The other day I came across a line in Matthew Henry’s Evangelical biblical commentary that really struck me (note, it’s not a commentary I generally would recommend). In expounding on Philippians 2:12, which counsels us to “work out our salvation,” the commentator said,
Do your duty without murmurings.
I thought, how very simply put, but how much of life one could gild with Gospel gold just by faithfully executing this terse phrase in each and every moment!
To imagine a life characterized by loving attention to the innumerable procession of small details that constitute the existential contours of one’s vocational state in life is to imagine a life burgeoning with limitless opportunities for unsung heroism. Think of the rich and diverse opportunities afforded you for acts of patience, kindness, meekness, forgiveness, peacemaking, courage, temperance, chastity, prudence, justice, hope, faith, charity and a near-endless variety of other deeds of excellence! How terribly spoiled we are by a life overflowing with so many chances, daily offered to us in excess, to share in God’s greatest work of making us saints! It’s really quite embarrassing.
Liturgical Love Life
Even if I often live far from it in reality, I have come to think of life’s details as so many fragments of sacred ritual that fill out the bodily liturgy that is my daily life.
Therefore, I beseech you brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies in living sacrifice, holy, well pleasing unto God, which is your rational worship. — Romans 12:1
St. Paul rightly calls this liturgy of life a “sacrifice,” which involves aspirants to holiness in a manner of living that is wholly-other focused. A self-less life, i.e. less self, more God-neighbor. Holiness is perfected Christ-like loving, and loving is willing the other’s good or the Other’s glory. For the disciple of Christ, love is not a laudable extra but an expected duty. Our duty is to love, which makes duty a noblesse oblige, the sweetest of obligations, an obligation that even God himself cannot escape!
O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover! And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me, for you act as if you could not live without her, in spite of the fact that you are Life itself, and everything has life from you and nothing can have life without you. Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made! You are pleased and delighted over her within yourself, as if you were drunk with desire for her salvation. She runs away from you and you go looking for her. She strays and you draw closer to her. You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that you could not have come. — Catherine of Siena
Feelings, so much more than feelings
I might add here that it is enough at times to simply will to carry out faithfully the details of our daily duty, even when within our emotions rage against our will, though it is good to aspire and pray for the grace to do one’s duty out of heartfelt love; for the redemption of our passions. For me it’s a tremendous relief to know that fidelity to God’s will does not demand of me the harmonious cooperation of my emotional life. How often I must choose to love those around me when I am not “feeling it.” In fact, fidelity can actually be more meritorious when it’s carried out in spite of our emotions’ unruly or irrational rebellion. Certainly Jesus’ emotionally agonizing choice to embrace the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane offers us an extravagant model of faithful obedience in the face of an inner riot.
St. Josemaría Escrivá expressed this balance of desire beautifully,
Put your heart aside. Duty comes first. But when fulfilling your duty, put your heart into it. It helps.
I know someone who shared with me a beautiful insight in this regard, and thankfully they gave me permission to anonymously share it. This person, who has a sound character and deeply loves God, had long searched for radical ways to offer his life to God. He wanted God to give him the chance to suffer a painful martyrdom to witness to his love for Christ and bear the fruits of redemptive suffering for his loved ones’ salvation. Whether that would mean a bloody death or a terrible illness, he was willing to accept whatever hardship might come from the Hand of God. He expressed this desire to me with such a beautiful, childlike and disarming sincerity of love that it made me feel uncomfortable for its convicting power. “But,” he said,
once, when I was sharing this desire with a wise and trusted friend, she said to me, “You’re looking for big things here. You don’t need to ask for such extreme things. Just do your duty and that will suffice. God wants the sacrifice of a faithful will, not your pain. If pain comes, then offer it; but don’t overlook the treasure you already have to offer right in front of you.”
How insightful is that? Greatness in God is far more often homely than comely, unseen than obvious. Ever since he shared this story with me, “Do your duty” has become my prayer’s antiphonal refrain. But now I also add to it the coda stolen from Matthew Henry, “without murmuring.”
Bloom where you’re planted
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes on sanctity through fidelity to daily life’s present demands from St. Francis de Sales. It’s found in the Breviary’s Office of Readings on the day of his Feast, and it never ceases to thrill me as often as I read it. He speaks here of “devotion,” which for him means not escapist piety, but love of God in the form of radical fidelity to the demands of one’s state in life.
When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.
I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.
Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbor. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganized and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfills all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.
The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.
Moreover, just as every sort of gem, cast in honey, becomes brighter and more sparkling, each according to its colour, so each person becomes more acceptable and fitting in his own vocation when he sets his vocation in the context of devotion. Through devotion your family cares become more peaceful, mutual love between husband and wife becomes more sincere, the service we owe to the prince becomes more faithful, and our work, no matter what it is, becomes more pleasant and agreeable.
It is therefore an error and even a heresy to wish to exclude the exercise of devotion from military divisions, from the artisans’ shops, from the courts of princes, from family households. I acknowledge, my dear Philothea, that the type of devotion which is purely contemplative, monastic and religious can certainly not be exercised in these sorts of stations and occupations, but besides this threefold type of devotion, there are many others fit for perfecting those who live in a secular state.
Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.