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We need the Marines

A few weeks ago, I assisted at a funeral. The deceased had served in the Marines early in his long and full life, and had performed such illustrious service that at his funeral he received the full military honors: a color guard complete with a 21-gun salute, the presentation of the flag to his widow, and the playing of Taps. The young men who gave these honors at the end of the burial office (though, thankfully, before the interment, in accordance with the principle that the nation ought not to have the last word at a funeral) were as sharp and focused as you would expect from United States Marines: their uniforms were immaculate, their every movement was calculated and clean, their duties executed with diligence and devotion to the honor of their corps. There was hardly a dry eye in the congregation as one of the young marines marched up to the widow to present the flag “on behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation.”

After the service, I had a thought that I shared with the others who were divesting in the sacristy: “We need the Marines,” I said.

The young men who had presented those honors with such seriousness and dedication had reminded me of something. These young men had offered themselves, their souls and their bodies, to be knit together as a corporation (a corpus) whose task it is to defend and preserve the larger body of people, of whom they are the few and the proud, who share their common creed — in the case of the United States, the dizzyingly abstract “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is generally taken for granted by those who share this creed that it needs defending, that it needs people out on the front lines trained and ready to take up arms against those who not only reject the creed, but who also threaten violence as a means of eroding it.

Not everyone, of course, either can or should be a Marine: some people are more disposed than others to that kind of life, with its order, its rigor, its intensity, its necessary sacrifices. But everyone who confesses the creed that these young men have inscribed on their lives is nevertheless profoundly grateful for their self-offering. They acknowledge that this form of being an American at “high-speed,” so to speak, is necessary for the stability and flourishing of the nation as a whole: hence the tears at the funeral.

To be a Christian is to inhabit a society, the society of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. But it is a very different kind of society than most societies familiar to us. We are born as citizens in this society only by first being drowned in the waters of baptism; we pledge allegiance only to an instrument of ignominious execution; we confess a creed that begins not with the illustrious capacities with which human beings have been naturally endowed but with the immeasurable grace and mercy of God towards a race of sick, lonely failures. This society certainly has its own enemies, who threaten in all kinds of subtle and vicious ways to erode the devotion of its members to its creed. It stands to reason, therefore, that this society, too, needs defenders of its creed, people within its fold who offer themselves, their souls and bodies, to the order, the rigor, the intensity, the sacrifices necessary to stand on the front lines against this society’s enemies. In short, this society — the Church — needs its own Marines.

Charles Taylor has suggested in his book, A Secular Age, that one of the catalysts for the disenchantment of modernity has been a certain tendency within Christendom since the late middle ages to elide a distinction between different possible “speeds” at which the Christian life can be lived.

Previously, he says, it was taken for granted that some Christians were simply going to be devout (or not so devout) laypeople in the world: going to church on Sundays and holy days, making their confession and communion at least once a year, giving alms for the sustaining of the church — in short, living the Christian life at a regular speed.

Some Christians, on the other hand, would so embrace their common creed that they would take its implications all the way down, allowing its ideals to be inscribed on their souls and bodies at the highest possible level. These men and women, in other words, would be the Church’s Marines. Of course, because the Church does not contend “against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), her Marines would look substantially different from the Marines we’re used to seeing. And this is not just because firearms and physical brawn aren’t going to be much use against the Church’s real enemies; it’s also because the Church’s Marines ought never to be thought of as heroes. The Rule of their corps will instead be the entirely unheroic embrace of those disciplines that make a person materially weak — poverty, celibacy, and obedience — as tangible daily reminders that it is not by their own sword that they win the victory. Their greatest honor will be their total and utter insignificance to the eyes of the world: they go into their rooms, shut the door, and pray to their Father in secret. They will exult not in their assertive domination of the enemy, not in being “the few and the proud,” but rather precisely in their utter weakness, in their being just like everyone else — that is, broken, empty, and lonely human beings — only perhaps more aware of it.

And yet, although the substance of the armor in which the Church’s Marines are clad will differ, the form of their life will retain significant similarities. They too commit themselves to a life of order, rigor, and intensity, a life of self-sacrifice on behalf of the broader society they serve. Even more importantly, though, is the fact that they too wear uniforms.

