by James R. Dennis, O. P.
When I was a young boy, one afternoon I went with my father to visit the workshop of his friend, Luther Stewart. Dazzled by the remarkable care and organization of the place, I saw hammers and axes and pliers and power tools suspended on hooks across the wall. Hanging on one wall rested an entire row of screwdrivers and awls. Above a workbench I saw dozens and dozens of boxes containing screws and bolts, nuts and washers. The room was filled with the remarkable aroma of sawdust, solvents, and oils.
Mr. Stewart had carefully organized each of his tools and supplies for ready access and function. Very quickly, I recognized the structural genius of the room. His tools could be quickly located because a logical place had been created for them, and they were always returned to that place after their use.
For many of us, our lives are like that workshop, with everything neatly tucked away in manageable, discrete locations. We have our professional lives, our families, our hobbies, our neighborhoods, our friends, our books, and the television programs we watch. And, for most of us, maybe we spend an hour or two on Sunday morning at church. By and large, these activities don’t seem to interact much with each other. Thus, we have segregated our lives into discrete, insular pockets. Like Mr. Stewart’s workshop, everything has a place, a hook upon which we hang the various components of our lives.
We have segregated our politics, our religion, our sexuality, our social lives, and our entertainment. When it comes to religion, we look for a kind of instant faith, like instant oatmeal: a faith that can be ready in two minutes, upon demand. At most, we’re willing to surrender a couple of hours a week in the pursuit of sanctity. But most of us will find that the spiritual life, when lived deeply, simply doesn’t work that way.
I think we encounter a few problems when we try to create that kind of a spiritual ghetto. First, when we encounter tough times, we may find that there’s just not enough there to keep us going. Like a well that’s not dug very deep, when we encounter a drought, there’s just nothing there to sustain life. For many of us, our prayer lives get squeezed out by the claims of work and home and family. We don’t have a strong objection to prayer, but so many other demands have taken us hostage. And sometimes, like the victims of Stockholm Syndrome, we’ve fallen in love with our captors.
Secondly, we may find that the various components of our lives have very little to do with each other. Thus, it often doesn’t occur to us to ask forgiveness when we find a broken relationship at the workplace. We may not even consider the ethical implications of certain financial transactions. We may not see the connections between a strained family relationship and the difficulty we have in achieving a deep, loving relationship with the Almighty.
We like to indulge ourselves in the assumption that God only cares about the “big issues,” that He’s only interested in times of crisis or those moments we consider religious. And yet, the scriptural witness teaches us again and again that God wants to be involved in the most minute details of our lives.
C.S. Lewis once said, “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” We cannot drink from the cup of rage and anger in our politics and expect to find peace when we walk into the doors of our church. We cannot lead lives of deceit in the workplace and expect that honesty will fill us when we get home. We can choose to live in a world in which we are acutely aware of God’s presence in our lives, or we can lead lives in which the bulk of our days are spent without much regard for the spiritual ramifications of how we wander through the world.
Jesus once asked, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:30-32). In part, Jesus suggests that our faith must be a living and growing thing. But a mustard plant is kind of like a subversive weed; it has very little respect for boundaries.
As described in the Book of Acts, the early church initially tried to contain Jesus’ message to the Jewish community of that time. The Spirit, however, would not be contained; it spread to the Gentiles, then throughout the Empire and ultimately throughout the world. The Kingdom of God is like that: like a mustard seed it grows wildly, sometimes invading the places we try to keep apart from it.
Many of us try to keep God within a small box that we’ve carefully labeled “Religion.” I think we will find that God will not remain within that box. And if He does stay put where we’ve placed Him, we might wonder whether that’s really God we’ve got in there.
About the author: James R. Dennis is a brother in the Order of Preachers (Dominican Order) and a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio TX. Read his blog at http://dominicanes.me.