The Personalist Project

Why do you care for money more than your soul?

While I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?

Socrates, The Apology

Become who you are!

I think I date my enthusiasm for personalism from the day I heard St. John Paul II say that. 

There's something else I could swear he said, though I can't find it anywhere: that by our free actions we become "somebody--or somebody else." I guess I have to bow to Google, which doesn't think he ever uttered those words. But the idea remains: what we make of our life is in our hands, much more than we imagine.

Fast forward thirty years or so, and I'm still mired in the nitty-gritty of trying to become who I am. If it's not too steep a tilt from the sublime into the ridiculous, I want to talk about that in the context of bullet journals, specifically the element of tracking certain actions from day to day, week to week, month to month.

In my esoteric little corner of the internet, bullet journals ("bujos") are all the rage. Bujos are a style of DIY personal agenda that you customize and make up as you go along. They appeal to those of us who cherish an exalted idea of our own uniqueness and are also too cheap to lay down serious money for a pre-laid-out daily planner. (The personal planner industry firmly believes there's a sucker born every minute, as evidenced by the price tags of their products.)

One appealing element of the bujo is the way you can track anything at all: grams of protein consumed, books read, sit-ups suffered, prayers said... But isn't that awfully artificial? Does it leave enough room for creativity, or just the general ability to live your life in an un-mechanical way? What am I, a science experiment and simultaneously a scientist observing myself under a microscope like some odd foreign object? Doesn't that ruin everything, making life too regimented and artificial?

It took me a while to realize that that wasn't going to be a problem. The level of chaos in my mind is more than sufficient to ward off any such danger. Tracking things, being aware of how I was really spending my time and whether I was really accomplishing any of the things I felt like I was working on would be all to the good.

And the self-knowledge! If you're going to try to become who you are, you need to have some sense of where you stand now. When I began tracking my actions to try to form habits, I was amazed how many things I thought I was doing but hardly ever did. Most of the actions I was thinking of as accomplishments actually never progressed beyond the velleity stage--that's what Thomas Aquinas calls something that's somewhere between a wish and an act of the will. Wikipedia calls it "the lowest degree of desire or volition" and notes that "the marketer Matt Bailey described it as a 'desire to see something done but not enough desire to make it happen.'"

I don't mean to say becoming who you are is just a matter of deciding on certain positive habits and tracking them until you're performing certain good actions X% of the time. Such things can pave the way for the supernatural transformation, but the kind of interweaving of faith and works, abandonment and human effort I talked about in my last post goes beyond setting a goal and proceeding towards it.

But exposing self-deception about where you stand and building up momentum towards getting somewhere--or, more, becoming someone--are starting points worth embracing.

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It's taken a long, long time for me to believe that we are saved not by works but by grace. We don't have it in us to "earn" salvation, even if we were to make a sustained and conscientious lifelong effort. (And I don't know about you, but I sure can't say I've done that.) It's ALL grace. "Without Me you can do nothing" means exactly what it sounds like it means.

Well, then, what IS the role of human effort?

When I was a Protestant kid of the once-saved-always-saved persuasion, I was taught that human effort was just an expression of love for God, with no eternal ramifications. (Actually the Christians we knew were, like Dorcas, "full of good works," but their theology didn't require it.) As I recalled in a post exploring what exactly eternal security implied, 

I once asked my Sunday school teacher:

So, if I'm saved no matter what I do, does that mean I can commit all the sins I want from now on?

There was a pause, and then she replied:

Well, if you were really saved, you wouldn't want to.

But even she didn't sound convinced.

According to the doctrine of eternal security, human effort counts for nothing.

The other extreme would be pelagianism. The pelagian imagines he has it in him to earn salvation, to do good and avoid evil unaided by God.

According to the pelagian, human effort counts for everything.

A Christian personalist, focused on the reality and centrality of what goes on inside the person, wouldn't want to subscribe to either extreme. But then how does it all fit together?

I think I just found the answer--or at least a uniquely lucid expression of how faith, and grace, and works, and abandonment, and human effort all come together in each person's salvation history. It's in Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis' recent (and very uncontroversial!) apostolic exhortation. Here's what he says in section 56:

Only on the basis of God’s gift, freely accepted and humbly received, can we cooperate by our own efforts in our progressive transformation. 

That is, we are on our way through a "progressive transformation." But acceptance of a gift we never earned is what opens the way.

We must first belong to God, offering ourselves to him who was there first, and entrusting to him our abilities, our efforts, our struggle against evil and our creativity, so that his free gift may grow and develop within us:

So the project--the adventure--of personal life--the "development" and "unfolding" that we personalists like to talk about so much--is still before us. There's a place for those "abilities," "efforts," "struggle" and "creativity"--a far cry from the passive resignation and renunciation of imagination, ingenuity and adventurousness that make up the caricature of the Christian. Pope Francis calls in St. Paul:

“I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). For that matter, the Church has always taught that charity alone makes growth in the life of grace possible, for “if I do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).

