I was on a long car trip the day before yesterday and while I drove along through the snowy Appalachians I was listening to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on my iPod. And of course I came to one of my favorite passages in that classic, the scene in Stave 3 where Bob Cratchit has just returned with Tiny Tim from Christmas morning church services:
“And how did little Tim behave?” asked Mrs. Cratchit, when she had rallied Bob on his credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to his heart’s content.
“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”
There is a lot of whining among the Katholic Krazies that what few nuns are left these days are overly involved in “social action” instead of teaching second grade or knitting scarves for tuberculosis patients. Dickens’ remarks—indeed his entire career—is a reminder that there is nothing new about Christians seeing the intimate connection between the disadvantaged (we might actually choose to say “oppressed”) in our society and the Lord whom we claim—somewhat falsely I fear for some—to worship.
There is no authentic Christianity that is not rooted in a passionate commitment to work for a just social order. What I mean by a “just social order” is a society in which each of God’s children has access to the resources that God—who is Father of all—has intended for each of his children. It is certainly repugnant to Almighty God that some of his children go without food sufficient for the day when others of us can afford to waste so much excess. It is certainly repugnant to Almighty God that some of his children can have multiple homes while others sleep on the streets. It is certainly repugnant to Almighty God that some of his children can waste the opportunity for a good education that prepares them to make contributions to the common good of society while others have no escape from a life of drudgery—or even poverty—for no other reason that despite their intelligence, finances have closed the opportunities for learning. There is much about the way our society is ordered that is fundamentally evil and we need the prophetic voice of Religious men and women to snap open our eyes and see beyond the blinders that the social order has fixed on us from the day we were first able to see. Religious who shun the role of social prophecy make Religious Life redundant. But the problem is that Religious today either tend uncritically to buy into the social order, living the lie that charity is sufficient and pursuit of justice is for those in the “secular world” of politics and economics, or they—as Sister Joan Chittester put it so well in her book The Fire in The Ashes endorse “postures, positions, and actions that are wildly prophetic and prophetically wild, and then we retire to our separate little worlds and wait for someone else to do them on the grounds that we ourselves are too old, too unprepared, too tired, too involved elsewhere in more important things to shift direction now.” To go back to where this series began and Sister Sara Marks: good heavens, gal, would you put down the latte and stop talking about the cute Calvin Klein dress you found at Good Will and get serious about something. Nobody says you can’t go to the beach or even stop in at Starbucks—but are you so shallow that that is how you want to describe yourself? Don’t be trendy—that is the last thing that gives credibility to Religious Life. Be a pot-stirer. Point out the turd in the punch bowl. I don’t care if you wear a veil or not but I do want you to be authentic.
I spend a lot of time with a Religious priest I know who lives in a sufficiently comfortable parish his Order staffs. Nice guys. But they should call themselves the Order of Martha Stewart. Do you really need to drink your single barrel Bourbon out of a Waterford tumbler? Or if you do, do you have to point it out? How many sets of dishes do you really need? Yeah, yeah, yeah—your parishioners live this sort of a lifestyle. I know the song. But no, they don’t. They normally eat in the kitchen, not the dining room. A lot of nights they grab a bowl of soup or a couple of slices of pizza—shellfish or prime meats are not the everyday event. I am not saying that you shouldn’t eat healthy, or even well: just be as invested in visiting the sick as you are in doing the shopping.
On the other hand, for those who criticize the Religious for being too secular: get your own house in order first. We all have the same call to holiness though we may live it out with some legitimate differences of style. But God is no more impressed by superficiality in the laity than he is among the Religious. The Martha Stewart/latte bar/trendy life-style is just as vacuous for the lay disciple as it is for the Religious. No matter who we are in the Church or in Society, in the eyes of God we are each only stewards of the gifts given us to build his kingdom here on earth during our lifetime.
And as for those newbie Religious Orders who think that it is “evangelical poverty” or “discipleship” to keep their members from having the tools and resources with which to do God’s work—whether it be cars or computers or a good education—stop lying to yourselves and be honest that you are simply playing a manipulative game of control over the lives of your members. Not everyone needs a car or a doctorate or his own room to achieve the work that God has set out for him or her to do—but there are those who do need things that sometimes cost money if they are to achieve their divinely-called potential. The virtue lies not in not having but in not having more than we need to do the work that God has called us to.
And if Religious are the first and foremost the People of Prayer whom they have been called to be by their vocation to the Religious Life they will come to a love for the poor, for the sick, for the disadvantaged in whose face they see the face of Him who became poor for our sake. And they will not be satisfied with the false piety of a phony charity that thinks it is sufficient to alleviate today’s pangs of poverty by throwing some crumb or other to “comfort” the poor or the sick. True charity realizes that while we must minister to the immediate need before us, we must also work to eradicate the evils that cause the poverty and suffering. I can only think of Dom Helder Camara, the saint-Archbishop of Recife in Brazil, who challenged his critics with the words: “When I feed the poor you call me a Saint; when I ask you why they are poor, you call me a Communist.” No, Religious belong in the forefront of Social Justice, armed with the Gospel of Christ and with the Word God spoke through the Prophets. If they don’t do that we really don’t need them in the Church today.