Today I paid a visit to one of my favorite bookstores. (No, that’s not it on the left; that’s just a great image of my idea of heaven.) I needed to get some items from the religion section, but when I got there, it was all changed. The books on Christianity now fell into three broad categories: 1) books on the history of Christianity; 2) books about St. Francis; 3) books by Pope Francis. I was flabbergasted. This bookstore had once had a rich selection, ranging from scholarly works to meditations on art and on prayer.Where had it all gone?
I found the answer when I walked to the far side of the display. The managers had created (or greatly enlarged) the section on spirituality; everything on prayer, meditation, spiritual practices, how you might use your money or your time or your life to make a difference in the world, had been moved to that section, the Hindu texts nuzzling up to the Jewish ones, the Christian ones, the spiritualist ones, the Muslim ones, the New Age ones, undifferentiated in any way. At first, I was horrified: is Christian spirituality no longer part of our faith? Then, I was gladdened: this might be a great way to get some Christian teachings into the hands of the “spiritual but not religious.” But upon balance, I am more frustrated than glad.
Christianity, like any other religion, does not consist of its buildings or it pronouncements or the record of its deeds. It is made up of men, women, and children who have wrapped their lives and their hearts (with varying success) around the compelling claims of Jesus of Nazareth. Take that away — take away the prayer, the deeds of mercy, the self-giving love, the disciplines that enable sacrificial acts of kindness — and you take away the living heart of it all. That bookstore was presenting the faith as empty shell, and its substance as an uprooted and fragmentary thing, independent of context or belief or teacher, indistinguishable from all other creeds that may claim the human heart.
For us who are trying to be in relationship with God and with other people, it’s the difference between living as a hermit crab and living as a nautilus. The hermit crab lives unto itself, borrowing one shell after another to protect it from predators. But the shell is not integral to the crab; the crab can discard it at will, and take up another that is more convenient. The nautilus, however, is all of a piece; when the creature within grows, its shell grows with it — and grows more beautiful each time it expands.
The hermit crab is essentially a consumer; it takes what it needs from other creatures, and leaves behind only a heap of discarded shells. But the nautilus is a creator; it roots itself in one way of being and makes a thing of beauty, and when its life is over, even the passerby can see how it lived and grew and blossomed.
There is no true religion without faith, without prayer, without hope, without mercy. Following Christ “does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”*
When others look at your life, what do they see? Do they see a doctrine lived in a rigid and deadening way? Do they see a set of borrowed and discarded shells? Or do they see the living beauty that begins in your heart and animates the whole of you?
*Cardinal Suhard, cited in Dorothy Day: Selected Writings.