Scribes of Sanctity

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?

Do Everything

Now, listen here (you must be on my blog to view!):

Lay saint Gianna Beretta Molla (October 4, 1922 – April 28, 1962), an Italian pediatrician, wife and mother, with her husband, Pietro Molla. See article on her husband here:

24 comments on “Scribes of Sanctity

  1. Ona says:

    Good Lord, that last one left me weeping. What an honest and heartbreaking plea. Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

  2. Pam H. says:

    Maybe in the Orthodox Church they don’t have many writers like this woman wants. But the Roman Catholic Church does. Ida F. Gorres’ life of Therese of Lisieux has nothing flowery or sugary about it. Many books of Francis de Sales’ or Claude de la Colombiere’s letters are helpful, as are authors like van Zeller, Fr. Raoul Plus, Dorothy Day, Carryl Houselander, Francois Mauriac, etc., etc., etc. The woman who wrote that last bit sounds like she may be too angry to hear some of these authors, but if you assume that they had similar problems to oneself, and strove with a good will to overcome them anyway, progress can be made. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross didn’t describe flowery, easy paths to God, nor did they live that. Mother Teresa spent 40 years without “sweetness” at prayer. My point is, the authors ARE out there. How to get people to find – and read – them?

    • Though I of course agree with you that there are authors out there in Orthodox and Catholic circles, and I agree that relatively little is done on a popular level (e.g. homilies, catechesis) to make their work known, this woman’s questions still possess great force and, in my experience, represent the underlying current of thinking in many lay Catholic minds regarding our exemplars of holiness: though they did suffer dryness, pain, darkness, they also scaled the heights of perfection, overcame trials with a martyrs’ courage, were extra-ordinary, were nuns, monks, priests, or people who abandoned secular professions to devote their lives to great causes. And THANK GOD for them! But her point seems to be, what about those who have such great limits placed on them by life that they never emerge from — traumas, physical-mental illness, broken-abusive childhoods, and so on — where do we find in our tradition their exemplars for holiness? Where are the “average folk” saints whose holiness is found in drab garb? Or for so many people who are mired in petty, shallow lives — how can we explain their non-responsiveness to all of the graces that surround them in the Liturgy and the Church, and where do they fit in the Kingdom? I don’t know if her words are more anger or just anguished “whys” that emerge from feeling incapable (as a wife, mother, lackluster pray-er, etc.) of imitating the vast majority of canonized saints whose heroism, whose un-ordinariness seems to make sanctity out of reach. It seems that two things have to happen: (1) as you say, the Church preaching-teaching must work very hard to proclaim a Gospel of sanctity that addresses this woman’s very real and very common (mis)perceptions; and (2) the Church must look, as P6, JP2, B16 did, to seek out, make known and canonize “secular saints” who are married and have conjugal relations till death parts them; who are harried parents, dads who coach baseball; men and women who work in secular professions as businessmen, politicians, actors, mechanics, computer programmers; who are single secular men and women that simply never found a spouse; grandmothers who raise their grandchildren while working 2 jobs because their son and his girlfriend turned derelict on their parental duties (that’s a woman I know, BTW!). And even if we don’t canonize them (as it is a very expensive and complex process!), at least the Church needs to (officially) gather up local-regional hagiographies that trace the many paths of holiness responsive to our own place in history and sets forth a set of exemplars that inspire the ordinary laity in diverse circumstances to faith, hope and love. We need the giants, we need canonized religious and priests, we need model lay people who exited the mainstream of secular life to speak as ecclesial prophets, but we always need new saints because holiness is always alive and well and at work in every time and place. By canonizing saints the Church recognizes herself, and the broader the canon-net the broader will be our capacity to see just how manifold is God’s grace in giving dazzlingly diverse shapes to holiness, regardless of the limits life places on each.
      Pam, your comment has given me a new initiative — encourage our catholic preachers-teachers to unveil the pearls, treasures, coins that lie hidden and demand to be found — and pray for new ones to be found by our Church in what JP2 called the third millennium: “the hour of the laity”
      God bless you.

