Early in my return to the practice of the faith, I was defined by a genre of spiritual literature that privileged, in one way or another, the monastic path of “renunciation of the world” as the most radical Christian way of perfection. What’s called in Latin the fuga mundi, “flight from the world,” or the contemptus mundi, “contempt for the world.” The language of that tradition is pithily expressed by Thomas à Kempis: “This is the highest wisdom: to despise the world and to aspire to the kingdom of Heaven.”
The vast majority of spiritual literature in the Catholic tradition was written by those dedicated to some version of this flight, e.g., nuns, monks, clerics, or laity who resembled them. This literature valorized the life of otherworldly contemplation and celibate life, privileged dedication to religious activities over secular ones, and possessed a marked ambivalence—sometimes antipathy—toward nonreligious realities like secular culture and professions, politics, money, possessions, marriage and family life, and so on. In other words, all the things the vast majority of the lay faithful must dedicate their best energies and finest resources toward if they are to build and sustain human civilization.
I often thought, if the secular culture necessarily becomes spiritually insipid for the laity who seek spiritual greatness, then the leaven of the Gospel will never enter the narthex of the world and will forever remain locked in the nave of the Church. If this is our only choice, Flannery O’Connor is right:
To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of the monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head.
While these world-renouncing spiritual emphases are essential for maintaining the integrity and beauty of monastic or clerical life, they are disastrous for those who are called by God to make the world, the secular, the temporal, the non-celibate their primary life focus, the soul of their spiritual life, and their core path to perfection in holiness. Such an insoluble either/or tension over time will produce unhealthy responses like compartmentalizing religious faith and secular life, withdrawal from real world contexts into religious enclaves, living in constant guilt and frustration, or a simple falling away from the faith into an irreligious world where the tensions have all been relieved—even if falsely.
With this in mind, I recall well the evening in 1997 when I first (re)read paragraph #31 of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, and the cognitive dissonance it elicited. I am sure I had read it before in my graduate theological studies, but that evening it struck me like a Damascus Road epiphany. After reading it, I thought, “Now where can I find a new spiritual literature that can serve those of us called not to flee the world, but to love it and live it? Who are called not to be ambivalent or have contempt for the world, but to inhabit and consecrate it?”
This quest has been my journey ever since.
What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular genius. It is true that those in Holy Orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession. But they are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry. Similarly, by their state in life, Religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes.
But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.
In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity. Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.