You gift us all at Mass. You give us Yourself and offer us the opportunity to give ourselves to You. So often at Mass I feel You speak to me in special ways and I feel You do this to others too. At weekday morning Masses there is this feeling of inclusiveness. For so many years I have been going to daily morning Mass in at least three, sometimes four, different churches with different congregations, different celebrants, different homilies. In any of these churches there is usually no more than 20-25 people for weekday morning Masses – sometimes as few as nine or ten.
Over time one gets to expect to see the same faces in the same pews at each Mass. I,as they do,have a certain spot I always sit in at each church and I expect they expect to see me in that pew. I look at these same (but each different) people every day. I see their piety, devotion, and faithfulness. Sometimes You speak to me through them. Maybe sometimes You speak to them through me. There is, for me, a feeling of inclusiveness among these people.
I think that at certain times and in different ways You gift people with various forms of influence upon others without them ever being aware of it themselves. How blessed I would feel if I ever thought You used me in that way! Yet it seems so presumptuous of me to think so. I believe sometimes I try too hard to be that kind of influence instead of letting You use me as You will without me knowing it.
I wish to be used by You in ways only You know.
I have been going through the essays of C.S. Lewis collected in the volume titled "Aspects of Faith." In various passages he expands his take on faith and works, and I think that it is because of what he says that my eye was caught by a simple statement of Yours found in reply to Phillip as part of Your last discourse to the apostles as found in John 14:11 “…Believe Me… or else believe the works I do…”
It struck me that as Christians we too should be able to say this at any given time. If we bear any kind of witness to You in this life we should always be able to say “Believe me, or believe my works.” As with You Yourself, if we are not given consideration by others for what we say then we should at least get it for what we do. This places a clear obligation of how we live squarely on the shoulders of every Christian.
It’s not faith alone but, as James says, without works faith is dead. If I say I believe and have faith it is easily discounted as mere words. But if, through my actions, others are able to discern my faith and belief it is hard to be refuted. That comes as powerful consolation to a person like me who believes his communion with the church on earth is best fostered by what he does than what he says. But it also implicitly suggests that the things I do become identifiably Christian. They bear witness to my following You.
As St. Francis said, “ We should preach Christ always and sometimes even using words.”
I want to write to You about why I left the seminary more than 50 years ago. I guess the reason is to help me recollect and clarify the matter. Only You know what kind of priest I would have been if I had stayed. I wonder about that myself. But, looking back, I don’t regret the decision I made. In fact, I tend to think we made that decision together.
If I had remained I think I would have been dogged by the prospect that I would have served You better as a layman. In fact, I have convinced myself that the most salient reason for my leaving was (and still is) that there is more potential influence in the exemplary life of a layman than in the life of a priest from whom we automatically expect a stereotyped brand of exemplary living. The impact upon others of a persistently spiritual and holy life of compassion, love, prayer, and kindness found in a layman – a person “in the world” – trumps the same qualities in a member of the clergy or religious because we expect those qualities in them but not so much in people just like us. When others see a welder, a doctor, a salesman, a cook, an accountant, a plumber, or a cab driver with these qualities the effect of the example, in my opinion, is magnified exponentially.
I’ve often scratched my head over the discrepancy between the number of canonized priests, nuns, deacons, brothers, monks and other religious as compared with the number of lay individuals in Butler’s Lives of the Saints. It almost seems at times that the clerical hierarchy of the church is primarily concerned about the exemplary lives of its own. If we truly tried I think we would find that the lives of many common lay people are equally if not more courageous and exemplary than many of even the canonized clergy. Again, I think it’s just because we simply expect a certain exemplary life style for clergy and religious.
So, more than 50 years ago in foresight and more than 50 years later in hindsight I wonder if, by comparison in my own life, there is truth in my decision.
My current reading includes some G.K. Chesterton. Most of what he writes is way over my head, but occasionally there is something that strikes a chord. For example, in one place he says that You, in the records we have of Your public ministry, consciously made an effort to treat many things as if they were ephemeral. In another place he makes the observation that for the most part You seemed to have often treated the Romans (particularly soldiers) better than You treated the Jews.
Let me react to each of these separately. This notion of the ephemeral makes a profound impression on me. What, indeed, in the dynamics of my life are ephemeral and what are not? If I were to make a serious effort to go through a normal day and identify each and every thing I did that day applying the question, “Is this, in fact, ephemeral?” I think I would be amazed at how nearly 100% of the answers would be “yes!”
