vocation, but also asks for a new hagiography that equals in volume and passion the vast and rich hagiography of clerical, religious and third order lay saints that constitute most of our spiritual tradition. The next thousand years will, please God, give rise to that literature!
Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths, and, yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they’re also holy from their childhoods. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they have been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice and never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged.
If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain, while others go sailing up. Even in his human life, Jesus had his favorites: Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Peter, James, and John, who were the only ones of the apostles allowed to witness the Transfiguration, while the rest of the apostles were left out with the rest of the schmucks.
Our churches are full of ordinary people who chatter in the communion line and quibble over petty parish issues as if their lives depend on them. Why aren’t they being showered with the kind of grace that made St. Seraphim of Sarov or St. Sergius of Radonezh? Serial killers have no conscience. In most cases because their parents abused it out of them. What chance did they have?
St. Lucy was protected in the brothel, but unaccounted little girls are trained by their own fathers to be sexual accessories. A life of virginity was never a choice that they could make, as their chastity is torn from them by the very one whose job it is to protect it. I grew up in an alcoholic family. I never learned how to trust the people I can see and do talk to me, much less a God I can’t see and doesn’t talk to me. I’m not asking why evil things happen. Evil things happen because there are evil people doing them. What I’m asking is: why does God make people who don’t have a snowball’s chance on a hot plate of having a kind of relationship with God that the Church teaches we’re all supposed to have?
We’re all supposed to be saints, but there aren’t any examples for ordinary people who don’t have the option of abandoning their spouses and children and running off to a monastery or into the desert. We’re lucky if God answers a prayer for something ordinary, like “Help one of our young adult children find a job,” much less something extraordinary like a prayer for physical, mental, or emotional healing for a friend or a family member. We stumble along doing our best, and then we’re told, it’s dangerous to want a closer relationship with God. The devil can use that to lead us into delusion. For Pete’s sake, can we win for losing?
Where’s the totally ordinary lay woman, married to a lay man, who gets to have anything like a relationship with God? I keep trying, but I haven’t even had a moment of sweetness, just ordinary sweetness, in prayer, for 15 years. Heaven is silent, and I certainly don’t have anything I could even call a relationship with God. And people like me are the majority, stumbling along in the rocks at the foot of the mountain, no hope of ever ascending. Is God too busy with the few he really likes to bother with the rest of us? I know you’re a very busy man, but I’d really appreciate it if you would answer this, if it even can be answered. Thank you, if you have read this so far.
So much more to say here, but I must stop as I have run out of time and I’ve way over-passed my usual word limit. But when has word limit ever limited me?
Now, listen here (you must be on my blog to view!):