      • Pam H. says:

        One thing I think is frequently a mistake is to assume, because someone lived in a convent or was a missionary, he or she had fewer trials than a layperson. They do often have more obvious opportunities to meet Christ, but many of the problems laypeople encounter were also encountered by these Religious canonized saints. (Do read Ida Frederika Gorres’ The Hidden Face. St Therese’s life was not so easy or obvious as it seems on reading most pious books.) And problems of temper, discouragement, etc., were very prevalent among many Blesseds and Saints, and were overcome. I know, because this is where I, a wife and mother, have found much of my hope. I do stay away from most books “about” the saints, which are almost never helpful to me. But those written BY holy men and women often are. We just have to find our favorites, and sometimes it takes awhile.

    • Pam, I think we agree. I am not dissing canonized saints who were monastics or clerics, or lay people who modeled their lives on a monastic or clerical model — they are the fiercest witnesses to facing the darkest elements of creation head on. Lay people don’t have it better or worse. Different. And the works you mention are superb, and there are many others. It’s why I affirmed your point that the Church needs to make them known, and allow a new flourishing. My point is that the secularity of the lay vocation as the Council articulated it, which was a genuine and radical development in our Tradition (not a novelty, but a real development), has given rise to a new manner of conceiving of the universal call to holiness that prophets like St. Escriva heralded so powerfully pre-Council. Like the mendicant revolution of the 13th century, this “hour of the laity” will undoubtedly give rise to a fresh iteration of the Catholic spiritual tradition every bit as revolutionary as that brought on by Sts. Francis and Dominic. A new spiritual literature reflective of this — autobiographical, biographical, hagiographical — will arise, and my point is that we need to think as a Church how to cultivate it and allow it to come into existence. We don’t have to see this as a rejection of the past any more than Aquinas Aristotelian rejected Augustine the Platonist. I really think Pope Francis is all about calling for this revolution as he wildly emphasized the Church’s social doctrine — which really IS the theology and spirituality of the secular laity. It’s awesome!!! Thanks for writing!!! Tom

  3. Pam H. says:

    Joseph Tissot’s How to Profit From Your Faults is helpful for the kind of problems described in the woman’s plea to the Orthodox priest. For fiction, Michael D. O’Brien has faults, but is still very good. Early Graham Greene is helpful. If someone is looking for contemporary books, I would say that not very much that is published IS good – and, to some extent at least, the publishing houses are to blame, but I think throughout all of history, most of what has been published was bad, even when written with good intentions, and it’s best to wait 20, 30, 50+ years for the dregs to settle and the cream to rise. Discouragement is always from Satan. Of course we need to pray for people undergoing spiritual trials. I am just pointing out authors who have been helpful. They ARE out there.

  4. I have to thank you again for these inspiring posts. I felt very called to write a piece on the laity and get it published as I’ve mentioned to you before. Unfortunately, it got rejected from every publication I tried. I thought at the time it was because I didn’t have degrees after my name nor an agent, but now I see from reading your posts that I just need to rework it and try again. I do feel passionate about this topic and have a lot of experience in this area and maybe my timing and writing capabilities were off. I would love your feedback if you don’t mind when I am finished, even though I don’t know you personally, it would mean a lot. You have inspired me greatly and given me hope. Thank you!

  5. Rosary Maker says:

    Yes, it is as important to encourage and generate spirituality in a lay vocation. The support and commitment for people to REMAIN where they are – in my opinion – is very much lacking.

    Yes, there are many books about this subject; however, we live in a world where most books are written for “dummies”. The commitment to read, much less read well and apply such books is difficult for the most dedicated much less those attempting to live out a vocation with 4 kids, a full time job and a mortgage.

    Finally, in my works with those who were born in a disadvantaged spiritual environment, I have found the sweet fragrance of holiness simply in the willingness they exhibit in trying to rise from the ashes. The act of trying in these cases frequently encourages the next and together we can know that Christ will meet us where we are and escort us to the life he desires for us all.

    • Your last point is really beautiful, your second is an excellent of this idea I am trying to get at, and the first is clearly a truism for anyone who lives as a Catholic. Thank you for deepening my thinking and sharing with others your wisdom!

  6. WoopieCushion says:

    I’ll be keeping my pen and pad close in 2014! Thank you for inspiring a worthy New Year’s..and many to come.. resolution.

  7. Jerry says:

    I have been pondering “Scribes of Sanctity” for the past 10 days. I cannot get it out of my mind.

    I am a cradle Catholic and a business owner. I have been very active in my parish for most of my adult life and I have had the benefit of having very orthodox priests and pastors in my life.

