to the Lay Life


George A. Blair

Preliminary Notice

In spite of the objections some may raise, I am going to use the term "layman" throughout this book instead of the "gender neutral" term "lay person." The reason is that, as I see it, there is a subtle but important difference between a "lay person" and a "layman."

A lay person is a person who happens to be in the lay state. A layman is a person whose essence is characterized by the lay state that he is in. Every layman is a lay person, but not every lay person is a layman, though perhaps he or she ought to be. People, for instance, who are utterly indifferent to their status are lay persons, but they are not really laymen. A layman is someone who is in the lay state and is trying to reach Christian perfection precisely as a member of the lay state. This is the person to whom this book is directed, as well as to those Religious or clerics who want to become clear about how precisely they differ from laymen.

I am also going to refer to the layman using the generic personal pronoun "he," rather than the awkward "he/she." To say that this generic pronoun excludes women mistakes the form for the meaning. It is as silly as to say that the pens we write with are the same as the pens we keep pigs in just because the form of the words happens to be the same.

And the attempt to achieve "gender neutral" language by avoiding the generic personal pronoun is Theologically dangerous. If in referring to God, we replace "he" by the noun "God" (as some feminists are trying to do), then by implication we are depersonalizing God. So in order to avoid by implication "masculinizing" God, we are implying that God is not a person at all; we imply that he is neuter, an "it."

But God does not lack sex; he is not neuter. Think of clear glass; it does not lack color, or it would be black. But by the same token, God does not contain all genders, any more than clear glass contains all colors, because what contains all colors is white. No, God transcends sex, in the sense that masculine or feminine or neuter terms do not apply to him as such, even though he is a person (in fact, three persons).

But the only English pronoun that is a personal pronoun and does not have any gender is the generic personal pronoun "he." That's just a fact of the language, which remains a fact, even if people deny it.

I think I should also remark that, while it is sometimes legitimate to use "person" instead of "man," the term cannot replace the generic "man" (which comes from the German Mensch rather than the masculine Mann), or the term "human being." The reasons for this are: (1) that there are persons that are not human beings (angels and the three persons of the Trinity), and (2) there is one complete human being who is not a human person (Jesus, who is a divine person).

And in this connection, it is interesting to note that while the greatest human being, Jesus, is a man, the greatest human person, Mary, is a woman. The Catholic religion is anything but demeaning to women; Mary is a greater person than angels, even though she is a human being, for the simple reason that she, in being the mother of God almighty, was in a position of authority over God himself. There is a mystery for you!

Preface to the Preface

As a preface to this preface to the lay life, I think I should say at the outset that ostensibly this book is directed at Catholics. There are several reasons for this. First, I am a Catholic, and naturally my idea of the expression of Christianity is within the context of Catholicism. Secondly, it is Catholicism that has undergone the recent upheaval that has led to the emergence of the layman and occasioned this book. Thirdly, it is the Catholic Church that gives prominence to all three of the different states of life I distinguish, and so makes it easier for me to focus on what is distinctive about the lay life.

Nevertheless, I do not think that what I have to say applies only to Catholics; and there are certainly some times when my remarks will sound, especially to traditionalist Catholic ears, as very Protestant. If Christianity is an attitude, then it should be the same one for all Christians, however its inculcation and expression is institutionalized. In that sense, I hope what I have to say contributes to ecumenism.

The idea this book is built on can be expressed by saying that the Christian life is like a mathematical "volume," of the kind that you would study in trigonometry, with its three axes of the Religious, the clerical, and the lay states at right angles to each other, all emanating from a common origin.

No one can be a Christian without being somewhere in this space; and the "style" or type of Christianity a person lives is defined by which axis or axes he is closer to. But the person's "degree" of living the Christian life--what used to be called his"perfection"--depends on how far away he is from the origin, not how far he is from any given axis.

