We hadn’t intended to discuss religion when we sat down to dinner. Birthday was on our minds, so it would be a light and lively evening. Still, in a lull at our end of the table, it popped up out of the blue. Cutting through the din of the restaurant came those words I dread to hear: “I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do consider myself spiritual.” So I braced myself and wondered where this ride would go. Well, it took me down a path I’d not expected.
She’d broached the topic earlier in the week to a repairman working around her home. For no apparent reason she had brought it up with him, and along with the standard declaration about spirituality she had confided to him one of her pet peeves. “I don’t mind going to church, but what gets me are some of the people who are there. They’re such hypocrites. Why do hypocrites even go to church?”
His words had touched her, and she told me how she had begun to connect the dots later on. Sick people see doctors and go to the hospital because they need to. Out-of-shape people go to the gym because they need to. Sinners, and especially the hypocrites, go to church because they need to.
Conversely, if there were no sick people we’d have no need for doctors or hospitals. If there were no out-of-shape people we’d need gyms only for recreation and not exercise. And if there were no sinners — including hypocrites — then there’d be no need for churches. That’s why hypocrites go to church, just like all the other sinners. Church is where the healing is. And is it their fault that they’ve chosen to specialize in a sin that Jesus just so happened to single out for special consideration? In fact, those are exactly the sort of people Jesus likes to gather to himself.
Her story got me to thinking as well. Then it dawned on me. We monks, and most practicing Christians I know, all definitely belong in church, on a very regular basis. So what if some of us choose concentrations other than hypocrisy? God calls and accepts sinners of all sorts and from all levels of expertise. Jesus is an equal-opportunity savior, and he’s more than happy to welcome the worst and the most tepid of sinners when they enter the doors of the church.
The second lesson that my friend learned from her encounter with the repairman was this. She, like everybody else, expects us religious professionals to put up a spirited defense of being both spiritual and religious. She, like many, are sometimes suspicious of the clerical estate because we seem to have a conflict of interest when it comes to going to church. And that’s what makes it so easy to dismiss our elevated reasoning. But the repairman had blindsided her. She had not expected wisdom from a repairman.
This had become the bargain of the day for her. Not only had she gotten some repairs around the house, but she had gotten a dollop of wisdom as well. That was something she’d never anticipated. Nor had the guy even thought to send a bill for the advice. The wisdom was on the house.
I too am not one to dismiss interesting advice from unexpected sources, and the repairman’s words hit me as well. In my own case, the next time I go to church and silently complain about the unworthies sitting around me, I’m going to think twice. And when I find myself praying the prayer of the Pharisee — “I thank you Lord that I’m not like these other people” — I’ll make a note of it to be glad. Sure enough, that’s the prayer of the person who definitely needs to be in church. I’ve definitely come to the right place, and I’m the one Jesus had in mind when he chipped away at hypocrisy. Even better, I’m in church with my kind of people — the people who still need a little more tinkering from Jesus. We most definitely need to be there; while church is definitely no place for the perfect. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.
My friend’s experience with the repairman dovetails nicely with the advice Saint Benedict offered to his monks and to anyone else who’s cared to read his Rule. Wisdom is a prize, and we very often find it in the people in whom we least expect it. That’s why he urged his monks to “Listen” every now and again. Listen, even to the repairman.
+On November 7-9 I was in Albuquerque, NM, where I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral. The cathedral had recently acquired a set of the Heritage Edition of the Bible.
I had never visited Albuquerque before, and to my friend Eddie I owe a great tour of the city. Among other places, we visited the Abbey of Santa María de Vid, a Norbertine community founded by canons from Saint Norbert’s Abbey in Wisconsin. They have a gorgeous spot of land to the south of the city, and from the hillside you behold great vistas of the mountains, as well as downtown Albuquerque in the distance. In the valley below them flows the Río Grande River. The photos in today’s post all come from the Norbertine abbey, and they include the church and monastery, an educational building, as well as one of the many hermitages there.
+I was reminded recently of how small a world it is, and how important it can be to behave well, even in front of people whom you think are strangers and have no connection to you. Three weeks ago a couple announced that they had recently met one of my brothers. I assumed they meant one of my brothers in the monastery. But no, it was my youngest brother. They happened to be lost on some side street in Jerusalem, and they stopped to ask directions from some guy who looked like he knew what he was doing. In short order they discovered that he was my brother. As proof, they took a picture of him, which they proudly called up on their iPad. Once again there’s an important lesson to take away from this. Be courteous to everyone. You never know what you have in common until you ask!