Anyone who reads this Blog knows that I am passionate about the lay call to holiness in the secular world. How many lay Catholics are aware that serious sanctity awaits them right where they are, in the midst of worldly cares? When the lay faithful are evangelized, catechized, sacramentalized and sent out into the world embracing their unique call to perfection, a fresh communion of thoroughly secular lay saints can be canonized for their genius:
Laicis indoles saecularis propria et peculiaris est, “What is proper and peculiar to the laity is their secular genius.” — Lumen Gentium #31
Vatican II proposed as a most effective response to atheistic secular humanism a Christian humanism that is thoroughly secular, i.e. one that affirms created, “worldly” goods as essential to human fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. Much of our historic spiritual tradition is built around a vision of holiness appropriate to consecrated religious and clerical states of life, severely marginalizing the importance of engaging secular reality. But the Council sought to restore the rightful place of the “secular” by locating the world, and its myriad temporal concerns, at the very heart of the lay vocation to holiness. As Bl. Paul VI once said,
And it is in this sense that the Church, and especially the Catholic laity, confer a new degree of consecration upon the world, not by bringing specifically sacred and religious signs (although in certain forms and circumstances the latter are also desirable), but by coordinating it to the kingdom of God by carrying on the secular apostolate through faith, hope and charity. “Qui sic ministrat, Christo ministrat”; he who serves his neighbour in this way, serves Christ, as St. Augustine says in one of his noble pages. It is holiness, that spreads its light over the world and in the world. This is, or rather may this be, the vocation of our times.
Such a vision of a world-consecrating laity fully immersed in secular concerns gives rise to a spirituality not content with mere negations, providing strategies for avoiding “worldly temptations,” important as this can be. Like Christ, who has redeemed the world on a cross outside the Temple walls, the layperson intentionally abides in the midst of the world’s secular affairs while working “for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (LG #31). Or, as Lumen Gentium #38 has it, the laity “must be to the world what the soul is to the body.” The laity belong in the heart of the world. But in order to be the world’s “soul,” laity require a spirituality that empowers them to be fully alive as Christ’s disciples in the world. “In the world, but not of the world,” they can enliven culture and society around them by infusing social and cultural realities with a thoroughly Catholic vision of life precisely because they have internalized that vision. Catholic social teaching, which is all about how one “does the world” according to the mind of Christ, thus becomes for each of the lay faithful their “Way of Perfection.”
Lay holiness finds its home, in a particular way, in the midst of human culture. To engage human culture in society, with all of its constitutive institutions, is the privileged means to intimate union with Christ for the lay faithful. By cultivating a truly Christian culture, which is a truly human culture, the lay saint extends the Incarnation of God into every aspect of life. Engaging the social, economic, political, legal, educational, agricultural, business world with the mind of Christ, calling down the Spirit on every moment of one’s day, consecrates the secular world itself to God.
But what does the the Incarnation have to do with secular culture? When God became flesh in Christ, he did not just assume a human body and soul, but drew into his divine life the whole world that was his “home” as a Jew living under Roman occupation. In Jesus, it was God Himself who worked, cooked, ate, slept, sang, danced, laughed, played, walked, argued, learned, taught, wore clothing, developed friendships, cried, suffered and engaged in every other aspect of human culture. All of that worldy “stuff” was, so to speak, swept up into God’s life and became part of the “divine culture” that subsists in the Trinity. (Pause: that thought requires me to catch my breath) Then, at Pentecost, Christ’s Spirit gave birth to the Church (us!) and offered to the whole culture of mankind the opportunity to be taken up into Christ’s Body. In Christ’s mystical Body culture is transfigured and redeemed in and through Christ’s faithful, we who are joined to Christ in Baptism.
Further, I would argue that the Eucharist itself proclaims this divine plan in a most striking way. What is it that the Holy Spirit transubstantiates in the Mass? Artifacts of human culture, bread and wine! In the Eucharist the gifts of human culture, the work of our hands, are taken up into the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. Therefore, Holy Mass teaches us, engaging human culture, or any aspect of temporal reality, can never be seen for Christ’s faithful as a spiritually neutral act. As cultural beings, culture is for us a unique sacramental medium for entering into transforming union with God in Jesus. And the laity, in a way “genius” to them, embody a distinctive “cultural mysticism” which permits no aspect of secular life to escape the influence of God’s sanctifying Spirit.
There are cultural mystics all around us, mostly hidden, who become Christ’s hands, feet, smile, heart in the world…