The Hidden Life, and How Heavenly Mindedness is Always an Earthly Good

I found Dr. Christopher Gehrz’ posting both pleasing in its unusual form and highly informative, as I can certainly say that before reading it I could neither have defined Pietism, nor offered any reasonable guesses as to what it entails.  To picture a concrete (if imaginary) week of a sample Pietist was a helpful exercise to gather a feel for what is meant by the term.  It has also been instructive to read other CP responses, so many of whom have direct ties of one kind or another to this movement within the broad Protestant tradition.  

It is kind of funny to me, however, that my imagined picture of the hypothetical Pietist Dr. Gehrz conjures up mostly adds up to be a thoughtful, if a bit overly self-conscious Evangelical.  Did I get that wrong?  Perhaps I lack the right sort of imagination, or perhaps my experience in the Protestant tradition (varied though it may have been) didn’t lend enough fodder to help me put together the right picture.  I love this candid depiction about the imagined Pietist: “She might reproach herself for suspecting other Christians of going through the motions of rote repetition. Still, she worries that right belief too easily decays into a ‘dead orthodoxy’ that makes no discernible difference in how believers live. Most of all, she longs for a Christianity more ‘authentic’ than a religion of custom and culture.”  I can respect these concerns and desires in this earnest Christian!

 I’ve known plenty of dear friends from various Protestant traditions who would seem to fall neatly into the description Dr. Gehrz shares, and yet I doubt any of them know that perhaps their way of following Jesus draws on Pietist influence.  I like this.  There is something interesting to me about a strain of religious expression that hasn’t demanded a denomination, per se, and the trappings that come with it.  Rather, this tradition seems content to be an influence that flows through many of the Protestant strains represented in our conversation.  Again, I am willing to be corrected if I don’t have that quite right.

Beyond gaining this new understanding of actual definition and history, it is hard to pinpoint what Dr. Gehrz and I should talk about.  In his posting we read, “It serves as an enduring witness to the original Pietist desire that Christians cease their ‘angry polemics’ and ‘needless controversy’ and restore something of the unity that Jesus prayed for and Paul exhorted.”  Yet, I think it is unlikely that the dynamic small groups Dr. Gehrz is referring to here, (either historic or current) have Catholic or Orthodox folks in the mix.  That kind of unity is perhaps a bridge too far. Indeed, in his response to my original posting, Dr. Gehrz fairly points out the anti-Catholic foundations of his tradition.  There are such vast chasms of difference between our traditions that  many pretty basic theological tenets are not really worth talking about.  

I was pleased to note, however, that there are impulses in our practice of following Jesus that we can at least describe similarly.  I think it is fascinating that the words of the Pietist forefather Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) from Pia Desideria certainly resonate with my experience of  Roman Catholicism, and especially old rite Catholicism.  Gehrz quotes: “It is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.” He goes on to say about his hypothetical Pietist “So while our Pietist might repeat the words of a creed or nod along with the theology presented from the pulpit, she has come to church this Sunday primarily to experience God through practice, not just to have her belief in God reaffirmed.”  I would say this about any given Sunday at the Latin Mass!  I specify the old rite here because of the sheer amount of silence there is, which is a strong invitation to prayer and contemplation for both priest and people in the pews.  Of course, our experience of welcoming our Lord, body, blood, soul and divinity into our own bodies through the host is probably not what the Pietist has in mind.  Still, the impulse is the same.  While a byproduct of attending Mass may be having our belief in God reaffirmed, we are there to meet our Lord face to face, even if through a glass darkly.  

In his response to my original posting on Roman Catholicism Dr. Gehrz also discusses German Pietist leader August Hermann Francke, who warns “that communicants ought to take Communion not out of custom or habit — let alone what Francke called ‘hypocrisy’ or ‘ignorance’ — but as a personal expression of repentant obedience to Christ that brings the believer deeper into union with him.”  Again, I find it marvelous that I can whole heartedly agree with this statement, though I realize it may have been meant originally as a scathing critique of my own tradition.  Any serious Catholic would affirm this, and there is much guidance given to guard against receiving our Lord in a casual, habitual manner, especially in the culture of the Latin Mass.  In my hand missal there are beautiful, solemn prayers to lead the Mass-goer into this authentic encounter both before and after reception of our Lord in the Eucharist.  These moments of silent, personal prayer are some of the most intimate we experience at the Mass.  I can see how a Pietist might affirm our way of approaching this encounter, even while noting that falling into habitual reception of Communion is an ever present danger.  Certainly part of our family’s move toward the Latin Mass was an effort to flee from a casual treatment of the Eucharist that we didn’t want our kids to pick up by osmosis.  This attitude is absolutely a fair critique of ‘cultural Catholicism,’ but much can be done to guard against slipping into such a dangerous habit.  For us, the Latin Mass provides the atmosphere and formation to draw us away from “hypocrisy” and “ignorance” and toward the “union with Him” that I think August Hermann Francke would hope for.

