The Personalist Project

As I’ve mentioned, I used to have a peculiar understanding of spontaneity.

It was a Good Thing.  Period.

I did allow that even someone as charmingly whimsical as myself needed to be predictable and systematic sometimes.  Teeth had to be brushed.  Sunday Mass couldn’t be neglected.  I didn’t want to end up toothless or damned, 

so I was willing to attend to a few select things on schedule whether the mood struck me or no. 

But if I was sloppy and incompetent about the other 99% of life, well, that was a lot more appealing than becoming one of those intimidating people who march through life in a haze of grim perfectionism.  (I thought of an acquaintance who was raising a well-mannered family in a spotless, tasteful home, scrapbooking as she went along, without breaking a sweat.  Brrrrr...)

This explains why St. Josemaría Escrivá’s idea

that maybe I ought to be wholeheartedly sanctifying my everyday life, and doing everything—not just the religious stuff, but everything—for the glory of God, struck me as very bad news.

I didn’t mind trying to be punctual at Mass, regular at confession, persevering at prayer.  All this clearly belonged to life’s Religious Compartment.

I wasn’t looking to shirk these duties: I wanted to get my Religious Compartment in order.

But now that nice, manageable little compartment was being expanded to include everything from cooking the spaghetti sauce to keeping up with the insurance paperwork. 

I had fallen for the old Screwtape trick:

Let [the patient] have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

Suddenly, everything was relevant to my spiritual life.  Was no place safe?  Was there no getting out from under all these religious burdens?

What kind of fanatical spirituality was this St. Josemaría character peddling, anyway?  What was I supposed to do, let God take every thought captive, do all things for HIs glory, love Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?  

Oh, wait--that was all straight out of Scripture. Maybe there was something to this.

This is not the story of how I came to live a harmoniously integrated Christian life.  I don’t. 

But I have come to believe that I had things backwards.  What I saw as a threat to all the fun parts of life was instead the springboard to a better adventure: a way of living wholeheartedly instead of hypocritically.  If every mundane little thing had a supernatural dimension, then life was about to become more interesting, not less.

St. Josemaría says we’re like King Midas (but with a happier ending). 

Anything we touch, we can turn to gold—or rather, God can. 

It’s an idea you can also find in Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta,

St. Thérèse de Lisieux,

and the documents of Vatican II: whatever little, prosaic thing is on your plate right now—that’s the raw material for giving glory to God.  Try to do it well--not because you're a humorless perfectionist, but because it's for Him.  It's much more gratifying, anyway, to live wholeheartedly than to get away with doing the minimum. 

So now everything was fair game.  This prospect is only scary while you're under the illusion that if God would just give you a free hand you could arrange things more competently.  

The alternative to the wholehearted life is inviting God into some areas but not others.  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” He says, and we reply, “Oh, come on in—wait, stay out of that room—no, don’t look in the closet...“

Or there’s what my pastor, Fr. Ed Fride,

calls the Jesus-as-Paramedic approach.  If an emergency arises, of course you’re willing to call on Him and let him stay until He’s done solving your problem.  Then you tell Him, “OK, you can go now.  I’ll take it from here.”

Because you don't want a personal relationship with your paramedic.  He serves his function and then he leaves.  In fact, you fervently hope no occasion to call on him ever arises again. 

I'd been thinking of God as someone I could dictate to: a kind of accessory, or a functionary.  Here's your place; here's your time slot.    I wasn’t seeing Him as a person. 

I began to see the silliness, too, of treating the inventor of nature, art, procreation, language, the cosmos—the Creator of all things visible and invisible—like a narrow-minded bore, a busybody with no interest in anything but policing my religious devotions and moral duties. 

Acknowledging the spiritual significance of everyday actions doesn’t mean doing secular things in a churchier way.  It doesn't mean distorting all those not-specifically-religious realities and cramming them into the Religious Compartment.  Instead, it means respecting the legitimate autonomy of everyday realities and drawing them into the unity of a wholehearted, not a fragmented, human life.

So I still want to avoid toothlessness

and damnation.  I still brush my teeth and get to Mass.

But now I’m convinced that God would rather I aim a little higher and stop worrying about all those imaginary compartments.

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