Where Do We Look?

I was recently introduced to the writings of artist and evangelist Lilias Trotter. You’ve probably never heard of her. You have to search deep in the engines to find ample material on her life. All of her books seem to be out of print. I have yet to see it or read it, but this biography is reportedly excellent. She seems to be a person I would like to know better. How on earth a Christian woman could have a flourishing apostolate in the Muslim world of a century ago is beyond my understanding. It might be truly impossible today.

I found her reflection on John 10 in a collection on spiritual writing. She wrote to appeal to those who were formed in the Muslim world, but she doesn’t seem to have compromised her Christian faith. Instead, she presents Jesus as a strong leader who will appeal to those raised in the Arab culture, people who give every bit of allegiance, obedience, and commitment to a leader. Unswerving obedience doesn’t necessarily blind the follower to one’s leader. If the virtue of obedience is stressed, then it is very possible, and probably common for people to adhere totally to an authority yet harbor a sense that the quality of leadership is somehow lacking. Miss Trotter suggests to her listeners and readers that Jesus will not be like those self-seeking masters who expect much of their followers, but who do so at their own profit. Jesus is wholly obedient to his Father’s plan, and does not ask others to lay down their lives without his own sacrifice setting the example and showing the way.

In reading the Lord’s teaching on the Good Shepherd, Miss Trotter identifies four distinct dangers to the flock: the stranger (10:5), the thief (10:8), the hired hand (10:12a), and the wolf (10:12b). The stranger offers a distinct choice from the call of the Shepherd, and it may be a friend who attempts to lure the believer away from faithfulness to Christ. The thief is the one who lurks and sneaks for an opportunity to destroy a believer from within. For the author, the thief is the devil. The hired hand represents the world, an experience of prosperity and the veneer of safety while things go well. But the hired help will flee when danger besets. And the world will readily abandon those who have fallen on hard times. The danger of the wolf seems related, as Jesus links them in the narrative. Miss Trotter sees the wolf as the persecution of believers, the violent opposition that will tear at and attempt to destroy the community.

Many Christians look outside the enclosure for the stranger, the thief, the hireling, and the wolf. While I’m not prepared to deny the external forces of evil amassing against believers, I’m also not inclined to point fingers at people directly. (“You, the wolf! You, the thief!) Why? Because my sense and experience is that all four dangers lie within each of us. Each comes as a form of temptation. We can aim for a grace-filled and God-assisted mastery of these dangers within. In so doing, we focus on another teaching of Jesus, namely the attention to that which clogs our own sight. So I’d like to suggest that we look at Miss Trotter’s four themes and see how they might apply to the forces within.

The stranger within is well known to many saints who have struggled. Saint Paul summarized it with exquisite agony. We believers do things, say things, and think things that in our sane moments we would never do. And in looking back on those dark moments, we ask ourselves how and why. It almost seems as if another person has sometimes coopted our mind. One doesn’t have to be an addict, a compulsive personality to do this and know it. I think we all know it. I know I look back and ask myself those questions. What is needed is a deeper listen to the voice of Christ. And if we’re not sure we’ll hear it, it may be as simple as asking to hear. God will tell us. And the faith community–certainly no strangers–has the wisdom we need to hear.

The thieves are things which steal our love and attention–our idols, it seems to me. I don’t only mean celebrities, which are enough of a danger in this age, both inside and outside of the institutional Church. I’m also thinking of the small and large things that take us away from prayer, family, and good living. It could be as serious as drugs. It could be as innocent as chocolate–but an indulgence that begins small and eventually overtakes the soul by an embrace a little too possessive. It can also be those emotions we hoard and then utilize against others. It can be anything, and usually a good thing.

The hireling–Miss Trotter sees this danger as the lure of the world, and its focus on achievement and success. But fall upon hard times, and the world will be just as hard. We can do it just as easily to ourselves, relishing the initial feelings of joy and perhaps even ecstasy in the spiritual life. But when things get difficult, we abandon God. One prophet accused God of being unreliable. The Psalms are full of such laments. From the cross, Jesus quoted an accusation of abandonment. So the question is: do we cling to God only when we are repaid for it? And if so, are we not unlike others in the world who expect payment in return for loyalty?

The wolf may indeed be that self-destructive urge within us. It might also be that our own tendency to aggression is the wolf within the fold of the Church. Angry words, sarcasm, criticism with that familiar bite: and consider how especially vicious believers can be with sisters or brothers who have not measured up to certain standards. How often does the apostle’s warning ring true for us?

Looking outside the Church at the dangers Christ keeps at bay: I sincerely wonder if this is not a very subtle temptation. From the safe side of the fence, we can point fingers. But human failings are more widespread, as I think we all realize. Those dangers, stranger, thief, hired hand, and wolf are all within the Church and also within each of us, most likely. If we are not prepared to look within, how can we hope to diagnose accurately the more subtle dangers that exist to tear us away from Christ and devour us.

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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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