the saintly ordinary

stmartindetours I enjoyed reading the article about St Martin of Tours in the Catholic encyclopaedia online. Not only is his life story interesting and full of the vignettes that make hagiography what it is; he is also the patron saint of soldiers, appropriate for today. If I were cleverer, I might say something about that. 

What struck me, however, is a phrase near the end of the article: ‘recover your ordinary firmness’, says the angel to a brooding St Martin. He regretted bitterly a mistake he had made, and the angel warned him not to dwell on it. So you got that wrong, and you are rightly sorry for it. Move on. ‘Recover your ordinary firmness.’

I’m afraid I can be a bit like the brooding St Martin, in need of an angel to remind me not to dwell on those things for which I am rightly sorry. Unlike St Martin, though, I have no history of ‘ordinary firmness’ to recover. My life story is not one of courageous stands, self-sacrifice, and miracles. Just a girl-grown-up, having meandered from childhood and somehow ended up here. A theologian. A Roman Catholic. A mother and wife. A teacher, a writer, a friend. Not, I am sad to say, a saint.

I can learn something, though, from St Martin’s mistake and the angel’s counsel. The heart and soul of St Martin’s story is his quest for Christ-likeness. His ordinary firmness is not as a worker of miracles or a doer of extravagantly self-sacrificial deeds. His ordinary firmness comes from his being in Christ, and the stuff that makes his story so interesting is just details. The details attest to the saintliness, but they are not its substance. Recover your faith in the One who saves you, who covers over all your blunders, however stupid you feel about them.

It is the firmness, I think, of knowing a ‘blameless way’, not because one has never missed a step, but because the way has been made blameless:

…who is a rock, except our God?                                                                                           the God who girds me with strength,                                                                                     and makes my way blameless.                                                                                           He makes my feet like hinds’ feet,                                                                                       and sets me upon my high places.                                                                                      Psalm 18: 31-33 (NASB)

Earlier in the psalm, the psalmist seems to boast of his blamelessness. ‘I was also blameless with him’ (23), he says: with clean hands; without iniquity. Like God, whose ‘way is blameless'(30). And just when I feared I would never be able to pray this psalm, along comes verse 33: the blameless way, the firm ground, is made so by God (the One who has prepared those good works for us to walk in!).

The secret to imitating the saints in their imitato Christi is an imitation of the heart. It is not a backward-looking, self-reproaching endeavour, but a forgiveness-receiving and moving-forward adventure. All right, a journey, anyway! The path of discipleship is the ‘blameless way’, the way of ‘ordinary firmness’ made so by Christ’s own footsteps. The history on which I can look back and recover that strength of soul is Christ’s history, not my own.

Deo gratias.

 

All the angels and saints

Late last night, I received a text message from a friend, asking whether I had a meditation for All Saints' Day. No, I had to reply, I didn't. But I felt I should. The saints are essential to my Christian life, and in one way or another always have been. One way or another, I say, because there was a time when I would not have been so eager to ask, as we do when we say the confiteor, for the prayers of 'all the angels and saints'. When I was small, it was the 'ordinary' saints, the living company of the faithful, who guided me. At least they pointed me in the right direction; I didn't always follow their lead. In college, I began to appreciate the 'saints' in Hebrews 11, especially as they form the 'cloud of witnesses' who surround us as we follow Jesus.
 
But the picture is bigger than that. The saints–those who have gone before us and stand before the throne of grace–play a vital role in the spirituality of my everyday life. There they are, on the mantelpiece beside my bed: the Blessed Virgin and child, the Holy Family, St Michael the Archangel; there is my San Damiano cross, which I wear everyday to remind myself of St Francis's holy life. When I say 'all the angels and saints' in the confiteor, I mean it. I mean that I need their prayers. And often the invocation of the saints reminds me that I am not alone. There is a whole company on this road, and the company keeps pressing on.
 
The fact that it doesn't depend on me, that the saints are already the church triumphant, liberates me to pray, to worship, to receive forgiveness and to hope that I can live the life of a disciple of Jesus. The life of the church is carried forward by the saints and saints-in-the-making, and all the saints share one vital characteristic (if you can call it that): being made holy by the Spirit of Holiness. Saints don't shine because they're polished; they shine because somehow they let the light of God show through them. I want to be like that, and I realize that there is no formula for getting there. There is no recipe for saint-making, just a Spirit who blows where he wills. 'Fixing our eyes on Jesus' (Hebrews 12) is the main thing. The church depends on him, he is the vine; he is the author and perfecter of our faith; he is the one in whom all things–perhaps most especially the communion of saints–hold together.
 
