The Gospel Life: One Family, Many Gifts

John Burchill, O.P.

These addresses were presented at an Annual Dominican Family Awareness Day held at Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island, in March, 1978. They are offered to all the members of the Dominican Family through the cooperation of the Dominican Laity in the Provinces of St. Joseph and St. Albert the Great, U.S.A.
Dominicana Publications, 1979.

In recent years we Dominicans have attempted to foster the awareness of ourselves as a family composed of laity, religious men and women and religious-priests. In the renewal going on in the Church, one of the problems besetting us is the lack of recognition of their identity among the laity and religious in the Church, and in the Dominican family. This is particularly true of the lay person, for, despite the Second Vatican Council’s extensive efforts, we still have not regained the fundamental concept of lay spirituality. The Council’s treatment of religious also seemed to raise the question, for many religious, of their place in the Church. In my paper I will address the theme “The Gospel Life: One Family, Many Gifts”. I chose this Gospel perspective because all our reflection has to be based on the Gospel, the root and foundation of every Christian’s life.

Before we turn to the Gospel, it will be helpful to gain some historical perspective. This will naturally help us to understand where we have come from. Prior to the Council, catechetical instruction and often instruction given on religious life in any novitiate taught the view — if not in these terms, certainly in attitude — that lay Christians were second class, second rate. Those who really wanted to live the Gospel, to become perfect, became priests and religious. It was said that lay people followed the way of the commandments, and religious, the way of the counsels. (The great theologians such as Aquinas were certainly more nuanced than this and taught that every Christian was called to live the spirit of the counsels, that obedience to the precepts is offered by the Lord to all and obliged all Christians.) But it was said that lay Christians only did what Jesus said you had to do, and that there was a second way — the way of the so-called evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience — which was not merely a way of salvation but a way of perfection. These people do what Jesus said it was better to do.

What was the origin of this development? It is neither in the New Testament nor was such a distinction made in the early Church. A handy way to understand how such a distinction emerged is to recall the models of holiness which the community (Church) fostered and recommended in the early years of the Church.

For the first three centuries the ideal of Christian sanctity was certainly the martyr. The martyr, the mighty athlete of God, set the standard of perfection as the perfect imitator of Christ. The mind of the Church can be clearly seen in the privileges granted them, for instance, male martyrs who survived persecution were often ordained priests, their relics were venerated and they were often declared saints. Moreover, the life style of the martyr was the model of Christian perfection presented to the community. For Ignatius of Antioch, martyrdom was the perfect imitation of Christ. The true disciple of Jesus was the person who was ready to sacrifice his life for Him. Ignatius himself had the aspiration of dying for the faith and this prompted him to dissuade communities which might have intervened and prevented him from attaining his cherished goal.

Yet the honor received by martyrs should make us hesitate to simply identify the martyr with dying for the faith. This would make us miss the salient point which allows even this life style to be recommended to all Christians whatever their state in the Church. The real meaning of martyrdom is witnessing. It was not any old kind of witnessing — but witnessing with one’s whole life. They confessed to Jesus in their bodily being, sometimes subjected to torture and put to death. The fact of undergoing death or torture was not what made the witness of martyrdom real: otherwise, you would have to die to be a real Christian. Rather it was living with Christian conviction during this time of persecution. Certainly for many individuals the personal renunciation of freedom, life and property was an eventuality. Daily the person was risking and accepting the risk of living for Jesus Christ. These persons remained in their homes and professions (certainly more lay martyrs than clerics, and religious do not yet exist) and lived with the risk of the knock on the door or the confrontation on the street which would mean impoverishment, prison or death. Martyrdom was the early style of sanctity; it was an uncompromising witnessing to the person of Jesus, teaching the values of Jesus, even when this imperiled normal life in the world, their home life and happiness. At its core this life style went to the heart of the Gospel — to life for Christ Jesus alone, to live the Gospel without compromise and to accept and live with the consequences of a radical trust in God. Finally, one can make explicit the fact that the martyrs did not give up the world, did not renounce it, but through their attachment to Jesus, they put the world in perspective, they were able to live the Gospel without counting the cost, or, to put it another way, they let go of the world and its values when confession of Jesus called for it.

