Francis Gardom offers a word of encouragement and hopes the habit will catch on
“GOD”, DECLARED Blaise Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to his creatures the dignity of causality”.
God in his wisdom has done a great deal more than Pascal described. For it would seem that he has decided to entrust many of his most precious belongings to the safekeeping of human beings like us. In the words of de Santeuil, we understand God as:
To frail earthen vessels and things of no worth
Entrusting [his] riches which aye shall endure.
There has been much speculation as to why God should have chosen to do so. What follows is not to add more speculation, but given that this is so, to look at some practical implications which being trustees have for us.
Most Christians would admit that, like our forefathers, we haven’t made a good job of our trusteeship. However, like anything else about us, our skill as trustees can be developed and corrected by the grace of God when it falls short of the perfection which he demands. It’s possible to learn how to do it better like anything else we do badly.
We don’t always recognize this. Whilst admitting that we have “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” we forget that repentance, to be effectual, must include the serious purpose of amendment: doing better, in other words. How much easier if we could say with Heinrich Heim “God will pardon me: that’s his job” and could leave it at that!
Very well then. How shall we learn to be better trustees? The place to begin is by recognizing that God’s treasures are not all of one and the same kind. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that someone who has an aptitude for looking after treasures of one kind may be correspondingly less talented at safeguarding treasures of a another kind.
Experience tells us that, say, some people are better at conserving a garden, whilst others are better suited to looking after a picture collection and yet others at organizing a database.
This insight, so far from suggesting that we can leave to others such jobs as we dislike or are uninterested in, should prompt us firstly to recognize the skills in which we are deficient as being present in other people; and secondly to turn to them for advice and help in improving our own performances.
Unfortunately the popular idea of the omnicompetent priest who works unsupervised and unassisted has given rise to the belief that if he asks for help, or admits his shortcomings in a particular area of ministry, it must be a sign of failure; the truth is that there are far fewer failures amongst those who seek help when they need it than amongst those who do not.
So what are these treasures which God has committed into our safekeeping? There are three different categories. Let us refer to them as Creeds, Beads and Seeds.
By Creeds is meant “the faith once delivered to the saints”.
All of us have experienced in recent years the concerted attack on historic catholic faith. This attack has come not from those who do not profess to believe the faith, but from those who do.
It is rare nowadays to find oneself arguing with an atheist; more often one is defending the faith against fellow-Christians who would water it down, make it easier to accept, or generally reconcile it with whatever secular man currently “believes” (insofar as he really believes anything at all).
Although we must accept the need to present the faith entrusted to us in a way which will most readily be appreciated and understood by those whom we are called to serve, we can in no way accept that the truth which has been revealed by God and which we have the duty to proclaim, has, or could, change by one iota. Truth cannot change, but our presentation of it can, and should.
Christians’ understanding of the truth can and has been from time to time, faulty or incomplete. Not even the greatest saint understands fully the mind of God; but that is a very different thing from saying that the unchangeable truth, as such, doesn’t exist.
God has indeed revealed himself “at sundry times and in divers manners to our fathers through the prophets” and finally and completely in his Son Jesus Christ. What changes is not the truth itself, but our ability to grasp it given the limitations of culture, intelligence and personality to which we are all subject.
So the revealed truth must be jealously safeguarded and, thanks be to God, we have been blessed at the present time with people whose particular skill it has been to do so.
However, unless that skill is learnt and practised by all of us we are in a vulnerable position. We cannot rely entirely upon a small number of Creed-conservers. Every Christian must learn to give a much better account of the faith that is in us than we do at present.
So much for Creeds. What about the other two? Beads includes all the cultural, emotional and artefactual appurtenances which the Christian faith carries with it wherever it goes: vestments, buildings, rosaries, Books of Common Prayer, plainchant, choruses, study-groups, sacraments, fellowship, hymns, anthems and thousands of others.
Bead-conservers are inclined to make the mistake of believing that Beads are the only things about the Faith that matter, and furthermore that their particular collection of Beads matters more than anyone else’s. Yet without Creeds and Seeds, Beads are little more than colourful add-ons.
Christians often fall out with one another over their Beads. This needn’t surprise us for, as one wise Orthodox priest once said “We are God’s children, and these are our toys: do not all children quarrel about their toys?”.
