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In Praise of Minimalism

Sign explaining rules of the pool


David Mills - published on 06/09/15

That You Can Graduate Life with a C- Average is One of the Church’s Great Gifts
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It’s partly laziness, I know. While many people dislike the Church’s rules, I like them because they expand the range of things I don’t have to think about. Someone has figured out all this and I’m happy to trust them. Get to Mass on Sundays and other holy days of obligation? Sure, thanks for telling me. Fast for an hour before communion, no problem (really, it’s no problem). Eat just one meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Okay, can do that. Cross yourself here, bow there, stand, kneel, genuflect, gotcha.

Even the moral teachings that actually cost you something — the whole Catholic teaching on marriage, for example — are gifts. I know what to do and not to do. I don’t get tied in knots the way some of my Evangelical friends do when they’re “discerning God’s will for my life.” It’s a little disconcerting to see a man in his fifties or sixties struggling with questions of vocation and calling, or whether to stay married to his wife. I don’t need to sweat it. I know the rules.

And this is true not only of the kind of rules you might find in canon law but of the teachings you get from Scripture and tradition and custom and priestly advice. “Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” is sometimes very hard, but at least I have a good idea what to do when dealing with other people. Going to confession once a month helps me get there. Ending the day with the rosary wraps up the day in a way just going straight to bed doesn’t.

In fact, I’d like a few more rules. I wish that Catholic social teaching were even more concrete than it is. Its profound reflection on the nature of the state and the family are great, but a little more immediate guidance would be appreciated. A specific standard for giving would be very useful.

Ah, some will say, you’re only trying to figure out the minimum you need to do to satisfy the rules. You’re happy to slip into Heaven as the door is closing and then stand way back at the farthest edge of the crowd. You’re happy to graduate life with a C- average as long as you get the diploma. If you loved God more you’d get better grades.

And there’s something to that. Heroic virtue is a lot of work. It means being kind to people I don’t like. It means late nights. It means stretches of boredom and the exhausting work of trying to be present to people who need a friend. It means praying when I’d rather read a book or watch a movie or just go to sleep. It means (given what I do) answering an emailed question from a stranger who’s getting thirty minutes of my time and not paying for it.

So yeah, I like minimalism. It seems to me one of the Church’s great gifts. The Church says to you, “Look, we both know you’re not a saint. You’re not even as saintly as you could do if you tried a little harder. To be honest, you’re a .200 hitter with no power who strikes out too much. But this is the least I expect. You can manage this much. No excuses. Get going.”

And you get going. I admit, it’s not the ideal arrangement. It is minimalistic when we’re supposed to be maximalist. Remember the Cross. Jesus was no minimalist. Okay, yes, got that.

On the other hand, standards pull you up. They’re callings, prompts, goals. You have to work to be a minimalist. The Church doesn’t make it easy. I like knowing when I have to go to Mass, and I like going to Mass a great deal, but holy days of obligation can fall at the worst times. Monthly confession is a blessing until it wrecks your Saturday. Any married person can tell you how challenging (that’s a euphemism) is the Catholic teaching on marriage. Being a C- Catholic takes work when left on your own you’d be a D- Catholic or just flunk out entirely.

More the point, the standards make you practice and practice makes — it doesn’t make you perfect, not in this world, but it does bring you a little closer to perfection. You learn what to do by doing what the Church requires, even if that’s all you do. You learn how to do it well and as you do it better, whatever it is, you find that it’s easier and more enjoyable than you’d realized. Going to bat is a lot more fun when you’re hitting .250 and getting the occasional double than when you’re hitting .200.

You find, for example, that ordering your calendar by the Church year, and going to Mass on days other than Sunday, brings the blessing of being able to step back from the rush and demands of the world’s calendar. It liberates you a little by widening your horizons. You begin to feel that another time judges the world’s time and puts it in its place. And getting yourself out to Mass on a day you don’t usually go helps you conquer a little your sloth and ego that would keep you home if the Church didn’t make you go out.

Finally, for people like me, at least, the minimalistic obedience to the rules becomes a way to move closer to Our Lord. In them I feel a concrete expression of his care and mercy. Start here, he tells me, with something I know you can do. The gifts I find there are all great gifts: forgiveness, instruction, encouragement, fellowship, the Body and Blood of the One who died for me. The Church’s minimalism is God’s way of saying “Taste and see.”

*  *  *  *  *

For those who might be interested: The responses to my The Childish Ayn Rand prompted a reflection on where to place the ideas of Ayn Rand and her disciples: with the noxious ideologies we don’t engage as if they were legitimate ideas or with the legitimate ideas we disagree with. In Do Not Speak Well of Randianism, Monday’s editorial for Ethika Politika, I argue, as you may have guessed, for the first.

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