Being a Christian in those early years at the time of the persecutions was a risk. But eventually, the persecutions ceased. The emperor Constantine was converted and he granted freedom of worship to all men in the Edict of Milan. With the Emperor on its side, Christianity now began to receive a favored position from the state. To be a Christian seemed no longer to be a risk; it became the “in thing”; it became part of the Establishment. Great numbers of people now entered the Church to take advantage of the civil situation, but many were insufficiently committed to the Gospel.

An effect of this was the lowering of the moral level of Christian life. Christians began to accept their privileged status and stopped bearing prophetic witness to the society in which they lived. Society now called itself Christian, so to be a Christian meant to be and to behave as the “right kind” of people acted. In reaction to this moral stagnation, a powerful ascetic movement formed. But unlike the virgins of the early centuries and other ascetics who remained in the center of the community, the monks moved to the fringes of the populated world.

The monks tried to preserve the ideal of the Christian life of the early days. This movement of the Spirit was in its origin a protest movement, a prophetic stance within the community and towards the society. If living in the city as a Christian was a watered-down version of living the Gospel, then seek to live the challenge of life in Jesus in the desert. The model of martyrdom was eventually replaced by the model of the monk or the spirituality of monasticism. This latter style of life has dominated spirituality through the ages. Martyrdom was a spirituality of readiness to die with and for Jesus, a spirituality of risk. In his life in the world the martyr risked losing everything he had. Monasticism succeeded martyrdom as a model; it was a spirituality of renunciation (with it’s most salient feature the separation or withdrawal from the world), an actual renunciation of property marriage, and control of one’s own life to follow Jesus. It involved being with and for Jesus in a special way, taking the risk to believe utterly in Jesus, staking one’s life on Him.

At their core the two models are the same. Through their faith in Jesus Christ and their commitment to Him the Christian is called to take a stand towards the world, towards everything in their life: the martyr lived in the world and risked losing everything; the monk left the world and effected physical separation by giving up everything he had. In the early days of the Church, monks and lay Christians were not compared in any hierarchical fashion; both were members of the family of God seeking salvation. Soon however the concept arose that the spiritual martyrdom of monasticism had replaced physical martyrdom. (Spiritual martyrdom has two requirements: an explicit desire for physical martyrdom and also some effective expression of the desire manifested in some suffering, patiently endured for the love of God and in imitation of Christ and the martyrs. Although all could be spiritual martyrs, the idea was propagated that the call was especially for the monk who sought it in and through his asceticism and renunciations.)

In Church tradition, a lamentable pattern arose of extolling monasticism and denigrating lay life as a lesser way. The spiritual writer Cassian, whose conferences were read by generations of monks (including Dominic), regarded monks as spiritual, the lay person as carnal, i.e. pagan. The lay Christian, to Cassian, was categorized with infidels. The Benedictine reform monastery of Cluny (10-12th centuries) promoted the monastic ideal — withdrawal, virginity, and strict asceticism — among the laity. The attitude was communicated that one could not achieve the ideal of full Christian perfection without belonging to the monastery, at least at death. Some nobles would embrace the monastic life in their declining years or on their death bed. The twelfth-century canonist Gratian knew two kinds of Christians: clerics and monks, and the lay people whose life was regarded as a concession. Life in the world is for the weak whom God indulges. The strong pursue perfection in better and more energetic fashion as canons and monks. In effect, the appearance was given that the spirituality of monasticism replaced that of the spirituality of martyrdom. Yet, at the core, as we have seen and will see in looking at the Gospel, they have an identical inspiration: they are not successive spiritualities but different styles of life according to temperament and the gifts of the Spirit of God for living the Gospel.

At this point, it is necessary to return to the Gospel and look at the call given to the one Family of God. Attentive reading of the whole Gospel makes it apparent that prior to Jesus’s condemnation and death, it was entirely possible to join Him in two fashions Although the ways are quite different, the Gospel refrains from pointing out one as more perfect that than the other.

