December 16, 2017

Playing the Saint

GozzoliLifSFrancisMontefalco1452

Scenes from the Life of St. Francis – Montefalco, Gozzoli

The most arresting phrase in this quote by Fr. Michel Quoist is: “You play the saint….”

When you receive a gift from a friend, you usually open the package immediately, admire your gift, indicate your approval and thank the giver. Your heavenly Father has given you many different gifts, but all too often you do not even dare to look at them and enjoy them. You play the saint and you don’t even take the trouble to be polite to the Giver. The gifts of your heavenly Father aren’t solely for your own personal use. They were given to you for others and for him as well. If you have received more, more will be expected of you. If you have anything to fear, it’s not the acknowledgement of your gifts, but your failure to use them.

• Michel Quoist
Keeping Hope

Yes, how many times and in how many ways do we “play the saint” before God and others!

We tend to think we do this, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, by practicing our acts of righteousness before others. Spiritual showing off. Talking all the time about how God spoke to me in my devotions or how I helped someone in need or give my time so freely to serve in my church. Or at least looking busy “serving the Lord.”

Not as often do we think about “playing the saint” by refusing to acknowledge and use the gifts God has given us.

Last week, Richard Rohr sent out several meditations on the subject of “orthopraxy” — the right practice of our faith. This term is usually used to distinguish it from “orthodoxy” — right belief. It is not that right belief is unimportant, but it is often separated from right practice in unhealthy ways. In addition, the relationship between the two is not always understood. Rohr puts it this way: “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”

There is much to be said for this. Jesus followed rabbinic practice with his disciples: he apprenticed them. Hearing and learning went hand in hand with doing. Indeed, doing often preceded the conversations that led to deeper understanding (or further bewilderment!). This was no school for theoretical studies; the disciples learned by doing and in the context of doing. Always. Jesus didn’t seem to care a whole lot about imparting a detailed statement of doctrines or a “philosophy” about life.

Rohr’s model, apart from Jesus, is the founder of his order, St. Francis. Francis told the first friars, “You only know as much as you do.” He took his faith and his followers on the road. Some have called this “performative spirituality,” which I think is a good designation, as long as we understand clearly: there is no other kind.

The great spokesperson for this apprenticeship, performative perspective in our day was the late Dallas Willard, whose central claim was: “We can become like Christ by doing one thing — by following him in the overall style of life he chose for himself.”

In his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard identified the reason so many of us fail to take this path: “I believe our present difficulty is one of misunderstanding how our experiences and actions enable us to receive the grace of God.”

Now, to one who was schooled in what I now consider a post-Reformation perversion of teaching about faith and works, that sounds dangerous. But as I reflect on the many, many (futile) debates I’ve had about faith vs. good works over the years, I’ve come to see that I was playing the good little “saint” while missing the point badly. God had handed me wonderful gifts waiting to be unwrapped and used to bless the world, and all I could do was come up with theological excuses as to why I shouldn’t.

As Michael Quoist said, that’s downright impolite.

Comments

  1. I’ve been coming to see how my faith must inextricably be linked to loving my neighbor (including my enemy), which in turn must inextricably be linked to loving God. The problem I have with calling that performative faith, in which I live myself into a new way of thinking, is that a certain way of thinking (which arises out of my experience and reflection) exists prior to, and leads to, the performance or living. Now, I may perform to test the validity of my pre-existing thinking, and discard or continue in it, depending on how I see it working out; but I would not even start the project of performance if thinking hadn’t led me to it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > is that a certain way of thinking exists prior to, and leads to,
      > the performance or living.

      Yes. Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy can easily descend into the same morass of hair-splitting nonsense as Law vs. Grace. I believe the key is to get rid of the “vs.” in the expression; and the key to that is to stay out of one’s head. The disposition towards compare-and-contrast worldviews inevitably turns Theology and Religion into Psychology [notably the most demonstrably ineffective of all the Sciences].

      The throught and the action can never be disentangled. Why are we constantly compelled to try? It is a fools errand.

