Tuesday, March 30, 2010

True Simplicity: Baptizing the Quotidian

This is about pages 94-100 of Dietrich von Hildebrand's chapter on True Simplicity, in Transformation in Christ. By the way, I'm sorry I can't link directly to the pages in the Google book preview. There's a link labelled "contents" if you follow the link above, and you can go straight to the chapter on True Simplicity from there, but then as far as I can tell you have to scroll through manually. However, I do recommend reading his whole chapter and indeed, the book itself is very worthwhile -- my oldest son and daughter both have found it worthwhile reading, as well as myself. It might be better reading for someone who likes prose that is more reason-oriented than emotionally inspiring. For me, it depends -- for instance, St Francis de Sales is a favorite of mine because his writing is so gentle and eloquent -- he often talks about bees making honey and he writes in the best French style with lots of constructions like "O! What would one not do ..." and he has a sort of wisdom that is often expressed in sensory and particularly visual metaphors often taken from nature. This is most definitely NOT von Hildebrand's style.

The Church recommends that you read Scripture, or at least hear it at Mass, and meditate upon it, since it is profitable for all souls, and then in addition, if you have time to read more, find the saints and spiritual writers that are (besides being orthodox) the most helpful for your temperament and circumstances at that time of your life. St Francis de Sales says that the most fruitful form of reading is that which concerns itself with Christ and the mystery of His Incarnation, Life, Passion and Resurrection and His sacramental Presence in the Eucharist, and His love for each one of us, all of which is at the heart of our faith.

Wow, what a digression. It will take me two posts, then, to go through the next section of True Simplicity, which is on "baptizing" our actions. Von Hildebrand writes:

"Therefore, we must also guard against being submerged in the morally indifferent but necessary functions of ordinary life. While we eat, wash, and dress; while we put our things in order or examine our accounts, etc, we must never allow any of these functions to occupy our mind entirely with its brute specificity. We must, on the contrary, expressly baptize all these things in the sense of not being possessed of them but rather we must dominate them by reason of our conscious, direct, and permanent contact with Christ. In constant awareness of our determination to belong to Christ and to perform all our activities as His servants, we must incorporate even the trivial details of our daily routine into the essential meaning and direction of our life."
This is nice because it speaks to the question I brought up a few posts ago. I often noticed in the past that when I decided to mend my ways and work harder, do things right, etc, I often got swamped in the things themselves. He says it's not enough even to make a morning prayer offering all the works and sufferings of the day to the Lord. It is beneficial to do this, but if you then lose all recollection during the rest of the day you end up finding your metaphorical head barely above the water line of all the active clutter of the day.

Here I will outline the topics that come under the heading of "baptizing" our works, and then save the details for the next post so this one doesn't get even more endless than my usual posts.

We must offer everything to God.

As I mentioned, he says this is good but is a formal affair and doesn't go quite far enough (more in the next post)

We must thank God for all things.

Acknowledging that everything we have comes from God "from His bounty" as it says in the table blessing makes the connection more direct.

We must see God reflected in created things.

(This has educational implications, too, which I have been pondering recently).

We must view all things with eyes of Faith.

This is not superimposed on the things but is actually a more real way of seeing than just empirical observation.

We must conform our life to that hierarchy.

Insofar as we are free to choose (all of us have work which unavoidably makes us responsible for things that are of no deep significance in themselves) we should choose to occupy our lives and thoughts with the higher things rather than the lower.

This list seems to me like the rungs of a ladder, going from more "formal" and outward into the very depths of how we think and act. It goes from "speech" and "profession" to "sight" and finally to our works and deeds, which as the Scriptures say, show most clearly what is in our hearts. He doesn't really go into why he chose the word "baptize" to express how we deal with our daily work, but I'm thinking that a sacrament like baptism has matter, words, and signs, and belief and intention. By speaking, seeing and practicing the presence of God in the neutral, natural matter of our daily tasks, we are submitting all aspects of ourselves and our outworkings to their real source and summit.

But most of all, a sacrament like baptism has God's power; without that, sacraments and all things done by men would be so much futility. We can't climb a ladder to God any more than the tower-builders of Babel could build their way up to Him. In the same way, we can't by ourselves make our daily works holy. Only God can do that, but we can try through our speech, sight, and deeds to be radically receptive towards Him, and the above suggestions by von Hildebrand are ways to practice this. I am not saying that our works are sacraments! That would be going too far -- I'm saying something like this, that "The hallmark of the daily Catholic adult life should be that it is a liturgical life....Each and every day is meant to be a living out of sacramental grace and actual grace."

(I am praying I didn't get onto shaky theological territory by unpacking von Hildebrand's label of "baptizing" by means of my own understanding-- if I did, the fault is mine and not DVH's or the Church's! )