"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, March 17, 2008

Redeeming secularity

When I'm feeling more desperate than usual, I like to re-read Jean-Pierre de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence, a spiritual classic available in a range of editions and translations. In one of them, the work is entitled The Sacrament of the Present Moment. I cannot recommend that volume highly enough; on me, a careful reading has the effect of calming my silly fears and inducing me to rest in God's love. Beyond circumstances, what's brought it to my mind again is a marvelous post of the same title by Fr. Steven Freeman. That post has also set me pondering anew a seemingly intractable problem I've always had with being a layman in the world. The problem has a simple solution, to be sure. But the simple solution is by no means easy.

Ever since I made a more-or-less adult commitment of faith, I haven't wanted in my heart to be a layman at all. As a high-school senior, I resolved internally to become a philosophy major in college as preparation for the seminary. Of course I didn't tell that to my parents or teachers, because I didn't think the resistance I could expect if I did would be a price worth paying. It was the Catholic Church in the 1970s, after all. I had been sexually abused by a priest a few years earlier; still more to the point, priests and religious had been bolting in droves, and the faithful remnant was openly indisposed to encourage the young to plunge themselves into the mess. It didn't get any better once I got to Columbia. Most of the priests I met were progs who didn't think me prog enough; the rest were either trads who didn't think me trad enough, or just plain didn't care. My disgust caused me to flirt seriously with Orthodoxy before I fell in with a crowd of older, lay Catholic intellectuals. As I neared graduation, the few vocation directors willing to hear me on the merits neither offered nor suggested spiritual direction to help me with the discipline of celibacy. They were rather keen, however, on reminding me that I had to repay my college debt before any of them would consider me. I ended up getting married. I had concluded that that was what God wanted for me, as distinct from what I had wanted for myself. And who was I to complain? I now had a wife who loved me; and I loved her back, in my own immature way.

The question for me then became: how could I do some sort of "ministry," my chief and indeed only abiding occupational interest, as a married Catholic man? I had committed myself to a state in life in which earning a certain level of income was likely to be far more important than how I earned that income. I did not relish that part of marriage and family. Still, I was fortunate in being married to a woman who understood me and facilitated, in every way, my arduous trek through the doctoral program in philosophy at Penn. And despite using NFP to conceive a child, we did not conceive, only adopting a baby privately after ten years of marriage. For that decade, I had had the luxury of avoiding the question how to earn a respectable living. I taught part-time as an adjunct and did some paid freelance writing. My scope for self-indulgence was such that I even got to run for Congress in 1988. The downside was that I also got to remain a superannuated adolescent. Some of that resolved itself naturally after I got my PhD and began teaching full-time in Catholic institutions. But soon enough, choices I made in response to stressful events destroyed all that. I'm now twice-divorced, tethered to paying child support. That has only raised the question of "ministry" anew for me. And I have yet to resolve that question. I still don't want a secular "career" any more than I ever did. I want a vocation focused on the only matters in which I have an abiding interest for their own sake: those having directly and explicitly to do with the truths about God derivable from both natural reason and his own self-revelation. Indeed, I'm such a Catholic nerd that I have a very hard time understanding why most intelligent, orthodox Catholics don't want the same for themselves.

When I've discussed this with people close to me, including the occasional spiritual director, the responses I've gotten are remarkably similar. They point out that most Christians, including most good and holy Christians, are neither clergy nor theologians. They point out what that entails: most of us can and ought to serve God well in the course of ordinary human life, without being clergy or theologians. They cite the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to remind me that I can be a "priest" in that generic sense in which all Christians are called to be priests. They gently remind me that I have no good reason to think myself too good or special for that. And of course they are right. I have no rebuttal to offer. But my heart does not change; my real interests and aspirations remain as they are, which is what they have always been. I pursue my real interests in my spare time; this blog is a part of that. I look on my unfulfilled aspirations as a sign from God that his work-in-progress known as Mike Liccione needs a lot more work in order to be credible again in something called "ministry."

But, the voices ask, what if I'm just still not "getting it?" Fr. Freeman's meditation poses the challenge starkly:

The Eucharist reveals Christ to us. But as Fr. Alexander Schmemann always noted, the Eucharist not only reveals Christ to us, it also reveals the true nature of creation to us. Bread can no longer be the same if Christ has taken it and made it His body. It is always possible, indeed it has already happened, that we build a fence around that sacred moment and confine it to the liturgy itself. Outside the service, everything returns to “normal and ordinary,” and the Orthodox become as secular as every Christian around them. This is a denial of the Orthodox faith. God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” thus there is no “normal and ordinary,” no “secular.” Everything is changed. There is no eating of bread that is not a communion with God. There is no encounter with a tree that is not an encounter with the hard wood of the cross, the “weapon of peace.” In Jeremiah (23:23-24) we read:

Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD.

We do not have a “neutral zone” where we live apart from God. Instead, we have zones of ignorance, where believing Christians live as unbelievers, awaiting their next attendance at a “God permitted” zone. No, the truth is that God has united Himself not only to humanity in the incarnation, but to matter itself. Man is the “microcosm” according to the Fathers, a “little cosmos” in himself. This is most fully and completely true in Christ, who has truly summed up the cosmos within Himself. Thus we look forward to the redemption and resurrection of the whole created order and not just man (Romans 8).

Thus we are never separated from God who is freely with us, but also giving Himself to us in everything around us. This is no profession of pantheism. God has not become everything else. But everything else holds the possibility of encounter with God as surely as the holy water within the Church or every sacrament He has given us. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

In the combox to another post, Fr. Steven tells one reader something that he could just as well tell me:

The church doesn’t miss out on having any of us as priests. If I die tomorrow the Kingdom of God will continue to exist. The only priesthood is that of Christ. My merely human talents add nothing to the Church whatsoever. The treasure within us is the gift of God. Seek God first, don’t worry about the priesthood. It is the priesthood of Christ you need to encounter.

Well, yes. There is no "neutral zone" for a Christian. For those who stay the course of sanctification, all is holy, all is redeemed. So, the challenge I confront is to encounter the "priesthood of Christ," and join myself to it, without being able to spend the bulk of my time dealing explicitly with the things that priests and theologians, as such, deal with. I really don't experience that encounter subjectively, but I acknowledge it happens whenever I offer myself, my actions, and my sufferings to the Lord in complete detachment from everything but him and his commandments of love. Perhaps that's all there is to becoming his priestlings once we leave the church building with the Body of Christ in our bellies. I suppose there isn't much alternative anyhow, if I am to be immersed in our world's secularity, spending the bulk of my time and energy pretty much as most people do.

But that's still not my heart. I still have to force myself to thank him for being put on such a path. Which means I'm not really grateful. Which means I'm not really offering my heart. And what does that do to my own priesthood as a believer? I'd rather not think about that. Of course the solution is simple: "Say yes, joyfully." Alas, easier said than done. My prayer this Triduum is to be shown a way out of the box I'm in. I can only hope that's the right prayer.

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