The disciplined creativity of Christian charisms

4 mins read
The chapel at the Dominican House
The chapel at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Matthew Barrick Photography

There is no such thing as “mere Christianity.” At least not in the sense that people often mean when they use that term. All there ever is is enfleshed Christianity, embodied Christianity, a living and peculiar and personal Christianity. Just as there is no way to be a “mere family” or a “mere citizen” but only ever this family and this particular citizen, so are Christians always particular, distinctive and even quirky.

This does not mean, however, that being a Christian is just a matter of style, like a “you do you Christianity.” Louis Armstrong once described jazz as extraordinary creativity wrapped in extraordinary discipline. The same may be said of the Christian life: creativity that depends on discipline.

The saints are the artists of the Christian life. They are the ones who practiced the disciplines of Christ so well that those disciplines were not just second nature to them, but indeed reformed their human nature. They took on the mind of Scripture; they fed on and returned to the sacraments; they heeded the works of mercy; they studied the teachings of the apostles; they prayed regularly. Upon core disciplines like these, the saints expressed unbounded creativity. Each of them discerned and pursued the ways of loving God and neighbor in their particular time and place with inventiveness and personality. The cloistered St. Thérèse of Lisieux was as creative as the politically engaged St. Oscar Romero.

The discipline of a Christian is in consistently striving to seek the greater glory of God. The creativity of a Christian is figuring out how exactly to do that in one’s own time and place, with one’s own abilities and limitations, according to one’s own passions and the needs of others.

Read more from our Catholic Colleges Fall 2021 special section here.

When we come upon the distinctive charisms of Christian saints, what we are being presented with is a particular mode of creativity for loving God and neighbor within the concrete circumstances of life. Like all good artists, Christians borrow from each other — no one creates everything themselves. St. Benedict of Nursia presents a pattern for learning how to translate into action the word of God through the monastic life (as he says in the prologue to his Rule), while the Servant of God Dorothy Day shows how to create new spaces of hospitality for and with the poor. Benedictines learn from Benedict and grow from his pattern, while Catholic Workers follow the lead that Dorothy Day provided.

When you come to live, study and work within a community that follows from the charism of a particular saint, religious order or Christian spiritual tradition, you become like an apprentice in a master’s workshop. The master craftsman has developed all the skills, knows the modes and manners of working, understands the techniques and is capable of adapting the standard way of doing things wherever necessary. As an apprentice, you have the opportunity to learn these fine skills, develop particular habits, grasp the meaning of ways of doing things and learn how to become truly creative because you have also become disciplined. You first become a student of how these saints allowed the love of God and neighbor to change them and empower them, so that you can then let that same power and beauty shine forth in your life. Saints are experts in the craft of charity, and their charisms show us how to develop our own expertise.

Collegiate communities or other communities that are formed upon particular Christian charisms create environments for “learning as you go.” By participating in the community, you are slowly shaped by the community’s founding charism.

There is a pretty common myth about geniuses and innovators that they are purely driven by inspiration and their creative works just burst forth out of them. In the Church, we often think such things about people like Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa and Ignatius of Loyola. They were religious geniuses and we are not. But the truth is far less fantastic and far more beautiful. While many of these saints were visionaries, they grew in holiness one step at a time. They went through the paces just like the rest of us. They learned from others by spending time with them, by being part of real life communities. The difference is, by and large, that these “geniuses” were consistent. Each day, they pursued the Lord so that, after a great many days, it felt natural to them.

I read a book once about the daily schedules of some of the most creative people in history: people like Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla, Maya Angelou and Ann Beattie. The book is called “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Knopf, $19.99). What I found is that all of these people had wildly different daily rituals, with all kinds of different times of day when they worked or did other things. The one thing they all had in common, though, is that they did have a ritual: Even when their days looked chaotic, there was an order to how they went about their creative work. In other words, there was a discipline underneath all the creativity.

Living within a community built upon a charism is an opportunity to learn the kind of rituals and order of Christianity’s great artists: the saints. Not one of them settled into any kind of vague or generic Christianity, as if something common or unremarkable. Each of them found joy even as they learned how to embrace suffering; each of them found communion even as they welcomed solitude; each of them served others even as they sought the Lord alone. The ways in which they did it are splendid and beautiful and varied and sometimes even pretty surprising. But the Lord came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, and by that he means that he wants us to live in full color, to make something beautiful of ourselves for God.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is “Into the Heart of the Father: Learning from and Giving Yourself through Christ in Prayer” (Word Among Us, $14.95).

“You don’t have to learn loving in the same way as you learn, for instance, to play the piano or how to use the computer. You have to learn it as you go, so to say, in this sphere or that. And of course you also learn from people who offer you role models… You learn from meeting those people whom life deals to you. You learn through friendship; you learn through some task that brings you into contact with someone, through some mission. In all this it’s not a matter of seeking for oneself but of learning the way of giving and, thereby, the right way to receive.”

— From “God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time” (Ignatius Press, 2002)