      Personally, going from an introverted and fairly isolated life-style, to one where loving-thy-neighbor was something other than an abstract notion did require thought. But not deep profound thoughts! It required some basic cognitive arithmetic like … “Shouldn’t that mean you know their first names?”. I think the bar for approaching that goal is, for most people, very VERY low. We do not need a Theology or Psychology text book; the need is more typically for a stiff slap upside the head [certainly true speaking for myself].

      But thoughts that are held, as there will always be thoughts, shuold be the ones that are directed outward; towards Orthopraxy. Perhaps the key to Orthodoxy [correct thinking] is that it is thought principally concerned with Orthopraxy. It is a feedback loop more than it is a division.

      • My starting point is that everyone in the world, without exception, has been, and is being, redeemed by grace. Neither my faith nor my works “save” me. Having that as my starting point frees me to stop holding both my faith and my works under a microscope to examine whether or not they measure up to a divine requirement; faith is my turning in gratitude to the one who, by grace, has saved me, and works is turning to my neighbor in love, knowing that God has loved them first, and that I will be renewed by his grace among them. I’ll never earn my way, either by right thinking or right living.

        • “My starting point is that everyone in the world, without exception, has been, and is being, redeemed by grace.”

          So much, I think, of where Christians go off the rails, is in the “us vs. them” mentality that is fostered by sorting people into “saved vs. unsaved”. It causes us to look on those “outside the camp” as somewhat less than human, as somewhat less beloved by God while, at the same time, giving us an unwarranted pride in being God’s chosen people. Your starting point allows all to have equal worth and for each to be equally worth loving.

        • My starting point is that everyone in the world, without exception, has been, and is being, redeemed by grace.

          Yes…amen…I so want to believe this to be true, eager for it to be true. It seems so foreign and just can’t be right, can it?

          Grace. Thinking of that Bono quote I posted a few days ago, about karma being the default in the world and then grace coming in and overhauling everything.

          Grace. TO ALL. Not just the ones who kneel.

          That’s scandalous, isn’t it? It’s probably unique to all the world religions. Grace, redemption, available TO ALL, and not just those in the club, not just those who have been circumcised, not just those who tithe, not just those who follow the law. Grace, to all.

          That’s beautiful. That makes me want to weep. That makes me want to shout and tell all and do good works and so so so much. It actually means I can be happy in this world, that there is a God, a Father, who loves me, who delights in me, who wants to bless me, who wants to give me all health and wealth and power and everything…

          And not just to ME, to EVERYONE!! And that’s huge. But…to me. Because for too long in my life, I’ve viewed myself as unworthy. God, grant those things to others. Bless them. Give to them. I want them to be happy. Give them the house, the car, the wife, the kids, the job, the blessings. I want to see them prosper. But me? No, I won’t receive those things. I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve it. Why should I be given what someone else doesn’t have.

          Grace. To everyone. Not just to those who kneel.

          And maybe that’s why I get so angry and frustrated when Third Law, or really, most Christians, come into the conversation with a “yes, but…”

          Because grace is never enough. Grace is not alone. Sola Grace is a myth. Now you must obey the law. Not you must resist sin. Now you must live as Christ wants you to live, because you were bought with a price, you are in his debt, better start paying off the Company Man at the company store…

          But…what about grace? Doesn’t that lead to us doing all those things? Or doesn’t it?

          Grace. It’s the name of a girl…it’s also a thought that changed the world.

      • The throught and the action can never be disentangled. Why are we constantly compelled to try? It is a fools errand.

        and you can throw in “faith” in that sentence, as well. Where there is faith/trust, there is doing, and perhaps thinking, perhaps repenting. Why we must parse all these as individual truths is beyond me, except maybe to show ourselves as exceedingly brilliant, the way others are not. yeah…….. right.

        At the end of the day, it matters not a whit, unless we have faith acting itself out in love for, and energized by, Jesus. Like cooked spaghetti: all mushed up in the same bowl.

  2. “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”

    Oh, how I tried to think myself into righteous living.

    Oh, how I failed to do so.

    And oh, how I *still* wish that I could think myself in to righteous living, since I’m so much better at thinking than loving.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > since I’m so much better at thinking than loving.