I do especially appreciate that Dr. Gehrz is just as interested in what happens during the rest of the week for the Christian as in what happens on Sunday.  Our family shares this commitment, and our experience of Catholicism in fact demands this. While my original posting did not satisfy Dr. Gehrz on either describing the way we live out our Catholic piety during the week or on how our faith takes action in the world in the broader sense for Catholics, I hope at least some of my subsequent posts have elaborated on what Catholic piety on a day to day basis looks like for us.  I’m sure Dr. Gehrz doesn’t actually need me to spell out what a Catholic social ethic looks like in the world on the grand scale, and as a stay at home mother I am not very actively involved in much ministry to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned etc., beyond the opportunities at our parish level that arise, or beyond our involvement in the cause for protecting and fighting for natural birth to natural death in our politics.  However, I do want to highlight what is perhaps a less known devotion in Protestant circles that may speak to his question of how the experience one has on Sunday spills into or informs the rest of the week.  This is a deep devotion to the hidden life of the Holy family.

Saint Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary and our Lord Jesus Christ lived together in a ‘hidden’ way essentially until Christ’s public ministry began.  In Roman Catholicism there are many opportunities for meditation on this mystery.  We refuse to accept that because these years don’t get much press in the Holy Bible that they somehow don’t matter.  The fact that 30 full years were spent in this hidden way perhaps indicates that this portion of Christ’s life is meant to be extremely instructive.  In much the same way that Christ fasts for 40 days in the dessert in preparation to begin his ministry, there are a full 3 decades of preparatory home-life that our Lord spends obediently with his family. This was clearly God’s appointed plan, and the one he deemed best.  These cycles of preparation before the great mysteries are also mirrored in the liturgies of the ancient churches: Advent before Christmas, Lent before Easter.  

The life of a family then, can be considered preparatory for each soul’s involvement in the world as an adult who will live out a vocation appointed by God.  This forming of souls is a ministry in and of itself, and one to be taken seriously by Christian parents.  The ongoing breakdown of the family in modern life surely contributes to the instability we feel in our culture.  Each Christian home is like a little monastery, forming each soul from eldest to youngest within its walls in a dynamism unique to family life.  In Familiaris Consortio, a truly enlightening encyclical by Pope John Paul II, the Church explains: “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called ‘the domestic Church.’ All members of the family, each according to his or her own gift, have the grace and responsibility of building, day by day, the communion of persons, making the family ‘a school of deeper humanity’: this happens where there is care and love for the little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; when there is a sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows” (Familiaris Consortio 58-59).

Dr. Gehrz posed the excellent question, in his response to my original posting, “How does our experience of Christ lead us to follow Jesus into the world, to make disciples of all nations and to love our neighbors whether or not they follow Jesus — healing their wounds, slaking their thirst, feeding their hunger, and rectifying the injustices that create their suffering?”  The Roman Catholic Church would answer that before a soul can follow Jesus into the world, it is ideally first formed and prepared.  While this can happen miraculously in an instant of conversion, the normal way, and indeed the way our Lord modeled for us, is through the work of family life in service to God.  From the same encyclical we read, “‘Since the Creator of all things has established the conjugal partnership as the beginning and basis of human society,’ the family is ‘the first and vital cell of society.’ The family has vital and organic links with society, since it is its foundation and nourishes it continually through its role of service to life: it is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself.  Thus, far from being closed in on itself, the family is by nature and vocation open to other families and to society, and undertakes its social role” (Familiaris Consortio 42).  I think this inherent ‘social role’ that the Church defines for the family would please Dr. Gehrz.

When Dr. Gehrz’s fictional Pietist worries “that she’s being ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly good,’” a Roman Catholic might tell her not to worry about it.  Especially in the context of the home and the family, the time we invest in prayer and meditation is never wasted.  It will only overflow as we encounter a world starving for Christ.  This may mean active, transformative work in the world for some, or it may mean fostering a hidden life for a family, as it does for stay at home moms like me.  It takes faith and trust and humility to believe that this preparation will bear fruit for the Lord at the appointed time.  It is not glamorous, and is mostly invisible to the world.  And yet, its effects on society at large are perhaps immeasurable.  Harold Heie would call it “sowing seeds of redemption.”  

I might also suggest to the fictional Pietist, if she really is drawn to prayer all day, to contact her nearest cloistered order of nuns. Now THAT is the work of the Lord that really brings earthly good to a suffering world!  Perhaps a conversation for another time.  

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