I would think it would be impossible for any real person to find himself exactly on any one of the axes, because they describe the absolutely pure states of life, and in fact every Christian to some extent must embody all three attitudes, and so belong to some extent to all three states. But by the same token, it would be the rare Christian who expresses all three attitudes to exactly the same degree, and so finds himself equidistant from all the axes. In general, he will be closer to one than the other two; and so he will be called by the name of the axis whose orientation he more clearly expresses. That is, a "layman" will be more of a layman than a Religious or cleric; a cleric will be more of a cleric than a Religious or layman, and so on. The "mixed" states of life have two attitudes so closely balanced that it is not in practice possible to decide which is "truer" of the person.

Of course, what I will be doing here is describing the "pure" lay state, pretty much, not trying to describe any actual person who exists. Laymen will find that this description fits them better than any other description of the Christian life. Of course, in order to talk about the lay state as a pure state, I will have to say something about the other states, in order to show how it is different from them. In that sense, this book is not just about Lay Christianity.

To answer the reaction that if a description of the pure state is a description of an abstraction and not reality, and so is useless, I can say that one of the problems all the states of life in the Church are in at the moment is that people don't know what the various states as such are driving at. We find nuns, for instance, seeking their "perfection" as Religious Christians by doing what is essentially lay Christianity; and we find laymen joining groups that are little uncanonical Religious orders in the name of the Christian perfection of their lay lives; we find priests taking over lay jobs as part of their priestly work, and laymen thinking that they are better Christian laymen if they get involved in being extraordinary ministers of Communion, and so on.

There is nothing wrong with mixing these aspects of the Christian life. The point is that the layman does not enhance his lay Christianity by taking over reading at Mass or serving Communion, any more than the priest is a better priest for doing the parish account books.

Another way of putting the point of this book, then, is that the three states of Christian life are qualitatively, not quantitatively, different. No state of life is "in itself" better or "more Christian" than either of the others--in spite of what many Medievals held about the Religious life.

These are different kinds of Christian expression, not different degrees of it; and they are different kinds of Christian expression because there are different kinds of people, who find their assimilation to Christ our Prince in different ways. If you are a lay type of person, adopting Religious Christianity is not to choose a "better" life--either in itself or for you. The lay life is better for you, and is not better or worse in itself than the Religious life or the life of the cleric.

There are those who will disagree with this thesis. This book, then, is not for these people. I am going to assume it, and show how it fits Christianity (i.e. why there are three distinct states of life).

The reason is that this book is not a book on the dogmatic constitution of the lay state, but a book of basic ascetical Theology: that is, it is a beginning of an attempt to show how perfection is to be sought as a layman. There are plenty of treatises on "the practice of perfection" in the Religious and the clerical states (which are similar); and it is assumed that these practices carry over with modifications into the lay state.

What this book tries to show is that this is false. The layman's task as a lay Christian is not to follow "as far as he can" the Counsel of Virginity ("Blessed are those who make themselves eunuchs for my sake"), nor that of poverty ("Blessed are the poor in spirit") and so on. These, as Jesus said himself, are advice only for certain kinds of people. But he gave other advice ("make friends with the 'mammon of iniquity'--corrupting wealth") that have not been heeded because this counsel doesn't fit the Religious vocation, and writers on ascetical Theology up to the present have been writing for Religious or those who want to imitate Religious.

Another point that is implied in the fact that this is the ascetical and not the dogmatic Theology of the lay state is that what I am going to be saying is not going to sound much like what is found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council on the laity. Their focus is to discuss the place of the layman in the Church (which is really one aspect of the dogmatic Theology of the laity); my focus is how you go about being a lay saint. I am familiar with the documents, and (I hope) nothing I say here contradicts anything in them; but since (as a little exploring in this book will reveal) the focus is so different, you will not find me quoting them and trying to draw implications from them. Not that that sort of thing is not extremely valuable; it is just that what I am trying to do here is different.

Unfortunately, this is just a beginning, because the subject of a lay ascetical Theology that is qualitatively different from Religious asceticism is a totally new field. I hope here to break the ground; others will have to come after with the harrows and the rakes and the seeds before the crop can even begin to grow, let alone be harvested.