Christianity is the most pagan of all religions. It is the most earthy religion because it believes that God has become incarnate in earth. What an astonishing belief! Ordinary life is sacrament. To live and relate ordinarily is to eat the body of Christ. It is impossible to exaggerate this mystery, the Incarnation. Whenever we neglect its full depth we lose perspective and, among other things, pit one kind of sacrament against another.
Let me illustrate with a few examples: For the past two years, I have been helping a friend discern between marriage and priesthood. My friend is extremely idealistic and prophetic by temperament. His choice has been a tortured one. He is deeply in love with a woman and is strongly attracted to marriage. At the same time, he feels strongly drawn to full time ministry within the church. An admirer of Dan Berrigan, Mother Teresa, and Jean Vanier, he yearns for a radically displaced and prophetic lifestyle. Reading Kierkegaard is, for him, more inviting than watching television, and the idea of being arrested regularly for social protest appeals to him more than holding season’s tickets to the opera or to a sporting event. Looking at marriage, he is attracted, but afraid; afraid that marriage will mean non-displacement and ordinariness, a drowning in the ordinary pressures of life, kids, diapers, shopping, mortgage payments, car pools, house cleaning, home and school meetings, bowling leagues, and lawn and garden work on weekends. Evenings will be spent on the floor entertaining toddlers, not reading Kierkegaard or plotting religious and social change. For my friend, it seems like the sacrament of marriage (and all that it implies) and the sacrament of ministry are, at a point, incompatible.
More recently, while preaching a retreat for Episcopalian priests in the U.S., I was approached by a young, idealistic, priest who was also discerning. He has been ordained for only two years. He loved the ministry but was the father of two young children. He felt that he did not have the energy and time to be responsibly present to both family and ministry. He was torn and forced into a choice he did not want to make. Tearfully he told me that he would probably resign from the ministry: “I have to pick between the two sacraments,” he stated. Sadly, there exists in the church, and within life in general, a false dichotomy that pits sacrament against sacrament, one part of life against another. True, we must make hard choices, sometimes, between full-time professional ministry and marriage and kids, or between a radical prophetic displacement or a more ordinary prophetic life. But the alternatives can be too strongly dichotomized. There is a real danger in thinking that we are doing ministry only when we are doing something which takes us beyond the ordinary life of marriage, kids, diapers, mortgage payments, bank lines, and decisions about drapes and carpets. Concomitantly, there is the danger of seeing our lives as meaningful and important only when we are doing certain kinds of important things.
Thus, for example, we take so much meaning from achievement and productivity. For many of us, meaning and self-worth come from producing, from succeeding in projects and things which society considers as important. The flip side of this is that we feel worthless and bored when we are not doing things that the world considers important. Hence, for example, the businessman completing an important deal feels important; the housewife at home with toddlers does not. More subtle, but more important, is how we falsely dichotomize what is important within the very rhythms of our daily living.
We tend to take our meaning from only one side of life, that side of life which stimulates us intellectually and emotionally. Thus, we live for good conversations, good books, good entertainment, stimulating friendships, interesting learning experiences, exciting courses, interesting trips, and for hobbies and involvements which make us feel creative. The rest of the things we do, shopping, cleaning, necessary meetings, paying bills, waiting in lines at the bank, and the other thousand and one odd things we have to do each day to keep daily life flowing, are seen as necessary, but meaningless. They give us nothing in terms of a sense of ministry, stimulation, or meaning. They are a necessary burden, like paying taxes, but we feel that we have more important things to do than wait in lines, wash dishes, or play babble-babble games with toddlers. When we feel like this then we have a one-sided understanding of both the body of Christ and of life itself.
Life is not just worthwhile and meaningful when there is stimulating friendship, entertainment, travel or creative involvement within our day. We are not just doing ministry when we minister professionally or when we are displaced radically from ordinary life as a Dan Berrigan or Mother Teresa might be. Christ is in the ordinary, incarnate within the earthiness of our lives. Family life can be life within the Trinity, the marriage bed can be the Eucharist, and the tedious tasks of dishes, picking out drapes and standing in lines at check-out counters can be as important in ministry as preaching and teaching. A life consumed by the demands of small children can be as radical a form of protest against the culture as is an arrest at a peace demonstration.
There is a place for professional full-time ministry, and there is a place for radically displaced prophets, the John the Baptists who radically challenge our culture, but their vocation is not any more important, nor indeed meaningful, than is the vocation of the ordinary, unrecognized, pressured-by-everyday-concerns prophet who must live more radically in the world of domesticity, mortgages, shopping and check-out counters. Within the body of Christ everything has its place, its meaning. Life doesn’t fight life, and sacraments do not fight each other.