Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Zeal and the Fire of Faith

My politically-liberal, religiously agnostic office mate and I came upon what I think is a very good analogy for the zeal, the ardor of faith. As a bit of background to my thinking, reflect for a moment on the ideas of fundamentalism and dogmatism. Both of them get bad reputations that aren't necessarily so.

If fundamentalism is the idea that it's good to stick to the fundamentals, well, don't we all agree? I mean, who thinks it best to get off on irrelevant tangents, or to build mental castles in the sky. "Keep it simple, stupid," is a pretty American maxim. When we speak of fundamentalism as a bad thing, we don't mean architects who want to build simple buildings, or even of Christians who just want to believe in Christ. We mean people who get overzealous, irrationally (by which we usually mean unpleasantly or inflexibly) dogmatic, people who get abusive or violent. That's why we can speak of "fundamentalist Christianity" and "fundamentalist Islam" as being something alike, when adherents of either way of thinking are ready to nuke each other, and when there are, in fact, stark differences in their beliefs, worldviews, etc. What they share in common is a certain out-of-place rigidity in their thinking and overheated zeal in their attitude.

Not that rigidity or zeal are always out of place. Dogmatism, you might say, is not so much holding this dogma to be unquestionably true, as it is the attitude that makes into matters of dogma things that are really practical matters, or matters of opinion. After all, we all have dogmas - the goodness of democracy is a very American dogma, for instance. Virtually anything we don't bother to question (and we can't always be questioning everything) can settle into a sort of dogmatic position in our thinking. Dogmatism is an attitude that says "Red is the best color, and if you disagree, then you are stupid." Favorite colors aren't matters of dogma, but of preference. A dogmatist might get very dogmatic about the best route to get from A to B. Provided that A and B are both morally acceptable places to be, and that the routes in consideration are morally acceptable, the best route is really a matter of practical planning, rather than dogmatic preaching.

Now add to that dogmatism a dose of zeal, which for now we'll define as passionate self-investment. Not only is one practical path the best and others worse, as for the dogmatist, but the zealous dogmatist might very well shout you down or even shoot you down if you have you beg to differ and make your own decision. He might even bloody your nose red for having disliked the color red. This sort of person is what we usually mean by a "fundamentalist," and I think that it is becoming increasingly clear to most folks that atheists, agnostics, and skeptics might be "fundamentalist" in this sense as well.

A particularly American thought-disease to to think that everything, simply everything, is a purely practical matter: the dogma that there should be in our thinking no dogmas, just practical results. "Whatever gets the job done," is another very American saying. A first problem is that this sort of thinking gives no guidepost in our dealings, even with other people, other than efficiency. This efficiency is a very rough way of handling human hearts, aspirations, and lives. Any decent worker who's been laid off rather than retrained or relocated, for the sake of efficiency, knows what Efficiency is an ugly god to worship, or at least an ugly dogma to live by. Combined with shortsightedness, this worship of efficiency will cause disaster for all involved.

In a culture that worships dogmalessness to the point of turning her into a goddess, Efficiency, Practicality, or whatever you want to call her, the Catholic faith very easily seems very rigid and doctrinaire. "So many rules," people say, and, "How unreasonable, if they'd just change X belief or do Y or Z, they'd solve all their problems." But in reality, the Catholic faith is shockingly practical and undogmatic. One or two brief examples will do:

(1) Sunday attendance of Holy Mass, even when one cannot receive communion for some reason, is an absolute non-negotiable of the Catholic religion. Unless. Unless? Yes, unless you cannot. Then, you don't have to. If illness, care of an ill person or infant, physical obstruction, dangerous weather, or some other very serious obstacle arises, then no problem. It happens. See you next week. Now the soccer game is not a legitimate reason. Miss the game. But the blizzard? Well, these things happen. No biggy. The idea isn't one more "rule," but a new heart. Worshipping God should be our central purpose and top priority, not an obligation. Having been established in this new way of thinking, we'll probably stay on the right track. We should feel the soccer game less important, and be disappointed when a hurricane or sick baby keep us from leaving the house on Sunday. Once we've gotten to that point, the "rules" about attending Mass seem aside from the point.

