Lay Geniuses, Part III

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[Alas, the third and final installment! Apologies for any and all grammatical issues as I had no time to edit]

There are two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that they fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world … The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world. By practicing honesty in all their dealings they attract all to the love of the true and the good, and finally to the Church and to Christ. They fulfill their mission by fraternal charity which presses them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and hopes of all people, thus quietly preparing others for the workings of saving grace. — Christifidelis laici

When my wife and I lived in Brandon, Florida, we came to know a man who lived in central Florida and was very involved in an inner city outreach to youth who had run away from home to join street gangs. He had reverted to his Catholic faith about five years before we met him. He worked for a fairly large consulting firm and was married with three children. He said to me that before his personal conversion, he was like most guys his age: worked hard, played hard, drank hard and was willing to cut moral corners when it served his interests. He shared with me his remarkable faith journey story, and gave me permission to share a few parts of that story in my teaching work. I will share a small portion of one of those stories here because it so perfectly illustrates my point. I’ll call him Simon.

Only days after his life-changing spiritual awakening, Simon was at work. It was break-time and, as was the custom at the end of a weekend, his male co-workers gathered to talk about their weekend adventures. “The day had come,” he said, “when, even though I knew I was a different man inside, I now had to call up the courage to go public and face the heat.” His co-worker buddies began to engage in what was previously his favorite part of this Monday morning tradition: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories”, i.e. they would each take turns sharing explicit details of sexual experiences with hook-ups, girlfriends or even their wives. He said it was a combination of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked. Then he said a simple prayer to himself, “Help me God.” He decided in that moment that, instead of condemning the practice, he would just tell a story about his wife to honor her. Nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly. One guy said, “What the hell man. That’s a f-ing downer. What’s up with that?” He said he tried to (very awkwardly) share his recent experience of God. A few of the guys responded with mild ridicule and a few “Jesus-freak” comments. But one of the guys came up afterward and asked him in private, “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?” That coworker eventually became Catholic. Soon after this experience, the Monday morning group stopped meeting. And over two or so years, the influence of these two men brought about a culture change within the firm.

It’s dangerous to speak the mind of God into the City of Man, especially in our post-Christian culture that has declared the Christ and His Church to be mentally ill. But Christians are martyrs at heart and, in their finer moments, have always been the world’s greatest risk-takers — willing to chance being labeled by the world as a fool in order to lead that world back to God. All the gifts of grace and nature, of Sacraments and Scripture, of Religious and clergy are at the service of birthing Christian men and women who live their faith on the front lines, outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing Christ into culture. For these secular saints, holiness emerges from their wholehearted and Christ-minded engagement in civic life, culture, business, economics, education, politics, science, technology, the armed forces, agriculture, marriage and family life. These serve as the altar on which they offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God for the life of the world (Rom. 12:1).

The Church needs secular saints whose vibrant life of prayer, participation in the Sacraments and in the Church’s communal life throws them back out into the secular world as their native place of flourishing. We need secular saints ready to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world, saints who flip over every bushel basket to expose the light of Christ in the darkness. We especially need young people falling deeply in love with Jesus, who find their hearts burning to be the social, political and cultural movers and shakers. The Church’s evangelizing strategy has always been to send out culture-making “creative minorities” who are capable of effecting local transformations that feed into broader cultural revolutions. In the past, most of these have been clergy and Religious. But now the Church, kindled by the Spirit, says with special urgency to the lay faithful: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) by “doing the world” God’s way with that genius that is specifically yours.

The Church’s sacred ministers must help lay men and women in this vocational discernment and encourage them to persevere in their very challenging secular mission. These laity must come to see that their mysticism is not world-fleeing but thoroughly incarnational, wrapped up in God’s self-emptying entry into the ordinary world of family and culture, trade work and play. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings.” These words of the Council set out a spiritual vision for the lay faithful that they might be fully aware that, for them, union with Christ comes about by means of their radical solidarity with the world.

Only a laity invested with this vision of the spiritual life can possibly serve as wellsprings of a new culture and civilization. Only secular saints can give rise to new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salesmen, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors and nurses, new digital evangelizers, each of whom excel in their respective field while being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.

