I’ve been back from Sunday Mass for about an hour. Since then I’ve been reflecting on an aspect of Christian practice that has occasionally intrigued me. It stems from a brief conversation I had with my pastor, the esteemed Monsignor Christopher Heller, just after Mass.
It occurred to me, seemingly by chance, that he might not know the story I related in this essay. So I told him about it, and my suspicion was confirmed: it was wholly new to him. It also horrified him, if possible even more than it horrified me back in 2004 when it first appeared in the New York Times.
However, what he was most interested in was my revelation that at that time, I wasn’t yet all the way back in the fold. I was “clawing for purchase.” I knew that I was being led to somewhere or something, but I hadn’t yet seen it clearly. The story of Amy Richards and her “selective reduction” of her pregnancy was instrumental in “sealing the deal.” It was soon afterward that I presented myself to my pastor and petitioned for readmission to the Catholic Church and Faith.
The way I put it to Father Chris was thus: “It isn’t always the good stuff – the love of Jesus; the promise of eternal life in heaven; the fellowship of other believers – that convinces us. Sometimes, it’s the horrors.”
I hadn’t seen quite that look of astonishment on him before this. He replied by telling me of how blessed he felt when someone came to him in Confession. “It isn’t candy corn we’re dealing with in the confessional,” he said. “It’s the bad stuff, the things that can cut you off from God….You may have made my day.”
It brought a good feeling, to be sure, but something else as well: a misty insight – through a glass darkly, one might say – into the Christian conception of service.
Confirmation as a Christian enters the confirmed one into the service of God. C. S. Lewis makes passing note of this in The Screwtape Letters:
The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said “Now you may go and amuse yourself.”
Time was, the sacrament of Confirmation had an explicitly martial aspect; the newly confirmed individual was told that he is now a soldier in God’s army. That’s consistent with the title traditionally given to the body of living believers: the Church Militant. We don’t hear about that much these days, as the horribly internecine religious warfare of the century past has cast a pall over the concept. Yet the idea remains an important part of Christian thought and belief.
We speak of the branches of our secular military as “the armed services.” They don’t “serve” their targets, except in an ironic sense. Their service is indirect: by their commitment they serve the nation and its interests as conceived by the masters of its government. While those “interests” are at some times ill-conceived, and at others can be downright vile, nevertheless when our men at arms sally forth to do battle, they do so to render a service to them.
But Christian service is of another kind. While the Lewis quote above speaks of “the service of the Enemy” – i.e., God – the reality is that we cannot serve God directly. God, a transtemporal and immortal Being, needs nothing. We who have accepted Christ’s New Covenant can only serve Him in an indirect fashion: by serving others as He would have us do.
Christians explicitly recognize fourteen categories of such service:
(NB: Nowhere in the works of mercy do “To contribute to the United Way” or “to vote Democrat” appear. A word to the wise.)
These are the primary Christian services: the blows a “Christian soldier” can strike for good and against evil, and in so doing serve God. Some are not possible to everyone. For my part, I lack the confidence in my own judgment to “admonish sinners.” I leave that sort of thing to the clergy. But the corporal works are largely within the scope of anyone who possesses the necessary time, energy, and material resources.
He who serves any other man in one of the above manners serves God as well. He fulfills a part of his commission as a Christian soldier.
I can’t be sure that I “served” Father Chris by telling him about Amy Richards’ murder of two of her children in utero. Perhaps I did; it certainly evoked a strong positive reaction from him. Though it doesn’t seem to fit into any of the categories above, it might be of use to him in talking to someone else.
I can hope so, anyway. I have to hope his look of astonishment didn’t mean “I’m going to have nightmares about that for a month!” But perhaps he’ll have more to say about it when next we meet. 😉