      Oh yea, I so completely get what your saying.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        I’ve often thought when I hear someone describe themselves as “Spiritual But Not Religious” that I could often describe myself as just “Spiritual But Not”. No need to bring religion into it.

    • “I’m so much better at thinking than loving.”

      Oh heavens, yes! It’s just so much easier for me to think about loving someone than for me to actually get my hands dirty. Loving people is just so darn messy.

  3. Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I read this. Now it’s time to dry them, stop thinking, and with thanks begin working on Jesus’ farm. Thank you CM.

    • Well don’t stop thinking. But maybe it’s time for us to abandon this rather morbid self-analysis that passes for “spirituality” and simply begin to live.

      • Would be nice to dropkick, forever, the meme: discussion of works and deeds = earning anything from GOD; might be a problem for some, but largely ignores the point, IMO

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          +1

        • “So I’ve been volunteering lately…”

          “Why? Do you feel like you need to earn your salvation? You should be going to church more often. I tithe and go to church, I don’t need to volunteer or donate. I’m sick of these so-called liberal Christians doing these things.”

          I hear this SO often, in so many words, and I’m so very tired of it…

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            Ditto, it is almost a mantra.

            I think I could actually sell bumper stickers: “I don’t need to help you, because I love you”.

          • Sounds like a mantra written by the same guy who, during the Vietnam war, said, “We destroyed the village to save it.”

  4. This reminds me of what C.S. Lewis wrote:

    “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

    The danger here is falling into worrying if one is doing enough. Performance anxiety. Burnout.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      “””The danger here is falling into worrying if one is doing enough.”””

      That may indeed be a danger, but I believe it is one that has been greatly exaggerated. Most people can find the same space very well on their own when living a normal life – it is different than when living a tightly scripted life of programs and crusades.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    Chaplain Mike, thanks for today’s post. It is clear and easy to understand, for me at least. What is confusing is some of the commenting discussion that follows. If we are baptized followers of Jesus we do not need a course in theology to follow his path. There is no need to analyze doctrine, thoughts, motives, or understandings. If he has called us to follow him, then nothing else is necessary.

    As Mike says in the post:

    “Hearing and learning went hand in hand with doing. Indeed, doing often preceded the conversations that led to deeper understanding (or further bewilderment!). This was no school for theoretical studies; the disciples learned by doing and in the context of doing. Always. Jesus didn’t seem to care a whole lot about imparting a detailed statement of doctrines or a “philosophy” about life.”

    • Christiane says:

      Francis of Assisi reported the following in his Testament, this:

      “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”

      I am wondering how if we changed avoiding the forsaken folks that God has placed in our path, and ‘becoming acquainted with them’ (which would happen over a period of time) . . . would this also affect us similarly ???

      we are sojourning as Christians and we will be ‘led’ into situations that can offer us a chance to give of ourselves in service, and to be changed ourselves by our giving to others . . . this is a Franciscan experience . . . in giving we receive . . .

      ‘giving’ first . . . then ‘receiving’ as a result of our giving;
      pardoning . . . then being pardoned;

      this order of acting first is vividly present in the Franciscan model of living the faith of Christ, yes . . .

  6. kerokline says:

    Here is something I’ve felt, and I’m wondering if I’m not alone in this –

    I was born to a Christian mother, and she sent me to Christian schools. I have no conversion experience, just “what I’ve always believed”; as far back as I can remember, I was told that to be a Christian was a matter of belief, and that there were correct and incorrect beliefs. Christianity was defined as orthodoxy.

    My problem is that each step I took away from orthodoxy feels like a step away from Christianity, not a step into a different form of it. I agonized for a long time over whether I was “losing my faith”, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever be totally comfortable. It was so incredibly important for me to find this blog, and to find a community. To find a place to belong in my disagreements. But what I worry is that my new home of orthopraxy doesn’t have the ability to inspire the peace and certainty that orthodoxy can. I worry that my insecurity is just a part of me now, that the price of disagreeing with orthodoxy is a lot of guilt, a little shame, and on a good day some indignation. Which I can live with, I think, but man wouldn’t it be nice.

