instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The laicization of the laity

I've started reading Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern: A Search for Models, edited by Ann W. Astell. (which you can order for $5 through August 15 using the checkout code "NDEOVR13"). The idea of the book is to look at how holiness among the laity was recognized in the centuries before the Counter-Reformation and in the 20th Century, as potential models for those trying to answer the universal call to holiness following Vatican II. ("Models" not in the sense of abstractions that represent behavior, but in the sense of persons who model the behavior.)

The editor's introductory essay points out that the concept of lay sanctity depends, not just on the concept of sanctity in general, but also on the concept of laity. The technical distinction is between lay Christians and sacramentally ordained Christians, but the practical distinction is more between non-ordained/non-professed Christians and ordained-and/or-professed. And now that religious sisters have left the cloister (among other reasons), medieval lay, non-ordained, non-professed saints like St. Catherine of Siena look a whole lot more like ordained-and/or-professed saints to us than they did to their contemporaries.

The essay made good use of a passage in a homily of St. John Chrysostom (I quote the on-line translation, for ease of cutting and pasting). After recommending work, study, vigils, and fasts to young men to overcome unchaste desires, he says:
What then are these things to us (one says) who are not monastics? Do you say this to me? Say it to Paul, when he says, "Watching with all perseverance and supplication,"  when he says, "Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof." For surely he wrote not these things to solitaries [monks] only, but to all that are in cities. For ought the man who lives in the world to have any advantage over the solitary, save only the living with a wife? In this point he has allowance, but in others none, but it is his duty to do all things equally with the solitary.

Moreover the Beatitudes pronounced by Christ, were not addressed to solitaries only: since in that case the whole world would have perished, and we should be accusing God of cruelty. And if these beatitudes were spoken to solitaries only, and the secular person cannot fulfill them, yet He permitted marriage, then He has destroyed all men. For if it be not possible, with marriage, to perform the duties of solitaries, all things have perished and are destroyed, and the functions of virtue are shut up in a strait.
If it is the non-professed layman's duty to do all things equally with the monk, then the monastic ideal is the lay ideal.And since, for the most part, monks are much better than non-professed laymen at being monks, if we take St. John literally, then lay sanctity is merely, and inherently, an inferior version of monastic sanctity (although a particular layman may out-holy a particular monk).

I'm not sure we should take St. John quite that literally; I suspect he wasn't trying to put layfolk into the monastic mold so much as putting both layfolk and monks into the same, Christian mold, to live all the virtues according to the Beatitudes.

But "perform the duties of solitaries" does seem to have been the nub or crux of much of the spirituality proposed to the laity over the centuries. The virtues acted on in the world are cultivated in contemplation -- an excellent plan indeed. And yet, given that the laity "exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel," might there not be something in the activity of perfecting the temporal order -- something characteristically lay -- that serves to sanctify them? Might it not be natural to the laity to cultivate virtues in action?

To put it another way: the mission of the laity is to bring, not the cloister, but Christ to the world.