Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Behind the Scenes with Saint Silas

When I made my first vows as a Benedictine monk in 2004, I was very excited about the prospect of receiving a new (religious) name. The custom of the community of which I was a member is that the soon-to-be professed monk submits three preferred names to the abbot. The abbot, as head of the community, would then either pick one of the three names or select one of his own choosing.

I spent weeks researching names. The only real considerations were that it had to be the name of a saint or beati and that there couldn’t be anyone else in the community with that name. In a community of more than 100 members, options were limited pretty quickly. But, I know a lot of saints and wasn’t put off by the prospect of having a name that was a bit out of the ordinary.  

And so, I settled on my three choices: Leander, Silas, and Nicholas. Although the community had had Leanders and Nicholases in the past, Silas would be a first. And, after a few days of waiting, Silas was the name I received, leading one grumpy confrere to exclaim, “Silas! That’s unheard of!” And now, for more than 10 years, this has been my name. When I chose to leave religious life, I had the option of returning to my baptismal name, but the name Silas had become an inseparable part of who I am. I am grateful to have received Silas, the companion of Paul, as a new patron and role model.  

There isn’t much known about Silas (whose feast is celebrated on July 13). What we do know comes from the New Testament, most especially the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts tell us that Silas was an esteemed member of the Christian community in Jerusalem. In the midst of the debate over the status of Gentile converts to the Faith, the Jewish-Christian leaders, led by Peter and James, chose Silas and Judas-Barsabbas to take a letter to the Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia and “confirm by word of mouth what we have written in this letter.” When they arrived in Antioch, Judas and Silas, “being themselves prophets, spoke for a long time, encouraging and strengthening the brothers” They spent some time there and then returned to Jerusalem (Acts 15:22-34). One New Testament scholar described Silas as “a Jewish Christian in good standing in the leadership of the Jerusalem church… an approved representative… open to the gentile mission… and effective in a gentile church” (quoted in Butler’s Lives of the Saints [1999 edition]). 

Later, after Paul and Barnabas parted ways, Paul chose Silas to accompany him on what we now know as his “Second Missionary Journey” (Acts 15:40). In Philippi, Paul and Silas were charged with causing a disturbance, flogged, and imprisoned. During the night, they were freed from prison by an earthquake. After baptizing their jailer and his family, they fled to Beroea and Paul eventually made his way to Athens; Silas and Timothy later joined him in Corinth (Acts 17:13-15; 8:5). Other than references to Silas (under his Roman name, Silvanus) in Paul’s First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1) and the Second Letter to the Corinthians (1:19), along with the First Letter of Peter, we don’t hear more about Silas in Scripture. Various traditions from the Early Church claim that he died in Macedonia after serving as bishop of Corinth. 

Saint Silas by Br. Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
[Used with permission. Please do not copy this image.]

Over the last decade, I have often thought about this man whose name I was given. And I’m very proud. I’ve also learned a lot over the years about ministry and about the important role that nearly all of us play in the life of the Church: working behind the scenes. Very few of us are called to ordination or the religious life, and even for those of us who are, only a small number will ever really hold any far-reaching authority. But, whatever our role, Pope Francis has reminded all of us, more than once, that none of what we do can be about our own egos, agenda, or influence—if we aren’t living for the sake of the Kingdom, then we aren’t truly ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

This work behind the scenes doesn’t mean that the gifts, resources, perspectives, and insights we have aren’t important. Quite the opposite is true—they are essential. The Church can really only be healthy when each member does their part and gives their best. In my own experience, the greatest damage is done (to individuals and the entire Church) when people are made to feel that they have nothing to contribute or that their gifts don’t matter. We have to take Saint Paul at his word: "There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all for them in everyone" (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).  

There is so much potential for good in this teaching—good for parishes and religious communities and for the Universal Church. How open are our leaders to the individual gifts and charisms of those entrusted to their care? How open are we to the visions and vocations of our brothers and sisters? 

