“Jesus has now many lovers of His Heavenly Kingdom, but few bearers of His Cross. He has many desirous of His consolation, but few of His tribulation. He finds plenty of companions of His table, but few of His abstinence. All wish to rejoice with Christ, but few wish to bear anything for His sake. Many follow Jesus as far as the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of His Passion. Many reverence His miracles, but few follow the ignominy of His Cross. Many love Jesus as long as things go well with them. Many praise and bless Him as long as they receive certain consolations from Him. But if Jesus were to hide His face from them, or forsake them for a little while, then they would begin to murmur, or grow depressed.”
—Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
“Are there twenty men alive in the world today who see things as they really are?” This was the question on the mind of Thomas Merton. If there were, he mused, “that would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most super-naturally pure of His graces.”
It turns out he didn’t believe this was the case. But perhaps there were one or two out there. There must be, he reasoned, because the world needed someone who was holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart.
Hasn’t this always been the case? Jesus’s little band of apostles were certainly few in number, but that’s all he needed. He knew they would always be few. Jesus never pinned His hopes on large numbers. In fact, if there is to be any positive change in the world, those numbers may need to get smaller. A lot smaller.
Peter Kreeft, writing on American culture, makes the point in a particularly compelling way:
If God still loves his church in America, he will soon make it small and poor and persecuted just as he did to ancient Israel—so that he can keep it alive by pruning it. If he loves us, he will cut the dead wood away. And we will bleed. And the blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the Church again and a second spring will come and new buds—but not without blood. It never happens without blood, without sacrifice, without suffering. Christ’s work, if it is really Christ’s work and not a comfortable counterfeit, never happens without the cross. Whatever happens without the cross may be good work, but it is not Christ’s work. For Christ’s work is bloody. Christ’s work is a blood transfusion. That is how salvation happens.
Scripture is replete with stories of victorious underdogs and outnumbered armies. Jesus seems to revel and reveal himself in smallness. And his story is only magnified by these small numbers of small men who persevere in spite of the odds, which are, humanly speaking, stacked against them. Hans Küng writes that we persevere because the vision is true. “Because in the light of Jesus’s message,” he says, “the small size of a group, the limited means, the seeming ineffectiveness of the activity, [and] the work should not be seen as signs of failure. It is precisely in impotence that power, in weakness that strength, in smallness that greatness, and in humility that self-consciousness can be manifested. We can hope against hope, even in the Church. The power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will prove in the long run to be stronger than all human incompetence, fear, and insincerity, and more forceful than all our foolishness, weakness, and cynicism.”
So let’s say we’ve got our ten percent. Or Merton’s twenty men. Or Jesus’s twelve. Who are they today? Where are they? Are there just ten percent of all Christians alive in the world today who see things “as they really are?”
On the one hand, we need to be careful with numbers like these. They are nothing more than abstractions. Whose names will be counted among them—whatever their number? On the other hand, we find William Law who pondered this question of the imitation of Christ when he asked, “Now, who that wants this general sincere intention, can be reckoned a Christian? And yet if it was among Christians, it would change the whole face of the world… Let a tradesman but have this intention and it will make him a saint in his shop.” Indeed.
Finally, we affirm Margaret Mead’s sentiment when she wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has!”
Image: Christ and the Apostles by Raphael