Holiness Means Paying Your Rent

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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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.