The Basic Training phase of the New Chivalry Project is a self-centered thing. This does not mean that it is necessarily selfish, only that it is centered upon the perfection of the self in mind, body and soul. That is not a bad thing, it is a good thing. However, it is not a perfect thing, and if taken too far it can become a trap.
The example I like to use comes from my engineering days in Afghanistan. My platoon spent a part of that trip at Bagram Airfield near Kabul. Our mission there was training a platoon of Afghani engineers to build Bailey bridges. It was hours and hours of backbreaking work, every day at the height of summer. When we left the wire to build or repair bridges out at various other locations, we had to do it in full kit.
Now, you would think that under these conditions the most athletic guys in the platoon would be our best workers? After all, they are stronger and have more endurance than the out of shape guys?
The gym rats were the least effective workers. They wore out quickly when they weren’t doing 3 sets of 10 of some artificial movement with a barbell in an air-conditioned gym. They didn’t want to wear themselves out working all day and then be too tired to hit their goals at the gym. One guy didn’t want to get calluses. In other words, they were useless for real work outside their own plan of “self-improvement.”
This is the potential trap of the Basic Training level. We can get so focused on improving ourselves that it turns into a form of idolatry. Instead of following God’s plan for perfection and stretching our souls, we narrow them into a corrupt, twisted pursuit of our own ideal self-image. It doesn’t matter what that image is, athlete, politician, renaissance man, warrior-monk, or even saint. If God is not the ultimate end, it is idolatry.
Personal growth is a means, not an end. To become saints we need to go beyond self-improvement, and ask ourselves, “What am I improving myself for?”
There are two answers, and two answers only to that question, and they are:
- To glorify God
- To serve Neighbor.
Phase 2, the Deployment phase of the New Chivalry Project, is all about serving our neighbor. This is both more time consuming and harder to encapsulate than phase 1, since it depends upon the needs and circumstances and availability of the other. It does not negate or nullify phase 1, and we don’t stop doing phase 1 when we start phase 2. Instead, the higher levels of practice enter into and inform our more basic level, and make it deeper and more meaningful. The highest does not stand without the lowest.
- Encounter God in and With Others Everyday: Encountering God in others means developing the habit of consciously acknowledging and responding to His presence in every person you meet. This is an act of faith. Most of the people we meet are not holy enough that God shines through them and you can see it without even trying. For most people you will have to try. For some you will simply have to accept it on faith, that somewhere in the midst of the mess is Jesus in His “Distressing Disguise.” (When this gets you down, remember, someone else is having the same trouble seeing God’s presence in you…).
Encountering God with others means sharing the faith, both with those who already share it (family prayer, communal prayer, Bible Study, the Liturgy) and with those who do not share it yet (praying for them!!, answering their questions, inviting them to explore the faith with you, talking about your faith).
- Share Learning with Others Everyday: You have been reading a little bit every day, have you? Excellent! Now share what you have read. Paraphrase it for your spouse, explain it for your children, discuss it with your friend, debate it with your co-worker. Ask others what books they are reading and get their thoughts on it. Reading (at its best) is not a solo activity. This is for two reasons:
- First, because instructing the ignorant is a work of mercy. When you discuss books with other people you are engaging in an act of mutual instruction, which is a mutual act of Charity.
- Secondly, as a corrective to your own spin. In my experience the people who don’t read at all are rarely as hide bound in their ignorance as those who read narrowly and alone. They think themselves very wise because they have read something and thought about it deeply, but we are all human and all blind. We need other people who are blind in different spots than we are to show us where we can’t see. Exposure to a different point of view on the same book, if attended to humbly, can only enhance your learning of that book.
- Train with Others Everyday: Part of the vocation of being human (i.e. of being a body/soul creature) is to glorify God with our bodies. In Phase 1 we do that by engaging in some kind of activity or hobby (dancing, sports, pottery, music, small engine repair, etc.) In Phase 2 we share that activity with others. If your hobby is a pair or team hobby then congratulations, you already have this covered. For those who have solo hobbies, find a way to use them to build community, either by coaching or sharing projects or putting your talents at the service of a charity organization.
- Do what People Ask you to Do: This may seem either kind of obvious or kind of dangerous, depending on how you look at it. It is actually both, but not in the way you are probably thinking. This step is simply the beginning of practicing selflessness. In phase 1 our acts of self-denial were self-chosen and self-initiated. This is good, but not good enough to become saints. Throughout the history of the Church the great Saints have insisted upon the necessity of obedience to others and of submitting to mortifications that we would not choose or initiate ourselves. You see, when I choose to give up meat on Friday, or a beer, or facebook for Lent, I am not, strictly speaking, denying my will. What I am really doing is pitting one part of my will against another part. In order really to deny myself and mortify my own will, I need to subject it to the will of another. Of course I ought to be subjecting it to God ultimately, but God does not speak clearly, explicitly and in a scientifically verifiable way in every circumstance of my life. He chooses to work through intermediates. So doing what people ask becomes (by an act of faith) a submission to the Will of God revealed through other people.
Of course, most of the saints who wrote about this were religious or clergy so they had superiors to answer to, formally placed over them in the hierarchy of the Church. Lay people do not have such a luxury…
Or do we?
- Family: obedience begins at home, and those closest to us are usually the most irksome to obey. The rule is, if a family member asks a favor that is not immoral, impossible, or utterly unreasonable, you do it with a smile. No argument, no whining, no little martyrdom, no passive-aggressive revenge later. Even if you suspect they are not holding up their end of the bargain. Even if they are using you.* Even if you are mad and busy and stressed out all at the same time, that is probably precisely when you most need the reminder to sacrifice your will, and just let go, and do something for someone else.
- Commit to a Program of Giving: In Phase 1 we committed to one act of Charity a day, but that act of Charity was focused on ourselves. Its primary purpose was to begin training in us the habit of do things for others. In Phase II we are beginning to engage in the real work of charity. There are three parts to this phase:
- Commit: make a commitment that is long term, with people to hold you accountable.
- Program: A precise (but also realistic) idea of how much time, talent and treasure you will be donating, e.g. $300 per month to the collection basket; one article or video per month to a Catholic blog service such as Ignitum Today; one weekend morning a month working at a soup kitchen.
- Charity: Your action should be about filling a need that someone else has, not primarily about filling your own desire to be charitable. This means taking the time to get to know who needs what, and finding a way to get them what they need. We aren’t talking about dropping off a bag of clothes that you don’t want anymore at a shelter that is already overflowing with clothes. Consider helping them to sort the clothes they have instead of just using them as a glorified dumpster. There are many different kinds of poverty and many different kinds of riches:
- Visiting the elderly, for example, is a real need, albeit not a glamorous one.
- Baby-sitting for a young couple so that they can have an evening to rest and recuperate.
- Putting your mad web design skills to use upgrading the parish website for free.
- Greeting the homeless on your block by name.
Phase 2 is a step above, and it is going to begin to cost, especially in cutting into your spare time. However, that is nothing compared to the third level…
*This should go without saying, but to be absolutely clear, I am assuming that you are not in an abusive relationship where such actions would result in sinful actions or enabling ongoing abuse. I am assuming a stable, healthy, human relationship with another sinner, and saying that normal friction is an opportunity to practice heroic virtue. That is all.