Here’s an excerpt from a scripted portion of my talk last Saturday on the lay apostolate in the world, i.e. the mission to be secular saints and infiltrate the world with the love of God. I did not get to present most of it and I never edited it, so please excuse all mistakes.
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There’s a lovely phrase frequently used by Evangelicals when they evangelize, “God has a plan for your life.” At the heart of that “plan,” Catholics would say, is the universal call to holiness. God created each of us to be a saint. Holiness is nothing more, or less, than being made perfect in Christ’s love.
This vocation, regardless of our state or circumstance in life, is renewed from moment to moment. Every new situation we find ourselves in is a fresh calling from Jesus: COME, FOLLOW ME. My child awakens at 2:00 a.m. with a nightmare: Come, follow me out of your rest. My boss fires me unjustly: Come, follow me in patient endurance and hope. My irritating neighbor knocks on my door asking me to move my car, again (which is actually in front of my property): Come, follow me in speaking the truth in charity. My alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m. to pray before I leave for work at 5:00, and I’m tired: Come, follow me into your prayer room where I await your sacrificial offering. The doctor gives me news of terminal cancer: Come, follow me along the way of the cross, of dark faith and of trust. When we see all life as a vocation, everything becomes a new opportunity to choose God’s plan by choosing life, faith, hope, trust, patience, honesty, kindness, forgiveness – in a word, by choosing love…
Love of God and love of neighbor.
But what is love? To love is to will the well-being, good, fulfillment, salvation of another. All of the commandments are the substance of love, giving love meaning and direction, and rooting it in justice. Of course, we can love our neighbor by willing their good, but what of God? He is Goodness itself, purely actualized. We cannot will His well-being, good or fulfillment.
So how can we love Him?
By willing what He wills. And what does He will? The good of our neighbor. And how do we do that? By keeping His commandments. And so it all circles back on itself, a closed and endlessly revolving circle that binds love of God and neighbor inextricably together. They can never be separated — when you love God, you are loving your neighbor; and when you love your neighbor, you are loving God. God does not compete with His creation, as if we had to choose God or others. Only when we sin do we establish a competition.
Jesus commanded us, taking His words from Leviticus, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This does not, by the way, mean that self-love and self-care are models of genuine love. (nothing against self-care) Rather, this commandment means that to love one’s neighbor is to love oneself. What I do to my neighbor I do to myself. If I kill my neighbor, I commit suicide. If I slander my neighbor, I slander myself. You might even say that God Himself obeys this same commandment. Inasmuch as God made us in His own image, and became Man, He made the welfare and good of humanity His own. He loves humanity as Himself, loves us as another self. This binding love meant the Father could not but raise Christ from the grave into eternal life.
God wishes us to think of Him the same way: when we love neighbor, we love not only ourselves but Him. God does not eat sacrifices, like the pagans thought, but His hunger and thirst is satisfied through our feeding the hungry and thirsty — “I was hungry, thirsty and you gave me food, drink.” Or Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.”
Dorothy Day made this point stunningly when she said that we only love God as much as love the person we like the least. This is the hallmark of Christian love: sacrificial, self-less, other-centered, forgiving love. God loves most to be loved through our enemies. Only such love possesses restorative, reconciling power. It’s also why Fr Walter Ciszek, who spent 23 awful years in Soviet work-prison camps, said that persecution is really our enemies testing how serious we are about this love thing. So when Christians suffer abuse and hardship and persecution for their faith, their first recourse must not be outcry and lawsuits, but mercy, patient love, and courageous, uncomplaining, un-bitter endurance. Even as they pursue justice.
Because every vocation is always a declension of love, the fundamental vocational discernment question is never, “What does God want for me?” but “what does God want for others?” Never first, “What good will this bring me,” but “How can I best, most efficiently expend everything I have been given on others? How can I best obey the law of the gift? What is (as my own spiritual director once said it) the most likely way I can be assured to die broke, having expended my gifts on other’s well-being and divine glory?”
Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.
Discernment is about the divine-human alignment of my gifts and desires with the needs around me. A really brilliant Sudanese missionary priest I met years ago said, when I asked him how he decided to become a priest,
I can tell you this — it didn’t begin with my exploring “I, me, my;” but with exploring “thou, thee, thy.” God, neighbor. My mother taught me that as a small child: You will find God only when you fill the mouth of your brother, your sister. In American culture so much discernment is an agonizing over personal fulfillment and happiness — what will make me feel fulfilled, me happy, me complete? Love can’t start there or it will always be a tortured process, locked in your ego. Because the center of gravity in every vocation is always the other, the neighbor, the church, the village, the world, God.
A vocation feels like a direct compliment of God to me: I am special, unique, gifted, God has called me by name. Yes, there is truth in that. But vocation must always be attended by mission, which is always a direct compliment for the neighbor to whom we are sent by God. Vocation serves mission. Sometimes people get stuck in naval-gazing vocation circles because they know if they say Yes, freedom tightens, the mission begins, and we must forget ourselves. But this is natural in a culture that claims rights without responsibility, gifts without giving.
For me my discernment to be a priest was simple, but not easy. There is a real need for priests, I had a desire, an openness and I had the gifts to accomplish priestly ministry. So, I am a priest. I saw the apostles did not deliberate over personal fulfillment when Jesus called. They dropped all. With the hand on the plow, no turning back. The rich young man in the Gospel? He stopped and deliberated his personal happiness and fulfillment, weighed his options and went away sad. The Devil makes us look back over and over, always wondering if other pastures are greener.
When Jesus calls, He does not say: “Do you want to feel happy and fulfilled and special?” No, he says, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep, tend my lambs.” Our response should always be, “Yes, Lord! Now, which sheep, how to feed, how to tend?”
Jesus is clear, mission is really cross-carrying. Pick up your cross and follow me. This reminds us every day that thinking of our calls as an ego trip, rather than death-to-self for the other, is a total farce. Only when you embrace this will you stay faithful when you face all of the hardships, temptations, struggles that will come your way. If the whole vocational edifice is built on me, my, mine you will fall fast, like a house built on sand.
To love, think and live like this, we must be immersed, soaked, drenched in God’s love; be intimate with Him, drawing our power from Him like a branch grafted to a Vine. We have to have our imaginations captured by the greatness of this adventure — like Augustine said: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” Once you fall in love with Jesus and allow His love to enter your life, you become more able to respond to His call at every moment, consecrating the very earth by every drop of blood you shed.
Pope Benedict helps us here:
If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, I am incapable of seeing in my neighbor the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbor from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others.
Only then can your vocational mission look, as it must, like this…