There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action? — Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen
Deacon Jim Keating gave a lecture the other day that helped me more fully appropriate the truth of Fr. Stinissen’s wisdom. He was talking about forming men in the seminary to discern and embrace their vocations, and what obstacles can prevent them from embracing them fully. He talked about what the Desert Fathers called “the noonday devil,” also called acedia, which is the temptation of the monk in his monastic cell to always look “over the wall” to see what else is out there; what others are doing; what he might be missing out on. This monk afflicted by acedia is discontent with his present call to stay in place and pray, hemmed in by the walls of his homely cell. He applied this insight powerfully to growing in the embrace of one’s vocation. Here are the notes I wrote down as he spoke:
An authentic approach to one’s vocation is always to prefer depth over breadth, and to go deep one must be willing to stay in place, sink down deep roots into the mundane dirt of our life, to suffer well the ordinary elements of my life and learn to discover in them the very place where I will receive God’s most extraordinary gifts — gifts that resemble the Eucharistic gifts, containing the Infinite God in humble, unremarkable vessels. And as with the Eucharist, and the humility of its common bread and wine, my small “place,” when surrendered to God for consecration, becomes a privileged locus of the immortal Kingdom of God breaking into this world to give life to the world. I must grow in my ability to stay in the cell of my vocation, my place, not always wishing I were elsewhere. I must hear Christ saying, “remain in me” (John 15:5), which means to abide precisely where God has placed or permitted me to be in the “now.” To stand firm on the stability of Mount Golgotha, fixed by life’s nails to the redeeming Wood. This place, and this place alone is precisely where I can “bear much fruit.” In a restless culture Christians need to witness to stability and depth, not to fragmentation and diffusive breadth. Not always seeking distraction from the unpleasant, tedious, boring, unpleasurable aspects of my vocation to be faithful to grace in the “here and now.” And in God’s economy, the smaller and less significant, the greater it is in the Kingdom. To be able to do this is to be able to re-receive your vocation every day fresh from the hand of God, is to be able to be always surprised by repetition because each moment is in fact an absolutely new, never-to-be-repeated gift from God — as fresh as the moment light first sprang into existence (Genesis 1:3). God’s will is my home, and wherever he calls me I am content because he abides there with me. I pray like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Remain with us, O Lord, for evening draws near.” No one who finds God’s will in the present ever looks back at their life and says, “Is this all there is, Lord?” His answer will always be, “Yes.” The All is always present. And in the Age to Come, when all the veils are lifted, we will see how outrageously extraordinary all that was done with faithful love really was…
A moral theology professor in grad school offered a very similar piece of wisdom that I eagerly wrote down for safe keeping…for you. He was explaining to us the meaning of “meekness” in Aquinas. Here’s some of what he said:
Those who lack meekness risk burnout from the dissipation and squandering of their limited energies; they risk compromising the integrity of their primary vocational commitments by engaging in diversionary — and often more agreeable — tangents. They tend to reinforce, by their compulsive wandering and fragmented lives, a kind of addiction to pleasure and ego-satisfaction. In other words, they engage in a chronic avoidance of what they find in their present life state to be unpleasant or difficult … Our primary Christian vocation is carrying the cross with Jesus. Carrying one’s cross requires that we not organize our lives around the avoidance of what is unpleasant, but that we are faithful to God’s will in the particulars of our daily life. Carrying one’s cross means we organize our lives around the choice to die to ourselves and love God and neighbor, in the way God asks, for as long as he asks, because he asks it.
And that, finally, drew me to pray again the prayer of Bl. John Henry Newman:
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.
O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used. Amen.