Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bad Acting and Working Out our own Salvation

We've been talking much lately about "intentional disciples" and of the need for parishes to foster "true discipleship", to encourage the formation of capital D Disciples and not just neo-pagan lukewarm modernists disguised as Christians. The problem is Wormwood pulls up a pew and says to us, in his cloying and flattering tone, "According to most pastors, only five percent of all their parishioners are serious about following Christ. You're one of those. You're a capital-D Disciple. You're an intentional Disciple. You're a true Disciple. These fat church ladies with their pot luck dinners and their parish picnics, they're not even Christians in any meaningful sense of the word. Look at that chubby grocer in the pew beside you. He nods off during the homilies. He's not a True Disciple. Look at that pierced kid at the Teen Mass, with glowing hair and a condom in his pocket. He's not a True Disciple. But you are! You may be the only one here who is. God knows your pastor isn't! If he were, he'd kick these hypocritical sinners out of here. But you're for real! You're one of the remnant! You must feel so lonely! So special! "

Illustrations from the Stage and from Life

Here are two stories that are about theology, and are about the same thing that Wormwood is wont to whisper to us:

First, my atheist 20-something actor on tour with us keeps tormenting himself after each performance. "I just wasn't very good. I just didn't feel it. That wasn't my best show. I was horrible." "No," I tell him, "that was as good as it always is - could have been better, could have been worse. Your performance is actually pretty consistent from night to night, and it's not as if there's anything else you need to do. You know your lines and your blocking. Just go with it. You're doing fine. Let the Spirit and the other actors move you. It's not all about effort, or straining to make it happen."

Second, a friend on Facebook, a good Catholic housewife, starts railing against Valentine's Day. "Why do we need one day a year to celebrate love? Shouldn't we be loving each other every day? What do candy and roses and Hallmark cards have to do with St. Valentine and self-giving love?" I point out to her that old man Scrooge used to say, "Why do we need one day a year to celebrate Christ? Shouldn't we celebrate him every day? What do presents and carols and Christmas trees have to do with Jesus Christ and self-giving love?" And I point out how those Puritans who hate Halloween have a laundry list of the evils of dealing with death and honoring saints by dressing in costumes and having fun. Sure, I hate stupid Hallmark cards and having my wife get mad at me when I tell her I don't want to show my self-giving love by going out to dinner on February 14 and waiting a half hour for a table. But our Faith is incarnational, sacramental. As Chesterton said, "There is in all good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made.” Holidays will always tend to degenerate into empty secular and materialistic rituals, for holy days are attempts to incarnate the divine, an attempt made by and among fallen human men, thus an attempt "that is always inadequate".

For that matter the life of Faith will always tend to degenerate into secular and empty things. Perhaps you've noticed that. It happens to each of us personally and it happens to the Church corporately.

Now, what are we to do about that? We can spend our time kicking ourselves for our day to day bad performance as Christians, but really it's not about us. It's about learning our lines and blocking and showing up and going on stage and being open to what happens - to the grace of God working within us - to the Holy Spirit. A lack of effort on our part will doom it - but no amount of effort on our part can make it happen.

And we can spend our time getting mad at the automatic non-thinking participation in rituals and the dumbing down of the most precious gift in the universe and the stupid fat church ladies and the screechy cantor in her jumpsuit and the effeminate organist and the bully-lady DRE and the ineffectual pastor, and ... and Valentine's Day and Christmas and Halloween and the next thing you know, we see, as a commenter on one of my recent posts did, a deep conspiracy behind even my writings because I'm not man enough to criticize Vatican II and those evil modernists John Paul II and Benedict XVI (in fairness, he only said that my failure to condemn Vatican II was "Strange. Very strange.")

Yes, we need to be "good actors." No, we can't force ourselves to be "good actors". We can learn our lines and show up. We can be bad actors by lack of effort; we can't be good actors with the best of efforts.

Yes, holy days have become secularized and misdirected. No, the answer to that is not a Puritanical reaction against the particular. We can ruin holidays by our lack of understand of the real meaning of them; but both the "holy" and the "day" are gifts, and "holi-days" are not to be shunned without taking the grave danger of finding ourselves walking around dressed in black in churches with bare walls as we outlaw Christmas and forbid the Christmas goose.

Yes, the Church needs True Disciples. No, we can not Make Disciples. We can learn our faith, learn our lines, learn our blocking, and show up - and stop trying to wall out our neighbors. We must learn our blocking so that we can stop the "blocking" - the blocking out of our sinful neighbors who just don't get it the way we do.

