The Catholic Thing
Holiness Means Paying Your Rent Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 08 September 2012

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A friend who rents rooms in her house to college students reports, somewhat disturbingly, that whenever she rents to someone very “spiritual” – the kind of person who goes on frequent religious retreats, works for campus ministry, does evenings of recollection, volunteers to fix houses in Appalachia, may even be thinking about a religious vocation – often, she gets stiffed on the last month’s rent and finds the apartment uncleaned after the student leaves.

Some of our very “spiritually-inclined” students, even those who may be interested in authentic holiness, frequently seem unaware that avoiding “worldliness” doesn’t mean walking through life unaware of your basic duties in and for the world.  Quite the contrary, holiness means paying your rent on time. It means leaving your apartment clean for the next renter.  It means keeping your yard clean and your grass cut.  It doesn’t mean saying to yourself, “I don’t have to bother with all those things because I’m so busy thinking about ‘higher things,’ like rosaries and Jesus and my trip to Fatima.”

Perhaps these very “spiritual” students need to spend more time around Benedictines. Benedict’s Rule is a great witness to how you learn to practice the holiness of daily affairs.  For a Benedictine, our work is a kind of prayer, and the life of prayer is our work.  Milking the cow and doing it with love and thus with excellence becomes a kind of prayer to the Creator.  Faithfully copying out the text of a manuscript in exceedingly straight lines and elegant, perfectly formed letters is a kind of prayer.  The excellence of the craft serves the ends of the spiritual life. 

But note: the demands of the “spiritual life” do not somehow give us an excuse to be slack.  We don’t get to become less responsible for milking the cow or weeding the crops or copying the manuscript lines because we’re “spiritual” and judge those things to be somehow “worldly.” As Paul tells the Corinthians, Christians shouldn’t be less strenuous in their training than athletes who compete only for a laurel crown. Quite the reverse: since Christians strive for God, they should be much more strenuous in pursuit of excellence. 

Christians aren’t Platonists, for whom “matter” is something to be disposed of so that we can get on to the really important stuff: namely “spirit.”  Christians are incarnational and thus sacramental, people for whom matter is “good, very good,” and thus very valuable, precisely when we treat it properly in accord with its created nature and lift it up to the service of God and neighbor, the way the priest lifts up the bread and wine so that, as an offering to God, it can become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Pope John Paul II used to say that man is to be “the priest of creation.”  We have no more excuse for being slack in our earthly duties than the priest has for being half-hearted in carrying out the particular motions of the mass.

In claiming that “holiness means paying your rent on time,” I don’t wish to be confusing Christianity with what are sometimes called “bourgeois values.”  I’m not saying things like “cleanliness is next to Godliness” or that “you can judge the straightness of a man’s soul by the straightness of the cut of his hedges.”

       Spirituality concerns both means and ends (The Shadow of Death by William Holman Hunt, 1870)

What characterizes “bourgeois” values, I would suggest, in contrast to Christian principles, is that the bourgeois rarely reflect on the ends the acts are meant to serve.  Whether it’s the rich college kid whose ultimate goal is the “most exciting” vacation and the “most prestigious” university education, or the adult corporate manager whose ultimate goal is to become maximally efficient, the ends are set by others – whether it be popular culture or corporate directors. And such people spend their lives trying to become highly efficient at finding the best means to achieve those predetermined ends

Whether those ends are noble or not, moral or not, is immaterial.  What purpose is served by that “prestigious” university education, for example, is not a question that gets asked.  Getting it is the whole point.  Similarly, one’s goal as a manager is simply to become effective and productive, whether what you’re effective at is feeding the poor or doing abortions, and whether what you’re producing is horseshoes or hydrogen bombs.

Christians, by contrast, should be concerned with both means and ends.  They always want to know: what is it all for?  And more pointedly they should be asking: How does this serve God and neighbor?  How is this in accord with my vocation as a member of the Body of Christ?  Thus, when our actions cease to serve those ends, we should stop doing them.

A Christian can quite appropriately spend his whole life fixing train engines, keeping them running smoothly and efficiently, seeing the marvelous order in all the inter-working parts, and enjoying his service to the passengers, knowing that he is serving God’s will. And yet that same man, when that train becomes the means to carry Jews to Auschwitz, will without fail or a moment’s hesitation, turn his eyes to heaven and, sighing for the great waste that results from man’s folly, take his monkey wrench and sabotage that engine so that it will never run again, then walk away in peace knowing that, in destroying his life’s work, he has served God’s will. 

