…Conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing… and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:3-4). It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems and in offering ourselves to God “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable” (Rom 12:1). At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude. Even now we are journeying towards the sabbath of eternity, the new Jerusalem, towards our common home in heaven. Jesus says: “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all. — Laudato Si
That paragraph sent me into a lengthy lectio reflection on a subject dear to my theological heart: the earthly character of the lay vocation. Why? Because it reminds us that the Christian vision of salvation is not simply “of souls,” but of bodies that inextricably link us to a vast universe that “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19).
The below text was excerpted from an email I sent last year to a student who asked me about how the world-focused character of the lay vocation can truly be considered “spiritual.” The email was written in haste, is informal and untidy, but most of what I write — and my life! — is like that anyway.
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…You say, “it seems to me that the spiritual world is our real destiny, so a vocation that makes worldly stuff the focus just makes an obstacle to getting where we’re supposed to be putting our hearts’ focus — right? We’re aiming for heaven and not earth, aren’t we?”
…heaven, or “the new creation” as it’s called be St. Paul, isn’t simply a new and improved product God fashioned to supersede the old, obsolete version we screwed up. Rather, from the very beginning this “old” creation was destined to be fulfilled, perfected, transfigured, re-created in the Age to Come through us, priestly humanity created in Christ who came to make all things new (cf Ephesians 2:10; Revelation 21:5). And note, we say, “Behold, I make all things new,” and not, “Behold, I make all new things.” This is Jesus saying this, right? And those of us who are “in Christ” as His Body, and so what He does, we do with Him. If He makes all things new by His life, death and resurrection, we co-do. Our vocation as lay men and women — bound up tightly in temporal-worldly reality by God (Lumen Gentium 31) — is to consecrate this world to God by immersing ourselves in it like leaven kneaded into dough, by cultivating Eden according to the will of God, and by so doing to lift up the old creation into the new creation. Or as Gaudium et Spes 38 memorably says it, secular laity “make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs” (see also Gaudium et Spes 14). To so-love-the-world like God was really humanity’s orginal call in the beginning, but sin corrupted the process and made us not upward-offering priests but inward-turned idolaters. But God’s redeeming work in Jesus the Gardener (cf John 20:15), who reveals to us with His cross-plow the Way of cultivating creation aright, has restored to us our original vocation to co-create and co-redeem the garden of this world to ready it for the New Eden of Paradise (which btw in Greek, paradeisos, means “garden”).
…The Catechism (1120) says, “The ordained ministry or ministerial priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood.” Why? Well, in part we can say that lay “baptismal priests,” whose vocation is to “make ready the material of the celestial realm” by their world-leavening lives, rely on the ministry of Ordained priests who gather up our sacrificial “materials” we hand them in the Eucharistic Offertory (as bread, wine and alms). Acting in the Person of Christ, the Ordained minister calls down the Sprit to consecrate our offerings and translate them into the immortal Kingdom (a Kingdom built on Christ’s risen Body). All earthly treasures gained for God’s glory and placed in service to man’s salvation are thus “stored up as treasure in heaven” where they will endure for all ages to give joy to all the saints and reveal the glory of God. This should transform our view of the world from a mere “testing ground” where we prove ourselves worthy or unworthy of an unworldly heaven into a theater of redemption where we “glorify God in our bodies” (Corinthians 6:20), “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) and so, by extension, bring salvation to the whole material creation as material creation is caught up in the human body’s redemption. All creation is depending on us “priests of nature” (as St. Maximus the Confessor calls us) for its salvation (read the whole Romans 8:18-23 this way). We humans were made to give all creation its liturgical voice, verbalizing its inscribed longing to praise the Creator and Redeemer for unending ages (cf. Daniel 3:57-88!). This freaking ridiculous! And it’s why I love so much Eucharistic Prayer IV’s preface:
Father…you are the one God living and true, existing before all ages and abiding for all eternity, dwelling in unapproachable light; yet you, who alone are good, the source of life, have made all that is, so that you might fill your creatures with blessings and bring joy to many of them by the glory of your light. And so, in your presence are countless hosts of Angels, who serve you day and night and, gazing upon the glory of your face, glorify you without ceasing. With them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven as we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy…
Giving voice to every creature by lives that accord with God’s will for creation, and so praising and glorifying God on the stringed harp of natural and theological virtue. Every creature! Look outside, all around you. Our world is a Garden that God has entrusted to us and called us to cultivate and (like Abel) make an offering, growing righteous fruits that endure to eternal life (cf. John 6:27). Or maybe creation is a whole lot of “talents” God has entrusted to us to invest and gain interest on by lives of faithful stewardship (cf. Matthew 6:20). You see, the new creation is a collaborative project, a work of synergy between God and men together — all in Christ the God-Man — building up here and now together a Kingdom that is here and is to come at the end of the ages. Think of it through the lens of this popular medieval story:
Two men were hauling stones through a muddy medieval street. One was cursing and the other was singing. A traveler asked them what they were doing. The curser replied, “I’m trying to get this damned rock to roll through this damned mud!” The singer replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Christ’s lay faithful aren’t just stuck in the secular world pushing damn rocks, but are joyful celebrants of the secular liturgy building a Cathedral out of the raw materials of a sin-hardened earth which we plough, breaking up the hard clods, cultivating, planting, watering, tending, guarding, loving, caring for the innumerably precious goods of this world. Even allowing our own blood to be shed on the soil in self-sacrificing service to men to the praise and glory of God. This is the bread-baking, wine-pressing, poor-loving Eucharistic vocation of a laity, readying gifts for the Offertory of the Mass so the Ordained have something substantial to offer up for consecration. Gifts composed of lives well lived in holy and sacrificial service to God and neighbor and all creation. How differently we would see the Offertory if we believed this, and how we would fight over the privilege to “bring up the gifts” for Consecration. Lumen Gentium 34 says it perfectly:
For besides intimately linking them to His life and His mission, He also gives [the laity] a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.
When I discovered this in the 1990s, it revolutionized my view of worldly, secular, mundane, temporal realities…it all was suddenly shot through with eternal value. Gaudium et Spes 43:
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 … Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.
And the salvation of the whole of creation…