הֶבֶל “Vapor” — Ecclesiastes 1:2

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Vapor finds ground in you. — Gungor

I’ve had the privilege of walking with many people over the years as they discern their vocational path in life. It’s a sacred space to occupy. I always tread with fear and trembling, concerned I might become a stumbling block to their hearing or consenting to the summons of God. I try to take the posture of the priest Eli, whose response to the call of the prophet Samuel was not offering guru directives, but rather helping form in Samuel prayer for an open ear and a discerning heart ready to obey.

There was one person who came to me for counsel a time ago, who was discerning the Consecrated life. Setting aside all this person’s confidential details, I will share (with their permission) something that happened at one of our afternoon meetings. It was an experience that shook me to the core, and the aftershocks remained with me for weeks.

On this particular day, we were exploring her sense of being chosen, “elected” by Christ. I reflected on the biblical meaning of being called by name from before conception, and then we discussed how she might best discern the signature fingerprint of Christ as he was uniquely engaging her freedom. As I was speaking of this, we were both simultaneously enveloped by an overwhelming awareness in the room of an approaching immensity, grandeur, holiness, majesty. We both went silent. To describe it more precisely than that? No se que.

What was absolutely, even tangibly evident to me was that Christ had drawn very near, turned toward her in his absolutely specific love. I was only proximate, nearby. The whole thing was so immense that — for a lack of a better expression — I wished for a rock to hide under. I seemed to be sinking down into what Qoheleth calls the nothingness of “vapor.” I felt far too privy to this intimate exchange between them. Crazy as this sounds, I thought in the moment, “I’ve unwittingly invoked him to come by what I said.”

Here’s what I wrote that night in reflection:

The fewer words, the better. Mark 10:21 seems very near to capturing this event, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Those words are so intimate. Imagine those standing nearby, those who watched in close proximity that gaze between Jesus and the rich young man. It must have been quite striking to merit such a specific description in Mark’s Gospel.

In that space between Jesus and those he looks on with love, it seems to me (now) that every vocation is born. Now, right now, he looks on me. After today I say, how mercifully unaware I am of it! How could I function? Yet to live in that awareness is what makes all of life into a calling. Only those who allow themselves to first be loved by him eye to eye are capable of a love that can bring others alive, raise them from places of non-being into being. He loved us into being at conception, loves us into being at every moment, and desires to overfill us with a surplus of being to share out in love for the life of the world.

Because of that experience, reverence for Consecrated life grew in me immensely, got burned into my soul. Awe. Their witness to the beauty, force and primacy of that gaze of love that is Christ is singular.

I’ve shared this story with one hope: to deepen your awareness of your call as emerging from that absolutely specific and majestic face-to-face love Jesus has for you. Sounds so simplistic! Childish! But, this is everything. The rest is straw.

As I re-read what I have written here, I feel it all a failure in comparison with the truth of what happened. Blah! This is in large part a failure of my ability of expression, but also in part a failure of all language to do even slight justice to the things of God. After 33 years of doing theology, I am more convinced that anything we say is merely a gesture in the right direction. Whatever it is that we mean by the word “God” infinitely falls short of the reality.

Which is why theologians like me are always at risk of being irrelevant. Only when they get that do they become relevant, revelant.

I post this today, Good Friday, because it is from that Cross that Christ looks on each of us with a humanly divine love, only now having been fully expanded by his suffering and selfless dying to an infinite depth, tenderness and mercy.

To end, somehow this song and video, which I saw not long after that day, seem to me to do more justice than my prose. Full screen and AirPods if you can…

6 comments on “הֶבֶל “Vapor” — Ecclesiastes 1:2

  1. Lois Phillips says:

    Dearest Fr Tom

    This is such an amazing reflection and so absolutely perfect for the Triduum. You have touched my heart and soul in ways that will bring today’s Passion reading and the Vigil tomorrow evening to greater heights and understanding. Thank you.

    But… “As I re-read what I have written here, I feel it all a failure in comparison with the truth of what happened. Blah!” You cannot be serious! Like your namesake before you (St Thomas Aquinas) you sell yourself short. You will never know, in this life, the ways you have touched the lives of so many even beyond those who read your marvellous inspirations.

    with immense thanks and wishes to you and your lovely family, especially Patti who keeps you dancing, for a blessed and joyous Easter.

    Lois

    • Katy says:

      My thoughts exactly, Lois. I mean, Tom, I understand your point, but…you’re not quite right. You have done beautiful work in writing this post. Written just enough to send the heart, so we say “ah…I have known that gaze…look upon me with all that you are, Lord”. Thank you for writing!

  2. Louise says:

    Tom, I could not let this one go by without commenting that I read it twice and both times it brought me to copious tears. It really touched my heart and soul also as Lois shared. I also agree that you should not sell yourself short. Your blog has brought refreshment, grounding, peace and hope in a very difficult time. Sometimes it is hard to know where God is when all seems to be falling apart but your description of your encounter with this woman brought home to me very clearly the tenderness, majesty and mercy of an all-loving God who cares deeply about all of us and continues to work in our lives. God Bless you and your family.

  3. lrlag111 says:

    Grateful

  4. amyansaturday says:

    Speechless….AGAIN!

  5. Grace K. says:

    😶
    I agree with everyone else who commented and I assure you that you’ve captured that experience quite well…better than I myself could have done!

    “…there may at times enter something, something inexpressible, yet significant – a hint of meaning amidst apparent nothingness which prevails over the nothingness. It happens more frequently than one would expect and one should pay attention to it. This breath, this vibration is the manifestation of God; faint [or not so faint!] and intangible though it is, it can support faith so that we may persevere.”
    -Romano Guardini, The Lord, 37.

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