17 June 2011

Should Christians generally "Try to blend in?" How about hermits?

[[Dear Sister, a blogger wrote about a passage from the Office of Readings recently from a letter to Diognetus. In applying what s/he read, s/he said, [[And others, including [name], have pondered the externals in our lives in Christ. What is written approximately 18 centuries ago, seems sound. It runs counter to the ways of some in our time who dress as religious of the past several centuries, or who live their lives being noticed and in opposition to the life and culture of their environment.

This reading promotes invaluable reflection. By blending in, and the religious life remaining hidden, we give Christ the glory of His due by being Christians living in the world, yet not of it. Is this another way of describing the life of the temporal Catholic world, the visible Church, the social Church, the noticed and distinctively unusual lives--outlandish, if truthful--of some religious solitaries and groups? We may then place this externally-noticed way beside the option of remaining in Christ in the mystery of His life among us and of us subsumed in His life: the mystical Catholic world, the interior Church, the spiritual world.
]] (emphasis added) I wonder if you agree with this reading of the passage? Should Christians "Blend in"? How about hermits or solitaries?]]

I suppose the main problem I see with this analysis is that the Letter to Diognetus (at least the passage from the Office of Readings from about a month ago,@ p 840 of the Easter Season breviary) says nothing about Christians blending in, but rather is concerned with the exceptional and pervasive ways Christians stand out despite their normality. While the author makes clear that it is true they do not stand out because of what they wear for everyday things, or what they eat, or because they flout civil laws, fall into ecstasies in the midst of communal celebrations, or buy into a spirituality that is so other-worldly they cannot work for their livelihoods, it is also true that at every turn they are distinguished by the extraordinariness of their lives. They marry and have children, but they protect and honor those children; they do not expose them to the elements or to wild animals and therefore to death when they are unwanted or sickly. They love all men, with a preference for the weak and poor but are universally persecuted, etc. This too is something the author makes very clear.

Remaining in Christ and living in the world means that one will be noticed in one way and another --- at least it means that in "the world" which is essentially contrary and resistant to Christ. It is not necessarily contrary to [[...the option of remaining in Christ in the mystery of His life among us and of us subsumed in His life.]] This is so because life in Christ does not necessarily mean "hidden," nor does it mean working to blend in. Especially it does not mean buying wholeheartedly into one's culture, or refusing to be counter cultural! Emphatically not !!! (If one's culture is basically contrary and resistant to Christ then one has to be counter cultural in significant ways.) But the reason one is noticed, is not due to externals pointing to a disordered or fanatical life. Christianity is eccentric in the technical ("out of the center") sense of the word, not in the common sense of being crazy or bizarre. The author to the letter to Diognetus is concerned with establishing first of all how very normal in every way Christian life is, and for that reason how truly inexplicable the hatred with which Christians are met at every turn. He is absolutely not concerned with arguing that Christians should "blend in" so they are completely indistinguishable from anyone else.

The Paradox the Author is Dealing With

Instead, he wants people to know that Christians are good, even exemplary citizens with a higher moral code than many, and that they serve much as a soul to a body in their presence within their societies. At the same time the author says no one can explain the hatred experienced from both Jews and Greeks (i.e., every non-Christian), he points out that there is a clear reason for the hatred Christians experience; namely, Christians serve to judge the world and its disorder by placing restrictions on its activities just as the soul places a restriction on the body's pleasures. They are very much contrary to aspects of the dominant culture. Thus, the author of the letter is walking the fine line of paradox and indicating that precisely where Christians live completely normal, loving lives, they also live the most exceptional and provocative lives. They are like the soul in the body or like leaven in a loaf of bread, and to some extent they will be indistinguishable, but at the same time, they will stand out because their presence imparts a character to the whole which is undoubted and undeniable. The Christian's religious life is hidden (in the sense that s/he does not ordinarily stand on street corners praying in public, etc,) but it is also supremely perceptible in the way s/he lives.

The General Truth Today

In today's world it remains the case that Christians should be the soul of the body, that we should be primarily distinguishable because of God's love of us, and our love for God and one another. We must remain in Christ precisely so we serve as yeast for the dough, light in the darkness, salt or savor in the food of life, and so forth. This "being in the world but not of it" is the very essence of the lay vocation. But within Christianity, there are specific vocations which are defined even more intensely in terms of their counter cultural nature. The solitary or eremitical vocations the blogger refers to are among these, and these lives, unlike the lay vocation, are characterized precisely by their stricter separation from the world. They are meant to be counter cultural in almost every way I can think of. Is this unusual? Yes, and it is meant to be. Is it noticed? Yes --- even when hermits are unavailable to speak about their lives, this vocation is noticed in a general way.

Hermits live lives of essential hiddenness and stricter separation from the world in part so they may address the world in the same way prophets of old addressed their cultures and world --- to call these to their truest reality, to challenge them to conversion and fulfillment in Christ. A conscious (or self-conscious!) attempt to blend in, which seems to me to include something other than an honest or transparent living out of one's Christianity in the normal incarnational way life in Christ dictates, is very far from such a vocation. Understanding, empathy, compassion, and prophetic presence which are rooted in the Hermit's honest and loving solidarity with the humanity and situation of others are another matter. The hermit must be a convincing example of the latter without falling into the disingenuousness of the former. When Paul spoke of becoming all things to all people, for instance, I think this is what he was speaking of.

Solidarity and Christ-consciousness versus Estrangement and Self-Consciousness

What I am trying to say is there is a vast difference between fitting in because in one's basic Christianity one knows on a deep level how very like every other person one is, and therefore, truly belonging in any circumstance or set of circumstances, and trying to "blend in." The first is motivated by humility and carried along by one's genuine love of others. The second is too self-conscious and seems to me to not be motivated by humility or an honest love of others. Abba Motius of the Desert Fathers says it this way, "For this is humility: to see yourself to be the same as the rest." The first is marked by the freedom of the Christian, the second is marked by its lack. The first can and will go anywhere, but will go there as a Christian (including as a Christian hermit) with all the commitments and differences that ALSO entails, the second is less about being present to and for others, and is more concerned with being indistinguishable or blending in --- self-conscious motives, both of them. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

In my town we have a small restaurant, a converted house, which is a favorite of everyone from every strata of our generally (but not universally) affluent society. On any given weekday morning one may find, especially at some of the larger tables which seat ten or more, the mayor sitting elbow to elbow with the guy who picks up her garbage, the single mother who needs government to pay better attention to her needs, the businessman who regularly leaves a $50 tip, the college student who eats there for free because the owner doesn't want her sick or starving, along with the owner of one of the local (and national) sport franchises, et al. Conversations are not strained, nor are they meant to presume on others. They are simply human. Everyone belongs, no one tries to "blend in." If the college student tried to dress up, or the mayor to dress down, or the sanitation worker to do something similar, etc, then something crucial and crucially honest to this place would have been lost due to self-consciousness and a sense of difference, whether of superiority or inferiority. Residents of our town don't go here to blend in; instead we go here to relate and to be ourselves in a diverse environment. This restaurant is a gift to the community, and it allows the kind of presence the Christian is supposed to cultivate I think. When I eat here (unfortunately, very rarely these days!) I simply am who I am as well --- both in my more fundamental solidarity with others as well as in what distinguishes me. I think this is really what the author of the letter to Diognetus was talking about.

I hope this helps.