Thursday, December 2, 2010

What's the Point?

What is the aim of our Christian life? Is it to do good works, to save ourselves, to reach “enlightenment” of some kind, or perhaps all three? Do we pray, go to church, follow the commandments and the like for our own benefit or for the benefit of others? It’s really too easy to say “both” isn’t it? Or shouldn’t we think too much about these things because the answers are beyond us?

I read an insightful and wise answer to this question recently, from an orthodox monk named Seraphim (1759-1833) who lived most of his life in seclusion. He told one pilgrim who came to him, “However prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God… [O]nly good deeds done for Christ’s sake bring us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. … Acquiring the Spirit of God is the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ’s sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God.” (On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, by Saint Seraphim of Sarov)

Two clear distinctions seem to be made here, one between doing things for others and doing things for oneself (Why should I put acquiring the Holy Spirit above helping others?), and the other between doing things simply because they’re good and doing things because they are done for and in Christ (What difference does it make why I do something good?). In each case, the more challenging answer increasingly makes more sense to me.

Doing something for others depends almost entirely on who I am and how I have fed my soul. Many is the time when simple reluctance (the sin of omission?) has prevented me from doing a clear good for someone else. Those who spontaneously help others do so, it appears, because that’s who they are and that’s what they do, or that’s how they’ve shaped themselves to be. I remember a story about Dr. Albert Schweitzer arriving at a train station in Europe to give a talk, when he was elderly and famous. Coming out of the carriage, a welcoming crowd greeted him, a band played a tune, flowers were given, and he was escorted down the platform by an entourage. On the way, he spotted a woman with a heavy load of luggage getting off the train some distance away and struggling to get it all together. He immediately extricated himself from his entourage, much to their discomfort, rushed to the woman and helped carry her luggage to the street and one of the taxis there. When asked why he did this, he said: “I’m just having my daily fun.” He was the kind of person for whom helping others brought joy. He couldn’t not have done it; it was part of his vocation, who he was. And so doing certain things for oneself – training the self, as it were, towards virtue and justice and the doing of good things – is critical for the very possibility of actually and really doing good for others. Otherwise, it’s all just a head trip. When the two, “for self” and “for others”, are in right alignment, then both have a chance of really kicking in and moving forward.

I think that it’s a similar situation with doing good things for Christ’s sake instead of some other reason, only this one goes to a deeper and less obvious level. Doing something good for another is a fine thing, and that’s that. There’s certainly nothing wrong in it. The people that stand out – perhaps the Saints, one might say – are those for whom such actions are not only natural, as was the case for Dr. Schweitzer, but also those who are clearly tapping into a deeper, less obvious reality. They’re about “more” than simple humanitarian aid, and they don’t care who knows it, or who doesn't know it. It's part of an internal equation, not an external one. They don’t pay much attention to how others might react to their deeds of goodness, except perhaps insofar as others might be drawn to Christ. Witness the usual suspects (Saint Francis, Mother Teresa, MLK, JPII, DLS, etc.) and, more importantly, unknown others that have touched our lives, such as my great-aunt in Holland, whom I only knew as a child but who is still remembered for her kindness, her giving nature, her smile, and her uncomplicated and simple holiness, absolutely fitting to who she was. We all know such people, and they’ve burrowed into our souls. They’ve shown what “for Christ’s sake” really means for them, and by their very lives they invite us to consider what we might discover/reach for ourselves if we pay attention. Take the chance to start paying serious attention to Scripture readings in church and things will start bubbling all over. No wonder Annie Dillard recommended that Christian churches install seat belts in the pews.

John Main in Silence and Stillness in Every Season writes: “In our modern world we easily forget that we have a divine origin, a divine source, and that this unifying incandescent energy of our own spirit emanates from the Spirit of God.” The Kingdom of God is within you.

One last story; I can’t resist. For the Easter play at a kindergarten, all the costumes had been passed out (soldiers, disciples, crowd, etc.) and one little boy who wanted to be soldier had no costume at all. The clever teacher said: “I know, Johnny. You can be the boulder in front of the tomb. You stand in front of the tomb, and when Easter morning comes, you rooooll out of the way.” After practicing this for several days, the day of the play came and suddenly a soldier’s costume became available. The teacher hurried to Johnny and told him that he could now play a soldier. But Johnny said that he didn’t want to play a soldier anymore. He liked being the rock in front of the tomb. When the teacher asked him why, Johnny said, “Because it feels so good to let Jesus out.”

That’s the Holy Spirit for you. And that’s the point.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts on Newman & Conscience

With the recent beatification of John Henry Newman in England, I've been reading a number of articles that highlight his writings and thoughts. These articles, unsurprisingly, have been most predominant in an English Catholic publication called The Tablet, which I personally find to be the best Catholic weekly published in English.

The part of Newman's thought that is probably most relevant today has to do with this strange piece in our makeup called our conscience; "...a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion, or impression or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others ... I am insisting ... that it commands, that it praises, it blames, it promises, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses the unseen." Pretty well put, I should think. He says that conscience is a person's own best self. Someone "has no power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it."

Vatican II and subsequent church documents likewise say that the conscience is a person's "most secret core and sanctuary ... There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths". (Try to see beyond the "he" and "him" parts of these quotations.)

One might easily mistake this notion of personalism (the firm bedrock of a person's faith on that conscience-bound, intimate relationship with God) with the notion of individualism (the more arbitrary principle that a person should be free to decide whatever he/she wishes). The current pope, in a talk before he became pope, wrote: "Precisely because Newman interpreted the existence of the human being from conscience, that is, from the relationship between God and the soul, was it clear that this personalism is not individualism, and that being bound by conscience does not mean being free to make random choices - the exact opposite is the case."

So conscience is that which drives us to be bound to the truth that lies inside, outside, and around us; the truth that really should shape the substance of who we are. As William O'Malley, SJ, said in a workshop to our religion teachers many years ago, "I try to teach my students that the tree comes to me. I don't tell the tree what it is. I let it tell me what it is." And when you think about it, that's the case also for most everything else. But there's that little thing called the ego that sort of gets in the way.

So perhaps it makes good sense that the Founder advised his Brothers not to get too involved in the religious controversies of the day, but rather to know what the church was teaching and to follow that. This may not be popular in contemporary culture, but I now see it as a pretty good bet, all things considered. Today we would say that he urged them to have an "informed conscience", based on the accumulated insight and experience of the church and the Holy Spirit active within it.

Now I know that in recent times the church hasn't enjoyed much positive press, but in a sense it was ever thus. God knows (literally) how the church as an organization has survived longer than any other human institution in history. That's got to say something, along with the fact that there is no army or police force or similar "worldly" means for exerting its authority, although other dynamics are in play. But that's another topic for another day.

All I know right now is that if conscience is as key to human integrity as others say, then it's pretty clear that one should pay attention to its care and feeding. Reading, reflection, prayer, relationships, and the like all play a part, if we want our best selves to take the lead. Real life takes work, especially the life of the soul.

We have to water that tree. (I took the above picture yesterday, as I was walking. Now I know why.)