We all know them, or rather, we don’t know them but we’re aware they are there. The bit part characters. The ones that fill up the crowd scenes in television and movies. The chorus in operas, where a miscellaneous crowd of villagers or brigands or courtiers ‘tra-la-la’ away in the background (often with the kinds of lyrics, as Nanny Ogg describes it in “Maskerade” as “there’s your light opera, where they sing in foreign and it basically goes “Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! I like to drink lots of beer!”, although sometimes they drink champagne instead”) while the stars perform upstage and in the spotlight.
The minor rôles, where it’s not worth casting two separate actors, so the same guy who plays (for instance) the Doctor in “Macbeth” will double up as the Servant because for the sake of a couple of lines and sticking a wig on the actor you get two for the price of one. Important as filler, important as background, because otherwise the scene would look unrealistic without them, but lucky if they even get mentioned in the credits as “Man with Umbrella” or “Lady with Poodle”.
What most of us, quite frankly, are in our churches. Now certainly we’ve all heard the praises of “the unknown saints”, those humble souls who lived as ordinary people and weren’t considered anything particularly special by their families, friends and neighbours but who were at an advanced level of spiritual development and love of God; the kind of person C.S. Lewis writes about in “The Great Divorce” when the narrator sees a procession in honour of a lady of dazzling light and beauty and asks who she is:
“Is it? … is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
“She seems to be … well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
And to be honest, most of us tune this out for two reasons: (1) we know we’re not like that, we know we’re not more than we appear, we are just as much “pew potatoes” in the privacy of our ordinary lives as we look to be in public and (2) for all that the “unknown saints” are alluded to, the ones who get preached about as examples are quite different – depending on your own denomination or tradition, it can be Sister Jones who went out to the missions in China and converted thousands of heather, or the Rev. Mr. Smith who was eaten by cannibals, or St Carmelita of Monte Verde who was a 18th century laywoman who lived on nettles and had visions of the Passion where she received the stigmata.
We don’t get St Joe of the Sixpack or St Jane of the ‘Mom, where’s my sports gear?’ who went to church on Sunday, donated jumble for the annual sale of work on behalf of the missions, and decided he or she really needed to go to confession next Saturday after the things they said when they’d been cut off in traffic.
So yes, we’re lazy, yes, we’re moderately ashamed of ourselves for that and yes, we resolve to say the rosary every day or attend Bible study mid-week or really make an effort to be less worldly, with about the same success that we have for our New Year’s resolutions about losing weight, taking more exercise, and learning to play the piano properly after all this time.
Most of us would make the same choice as Jane Eyre between the two paths she can take; the decision crystallised with the proposal from her cousin, St John Rivers, to marry him and be the wife of a missionary in India:
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”
Hm – let’s see: go out and be the wife of a poor missionary in India, with hard work, disease, a difficult climate, and the whole language and cultural barriers, or be the wife of a gentleman and lady of the manor? Tough choice (not really, as Jane ends up with Rochester as we all knew from the start she would).
But really it’s not such a dreadful thing to be an obscure member of the congregation – as long as we don’t loll back and drift with the current. We don’t have to be out winning souls for God every spare minute or donating 60% of our income to a home for lepers or spending every waking moment in constant prayer. We don’t have to be ostentatious about our faith, and that means more than the obvious warning from Matthew 6:5 – 6:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
You can be every bit as ostentatious in your secret prayer as in public displays of zeal and piety. Remember our old friend, the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 – 13:
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ ”
We recognize the self-righteousness and fault of the Pharisee very easily – but what of the tax collector? What was he like, after he left the Temple? Was he like Zacchaeus the tax collector who made public restitution and repayment of his extorted gains, or did he continue on pretty much as he had done, falling and getting up again? I think maybe the latter.
And that’s the most of us, too. We may or may not be able to make the big sacrifices, the big gestures, the big deeds. But we can be like the jokes about indistinguishable Dominican saints and blesseds (how do you paint a Dominican saint? Easy, just do a stock figure of a Dominican in a habit and then switch in whatever attribute you want – a dog for St Dominic, a cleaver in the head for St Peter Martyr, or easiest of all – make him mixed race like St Martin de Porres).
Like the many Renaissance pictures classified as “Virgin and Child with Saints” since the identities of the saints portrayed have been forgotten, though they were obviously local figures of great importance at the time. Or like the adoration of the Lamb in the central panel of Van Eyck’s glorious Ghent altarpiece where the saints come in from all corners of the compass and we know they are saints but we don’t know particular names. This is because the vital thing to remember is this – we are simultaneously important and not important. Heaven is intensely individualistic and there all will see and be seen for who they are, all will be known, all will be judged and rewarded. But it is also in communion and in unity that we dwell in the Kingdom.
We’re the stars of our own lives, but the bit-part or supporting actors in others. We have annoying or amusing or odd or just plain ordinary nice family and friends and neighbors and work mates, but when we talk about them, we make them accessories and walk-on parts to revolve around us and our story. We should remember that for other people, we are that neighbour who is the subject of an amusing anecdote, or the evening report of “Ah, I had a tough day at work today, Bill or Annie was doing their usual thing” or the passing greeting of “Oh, hey, that’s Joe, great guy, hi Joe, anyway as I was saying…”
And that’s not at all a bad thing. Most of us probably know Milton’s lines about “They also serve who only stand and wait”, and we probably nod along in agreement and keep right on thinking that to be a good Christian we need to be the equivalent of a Broadway star in the spotlight doing the big show-stopping number. We forget the importance and necessity of being a bit-part cast member. We forget the body is made up of different members all of which are necessary (and most of which are decidedly unglamorous; who thinks of their part in the church as being the spleen or the gallbladder?)
If I may quote from a letter J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son in 1944 about a mystical experience he had:
It also reminded me of a sudden vision (or perhaps apperception which at once turned itself into pictorial form in my mind) I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean ‘personified’, by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person. Thinking of it since – for the whole thing was very immediate, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself (or any other human person that I might think of with love) – it has occurred to me that (I speak diffidently and have no idea whether such a notion is legitimate: it is at any rate quite separate from the vision of the Light and the poised mote) this is a finite parallel to the Infinite. As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic. Anyway, dearest, I received comfort, part of which took this curious form, which I have (I fear) failed to convey: except that I have with me now a definite awareness of you poised and shining in the Light – though your face (as all our faces) is turned from it. But we might see the glimmer in the faces (and persons as apprehended in love) of others.
Millions and millions of motes like dust motes in sunbeams, yet all are persons, all are known, all are loved, all are seen and attended to by God. And all are us, as we go about our daily business, not seeing the light of God shining in us, but maybe seeing it through others – quite ordinary, quite plain, quite unimpressive others.
So the next time you’re feeling a little depressed over not being the next St Paul, remember the most famous spear carrier of all – Longinus.
And let’s finish up with the poem by George Herbert, “The Elixir”:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or it he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture–“for Thy sake”–
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.