I think we are currently seeing a massive failure on the part of the Church (in both leadership and individual members) in the vitriolic debates that are so often fodder for the media and for those who do not share our faith. I fear that we Christians--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant--are succeeding in making ourselves ridiculous by our partisanship, our politicized ideologies and theologies, and our unwillingness to find new ways of collaborating with one another. Most recently, we see this being played out in the debates surrounding the Supreme Court’s decisions about Hobby Lobby and the HHS Mandate. Rather than trying to find new ways to work for justice, to dialogue about what constitutes honest-to-God healthcare and reproductive rights, and a truly Christian pro-life stance (with all that implies, including preferential options for the poor, universal distribution of goods, immigration reform, and the death penalty), we are failing to help build up God's Kingdom and risking further irrelevance. I believe that the same can be said of the fights over marriage equality and our understanding of what constitutes marriage theologically, culturally, and politically. The legislation of guns, the care of the mentally ill, and immigrant reform cannot be omitted from what seems to be an ever-growing list of divisive issues that are the responsibility of every Christian and every person of good will.  

As unlikely as it may seem to some people, we can look to a reflection on Silas that Pope Benedict XVI (offered during the General Audience on January 31, 2007) for a bit of guidance. Mentioning Silas/Silvanus’ work with Paul and Timothy in Corinth, the now-Pope Emeritus continued:  
In the Second Letter that Paul addressed to that church, he spoke of “Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I” (2 Cor 1:19). This explains how he came to be the joint author, together with Paul and Timothy of the two Letters to the Thessalonians.
Paul does not act as a “soloist,” on his own, but together with these collaborators in the “we” of the Church. [The] “I” of Paul is not an isolated “I” but an “I” in the “we” of the Church, in the “we” of the apostolic faith… [Silas] is also mentioned in the First Letter of Peter, in which we read: “I have written [briefly] to you… by Silvanus, a faithful brother” (1 Pet 5:12). Thus, we also see the communion of the Apostles. Silvanus serves Paul and he serves Peter, because the Church is one and the missionary proclamation is one.

Ultimately, in a world of greys, the only way I believe that we Christians can move forward and effect positive change is to stop accepting sound bites as truth, to acknowledge that nothing is (or has ever been) black and white, and to foster the spirit of communion embodied by Silas and Peter and Paul and those first leaders of the Church. While the most cursory reading of Acts and the Letters of the New Testament reveal that even though  they faltered and fought, they found ways of reconciliation and collaboration that we would do well to seek out in our own time. Each of us should pray for the grace of what Johann Baptist Metz called "mysticism of the eyes"--a mysticism that "especially makes visible all invisible and inconvenient suffering, and--convenient or not--pays attention to it and takes responsibility for it, for the sake of a God who is a friend to human beings" (from A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity).

Whatever side of the "aisle" we might associate ourselves with, or whatever flavor of Christianity we might espouse (e.g. evangelical, fundamentalist, progressive, conservative, pacifist, etc.), we have to recognize that the "inconvenient issues" are not ideologies, they are human beings. As Deirdre Cornell said in her book, Jesus Was a Migrant, "Surely a god who migrated from heaven to be born of a refugee family--to belong to a people painfully and intimately versed in Exodus and exile journey--surely this God would ask us to look for his presence among migrants. Jesus was a migrant. How could migrants not matter?" But, to extend her question, how could victims of abuse and human trafficking, exploited workers, abandoned children and the elderly, addicts, the mentally ill, widows, veterans, vulnerable adults, GLBT individuals, and the poor not matter? They certainly matter more than our politics. They matter because Jesus is most especially present in those who are on the margins of society and our churches.

As both ordained and “behind the scenes” ministers, like Silas, we have to ask ourselves if we’re invested and if we’re contributing to a spirit of communion and committed to moving forward together. If not, can we really say that we are proclaiming—much less, living—the Gospel?

While our gifts and even our visions might vary, it is the Spirit of God that guides us, but only if we are humble and docile enough to listen to and engage the Spirit speaking to us in our dialogue with our civic and spiritual leaders, in the broad Tradition of the Church, and in the mandates of Scripture.

May Saint Silas and all those countless, behind-the-scenes saints guide us as we discern how to best use our individual gifts for the good of our communities and how we can move forward as a truly catholic Church.

A prayer in honor of Saint Silas +
Just and mercificul God, in every generation you raise up prophets, teachers, and witnesses to summon the world to honor and praise your holy Name: We thank you for sending Silas, whose gifts built up your Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. Grant that we too may be living stones built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[Text adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. 
The commemoration of Saint Silas is celebrated on July 13 in the Roman Catholic Church and on the Syriac and Malankara calendars, on January 26 in the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church (with Timothy and Titus), on February 10 in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and on July 30 by Eastern Orthodox Christians.]

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