Friday, December 3, 2010

WW3D?

One of the most distinguishing features of Catholicism, when compared with other Christian faith communities, is the Doctrine of the Communion of Saints. In much Apologetics discourse, this seems very often to be the bone of most heated contention.

Many have commented upon and analyzed this point of difference. Most of the discussion I've read seems to focus on the need for intercessory prayer or on the concept of solidarity with Christians who have gone forth from this life. The image of a lit votive candle placed before a statue or a holy card stuck in a car visor are emblematic for many people of Catholics' strangeness, their medieval sentimentality, the "cult" of the Saints. There is another image, though, which - for me - highlights the difference that this quintessential Doctrine makes in living out the Faith of Christ. That image is the W.W.J.D. bracelet.

Now, of course Catholics have been known to wear and to celebrate the mantra on the bracelet, but it is at least somewhat significant that its origins seem to be in Congregationalist writings. Of course, for any follower of Christ, the question is important. But asking, "What Would Jesus Do?", is really only a starting point, it's no kind of end. It is an invitation to reflect, with the next step being to consider more deeply the particulars of any given situation in the aspect of the Gospel; after a first asking of the question, we usually come round again to the very same question, only re-emphasized: "What, indeed, would Jesus do?" That is, in this particular moment, in this set of circumstances which I now confront as a baptized Christian, what is the demand of the Gospel upon my choice of action? And in such questions of praxis, we can see the starting points of many of the divisions which have separated Christian groups throughout history: the question of interpreting the Gospel mandate forms the background of debate over liturgy, mortification, prayer, or Christian Social Action as determined by the Beatitudes and the Spiritual or Corporal Works of Mercy. "What Would Jesus Do?" Good question, and sometimes a head-scratcher.

Christ himself is of course our chief and primary exemplar in learning to be sons and daughters of the Father - nay, really, in becoming part of the One True Son of the Father. For many Christians, no further example seems to be wanted - but here is that point of difference made by the Doctrine of the Communion of Saints upon which I choose to focus. Christ, at His Ascension, promised to give His Spirit and invigorate the Church. The Spirit has sometimes thus been called the Soul of the Church, whose members are the Body. Christ left us a plan for His continued Presence - in the sacraments, the liturgy, etc. - but also for His continued example, in the lives of Saints.

We are given Saints in every time and place in order to have some better idea how to translate into practice the teachings of Christ. This is not a by-route around an intimate knowing of Christ, but simply a recognition of the economy of salvation as He has established it in His Living Body, the Church. His Word is alive and acting - it is not two-dimensional figments on a page, the theological abstractions and minutiae which we spill so much ink (and sometimes blood) in working out. But He comes to us in a Living Word which includes also the font of Sacred Tradition, a three-dimensional reality, constantly demonstrated in new ways and changing times, by the holy men and women whom His Spirit moves to witness to His Truth.

This may all sound very preachy, but it's really finally very practical. Saint Paul, in his letters, never hesitated to hold himself up as an example to his community. Since Christ had gone from their sight, or had never even been seen in the flesh by many of the new disciples, Paul didn't hesitate to give them a yardstick which appealed to the immediacy of their call as Baptized Christians: "Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). "Not sure what Jesus would do? Watch me."

We are Baptized in Christ and bear His Name as Christians. Implicit in the question, "What Would Jesus Do?" is the translated notion of what Christians must do. And we look to the Saints for examples of how, in each era, this question can best be answered: What would Paul do? What would Agnes do? What would Gregory do? What would Francis and Clare do? What would Ignatius and Francis Xavier do? What would Isaac Jogues and Elizabeth Ann Seton do? What would Maximilian Kolbe and Theresa Benedicta do? And - yes - what would Mother Theresa and John Paul II do? They would do - they have done - what Christ teaches through His Spirit to His chosen Saints, to reify in their present actions the Hands of the Carpenter's Son.

And now, all of this being really only a background reflection to prepare for something lately burning in my mind, I will leave you with the question which I signify in this post's title (indeed, in the image at the top of this entire blog): a question to which I'll return pointedly in another post shortly: In this day and age, where the world is gone mad and the choice seems always to be for the lesser of two evils, what would our Lord do? What would he have us do? I think the answer, in part, comes to this: What Would Dorothy Day Do?
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