Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Arrogance of Service

I'm editing an interesting book, by Professor Glenn Myers, about the Beguine communities of medieval northern Europe--lay, voluntary orders of unmarried women who lived, prayed and served together in ways that alternately inspired and irritated their neighbors. I'd never heard of these communities before I met Glenn, but he's doing a fine job of making the case that they should inform our current practice of faith, that they effectively confronted some of the same spiritual challenges we face in contemporary Western society. The book comes out next spring; keep an eye out for Seeking Spiritual Intimacy in the Formatio line from IVP.

I should mention that I'm editing the manuscript from my family room. It's come to this: my work has become so overwhelming that the only time I can find to edit (the root word in my official title, editor) is in my house, away from my work. My family room, consequently, is becoming less "focused on the family" and more an annex of my office.

Such is contemporary life, I'm afraid. We go and go and go, and we do and do and do. I'm not at all unique in this blurring of professional and personal boundaries. There was a time--a more agrarian time--when there were no such boundaries, but I think it's fair to say we've all come to appreciate them, even as we actively forsake them. We do so because we don't see other options, because busy is what we were meant to be. By ceding personal time to our work, we imagine, we're fulfilling our life's purpose.

That's silly, I know. No comma is so offensive to the English language that it couldn't wait till office hours to be excised. Editing, as vital as it is to writing, is not keeping the world spinning on its axis.

The trickier part is when our work--whether paid or unpaid, whether voluntary or habitual--entails service toward others. Tending to another person's suffering is much more easily spiritualized than parsing another person's sentences. It's also, almost by definition, the right thing to do. We were created, at least in part, for service to one another.

Nevertheless, as Myers rightly observes throughout his manuscript, our impulse to serve others is a point of vulnerability for us: in serving others, we can easily begin to imagine ourselves superior to them. In caring for others, we can quickly congratulate ourselves for our compassion. In acting other-centered, we can regularly reinforce an ugly self-centeredness.

One of the cool things about the Beguines is that, smack in the center of the Middle Ages, these single women--not traditionally vested with power or authority--are writing profound, authoritative insights into the human condition. Nearly a thousand years later, we still benefit from their service, and we still marvel at their wisdom, as in this little nugget from Hadewijch of Brabant:

O dear love . . . you busy yourself unduly with many things, and so many of them are not suited to you. You waste too much time with your energy, throwing yourself headlong into the things that cross your path. I could not persuade you to observe moderation in this. When you want to do something, you always plunge into it as if you could pay heed to nothing else. It pleases me that you comfort and help all your friends, yes, the more the better—provided you and they remain in peace; I willingly allow that.


Yes, she advises, bear the burdens of those around you, and so fulfill the law of Christ. But do so with the awareness that they are similarly charged to bear your burdens. We don't serve one another because we're better than one another; we serve one another because that's the way the good Lord set up this world to work.

If you can't wait till next spring to read about this stuff, check out Phileena Heuertz's Pilgrimage of a Soul. It's not about the Beguines, but it takes up a similar question: how do I live out my calling without losing myself, on the one hand, or crowning myself, on the other?

3 comments:

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

I've always found the Beguines to be especially inspirational. Their reminder in this is timely for me, though I cannot forget that, even as they sought to live this way, people took advantage of their service time and again. It is such a tension. Thanks for the reminder, Dave!

Peace,
Jamie

Lindsay Bonilla said...

Great post, Dave! Very thought-provoking! I suffer from the same tension only amplified because I do all of my work from home. And because I love it so much, it's easy to let it take over. Thankfully, my husband does his best to pull me away from it now and again. But finding balance between being a Mary and Martha is quite difficult for me. I'm a Martha thru and thru-- even though I know that Jesus said that Mary had chosen the better way.

Nate Sauve said...

Dave, I read this a while ago on Donald Miller's Blog. and thought it hit a few of these ideas and things I've been thinking over. He's talking mainly about hands off activism that costs no more than a check, a 5k and a party, but I think all aspects of service can be self serving. that said here is the quote...

" what if you no longer considered yourself altruistic unless the causes you supported were actually making your life more complicated? What if slacktivism wasn’t actually social change? What if it was just another way of exploiting the poor and marginalized, using them to foster our own false identity as humanitarians?