Doctors and Saints
by Daniel Steele
In considering a topic for my second theological reflection, I found myself a bit dry in subject matter. After flipping through a few different chapters in John Allen's book The Future Church, chapter five provided me with a topic I had personal experience with that could provide a benefit in parish ministry.
The chapter is entitled "Expanding Lay Roles" and starts off with a number of great stories of lay men and women who took their own initiative based off a particular local need to start an institutional outreach of some kind. It was very inspiring and reminded me of a few extraordinary lay individuals I know in my life.
In reflecting on the impact these extraordinary lay individual's lives have on the local community and the world at large, I realized a unique and important role the laity have in representing Christianity to the secular culture. They are like the face of the church, the place of contact between Christ and the outside world. They are the ones who are in the world. They are Christ's ambassadors who speak on behalf of Him whom they know.
Before you know Christ, you have to know a Christian who can introduce you to Him; how else would you know he exists? Allen, quoting Peter Dobbins writes, "It is not enough to say Mass on Sundays, if those thoughts and ideas are not represented in the culture . . . the reality is that we are going to act pretty much the way our culture teaches us to act."
One of the extraordinary laymen I had the privilege of crossing paths with this summer at my summer assignment in Wenatchee, WA, is an M.D. named Dale Peterson. The man is so humble, yet he has the accomplishments worthy of a fat head. He was he sole voice in his hospital that opposed abortions being performed, which were eventually stopped on his account, despite his being cornered and threatened by colleagues.
He also prays with his patients. This, again, upset a number of his colleagues, and when cornered by them he replied, "Say, I heard your wife wasn't feeling well. Can I pray for her?" For years, Dr. Peterson would make mission trips to impoverished countries to offer his medical services, often being gone six months at a time.
His biggest contribution to the community, however, is the low-income housing he built and manages. He is also working on expanding these low-income housing communities into other cities in the central Washington area. The man is amazing, a great example of a lay minister using his talents, according to his state of life, to sanctify the world.
In exploring Dr. Peterson's personal drive to advance the apostolate of the church I have gained some valuable insights. As Christians, we are all called to have an affect on the culture around us. We are supposed to change the culture, not be changed by the culture. The most powerful contribution the laity can have on the secular culture around them is to have a presence in society as a happy Christian, someone who can testify with a life of vitality that the Christian life is the proper response to the human condition. Christians need not try to compromise their Christian culture with the secular culture. We need to be ourselves amongst the world and remember not to compromise who we are at the expense of fitting in.
In studying Dr. Peterson's life I discovered that he orientated all of his decisions towards the other. The logic behind his generous behavior was to love like Christ loved, to love his neighbor as himself. His aim in life was not furthering himself, his reputation, or his career. None of those things mattered to him. His Christian values led him to discover something of greater value than himself, something which the secular culture, the "i" generation (ipod, ipad, myspace) doesn't see as valuable when blinded by self-preoccupation.
Robert A. Johnson in his book the The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden provides a great analogy for secular culture. The handless maiden, who represents secular society, has her feeling function cut off which was metaphorically represented by her hands. She is physically incapable of interacting with the world according to natural human experience. She can't feel, touch, or even work normally, and asks the question, "What can I do?" She is cut off from human contact and human relationships, which prevents her from living fully.
Excessive self-preoccupation isolates us from fully entering into relationship with the other and provokes a kind of emptiness inside us. This is the situation our modern culture finds itself in, and it is up to people like Dr. Peterson who by their example reconnect secular culture with the other. In finding the other, the "handless maiden" will be able to feel again and become whole, thus finding herself. Johnson nailed it when he said, "the meaning of life is not in the quest for one's own power or advancement but lies in the service of that which is greater than one's self."
Christian culture has the opportunity to influence popular culture from a grass roots effort by loving in the "here and now." Often times we can get overwhelmed with discouragement looking at all the work that needs to be done in the church or all the suffering people in the world. We just have to work on changing hearts, one heart at a time. In Dr. Peterson's case, God was asking him to do a lot, but he definitely equipped him with the corresponding grace to fulfill the demands of the mission.
Nothing but saints can save our world because the deepest root of the world's disease is sin, and saints are the antibodies that fight sin. Nothing but prayer can make saints because nothing but God can make saints, and we meet God in prayer. Prayer is the hospital for souls were we meet our Doctor God."
- Dr. Peter Kreeft