What Does A Believer Look Like?


The comment threads on recent Gaudium et Spes posts got me thinking. I’m surprised that a generally positive document in which the Church attempts to dialogue with the world at large garners so much consternation.

I could take a great deal of time and reflect on this topic, searching for theological sources like Neil does. Or bringing a high level of spiritual wisdom, like many others might. But I’m “just a singer in a rock and roll band” as the Moodies might say. My highest interest is to put some expression of this into music. But as I have other projects in the cooker right now, let me just take a stab at the notion and leave the the uncovered or weak points to my good commentators.

First, I think we can only speak of the appearance of the believer. Only God knows hearts. And it is with God’s full vision of the person, their motivations, their struggles and triumphs, and their orientation to grace can anyone know with certitude the person’s saintliness. And since we’re not God, it makes little sense to even make the attempt. So with that knowledge in mind, let’s confess we only have appearances to run with, and there’s always the possibility we could be gravely mistaken about these.

I think there are three main venues to locate the answer to the question above: Scripture, Tradition, and Spiritual Direction.

In the Word of God, we have the example of Christ and his teaching. A believer would mold his or her life to look like Christ’s. Primary would be the expression of love for others, especially as it was revealed in selfless sacrifice: the Paschal Mystery. In the extreme, it would be dying for others. In other words, doing what Jesus did. Secondary would be adhering to the teachings of Christ and the Scriptures. Or if you prefer, doing what the Word says to do. I have no doubt that a serious believer would be noticed for activity in this sphere. We might say, “That person acts like Jesus.” And we’d mean it.

In Tradition, we would look again to lived example first, teaching as secondary. The incarnation of Tradition I would see in the lived example of the saints. Thomas More held his pen. Elizabeth Ann Seton attended to the education of children and the religious life of women. Peter was the rock. Mary Magdalene was the human herald of the Resurrection. The believer would choose one or more examples from among the saints and model his or her life after that hero. We would again notice when a high government official stands up for the truth, or an educator has obvious concern for the catechesis of the young, or that someone’s faith would be a steadfast example of leadership in time of trial, or that we would tell it as we saw it in gratitude for being healed of demons. Again, we would do as the example does. We could also follow the teachings of the saints. In that, we would be doing as these figures say–and Jesus affirmed that approach, too. (cf Matt. 23:3) Included in this I would place following the written Tradition of the Church: the catechism, for example.

A third approach, and also an essential part of the Christian life, is that of an ordered program of guidance from a spiritual director. Having experience with spiritual direction, I can say this relationship is extremely helpful in guiding the believer’s outward example of the faith. A good director can help the disciple cut through the self-delusions and avoidance (aka crap) that may come with the temptations of the spiritual life. Let me raise a caution here. Not all people in spiritual direction are being directed. And some people who are being directed spiritually might not even recognize it as such.

That said, I think a director is helpful for a person to sort out God’s call. A wise figure (or figures) can help a person discern when the time for doing, praying, moving, etc. has come. You might not be active in social justice circles or in liturgy. But my presumption is that you are a serious believer until you give me evidence otherwise.

When Susan complained about the presumptions I was laying out, I want to say I took her input seriously. I do think Gaudium et Spes is an authentic witness to Christ we Catholics cannot take lightly. But I remember my many visits to homebound people when I served in rural Iowa. I would not say these people were somehow less Christian because they lived their faith exclusively in a nursing home or a bedroom. Not at all. As individuals, they had unique and particular circumstances from which to express their lived faith.

Likewise, I don’t think that going to Mass, serving the poor, or any other particular activity marks a believer with surety. I would apply the lived example of Christ: Jesus worshipped both privately and in the synagogue. The Bible affirms keeping the Sabbath ritually and the participation in the Christian Eucharist. Saints worshipped, too. Likewise serving the poor with charity. Jesus did it. Many saints (though not all) were noted for it. Many saints told people to do it.

My sense is that if a believer has any doubt about some aspect of his or her faith, that doubt could likely be movement of the Holy Spirit. At minimum, the matter might be fodder for prayer and discernment.

From the example and words of Jesus and the saints, I think we have a certain guarantee if we imitate them in the sense of Sunday worship and practicing charity. In this we have a higher degree of surety about looking like a Christian. I’m assuming of course, that an accompanying orientation of heart and will goes with it.

A believer might choose to go his or her own way in being a Christian: foregoing Sunday worship, refraining from charity, and the like. Such a believer lacks a guarantee, especially if doubts and inner conflicts arise from what may be a well-intentioned effort. I would never say a particular non-churchgoer was an unbeliever. I would assume a person who says he or she is a Christian (or a Catholic) is indeed so. But I might not emulate that particular example.

Thoughts? Have I placed my foot deeper down my gullet or does this make some sense?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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