This is what distinguishes the Christian from the merely bourgeois man: the Christian understands what ends are being served by his efforts; the bourgeois man knows only the process and cares little or nothing for the ends being served.  What the Christian should not do, however, is to pretend that, by serving “the spirit,” he or she is now released from the obligation to do good work, copy straight lines, and pay rent on time. 

Nothing could be further from the Truth.        

Randall Smith
is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Br. David Minot OSB, September 08, 2012
Thank you Dr. Smith! How very true. As a Benedictine, I can say that living according the Rule of St. Benedict pushes us to keep a balance, an equilibrium, between the necessary world work and prayer by doing both. But more importantly, by doing what you point out: keeping even the material worldly work focused on God and not compartmentalizing.
written by Dave, September 08, 2012
I think it was St. Teresa of Avila who pointed out that evidence of growth in contemplative prayer is found in an increase of orderliness -- of mind, in one's work, and in one's surrounding -- as well as much more of it. "Unity of life" is the phrase that comes to mind, as does Br. Lawrence's famous Practice of the Presence of God. When I was a (Protestant) kid, my mom had an album of three sisters -- the Andrews Sisters? - who used to sing "Brighten the Corner where you are." And so maybe the quick-test question, for both the "spiritually-minded" who stiff on the rent and on the professional focusing on efficient means, is whether the activities have brightened the corner, so that God's glory is the more served and revealed.
written by debby, September 08, 2012
Bl. Mother Teresa said something along these lines (sorry,i could not find the exact quote): "Bring Jesus with you as our Lady did. Let those who encounter you leave better for having been with you. Leave them with the fragrance of Jesus."
More and more, the older i grow, i find the Incarnation the most mysterious and pivotal of historical events. That GOD would become Man and BE WITH US in our ordinary life, working, paying rent, cleaning up, studying, etc., changes Everything! If we believe in the Love of God to the point of embracing His Incarnation then we must be Transformed in every area of our become "like Him." Can you imagine the GodMan making a table that was not level or left un-sanded, or His work area a wreck at the end of the day/week?
The Duplicity of heart mentioned in this article among those who call themselves Christians is to be lamented, and-as Prof Smith has done here-addressed head on. If those who "love Christ" are barely skin-deep in Godly character, what impact will we have on the surrounding world?
Thank you for this exhortation.
written by Randall Smith, September 08, 2012
Robert Royal is quite right: I wrote this piece several weeks back, long before he began his appeal for funds and without any knowledge that he was going to do so. He is also quite right, however, that the principle applies: we need to take care of the little things, the means to the ends. And I know Robert Royal well enough to know that, if he's asking for money, he must need it. Those of us who write for "The Catholic Thing" would appreciate it. If we couldn't publish our stuff here, where else would we go? The New Yorker? The Atlantic Monthly? National Review? There are precious few outlets for this sort of material. Please do what you can. "The workman is worthy of his hire." And I'm not talk about me or any of the other writers; I'm talking about the people who work hard to keep this site up and running. For those who don't have the funds right now, please pray for us. Oftentimes the most practical thing you can do is pray. The saintly Fr. Schall might not need them as much, but Lord knows I do.
written by Mack Hall, September 08, 2012
But why the use of "bourgeois" and "merely bourgeois?"
written by Hieronymus, September 08, 2012
We should keep also in mind that many of these apparent slobs are going through difficult spiritual times and their seemingly uncaring attitude stems from various trials and temptations they are undergoing. It is hard to keep the bathroom clean when you're trashing in the bathtub trying to save yourself from drowning... On the other hand, some of these people are just slobs and spiritual frauds.
written by Twiggs, September 08, 2012
Interesting. This reminds me of when my husband and I got married over 10 years ago. He taught at a small orthodox Catholic College and many of the guests were employees there or graduates. There were so many of these people who didn't give ANY gift at all - just came and enjoyed themselves! Many others gave very small gifts. Nobody else did that (from my family or friends or his family). I was quite shocked! The convention where I came from was that the amount of your contribution should approximately cover the price of your meal. I knew that money was tight for some people so I didn't necessarily expect big gifts from them, but nothing?! I remember thinking that these people were sheltered and there was no excuse for poor social graces. It really caused a lot of tension between my husband and me at the time - because he defended them!...

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