You turned away from idols
Come with me

First, there is what one can call the “habitual” way of welcoming the preaching of the Kingdom and giving oneself wholeheartedly without abandoning one’s ordinary daily life, i.e., home, work, and family. One can recall Lazarus (John II), his sisters Martha and Mary (see also Luke 10: 38-42), Joseph of Aramithea (Matthew 27: 57-61), Nicodemus (John 3; 7: 45-54, 19:58), and Joseph and Mary, His foster father and mother. These persons sought the Kingdom of Heaven in the faithful accomplishment of their daily tasks. Nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus blame them for their lack of determination or` halfheartedness, nor does He describe them as second-class citizens in the living expression of their desire to be with Jesus. There is no one who can be so foolish as to question Mary’s most profound love for Jesus, or that her life as wife and mother in Nazareth was not the sanctity of a hidden life. Even the chosen disciples showed that they did not fully grasp who Jesus was prior to the Resurrection. They failed Him when they deserted Him after His arrest and they were not present at His burial. Yet Joseph of Aramithea and Nicodemus still remained faithful to the end and rendered to Him one of the most sacred Jewish acts of homage when they gave Him burial. We might also note that except for the beloved disciple (some scholars question that tradition in John), only women and those converted Jewish leaders were present at the cross.

Secondly, the Gospels refer to a group of those who “follow Jesus” and are with Him in a special way. Jesus selected them to follow Him. Originally, the circle of disciples probably referred to a large group. Then Jesus chose twelve from this large group (Mark 3: 13-19) to form a smaller circle within the larger group. In actual fact, discipleship involved the determination to abandon everything (Matthew 19: 2729). This included literally the following after Jesus from place to place, the acceptance of His destiny as a wanderer with all its privation. Still the Gospel does not proclaim this group as being more perfect. How could it, when we find among them self-seeking ambition (Mark 9: 33-37), rivalry for precedence (Mark 10: 37-43), and Peter, their leader, denying Jesus (Mark 14- 66-72)?

Both groups attached themselves to Jesus in their particular style of life, knew Him, loved Him, heard Him and abided by His teaching. Of particular relevance to us is the climax of the Sermon on the Mount. These words were not addressed to some select group but to the whole congregation. At the conclusion of sayings about love for one’s enemies (Matthew 5: 43-47), Matthew records the charge to be perfect. Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew sees the whole of the Christian life under the imperative of the words of Jesus (see Matthew 7: 24-27). The conduct of the disciples must be other than that of the tax collectors an~ the Gentiles; the disciples are not only to imitate Jesus but to obey His teaching, they must surpass the tax collectors who only love those who love them by also loving their enemies (Matthew 5: 44-46); they must do more than the Gentiles who greet just their brothers (Matthew 5: 47); their righteousness must greatly exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees who were meticulous observers of the Law (Matthew 5: 20). Being perfect is the mark of the congregation; the perfection of all Christian disciples is their distinctive observance of the love command.

The model for perfection is God. The Christian disciple is to imitate God. In the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:2 demanded above all a cultic sacral holiness through which Israel became worthy to worship God. Now, however, a man is to copy God’s own being and nature. Because He is perfect, He acts perfectly, i.e. He acts in limitless love. (cf. Luke 6: 36, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”) In the images of making His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sending His rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5: 45), Jesus presents the complete, total goodness of God. The conduct of the disciple is to be loving in imitation of the uncreated perfection of God. Each disciple is called to imitate the Father in love and compassion.

This awareness of the unity and diversity of the Family of God in Christ was taught also by the apostle Paul. He used for an image of the Church the image of Christ’s Body, with individuals as members of it.

(I Corin. 12.) God bestowed in the Spirit varieties of gifts and services in the community. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (I Corin. 12:7). Each has something to contribute, whether it is wisdom in speech, knowledge, faith, the gift of being a healer or teacher, etc. Each one has been given grace. “For by the grace given to me, I bid everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. (Rom 12:3)” Paul regarded the action of the Holy Spirit as operative in different ways in the members of the community, each member having something to contribute to the community and to its mission in the world.

