Monday, May 01, 2017

The Danger of Activism, for the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

painting by Michael O'Brien
It may seem paradoxical to assert that the feast of St. Joseph the Worker is not a glorification of work. Whenever we celebrate the saints in glory, we remember their valiant labors on earth, but we celebrate their eternal rest in God and the most intense activity of all, that face-to-face vision of the Most Holy Trinity in which the saints, without ceasing to be enraptured in the First and Last and All, see our needs and intercede for us in union with the High Priest of our confession. As even Aristotle saw, this supreme contemplation cannot be described as work or even as a human occupation at all. That which is highest in man, that towards which we are striving, is the sabbath of resting in God.

To say this is no pagan exaltation of leisure or Jewish legalism about avoiding labor: it is the clear teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which sums up the newness of Christian revelation better than any other single text in the New Testament. The surmounting of our finite labors in beatific leisure, where God is all in all and we are immersed in His peace, is the end we believe in, hope for, pray for, long for.

In a magnificent sermon on Ecclesiasticus 24:11, In omnibus requiem quaesivi (“In all things I have sought rest”), Meister Eckhart beautifully unfolded this truth:
[E]ternal Wisdom says to the soul: ‘In all things I have sought rest’, and the soul replies: “He who created me rested in my tent”. And thirdly Eternal Wisdom says: “My rest is in the holy city”. If I were asked to say to what end the Creator has created all creatures, I would say: rest. If I were asked secondly what the Holy Trinity sought altogether in all its works, I would answer: rest. If I were asked thirdly what the soul sought in all her agitations, I would answer: rest. If I were asked fourthly what all creatures sought in their natural desires and motions, I would answer: rest.
          In the first place let us note and observe how the divine nature makes all the soul’s desires mad and crazy for Him, so as to draw her to him. For the divine nature tastes so well to God and pleases him so much—that is: rest—that He has projected it out of Himself to stir up and draw into Himself the natural desires of all creatures. Not only does the Creator seek his own rest by projecting it and informing all creatures with it, but He seeks to draw all creatures back with Him into their first beginning, which is rest. Also, God loves Himself in all creatures. Thus as He seeks His own love in all creatures, so He seeks His own rest.
          Secondly, the Holy Trinity seeks rest. The Father seeks rest in His Son, in whom He has poured out and formed all creatures, and they both seek rest in the Holy Ghost, who has proceeded from them both as eternal and immeasurable love.
          Thirdly, the soul seeks rest in all her powers and motions, whether a man knows it or not. He never opens or shuts an eye without seeking rest by doing so: either he seeks to reject something that hinders him, or he seeks to draw in something on which to rest. These are the two motives of all human action. I have also said before that a man could never feel love or desire for any creature, unless God’s likeness were in it. My love is placed where I most clearly see God’s likeness, but nothing in all creatures so resembles God as rest. [...]
          In the fourth place, all creatures seek rest by a natural tendency: whether they know it or not, they prove it in their works. A stone is never free of motion as long as it is not on the ground—it always seeks the ground. The same applies to fire: it strives upwards, and every creature seeks its natural place. Thus they confirm the truth of divine rest, which God has injected into all of them.
          That we may thus seek the equality of divine rest, and find it in God, may God help us. Amen.[1]
If this ultimate and eternal divine rest is not the aim of human work — and it cannot be denied that our culture is programmatically against this transcendent orientation — our work becomes counterproductive and pernicious, a distraction, a snare, an apprenticeship to the busy father of lies rather than a discipline by which to ascend above the stars.

The modern period has witnessed several waves of greedy iconoclasm against the monastic life, as we see in Henry VIII’s dissolution of religious houses, or the “secularizations” imposed by anticlerical regimes of more recent vintage. Stratford Caldecott saw in this fact an X-ray, as it were, of the bone structure of modernity:
The destruction of the monasteries is particularly poignant as a symbol of what was taking place. It is as though our modern world was actually built on and presupposed the destruction of contemplation—or at least the destruction of that (largely Benedictine) ideal, the synthesis of contemplation and action that lay at the heart of Christendom.[2]
Pope Benedict XVI frequently warned against the vice of activism, which he saw as destructive of the spiritual life and therefore of the very mission of the Church in the world:
Activism, the will to be “productive,” “relevant,” come what may, is the constant temptation of the man, even of the male religious. And this is precisely the basic trend in the ecclesiologies . . . that present the Church as a “People of God” committed to action, busily engaged in translating the Gospel into an action program with social, political, and cultural objectives. But it is no accident if the word “Church” is of feminine gender. In her, in fact, lives the mystery of motherhood, of gratitude, of contemplation, of beauty, of values in short that appear useless in the eyes of the profane world. Without perhaps being fully conscience of the reason, the woman religious feels the deep disquiet of living in a Church where Christianity is reduced to an ideology of doing, according to that strictly masculine ecclesiology which nevertheless is presented—and perhaps believed—as being closer also to women and their “modern” needs. Instead it is the project of a Church in which there is no longer any room for mystical experience, for this pinnacle of religious life which not by chance has been, through the centuries, among the glories and riches offered to all in unbroken constancy and fullness, more by women than by men.[3]
The separation of active life from contemplative life, which separation had been proceeding slowly for centuries and suddenly took a giant leap forward after the Council, is a fatal separation, like that of nature from grace, reason from faith, science from piety. It has superficialized the Church’s activity, making it a kind of “busy work” rather than the extension of Christ’s saving presence into the world around us. The twin temptations mentioned by Ratzinger — the reductionism of relevance and the preoccupation with productivity — finally found their nesting place in the liturgy, which they colonized and dominated.

In words that have the passionate clear-eyed intensity of an Old Testament prophet, Cardinal Sarah has been warning us about what happens to the human spirit and to religion itself when silence and meditation dry up, when busyness replaces the contemplative surrender of adoration. In such a world, getting a taste of (and for) contemplation is difficult — and not surprisingly, we hear everywhere the glib sentiment, originating perhaps in an uneasy conscience, that “everything can be a form of contemplation.” It may well be the case that for a man or woman already deeply immersed in the Trinitarian life, let us say Catherine of Siena or Teresa of Jesus, anything they do will be an extension of that burning fire of interior prayer, and they will actually find God in everything. But that is not where we begin; we must take what the Psalmist calls the vias duras, the hard and narrow roads of disciplined personal and liturgical prayer, if we wish to reach the high plateau, the city of Jerusalem, the city of peace, the kingdom of contemplation. Being able to see God in everything and everything in God is the destination, not the point of departure. It is, moreover, a gift, something for which we must beg, not something we can instantly produce.

This, I believe, is the primary lesson that St. Joseph, the man of silence, the man of prompt obedience to the divine word for which he was intently listening, would wish to teach us today. Perhaps he would say: “Given a choice between another hour at the human office and the recitation of part of the Divine Office, choose the latter. It will be better for you, for your work, for the Church, and for the world.”

[1] Sermon 45. The full text may be found here.
[2] Not as the World Gives, 231.
[3] The Ratzinger Report, 103.
[4] Deus Caritas Est, 37.

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