The Philosophy of Acting

I have said elsewhere that acting on stage or on film is similar to "losing your life to gain it". You must do very hard work - character work, memorization, rehearsing - and then you must be willing to sacrifice this work, to abandon it at the moment of each performance. If you clutch on to "working" your part, you will strangulate it. Only by losing your work do you gain its fruits. Only by forgetting yourself can you be open to inspiration. I am told that musicians and athletes and soldiers deal with much the same thing - intense and fierce preparation that is internalized and then abandoned in performance or at the moment of battle. Read Zen and the Art of Archery. (Now that will make the mad trads even madder!)

The Author Brings the Point Home for Those who are Still Reading

What am I trying to say here, with these stories, these metaphors, these illustrations? What am I trying to say? It's very simple and it all comes down to this.

I'm trying to say that Joe Grabowski is always right.

Who is Joe Grabowski? Joe Grabowski is a Chestertonian and member of the Chester-Belloc Drinking and Debating Club, who says that if you want an answer to this issue, the answer is in First Corinthians.

The answer, I would say, is in St. Paul in general. Not so much in his writings as in his person, his witness. For in First Corinthians, in everything he wrote, and in his life and death, St. Paul stood for two things:

1. An unflagging zeal for Christ.
2. An unwavering awareness that it was not about him, but about Christ.

Take a look at this amazing little statement, from First Corinthians 15:10. Paul says, "I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me." In context, he is saying, "I, Paul, who am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of Christ, have yet worked harder than all of the other apostles." In other words, he was a profoundly Intentional Disciple.

But what does this, the "Hardest Working Man in the Church" tell us about what it means to be an "intentional disciple"? He says that all of his work was not his work, but was the grace of God with him. He says that God chooses the weak and foolish in the world to do His work so that the weak and foolish may not boast; or if they boast, may boast in Christ.

The great temptation for those of us who desire a more profound love of Our Lord and a more sincere service of him is to forget this simple humility. No parish program does it. "Making Disciples" (registered trademark) will not do it. Preaching won't do it. The grace of God does it.

Of course the grace of God will be fruitless without our cooperation. God has given us the great dignity of participating in our own salvation and in the redemption of the world. He wants us to plant and water so that He may give the increase - and reap the harvest. That's what Our Lady is all about - that's what all the saints are all about. Cooperation with God's grace brings to bear sanctification, whose fruit is eternal life (see Paul again, Rom. 6:22). But in any case the engine behind all of this, and really the work itself, is "not I, but the grace of God that is with me."

This is the element that is left out in all this discussion of super-disciples. By the grace of God may each of us become a super-disciple, but lest we forget, the Kingdom of God is still among us. The Jews kept thinking that their Messiah would be a political leader, rich and powerful. They could not bear to think of him as poor and weak and picked on. But that's what He was. And He told us then that the Kingdom of God was among us. And He tells us that know.

And the Kingdom is like the King. We keep expecting, as the Jews did, that the Kingdom will be perfect, pristine, angelic - for that is what the Kingdom ultimately is. But for now the Body of Christ resembles Christ, weak, persecuted, ineffectual, at times simply dead. For this Kingdom that is among us is filled with sinners: fat church ladies, effeminate organists, bully-DREs. In short, it's filled with people like us! And its holidays have become secularized and ludicrous - materialistic orgies at Christmas, Hallmark specials at St. Valentine's Day, Sunday brunches with obnoxious relatives on Easter. But, my friends, the Kingdom of God is among us, and if we reject the discipleship of the sinners among us - the heretical, poorly catechized, confused and fleshy sinners among us - we forget that our own sinful discipleship is not much better, despite our better catechesis, our deeper knowledge of the faith, our orthodoxy, our efforts to ward off heresy - for all of the advantages we have - every last one of them - is a gift of God. And everything we do, every effort at prayer, evangelism, or at Making Disciples - every single thing is not us, but the grace of God in us and with us.

So take a moment and realize that this mess that we find at our parishes - which always needs reform and correction - is the Kingdom of God, and as prostitutes and publicans entered the Kingdom before the self-righteous Pharisees, so might that fat Church Lady, so might the bully-DRE (who misguided though she is, is doing her hampered best to follow Christ) and so might all those bad actors who think it's all about them.

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