    • –> “My problem is that each step I took away from orthodoxy feels like a step away from Christianity…”

      You’re not alone in this. It’s interesting to note, though, that if Jesus is still the focus and center of our spirituality, those steps away from orthodoxy are actually steps TOWARD Christianity…a truer, purer Jesus-centered Christianity, not a “religious” Christianity.

      Blessings to you as you continue your walk.

    • Kerokline, sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you. If you are responding positively to today’s message, you might find Richard Rohr’s daily meditations of benefit. I strongly urge you to give them a try. Yes, they may be much different than your own education, and yes, you would be starting out in the middle of his present teaching course, but that shouldn’t stop you from having your thoughts jostled and possibly rearranged. Richard operates from the concept of heterodoxy, belief that does not dispute the basic teachings of most Christian churches but is different in approach and exists alongside basic orthodoxy. Given enough thought and insight, it might appear we are all heterodox.

      It is possible your education has taught you that Catholics are bad people who just don’t get it. If so, spending a little time each day with Richard could adjust that thinking along with other thoughts and beliefs that might need a tuneup. He’s a good teacher, kind and tolerant, and recognizes brothers and sisters in Jesus wherever they may be found. There’s a link above in the main message where you can go and subscribe to his email meditations.

    • Very well put. Sounds like “work out your salvation …” Each one of us will stand on our own, without props, before the Lord. I think that means that all the ancillary stuff will blow away in that moment. Only what has been fixed in us through the living of it will remain. What has become us will remain, not the list of doctrines we memorized and held to be true. Only when they have become true in our living are they true in our soul. The stuff that has actually had some transformative effect. Perhaps sometimes we are stepping away from “Christianity” but into Christhood. Some words lose meaning, some change meaning but life takes on real meaning. Rather than Christianity defining us, our lives define Christianity. That, of course, is a scary position to be in because we’re all such sinners but I would like nothing more than for my time on earth to end and for someone to say, “That was well done”, as opposed to, “He went to church and really knew his bible.”

      • This is not to say that learning and foundation are not critically important for the lambs. They are.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I’ll ever be totally comfortable.

      Being uncomfortable is OK.

      > It was so incredibly important for me to find this blog

      Welcome.

      > my new home of orthopraxy doesn’t have the ability to inspire the peace and certainty that orthodoxy can.

      I would counter the question – does Orthodoxy provide peace and certainty? A lot of people claim it does… but people keep finding their way here [and any number of other places] in spite of that assurance.

      > that the price of disagreeing with orthodoxy is a lot of guilt

      I suppose it depends on what you mean by Orthodoxy; I still agree with a lot of Orthodoxy, and disagree with much that **claims** it is Orthodoxy but is really just barnacles that have welded themselves onto the ship. Especially if you spend a lot of time in youth within Christianity it can be hard to discern what is Orthodoxy and what is mere cultural cruft.

      > Which I can live with, I think, but man wouldn’t it be nice.

      I don’t know. I have found it to be beautiful out here in The World; there are a lot of amazing courageous thoughtful people.

  7. Thanks so much for this, Chaplain Mike. It helps me make sense of my own journey from the kind of theology that always cast great suspicion on (or at least was very ambivalent about) practice (too Catholic!) towards Christian traditions that include practice right alongside belief and thought. I often feel challenged and blessed by your writing.

  8. “And if we are to be happy completely happy we must…in one way or another, directly or through some medium that gradually reaches out further afield (a line of research, a venture, an idea, perhaps, or a cause), transfer the ultimate interest of our lives to the advancement and success of the world we live in. …Do not be afraid that this means that if we are to be happy we must per form some remarkable feat or do something quite out of the ordinary. We have only to do what any one of us is capable of become conscious of our living solidarity with one great Thing, and then do the smallest thing in a great way. We must add one stitch, no matter how small it be, to the magnificent tapestry of life; we must discern the Immense which is building up and whose magnetic pull is exerted at the very heart of our own humblest activities and at their term; we must discern it and cling to it when all is said and done, that is the great secret of happiness.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from “On Love and Happiness”.