This line always reminds me of a hilarious and insightful saying we used to have at the Community Bible Chapel: "The problem with a living sacrifice is, it keeps trying to crawl off the altar."

Human persons, subject to the vagaries of time and shifting physiological states, might try to make of themselves a holocaust--the kind of offering that is utterly destroyed and consumed, once and for all. But as the consuming fire gets closer, we're besieged by second thoughts, sidetracked by the pursuit of loopholes, not so sure after all that we want to go through with it. We doubt, reasonably enough, that we have it in us. We doubt, less reasonably, that God will be there to supplement the "nothing" that we can do without Him. 

But if we can get past the false either-or--either unearned gift or freely chosen effort--we can get on with the inner transformation and the eternal happiness. 

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My daughter Rachel (front row, second from left) recently spent a week in Ecuador with an organization called Rostro de Cristo ("Face of Christ").

"What did you do there?" I asked. "Build shelters? Distribute food and medicine? Entertain the children?"

"No," she said. "It's called the 'ministry of presence.'"

Most high school or college mission trips, of course, are as much about opening the eyes of the helpers as about bringing aid to the help-ees. My son went to the Dominican Republic (his paternal grandfather's birthplace) a few years ago and helped construct a small building for the kids at an orphanage. But if it were really just about producing a building, there are more efficient ways to do that than import a handful of amateur gringo construction workers for a week and a half. It's also about opening the eyes of the gringos. But what else?

My daughter's group made that "what else" explicit. There was no pretense that they were there to provide some easily measurable benefit to the residents of Arbolito, on the outskirts of Guayaquil. They were there to carry out this "ministry of presence." They met the people, talked with them, listened to them, got to know them. They also bought some of their very beautiful handicrafts as gifts for us back home, but if that were the whole point--again, there are more efficient ways to garner extra income for Ecuadorian artisans in need.

Employee Mendoza-Waters of Campus Ministry at Catholic University of America says they're aiming for "true service rather than volunteerism." Volunteerism, it seems to me, points back to the person who's volunteering. It's something you can put on your transcript, on your résumé: documentation that you've checked the altruism box. Service, though, is service to someone, And of course it's not just for the elite. Catholic University works to make mission trips affordable. "If mission trips are only for the rich, and only the rich could serve the poor,"  Mendoza-Waters explains, "it’s defeating the purpose of what we’re trying to do,” 

My daughter's group met the inhabitants and lived in relative poverty while they were there, sharing an experience rather than doling out benefits from afar. Looking a person in the eye is a fine antidote for the theories of armchair sociologists or theologians, which all too easily degenerate into using actual poor people as props, as pawns, as "Exhibit A"'s. Efforts to change people's lives get overshadowed by the itch to persuade fellow armchair dwellers of one's favorite systemic solutions.

You might fault the poor for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps--until you meet the lady who can never leave her hut, because she knows the minute she does, thieves will seize everything.

You might wonder why they don't  try to build up a little business-- until you meet the villagers who have no running water or electricity, since they were swindled into picking up and moving to land that the city refuses to service, because it turns out the sale of it was illegal. You can't blame 100% of the evils on the rich, either, when you see the poor preying on one another. 

In other words, you learn some facts you didn't know before. But more than that, you see the responses of the people: you're struck, as my daughter was, because, over and over, she heard people saying "gracias a Dios" (thanks be to God) for comforts and consolations so minimal it would never occur to us to be grateful for them.

Don't get me wrong! Without rich people writing checks from afar, none of the food, clothing, shelter and airplane tickets that make help possible would happen. Tangible help is required even for a ministry of presence to happen. And there are tangible benefits of the ministry once it does. Some of the students stay for years, saving lives or starting their own aid organizations, or they go back home and raise funds. Or they see their own opportunity for an education with new eyes and take better advantage of it, to the benefit of everyone whose path they cross.

But lose the personal contact and you lose the heart of the whole thing. Not everyone has to go to Guayaquil. The ministry of presence is something you can practice with your mother-in-law, your mailman, or, better yet, with the people in your own immediate family--the ones most likely to get lost in the shuffle of the struggle to keep the tangible benefits coming. The ministry of presence, it turns out, is something everyone everywhere is meant both to practice and to receive.

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I recently translated Fr. Mariano Fazio's book, Last of the Romantics: St. Josemaría in the Twenty-First Century (available from Scepter this coming October). It's an excellent book, but what interests me right now is the Appendix: a talk called "The Human Realism of Holiness" given by the late Joaquín Navarro-Valls, longtime director of the Holy See Press Office under Pope St. John Paul II.

