Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On the Conspicuousness of Christians

I was recently instructed that, as a catechist, I should blend myself into my students, to make myself one of them, in order to make them accept me.  If I was too "different" or too blatant in my Catholicism, I would not be accepted.  Instead, I should work from within them, almost in an undercover way.  The thing is, it is difficult to be undercover when your students know you are teaching them the faith.  I can understand my professor's point: the members of the Church should integrate themselves into society so they can change it from within.  It is not an outside force that will bring change, but a force hidden within, such as hidden yeast leavens dough.  We are to be Trojan horses: we must sneak under their radar and then slowly purify their drinking water with the nectar of the faith.  The problem is this: I do not see this as an effective method.

I apologize if I am being proud: I am just giving my opinion on an issue that directly affects how I should live and teach.  If you have any ideas in this area, please tell me: perhaps your reasons will be more convincing to me than my professor's.

The main issue is that I find conspicuous Christians more the norm among the saints than yeast Christians.  I see more saints acting as armored knights than as wooden horses.  Think of the model of all Christians: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, risen from the dead.  He did not hide His faith: He drove the money-changers from the Temple, He performed miracles with countless witnesses, He preached day after day in the synagogues and the Temple (though His enemies were too cowardly to arrest Him then).  Some might say, "But He was God.  Surely God cannot hide Himself.  But we are only men!"  Have not men done the same, though?  Did not St. Paul rejoice over the countless sufferings he bore for preaching the Gospel openly?  He was even stoned to death in Derbe, yet He continued to preach.  Listen to the list of his troubles:

"Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three time I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned.  Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through  many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure" (2 Cor 11:24-27).

 Icon of St. Paul by Andrei Rublev

If he had merely kept his conversion secret and continued to act as the zealous Pharisee and pupil of Rabban Gamaliel that he was, or if he had remained an inconspicuous believer, would he have been put through so much suffering?  No!  But with all his suffering came conversions, countless, countless conversions.  If he were not so blatant in his faith, would he have converted so many?  I cannot say for sure, but I would assume not.

Think of the rest of the apostles as well: all except John the Theologian were martyred for their faith, even the thrice-denying one, Pope St. Peter.  "But they were apostles, personal friends of Christ!" some may respond.  Then recall all the countless martyrs of the early Church, such as the ones remembered in the Roman Canon:

"Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia."

Yet some might say, "those were still in the early Church.  Times changed, and so did our way of living the faith."  Does a change in culture mean we hide our faith?  By no means!  In extreme circumstances, some may be called to live underground in order to retain the faith from oppressive governments, but in general, we must not hide our faith: we should rather boast in the Lord!  The Church's record of conspicuous martyrs also does not end with the end of the Apostolic Age: martyrs have continued for centuries and centuries, and not only martyrs to the death, but martyrs to reputation, comfort, and fame.  Even in the past century, we have had Servant of God Óscar Romero, Bl. Jerzy Popiełuszko, Bl. Miguel Pro, and St. Maria Goretti.

 Servant of God Óscar Romero; Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko

What about those who were not martyrs, but still lived their faith in the sight of all?  There are many: the mendicant orders of St. Dominic and St. Francis, pontiffs such as Leo XIII, Pope St. Pius X, and Servant of God Pope Paul VI (called a "white martyr" for the vicious response to his defense of sexual morality, Humanae Vitae), and workers with the poor such as Servant of God Dorothy Day and Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  Among the Russians, there is even a group called the yurodivuie, "fools for Christ's sake," such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict Joseph Labré, and St. Simeon the Holy Fool (St. Simeon Salos).  If the saints are any indication, Christians have never been known for their inconspicuousness.

That leads us back to the practical question: should we lived as conspicuous Christians or not?  In this way we would live not only in imitation of our Saviour Jesus Christ and His holy apostles, but in imitation of countless saints through the millennia.  Though our actions may seem foolish to the world, they are glorious to Christ, such as St. Isidore of Pelusium (St. Isidore Pelousiotes) wrote,

"Imitate the simple garments of Christ.  For if the roughness in apparel here on earth is foolishness, wearing the garment of light in heaven is certainly not" (Epistle 74).

We should not be afraid even if we must suffer for our conspicuousness.  As St. Gregory the Theologian exhorts,

"Teach in the temple, drive out the traders in divine things, be stoned if it is necessary you suffer this" (Oration 38.18).

St. Gregory the Theologian

Some may say that in doing this, in acting conspicuous, we are driving away those who would be converted by us.  We are showing the "radical" side of Christianity, which only a few are called to.  It is true that only some are called to the extent of martyrdom, but all are called to preach with their lives, if not also with their words.  Origen even says that it is better to preach with words we don't fully believe than to hide the faith in our hearts (vid. Exhortation to Martyrdom V).

In the end, is our faith one of private devotion, to be gently shared among others as a slowly creeping moss?  No!  Though some are called mainly to work, with direct preaching being rare, all are called to live openly and boldly for Christ.  As the axiom often mis-attributed to St. Francis of Assisi states, "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."  I believe I am called to be a catechist, though: I am called to be an example of the faith lived out for students to see.  When they see me, should they see a man who is only Christian in his intellect?  Should they not be able to tell if I'm a Buddhist well-trained in Catholic doctrine or a practicing Catholic?  Should they see me as no more than a neutral, politically correct textbook in human form?  By no means!

I will not hide my faith under a bushel basket.  When I teach, and even in general when I live, I will wear my faith on my sleeve (literally, in a sense, with my komboskini).  I will not hide my faith and water down my Christian life in order to appeal to the masses.  Should I dilute my Catholicism in order to convert others?  Then what am I converting them to but a crippled version of the faith, a version crippled by my "politically correct" witness?  Like the saints, who converted millions in their Christian zeal, I, too, will strive to live my faith as openly and zealously as possible in the hopes of converting my students.  The fight for conversion is a war, a war "not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12).  It is a war of the City of God against the City of Man, as in St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei, a war of the culture of life against the culture of death, as in Pope Bl. John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae.  Some may be called to hide themselves amongst the enemy troops in hopes of gaining conversions, but I will be a warrior against the enemy, as the countless saints before me have been.  I will be a conspicuous Christian.  And if I suffer for my convictions, for my true living of the faith, then praise God!  (How I hope I can keep that sentiment when the day of suffering comes!)  Then I just fulfill the dictum of St. John Climacus:

"War against us is proof we are making war" (Ladder, Step IV).

I am sorry for my rampant pride through this post.  I merely wish to express my convictions on this matter.  Please listen to my message, though it may be clothed in the words of pride.  May each of those moments of pride merely reinforce the fact that I am a sinner in need of mercy.  God Bless.

 St. Simeon Salos, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Information from this post comes from Wikipedia (Text and rubrics of the Roman Canon, Foolishness for Christ, and above-sourced articles).  Sergius Bolshakoff's Russian Mystics also gave me information on yurodivuie.  The quote from St. Isidore Pelousiotes is from Nicodemus the Hagiorite's A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, Chapter VIII, translated by Peter A. Chambers.  The quote from St. Gregory the Theologian comes from Sr. Nonna Verna Harrison's translation of his Festal Orations.  The quote from St. John Climacus comes from his Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell.

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