(2) Marriage requires witnesses for each party and a cleric to witness the vows in a public setting. Unless. Unless? Yes, unless the right number of witnesses is simply unavailable. Then you can make do with fewer. Unless. Unless? Unless a serious fear of reprisal for undertaking the marriage requires it to be kept secret, then it can be done secretly. So if having a public marriage would reveal one's Christian faith to a hostile culture, or to parents who oppose the plan, then a secret marriage is OK, too. Unless. Unless? Unless a real impediment causes a cleric to be unavailable, then any baptized, or even in the case of no other Christians around, an unbaptized person can witness the vows, and the marriage can be registered later, and undergo any necessary regularization when things change. Unless. Unless? Unless no other person can be found to witness the exchange of Christian vows, and then the couple may do so privately, provided they regularize things when they have a chance, and provided they really intend a Christian marriage. Now a Christian marriage, what that is (the permanent, exclusive sexual union of a man and a woman for their mutual support with an openness to children) is completely non-negotiable. But the nitty-gritty details? No need for dogma, just good practice to protect the main thing - the marriage.

Now, many of us have known new Catholics, converts, reverts, etc., who, in their new found faith, have become quite "zealous." Dogmatic. Rigid. Harsh. Fiery, even. "Ardour" and "ardent" come from the Latin word for "burning." "Zeal" is related to the word for "jealous," again with the ideal of a driven passion. Such people can have an overly-rigid and simplistic understanding and bring it to the table with a fiery vengeance. They have sometimes been known to damage family relationships, alienate friends, and in general make the holy Catholic faith look terribly unpleasant. They can be like people who inadvertently burn down their own house because they weren't careful with candles or a fireplace. In their more self-righteous moments, they might think they are being persecuted for their faith when in reality they are being asked to quite down about the latest papal encyclical and to please pass the butter. These people can find themselves hemmed in and surrounded by tired or distant former friends, struggling to attain the virtues they very loudly proclaim, and running out of fuel for their fire.

I speak here of myself, but I hope in the past tense.

Two things to note about our Lord on this matter of zeal and passion for God:

(1) Our Lord was indefatigable, untiring, in His work for the good news of the Kingdom. He healed countless sick, gave His undivided attention to anyone who needed it, spent hours and hours teaching. His zeal made Him, in Mother Teresa's words, "Our only human ideal." Yet, he wasn't some kinda social worker just trying to help people. He knew the truth, and knew that only truth could really be a basis for living a real life in reality, and he wouldn't budge on the truth. Not a little bit.

(2) No weird personal, emotional baggage made it a lot easier to keep His cool. His deep, passionate desire to love and obey the Father, the zeal that fed Him and gave him energy late into the night, never once went astray and burned the wrong person. When He got angry, He didn't lose His cool but gave the exact right amount of anger to the right person for the right reason - to help that person. No temper tantrums for Jesus.

(3) Our Lord's unquestionable passion for righteousness led him not to rebuke sinners, but to the most unfathomable gentleness with them - tax collectors felt He wouldn't hold their livelihood against them; prostitutes felt He wouldn't treat them as countless men doubtless did - an object of lust or of self-righteous indignation. He never wrote somebody off or treated them as a nobody.

(4) His zeal led Him to willingness to be misunderstood even by His closest friends, without lashing out against them. At His trial, when He was arguably being most wildly misunderstood, He was arguably at His calmest. The will of His Father so consumed Him that He hardly seems to have noticed what was being done to Himself.

So, now here's the metaphor. Faith is like a charcoal fire, like a barbecue fire. An initial bit of grace, like lighter fluid, will cause a big, flashy fire. But it isn't good for much because it is so wild and uncontrolled. People standing nearby will be well advised to take care lest they get burned. In fact, such a zealous faith might, if not properly nurtured, simply burn itself out in a puff of smoke when just a bit of the first grace is withheld. A faith must be properly protected and nurtured in order to gain a deeper, more authentic zeal: baptism, honest self-examination and confession, Holy Eucharist and prayer, good spiritual reading, a strong, mature Christian community - these are the way to go. Such a faith might seem to simmer down, or never even to have flashed, but like the charcoal fire, the fire of faith is most intense, most heated, and useful when it has simmered down. Such a faith burns intensely and continually draws from the springs of the life of Jesus himself. It is not the sort of faith that sears or burns passersby, let alone burns bridges unnecessarily. But it is the sort of faith that can cook a burger, that can get the job done for Jesus. No decent person, Christian or otherwise, will hate such a faith, but be amazed by what it accomplishes.

The psalmist writes, "For zeal for thy house has consumed me,and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me," (Ps 69:9). If our zeal for the House of God consumes other people, maybe they should taunt us a bit. Such a faith will injure others rather than draw them to Jesus through us; such a faith will flicker and fizzle when we fatigue, because it won't have been genuinely rooted in Jesus and a life together with Him.

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