    Here is my problem. A struggle every day with a whole variety of issues which challenge my ability to live my Catholic Faith in the business world, a world which is agnostic at it’s best and anti-Christianity at it’s worst. I am dying for assistance on this, but what do I get at my parish? Homilies which deal with things too general to be helpful (“do good and avoid evil”) to immigration reform and abortion. Don’t get me wrong. I totally believe everything Mother Church teaches and I appreciate homilies which remind me of her teachings. But the Church also teaches us to live our Faith out in the world, and I am not getting any help on doing this.

    So I beg you, Dr. Neal, to pursue your inspiration to find people who can speak to those of us in the secular world.

    • Jerry — Thank you for your candid and powerful comment. I will give real thought to your comments and offer my thoughts as soon within a few days. Your struggle is what drives my theological quest to encourage an approach to preaching and teaching in the Church that stands in service to your secular vocation; which, as I said, is the vocation of the vast majority of Catholics. Thank you also for your encouragement of my pursuit. Godspeed, Dr. Neal

    • I’m not sure if you’ve read this article below, although it mostly focuses on woman, it does raise questions of lay and religious being considered to also preach from the pulpit giving a fuller dimension of the Gospel to live out in our every day lives. It’s definitely something to talk about along with more modern tactics and training for clergy on preaching. You can find this interesting article at

    • Jerry,

      I am sorry it has taken me so long to write in response. It has been on my mind since you first wrote.
      Above all, I am grateful that your wrote and expressed so clearly your conundrum – even though you have good priests who are faithful to the Church, and they preach Church teaching and remind the people of important truths, they don’t seem to preach to the real-time, real-world, gritty struggles of the laity who live and move and have their being in an increasingly anti-Christian culture. Laity who need to find spiritual nourishment that speaks to where they are, that offers strength for their labors in fields far from the safe-haven of the parish grounds and helps reveal that in the daily struggles of marriage, family, work, home, illness, unemployment, etc. Christ is calling them to become saints by making him present in the farthest corners and the darkest alleys. The people need moral guidance that meets their present circumstances, guidance that flows from a father who, as you said, knows his children’s challenges well because he knows his children up close and personal. I knew a priest in Jersey City, now deceased, who was called affectionately the “street Padre” because he would walk the streets in his inner parish territory almost daily and visit the shops, restaurants, bars and supermarkets where his parishioners worked and he would ask them how they were, allow them to talk. I would walk with him and marvel at his rapport with these people, and how they would spontaneously pour out their woes to him. What those strolls allowed him to do was craft his preaching to their circumstances, and allowed him to bring people back to church who would never dare darken a church door on their own initiative.
      I say all this knowing that, while this is no help to you per se, it’s what I am dedicated to working for in my own seminary teaching and writing: to do all I can to help these future priests/priests fall in love with the lay vocation, and come up with practical ways to translate that love into action. And you helped motivate me even more.

      Might I offer you a few reading suggestions related to your profession and your faith? See if any of them strike your fancy. And can I also recommend that you consider starting, or at least instigating, a monthly association of business owners who are Catholic, and you can use one of these books for discussion. Something like this group:

      Doing the Right Thing at Work: A Catholic’s Guide to Faith, Business and Ethics by James L. Nolan

      A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions and Insights from Catholic Teaching edited by Andrew Abela

      Business as a Calling by Michael Novak

      The Pope and the CEO: John Paul II’s Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard by Andreas Widmer

      God bless you and any help I can offer, please don’t hesitate.
      Dr. Tom

  8. Jerry says:

    My business consultant friends tell me that if you want to find out how to improve service to your customers, you need to talk to the customers and ask how you can serve them. Even better, talk to former customers and find out why they left.

    I’m not saying that the Church is a business, but I have never heard of a priest asking his parishioners for homily ideas. Actually, that is not quite accurate. I have heard many “church people” telling the pastor that he needs to deliver a strong message from the pulpit to the riff raff who show up late, are inappropriately dressed, leave early, etc. I’ve been on all the committees, so I know that the pastor is busy, but perhaps the pastor needs to talk to the riff raff to find out why they arrive late and leave early. And by “talk to,” I don’t mean send out a check-the-box questionaire. I mean really get to know them, like a father knows his children.

    Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

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