To be a secular mystic
is to see the intimate bond
between the board room and the indwelling Trinity;
between the bedroom and the Eucharistic Liturgy;
between taking out the trash on Wednesday morning
and taking up the Offertory on Sunday morning;
between harvesting grapes and thumbing rosary beads;
between tailgate parties and the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Without this vision,
one will never discover the way of perfection
in real life,
wherein God lurks in the dust and in the fire.
Secular mystics
must embrace this inextricable bond
if they are to see the glory that fills heaven and earth.
Here abides a most extraordinary truth:
in Christ God made the most
mundane, secular, worldly activities
His own; divinized them
and rendered all of them capax Dei,
“capable of God.”
Learning to love the world with the God
who so loves the world
is the key to lay sanctity.

Secular geniuses set the world free to be itself. The Church must be fiercely dedicated to inspiring the lay faithful become these secular mystics, to become Christ’s Body speaking all languages, living in all states of life, mastering all cultures. These world-wise Catholics stand ready to dialogue with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.

But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to promote this absurd idea that the really serious, converted and faithful Catholic must dwell in sacristies and sanctuaries, always doing religious things, and are only really “working for God” if they are doing ministry. When we indiscriminately encourage the lay faithful to abandon their worldly careers, secular interests, secular ties or, most terrifying of all, their marital and family priorities, we renounce the mission of the Church given by Jesus. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries and religious practices are always to be seen as servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way.

Let me end this obscenely long reflection with a final story.

I had a conversation with a young Catholic student at Florida State University that he graciously allowed me to pass on. He once mentioned to me that after his conversion to Christ he felt guilty and dirty every time he did anything that wasn’t religious or churchy. He said:

I feel like I always have to be doing church stuff to feel like I’m close to God. I mean, I totally enjoy all those things, but I feel schizophrenic. I feel like every time I do something outside of the religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with my non-religious friends or talk about sports or other secular stuff I feel like I’m somehow settling for less. I mean even if I’m not really doing anything wrong I still feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it. It feels like religious and secular things are oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s world-stuff. It’s like life after a bad divorce. Everything seems tainted by the split.

I told him that his previous lifestyle that involved sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had saddled him with a long and hard journey ahead. Fusing faith with a dis-integrated moral character is hard work, and I told him he’d have to endure lots of purifying grace from God that would require years of persevering struggle. But I also told him that is what would make him a great saint! But I also told him that if he continued to embrace this divided worldview he would always feel caught in an unresolvable conflict, and that if he remained stuck there too long he would be mightily tempted to abandon the faith, to become lukewarm or try to hide from the world and isolate. He went on to finish his pre-med work and is now in medical school. And he has persevered, thanks be to God.

19th century English Poet Charles Swinburne famously decried what he saw as a bloodless, world-hating Christian vision of life, saying of Christ:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…

We must belie that accusation and become artists who reveal the infinite colors God has given to the world. We must be the apologia for Pope Benedict’s words, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.” We Catholics go to Mass, pray the rosary, go on pilgrimages, spend holy hours in church, become involved in ministries, talk about God just as we read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, go to a movie, feed the hungry, play cards with our kids, tinker with the car, go hunting, play pool, cultivate excellence in our professions, learn to dance, enjoy sports, read a good novel, make love to our spouse and sip a glass of Chianti with a friend while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter. And all the while talking about the world. All these things precisely because we are called to be holy, and make the world so, too.

It all matters, as Steven reminds us:

One comment on “Lay Geniuses, Part III

  1. Jennifer says:

    Millet’s “L’Angelus” is my absolute favourite painting. It is so evocative of transcendent hope that pierces toil. It is a glorious refrain that strains your glance upward out of drudgery of desperation. It so perfectly captures the final line of the mystery of this haunting prayer itself “pour forth we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection through this same Christ, Our Lord.” By grace, through the passion and the cross, brought to the glory of Resurrection. All utterly reliant on Him. It heroically shows the resilient faith of ordinary people. Praying it thrice daily is my fall-back when I can’t see through the fog.

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