If everybody was satisfied with himself
there would be no heroes.
~ Mark Twain
For a time, my kids went to a Montessori school, and the curriculum included weekly trips to a working farm. They’d leave after lunch with their classmates, go help out with chores, and bring home vivid stories involving horses and chickens and mud – all joy and invaluable experience for my otherwise urban-bound children.
Due to work and other commitments, my wife and I were rarely able to assist with transportation on farm days, but we tried to compensate by lending the school an extra vehicle I’d picked up on the cheap. It was a rusty Plymouth Voyager that had about 240,000 miles on it, but it was roomy and it ran – and the teachers were willing to drive it. So, despite its condition and lack of A/C, that old blue van made the farm trip many times, and the students came to know its quirky personality.
And it acquired a nickname: “The Pig Van” – but not because of farm animals the students encountered on those trips. Instead, the nickname derived from a Léon Bloy quotation I’d laminated and plastered across the dashboard back when it was my primary vehicle:
Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.
You might recognize it as an epigraph in John Irving’s wonderful story of sacrifice and salvation, A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s certainly a provocative declaration, and for the Montessori farm-goers, it became a fruitful source of speculation, debate, and amusement: Heroes? Pigs? Christians? How are they all connected? Who was this Léon Bloy anyway, and what did he mean by his weird saying? And more to the point (here’s where the amusement came in), why did Mr. Becker glue it inside his dilapidated van?
That last question I can answer with certainty: It was originally supposed to be a punch in the gut every time I sat behind the wheel – a reminder of what I ought to be about, staring me in the face as I went about my daily routine. I’m not sure how Bloy (or Irving) meant it to be understood, but for me, that short sentence has always stuck with me as a pithy integration of Christianity’s two essentials.
The first is this: Lived Christianity is about heroism, and heroism, forChristians, is about aspiring to sanctity. Bloy made this point more directly in another, more famous line of his:
The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.
Sainthood, to be clear, isn’t about being a namby-pamby, goody-two-shoes, pious prig. Nor is it about withdrawing from the world in order to avoid temptation. No, sainthood is about overcoming our selfish tendencies even in the midst of mixing it up with other people and the world, loving when it’s hard to love, giving when it’s easier not to, and, in general, choosing to do what holy people do, imitating their example, following their lead.
There’s no question that we can do this on our own, nor is it a question as to who is really behind it: it’s all God, all God, no question! It’s his work completely, though you wouldn’t think he’d do it so subtly – we’re barely aware of it when it happens. And when it does happen, it invariably happens on the barest margins of our interior selves – on the beaches and in the shallows that separate those parts of us wholly surrendered to him, and those parts of us still prone to slip away into moral oblivion. Are we tempted to gossip or envy? Then choosing not to indulge in them, especially when it would be easy to do so, is a triumph on our own moral margins – even if we fell prey to similar temptations later on.
This is the ongoing project that we think of as conversion: a gradual progress with hems and haws, ups and downs, long pauses and occasional lurches forward. When it’s all actually happening, we’re rarely conscious of it – and that’s by Design: so that we’ll be less likely to chalk it up to our own efforts.
Much safer is to follow St. Joan’s example as recorded in one of her heresy trials:
A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.’”
No presumption there, but instead, utter dependency. And, far from being an excuse for un-saintlike behavior, it’s a profound admission that aspiring to sanctity doesn’t necessarily translate into achieving sanctity. Let’s face it, more often than not, we fall way short. Daily even. Minute by minute. The important thing, however, is the aspiration itself, the not-giving-up. Christians have to wantto be saints, and we must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to stretch ourselves in that regard, optimizing our availability to the saint-making influences that God brings to bear on us, and pressing ahead even after setbacks and failures.
And if we refuse? If we reject those influences and opportunities to grow in holiness? It only stalls out our progress on the heavenly trajectory, but we can expect God to hound us until we submit again. And again. And again.
