Excerpt from Celebration of Discipline

If true ser­vice is to be under­stood and prac­ticed, it must be dis­tin­guished clear­ly from self-right­eous service.” 

Self-right­eous ser­vice comes through human effort. It expends immense amounts of ener­gy cal­cu­lat­ing and schem­ing how to ren­der the ser­vice. Soci­o­log­i­cal charts and sur­veys are devised so we can help those peo­ple.” True ser­vice comes from a rela­tion­ship with the divine Oth­er deep inside. We serve out of whis­pered prompt­ings, divine urg­ings. Ener­gy is expend­ed but it is not the fran­tic ener­gy of the flesh. Thomas Kel­ly writes, I find He nev­er guides us into an intol­er­a­ble scram­ble of pant­i­ng fever­ish­ness.”1

Self-right­eous ser­vice is impressed with the big deal.” It is con­cerned to make impres­sive gains on eccle­si­as­ti­cal score-boards. It enjoys serv­ing, espe­cial­ly when the ser­vice is titan­ic. True ser­vice finds it almost impos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish the small from the large ser­vice. Where a dif­fer­ence is not­ed, the true ser­vant is often drawn to the small ser­vice, not out of false mod­esty, but because he gen­uine­ly sees it as the more impor­tant task. He indis­crim­i­nate­ly wel­comes all oppor­tu­ni­ties to serve. 

Self-right­eous ser­vice requires exter­nal rewards. It needs to know that peo­ple see and appre­ci­ate the effort. It seeks human applause— with prop­er reli­gious mod­esty of course. True ser­vice rests con­tent­ed in hid­den­ness. It does not fear the lights and blare of atten­tion, but it does not seek them either. Since it is liv­ing out of a new Cen­ter of ref­er­ence, the divine nod of approval is com­plete­ly sufficient. 

Self-right­eous ser­vice is high­ly con­cerned about results. It eager­ly waits to see if the per­son served will rec­i­p­ro­cate in kind. It becomes bit­ter when the results fall below expec­ta­tions. True ser­vice is free of the need to cal­cu­late results. It delights only in the ser­vice. It can serve ene­mies as freely as friends. 

Self-right­eous ser­vice picks and choos­es whom to serve. Some­times the high and pow­er­ful are served because that will ensure a cer­tain advan­tage. Some­times the low and defense­less are served because that will ensure a hum­ble image. True ser­vice is indis­crim­i­nate in its min­istry. It has heard the com­mand of Jesus to be the ser­vant of all” (Mark 9: 35). Broth­er Fran­cis of Assisi notes in a let­ter, Being the ser­vant of all, I am bound to serve all and to admin­is­ter the balm-bear­ing words of my lord.”2

Self-right­eous ser­vice is affect­ed by moods and whims. It can serve only when there is a feel­ing” to serve (“ moved by the Spir­it” as we say). Ill health or inad­e­quate sleep con­trols the desire to serve. True ser­vice min­is­ters sim­ply and faith­ful­ly because there is a need. It knows that the feel­ing to serve” can often be a hin­drance to true ser­vice. The ser­vice dis­ci­plines the feel­ings rather than allow­ing the feel­ing to con­trol the service. 

Self-right­eous ser­vice is tem­po­rary. It func­tions only while the spe­cif­ic acts of ser­vice are being per­formed. Hav­ing served, it can rest easy. True ser­vice is a life-style. It acts from ingrained pat­terns of liv­ing. It springs spon­ta­neous­ly to meet human need. 

Self-right­eous ser­vice is insen­si­tive. It insists on meet­ing the need even when to do so would be destruc­tive. It demands the oppor­tu­ni­ty to help. True ser­vice can with­hold the ser­vice as freely as per­form it. It can lis­ten with ten­der­ness and patience before act­ing. It can serve by wait­ing in silence. They also serve who only stand and wait.”3

Self-right­eous ser­vice frac­tures com­mu­ni­ty. In the final analy­sis, once all the reli­gious trap­pings are removed, it cen­ters in the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the indi­vid­ual. There­fore it puts oth­ers into its debt and becomes one of the most sub­tle and destruc­tive forms of manip­u­la­tion known. True ser­vice builds com­mu­ni­ty. It qui­et­ly and unpre­ten­tious­ly goes about car­ing for the needs of oth­ers. It draws, binds, heals, builds.

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Excerpt­ed from Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline (Harper­One, 1998 — 3rd Ed.) 

[1] Thomas R. Kel­ly, A Tes­ta­ment of Devo­tion (New York: Harp­er & Broth­ers, 1941), p. 124

[2] St. Fran­cis of Assisi, Selec­tions from the Writ­ings of St. Fran­cis of Assisi (Nashville: Upper Room Press, 1952), p. 25

[3] John Mil­ton, The Com­plete Works of John Mil­ton (New York: Crown, 1936), p. 614.

Originally published December 1977