St. Therese of Lisieux had, I think, a mature understanding of the ephemeral. She learned how to turn the ephemeral into something holy and valuable. And that’s just it! What makes an action ephemeral is its disconnectedness to intention, but not just to any intention but to a selfless intention. What You radiated to Chesterton, and what Therese learned is that there is a preponderance of ephemeral, empty, valueless activities that fill our daily lives in this world, but that almost any of them can be made non-ephemeral when done out of love for God and for the good of others. Because so much is ephemeral, what does it profit a man if he gain the whole [ephemeral] world and lose his soul? We take into the next life only what we’ve given away [non-ephemeral] in this life. So, in its simplest term, the difference is love. The dictionary definition of “ephemeral” is: ”lasting one day, short-lived, transitory.” Yet any ephemeral act can, with the right intent, become lasting and valuable; however, most of us stroll through the events of a normal day without any specific thought or intent. That’s what makes things ephemeral.
Most of the Jews of Your time considered the Romans political and cultural foes who occupied their promised land. They wished their presence to be and to remain ephemeral to their way of life. There were, of course, those whose intent was to do
more than ignore them. They leaned more toward rebelling against them. But the Romans who were so many times treated as ephemeral were treated by You with intent that showed them not ephemeral, but loved. If Chesterton gets the impression that You often treated certain Romans better than certain Jews it’s probably because of the way You lifted out of the ephemeral such people as the centurion and his servant, or the Roman who questioned You at Your trial, or the Roman occupiers about whom You told the Jews to pay their taxes and carry their luggage. You told them to give to Caesar what was due him, You forgave those who crucified You. Rome was the new Nineveh and was called by You to repent. You cared little for the political machine that was Rome but You showed Your care for individual Roman souls. What puzzled the Jews was that You did not treat the Romans as ephemerally as they did. The Jews were concerned with ignoring or rebelling against the oppression of Rome. You were concerned with individual Roman souls who were endowed with the image and likeness of God.
It is true that we will never fully comprehend the nature of God. It is true also that in our fierce desire to do so we draw from what we know to paint our picture of the divine nature, inevitably using words and images of ourselves because that’s all we know for sure.
To seek to know God is a noble aspiration, and one that should never be abandoned. It is graced by snatches of insight gifted by God Himself and based on our own individuality. This is part of the process of spiritual growth. To give up on it, to “fold,” because God is not known or understood can produce a dangerous mindset that results in a modus vivendi of “using” God as our “agent.” When no effort is made to know or understand God, He becomes used. We use Him as the One who can give us what we want. We use Him to provide ourselves with a sense of security and well-being. We use Him as our consolation against all the shortcomings of the rest of humanity. We use Him as the sure wellspring of all forgiveness. We use Him as the scorekeeper of all the “good” we do. We use Him as the friend we can always take for granted. We use Him in many ways according to the anthropomorphic picture we have painted of Him – which does not really help us much in knowing and understanding His truth.
In all of these things for which we use Him we should, indeed, if we are made in His image and likeness, at least be of the same use to others. As incarnate Son of God we must look to You to “see” God. We must look to live the way You lived, do the things You did, heed the words You spoke, and maintain the love and compassion You showed to others. In these ways we are the image of the God we know – not an objectified, pragmatic commodity we use, but as the template for life itself.
When we think about the power of example we quite naturally think of good example. We think of the example of Your life, the examples of the saints and of good people we have known. We may also think of the obligation we have to be a good example in our own lives.
What we do not often think of is the power of “negative example.” And the paradox is that it can be a powerful example for good. An attitude of "There but for the grace of God go I" seems to smack too much of the Pharisee who thanked God
he was not like other men. But it cannot be denied that there are nuggets of insight in negative examples. What do we take from watching felons, con artists, tyrants and psychopaths? The example of what we should not be is often as powerful as the example of what we should be. Even the mistakes, failures, and weaknesses of those closest to us can be insightful.
While charity, compassion, and forgiveness compel us to overlook these foibles in others, we cannot overlook them in ourselves. We can forgive what we take from the negative examples of others, but we shun what we forgive in them if it’s in ourselves.
Just as the child who learns fire is hot by getting burned, or knives are sharp by getting cut; direction, balance, and wisdom are augmented in positive ways from negative examples. We all know someone, or have a relative from whom we recognize what is positive because of their negatives. Thus it seems quite apparent that while Your life and the lives of the saints and good people are the models for our own lives, there are other sources – negative sources – upon which reasonable common sense can build.