One might ask, then, how we are still Christians when we’re stubbornly and persistently refusing God’s way? It’s in this regard that Bloy’s one-liner points to the second essential of the Faith, and it’s this: Not all Christians aspire to holiness all the time, but that doesn’t undo their fundamental Christian identity or destiny. Short of apostasy, when we Christians reject moral heroism and the pursuit of sanctity, we only make ourselves pig-like per Bloy’s characterization – grubbing around in the muck of sin and the world instead of holding out for more heavenly fare.
This is possible because Christian identity is only loosely associated with consistent righteous behavior – the Church is a hospital for sinners, after all, not a country club for saints. Instead of behaviors, Christian identity is more properly associated with a set of propositions, and Christians, by definition, are those who affirm that set of propositions, regardless of whether they act in line with them or not.
And what a set of propositions it is! Included are such fantastic ideas as the Incarnation (the Creator of the universe became a baby!), Good Friday (people got away with killing that incarnate God!), and the Resurrection (the dead God came back to life!). Also included are affirmations regarding the sacraments (we can eat that God-man, and share in his resurrected life!), the Church (God wants us to be part of his family, part of him!), and the communion of saints (there are all kinds of dead people in that family who are rooting for us and on our side!). This is all crazy talk, right? But one who claims allegiance to the Faith while denying these propositions can be legitimately challenged and rightly corrected.
Now, obviously, Christianity is more than simply affirming propositions, but it’sat least that, and it’s the starting point for all who wish to embrace it. Yes, we baptize babies who are in no position to affirm any propositional truths, but we only do that because we as parents are, in a sense, affirming those truths on behalf of our children. And for adult converts? Affirming propositions is how we get to join the club. Remember these lines from the Easter Vigil?
I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.
That profession is the dividing line betweennot being a Catholic and being one, the set of words that we converts from other Christian traditions had to repeat in front of the whole parish – in front of the whole world really. As if to emphasize the solemnity of that moment, the profession is introduced by the presiding priest or bishop in this way:
I now invite you to come forward with your sponsors and in the presence of this community to profess the Catholic faith. In this faith you will be one with us for the first time at the eucharistic table of the Lord Jesus, the sign of the Church’s unity.
You see? The embrace and profession of a proposition precedes sacramental initiation. This is still the case for us old-timers, actually, and we face it every time we go up to receive Communion. When the priest or eucharistic minister holds up that wafer before our eyes and announces, “The Body of Christ,” we respond, “Amen” – our own acquiescence, in other words, that, yes, we believe it is God himself, right there in the minister’s hand. Remember, too, that we we are required to recite the Creed on Sundays and Holy Days – the very days that we are obligated to attend Mass.
So, we’re Christians, then, because of what we affirm and what we aspire to – not one or the other, but both. Frequently, our aspirations fall short of what we affirm, but we trust God to shepherd us back into the fold whenever we stray. And when our understanding of what we affirm itself is the problem? That, too, is matter of trust, and we have to rely on the Church to provide us with adequate catechesis and formation in order to fill the gaps.
Mostly, though, what we need is patience – patience with ourselves, first of all, and an acknowledgement that salvation is a journey that begins with baptism, but winds away from that point God knows how long. Yes, God knows, and we can bank on his giving us just enough time to make it.
Patience extends as well to others, along with a camaraderie that is reflected in generosity and magnanimity, especially toward ones fellow believers. We Christians are all stumbling forward in our attempts to appropriate grace, aspire to sainthood, and live out what we affirm. The least we can do is shrug off the bumps and shoves that we give each other along the way.
That kind of patience takes courage – which brings me back to the Pig Van. It’s been many years since it made a farm run, and now it mainly sits idle, taking up space on the street. Since we don’t use it much any more, I tore out the Bloy quote, and pasted it inside my Honda – right above the quote from St. Jerome already on display there: “Cur timido animo Christianus es.” I know my Loeb edition translates it a bit different, but I like to read it as: “Why are you such a wimpy Christian?”
*Wham*! Another punch in the gut. Another reminder to keep going, no matter the odds, despite the obstacles and defeats, come what may.
Just like heroes do.