In the time of Jesus, in the early Church, and in our days too, Christians respond to the Good News in various life styles, inspired by the Spirit of God speaking the one Gospel heard by all. If we were to describe the heart of this in the terms of the preaching of Jesus, it is the Kingdom of God. We can see this in the two little parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl (Mt 13:44 – 46). They present the absolute and definitive value of the Kingdom, and are a positive expression of the ideal which says that one ought not to hesitate before even total sacrifice to obtain the desired good. Both parables involve a complete reversal. Under the force of the breaking in, of the coming into our awareness, of the Kingdom of Heaven, one willingly reverses his entire past — projections, plans possessions, or career — to obtain the Treasure of the Pearl. Full appreciation of the behavior of the merchant and the laborer come from noticing that the motivation of the laborer includes joy. The value of the discovery and the joy of the discovery penetrates his inmost being and subjugates his heart. In joy he sells his possessions in order that he might buy the field containing the Treasure. The focus is not on the sacrifice, on what this gesture costs the two men, but on the reason or motivation for their action. In both instances it is the realization of the overwhelming attractiveness of their discovery. This is the way the Kingdom of Heaven affects men. This “good news”, this joyful message prompts a wholehearted response from the person who responds in faith to it as to the most valuable reality.

This faith-conviction in any believer entails the recognition of the qualitative transcendence of the Kingdom, already given, over the whole world and any created reality, the absolute and radical value of the gift which God has bestowed on us in the Spirit through Jesus Christ. Such an awareness demands, as soon as a person appreciated its excellence, that if there be any conflict, if some reality or value in this world would cause him to jeopardize his attachment to the Kingdom, to the essential, then he or she have the disposition, the readiness, to make the most difficult decisions and undergo the most painful renouncements. This means that we hear the sayings of Jesus which have a radical character in all their seriousness, even while we take into account their literary genre. Thus, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away… if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…(Mt 5:29 -30), and Christ’s words to the rich young~ man, and His saying about eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom should be read with this in mind. When the Kingdom of God is at stake, if circumstances require it or if the heart runs the risk of being divided, one must be ready to be despised, ridiculed, persecuted, and put to death, always ready to leave one’s possessions and riches. Because of his love of Jesus, every Christian has to know how to submit his involvement in the world – everything in his life – to Him.

In conclusion, I would like to focus the differences between the religious and lay style of the common vocation of Baptism. The religious lives this common vocation in a special existential style. S/he freely chooses to underline this with his/her life and action. S/he freely chooses to center his/her whole personal existence on what is the essence of the Christian mystery, the highpoint of the Gospel experience. In Jesus the Risen Lord, God has given us the unique thing necessary. Next to this unique thing necessary, every other good, no matter how attractive or beautiful, finds itself relativised. So the religious center their entire existence on the perception of the absolute value of the Kingdom. This means that they try to love in separation in regard to personal wealth, in regard to love of man and woman, and in regard to the personal planning of acts that rule their destiny according to their own standards — though, in imitation of Jesus, they will be interested in and will work or pray that all people procure sufficiency of possessions, health, consolation, etc.

On the other hand, the lay person has a life style of living in the world as part of it. They form relationships with the world and sink roots in it through ownership, marriage, and business. Thus they show that the world, though marred by sin, is not bad or outside the pale of redemption. Rather, God is transforming the world, and us in the world, to redeem the world itself through our own graced efforts and the gift of self. The lay person is involved in and immersed in all the world’s activities, seeking in some way to bring it to Christ, to be an agent of its leavening by Christ. However, the engagement of the lay person in the world it not without risk — the spirituality of martyrdom.

The world, tainted by sin, promotes values of comfort, security, success, unlimited profit for business, etc. Such values simplistically looked at or carried to the extreme are not in harmony with the mind and values of Jesus. If a Christian living in the world set his course by the light of Christ, s/he would necessarily invite trouble and opposition — perhaps not physical martyrdom, but certainly s/he would not be at ease with all of “the right people”. Such a view of lay spirituality causes a change of mind — for we think generally of simply living a normal life in the world. It makes a huge difference if we see ourselves as called to bear witness to the world, to be in the world at our risk. When Jesus spoke the beatitudes, He spoke of the happiness of those persecuted for His name. That it not a far-fetched ideal in a post-Christian era. We have to understand, and accept, and rejoice in the promise and possibilities, that we risk paying the price of Christian witness, in every situation in life.

Share Button

Leave a Reply