But that's not all. The communion of saints, the universal church, covers me when I go astray. 'Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church', the priest prays, and the words always come as such a tonic to my soul. The faith of the church is the faith to which I cling. It is no product of my own heart or my own mind, but it belongs to the communion of saints. In the words of Rich Mullins, 'I did not make it…it is making me.' The faith of the church is something strong, lasting, and perfect.
 
It would be wrong to think, though, that the strength of the church's faith means I can just take a seat and wait for heaven to come to me. No: clinging to the church's creed is sometimes hard work. That's where 'taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ' and 'working our your salvation' and all those passages in the New Testament that make the Christian life seem like such hard work come into play. It is easy to forget–at least it is easy for me to forget–that holding onto what the gospel says to us in Scripture and tradition does not come naturally to those of us trained and formed by a world that doesn't believe any of it, and hopes in very different directions.
 
Whatever it is that seems to threaten my Christian life, it's not new. The challenges, temptations, and doubts that come my way are not unique to me. Whether I think I have done well or badly, I haven't done anything totally unprecedented. The saints have already been there.
 
And this is a good day on which to be grateful for that.

What worries me

Well, honestly, a lot of things worry me. Stupid things and little things and big things and almost impossible things. But Rowan Williams names precisely what worries me about what I do as a theologian: “[the desert fathers and mothers] seem very well aware that one of the great temptations of religious living is to intrude between God and other people. We love to think that we know more of God than other people…” (Silence and Honey Cakes).

That worries me. It probably worries me more because I am not the smartest theologian I know. Not nearly. (Since you asked, I would certainly rank Rowan Williams as one of the two or three smartest theologians I know.) I spent an awfully long time trying to write a Very Clever conclusion to my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, and eventually realized that in trying to write a sexy and theoretical finale, I was trying to be someone I am not. Yes, I read the necessary books by de Certeau. But in the end I didn't write about that stuff. I wrote about discipleship, because that's what seemed to me to be the heart of Christian identity. It's about following Jesus. This is not a Clever and Original idea. It's a commonplace in Christian theology from the gospels onward.
 
So where does that leave me, as a teacher of theology? Well, the book was published, and the only review I have seen so far didn't write it off as just repeating stuff everyone already knows. I'm grateful for that, and for the reviewer's practical response to the book, which was to read Gregory of Nyssa. But I am never going to be a person who trades in cleverness. I know how much I don't know, and I would far rather start with cards on the table. I know what I do know, and I have confidence that I can teach the subject. I also know that I am not going to win arguments with John Milbank about Plato or political theory. (By the way, he's in that small group with Rowan Williams.)
 
I would, however, be perfectly happy talking with John, even arguing, about Jesus. Not about Christology, certainly, but about Jesus. And that's what worries me. Because not trading in cleverness all these years, first as a graduate student, and then as a teacher, has meant that I put a great deal of emphasis on faithfulness to the gospel and on spiritual discipline; I say that it is more important to be faithful than clever, if you are a theologian. It isn't knowing about God that makes good theology; it's knowing God. (It is both, of course, and you can't just have one or the other, as Andrew Louth suggested a great many years ago in an essay about theology and spirituality. And he's another theologian I would place on the top of the smart list.)
 
But do I thereby imply that I know God better than my students or my colleagues? Good heavens, no. Teaching theology to people who are training for ministry is an awesome privilege and a serious charge. What qualifies me to stand in front is formal and academic knowledge; it's having practiced talking about the God we all know in particular ways, ways that are faithful to the Bible and the Church's memory of Jesus preserved through the ages in its sacred doctrine. I certainly can make no claim to “know more of God” than my students. Faithfulness is a shared enterprise, and spiritual discipline is for the Church and not solely (or even primarily) for individuals.
 
A lot of the things that worry me are petty, even ridiculous. But not this one. I take Rowan Williams' words to heart. This should worry me. I don't have any formula for getting it right, for teaching sound doctrine intelligently to intelligent people, and simultaneously bearing in mind that it's not all about intelligence; or for bearing in mind that in the classroom faith does actively seek understanding, that the exercise of the intellect is a part of faithful discipleship. It is enough that I worry about it, I think, so long as the 'worry' always becomes 'pray.' This work I do is like the rest of my life before God: possible only by his grace.