The color guard at the funeral, the navy whites at the airport, the camouflage backpacks marching down the road are signs to other Americans — those living the American life at the regular speed — of the costs of their manner of life, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free,” as it were.

Similarly, the black hoods of the Benedictines, the gray habit of the Franciscans, the brown scapular of the Carmelites: these are reminders to the rest of us that there are deeper and more significant things going on in the world than just the undulations of the stock market, the most recent horrifying news story, or even the worrying trends in the parish’s Average Sunday Attendance.

It is not that these “high speed” Christians are “earning salvation,” either for us or for themselves, by their consecrated lives. Rather, by their consecrated lives, by their “white martyrdom,” they are uniting themselves in the deepest way available to them to the Crucified Savior, both their Lord and ours, and they therefore serve as a sign to us – even a sacramental sign perhaps – of that one “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Consecrated lives keep the world enchanted: they remind the rest of the world where the true battle lies. They do in the realm of flesh and blood what angels do in the realm of intelligibilia: they remind us of the spiritual thickness of the world.

It’s often put forward as a criticism of monks and nuns that they’re not actually doing any good for anybody, that devoting oneself wholly to the cloister and the contemplative life is a selfish abnegation of the Christian responsibility to “help our fellow man” (the philanthropic critique).

There are many things to say in response to such criticisms. Besides the obvious fact that one of the primary works of contemplative monastics is precisely to pray for the world, there is the more subtle point that, although the monk or nun may indeed not have much interest in helping some abstract generality called “his fellow man,” he or she is supremely interested in learning how to love the particular brother or sister that is sitting right next to him or her in the refectory, the one who chews too loudly.

There is also the point that, again, not every Christian is called to this kind of life: the Church is one body with many members, and it is the one body taken as a whole that is called to be Christ’s presence in the world. That means that you shouldn’t expect to find the full range of the Church’s legitimate vocations in any one person, or even any one local community. Of course, the Church needs some people running orphanages, some people teaching Sunday School, some people witnessing to Christ in more conventional careers, and some people devoting themselves entirely to prayer (and consider that there is an enormous range of particular charisms and apostolates in the various traditions of religious orders).

But the response to our critical philanthropist that I’m most interested in at the moment is the one that reminds him that it is perhaps precisely from the fact that religious life is (in a certain sense) “useless” that it derives its greatest power. We need more useless things in our utilitarian world, things that don’t fit into a cost-benefit analysis, things that exist just for the sheer glory of existing. How much more must this be true when we’re talking about human lives, lives that are useless in the sense that they are not tools to accomplish some other end but are rather ornaments of beauty to be enjoyed for their own sake?

These lives adorn the world as pure crystals refracting the Light and the Beauty in whom they live and move and have their being. The Church’s religious — the Church’s Marines — are those who are simply trying to become human, trying to become most fully, truly, uniquely themselves, precisely by living the prayer, “He must increase; I must decrease.”

All of which is just to say that we need a renewal of religious life — monasteries, friaries, convents, dispersed orders, and so on — in Anglicanism, and in the broader Church Catholic. We don’t need to try to create something especially new and improved here: the sources for religious life in the Christian tradition are rich and abundant, and although any application of those rich sources will obviously have to be sensitive to the particular context in which we find ourselves (chronologically, geographically, etc.), we nevertheless need not fear taking much of what is in these traditions at face value.

We need high speed Christians — “crazy Christians,” as our Presiding Bishop-Elect might say — and the way to be crazy Christian is to be, for example:

  • Benedictines that actually pray eight times a day, and study, and fast, and do manual labor.
  • Franciscans who actually own nothing, who sleep on straw mats, who (like the Roman Catholic Franciscan Friars of the Renewal) write it into their rule that if the neighborhood around their friary improves too much, they will move to a worse part of town.

We need Christians who really think that God is better than sex, who show us by their lives that Jesus was serious when he said that the celibate life is the better one. We need Christians who are so in Love that they can truly say, “For God alone my soul in silence waits…” (Psalm 62:1).

We need the Marines.

The featured image is “The Marine Corps Silent Drill Team” (2006) by Flickr user Jackie. It is licensed under Creative Commons.  



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