We fall out over Beads as soon as they become divorced from Creed and Seed and begin to represent “flags” or “tokens” of “the way we do things”. Like toys, their original purpose and value get forgotten and replaced by the fact that “we” possess them and “others” don’t. What more natural, then, than the wish to bring them out of the toy-cupboard on every possible occasion? Out of such childish desires are adult enmities bred.
Thirdly, Seeds. Seeds, of course means “spreading the Word”.
All of us pay lip-service to “evangelism” as part of our trusteeship, but few of us are successful at it. Even fewer of us are prepared to admit to our lack of success.
Yet there have been people, some perhaps known to us personally, who seem to have a particular gift in this field. One thinks of the Wesley brothers, the Curé d’Ars, St Francis de Sales, George Whitefield and a host of others, and more recently people like Arthur Stanton, John Stott and David Watson.
We needn’t even look to the past. Each of us has in his neighbourhood a church, probably of an evangelical tradition, which is far more “successful” than we are at bringing people to Christ; yet how seldom do we even ask ourselves, let alone them, how their apparent success, and our apparent lack of it, can be explained. We take refuge in telling ourselves that their success is based on emotionalism, or the personality of their leader; or that anyway their theology is defective; yet which of us does not secretly yearn in his heart of hearts to enjoy similar results to his labours?
Of course the charges levelled against successful evangelical churches may be justified. Experience of evangelicals suggests that the best of them recognize the risks which are attendant upon having a full church on Sundays. But there is often an air of contempt about what their detractors say – a reluctance to admit even the possibility of there being something to learn from them which might improve our performance in this crucial area of sowing the seed effectively.
This reluctance and the contempt which underlies it bring us close to the heart of the matter. It is this:
Disdain for our fellow-workers should be much less prevalent amongst those of us who are the disciples of Jesus Christ.
How should we deal with “the proud man’s contumely” within ourselves? The answer lies in the word “appreciation”?
People who know little about a subject are usually bored by it to begin with. A child’s first encounter with an art gallery or a concert of classical music “from the cold”, so to speak, will be counting the minutes till it’s time to go home.
But if someone takes the trouble to explain and enthuse beforehand about what the child is about to experience, a sense of “appreciation” begins to grow. The very word “appreciation” has overtones of “growing” or “accumulating” (as when we say that money in a deposit account “appreciates” over the course of time).
All that it takes to start the process of appreciation in us is to find someone who knowledge of a subject is better than ours, a willingness on our part to consult him, and a degree of enthusiasm on his part in putting his experience over to us. Given these, attitudes which once were negative can, with help and grace, develop into an interest, even a fellow-enthusiast .
Such knowledge and enthusiasm on the part of our mentor requires no expertise in the discipline in question. One does not have to be an artist to interest others in paintings or sculptures. Likewise, an enthusiasm for Creed, Bead or Seed does not require any particular practical aptitude in that direction. A Bead-merchant can “appreciate” (and therefore lead others to appreciate) the sheer beauty of a High Mass at St Biretta the Great, whilst at the same time admitting to be inept at remembering what to do next when required to take part in it; we can, and should, appreciate, commend and learn to emulate the skill of our Creed-defenders, whilst knowing that intellectually we cannot hold a candle to them; and we can follow the example of our Seed-merchants even though their deep sincerity and love for Jesus Christ put our own in the shade.
We need to remember that God’s view of our fellow-trustees, and the value he places upon their efforts, may be significantly different from ours. We can only judge by appearances. God sees right into their hearts, as he does into ours when we evaluate their performances!
The widow whose devotion and enthusiasm prompted her to put two mites into the collection bag gave more, our Lord assured his disciples, than those who, of their plenty gave larger amounts.
For “widow” substitute “flower-lady”, “cake-maker” or “choir-member”, and for mite substitute the time and effort they regularly and uncomplainingly devote towards the well-being of St Griselda’s-by-the-Gasworks and we have a paradigm of what discipleship really means.
Appreciation costs nothing, except to our own self-esteem, and it brings us close to the mind of God, and to one another.
No doubt we all are looking forward to hearing our Lord say to us: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”. We might do worse than say it rather more often than we do to our fellow-trustees of Creed, Bead and Seed.
Francis Gardom is assistant priest at St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. He is Secretary of the Cost of Conscience