Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Personal holiness vs. Service?

Cool things happened last Friday: I went to early morning Mass and received the Eucharist from my CMA-SS chapter advisor (the altar server and extraordinary minister). Later in the day, learned that if I complete the PPVI Medical Consultant program, it will go in my dean's letter (!). Still later, I gave a quick presentation on our CMA-SS chapter to the incoming M1 students. Finally, I met with a neuroscience faculty member to present TAC's modus operandi. (It's not clear to me that TAC's style is doable right now for my medical school, but I enjoyed showing off how it is the ultimate, perfect, and best style for integrating knowledge.)

But the post is not about the whole day, it's about something interesting I noticed when I gave the CMA-SS presentation. I was the first of the ten organizations presenting, followed by the Christian Medical Association. My focus was strongly placed on personal holiness--our main events are prayer before class, Mass together, understanding Church teachings, and attending CMA conferences. By contrast, The Christian Medical Association mentioned bible study, but spent most of the presentation on their mission trip.

Photo credit: basictheory
Mission trips are excellent (I do not want to be misunderstood at all: mission trips are wonderful). But in my experience of American Christianity there is an overemphasis on service and an underemphasis on perfection. This is sadly ironic, because it not only depletes our interior lives but undercuts service! (If we do not have our own souls in order, how can we bless others?)

Some might say, how can we focus on ourselves before others? That isn't Christ-like! I reply that serious and continued formation before placing oneself at the service of others is necessary and rational. (What to the flight attendants tell us about oxygen masks before every flight?) What is rational is Christ-like: Truth Himself is sensible, not only in an abstract and absolute sense but in His intimate knowledge of our human nature.

Source: nashvilledominicans.org
The Dominican sisters of St. Cecilia articulate the relationship between personal holiness and service nicely:
The glory of God and the salvation of souls has been the goal of the Order of Preachers since the Order’s foundation in the thirteenth century. Following in this tradition, Dominicans continue the mission of preaching and teaching, contemplating and giving to others the fruits of their contemplation, in order to achieve this end.
So, hopefully, our CMA-SS will continue to focus on personal holiness to enable our avocation of service and enrich it. I am planning to host a website for our chapter and will make a point of drawing attention to this.


  1. +++ agreement x 1000. This is exactly what I love about Christ in the City, and what I feel is missing in (many) other Catholic service programs. A constant refrain is: "you can't give what you don't have." How can we expect to be Christ for others if we don't know Christ ourselves? And those we serve deserve no less than Christ Himself. (As great as feeding and sheltering are, as Christians we cannot stop there!)

    1. "How can we expect to be Christ for others if we don't know Christ ourselves?"

      Beautiful that you succinctly stated the object of real service: being, not doing. The overphasis on service (doing over being) might have its roots in our country's relative theological poverty--we, a Protestant and even Puritan country, lack the rich teachings of the heights of prayer and holiness, whereby a saint becomes one with God in a transforming union and a Beatific Vision. With an artificially low ceiling for holiness, we think service (imitating the exterior and non-mystical parts of Christ) is all we can do. While good, it is not all and not the goal....

      Seems like we see eye to eye about the effects of the mistake. Thanks for reading and God reward you for a (nearly?) completed Year for Christ. Will you keep blogging?

  2. Being rather than doing... another idea I hear a lot, but one I understand less (as yet). I mean that, while I understand that it is good, I do not understand yet what it actually means for practical living. But one day!

    And yes, I will keep blogging! Though at a different place: mdforchrist.wordpress.com.

    1. What a great blog title!

      Yes...I don't mean to assert that I've assimilated this enormous lesson. Man has so many parts--it's the work of a long time to conform each one to the good. "Festina lente" has been my recent refrain when I get impatient at my lack of progress and simultaneously afraid that I'll become slothful if I notch my expected velocity-of-sanctification down.


    And if you haven't read it, I urge you strongly to read "The Soul of the Apostolate" by Jean-Baptiste Chautard, OSCO.

    A little random nugget to entice you:

    "The Angelic Doctor says that those who are called to the works of the active life would be mistaken if they thought that this duty dispensed them from the contemplative life. This duty is merely added to that of contemplation without diminishing its necessity. And so these two lives, far from excluding one another, depend on another, presupposed one another, mingle together, and complete one another. And if there is a question of giving greater importance to one than to the other, it is the contemplative life that merits our preference, as being the more perfect and the more necessary.

    Action relies upon contemplation for its fruitfulness; and contemplation, in its turn, as soon as it has reached a certain degree of intensity, pours out upon our active works some of its overflow. And it is by contemplation that the soul goes to draw directly upon the Heart of God for the graces which it is the duty of the active life to distribute."

    (P. 61-62)

    OK, sorry, long quote. This book was required reading for the Capstone course of my Master's program. We all DEVOURED it, loved it, and I understand many religious communities use it in their postulant and novitiate formation.

    It's important for all of us, though.