Sue Gifford, a friend of mine who is involved in Catholic campus ministry at Oregon State University, sent me a link to NPR's "This I Believe" radio program website. There were a couple of essays that I was directed to, but the essay by Sr. Helen Prejean of "Dead Man Walking" fame, held a couple of lines that really got to me.
In her essay on what she believes, Sr. Helen begins by saying,
Belief and faith are not just words. It’s one thing for me to say I’m a Christian, but I have to embody what it means; I have to live it. So, writing this essay and knowing I’ll share it in a public way becomes an occasion for me to look deeply at what I really believe by how I act.
This is an important and sometimes overlooked way of evaluating our relationship with God and the Church. Orthodoxy (right belief) is important, but must result in orthopraxis (right action). As the letter of James reminds us, "Faith without works is dead." (cf. James 2:14-17)
But how often do we look at things from the opposite direction, as Sr. Helen suggests? What do my works - my life - say about what I really believe? I find it somewhat chilling that in Jesus' description of the last judgment in Matthew 25, the criteria for salvation and damnation are actions done towards the naked, hungry, imprisoned, sick - basically people who are miserable for one reason or another. What am I doing, concretely, to help them?
Jesus, the One through Whom anyone comes to the Father, is not suggesting, nor is St. Matthew, that we are saved by our works. No, we are saved by Christ's obedient, once-for-all self-offering on the cross. The question is, have I really thought about that, and considered what it means for me and the way I relate to people and to whom I relate? Contrary to what some Protestants claim, the Mass is not another sacrifice, but the sacramental representation of that one perfect sacrifice of Our Lord. But have I really thought about that "for-all" part of "once-and-for-all"?
Sherry's post about Dorothy Day raises this same issue.
In the 1960s, when a Catholic cardinal went to the White House for a prayer service with Richard Nixon and when another cardinal was in Vietnam blessing U.S. warplanes, Day unloaded: "What a confusion we have gotten into when Christian prelates sprinkle holy water on scrap metal to be used for obliteration bombing and name bombers for the Holy Innocents, for Our Lady of Mercy; who bless a man about to press a button which releases death to 50,000 human beings, including little babies, children, the sick, the aged . . ."
It is incredibly challenging to be a disciple who tries to see the redeemed humanity of every person. It is easy to conform to any of the -isms of our own day, including patriotism. One parishioner at Holy Apostles pointed out that I regularly pray for the service men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan (my youngest nephew may soon join them, I'm afraid). Colorado Springs is ringed by military bases, so it's not unlikely that at least some of the attendees at daily Mass have friends or family members in harm's way. It's a popular prayer. But this young man pointed out that I never prayed for those we consider our enemies - and that Jesus said, "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." Luke 6:27-28
Ah, that may not be so popular, particularly with someone who's lost a loved one in the war.
But of course, if our actions flow from a desire, above all else, to follow Jesus, popularity will be the last of our worries - for two reasons. First of all, as I just said, our desire will be to follow Jesus! And secondly, if we really do that, we will be as popular as Him - in His day. Which really wasn't that popular in the end, was it?
That's where Sr. Prejean's essay is challenging. What do my actions really say about what I believe? Do they say I believe it's imperative to follow Jesus and to die to my own selfish desires and be a man of service, especially to the weak, outcast and despised? Or do they betray my desire to be successful, accepted, respected, and perhaps just a wee bit popular?