In the talk, he makes one of those points that's obvious once you see it but elusive until you do. More on that in a minute. Speaking of St. Josemaría, he contends:

What he had done was to return to the idea of human holiness the universality it should always have had, but which circumstances...had reduced to an exceptional task for exceptional people, in exceptional life circumstances, achieved by means of exceptional deeds. To rescue the ideal of holiness from the setting of that exceptionality was, it seems to me, the revolution that Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer has achieved in the Church of our day.

How did we all get it into our heads that holiness was to be found only in such a setting? Why do we make such an assumption?

Many reasons, but here's one I bet you never thought of:

Most of us, he points out, get their first idea of holiness from paintings and statues of the saints. And the creators of those pictures and statues, like good artists, don't generally try to catch their subjects peeling potatoes, brushing their teeth, or filling out DMV paperwork.

No, instead the artists 

seek to represent them in a paradigmatic moment of their existence. And this results in the plastic image of holiness usually appearing in a context of exceptional circumstances, thus giving the impression that these are the only ones that can form the context of a saint's life.

The problem reaches maximum misleadingness in the case of the martyrs. Saints, you get the impression, are the kind of people who go around being devoured by lions, tied to trees, shot through with arrows, and getting decapitated. That's just what they do.

We ordinary slobs, on the other hand...

The trouble with such artwork, says Navarro-Valls (and here's the point that's obvious once you see it) is that it

runs the risk of confusing the effect with the cause. It's not that martyrs are holy because they have suffered to an intolerable degree, but that they were holy for having made their own that divine plan, accepting even deprivation of the good of life. 

This leads to the misconception that ordinary people in ordinary circumstances are neither capable of nor called to holiness. But it also insinuates the more subtle but extremely common "confounding of difficulty and virtue." Some people will go their way full of false peace, confident that people like them can't be expected to be especially virtuous. These are the "I'm no Mother Teresa" types.

But many others will succumb to the painful delusion that their sole guiding moral principle ought to be "harder is better." That's how you get well-meaning people striving to live inhuman lives. It's not just that they realize that grace builds on nature and miracles are possible. No problem there. But they imagine it's heroic to refuse the creature comforts and recreation that would provide them with the mental, physical and emotional energy to take good care of themselves and the people in their charge.

They deprive themselves of sleep, of creative pursuits, of the right tools for the job, of time- and energy-saving technology, because "harder is better." They get impatient and short-tempered, because they think that using ordinary human means to safeguard their physical and emotional health is a failure of moral rectitude. They're doing it the hard way--because they think difficulty and goodness inevitably go hand in hand.

The thing is, holiness is exceptional. Of course it is. But holy people are "exceptional on the inside," regardless of circumstances. And that's both more attainable and more difficult than getting shot through with arrows.


Image credits:

Navarro-Valls: Wikimedia Commons

DMV paperwork: Wikimedia Commons

St. Sebastian: Wikimedia Commons

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A year ago, I started an early-morning workout program which, to my shock, is working for me. It's taught me a lot about the non-workout parts of my life, too. 

But something else occurred to me, something with ramifications far beyond whether you can teach one sedentary, fifty-something grand multipara new tricks or not.

The way the program is set up, you get a point every time you come to class, keep a food journal, participate in a 5K, and so on. You can also earn a point for going to orientation. Once in a while, if the roads are icy and class is cancelled, everyone gets a point for their unfulfilled desire to show up. Rack up enough points and you get a generous discount next time.

But give us human beings a system, and we'll find a way to game it. At some time during each session--usually perilously near the end-- Uncle Larry, our coach, starts getting emails, calls and queries from us, his coach-ees, asking just how many points we've racked up, exactly how complete our food journal has to be, precisely how late we can arrive and still count as having attended a session, and so on. We start wondering whether, perhaps, there's a way to get credit for perseverance and consistency without, well, persevering and being consistent.

We start focusing on points for their own sake, forgetting that the only reason the point system, with its promise of a discount, exists is to encourage us to succeed. We fall into the What's the Least I Need to Do? approach. We try to get away with short-changing ourselves and sabotaging our success for the sake of of the reward that was put there to facilitate our own accomplishments.

Students are the same way. They sleep in; they miss their deadlines; they don't open their mouths all semester, and then, a week before finals, they appear in the professor's office, announcing earnestly that they're worried about their grade. The grade, rather than an indication of accomplishment, becomes an end in itself. They're industriously trying to rack up points while missing the point--to count as educated without the labor of learning things.

We religious people fall into the same trap. We put our faith in checking off the boxes--the rosary box, the devotion to St. So-and-So box, the novena box... The practices were meant to draw us closer to a Person, but we act as if they're invested with magic powers that will allow us to sneak past St. Peter without the slow building up of virtues and genuine acts of love.

I'm not talking about the idea that we can earn our way to Heaven--that we, single-handed, could be virtuous enough to deserve eternal bliss. That would be a mistake, but a different one. The points mentality is more subtle, because we don't always notice we're falling into it. We're not trying to sabotage our own accomplishment--we slip into thinking that of racking up points and becoming holy are one and the same.

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